O death, where is thy Sting?

By David Walsh

Who’d have thought thirty year ago we’d all be sittin’ here drinking Château de Chasselas, eh?

Monty Python, Four Yorkshiremen, 1974

Giant steps are what you take
Walking on the moon
I hope my legs don’t break
Walking on the moon

The Police, Walking on the Moon, 1979

In late ’79 or early ’80 I first heard Walking on the Moon, at a bar at Wrest Point Casino in Hobart, in the very early, desperate days of my gambling. I was stunned by the song, not the first time that The Police had that effect on me. But I said to my mate, ‘Why would your legs be more likely to break on the moon, just because the reduced gravity makes you take giant steps. It’s ridiculous.’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘it isn’t ridiculous. If you had been on the moon for some time, your bone density would be considerably reduced, so breakages would be more common when exerting the same forces, like the ones that allow you to take normal-sized steps on Earth, and giant leaps on the moon.’ Chastened, I listened to the rest of the song, and from then on paid more attention to Sting’s career.

Thirty years later I name dropped into an alternate universe when I found myself drinking (proverbial) Château de Chasselas with Sting and his wife, Trudie. They came to Mona and asked to have lunch with me. Fortunately, and coincidentally, I had seen Sting in concert (for the first time) about a week before so I had something to talk about. He had something to talk about too – he had read my book. But unlike others who claim to have read my book, he had read my book. In particular, he was interested in the chapter on the organisation and management of capital (‘The evolution of investment’) and he thought I should form a political party based around those ideas. I was gratified, of course. I have thought about entering politics a great deal but decided against it because: I don’t know that I can achieve any more ‘inside the barrel pissing out than outside the barrel pissing in’ (to quote my brother); I don’t like living to someone else’s schedules; I don’t like the idea of living in Canberra; I don’t handle criticism well; and I don’t know what I’m talking about (some might suggest that that last point means I’m ideally suited to politics).

When Trudie suggested that it was time for them to leave I asked, ‘What time is your flight?’ Trudie and Sting glanced at each other but said nothing. Later I realised that they said nothing because the only thing they could have said would have been, ‘Whatever time we want. It’s our plane’, but they were much too polite to say that.

Interval the first.

Donna Smith: Donna was my housekeeper, and my friend. I knew her for eight years and yet never had a reason to be annoyed with her. Conversely, she had many reasons to be annoyed with me, but never was. Three days before she died of breast cancer, I picked up her daughter Celeste so she could spend some time with my daughter, Grace. Donna was sick, but defiant. She had been told the end was near but insisted she could have handled more chemo. My wife, Kirsha, and I were then about two months away from the birth of our daughter Sunday. Donna wanted to talk about that. She told me to have two children, quickly. She thought that that made each child more balanced. She thought a lot about my welfare. Three days before she died she was still concerned about the concerns of others.

Mark O’Rourke: Mark worked for a gambling services company that used to place bets for us. His metal-head, swinging, pill-popping, party lifestyle never interfered with his professional performance or competence, but it may have interfered with his life expectancy.

At one of his swingers parties Mark introduced a colleague to an attractive young lady, who was to become his kept mistress. His wife became aware of his perfidious behaviour, however, because his opportunistic paramour wrote a book about their affair, titled Sugarbabe. (Holly Hill?)

Although he pushed boundaries Mark managed to elude epic failures of this type (until his death), because he was unfailingly respectful of other’s choices.

Interval the second.

Kirsha, an American in Tasmania, was astonished to find that the beautiful River Derwent is contaminated with heavy metals. Unlike locals (me) she could not take the state of the river for granted and she launched into a series of awareness-generating art projects. When the University of Tasmania architecture school failed to give her the support she desired, her response was to contact M.I.T. Her temerity astonished me, but I was more astonished when M.I.T. readily agreed to participate in her project.

