Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Me and Ms T: musing on a marriage

Disclaimer: I am not giving advice here. Really, I'm crap at advice. I'm sharing experience.


I'm writing this as background for you, because when I try to say this stuff conversationally, I digress and self-interrupt and never get through it.

Our conversation got me thinking, while I was driving somewhere, and adding up.

Out of 22-plus years of marriage, there have been probably seven, maximum nine, that Ms T and I both really count as “happy marriage” years. Ms T's memory agrees pretty much with mine, because I asked her.

You missed much of this “from the outside”, much as I didn't notice what you wanted to tell me, until you hit me over the head with it. So much for appearances. Also, I'm kind of aspie, and apt to miss subtle signals.

Post-natal depression drove quite a chasm between Ms T and I in the mid-1990s. Even when we looked besotted to an outsider. Even though we tried to go everywhere together – we were finding it hard. Communication fell in a hole.

Later, the boys were high-maintenance, and until we got a decent diagnosis and counselling for them, we often got into arguments. Communication of a sort, with an apology at the end as a perverse incentive. When you don't know what's going on, a blame game happens easily.

The counselling was notionally for the boys; but a lot of it ended up being counselling for Ms T and I. And it helped.

Ms T's early menopause, about that time, wasn't a picnic either, she reminded me today.

Our first trip to the UK helped a lot. We'd hit wits'-end a little bit before that – boys difficult, the wind-down of my then-workplace, my first attempt at freelancing, my mother driving us a little nuts!

Then we got to see the boys in a context where we didn't have to worry about what the school would say. They got to go places and respond to them without the hassles of school-appropriate behaviour. We got to see them through eyes like yours, instead of a principal worrying, a head teacher disciplining, etc.

That trip also helped get Ms T and I communicating better, because instead of the talk being “what are we going to try next to settle them down?”, it was “wow, they love The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, and instead of fearing them being bored by The Globe, they were entranced, and we talked about that, and so on.

Things went on an upswing for a few years after that: we began bush-walking, came to the UK again, I was making good money, Ms T was still working, there was spare money to start renovating the house (ha!). That good period – call it five years – was absolutely the best of our marriage.

Then Ms T's health began to fail. You know the story from there. Thankfully, Ms T and I managed to wash up on the same shore. Whatever is wrong isn't us. So we cling close.

We got lucky, but it was hardly ever a certainty.

The only thing that is certain is that the times we looked over the abyss of separating, we drew back. I suspect we were mostly too scared to split up.

It never was a special “better” marriage that we had. We nearly didn't have it at all. Neither Ms T nor I really know what the secret sauce was. We know what is working now, but how we got here is a bit of a mystery.

Along the way, we had to farewell some treasures. There are gaps in our relationship where there once were habits, things that were once part of she-and-I. Yeah, I might cry about that from time to time.

So it goes; we're here.

*Not her real name, obviously.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Meteor showers, fathers, and happiness

Someone reminded me.

Maybe only a few people will read this, but if I've written it, I'll remember it better.

The scene is a very suburban verandah of the 1960s. In those days, there were still eaves on red-brick project homes, they were mostly single-storey, and they always included a covered verandah of at least a few square metres.

The night I'm thinking of must have been in the summer school holidays, because as a (roughly) nine-year-old I rarely even got to stay awake late enough to see the TV test pattern! And this night, when the TV ended for the night, the whole family retired not to bed, but to the verandah.

And I was maybe nine years old. As the change-of-life child of the family, that meant my siblings were already 16, 18 and 20: old enough for long adult conversations while I tried to butt in (I guess) and doze while trying to stay awake.

No, the numbers don't work. I must have been eight, because by the time I was nine, the eldest had left home for university.

Was being awake this late exciting? You bet.

And it was summer, which in Sydney means it doesn't cool down early in the night. So I lazed around with the rest, and don't remember any details, but I do remember the meteor shower dad kept us all awake for.

There was a mattress or maybe an inflatable that I was lying on. There was adult talk all around. The night was muggy and dark. Even the suburbs, in those days, still had stars.

And the stars started moving, flashing across the sky. And every time he spotted one, dad would laugh and call and point.

And I remember, because that was one of the very few times I knew him to be happy.

I remember how deliriously happy he was when, in a rented Halvorsen cruiser, we ran into a wild storm trying to get to Pittwater. He was a seaman in World War Two: the waves crossing the mouth of the Hawkesbury were taller than our boat; mum and my siblings and me were cowering (I was put near dad for my own safety).

He was laughing like the Old Man of the Sea, swinging the boat towards every towering wave, turning it after the wave passed, yelling “turn you bastard!”, inching towards Pittwater, alive and mad and loving it.

Once, he bought me a gift I didn't expect, a whole new drum kit when I thought I was getting him to buy me a new pedal. My reaction made him happy, I think.

He wasn't happy that often. To my 50th year, my mother's explanation didn't go far beyond her standard explanation, that “the war changed him”.

I guess he may have been happy in the affair that, sometime when I was a kid, caused misery everywhere else. Or perhaps it may have only been a small relief of his own misery and madness. Mum once said she forgave him partly because of the war: because she had loved someone who took ship and never came home, but she understood.

He was over-the-moon when a vet said our Labrador, Denny, could be saved after he'd been hit by a car. It cost $1,800 – a considerable price in 1974 – but Denny repaid him by caring for dad when Alzheimer's degraded his brain. The dog would take him out each day, and always return him home.

There was one more time. The year was 1977, I think. I don't remember the reason for the trip, but it took us through the lower New England, and dad wanted to seek out a friend from the 1950s, when he was surveying roads around Barrington Tops.

His memory was perfect, then. He found Tom Meehan's place through unmarked dirt roads without trouble. It was a classic post-and-corrugated-iron shack, abandoned, but because it had no locks, we walked through it before we continued the search.

A road crew stopped us, and dad asked if they knew Tom, and they did, and pointed us to the right road. We drove for a while on the dirt, and an old man leaned against a rail-type fence.

Dad stopped the car, got out and yelled.

I'd know your beret anywhere on earth! Damn you, Tom! I thought you were dead!”

No, just had to move closer to town. How are you, Stan? This one of your sons?”

He was happy that evening, as well.

