Doctor’s orders

I went to my scheduled appointment with Phillip Parente this morning. The news was all good as far as the tests went; the PSA was 0.02, still undetectable. Phillip pointed out that, until recently, the test only went to one place after the decimal point. So, my inference from this is: while it was up by 0.01, that’s not worth worrying about.

The bad news: as a cancer patient, I am in a high risk category for the novel coronavirus. So I have to self-isolate for a few weeks. For details of what to do and not to do, he referred me to my GP and the Commonwealth Department of Health COVID-19 isolation statement.)

This affects my beloved too. (There is obviously not much point in my being self isolated and her not.) So she will be working from home: fortunately she brought her laptop home a few days ago. Neither of us will be going to exercise class, coffee with friends, book group, concerts (probably cancelled anyway), movies, or any of the social things we used to do. I will also be avoiding  catching up with my friend, a fellow prostate cancer patient, who is also writing a memoir. At least we can exchange drafts by email.  

Shopping is out too! We picked up a few things on our way home this morning. Our greengrocer, fortunately, does home deliveries. I can just text him what we need & pay over the phone. I have been doing little shops over the last few days, so we are fairly well stocked for the essentials. I even managed to get a four pack of loo paper! The bottom line (sorry about that): neither of us is displaying symptoms, we are pretty well prepped for a few weeks chez nous. The Guardian article “Never read Middlemarch or listened to Wagner’s Ring Cycle? Now’s your chance” fits our circumstances pretty well.  We have a courtyard in which to sit, and a park at the end of the street to walk down to. As the poet proclaimed (cliché alert):

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

(The Rubayait, by Omar Khayam. But you knew that! The Wikipedia article about the Fitzgerald rendition — of which the above is Quatrain XII — is most interesting.)

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. 

Apocalypse already?

Like most of the world, I have been watching and reading the coronavirus news with mounting alarm. Obviously, any new virus which is capable of causing fatalities is frightful. One to which there is as yet no vaccine (it being a new strain) is worse. And one which has the potential to initiate a global recession is worse still. All this is known. The cherry on top is the the uncertainty in figuring out just how bad things might get. Epidemiologists and other experts are either being properly cautious in their forecasts, or predicting that (as I saw over the weekend) coronavirus will be like the common cold; everyone will catch it at some point, but not everyone will be symptomatic, and only a few of those will progress to the full-blown disease. (There is a good article which I stumbled on, 12 myths about the coronavirus, that contains some good information in an accessible form.)

Like everyone, the unfolding news about the coronavirus affects me in a particular way. Before all this happened, my beloved was planning to going to Paris towards the end of March. I was to accompany her, and we would go somewhere in  Europe afterwards. But where? We were attracted by the idea of a cruise: just making one booking, and only unpacking once. None was available, though, it being just too early in the year. As time progressed, it became less likely that she would get to attend the meeting anyway: it was a long way to go for one-and-a-half days. The year was starting to look a bit crowded already, weirdly, with other things we had planned. So 2021 began to look like the earliest I could contemplate another overseas trip. Then the coronavirus news started trickling in, making what seemed only probable into a near certainty.

Given that (to put it bluntly) I may not get many more opportunities, an overseas trip is fairly high on the bucket list. So anything that defers it is unwelcome; the more so if the period of deferral is as indefinite as this. No-one seems to have the definitive formula for how people can minimise their chances of infection. For me, however, one precaution stands out: stay out of situations in which you are in forced proximity with a lot of people. An international flight and a cruise seem therefore like exactly the things to avoid.

Being a cancer patient by itself doesn’t mean you have to avoid all risk of infection. (An exception is people who are actually undergoing chemotherapy, who are encouraged to avoid opportunistic infections.) And I feel generally very well. Having had chemo and radiation treatment, though, does undermine one’s immune system. Consequently, I make sure to have a flu shot — all the more given the coronavirus infection peak may coincide with the flu season. So, while you can’t avoid risk altogether, you can sensibly minimise it. This means taking precautions that people who aren’t cancer patients may not bother to take.

My situation is fortunate in several ways. Being retired, I no longer have to undertake the daily commute on increasingly crowded trains or trams. Because my main income source is an indexed super pension, I am rendered fairly immune from the effects of an economic downturn. If I want to take a less risky trip, there are plenty of places to go in Australia with my beloved. (She is the one who will really need the holiday.) Many people would gladly swap their existential anxieties in the face of the coronavirus for my concerns. Saying this doesn’t make the latter go away — it just puts them in a context. 

