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

Monday, January 28, 2013

"Have it in any color"

When it came to a decision about the size of an Avastin dose recently, I used a particular term, and then got curious about just where it came from. I was surprised to find that it was some 400 years old. Here's the origin.

A man well known and generally much respected in Cambridge knew how to manage horses; after all, he had a lot of them and he tended them carefully, hiring them out mostly to scholars. It wasn't a bad living in the seventeenth century CE.

   He kept a precise record of when each horse had been taken out, and how far and how hard they had been ridden. He usually knew his clients, so he had a fair idea how his horse had been treated.

   Scholars may have been masters of their own discipline, but often had little concern for the welfare of the Hackneys* they rode.

   With that in mind, he rotated his stock so that no one animal was overworked.

   Some of his prospective clients demanded to choose which horse they were hiring.

   "Here is your choice," he told every customer, "you have the one in the stall closest to the stable door. Or you will have none."

   His name was Tobias Hobson. I like his style, even though I wasn't keen on my Hobson's choice.

Digging into, I found that Hobson had made it into the famous journal of the day, the Spectator. Issue No. 509, 1712 explains how Hobson conducted his business, which shows clearly the origin of the saying:

'Mr. Tobias Hobson, from whom we have the Expression, was a very honourable Man, for I shall ever call the Man so who gets an Estate honestly. Mr. Tobias Hobson was a Carrier, and being a Man of great Abilities and Invention, and one that saw where there might good Profit arise, though the duller Men overlooked it; this ingenious Man was the first in this Island who let out Hackney-Horses. He lived in Cambridge, and observing that the Scholars rid hard, his manner was to keep a large Stable of Horses..., but when a Man came for a Horse, he was led into the Stable, where there was great Choice, but he obliged him to take the Horse which stood next to the Stable-Door; so that every Customer was alike well served according to his Chance, and every Horse ridden with the same Justice: From whence it became a Proverb, when what ought to be your Election was forced upon you, to say, Hobson's Choice.

A modern version is that of Henry Ford. “People can have the Model T in any color – so long as it’s black.”

It seems Ford said "History is bunk" as well, along with other comments about history as a discipline. When I saw it first as a History Honours student, I was much offended, and thought him an utter philistine. It was only later in life that I realised my understanding of what he was talking about might be quite up the spout.

   It depends completely upon what he meant by "history". As an historian all my life, if we take one meaning of the word, I'm inclined to agree with him. But that's another story.
   It's history. And he might still be a philistine.

Afterword (29 January 2013):

There's a strange galaxy of near-coincidences in this universe. Take that of the venerable Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, who died in October 2012, and Henry Ford. As an undergrad studying the course Britain in the Nineteenth Century, I really did plough through relevant portions of Hobsbawm's most famous trilogy covering industry and empire from 1750 onwards. I can't help thinking of Henry Ford as representing the Industry and Empire part of it.

And the near-coincidence? "Hobsbawm" is kind of close to "Hobson" isn't it? Hobsbawm was a scholar at Cambridge for years, though I can't see him in a drunken state flogging a Hobson Hackney round the town.

*Hackneys are a superb breed of British horse – hard-working and tough, adapted to pulling cabs in major cities.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Playing blackjack with devils

"I want to ask you a question," I said to Tracey. "If it had been you who was in my position, how would you have reacted when the oncologist suggested going back on the full dose of Avastin?'

   I asked this because I had seen concern in Tracey's face when he put it to me.
   On the way to the hospital I had said, "there's no way I'll ever be going back on a full dose of Avastin. It would destroy my kidneys within weeks."

   It's not the first time I've said it and it was something that we've always been certain about. But that was based on the premise that kidney damage was the overriding concern.

   "I can't answer that," she said. "Not in a meaningful way."

   "Why not?"

   "Because I'm not you. I see daily what's happening to you, but I'm not on the inside. You have to be on the inside."

   She was right. Unless you're exactly the one who thinks the thoughts, wakes with the conscious realisation that you're still alive, feels which limbs move and which don't want to and the cramps when you move, feels the tremors in great waves down the arm and right side, feels pulsations in the left arm, feels the surprise twinges and dull pains in internal organs, feels the seizures and the headaches when they come, feels what it's like to stand unbalanced and what it's like to come crashing down to the floor and lie helpless with broken bones, feels what it's like to surrender bit by bit almost every freedom you had, feel the emotional pain of putting someone you love through a terrible form of hell with no idea how and when it might end – it's impossible to say what decision you would have taken. And those are just for starters.

   Certainly it had to be my decision. Yet when it came to it and we discussed the pros and cons with the oncologist, I accepted it immediately. I knew it was right.

   So, you might think – it's a no-brainer [I hate that word but it describes it]. Of course you would choose it.

   Not so fast. It's not that simple.

   It's been interesting – and instructive – for me to see reactions when I said I was going back on the full dosage. They're the right reactions, but I'm not sure if they're for the right reasons. That was my fault.