There's a photo of me, eleven or twelve years old, perched on a fallen tree, on the path that leads to The Ruined Castle in the Blue Mountains.

You weren't happy that day; perhaps you were worried about work, or quite possibly you resented being detailed to drag me out on a proper bushwalk.

But I was happy, and I've taken Ms T and the boys on the same walk, twice, and we love it. And I don't say so, but I think of you when I'm on that path.

Because I was happy, that day. So much so that I keep you in my mind whenever I tread that path.

And here I am, transported to the late 1960s by a friend's casual remark and wondering why.

I can't wish my father alive again. He wasn't particularly lovable. As mum said, the war changed him. What sanity the navy left him with, he saved to make sure he could provide for his family. It didn't leave much sanity for the home front. He was volatile, fey, dangerous.

I'm volatile and fey, but I've worked hard, and I'm a lot less dangerous.

My sons will at least remember happiness, because they've seen plenty. I may nag and carp and demand they do better, but I also laugh and love. Maybe without realising it, I've set myself the task of healing the wounds of my father's war, so my sons can somehow manage to be more sane than was given to he or I.

And I want them to know that a happy father isn't so unusual.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Twelve wishes of Christmas for 2013

There are too many people, and I don't have the money for so many gifts. So here, in my small way, in my little corner of the Internet, is my Christmas list of people I'd like to wish well to for 2013.
    1. RPA Hospital
Keeps my wife alive. Sometimes, that's been hard. And the names are too many to list, but Dr Roger Garsia of Immunology has worked well on a difficult case; his interns are without peer (in particular, Dr Myanh Nguyen deserves great success); and Ms T's chemo is down from fortnightly to quarterly.

A special out-of-2013 mention to Dr Gok Paven, now at St George, who led the team that first worked out what was going on, and is still a pillar of our world.

I must mention the nurses in Gloucester House, now the poor cousin to the famous suit-run joint over the road, who still get to handle the miserable cytotoxins that keep Ms T alive.

  1. The Register
I've never had so much fun in my job as I have had working for The Register, and along the way I get to work with good people. Simon Sharwood, APAC Editor, is one, but there are plenty of others. I hope you know who you are.
  1. Dr Colin Lim
Our GP. He gets the day-to-day stuff, the boring “just here for ten prescription refills” stuff. He still feels bad that four years ago, he didn't spot what was wrong with Ms T – even though it later took six specialists to get to an inconclusive choice of possibilities. That was the worst coin-toss of my life, and I can't blame a suburban GP for not cottoning onto what was going on!
  1. Guests at Bunjaree Cottages
It's not just that they pay bills. Or that they're helping my main mission with Bunjaree Cottages, which is to keep 14 hectares of bush – including my beloved Lyrebirds and Antechinus, and a big hunk of hanging swamp – out of the hands of concrete-lovers.

This year has been a signal year of “nice people” and “people who get it”. People who treasure the bush and the environment and the values. Once, in a desperate circumstance, I had to teach a guest over the phone how to find and then start the backup electricity generator: he was insanely pleased with himself at the idea of going back to his family with a new set of “real bloke” credentials to show off, so he didn't complain – he even wrote nice stuff in the guest book!

Making people like that happy, giving them a relaxed holiday … to quote “black hat guy” from XKCD comics, “that's how I roll.”

A special mention for @Ponder_Stybbons and another local to the Mountains whose name can remain private, for all their help in 2013 in keeping Bunjaree Cottages clean, and making things nice for the guests. I've rarely met people with such unfailing good humour.
  1. My old friend from school
I don't resent your calls for help in depression. I treasure them. On your good days, you remind me why my depression damn well won't win. On your bad, I somehow help, and talk it all through with Ms T afterwards, and life is built out of small victories.
  1. Stilgherrian
Stil would, anyhow, resent a December 25 7am phone call saying something like “Merry Christmas”. So I promise it won't happen, and anyhow you don't just haul gas bottles in emergencies, you also tolerate and even encourage conversation from my sons. Which isn't something everybody can manage. So thanks.
  1. Shara Evans
A long time ago, Shara took me in out of the rain with a job that lasted years. I already owe you for that, friend. This year we haven't been in touch so much, but when we have, I've always enjoyed it. And you are loyal in a way that few people can manage. Thanks.
  1. Twitter friends and blog-commenters
Damn, I've been lucky. When people re-Tweet this blog, or comment on it, I'm in terror. But what I get is a world of friendship and wonder.

Look, in person, I'm a bit difficult, a lot awkward … to quote the kids' movie “Mouse Hunt”, I'm a “cat that's … difficult to love.” But I've found so many friends, fellow-travellers, fellow-sufferers out there in the odd and sometimes hostile world of Twitter.

There is love in the world.
  1. You know who you are
You'd never forgive me for naming you in public, so I won't. At a great distance and in touch only by Skype and e-mail, you've become a rock of this household, a treasure beyond price. You've listened to me on the darkest mornings when merely facing the day looked beyond me. 

You're loved by both me and Ms T, because somehow I managed to finish this year saner and better able to cope than when I started it.
  1. My first wife
One of the great treasures of my life has been to find that we still can love each other, in spite of history, and in 1976 you were one of my first genuinely close friends, and I'll hold you forever in my heart.
  1. My sons
Don't tell them. They think I'm an insufferable nag. I am. I'm also a critic and a scold.

On the things they do well, I'm insanely proud of them. And their job-seeking frustrations I remember from my youth. But they've already defeated some dragons that the world threw at them, and I get the upside of their intelligence, their devotion to Ms T, and their sunny natures. I don't know how I managed to be even a moderately good parent, but luck sometimes delivers the parcels that skill left behind.
  1. Ms T
You are my Christmas present. I want no other. "Stuff" has lost its allure.

Last year, doctors would have called up a bookie for odds against you making it. And we still hold each other each and every night, and at 2am when the world is cold, you're still warm. And when the day comes, you will fret and grouch your way through your unchangeable Christmas feast, and when it lands on the table, you'll relax and grin and drink champagne. And I'll pray that next year, we'll still be there to carve the roasts and laugh and drink, caress and kiss, because we both know there is a last Christmas in our future.

My love, let this Christmas not be our last. That's the only gift I desire.

