Monday, 8 February 2016

Mum creates her own reality

When I went up to the nursing home yesterday to see mum she was sitting on her bed holding her pink telephone directory in her had, her head bowed. When she saw me her face creased up with emotion and she went "Oh" and got up from the bed. She came toward me with her hands outstretched to greet me, almost with tears coming from her eyes, saying "I'm so happy to see you." There had been an accident, she said, and she was worried about me.

I told her I was fine and that there had been no accident but she was firm. Here's some of the conversation that followed:

Mum: "You had an accident too. I was trying to call but I couldn't get through. I'm so relieved to see you."
Me: "You didn't have an accident. You had an infection and went into hospital."
Mum: "Oh did I? I don't know, nobody tells me anything."
Me: "I see."
Mum: "I had visions of you being in road accidents and God knows what. I heard that you had this terrible accident. Or maybe I had the accident."

And later:

Mum: "I had an accident. I did have an accident on a road."
Me: "You thought the doctor was coming?"
Mum: "I understood the doctor was coming in the morning. He was coming to see someone else and would see me as well."

I phoned up my brother in Texas and in the conversation that ensued there was a good quantity of silliness. There's no doubt that with the abatement of the fever and its associated aches and pains mum is in a lot better spirits now than she has been for the most part recently. We talked for a good 30 minutes on the iPad.

Part of the conversation was taken up in trying to find out how mum's father, Harry, had come to become involved in Communism. Mum was trying to think of the name of the bookseller who got Harry involved, and she thought it might be Harry Barker. It's hard to give too much credit to these old memories of hers. At one time mum had told me that Harry had got involved in Communism out of gratitude for the Russians joining WWII against Hitler. She subsequently changed that story, and told me that Harry had considered Socialism to be lived Christianity. The new story of Harry Barker is just another riff on an old theme, but it's amusing for us kids to try to use the internet to unearth the truth. My brother was soon on Google doing searches.

After talking on the iPad mum and I went outside to go to the park to watch the dogs. There were a couple of dogs in the park, and one of the dog owners waved at us as we sat on the park bench in the shade - mum did not make it to the second bench, because of her still-feeble arms, and we settled for sitting on the first bench. We sat there for about 30 minutes then headed back inside to see about lunch. At the lifts on the first floor we bumped into H's daughter, apparently today at the nursing home to see her mother. "I had a car accident," mum replied when she was asked how she was.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Movie review: The Revenant, dir Alejandro G. Iñárritu (2015)

The first thing to say about this movie is that it's very long. I went to see it in the afternoon, and had arranged to meet my friend at the ticket counter at 2.45pm but we didn't emerge from the theatre until 5.50pm. In a sense, this beautifully-shot film is a series of loosely-connected vignettes chronicling the return to civilisation of a trapper in the 1820s, Hugh Glass (Leaonardo Di Caprio). Woven around his story are the stories of other men and women.

The team of trappers Glass is with in the North American wilderness is attacked by a posse of American Indians, and the Europeans return to their boats, abandoning many of the pelts they have made. On the advice of Glass, the survivors leave the boat they are in and set off across-country but Glass is badly mauled by a bear - these scenes are terrible, and are not for the squeamish, and set the tone for violence for the rest of the film - and his mates eventually leave him in the care of two of their number, namely John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and a youth named Bridger (Will Poulter) on the promise of a reward of $100 from the Hudson Bay Company, who the captain (Domhnall Gleeson) works for. This is fine but Fitzgerald is greedy and convinces Bridger to abscond, leaving Glass for dead. Fitzgerald also kills Glass' mixed-race son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck).

At the same time as Glass is trying to return to the European town a group of American Indians led by Elk Dog (Duane Howard) has been searching for Elk Dog's daughter Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk'o). Although they have a different goal from Glass his route crosses theirs at multiple points, notably at the end of the movie where the connection finally adds a deep note of irony to the tale. No story about North America in the 19th century can ignore the plight of the American Indians, of course, but this movie is exceptional in its attempt to imbue its representatives with humanity and humour.

This thread in the tale is examplified especially well by the character named Hikuc (Arthur Redcloud). Having escaped from Elk Dog's group in one episode by fleeing in the current of a large and fast-flowing river, Glass gets back to the bank only to come across a stampede of buffalo. He sees a beast being brought down by wolves but then goes to sleep, exhausted. He is woken later by strange sounds and walks to the top of the bank he has been sleeping on to find a man has chased away the wolves and is feeding on the carcass of the dead beast. Glass approaches despite the man's threatening gestures, begging for food. The man throws him a hunk of raw meat and he eats it. In the morning Hikuc tells Glass they will from thenceforward travel together.

Hikuc is a skilled survivor who understands the land he lives on, and is able at one point, during a blizzard, to help cure Glass' wounds by applying some grasses to them. Hikuc ensconces Glass is an enclosure made from branches and sticks and builds a fire to heat rocks, creating a steam bath that Glass sleeps within. He wakes refreshed in the morning but what happens to Hikuc is less uplifting.

It is in the short episodes of the movie like this one that its true art lies. The movie has a disjointed rhythm like a set of disconnected narratives. Often the only thing joining them together are the stunning vistas of nature the filmmakers create with their cameras, balancing them on the themes of a wonderful soundtrack that owes much to Modernist 12-tone music.

While Glass eventually returns to meet again with Fitzgerald - the man he has ostensibly been chasing the whole time - the set-piece action sequences that conspire to create this particular narrative arc are less important than other elements of the movie, notably its earlier vignettes about life among a foreign people in a foreign country. 

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Mum having some delusions

Yesterday I went up to see mum in the nursing home. On arrival I spoke with the nurses at the nurse's station near the elevator and they told me she had got up and had a shower the day before and yesterday as well. I was relieved to hear this as the last time I had seen mum - on Wednesday - she didn't get out of bed at all.

When I got to mum's room the TV was on and she was nodding in her recliner chair. I switched off the TV and went over to talk to her. She seemed much better and was wearing a pair of slacks, a top, and an open shirt over that. She had on short socks, not the especially long ones that I had bought for fitting to her swollen legs. I sat down in the chair next to her and we had a chat. At one point she started saying odd things, and I recorded them in notes on my mobile phone. Here is our conversation:

Mum: "We were attacked. They were scammers."
Me: "Nobody attacked us."
Mum: "Well I'm not going to talk to you if you're not going to listen to me."
A little pause.
Me: "Who attacked us?"
Mum: "There was a farmer."
Me: "You said scammers."
Mum: "A farmer and his wife, yes. They were trying to rook us, take money from us."
Me: "They were trying to take money from us?"
Mum: "They seemed to be, yes. I thought you would be able to tell me all about it."
Me: "I wasn't there."
Mum: "Well where was I? I thought I was with you."

I guess this kind of delusional experience must have made some sort of an impression on her, because normally she cannot remember much after a couple of minutes. Her recall in this case was surprisingly sharp and detailed. She said some other strange things during our hour-long sit-down, but I didn't take notes of everything she said that was unusual. There were other things as well.

I wonder if such delusions are normal after a traumatic event such as a hospital admission. It might be that because of the pain and the infection she has lost some more of her mental capacity. Her brain seems to give up ground in the face of adverse events like these, and there is usually a step-change down, at least initially, when she has had to go to hospital due to an infection.

When I went out to the dining room with mum she was still complaining about pain and had to walk very slowly. But the pain is more localised in just her right knee now; the all-over pain of Wednesday had gone away. She did however also complain of pain in her hands.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Book review: Conquerors, Roger Crowley (2015)

Subtitled How Portugal Seized the Indian Ocean and Forged the First Global Empire, this brilliant account of colonial adventure is a gripping read, for although the Portuguese adventurers were not always blameless in their methods, you find yourself despite all the crimes against humanity they committed rooting hard for them. It's strange. Although for me - whose grandfather grew up in Africa and who came from a family involved in colonial administration - possibly not entirely strange.

The grand adventure was driven from the top. Beginning with Henry the Navigator and continuing through John II and his son Manuel, royal support for the adventurers was essential because ships quickly wore out with worm, disease and battle thinned the ranks of the available adventurers, and organising new fleets took time. In fact you could say that building, equipping and directing ships was the main activity of the royal house of Portugal for over 100 years.