   It was misleading, now I see, when I said the oncologist felt that there was a good chance the kidneys had stabilised. He didn't mean that the condition of the kidneys had improved, or had reached any sort of plateau. We have had only two proteinuria tests done following the cutting to half of the Avastin dosage. A sample of two is far from adequate to talk about stability under these circumstances. What it means is that it hadn't got any worse so far with the half-dose. It's hardly a ringing endorsement.

   His point was this. Given that the count didn't change for the second consecutive test, when weighed against the obvious physical decline in other ways, the immediate risk to the kidneys was less than the immediate risk from tumour growth. In other words, although it is still a dangerously high reading, we are tackling the greater of the two evils. That is, the spread of the tumour is the greater risk, against the very serious risk to the kidney.

   We now have to think constantly in terms of the greatest risk and trying to counter that. And that could change overnight.

   Increasing the Avastin dose to full strength may be a very short-term strategy, given the recent kidney pains and the knowledge that anything could happen. We hope for the best immediate outcome but we really have no way to know what will happen.

   We are acutely aware that swelling in the brain indicates an active tumour. Potentially tumour growth and swelling are both revealing themselves in the marked physical deterioration in the last few weeks while on half doses. Some things cannot be reversed by mind over matter. The half doses so far may well have let the tiger out of its cage and may not be checked by a full dose.

   We're also very conscious that the increase in Avastin next time around may again increase the protein output of the kidneys. I think it's almost certain. We know that organs other than the kidneys are also being affected the longer I am on it, and we have some evidence of this. So having the full dose of Avastin is actually a huge risk, but so too is not having it.

   It is almost a "damned if we do and damned if we don't" scenario. So we don't feel inclined to celebrate whichever strategy seems the best one to take this particular week.

   I don't know if you've ever played Blackjack, or what we called in friendly games 'Pontoon' or 'Twenty-one'. A friend of mine, now undergoing chemotherapy, got it right in this mini-exchange:
   Me: It's exchanging one set of life threatening dangers for the other. It was a little in favour of the kidneys when the Avastin was reduced to half. Now it's marginally in favour of putting the risk back to the kidneys and tackling the tumour. Does that make sense? The experiment may show after the event that it would have been better to leave things as they are. But I tend favour action.

   FRIEND: Yes that makes sense. Sit on 18 or draw another card, perhaps?

   ME: Exactly. Drawing the card and hoping for a 3. Or even a 2. We've done a bit of counting of the cards flipped....

   "So," I said to Tracey, "leaving every consideration aside that we've talked about, what do you think you might have done?"

   "I think I would have chosen the Avastin increase. It could change tomorrow but today, the tumour is the greater risk. For you, you could have said, 'Let's give it one more try on the half-dose, test that, and make a decision based on three tests at that strength.' But that would mean it would be nearly six weeks away from resuming full-strength Avastin if all was going OK, and I believe we'd have no chance of restraining the tumour with any possibility of the quality of life you've got now, declining as it is."

   She didn't say it because she thought it was what I wanted to hear. It's not like that with us. She knew, as I do, that we had no real choice but to flip the card.

Monday, January 21, 2013

One-upmanship in walkers – men only

You know there's been a life changing event in your existence when you sneak a look at the walker of the old lady next to you at Oncology to see if you've got a superior model.

Very similar to mine but no hamster cage
   OK, so mine's not top of the range, but as Julie loaned it to me gratis as a complimentary bonus free gift for nothing till it's no longer required, and it works perfectly for my needs, I'd be the last to complain.

   But what I said is true. Now when someone walkers by, I am interested in a way I never dreamed I would be. Not in a quadzillion years, my friends.

   So when the old lady came charging through the pediatrician's (hang on – podiatrist's) door the other day, I checked hers out. As you do. It had been through the wars well and truly. There was stuff hanging off it I have no idea why, gaffa-taped on in odd spots.

   But mine not to reason why. Not my business.

   Still, I thought, why not have a look at available models, just out of curiosity.

   First thing you see when you go through images on the web is that if modelled by anyone, they are almost all by women, which says a lot, I reckon. Men like me are or were too pig-headed to use one until forced to their senses, so there's the difference. Women see a problem, see a solution, and put them together. So there's the market.

   Have a look at a few I picked out, with the blokes in mind. Come on, humour me. You'll enjoy the ride – and the commentary, I hope.

I thought this one was a bit spartan. I mean, try pushing that along a cobbled path! I guess it must be the 'inchworm' model. Not à la mode, but serves a purpose I suppose. It could be used as a weapon, too.

This, I must confess, comes well up the coolness range. For the outdoors type, clearly. "Like"

Aaaggghhh! Imagine the reaction by the White Witches at Oncology if I trundled that in. They'd be rolling round the floor laughing, and my street cred would be like minus zero.