The Thirteenth Trump

There is a last, a thirteenth wish. A silent prayer for the memory of an old woman Ms T and I knew only briefly as a customer. Who tapped my cheek and called me “that young man”, and loved her every visit to our little corner of heaven. If I'd known, I'd have stood quietly near the rear of your funeral and slipped away unnoticed. 

You reminded me of my mother, who died before you at a similar age, and I loved every minute of the handful of hours I spent with you. Go well, dear Pat, and where you are, may you be young and flirtatious and beautiful again.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Depression #2

There's RUOK day, there's the famous mental health charities with famous founders, there are the Order of Australia awards, and there's the public adulation. 

Then there's the suicidal friend. Right now, with medication, we can talk without me having to worry that I'm picking the wrong words and making things worse and triggering the knife or the pills.

Today, I was a bit gratified at a turn the conversation took.

“Richard, shut up.”

“But ...”

“No, shut up. Shut up. Shut up means don't talk. Count to five without talking.”

So I counted to five. Slightly too slowly, because I missed the opening …

“See, you didn't know what you were saying next, and it made you stutter. I've known you since we were fifteen, and it's always given me the shits. Just slow down sometimes and you won't stutter.”

Which is right: I get like that, lost in the sentence, all the nouns fleeing my mental grasp like the mozzie you're trying to whack in the dark, and I'd fear it was Alzheimer's except that I really have always been like this.

So I was grinning at my end of the conversation, that my friend has recovered enough conversation and confidence to tell me to shut up.

So the next thing I said was, “It was bloody marvellous to hear you tell me to shut up. Now, when's the appointment with the counsellor?”

The conversation got difficult again. Four weeks after a GP agreeing that help was needed, and the same GP promising to do his best to get things moving, and writing an emergency prescription for strong anti-depressants to get through the wait, the only thing now known is which facility can fit my friend in, and the name of the counsellor.

The date? Well, you know, it's a difficult time of year, and Christmas is coming, and there's probably a counsellor on leave because they have to take leave as well, and really we don't know.

And that's good enough?

In the country of “RUOK” and “get help”, help is at the other end of an indeterminable wait list? - No, that's not good enough.

Someone else I know well was referred to a BMRI doctor – Brain and Mind Research Institute to its friends, but I'm not one of them and never will be – by their psychiatrist, but got fobbed off by the receptionist with “we will review the referral and call you back”.

The bloody receptionist acted as the road-block.

That was in January. The call-back never came. Calls were made to follow things up: it never got past the receptionist. The individual in question eventually abandoned medications, thankfully without incident, and is doing just fine, again thankfully.

The third aspect of this post comes from the ABC: “Australia second in world in anti-depressant prescriptions”.

No kidding.

A GP, looking at someone threatening suicide in the consulting room, has to act, must act, and with no prospect of immediate help, the GP prescribes pills for a crisis, and that is becoming the public crisis instead of the lamentable lack of mental health services... sorry, I'm ranting.

Help is not on its way. Help is somewhere out there, queued up, under-resourced, dealing with last month's urgent cases, dealing with last night's hospital admissions, and so on.

It's all very well for high-profile case histories to be paraded for their success, to teach people the “get help” message, and to incidentally solicit donations via radio-appearances from Famous Australians Doing Good in the World.

It's quite another for people who desperately need help to have to resort to call-a-friend to stop them using the knife or pills, and keep them talking for an hour or so until they find the strength to cook a meal for their family (which in the case close to me includes one disabled child) and take themselves to bed.

The friend I have in mind brought up her children, including the one with a disability, and stayed employed until, over the age of fifty, the last factory in the region closed a while back. I guess the unemployment plus the disability of the child, plus the prospect of a lonely future …

Shit, it would be too much for me. Ms T's illness hasn't broken me, although it's come close. And I have already told you that I suffer from depression.

But here's the thing.

Ms T was desperately ill, when her condition took her to hospital. She was admitted immediately, and kept until there until there was a diagnosis and she was fit to be sent home and there was a treatment regime in place.

The friend I'm thinking of was so close to death that hospital was needed for the self-harm, let alone the mental state. Discharge was next day, and the treatment regime is still on hold.

That sucks. A mental illness can be life-threatening, and no amount of moralising changes that. In the case I'm talking about, a suicide would leave a disabled young adult without a connection to the world, not to mention the ripple effects.

I'm not – absolutely and utterly not – anyone's Best Last Hope in a mental health crisis. My sole qualification is, as I mentioned, that I am intimately familiar with depression.

While I'm happy – wrong word, find a better one yourself – to offer myself to help a friend cope, it doesn't come without cost on my part. But I have a support network of people who treasure me even when I'm an utter shit (Ms T, I'm looking at you, and you love and treasure the others that also help), and I have to pass on their strength because that's what you do.

But hearing famous people telling we at the bottom of the pile that we need to get help that isn't available in a crisis?

It shits me to tears.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Appropriating the food chain with patents

Artificial foods are apparently the Next Big Thing.

As a story, “artificial meat” or “artificial egg” has just about everything a writer could want. It's got big-name investors excited (Bill Gates is on the bandwagon). It's got science (more on this in a minute). The word “sustainability” gets tossed around with careless abandon (as if adding electricity to chemicals is greener than a farm). And it plays into modern guilt about eating meat.

It doesn't get much better than that, does it?

I have to confess that the science angle confuses me – not because I'm confused by science, but because any group of “food hackers” (as the cool writers call them) could be transplanted into the labs of any food multinational without having trouble with the transition. The journalist, however, would suddenly find their science intimidating and evil instead of exciting and “food hacker” cool.

But what really troubles me is that a statement like this, from a piece in Mother Jones, passes without serious examination:

“The goal, Tetrick explains, is to replace all factory-farmed eggs in the US market—more than 80 billion eggs, valued at $213.7 billion.”

If you look for the money, you find this patent application: “Plant-based egg substitute and method of manufacture”.

As you would find if you follow the money on any of the new “food hacker” heroes. I won't bore you with a list.

But it's odd, in my mind, that the same Mother Jones that can easily see through Monsanto's patent-driven bid for world domination – “Monsanto: all your seeds are belong to us”, for example – can't look behind the “food hacker” curtain to where the patents are.

