Schumann surprise

The Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov is someone I had heard of, but missed seeing when he came to Australia a few years ago. I was therefore interested to catch his performances on the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall. One I have watched a couple of times now is that of the Schumann Piano Concerto, with Mariss Jansons conducting the BPO. (NB: because the Digital Concert Hall is behind a paywall, this link will only point to the trailer for this concert, unless you are a subscriber, or have a 7-day free ticket.)

Trifonov is an artist who seems to feel the music deeply each time he performs it. His emotions are signalled by his facial expressions, and his swooping and bending over the keyboard. Tempos get pretty pulled around around in the process, in ultra-romantic style. Fortunately, Triifonov has the virtuoso chops with which to put his view across. The solo part in the Schumann did not seem to stretch him. He had a good rapport with Mariss Jansons, whose accompaniment was sensitive, but full-blooded in the tuttis. He and Triifonov seemed to enjoy their collaboration. This was one of these old-young partnerships that can provide real excitement as well as deep musical understanding. (Think John Barbirolli and Jacqueline Du Pre in the Elgar Cello Concerto.) After the concerto, Triifonov played a stunner of an encore: an arrangement by Alfred Cortot for solo piano of the Largo from Chopin’s Cello Sonata.

I realised, while listening to the performance of the Schumann, that this music has been in my life for over forty years. The first performance I heard of it was the classic recording by Sviatoslav Richter with the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra, made in 1958. (I reckon I bought it on vinyl in the early 1970s.) However, it still stands up very well, particularly in the DGG remastering on CD. Richter’s account of it is considerably more urgent than Triifonov’s, getting through it four minutes faster overall. The CD also includes the Introduction and Allegro Appassionato for piano and orchestra, some short solo piano works, and the Forest Scenes. Richter was a superb Schumann player: you are always caught up in his vision of the music.

The Schumann is obviously a staple of the concerto repertoire. It was often coupled on LP with the Grieg concerto, another “only child” piano concerto. I came across a discussion of Schumann piano concerto recordings on a discussion group. The message that started off the thread listed 162 recordings of this work. As one might expect, just about everyone has had a crack at it, some pianists several times. Among the repeat offenders: Martha Argerich, Claudio Arrau, and Richter (all 7 times), Annie Fischer (5), and Walter Gieseking, Clara Haskil, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, and Rubenstein (all 4 times).

There are two performances missing from this list, the more famous being Stephen Kovacevich/BBCSO/Colin Davis. (I checked for this pianist under all three forms of his name, i.e. Stephen Bishop, Stephen Bishop Kovacevich, or Stephen Kovacevich; he didn’t get a guernsey under any of them.) A considerably more obscure recording that didn’t make this list is Oleg Boshniakov/Moscow Radio Great Symphony Orchestra/Näämi Järvi. I only know about this one because I have it on vinyl (Melodia 04189-90(a), 1978). I felt a rather juvenile thrill at having a performance not listed on this supposedly exhaustive list!

The record is one I acquired fortuitously. While living in St Kilda in the 1980s, I used regularly to wander down to Acland Street. One of these excursions led into a second hand shop, which was selling quite a range of Melodia records. The proprietor explained that these had been imported from the USSR, but never picked up after they had gone through customs. They were being cleared out for a few dollars each. I got about eight, including a Grieg piano concerto, the Tchaikovsky 1st concerto with Richter, the Shostakovich 5th symphony, and the Sibelius 3rd, 5th, 6th and 7th symphonies. The recordings were variable, but the performances were usually very good. The Sibeliuses are performed by the cumbersomely named Great Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio & TV, conducted by Gennady Rhozhdestvensky. All four are keepers.

A tale of four dictionaries

Sometimes learning German feels as if I am struggling through a thorny thicket.

Some of you know this is my second go at this language. My first was four years ago, before Jill and I travelled to Austria and Germany. I started learning through the East Melbourne Language School in its summer school in January, 2016. The school occupied a double story terrace on Victoria Street. Our teacher, Andreas, was an agreeable young guy with a pony tail.