 Now that's a bit better. And blue for boys. This would restore credibility, definitely.

This one would be a conversation starter no matter who was beside you hooked up to the etoposide dispenser getting fun-stuff pumped into their vein. 

   Look at me, Mum! No spokes. (It was the only one I could see modelled by a bloke. It would have to be, right? No girl could possibly run one of these.)

But for sheer beauty of design, this is my pick, although there's a slight danger, if I sat down and forgot there was no back on it, that I could end up doing a reverse flip and jackknife. 

   Still, like stiletto heels for the ladies, you have to make some concessions to look your best – right?  This would be a walkin'-chick magnet, buckeroos.

Coolness factor ★★★★★

You get it, chaps? Walkers are cool. I was just minding my own business and look what happened. I've never seen this woman before in my life. 

OK, I admit it. This is Carol; very good, very dear friend of us both.
[Photography and art direction: Tracey James]

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Dad, the bung and the oranges 2

Batting a tennis ball up against a weatherboard house was not a sport included in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Putting aside modesty, I have to tell you that if it were an Olympic sport, I'd have faded photos now, possibly even in colour, of me waving gold on the winner's block in the centre of the packed arena in front of a delirious Australian crowd, a tear of pride and joy on my mother's face.

    But it wasn't, so you'll have to take my word for it that from a very early age I had near perfect hand-eye coordination; at least in the art of hitting a ball with an old banister. Roughly forty million times I had batted a ball pretty near continuously against the southern side of the house under the mango trees next to the downstairs water-tank.

    I was, in short, the Bradman of this art. Hour after hour I played tournaments with complicated local rules derived from cricket and tennis against opponents like Ritchie Benaud or Rod Laver. Both of them had a very keen interest in the sport and were up for a game any time. On the rare occasions I lost, I was granted an instant rematch, and my rightful place as world champion was restored within minutes.

    So it was with interest that one day I perceived an opportunity for a variation of the sport, but I have to take another slight explanatory detour first. Stick with me now because the climax of the orange story is near at hand.

    For reasons I don't know for sure, but can speculate on, what we called "bush oranges" grew amongst the bottlebrushes overhanging the creek. They might even have been a native fruit, or maybe the panners for gold in the 1860s spat out a pip or two of some old orange variety, and they took root where they were close to water. At any rate, they produced a tangy but edible orange with thickish pith. (Thay "thickish pith" thpeedily theven timeth).

Original image source: Robyn Oyeniyi
    A lot of little trees sprang up along the creek edge, and Dad conceived the idea of creating a mini-orchard of them on the northern side of the house. He carefully dug them up and planted them in rows, and bucketed water to them to keep them alive. They struggled, but finally produced fruit, the quality of which depended mainly on how much water they got – and that depended on how many baths we had, which weren't many in drought times.

    Now at last we're here, at the business end of my story.

    It was the day the bung had nearly decapitated my father. It was hot and he was tired, and went off to sleep in the bedroom.

    Usually he would have taken a rest on the shearer's stretcher, a comfortable but spartan bed on the front verandah, but on that day the air was very still out there. The breeze was blowing from the north and he was getting a ripple of it in the bedroom through the one small window in that entire north wall.

    I meanwhile had won my ten-thousandth championship at banister-ball on the southern side of the house. Before lying down, Dad had requested that the "bink-plop bink-plop bink-plop bink-plop" ad infinitum of my sportscraft come to an immediate halt, and his requests were invariably ones to be accommodated, not even one "bink" or "plop" after being issued. It also meant that I couldn't tease any available sister with my usual lack of mercy; my customary way of filling in time when options were limited. I'd have copped it for sure.

    I'd read all my books, including the fiftieth reading of At the Eleventh Hour starting at the point where Ferrand was levelling a gun at the head of Patricia Richmond as she drove a Bugatti towards Paris to save the father of her companion Suzanne de Brissac from being unjustly shot as a spy.... I told you I'd read it fifty times. Post World War 2 stuff.

    So, at a loose end, I took my banister and sauntered round to the northern side of the house.

    I've said already that it was a period of drought. There had been a fair crop of oranges on the trees but just at the point they needed rain the most it hadn't come, and the house tanks were almost empty. As a result, the parched little fruit had given up the ghost and all dropped off the trees.

    They were all about the size of a golf ball and just as hard.

    I picked one up and an idea formed in my mind. Aiming down the hill, I tossed one up in the air and struck it with the banister. It hit the sweet spot of the banister with a very satisfactory 'thunk' and went the best part of a seventy metres before I lost sight of it in the dry speargrass.

    I repeated the exercise with great pleasure, and then turned to the house. I reckoned I'd have no trouble clearing the roof with my next shot. So I tossed up, timed it gloriously, and it flew over the house, coming within a whisker of clearing the mango tree on the far side as well.

    A challenge! I reckoned I could send an orange over both house and mango tree.

