A letter of apology to Tasmanian Aboriginal people (and anyone else we have offended).

Last week Mona opened Southdale/C’Mona, an exhibition that explores, among other things, the unintended consequences of created utopias. The colonisation/invasion of Tasmania by Europeans, and the debilities that resulted for its inhabitants, are among the areas explored. Another was the potential establishment of a Jewish nation in southwest Tasmania. That project, however, didn’t come to such a fraught conclusion, since it disappeared, as did its major proponent.

The artist who devised the exhibition is Christoph Buchel. Because the project was presented as an intervention he wasn’t named at its inception. He, and we, thought that the impact would be enhanced if the project was taken at face value. Since his identity was exposed by the Australian newspaper at the weekend (and they obtained their information from his dealer’s website, and not from us), I don’t feel that, at this point, we are breaking any confidences by revealing the artist’s identity. However, not naming Christoph before meant that we at Mona could appear to be endorsing a presentation that we are uncomfortable with. In the event, that is what happened.

I certainly had warnings. During the exhibition planning, Christoph proved to be uncooperative to a point I had not hitherto encountered. When an idea was rejected, the next day he would present the same scheme again, as if it were new. But we ploughed on, although on a few occasions we categorically rejected some of his material. I have discovered since the exhibition opened that, in at least one of these cases, he proceeded to print and distribute some of this inflammatory material despite our veto.

We believe that much of Christoph’s exhibition is relevant, clever and funny. But he thinks it all is; I’ll get back to that point in a moment. Christoph holds the intellectual property for the exhibition, and when we offered (threatened?) to take down some material we were uncomfortable with, he maintained his confrontational viewpoint. In his opinion, the exhibition is a conceptual whole. His position: if we take any of it down we must take it all down. Obviously, that puts us in a difficult position.

Christoph has demonstrated (for the most part) the facile nature of certainty. Those who believe in utopias, and attempt to engineer them, repeatedly fail and generate unintended consequences. They fail because their path becomes the only path, and the required outcome, the end, is sought regardless of the means. Christoph’s hypocrisy is that he parodies that position while taking the same view. He knows what he wants, and while he pursues his goals he doesn’t care what the consequences are for others.

We do. We will engage with affected individuals and redress the situation. If Christoph fails to approve our action he will have the right to legal process, of course. We know he knows about that. He has been involved in a long legal action concerning the failure of a previous show.

We’re sorry we pissed some people off. And we will find a way to resolve reasonable unaddressed issues.

David Walsh

An odd little tale

By David Walsh

Last night, after Diamanda Galás entertained, confused and mesmerised me in turn, I spoke to Dark Mofo revellers from Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane (and the latter complained that the Hobart weather was not nearly cold enough to justify the hype). One of them thanked me for the festival. Everybody does, even though I had very little to do with it. While Dark Mofo boss Leigh Carmichael and his mates put it together, I was on my honeymoon. And then she said, ‘Thank God it’s not like the Big Day Out. Dark Mofo would be completely ruined if someone like Coldplay played’.

So I told them this:

A few months ago Leigh visited me, excited because he had been contacted by Coldplay’s management. They wanted to play a surprise, free gig at Dark Mofo. I was excited too. It looked like quite a coup. Apparently they wanted me to show them around when they came down for the gig, a problem because I was planning to be at a party in Austria at the time. I quickly reorganised my schedule, leaving my friends in Europe in the lurch to get the gig. It was signed and sealed, but obviously not delivered, because a minor logistics issue arose. Coldplay transport their gear on a 767, and 767s can’t land at Hobart airport.

Leigh, typically a circumspect communicator, sent me an SMS expressing his thoughts on the Coldplay no-show just before the Galas gig. It said, ‘Didn’t need those Coldplay cunts after all’.

I think the festival went rather well. Leigh seems to agree. Perhaps next year our inability to get an Elton John or Mariah Carey gig over the line will save the festival. In the meantime thanks for coming. Even if you didn’t.

Your Blog Mistress here – a big act means big equipment travelling in 12 x LD7 positions from Tokyo. Hobart airport does not have the machinery to unload these pallets, and despite our events team trying every trick they could, we were unable to borrow any from the mainland.

The wrong order

By David Walsh

Tim, my brother, died over twenty years ago. Some of my earliest memories are of him writing poetry. Before he died he had a plan to get some of his poems together for publication. But he didn’t have time. Between diagnosis and death he had only a few months. And morphine and suffering kept him busy.

Tim Walsh Tim Passes, Dark Mofo 2014

Tim Walsh
Tim Passes, Dark Mofo 2014

After he died I set about locating all the worthwhile material I could. But, to my continuing shame, I managed to lose a folder which contained a number of bleak, beautiful poetic capitulations to his condition. His cancer didn’t come out of the blue. He had a congenital condition, choledocal cysts, which had been operated on when he was just six months old. The result was arguably positive, death was deferred thirty-three years, but through those years Tim endured severe, chronic pain. The site of this type of surgery, it turns out, often becomes inflamed, and that led to his symptoms, and that led to his cancer. For some reason nobody told him that might happen. He, nevertheless, often speculated that he would die young. He didn’t think his body could sustain the repeated insults.

I know where I left the folder. On the stereo cabinet. And I know what was playing when I put it down. It was Paul Simon’s ‘Most Peculiar Man’.

And all people said, what a shame that he is dead.
But wasn’t he a most peculiar man?

I went to get the folder the next day, or the day after that, and it wasn’t there. It hasn’t been there, or anywhere else as far as I can determine, for those twenty years. So, just like Tim, that time has passed. There won’t be a book of Tim’s poetry. I only have a few poems left.

Forty years ago.

Tim was a little older than me. He read widely, mainly poetry: Shelley, Shakespeare, Betjeman, Byron, Tennyson, Masefield, Hopkins, Wordsworth, Whitman. And because I didn’t know any better I read them too. He taught me stuff I didn’t want to know then, but am very grateful for now. He showed me how to write amusing little ditties. This one he wrote when we were still children.