Getting access to markets in India was difficult, hence the violence. As Afonso de Albuquerque - Manuel's foremost Governor of India - found, without force there was no doing business on the continent. Trade up to that point had been controlled by Hindu potentates and Muslim merchants, and they guarded their prerogatives jealously. In order to gain access to supply of spices - mainly spices but in other goods as well - it was usually necessary to bring force to coerce submission among the existing powers. Dislodging the Muslim merchants meant putting pressure on the Hindu rulers, and fighting battles against them.

Albuquerque was an interesting man who attempted to bring new ways of doing things to the colonial project. Instead of the traditional Portuguese method of fighting man-on-man with a two-handed sword, for example, he worked to train troops in the new methods pioneered by the Swiss, who used pikes and muskets in tight formations. He also encouraged miscegenation, probably initially as a way to domesticate and control his troops, and he did it against the advice of the Church. He furthermore tried to bring a more sophisticated notion of office to the colonial project, and to stamp out corruption. But because of his innovations he was not always popular. He was also mortal, as were the kings.

There are other men to focus on in Crowley's book but Albuquerque is without doubt the most extraordinary among those the kings sent out to build an empire in a foreign ocean. His decision to take and keep Goa, for example, helped the Portuguese to maintain a trading station in India for 400 years, although others tried to bring scant forces to bear on different parts of the Indian coastline. Albuquerque also tried to fulfill Manuel's messianic vision of eradicating Muslims from the Middle East and retaking Jerusalem, although he notably failed to do so. After Manuel's death there was no king able to continue the colonial project with the same zeal and things began to fall apart. Eventually the Dutch and the English would take over where the Portuguese left off.

In many ways this is not a pleasant story. Third-world revisionists nowadays will have quite different takes to promote, but Crowley does not obscure what is not useful to the main thrust of his story, and is quite candid in his judgements of these often cruel men. What the story shows is that incredible things are possible even for small groups of men who are organised with single-minded focus on an overarching goal. Given the right people and enough resources they can achieve amazing things, as these adventurers most certainly did.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

My relatives, my neighbours, my friends

Offshore detention for indefinite periods of asylum seekers is the policy of both major political parties in Australia because the majority of the Australian people support a policy that results in stopping the arrival of asylum seekers by boat.

There's no point blaming the politicians for the terrible outcomes that we have seen, including sexual assault of adults and children, due to the continued operation of the detention camps. Your neighbour, your friend, your relative are responsible for this impasse.

And if there are 37 babies being returned to detention in the camps, the question you have to ask is "Why?" Where did these babies come from? Well, we know where babies come from and how they are conceived. But how wise is it to make children at a time when you have no home over your head, even no safe place to go to at night, let alone a passport. How can these beleaguered women bring such trouble on themselves that they make children under these circumstances? Unless it is a deliberate manouevre designed to generate a sense of sympathy in their audience. Their audience: you, the Australian people.

Desperate times, as they say ... But not wise. And not responsible. Such highly irresponsible conduct on the part of asylum seekers - let alone how deserving their case is - cannot be indulged with considerate behaviour.

I find the whole debate terribly depressing. On the one hand I believe that we should be welcoming more asylum seekers in Australia. In fact, I have repeatedly called for an asylum seeker-processing office to be established in Jakarta to facilitate immigration to Australia for those who want to come. On the other hand, I'm clearly in the minority here. Most people do not want to see more immigration. The state of the roads in metropolitan Australia and the cost of housing there are such that sympathy for asylum seekers would have to be relatively low.

So although I would like to see more people coming to Australia - it doesn't matter to me if they come by boat from Indonesia or by Qantas jet from somewhere in Africa - the majority of my countrymen and -women hold different ideas. I have to accept that I am in the minority, and as a result of that decision I do not blame politicians for the plight of asylum seekers in detention in offshore camps. It is the will of the people. My relatives, my neighbours, my friends.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Mum back in the nursing home but still sick

This morning I drove up to the nursing home to see how mum had settled back in after spending a night in the hospital. When I arrived she was still in bed. It soon became obvious that things were not ideal, as she got me to remove the covers from her legs. I put on a thin blanket instead but later she asked me to remove that as well. the covers were "too heavy" but this is just because her legs are very sensitive.

I spoke with the deputy manager who said mum has cellulitis in her legs which makes them liable to infection, and also liable to be sore. Mum went to dinner last night in the dining room but on the way back to her room, the nurse told me, she was taking very small steps. "Like this," the nurse informed me, making little movements with her hands like a shuttle. It's clear that mum is in a significant deal of pain due to her legs.

Her face is slightly flushed and she also has a pain in her shoulder. I wrote yesterday how the doctor in the hospital had had an X-ray of mum's shoulder made, as a result of which they found a plate had been installed in the shoulder at some point in time in the past. The shoulder was still giving mum difficulties today. I gave her a piece of cake to eat and she took it in her right hand but was unable to get that hand to her mouth. She had more luck with her left hand. I also gave her a cup of coffee to drink - after it had cooled down somewhat - and she again had a hard time moving her right hand to lift the cup. We were more successful with the coffee when we both held the cup: mum with two hands.

I didn't mention my concerns to the staff in the nursing home but I wonder if the hospital people didn't move her out of the hospital a bit too early. The quantity of pain she is experiencing, especially in her legs, makes me think she might have profitably stayed in hospital a bit longer.

Because she is not mobile now mum's life has become more complicated. It's a lot harder to do simple things like go to the toilet, for example. To do this now mum needs to have staff to help her. And the remote call button that she normally wears around her neck was found to be broken. I'm not sure how the staff are going to be able to make sure mum gets enough opportunity to voice her needs, so they might just need to drop by her room a bit more frequently then usual, for the moment at least.

Today mum also asked me where she was and I asked her where she thought she was. She said, "In the hospital I suppose." I told her she was in the nursing home. She might not know exactly where she is or be able to vocalise that information reliably but at least in the nursing home she doesn't panic like she did in the hospital during the night she stayed there this time. It might be that that delirium made the hospital staff decide to let her go early this time. Perhaps a bit too early.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Mum back in nursing home but a bit confused

I had some errands to look after today so I wasn't able to get up to the nursing home. In the morning there was the dermatologist to visit. Then I went to the NSW Government service office to renew my driver's license. On the way back home I stopped off in the city to get a haircut. Later on, around lunchtime, I went to the psychiatrist to have a chat about things. It's always restful to talk about how my life is going.

I had a nap in the afternoon then made dinner and put on the laundry to run. After dinner I called the nursing home to find out how mum has been doing today, the first day since she got back there from the hospital yesterday. The staffer who answered the phone said mum was doing alright although she is complaining about pain in her shoulder. Mum had been talking about this pain since the hospital admission, although it's the first time I'd heard about it. While she was in hospital they did an X-ray which showed she had a plate in her shoulder, as well as some arthritis. The plate was news to me. I don't know when it was put in.

The staffer also said that mum was a bit confused, and was asking where her husband was. The staff reoriented mum when she said this and helped her through her period of confusion. I will be going up to the nursing home tomorrow to see how she is doing. If it isn't raining we should be able to get out to the park during the morning.

The hospital admission mum has just had is her first for this year. As I was saying to my psychiatrist, the admissions are becoming more frequent. I don't know when she will have to go back to the hospital, but when she doesn't respond to the nursing home staff they will always call me and ask if they should send her to the hospital. If she doesn't go, of course, she will die. I have to make sure I keep my phone handy at all times.

Monday, 1 February 2016

A bad night in the ward for mum's neighbours

I had to take my car in to the garage for a rego check this morning early and they called me back about 90 minutes later to tell me it was ready to collect. There was no work to do on the car and I only paid a fee for the safety check, which was quite low. When I got the car home I finished the registration process on the internet and put the new rego papers in my wallet, then headed up to the hospital to check up on mum.

When I arrived they were washing her in bed so I stayed outside the curtain in the ward room in a visitor's chair. While I was waiting an older gentleman in a hospital gown came up to me and asked if I were mum's son. I said I was. He then asked me if mum had dementia. "Yes," I told him, "she does." "That makes me think better of her then," he said in his quiet voice. "She kept us up all night," he said. "She was crying out 'Please help me' over and over again." "I see," I said to him. He went away then and the nurse pulled the curtain back. Mum had been making a lot of noise from her bed as the nurses moved her from the bed to her chair. You would have thought they were intentionally hurting her.

I went over to mum and had a look at her. She seemed fine, although her face had a look that seemed a bit absent from reality. She obviously had not taken well to being in the hospital ward overnight, going on what the gentleman in the bed across the room had told me. "How are you feeling? I asked her. "Oh not bad," she said. She complained that she had a pain in her shoulder.

