The WHAT'S NEW! page contains the latest medical updates. If you're wondering how I'm going as far as health is concerned, this is the place to start. Latest: Wed 27 Nov 2013. 7.20AM

Friday, April 27, 2012

Four seasons and a wedding

On Anzac Day, 25 April 2012, we made our annual pilgrimage to a charming little place about half an hour's drive from Armidale – to the chapel at Gostwyck. Many people from round here do that; not necessarily for religious reasons.

   Nevertheless, it is a place of worship, and services are held there regularly. But although the sanctity of the chapel is respected, most people, especially a lot of tourists who know about it, have no religious purpose in going to this little place.

   Or perhaps I'm wrong; they do worship, but not so much a Christian God as the way an exotic Nature has clothed in spectacular garb, every season, what would be a quite ordinary little church. The Virginia Creeper covers it in shades of green in the spring and summer, and in autumn especially it becomes a mecca for photographers as the greens give way to multicolour hues of pink, red and purple. Autumn is when it's at the height of its charm.

   I could easily fill this posting with images, but not ours. If you go here you can see a selection of photos of the chapel from every angle, in all its seasons. But the few you see here are ours, the tiny ones taken in late summer 2008. The two larger ones towards the end were taken by Tracey on this Anzac Day 2012. They are what inspired this posting.

   We usually go earlier in the season than Anzac Day, because earlier is when the autumn colours are best. This year it seemed we wouldn't make it, and time ticked by. So, Anzac Day was now-or-never. We knew the last of the autumn colours would probably be nearly gone.

   The weather outside the car was cold as we circled the chapel. It seemed a bit forlorn and patchy, like an animal shedding its thick fur coat. A bit tattered, in fact. We're used to seeing it in its full glory.

   We got out of the car and had a closer look. Though we've seen it many times, it's not a place you just drive to for half an hour, do a circuit in the car, and go back home again. It may be past its best for the season, but it deserves homage.

   It is a grotto of genuinely sacred space; not completely because of its religious purpose, though undoubtedly enhanced by it. No matter what religion, or none, or just a lover of the natural spirit in all living things, you'd have to be unfeeling not to appreciate it. It's the live Technicolor Dreamcoat over its regulation brick exterior that does it.

   There are no other buildings within a kilometre. It's just the chapel and the giant pin-oaks that surround it; still green because their time hasn't yet come – the time for their leaves to turn to gold, fall and rustle on the ground under children's boots.

   As the sun dips lower, the light changes. The season has been a wet one, and there's greenish moss on the roof. A few Virginia vine leaves are still green amidst the variegated reds. There's an odd one amongst them reflecting gold.

   The sun now lights the southern wall and somehow its brightness illuminates all the vine leaves and gives the chapel a soft glow, as if the large oaks have trapped the light inside the circle, the handsome green and grey stone wall in front drawing a line under the scene.

   Tracey snaps the shot.

   This one.

   I don't expect it to be this beautiful. It's like it's decked out for a wedding.

✺     ✺     ✺     ✺     ✺

   Our very good friend Austin had a nice turn of phrase: "When Jacqueline and I were stepping out....", he used to say, indicating the time when he and his wife were a-courting. And he'd proceed to tell an engaging tale. (Not the one below; that's mine.)

Dangar's Falls
   Thirteen years ago, when I was a-courting Tracey, and I mean, in the very very early stages when she had not the slightest intention of ever doing anything with this man apart from seeing the tourist spots round Armidale, we went to this Gostwyck Chapel as part of the itinerary.

   That was after we'd gone to Dangar's Falls, where, I discovered only long after the event, Tracey was a life-time sufferer of vertigo. 

   Unaware of this and not having been told by She Who Was Too Shy and Petrified To Say So, I took her to the very top of these falls. This did not augur well for the occasion; nor, I daresay, for the stepping out, which had encountered its first hurdle at the top of the Falls overlooking the deep gorge.

   On that day in 1999, we got out of the car and walked around the chapel to the bridge over the clear stream of Commissioners Waters, where once I had seen two huge golden carp. Giant goldfish, they were.

   I'd hoped to see them again this time; or rather, that we would, but it didn't happen. I can't imagine why not – after all, it was only fifteen years since I saw them there last.

   As we walked back towards the chapel, the strains of a melodious chorus singing a joyful hymn came from inside, and then the side-door opened. Out came a bride and groom, snow-white gown and black tux, amid the guests spilling out to greet them.

Decked out for a wedding....

   We had no camera between us, but the memory is all the sweeter for that.

   Tracey glanced sideways at me with a look of vague suspicion, the unspeakable question in her eyes.

   "No, I didn't set this up. If I had been that clever, I would have, but I'm not. I had no idea."

   That was the unspoken answer to the unaskable question.

   Mills and Boon couldn't have handled things better. Not in a million years. Or was it the Bloke in the brilliant blue skies above the chapel nestling amongst the pin-oaks?

   You gotta wonder sometimes. Amidst all the contradictions and the mystery, yeah. You do.

   You just do. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

On war and peace

"The language of war," Mahatma Gandhi said, "is in every single aspect of our culture: win, destroy your opponent, kill the competition.
We must change the dialogue."

I've had a lifetime to think about war, and I've done so a lot. My grandfather fought in World War 1; my father fought in World War 2. They had no illusions about it, and no man, woman or child involved in war escapes its consequences.

When I turned 16, I vividly remember my father, in his cow-yard clothes, raging. "Vietnam. He'll be just old enough, you know. It's come around again. Every twenty years."