I wrote a simple poem.
A simple poem but mine.
And the words on every second line
Always seemed to rhyme.

And it parted in the middle.
Two verses my poem had,
But it finished on the eighth line,
And that kind of makes me sad.

He taught me about iambs, the stresses on every second syllable that Shakespeare used to astonishing effect. And he taught me about enjambment, running a sentence over the end of a poetic line, used to best effect with rhymes at the line breaks. Thus I wrote:

Playing with some stressful iambs
The line ran out before I could
Finish. I asked myself what would
Shakespeare do? And then I knew.
A ploy poets call enjamb-
Ment. When I write myself into
A corner. I escape just like Ham-
Let. That’s as tricky as Harry Hou-
Dini.

Two years ago.

As a surprise for my fiftieth birthday, some friends commissioned Dean Stevenson to set a couple of Tim’s poems to music, and to play them at the party. It went well. One poem he chose Tim had written for my twenty-first birthday. He had been in hospital having another round of surgery, and was mindful of his mortality. Thus it began:

Time passes, and we being mortal, think of death.

The songs went so well, in fact, that Dean asked for more poems. But there are no more, he had already been given the eight that I know of. Those eight were, apparently, enough. Enough for this concert, at least.

Twelve years ago.

Mum died in 2001. Every night between Tim’s demise and hers she read a poem before she went to sleep. James, Tim’s son, wrote in the note he sent to Dean when they colluded on my birthday present, that ‘Dad… composed this for my grandmother Myra, to help her feel some joy in his memory’.

When thine eyes have lost their soft dream shine
At pass of years and loss of time
And you are old and grey and full of sleep
When your heart is sad and your soul is deep
Stop. Reflect. Wipe away your tears
And think of the joys of bygone years
Think happiness. Friends and laughing lovers
Think of good times, come, think of others
But should no joy come from your past time
Take down this poem and read its rhyme
Hold it tender, close, and near to thee
Think of one friend. Think of me.

Twenty-two years ago.

When Tim went into hospital he was already dying, but we didn’t know. They opened him up, confident they could fix him. When a mooted four-hour operation took fifteen minutes we knew something was wrong.

So all the interventions became palliative. A nurse was assigned to show Tim how to use oral morphine. Tim said, ‘I know all about that, I had to administer it to my son, Billy’. Billy was born with disabilities, and dead at eight months. Dad said, ‘We die in the wrong order in this family’. Dad was already seventy-five, but destined to live another eighteen years. They sent Tim home.

At home Tim played his girlfriend and me a song, ‘Stuff and Nonsense’ by Split Enz. The chorus goes:

And you know that I love you
Here and now, not forever.
I can give you the present
I don’t know about the future
That’s all stuff and nonsense.

 

Dean Stevenson and the Arco Set Orchestra will perform Tim Passes at Dark Mofo on Thursday June 12, 7pm at the Odeon Theatre.
Buy tickets

Protest

By David Walsh

There is a lot to protest in Turkey. Injustice is rife, with crony capitalism at its heart. Geza Park, one of the last remaining green spaces in European Istanbul, was earmarked to be sacrificed for a shopping centre, and the company awarded the contract has links to the government. And then there was the mining disaster, which happened shortly after the opposition party complained that safety standards were being flouted.

So last night tens of thousands of people marched up Istiklal St, towards Taksim Square and Geza Park. Kirsha and I were there too. We had gone, not to check out the action, but to find a dress for Kirsha that is Islam friendly, not a feature of her regular wardrobe. We arrived before the protestors marched. There were armoured vehicles and police everywhere.

After a drink at in a rooftop bar we returned to the street. By then the chanting crowd was moving up the street, making an enormous racket. Many were wearing mining hats and gas masks, a reference, I assumed, to the dead miners. It was all rather exciting. I asked an English-speaking onlooker what it was all about. He told me it was ‘political’.

Kirsha wanted to go further up the street to Taksim Square, the obvious centre of the action. I thought that unwise. While we were arguing a young lady told Kirsha to cover her mouth, since the police had started using tear gas. I found a raised vantage point, and I could see the water cannons further up the street. The crowd careened down the hill. We soon felt the water cannons, and saw the sparks and heard the snare drum crack of the tear gas canisters being fired. Moments later we tasted the canister’s rather unpleasant contents. So we became part of stampede. We tried to hide down a side street, but it proved to be a dead end. As we returned to the main thoroughfare the surreality of our predicament was both underlined and alleviated when a taxi disgorged a passenger on the corner. It must have battled up the hill against the human tide, the driver doing his job as always, facing yet another of the apparently surmountable obstacles that the Istanbul streets presented.

So we got in the taxi. The driver headed down the street at the same speed as the panicked protestors, and even though the tear gas was choking us he (nonchalant as the best taxi drivers around the world always are) drove with his window down, down the hill to safety. As we crossed the Golden Horn, the gas in the air dispersed until, halfway across the bridge, the protestors gave way to elderly fisherman casting their lines into the Bosphorus hopeful of reeling in their dinner, while history passed them by, as it always has.

Beautiful Silence

By David Walsh

Forty years ago I remember waking up in recovery, and squealing like a child (which causes no shame, for I was a child) to be taken back to the ward. What the dismal, antiseptic-smelling, chicken pox-inducing children’s ward of The Royal Hobart Hospital had to offer is not clear to me, all these years later, but that was where I wanted to be. They took me back there, as they always intended when I awoke. I can’t remember if I was satisfied. I had appendicitis then, resolved with professional disinterest, but with sufficient credibility to maintain my childlike faith in intervention, which fed, through the intervening time, my scientific soul’s confidence in evidence-based medicine.

But forty years later, or two days ago, I remember the recovery room only because the orderlies pointed it out to me as they wheeled me through to theatre. A long, empty room, but not empty of all things; empty of the beds which obviously should fill it. I was on one of those beds later, wheeled in after my disk replacement, but I don’t remember.