My fellow students included an opera singer, a retired nurse, a youth worker, and a hairdresser. Once a week we straggled up its steep and narrow stairs, and squeezed around the large table which took up most of the top floor front room. One had to stand up to allow late comers to find a seat. No-one seemed to think to leave the seats near the door unoccupied. (This was rather un-German behaviour. I had heard about how German concert audiences would leave the aisle seats vacant until the last minute, to make things easier for the people sitting in the middle of the row. This proved pretty true in practice.)

After I came back from our trip, I had missed out on a term of lessons. While I had been away, my cohort had progressed to one of the levels beyond Kinderdeutsch. I therefore switched to a weekly lesson with Carolin, one of the partners in the school. (There was a vague intention that I could catch up with my former classmates, to rejoin them in future.)

Carolin and I got along well — she used to make me a mug of licorice tea, another discovery. However, I found her teaching method quite disjointed. She mostly ignored the textbooks, and we seemed to do something new each week. I came away with folders full of photocopied notes on disparate topics: the dative case, plurals, prepositions, and lots of other stuff. I must have done some English grammar at school, but I couldn’t remember any of that, so I had next to no background to build on.

On another front, I was trying to figure out what was wrong with me. During our trip I had caught a cold, and got tired very easily. This was worst in Berlin: on a couple of days there I just hadn’t been up to doing anything. My beloved went off for a couple of day trips by herself. She had even less German than I had; I imagined myself trying to explain to the local polizei where she had been going. (Of course, she came back to our hotel safely both times.)

When we got back to Melbourne, though, something clearly needed further attention. In the course of the numerous tests this involved, the prostate cancer was discovered. Everything else got put on hold. During my various rounds of treatment over the next few years, the prospect of returning to Germany seemed remote.

Fast forward to May of this year, and in Stage 3 of the COVID19 lockdown, I realized I needed a project to keep me from going round the twist. I was using Zoom videoconferencing for a few things. Maybe I could use it for going back to German? I could indeed. Fortunately I had kept everything from four years ago: the set of textbooks, my notes from the summer school and all the lessons with Carolin, and my dictionaries.

Plural? Yes, reader, I had acquired four German-English dictionaries. These are all bilingual dictionaries, translating from each language to the other. I picked them all up from op shops, second hand bookshops, and antiques stalls — all places that now might as well be on Mars. Here they are:

Meine Wörtebuch

From bottom left, and going clockwise, they are:

  1. Hugo Pocket Dictionary Deutsch (Deutsch-Englisch, Englisch-Deutsch):
  2. Collins Gem German Dictionary (German-English, English-German):
  3. Collins Concise German-English, English-German dictionary; and
  4. Langenscheidts Handwörterbüch Englisch. Teil 1: English-Deutsch; Teil 2, Deutsch-Englisch.

The Hugo was my first German dictionary. It is quite an eccentric little thing: I suspect Carolin thought it slightly weird (although she was too polite to say so).  But it has its charms. Its 622 pages are very readable, each being laid out in a single column. Published in 1969, I suspect it to be letterpress printed: the type is mostly very crisp. Its dinky size makes it extremely portable. This is the one I took on our trip. To this end I annotated the inside front cover with travel-helpful words and phrases:

  • Es tut mir leid (a cover-all apology. “Entschuldigung” came in handy as well; Germans tend to be very punctilious);
  • Polizist/Polizistin (you never know when you will need a policeman, or woman);
  • Krankenhaus (hospital)
  • Apotheke (pharmacist)
  • Kaufhaus (department store — for when you’ve recovered); and
  • Bäkerei (German bread comes in many varieties, all extremely moreish). 

At 627 pages, the Collins Gem is quite chunky for a pocket dictionary, although it remains very portable. This is a serious bit of a kit for a travel dictionary. The text is arranged in two columns, packing in many more words than the Hugo. Although the Gem is only 5 pages longer than the Hugo, it is a lot wider through the spine. The pages use a heavier grade of paper, which should be more durable. They are rather yellowed, though, suggesting a higher acid content.

The Gem has several useful features. Where a noun forms its plural irregularly, as many do, this is given in the definition — something lacking in the Hugo. It also marks some words as Schlüssellworte (key words). These supposedly are words which occur most frequently, or morph into multiple parts of speech). Hoping to get an inside track on some good vocabulary, I wrote these all on cards. This wasn’t all that useful, however, yielding mostly conjunctions and prepositions, with a handful of irregular verbs. There are lists of irregular verbs in both languages at the back; not the full conjugation, but enough to get by.  