    A banister has a round hitting surface, like a baseball bat. It's vital for the trajectory, and therefore the distance, to get what's hit smack in the centre of the curve.

    Sadly, with the extra effort I put in to clear the mango tree, this was the one occasion when I was a fraction low on the hitting surface. Instead of flying over the house, and the mango tree, the orange flew like a tiny cruise missile squarely through the bedroom window.

    Where my Dad was.

    On the bed.


    I waited....

    Not long.

    There came a sound through the window similar to what Goliath would have made if he'd regained consciousness and saw what he was in for just before David cut his head off.

    Dad appeared at the window, orange in hand, fury akin to what looked from where I was standing, banister in hand, like the imminent murder of his only son. Kidicide.

    Look, I think he knew that I had no intention of hitting him squarely between the eyes with a golf-ball sized orange as hard as the hobs of hell as he lay in a troubled sleep, probably dreaming of being split open by the bung from the 44 gallon drum not an hour earlier.

    But he was a bit disorientated.

    "What the bloody hell did you do that for?" he roared, hurling the orange back at me, which I had the good sense to allow to find its mark just a fraction above the cojones.

    "Ahhh!" I gasped, as if mortally wounded. 

    I wasn't. It was purely strategic, but it didn't fool him. Maybe at least it saved me from the dreaded words, "Come up here...." Instead:

    "Go and get a load of morning-wood!"

    This was the penalty for a multitude of sins, but it seemed a reasonable one to me. It got me well away at lightning speed. However much I hated getting morning-wood, the further out of his sight I was right then the better.

    Later, when it was obvious neither of us had sustained any serious injury from the encounter, he saw the funny side of it.

    "My legs flew in the air," he said, "And then I sat bolt upright. I thought the flamin' roof had fallen in."

    Only he didn't say "flamin'".

bung and oranges 1 | bung and oranges 2

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Dad, the bung and the oranges 1

Late morning it would have been, on a January day, just as the sun was getting a fair amount of bite into it. It was one of those Queensland summers following a spring where the storms had failed, and the ground at Sunny Hills was parched.

   With no pasture, dairy cows don't do so well. The milk vat doesn't either, and we had a quota to maintain.

   The solution was to have salt-lick for the milkers and a dollop of molasses in their feed, so that they'd drink plenty of good clean water pumped up from the well and have a go at eating as much of the dry spear-grass as they could find – which wasn't much.

   But you don't want to know about that. All you need to know is that Dad was opening the 44 gallon drum of molasses that had been sitting undisturbed under the shade of the Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa ironbark near the old dairy.

   Well, it had been in the shade, but the summer sun moves – the angle I mean – and the big molasses drum had been sitting in the sun all morning. Dad couldn't even touch the lid it was so hot.

   Any 44 gallon drum has two outlets, each with a steel bung screwed into it. The smaller one is about the diameter of a golf ball. Given that most drums are designed to hold liquids that vapourise with heat, the bungs are very sturdy. If you're smart, you open the little bung first to release gently any internal gas pressure, and then the other one to pour the contents out.

   There was a tool to open the bungs, because they don't come out all that easy – like a large hex-type screwdriver or spanner. Dad inserted it in the smaller bung and gave it a twist. It didn't want to come out so he tapped it a bit and tried again. This time it groaned audibly (can you or a bung groan inaudibly? I dunno. Nor do I care if it comes to that.) But at least it did yield a half-turn.

   These days you would have got a can of CRC30 or RP7, sprayed the visible thread on the bung, let it sink in a bit, and tried again – but we didn't have sissy stuff like that in the 1950s. Dad put his considerable strength behind the spanner and turned it a few more times. There was no hissing of released gas either, and everyone knows, as you do I'm sure, that molasses builds up one hell of a lot of pressure when the drum stands out in the fiery sun of central Queensland all morning.

   Uttering a few magic words, as was his wont when things didn't go to plan, Dad gave it a last turn, then removed the spanner and leaned in for a closer look.

   That of course was exactly when the bung could take the pent-up pressure no longer. There was a strange sort of explosive bang-hiss that we heard from the house some fifty metres away, followed by a second mysterious but sharper clang nearby.

   We witnessed the scene of Dad standing there, hanging on to the drum with his knees quaking, his hat about three metres behind him. Then he tottered up to the house, hat in hand, his face white as a sheet in spite of the beads of sweat on his brow.

   At least he still had a brow – both of them, in fact. The heavy bung had missed his forehead by a centimetre on its upward path, taking his hat with it, and been blown sky-high. Had he leaned over the drum a fraction more, his skull would have been cracked open like a walnut.

   The second clang, long after it had blown, was the sound of the bung landing on the hayshed roof just twenty metres from the house. We had all heard it, many seconds after it had attempted to take Dad's head off.