This ward, the ward of two days ago, was worth shouting for. A single room with a door outside, into the garden. The most desired room at Calvary, the hospital manager told me. My room, because I was lucky, or more probably, because I was getting very special treatment.

The day after the operation I went through the door into the garden, already feeling ok, the tour of the garden in no way diminished by the noise of the traffic on Augusta Road, nor by the waft of stale cigarette butts flicked into the garden by those too sick or lazy to use the bin. I loved the garden then, one day ago, and even more when I stepped through the door into the garden today to leave the hospital. I loved it because it was there and I could see it, and walk around it, not perfectly steadily I admit, but I could walk around it without pain.

I went to the hospital to have my neck operated on, because my shoulder hurt. The MRI, taken on my wedding day two weeks and a few days ago, showed my disk was exactly where it should be but the rest of me about half a centimetre off, to the left. My shoulder hurt like fuck, and Mr Hunn concluded, with the aid of the MRI and my demonstrable weakness, that my spine was misplaced. Mr Hunn offered to fix it, to replace the displaced disk with a mechanical contrivance, an M6c, an American device not yet approved for sale in America, and therefore exported to the antipodes, to be implanted in me. I accepted his offer.

It worked, and I can walk in gardens only fifty-two hours after the operation. Nineteen days after my wedding I am married, all of me, not just the part of me that said yes, or I do, but all of me. Now no part of me is incessantly screaming ‘I’m in pain’ into my right ear, drowning out bewitching words from Kirsha, and allowing only bewildered words from me.

Again, I have no pain now, and there is nothing to prevent me smelling the pungent shouts of the show-off flowers, nor hearing the beautiful silence of the written word.

Another one’s gone

By David Walsh

I put ‘pen to paper’ the day of Nelson Mandela’s demise. My intention was to celebrate a life I thought worth celebration. And then I kept my thoughts to myself; others would have more to say. Of course, they did. And I felt that apparently idolising Mandela, or anyone, is promoting the notion that some of us do better by force of will. Mandela did do better, but luck, as always, played a part. His earlier response to injustice, which may itself have been unjust, led to an incarceration that forced introspection. While he was jailed, a community rallied around him, he an undead martyr, and a myth was made.

I went to South Africa for a few months in 1992. I had a recently dead brother, a new girlfriend, a South African resident racist soon-to-be-ex-friend, and inadvertent access to circumstances that were about to make me an art collector.

South African cities confused me. I couldn’t breathe Joburg’s air, couldn’t comprehend Durban’s kitsch, and couldn’t help but be mesmerised by Cape Town’s complicated cultivation.

In South Africa, it was easy to start up a conversation, and to make friends. All one had to do was mention Nelson Mandela. By then Mandela had been released, but not elected. Almost everyone I spoke to told me that South Africa was heading for a better place, and most thought Mandela would be the pilot.

Even then it was clear that a comprehensive political peace would advantage both the disenfranchised and the empowered. Attending the horse races in Durban, we discovered three grandstands, receding in orderly fashion from the finish line, for whites, for coloureds, and for blacks. This level of service duplication cannot be constructive, even for those who benefit from inequity.

Societal violence is sufficiently infrequent that, even in those societies that are riven by conflict, the chance of a visitor witnessing an incident is low. Nevertheless we did witness such an incident, at a union march (COSATO) in Cape Town. Corralled into a route by closed streets and buildings, the marchers were spat on by some (seemingly very few), who decanted their puerile commentary from upper-story windows fronting the streets. The result, a near-riot, quelled by rifle fire and accompanied by a few fatalities. The level of South Africa’s dysfunction, though, was best illustrated on another occasion in another city. A newspaper headline read ‘Maritzburg policeman dies of natural causes’.

It was obvious that something needed to be done.

I read, and have read, about Mandela’s humanity. Those who knew him, his friends, his jailers, his political enemies and rivals, even his would-be assassins, spoke of his honour, decency and integrity. I am most fascinated, however, by his unswerving commitment to change. Prior to his prison days he clearly thought violence was a legitimate path to justice. Perhaps because violence failed, or perhaps through a moral transformation, he wholeheartedly embraced an altered strategy, one of inclusion, negotiation and forgiveness. Unusually, perhaps uniquely, he behaved like a decent human being while seeking a political end. That seems to have gotten the job done.

When there is an adult around, kids don’t squabble. Will we still behave, now that the adult has left the room?

It didn’t look good for a while. Even before he was dead his family used the court system to promote absurd agendas concerning rival burial sites. At his funeral a psychotic signer substituted farce for solemnity. Blogs appeared, vilifying him, ostensibly for his early support of violence, while promoting their own vitriolic racist manifestos. Through all this, Mandela stayed honourably dead.

I notice, again and again, that we hold our principles most steadfastly at times of introspection. And we are most introspective at times of loss. Not loss through being affronted, though. That just motivates a desire for revenge. The losses that we learn from are the unfortunate, and the inevitable.

Nelson Mandela may have learned what to value in the twenty seven years when, for him, action wasn’t an option. Did we learn a lesson about taking time out? His death caused us to pause, but soon after, we went on our way. Do we need a Mandela to die every day? Was this the point that the disciples of Christ were trying to make? If so, why did they poison the chalice with polarities, and thus sow the seed for schisms? Perhaps they should have had Christ die of natural causes. And stay dead. In the meantime, I do hope no one proclaims Mandela our saviour.

…And another one

By Elizabeth Pearce

Philip Seymour Hoffman was my favourite actor. The only thing I remember about that memorable movie Boogie Nights is the look on his face (he played Scotty the porno-techie) when he sees Dirk Diggler’s willy for the first time. I think I must have been a teenager at the time because the look captured the essence of nascent sexuality, adolescent in my case and homosexual in Scotty’s: ambivalent longing and fear, and the combination of self obsession with the thoroughgoing belief that no one, ever, anywhere, could possibly find you attractive in return. Well, that’s how I felt anyway, but to be honest I was a little bit chubby. As was Scotty, and Philip Seymour himself.