As a desk dictionary, the Collins Concise is really an advance on the Gem, being (obvs) quite a bit bigger. Not having a desk, though, the Concise is just a bit big for me. I only have a little lap-desk, previously the back of a picture frame, which I covered in some rubber floor tiles from Bunnings. This has to hold one or two boxes of index cards, the Android tablet, and occasionally a clipboard, as well as the dictionary. So I tend to only reach for the Concise when its smaller brother is found wanting.

The same applies to the Langenscheidt. At nearly 1500 pages, this is the Big Bertha of the four. Its text is laid out in three columns, which looks just a tad crowded. The type is very clear, though, and stands out against very white paper: all highly legible. There are some great tables in the back  — would you believe four versions of the phonetic alphabet? Go on, you want to know what they are:

  1. German;
  2. British English;
  3. American English;
  4. International; and
  5. Zivil-Luftfahrt (civil aviation).

Oscar Kilo! Being taken by surprise by a dictionary is maybe a bit sad. I’ll ‘fess up to it nonetheless. The Lango is obviously a more-is-more kind of tool. Like the Collinses, it is part of a large family of dictionaries, generally regarded as authoritative. As this rather stuffy phrase might suggest, I hardly ever use it. Es tut mir leid

The internet has a huge range of online tools as well: and Reverso are two I like. The latter is particularly good for looking up a phrase in context, and verb conjugations. But the Luddite in me thinks: what will happen when the internet is down? When my battery needs charging? What about if I cancel my subscription? Print needs no backup. Besides, I will always enjoy a good print dictionary, whether large, small, logical, or a touch eccentric. 

More, but not in a bad way

Note to family members — this post doesn’t contain any information that wasn’t in my last email message.

We saw Dr P on Monday, to get the unwelcome news that the PSA was up at the last test. However, the current level is 0.3 — still obviously less than 1. When we found this out, we were somewhat daunted. Our feeling was “a rise is a rise”. The consult didn’t allow us time to process the information or ask what it meant. However, on the advice of Dr P’s PA, I sent him an email with some questions. He rang me back the same day and I learned a lot more about it. The new information:

  1. the increase I had had was not a rise in clinical terms.
  2. He would be worried about an increase of a much bigger trajectory, e.g. if it was
    measured in whole numbers (integers), and doubling in 4 weeks. So, for example, if I had a PSA of 5.0 and it went up to 10.0.
  3. Increases in fractions of 1.0 aren’t really accurate anyway. (This information is given in a disclaimer on  printout from the path company — a copy of which Phillip gave me on the day.) So, while one may worry about going from 0.09 to 0.3 — an increase of 0.21, which is more than double the first score — it’s a mistake to read too much into that increase. At that quantum it’s not really meaningful.
  4. He doesn’t look at the number itself, but at the velocity of the increase. (This goes back to #2 above.) A steep increase is most undesirable. But if it just grumbles away, as he put it, and increases gradually, that’s not alarming. Scores can move around, particularly under 1.0.
  5. One of the things he teaches his students is not just to look at the PSA, but look at the whole person. Do they feel (and look) well and healthy? On that basis, I am doing very well.
  6. One of the questions I had sent him was whether I would need to move to another treatment (e.g. another round of chemo). He doesn’t think that will be necessary for some time (see below). The longer we can delay my moving to a second-line treatment, the longer I’ll live!
  7. These are the answers he gave me to the questions I had sent him:
    Does he believe the cancer is progressing? No.
    Is he worried at the last increase? No.
    Is he expecting that I may need to move to a different treatment? Possibly, around the end of this year.
  8. He reminded me the treatment I am having presently (androgen deprivation) is Plan A. It has an expected maximum life of about 24 months. (I started it around Christmas, 2018. I can’t recall exactly, as it started as adjunct treatment with the chemo. The latter definitely finished on Boxing Day, 2018 — that I do remember!) Beyond Plan A, however, he has Plans B, C, D and E.

So the whole exercise was quite reassuring. He hadn’t realised we were worried — to be fair, we were wearing masks, which may have made it more difficult to read our expressions. Anyway, I will be talking to him in about 5 weeks, after the next blood test.

