Poetry on wheels

In the 1970s, my parents went on their first overseas trip. I was living in the family home in Mosman. (They probably asked me to look after the place for them.) I was enjoying the freedom from parental oversight. I managed not get up to anything too terrible, except for damaging Dad’s car.

He had left me the key to his still pretty new HQ Holden. I was probably just supposed to take it out once a week to keep its battery charged. It was more fun to drive than whatever old bomb I owned at the time, so I may have interpreted my brief rather liberally. So it was Dad’s car that that I was driving home one night along Bridge Road in Glebe, when someone pulled out in front of me and scraped one of the Holden’s near side panels.  

I was a feckless university student in my early twenties, with only the vaguest idea of what to do. I pulled over and exchanged details with the other driver. Then I did nothing more. In my defense, insurance claims were a complete mystery to me. And of course I wasn’t the registered owner of the Holden, so I may not have been able to do much. But I somehow forgot to let Dad know what had happened. (I doubtless rationalised it as not wanting to spoil their trip).

He noticed the dent when I went to pick them up at the airport. When we got home, after they told me about their trip, I told him the story. What remained of his holiday mood must have evaporated fairly quickly. Dad must have loved me a great deal not to have torn a strip off me for general hopelessness. His forbearance continued over the years — he never once reminded me of the episode. I had only thought about it a few times until, forty-odd years later, I heard that Holden was finally withdrawing from the Australian car market.

Dad and I didn’t go to sporting matches or fish. Instead we bonded over music, chess, and cars. I can claim to have introduced him to Haydn, whom he came to love almost as much as Mozart. We played the occasional game of chess, although he was much the stronger player. (I did beat him once that I recall — quite an Oedipal moment.) We also spent quite a few hours fixing my various old bombs. At that stage of my life, I seem to have changed my car over about every two years. Dad was always involved in these purchases, and in working on them when they required some attention. They provided a handy source of problems to solve, something that Dad always loved. 

Dad was quite keen on cars too. In days of yore there had been a Pontiac with a crash gearbox. The first car that I remember of his was a tan and white FE station wagon. This was our car in Darwin. I have vague recollections of my parents talking about shipping it it on the train — presumably the Ghan — so they must have had it in Adelaide as well.

After we moved to Sydney, Dad was able to trade the FE in on a new car, his first company vehicle. I remember him or my mother joking that his employer was sick of looking at the old FE in the car park. He chose another Holden, a white HQ wagon with a V8 engine. (Yes, that was the one that I was driving that night.) After that, he owned a Falcon, and a Mazda 929. All these were station wagons.

I have owned a few cars in my time, but never a Holden. In Sydney, I had been the owner of four vehicles:

  • a 1957 Austin Lancer;
  • a Wolseley 24/80 (a rebadged Austin Freeway);
  • a Valiant station wagon; then
  • a 1968 Toyota Crown.

The Crown was fully imported, and my first Japanese car. It was an extremely solid vehicle, and far more refined than its Australian counterparts. After that I briefly owned a Volkswagen Passat, then a Mitsubishi Sigma wagon.

When I moved to Melbourne I brought the latter with me. Living in St Kilda and working in the city made it redundant. For the first time since turning eighteen, I had no car. Mum was concerned that this would inhibit my dating activities. Fortunately my beloved had her own wheels.

For most of our marriage we got by with only one car: initially her Corolla, then a Peugeot 405. The Peugeot was our only new car purchase, and our most exotic choice. It was reliable and great to drive, but spare parts became more expensive, especially as the years wore on. We reverted to Toyota for its replacement, a 2004 Camry Azura. Sixteen years and 150,000 kilometres later, it is still her daily drive. 

We became a two car couple about seven years ago when my beloved’s family gave us a 1990s model Ford Fairmont. I drove it for five years, during which time it proved extremely economical and reliable. (Local cars did improve out of sight, but the market had moved on.) It became surplus to requirements when I rather rashly bought a Toyota GT 86; a red one, no less. When I saw this car I thought — to quote Primo Levi — if not now, when?