I am a new mother (thank you for your kind enquires as to the health and wellbeing of my vagina. You know who you are) so forgive me, please, some soppy sentiment (which is the reason for my absence these months: my mind runs in tired, soppy circles; not good blogging material. And I don’t mean ‘tired’ as sleep-deprived, to be honest that’s all a big beat up, boo effing hoo.1 I mean tired as in utterly sick of my own obsessive thoughts about my baby’s wellbeing. He’s fine, thanks. And he’s, like, totally advanced, and everything he does is massively fascinating). My soppy sentiment is this: I cannot stop thinking about how Philip Seymour’s mum must feel. I don’t know anything about his mother; I could google but I don’t want to, it doesn’t matter. Cf. I haven’t eaten today because I am so nervous about taking my baby for his four-month injections. And that’s serious because for me, as I intimated above, eating is no casual pastime.

It is an unfortunate habit of mine (I’m working up to the point of this little appendage, pun intended, to David’s essay) (I’m not saying David has a little appendage; according to Kirsha, his wife-to-be, his portrait in our book Monanisms does him no justice at all. Cold day etc.) to periodically assume and discard various prophets and doctrines on my road to self-knowledge. Prophets so far, in order:

  1. Jesus.
  2. My headmaster, Mr. d’Ath; my older brother dubbed him ‘Dr. Death’, which I found gravely offensive.
  3. Postcolonial theory.
  4. My obstetrician.

And others but I’m bored of this now, the point is that my current prophet is Steven Pinker, which is good timing because he is about to pay us a visit at Mona to discuss the possibility of blessing one of our future exhibitions. I just finished reading his book The Blank Slate (2002), which is kind of dated now – and the reason it is kind of dated is because it is such a goddam powerful and convincing rhetorical tour de force that its ideas have ascended to – nay, shaped – our intellectual mainstream. Yes, there is a human nature. Some highlights:

  1. The drama of our nature resides in the tension between our ultimate (evolutionary) and proximate (immediate, apparent) motives. Eating high-fat food / going on a diet, for instance.
  2. Self-deception is adaptive, natural; and also lies at the root of our suffering.
  3. It is as human to be kind and forgiving as it is to be vengeful and cruel.
  4. Boys and girls are different. I know. Shocking.
  5. People of different races are not very different.
  6. ‘Natural’ and ‘right’ are not the same thing.
  7. Postmodernism has slaughtered – slaughtered, I tell you! – the arts. I must admit it fills me with glee to discover that the artists he uses to exemplify this slaughtering are represented at Mona: Chris Ofili (he specifically mentions our Holy Virgin Mary) and Andres Serrano, who is, incidentally, the artist who took the nudie shot of David I mentioned above. And of me. David thinks I’m being unfair to Pinker here, taking his argument out of context: the book is a work of advocacy, a statement – necessarily polemical, even strident – against the powerful doctrine of ‘the blank slate’: the belief that we are infinitely malleable, and that society can be born anew, if only we would try. Well, we can ask him in a week or two what he really thinks of postmodern art. We are especially interested in whether or not it is appropriate to take into account non-traditional art forms (including postmodern and conceptual) when considering the possibility that art is an evolutionary adaptation. (This is the subject of a future exhibition, in which we are very much hoping Pinker will take part).
    And finally, the most significant revelation for me, and the point of my appendage:
  8. Children turn out the way they are going to turn out, the good and the bad, regardless of how they were raised. Genes play a significant (but not totalising) role and their chosen peer groups do as well. But as parents, we neither ‘make’ nor ‘ruin’ the men and women they become.

This is both disappointing, and liberating: I am not centre stage in my child’s life, and I am not centre stage in my child’s life. My friend Amy (another prophet, I forgot her) also told me when my baby was born that there’s no A+ for parenting, only pass or fail, a C (for trying your best) or an F for otherwise. Which amounts to the same thing, really, as what Pinker is on about. Is all this love going to waste? Of course not. As Pinker points out, parent-child is a real human relationship, and (this is me now) relationships are all that really matter in the end. Perhaps all a parent can do is make the first phase of life as happy as the child’s nature will allow; to offer it a chance to become the best possible version of him or herself.2

I couldn’t resist it, I googled, and it seems that’s just what Philip Seymour Hoffman’s mother did for him. His Oscar-acceptance speech for his role in Capote:

My mom’s name is Marilyn O’Connor and she’s here tonight, and I’d like if you see her to congratulate her, because she brought up four kids alone. We’re at the party, Ma, you know? And she took me to my first play and she stayed up with me and watched the NCAA Final Four, and her passions became my passions. And, you know, be proud, Mom, because I’m proud of you and we’re here tonight and it’s so good.

Regardless of the terribly sad way it turned out, those memories and pleasures are real. I wish I could tell her it wasn’t her fault, and that she has more than earned her C.


1 It’s been over three weeks since I sobbed hysterically at 3am or googled ‘can you die from lack of sleep’ (you can).

2 My kingdom for a gender-neutral pronoun!

Now that we don’t have Lou

By David Walsh

In the early 90s my endless search for technological satisfaction resulted in me adorning my stereo with a five CD changer, and it had a shuffle mode. It would occasionally play songs twice in a row, the programmer of its shuffle mode model having, presumably, used a die for a model, not a deck of cards. But that didn’t matter much, I was happy to listen to songs from the Velvet Underground’s Loaded – the one album that was perpetually on the CD player – over and over again.

Oh I do believe
You are what you perceive
What comes is better than what came before

Can that still be true, now that we don’t have Lou?

On the same album he gave us some sage advice on how to pick up famous actors, advice more relevant today than ever. Just persevere with your obsession until the object of your desires is old and fat, then they’ll be ‘Over the hill right… and looking for love’.