There is a lot of ambiguity around PSA. As I commented before, people look for certainty, and want a simple test to see whether they are doing OK or not. There is a temptation to simplify:  low PSA is good, high PSA is bad. As you can see above, it is a lot more nuanced than that. Dr P thinks PSA is a really useful way to see whether someone who has been pronounced cancer-free has suddenly relapsed. It is a less useful measure for someone like me in whom the disease is continuing.

However, I think medicos are partly responsible for this fetishising of the score. For the first half dozen or so consults this year, Phillip was very enthusiastic about my having PSA that was undetectable. He seemed different in the last consult, and I read a fair amount into him being much less effusive than usual. I can see I drew the wrong inferences, but then, I’m not an oncologist.

I believe situations like this arise because experts find it really difficult to remember what life was like before they became experts. Their knowledge gives them an incredibly rich context in which to interpret things. Can they meaningfully ask themselves the question “How would I interpret this if I didn’t know what I know?”. It’s an almost impossible task. Also, people join the dots in an attempt to find a “take-out” message.

My take-out from this? If in doubt, ask questions. There’s no statute of limitations — you can ask questions that occur to you after the consult. (My beloved prodded me to do this, and it was the right thing to do.)

The (provisional) new normal

First the news — we saw Dr P this morning, and the PSA remains undetectable. (This has been the score the last few times (with minor variations in 100ths of a per cent). Today’s consult was followed by a Zolodex appointment; the latter was scheduled half an hour afterwards. Dr P was running a tad behind, so after the consult I legged it off to the oncology unit at Epworth Box Hill for the implant. That was delivered uneventfully. (I had had a little bleeding from the previous one, which was unusual. There were no problems today, though. The implant is only about the size of a grain of rice, so it is not a big thing to put in.)  

After that we had a coffee — takeaway of course — drunk back in the car. Then we headed off to Mitcham, where my beloved wanted to check the size of a pair of shoes she had bought on Thursday. It was good that she did, as she ended up getting a half size bigger than those she had been sold previously. Finalising the transaction took some doing — there were complications. She had purchased two pairs on Thursday, one of which she took with her, the second to be mailed to us later. Much checking was required to distinguish the pair being returned from the pair being sent! (We will have to return this pair to the store for a refund — whenever they arrive.) We had gotten a discount on the price of the pair she had bought on Thursday, and this was duly applied also to the pair bought this morning. Of course the sales assistant we had today was not the one who had done the transaction last Thursday. Etcetera. Anyway, after trying on several further pairs, the slightly-too-small ones were “swapped out” (as people like to say) for the correctly sized pair. We thankfully headed for home after our voyage around the ‘burbs of outer eastern Melbourne. When large areas of the globe were still undiscovered, early cartographers used to write in the blank spaces — here there be dragons!  

Over the weekend I caught up with an old friend, with whom I had shared another takeaway coffee and a wander around the local park. He is working at a university library. All Australian unis depend on foreign students to remain solvent; with COVID19, a smaller number of these folk is expected to enrol in 2021. I think many people in the university sector are waiting to see what their jobs will look like when this happens. My friend is no exception. We swapped health updates as well while working our way around Wattle Park. 

A lot of people seem to be in this very provisional space at present. Whether we go up a ladder or down a snake seems to be one set of numbers away. The best to be hoped for is to keep plodding along, and staying off the radar. Is it a life stage thing? Was life always like this, or has it become more so recently?  

I wore a pink shirt this morning to give myself a bit of a lift, and, I hoped, to cast a healthy glow. I am developing a shirt colour theory of history. Garibaldi’s volunteers wore red shirts (the “Camicie Rosse“). So did the illegally-employed minions working for Victorian Labor Government MPs. These minions were paid out of public funds despite doing electorate work — quite naughty of their employers. (See the ABC News story for those who, like me, had forgotten about this rather sordid tale.) The fascists wore black shirts, Hitler’s Storm Troopers wore brown ones.  Conservative pollies — male ones, at least — seem to favour white shirts. Incidentally — hold the presses — I realise I have hardly worn my white shirts since leaving the paid workforce. So colour does stand for something. But what? 