A middle aged, slim woman in nice clothes came over to me and introduced herself. I didn't catch everything she said but it had something to do with mum's overnight delirium. She handed me a green paper form and asked me to fill it in. I asked her if she had a pen and a support so I could write, and she went away. She came back soon with what I had asked for and I sat down and filled in the form. After doing this I went back to mum and asked her if she wanted some coffee, then went out to the kiosk in the building next door to the entranceway and bought two flat whites - one large and one small - and a chocolate bar, a sausage roll and a packaged sandwich. I ate the sausage roll on the outdoor furniture outside the kiosk.

Back in the ward mum was nowhere to be seen so I sat down and drank most of my coffee. The nurse who walked through the ward quickly told me that mum had been taken to have an X-ray taken. After a while the staff brought her back in a wheelchair and sat her back down in the chair next to her bed. I took the coffee and chocolate over to her and asked her if she wanted a sandwich. "No I don't," she told me.

Later the lunch tray arrived for mum but she refused to eat anything. I had a mouthful and tasted the warm lamb mince. "It's good," I told mum. "I don't want any," she said. "I'm not hungry." "You should eat some though, it's good for you," I said. The nurse came a bit later and fed her some of the warm lamb and pasta. It was the same nurse who had given mum her pills. Mum hadn't known what to do with the antibiotic which was put in her mouth, and had chewed it up, releasing a bitter powder into her mouth. "Her meal is coming soon," the nurse said to me apropos the bitter taste of the capsule, which didn't even seem to register on mum's face. But mum didn't want to eat. She just sat leaning back in her chair with her head resting on the top of the chair and her mouth partially open. She looked like she was having a hard time of it and would utter a groaning sound every now and then.

When visiting hours finished I left the ward and headed back down the highway in the car to the apartment and then went straight to bed and had a nap. I was absolutely exhausted by the morning's activities. Later, I called the nursing home because the hospital had phoned me to say that they were sending mum back there today.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Mum back in the emergency ward

I got a call this morning at around 8.30am from the nursing home informing me that mum wasn't opening her eyes or responding to questions today. They wanted to know if it was ok to call an ambulance and of course I said "Yes". The crew arrived and took her to Ryde Hospital as usual, so a bit after this second phone call I hit the road and went to the hospital. It's not far from the nursing home and I'm used to the route by now.

At the emergency ward I told the staff who I was and they asked me to go into the ward room. I spoke briefly with a nurse and then with a doctor, who told me that the infection this time was probably due to mum's legs. She has heart failure which causes her legs to swell up and leak, and she has had wounds on her legs now for several months which the nurses in the nursing home dress every day.

I went out a bit later because they wanted to put a catheter in. I headed to the cafeteria on the grounds and bought a coffee and a ham, cheese and tomato sandwich on brown bread. Then I went back into the waiting room and sat down, drinking the hot coffee. I watched the TV which seemed to be showing mainly ads for computer equipment. It was tuned to Channel Nine. Then a nature program came on the screen, showing a guy visiting caves in ancient granite volcano plugs off the north island of New Zealand. Soon he was under the water in scuba gear photographing fish. They fed dead fish to these big, flat, camouflaged predatory fish that live on the reef.

A while later I went back into the ward room and spoke to the doctor again. We went over mum's advance health directive, and I told them that the nursing home has a copy of the original document for reference if required. The doctor told me that verbal consultation with a family member is just as reliable from their point of view. I sat down in the chair next to mum's bed. Her hands occasionally jerked and wandered and she would sometimes make groaning sounds with her mouth. I tucked her hospital gown in and also the blanket as they had somehow worked free due to her moderate exertions.

The antibiotics were administered and the nurse also put a bag of fluids to drain into the canula in mum's arm. I told the doctor that due to mum's dementia she tended to be a bit disoriented once she woke up, in the ward, after the antibiotics had done their work. She thanked me for the information, and for the details of the advance health directive, and said that I could go home. They would admit mum to a normal ward soon. So I got back in the car and drove home.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Even a small thing can provoke anxiety

Yesterday I was going to get a lot of things done. I had a dermatologist's appointment in the city to go to and then I was going to the NSW Government customer service office near Wynyard. After that I was going to catch a train to Bondi Junction and get some dental scans done in Randwick. I had it all planned out but what I didn't count on was that the bottom literally fell out of my trousers.

There had been a small tear around the crotch a couple of days earlier but I didn't think anything about putting on these trousers - which had been bought around a year earlier - for the purpose of finishing all these errands. Nevertheless it became clear as I was walking across the bridge into the city that I wasn't going to make it to Randwick on this day. The pain in the upper thigh area was too much to bear. I'd have to put off the scans to another day. But I thought I could do the driver's license renewal after seeing the doctor.

When I arrived at the dermatologist's and had taken off my clothes I had a chance to see the full extent of the damage to my trousers. It was exceedingly bad. There was an eight-inch tear at the top of the left leg, which accounted for the rubbing I had suffered from during the walk into town. To cut the story short, once I had left the doctor's office I jumped straight into a cab and came home. All my plans had fallen through because I had been remiss in not taking the small hole in my trousers seriously. I would have to delay important things to a day next week. I walked into my sunny apartment and went straight to bed and had a long nap.

When I got up it was lunchtime and I made some fried rice with leftover rice, tomato, mozzarella and spring onion. I sat down at the computer. For the rest of the day I would be there or reading a book on my Kindle but the nagging sense of having wasted time gnawed away at me. The nap hadn't expelled the feelings of anxiety I was having as a result of bollocksing the morning up. Then the rain came. I felt terrible. I felt brittle and thin, as though the slightest thing could cause me to dissolve. The rain pounded outside. The feeling of anxiety continued all afternoon and later, at around 4pm, I went back to bed because I was having feelings that were troubling my conscious mind.

I thought about having a glass of wine to relax me but then I thought that I was becoming an alcoholic and that I should stay off the booze. I seesawed between these conflicting ideas for a good 30 minutes but then at around 5pm got up and went to the kitchen anyway, poured a glass of white wine, and sat down at the computer screen again. Then there arrived the problem of what to do for dinner. I didn't think I could manage going out to eat, and it had been raining anyway, so I went to the kitchen and opened the fridge. The cauliflower and parsley that were sitting on the shelf returned my gaze. They almost looked accusing. I had bought them with the specific intention of making fritters but now, with the feelings of anxiety consuming me I worried about making smoke and setting off the smoke alarms on my floor of the apartment building. What if everyone ended up on the street like happened that other time when someone was cooking carelessly?

It was early for dinner anyway but I suddenly made a decision. I would make the damn fritters and the hell with the cooking oil. I put a saucepan with water on to boil, got my chopping knife, extracted the ingredients from the fridge and started dismembering the cauliflower. Then I put the flour, eggs, salt and pepper, spices, and chopped parsley into the biggest mixing bowl and stirred them into goop. Once the cauliflower had boiled for long enough, I smashed that into the mix as well. Then I put on the oil to heat on the big gas ring, got the spatula and spooned the mix into the fry pan. I did the fritters in groups of three. No alarms went off during this process. Despite the hot oil and the frying fritters, the air in the apartment did not get smoky. I had won.

I ate three of the fritters with some hot mustard and sat down at the computer again. The news was on. I relished the mundanity of the ensemble: meal finished, glass of wine, news on the TV, social media on the PC. Everything was fine. Except the nagging feeling of brittleness would not go away. I curled up on the sofa and watched the TV programs, changing channels occasionally and getting up finally to do the dishes. I had a shower, brushed my teeth and sat back down in front of the TV. The bland feed of nightly programming washed over me until I decided it was time to sleep. I read for a while in bed then turned out the light, hoping that the brittle feeling would go away by morning. I wanted to feel normal again.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

A room emptied at the nursing home

I had noticed in recent times up at the nursing home that H was not making as much noise as she used to. Normally H would be in her room and calling out to the nurses: "Nurse! Nursey! Please help me." this would go on and on for half and hour or so, and then she would start asking for mum. "Jude, Jude, Jude, Jude!" she would cry from her chair at the back of her room. Mum would sometimes get up from the recliner chair in her nearby room and go to see what was required of her but in recent times she had stopped going.

