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Friday, April 30, 2010

28. Music (2) Anzac Day, April 25, 2010: A Pittance of Time

Each year for the past 5 years now I have taken part in the Warrandyte RSL Anzac Day Memorial Service. In past years I have sung Eric Bogle's And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda (on two occasions) and Flanders Field (sometimes known as Willie McBride), and I was only 19.
This year, at the suggestion of my old school friend, John Byrne - who each year presents the Anzac Day address - and Robin Batty, an RSL member and organiser of the annual event, I sang A Pittance of Time.

The original song, Pittance of Time, was written by the Canadian folk singer Terry Kelly. A video of Kelly singing the song can be found on the Internet at

I liked the tune, and some of the lyrics of the original; however Kelly's song is very closely tied to its accompanying video. Indeed, in my view, the lyrics only make sense if heard in the context of the video. The clip is set in a supermarket; shoppers are asked over the PA to observe two minutes of silence in respect for veterans who died in wars. One shopper ignores the request for silence, and becomes angry and impatient that he is not being served.

Kelly's original, while powerfully evoking the importance of showing respect to 'vets', tended to focus too much on Kelly's anger at the disrespectful attitude of this shopper

I decided to work on the song and give it an Australian flavour, and to shift its focus to include not only the soldiers who fought and died, but also recognised the suffering of POWs, of nurses who cared for the wounded, and those 'at home' whose lives were shattered by the loss of loved ones.

They fought and some died for their homeland
For this land that we’re proud to call “our land”
For a century and more they have marched off to war
We must never forget what it was they fought for

Take two minutes, would you mind? It's a pittance of time,
For the boys and the girls who went over.
In peace may they rest, may we never forget why they died.
It's a pittance of time.

On Gallipoli’s shores they were slaughtered
In that “war to end wars” they were butchered
In the trenches of France, in the fields of Vietnam
Even now in Iraq and in Afghanistan

They were there when the bombs rained on Darwin
On the Kakoda Trail you would find them
Drenched in sweat , blood and fear, for year after year
And the thunder of guns was all they could hear

So two minutes we’ll find. It's a pittance of time,
For the boys and the girls who went over.
For those lives that were lost For that terrible cost
For so many who died Take a pittance of time

In the prison at Changi they languished
Starved and beaten, their spirits unvanquished
They were barely alive but some somehow survived
Though they still wake at night with a shrill anguished cry

Our Gallipoli diggers - they’re all gone now
And our Vietnam vets – they grow old now
But each year on this day we gather to say
Our thanks for the price they were willing to pay

Surely we can all find two minutes of time,
For the boys and the girls who went over.
In peace may they rest, lest we forget why they died
Take a pittance of time

The Rats of Tobruk forged their legend
The boys of Vung Tau stand proud with them
As we gather today – let’s recall, you and me
Sacrifices they made so that we could be free

It takes courage to fight on the front line
And to care for the wounded behind the lines
The young girls who nursed saw the best and the worst
Those whose spirits were crushed, those who grumbled and cursed

So two minutes we’ll bide, it's a pittance of time,
For the boys and the girls who go over.
In peace time our best still don battle dress -
Lay their lives on the line - take a pittance of time.

There were mothers and sweethearts who waited
Fathers, brothers and sisters who waited
There were tears that were cried for those young men who died
Who never again would sit close by their side

Just a letter arrived with black edging
‘With regret’ and ‘He’s missing in action’
They waited in vain, with their tears and their pain
For their loved ones they knew that they’d not see again

Take two minutes, would you mind? It's a pittance of time,
For those men and those women all over
There’s a price to be paid if you go if you stay
There are lives on the line, take a pittance of time.

So two minutes we’ll find It's a pittance of time,
For those men and those women all over
From those terrible wars they still bear the scars
At the end of the line, take a pittance of time.

From those terrible wars we all bear the scars
At the end of the line, take a pittance of time.

Friday, April 9, 2010

27. My Reading Life (3) [March 2010] Wayson Choy: Not Yet

I came across Not Yet by word of mouth: Glennis Pitches, the principal at my school, put me onto it. She’d heard an interview on the ABC with its writer in which he’d talked about his memoir and about discovering in his late fifties that he had been adopted; Glennis thought I might be interested. And of course I was.
It took me a while to find the book. It wasn’t helped by my propensity for jotting things on bits of paper that I promptly misplace.

‘Not to worry,’ I thought. ‘I can’t recall the title but at least I can remember the name of the author.’

I tried Borders and Dymocks and Angus & Robertson, but no one could find any record of a Canadian writer named Waylon Chan. Which is not altogether surprising. Eventually I found the piece of paper, and discovered my error, and located a copy of Not Yet.

Wayson Choy is a gay Chinese-Canadian, and Not Yet is his latest book, published in 2007. It is a memoir, but sadly it not the one I was after.

Paper Shadows: A Chinese Childhood is the relevant memoir – the story of Choy’s discovery, in his late 50s, that he had been adopted as a child. As I had been. It’s not readily available in Australia, but Amazon managed to get both Paper Shadows and Choy’s award winning novel, The Jade Peony, to my door step within a week of my placing the order.

Not Yet is a meditation on death and dying, the kind of book that men and women of ‘a certain age’ probably should read. After he collapses during a severe asthma attack, Choy wakes in the hospital, contemplating his situation:

Was I dying? Was I afraid?
I told myself: Not possible.
In my twenties I convinced myself that I would never be afraid of dying, never e afraid of that euphemistic ‘last stage of growth’. And I accepted that my dying would be inevitable – like everyone else’s – but mine would be entirely without pain.
A painless death had always seemed to me a sensible prospect.

I had my own brush with death in the early 1980s, when I was 37. I collapsed in the toilet at home as I expelled stale brown blood from my stomach and bowel. Four ulcers had been seeping for a week or more. The blood had accumulated in my stomach and intestines. I’d gone off my food and felt bloated all the time. I’d gone upstairs to lay down. As I climbed the stairs my legs suddenly went leaden. I crawled the final few steps and lay on the bed.

I felt a bout of diarrhoea coming on, and staggered to the toilet. When I came to, on the floor of the toilet, I was lying in a huge pool of brown liquid. I’d fallen to the floor, unconscious. Moments later, I lost sight – a result of blood loss to my brain.