My number went into the barrel for National Service when I turned 18, and it didn't turn up. I so easily could have been off to the jungles of Vietnam fighting against the evil Reds, as we were told, for freedom and democracy in the world. 

As we were told. What a crock.

But it didn't come up, and I didn't go, and we all know how that war turned out.

That's not what I want to talk about here. No truer words could be spoken than those by the Mahatma challenging this deeply ingrained idea below:
Win. Destroy your opponent. Kill the competition.
"Change the culture." Yet even Gandhi, a man implacably opposed to violence, recognised there were times it was unavoidable. He even joined the army in World War 1, something that many people don't know. He joined the Ambulance Corps, dedicated to saving lives rather than destroying them. He thought it was a just war.

He also believed that India's magnificent contribution to the Allies in WW1 of tens of thousands of Indian soldiers, plus a vast quantity of equipment, would surely be rewarded after the war by Britain's recognition of Indian maturity and right to independence and national freedom.

Sadly, what India got was the murder of thousands of its people by British troops immediately after the war. The Jewel in the Crown would remain British for another two decades.

But that's another story too.

On this Anzac Day, I really wanted to talk about Gandhi's words, "changing the dialogue." For that, we have to leap the Himalayas at a single bound, as you'll see.

The key to changing the dialogue has been around for about 2500 years, but so bound up are we with the joy of "killing the competition and destroying the opponent" we don't take any notice of it.

It's contained in that wonderful book of Chinese wisdom, the Tao te Ching, also called the Daodejing, which I've written about before.

The Tao te Ching tells us there are times we have to fight, even though having to fight is a sign that order has already been lost.
Good weapons are instruments of fear; all creatures hate them.
Therefore followers of Tao never use them [unless they have no choice].
The wise man prefers the left. The man of war prefers the right.
[i.e., if you're smart, you don't have to resort to force.]
Weapons are instruments of fear; they are not a wise man's tools.
He uses them only when he has no choice.
Peace and quiet are dear to his heart,
And victory no cause for rejoicing.
[Lock that last line in.]
If you rejoice in victory, then you delight in killing;
If you delight in killing, you cannot fulfill yourself.
What is being said there is something soldiers who have been in battle have always known. [Allow me the gendered terminology here: I'm aware of it.] They have lost mates, tended their terrible wounds. They've seen women and children die, or their lives devastated. If they are in their right minds, they don't make glory out of victory. On the contrary, that little spark of victorious joy disappears quickly in the lingering memory of horrors and waste of life. Ask any returning soldier who's seen it all in Afghanistan or Iraq. And the old diggers of WW2, and Korea and Vietnam. Or civilians trapped in the carnage.
On happy occasions precedence is given to the left,
On sad occasions to the right.
In the army the general stands on the left,
The commander-in-chief on the right.
The general is the strategist who seeks the best and soundest solution on the way to victory, either by peace or war. The c-in-c is the one who plans the military action, once ordered to do so.
This means that war is conducted like a funeral.
When many people are being killed, They should be mourned in heartfelt sorrow.
That is why a victory must be observed like a funeral.
That is why a victory must be observed like a funeral.
Whenever you advise a ruler in the way of Tao,
Counsel him not to use force to conquer the universe.
For this would only cause resistance.
Thorn bushes spring up wherever the army has passed.
Lean years follow in the wake of a great war.
Just do what needs to be done.
Never take advantage of power.
Have governments any understanding of the truth of this? One has to wonder. They aim for petty, short-term goals and call them long-term objectives, and deliver the propaganda to support it like an unrelenting barrage of artillery fire.

It fails. Thorn bushes (and vast quantities of poppies) have indeed sprung up in the mire of wars we are still involved in.
Rule a nation with justice. Wage war with surprise moves. Become master of the universe without striving. [i.e., striving in the wrong way, head against a brick wall.]

Achieve results, But never glory in them.
Achieve results, But never boast.
Achieve results, But never be proud [vainglorious].
Achieve results, Because this is the natural way.
Achieve results, But not through violence [if there is a choice].
Force is followed by loss of strength.
This is not the way of Tao.
That which goes against the Tao comes to an early end.
And yet, war is sometimes inevitable, because of terrible mistakes made that lead up to it. But if it has to be, then it has to be won, or there is no point. How is this accomplished?

A whole volume has been written on this by Sun Tzu; the Art of War. Its entire strategy depends on comprehending the Tao te Ching, which is why it is so poorly understood when taken out of context that the modern military strategists who read Sun Tzu just don't get it. But the Tao te Ching itself contains the essence of winning when a war begins.
There is a saying among soldiers: I dare not make the first move but would rather play the guest;
I dare not advance an inch but would rather withdraw a foot.
This is called marching without appearing to move,
Rolling up your sleeves without showing your arm,
Capturing the enemy without attacking,
Being armed without weapons.
There is no greater catastrophe than underestimating the enemy.
By underestimating the enemy, I lose what I value.
Therefore when the battle is joined,
The underdog will win.
This, of course, is a lesson in the purest guerrilla strategy, which always wins in the end against naked force. Always, that is, while a subject people survive and are contained only by force.
Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death.
The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.
Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.
The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome.
Good morning Vietnam. Hello Iraq and Afghanistan. Such a pity you never met in the minds of Presidential advisers now armed with drones and planning covert operations.
Nowadays men shun mercy, but try to be brave;
They abandon economy, but try to be generous;
They do not believe in humility, but always try to be first.
This is certain death.
Mercy brings victory in battle and strength in defense....
A good soldier is not violent.
A good fighter is not angry.
A good winner is not vengeful....
This is known as the Virtue of not striving.
This is known as ability to deal with people.