On this note, some of you will have seen the article which fortuitously appeared in The Guardian this morning “Young and forever sick“. This piece gives an account of some young people’s experiences with a chronic (and acute) medical condition. The focus is on the concept of mortality salience — how a serious illness can change your view of the world. I have written about this before, so won’t repeat myself other than to say that I think this is an important discussion to have. Olivia Gee’s experience of serious illnesses in her twenties adds a layer to this already gnarly topic. Getting a life-changing diagnosis when you can reasonably expect to have most of your life in front of you would be tough indeed. (To say that it is tough at any life stage is not to negate her experience.) Medicos and mere mortals alike need to remember that their patients still have things that they want to achieve. This existential shopping list will be different for everyone.

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.


Once more, at the right tempo

Timing, as the saying goes, is all. This is nowhere more true than in music. The speed or tempo at which a piece of music is played has more to do with how we perceive that music than any other factor.

Think about how much a person’s walk says about them. An energetic person will dash around, a more elderly person will move in a deliberate and unhurried way; somebody elderly or injured will hobble. In the same way, the character of a piece of music is immediately announced by the tempo adopted in the performance. Beethoven 5, first movement, announces itself dramatically — da-da-da-dumm! — at allegro con brio. The nostalgic slow movement of Dvorak 9 (“From the new world”) is marked Largo.  These are almost the extremes of tempo markings. 

Since music began to be notated, these Italian tempo markings were the only means composers had to indicate how fast they wanted a piece of music to be played. Then came the metronome, beloved of music students around the globe. This clockwork device  allows the tempo to be expressed as a number — the metronome marking. A book, The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination, by Matthew Guerrieri, contains the story:

The metronome was an invention of Beethoven’s day; he didn’t have access to it when he was writing his early symphonies. But later, he came into contact with it and loved the device. “He immediately buys one and sits down and starts going back over all his old scores and putting in metronome markings,” Guerrieri says. “And he picked a tempo for the Fifth Symphony that even today sounds really, astonishingly fast.”

The setting he chose was 108 beats per minute — so fast, so hard to play, Guerrieri says, that people have been theorizing for centuries about why Beethoven might have mismarked his own symphony. A broken metronome? Advancing deafness? Nobody knows. [Deceptive cadence, NPR Public Radio]

From this point you might ask — what’s the big deal with choosing a tempo? Just set your metronome (clockwork or app) to the marking in the score, and play it at that speed. The composer can’t be wrong, right? Well, not quite. Their metronome may be faulty, as Beethoven’s could have been. There is quite a literature, including a mathematical paper, trying to work out why Beethoven put such fast tempo markings on his music. (This New York Times article reviews the various issues that the faulty-metronome hypothesis raises.)

There are other considerations too. One of these is the nature of the acoustic in which the music is to be played.

Sergiu Celibidache was a Vegemite kind of conductor — some love him, others can’t stand him. The issue is the extremely slow tempos he used to adopt, particularly in Bruckner. Celibidache was very interested in Zen, and had a semi-mystical view of conducting. I’ve never really understood this until I read this excerpt from his autobiography:

‘Herr Doctor, how fast does that go?’ he once asked Wilhelm Furtwangler about a particular passage. The answer had unexpected consequences: ‘Ah that depends on how it sounds.’ Later Celibidache alluded to this laconic remark: ‘So, the way it sounds can determine the tempo! Tempo isn’t a reality per se, but a condition. If there are an enormous variety of factors working together, then I need more time in order to create something musical; if less is going on, I can move through more quickly.’ [Notes to Bruckner 3, Symphonies 3-9, Munich Philharmonic/Celibidache]

Or, as his son puts it

more notes need more time to develop and return (to the ear). The richer the music, therefore, the slower the tempo … When only a percentage of what existed in the hall can be heard, the tempo always feels “too slow”. [Ibid.]

The point is “in the hall”. A large reverberant space like a cathedral will have a much slower or “wetter” acoustic than a concert hall or recording studio. So there is no such thing as “the right tempo”; a work will be played at speeds that suit the acoustic of that performance.