At the age of 65, I enjoy having a sporty drive. Being low slung, it is a totally unsuitable car for an arthritic old fart. I don’t care; getting into and out of it keeps me a bit flexible. It is only taken out to get the shopping, drive to the train station, or to go out to coffee. Dad always bought cars on the basis of function, but I think he would have felt the touch of fairy dust this one sprinkles over the most routine trip. 

Taking care

My life (and someone else’s) could have changed irreversibly on Friday. This is the story of how that didn’t happen.

It was a busier day than usual. One of the cars (the Camry) had developed a fault with the driver’s door handle. So in the morning I had to drop my beloved at the station, then drive the Camry back to Burwood and leave it at to our local garage. Once home I did some chores, wrote an email, then headed off to the Museum. I had food shopping to do on the way back, so I drove the GT to the station.

I got there later than usual, about ten-thirty, and stayed until about one-thirty. I had a bit of lunch and walked down to the train at Parliament station. The trip back to my car was quite quick, and I got down to Maling Road at about 2.20. After a bit more to eat and another coffee, I went to the greengrocer. After that I still needed some groceries, so I decided to head to the supermarket in Middle Camberwell. The most direct route there was along Scott Street, Canterbury. Heading south, this street runs along the side of Strathcona Junior Girls’ School; at this point it forms a T intersection with Prospect Hill Road.

Going past the school I got stuck behind a big Range Rover, going very slowly. I guessed the driver was looking for somewhere to pick up his or her daughter. He or she bumbled around, and tried to do a reverse park into a vacant spot, but gave up and went to turn left onto Prospect Hill Road. I moved past into the right turn lane.

Because it is lined with schools, Prospect Hill Road is speed limited to 40 kilometers an hour. There was quite a stream of cars coming towards me, moving slowly. But after a minute or two, there was a gap. Just as I turned into Prospect Hill Road, a young woman stepped off the curb not far in front of me. I was approaching from her right hand side, but she was looking to her left. 

I realised that she hadn’t seen me, and was going to cross in front of me. I braked hard, and ground to a halt a few metres in front of her. Alerted by the noise, she turned to look in my direction. She looked stricken, and waved apologetically.  (I think I just stared at her.) All this took only a few seconds.

She stepped back onto the curb; I continued to the supermarket. I hope she got a fright. I certainly did.

I thought about this later, quite a lot. This young woman’s number didn’t come up this time. But it could well have. How did I avoid her?

Several factors all worked in our favour. Neither of us was distracted by using a mobile phone. I wasn’t going fast, and I was keeping an eye out. I was alert — thank you, coffee number three — so my reflexes were up to the task. The road was dry. The car was well maintained, and the brakes and tyres did what they were supposed to.  If any or several of these things had been different, I might have plowed into her. Her family might now be visiting her in hospital, or arranging her funeral.

I forgot to get the soap from the supermarket. Oh well, I thought, I’ll just get it next time.

It is easy to get caught up in the rising tide of impatience and discourtesy on our roads. I am no better than anyone else when behind the wheel. But if you get held up for five minutes — what, really, is the big deal? So you get where you’re going a bit late. Life goes on.

 

Needles, active and stationary

I wonder when “moving the needle” started creeping into our discourse? I would have said some time last year. Wiktionary, however, has a quote from the august Time magazine, dating from 2002.

I had a blood test in late January before seeing Phillip Parente earlier this week. The results of the latter appointment: the PSA is still undetectable. So I was glad not to have moved that needle. Everything else is good, and Dr P commented also on how well I was looking. After every other specialist appointment, all being well, I get a new another Zolodex implant. This had been scheduled in half an hour after seeing Dr P, so I duly walked up the hill and presented at the Epworth Eastern oncology ward.