Then I noticed that H had stopped these constant requests for attention. I always make a point of asking mum about H and how she (mum) is getting on with her. Yesterday she gave me a standard response. "I don't sit with her any more [at meal times]," she said. "I don't have compatibility with her. Which is odd for me, not to be compatible with people." Which is true. Mostly mum gets along with everyone. "I don't need her," she finished up. Then today I noticed they had taken H's nameplate out of the holder by the door to her room

"So what do you think about the fact they've moved H?" I asked today. "I think that the staff were sorry for me," she answered with a little laugh. "Is that the reason they've moved her?" I asked. "Yes, only don't tell her," said mum.

"They told me that they put her into the dementia unit," I said to mum. "Did they?" she answered. "I didn't even know they had a dementia unit," I said. "Oh yes. It's waiting for me," said mum with a giggle. "So you're sad to see H go? I asked. "I'm glad to see her go," she said. "She wasn't a particularly positive person," she said. "I'm glad to see her go, yes."

As I was taking mum back inside I noticed the assistant manager in the front reception area, and she said hello to me. I told her I saw that H had vacated her room. "We moved her down to the dementia unit this morning," she said. "Was it because of mum?" I asked. "No. She was bothering everyone in that hallway where your mum's room is. And there are more staff where she's going now and she can get the level of care she needs." I said goodbye to her and took mum back upstairs, and thought back, as I often do, to the days when H and mum were almost inseparable. I certainly wouldn't be arriving at the nursing home any more to find, as had happened in the past, that mum was sitting companionably in H's room having a doze.

There was a middle-aged pair - a man and a woman - walking the hallways this morning in company with the staffer who had welcomed me when I had first gone to the nursing home to see about finding a room for mum. It's often her job, greeting newcomers and explaining conditions of residence to them. She also sits on the downstairs front desk answering phones and letting people in and out of the building. Soon there would be a new occupant of H's room. Maybe they would become mum's friend.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

I'm grateful that Australia has strong institutions

This corrupt buffoon is Najib Razak, the prime minister of Malaysia. According to a New York Times story he is desperately trying to wriggle out of accusations of corrupt conduct. To that end he has already dispensed with the services of one Malaysian attorney general. The people there are outraged but nothing happens and this slimy leach continues to hold power.

Nothing like this could possibly happen in Australia. The Opposition here would mercilessly taunt the PM for his sins. Meanwhile, the media would whip up a frenzy of outrage within the community, and the community would be heard not only through social media but also through the opinion polls. The government's ratings there would plummet and there would be calls from within the ruling party to change the leadership. It would be a bloodbath the likes of which we have not seen for decades.

We often talk of institutions like political parties, the High Court and government departments. But the range of institutions is wider than just these capital-letter organisations. The Twittersphere, for example, is a recent institution that requires more study to really understand how it works. Some people who use Twitter regularly have become very adept at using it to their personal advantage, but as a general rule it is largely an unknown. It tends to be a bit more of the left than the broader Australian community, for example, because it is still largely made up of fairly early-adopters, people who always tend to be a bit better endowed in the IQ stakes than the average punter. And we know from past studies that there is a direct correlation between IQ and political persuasion, with the smarter people tending to be able to hold more than one thing in their mind at one time, making them more likely to be comfortable with the complexities inherent in progressive stances.

And the media has been understood to be a critical institution in society for a good 200 years, at least since the French Revolution, when it was famously called "the fourth estate". Unfortunately even in a country like Australia the media gets short shrift often. Few people have much sympathy, for example, with its current economic difficulties, difficulties that are due to the advent of the internet and the subsequent lowering of the cost of entry into publishing.

But we would be lost without the media. How else could we reliably get information about all the things that we need to know in order to make an informed judgement on polling day? In a large democracy with millions of people living in geographically-distant places, like Australia, the media becomes absolutely essential for everyone. Without it we simply cannot know what is going on. I think nobody thinks that their own immediate community represents the whole of the country. This is why I support the media by keeping personal subscriptions to several mastheads. It's not a lot of money but for me it's an insurance policy against totalitarian government, which would be the likely outcome for us in the absence of a competent media.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

What to be grateful for on Australia Day?

This post is purely subjective but at least it can stand as a reflection of one person's attitude toward Australia Day - that much-contested date on the annual calendar - because you can judge a country by the people it produces, and vis-a-vis Australia I am one of those particular objects. I chose to accompany this blogpost a photo taken of me in my mid-20s because this was the time in my life when I was most actively discovering myself.

I had grown up in a stable family void of physical violence, and there was always plenty to eat when I was not attending school. My secondary education was adequate if not often absolutely inspiring but it gave me access, later, to university. I didn't have much choice about going to university as it was always a firm part of my father's plans for me but I'm not sure that a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Sydney gave me the type of education that he - a no-nonsense type of conservative voter who nevertheless valued what education had done for his own life - would have valued very highly.

Once university ended I took a range of jobs in various places until I found something I liked working in a small English-language PR unit in a Tokyo high-tech manufacturing company. The experiences I gained there led me - some time later - to complete a second degree, this time in media studies. I then went on to freelance as a journalist writing stories for different magazines but had to stop doing that for family reasons.

So I am grateful to have grown up in a country where secular values have deeply influenced most of the major public institutions - for example the school and university systems - and where tolerance of diversity is promoted actively by society's leaders and the arms of government in which they work. I am especially grateful to have been afforded access to a liberal arts education at one of the world's great universities because it gave me a grounding in critical thought that stood me in good stead both in the workplace and in my personal life. I am grateful that my parents spent so much of their excess cash on my education and actively encouraged me to read - I remember a book club my mother enrolled me in when I was about 12 years old, at a time when I hadn't really started reading, which worried her - and that they always had books in the house.

My parents' solicitous regard and the regard that society aims at education gave me the space within which to explore different aspects of my own personality, and for that I am grateful. It was through university that I made some of the most enduring friendships of my life, friendships that continue to sustain me even today, when I am in my mid-50s. When I was at university as an undergraduate my life may have seemed rather chaotic and haphazard but it was during those years that I finally began to understand what I could be, and the lessons of those years continue to resound in my mind today, at a time when due to my seniority I am more than ever responsible for the state of the society within which I find myself.

And I see my own views now reflected in the outside world, which is a great comfort to me because there was a time when everything seemed so wrong and confusing. Not only have I come to understand myself better, but the world has come to resemble me, and for both of these things I am very grateful.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Mum and me talking on the iPad with my brother

This is a fantastic picture. Just look at it. It's so good because it appears that mum is completely bored with what my brother and I are talking about, causing her to fall asleep. What needs to be added though is that before we sat down to hold this FaceTime conversation mum and I went out to the park for a walk and to sit and watch the dogs. And it was just before lunchtime. Mum was tuckered out. And she tends to drop off to sleep all the time anyway, it's just the way her metabolism works these days.

But at least you can see roughly how these conversations work. Mum will sit in her big recliner chair and I will sit in the chair closest to the windows, right next to her. I'll then pick up the iPad and dial up my brother overseas and when he takes the call we'll sit for 30 minutes or so having a three-way conversation while I hold the device pointing at mum so he can see her.

I think iPads are great for older people like this. My brother asked me to buy the iPad a few years ago when mum and I were still living up in Queensland. I took mum down to Brisbane one day to the Chermside Apple Store and we got the device.

Mostly it will be me initiating these conversations. Before, in Queensland, sometimes I would arrive at mum's apartment during the day and she would be talking with her other son on the device. However since then mum has become unable to identify the true source of the ringtone of the iPad, and so she just lets it call out. The other problematic thing that happened - from mum's point of view - is that Apple asked me to implement a security code so that I can unlock the device before using it each time, and of course mum would not be able to remember such information.

So I'll call my brother and mum and I will sit down to have a chat. My brother has several dogs and cats, which is good for mum as she likes animals, and readily identifies with them. A cat will jump up on my brother's lap and mum will say, "Ooh, there's a cat!". Or a dog will wander into the camera's view and she'll go, "Oh look, there's a dog!" It's similar in the park. Mum loves watching the dogs run around. It's a leash-off park so owners of the animals can let the dogs run around and sniff everything, which dogs love to do. Mum will keep me there on the bench for as long as possible if the weather is not too hot or too cold. Yesterday we spent 50 minutes in the park.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Book review: The Reef, Iain McCalman (2013)

It wasn't clear to me whether the subtitle of this fascinating and impressive book was thought up by the author to reflect his own passionate attraction to the subject, whether it had to do with the kinds of relationships the people written about in the book had had during their lives vis-a-vis the Great Barrier Reef, or rather if it was just the idea of an enterprising editor. It probably doesn't matter in the end but the subtitle continues to niggle at me, suggesting that someone somehow thought the book wouldn't be thought worth reading by the general public if not for this addition to its cover and title page.