   His hat, you will be relieved to know, sustained only superficial injuries, but sufficient to remind him every subsequent day of his life that the Reaper sports a steel bung as well as a scythe.

   After narrating in some detail the sequence of events above, a story punctured by many more magic words, Dad took an early rest. 

   Little did he know that his trials that day were not quite over. And who was the cause of it?

   I'm not telling. You'll have to wait. I know damn well that your attention span is limited to 700 words. Besides, I've yet to finish it – but there's no way in the wide world you can guess what it is, so don't bother trying. 

   You might have a fair crack at the "who" though. Mayer kulper and all that.


bung and oranges 1 | bung and oranges 2

Friday, January 11, 2013

Woman, please let me explain....

Woman, please let me explain
I never meant to cause you sorrow or pain....
                                        Woman  (John Lennon)
As a westerner, I have always been fascinated by the Chinese language and its written script.

   Westerners think of language and writing in a linear fashion. We have letters; just 26, and when we put these together, we create syllables, and combine these to make words. In written form we structure these to make paragraphs, and so on.

   And so our thoughts and ideas are threaded together, like beads on a string. With the flair of Flaubert, we might even end up with Madame Bovary.

   The Chinese approach to writing is quite different. A written character can be thought of as a word, but it is much more than that. It's an ideogram, containing or encapsulating an idea or concept; one that is highly symbolic.

   Inevitably, it reflects the culture it springs from, and as a word-picture it can't be divorced easily from its own history. It's also an art form, bringing its nuances along with it.

   Look at this one. It got my attention as I saw it in front of me on the back of the seat ahead of me in a plane on the way to Urumqi, far out in China's west.

   Above it was an English translation. FOR SAFETY. It was telling passengers to keep their seatbelts on.

   The bottom half of it represents a woman. Above her, you can see a roof. So, a woman under a roof represents safety. It also connotes peace and order.

   This is intriguing, because it's loaded with so many ideas.

   It could be about a tender concern for the protection of women, springing from the idea that the outside world is a dangerous place they should avoid and can't really cope with.

   It could mean that a woman's place is in the home, and nowhere else. Or that society can only be safe when the woman is inside the house and not in the public domain – that society's public order, peace and security depend upon it.

   It might mean some combination of these. One way or another, it gives us clues to the nature of the society in which it was created, to be matched with other evidence to see if any or all of these possible interpretations are valid.

   For Chinese literature, the ideogram integrates different art forms. A Chinese poem has layers of meaning simply because of the way written characters were devised and are now interpreted. Imagine trying to translate these collective layers of subtle meaning into English, and retain some semblance of its original poetic form. No wonder the Tao te Ching gets translated in so many different ways.

   English is not immune from the cultural bias of the history of its words. "Woman" as an English word has been dissected and deconstructed a zillion times, especially in the past fifty years, and just going through the different shades of meaning in the word "husband" shows that it's not only ideograms that can't be divorced from their history.

   This means that linear writing with its tiny range of just 26 characters has its own culture-bombs which create difficulties in translation, as we know so well when religious texts are converted to another language.

   But that's another story. When it comes to written language as a beautiful and expressive art form, Chinese can't be beaten.*
Disclaimer: I do not speak or read mandarin. I began studying Chinese history, culture and literature, ancient and modern in translation in 1966, and taught it on that basis at two universities from 1971 to 2007.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Hello darkness not our friend

"Don't forget. We got a notice that the power was going to go off from 8.30 am tomorrow."

   That was the last thing Tracey said to me before bed last night.

   "I must remember that," I said.

   Naturally, I didn't, so when I was writing one of my stories for the blog, it happened. I had written a paragraph of prose that Steele Rudd would have been proud of, concerning Dad, the bung and the oranges. Bright sunny day though it was, darkness of the electrical type fell in an instant, with a faint bleep of protest from both computers, the router, the scanner, two phones, and the microwave oven in the kitchen.

   And, of course, I hadn't saved the paragraph, so it's gone forever, and you will never know just how good it was. Posterity's loss.

   We went to the loungeroom. There's no use crying over spilt words, is there?

   "What do we do now?"

   "Well, I just boiled the jug, so we can have coffee. And I also took the precaution of filling a thermos flask with boiling water for later."

   Tracey's brilliant at these things. I'd wondered what the thermos flask had been doing out on the bench earlier, but I didn't put two and two together. Not even one and one. It's not my fault that these drugs have addled my brain.

   But the question remained. We had no power. What do we do?

   "There's an hour or so's worth of battery in the laptop. I can continue with my story – except for the brilliant paragraph I lost."

   "And I have my phone," she said, la belle dame ignoring sans merci the sad bit about the paragraph, "and it's on a phone plan, so I don't have to depend on the wi-fi, even for email."

   "And I have the Kindle," I said, "which has four long articles and a hundred books on it that I am reading (mostly at once). It's fully charged, so I'm more-or-less set up for a while."