On this Anzac Day 2012, I offer this tribute to all who died or suffer because of war. Listen to the lessons that have been there for millennia. As Gandhi said, "Change the culture." War is not a game, though our leaders have fallen into the trap of making it so. Our movie-makers as well. How much is this epitomised by The Hunger Games – where is the line? What's the message?

Do what the diggers ask. Remember and pay tribute on the morning of Anzac Day, to honour all those who deserve it – children, women and men – and play the games in the afternoon that substitute for war and one hopes, ease the pain.

We owe them and all the casualties of war that, and more. Let's change the culture for the sake of future humanity. Let's at least try.

Let's at least celebrate victory in war as a funeral. If we don't, then its greatest lesson to the living is lost.

Denis Wright
Anzac Day, Wednesday, 25 April 2012.

I chose the translation of the Chinese version of the Tao te Ching by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English. This version can be read online or downloaded [which I find extraordinarily generous of the authors and publishers] here.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The medications battle

We were discussing the possible reasons why my right arm is so much more greatly affected by skin damage than any other part of my body, and it led on to this broader posting, which could provide clues to answers to a number of deeper questions. This isn't just about a spotty-skinned limb. 

Firstly, I'll dispose of the question of the superficial appearance of these spots, which in themselves have little significance. It was suggested that as the right hand is commonly used more often, this might be the reason why they're constantly appearing on the right arm.

The idea may seem to have merit, but in this case, it's not the answer. For one thing I'm left-handed, and the right arm has if anything been used far less than the left in recent years. For months it was in a sling.

No. Tracey has been researching angiogenesis and anti-angiogenesis ever since Avastin came on the scene, and her excellent explanation is given at the end of the posting*. If these terms look a bit forbidding, as they did to me at the start, don't worry. For this posting, what they are isn't as relevant as how they affect brain tumours and therefore their treatment.

It's all not that simple, given my drug regime.

Put simplistically, the reason for the spots is almost certainly the Avastin effects, complicated by other things. While Avastin may be aimed only at inhibiting just the tumour cells from our point of view, all cells in my body are affected by the Avastin infusions I receive every three weeks. (Chemotherapy affects all cells as well so there's a parallel, but anti-angiogenic treatment is not chemotherapy. Far from it.)

Some skin spots. The fist is swollen.

The inhibiting effect of Avastin includes an undesirable one: retarding the healing time for all body cells, a slowing down of healing I'm experiencing now with any minor scratch that breaks the skin surface. What was negligible before in healing time now takes very much longer, and tiny wounds are open to infection from outside.

So, every slight bump on that arm turns into the contusions that look like birthmarks, as you see in the photo, and they take weeks to fade. (These in the photo are fading, but wait till after the next Avastin shot and there'll be plenty of new ones!) They are painless, if unsightly, though the look of them doesn't bother me unduly. More importantly, it is a visual reminder of what's going on everywhere else in my body.

Still, this doesn't explain why it affects that arm is particular, but I do know one thing. The skin surfaces on the right arm, hand and fingers are far more sensitive to touch and pressure than they used to be. For example, cutting the fingernails on that hand can feel surprisingly painful to me – as if the skin under the nail is being cut through as well. (Needless to say, but I'll say it anyway, it's not being damaged at all. It just feels like it.)

By the way, we have to keep the nails very short on that hand because a seizure can clench/unclench the right fist so strongly that the nails can break the skin on the palm if they are too long. If some minor surface injury like that happens now it will be much more significant than it was.

The final thing, for now at least, is this. The effect of retarding the speed of healing is complicated by the effects of Clexane (aimed at the stopping the development of blood clots, which in my case has been shown to be of critical importance). Avastin tends to generate clots.

So we have two agents, both vital for my survival, acting against each other to some extent, and the balance between the two is a very sensitive one.

Now for the broader significance. This means that any sort of surgery, whether on the brain or the body, would pose much greater risk than it did when I had that first craniotomy in December 2009; the one to remove as much of the tumour as possible.

Not only that, before any such surgery, Avastin treatment would have to be suspended for a significant period. I have already said elsewhere that stopping Avastin treatment usually sets off an aggressive rebound effect on the tumour, with sudden and unstoppable regrowth and expansion.

On top of the care Tracey in particular has given me, Avastin has extended my life, at a surprisingly reasonable quality. There's no doubt about that. But there is also no doubt that much is still unknown about the longer term effects of inhibitors like Avastin, or ways to deal with cessation of such treatment and still inhibit tumour growth.

I will say frankly that I would be extremely reluctant to face surgery under these conditions. It could well be that the surgery itself would end whatever quality of life remains – and that would take away precious time.

*Tracey's explanation:
Drugs like Avastin are completely different to chemotherapy which attempts to kill the actual cancer cells. Avastin works as an angiogenesis inhibitor.

It does not have a direct effect on a cancer cell. It turns off the signals given out by the tumour cells to other healthy cells to form new blood vessels. Therefore, the effect of Avastin is to starve the tumour of its blood supply - the nutrients which it needs to grow.

The problem is that angiogenesis is an important natural process in the body used to heal wounds and to restore blood flow to tissues after injury.

Avastin does not just target angiogenesis of the tumour. It affects angiogenesis in the whole body. This is a finely balanced process in all our cells, so while the Avastin remains effective, it is having a potentially disruptive effect on healthy cells.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The truth about cats and dogs - CAT

dogs | cats | sequel

It's maybe 7.30 am: about that time, though it varies. I've taken five different medications and had some cereal, so I sit down here, at the computer. I make the first stroke on the keyboard.