The question enthusiastic journalists fail to ask is really quite simple: do you want a world in which an entire foodstuff's supply chain is owned by one rich entrepreneur – sorry, “social entrepreneur” as Josh Tetrick's Wikipedia PR says?

Do you want to eat by sufferance of one patent-owner? I don't.

Monday, December 02, 2013


Here's where it gets difficult.

I'm going to talk about depression, which I, like so many people, have had as a long-term companion.

I fear talking about it, because like so many people, I have an employer or worse, a putative future employer who might say “no dice.” I suspect today's employer, The Register, isn't going to flick me. Who knows what might be in the future?

And I'm not going to talk about treatment.

I'm going to try to talk about experience. I'm trying to describe the inside, because it's so hard to understand from the outside: and because those outside suffer pain that isn't theirs, because it's so easy to think you're responsible for someone's depression.

Just because you love us. Think: if your loved one had a cancer when you met them, why is it your fault, just because you didn't understand it back then?

In depression, there is no such thing as a small crisis or a reasonable perspective.

Perspective? I can do it very well, with one proviso: the crisis belongs to someone else. Call me to talk about your crisis, I'll be calm and rational, gentle and sympathetic, and I might even find the right words to say.

Drop a crisis on me, and I have no perspective whatever. I can lay out the steps I need to take and take them, but inside, I am lost in panic and suicidal thoughts.

Some crises are more equal than other, if you're on the outside of this damned thing. On the inside, any crisis – even the crisis you imagine – looks the same.

I fear I have offended a friend? That's a crisis.

Ms T has a fever? That's a crisis.

Something happened that a bunch of public health announcements tells me to treat like a crisis, even though I know it's a visit from a minor ailment I've dealt with every few years or so? Yeah, that's a crisis as well.

I want a hello from someone who's incommunicado because of travel and isn't answering? That's a crisis.

Lightning knocked out an expensive and crucial part of my business, and I don't know its insurance status? Also a crisis.

And so on.

Depression, at least how it hits me, destroys perspective. You don't even get the fake perspective of a painting. There isn't a perspective, there's just …

Fuck, I don't know what. I don't know how to describe it. Something happened, and suddenly I'm feeling like this, and my sons have decided that it's not a good time to talk to me, and Ms T (why do I fear her death? This is why) is trying to stroke my arm, but I want to pull away and get angry, but I don't want to hurt her so I stand still and listen to reassurance that doesn't help, and …

It frustrates the daylights out of people – I know from the experience of others – that someone feeling this way simply withdraws from everything. We, the sufferers, leave those closest to us, those that love us most and best and longest, outside the doors we erect against them.

And then, of course, we feel guilty for locking the door.

No, I don't have an answer. Not even on a good day do I know how to defend against the bad days. I fight my way through and, because I have the unbelievable good fortune of Ms T and never-ceasing talk, I somehow talk my way through.

Right now, the talk isn't finished and the dark hasn't lifted. And I'm not offering prescriptions or suggestions. I'm trying to describe the experience, and words are so bloody inadequate.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

You can never go home

A friend of mine is having some marital issues, and that got me and Ms T talking.

We've had hard times. Getting through a catastrophic illness isn't easy. Adjusting to life afterwards isn't easy. Shit, even the normal stuff of mortgages and children and employment isn't easy.

And we're still here and together and wondering how we got through, and agonising over what to say to someone else having a hard time. And we got somewhere, and it's the point of this post.

A relationship or a marriage can get through the tough times. If there's one insight I have to offer, it's not “how to get through the tough times”. It's “what about afterwards?”

You see, the story always ends at the “happy ever after” and doesn't tell you what the “ever after” feels like.

If you want the “happy” bit of the “ever after”, the only lesson Ms T and I can possibly offer is that you have to understand something: it won't be the same.

You can never go “home”, wherever that is.

I'm not going to reiterate the travails of Ms T's illness, now better than three years old. But at some point in those three years, we decided that what is left to us in the future is more important than trying to perform a constant CPR on the past. So somehow, by mutual consent and without actually deciding to, we made a decision that made the new foundation of our marriage.

We put our hands together, gripped tight, and walked away.

Back in our pasts, there's a woman who – made up by an expert on the day – looked like a film star when we married.

Back in our pasts, there was a man who could do so much more than I can.

Back in our pasts, there were so many things.

But if we tried to cling to those things, there wouldn't be an us to cling to, to love, to try to fashion a future.

You can only make the future out of the materials you have to hand. And if they've been ransacked by circumstance, you have to decide: do I want to scrap it all and start again – would I want to buy a Harley-Davidson and hope someone young and nubile scrambles on behind – or do I want to remake a future with someone who I know loves me?

The decision was thrust upon Ms T and I in an awful hurry, because she was so close to death when I took her to RPA emergency a few years back.

Somehow, in the last three years of crisis, we reached a mutual decision, or perhaps we both made the same choice at the same time.

We walked away.

Not from each other: from what we once were. We farewelled our last sentimental dreams of what we'd thought we'd be, back in 1991 when we married. We took each others' hands, turned our backs on our youth, and walked away.

It's like this: you can get through the crisis. You can do it together or not, but either way: you won't be the same. The “you” that you treasure with a sentimental tint, the “you” that you hope will be sepia-coloured via Instagram …

By the time you're wondering what changed, that's already gone. The only decisions you can make involve the future. “What do I want?” is the crucial question, and somehow, Ms T and I answered it together, that whatever the changes in us or the world we faced, we'd hold hands and manage, somehow.

It wasn't easy. When we talked this through, tonight, we cried together. Would I love to have her back as the film-star-bride of 1991? Of course. Would she love to see me again, without my grey beard and deaf ears? Ditto.

But we hold on, not to what we were then, but to what we have now. We have a new contract, a new accord, a sword we managed to forge in the fires of crisis.

We have taken each others' hands, and farewelled old dreams. There's nowhere to go anyhow: our parents are all long dead, there's no emergency bolt-hole for us to flee to if it gets too much. There's no childhood bedroom to retreat to.

You can never “go” home. You can only make one.

Growing up is hard, even if you're 50 years old.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Arguing with an SMH Deputy Editor

Since I won't give Storify the Twitter permissions it wants, I've had to do this Tweet-by-Tweet.