We never got Lou to a MOFO but we did get his Velvet Underground colleague, John Cale. He concluded a tremendous gig with a Velvets song, penned by Lou, the dark but potent Venus In Furs. A friend commented to me, with a tear in his eye, that he loved the new Hobart, because it reminded him of the old New York.

I am tired, I am weary
I could sleep for a thousand years
A thousand dreams that would awake me
Different colors made of tears

Among my favourite albums is the Lou and John Cale record Songs For Drella, wherein they dissect their relationship with Andy Warhol, and find themselves wanting.

And then I saw Lou
I’m so mad at him
Lou Reed got married and didn’t invite me
I mean is it because he thought I’d bring too many people
I don’t get it
Could have at least called
I mean he’s doing so great
Why doesn’t he call me?

It is great art, I think, to look through others’ eyes and see yourself. And when those others’ eyes are Andy Warhol’s, then it is great pop art.

The trouble with a classicist he looks at the sky
He doesn’t ask why, he just paints a sky
The trouble with an impressionist, he looks at a log
And he doesn’t know who he is, standing, staring, at this log…

I like the druggy downtown kids who spray paint walls and trains
I like their lack of training, their primitive technique
I think sometimes it hurts you when you stay too long in school
I think sometimes it hurts you when you’re afraid to be called a fool

There were many other albums and many other moments. A decade before, but still a late discovery, I played The Velvet Underground & Nico until my record player’s fingers bled. It didn’t make me a junkie, but I learned some of the attractions of dissolving.

Ah, when the heroin is in my blood
And that blood is in my head
And thank God that I’m as good as dead
And thank your God that I’m not aware
And thank God that I just don’t care

In the end heroin, and alcohol, and being born over seventy years ago, killed him. About others I sometimes say it is tremendous good fortune to have the opportunity to die, because that means that one has had the tremendous good fortune to be born in the first place. Each of us has, among other things, enjoyed an unblemished ancestral record of at least 700,000,000 consecutive successful matings. So Lou was lucky to be born, and lucky to die. I’d like to thank all Lou’s ancestors, the bacteria, and the fish, and the shrews, and his mother, for being horny, and for being attractive.

Lou Reed recorded a song about The Day John Kennedy Died. Some days we know we are going to remember, because our lives are inextricably bound to them. I’d better do something worthy today.

Photo by Marcelo Costa

Photo by Marcelo Costa

Atmosphere

By David Walsh

Merriam-Webster defines ‘engaged’ as:

1. Involved in activity: occupied, busy
2. Pledged to be married: betrothed
3. Greatly interested: committed
4. Involved especially in a hostile encounter
5. Partly embedded in a wall (an engaged column)
6. Being in gear: meshed

I am engaged. I refer to the above definition and engage 2 and 3 particularly, and also 1 and 6, but also occasionally 4.

If you happened to have read an earlier post you will be aware that I was in the US when my younger daughter had an accident. I glossed over my purpose for travelling. Now, with Grace recovering, I think I can reveal that (and I may have already given the game away) I was in the US to propose to Kirsha. Kirsha is American, and she gave up a great deal to move to Tasmania to be with me. So it seemed fair to take her home while I got down on the proverbial bended knee. As the context may also have implied, she said yes. Yay!

David and Kirsha

The deed was done in New York, where Kirsha has lots of friends. I also, to her satisfying stupefaction, secretly imported a few from elsewhere. We had a celebratory dinner afterwards. Several of Kirsha’s best friends collaborated on the dinner, the highlight of which was a table crafted from blocks of ice. This proved to be apropos; New York was in the midst of a heat wave.

A few weeks before, while planning our somewhat one-sided rendezvous, I was preparing a quasi-contract for our mooted marriage on this very iPad in the middle of the night when Kirsha awoke, a rare event indeed, and asked me what I was writing. As a diversion I started writing a poem, and it turned out better than I had any right to expect, given its improbable genesis. I later got local musical polymath Dean Stevenson to turn it into a song.

Atmosphere

Most nights I listen to the soft susurrus
As you draw in and process atmosphere
Making it your own and owning me
As I’m surrounded by your exhale.

I breathe for you and your odour
More rich by the nighttime heat
The night chill comforts me
But I sneak some warmth to enhance your ripeness
And then pick you and prick you
Inflate your balloon with my sticky air

I don’t see you except as my mind sees you
I don’t need to see you
I am invigorated by the darkness
And the darkness within me
I feel you like hot plastic or cold comfort
I feel you and though I am spent
Another deposit wells within me
And burdens me with uncertainty

Sometimes I make a strategic withdrawal
For fear of taking too much
But you need my lust for love and ego
And you tell me so
And I know it to be so
But doubt lingers a little
Not often at all

Sometimes, not often (at all)
I awake, not knowing I slept
And I feel you caressing
My back and kissing
Just as you were
Before sleep overcame me
And made me a victim
Of your relentless
Passion and redeeming

And I am not whole
But I am all I need be
And you are not all
But you are all that I need

My most familiar faith

By David Walsh

Over dinner last night Elizabeth, Kirsha and I chatted about my recent blogs and I remonstrated with myself that they focused on death, darkness and injury. Although that seems to not entirely be my fault I thought it might be time to court some controversy instead.

Another topic of conversation was the significant number of comments appended to Diary of a Disaster that offered prayers on my behalf. That’s curious, as I have made plain my opposition to belief without evidence but, on the whole, I understand that those who made the remarks have my best interests at heart, and prayers are unlikely to do me damage. I say ‘unlikely’, but if I were a devotee of the power of prayer, harm might well have ensued. A widely reported study of the efficacy of prayer determined that there was no difference in recovery rates of cardiac bypass patients between a group that was prayed for without their knowledge and a group that was not prayed for. However, a third group, members of which were prayed for with their knowledge, performed significantly more poorly than the other two groups, presumably because they assumed that if their condition required divine intervention things were going very poorly indeed. This might be analogous to the nocebo effect.1

Anyway, the dinner table conversation reminded me of the odd things I used to believe. I was raised by my mum to be a devout Catholic. Mum was tolerant of other religions, she could only feel sympathy for them; after all, non-Catholics were headed for damnation. What didn’t occur to me then, but has occurred to me and many others before and since, was to query the value of belief in the ridiculous. So that’s the subject of today’s sermon.