Finding me unconscious on the floor, my wife had run next door and called our neighbour who was a nurse. As she sat me up against the wall, I remember saying: ‘Am I dying?

Like Wayson Choy, I was not afraid. Indeed, what I felt resembled a blissful calm, and not resignation, but rather a willingness to accept whatever was to come. Like Choy, I don’t think I have been afraid of death; but I am afraid of pain. A painless death always seems to me a sensible prospect to me, too.

As I read the book, the title niggled at the edge of my consciousness: ‘Not Yet’. I “got” its primary meaning: Choy was saying that he was ready to die – just not yet.

But what was the echo that kept titillating my mind, the other connotation of the title? Then it came to me:
St. Augustine’s prayer: Oh Lord, make me chaste – but not yet.

And which of us would not say that: Not yet? Provided of course that we were not in pain.

When my father died in early 1989 he was ready to die. Ten days before he had taken a fall in his room at the hostel; his hip was broken. It was a very painful injury. His advanced emphysema meant he could not be allowed to lie flat in his hospital bed. I find it painful, even now, to recall our last conversation.

He knew his ‘number had come up’. He was in dreadful pain from his cracked hip, and was probably badly affected by the drugs they were pouring into him to ease that pain; on top of that, he could barely breathe.

I dropped in to the Royal Melbourne Hospital to see him after work one evening. He was agitated. We talked, but he was in pain.

‘I’m buggered,’ he said. ‘I’m completely buggered.’
Finally, in anger, he spat at me:
‘If you were any kind of son, you’d go out of here and bring me a gun so I could put an end to this!’

He’d never spoken to me in such away before – with such anger and venom.
I mentioned to the ward nurse that my father seemed very distressed and angry.
It’s probably the drugs,’ she said.

Wayson Choy came very close to dying, but in time he recovered. He’d had – now what’s that cliché? – a wake up call. In time, he recovered. As someone remarked, ‘There’s nothing clears the mind like the prospect of being hung’.

‘With everything that had been done for me: by my extended family and friends, I was determined to be in charge of my life again.’

And for a time, he did ‘take charge’ of his life. But we’ve all done it. Some scare reminds us of our mortality, and we realise that we have to take better care of ourselves: we need to eat better, eat less cholesterol, exercise more, lead more balanced lives, stop burning the candle at both ends.

But then we grow complacent; we slip back into bad habits. Or maybe we are just not up to keeping the reality of death firmly in sight; we prefer to fall back on our all-too-human forgetfulness; we prefer to act as though we will live forever.

By 2005 he was back into his old tricks – working too hard, taking on too much, not taking care of himself. This time, it was a heart attack. His arteries were 95% blocked; he needed a quadruple bypass.

I said Not Yet is a book about death and dying; but it’s also a book about friendship. Choy has lived for 30 years with two friends, a married couple, and their children. And throughout this account there are friends who come and support him through his illnesses.

He’s a terrific writer, with a gentle clear voice.
All of us know that our lives turn on a breath, and that any breath could be our last. For people like Wayson Choy – who suffers diabetes, and asthma, and has had a quadruple bypass – the statistics aren’t great.

But for Wayson, I want to join him in saying ‘Not yet’. May he live for many more years, so that we can continue to enjoy his writing.

Not Yet was published in Australia by Scribe Books, and sells for around $30.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

26. Moment (3) A further exploration

In his review of Don DeLillo’s latest novel, Point Omega, Kevin Rabelais refers to DeLillo’s ‘utterly American’ voice, and to the way
... his measured reflections ... search for something deeper than language, for what Herman Broch calls the word beyond speech.

In Point Omega, De Lillo writes:
The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever. The true life takes place when we’re alone, thinking, feeling, lost in memory, dreamily self-aware, the submicroscopic moments.
The insight takes me in two directions, three related insights. The first has to do with something Eliot wrote:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started.

DeLillo has reached the point Eliot reached: the realisation that the search for meaning is ongoing.
The second insight has to do with the inadequacies of language. It takes us back to Sweeney’s exasperated cry: ‘I’ve gotta use words’. In Little Giddings, in the Rose Garden , Eliot is aware of something beyond language, something unsayable and unwritable – the true life that is not reducible to words.

Roman Romanyshyn explores similar territory in The Wounded Researcher. His interest is in human research and with phenomenology.
Green! I used the word earlier to describe where I am – but it is a lie. This valley is not green. Green is only a word that declares the blindness at the heart of my vision and the poverty of my words. Green! A word that insults the richness that surrounds me, a word that I give to, that I impose upon, this effulgent landscape.

Romanyshyn makes mention of Wallace Stevens’ poem ...
[He] ... has told us there are thirteen ways – at least – of looking at a blackbird... In each stanza of the poem he tells us what the blackbird is, and in each stanza implies that it is not that.

Romanyshyn concludes that what matters
... is the difference between the fullness of an experience and the failure of language to say it, and the sweetly bitter sense of this knowledge.

Romanyshyn is very good on this stuff:
In the gap between the saying and what slips away there is a sense of sadness, a feeling of mourning... to write down the soul ... is to attend to its “ greening”, to its motion and movement, to its elusive quality, which resists our efforts to enunciate it.

Words can’t do the job; but I’ve got to use words, because they are the best I have available.

As I write, another great passage of literature springs into my consciousness ... emerges from the darkness into focus. This time, it’s Dickens, and the famous scene in which the teacher, Gradgrind, demands that Sissy Jupe define a horse.
Sissy Jupes’ father deals in horses and breaks them for the ring. Sissy has grown up with horses. But she is thrown into alarm by Gradgrind’s demand that she define a horse because she knows that she lacks the ‘book learning’ that would allow her to meet Gradgrind’s high standards. She is humiliated before the class; she is reduced to silence.

‘Some boy – Bitzer’ knows wants his teacher wants: “Quadruped. Gramnivorous. In spring sheds coat; ... in winter sheds hooves as well ... thus, and much more, Bitzer.’

“There Girl 20,” says Mr Gradgrind triumphantly to Sissy. “Now you know what a horse is!”
And yet we all know that that is precisely what a horse is not. A horse is not a thing of words.