McCalman, who teaches history at the University of Sydney, goes back here to the very earliest interactions on record and in that chapter and the 11 subsequent ones introduces us to a collection of people - both white and black - whose lives were deeply intertwined with this natural phenomenon, the Great Barrier Reef. There is also a prologue and an epilogue that frame the narratives, and that bring the focus back to the author himself in the present.

At its outset the book talks about explorers and ship-wrecked sailors and the passengers who traveled on their ships and who came into contact with the Indigenous population of what is now known as the Queensland coastline. Science also plays a key role in the process of making knowledge about the Reef from the earliest times, including in the beginning, in 1770, when James Cook sailed up the coast in the company of naturalist Joseph Banks. And it continued to play a central role in our understanding of the Reef in subsequent decades, as generation after generation of men and women sought to unlock the secrets that the Reef held. Each of the book's 12 chapters brings the focus of the narrative to bear on one or more individuals whose lives have intersected with the Reef.

From the early interactions it is clear that severe damage for an inordinately long period of time was done to the original inhabitants of the area by unprincipled storytellers. These writers were keen to elicit terror in their readers with stories of cannibalism and "unnatural acts". Such a man was Eliza Fraser's "hackwriter" (to echo McCalman's chapter title), John Curtis. Curtis' account of the events we have come to associate with Fraser's shipwreck on the Reef were not only deeply misleading - criminally misleading, in point of fact - but he also mixed them up with facts and rumours associated with other, similar events in order to produce the lubricious concoction he then sold to the public. The public unfortunately continued to read the account for a long time afterward and it came to characterise to a large degree the relationship between many in the broader community and the Reef.

The local people were in actual fact not barbaric - either those living along the coast or those in the Torres Straits, where peoples of different racial origins live - but rather affectionate, intelligent and capable. Working to help save the reef from oil exploration that was supported by the Bjelke-Petersen government of the 60s and 70s, poet Judith Wright made such claims and more for Aborigines, McCalman tells us later in the book. Faced with indiscriminate and imminent exploitation of it by the forces of Capital, Wright pleaded for the Reef alongside others who were filled with a similar passion. But she furthermore emphasised in her writings that the Aborigines were actually better custodians of the continent and its waters than white people were. Today this is hardly an innovative notion, but in the late 60s it was something few had thought about, let alone said publicly.

There are other great stories in this intriguing book, which comes with an exhaustive set of notes at the back. Together these stories help to fill in the gaps in our general understanding of the Reef. The prose is always accessible and engaging, despite the fact that the author often has to deal with sometimes very complex scientific concepts. This is a great book to serve as an introduction to Aboriginal history in Australia, and also to show how important it is to listen to the people living among us who are prone to dream. For it is often among their words and deeds that we can reliably find the true path forward into the future. 

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Mum ever mindful of living in care

I'm not complaining at all because it seems to be quite natural, but it strikes me that every time I go up to see mum in the nursing home she will talk about how she is living in care. Sometimes she will just say that she likes living in the place and that she has no complaints about it. I think that's what happened when my cousin went up to see her two days ago. He told me she seems happy where she is, and that she speaks highly of the place as it has everything she needs. Mum is also in the habit of making such comments when she and I are talking on the iPad to my brother, who lives in the United States.

So I've had this kind of feedback from mum many a time. For example, if we go out to the park on a sunny day to watch the dogs run around I might take out my mobile phone and shoot a recording of our conversation. I might start off by saying something like, "How are things?" The remark can be casual but she'll take it to heart and say something like, "Oh I'm happy where I am, the food is good and they look after me." But a couple of times recently she has been coming across a little more macabre when talking about her situation. For example a day or so ago she said to me, "You know I'll probably see the rest of my days out here. It's a good place and the food is fine." She has said similar things to me a couple of times now.

It's not that she's being unduly pessimistic, I think. I made a video of mum on New Year's Day and she was positive about things in general. "I want to live another year. I'm prepared to live another year." She was very definite about it and so I asked again. "So you want to live for another year?" "Oh at least another year," she answered. No doubt about it. Which is a good sign from my point of view.

Nevertheless she has been in the way of placing her living situation recently in the context of her lifespan in the ways outlined above. I don't think there has been any major change in her life that would necessarily prompt her to say these kinds of things, but you can never know what a person living with dementia is experiencing, because they might in the natural course of things forget what had happened to them, if anything untoward had happened that is. Mum cannot remember that she gets up in the middle of the night and visits the rooms of other residents, for example, even though it is true that she does so. It's just that the residue of some events might remain invisible but still present in her mental matrix, and so there might be subtle changes in the way things are expressed from week to week. 

Friday, 22 January 2016

Television mostly substandard

Now before anyone accuses me of elitism consider the proposition: this is the popular culture medium par excellence, on a par with radio, and so to make claims for excellence is merely to be taken in by the marketing departments of the TV production studios. Quality television? The best you can say about TV is that because so many people watch it it gives them something to talk about together. As a socialising mediator, TV has some undisputed virtues, but it's not a choral symphony.

This has been occupying my mind recently because of the pushback by Netflix that has been in the news, where the TV content provider is trying to stop Australian viewers from accessing its US content by pretending to be American. It's all to do with IP addresses and whatnot, so it's all a bit beyond me technically. For what it's worth, I cannot understand why anyone would consciously go out to steal someone else's content, or subvert quarantine measures, just because they believe they're entitled to see the content when they want to see it. It appears to me to be the height of selfishness to put your own needs before those of the content owner's, just because you can. And for TV shows?

But there's another reason I've been thinking about TV recently. It has to do with the parlous state of the sound quality in my own TV at home. I have to turn the sound up to 100% and even then the sound only starts coming through after the TV has warmed up. Once it's been operating for a while it works fine but you can't really adjust the volume, it's really now only got one setting. So I've been thinking about getting a Smart TV.

A lot of people seem to have objections to this kind of device, however. They seem to think that you can get a dumb TV and just add an internet dongle to it, made by Apple, Amazon or Google for example. I also see the benefit in this approach when you take cost into account. A 40-inch dumb TV here costs about $600 but a 50-inch Smart TV will cost about $1000. So there's that. But isn't it all a bit complicated to be sticking dongles into the set when you can just get a set with integrated computer smarts?

The way I watch TV it's all about the internet anyway, which is why I chose this image to go with the blogpost. I usually start watching TV from about 5pm when the ABC early news starts. I will switch between the ABC and ABC News 24 until 8pm and from then I'll watch the dramas or whatever is scheduled, but usually - as with the news programs that come on earlier - from the comfort of the chair in front of my PC. I sit with all the social media platforms open in front of me and sample the zeitgeist. It's how I watch TV these days. Maybe twice a week I'll actually sit down in front of the TV on the couch and deliberately watch a program from beginning to end. The rest of the time the TV is really only background noise.

Will my TV-watching habits change if I get a Smart TV? It's hard to say. From what I can gauge however the quality of the offerings even on pay-TV is not very high. No better than the nonsense Netflix puts out day in and day out. I prefer social media and reading. I do a fair bit of reading, and will review books that I have finished on my blog. I've also got a vlog series going with a friend that we record using a G+ hangout-to-air. That way we can make content and become famous in our own right. Much better to do that than to watch someone else's low-grade toxic goop.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Unassailable Turnbull must remain vigilant

For those who, like me, hated Tony Abbott with a passion - I was not past screaming at the TV on occasion - the news that he will most probably recontest the next federal election in his seat of Warringah is full of portents. For while Malcolm Turnbull - the man who unseated him in mid-September - has so far resisted all threats in the same manner as a duck gets water to run off its back - that is, effortlessly - the news about Abbott still sounds a base-note of sinister intent within the general hum of stable and reliable government that has overtaken Australia in recent months.

Nothing has touched Turnbull. And nothing will touch him while ever he enjoys positive polls. For it is the opinion polls - those regular mini elections that are being conducted continuously throughout the election cycle - that determine the fates of Australian politicians, and especially prime ministers. We saw it with Rudd - once his clumsy backflip on climate change had filtered through the community he lost all standing in it, and that was time for Gillard to pounce - and we will no doubt see it again in future. It is the nature of Australian politics that there is no certainty beyond the next poll; no respite, no "clean air", no sacrosanct breathing space as there once was in the days of Abbott's heroes Howard and Menzies. These days it is always on. Bring it on!