Step up the pressure

As part of my exercise physiologist’s surveillance, I get a three-monthly checkup with her. This is just to see how things are going, how I’m travelling with the exercise classes, and run some basic tests. Because this was a Zoom appointment, the usual testing of things like blood pressure and weight had to be outsourced. (I managed to measure my waist circumference; that was nothing to write home about, so I’ll suppress that for now!) Accordingly I went to a local pharmacy to have a BP check.

As part of my exercise physiologist’s surveillance, I get a three-monthly checkup with her. This is just to see how things are going, how I’m travelling with the exercise classes, and run some basic tests. Because this was a Zoom appointment, the usual testing of things like blood pressure and weight had to be outsourced. (I managed to measure my waist circumference; that was nothing to write home about, so I’ll suppress that for now!) Accordingly I went to a local pharmacy to have a BP check. 

The value of this was born out when, surprisingly, the numbers came in a bit on the high side: 145/102. I say “surprisingly” because to date, my BP has been on the low side of normal. When I relayed this score to Lauren, the EP, she suggested I have a retest somewhere that used an arm cuff machine. (The pharmacy used a wrist cuff, which apparently aren’t as accurate.) If the retest was still around the same numbers, I should go see my GP. 

I decided to cut to the chase, and saw the good doctor last Thursday. (He hadn’t tested my BP for a while, having assumed that these things were being done as part of my oncologist’s checks. However, the latter hadn’t been doing it either! So it had fallen through the cracks a bit. To be fair, however, it hadn’t been problematic before.) The GP’s test came back with a similar number, so further investigation was required. He ordered several blood tests were to see if any minerals and so on are deficient. He also wanted me to get a portable testing machine for 24 hours. (These are available through Dorevitch Pathology, and probably elsewhere.)  

I went to get this fitted this morning. The main unit is pretty small, about the size of an old-fashioned digital camera. This is worn around the waist, and is connected to an arm cuff by a rubber cord. The actual measuring is pretty strong. I’ve never been squeezed by a python, but I imagine it feels a bit like this. (The measurement only lasts 10 seconds or so.)  

I am to press a button on the main unit when I go to bed, and again when I get up. Until the bedtime button press, it will measure my BP every half hour. When you tell it you are in bed, it only measures you every hour. (I imagine this will wake me up!) After I get up and do the morning button press, it will revert to a test every half hour. I am to go in tomorrow morning to hand it back. At the end of this week or early next, I will see my GP and get the results of all this measuring. TBC! 

Meantime I have been having fun with my German lessons. I realised I love the pedantry of it all, and the fact that there is a right and wrong answer. When I was learning a few years ago, I kept all my books and index cards; blue cards for verbs, yellow for everything else. When I restarted a few weeks ago, I wrote out some more of these. 

My system is: when I look something up in the dictionary, I put in a little coloured marker. I go through the dictionary periodically and write up an index card for each word I have marked. I use blue cards for verbs and yellow (or white) cards for everything else. Irregular verbs are marked with an orange dot at the top right. Some cards are general, like the alphabet, numbers 1-20, and so on. But mostly each word gets its own card. The German goes on top with the translation below; this is reversed on the other side.  

My teacher Jörg and I also had an enjoyable exchange about index cards. He uses them too, and has four boxes, as follows: 

  1. current cards; 
  1. words he doesn’t remember at the first test; 
  1. words that he does remember;  
  1. words that he has learned.  

(I guess that, when a word goes into box #4, it would get a final test, which would pick up anything that had dropped out of memory.) I thought this was a great system, and bought another card box and some more packets of cards at the newsagent. I have one card in my box #4: kugelschreiber (pen). As I have one of those classy multicoloured pens, I made up a sentence to describe my pen:

Mein kugelschreiber hat vier Farben: schwartz, blau, grün, und rot. 

Next I will tackle Die Katze saß auf der Matte. 


Sculpting history

The recent controversy over vandalism of statues has some interesting points.

It seems as though many people only notice public commemorative statues when these are vandalised or involved in some controversy. The vandalism, and, in some cases, more extreme actions like removal, of statues is obviously linked with the Black Lives Matter protests in the US and UK. The compass needle of public opinion, which started out pointing to current actions by police against African Americans in the US, has swung around to point at instances of racism in general, and to the representation of history that public statues are part of. Some have advocated either removing statues of historical figures like Cook, or adding plaques to the statues which reflect more recent views of these figures.