The third insight relates to the notion of our experience of time, of moments. Years ago, when I read David Ireland’s book, Archimedes and the Seagle, I was taken by a passage in the opening chapter:

We live our lives in moments, in little crevices in time ... and the more I thought about it the more i think that we can spend an extraordinary amount of time exploring the contents of even a single moment.

Our notion and sense of time is of a smooth surface, of time that moves at a uniform rate. But our experience of time does not possess the same uniformity. Times races by, time drags by, time seems to stand still, time can seem timeless.
DeLillo puts it this way:

There is a level to our existence, to our minute-by-minute existence that we don’t grasp very readily but which is, in fact, the centre of our identity. It’s who we are at a level that’s just trembling on the edge of speech, and I think people feel it all the time but don’t absorb it, don’t quite recognise it as being a significant part of themselves.

What are these moments?

These moments have fascinated the American psychotherapist Stern for years; for him, we do indeed live our lives in moments.
Stern regards present moments as the "ordinary ... stuff of low-level everyday drama"; they constitute "the archipeligo of islands of consciousness.... These islands are the psychological foreground, the primary reality of experience. The present and consciousness are the centers of gravity, not the past and the unconscious".

The time span of present moments, which are analogous to musical phrases, is between 1 and 10 seconds. They are like William James's description of consciousness in motion: "'Like a bird's life, [the stream of consciousness] seems to be made [up] of an alternation of fights and perchings'". Present moments make up the building blocks of our subjective experience. Present moments contain, potentially, an affect-laden lived story or a pre-told emotional narrative. Intersubjective contact is created when we share our lived story with another person, when we participate in another person's lived story, or when we co-create a mutually lived story together, where larger narratives are made up of smaller narratives.

For Stern, these moments are full of ‘ideas’:

Ideas are like galaxies of little intuitions, a confused thing ... which is continually changing ... they are beautiful. But they are a mess ... in their pure state they are a marvelous mess. They are provisional apparitions of infinity.... As long as you limit yourself to thinking it, the idea can remain a marvelous mess that it is. But when you decide to express it (in words) you begin to discard one thing, to summarize something else, to simplify this and cut that, to put it in order by imposing a certain logic: you work on it a bit, and in the end you have something that people can understand. (pp. 117-118)

It’s a theme that others have explored. Romanyshyn sees what he comes to call ‘a green valley’ but in putting it into words he does it no justice. ‘Putting ideas into words’ is the ultimate reductionism, the seemingly unavoidable reductionism: the rich texture and color and tenor and complexity and depth and infinite possibility of each moment is reduced to a summarising word (!)
Years ago I wrote a poem about testing in schools, a crie de couer about the scientism involved in school examinations; I think what distressed me most was the pretence of exactitude. In the poem I borrowed some lines from Shakespeare. The original of that poem is lost among mountains of paper, the flotsam and jetsam of a life of teaching, writing and hoarding. But it went something like this:

What a piece of work is man.
How noble in reason.
How infinite in faculties.
Achievement: D
Attitude: Could do better.

As Dickens said: ‘And now, Girl 20, you know what a horse is!’
But to return to the moment. DeLillo again:

To see what’s here, finally to look and know what you’re looking at, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion ... It takes close attention to see what is happening in front of you.

DeLillo’s character in his novel 24 Hour Psycho becomes
... mesmerised by ... the depths that were possible in the slowing of motion, the things to see, the depths of things easy to miss in the shallow habits of seeing.

There are strong echoes of Eliot ... We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ will be to return to where we started/And know the place for the first time.

In 1997 I began work towards a (still uncompleted) PhD. I wanted to examine the role that meditative techniques might play in the writing process; my topic was ‘the pedagogy of silence’. I see now that I was attracted to the ‘depths that were possible in the slowing of motion ... the depths of things easy to miss in the shallow habits of our seeing.’

I ran two courses entitled Relaxation, Meditation, Writing. Each course ran for ten sessions, and each session was four hours. The course was built around the keeping of an Intensive Journal - a concept developed by the American depth psychologist Ira Progoff. Each course attracted around 15 students, people enrolled in a Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing, adults who volunteered to participate.
Each session followed the same general pattern. During the first hour I led a meditative activity – progressive relaxation which segued into meditation. As the group settled, I encouraged them to conduct an ‘audit’ – a personal reckoning:

• Take stock of your ‘body’. Are you feeling any discomforts? Are you experiencing pain or discomfort in any part of your body? ‘Scan’ your body, starting at your toes, your feet, moving up to your calves and knees ... Are there any parts of your body where you are aware of tension – your jaw, your forehead, neck, shoulders, hands, legs ...

• Take stock of your feelings. Is there one particular overriding emotion that you are aware of? What other emotions are there? If you are able, name the emotions you are most aware of. What feelings did you have as tonight’s session approached? Were they positive or negative emotions?
Were you: Looking forward to tonight’s session? Apprehensive? Indifferent?

• Take stock of what your ‘mind’ is doing. Are your thoughts moving at a very slow rate, or is your mind jumping rapidly from idea to idea, image to image? Is your mind almost still, or are you experiencing ‘mad monkey mind’?

• Now look at the content of what you are thinking. What is in your mind at the moment? What thoughts are filling your mind? Are they things you have been ‘preparing’ to think about, or have they just popped into your mind? Are they ‘themes’ –patterns of thought that have been recurring for days or weeks now?

• Finally, take stock of what you expect from tonight’s session, and how ‘ready’ you are to participate. Are you keen to ‘get into it’ or do you feel some resistances? Focus for a moment on why you may be feeling eager, or indifferent or resistant to tonight’s session.

After his ‘auditing’ we would commence with Progressive Relaxation, starting at the toes and working up the body, first tensing and then relaxing each part in turn. Once people were fiully relaxed, we’d move into the meditation segment. This lasted for 20 – 40 minutes. It was followed by either a focussing or a visualisation activity. While participants were still in a deeply relaxed state, I would encourage them to ‘bring to mind’ memories of some aspect of their lives: their earliest childhood memories; images of their father or mother or siblings; memories of dreams they had experienced; a focus on their bodies and how their experience of their bodies changed over the years; a visualisation of their first classroom, their first house, times when they had been blissful, times they had been sad ...