Celi’s interest in Zen leads one to a few paradoxes. This recording has the shou symbol for longevity on the cover and in the liner notes:


This symbolises his ongoing legacy. He was obviously a major conductor, whose work we can now only know through recordings. However, he hated recordings, believing that they destroyed the uniqueness of each performance. He believed in the primacy of the moment, and wanted to create the conditions for a transcendent experience on the part of the audience. This concept is summed up in the term ichi-go ichi-e: 

often translated as “for this time only,” “never again,” or “one chance in a lifetime.” The term reminds people to cherish any gathering that they may take part in, citing the fact that many meetings in life are not repeated. Even when the same group of people can get together again, a particular gathering will never be replicated and thus, each moment is always once-in-a-lifetime. [Wikipedia]

So why did his family authorise EMI to issue a series of Celi’s recordings? There are several official reasons. First, they wanted to secure his legacy before copyright on his recordings expired, when pirate editions of questionable quality would be issued. Second, they intended to create two foundations: one musical, the Celibidache Foundation, the other more general, S.C. Help, which “will cover various needs in the world”.  Whether these intentions were realised or not, the volumes of this edition I have seen are handsome productions, with full liner notes and beautiful photography of  Japanese dry gardens.

Regardless of the philosopy, what do the results sound like? I have only heard Bruckner 3 and 4. Bruckner was a special favourite of Celi’s; the mystical and spacious aspects of this music lend themselves to the latter’s approach. I find the interpretations quite hypnotic. It helps that, with the exception of no. 7, I don’t know the symphonies very well. I can just space out and let the process take over. It definitely works for me. It is music of mountain peaks and sudden storms. As in Wagner’s last opera Parsifal, time becomes space.

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.

Mariss Jansons

Late last year I saw an obituary for Mariss Jansons, who died last November of a heart attack. I felt quite a sense of loss. He was one of those conductors whose recordings I had started to look out for. Jansons was never a household name like Karajan or Solti, but I think he was more reliable than both. (Karajan, with a few exceptions, I have always thought over-rated, while Solti could drive things along too hard — although his Ring Cycle is terrific.)

As one might expect from someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, Jansons was an expert in the Russian symphonic repertoire, particularly Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. He was had great versatility, though; his Sibelius recordings with the Oslo Philharmonic are very fine, and he was at home also in the standard German fare. I have his Beethoven 3, 4 and 5, and Bruckner 8, all with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (of whom he became chief conductor in 2003). I was also able to acquire his Shostakovich cycle last year (thanks, Jane!).

Mariss Jansons studied these scores with his father Arpads, also a conductor: the latter knew Shostakovich. Mariss Jansons clearly understood that these symphonies portray the fear, anxiety and betrayal of a generation. His readings are neither flashy nor dull; even the longest movements have a sense of momentum. Climaxes are full-blooded, and there is plenty of that sense of mounting hysteria that seems peculiar to Russian music (and Shostakovich in particular). The set features the work of eight orchestras: his own Bavarians, the Berlin, London, Oslo, St Petersburg and Vienna Philharmonics, as well as the Philadelphia and Pittsburg orchestras. With the exception of the last, these are all top bands. (He was also chief conductor of the Concertgebouw.) That Jansons was able to work with all these orchestras gives you an idea of the regard in which he was held around the world. His ability to get a Russian sound from all of them is also quite remarkable.

This set reveals many of his strengths, and possibly the reason why greater fame eluded him. Maybe he became a victim of his success. Rather than being identified with one orchestra, as Karajan was with Berlin, working in so many places prevented his “brand” from being really established. I don’t think Mariss Jansons would have cared about this. For him, the music came first. 

I recently got a couple of encores to my Jansons collection. Thanks again to Jane’s generosity, I was able to get from Readings, via special order, a box set called Mariss Jansons: Portrait. This is issued by BR Klassik, a label that the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra founded for the dissemination of their recordings. It is a five CD set featuring Jansons and the BRSO in Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss, Mahler, Varese, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich. There were not many conductors who had all these composers in their repertoire. The Shostakovich is the sixth symphony. The performance in the complete set is with the Oslo Philharmonic, so when I have time, I can compare the two performances.

I have also had the chance to hear Janson’s final thoughts on Brahms’ fourth symphony. This work is included in the Portrait box, in a recording from 2012. Jansons and the BRSO also performed this in October last year, one of his last concerts. This program was recorded by the BBC; I made a disc from this, which I played through again this evening. The timings of the 2019 performance are definitely slower than those in the 2012 recording. (The first movement is 1′ 15″ longer, which is quite noticeable.) However, the feeling is valedictory rather than sentimental. Phrases are moulded lovingly, and with tremendous insight, but very little pulling around. The orchestra plays wonderfully. No-one was going gentle into that good night.