I decided to argue climate change action with the Sydney Morning Herald's Deputy Editor, Ben Cubby, today. It became complicated, he says, so I've put the timeline together here, and offer it for others to decide whether I was obscure, circular, difficult, or even particularly trollish.

@niltiac Sydney #climateaction rally was good turnout given downpour, but I don't think it was as many as 10k as reported here

@bencubby @niltiac @cousincat sounds about right to me - surprised they got that many, given the national mood re carbon pricing. (emphasis added)

That's the bit I took issue with. From here, I will not highlight anything except usernames.

@R_Chirgwin .@bencubby I think you're assuming that the journalistic mood about carbon pricing is cognate with the national mood.

@bencubby so many moods, so little time.

@R_Chirgwin @bencubby Let's call it a national 30,000. They're misreading the national mood?

@bencubby @R_Chirgwin who can say?

@R_Chirgwin @bencubby So - is there a "national mood re carbon pricing" or not?

@bencubby @R_Chirgwin hard to say.

@R_Chirgwin @bencubby You said so: "given the national mood re carbon pricing" (verbatim). That's what I'm trying to grasp.

@bencubby @R_Chirgwin it's hard to pinpoint these things specifically. however, i think it's self-evident that people are less keen on these issues.

@R_Chirgwin @bencubby Which brings us back to the protesters. Is a good number on the street evidence for or against your assessment?

@bencubby @R_Chirgwin why so interested in this?

@R_Chirgwin @bencubby It fits a whole lot of my interests: politics, climate, editorial assumptions, argument! :-)

@bencubby @R_Chirgwin so what's your point?

@R_Chirgwin @bencubby You said there's a national mood about carbon pricing. I'd like you to back it, given that the protests offer a counter-argument.

@bencubby @R_Chirgwin federal election result? polls since the election? smaller number at #climateaction rallies this time? they're all indicators.

@R_Chirgwin @bencubby Let's focus on the rally numbers. You were surprised, a moment ago, at the size. Are they now a disappointment?

@bencubby @R_Chirgwin 60,000 seems about right, nationally. but hard to tell - i think most of them are numbers from getup

@R_Chirgwin @bencubby I didn't stipulate 60,000. But surely a successful protest movement suggests "national mood" isn't a monolith?

@bencubby @R_Chirgwin no one said it was monolithic. it has waxed and waned, and will probably continue doing that, id have thought.

@R_Chirgwin @bencubby If there isn't "a" national mood, why base your opinion of the protests on "the" national mood?

@bencubby @R_Chirgwin you've lost me

@R_Chirgwin @bencubby You made a statement citing "the national mood". I'm asking you if the protests count as counter-evidence that such a thing exists

@bencubby @R_Chirgwin can you be a bit clearer.

@R_Chirgwin @bencubby 1. Do you believe there is "a national mood" as you originally said? 2. Does not a significant protest challenge that belief?

@bencubby @R_Chirgwin 1. national mood ebbing on climate change action. 2. the size of protests etc do feed into national feed.

@R_Chirgwin @bencubby See? It wasn't hard. It will be interesting to see how the mood moves in the future.

@bencubby @R_Chirgwin you have a very circular way of talking.


OK. By now I will insert myself. I really don't think I'd been that circular or difficult. Hence my response.


@R_Chirgwin @bencubby >shrugs< I am as I am.

@bencubby @R_Chirgwin excellent. good for you.

@R_Chirgwin @bencubby The question was simple. Did you believe what you said, and would you back it on challenge? The complications were not mine.


Now, I don't think I was circular or difficult or trolling. But I'll leave it to others to tell me whether I'm wrong.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The sound I have heard in your “hello”

It's not about “RU OK?” That happens once a year.

My not-quite-random call to one of my oldest friends – someone I've known since about 1975 or 1976 – was just a “hi, how's it going?”

She was quiet and monosyllabic, which if I wasn't as thick as a plank might have given me a hint. I really am thick, though. I don't get the interpersonal signals very well, and I talk too much anyhow, and when I eventually noticed that I was doing all the talking, except for single words from the other end of the line, I started trying to ask “are you okay?”-type questions.

For which I am as well fitted as a square peg confronted with a round hole, and a small boy with a hammer.

Thank heavens, the friend has by now known me for close to 40 years. And, perhaps, she's as familiar with awkwardness as I am. So somehow we got through the initial miscommunications to a discussion of her children, someone she likes as a friend but doesn't want to sleep with, Ms T's health, and various other things.

Just one of those calls that people make, really: the slightly awkward conversations that old friends might have, when there's no actual news, tailing off to a slightly awkward goodbye-for-now.

And a week later a text arrived that called me “warm and fluffy”, which is a bit of a stretch, so I called again instead of waiting our usual interval, about a month and sometimes as long as a year.

I won't pretend I can reconstruct the conversation, because I got a jolt and don't remember the details.

But somewhere in there, she told me I called when she was working through a suicide-pile of pills.

I have no special, secret magic about suicide prevention. I have a good, healthy, iceberg-sized ego, but really there have to be limits. "You're good, but not that good".

It's about people talking to people.

Communication – making sure that people who might be isolated don't get that way – is a big hunk of making us all feel worthwhile. Wanted, if for nothing more than a “hello”.

The idea that someone might call just because they want to talk to you is something that matters. There's no business-case for the call, no discernible benefit to be had, no plan in the conversation beyond “hello”.

Because – you're worth talking to simply for the conversation. Simply for “the sound I have heard in your hello”. Simply because you're a human with at least one friend left in the world.

That's more than a (my opinion) contrived “RUOK” campaign, and it seems to matter. It mattered to my old school friend, and it matters to me as well. I know who to call if 4am is too dark to see the dawn, because I have someone who gives me (thank you, you know who you are) infinite license.

People with depression are told to “make the call” – send out a shout if they're feeling bad – and I wonder if that doesn't create a problem for them: “But I don't want to be a burden” becomes another reason to be depressed, if you doubt yourself.

But confining communications in the other direction to “RU OK Day” leaves out the rest of the year, when a single incoming call makes the difference.

Which, I guess, explains the point of this ill-directed, probably self-indulgent and certainly not definitive collection of thoughts.