I wrote a poem about life and death, and Donna and Mark. I liked it and I sent it to my erstwhile collaborator, Dean Stevenson. He didn’t reply. Embittered by Dean’s indifference, but emboldened by Kirsha’s arrogance, I sent my poem to Sting, the biggest musical name for whom I could conjure an email address, asking if he would set it to music. To my astonishment and delight, he agreed to be my musical M.I.T.

Here’s the poem:

Donna Smith died today
Not in a dramatic way
Gentle into the night she went.
Now she is just chemistry
Yesterday a complex entity
When death has this proximity
Sentimentally, I lament

That something so complex, something so whole
Could no longer be, makes it easy to see why so many
Cling to the notion that they have a soul
Immortal, immutable, incorruptible – indisputably
It just must be so – if it isn’t what’s the point, they need to know.
But there isn’t a purpose, life’s a circus, no one gets a safety net,
And I say all that without regret.

For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

Mark O’Rourke died last week
His death preserved his mystique
Against the night his rage maintained
Now he is just bone and skin
Force of life not within
The times, they sure are changin’ him
And with his end, I’m changed.

For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

And you’ll die one day soon
Hemingway in the afternoon
Or Agatha, dead, in denial
But until then we’ll live a lie
Act as though we’ll never die
Seasons not in short supply
Never go out of style.

For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

Why is it that we worry?
Our history makers are not forgotten
Their tombs are grand, their remains are rotten.

Plato, Sappho, and Galileo
Picasso and Caravaggio
Newton’s gone and Einstein too
And millions with Chairman Mao.
People died of influenza
Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.
(But not Oskar Kokoschka
He lingered on a little longer.)
Lincoln and London and Lenin and Lennon
The Strength of the Strong to Imagine no heaven.
In World War Two and in World War One
Men lived by the sword, died by the gun
Died like heroes, or on the run.
Jesus Christ was crucified
I wasn’t there when he died
But I believe it’s mostly true
Maybe he didn’t die that way
But he is not around today
Because he was mortal just like you.

But still we worry
Still we resolve
To not die young
But to not get old
To wake up tomorrow
Same as today
To feel some sorrow
Then go on our way
And all we can say for Donna and Mark
They saw the light but can’t see in the dark.

But…
For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

But Donna’s still dead,
And briefly I’ll think about her
Sing a song of a world without her.
And then, instead
Her death will serve as a reminder
That I’m not too far behind her.

Sting stymied me by sending back sheet music. I can’t read music. But I have friends that can. Here’s what Dean, now a willing participant (‘With all due respect, I’m not doing a shit job on a Sting tune’), made of Sting’s delightful gesture (with a little help from his friends):

So, here I am, fortunate to not be dead, fortunate to have had my time on Earth overlap with Donna’s and Mark’s and fortunate to have collaborated with someone I admire who needs only one name. Elizabeth, my blog colleague, opined that having done this, I should never do anything again.

Stupid

By David Walsh

The museum urn collection is stupidly growing, and its growing is stupefying me. I’m exhausted and sad and sick of being serious. Exploration and explanation will come later, if at all. I’m posting something frivolous.

It may come as some surprise to you that it is possible to read even if all words have their vowels replaced by a marker, in essence meaning that all vowels are represented by a single vowel. With practice it is feasible to read a text even if the vowels are removed altogether.

The reason English has written vowels is that ancient Greek had written vowels. And the reason early Greek had written vowels is that they didn’t have as many spoken consonants. This became significant when the Greeks co-opted the Phoenician script. Phoenicians didn’t write vowels, but they had more letters than the Greeks has consonants. The Greeks put the excess letters to good use as representatives of vowel sounds.

S f y cn rd ths y mght hv md a gd Phncn. -nd -f y- c-n’t r-d th-s c-n c-ll y- -n -d-t w-th -mp-n-ty.

If all that is so, and it is, why do newspapers print expletives with a ‘*’, instead of a vowel? Is there anyone that can read, who is otherwise insufficiently well informed so as to be unable to perform a much-simplified version of the transformation that all literate Phoenicians performed as a matter of course?