The cheery nurse (they all are) checked with a colleague that I was to get the right stuff, and with me that I was the correct body. Then, having prepped the site, the needle was wielded and the new dose swiftly implanted. I thought of quoting from the Scottish play

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly

but didn’t want to attract any bad luck to the enterprise! But I do find, with this particular procedure, the sooner, the better. Because the Zolodex is about the size of a rice grain, a decent size needle is needed to shove it in. The nurse confirmed that this was “pretty much” the biggest syringe they had. I joked that, should they run short, they could go and borrow one from a horse vet. She agreed — they are doubtless used to patients’ black humour. The implants are put in each time on the alternate side of the abdomen. Strangely, I find an implant put into the right hand side less bruising than one on the left. I had an impressive bruise from the last one, which took quite a while to fade. I must ask next time whether implanting it into muscle is more difficult than into fat. (I hope I have a bit more of the former after three months of exercise classes, due to finish this week.)

Each time I am to see Dr P, I get a bit of testing anxiety. I usually sleep fairly well the night before, figuring that I have done what I can to maintain myself in a well state. This time, following the appointment, I had a very poor night’s sleep. Fortunately I didn’t have exercise class to get to, so could just plod around, go and get some groceries, do a bit of feeding and pruning in the courtyard, and other anodyne activities.

I also spent much of the day reading A life of my own, by Claire Tomalin (the link in the title points to my local library record). This had been recommended by a friend who is also writing a memoir. (He and I are a kind of mutual admiration society). I liked it a lot too — it is certainly very readable, and I finished it in a day. Her resilience in the face of the dreadful things that happened to her is impressive, and she writes about them in an unadorned and straightforward way. For me, however, there was an indefinable something missing from it. She is candid, but not really self-disclosing. Maybe there is a British reserve in her temperament and upbringing that inhibited her from really exploring the darkest places. There is a lot about what she did, and she was very busy, researching and  writing biographies, being literary editor of several major newspapers, and looking after her family. Work was possibly her therapy, and she obviously had too much going on to drop her bundle, even if she had felt like it. I am glad to have read it — books that don’t quite hit the mark are often more instructive than the ten out of ten ones — those books that are like discovering a new planet.

Scoreless draw

My beloved and I went along for my final appointment with Dr Parente for the year. All was as if had been the other times — PSA undetectable — everything good. Of course, this is something we never get tired of hearing! Herself and I had a celebratory coffee in Hawthorn before went to my exercise class.

The week before each appointment, I have a blood test, leaving enough time for the lab work to be done and delivered to Dr P. Around then, I start getting testing anxiety; I am more irritable, although I try not to be, and my sleep is worse. On the morning of the appointment, I feel quite neutral — there is almost a relief that it is here.  On the morning of the appointment, we drive to Box Hill, hoping to get a spot in the practice’s car park. This is quite contested. To keep non-patients out, the practice has had to hand out passes each day to display on the top of their vehicle’s dashboard. If there is a spot, my beloved parks the car while I nick in to grab a pass. I bring this back to her and retrieve my backpack. Necessary things contained therein are my notebook, and a book to read. If I don’t have the notebook, I just don’t remember anything much of what is said in the appointment. I just sit and read my book until my name is called. 

We have found morning appointments are best; I am usually a bit more alert, and there is less chance of the good doctor running behind. Dr P goes through the results from the blood test. This is usually straightforward; everything is over in about five minutes.  It is strange how, after I get this news, I feel a bit scatty and distracted. I never expect the results to be the same as they were last time, even when they have been good all year, or remember how I feel from one time to the next. We have gone through this cycle eight times this year. In saying this, I am very conscious that everything is the best that it can be.

Every other time I see Dr P, all being well, I have another Zolodex. (This is the estrogen treatment that is keeping the cancer quiet. It is delivered in the form of an implant about the size of a grain of rice.) I just walk up the street from the practice to the Epworth Box Hill oncology ward. One of the nurses there checks the dose, and what side it went in on last time. Then they swab the other side of my tummy, and shove it in. This is one of the situations where being a bit rounded is actually quite a good thing! One of the nurses said that they have to hunt around on really lean patients to find enough fat into which to put the implant. Even with my moderate spare tyre, the injection still leaves a fair size bruise.

