If you want an education, go to the library

I have just read an extremely interesting and encouraging article in the New York Review of Books called “In praise of public libraries“, by Sue Halpern. (I should add that, I am not a subscriber to the NYRB, and Halpern’s piece is not behind a pay wall, as far as I can see. The link provided above therefore should take you straight to the piece; let me know if not. As always, I apologise for cross posting.)

The title of her article may seem to promise a dusty and tedious motherhood kind of essay, as faded as those little baskets of pot-pourri one sees in an op shop. On the contrary! The article opens with Halpern’s pacy account of helping bring a public library to a small town in New York State, and how wildly popular this initiative proved. The body of the piece, however, is a review of a couple of books about American public libraries, Palaces for the people by Eric Klinenburg, and The library book by Susan Orlean. (The links in each title point to the Amazon entries.) She makes me want to read both these books — usually the sign of a good review.

One particular aspect of the review which caught my attention was the section devoted to Andrew Carnegie and his eponymous libraries. Public libraries would seem an unusual thing for a red meat capitalist like Carnegie to be interested in. The review explains how this came about. Carnegie, at the age of fifteen, was working as a telegram boy in Pittsburgh. A local iron manufacturer, Colonel James Anderson, allowed working boys to borrow one book a week from his private library. Carnegie’s experience of this philanthropy led him to write later in his Autobiography 

It was from my own early experience that I decided there was no use to which money could be applied so productive of good to boys and girls who have good within them and ability and ambition to develop it, as the founding of a public library in a community which is willing to support it as a municipal institution.

He put his money where his mouth was, to the tune of $1.6 billion in today’s dollars. This funded 2,509 libraries worldwide. Family members will know that one of these was in Mildura, where my family was living when I first saw the light of day. A voracious reader, Mum’s use of the Carnegie library was probably a factor in her enthusiasm for public libraries. This in turn doubtless contributed to my becoming a shelf monkey for over thirty years. (I am indebted to the Urban Thesaurus for this nomenclature.)

The NYRB piece sets the institution of public libraries squarely in the current climate in which libraries are being either closed, rationalised, or starved of funds. (This is happening here just as much as the United States.) Economic rationalists are sceptical that we need public libraries at all, now that we have Amazon, and Starbucks stores with free wifi. (I know — libraries don’t actually sell books — but apparently economics professors don’t know this.) Halpern provides the interesting figure that, in the Los Angeles County system, the annual per capita library funding figure is around USD$32, which equates to about nine medium-size Starbucks lattes. (In my local area, every $100 of rates revenue includes $6.68 of funding for libraries, arts and cultural services; about half of what is spent on emptying the bins and other “Environment and waste management” services.)

Rather than join the chorus bemoaning the irreparable damage being done to libraries in all sectors — municipal, university, and special — let’s concentrate on the positives. In the financial year 2016-17, the State Library of Victoria had more than two million physical visits, and over four million digital ones. More than a million people visited its exhibitions. A public appeal raised more than $500,000, a record for that institution. “Major gifts” raised another $25 million for its Vision 202 redevelopment plan (see “A year of records for Australia’s most popular state library”, media release 25 September 2017). Okay, that is one flagship library. But it shows that the public and funding sources — even when everything is supposedly available on the internet — are still prepared to support bricks and mortar libraries.

Where did I get the title of this post from? You are forgiven your overdue fine if you recognised Frank Zappa’s incisive words: “If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library” (Brainy Quote).


Keeping calm & not carrying on (too much)

I was sitting in the waiting room of my lymphedema practitioner yesterday, reading ‘The tattooist of Auschwitz’. When she called me to come in, she asked what I was reading. When I told her, she said “That’s hilarious”. We established that she was referring, not to the book itself, but to the fact that she was reading it too. (We are reading it for our respective book groups.)

Why was I seeing a lymphedema practitioner? In recent weeks I have had a bit of swelling in the feet and ankles. This is quite often found in people who have had radiation treatment, chemotherapy, or lymph nodes removed. (Of course, I have had the trifecta.) The weather has been warm and pretty humid, which tends to make this condition worse. Anyway, I now have a lymphedema practitioner among the team keeping me in a well state. (Who knew that such specialised people existed?) Treatment involves wearing knee high compression socks, doing some lymphatic drainage (i.e. massage), and keeping the limbs elevated where possible. Walking (and exercise generally) is fine. Long periods of sitting with feet on the floor, and standing around, are not recommended.