Do those f*cking c*nts think we are f*cking morons, or what?

Springs eternal

By David Walsh

I’ve been telling tales of death recently. At the risk of reinforcing what I believe to be an unfortunate stereotyping of my interests, here’s another. Just now I rang Jacqui, friend, singer, yoga instructor and, on the end of the phone, sadness personified. This, despite an attempt to conceal her suffering: as always she wants all to feel only good. With prompting she told me her friend had died.

Jacqui had asked for treatment advice for her sick friend. She told me that they had collected some cash to send this friend to an ‘alternate cancer therapist’, Ian Gawler, a long-term survivor of cancer and advocate of ‘mind-body’ medicine. I don’t know if I have accumulated sufficient audience attention, as yet, to not need to mention that I see no merit in such treatments. Survivors survive, and they maintain a dignified silence, or offer advice and therapies, depending on their state of mind before their status as a survivor was assured. Most don’t survive (actually that isn’t literally true, half of those diagnosed with cancer do survive). And some, but very few, haven’t survived at all, but have fabricated their disease and recovery. Noticing that cancer sufferers have little to lose, they peddle false hope for real money. This asymmetry – little downside but considerable upside – is verdant territory for a scammer to graze.

Despite all that, and now all this, I didn’t know how to respond. I muddled through by suggesting that the therapy was unlikely to work, but that they give her the money anyway; maybe send her on a holiday. But I accepted, and accept, that hope, even hopeless, desperate hope, springs eternal.

And that makes me mindful of a perversion of reason I used to subscribe to. I used to think granting the wishes of dying kids was a poor way to spend donated dollars. ‘Look after those who will continue living,’ I mentally admonished them. Now I stand astonished at my insensitivity, and my incapacity to reason my way around such simple moral obstacles. Each day alive is a day to be celebrated, if it holds any possibility of giving the liver of that day some pleasure. The cousin of my nephew went to a Clipper’s game in LA not long before he died, as a guest of Make A Wish foundation. The thrill of a lifetime and, for him at least, set to remain so. Surely a good thing remains a good thing when those who experienced and enjoyed it have died? Even if all memory has been erased? After all I, for one, do believe that the tree made a sound when it fell in the forest, even though no one heard.

My outrageous resistance to organisations like Make A Wish wasn’t just the result of immature reasoning (and at all moments in a life the receding opinions of earlier moments will seem immature). I had many opportunities to form different opinions. Years ago I read a great but obscure book of the human condition, Towards Asmara, within which was all the moral guidance I needed. During the most memorable moment of this most memorable novel, children are slowly starving as the Ethiopian Civil War, and famine, rages around them. The narrator has a conversation with the protagonist concerning the kids learning French and English as they slowly dwindle; as their bodies are distorted by kwashiorkor or marasmus, their minds remain vessels to be filled. They live each little bit of each little day for itself, having no other option. They learn to say ‘hello’. And ‘goodbye’.

Why that wasn’t sufficient to set me straight, I don’t know. And it wasn’t my only opportunity. Much earlier, I had read Fritz Leiber’s romantic science fiction tale, A pail of air, which memorably begins, ‘Pa had sent me out to get an extra pail of air.’ Earth, having been extracted from its orbit by a passing star, is now beyond the orbit of Pluto. A family lingers on, apparently the only people on Earth. They thaw oxygen to breathe. ‘Pa’ contends that

no matter how long the human race might have lived, the end would have come some night. Those things don’t matter. What matters is that life is good. It has a lovely texture, like some rich cloth or fur, or the petals of flowers… or the fire’s glow. It makes everything else worth while. And that’s as true for the last man as the first.

Our biological compulsion isn’t simply to propagate our race, it is more cunning than that. It is to build in the pleasure of living, and the pleasure of seeking to propagate. Most sexual liaisons have no possibility of producing offspring. But they do produce pleasure, and sometimes bind relationships more strongly. Maybe that’s why Leiber persecuted a whole family within his elegantly contrived allegory.