Dr P told me to keep up the exercise, which I intend to do. I am about half way through the three months of exercise classes I am doing for the university study; three classes a week for the next six weeks, with a break for Christmas. The classes are all supervised by PhD students in exercise physiology. They are lovely young folk, radiating fitness and endorphins, who implacably raise the bar on us old roosters. The aerobic session I do first has gotten longer, and now features high intensity interval training. (This is where you go flat out for a minute, then ease back to the original speed. I do this three or four times, then have a cool-down.) In the resistance training part, the weights have gotten heavier, and the number of sets has gone from two to three. I am feeling better for it all, and even putting on some muscle.  On Sunday, two days after my last class, I felt restless, and found it hard to concentrate. I think I am getting hooked on this exercise caper!

I have been pondering what to do around the end of January, after the study finishes.  I don’t think I will do three sessions a week on my own dime; two, however, is quite a possibility. Meanwhile, Christmas looms into view again. I had the end-of-year party for the Museum last week. This week there is the party for the physio practice I was going to before starting the university program. The same day there is a coffee morning for former RMIT people; everyone kindly rearranged this from its usual day to accommodate my exercise class. This week we will also be getting a visit from an air-conditioning installer, fortunately the day before a heatwave. We will have gone from fifteen to thirty-eight in the same week, an impressive range even for Melbourne. 

It’s here again …

Yes, folks, my most un-favourite time of year has rolled around again. (Is un-favourite a word? It is now.) I went with my beloved to Chadstone last Saturday. Ay caramba! That was it for me for shopping centres this year. With every bit of Christmas muzak at the supermarket, every lame decoration around signposts down the street — those shiny ones which form a kind of skirt around the pole are new to me — and every inescapable catalogue and promotional email, ghosts of Christmases past are crowding around. I thank Old Harry I no longer have to run the gauntlet of the Salvation Army brass bands at Melbourne Central Station, honking out carols to the bleary commuters, the shaken money tins providing an ad libitum percussion obligato.  

Family Christmases in years gone by were mostly pretty OK. We all got along well enough to avoid it becoming the kind of ordeal, thick with recriminations and the airing of ancient grievances, as portrayed in Absurd person singular by Alan Ayckbourn. (In one act of this play, Eva decides to end it all one Christmas Eve. She is repeatedly interrupted in carrying out this project — when she removes the bulb from its socket in order to electrocute herself, a guest thinks she is trying to change the bulb and insists on doing it himself . Eva then tries to gas herself, at which another guest imagines the former is trying to clean the oven, and shoves her aside to do it herself. You get the picture.)

Christmas as an adult is another matter. To give might be more blessed than to receive,  or however the saying goes, but the giving involves a fair amount of getting. What I really detest, apart from the relentless commercialisation, is the way everyone becomes so tense and aggressive in shops and markets, as they hunt down all the extra stuff they somehow just to have. Boxing Day seems a lot more relaxed. The main event is finished with for another year, and one can start in on the leftovers and thinking about how to regift the unwanted stuff. Christmases these days, however, are pretty cruisy. We take a Kris Kringle and dips and nibbly stuff to one or another of the ever-obliging sisters-in-law. They do all the hard work, and it is just an excuse for a family catch-up. Everyone gets on, just as they did in my family of origin.

Okay, so Christmas is a big soft target, affording many easy laughs and satiric scenarios. How about this for a plan? (I am recycling a suggestion made ages ago by a family member, so props to them. They know who they are.) It would be rather hard lines for the kids not to get presents. But what if the adults skip the presents for one year, pool what they would have spent, and make a big donation to a bushfire appeal? Among our lot, I am happy to do the donating. (I am thinking of the Christmas Drought Appeal, via the Commonwealth Bank. But I am happy to donate to other good causes, as requested.) Family members can reimburse me as and when convenient.

Radio

Music is one of the biggest things in my life. I need it as much as love. If I don’t listen to about an hour of music each day I get twitchy, and float loose of my mooring somehow. That listening has to be proper listening — not just having it on in the background while I am reading. (Listening while I am cooking or gardening somehow lets more of the music through.)