This relaxation/meditation/visualisation segment lasted for perhaps an hour or so. As they emerged from this tranquil state, they were encouraged to ‘start writing’ whenever they felt ready.

This slowing of motion seemed to enable the participants to see the depths of things easy to miss in the shallow habits of seeing. People rarely stopped writing in the first hour; most wrote for up to two hours – some even more. At times the writing was feverish, as if there were limitless amounts of ‘stuff’ to be written down. People rarely looked up, rarely paused in their writing. Many found the depths of things moving, and often distressing.

There was no requirement that people share the content of what they had written. During the final 30 – 60 minutes we would discuss the process:
• how effective or disturbing the relaxation and meditation session had been
• how effective the focussing/visualisation segment had been
• how the writing had happened
People were often very affected by the experience.
In stillness we explored the depths of moments. Slowing the motion opened the space to allow us to look more closely and see more deeply into each moment.

[Ireland: The more I think about it that more I think that an almost infinite amount of time could be spent exploring the contents of even a single moment.]

The left brain wants to reduce everything to algoriths. A horse is this; a child’s performance on a test shows that, and only that. Like Gradgrind, the left brain is only interested in facts. Facts! Facts! Facts!
Despite his serious doubts about the word, his recognition of its limitations, DeLillo continues to write. He concedes that much of what he does as a novelist remains a mystery.
Where an idea comes from, how characters develop, how sentences develop, how a conclusion is determined, how a writer finds a way to the end of his book. I always think that art tends to have a strong element of mystery. Whether it’s painting or music or filmmaking, one is in contact with levels of observation that are completely parallel to normal activities we engage in.
Perhaps it is the parallelism of our two brains – the left with its fascist reductionism, the right with its wild unruliness.
Or perhaps the parallelism is more multiple, arising from the fact that we are all what Bernie Neville called ‘five brained animals’. Borrowing from the insights of the 20th century thinker Jean Gebser, Bernie identifies five structures of consciousness, each emerging through the evolutionary process.

There is our archaic mind, that mind which we share with other primates, other animals. There is our magical mind, most evident in our childhood years, when the world seems to run on magic and to be peopled by strange gods who must be appeased. There is our mythical mind, deeply enmeshed with the ways we use language, and especially story and myth as ways of making sense of the world, of making our way in the world. For humans born in the 20th century, there is the rational mind. And for us, gathered here on the beach of the tumid river, in the 21st century, we have post-rationalism, post modernism: the recognition that what we see is determined by where we are standing, by what we expect to see, by what we have been taught to expect to see. There are multiple truths. And then, beyond these is integral consciousness.

But more of this – and of that – in a future blog.

25. Autobiography (8) Letter to my mother

On July 28, 2009, I discovered that I had been adopted at the age of 3-4 months, and that the people I called Mum and Dad – Linda and Garrie Carozzi – were in fact my adoptive parents.
This discovery shook me to my core. I became obsessive about finding my birth mother. Two days later I sat down and wrote a letter to my mother. My ‘plan’ was to send the letter to newspapers around the country in the hope that they might publish it.
As it turned out, I never sent the letter.

A letter to my mother

Dear Mum,
You gave birth to me on June 8th, 1943, in Melbourne, in the state of Victoria. I know almost nothing about you. That was the way of it then. I’m guessing you were somewhere around 14 to 17 years of age, but I have no way of knowing as yet. If I’m right, you’re in your early – mid 80s now.

According to one of my aged aunts, you gave birth to me while you were staying at a Home for Unmarried Mothers. It was somewhere near the city – there were tramlines nearby. I know that because one of my older cousins, who was 5 or 6 at the time, remembers her dad driving my adoptive parents to the hospital or the hostel to collect me. (My uncle drove my dad’s car; my cousin thinks it’s because my dad was too excited to drive.)

My adoptive parents were 36 and 38 at the time. My adoptive mum had had a series of miscarriages and two stillborn babies; I can only guess what they felt when they ‘collected me’. I know they desperately wanted a child; I could not have wished for more loving, caring parents.)

My aunt thinks the Home was run by the Salvation Army. Alison, at Vanish – an organisation that helps people find their true origins – suggested that it could have been The Haven, in North Fitzroy. But I don’t know yet – and won’t for three months or more. She sent me forms to fill out for the Department of Human Services; I will be able to obtain my real birth certificate and the court papers that deal with my adoption.

But three months – that’s a long time. That’s why I’m writing this letter. I’m 66; and if you are still alive, you are at least 80. So - time is running out. It was less than a week ago that I found out that I was adopted. For 66 years, I thought the parents who raised me so lovingly, and who helped ensure that I had a good life, were my birth parents. They died a long time ago. Dad died in 1989, and Mum in 1991. I’m told that one of my aunts pleaded with my mother, in the final year of mum’s life, to tell me the truth, but my mother refused.

It was only last week that the silence was finally broken, and this ‘terrible secret’ was revealed. How extraordinary that the 40 or so members of my extended adoptive families should have kept it from me for so long.
I’ve been crying a lot this past week. As someone said to me: ‘Nothing has changed – and everything has changed.’

If only they had told me 18 years ago, when my mum and dad died. You would have been in your early 60s at that time. We might have had many years in which to get to know each other. But now time is running out.

I’ve filled out the forms. They’ll go by express post tomorrow. But it will take three months – THREE MONTHS – for them to find my original birth certificate – the one that will tell me your name, and my real grandparent’s names, and where and when I was born. There may also be other information in my ‘file’.

Why 3 months? There’s only a few people doing the drudge work of finding the files, and there are hundreds – perhaps thousands of people in the queue: perhaps thousands wanting to discover this significant truth of their lives: the circumstances of their births and the names of their birth parents.

And they want to be equally fair to everyone – so there’s no queue jumping.
Once I have the information I’ll begin the daunting task of finding you – daunting because it’s been so long. You may have married; there may be half brothers and half sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins ...What if you name is now ‘Smith’ or ‘Jones’? What if you moved interstate? Overseas? So many ‘what ifs’.