After considerable indoctrination, and a quick refresher from www.catholicbible101.com, here’s how I remember the Ten Commandments.

I am The Lord Thy God.
1.     Thou shalt not have other gods besides me.
2.     Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord God in vain.
3.     Remember to keep holy the Sabbath Day.
4.     Honour thy father and your mother.
5.     Thou shalt not kill.
6.     Thou shalt not commit adultery.
7.     Thou shalt not steal.
8.     Thou shalt not bear false witness.
9.     Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s wife.
10.   Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s goods.

Curiously, the first commandment originally didn’t seem to be because there was only one God. One rendition goes on: ‘(For the Lord thy God is a jealous God among you) lest the anger of the Lord thy God be kindled against thee, and destroy thee from off the face of the earth’ (Deuteronomy 6:15). Jealousy, by definition, involves more than two. And promising retribution reeks of attention monopolising. Early Jews were monolatrous, not monotheist.

Violating the first three commandments would cause no obvious harm. They are rather stupid and apparently unnecessary rules, really. But nevertheless, they are at the top of the list. Christ got in trouble for violating the Sabbath when he fed his disciples. A couple of centuries before that, the Hasideans initially refused to fight on the Sabbath:

We will not come forth, neither will we obey the king’s edict, to profane the Sabbath Day… Let us all die in our innocency: and heaven and earth shall be witnesses for us, that you put us to death wrongfully. So they gave them battle on the Sabbath: and they were slain with their wives, and their children, and their cattle, to the number of a thousand persons (1 Maccabees: 2).

Could there be compensation for this suicidal commitment to arbitrary rules?

The first three commandments are, in fact, deliberately ridiculous. At a time when those who weren’t your friends were your enemies (nearly every time before modern secular states), recognition of those within your group and those outside your group was paramount. The compensation comes from un-counterfeitable in-crowd recognition. Those who share your beliefs are part of your tribe. And those who won’t contemplate them are clearly not your friends.

Rules that make sense, like ‘Thou shalt not steal’ and ‘Thou shalt not kill’, are cross-cultural and therefore do not serve to differentiate between friends and foes. So the most pointless rules are, oxymoronically, the most valuable, as far as in-group recognition goes.

As I said, I believed in all this stuff when I was young. It seems that our capacity to learn quickly as children is enhanced by initial credulity. When a young child is shown how to do something with a few unnecessary steps, he or she will mimic the demonstration with the extraneous steps in place. Chimpanzees don’t do that, and for a while their constant questioning accelerates their learning. But, as tasks become more complex and thus not obviously amenable to analysis, human children surge ahead. It seems that a kid’s willingness to accept what they are told, from the rational to the resurrection, is co-opted by religion to bind us to our tribe. And the effort required to stop believing costs us; often, isolation results. That can cause suffering when one leaves a cult, and it can cause death when one loses one’s support system.

Because the consequences of failing to recognise a stranger can be severe, the method employed to recognise strangers can be extreme, as illustrated by the biblical derivation of our modern word ‘shibboleth’ (defined, in part, in The Free Dictionary as ‘A custom, phrase, or use of language that acts as a test of belonging to, or as a stumbling block to becoming a member of, a particular social class, profession, etc.’) Apparently, ‘shibboleth’, which in Hebrew means an ear of corn, is difficult for foreigners to say, viz.:

And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand (Judges 12:5-6).

Throughout history many outrageous (to an outsider) beliefs have defined many peoples. Jared Diamond (in the wonderful The World Until Yesterday) gives some examples:

There is a monkey god who travels thousands of kilometers at a single somersault (Hindu).

A woman who had not been fertilized by a man became pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy, whose body eventually after his death was carried up to a place called heaven, often represented as being located in the sky (Catholic).

Men who sacrifice their lives in battle for the religion will be carried to a heaven populated by beautiful virgin women (Islam).

On a hilltop near Manchester Village in western New York State on September 21, 1823, the Angel Moroni appeared to a man named Joseph Smith and revealed to him buried golden plates awaiting translation as a lost book of the Bible, the Book of Mormon (Mormon).

A supernatural being gave a chunk of desert in the Middle East to the being’s favourite group of people, as their home forever (Jewish).

To this, I append a few of my own, and I start with Buddhism, since it has so far gotten off scot-free.

Many Buddhists in Burma believe that the Islamic sacred number 786 suggests that Islam intends to overthrow Buddhism in the twenty-first century, since 7+8+6=21. This apparently justifies a violent suppression of Islam.

Sadly, desperate times generate even more desperate beliefs. In South Africa in the nineteenth century, a teenage girl, Nongqawuse, preached that if her Xhosa people destroyed their own crops and cattle the spirits would sweep the British settlers into the sea. Improbably, over 300,000 cattle were slaughtered, and the resultant famine reduced the local Xhosa population by about 40,000. Nongqawuse labelled the small minority who refused to kill their cattle the ‘stingy ones’, and blamed them for the failure of her prophecy.

Thirty-nine members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed suicide in 1997 so that their souls could board the alien spacecraft that was trailing the comet Hale-Bopp.

If those last few examples of crass commitment suggest that cults are more way out than established religions, consider martyrdom, the Crusades, the inquisition, and institutional sex abuse, just to use my most familiar faith as an exemplar. Martyrs are a byproduct of strong group identification, whereas the latter iniquities are a pathology of an extraordinarily strong desire to preserve and promote the in-group over others.