Which is why the news that Abbott will recontest his seat instills a soupcon of fear in the heart of anyone who sits politically near the centre of things. Someone, it seems, just chose to let the dogs out.

Turnbull's ability to retain traction for his policies - and there have been few enough of them - is remarkable. Whoever is advising him - and it might well be his wife, who was mayor of Sydney for a year more than a decade ago - is doing a good job. Few policies, few stumbles, just plain sailing. It's a little like the small-target strategy Barry O'Farrell followed in the lead-up to the 2011 state election in NSW. He just allowed the ALP to slowly implode, dragged down by the long-accreted burden of countless incidents of corrupt conduct due to being in power for so long. He hardly ever said a thing, and just allowed his opponents to struggle like a whale caught in a shark net, drowning slowly. Turnbull remarkably has not muzzled his Party room either, which is something that Abbott was known to do. Turnbull just seems to have gained the trust of them as effortlessly as he has gained the trust of the electorate.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

How many refugees are still drowning?

I think that everyone knows that the Coalition's ugly terminology and uglier techniques for stopping refugee boat arrivals has been prima facie successful in that we have had no new refugees arriving in Australian territory by boat since July 2014. The cost of this success - if you think it is a success, and personally I don't - is that refugees still living in offshore detention camps in Nauru and Manus Island (a part of Papua New Guinea) are being treated abominably, and with no respite in view.

The solution for those in the community who want the government to stop mistreating refugees however is to show how many of their coevals are still drowning at sea in boats because they should be being greeted by Australian coastal forces and brought ashore safely. We need to know. How many refugee boats are there leaving Indonesia still? How many refugees are being drowned because the boats they have left Indonesia on are turned back to Indonesia? What about boats that founder and sink soon after leaving Indonesia? These things are important for the community to know because knowledge of them is the only way that Australia can judge the success of Operation Sovereign Borders. Judging the success of the operation is critical to being able to choose the next government later this year. Therefore it is time for the Coalition to start telling the truth about refugee boats, and to start releasing figures to the media in Australia.

Hiding behind some form of lame excuse grounded in the rhetoric of war is not enough. War is an ugly business and I want none of it. The Australian people have a right to know everything about on-water matters. This is because of what in our country is called the implied freedom doctrine. The doctrine says something like this: the Constitution says that there must be responsible government therefore freedom of political speech must exist. If we don't have freedom of political speech we cannot have responsible government. This is a High Court ruling from 1992 and by extension it must be true that in order to be able to choose a government prior to the election the community must have access to the full facts surrounding each political party. Therefore the government must release information about turnbacks, continued deaths at sea, and numbers of boats intercepted at sea.

Anything less is simply not acceptable. You cannot hide behind the screen of "operational matters" forever. At some point there must be an accounting. Otherwise it becomes impossible for the electoral system to work and democracy becomes a mere label applied to any form of government you wish to conduct because you don't want to be accountable.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Testing times for Clive

I don't think anyone expected Clive Palmer to do as well in the September 2013 federal election as he did. His party's stakes rose to unanticipated heights following polling day and we should not have been surprised when everything started to come unstuck in the new year. There have been seven defections from the party since then. On top of that Palmer's nickel business has been hit hard by the slump in commodities prices - it's a global market and so this is something that is completely out of the control of any individual proprietor - which is probably even more regretted by the man himself, than his electoral problems.

Two of the most visible defections - Senator Glenn Lazarus in Queensland and Senator Jacquie Lambie in Tasmania - have presented their own unique challenges as well because it looks as though those two now-independents are going to establish political parties of their own in advance of the federal election to be held later this year. Palmer's template has also been snaffled by South Australia's Nick Xenophon, who has already announced he'll be fronting candidates for the election in a range of seats under the banner of the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT). A snappy label to be sure and the man himself has his own personal brand to ride on, one grounded in a stubborn righteousness that might play better in the community that Clive's mere offering of vague difference.

But despite all the controversies and setbacks, Clive still has a strong profile and a strong recognition in the community, assets which should help him as he moves into election mode again this year. For no doubt he will run again. He won his own seat of Fairfax last time and he can win it this time if he plays his cards right with those tricky Sunshine Coast voters.

In the final analysis Clive has achieved some pretty impressive things and I think a lot of people have been surprised that he's still got skin in the game after so many public reverses. He launched out on his own on the back of nothing more than his odd media presence, and turned that into something reasonably credible at the polls. The defections have hurt him badly, and it will be a challenge for him to find suitable candidates to run next time, people who he can not only trust but who can trust him. How many of them stick around and how many jump ship to turn independent is a question for the prognosticators. I'm not game enough to try to intuit what will happen next year, once the election fervour has subsided and people wake up to normal life. We'll see. One thing you can be sure of is that Clive will be in our faces coming down the straight toward polling day. He's always good for a few laughs.

Monday, 18 January 2016

YouTube FaceTime singalong

On the way up to the nursing home to see mum this morning we had Wendy Harmer on 702 for the first time, and a new segment where the station invites a newspaper representative onto the program to have a chat about what stories are doing the best. I thought today's participant from the Daily Telegraph was not quite candid because he gave us two featured stories the newspaper had produced but not necessarily the ones that were attracting the most comment. This kind of spin is pretty much what you would expect from a Murdoch tabloid however.

Once I got to the nursing home mum was sitting on her bed looking a bit sad. I noticed later on that she had been throwing used tissues on the floor - not quite making it with them over the distance to the bin that is placed next to the wall - and that the tissues had red colour on them. I also noticed that she was coughing quite badly today, and so I made a report to the nurse on duty.

Then I called my brother in Houston and today for a change he answered. We talked for a while about this and that - notably about Second Life, a concept that we had to pretty comprehensively explain to mum as she had no idea what it was - and then I started singing a song. I was holding the iPad on my stomach as usual, at an oblique angle to my body so that my brother could look at my mother while the three of us talked. Mum started singing as soon as I started of course - people with Alzheimer's love singing, and can remember all the words to the old songs of their youth - and the song was We'll Meet Again. Then my brother went online on his PC - he uses FaceTime from the PC in his room - and found Vera Lynn singing the song on YouTube and played it. The song was first published in 1939, when mum was 10 years old, and she said that to us.

Once we had finished singing along to this song my brother found another old song from YouTube. The sound quality on our end was not always perfect because his system was having problems picking up the sound and sending it through to us, taking the feed on the iPad, but it was good enough. My brother chose The Band Played Waltzing Matilda but mum didn't recognise that one. He also looked up and played It's a Long Way to Tipperary, and mum recognised that one and sang along. We had a lovely time singing songs with mum on the iPad and the PC.

The iPad is a great gift for an elderly person. Even if they never work out how to use it - mum used to know when it rang with FaceTime and could answer but does not recognise the tone any longer - an iPad can help connect people together. Used in a group of people - the way we use it: me, my brother and my mum - it can be a lot of fun. I told the nursing home director what we had been doing, when I met her in the lift, and she said it was a great idea.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Book review: A Cure for Suicide, Jesse Ball (2015)

This is a strange and beautiful novel by a young American author that depicts a kind of post-Apocalyptic future and a kind of dystopia at the time of what is known only as the republic. There has been a terrible war. There are cities and towns still but Progress has had a chance to operate on society and in one regard - the handling of the cases of people who have lost all desire to live - there has been some actual progress made.

The Process of Villages is handled by the Department of Failure in order to implement the ideas of a famed thinker named Emmanuel Groebden, and it is to this place that Clement Mayer makes his way on the day his beloved's funeral is being held. They had never married, nor even been engaged, but the girl's family had not invited Clement to the occasion despite the fact that they had known she was to die. There was an illness that was common in the family for generations. They had picked up her body from the hunting lodge she had taken Clement to in order that they might have some time alone, and left him on the outskirts of the city to make his way home by himself. The family was rich and famous and Clement was poor and obscure but that wasn't the whole story, it was just that they couldn't tolerate outsiders.

When Clement arrives at the office of the Department he tells his story to the Interlocutor. At the end of the recount, this man decides that there is a case for the Process of Villages and gives Clement an injection, which knocks him out. He will awake, but not for a while, and when he does he will need to relearn everything, from how to walk downstairs to how to talk to strangers.