That’s why I’m writing this letter ... in the hope that you will read it, and contact me. I think we deserve the opportunity to at least meet and get to know each other. I have a friend whose mother went through what you went through. It was a barbarous system, almost devoid of dignity. I’m told that after I was born, they would not have allowed you to hold me in your arms, not even for a moment, before I was given to my adoptive parents. I know that they were terrible times, when your being pregnant was regarded as a matter for deep shame, and not for what it was – and is – the most joyous, the most human, the most wonderful moment of our lives.
I have 5 children – your grandchildren. I know how precious and unforgettable the birth of a child is: how full of hope and pain and apprehension and fear and joy.
Mum - if you read this letter, please contact me. Or if anyone reads this letter and thinks they may know something that will help me find, my mother, please contact me.

Your son

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

24. My reading life (2) [March 2010] Ronnie Corbett: 'And it's goodnight from him'

I picked up Ronnie Corbett’s Autobiography of the Two Ronnies in an Opshop for $2.99; it would have been a bargain at twice the price. [Those readers of my blog who know me well be a little astounded by this revelation, and will be saying to themselves: ‘He bought a book at an Opshop – who could believe it! It’s so out of character.’]

And it’s goodnight from him is an evocation of one of the golden eras of television comedy –the 1970s and 1980s – and an account careers of two of the most popular comedians of that era: Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker. The book is also a loving tribute to Ronnie Barker, who died in 2005.

In all these two performed in 96 episodes of The Two Ronnies, from 1969 till their last show in 1987. In its heyday The Two Ronnies had a weekly audience of two million viewers in England alone. Both got their start in television through the entrepreneurial David Frost and The Frost Report. [The photo above, of John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett is from a sketch upon class, and aboutr who looks up to whom, and who looks down on whom.

Each program began with the two Ronnies as newsreaders, with items like the following:
There was a very nasty accident in Ipswich this afternoon. A lorry jack-knifed on the M1 and rolled over, coming to rest between the houses of Mr & Mrs Smith and Mr and Mrs Ball, Ipswich residents. The driver was trapped inside the cabin for two hours. Luckily he was dragged out by the Smiths.

[That’s perhaps one measure of just how memorable their comedy was. That joke didn’t appear in the book; it’s one I’ve remembered from 30 or so years ago.]

After the ‘news’ they’d then summarise what was to come. A typical example:
And in tonight’s program we hear about two men whose visit to a ball bearing factory almost ended in disaster: one man lost his bearings and the other lost his sense of humour.

The fifty minute show was composed of sketches, monologues, a serial, regular features (such as a pair of folk/country singers), guest singers and dancers – in short, it was a variety show. It ran from 1969 till 1987. Throughout its 96 episodes it bookended by the opening news reading and by Ronnie Corbett’s closing monologue.
This closing monologue was a much-loved element. Corbett was a tad over five feet tall. He would sit in a gigantic chair, his legs dangling down, and would (seem to) effortlessly chat with his audience. In fact, the monologues were brilliantly scripted – half by Spike Mullins. They had a meandering style, full of digressions.
Here’s a brief example of the kind of digression:
`For some time now my wife's had this ridiculous idea that I'm playing too much golf. Actually it came to a head at about eleven thirty last night. She suddenly shouted at me, "Golf; golf, golf, all you ever think about is bloody golf!" And I'll be honest, it frightened the life out of me. I mean you don't expect to meet somebody on the fourteenth green at that time of night.'

And it’s goodnight from him is an entertaining read, a celebration of two lives in show business. Towards the end Ronnie C. reflects: We were blessed to have been able to create such a legacy of family entertainment, to have been a part of making it.

Theirs was an era of ‘wholesome family entertainment’. [Their show was accused of containing ‘too much violence’ – by none other than the starchy ex-school teacher, the born-again Mary Whitehouse, a ‘self-appointed arbiter of taste on television, which she felt to be riddled with sex and violence. If she thought that then, what would she think now? If she were alive today she’d be turning in her grave.’]

But unlike Benny Hill, that master of the single entendre, the Two Ronnies rarely blurred the clean-fun line. When their jokes were blue, they were only faintly blue, and never – or certainly hardly ever – offensive. Whole families would sit around the tele on a Saturday night, knowing there was something there for everyone, and knowing they needn’t worry that the children would be corrupted or that grandma would be offended.

Corbett is a great raconteur, and Baxter was a great writer and great actor. Corbett was adept at ‘being himself’; his outgoing persona seemed very much in line with the ‘inner person’. Ronnie Baxter was the opposite. Corbett describes him as an intensely private man, one who could never simply ‘be himself’ in public. When he was required to appear in public, he managed by doing what actors do best – by adopting a role. Mostly, though, he avoided situations where he was expected to ‘be himself’.

Several of their best –loved scripts - such as the Class sketch from their Frost Report days, their famous Four candles, Mastermind and Ronnie B’s mispronunciation sketch, along with several of the monologues – are reproduced in full in the book. And we get insights into the creation of many of these.
Ronnie C’s account of Ronnie Baxter’s final year of life I found deeply moving. He quotes the eulogy he presented at the funeral:
He was a dear, dear man, a wonderful friend, a talented artist, and whatever else we could say, you could guarantee that it was always going to be a very, very good night from him.

How do we – any of us – sum up our lives? What overall accounting do we make, what final judgement do we permit ourselves? Ronnie Corbett ends this autobiography as follows:
When I look back over our careers ... I think we must have had ... well balanced lives. Our work never took us over, never drove us mad, never turned us to drink or drugs. We enjoyed our grub. We loved and enjoyed our wives and families. Our whole lives were really led in a very calm and measured manner. We were temperate.
And of their friendship, he wrote:

... we allowed each other space, we didn’t intrude upon each other’s privacy. It was, truly, a very British friendship.

Such old-fashioned values. Barker was a private person, and though he and Corbett were close friends and professional colleagues for over 40 years, they ‘didn’t intrude upon each other’s privacy’.

