Thank you and goodbye Oliver Sacks

By David Walsh

Sometimes I find myself, in conversation, filling in a detail concerning an aspect of neurology. It might be the nature of colour blindness, or the clinical manifestations of synaesthesia, or the pain engendered by a misrepresentation of self. When I do this I’m occasionally, even often, right. And if I am, that’s not a credit to me. It’s a credit to Oliver Sacks, who studied these things, and understood their nature, and wrote about them, and revealed the burden of those who suffered.

He didn’t write to show off. And he didn’t write to educate. He wrote to entertain. I read all of his books, and I was most majestically entertained. So those things I learned, I learned without effort, because of all the writers I’ve ever read, Oliver Sacks is the easiest to read. The words are a window, and the view is grand.

Two years ago my daughter, Grace, was struck on the head by a rock. Her recovery entailed, amongst other things, overcoming neurological deficits that induced dyscalculia and anxiety. Her lovely teacher, Philippa Herron, patiently helped her through this most difficult time. Jemma, Grace’s mum, suggested an Oliver Sacks book would be an appropriate gift to thank her. She was right; an Oliver Sacks book is always an opportune gift, but in this case it was most apropos. I prevailed on a mutual acquaintance to ask Mr Sacks if he would autograph a book. Although we were strangers, a delightfully dedicated copy of Awakenings arrived in the mail.

To thank him I responded with a copy of the Mona catalogue, Monanisms. And within it, I inscribed the following jingle:

I’ve read around
I must admit,
Cheats abound
Also in lit.

I did you wrong,
No leg to stand on.
I was hallucinating,
Now I’m awakening.

Although I roam
I’ll come back,
And write a poem
To say, ‘Thanks
For each tome,
Doctor Sacks’.

The fellow who helped me out with the autograph, Lawrence Weschler, eulogised Doctor Sacks to the Wall Street Journal thus: he ‘conducted a master class in how to die, after having conducted a master class in how to live’.

Oliver Sacks showed the humanity of literature. And the humanity of science. And the humanity of humanity.

Introducing Sunday

By David Walsh

Gros Michel bananas

Gros Michel bananas

These are Gros Michel bananas. Unless you’ve carefully sampled exotic fruit varieties in Thailand, or are over seventy, you don’t know what they taste like. Gros Michel comprised the bulk of all bananas sold in the world until the 1950s, when a fungus almost wiped them out. Now we mostly eat Cavendish bananas, but they are also threatened by disease. Banana varieties are clones. A single variety has no genetic diversity, and can thus be threatened by a single disease or parasitic species.

Komodo dragon

Komodo dragon

This is a pathenogenic (‘virgin creation’) lizard, a Komodo Dragon. It is non-obligate, which means that individuals of this species can also reproduce sexually. In the short term pathenogenesis offers significant advantages. For the Dragons, who are island dwellers, it seems a great way for an individual to start a new population on its own. Obligate pathenogenic species have the significant advantage of not having to locate mates. But obligate pathenogenic species don’t last long. They suffer from the ravages of rapidly evolving parasites, and they don’t have the genetic diversity to express a sufficient range of phenotypes to respond to changing environmental conditions or inter-species competition. Asexual reproduction is a dead end. Fortunately, no man is a banana. And no little girl is a Gros Michel.

David and Kirsha

David and Kirsha

These are two examples of a mammalian species that employs only sexual reproduction (despite one or two outlier claims). Unlike obligate pathenogens they have engaged in mate location. They did that because searching for a mate is fun. It’s fun because if it wasn’t they wouldn’t do it, and they wouldn’t pair-bond and they wouldn’t breed and they wouldn’t love and they wouldn’t care enough to provide enough care, and they wouldn’t have their children grow up to love and care for their children and their species wouldn’t abide. These two individuals, having been assigned (and in one case re-assigned) names due to social convention, are known as Kirsha and David.