The novel is curious because things appear out of order. In the novel, Clement's story comes second, after the story of the recovery of the patient who has been delivered to the Kindest Village. This process itself is quite convoluted and long, and involves several "rebirths" (although they are not called this) and several renamings. But this place is a good place to start because, like the man in the story, we start from a position of unknowing and move to a position of wisdom. So in a real way we follow along his convalescence and reemergence into his full capacities. In one of these phases he meets a young woman, and falls in love. But it is love as experienced by someone who is not quite sure who he is and would never be able to say the word "love". This first section of the book is full of such strangenesses. It is the part of the book where things are explained - by the examiners - as though you are showing a person who has lost a leg how - the claimants - to walk again using a prosthetic device attached to a healed stump. It takes time.

But time is merciful in this novel, which is full of ghostly lovelinesses that rise up from the page and wrap themselves around your imagination in a deep embrace. Like Rana Nousen, the strange girl in the second section who falls in love with Clement; a strong-willed young woman who knows her own desires and acts on them. It is good to spend time with such people, even in a world where the treatment of suicide has been thoroughly bureaucratised. Even in such a place there is care taken, there are offices scrupulously fulfilled, and there are promises kept. This is an exceptional piece of speculative fiction that deserves to be read and thought about, and I would recommend it to anyone, even those who are not looking for books written in that genre. There is something here for anyone.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Having a chat with mum as usual

When I went up to the nursing home this morning to see mum I arrived in her room but there was noone there, so I went back downstairs to where they were running an exercise class and there she was lifting up her arms at the instructor's call to reach up high, then putting her hands back down on her knees when told to do so. I went out to the elevator lobby to wait until the class finished, and when it had I went back inside to collect mum so we could go back to her room. Mum was sitting in her chair and she gave me a big smile and told the instructor that she hadn't seen me for weeks (it had actually been three days since I had last seen her).

We headed back up to mum's room. On the way down the hallway we came across the lady with the tea cart, so we collected a cup of coffee and piece of cake each on the journey down. Back in mum's room we took up our positions in the chairs by the windows and I plugged in the iPad because it had lost all its charge.

As usual mum asked me "What's going on in the big wide world" and I mentioned that I had had a meeting with an academic on campus at the University of Sydney because I had been thinking about going back to uni to do a research degree. I told her that I had actually contacted this professor earlier, in 2009 when I was writing a story about future-looking poetry I had found when I had been unemployed in 2002 and 2003. Mum remembered that time. I mentioned the name of the professor - Iain McCalman - and how I had interviewed him for a story on some verses that I had found that had surprised readers in their day but which had turned out to be prophetic. She said it would be good if I could go back to school to do more study. I told her that I was not sure if I would be able to do research very well. My previous experience with this type of study - when I had done my honours year as an undergraduate - had not been entirely successful because I had only achieved a 2-2 for my thesis. This was the lowest mark available for an honours degree.

We also talked about Jane Austen because it is her period of time I would be going back to uni to study. I told mum that for me the Romantic period can best be understood if you look at the work of Mozart - ordered, polite, structured - and compare it to that of Beethoven - interioric, chaotic and tumultuous. "I like 'tumultuous'," said mum. Yes, I told her, it was a striking change in the aesthetic values of Europeans in a very short period of time - about a generation from the American Revolution to the Napoleonic Wars. Mum is always happiest when she is just listening so I felt quite comfortable raving on about my favourite subject - Jane Austen.

Austen had been an active participant in the literary life of her time from an early age, I told mum. She had written short comic vignettes for the amusement of immediate family and friends while she was still a girl, vignettes that had poked mild fun at some of the more ridiculous literary tropes of the time. She had also written a 'history of England' with portraits of all the kings and queens. She was exposed to new reading from her father and mother - who swapped books with her and her sister, Cassandra. She also had two brothers at Oxford studying the classics. All in all Austen was a well-read and opinionated young woman when it came to writing and books, and she had every right to be.

Mum was quite happy for me to rave on about Jane Austen and just sat there listening while I proselytised effusively. I tried to call my brother in Houston but as usual he was not available. We haven't spoken on the iPad to him for some weeks, and it may be that he is busy with work. But mum and I had a nice morning anyway and I left just before lunchtime, and headed back down the motorway in the car. I stopped off to buy some petrol on the way home.

Friday, 15 January 2016

TV review: Death or Liberty, ABC (2016)

When you watch a history program like this that is replete with reconstructions in order to "up" the drama to levels deemed requisite to draw the bog-standard Australian audience you really appreciate what Simon Schama did with his historical programming. Schama of course is an immensely talented writer and general wordsmith, so it's not really fair to make the comparison, but then again ...

This program naturally enough lingered with a certain amount of salaciousness on some of the less attractive aspects of Transportation to the colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land so I felt I owed it to myself to look the other way for most of the program. It wasn't that good anyway, and so I was well-enough occupied on social media with the TV on in the background. I would turn around when the action drew my attention.

Having said these things I can still say it was a worthwhile program. These are stories we should know better than we do, but in our comfortable democracy we prefer just to enjoy the hedonistic pleasures of life instead of dwelling on the sins meted out to martyrs. It's something about Australia. The ideological tone of the place is turned down to "low". It's the reason the community had little patience with grudges imported from the Old Country, which were mostly quickly shut down when they flared up. It's the reason that all those old battles never gained traction on our more egalitarian soil.

Nevertheless, the stories are worth telling. Many of the men celebrated in this program were transported to the colonies for sins against the status quo back in the Old Country. They were political prisoners. But it wasn't their stories and actions that made the colonies such great places to live in the 19th century, but rather economic growth and prosperity, as we learned from reading George Megalogenis' economic history of the nation, Australia's Second Chance. Prosperity created the ideal conditions for equitable distribution of wealth and for the creation of a country where political equality was also possible. The sufferings of martyrs had little or nothing to do with it. Those old stories were not that interesting to the colonists, but property prices were. Plus ca change ...

Of course there remain things that can be done to correct the record, like renaming a few city streets, perhaps. Enough retribution there so that the powers that be can retrospectively atone for sins committed in a less fair time. Obviously Castlereagh Street would be one of the first to go. Then there's Sussex Street and Clarence Street. But then again perhaps we should just let sleeping dogs lie. Better not wake the beast lest we get bitten somewhere painful.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Trump's supporters are stupid and poor

An interesting story appeared on the US Guardian's website yesterday by a Muslim woman who attended a Trump rally in Nevada. Unlike most stories in the US media, she does not assume that the reader knows who is supporting Trump, and goes out of her way to explain. It turns out the Trump supporters might have been Bachmann Tea Partiers in an earlier life; they are basically the poor, stupid middle that Rupert Murdoch has so successfully captured around the world.

So now we know. It's comforting to be able to label these fools accurately. And the reason why she described Trump's supporters so accurately? They were the reason she went. Unlike most people covering Trump rallies and talks - people intent on capturing the soundbites produced by the politicians in their unending quest to convert people to their cause - this woman wanted to get to know the followers. So she spent most of her time talking with them. It's a refreshing take in a campaign already oversaturated with quotable pabulum. Most people should do as she has done, it would help us all. After all, a politician is only as good as his worst supporter. And without supporters, a politician is exactly nothing.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Mum and her marshmallows

Today up at the nursing home I had a couple of fairly strange conversations with mum. The first was to do with a pink packet of marshmallows that I noticed sitting in the basket of her wheeled walker. "I've got these big, round things in there," mum began, gesturing to the walker. I immediately picked up on what she wanted to say, and I said the world 'marshmallows' to her. "Yes, that's right," she said. "How did they get in there?" I asked.

"Well I didn't pinch them," she said confidently. "Oh you must've," I said. "No I didn't," she affirmed again. "I bet you saw them on a trolley and thought, 'Ooh they look good'," I said. "No I didn't," mum said again. I didn't insist but I can't think how otherwise she had come by them. She said at one stage in the conversation that she had gone out to the store to buy them, but I reminded her that in the nursing home she wasn't allowed out by herself.

Then she told me she had no handbag. "Yes you do, it's in your room," I told her. "No, I don't have one," she said. "It's in the nursing home," I insisted. "I don't like that one," she said. "What's wrong with it?" I asked. "I don't know, I've just taken an intense dislike to it," she continued. "Oh mum stop it," I said. "You don't need a handbag. I'll get you a calendar though." "Yes a wall calendar tells you what day it is and what week it is, and all that very useful stuff," mum said, having completely forgotten about the handbag, let alone the marshmallows. "I need to have that," she continued. "Especially when you don't have a memory," I said cheekily. "I remember a lot of stuff," she countered. "Yeah, especially where you got the marshmallows," I said. "Well if you didn't have these little snippets what would you have to write in your letters and things," she said presciently, just possibly anticipating that I would write this blogpost about our conversation.