It is neither a question nor a plea. It's more like a command, coming from the front verandah.

I sigh. Getting myself arranged comfortably at the keyboard is quite a challenge for me, for reasons I won't detail here.


The tone hasn't changed.

If I remain here, ignoring it, she would repeat it, just once, and go. Same tone, neither more nor less insistent or pleading.

I sigh again, manoeuvre myself out of the chair, and open the door, and she is waiting. She comes in without hesitation, brushing up against the front of my legs. This is a bit dangerous for someone like me who lacks balance, but she crosses back and forth vigorously as I drag myself over to the cupboard. Move, dumb cat.

No. There's a large Tupperware container there, of dry cat food. "Crunchies", to use the household idiom. Soxy is a lover of Crunchies.

I walk to her bowl on the verandah, br-ushered all the way by her tail across my shaky legs, directed to her breakfast spot by a tabby who considers she's speeding up the process. She's not. She jumps up on to her table, right where I want to do the one-armed pour of the Crunchies into the bowl. Out of the way!

The Crunchie distribution finally happens, and I am dismissed. I am no longer relevant to her morning. Or her existence. For two minutes I was.

I close the door and return the container to the kitchen.

This is not a Teddy-poodle type story.

Which one of these is the real me?

Soxy came to us, already named, from the animal refuge; look at her paws and there's a wee clue there as to the name. She was a half-grown young female. They were honest with us. She had been one of a feral litter that had survived on their own wits and hunting skills. She'd had three previous "trial" owners and they had all returned her to the refuge.

In the interests of not dragging this out, I leave out much of the story. Obviously, she needed to settle down in the house and get reassurance before she could be allowed outside, or she would have disappeared.

That crucial bonding of tiny kitten and human surrogate mother – she missed that. I made the first mistake and tried to pick her up. That was dumb and I paid quite a penalty in severe scratches. A half grown cat with her strength was not to be toyed with and there was no way she was going to let some stranger hold her.

Even so, gradually she came round. Tracey and Christian were very gentle with her, and she responded.

Clichéd it may be as an expression, the Call of the Wild was deep in her. She loathed the catbox and we had to experiment with all kinds of litter to see what she liked best. Hated least, I should say. Gradually, we could let her out and that suited her much better.

She would return promptly, especially when the weather turned cold, and she would luxuriate in front of the fire as only a cat really can. She would come up and be stroked and if in the mood, might sit for a while on Tracey's knee or play with Christian, but she was never fully comfortable with it. She was a control freak.

She still is, totally – but given her past, I get that.

My domain. Go away. Do Not Disturb.

She would play with rubber balls, batting them all over the house. They had to be collected before bedtime or she would resume the game and play for hours starting at 3 am – noisily. She loved any game where she could play at hunting.

It peeved Tracey and Christian that sometimes she would come and sit with me rather than them, but I'm sure it was because I tended to make little fuss of her that she did it. After all, you never quite knew what devious trick a human could pull when they acted nice – like those times Tracey would sneak up and put that nasty anti-flea stuff on her. How very dare she!

Once we were away for a week, so the question of what to do with her came up. We took her to a place where they board cats and dogs while their owners temporarily desert them. She was terrified of the cacophony of dog noises and being surrounded by other unhappy cats, but there was no choice.

She spent what must have been the worst week of her life cowering in a corner of the cage and in spite of the best efforts of the proprietors to get her out into a safe exercise area, she wouldn't budge. I don't blame her.

If I say lying over a bar is comfortable, it is comfortable, silly little human.

I want to say here and now that this is the reason why all my adult life I never wanted house pets. Growing up on a farm gives you a deep sense of responsibility towards animals, but you do not think of them as 'inside' creatures. Dogs and cats on a farm have to earn their living, not be molly-coddled. But we always had pets of one sort or another for my adult life as a non-farmer. That was never my choice. Call me hard-hearted but my respect and love for animals is of a different type from that of townies.

Yes? You have business with me? See my humans and discuss it with them.
She took a long time to forgive us for that pet-motel episode and it was months before diplomatic relations were resumed. We had broken her fragile trust. We vowed never to do put her in a cattery again. Ever.

When we occasionally went away for a weekend, the best solution was to ask our kindly neighbour to put out food for her on the verandah each evening, and she accepted that routine. She chose her own sleeping place outside.

The first time we did that, she wasn't sure we'd return, and she took days to resume cordial relations. She chose not to come inside some nights, rather than enjoy the comforts of soft living and human company. We did everything we could to reassure her, but her trust was brittle. All those previous owners who had sent her back.... when would we do that too? It was bound to happen. It always did.

On other occasions we went away for a couple of days, she was less concerned, because we had returned each time. She still didn't approve of it and would show her displeasure by not coming inside for a couple of days. Oh, she might eat from her bowl in the kitchen, but she demanded release immediately after.

We figured the worst thing to do was to deny her that, so we did let her out, though sometimes she was happy to stay inside and play games if she felt no pressure. Maybe it depended on which particular cat she had to defend her territory from at the time. She wasn't fully-grown and there were some big toms out there.

Does my gut look big in this? It's a trick of the light. Please leave.
Then came the watershed incident. 3 December 2009. Out of the blue, I was having a severe seizure. We went to Newcastle to have my brain excavated. That time away was brief enough.