So Kirsha and David, each found a lover, found each-other, became bound to each-other, became mutual care-givers, and made another. And as members of a species within which individuals possess self-awareness, viewpoints can be expressed. Such viewpoints are typically congruent with biologically normative exigencies, but are expressed as if the social domain is dominant. This engenders a first-person narrative style.

Sunday

Sunday

This is our freshly minted little girl. The physical manifestation of our evolutionary drives. We think she is beautiful, but we would, wouldn’t we? Evolution sees to that. And evolution, often through concealed agency, sees to it that we express, or attempt to enhance, our social status by communicating our great good fortune at having a healthy by-product of our pair-bonding, and of our love. I could shout it from the rafters, or hand out cigars, but a blog should do the job.

Heide Museum

Heide Museum

This is Heide Museum, near Melbourne. One of the reasons Kirsha and I have experienced a productive pair-bonding is that our biologically expressed but socially mediated interests are aligned. Sharing interests allows one to select appropriate mates, but it also allows the signaling of appropriate bonding mechanisms. If I liked hotting-up cars, say Toranas, then conspicuous displays of my Torana prowess, say a donut demonstration, would reduce the amount of resource expended on testing inappropriate mates with inappropriate interests. But I like art and, using my collection and the construction of a museum, I gave off signals to which Kirsha was apparently receptive. And so I took her to Heide. I saw, in Heide, the birth-pangs of Australian modernism (presently an uncomfortable metaphor). Kirsha saw in it a kindred spirit to her art garden projects –  in New Orleans and now in Hobart. John and Sunday Reed made Heide, and thus might been inadvertently complicit in the tenuous chain making our relationship. And, of reeds – ‘Man’, said Blaise Pascal, ‘Is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed’. That may be so, but our joyful little bundle of biology is female, not yet thinking so much, but already employing her natural gifts to elicit our love, to prevail on us to preserve her from breaking in the breeze. Our reed will be called Sunday. Never shall be Sunday too far away.

What to expect

By David Walsh

Expecting
verb (used with object)

  1. to look forward to; regard as likely to happen; anticipate the occurrence or the coming of:
    I expect to read it. I expect him later. She expects that they will come.
  1. to look for with reason or justification:
    We expect obedience.
  1. Informal. to suppose or surmise; guess:
    I expect that you are tired from the trip.
  1. to anticipate the birth of (one’s child):
    Paul and Sylvia expect their second very soon.

I’ve used this strategy before, I know. Giving the game away with a dictionary definition is such a simple segue into a blog that it should be beneath me. Again, it isn’t.

We (not Paul and Sylvia) are expecting the birth of a child. The well-paid and expert expectators that we visited to view the child in utero tell us that we will have a girl on July 19th or thereabouts. Definitions 4,2 and 1 are aligned here – we have justification to look forward to the birth of our child.

I have expected children before. I have also been married before. But I have not, hitherto, held these desirable states simultaneously. I am, inadvertently, upholding Catholic family values for the first time. Nevertheless, there is compounded joy in having many things go well. And I like joy.

Kirsha is also joyful about expecting a baby. She thought it would take a while for her to ‘fall’ pregnant. It didn’t. About a billion generations of our ancestors also fell pregnant, so how could she doubt the efficacy of our evolution-given efficient reproductive engines? Of course, many potential ancestors of many potential sexual organisms failed to get laid, or failed to get knocked up, or didn’t produce fertile offspring. That’s the very thing that honed the engine.

Not all kids are planned. My first two wonderful children (one of whom is now a wonderful adult) were, in part, the result of my natural capacity to defer the consideration of consequences while simultaneously seeking pleasure. I can’t really admire the ineffable subtlety of evolution entraining biologically useful behaviours in me by making them pleasurable. That would be similar to commending thermodynamics, or extolling the virtues of the law of gravity (which is a pretty bloody good law, actually).