Brief articles like this obviously can’t do justice to a complicated process which is still playing out. The issues involved are quite politicised. The protesters are unhappy about Cook being described, on one of his statues, as having “discovered” Australia. They correctly point out that it had already been discovered by the Aborigines, who were in occupation long before 1770. (Australia was in no way a terra nullius!) From this viewpoint, the European presence in Australia was an armed invasion. In parts of Australia, in particular country Victoria, European occupation amounted to a war of occupation.

Conservatives in particular are uncomfortable about this perspective on Australian history. Scott Morrison first denied that slavery had been practiced in Australia. His statement today kind-of retracted that, and said instead “I don’t think it’s helpful to go into an endless history wars discussion about this. It’s all recorded. I acknowledge all of that, OK?” (The Age, 20 June 2020).

(Actually, the “history wars” to which he alludes is the controversy about the precise number of Aborigines killed by white settlers. There is a helpful Wikipedia article covering the main threads of this debate — although this might get a few further edits by the time you look at it! As a conservative, Morrison would be well aware of this controversy. For him to imply that the historical record is settled is therefore disingenuous.)

So how do statues get drawn into this? The victors get to write history, and public statues are part of that narrative.  The State Library of Victoria has a fair collection of statues, mostly along on its Swanston Street frontage. The subjects:

  • a pair of metal lions;
  • statues of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, the Prince of Wales (Edward VII) and the Princess of Wales (Alexandra of Denmark);
  • Sir Redmond Barry;
  • St George and the Dragon;
  • Joan of Arc;
  • Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe
  • two sculptures from the Dromkeen Scholastic Collection of Children’s Book Art.

This list omits a statue of the two soldiers, ‘Wipers’ and ‘The Driver’, which was installed in 1937, but relocated to the Shrine of Remembrance in 1998. There is also a couple of non-representational pieces on Swanston Street: a street sculpture, ‘Architectural fragment’, and the James Joyce Seat of Learning, installed in 1993 and 2004 respectively. My point? There are no statues of Aborigines in this list.

Public representations of Aborigines have, in the past, included pieces like the pediment of the Brisbane Town Hall. There is a good picture of this sandstone relief sculpture in the I love Brisbane blog. Aborigines are featured in this work:

The components are symbolic of the settlement of the State by the early pioneers … The figures to the left hand side represent the native life (man and beast) dying out before the approach of the white man. (I love Brisbane, accessed 20 June 2020)

Below is an image, from the same source. (The Aborigines are in between the kangaroo and the cow.)


The placement of the Aboriginal figures on the left or “sinister” side of the piece is surely not accidental. “Smoothing the pillow of the dying race” was actually still seen as a humane and enlightened thing to do. Works like this illustrate that prejudiced and cliched attitudes were widespread — enough to represent them in on a major civic building.

Modern statuary has sought to balance this portrayal of Aborigines by acknowledging historical events, and featuring works designed by Aboriginal artists. In 2016, the City of Melbourne installed a memorial to Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner , two Aboriginal men who participated in a guerilla war against white settlers. They were hanged in January 1842 at what is now the corner of Franklin and Bowen Streets, the site of their memorial. The latter sits lightly at that busy spot. Nearby on the RMIT city campus is a cast iron statue, Wurrungii Biik, representing Burundjil the Great Creator Spirit.

To have statues like these in our cities shows that images of our past have evolved along with our attitudes. Things that could not be acknowledged, whether from shame, guilt, or ignorance, can now be portrayed and talked about. Statues matter because they are everyone’s birthright. They become characters in the dialogue that is our history.




Back to the OK Corral

I just heard from Phillip Parente — all good. I am to see him next on 20 July. On that date I am also scheduled to have my next Zolodex implant, with the usual provisos. On 20 July I will be seeing Phillip face to face; the appointment in the Epworth day oncology unit which is scheduled 30 minutes later. One day they some clever person will work out a way to deliver drug implants via the internet. Until then I have to schlep over there in person for one of the super oncology nurses to do the business.

