Sunday, December 8, 2013

Mandela the Fool.

There's quite a lot of commentary about the hypocrisy of some conservative and right wing politicians who are singing the praises of Nelson Mandela now he's dead. Many of them have previously accused him of being a left wing apologist and even a terrorist. According to a lawyer colleague of mine, there are also many South African ex-pat lawyers living in Australia who have claimed for many years to be Mandela supporters, even though they aren't prepared to stay in the country he has ruled and supposedly transformed for the better.

The contradictory nature of their seemingly sudden about face isn't all that surprising. The idea that a politician or political commentator should follow some kind of pure linear philosophical trajectory is naïve to say the least. They've been chopping and changing, back-flipping and re-evaluating their positions for years. Political affiliations are complicated things. Just ask Malcolm Fraser, or, were it possible, the late Christopher Hitchens, who both travelled in opposite directions right across the left/right political divide, and no one seemed all that surprised by it.

And no doubt Mandela himself changed positions and opinions on any number of political subjects. It's almost impossible to be a president of a country, or of any political organisation, without either compromising or contradicting oneself.

The universal attraction of Mandela is precisely that: he's attractive. And by this I mean you just can't not like the guy. And I suggest that it was his sense of humour that was a vital part of that attraction. Yes he was humble, saintly, tolerant and forgiving, but the fact that he laughed and joked in the face of so much political tumult, and in the company of so many exalted and self-important leaders, meant that he had the untouchable status of the fool.

And yes, he was left wing. He gave explicit support to Castro, opposed Israeli occupation of areas taken from Palestine, and opposed the invasion of Iraq. The ANC began as a pro-communist organisation. There's no question that socialism was embedded in his general philosophical outlook.

He reminds me of the Italian Marxist comedian and playwright Dario Fo. For years Fo has performed with his wife Franka Rame to packed playhouses and theatres throughout Italy. In 1997 he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature. I saw him perform in Parma in 1998 to at least two thousand people. There is no possibility that a majority, or even a significant minority, of that audience were of the political left. While those northern Italian towns were pro-communist sixty years ago, the general population of Parma would nowadays be middle class and anticommunist. But the public come out to see this radical leftist raconteur, laugh at his jokes and give him standing ovations. As a performer Fo has an almost Papal significance.

Why? Because he makes them laugh. But also because he does so without hubris; he maintains the status of the fool – the comedian, the clown. One vital role of a comedian is to be honest. And Mandela was honest; he held his positions on Palestine, Iraq and Cuba without compromise. Like the Dalai Lama and Fo he refused to give up his support for the underdog, the disenfranchised, and he did it with charm and humour.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Me and My Mouth

I've spent a lot of my life saying things that I probably shouldn't have. You know that feeling when you start saying something and half way through the sentence you're going 'No, this is going to sound wrong!' But if you stop mid sentence it's going to sound worse.

When I first met the mother of a girl friend, I was keen to get on and make a good impression straight away. So, when we drove around to her house and got out of the car I noticed that there were vincas growing out a crack in the pavement. I'd heard her mother was into gardening, so when she came out to meet us, I began the conversation with, “I see you've got vincas growing out of your crack.” Fortunately she had a sense of humour.

Another time I was driving along the West Coast highway, and I had my little dog sitting on my lap. He's a Jack Russell cross and fairly small, so if he sits on my lap he can see out the window. I didn't see the police car go past me until it was too late. They put on the alarm and flashing lights and pulled over in front of me. One young copper got out and came to the window of my car. By that stage my dog was sitting on the passenger seat and I just sat there as the copper leaned into the window.

The copper started with “What do think you're doing driving with the dog on your lap?”

I paused, thought about his question, then answered with, “He's kind of handy 'cause I don't have an air bag.” It was a line I'd thought about previously, and yes, it was an attempt to be funny. But I'd said it with such a straight face, the copper just looked at me like I'd told him I was from outer space. He then asked for my licence and went back to join his mate in the squad car. This time I was lucky too because I could see them in their car laughing and shaking their heads. After checking my details on the computer, the copper came back and gave me a warning.

But the one really significant time I said something weird, or stupid (and I'm kind of embarrassed about it) was in 1997 just after I'd had open heart surgery. The surgery was to fix up a deformed aortic valve. A congenitally deformed valve. This was one of the disadvantages of coming from old colonial West Australian family. In the mid nineteenth century there wasn't a huge choice in the gene pool. I sometimes tell people that parts of my family tree look more like a vine than a tree.

The surgery went very well, and after spending a few hours in intensive care, they took me up to the ward and let me sleep. Then, early in the morning, the doctors came around for their ward visit. I'd been awake earlier but gone back to sleep. The three doctors all stood at the end of my bed: The heart surgeon from Sri Lanka, called Dr Tillekeratne, (the only one I really knew), a male registrar from Pakistan and a pretty female medical student from Vietnam. I'm not sure how long they'd stood there but the nurse woke me up by tapping my shoulder. And what I saw were three doctors, from various different ethnic backgrounds, standing at the end of bed where the television normally was. They all stood there quietly smiling. And I don't know if it was the morphine or the disorientation or just a stupid quirk of my nature, but I started the conversation with, “Wow! who switched over to SBS?” (SBS being the ethnic broadcasting service).