I recall a teacher I knew over 25 years ago. ‘Carl’ was a very handsome, very fit person – he taught Phy. Ed. His best mate, ‘Tom’, was Head of the Maths Department. They were close friends both inside and outside school; both followed the same footy team, and would spend every Saturday afternoon together ‘at the footy’ during the footy season. It was a very Australian friendship, a very Australian-male friendship. When Carl’s wife left him, he kept a stiff upper lip, and told nobody – not even his best mate. His ‘anguish’ was played out in the privacy of his own body – he developed severe ulcers and became very ill. It took him three months to break the silence and tell his best mate.

Privacy and secrecy are bedfellow. In all of our relationships we dance the dance of intimacy, now drawing closer, now drawing away. For some of us, the closest we get is a very ‘comfortable distance’. Like Eleanor Rigby, we venture out ‘wearing the face that we keep in the jar by the door’.

As I read Corbett’s book, I thought a lot about friendship, and about the nature of ‘performance’. For Ronnie Barker, performance could only take place when he wore one or another of the masks. Ronnie Corbett, on the other hand, seems genuinely comfortable with ‘being himself’.

Corbett’s reference to Britishness reminded me of a scene from Zorba the Greek. Zorba tells his English friend:
You have everything. There’s only one thing you lack. A little madness. Without a little madness, a man can never cut the chains and be free.

The lives of other great comedians of that era – Peter Cook, Graham Chapman, Tony Hancock – weren’t so balanced; these comedians weren’t so lucky. All three succumbed to alcohol and depression and self destructiveness. Their lives were neither calm nor measured. Maybe their work did drive them mad, did take them over.
Performance is dangerous ground. Ronnie Corbett is one of the lucky ones who seems to have come through sane and apparently unscarred.

I enjoyed reading this ‘autobiography’ of the Two Ronnies; I chuckled often, had a good belly laugh now and then, and thoroughly enjoyed the whole book. It’s a comfortable and pleasurable read, and great for nostalgia buffs.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

23. This Teaching Life (1) After the Mayor's carriage ... meditation on the end of first term

Whenever you find yourself thinking that everything is going just SO very well ... look behind you.

Ancient Chinese proverb

As I enter that ancient piece of wisdom into my laptop, two related thoughts appear simultaneously on my mind-screen. One is the moral of one of Aesop’s fables – the one about the Crow who had found a piece of very tasty cheese. The cunning Fox tells the Crow what a beautiful singer she is, and how he cannot wait to once again hear her melodic tones. The Crow, overcome with pride, begins to warble, and the cheese falls to the ground, and the fox make sit his own. “Pride” – Aesop reminded us - “rideth before a fall.”
My adoptive father, Herbert Garrie, loved playing cards. His favourite games were Euchre and Five Hundred. Cards brought out the best in him - linguistically, at least. When the dealer gave him an ordinary hand, he would say, “You ought to deal in bottles.” My favourite, though, was the expression he used on those occasions when good luck turned to bad. He might have won the previous round of the game; but if on the next hand he was dealt ‘poor’ cards, he would always say ... “Ahh – wouldn’t you know it! After the Mayor’s carriage comes the garbage cart!”

My dad knew that good luck came in short bursts, and that you shouldn’t get carried away with it. You’ve got to take the bad with the good; after the mayor’s carriage comes the garbage cart; pride rideth before a fall; whenever you find yourself thinking that everything is going just very SO well ... look behind you.

Thursday, March 4, 2010. We were well into sixth week of term. I was driving to school feeling ‘on top of the world’. It was my second year at the school, and so different from the first. For the whole of 2009 I felt like I was involved in a constant battle. No matter that it was my 45th year of teaching; no matter that I brought a wealth of experience and an impressive array of achievements with me. I was a new teacher. I was fair game to the chaos mongers in each class. [Chaos mongers’ is a term coined by an old friend, Peta Heywood; she used it in reference to those kids who use the classroom as a place to cause mayhem. They are not simply resistant learners, they are belligerently negative. It was his experience with ‘chaos mongers’ that led another fine educationist – Garth Boomer – to observe that ‘sometimes teaching is a bit like being pecked to death by ducks’.]

During 2009 I suffered battle fatigue for much of the year. At times I felt like I’d made a terrible mistake returning to the classroom. My two year 10 classes were surly, distrustful, resistant. My year 12s took a long time to trust this ‘new teacher’. And toward the end of first term my year 8 class – the one group I’d felt at ease with – became impossible.

I had been warned. ‘The kids here don’t like change. They don’t take well to strangers.’ They hadn’t had much need to. The school was full of teachers who had been there for 10 – 15 – 20 – some 25 years. There were 3 teachers on the staff who had attended the school as students! The students saw me as an outsider – I also sensed that many of the staff did too.

In my second week in the school I had stepped into a group of surly, loud, misbehaving boys in the school yard. I’d seen boys pushing and shoving each other; there was aggression in the air – I could smell it; I tried to calm things down. One of the boys totally lost his cool and threw a full can of coke at the wall of the school.
‘Come with me,’ I’d said.
‘No way. I haven’t done nothing wrong.’
‘Then settle down,’ I said. I was trying to find a way out of what was becoming a heated situation.
‘Settle down.’
He seemed to. ‘Okay ... now just stay calm – alright.’
He nodded. I walked away.
As i neared the door to the school building, a voice screamed at my back: “GET OUT OF OUR SCHOOL!!!”
So, 2009 had been tough. I’d managed to get through it, but I had felt fatigued on and off all year. It was not a satisfying year; it was bloody hard work. At times I thought: ‘I’m 66. Maybe I’m just too old for this. Maybe I’m passed my “Used By” date.’ Perhaps this is no country for old men.

But that was 2009. As I drove toward school on that Thursday – March 4, 2010 – I reflected on what a difference it is to return to a school for your second year. By that stage I’d taught something like 125 classes, and I hadn’t had a single ‘downer’.

I sometimes make a mental rating of my classes on a 1 -10 scale. A score of 1 means that the class was ‘the pits’ – an experience full of chaos, aggression, venom, hatred – the full catastrophe. A ‘1’ occurred when the class set out to ‘destroy’ you, to bring you down.

One of the most moving film scenes about teaching that I’ve ever watched was in the 1950s classic Blackboard Jungle. One of the teachers tries to win over the students by sharing something of himself with them; he brings his record collection to the class. He’s a jazz freak and has an amazing collection of jazz classics on vinyl. The chaos mongers in the class seem to ‘go along’ with him; they feign interest and he drops his guard. Then they begin snatching his precious records from their box, and throwing them to each other. By the end of the class, his precious vinyl records, collected over a lifetime, lie smashed on the floor. And he is destroyed.