Anyway, things are definitely headed in the right direction. (This is based on re-measurements of my feet and ankles.) Apart from this small inconvenience — with which there is no pain — I am still in remission and feeling fine. The last scan came up clear, PSA still undetectable, so I am continuing with the hormone treatment. (I get another implant every three months.)

Returning to ‘The tattooist of Auschwitz’; when someone in my book group said they would like to read it, I knew nothing about it. Judging from the title, it didn’t sound like a terribly cheery read. I had just suggested ‘The narrow road to the deep North’, however, so I didn’t feel entitled to object to it on those grounds. I’m glad I didn’t — I am enjoying it more and more the further I get through it.

One reason is that, in spite of being set in Birkenau prison camp, the killings and assaults it records are never rendered very graphically. So although it is clear what is going on, it never descends into Holocaust porn. Another is the style, which is clean and unadorned, and propels the narrative efficiently. Doubtless Heather Morris realised that, with a story like this, no flourishes or literary devices were required. If so, she made the right decision. For such a book, it is quite a page turner. The steadiness of the narrative pulse, and the unbelievable ingenuity of the characters in just staying alive, makes you believe that they will get out. (After all, someone survived to tell her the story, right?)

I found this story, of people showing such resilience in unimaginable circumstances, instructive after the Christchurch killings. Everyone will react differently to this event. I have been trying to find a justification for being concerned with, and going on writing about, mundane things. Of course — and I apologise for the cliché — life must go on. Cars must be serviced, bills paid, meals cooked, washing washed. These things don’t stop just because some total bastard has rent the fabric of so many lives.

Of course people in Christchurch are not just getting on with their lives, but are showing great resilience and compassion as well. If the alleged killer was trying to inspire hatred and rejection of Muslims, he has evidently failed. So many people went along to mosques and Islamic museums last Sunday — here and, no doubt, all over Australia and New Zealand — to express their sorrow for these murders. There has also been tremendous support for the right of Muslims to practice their religion.

Taking a closer look at this: we might assume (as I did) that freedom of religion is guaranteed under Australia’s constitution. This actually isn’t so. Australia has no bill of rights guaranteeing the right to practice a particular religion. There is a number of  implied rights in the Commonwealth constitution; these rights are generally taken to include religious practice. However, this implied right only applies in the Commonwealth jurisdiction. So the states and territories are theoretically free to make laws restricting the practice of a particular religion within their jurisdiction. (See the interim report of the 2016  Inquiry into the status of the human right to freedom of religion or belief (Australia. Parliament. Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade)). 

If these events brought about a bill of rights, or other instrument giving proper protection for freedom of religion, it would not be worth the lives lost. But it would be something positive.

Nothing to see here …

We saw Dr Parente yesterday morning. The PSA is still undetectable, and I remain in remission. After receiving this good news, we went to the oncology unit, where I had another Zolodex implanted. (You will remember that this is the hormone treatment — androgen deprivation — that is aiming to starve the cancers of what they feed on.) The implants are about the size of a grain of rice and last about 3 months. They just go in in the abdominal fat, of which there is still plenty, even after the gastro! There is very little discomfort. I booked in the next appointments with Dr P & the oncology unit, for the next implant.

My beloved is going to Paris in early April for a few days. She will be representing her work at an international transport meeting. We thought of me going as well, and tacking a cruise or other expedition onto the end of her work commitments. However, there is bugger-all happening in that line at that time of year (too cold, I suspect). So I am going to hold the fort. Of course this depends on nothing going awry in the meantime, but (touch wood) all seems to be quite stable. I have been going to an exercise class for oncology patients run by Lauren, the exercise physio, and this is pretty good! I will be going back to the gym soon as well (I stopped for a few weeks with the gastro).

My lovely old Luxman pre-amp has spat the dummy again and is only working on one channel. This is a real bore as I have to disconnect everything, pull it out, and run it over to the valve amp guru in Glen Waverley. He will have it for however long he needs to ponder its mysteries — could be weeks. (His workshop is like an Aladdin’s cave of amplifiers, many much more expensive than mine. So he knows whereof he speaks.) This is not my first pilgrimage there, however, and to be honest I am a bit over the vintage gear. Maybe I should sell it on Gumtree and get a nice, soulless, reliable, solid state integrated amp!