But it meant that we were to go to Melbourne for my treatment; months of it. Things became totally erratic, from Soxy's point of view. There were weeks at a time when we didn't return; the first stretch of radiotherapy and chemo in particular. She was left in the hands of our long-suffering but wonderful neighbours a lot that summer.

We had deserted her. It had happened again. The trust was broken. That's humans for you. Henceforth they would be tolerated as long as they bore food.

You know what I want. Move, human servant. I have needs.
So, she comes in but rarely now. It is mainly on a quest for food. No matter how hard Tracey and Christian have tried – all sorts of tactics – she's not buying it. In the coldest and most miserable of weather, she stays out in one of her hidey-holes, and hasn't slept inside ever since I became ill those years ago.

She's mature, she tough and can see any other cat off the premises, no matter how big – because they're soft by comparison, even when she bulks up for the winter and looks tubby. And she's unyielding.

Even though we've rarely left this house overnight for two years now, she'll keep her own counsel.

Sometimes, just sometimes, I wouldn't mind... Nah. It'll end in tears.

Dogs, it is said, have owners. Dogs forgive if not forget quite easily as long as the hand of friendship is extended and the indignity or hurt is not too severe. Cats though – they don't have owners. They have servants who do their bidding. Let those servants imagine they are in control, but it's Mr or Ms Feline who is.

And cats never forget. Trip over your cat by accident or stand on her paw or tail – it's all filed away, to be used on evidence against you if the time comes.

She is happy enough, sunning herself in the yard. She is a free spirit. But no way does she belong to us.

NOTE: There is a sequel to this story – added 29 September 2012

Yes. I am both comfortable and well asleep. This is my domain. Go.

dogs | cats | sequel

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The truth about cats and dogs - DOG

dog | cat dog and one cat, to be more accurate; namely, Teddy and Soxy.

These are not wildly original pet titles, I grant you, but then names like "Chainsaw", "Sprocket", "Pea Soup" and "Hamburger" may well suit other people's dogs or cats better than ours. These banal names, Teddy and Soxy, suited them well enough, so originality is irrelevant.

They never knew each other, Teddy having gone to a lovely great green field in the sky with fascinating smells under hedges before Soxy came on the scene.

I came to know Teddy only when Tracey and I got together, as she, Christian and Teddy were the live parts of the family pack who arrived in her Mazda 323, independently of the removals van.

There is very little to say of Teddy that is bad. He was a poodle. I confess I had my doubts about poodles before meeting Ted, having been reared on a canine diet of cattledogs, and to be frank, I suspected he might be the weakest link in the live-in deal.

Comparisons are odious, so I make none further, except to say there were no weak links at all. No-one had to leave the Big Bro household and the Tribe was not required to vote and have someone's flame extinguished. All four of us stayed in happy amity.

But a poodle.... Even the breed name is a bit wussy, you have to admit. Poo-dill. When a cattledog marks his territory, it's on three legs, mate, the fourth thrust aggressively in the air, a precious measured-to-the-millimetre squirt on a treetrunk, or a car wheel, or similarly appropriate place.

Not Teddy, for whom the marking of territory wasn't an agenda item, even under Other Business. He squatted like a girl and emptied his considerable bladder all in one spot, and that was all the territory he asked for. If any other dog, including the grumpy scruffy little terrier Muttley from next door invaded our garden, Ted adopted a commendably Taoist approach. In Muttley's case, he ignored him, as if he were another species entirely which, given Ted's genes and those of Muttley, I sometimes suspected to be the case.

Here are his qualities which made Teddy a winner when matched to the Selection Criteria.

Points for:
  1. He did not stray, even when the gate was left open. Straying required effort, which Ted was not prepared to expend.
  2. He did not relieve himself in the house.
  3. He did not dig up the garden. Ever. That again he regarded as something that took precious energy better spent on consumption and digestion of victuals.
  4. He was not a fork-sniffer.
  5. He did not bark at strangers at the door or going by the gate. In fact, he didn't bark at all, the only exception being that occasionally he emitted a curious "Wuff" in dreams in front of the fire, waking himself up and then looking embarrassed, especially when we were laughing.
  6. He never in his life growled at or bit a kid – or anyone, to my knowledge. Au contraire, mes amis, he smiled at all comers and looked pleased when they visited. He readily shook paws with anyone if they requested, but he waited, more-or-less, to be asked, hoping they would.
  7. He was totally omnivorous, but ate only what was placed in his bowl. No matter how little or how much, he cleaned it up. If you had put a side of beef in there and a dozen profiteroles, he would have gamely completed the task, regardless of the cost to his physique.

Points against:
  1. He was a lousy watchdog. He would cheerfully have conspired with any burglar to lead him to our hoard of treasures, have shaken paws with him gladly on the way out, and asked him to call again.
  2. He pooed. This is a failing of all dogs, made worse in this case by his relaxed attitude about Muttley's and any other dog's presence in our yard and their desire to create more visible territorial markers, which trebled Tracey's cleanup duties. But at least he did it outside, at points remarkably equidistant.
  3. He had no sense of timing whatsoever in certain matters. When we returned from our annual autumn pilgrimage to Gostwyck chapel, he was so excited that he danced madly in front of the car as we drove in, suddenly realised it was time to release the waters as it were, and left us waiting, motor running, half in the driveway while he did so, right in front of the vehicle. Only a blast from the horn made him aware of the precariousness of his position should the driver have returned in a disagreeable mood.
  4. Although he sat patiently in the laundry tub when being bathed, he tended to make a beeline for any dusty spot immediately afterwards, defeating one of the purposes of the ablutions.
This problem was solved by promising to take him for a walk immediately after his bath. A walk was something of which he was inordinately fond, and as the bathing drew to a close and Tracey towelled him down, he would shiver with anticipation mixed with a hint of impatience.
As he got older, the effort of all this got a bit much. He would bound down from the bath, complete three circuits of anyone in the vicinity, look for his leash, and strain at it going out of the gate like Captain Scott's lead husky before they ate him, and off we would go.