You can't know when or if your call to a friend will make a difference to someone.

You certainly don't have any special expertise in suicide prevention.

What you do have is a bunch of friends who might be happy to hear from you.

So: make the effort. Get yourself off the impersonal feeds from time to time to simply let someone hear your voice. “The sound I have heard in your hello” might be someone's call back from the abyss.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Chemo and Ms T: the background

You know, it occurs to me, courtesy of a Twitter convo, that many of my posts about Ms T's condition have been a little tangential. I've talked about the life we live, and occasionally named the condition or the treatments, but I haven't set down the basics.

So with her permission, I'll put this down so that I have a background to link to when someone asks.

It's an extravagantly-named condition: “Atypical necrotising vasculitis polyarteritis nodosa of the medium and large arteries”. If you're of a medical bent, you'll notice something about that. Every noun and adjective names symptoms and what those symptoms affect, rather than naming a disease.

So let's call the disease “immune system disorder”. In short, whenever Ms T's immune system is sufficiently active, it attacks “medium and large arteries”. It's like you had a kidney transplant and your immune system was attacking the invading kidney – except, of course, that Ms T's arteries are her own.

There aren't so many large arteries left to choose from. Her coronary arteries are just fine, heaven knows how. For the rest? Here's a list.

Right carotid artery – gone. She lives because a bunch of capillaries her body built around the blockage supply the right side of her brain, at about 10-20 percent of normal capacity.

Anterior cerebral artery – gone. If anything blocks one side of her brain, there's no backup supply. She will die fast.

Right renal artery – gone. There's a small collateral blood supply that leaves her with about 25 percent of the right kidney.

Various medium arteries in her right arm and leg – gone. You can't take Ms T's blood pressure on the right, it doesn't register.

Celiac artery – gone and replaced. This was the artery that told us something was wrong, because her stomach and liver failed. That got her to hospital, weighing a little over 30 kg, with broken ribs from falls (I was suspected as a wife-beater until she was conscious enough to defend me!), and toxemia.

Which is why she'd lost nearly every spare kilogram. In our years together, she has been known to complain about her breasts, which are normally a 12DD burden that gives her back pain, but when her body was consuming itself, that extra fat probably kept her alive, since they shrunk to skin-over-ribs.

The only way to deal with Ms T's condition is to shut down her immune system. That means chemotherapy, and the chemical that works best is called cyclophosphamide, and I've documented its effects on this blog here and here, at least, so I won't reiterate it. And it's carcinogenic, which is a nice thing to live with.

Right now? Things are stable. Once, we believed in remission; no more. But we're doing okay, and as I said, the purpose of this post is as a 1.01 for people who need to know the background.

And to everyone who's also on chemo, our thoughts are with you.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

The NSW premier: an arrant hypocrite

So: here is the NSW premier, Barry O'Farrel, visiting the fire-grounds, screen-grabbed from the toadies at News Limited:

And here is what his government is actually doing about bushfires, courtesy of The Guardian.

While Barry O'Farrell was grubbing around the ashes of homes in case there was a scorched-but-still-usable vote there, back in Macquarie Street, where the fires will never burn, the gimlet-eyed, raisin-hearted ideologues of his government were cutting the budget of the RFS.

Yep: ensconced in the safe city sandstone of Macquarie Street, the state government wants fewer staff on the strength of the RFS.

Oh, and the RFS budget-cut sits squarely against the Abbott government's cynical decision to reduce the scope of emergency payments – while the emergency was happening.

Logistical strength in the RFS is a big thing. For example: the RFS has created the Remote Area Fighting Teams to stop spot-fires in difficult areas getting out of hand. RAFTs were absolutely vital in keeping the State Mine Fire (still listed here) from becoming a town-destroying monster.

Here is our hypocritical Premier blabbing about backburning while staying silent about budget:

“NSW premier Barry O'Farrell says many lessons will come out of the fire crisis for the state government, but he claims credit for his government's commitment to backburning.

"We've increased it two-and-a-half times but there's still more work to be done," O'Farrell says.”

“More work to be done” on less budget, Barry?

English lacks a cognate for “a face that needs to be punched”. The German will have to do: Backpfeifengesicht. Look it up.

Monday, November 04, 2013

The last joint of the little finger of my left hand

Caveat: I don't have many personal memories of the events outlined below. I have lots of family stories relating the details, but hell: I was only three years old. I have a scar, faint and scrambled images, and a family story.

But the scar that I can still identify on one finger accords with the story, so I'll tell it as straight as I can.

I was, like I said, three years old. The car we owned at the time was a 1959 cats'-eye Chevrolet Bel Air (which I have to confess I still have a soft-spot for, in spite of what happened). The location was a Farmer's car park, I think at Ryde. My mother was inside in the shop; I was with my brother (then aged eleven) and at least one sister, who would have been nine at the time. I can't remember whether the eldest sibling was present at the time.

The game? A three-year-old playing “escape from the car, run to another door, and jump in laughing”. And at some point, someone pulled a door shut, I stuck my hand in to stop it closing, and – because cars of that era were famous for panels that fitted nice and tight – the last joint of the little finger of my left hand was severed.

The narrative now gets scrambled, but roughly: my brother grabbed the whole mess of my left hand, gripped it, and didn't let go. My sister ran to find my mother; and my mother drove us to Royal North Shore.

The hospital's bad news was: yes, the finger was severed. It was only attached by one flap of skin (I can still see where the scar isn't). The good news was that a visiting English surgeon was in Sydney demonstrating a new technique, called “microsurgery”, and had agreed to try to re-attach my finger.

At the time, my father – you were wondering weren't you? Remember, this is before mobile phones, so mum's priority was “get to hospital first” – was a civil engineer supervising Sydney-city construction sites. Once mum had news, she phoned him, and told him to come to Royal North Shore after work, because there was no point in him rushing away while I was in surgery.

So: my father arrived at about 6pm, met mum in the waiting room, and was there for a very smug surgeon to announce that yes, they'd re-attached my finger without problem and all would be well.

Later, the bill was presented: 1,800 in 1963 currency. According to the Reserve Banks' inflation calculator, this amounts to:


I set this on a line of its own because … look at it. More than 45 grand.