I’d had some 2s and 3s during 2009, and now and then classes that felt like 1.5!
At the other end of the scale was a score of 10. Ten is ‘bliss’ – a classroom where magic happens, where the students are engaged – every single one. It’s a classroom where the learning is passionate and important, where students and teacher work together. They are the lessons that keep us teaching – those moments of transcendence. I’d had a few 7s and 8s in ’09, but the average was around 3 or 4.
As I said, by March 4 I’d taught around 125 classes – and virtually every single one had been a 7 – maybe even an 8. The worst was a 6 – or 6.5. [Woody Allen once quipped: ‘I suppose I’ve had a few thousand orgasms in my life, and the worst one was ... sensational!’]

You know that experience where, the moment you think something, you KNOW you shouldn’t have.

As I drove along that morning I found myself thinking, ‘I am REALLY enjoying my teaching. I feel like I’m teaching as well or better than I have ever taught before. I reckon I could keep teaching for another TEN YEARS at this rate.’ And there’s a long weekend coming up, too. What a bonus! Could life get any better.’
Ah, hubris! You are the most devious of enemies, for we embrace you so readily as our dearest friend!

That uplifted feeling, that I was invincible, indestructible, that I could teach for another ten years, lasted for maybe two hours. The headache began to insinuate its way into my brain around 11; by one o’clock I was really struggling. I began wondering if I could last out the day – let alone 10 years.

Friday was no better; my head felt thick, I had no energy. ‘I’ll be right,’ I told myself. ‘We have a long weekend coming up to recoup our energies. I’ll be right.’
That night, munching on a thick chunk of rich dark chocolate, I felt a large part of one of my molars break away. I spent the weekend with my tongue seeking out the sharp and ragged new cavern in one of my back teeth, and with my mind contemplating the end of all things, the twin certainties of decay and death.

I had a temporary filling put in on the Tuesday, and went in for the real work 9 days later. It’s irrational, I know, but I dread dental work more than I dread death.

It may have been that the headache and the broken tooth were kryptonite to my hubristic sense of invincibility; it may have been that those harbingers of death and decay, those reminders of my inescapable mortality were what tipped the balance. Or maybe there was simply a turning of the tide; maybe our moods are cyclic. I had experienced a long-lasting king tide, but now my spirits were beginning to ebb.

That’s how it is with teaching, I guess. Getting along with your self is hard enough; living in a relationship with one other person for any length of time is clearly much harder; working closely in a group – at work, in a family – is exponentially harder. Relating to people is exhausting. And relating to groups of 20 or 25 people day in, day out is very complex. That’s why teaching is such hard work.
And so I went from the mayoral carriage – feeling on top of my teaching load, feeling that I was teaching as well or better than at any earlier stage in my career – to the garbage cart. The wheels didn’t actually fall off, but they were wobbling terribly. Like a marathon runner I pretty much collapsed over the finish line.

Term 1 is gone now, and I’m on my break. I’m collecting my thoughts, my wits, my energy, along with physical resources for my next term’s teaching. It will be a long term, so I’ll need to pace myself. I'll especially need to remember the important lesson of term 1:

Whenever you find yourself thinking that everything is going just very SO well ... look behind you.

You would have thought that, having been in the teaching game long, that I would remember the importance of pacing myself, of being wary of that exalted feeling that comes when things are going well. Maybe that's what keeps me teaching - maybe it's addictive, that feeling that 'it would be hard to imagine things going any better...'

Saturday, April 3, 2010

22. The Universe and all that: from the very large to the incredibly small

It's called Brigg's Elevator. It's a thought experiment.

Imagine an elevator that could not only carry you out into space, but that can also carry you INTO matter. You'd climb aboard, and the elevator would start rising - to Level 2 (10 to the power of 2 metres - or 100 metres above the ground). At level 1 you'd be up among the tree tops.
Level 3 would be 1000 metres above the surface of the earth (or 10 to the power of 3).
At Level 4 you'd be 10000 - or ten thousand metres up. That's about the height of Mt Everest (I think); it's about the height that jet planes fly at. I recall flying to Darwin and looking down at 'the map of hills and rivers' that 'mocked my small wisdom with its vast design'.
[I'd imagine that this would be the cue for the Music Hall comedian running the trip to laugh and say: "You ain't seen NOTHING yet!"
And so on you'd go until you reached the outer extent of the Universe - Level 27 - at which point you could look out the window and see the whole of the universe in one image.
[That's 10 to the power of 27 - or 10 followed by 27 zeros. That's approximately 13.5 billions Light Years of travel! That's a bloody long way!]

That's hard enough to comprehend, but the next part of the thought experiment is even harder. Brigg's Elevator is now 'Going Down'. At Level -1, the goldfish in the bowl now seems to be virtually human size. Go a little deeper into matter - say to Level -5 (in other words, where 'things' are .000001 of a metre in size; now look out the window of the Elevator, and you are looking at a cell in a human body, and it looks as large as a 'normal person' at Level 0.

A few levels further down - around Level -11 - you could observe a sphere surounded by a 'cloud' of whirring 'things'; that's the nucleus of an atom you're looking at. To see electrons whizzing around it (that cloud of whirring 'things' - you'd need to go down a few more levels.

Brigg's Elevator is a metaphor - an analogy - that a scientist named Maxwell invented to try to explain the incredible complexity of the Universe. In Outer space - the universe we call it - you can get out as far as Level 26; in 'inner space' - the space WITHIN matter - scientists reckon you can go down an amazing 36 levels.

I first discovered this analogy in a book almost 20 years ago. There are one or two mentions of Brigg's Elevator on the www - but none are very helpful.

Now, Briggs’ Elevator is a creation of Maxwell who devised the idea as a means of helping us to better understand the notion of relativism, the notion of standpoint. It brings us directly into touch with the one of the post modern dilemma.

We are accustomed to experiencing our surroundings, the Earth, the universe from the standpoint of beings that stand roughly 1.7 - 2 metres tall. We experience our ‘world’ as being of ‘human proportions'. We are smaller than elephants, bigger than ants.