But by a hundred metres up the road he would begin to falter, finally slowing to a crawl and wishing he were on the sled instead of the venerable Antarctic explorer. All his get-up-and-go just ... well ... got-up-and-went. He never learned to pace himself from the moment of leaping down from the bathing to the end of the walk, the conclusion to that exercise being a rather sorry affair.

There are just two incidents, among many, with which I will conclude the Ted saga.

The first was his amazing ability to drink water, always in waltz time. I kid thee not. Firstly, having retained about five litres of fluid in his bladder for several hours, he would sit at the door till let out, do his girlie pee at a spot of his choosing (usually at the foot of a rather troubled Japanese Maple), and head for his bowl of water immediately on re-entry.

Ted believed with great conviction in the principle that what goes out must be replaced; the sooner the better. He would therefore commence drinking immediately. 
LAP lap-lap, LAP lap-lap, LAP lap-lap, LAP lap-lap....
♬ WORDS fall into RHYME, ♪ ev'ry TIME you are HOLDing me NEAR...♫
I think he would hypnotise himself with the charm of his rhythm, his brain somewhere along the shores of the Blue Danube, because he would forget to stop drinking. Seriously. After what seemed an eternity involving the entire Strauss repertoire, Tracey would have to say, "Teddy – STOP!" which would break him out of his trance and he'd lumber off to the front of the fire, with all the grace of a fully laden bulk coal carrier heading out of Gladstone Harbour for Japan. Mission Accomplished.

"Idiot dog," Tracey would say nightly as the ritual was repeated. 

Sometimes he would go back for a recharge in the early hours of the morning, everybody in the house consequently experiencing troubled dreams that they were Dancing Waltzes with the Stars to the LAP lap-lap, LAP lap-lap of Teddy's tongue.

Dieu merci it wasn't the tango.

And the last thing. There is one thing about poodles that makes them clear winners as house pets. They don't have fur. They have wool – fleece so fine you could sell to the top Italian knitwear buyers at auction for ten thousand cents a kilo, under the guise of superfine Merino. Well, maybe not Ted's, but a fleece from one of those elegantly manicured uppity poodles with sissy pink bows and coloured claws.

Poodles do not shed. Not a doggy hair on the carpet or your clothes will you see. No allergens. This of all things is their greatest asset.

Poodles are renowned for their high intelligence, which they may use for good or evil. Teddy had no trace of evil in his composition. But... I don't think he was particularly blessed in the brain department either. Something had run low before his Maker got to the end of his gene sequence. Or maybe Ted had gone for a drink of water and had forgotten to come back to claim his full neurone allocation.

This was demonstrated one night when he shared this study with Tracey and me on a cold winter night, an electric heater to warm the room. He liked our company even more than the glass-fronted fire in the lounge, so he blessed us with his.

We became aware of a strange smell; not one of the highly offensive ones Teddy could sometimes be responsible for (especially after a side of beef and profiteroles), but an even more unpleasant one. Burning.

We looked at Ted. He had his highly insulated woolly head hard up against the grill of the radiator heater; sound asleep, blissfully unaware that he was cooking his tiny brain. The wool on his head nearest the heater was changing colour to something you see on scorched cream carpets in house fires.

"TED – Get away from the radiator," we shouted as one. His ears were singed and so hot you couldn't touch them.

He moved off at his usual speed, looking somewhat offended. "Waaa... Whad-I-do?"

"IDIOT dog," said Tracey, "Stoopid, white, woolly SLUG."

"I'm going for a drink of water," Ted responded. "Ciel, mes braves! It's très hot in here."

The story of Soxy the cat is coming. I'm not sure when, but it shouldn't be long. 


dog | cat

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Roots (2)

I didn't know it at the time, but there was one subject we did at primary school that was one of the greatest shaping forces in my life.

It was called "Derivation". Now I think about it, I doubt if any child in the class who learned Derivation was very clear on the precise meaning of the term, though it is obvious enough to any adult with some language skills.

This subject was taught in every state government classroom in the upper grades of primary school. I'm sure no kid was especially enthusiastic about it, because it involved a bit of rote learning done on a regular basis as homework, and I've yet to see the child who is keen on homework.

We had a slim textbook for each grade, called Grade [whichever] Derivation. That little book went home with us and back to school daily.

It contained Prefixes, Suffixes, and Roots – Latin and Greek.

Prefixes and suffixes don't need any explanation, I'm sure. A prefix goes before a word to change its meaning, and a suffix comes after. "Pre" means before, so if your phone is prepaid, you pay the charges before you get the service. Add a suffix like "-ock" (meaning "small") to the end of a word like "hill", and we get a hillock – a little hill.

These are often things we come to know just by using them, although we had to learn many others as well by rote and commit them to memory. That was very useful. Here I want to focus on roots.

We were required to learn five new Latin or Greek roots for homework each Monday and Tuesday, were tested on them the next day, and we revised them on Thursday nights for a Friday test. Thus we learned ten new roots a week and by the time we'd finished Grade 8, the last grade at primary school, we had a good stock of them in our heads.

But what use were they?