The other day Phillip Adams (and I harvest some pleasure at dropping such a name, but it stemmed from an interview, not a friendship) asked me if I fear death. I answered then, and mentioned to Jacqui just now, that I fear dying, as my biological nature compels me to, but that I contrive, through my evolution-given capacity to reason my way through my world, to see it as an undesirable side effect of the astonishing good fortune of having been born in the first place. The uncountable generations of successful matings since nature’s invention of sex over a billion years ago; the freakish chance of the one of my father’s sperm meeting the one of my mother’s eggs that were each able, through forthcoming fusion, to contain me therein; and the events since, that prevented my dying while allowing this moment and this thought.

To characterise all this more immediately and personally: an incompetent doctor, despite having been informed of my mother’s allergy, used penicillin to treat a minor infection. My mothers illness, and my parent’s anger at his blunder was soon tempered by their becoming aware of an impossible pregnancy, mum having been cured on an infection that had been surreptitiously preventing conception. My sister followed nine months later; I, third in line, emerged reasonably healthy seven years layer, but showing some of the characteristics (fortunately) that are associated with parturition beyond the age of forty. That the probability of my being alive will one day become zero doesn’t in any way change the fact that now that probability is one. Why should my boundless joy be tempered by comprehension of the most basic mathematics?

At Mona we have recently been working on exhibitions that reflect the involvement of evolution in art. That art is universal, and predates most of our cultural constructs, suggests that it is not only built into us, but also good for us (some theorists even assert that our capacity for cognition evolved to expand our capacity for creativity). One speculation is that storytelling, the creation of narrative fiction, allows us to learn to construct possible futures and react to them; to plan. I certainly had all the tools, through these stories and others, to produce a more reasoned ethical self. That I didn’t is a condemnation only of my use of these tools, not the tools themselves. But, here and now, the evolution of the propensity to tell stories, and to gain from them, compels me to observe that all that I believe may be overturned by future learning. If I think that everything I thought twenty years ago was flawed, why not extrapolate that in twenty years I will probably believe that most of what I think now is crap? I’m not suggesting that our lives are narrative and thus contain no reality, just that opinions ebb and flow. Only as a group do we make progress, and acquire knowledge. But if I advocate self-doubt, and I do, why write down something that I may come to believe was errant? I guess the answer to that is that I need feedback for my opinions to be fully constructed. To my surprise, Mona blog gives me that. When Elizabeth suggested it, I resisted. But I’ve learned. So now, when she asked me to write something, I groped about for inspiration, and as always it came from the way recent events have improved my accordance with verity. Jacqui’s friend kept a blog, which I only just now became aware of, within which there are many personal verities, and some things I read as larger truths. From an entry three months ago she reifies my notion of people living while they live, and continuing to attend to the things that make them feel human, and embody humanity; thus, just three months ago she would still ‘pout and wonder whether any true great love stories will ever involve a 30-something year-old girl with a diagnosis of stage 4 cancer and another soul who can see past that and love her right back anyway.’

The author of the book I mentioned before, Towards Asmara, is Thomas Kenneally, who also penned Schindler’s ark, on which the Steven Spielberg masterpiece Schindler’s list was based. My friend Martin Haywood, who has been the subject of a couple of blog entries from me, and whose probability of being alive recently fell by one, said of Schindler’s list: ‘I don’t want to watch such movies. I just want to know they are being made.’ Martin probably meant that we need to see our faults writ large. As a result of his demise, and his prior pattern of living with dignity, he has accidentally become the magnetic north of my moral compass, and so when his long-forgotten words renew my acquaintance, I allow them to direct my thoughts. We don’t just benefit from narratives that plot a possible future, we also gain from those that expose a moribund past. Selection will favour those who have a genetic propensity to learn from their mistakes. And also, as Kenneally and Leiber amply illustrate, from others’ mistakes. Our consciousness is extended by others, even (and often especially) dead others. And here I refer to the quote from Jacqui’s friend’s blog in the previous paragraph.