After nearly fifty years of listening to classical music, I have about seven hundred CDs, and maybe a dozen DVDs and Blu-rays. At a rough calculation, this equates to about 1,000 hours of listening. As if this were not enough, I have also resumed buying vinyl, mostly from op shops. (I bought some from a record fair recently — I drove most of the way, then walked, to limit what I bought to what I could carry back.) I only have a few dozen LPs, and am trying not to buy too many more. When am I going to get to listen to it all? This is particularly the case, considering that what I switch my amplifier to most often is the FM tuner: ABC Classic or 3MBS.

What is it about radio that I find so addictive? For one thing, I love the unexpectedness of it. ABC Classic, in particular, seems determined to keep listeners in the dark about what is to be broadcast. I have had extensive correspondence with them about this, in which I have also bitched about the shortcomings of their web site. The latter comments were acknowledged, and things improved after a lengthy and no doubt hideously expensive redesign. (This was in progress when I began bothering them. There are still, however, plenty of links that lead nowhere.) From this correspondence I learned that their research indicated — I am paraphrasing — publishing music listings on the web site was not a priority for listeners, at least for breakfast or afternoon programs. ABC Classic conceded that there was interest in having advance access to listings for concerts, which are mostly broadcast around midday. The entire programs of a week’s worth of selected midday concerts can therefore, now, be read on the ABC Classic web site.  3MBS-FM, by contrast, publishes a monthly guide for subscribers, available in hard copy or as a .pdf, for $85 a year — including postage for those who select the hard copy. This guide lists almost everything they broadcast in their daytime programming. (Students, concession card holders, musos, and other impecunious folk can subscribe for about $55 a year.)

Both stations, ABC Classic in particular, post programs on their web sites. These can, for a time, be played back on demand. Being the owner of a vintage stereo, this is not a lot of use to me. (I have tried various Rube Goldberg-type arrangements, which work, but the results sound unpleasantly processed.) However, I have progressed from battling ABC Classic about their inscrutability, to embracing this new and austere universe. I have learned to keep an ear out for hints from the more humane presenters, who actually tell the scattered and huddled listening hordes what is coming up. Audiences Australia wide must be keeping an ear out for a hint of a complete symphony or concerto. Quick — put on a coffee and warm up those valves!

But there is also something about radio broadcasting that I have become really attached to. It is the aural equivalent of seeing a film at the cinema. If you watch the movie at home on the DVD player, you see and hear the same program, but the experience is different. Having everyone who is tuned to a particular station listening to the same program at the same time is similarly different. A radio audience is a kind-of community; a special thing in our fragmented times. Being able to send in SMS comments is a great enhancement to this sense of togetherness. Listening to these comments makes you realise that other people like classical music too, and they tune in while doing their gardening, driving tractors and trucks, walking the dog, or just to listen. 

I also love how radio broadcasts can remind you of music that you know, but has gone off your playlist somehow. ABC Classic has copped some stick in this post, but props to them for playing big chunks of Mahler, Bruckner, Schubert, and even Wagner, amidst the everlasting Mozart. (Just not the Clarinet Concerto again, please! For about six months! And enough of the Mannheim School already.) Further kudos are deserved for giving Australian composers past and present, and local ensembles and performers, a platform. There is more music out there than one can ever hear, just as there is sitting on my study shelves. But the familiar galaxies and constellations are not dimmed by new stars.

The presence of an absence

I have been somewhat absent from the airwaves lately. The last couple of months have been rather busy, which has mostly been great. But the busy-ness has one downside — of which more later.

In the last couple of months I have had a lot of objectives to work towards and interesting things to do. Principal among these is becoming a volunteer at the Melbourne Museum’s Biodiversity Heritage Library project. To get to the Museum, I catch a train to Parliament station, whence it is a lovely walk along Spring Street to Victoria Street, through the Carlton Gardens, past the Exhibition Building. This route takes me through what I think is one of the best parts of Melbourne, with its wonderful Victorian buildings, wide boulevards, and formal gardens with mature trees and herbaceous borders. The trams go dinging past along Nicholson Street; one couldn’t be anywhere else.