I am not sure that mum has any idea what I normally do during the day. I will sometimes go into her room when I arrive to visit her and she'll soon enough ask me what I've been doing and usually I will say "I've been online a bit." But whether she has a conception of what "being online" means in real terms I can only guess. I suspect she doesn't. But she is quite happy not knowing what I do during the day, because she feels quite at home in the nursing home.

"Little snippets," I repeated. "Yes, little snippets of what the hell mum said the other day," she said, laughing. Our attention was at this moment taken up by the whereabouts of the dogs in the park. I take mum out to the park to watch the dogs and often while out there I will run a Periscope broadcast of our conversation. Dogs continued to occupy her mind however, as I found when we finally gave up our position on the second seat and headed back to the main building. "I thought about getting a dog. But I would have to collect it every day," she said. "Where would you keep it?" I asked. "Yes well that's the problem," she answered philosophically.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

With Bowie's death what we are celebrating is ourselves

Would it be too strange to propose that Bowie's death - announced yesterday afternoon Sydney time about 5pm - had somehow visited me in a dream that I never actually had? Why or how else could I have written about loss and music just 30 minutes earlier? Strange blogpost anyway ('Beguiling the world with simple songs'), I thought as I was writing it. Full of evil portents and gloom. Nightmare stuff, the kind of thing you'd want to whistle away as you walk down the street. Hack! Pshaw!

But we see the strangenesses proliferate with this death. First there was an almost universal disinclination to believe the news of his death until it was absolutely confirmed by multiple reputable news outlets. Then the notion that Bowie - who had lived with the cancer for 18 months, and had kept news of it to a small circle of close familiars - had somehow put the news of his death into his last album, which anyway emerged from the studio just days - wonder! - before his ultimate and complete physical dissolution.

Talk about theatrical. And so this was all Bowie. All sparkle, mirrors, glitter and make-up. All costumes and odd outfits and strange album cover designs. All appearance. All fabricated. All show.

Fabricated? But why then the outpouring of celebrations of his life - a public version of grief, which is essentially a private thing in our culture - from millions of people who found something of themselves in his art, something essential and real. Surely he was the real authentic. The thin white duke riding serene on a chariot formed of the blessings of millions across the cloudy hemisphere and into the setting sun like some Apollonian cowboy. If anything, Bowie was more real than anyone else. How else could it be so easy to shuck off one disguise and don another if the outward appearance were but a manufactured relique belonging only to a specific interval of time? What is essential lies deeper inside, and this was what Bowie told us about when he sang those songs to ward off evil on Friday nights.

Beguiling the world, indeed. His simple songs sustained us for years and years. It was surprising to me to see on social media how passionate some people were about this death. Especially those people who live on the margins, people whose personae might have presented them with difficulties during those restless years of youth when we are all still trying to find ourselves. There was some deep attachment severed with this death. Some debt owed to Bowie by so many people. And they paid with their accolades yesterday. In fact, the stream of verbal tributes continues today as well. It might easily go on for weeks. And the strange thing is that despite Bowie's own debt to the mechanisms of mass culture each person he touched in these ways believed that they had a unique and special link with the singer. It was personal always. Hence the passionate tributes now.

In a real way Bowie represented something more than just the accumulated effect of his various guises over the years. He was always changing - as he said in his famous 1972 song, 'Changes' - just like the culture that enveloped, fed and sustained him. It was out culture. We owned it, and so in a way Bowie was our creature. We bought his albums and chanted his songs from in front of the stage. So this celebration of a singer is also a mass conspiracy because in essence what we are celebrating is ourselves. That generation of post-War groovers and boogie-artists. Bowie is us, and we are Bowie. 

Monday, 11 January 2016

Bowie dies of cancer aged 69

An extraordinary outpouring of grief on social media followed initial disbelief at news the chameleonic rock star David Bowie had died of cancer this afternoon Sydney time. I had just posted a blogpost about musicians dispelling evil in the world with their songs earlier in the afternoon, so it was particularly strange for me to read the news on social media. I, too, didn't believe at first.

Twitter and Fecebook soon lit up with people denying the news. Many thought the news announcement was a hoax at first, but soon the reputable news outlets were making tweets to announce the news, one after the other. I guess it was emblematic of the man that everyone thought the news of his death was fabricated at first, since everything about the man from year to year and from decade to decade was relentlessly fabricated. Novelty fed on novelty and hit song followed hit song.

The news finally filtered in and then the expressions of feeling were almost universal. It was strange to see so many disparate people showing how they personally reacted to the news of one man's death. Again, something odd, something out-of-the-ordinary. Something Bowie. @suracymbala tweeted: "I first heard Bowie when I was 12. That was also the first time I smoked pot & drank red wine." Carol Duncan of Newcastle  changed her Facebook profile picture to the Blackstar image (see pic accompanying this blogpost). @schetzer tweeted: "Wow. He seemed so much more than mortal. Vale #DavidBowie." @gmarkham tweeted: "Music has been a huge part of my life and I can’t think of any single artist who has made a deeper impression of me than David Bowie."

Time after time people drew out memories and feelings attached to the strange public transformations of this mercurial performer, a man who was never content, never comfortable, who relentlessly changed and changed again time after time ...

And as the afternoon slowly gave way to the evening, as the minutes passed, and as the stream of expressions of grief continued to emerge in public on social media people got used to the fact that they would not see another strange change. Their lives would be somehow less colourful, less grand, less special. It was a strange feeling to become attuned to this, but what we will never forget is the way the man touched so many people in intimate ways, in ways that went to the very root of their identity. A great achievement, you would have to say.

Beguiling the world with simple songs

This morning I planned to get on the blog and write about sadness but for some reason the feeling that I had then has mitigated itself to some degree. That overwhelming and tonic sense of sorrow has been replaced by a disinterest - rather than by any sort of happiness - and I feel that I am not feeling as much of anything now as I was this morning. I am to a certain degree desensitised, whereas before I had a positive feeling of sadness that was stronger than any other feeling or sensation.

Sadness is of course usually brought on by a sense of loss. Usually we say that we are sad because we miss something, something has gone from our lives that was important to us, something is absent. But my sense of sadness is more like a sense that the whole world is inside me and I am using this thing as a filter to understand sensory inputs. It is more of an existential sense of lack, this sadness that I feel. I feel this loss more deeply than I can say.

When I am sad like that I want to weep but tears do not come. I am hard as a rock, rigid with sadness. The sadness envelopes and encompasses me. I am at the centre of a circle of sadness so complete that nothing else is visible outside it. Occasionally ideas and influences enter the charmed circle but they are soon subsumed by it, they fall prey to it, like roadkill. I drive my car through the world and I engulf vast oceans of feelings from everywhere and everything is turned into sadness in my wake.

Being hard as a rock and consumed by sadness you tend to see everything through a single, immeasurable lens that turns everything into your own image. You see yourself out there. And in fact yesterday evening I started to have bad thoughts, paranoid delusions. I thought that he had told her to say something to me, and then my thoughts went off on their own track, consuming everything in their path like an insatiable beast from hell, trundling through the landscape and turning everything into evil, and my soul was consumed by this evil. Luckily I was able to convince myself that my friends would not talk about me in this way and that I was imagining things. I have this kind of insight into my disease, and while it was unpleasant for a while I managed to overcome the feeling.

The sadness lingered this morning, though, following the episode of the night before. I walked through the world entirely convinced that there was no hope and that I would be condemned forever to eternal sorrow, like a stone statue in a graveyard. A graveyard filled with the tombstones of people I know. Each of them inscribed with a recognisable name. I might as well have been walking through such a place, looking around me at all these memories of things past.

It sounds extreme but I think that we all become rigid with sadness sometimes. We offset the effects of this existential state by playing music to dispel the aura of doom, replace it with something useful and instrumental in the world, like a positive emotion. I think that we strive to comfort ourselves for the sense of endless night by assuaging our senses with these sorts of stimuli. It is normal. We are all blessed by the facility to confuse the evil in the world by simple incantations we sing in the shower or while driving a car through traffic. We are all magicians who borrow spells from the angels, those who came before us and who beguiled the universe with their simple songs.