I have had three Zoom meetings this week, two for the exercise class, one for German. The latter is something I have just resumed doing after a break of several years. However much I doubted that I would ever get back to Austria or Germany, I kept all my books, dictionaries, and the other language learning clutter. Without any concrete purpose to turn over the language engine again, though, things stayed in a state of equilibrium. One day a few weeks ago, though, I started going a bit stir crazy with the isolation, and realised that I needed a project. I had had a fair bit of Zoom experience by then, as well. This led to one of those rare lightbulb moments in which I wondered if I could use that platform for language learning. Not only could I do that: my former language school wasn’t doing classes any other way. So I made contact, explained my purpose, and had my first lesson with Jörg. Alles gut! 

I have fond memories of making my way into Melbourne when I was doing German face to face in 2015 and 2016. I would drive to Riversdale station and catch the train to Parliament. From there I would cross Spring Street and walk through East Melbourne, past the lowering bluestone bulk of St Patrick’s Cathedral. The language school was in an old terrace house on Victoria Street. I began in a small class, which would make its way up the narrow, creaky stairs. When I got back from the trip, the class was half way through its new term. The only way I could try to catch up was by seeing a teacher one on one. When I got the cancer diagnosis, language learning seemed like the least important thing to do.  

I’m glad I didn’t let it go, though. German now seems like a vast jigsaw puzzle, complex, but less impenetrable than it did the first time. With my dictionaries, web sites, index cards, and multi-coloured pens (handy for learning genders), I feel better prepared for this second campaign. The break has given me time to ponder the intricacies of this knotty language, and a couple of countries to relate it to. For the first time in my life, I am learning grammar. (It would have been get this under my belt at school, but besser spät als nie, as punctual Germans would say.) 

Isolation day 49

Being together online. Sounds paradoxical, doesn’t it? The article in The Age about Facebook groups “Social discord” reminded me of why I cancelled my Facebook membership a few years ago. I recognise that Facebook is useful to keep in touch with people with whom, for whatever reason, it’s difficult to stay in contact. This capability can be a big deal for those who grew up or worked in other countries. But, just as one can be lonely in a physical crowd, there’s the well known paradox that  even those with many social media “friends” can feel isolated and vulnerable.

Trolling and aggressive behaviour in general on social media, which was the main focus of the article, is obviously a very real phenomenon. I remember seeing a British TV show which tracked down a serial troll to the small village in Britain where she lived. When confronted by the TV presenter with her trolling behaviour, her reply was “I’m entitled to do that”. Jon Ronson’s book So you’ve been publicly shamed, is a fascinating-but-horrifying series of accounts from people to whom this happened. (The link points to the WorldCat record for this title.) Many of those he spoke to felt as if it had changed their lives forever, and for the worse. Anyone who has been verbally abused or ridiculed knows that words can hurt. Having large numbers of strangers do this must indeed be difficult to deal with. The messages are all to do with the recipient — You’re such a terrible person! You’re being too sensitive! You’re letting it get to you! It is always easier to blame the victim than, as the accuser, to look at one’s own motives or values. It is a pity that people who do these things do not have a degree of empathy that matches their verbal skills.

So why do people bother with social media, if it can be such a traumatic experience? My recent experience with Zoom has given me some idea about this. For those who crave interaction — and I think most of us are social animals — half a loaf is better than none. Seeing a face on the screen, and hearing the person’s voice, is a much more powerful substitute for the real thing than one might think.  Zoom and the other videoconferencing platforms have staked out some territory, not just for social contact, but as a business tool as well. Many people will continue to use these platforms after social isolation comes to an end. (Obviously the companies involved are encouraging wide use of the free version in the hope that, later on, some brand preference transfers to the business version.)

The power of an image on a screen, and a voice on a speaker or headphones, is surprising. Rationally we know we are not interacting with a person, but if feels as if we are. I was interested to read an article about Zoom etiquette in this morning’s Age. People do not want not to create the wrong impression, or be inadvertently rude, in how they behave during a Zoom call. (When trying to find this article, I discovered quite a few others in similar vein — even an Emily Post parody article. Obviously people are trying to figure this new thing out.)

Incidentally, videoconferencing software comes with a bit of platform apartheid, as well. A friend suggested that he and I use Facetime. When I did a brief search on this, I found it was a software package unique to the Apple environment. There is a number of equivalents such as Google Hangouts or Duo which have been developed for Android, as well as old faithfuls like Skype. Whichever package becomes the de facto standard, it will likely be a cross-platform one.