As Dad said at the time (by family report): “Eighteen hundred pounds for the last joint of the little finger of his left hand? Just cut the bloody thing off again!”

And the health insurance fund didn't pay for it, because it wasn't on the list.

What I do remember, because I was 13 years old, is that there was a small family celebration in 1973, when Dad announced that he'd made the last payment for the last joint of the little finger of my left hand.

In the interim, I learned piano for a while; learned guitar for a much longer time (I still play in spite of the twinges of arthritis), and learned to make a living as a writer with a most enviable typing speed. I'd guess that to me, the last joint of the little finger of my left hand has been worth way more, over the years, in both enjoyment and money, than fifty grand.

So, thanks Dad.

And thanks, Australia, that the healthcare system that came much later than 1963 has kept my wife alive through a long illness, surgery, and immune-suppressing chemotherapy, without bankrupting us.

And I will spite bile on the American-inspired right-wingers that would deny healthcare to anyone. Because they're trying to make sure that small incidents turn into huge debts, to the benefit of nobody but the private owners that lobby that healthcare be turned over to them.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Next time, SMH, get the surfboard to write the column

Really, it's not often that anyone – other than News Limited columnists talking climate change – can manage to cram so much utter drivel into the space of one column as this.

“I want to think we're too smart to pour 40, 50, 60 billion dollars, whatever the final cost, into a fibre-optic network system that sounds impressive now but may look like the greatest white elephant since the attempt to turn the stinking (literally!) Salton Sea near Palm Springs into a rich thang's playground; that a dozen years down the track the NBN will be the equivalent of "visionaries" 150 years ago building a network of hundreds of thousands of stables across the country to cope with the growth in horse transport.”

I think this individual, the founder of a surf magazine yclept Derek Rielly, is a subscriber to the “fibre will soon be obsolete” school of what passes for “thinking” (even when we used entangled photons to overcome the speed of light, fibre will be a better way to move them around than through the air. Noise, and all that.).

“According to the projections of the NBN Co we'll be getting a gigabyte per second once it comes into our lives.”

Well, there's a scale thing right there. The NBN is measured in bits (and megabits, and gigabits), not “a gigabyte per second”. And it's not a projection, the kit is already gigabit-capable wherever the network is, but you know, this is a column. It's like climate change: facts are optional when you have a dumb opinion to tout.

“Wouldn't it make more sense to just invest 20 billion dollars into developing the world's finest compression software?”

Well, no. Actually, no with a double serve of clue-stick, multiplied by “what on Earth?”

“Something like America's Manhattan Project in World War II that created a way to annihilate the world in just six years.”

Yeah, thanks for that analogy. But let's continue …

“All of us are familiar with today's compression software such as jpegs and PDFs which work little miracles every second of every day.”

At which point, head meets desk, because this sage advice, presumably passed by an editor between lunch and Alka-Seltzer, comes from someone who knows not the difference between “software” and “file format”.

Oh, and (say) a PDF is already compressed, which is why (say) PKZip ignores it.

Save me.

“Can you imagine the value in creating compression software so good it shoves the paradigm of computing way into left field? We'll be emailing movies, high-res photo albums, complete TV commercials, magazines, all over our existing networks and through our existing software.”

OK, that's enough quotation.

Compression is mathematics, and it's very well understood. It's a problem the world has been working on for nigh on sixty years, in the digital world.

Of course, even the ancients practiced a form of compression: setting a fire on a signal tower to signify invasion, for example, is a very compressed message in a specific context.

But as for modern communications: compression starts when Claude Shannon explained the limits of any communication medium: channel minus noise equals bandwidth. For any medium, you can precisely predict how much information it can carry.

So compression tries to reduce the amount of information that has to be carried – it says “what can I get into 'bandwidth'?” And it uses a lot of maths, and lots of billions have gone into it over three decades, and the world has created very good compression.

And all of the decades of compression work have been a matter of increments. Every now and again, someone claims a bigger breakthrough than anyone ever before.

Like the Adams Platform.

Next time, get the surfboard to write the column.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Yeah, defund the national emergency broadcaster. Good idea, Tea Party nutters

It's odd that the right always accuses the left of being city-based latte-sippers, because in their obsessions, the right always reveals itself to have a distinctly city attitude. Their suggestions reek of concrete and safety and next-week's-salary.

Take, for example, the persistent idea that the government should not be in broadcasting, and therefore should defund or dismantle or privatise the ABC.

Yeah, thanks for that suggestion. Because it reveals you to be the same bunch of insular, solipsistic twerps whose only trips away from Collins Street are on organised tours to the wine country, where you can pretend to have a palate and come back with the stuff sold at the cellar door that wouldn't rate in any competition, but you'll coddle it and cellar it as if it were gold, when its barrel-mate went to Aldi without a label.

Because you're so easily deluded. But let's get back to the ABC.

The soft city wankers have a monolithic view of the ABC, because in the cities, all they see is through the prism of obsessive compulsive disorder:
  1. The ABC is funded by government, which is evil.

  1. The ABC performs journalism that doesn't always support the (frankly) pud-pulling obsessives of the CIS and the IPA, and is therefore evil.
Since, to the ivory towers of the think-tanks, both these things are evil, they're constantly calling for the ABC to be defunded on the kind of American party-political basis that gives the Tea Party its power in the USA. That is: they're total nutters exploiting a tiny base to a disproportionate profile, rather than being drowned in the nearest farm dam, as they rightly deserve.

So let me relate, yet AGAIN, that the ABC's role as emergency service broadcaster is not some commercial activity that will be subsumed by the magic of free market economics.

When I was sitting in the presumed path of a serious in-the-crowns (if you're a soft city wanker, look up crown-fire and eucalypt and don't pester me with questions) bushfire, I wasn't listening to 2GB. Just trust me on that: the only time I choke my gullet with the paid patsies of commercial radio is when it's imposed on me by a taxi-driver who forfeited his tip by his choice of radio station.

The ABC was one of my three prime information sources – along with my family, reading computer feeds under my instruction, and a radio scanner that was telling me what fire-fighters were saying over their radio network.

(An aside: many fire-fighters on the ground are far more anxious, freaked-out and generally pessimistic than their headquarters. Which is natural, but also worth noting in the hierarchy of information. Even the “closest” information can be improved with a higher-level filter.)