That this kid, this homunculus-human, this proto-girl was planned is, however, a joyful joining of our biological nature and our human capacity to make choices. I can make a decision on behalf of my genes but also through the ‘me’ that they engender, to propagate them. They exert their influence by contributing to my state of mind. In fact, they elegantly exert their pressure by enabling me – I am conscious because of their inadvertent motivations. This process is all the more exquisite because it produces its outcome without any semblance of goal seeking.

As I said, I can make choices. Delia, my advisor on delicate public matters, delicately advised me to produce a blog confirming the rumour that I have herein clearly confirmed. Initially I resisted. And then I thought of a potential time to come when that rumour is an adult, and that adult wonders what those whose wills and drives produced her all those years before had on their minds at the time. This blog, then, is my answer.

This contrivance that induces in me my desire to pump out children, and words, also enables me to be aware of, but not enslaved by, the mid-term repercussions of my actions. A quick glance at definition 3 reminds me: I expect to be very tired from this trip.

David and Kirsha's Wedding

Image credit: Jonathan Wherrett (image has been cropped from the original).

Here’s hoping

By David Walsh

I like cricket. Today is a bad day.

Phillip Hughes isn’t my daughter, Grace. And he isn’t that other, vastly more famous, but much deader W. G. Grace. That’s the problem, we assign. Being dead a hundred years, that’s ok. That’s because you were born more than a hundred years ago. Not because you were hit in the head.

When I was nineteen a not particularly competent fast-bowling friend of mine, whose name was Shane, bowled a ball that brushed the side of my face. I was trying to hook, I missed, and he, fortunately, missed also. The ball grazed my face, but not my mien. How does one advance the calculus of an event that did not happen? It could have broken my jaw, or broken my will. It could have removed from me my facility to understand the nature of danger. It could have killed me.

It wasn’t likely to kill me. I know that because many bouncers are bowled, and few are felled. Batsmen die of old age, and alcoholic arrogance, surrounded by WAG wives and handsome, coordinated kids. I was not such a batsman, but then Shane, despite his estimable name, was not much of a bowler.

But, if it had killed me, I wouldn’t have the written word to console me, and I wouldn’t have had a child, and then another child, and I wouldn’t have had to deal with the other child being struck by a rock, shaped like a ball, and delivered with the same lack of intentionality, but with near equivalent consequence, to that daughter’s head.

She recovered, arguably the recovery lacking interest because it was vastly more likely than the initial injury. What happened to her, happened despite the fact that it can’t. She was floored by a billion-to-one event, its mischance fuelled only by the enormous number of events that provided kindling.

Phil Hughes got hit in the head. I’m barely a fan of cricket these days, and I’m not a fan of his. I am a fan of heads, and of course, I hope (and forlornly hope that hoping helps, while fully aware that hoping is hapless) that his head remains the one that made the many bad off-side decisions that just barely, and perhaps even unjustifiably, kept him out of the Test team.

If this turns out badly, worse than it already obviously is, there will be some seeking to learn a lesson. But there is no lesson, one can be the first to suffer, without being the worst to suffer, because the shit that happens, happens because events don’t reveal their cause in the singularity of their happening, but in the vast inexplicable but plausible web of chance and mischance. Phillip, I’m sorry that this happened, but I seek solace in the wonder that you had the opportunity to cut so many balls to the boundary, because your ancestors didn’t suffer more severe consequences for their actions than you. Here’s to the inconceivable unlikelihood that you did the stuff that has now caused you to suffer so much, and to the satisfying reality that I had the opportunity to bear testimony to those events, and might have the opportunity to witness them again.

In New Orleans

– By David Walsh

I’m in New Orleans and, right now, I’m missing my kids and my cat. Kirsha is off organizing her gun buy-back, so I thought I’d write a travelogue, because I’m contemplating the contradictory nature of a city that seems to be all underbellies and beguilements, but is desperately in need of the sort of intervention that Kirsha is planning.