In grade six my teacher told me the story of Dominic Savio, who was a member of the Salesians, the order that founded my school (which was then called Savio, but now Dominic). Although Savio died at age fourteen there were, apparently, many indicia of his sanctity, including his ability to remember a page of catechism after one read (plausible), and his ability to be in two places at once (less so). A little research has led me to believe that the latter claim was fabricated by the priest who told us these tales, since it doesn’t seem to be documented anywhere. However, at the time I accepted the veracity of both tales without consideration of Carl Sagan’s (and other’s) dictum: ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. We ignore this self-evident standard since we have a long (evolutionary and societal) history of benefiting from in-group identification. Had I then had reason to question my priests and teachers I would have suffered repercussions. Believing is both easier and more binding than feigning belief.

A couple of years later, after the Christian house-of-cards had collapsed around me, my questioning of the tenets of another priest resulted in me being forced to stand outside, whatever the weather, while religious instruction was given. Despite himself, he did me an enormous favour.

And here I note that contained within my short essay are 83,000 fatalities (not counting the victims of prayer), and a threat to wipe non-believers from the face of the Earth. Next stop, Hollywood.


1I don’t usually feel the need for references but some might wish to follow this one up. H Benson, JA Dusek, JB Sherwood, et al. ‘Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in Cardiac Bypass Patients: a Multicenter Randomized Trial of Uncertainty and Certainty of Receiving Intercessory Prayer.’ American Heart Journal, April 2006.

Diary of a disaster?

By David Walsh

My nearly-nine-year-old daughter was leaving a high-rise apartment building in Sydney with her mum, Jemma, when she was struck on the back of the head with a rock, apparently dropped by some witless miscreant from a high floor.

As far as I can calculate, at the precise time of this incident I was inside a James Turrell installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a Ganzfeld machine, which overloads senses with colour and sound, a human creation capable of inducing euphoric states not accessible through nature. This great artist will soon be represented at Mona. He also has plans to do a residency at the school Grace attends. A pleasant coincidence induced by the fact that James Turrell is a Quaker and Grace’s school is the largest Quaker school in the world.

The heightened sensibilities induced by one man were displaced by a sense of powerlessness induced by another (I think it reasonable to assume Grace’s assailant was male).

I desperately scrambled onto the next flight to Sydney and that is where I am right now, twelve hours into a fourteen-hour flight. I’ve therefore had no news for half a day.

The last information, reported to me by Jemma just before boarding, was that Grace’s frequent vomiting had been curtailed, and her obs had improved. Earlier news was that she had a fractured skull, contusions, amnesia and confusion, and some vision deficit. But also that she reminded her mum to cancel a dentist appointment she had later in the day, and that she apologised to the hospital staff for the trouble she was causing each of the many times she vomited.

I will see her soon. Of course I hope everything will be all right, the human body is resilient by design, and I have faith in western medicine. The neurosurgeon I spoke to inspired confidence, particularly when she asserted that observation, rather than intervention, was appropriate.

The chance of hitting someone with a stone from above is minuscule. The thoughtless fool who dropped the stone was extremely unlucky. But Grace was much more unlucky than he. A question I know is important, but that I can’t fully explore at this point is: should the consequences for him depend on the consequences for her? My superficial response is that they should not, he should be punished and remediated for his astonishingly negligent action, not the appalling outcome. And yet it would be hard not to squeeze if my hands were around his throat. That’s why we can’t take the law into our own hands, my most personal experience of this important principle.

Even if she weren’t a good girl she would still be my girl, and still be loved by those who raised her. But she is a good girl, a wonderful girl, and as a result many more suffer as she suffers, because many more love her. I’m racked with worry. So I’m writing these words to crystalise my thoughts, to pass the time, and to keep me sane.

Interval: focusing my thinking on the frivolous.

After reading this excerpt from my autobiography, wherein my twenty-year-old self is expressing his opinion on the relative importance of culture and biology,

I contend that beauty itself is biologically sourced. Symmetry reflects good gene expression and therefore desirability as a mate, red is a warning flag suggesting toxity, green means photosynthesis and thus nutrient content, mimicry generates visual acuity because it generates a need to tell the real from the fake. Bitter versus sweet defines nutritious versus potentially poisonous, aversion to the smell of shit, scatole in shit to stop us eating bacterial contaminants. The list goes on and on.

my friend Anthony asked the following questions:

Why doesn’t snot contain scatole or another foul-smelling chemical to generate an aversion to eating it? Does the absence of any such chemical imply it is ok to eat snot?

At the time (a few days ago) I didn’t have a satisfactory answer but on the plane, with nothing else to do but worry, I figured it out, I think. So Anthony, here’s what I think Darwin would have thought:

Snot forms and resides in the nose. Any such noxious compound (like scatole) in the nose would affect our capacity to detect foul/friendly odours in the environment. We therefore would evolve in the direction of not detecting odours emanating from our nose, and the production of such compounds would be a waste of energy. And if the compound employed was scatole we would lose our capacity to detect it in faeces.

Since fetid snot could not evolve, the fact that we don’t have it has no direct bearing on whether we can eat snot. However, because we can’t prevent ourselves, using chemical markers, from eating it, selection pressure would, most likely, render it as harmless as chemistry would allow. Simply put: we couldn’t avoid it if it were harmful so it has to be harmless.

Interval ends. One hour and four minutes until we land. I had eggs for breakfast. Can Grace eat?

A few hours later. First, Grace can eat, sort of. She is consuming, with vigour, her second icy pole of the last day and a bit, the only thing she has been able to keep down.

Two bits of good news. She will be ok, most likely. The cut is appalling, the fracture pretty scary since there is some depression, but she will recover. She could be stuck in Sydney for at least two weeks, which might be a small silver lining for her mum.

Also, the police believe that the stone fell from the roof, after being placed near the edge by crows. My little darling was stoned by crows. It’s something of a relief that all this suffering wasn’t the outcome of an belligerent gesture by a broken man.