Volunteers at the Museum are well supported; there are about 500 of us (of whom only a handful works on BHL). The induction was very thorough, and I now have my entry tag on a lanyard, like one of the cast of Utopia. I am also enjoying the feeling of being part of an enterprise again, the opportunity to learn new things, and the sense of being valued for my skills and experience. So BHL is an all-round winner, combining exercise, mental stimulation, and social interaction.

How does exercise come into it?  To get to the Museum, I catch a train to Parliament station, whence it is a lovely walk along Spring Street to Victoria Street, through the Carlton Gardens, past the Exhibition Building. This route takes me through what I think is one of the best parts of Melbourne, with its wonderful Victorian buildings, wide boulevards, and formal gardens with mature trees and herbaceous borders. The trams go dinging past along Nicholson Street; one couldn’t be anywhere else

I hadn’t heard of the Biodiversity Heritage Library before I stumbled across it at at talk for Rare Books Week. This page gives an idea of what the project is all about. Briefly, it is a worldwide consortium which scans historic biodiversity-related books and other documents and publishes them to the web. These documents are uploaded in full text, described with correct metadata, and publicised on Twitter and other social media. What sorts of things are in there? Charles Darwin’s library is an example; “over 500 of the 1,480 books in Darwin’s library … complemented with fully-indexed transcriptions of Darwin’s annotations”. What else might you find? Who doesn’t love polar bears (ursus maritimus to you)?

These materials are of interest to several communities. Climate change is putting ecosystems all over the world under pressure, with extinctions on the rise. Biologists studying these things need information about plant or animal species’ original discovery, extent, habitats, and appearance. This information is contained in books and scientific journals, but also in periodicals such as proceedings of natural science associations, and archival material like field notes. The latter sources, however, are “grey literature”; things that libraries tend either not to collect, or house in closed access stacks and rare book collections. Many of the documents also feature stunning biological illustration. So this is a site of endless interest to book and design as well as scientific nerds. Discoverability is an emphasis; everything is properly catalogued and described with scientific terminology. What a wonderful project this is — getting these documents out of stacks and rare book collections, into the public domain, for anyone with a web browser to enjoy and learn from.

What else have I been up to? I went to ANAM (another great Melbourne institution) for a number of concerts and master classes. These involve music students nearing graduation, and those visiting Australia to teach them. The standard is high and the ticket prices very low. There are often friends around to have lunch with. Last month there were a few trips to town involved with a couple of prostate cancer-related research studies. (One of these, involving three months of exercise classes, won’t start until November.) I am getting to grips again with Proust, albeit with a certain resistance — I managed to lose volume 1 of the Penguin “In search of lost time”, The way past Swann’s. (I just cursed and ordered another copy from Reading’s.) I spend a lot of time listening to music, either in the kitchen or in the study on my old valve stereo. Now that spring is springing, I will have no excuse but to get outside and beat our little garden into some kind of shape. For the rest of the time there is

  • book group (once a month)
  • the ex-RMIT coffee group (ditto)
  • exercise class followed by lunch (weekly)
  • hauling myself off to the gym (nominally twice a week)
  • going for walks (ditto)
  • food shopping (about three times a week), and
  • cooking (almost every day).

I am still feeling very well, and that is allowing me to keep up this level of activity. The exercise I am doing is a big part of that. I am becoming quite the evangelist (that is, a bore) about movement. My sleeping is better, doubtless partly due also to the exercise. Without this I would not have the energy to do a lot of these fun things. So I have gone from feeling a bit under-engaged to having (literally and metaphorically) lots of pots on the stove. Having many things to do also provides me with distractions. The shopping and cooking have always been my jobs, and I enjoy them both. Everything else I am doing voluntarily, I can schedule my Museum work at times when I can actually get a seat on the train. My book group, exercise, and coffee buddies are retirees; we can all do things when it suits us. Rush hour commutes are a thing of the past.

So what’s the downside? I find myself now a bit short of writing time. Of course, this is a pretty good problem to have! I just need to schedule in some “quality time” for writing. Doris Lessing called one of her books of essays A small, personal voice. Putting the words on a screen helps me focus on that voice, and make sense of things. I see Dr P on the 23rd, and will post the results of that appointment shortly after.