Artists and parasites

Whether republicans or monarchists, we are all supporters of the GG (Guy’s Gut). So I knew you wouldn’t want to miss any twist in the tale. The final act of the drama unfolded like this:

  1. 11th: Saw GP A — not my regular one, who was unavailable. She gave me a pathology test kit, just in case I had something more than common old gastro. I dropped this off at a path collection point a few days later. When I didn’t hear anything about it, I assumed it didn’t show anything unusual. (The practice doesn’t contact patients about path results except if they show something urgent or out of the ordinary.)
  2. 18th: Felt worse over the weekend, so saw GP B (my regular). He rang the path lab. The test he was hoping GP A had requested, she hadn’t requested. So he asked them “Can you run an XYZ test on the existing samples?”. Yes, they could. On what I told him and my treatment history, he went ahead and diagnosed a likely Giardia infection. He gave me a script for Flagyl (an antibiotic) and a few other bits and pieces. I had to take the Flagyl for 3 days: no grog (haven’t been having any anyway).
  3. 20th: After having the Flagyl over the last 3 days, I felt dramatically better! GP B had hit the bullseye — good on him. Normal energy, appetite, number 2s, the works. As far as I am concerned, case closed. However, later that day, I got a message from the practice to ring them. I needed to make an appointment with GP A to discuss the test results (remember them?). I made a time for the following day.
  4. 21st: GP A told me it wasn’t Giardia after all, but Aeromonas. Apparently this is a more unusual species of bug, mainly seen in travellers. Same treatment, but it is less likely to recur than Giardia. (This is because the Flagyl kills the Giardia parasites, but not their eggs. A recurrence of symptoms after two or three weeks is therefore possible.) She recommended a probiotic to restore some of the gut flora that the Flagyl will have knocked out. Oh, and I am still off the grog for a few more days.

The most important thing: I feel normal. Today I walked nearly 13,000 steps (about 9.5 kilometres). Appetite, energy levels, and all functions back to normal.

I am re-reading The master, by Colm Toibin, for a discussion group on Saturday.  (For those who haven’t read it, this is his novel about Henry James.) When I checked the publication date, I was surprised to see it was published 14 years ago. I did my Honours thesis on James over 40 years ago, so when this novel came out, I was naturally interested to read it. I was impressed then with Toibin’s novelistic treatment of him, and I still am.

It strikes me, this time around, that there is a lot about social blindness in his treatment of Henry James. (Well, I have always thought of the concept as “social blindness”. An example of this is someone at a nude beach, who strenuously ignores the naked bodies in front of them. Of course, they are just as interested as anyone else would be. They are just not peering too obviously, to avoid the social stigma of being thought a pervert. Maybe someone can tell me what this is actually called in social psychological terms.)

In The master, James feels as if people can tell that he has — as he might put it — particular inclinations. (These crop up pretty early on, so it is no spoiler to disclose it here.) He loathes people inferring this about him, as anyone might. According to Wikipedia, homosexuality was a capital crime until 1861 in Britain, after when it continued to be regarded as a serious offence. Of course, no-one accuses James out loud! The niceties (social blindness) are thus preserved; the fictional James, however, feels vulnerability and shame.

With all these inferences and implications, Toibin infuses the early scenes of the book with a fair degree of tension. In this “faction”, James is portrayed as an observer of human behaviour. (Sargent’s portrait captures this aspect of his personality; as do the books.) That less fastidious people can apparently observe him just as readily adds an uncomfortable paradox. From memory, his sexuality is thought to be ambiguous. It appears that he renounced entanglements the better to write about them. The real Henry James was famously discreet in this as in all things.


No guts, no glory

I was originally going to call this blog post “Smörgåsbord”, and it’s not surprising I should have had food on my mind. I came down with gastroenteritis on Thursday, and since then I have subsisted mostly on dry toast, tea, water, and electrolyte drinks. Forays into peanut butter on the toast and lentil soup were unsuccessful. I have only been beyond the gates a couple of times since it all began; the excursion yesterday was to a GP in Camberwell. My loyal readership might think I am taking an attack of the runs a bit seriously to call in a medico. For those who have had immuno-suppressant treatments like chemotherapy, however, the recommendation I have read is to call in a GP if the gastro goes on beyond a couple of days. (This was also the suggestion of my oncologist Dr Parente, with whom I had a brief phone conversation yesterday.) So it’s not just me being a wimp!