Over this coming summer, any number of communities will find that their best information comes from whatever frequency their local ABC transmits on.

The IPA, the CIS, and the random nutters with Tea-Party inspiration would deny that. For them I can only hope that they find themselves in the path of a fire-storm, with nothing but the Macquarie National Network, syndication, and please to complete the irony, a product endorsement from Alan Jones as their information source.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Social media isn't the main game in a disaster

I'd so like to leave the bushfires alone, but no, life keeps dragging it back.

It's about this piece of drivel.

Yeah, Social Media Saves the World, and people actually saving homes and fighting fires are irrelevant without Twitter - says the for-pay social media expert.

This is the like the load of derp you find blocking your driveway because someone decided to back the derp-truck up and flick the lever on the tipper.

Let me explain what you're actually doing if you have a property with bush and buildings, an out-of-control bushfire to the North-West, and a North-Westerly wind.

You're panicking and fretting. Oh, in between, you're imagining your escape route, wondering if you've cleared enough space around buildings that they won't burn (probably not), watching the skies for ember attack, looking for places where your vantage point might let you see the fire coming before it traps you, and looking for information.

That last one is really important, and frankly, it doesn't come from Twitter. Not if you're in front of a fire. The very best real-time on-the-ground information comes from radios: the scanner listening to the fire brigades, and the regular updates that were delivered by ABC Local Radio.

Twitter? It needs a machine: a computer that doesn't have enough battery for a day (the power might be cut), or a phone or tablet that ... ditto. (Oh, and since you're not in the city, the phone's working harder to see its tower, data is slower, and battery life shorter).

Oh, and purely local infrastructure - like a mobile tower or a Telstra box - is at just as much risk as the houses people are trying to protect. Try logging into social media without a connection. Compare that to a city AM radio tower a long way from danger ...

Ditto Facebook or any other social media.

Not to mention the filtering needed to extract useful real-time information out of social media, which is even harder than getting useful real-time information from a radio scanner. The Twitter “real time information” question is so difficult there's a special CSIRO “big data” projected devoted to it – and my feed and spare-attention can match that?

So here's how my personal “emergency communications” worked on the day.

  1. Family in another place: they were tasked with watching computer feeds and relating anything important. They also listened to the same radio broadcasts as I, in case I was occupied and missed something important. They phoned me at every change of situation.
  1. Radio scanner: a friend, a former fire-fighter who had already evacuated the at-risk area, listened to the fire brigade chatter, calling me if there was anything important. Since the scanner is available as a smartphone app, this didn't involve any special kit.
  1. My eyes. I was very vigilant: not just on my own property. I sought out vantage points and used them.
  1. Conversation. You remember that? I waved down passing fire-brigade 4WDs (only a fool stops a tanker) and asked questions.
  1. ABC Local radio. Because I know damn well that the car's battery can run its radio for more than a day and still start my engine.
But no: someone whose only view of the world comes from the inner city and the computer, is going to criticise the local council for insufficient Tweeting.

That's beyond silly. For a start, the local council is not even the agency responsible for disaster – that would be the Rural Fire Service, which was running half-hourly briefings at the time, and does have a Twitter account it uses. 

Also, the local council doesn't have an at-call army of Approved Social Media Experts, it's probably got a total communications staff of one. 

Also, the local council's staff was denuded because so many of them were on the fire grounds, fighting the fires – either as volunteers, or on the council's own response vehicles.

It's not just arrogant and insular to give the council a serve about emergency communications: it's ignorant.

But what makes me really hot is the same tech-press ignorance that infected the “wow look at this drone video” story.

The editors in the tech press are apparently incapable of assessing any story other than through their own myopic prism: they don't realise that there's a great big world that doesn't care about drones or Twitter, nor do they care that the world outside knows how to do things without reference to Twitter or Mark Zuckerberg.

So something as jejune, solipsistic and just plain silly as the article that started this rant – something like that gets a major-media run because the editor doesn't have the background knowledge to spike it, and is too insular to ask an expert whether it makes any sense.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Greenies aren't stopping hazard reduction burns: climate is

And finally the penny drops. I can be slow sometimes.

There is a reason the far-right keeps working the “blame bushfires on greenies” line at every opportunity (for example, when Miranda Devine slotted it into a gunk post ostensibly about education).

That reason? Fires are happening more often.

You can't attribute this to climate change, so you need something to blame. And “greenie opposition to hazard reduction burns” is easy. After all, Australia keeps voting Green politicians into places (in a minority nearly everywhere), and “greenies” oppose hazard reduction burns, right?


I'd have to be counted as a greenie. Skipping any personal voting information because it's none of your business, I run a solar-powered, off-grid, off-town-water tourism business. And of the 14 hectares, only about 3 hectares are economic: the rest, I intentionally subsidise to remain as virgin bush because I bloody well want it to remain that way. And since there's a hanging bog feeding a permanent creek, I'm providing about a billionth of greater Sydney's potable water at any given time.

Is that greenie enough for anyone? Good, let's continue.

There's about seven hectares of the land that the RFS wants to burn, and I agree. My reasons are purely selfish and economic: a decent buffer against a fire-storm is good for my business, should the worst happen.

But in seven years, it hasn't happened. Why?

Not because of greenie objections. Because of the combination of:

  1. Climate change – which leads to a shorter back-burn season
  2. Resources – volunteers can't be randomly called up on Wednesday merely because the weather's good
  3. Weather – you can't burn if the ground is wet or there's high winds, which is pretty much a description of the Blue Mountains.

Anybody who tries attribute these three items to “greenie opposition” is a moron of the first water. Or they're – the point of this post – playing to a city political agenda.

Because that's what Miranda and all her acolytes are doing. The voters aren't out here where the fires burn: they're in McMansionville, wondering how it happened and who to blame. Blame, however, is hard to shoulder when you're putting three people in a seven-room air-conditioned house with three toilets. Better to subscribe to Miranda's agenda, that I'm worrying about bushfires because the greens are preventing backburns.

But that's the point. Climate change is what's screwing around with hazard reduction burns; the right-wing's greenie-hunt is a witch-hunt in the most accurate sense of the term.