But what it we were the size of a goldfish; how might we perceive the world then? The 1960s film and television series, Fantastic Voyage, explored this thought-experiment. In the series, human beings were miniaturised; they became so small that they could journey through the body of another – normal sized - human being. Travelling down the arteries and veins – the bloodstream - in their tiny spaceship-like vessel, they faced showers of meteor-like objects: red and white blood cells. These blood cells were almost as large as their innerspace ship.

During the 1960s, human beings were first able to view the planet Earth in its entirety. Human beings were able to voyage into outer space in space ships, to a sufficient distance that they could see – and photograph – the earth.

In a sense, both of these voyages – into inner and outer space – were journeys on Briggs elevator. The elevator can travel either up or down. It enables us to ‘see’ – or perhaps ‘envision’ or ‘imagine’ different ‘levels of reality’. At ground level – level 0 – the world is as we know it, it’s a world of human proportions. Elephants are large animals; worms are quite small; mosquitoes are even smaller, and we can look at bacteria and amoeba only if we use a microscope. Further, if we want to explore distant planets and stars and galaxies, we can do so only with the aid of powerful telescopes.

Take the elevator UP one level – to the level of 102 – and it is as though we are 100 metres in the air, looking down. The horizon has expanded – we can see more of the earth’s surface. At this level, we are truly giants; we are as tall as very large trees. Other, normal sized humans look the size of a goldfish. Normal goldfish seem no bogger than a mosquito as normal ground level.

If we were to take Briggs elevator DOWN one level, and the goldfish is suddenly twice as big as we are. If you’re normally afraid of spiders in the accustomed world, imagining facing a huntsman spider that is now the same size as you. There would be some advantages: you could readily stand up inside a matchbox.

Take the elevator up to Level 8 (108) and you join those first astronauts who could see the earth in its entirety. At Level 13, you’re able to view the whole of what we call ‘our’ solar system: our Sun and the many planets and moons and asteroids. At Level 22, the Milky Way fits neatly into your viewing screen:

Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars.
It's a hundred thousand light years side to side.
It bulges in the middle, sixteen thousand light years thick,
But out by us, it's just three thousand light years wide.
We're thirty thousand light years from galactic central point.
We go 'round every two hundred million years,
And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding universe.

Eric Idle (from the Monty Python team)

At level 26, the whole of the universe fits into our visual field. However, we can see only large clusters of galaxies; we see the entirety of ‘this amazing and expanding universe’. And that being the case, we may need to go to Level 27 or 28 to be able to keep the whole universe in our ‘full view’.

If we take the elevator DOWN, we travel into the fabric of matter. At Level –5 (or 10-5 where we have shrunk to roughly .0002 cm) we are on equal terms with a human cell. At Level -6 we can swim with bacteria that are the same size as we are; it’s at this level that we join the intrepid explorers on their ‘Fantastic Voyage’. At Level -8, we could do battle directly with the viruses that cause us so much discomfort, and in relation to which normal-sized medical practitioners are so powerless. Mind you, at this level these viruses are now as big as we are; we might be even more powerless and more vulnerable to them.

At Level -10 we are in the position to observe the interwoven strands of dna; they are about the size of those plastic strips that people put in doorways to help keep the flies out.

At Level -11 (10 to the power of -11 or .000000000001) the nucleus of an atom, along with its surrounding misty cloud of electrons now fully occupies our visual screen. It’s a little hard to take it in: the nucleus is actually not much bigger than an orange (at Level 0) and the misty cloud extends to a distance of 60 kilometres, so we can’t actually get very close to nucleus. (Maybe if the temperature is low enough – down near absolute zero – the electrons will have slowed sufficiently that we’ll be able to dodge them on our way to the nucleus.)

Down another six levels and we can now observe the protons – they formed that misty cloud around the nucleus of the atom. But we’re still not at the ‘heart’ or matter. Two levels further down – at Level 18 (10-18 ) - we can ‘see’ the quarks that form the proton.

At this point, we’re just over halfway down. Way down inside matter, so the quantum physicists have imagined, is space-time foam and superstrings … whatever they may be.

This astonishing journey has only been possible in relatively recent times. The invention of the microscope and the telescope enabled humans to first board Briggs Elevator barely 500 years ago. Humans managed to reach Level 8 in the late 1960s, around the same time that Watson and Crick dreamed of Level –10.

Eric Idle wryly observes in ‘The Galaxy Song’ that, despite our scientific advances in knowledge, and despite the fact that (to quote another piece of popular culture: Julian Lennon’s song, Saltwater) we are ‘so enchanted by how clever we are’, we are still prone to insecurity and dark fears, and that there is still ‘bugger all’ intelligent life ‘down here on the Earth’.

The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding
In all of the directions it can whizz
As fast as it can go, at the speed of light, you know,
Twelve million miles a minute, and that's the fastest speed there is.
So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space,
'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth.

Reductionist thinkers have had a tendency to view the continuum – from the almost unimaginable expanse of outer space to the perhaps even more unimaginable innerspace of matter [that is, from Level 26 to Level –36 on Briggs’ (mind) elevator] as something that could be progressively reduced and reduced until the essence/ the core/ the 'real' reality is reached.

The search for a Grand Theory that would explain everything, from the origins of the universe to its ongoing expansion, everything from the formation of planets and stars and moons to the emergence and evolution of life, everything from Black Holes to quarks and superstrings, has been the goal of physicists for a half a century or more.

Holistic thinkers, on the other hand, have sought to understand the wholes (or holons) that exist at each of a small number of levels. Phenomenologists have sought to explore life as it is experienced by the humans living at Level 0. Neurologists, on the other hand, have sought to journey down a level or four or more on Briggs Elevator.

Behaviorists have sought to deal only with Level 0 – with observable behaviours, with stimuli and responses. Depth psychologists have sought to understand what is going on ‘under the surface’ or ‘behind the screen’.

I can't pretend to really understand all of this. But I find it utterly fascinating. I am in awe of the Brigg's Elevator Thought Experiment - and the complexities it reveals. I plan to write about it and think about it further. I'd love you to join me.