A medication that Dr P recommended is called Gastrostop. This contains both loperamide, which helps the bowel contents to firm up, and another ingredient meant to reduce abdominal swelling (which can be quite painful). I can report that this combo works well. It is delivered via a chewable tablet, wherein lies its only disadvantage in leaving a bitter taste. (This may not happen for other people.) To get around this, I have been breaking the tablet up and swallowing it in water. When I did this this morning, I felt quite nauseated; fortunately, I wasn’t sick. This could have been related to my being unable to swallow the tablet fragments, and having to chew them after all. Maybe there is a reflex that makes you feel nauseated if you chew something you haven’t been able to swallow. For anyone remotely interested in how their tums work, I can recommend Gulp: travels around the gut, by Mary Roach. (The link points to the Boroondara Library service record.) This is a great piece of science writing. Just don’t read it in your lunch break: especially when she is talking about vomiting and elimination!

Further in this vein, a good source of information about gastroenteritis (which I sincerely hope you won’t need) is the Better Health Victoria web page . From this and other sources I learned that my gastro is viral, not bacterial. Bacterial is accompanied by vomiting and abdominal pain, and can be treated by antibiotics. Viral has neither of these effects, and can’t be treated by antibiotics, or anything much. The main recommendations here are rest, very plain food, water and electrolytes to replace the fluids. Paracetamol can help reduce fever, but won’t do anything for the gastro. (Something nobody points out — stay near a toilet — i.e. at home. And wash your hands every time you go. My beloved has so far not succumbed, although it is way contagious.) The BHV page is superior IMHO to the equivalent federal government one, which is well written, but contains some weird advice along the lines of “Eat normal meals if you feel hungry”. This is pretty much guaranteed to irritate the gut big time! Stick with dry toast, maybe chicken noodle soup, plain rice or noodles. Avoid coffee, alcohol, chocolate, butter, spicy food, and all other fun things. Some GPs feel that loperamide-based medications like Gastrostop prolong the condition by stopping you up, and thus inhibiting the virus from passing through the system. I tell you what, though — if you have been to the toilet ten times, a bit of stopping up starts to feel like a good thing! At the very least, if you want to get a half-way decent sleep, have one or two of these (as directed) before you go to bed.

Coincidentally with this happenstance, we have been down to one car (the GT) in which to get around. Someone ran into the Camry while my beloved had it parked at Chadstone shopping centre. (She wasn’t in it at the time.) Fortunately the driver of the other car left a note under her windscreen wiper, apologising profusely and including her contact details. After quite a number of phone calls, the mobile C-suite has a new bumper, paid for by the other lady’s insurance. Drop-off Thursday, recovered yesterday. (Fair play to the repairer, Capital Smart, for providing my beloved a free Uber ride home and back to the workshop in the wilds of Mulgrave.)

Things got faintly complicated when our insurer got involved as well. We had a comprehensive policy on the Camry at the time of the accident, and ended up paying them the excess on that policy for the current repair. (When our insurers are reimbursed by the other insurers, we should be fully refunded.) Before I got crook, I ferried my beloved around in the GT; fortunately she also had a couple of drives with me as the passenger. This came in handy when I couldn’t stray beyond the front door! She is a very capable driver, however, and got the hang of it in no time, looking very Agatha Raisin in her string-backed gloves and big sunnies. She ended up taking it out for quite a few spins, including a night-time trip to a pharmacy. We bought an automatic model partly so that we could both drive it, and this turns out to have been a good move. It is a very entertaining little device, and injects fun into the most mundane supermarket trip.



Better late than never

This hot weather we have been having in Melbourne has been giving a further boost to my general scattiness. That, and the lack of any new developments (and appointments over Christmas), have contributed to the absence of posts for the last few weeks.

I saw Dr P, my oncologist, on the 16th. (This appointment was, as usual, preceded by a blood test.) The main no-news is that the PSA continues to be undetectable. I had been told I was to have another Zolodex implanted that day. (This is the ADT drug that we hope will continue to keep the cancers inactive.) Dr P checked with the hospital; I had the previous one implanted at Cycle 5 of the chemo, on 5 December 2018. They last about three months, so I am not due for another one until 27 February (my next appointment with him). This fits in as, in the new regimen, I will be seeing Dr P every six weeks. So I will get a new Zolodex implant every other appointment.