Isolation day 45

No-one plans to fail — they only fail to plan! Apologies for the old chestnut, but it serves to introduce something I’ve been meaning to put up here. This is our little system for listing and marking off stuff that we want to get done. I am particularly vague at present, so having a way to capture these things is something I find helpful. Otherwise projects just tend to get away from me — I think of things, then forget them, only to remember them later on, and so on. Anyway, here is our little “whiteboard”.


It is a simple idea that I came across somewhere or other. There are three categories, in columns:

  1. Tasks; 
  2. In progress; and
  3. Done.

With the Tasks category, you will see there are two sub-headings: Courtyard and Front Garden/Driveway. This category is where everything we want to get done is listed. Projects are written up on post-it notes. (I find the small ones work the best.) As one works through them, the projects move across the board from left to right. If projects stay In Process for too long, they may need a final push to get them done. 

The idea of using post-it notes to record the projects was my idea. This saves writing and erasing things between the columns as tasks progress. (One could colour-code the notes — if one could remember what the colours meant.) Why list completed tasks under Done? I think it’s encouraging to see things that one has actually finished. Otherwise it can feel discouraging to have tasks hanging around for ever. This way one can see what projects have been accomplished, and can be marked off. Some projects, like “Sweep”, are never ending. This one will return to Tasks the next time it needs doing.

These things are recorded on a giant fridge magnet that I got from a newsagent in Camberwell Junction. I used to keep this on the side of the fridge. This was just a bit out of the way, however, so I put it on the front. I need a reminder that is hard to ignore.

Isolation day 41

  • Wow, that number of days is creeping up!
  • It is odd how easy it feels to lose touch with the outside world. We haven’t, of course. My beloved continues with her job, we shop for groceries, exercise (by video in my case), and buy stuff on the internet. We read news services and stay in contact with people by phone and videoconferencing. We went for a walk this morning, as we do most days.
  • In spite of all this, my sense of what is normal has been reset. My beloved got some cash out when buying our last lot of groceries, and gave me $10. I thought fleetingly “What use is money to me?”. At that moment the thought of going out and buying things the way I used to, without even thinking about it, seemed foreign. Of course I expect I will get used to it again pretty quickly.
  • I spent an hour or so fiddling around with our NBN modem to see if putting it up on a box made a difference to our wifi coverage and download speed. It didn’t affect either of these things. Neither did taking the modem off the box and moving  it so that it sits inside the window, instead of hidden away in the corner. (Moving the modem closer to a window is one of the things our telco recommends to speed things up.) I did a coverage map and a speed test before and after doing both these things. Both are pretty well identical.
  • Moving the modem is quite a business. There is a curtain which opens into that corner of the bedroom, which has to be pushed out of the way.  There is also an unbelievable number of wires and electrical leads in that corner:
    • telephone jack
    • modem
    • NBN box
    • cordless phone
    • telephone cable
    • electric blanket
    • bedside light
    • power board into which all these plug.
  • However, while browsing on our telco web site, I discovered we can get a wifi booster at a reduced cost using our accrued points through the their loyalty scheme. It becomes a toss-up whether to do this, or put that value towards about nine months’ worth of a plan with a greater download allowance and a faster maximum speed. If we get either of these, will we end up having to get the other as well? No-one is going to be able to tell us in advance. The wifi is working OK at present, fortunately, with very occasional dropouts.
  • I discovered a good ebook through our local library: Conclave, by Robert Harris.  (The link points to a New York Times review.) It seems very well researched, as is usual for his novels. The book is helping me get back into reading, something that I feel I have lacked much concentration for just recently.
  • The setting of the book reminded me of a terrific movie we saw a few years ago on SBS, We have a Pope (Wikipedia entry). Unfortunately this film doesn’t seem to be available on any of the streaming services listed on JustWatch. Keep an eye out for it, though. In the old days I could say: look for it at your local video store, or public library. Of course the former are almost all gone — I think there is one left in Melbourne — and the latter aren’t lending physical media.
  • I get the feeling that services like public libraries will reopen reasonably soon — along with all the usual stuff. We will have to start thinking about due dates again!