Studying roots is like the poor man's version of studying Latin and Greek. We didn't know it at the time, but they were vital tools of understanding language and meaning, and therefore of the world around us. They allowed us to meet up with an entirely new word and have a fair chance of deriving its meaning.

If you never learned any at school, then the best way to understand what value they had was to give you some examples. Take "submarine" for example. We learnt that the prefix sub meant under, and the Latin root mare (maris) = sea.

In the unlikely event that we had never met up with a submarine in a picture book, we would have known from derivation that it meant under the sea. Submarine life was underwater sea life. A mariner was a seaman. (If you pick me up on gendered language here I'll have to kill you.)

You don't have to learn five years of Latin and Greek roots to be aware of that derivation, but knowing roots gave us the chance at precision in language that is easy to miss otherwise. Take the word civilisation. We learned that civis meant a city, so it had a different meaning to culture. This affects the perception of the meaning of civilised, when we say that someone was civil to us. Not rude, or rustic, but urbane, related to but different from urban. Sophisticated. We learnt that sophis was the root for knowledge, so we extracted from it the idea of a person who was sophisticated. Philosophy. Philos means loving, so philosopher means a lover of knowledge. No more and no less.

We could work this stuff out without needing Wikipedia or a dictionary!

This gave us vital tools of learning for every subject at high school, and for later in life. In physics, we learned about reflection and refraction. No-one needed to tell us the difference. The prefix re meant back or again, flecto [flexus] meant I bend. Frango [fractus]: I break. So reflection meant turning something back [in this case, light] as a mirror does, and refraction meant breaking light up into its colour spectrum.

In geometry, we got hit with the terms diameter and circumference. Our Derivation told us that dia means through, and meter = a measure. Diameter meant to measure something like a circle straight across or through it. Circum means around, so for a circle, circumference meant going round its edge, not through the centre. Circumnavigate: if we put together circum = around and navis = I steer, no-one needed to tell us hick kids from a tiny country school what that big word meant.

It meant that we could have a go at any unknown word or term. Terra incognita. Terra = the earth, in = not, and cog.... = aware – so that term meant an unknown land. Terra nullius. Null = nothing, we learned, so that was a place where no-one lived [or was supposed to be living!] How useful is that for studying Law? A host of other Latin and Greek roots provide clues to legal terminology.

As I said, we could have a good stab at any old word. Defenestration. De = down, or away. I mightn't have known the other bit, but from studying French, I did know that fenêtre meant window. The suffix ation means the act of – so, defenestration: the act of [throwing something or someone] down from a window.

There you go. Getting rural now [ruris = the country]; take the tractor. Traho [tractus] = I draw or pull, we learned, on pain of staying in at school and writing it out twenty times. Then we get 'intractable'. In = not; tractus = pull + able. Something or someone you can't get to change.

I met up with the word amanuensis for the first time at Queensland University when I was tutoring, when the Head of Department said, "We're going to need an amanuensis for that student in the exams." "A what?" I thought, but remembered the student was disabled. Manus came back to me from Grade 5 Latin roots. Manus = the hand. The student was going to need someone to write for them. They'd need to dictate their exam paper to the amanuensis. Dicto = I say or write. Dictate. Got it?

"I'll arrange it," I said to the Head of Dept, not batting an eyelid. Thank God for the roots!

Dictate. Dictator. Someone who decides [the laws]. Tyrant. From tyro = I rule. Subtle difference there. A tyrant is not necessarily a dictator. Handy for politics study. Tyrannosaurus Rex. Rex = king. Our Jurassic T-Rex is the king over all the reptilian rulers. Jurassic? Jura = a forest. Such linguistic tools are invaluable for natural history too.

There's no end to the usefulness of roots. None at all. Even for spelling. If you know mille = one thousand and annis = a year, then you'll get the right number of Ls and Ns in millennium. You won't spell Happy Anniversary wrongly on the card.

Just last night I was reading this article by [believe it or not] Dennis Wright, on brand-new brain tumour research:
Monitoring the progress and approval process for a completely new chemical entity (NCE) invented by applied molecular biologist, Dennis Wright. A new class of alpha amino acids is reproducing and extending prior antineoplastic indications.
See that word antineoplastic?

What exactly does it mean? It looks daunting till you put in some hyphens. anti-neo-plastic. All I had to do to know its meaning was to go back to my primary school derivation. Anti = against. Neo = new. Plast.... = I flow. Against new flow.

In context, it obviously meant something to counter the development of new growth in brain tumours, given their plasticity.

If kids were taught the 3 Rs, and a healthy dose of Derivation from as early a grade as possible, they would get to appreciate the subtleties of language and the value of knowing precision in meaning. This can be made interesting and lively by a good teacher. It doesn't have to be tedious and dull.

My poor Mum, standing there in her yard galoshes in the dairy, with the muck up over her ankles, hearing me my Latin and Greek roots before I went off to school, gave me a programmed power over language and comprehension of meaning that I could never have imagined, and each kid in that tiny school and every other all over the country had access to that same power.

That's part of the reason why older people can write decent English. They also learned Analysis and Parsing, and Grammar, as we did. I know the difference it makes, because I've assessed thousands of university essays from people between the ages of 18 and 85. The old geezers get the form right every time, and often (because they have had many decades of experience) the substance as well.

I'm not smart, you see. I just know my roots.

P.S. The Latin endings up there may not be dead right as to structure. You see, at high school I had to make a choice between Latin and History, and I chose History. If I hadn't, I wouldn't be here right now. If I had chosen Latin, I haven't the foggiest where I'd be – a retired school headmaster, I suspect. Probably not a Latin master, because universities, like every other corporate entity whose business it is to make money, are turfing out their Classics scholars by the score. 