   Christian will be bereft with no computer. No, come to think of it, he won't. Either he'll go for a run, or walk to the park down the road to do chin-up thingies on the kids' swing frame, together with other forms of sado-masochism; or he'll read one of the four library books he's taken out of the Town Library on Chemistry.

   No, he won't do the exercise-in-the-sun bit. It's too hot outside for that.

   He's very methodical about his study now no-one's forcing him to do it. He reads up all about an element and then gives me a fearful earbashing on it, together with diagrams drawn in a Spirax notebook, featuring atomic shells with multiple electrons circling like vultures around a nucleus that looks like a grape with silkworm eggs all over it. I thank the Spirit of the Expanding Universe that I did Chemistry all through high school, so some of it makes sense to me, and I can wing the rest.

   We hear the train whistle – well, horn, to be more precise – blaring out at the Markham St crossing.

   "It's twenty minutes late." 

   It usually starts out for Sydney on the dot of nine. It's true – you could nearly set your clock by it most days. After all, Armidale is the northern inland terminus, so how can you get late when you are the starting point?

   "Well – it is an electric train after all," I said. "I guess they're stymied now the power's off. Ha ha."

   "You're laughing at your own jokes again."

   "Someone has to, or it gets depressing. Or maybe they have to wind the engine up. It would have a helluva big key."

   "When did you last see anything you can wind up? Everything has batteries."

   "It's going to take quite a few Size C ones to get that moving, even though it has only three carriages today. I guess someone had to run down to Clint's Crazy Bargains and buy a pallet-load," I muse.

   "Now you're just being silly. Again."

   "It happens when I don't have electricity. It's been thirty-seven minutes now."

   "Yeah yeah. Not that you're counting and all that."

   "I wasn't going to say that," I denied vigorously.

   I was going to, actually. She knows me too well. I must be so pathetically predictable.

   "It's windy. I couldn't sleep last night worrying about that wind, and the fires, and this rickety house...."

   I, on the other hand, slept like a log. "Forget it. This is Armidale. It can't happen here."

   "I'll bet they said that in Canberra four years ago."

   She's right, but I'm not admitting it. No point in alarming her further by agreeing with her.

   "What do we do now?"

   She draws her feet up under her on the lounge. "We could sit and talk to each other."

   "Now it's you being silly."

   "I'm going to have a sleep then," she says, stretching out. "If only there was a point in turning on the fan."

   "OK." Heck, I'm down to half power on the laptop already. I've been writing this, you see, as we philosophise together. This is, therefore, a complete and accurate record of our exchange of views in the absence of genuine 240 volts AC.

   But we have survived an hour and twelve minutes without electricity. Not that I'm count....

   God is with us. Checkmate, atheists. (Do I have to explain that to you? Youtube it.)

POSTSCRIPT: I went to bed and slept till two minutes after noon. I dreamed that I had written the complete blog entry about Dad, the oranges and the bung, and then in the dream scenario, with the power off, I couldn't post it to the blog, so I lost it all. It was very dispiriting because, once again, it was utterly brilliant. I returned to the lounge room feeling much out of sorts, and Tracey suggested we watch a Dexter episode to fill in the time.

This is, as we say in Studies in Religion, a True Fact. Ask her. Ask her also how we were going to watch Dexter without electricity.

The power came back on at 13:42 hours. Why did I feel a little pang of regret?

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Chinese twist to the Monkey tale (5)

Final part. Continued from here 

Folklore additions

The Crow Demon – part of Chinese myth [Source*]
The inclusion of magic, spirits and demons does not necessarily mean, as the critics of Mahayana state, that this form of Buddhism violates the spirit of Buddhism by including exotica of these types. It can be argued that many of Mahayana Buddhism's adherents over the centuries have not advanced far enough spiritually to see beyond the manifestations of magic and continue to be trapped in illusion, but Mahayana, like Hinduism, is reasonably tolerant towards the limitations of human insight. After the appropriate series of rebirths and a proper lifestyle in these incarnations, the person eventually will be reborn capable of coping with a more sophisticated view of human existence.

Mahayana and Theravada differences

The Buddhists who follow the "purer" Theravadin path say that this is the long way to salvation, and that failing to attempt to correct imperfect interpretations of the human condition is a dereliction of duty.

    The Mahayana response is to point out that in attempting to correct those views, confusion is also bound to arise if the Buddhist devotee is not intellectually or spiritually ready to accept the more sophisticated approach. Consequently, gods and demons exist for as long as people need to believe in them.


In Buddhism, the boundaries between life and death, so stark in the Western tradition, are not so absolute. Death is no more than a transition to a new state of being. In destruction, something new is inevitably created. 