But evolution operates over a continuum of characteristics that contribute to a greater or lesser degree to our survival. Each of them individually, and together, participates in a strange sort of inverse statistical lottery, wherein luck giveth and luck taketh away. Yesterday Jacqui’s friend’s number came up. My numbers, and yours, haven’t. But we’re still enjoying the thrill of buying tickets.

They didn’t send Jacqui’s friend on a holiday. She had the alternate therapy which, for whatever reason, didn’t heal her. But it did empower her. Just three weeks ago she wrote:

Let me tell you that where I am at now is like having my feet on two very different paths. And it’s hard, but it’s real. One foot is on the reality path – the one with the CT scans, the doctors, the stupid tumours going bonkers, the daily morphine and pain meds… the other foot is on the spiritual, hopeful, optimistic, positive, determined healing path.

She died. But she did get a wish granted.

A few days ago I read in the Age about a terminally ill woman who had met her biological father, an anonymous sperm donor, whom she had been seeking for fifteen years. Despite her considerable effort that anonymity had been preserved until her cancer diagnosis had induced government intervention. She met her father and, as the article recounted, ‘There was an instant connection – how could there not be?’

That article appeared on March 17.  Then, on March 27, Jacqui was sad, because her friend, Narelle Grech, who had just met her father, died the day before. Her father, who one month ago didn’t know he had a daughter is, presumably, distraught. And all the better for it.

Life’s greatest invention

Last night my friend Martin hugged me twice. The first was the normal friend-departing sort of cuddle. The second had a distant intimacy, and I immediately recognised that paradox as a marker for the mindset that enabled it – Martin had identified, and then inadvertently transmitted to me, that this was the last time we would see each other.

Once, during the second third of our lives, we had been very close. Although the contact had petered out (in fact I didn’t see him for the last three years) we were still fast friends.

We didn’t see each other for the last three years because Martin moved to North Carolina from Tasmania, following a dream – or it might have been a fantasy. He won’t be going home. He has pancreatic cancer and, unless he manages to die of something else in the next few months, it will be the cause of his demise.

It turns out that the most common cause of pancreatic cancer, adenocarcinoma, allots you just four months from diagnosis. Strangely, having drawn the shortest of short straws in this dastardly lottery, you are better off pulling off another long shot. The rarer form of pancreatic cancer is survivable. But Martin hit the diabolical jackpot only once.

There is a form of chemotherapy that gives you a bit more than four months but it can be horrible. Martin tried it, and then he decided he would rather be human and soon dead than a shell of himself but dead slightly less soon. A brave decision for most people, not for Martin. For him it was obvious. The need to spend ‘quality time’ with the kids and wife was obvious, and paramount.

So now I’m on a plane, bound for New Orleans, a city that promises debauched fun, but this time it also promises guilt. Each fried thing or sazerac that I gulp down will remind me that Martin can only tolerate his body because he gulps morphine, ironically one of the debaucheries practiced by many of New Orleans’ transients, and not a few of its denizens. And he will gulp morphine and he will suffer and he will sleep and he will be confused and he will struggle to shit and he will die. Just like my brother, twenty years ago, he will die.

And I will think about him and feel sadness and grief, and a cocktail of guilt and relief that it wasn’t me, and the eruptions of grief and guilt will, over the great deal of time that I imagine is available to me, be fewer, and farther between. And then I will die. And then we all will die.

And all that doesn’t matter. Because each moment is a tool. I sharpened my tools with Martin when we argued about infinity, and when we out-implemented each other’s algorithms, and when we ran out of petrol after driving 200 kilometres to get a milkshake, and when he reminded me that we ran out of petrol thirty-three years later, and when he hugged me, bearing the burden of his mortality, and thus imparting to me the certainty of mine.

Our bubbles will all burst. Last night I watched his thinning, but as it thinned the light shone more brightly through.

-David Walsh