We don't need people who can write literature, you see – we need frackers.

roots (1) | roots (2) (final)

Friday, April 6, 2012

Roots (1)

Mr Curtis was talking to Mrs Dart one morning as we sat down after singing God Save the Queen.

"They're putting a new wing on the Roman Catholic college in Gladstone."

Whether it was a "Catholic" college or "Roman Catholic" college was an important terminological distinction in a little country town in 1950s Australia, but that's a story reserved for when I get round to writing about religion in the fifties in a tiny country town.

"The Stella Maris College," she said. "I heard about that." ...which wasn't surprising as her father was Regional Director of Education for Central Queensland.

I was in Grade 4, aged 7, going on 8. Yes, I started school early, but being in Grade 4 meant the transition, in our two-roomed school, from Mrs Dart's Grade 1, 2 and 3 room to Mr Curtis's Grades 4 to 8. That made me the youngest kid in the big room.

Old Jim, as we called him, turned to us.

"Does anyone know what 'Stella Maris' means?"

I shot up my hand. No-one else was keen to have a go.


"It means 'Star of the Sea'."

Old Jim was obviously pleased.

"How do you know that?"

"I read it in a book, Sir."

"Ah... a book." He turned with a knowing smile to Mrs Dart. "You see? His mother went to Grammar School."

It was true that she had, and that I had read it in a book, but what I didn't tell him was that I knew the Latin under slightly false pretences. It wasn't that I'd met up with "Stella Maris" in some lofty tome.

"Tofu" I reckon.
I'd been reading my Best Book of Stories for Boys and Girls, one of which was about these toff kids who were home for the summer from their boarding school (think Hogwarts or Narnia types) and had found this boat in the river near their home (as you do), and they did it up a bit with a coat of paint and a new mast and sail (as Public School kids can). That was stuff any properly educated kids can whip up with a hammer and paintbrush. But they needed a name for her.

In one respect their education had been slightly askew. The eldest of them knew a good name, he said. He'd seen it in fancy writing on a sign down at Birchington on an earlier holiday.

The Stella Mavis.

Stella meant a star and Mavis – well, he wasn't exactly sure. They all agreed it was a jolly ripping name and the Stella Mavis was launched.

The story did go on to explain that the old-style script had tricked him into thinking that an "r" was a "v" and that Maris was related to the sea, but they stuck with "Mavis" anyway because it was a splendid name for her, a vessel that now looked incredibly stylish to me for something they'd found abandoned in a swamp.

And they had lots of adventures in the Stella Mavis catching international spies and criminals who can't outwit English Public School kids, no way.

But you see, that's how I got to know "Stella Maris" was "Star of the Sea". Explaining about the Stella Mavis somehow took away the triumph of it all. I wasn't going to do that. If Old Jim thought I had been pouring over Latin texts at the age of seven, who was I to tell him?

And that's how I came to be thinking about roots.

I told you I'd get to it. All will be revealed in the second (and final) part. But right now the vital startup drive on this computer is making seriously ill noises, and I have to turn my attention to that!

roots (1) | roots (2) (final)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

My lesson from Vyvyan Basterd

If you're old enough, and just slightly weird, you will remember the British TV series, The Young Ones. There's one little scene that always stuck in my mind.

Vyvyan Basterd, the loony punk psychopathic orange-haired much-bodily-pierced medical student,* is standing in a train passageway. There's a sign above the lintel: 


What's that about then? he says, pulling down the window and sticking his head out as far as it can go.

The inevitable happens, and he decapitates himself as the train speeds past a lamp-post. Blood spouting from his neck arteries, his hand claws its way up to the Emergency Cord, and the train comes to a grinding halt.

Still spouting blood, his body slowly staggers down the railway track towards the head, sitting upright between the tracks.

"You took your time getting here!" his head shouts furiously at his lurching, truncated (hah!) body.

The body is not amused, and gives his head a hefty boot along the railway tracks before, presumably, his hands jam it back on his body, and he resumes what is normal life for our Vyvyan.

It always seemed to me, even before my right side refused to cooperate fully with my brain, that in everyday life we often suffer a dislocation between mind and body. After all, everyone knows what part of the body men are supposed to be ummm ... dictated to by, and it's definitely not the brain. Lord knows we're reminded of that often enough.

But these days it's even more obvious to me; the disjuncture between brain and body, I mean. When I can't lift my right leg to make it go into the right side of my underpants, or, having got the foot in them, it stubbornly refuses to go right through the leghole, I start berating the poor leg and foot unmercifully.

These are the times when I'm sure my right arm, in sympathy with the right leg, would like to blacken my eye (probably the left one). This is because the right hand frequently comes in for unwarranted verbal abuse from what remains of my brain when some part of my bodily intranet is down.

If it can't accomplish the task, it cops the flak. But it's the brain area that's mostly at fault, not the poor old arm or leg.

Sometimes I'm sure that I'm not that much different from Vyv. We're bodily psychopaths, the both of us.

Now I really am going to write about roots in the next piece. Keep your eye on the typing hand – the left hand that is. Not the nearly useless right hand.

Ouch! I just got my nose punched. Sorry, right hand. Can't you take a little joke?

Apparently not.
*OK, I admit I didn't know that was the spelling of Vyvyan, I didn't know his surname was Basterd, nor that he was a medical student. I wonder if he's made it into the NHS as a doctor yet? (Frightening thought.) Wikipedia, you've done it again.