Yulan demon [Source*]
    It is this fact which brings into focus the violent aspect of Monkey so vividly portrayed on the television screen. When demons are killed one after another, what is it that is actually destroyed? What dies is only the belief in the reality of that demon. When we see something in the dark that we take to be a ghost, what dies is our perception of it as something it is not once we find it to be only a sheet on the clothesline. The ghost existed for as long as we believed in it, and then it vanished from the face of the earth. Who needs to feel remorse for killing a false idea?

    So it is with Monkey, and perhaps this is a partial resolution at least of the contradiction apparent in the violent scenes so fascinating to many of the children. Why then, does Tripitaka denounce Monkey's killing of demons?

The Ultimate Message

Calling up the Cloud Chariot [Source*]
That is not fully resolved, but it may well lie in the fact that the basic Buddhist teaching is one of peace. The transition to peaceful awareness should not arise out of conflict if it can be avoided. It is too easy to move on to the killing of human beings after justifying the killing of demons, however grotesque they may appear to be.

    As Tripitaka would say, let them disappear by themselves, at the appropriate time, merely by correcting our perception of the nature of this world. The taking of life in any form is a violation of the laws of karma, a crime against the universe. There is no justification in Buddhism strong enough for that, and no encouragement should be given to any tendencies which promote slaughter.

Tripitaka as we know him best [Source*]
    At the most fundamental level, Tripitaka represents the self. He is not immune from error, and admits to serious mistakes at times. But he stands for all that is good and noble in the individual. As such, he is latent in every human soul – indeed, in all life, since everything has consciousness even if it is at a very low level, which explains even more clearly why killing is to be avoided. To kill the organism is to disorientate its latent power for advancement. Through the apparent violence of Monkey Magic, this fundamental Buddhist precept shines.

    Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy are the latent strengths and weaknesses within that same self; pride, greed, wantonness, and yearning to be something other than what it is. The voyage is the journey through life, its danger as real as ignorance of the true nature of things allows them to be.

    It will be a long and difficult pilgrimage, with experience doing most of the teaching, and the wise words of the better self contributing the remainder. Viewed this way, Monkey gives its admirers no more and no less than they are capable of comprehending, but from the youngest to the oldest, they must surely learn some of the essential truths of this very sophisticated religion.

*Modified. Unmodified illustration source:


Friday, January 4, 2013

Chinese twist to the Monkey tale (4)

Continued from here


Fierce Pigsy [Source*]
Pigsy is also a delightful character in the mold of Shakespeare's Falstaff, although he is not so witty as his English counterpart. He is the buffoon, the greedy pig, addicted to food, lust and laziness. If a steam-roller's unexpected acquisition of a capacity for romantic yearnings might be imagined, the similarity between its courting techniques and those of Pigsy would be startling. 

Don't ask.... [Source*]
    His only problem is that when he feels the stirrings of desire, which is at least once or twice in any episode, his nose turns red and he starts snuffling. Combined with his overpowering bodily aroma, these characteristics are usually more than a little disconcerting for the lady upon whom he is attempting to bestow his affections.

    Perhaps this is yet another Buddhist message that comes out in many other legends; that lust is an unworthy emotion and a dangerous one, along with greed and sloth, and no-one who is slave to these vices has reached the first rung on the ladder to humanity.

Pigsy's pin-up girl; love (lust, really) sadly unrequited. [Source*]
Very flirty Dragon Princess tells Monkey to make his magic staff bigger. [Source*]

The Spirit Craving

One of the lessons of Monkey certainly is that Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy are spirits only, and they can therefore claim no independent existence. Like gods and demons, they only exist because we believe in them, and their great longing is to become real.

    All three of them want to become human, so that they can advance along the path to fulfilment. In one episode, they are allowed to view themselves in a magic mirror in the forms they eventually will have as humans, and their handsome images appear with all the outward manifestations of their vices obliterated.

    The ultimate optimism of Buddhism shines through this incident like a beacon, for its universal message is that all life will finally achieve the blissful state of nirvana. But for the three spirits who accompany Tripitaka, there is a very long road ahead of them before that goal is attained, and many lessons to be learnt on the way.


Sandy, the Water Spirit [Source*]
Sandy, the water spirit, is the most enigmatic character in the plot. He does not have the fighting prowess of Monkey or the brazen vices of Pigsy, but he is trapped in a meaningless and brutal world until the Buddha forces him to throw in his lot with Tripitaka. Sandy is a victim of his emotions and spiritual imperfections, floundering in the self-inflicted sufferings of undisciplined existence until Tripitaka gives him the guidance and hope of solace which is at the heart of the Buddhist teachings.

    In many ways, Sandy represents the widespread human failing of attempting to cling to fixed forms in a world that is in reality fluid and transitory. It is Sandy who yearns for mundane contentment, and yet is forced to confront the fact that earthly love and pleasures have their price – their finitude. They are as transitory as all else in this world of illusion, and no amount of philosophising can disguise the truth that the search for ultimate happiness is a loftier ambition than mere emotional and sensual gratification.