Just now Grace vomits. Apparently even lemonade icy poles are beyond her fragile disposition. Nobody deserves what she is going through. But an accident mediated by inadvertently murderous crows isn’t something anyone deserves. My mother would have disagreed. She believed that God dispensed only justice, but it was beyond the capacity of mortal man to comprehend his mysterious ways. Other concepts of remedial justice have emerged that are employed to justify bad luck, such as reincarnation. Those who subscribe to such beliefs would presumably believe that the crow and the laws of physics were collaborating to inflict punishment for a crime Grace committed in a previous life (perhaps in that previous life she was a crow). But bad luck is just bad luck. Laws of nature do not have the same characteristics as laws of man. Laws of nature do not attempt to perpetuate justice. And although laws of nature can accommodate appalling outcomes, they do so without malice or forethought.

A long day. Vomiting everything from painkillers to a bite of a banana. Enduring the pain, which is concomitant with a blow to the brain and throwing up painkillers. Drifting in and out of sleep but waking periodically to make a joke. High-level care, but all the hospital staff asking the same questions: what’s your name, age, address? Testing peripheral vision. So many lovely, caring people making Grace’s life a little bit tougher to maximize their chance of detecting a hematoma early enough to intervene. She’s asleep now. But they’ll wake her up all night.

Just when I thought everyone at this impressive hospital is lovely I met the paediatrician assigned to Grace. She told us off in no uncertain terms for the over-stimulating environment surrounding Grace (too many people) even while acknowledging that no one had told us that a low-stimulation environment was called for. She also contradicted the advice of other doctors, and when Jemma gently pointed that out, she retorted, ‘We all are in agreement, we just express it differently’. Her bedside manner brings to mind Basil Fawlty, if he had chosen a medical career. I can only hope that she is a pretending to be a paediatrician and will soon be exposed, like Frank Abagnale in Catch Me If You Can.

Two days later. Steady progress punctuated by one four-hour calvacade of calamities, wherein the IV line went troppo, she vomited many times, and her headache escalated. Just now, possibly against the advice of the toxic child doctor, I’ve allowed Grace to watch a Barbie movie on the iPad. The doctor demanded a low-stimulation environment. I personally think a Barbie movie she has seen many times is less demanding than staring through a window at a brick wall, and that is the other high-stress option Grace has available. And now the nurses are here to take the IV lines out. As I said, steady progress.

Quantum multiverse.

In most folds of the quantum multiverse I’d be driving Grace to school right now.

According to those who invoke the quantum multiverse to simplify the behaviour of quantum mechanical systems, every time the universe has options all of them are explored. This is one possible solution to the problem of assigning a probability to a unique event (another: Quantum Bayes, but you’ll have to read my forthcoming memoir if that makes you curious, or better yet, type it into Google).

The stone that hit Grace on the head was instantiating a very improbable event. Therefore, in the multiverse, it mostly didn’t happen. She doesn’t have a sore head, isn’t constipated, doesn’t have a shaved patch in the back of her head. She is on her way to school. So should I consider her very unlucky?

Of course, it’s easy to riff off an event that happened, and consider the chance that it didn’t happen, or consider the chance that it happened and the consequences were more severe (if it had hit her on top of her head, rather than merely dealing a glancing blow as it followed its vertical path, she could not have survived). But, of course, in the multiverse many unlikely things happen an enormous number of times. And the ghosts of the things that didn’t happen are ignored. It’s the nature of ‘survivor’ bias. In many worlds, but a low percentage of worlds, I just crashed the car. And there is a minuscule probability, but in many worlds it still happened, that the blow to the back of Grace’s head and the consequent bleeding flushed out an incipient astrocytoma, and thus prevented death. And maybe, just maybe, one of those worlds was this one.

We can control only the things that we are aware of, and then only to a limited extent. Good parenting only looks like good parenting if we avoid misfortune. And it is always worth reserving judgment when assigning culpability, because in this vast multiverse it can be hard to differentiate between malice, negligence and misfortune. The idea is to manage your deeds so that they are most likely to achieve the desirable and avoid the undesirable, while appraising the deeds of others in the knowledge that in most universes they might have achieved a better, or worse, outcome. If this sounds like sentimental bullshit forgive me, mostly I wouldn’t have written it, because the stone would have struck me, or Jemma, or someone I don’t know or, with a probability very close to one, no one at all.

Later. Our negotiations to secure permission for Grace to leave have fallen at the paediatrician hurdle. Although the neurosurgeon and the nurses thought it was fine for Grace to go home without a bowel movement (I faltered here, not knowing whether to use my argot, or Grace’s, or theirs) since she has to come back tomorrow to have stitches removed, the paediatrician demurred (although she is far from demure). She gave Grace a laxative which, it seems, will take some time to work, thus ensuring Grace is here until tomorrow.

Now the waiting game begins. The superb hospital staff make the waiting at least bearable (always excepting our nemesis paediatrician). The physiotherapist took Grace to the gym to test out her balance and decided she was secure. Just in the last half an hour we have had a teacher and a play therapist visit and offer resources. Even so the waiting is boring, but this boring has an uncharacteristic aura, following on from the terror, angst and stress. While I’m writing Grace is interrupting with questions about prisms and cylinders, good questions that were precipitated by the school pack the teacher gave her. I love this terrible place (a few nights ago a nurse told me that they love Grace because ‘she is one of the good ones’. Here the ‘good ones’ are those who will leave via the front door).

An odd thing. One of the delightful nurses just walked in and said, ‘You can go now’. Apparently the team had decided Grace had served her sentence. A little victory, since the neurosurgeon must have overruled the prickly paediatrician.

Grace is now excitedly shaving the head of Jemma’s boyfriend, Matt (who is agreeing to be shorn out of solidarity, since Grace has had some hair removed). Thus the world revolves. And as I already knew but now my knowing is renewed, my world revolves around my children. Through Grace’s misfortune, and through her fortune, I feel pain and I feel joy. And I feel her travails and triumphs more bitterly, and more exultantly, than I feel my own. That’s what love is.