Meanwhile I will also be having a scan, booked for 23 January. This will be a tracer-type scan, before which I have to drink a preparation containing barium. (I was issued with the preparation and instructions for taking it on the day that I saw Dr P.) As usual with scans, the purpose is to detect any unusual or unexpected activity. I have had one of these before without ill effect; I think I have had just about every type of scan commonly on offer.  I don’t mind what it is as long as it isn’t an MRI, which I find pretty claustrophobia-inducing.

My fingernails are showing one of the main side effects of the chemo, turning various shades of yellow (left hand) and grey (right hand). This has been accompanied by soreness at the tips of the fingers, which hasn’t seemed to spread down to the gripping function of the hands. So I can still open jars and bottles, and hoist weights at the gym, but have trouble pulling my credit cards out of my wallet. Dr P said this was one of the most common side effects of chemotherapy. The nails will grow out normally from the cuticle, and the old darkened nails would gradually drop off. I have been getting some swelling as well around the ankles, particularly on the left side. (With the help of Dr Google I diagnosed this as lymphedema, a common occurrence in people who have had lymph nodes removed.)  I have been dealing with this by elevating the ankles, particularly at night, and wrapping the left hand one in a bandage that I got when I twisted an ankle years ago. Both things seem to work quite well, and fortunately the ankles aren’t painful at all when swollen.

I had a claustrophobic reaction also to an exhibition that we went to see recently at NGV International about Escher and X nendo — the latter someone of whom you will have heard if you are a Gen Y or Z. Unfortunately I couldn’t see 95% of this exhibition, as it was pretty crowded, extremely dark, and laid out in such a way that you couldn’t see more than a few metres ahead of you. I had to bail out after a few minutes and go and have a look at the merch. (The tickets had been freebies from American Express, so I didn’t mind too much.) We saw another exhibition some time after this, about Baldessin and Whiteley, also at NGV (the Potter this time). This was a far more pleasurable exhibition to attend, with a much more light and airy layout which emphasised the contrasts and similarities between these artists. This exhibition finishes on 28 January BTW; an entry fee is payable for both. It is worth it, IMHO, to see Whiteley’s huge Lavender Bay pictures, and his epic American Dream sequence.

The last of the cheMohicans

I am becoming a bit blase about the chemo sessions, I fear. My dedicated followers will know the last one of the six occurred yesterday. I was just poking around in the kitchen a short time ago, looking at the calendar, which had it listed for Boxing Day. My trusty Raymond Weil automatic watch, obtained through the combined generosity of RMIT and my beloved about four years ago, told me it was the 28th today. Other sources contradicted this, telling me that today is the 27th: ergo, I had had the chemo yesterday. (The date window in the Raymond, for some reason, only adjusts forwards. Rather than advance a whole month, it is easier to not wear it for a day, and let the date run down to the correct one. September, April, June and November are all easy months, as all that is required is a single advance. February, of course, requires two, but I can just about cope with that.)

If I was having trouble remembering when I actually had the chemo, you can infer it went without incident. The worst thing was the coffee they sweetly made me in the oncology unit — they are so nice, I feel a bit mean to complain! (I just had another one at home.) The PSA continues to edge south, being now <0.01 — truly undetectable. I am not having any side effects yet, apart from a bit of fluid retention around the ankles. We got some lovely presents the day before, including a bottle of Mumm — my favourite! And my beloved gave me a super photo of our wedding day (the silver anniversary of which having ticked over a few days before).

Today it was hot — about 37 — so we went to see a morning session of Collette at the Balwyn Cinema. It was enjoyable, if rather resembling a BBC three-part costume drama stitched into a feature film. I would say “Get it on video”, but I am showing my age there! Still, anything with Keira Knightley is generally worth watching. Domenic West was good as Collette’s husband, the frightful (and appropriately-named) Willy. Lunch followed at a local Italian place, which was reliable as always. Then home to sit in the air conditioning and watch Day 2 of the Boxing Day test.  Hope everyone’s Christmas-New Year break is slipping similarly under the radar!