Monkey and Sandy [Source*]
    In his heart he knows this, but cannot bring himself to acknowledge it. Consequently, he gives the impression of one who feels that he is on the right path as he plods along in Tripitaka's footsteps, but is not at all sure what lies at the pathway's end. Morose and preoccupied for most of the time, he also has a dry and whimsical sense of humour, so his bantering and bickering with the other two spirits make very amusing dialogue.

    Bearing in mind the overwhelmingly allegorical nature of the story, Monkey can teach us how to view Mahayana Buddhism in a new light. It may be full of magic and demons, but its symbolic qualities are a constant reminder that the realities of existence are beyond the illusions we have come to believe in.

*Modified. Unmodified illustration source:


Thursday, January 3, 2013

Chinese twist to the Monkey tale (3)

continued from here

The Monkey King
To be a monkey in Hindu-Buddhist mythology is no insult.  On the contrary, the monkey is a powerful figure, protector and friend of epic heroes. 

   Monkey as King Monkey in this story is an intriguing character – strong, resourceful, brave, obstinate, violent and presumptuous, though his vices are tempered by a streak of compassion and a sense of humour. With enormous pride (far too much!) he calls himself by his full grand title, "King Monkey, Great Sage, Equal of Heaven".

Monkey and the Buddha

Chinese vision of Buddha
With arrogance like this, it comes as no surprise that he is irreverent to all forms of authority, and even the Buddha is no exception. When he gets angry, he curses the Buddha, argues with him and shows no respect whatsoever, for which he often pays the penalty exacted of those whose pride is equal only to their ignorance. 'Hey Buddha, I'm coming to see you. Put the kettle on!' he shouts from his remarkable cloud-chariot, and the Buddha obligingly manifests himself (or is it herself?) – without the kettle – wafting in gigantic form above the clouds, and generally gives Monkey good advice, or teaches him a well-deserved lesson. 

    The Buddha manifests himself in the Chinese form of the goddess Kuan Yin – hence the ambivalence over the gender.  This is a perfect example of the mixture of Buddhism and Chinese folklore that reflected the state of Chinese Buddhism at the time. It is why the real Buddhist monk, Hsuan Tsang, set out for India in the first place – to translate the original Buddhist Pali texts into Chinese.

    On one memorable occasion in the TV version, Monkey challenges the supremacy of the Buddha by saying that he can cloud-fly to the outer limits of the universe, where no-one has ever been before, and where the five pillars of wisdom stand. 

    He eventually reaches the pillars, writes some graffiti on one of them and returns triumphantly to the Buddha, after a long journey. Claiming his victory, he sits on the Buddha's outstretched palm and awaits acknowledgment of his accomplishment. The Buddha smiles knowingly, and of course compassionately, and invites Monkey to study the fingers of the Buddha's hand. 

The Buddha's lesson
    There is Monkey's graffiti, on one of the fingers. The lesson to Monkey is a stunning one. The universe is not outward but within; indeed, no further away than one's fingertips. The arduous trip of which Monkey was so proud has been in vain; a product of ignorance and pride. If only one understands, the universe reveals itself.

    So, for Monkey, there is nowhere to which he can take the easy way out and fly anywhere meaningful, and no magic which has the power to enlighten. The trip to India is going to be on foot, one weary step after the other. It is a trip through the experiences of life, and after this lesson, Monkey returns to his companions, chastened and a little wiser.

Monkey's Mission

Monkey's task is to protect Tripitaka, but he has a serious problem. He's not supposed to use magic, or to kill the demons and other wicked characters who constantly cross their path in order to abort the mission. 

The fearsome Golden Horn Demon
    Nevertheless, he does use his tricks wherever possible, and he does manage to despatch more than his share of demons and villains, and this is one of the few unresolved, or only partially resolved conflicts in the story. Tri-Pitaka can pull him into line when necessary by reciting the headache sutra, which causes the golden crown on Monkey's head to induce a violent pain, so terrible that even Monkey must submit. It is an interesting demonstration of the power of prayer!

    In another memorable scene, Monkey goes to the Buddha and asks to be relieved of the crown, which he cannot remove by his own efforts. The Buddha simply tells him to take it off, which Monkey finds, to his surprise, that he can easily do, and Monkey is thus released from his task of guarding Tripitaka.

    But after a little while, Monkey finds that life without his master is meaningless, and he voluntarily replaces the golden crown and resumes his duty as bodyguard.

    The message is simple and powerful. The Buddhist path, represented by the crown, has its own headaches. That is the price the disciple has to pay. Suffering is the inevitable result of doing what we know in our hearts to be wrong. The 'crown' can be removed if that is our desire, simply by an act of will, but then life has no meaning or purpose.

    Resuming the crown means accepting the discipline necessary to follow the pathway to salvation. Every branch of Buddhism makes no secret of this truth, and the message is familiar enough to followers of western religions as well.

*Modified. Unmodified illustration source: