Monday 30 November 2015

Final day in the hospital for mum, at least for now

... because she will probably get an infection again at some point in time.

She was restless when I arrived this morning at about 11am, and was trying to get out of bed but was being frustrated because the nurses had put up the side rails to stop her getting out. Unlike on the previous two days she wasn't very verbal this time, just unhappy with her predicament. By the end, before she dropped off to sleep finally, she was saying every 30 seconds or so, "Where am I?" "In the hospital," I would answer. "You said that but I don't know where I am," she would reply.

There was a bit of confusion about whether mum would be going home today or not. At first, the senior nurse in the ward came and told me that she would be going home today. But then the treating doctor - who had not been around on the weekend - came through the ward seeing his patients. He discussed mum's situation with a junior and then told me he was keeping mum in the ward for another day because she was disoriented, which might have indicated the infection was still present.

"The head nurse told me she was going home today," I answered. He said that he was concerned that she still had the infection. After the doctor had gone away I went back to the head ward nurse and told her what he had said. She told me she would talk with the doctor. About 15 minutes later, during which time I heard them talking in the background while I sat by mum's bed, she came back to tell me that the doctor had cleared mum to leave the ward today. "I'm like you," she said, "I think your mum would be better off in an environment she is familiar with."

By this time mum was sleeping, Earlier, she had been quite agitated and as well as trying to get out of bed she had been balling her fists and shaking them in frustration. At that time I had tried to calm her down by talking with her. When they first told me mum would be going back to the nursing home today, for example, I relayed the new information to her. "That's a terrible place," she said to me. My stomach sank. Mum had always said that she was ok living at the nursing home. "I was being nice," she said to me now. "You always said that you liked it," I remonstrated desperately. "I know all that, I know," she said.

"Oh darling, it's not a question of liking it," she went on. "So you don't want to go back there?" "I don't know, I don't care." She said she wasn't going to be comfortable in the hospital. "Where am I?" she asked again. "In the hospital," I answered.

When lunch came I was still sitting in the visitor's chair watching her sleep and playing with my mobile phone. The orderly brought mum's lunch on a tray and put it on the table next to her bed. But mum was asleep. The nurse who had earlier come to give mum her intravenous antibiotics had told me that mum had not slept at all during the night. I sat next to the cooling plate of hot food - it was pasta and pureed sweet potato, and looked quite appetising - and thought to myself that I should get some food to eat as well. I went down to the canteen and bought a meat pie and a bottle of orange juice. I ate the pie on the outside furniture before going back into the ward.

Sunday 29 November 2015

Mum recovered has its own problems

This is a photo of a rather impish-looking mum that I took today when she was in her hospital bed after she had had two cups of coffee and was waiting for lunch. I stayed with her while she ate lunch then I left and came home. I have to admit that this travelling to the hospital every day is quite exhausting.

More exhausting perhaps is the fact that mum recovered from the chest infection has its own problems. The thing is that the infection - which is largely dismissed now, although she is still coughing a bit - appears to have made mum's dementia worse.

The hospital called me this morning for example at about 9am before I had got out of bed. They had handed mum the phone so she came on immediately and started recounting how she was at loggerheads with the staff who would not let her leave. "I have a mind to call the police, although of course I would never do that," she told me at one point in her diatribe. Because that was what this was: a diatribe against the staff whom she had taken a dislike to.

She didn't know where her clothes were, or her shoes, or her handbag (although she had been brought to the hospital in an ambulance). She wanted to get out and she wouldn't take "no" for an answer. I got out of bed and made coffee, then I headed straight up the motorway to the hospital in the car.

When I arrived she was wheeling a wheeled walker around the ward. It contained on top a sketch book and a white hospital blanket. The staff looked relieved that I had come, and I took her back to her bed and sat her down and poured out the coffee that I had brought for her - I had bought two coffees at the kiosk in addition to my breakfast, a cheese-and-hem croissant - so that she could sit down and relax. She had made some drawings, it appeared, in her drawing book. She showed them to me. I didn't really know what to make of them other than they were relatively realistic. "They're lovely, mum," I said.

She sat down in the chair situated next to the hospital bed and talked. I sat back in the visitor's chair and listened, interjecting every now and then to set her straight. The story was confused but at least the delusion she had yesterday - that we had suddenly rematerialised in New Zealand - had gone away. Instead she rambled on about this and that and none of it made any sense whatever. This despite the fact that the infection seems to have disappeared due to the administration of antibiotics through her arm. (They had put in a new canula for the liquids to her forearm this morning; the previous one she had pulled out.) But now I am wondering if the delusions are going to go away after she returns to the relatively well-known confines of the nursing home, or if they're going to stay.

Let's hope that she settles down once she is back in her familiar surroundings. The way things are now though the hopsital needs to have someone stationed at mum's bed looking after her all the time. It's not just that she might pull the canula out of her arm again. It's that she might just wander off and abscond. I cannot imagine what that would look like: a little old lady in a hospital gown and orange ward socks walking down the street with a wheeled walker muttering to herself about catching the bus and having no money.

Saturday 28 November 2015

Book review: The Girl In the Spider's Web, David Lagercrantz (2015)

There was some controversy about this book being ghost-written by a new author years after the death of Stieg Larsson - who wrote the three original books in the 'Millennium trilogy' about the adventures of Lisbeth Salander - but you'd have to agree that Lagercrantz is probably a better writer than Larsson was.

What's clear however is that the pacing of events and the way information is introduced into the narrative is quite different in this new novel, compared to how those things were performed in the original novels. For a start Lagercrantz is forced to bring forward a bunch of old detail in order to generate continuity in the series. Somehow this novel has to tie in with the original novels. And in the plot that is done partly by making the new enemy Lisbeth's twin sister, Camilla.

But although those rhetorical devices make some parts of the new book a bit clumsy the problem lies deeper. It has to do with authorial voice. The thing is that for all his good intentions - and he talks about the size of his task in an afterword - Lagercrantz was not able to emulate Larsson's sometimes stilted but ultimately high-toned way of adjusting our ethical foundations to fit the purposes of his books. The new book just doesn't impact on the reader's imagination in the same way as the old ones did. It's much smoother than they were, I'll grant you, but something else important is lost along with Larsson's sometimes goofy delivery.

The major elements of a new 'Millennium' book are all there. You have hacking, a murder, an autistic savant, a high-level plot to commit crime (this time led by the NSA, in a topical move by the book's planners), a battered wife, and an insane psychopath. Then you have the usual suspects, including Mikael Blomkvist, the famed journalist who still works at Millennium magazine but who has come in for a bit of stick for being "behind the times", Erica Berger, his faithful love-interest and Millennium's editor, and of course the inscrutable and mostly silent Salander herself.

Because I was a fan of the first three books it was not difficult to decide whether to buy and read this book. I found this one a bit dire, however, and very nearly put it aside due to the horror some parts of it inspired in my imagination. It is a gruesome book in many ways, and includes a brutal scene of torture that many might find repulsive. But while the despicable Camilla is an ideal foe for Lisbeth, our heroine struggles mightily as you'd imagine. There are a few new favourites who might reappear if there should ever be another book in the franchise, including Ed Needham, an NSA security expert, Gabriella Grane, a Sapo operative who leaves the agency at the end of the book, and Alona Casales also of the NSA.

Friday 27 November 2015

The washing machine was not broken

... but I thought it was at first.

I had come back from seeing mum at the hospital having put the machine on to wash in the morning before leaving in the car. The load of washing was not finished and there was an error code I did not recognise flashing on the display. The machine's door was locked. The clothes looked wet. I had no idea at what stage in the wash the machine had stopped working.

I turned off the machine and turned it on again. I switched the control to a short spin cycle that includes a quick rinse and pressed "start". Nothing happened. The machine made a groaning noise but did nothing useful. I switched off the machine again and tried to open its door but it would not open. I switched the control to "drain" and pressed "start". Nothing happened. The machine made an odd noise but the clothes did not move.

I eventually got the door open and I took the sopping-wet clothes out and put them in the plastic laundry basket. There were about two inches of dirty, brown water in the bottom of the drum. I got my phone and called the number on the sticker affixed to the front of the machine, for service. I made an appointment for the following Wednesday and went back to finish the lunch I had interrupted to attend to the recalcitrant machine. But I wasn't happy so after finishing my sandwich I went back to the machine and pulled it out from its slot a short distance. I reached into the sink cupboard and disconnected the drainage hose from the spigot on the plumbing fixture. I pulled the drainage hose out of the cupboard under the sink, all the while using my other hand to guide it out from inside.

When it was disconnected and free I reconnected it the way it had been connected before the handyman had the bright idea of threading it through the new hole he had cut in bottom of the sink cabinet. (He had cut the hole to enable the hot-water valve to turn off, something I had been asked to do by a company that wanted to change the hot-water meter.)

After reconnecting the drainage hose to the plumbing fixture through the door of the cupboard - the handyman had thought he was doing me a favour by rerouting the drainage hose through the new hole in the bottom of the cupboard - I switched the washing machine control to "drain" and pressed the "start" button. The machine started to drain. After all the dirty washing water had drained out of it I put the wet clothes back in the machine and switched its control to "rinse and spin" and pressed "start"; the clothes were soon ready to dry, so I separated them into shirts and the rest and began to dry the clothes in the dryer. I called the service company and cancelled the service appointment I had made.

Thursday 26 November 2015

Mum in hospital for fourth time this year

Today I spent about two-and-a-half hours at Ryde Hospital, from about 10am until around 12.30pm. I first got the phone call this morning at around 8am from the nursing home saying that mum had not improved and that they were calling the ambulance. I phoned the nursing home back later in the morning, after I had gotten up and had some coffee, to confirm it was Ryde Hospital she had been taken to.

I waited until the traffic had improved a bit before setting out this morning in the car on the motorway. The traffic actually doesn't settle down until about 10am but I left well before that. It was a bit slow getting over the bridge. After I arrived at the hospital and found a carparking space I bought a ham-and-cheese croissant from the canteen and ate it on the outside furniture, then went into the Emergency Department. They took me inside straight away.

I spoke with a nurse initially and they said that mum had an infection but that they weren't sure where it was located. I sat down to wait and one of the ED admin staff came and got me to sign some forms. A bit later a doctor came along and we talked. He brought my attention to mum's advance health directive and we talked about what should and shouldn't be done in case mum's condition worsened but to be frank I'm not sure how useful I was since I don't know much about hospital procedures. From when I arrived inside the ED mum was sleeping most of the time. The staff were mainly worried about her low blood pressure.

I sat in the corner of the ED room on a black plastic swivel chair and sent and read messages on my mobile. Another doctor came along and we discussed mum's situation. She had sepsis and her blood pressure wasn't improving despite medication using antibiotics. I went outside to the canteen and bought a flat white and drank most of it outside on the outdoor furniture before going back inside to the ED waiting room.

They called my name after a while and told me they were taking mum upstairs to a ward. I followed the nurse inside the ED and an orderly came and packed mum's equipment up in preparation for the move. We went to an elevator and went up a level before stopping and getting out. I was immediately asked who I was by a tall woman with completely white hair - it must have been bleached - and I introduced myself. The ED nurse came along behind me and we went into the ward. The orderly brought mum's bed and installed it in an empty room.

After mum had been set up the same tall nurse came along for the handover done by the ED nurse and after that was finished she talked to me about mum's advance health directive. I told her I wasn't really sure what kind of procedures would be likely to be excluded by it. I asked what mum's chances were and she said, "If she's been getting worse since she's been in here the prognosis is not good." I told the nurse I would leave and come back in the morning, and I left the hospital. The steering wheel in the car was scorching hot as the vehicle had been sitting in full sun all morning. The aircon soon cooled it down.

Wednesday 25 November 2015

A fever and a delerium

Today when I went up to the nursing home to see mum I received a phone call on my mobile just as I was about to enter the building. It was the nursing home calling. They wanted to tell me that mum was not feeling well and that she had refused to eat breakfast this morning.

I went in the building and bumped into the assistant manager who took me in the lift upstairs to the nurse's station. She told me that mum had had a short blackout with her head on the dining table during breakfast and that the staff had taken mum back to her room and put her in bed with a light covering over her body. She wasn't sure what had happened. One of the nurses was at the nurse's station too. She told me that they might be able to get the GP to see mum today, even though the GP normally only comes on Thursdays.

I went to mum's room in company with the assistant manager and there was mum tucked up in bed. I put down my pork roll - which I had bought at the bakery just before arriving at the nursing home - and had a look at the patient. She seemed to be sleeping. She was lying on her bed with her eyes closed and a sheet over her. When we came into the room she opened her eyes and looked at us. She seemed feeble and a bit wafty, and did not greet me with a smile as she usually does.

I took leave of mum briefly, telling her that I had to go back to the car to get a book I had brought for her to look at, and walked back outside. I got the book from the car and went back up to mum's room. I handed her the book and then took my pork roll and sat down in the visitor's chair to eat it. Mum started leafing through the book, which is a catalogue from the art gallery exhibition I saw on the weekend with a friend. But after about five minutes she put the book down, turned her head to the side, and closed her eyes. She was soon asleep.

I did a Periscope broadcast of mum later, when she had woken up and after I had finished the pork roll (which was delicious; I had had little breakfast). You can see it here. You can see that mum was not quite right in the head today and she talked about a range of things that were either imaginary or that I did not completely understand. The nursing staff think this time it might be pneumonia because mum has a wet cough today. In the past, the UTIs mum had that put her in hospital did not induce delerium like this, but instead just basically knocked her off her feet, making it impossible for her to communicate in any form with anyone around her. This time it is different.

Tuesday 24 November 2015

Let's launch a TV panel show for dramas and their issues

Panel shows are enjoying an unprecedented moment on contemporary free-to-air TV in Australia, when we have such great offerings as The Project from Channel Ten as well as the ABC's The Drum, Q & A, and Gruen. In fact, Q & A has become so dominant in its late-night timeslot that there's invariably a Fairfax write-up the next day. It used to be only if something particularly striking had been said the night before but it's now every Tuesday without fail on the SMH home page.

What I'm thinking of here in this blogpost is to suggest a panel show featuring experts and arty types gathered together to deconstruct the major issues raised by Australian TV drama, be it on commercial TV or on the ABC or SBS. Just imagine a show like Gruen - the panel show dedicated to discussing all things to do with advertising - except all the panel talks about is issues raised in Australian TV dramas.

Take for example, The Beautiful Lie, the ABC vehicle starring the fabulous Sarah Snook that just finished on Sunday night. The show was written with its basis in Tolstoy's great realist novel of the mid-19th century, Anna Karenina. But rather than showing how the Russian gentry lived it showed us a slice of real middle class Australian life. At the end of the final episode Anna suicides. So there's the handle, the main issue of the series. Or, rather, that is one of the issues that the show deals with, because there's also why Anna Ivens decided to take her own life on a train track. In fact there are a lot of issues to talk about.

I think this kind of format show would be very popular. Especially nowadays when you have so many people participating in public discussions of TV dramas through social media. A show like this would give people another opportunity to interrogate the reasons why they liked or hated a particular character, or to talk about how one character did something in a certain way and not in another. There would be so many characters, so many situations and so many angles to discuss I don't know how you'd have enough time to deal with everything.

Monday 23 November 2015

TV review: The Beautiful Lie, episode 6, ABC (2015)

The reason why Anna in the end takes her own life is because noone thought she would, and so a lack of maturity and imagination lies at the root of society's inability to rid itself of this seductive curse. Anna for her part is full of imagination. She even has delusions that Skeet is back in her arms kissing her. But it's just that: an illusion. Skeet is miles away with his new girlfriend.

Once the property settlement comes through Anna is able to move into her own house but Skeet does not like living in the countryside, where she has chosen to reside. He spends less time at home. Meanwhile, Peter and Kitty are on the cusp of bringing new life into the world. The program's makers try to inject a touch of realism into the drama by making Skeet bump into Kitty at a bookshop. Then Peter and Anna drunkenly flirt. But it's not enough to stop the onward rush of the vehicle all these actors find themselves trapped in.

Dolly and Kingsley, having gone through their own troubles early on in the piece, end up being the ideal couple, addicted to their au pair and probably a few other things besides. We don't ask and they won't tell us. I remain staunch in my early appraisal of Celia Pacquola as the stand-out in this short series. It wasn't a bad series, just a tad too sentimental. Thankfully it was not infected with the same disease that taints Australian theatre, the "fuck" disease, where every character is a potential junkie and they all say "fuck" a lot. At least we were spared exposure to an entirely mundane abomination.

There were moments of real beauty in this TV series but in the end the book that inspired it deserves to remain a bit smug. This attempt at recreating in a modern Australian setting one of the great dramas of world literature was brave and aspirational. I give it that. It is just in the end the people who made it didn't really believe in the probability of Anna's death. It had to come in earlier. And we needed to have more from Skeet, who ended up being quite a thin invention. More substance at this pressure point might have given Anna's tragic end a greater sense of gravitas.

Sunday 22 November 2015

Exhibition review: The Greats: Masterpieces From the National Galleries of Scotland, AG NSW (2015)

This is a detail from one of the true gems of this curious little exhibition that seems have to have been staged out of nowhere. (But what a good idea it was!) Here is a clip from Sir Joseph Paton's 1847 The reconciliation of Oberon and Titania. Readers might remember the fairy paintings in Australia of Ida Rentoul Outhwaite or Pixie O'Harris. Well, this is from one of the originals of the genre, and it shows a scene imagined from one of Shakespeare's plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream. Shakespeare of course became hugely popular in the 19th century after being "rediscovered" by the early Romantics, who worshipped at his bountiful altar. The habit became longstanding.

It's this kind of thing that you find in this odd showing of paintings from Scotland. There's a Da Vinci drawing, a Botticelli, a Titian and other priceless objects from a time when collecting art belonged to the realm of the gentleman.

Good works from the 15th, 16th, 17th and especially 18th centuries are set off wonderfully by a plethora of nice stuff from the 19th century, including some wonderful impressionist paintings by such artists as Gauguin, Pissaro and Monet.

It's the kind of thing that Australia should have, and probably if you went scrounging round all the state galleries in Australia you'd come up with something of equal quality and breadth. But when you remember that the impressionists were painting at a time when there was no public art gallery in Australia of any kind whatsoever, you remember how it used to be back in the bad old days. And these days you need a lot of money to do things that in those days you only needed good taste to achieve.

Going on a Sunday was probably not the best idea, because it was quite crowded. Better to go during the week when there are fewer guided groups and just less people in aggregate. Things can get a bit squeezy. Adult entrance fee is $22.

Friday 20 November 2015

Getting mum's fingernails cut, finally

Early last week when I went up to the nursing home I noticed that mum's fingernails were getting quite long. So I walked down to the nursing station and asked someone there if they could make sure someone went to mum's room and cut her nails. It's a major task to ask an elderly person to do because they don't usually have the strength in their hands or the manual dexterity to use either nail clippers or nail scissors properly. For the record, mum also has someone who comes regularly to look after her feet. Getting down the the feet with the necessary tools is clearly well past the ability of an elderly person, so that is a task that is delegated to a specialised person who comes to the nursing home from time to time for this narrow purpose.

Looking after fingernails however is something that can be done by one of the nursing staff who works in the nursing home full-time. Later last week when I came back to see mum I noticed that she still had not had her fingernails cut, so I mentioned it to one of the staff at the front desk on her floor. They assured me it would get done.

But when I came back to see mum again today after not having seen her since Tuesday - when we had to go to a doctor's appointment, and did not have time to think about finger nails - I found that her nails were longer than ever. The assistant manager of the nursing home stopped me in the ground-floor vestibule as I was entering the building and told me that when staff went to see mum to do her fingernails, she had told them not to do them too short.

I went back to mum's room and asked her if she remembered telling the staff not to cut her fingernails too short and she said, "No," meaning she didn't remember. I decided then and there to expedite things and so went back looking for the assistant manager, who I found again. "Let's do them now while I'm here, and if she complains about cutting them too short she can complain to me," I said to her. "Right, let's do it," she said. She took me back to the nurse's station and found a staffer with some free time, whom she instructed to go with me to do mum's fingernails.

We trooped back down the hall determined to do the deed, but when we got to mum's room the nurse could not find mum's wetpack with her instruments in it. She finally found it in another drawer in the bathroom and then got mum to sit in her easy-chair by the window. The staffer then proceeded to cut mum's fingernails, while all the time mum intently watched what she was doing, with a slightly pained look on her face, to make sure she did them without hurting her.

We got the fingernails clipped to a suitable length this afternoon. After the nurse had left the room, I asked mum how they looked and if they were now the right length. "Yes," she said, "That's good." I will keep an eye on them, and make sure I'm present next time we have to clip them back.

Thursday 19 November 2015

Suicide: breaking the last media taboo

It's sort of crazy to keep silent about the last taboo in the media - about suicide - because it does seem that progress is being made in some sectors. Witness for example the nice tribute put up yesterday by the ABC for Nic MacBean, an employee of that organisation who had lived with depression and had suicided as a result of that experience.

But then the story about rugby union legend Jonah Lomu, which also came out in the media yesterday, made you wonder about cause of death as none was explicitly stated in any of the stories (although his ongoing kidney problems suggest that complications associated with them might have been the direct cause).

That story actually reminded me of the stubborn silence surrounding the unexpected death of columnist Sam De Brito, which hit the front pages some weeks ago (and which made me suggest another reason for the death).

Although I haven't heard any opinions from experts talking about suicide refer to the MacBean story, it seemed to me to be how these sorts of things can start to be usefully discussed publicly. Sure, it is a bit schmaltzy and sentimental but that's to be expected once you start going down that path. In any case a bit of schmaltz is better than complete silence, which is what we usually get when suicide is the cause of death.

How ironic then - especially after I had voiced my concerns about the Lomu death on Twitter - that on the ABC's 7.30 program last night there was a story that ended up recommending that in Australia we publish regular suicide statistics, so that we can judge how we are going on the road to a safer future for all residents of the country. A terrific idea if not a complete no-brainer, I think.

While it is not illegal to suicide one's better instinct says that we collectively should do everything we can to prevent it. Of course, sometimes the idea of suicide seems so much less terrible than current reality, which accounts for its continued prevalence in society.

But another reason why keeping public records on suicide is a good idea is so that we can better discuss the issue among ourselves. And public discussion is often the first step toward arriving at good policy, or at least at agreeing on ways to address an issue that appears at first to resist a solution. Silence never helped anyone, and people living with mental illness know this better than anyone. Sometimes it makes all the difference just to be able to have a chat.

Wednesday 18 November 2015

Dealing with a wasp's nest on the balcony

This thing appeared a couple of weeks ago and at first I thought it was a butterfly sitting on the metal support on the balcony. At closer inspection it turned out to be a wasp's nest. For those two weeks there has almost always been a brown wasp in attendance, sitting protectively on the top of this little nest, or on its front facing into my living room.

But for the past two days I haven't seen the wasp anywhere. At times over the past two weeks I would look out from my living room and the wasp would not be there but it always returned to sit on the nest in its own familiar way. Now it is gone.

Two days ago I phoned the pest controllers and they are due to come out tomorrow to deal with this pest for me, but now it looks like the thing has gone away for good. I don't think any babies have been born from this nest. It has always only ever been the one adult, alone, looking after things. There have not been swarms of little wasps to terrify me even more.

The problem is that I am such a physical coward that something like a wasp's nest sets me off into absolute paroxysms of stupefied panic. I had absolutely no idea what to do when I first saw the thing, then I waited until the weekend finished before making the phone call to the pest controllers. We'll see what they say when they get here tomorrow morning. They'll probably laugh at me and say something like, "It's been too hot for wasps up this high recently, this one will have abandoned the nest." I'll still pay their fee, for sure.

Tuesday 17 November 2015

Optus, there's no place for hatred in Sydney's west

I was terribly disappointed today after reading a story about Optus ads on the SMH website following an outing when I took mum to the haematologist for her regular appointment. I have been taking mum to this blood doctor for over a year now and each time we go we learn she is going to live due to apposite use of medications. Then this story which shows up the narrow-mindedness of some parts of the community. What is the point of doing everything to prolongue life when all life is debased by such hatred and bigotry?

I find it incomprehensible that some people would object to Arabic ads used by the telecommunications provider. But I also don't really see the connection between Islam and the terrorist attacks that happened recently in Paris. All I see is a bunch of opportunistic criminals who debase the name of a religion to further their illegal aims. ISIS is no more representative of Islam than the bigots in western Sydney who complained to Optus about its Arabic ads are representative of the demographic I belong to. They are at polar opposites. I want nothing to do with either of them,

Now is a time for embracing our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, the people who are fleeing ISIS in their thousands seeking a safe haven in Europe. One of the better things the previous government did was to grant citizenship to 12,000 Syrians in Australia, and I would like to say to those people who are coming from so far away: be welcome in our land. Be comforted by our love of peace. Be peaceful in the bosom of our cities and towns. Work, and live, and strive, and thrive among us because we need you as much as you need us!

Monday 16 November 2015

TV review: The Beautiful Lie, episode 5, ABC (2015)

Peter's destiny lies at the centre of this episode as it is in this episode that he gets married and that his brother, Nick, dies in the aftermath of a stroke following years of heavy drinking.

As always, Peter is an interesting character because his destiny is in the balance even as Anna's life comes tumbling down around her. What kind of future will Peter have if Anna has these things happening in her life right now? How heavily can Peter rely on the institution of marriage if Anna's ends up being so fragile, a thing derailed by a simple extramarital affair?

So Anna in her red dress takes her new baby along to Peter's wedding, where everyone is obtusely dressed in white. She didn't know. Of course she finds herself absolutely unwelcome. Kitty rebels and storms out of the room. Peter stumbles around. Kingsley - Anna's brother and Dolly's husband - tries to mend the wound but is completely not up to the task. Nick's crisis at the wedding - expectorating gouts of bloody liquid from his throat all over Kitty's white dress - represents a kind of crisis in all of their lives. All of the people taking part in the wedding are facing different kinds of difficulty in their relationships, but the answer to their problems is nowhere to be found.

Nick finally dies in a spare bedroom in Peter's large house, surrounded by the grieving women. Peter finds it hard to face mortality, and no wonder when his future has in a real sense been cursed by Anna's infidelity. He finally finds his way to Nick's room. Peter weeps in the end for his profligate brother, but at least he doesn't have to split his estate in order to satisfy Nick's appetite for cash.

Casper meanwhile has turned against his mother and Xander does nothing to mend the impasse. Anna is well and truly on the way toward complete dissolution when she uncovers Skeet's sexual feelings for the new female singer in the band. The occasional cutaways to shots of rail crossing signs takes on new meaning. We know how the novel ends: Anna tumbled under the wheels of a train.

Sunday 15 November 2015

Unanimity is paving the way to our destruction

After being evacuated from the Stade de France football ground in Paris the crowd sang the French national anthem out of solidarity with one another. It was the same on Twitter. People came together to agree that this was a terrible thing to have happened, this terrorist attack in Paris that night. There was consensus, but that's where the danger lies. When people all agree with one another is when you need to start worrying.

In normal times, people are always disagreeing with one another about anything and everything. This politician said something that one person finds deeply offensive, while her neighbour agrees with the pronouncement. This is the normal way of things. You get a lot of different opinions and people are firing off their views about a broad range of things all at the same time. But when things get so focused that only one thing is discussed you start to feel the force of unanimity. Unanimity is what the terrorists want to inspire in the west when they attack people in the cafes and restaurants as they did two nights ago in Paris. What they want to do is to foment so much unhappiness with the muslim population living in the secular west that they force those muslims living there to go to the Islamic State to live. They want to drive the muslims out of France and unanimity - or purity - is their friend.

Purity of feeling, a unanimity of opinion, about something is the enemy of tolerance and plurality. It is of course easier because when it obtains people generally are inspired to feel like part of something. It's comfortable. And comforting. But is it a good thing to be part of? I think not. Tribalism is when you "other" one group at the expense of another group. By othering muslims we play into the hands of ISIS and start to operate in a way that they sympathise with. What we should be doing is arguing about how to deal with this crisis, in the normal way of fractious westerners everywhere. Arguing is good.

It might seem more difficult and when there are arguments people might feel more alone, but it is the activity that is at the very core of democracy. Diversity of viewpoints is good, unanimity of opinion is bad. Let's agree to disagree. A false feeling of unanimity might seem like a good and virtuous thing but in reality is is paving the way to our destruction.

Saturday 14 November 2015

Book review: A Strangeness In My Mind, Orhan Pamuk (2015)

This book was a big disappointment. You can see that I didn't read very far and soon put the book aside.

The book tells another story of the author's beloved Turkey but this time it is told through the eyes of two generations of yoghurt and boza sellers. (Boza is a fermented dairy drink that is famous in Turkey as a traditional item of consumption.) But the misery is unrelenting and Pamuk fails to link his story to that of the international middle class. He also fails to inject sufficient magic into the prose to sustain an inquisitive mind. There is something journeyman-like and adequate about the writing in this book that seems particularly suited to telling the life story of a largely illiterate street hawker.

The book opens with a short, digressive chapter in which Mevlut elopes with his intended wife, spiriting her away from a small, rural village with the help of a friend and onto the train to Istanbul. The tale dovetails therefore nicely with the larger story of Turkey's modernisation following WWII. Here you have the exodus of workers from rural poverty to life in a different kind of misery in the slums surrounding the metropolis. But there's something unrelenting about the misery. When he finally gets the young girl - she is just 16 years old - into the train he has the idea that he has stolen the wrong sister away. The girl registers his dismay and starts to cry.

Later, in another story, Mevlut is nearing the end of his life selling boza and yoghurt in the streets of Istanbul and in the night he is waylaid by two thugs who steal his money. We also get the story of Mevlut's father's life as a street seller. More misery. No exit. Just a crushing sameness. Why would you continue reading this kind of thing if you were looking for something to divert you? The lack of spark reminded me that I had not even finished reading Pamuk's previous novel, the 2008 Museum of Innocence.

It is sad when you are forced to turn away from a favourite author because their output has not kept pace with your expectations. It seems to me also that unfortunately tales of third world misery are set to multiply as more and more authors emerge from the slums and barrios that grow like topsy around the cities in many countries around the world, each looking to tell their own story for a global audience. The disappointing A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James - the book that just recently won this year's Man Booker Prize in the UK - comes to mind. James furthermore magnifies the unrelenting horror of slum life by deploying a kind of creole as well, a type of language that it is very difficult to produce poetry in as it is not actually a shared medium to form a bridge with a reader living in a different country. I'm also reminded of the deeply depressing effect of the crushing dystopia in J.M. Coetzee's The Childhood of Jesus (2013) and that found in Charlotte Wood's dull The Natural Way of Things (2015).

Thursday 12 November 2015

Book review: Submission, Michel Houellebecq (2015)

Francois is probably the blandest name in the French language and it's the name of the hero of this book, a burlesque that asks what the elites would do if a Muslim political party took power in the country. Francois is a sad fellow, an expert on the French novelist of the late-19th-century, Huysmans, and a teacher at the university Paris III.

Surprisingly, despite the fact that this novel is something of a cause celebre, it is rather unjudgemental with regard to Islam itself, and reserves its sharpest barbs for the ruling elites in France.

The political crisis that underpins most of the drama in the novel concerns the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in France. At first there is a struggle and some violence on the streets but this stage of the crisis is brief. What follows, as Saudi cash starts to flow into France with the electoral success of the Muslim party, is a quick about-face among the elites, eager to take advantage of the bounty available. The advantages that can accrue to someone who is a teacher, like Francois, are significant but there's a catch: all teachers must convert to Islam.

As Francois approaches closer to this impasse we participate in his sentimental rapprochement, a type of conversion of taste, which will be enough to allow him to take the final plunge, a part of the book that is rendered in the end only in the conditional tense as something that would soon take place. We are not privy to his actual emotions during the process itself. We do come into contact with the sense of wellbeing that the religion apparently bestows upon its adherents, that is in the beatific smiles of Robert Rediger, a politician and university administrator who bends his will in an effort to bring Francois into the fold. Those smiles have something of the divine and also something frighteningly cold about them.

No, we never see Francois with his face wreathed in a beatific smile of submission but that is not too much of a failing. It might even be an advantage for a book with such complex aims as this one. On one hand we are part of a millennial process of change brought on by the apparent success of Europe's liberal middle classes, now freed from strict gender roles, a success which has resulted in the rise of a political Islam with the aim of uniting Europe with the Middle East and North Africa in a single political unit.

I think noone has much to fear from this novel, but then it was not written from the point of view of a female protagonist. I think that the narrative arc might have taken quite a different trajectory if it had been. Now, that might be an interesting sequel to write.

Wednesday 11 November 2015

Milk powder shortage the tip of the iceberg

News that a specific brand of infant formula was being snapped up off supermarket shelves by enterprising Chinese residents and shipped back home to China caught a lot of people by surprise. But the demand for high quality and reliable Australian produce is only starting and is going to get more intense. We saw that Swisse Vitamins was recently purchased by a Hong Kong company. Other Chinese companies are buying heavily into Australia's farming properties in an effort to supply what is mooted to be booming demand for quality produce in future.

Australian companies are not doing what they can to deal with this demand. I wrote about this issue several years ago in an effort to spark debate around the matter of food, which even then it was obvious the Chinese were very interested in.

The thing is that Australian companies are largely insular and risk averse. The enterprising Chinese businessperson will go to lengths we find hard to understand to satisfy what they see are big areas of demand in the Chinese market. In order to get in on the act our businesses have to be linked to the sources of information, which are largely in Chinese language. We need people working in our businesses who know where to go for information, and who know how to interpret what they read there.

The baby formula boom was just for us the first inkling of a huge demand there is hiding latent in China, and businesses who can effectively tap into that demand will do well in future by anticipating such buying cycles.

Monday 9 November 2015

TV review: The Beautiful Lie, episode 4, ABC (2015)

This episode is really Xander's main platform to formalise the way he will be remembered by viewers, as Anna goes into labour and gives birth to her second child.

Confused, her son Casper lashes out at his mother because he cannot understand why he is barred from being with her. Xander reveals that he is doing everything legally possible to keep Casper away from Anna. Skeet's mother turns into a psychopath fuelled by malicious vitriol, and so introduces emotions and ideas that make you wonder what Xander is going to ultimately do in his effort to punish Anna, in this emotionally unstable series.

Skeet, meanwhile, turns out to be just as unreliable as you feared he might be, holding court with his colleagues into the early hours of the morning, and making Anna wait, alone, in bed for him. It is a punishing downfall for a young man who had such potential to cement himself in our affections forever as the responsible hippy. Unfortunately, he has turned into the irresponsible one and it hurts to admit it.

Peter and Kitty are meanwhile secure in their mutual embrace, a couple of turtle-doves cooing without cease into the starry night. Kitty reveals some insalubrious and flighty parts of her personality, like the silly woman she really is, but Peter is besotted, drunk on the ichor of her burning nates. She buys a new bed to roll around in.

Dolly and Kingsley turn out to be the reliable, responsible ones. This is a turn-out for the doubters, and a revelation in the arc of the series, now more than halfway spent. This development tells you that you still have much to fear from the series. If this louche couple, who are no better than they should be, can turn out to be the series' stolid pair of homemakers, the world really has shifted off its axis.

The au-pair turns out to have a boyfriend in Greece who she talks with on Skype. Perhaps we should be relieved to find that the worst thing that Dolly can do is to walk into the au-pair's room in the night looking for a clean towel and interrupt the poor girl masturbating in front of her boyfriend's image on her laptop.

Sunday 8 November 2015

Comedy presupposes distance

It's especially gratifying when you find your own ideas echoed by an eminent personage, someone whose word stands for something within the ambit of the relevant discipline, and such a person, for the discipline of novel writing, is one Karl Ove Knausgaard.

A couple of months ago on this blog I could be found cogitating about the nature of humour in the novel. For my main example I went back to the very beginnings of the form, to Jane Austen. The blogpost is titled, 'Where humour comes from in the novel', and in it I take a look at how humour developed under the guidance of Austen's authorial pen in order to accommodate a broad range of emotions experienced by the characters she deployed.
What Austen came up with in order to support the kind of emotional registers she sought was something that also enabled her to incorporate a quantity of humour into her novels. This was to flatten out the expressive values of events throughout her novel. If everything was described with a delivery at a regular level of expressiveness she would naturally produce humour because what was something that in the realm of the novel was actually quite high-toned for the character would be flat within the locus of description regulating things between the characters and the reader, in the fictive space itself.
"What results is a kind of loaded irony," I went on, and then I qualified that word by describing how irony can be used to convey a range of emotions. You have to remember that Austen was the first successfully to achieve a kind of "magisterial register" in the novel form, although of course she was by no means the first novelist. You can see humour working in the much earlier (around 1600) famous but flawed novel by Cervantes, Don Quixote.

For me in this blogpost the essential idea was to try to describe what it was that Austen did differently from other novelists in order to create the innovative works she produced. What Knausgaard was trying to do in his review of Michel Houellebecq's novel Submission, was to describe the novel in a way that would satisfy both his readers and his commissioning editor. He said:
Such a disillusioned protagonist [as you find in the novel] allows, too, for a comic perspective, insofar as the comic presupposes distance, shuns identification and is nourished by the outrageous. Indeed, “Submission” is, in long stretches, a comic novel, a comedy, its protagonist Fran├žois teetering always on the brink of caricature, his thoughts and dialogue often witty ...
Now I am merely inserting Knausgaard's words here in an effort to substantiate what were otherwise the mere ravings of a complete amateur - since I am neither a novelist nor an expert in novels - but I think that the trick works. What you get in Austen is the author's voice entering into the narrative, I go on to say in my little blogpost. "This third presence offers a further sort of 'distance' between the characters in the novel and the reader." The distance was already there of course as a result of the author flattening out the emotional registers deployed in the book, but there she is plopping herself down into the narrative as another point of view, another persona in the flux, as it were.

What I particularly love in Knausgaard's exegesis is the term "shuns identification" that he uses, because that was precisely what Austen was trying to do with her characters in her novels even, as I say in the blogpost, from the very beginning. She resists herself identifying with the characters and their conundrums, and merely describes what they are going through. And by doing so she pushes the reader away from the personas of the characters as well, substituting her own persona instead as a locus of enjambement for the reader reading the text.

It is hard to express the surprise and delight I felt when I came across these words in Knausgaard's otherwise very long critical review of Houellebecq's novel. It made my day.

Friday 6 November 2015

Overadministration of everything just got worse

The city of Liverpool in the UK has just started a trial "fast track" walking lane system in a pedestrian mall. The trial is being sponsored by Argos, a local store. Lanes marked on the pavement are for slow and fast walkers, respectively. It's just another example of overadministration, a curse in modern cities where more people than ever before are expected to rub together in peace.

There are signs everywhere these days telling you not to ride skateboards, not to smoke, not to eat or drink, not to stand or presumably breathe. Go somewhere else and breathe, the message is. In Sydney, they have stationed police on a busy corner of Market Street day after day so they can prevent jay-walking by busy pedestrians. It seems that self-regulation is out the door. Self-control doesn't work any more so you have to do what you're told.

The overadministration of everything is taking the humanity away from everyone and turning everyone into a potential offender. You just can't do what you want any more, you have to obey the signs and keep to the left, walk straight ahead and don't bump into the person in front of you. It's just like a futuristic dystopia such as Stanislav Lem might have invented, a place where the government uses aromas to perform crowd control. In supermarkets these days they influence your mood by playing different music at different times of the day. In the future you'll be conditioned into obeying orders by special chemicals released into the air above the throng by automated robots.

There's nowhere to go to avoid the enveloping spray. Just stay in line, walk at the required pace and do not talk to the person next to you. You'll throw a spanner in the entire works.

Wednesday 4 November 2015

Twitter changes favorite button to like button

This morning Twitter users might have noticed this change to their interface. Product managers have dropped the star button that meant "favourite" and have replaced it with a heart button that means "like".

The reaction online has been quite intense from those who care a lot about the minutiae of social media platforms, but in general the audience has just taken this change in its ambling stride, and moved on. Most people have made no mention of it at all. Rather a fast switch in attitudes, you would think. Or else it's not much of a switch in attitudes at all because most Twitter users might have been using "favourite" to mean "like" all along.

That seems to be the way those I interact with on Twitter have been using the "favourite" button, at least. I will normally get a number of people "favouriting" tweets that I am mentioned in each day; either tweets that I have myself put out or tweets that others have put out that include my handle. Some people still use the "favourite" button of course in the way it was designed to be used: in order to bookmark a tweet for later and more lengthy perusal. But not many and I am one of those few because that's how I have always used the "favourite" button. In other words, sparingly.

It seems to make sense therefore to go with the flow. Twitter has always been a place where users have been listened to more than they have been at other social media platforms. Remember when hashtags first appeared? They were a user innovation, entirely promoted by users who just wanted to aggregate similar tweets into discrete tweetstreams. They work brilliantly, for example, with TweetDeck or HootSuite, which both came later than the native interface.

Twitter has been listening again. And with Facebook about to launch a new suite of emoticons that will allow users to express different emotions - a set of emoticons rather than the originally-mooted "dislike" button - it's a good time now for the rival platform to switch.

Tuesday 3 November 2015

Meeting another special friend in the nursing home

I had left mum's room, and left mum behind so that she would have to keep up with me in the hallway, and had gone into the dining room to find her a table to sit at for lunch when I noticed something odd. Mum was coming into the TV room. Sitting in front of the TV in a special chair for disabled residents - those who do not have the ability to get around on their own - was a man, and he was clapping. He stopped clapping with his hands and started beckoning. To my surprise, mum changed direction and steered her walker over to his large, grey chair.

When she arrived beside the man's chair, mum came even closer to him still and placed her hand on his headrest, above his head, then leaned on her arm until it was taking most of her weight, and bent down and kissed the man on the top of his head. As I watched, she straightened up and stood there as the man spoke with her.

I stayed standing in the dining room as all these things were taking place ten metres away from me in the TV room. I could hear nothing of what transpired between the two of them. So I turned and walked up toward the front desk but there was no apparent solution there. I turned back and walked down into the TV room and stood next to mum.

The man looked at me with his clear, gimlet eyes for a fairly long length of time, and I looked at him. Then he moved his mouth and said, "So you're the son?" "Yes," I said. I smiled at him and nodded. Mum was still standing in front of me between the two of us. The man kept staring at me and I kept smiling. "I've heard a lot about you," he said finally. "I see," I said in reply and turned to mum. "I'll get you a table in the dining room," I said to her.

As we walked away from the man in his reclining chair I nodded at him and smiled briefly. Mum and I made our way to the tables in the dining room and I found her a chair opposite a woman she knows. "Do you want to sit with F?" I asked her. "That's nice," mum said to me. "Nice," said the woman, who I have called F.

The thing is that kissing a man on the head might not mean the same thing to mum as it does to me. She said to me again today, as she has so many times, "You did well to find this place. I am comfortable here." But expressing affection for other people is natural for mum, who has this fey side to her personality which emerges at unexpected moments, as when she'll suddenly kiss a man on the head for no apparent reason. I cannot work out how to raise the subject of this man with her, now, but I might come up with something next time I go up to the nursing home. Stranger things have happened than this, of course.

Monday 2 November 2015

TV review: The Beautiful Lie, episode 3, ABC (2015)

The story moves on smartly while Xander Ivin faces some difficult questions about conduct. How should a man act when his lovely wife is having an affair? Does he go off like a cracker? Does he lash out violently at all and sundry? Or does he accept that things have changed and move quietly aside, making sure not to bruise anyone in the process?

Kingsley's reconstruction happens slowly but it happens, as Dolly comes to terms with her mortality in a mature albeit sometimes chaotic fashion. The dinner scene is hers alone, which is not surprising as she tends to dominate every scene in which she appears. Peter regroups following his loss of face at the engagement party and Kitty takes the vital steps back toward him that the story needs in order to remain whole.

This is a really terrific episode, much better than episode two, but it is nonetheless transitional. Still to come is the final reckoning between Anna and her husband, the cuckolded Xander. Also still to come is the witnessing of the lover Skeet's maturation into a full adult. Will he go on to become a father, as Anna obviously wants him to? Will he pull the rug out from underneath her, as we all fear - and know - he will? Skeet has a chance at this point to change for the better, to put aside the things of youth and take up the things that pertain to manhood. Xander also has a choice as to whether he behaves well or badly vis-a-vis his compromised wife - compromised because now pregnant and doubly vulnerable.

This episode was very important for the makers of this series because if things were going to fall apart for them it would have been at this point, when the first rush of the love romance has been quelled to a certain degree. Fortunately for them they have kept things moving in the right direction.