New Orleans is Vegas without the bling, or Hobart without the dull. A stroll on the street can be an adventure, with beggars and spruikers and buskers and drunks competing for my attention. Being distracted is dangerous – the footpaths are a minefield of deep pits and overturned concrete, a consequence of the interplay of sub-tropical growth, subsidence, and a cavalier attitude to maintenance. Last night I heard a tale of a community effort to fix up the roads and sidewalks (never footpaths). This effort was inadvertently overturned by a letter to the local paper from a tourist who ‘would never return to New Orleans while the roads are in their present state’. The community response? Solidarity. They’re our roads, this is how they are, and this is how they’ll stay.

The flip side: last night we were able to attend a performance in a warehouse under a freeway featuring a giant machine that makes music. It was part of a series of music boxes that I first encountered a couple of years ago. This one made ethereal, theremin sounds, accompanied by voice and banjo. And then, an hour later, just around the corner from the music box, we heard a twenty-piece jazz orchestra playing elegant, original compositions with astonishing dexterity. There is plenty to do. Even the tourist traps are often worth being caught in.

Just as the state of the roads is accepted, and almost revered, so corrupt governance is taken for granted. When Kirsha first moved to Hobart she was surprised that traffic infringements couldn’t be ‘dealt with’. In New Orleans, getting a permit to build something is pretty easy; everything can be ‘fast tracked’. And, once permission is received, construction costs are low, since wages are off the books and illegal immigrants will work effectively and hard for just a few dollars an hour. The grey economy is thriving, except it isn’t grey: it is black, or Mexican.

Fatalism is rampant, and decadence driven by the certain knowledge of impending disaster – either the next big storm or a bullet in the bum (Kirsha has two friends who were shot in the bottom bicycling away from robbers). And don’t ask, ‘Why would anyone build a city in such a flood-prone region?’ A city that can’t fix a sidewalk won’t spend money building a levy that might thwart a flood in the future. And, after all, a decent-sized storm is a great opportunity for looters. The city remains as unprepared as it was in 1965 when Hurricane Betsy struck. The Mayor, Vic Schiro, in a forlorn effort to prevent panic, told TV and radio audiences: ‘Don’t believe any false rumours, unless you hear them from me’. The mayor at the time of Katrina, Ray Nagin, is in jail and will be for quite some time, as a result of his profiteering from that unfortunate event. There is a joke that highlights the level of corruption among these upstanding citizens. ‘Mayors should be limited to two terms. One in office. One in jail’.

Soon I’ll venture out to meet Kirsha for lunch. I’ll walk through the French Quarter, and I’m sure to hear some jazz, and it will be good enough to present on stage at Mona. It might be played by itinerants, or by Japanese visitors (who also dominate the bluegrass scene). I’ll see the colonial architecture, French, then Spanish, then French again. The Quarter has been falling down for over two hundred years, and I strongly suspect it will be falling down for the next two hundred. It is ‘elegantly wasted’, in a Keith Richards sort of way. And I’ll wander through the Marigny to the Bywater, names that reference the majestic but malevolent Mississippi, past the train crossing where the bullets bit into the bums. I’ll walk from there in the middle of the road, because the sidewalks, as I’ve said already, are barely traversable. And as I’ve also said, the roads aren’t much better, but that just slows cars down and thus makes it safe to walk among the traffic. I’ll pass a sign that says ‘Open seven days, Monday till Saturday’, and another that says, ‘Sorry, we are open’. If I walk quickly behind any young ladies, they will cross the road, harbouring suspicions that I might be a mugger (or a bum plugger). And I’ll get to our rendezvous point, a hippy cafe on a hippy street, and I’ll have a pear and brie sandwich, and it will be one of the tastiest sandwiches I’ve ever had. And the birds will chirp, and the bees will buzz, and the sun will shine, and I will ponder the wonder that is New Orleans, and will revel in the joy that wells up in me, as I notice that it isn’t such a small world, after all.

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.