This, of course, was a situation where they didn't find what I said funny. Overseas doctors no doubt receive a lot of racist reactions. I can only imagine the bigoted remarks they have to deal with. So they all just shuffled nervously at my bed and asked how I felt. The nurse, one hand held over her mouth, had to leave the room. I could tell she was ready to explode with laughter.

Anyway, over the next few days it must have become clear to them that I was more of a silly wag than a racist. We all got on very well, and we were able to share a few jokes, and even a bit of friendly banter about cricket. Then Dr Tillekeratne got me back a beauty! It was my seventh day at the hospital, and I was pretty well ready to go home. In fact, like most people, I was itching to get out of there. But they wouldn't let me go until my resting heart rate was below 80 beats a minute. After that much trauma it takes a heart some time to come back to its normal pace.

So that morning, as I sat there slow breathing, meditating and just hoping my heart rate would stay low enough, the two doctors and the medical student all came in to see me. I politely greeted them and they smiled and asked if I was ready to go home. I of course replied that I was one hundred percent etc. Then Dr Tilerkeratena said, “Well, we'd better check your heart.” I sat there confused, thinking 'what do you mean? You know everything about my heart, and besides, you can see it on the monitor, beating just bellow 80.' Then he suggested that the pretty young female medical student – and she really was pretty – should listen to my heart manually, “Just to be sure”. So she came over to me, smiled, and in the most voluptuous manner, undid my pyjama top and place her stethoscope onto my chest. And all I could do was look at the male doctors, as my heart flew up into the early 90s, and shake my head, thinking, 'Damn, you bastards!'. Dr Tillekeratne then smiled, wobbled his head politely, and said, “Sorry Mr Smith, maybe tomorrow.”

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

My left Foot # 2

Down the hallway of the orthopaedics ward some woman is calling out, “Mary” every minute, maybe two minutes. “MARY”. It's not that loud but it's insistent with a cow-like drone. “Mary!” Maybe someone who should be on the psych ward is up here for some orthopaedic treatment. The nurses don't seem to care but I truly wish Mary would arrive and put a stop to it.

I'm back in again with my broken foot. Smashed the top of my foot against a door frame in a drunken stupor on August 4th. I have what's called a Lys Franc injury, named after a French surgeon in the eighteenth century who kept having to deal with injuries where canon balls were dropped on soldiers and sailors' feet. It's also known as 'the jockey's injury', I assume because jockies get their feet stamped on by horses and they don't have work boots.

Anyway, after waiting two weeks for the swelling to go down, they operated on me and put plates and wires in my foot, then made me wait another few weeks before I could leave, as the wound took some time to heal. I stayed with my sister Kate and brother-in-law Peter, two of the loveliest people you'll meet. A few weeks ago I came back to the surgeon Mr Lim's rooms for assessment of the wound. He took one look at it and said, “You need to be back in again with a penicillin drip.” So back I went for five days while the wound healed a bit more.

Then just a few days ago I came back again, after ten days out of hospital, and Mr Lim looked at the wound and said, “It's declared itself” like it was a living, thinking part of me that can make declarations. What they mean by this is that the wound simply won't close without further surgery. Part of the reason for this is that my blood is always thin, due to a bionic heart valve that was put in me in 1997 (if my blood was normal thickness my body would form a clot on the valve which would move up into my brain – not a great outcome). So they put me in again last Friday ready to operate on Sunday.

On Saturday morning I was visited by a surgical registrar with a strange middle eastern accent, a large guy in his thirties whose name I can't remember. This guy explained how the surgeons and anaesthetists do a kind of balancing act with my blood levels just before surgery. Basically they allow my blood thinness to lessen and lessen until it's just a bit thinner than normal blood, then they operate. But the way this big lump of a registrar put it was, “Otherwise you could bleed to death on the table.” This was about the third or forth time a surgeon has said something entirely inappropriate to me, so I just had to tell him, “Please don't say things like that. I'm nervous enough as it is!” And he responded very well, saying it was the wrong way to put it and, “Yes, you are right, I must watch this talk”.

Since spending time in hospital and talking to medical friends, plus my sister who's a psychologist, I've since learnt that surgeons are famous for shocking bedside manners. I met a Silver Chain nurse, a guy called Sam, whose 8 year old son had a heart valve problem that needed a surgical adjustment. Apparently the surgeon kept wandering in and saying, “You could die from this”. Sam became upset and told the surgeon his son was aware of the gravity of it all. I know Doctors have to be honest, and it's probably a legal responsibility to ensure people know of all known possibilities. (And, to be fair, I'm the last person to condone euphemism), but really, someone's got to teach these guys to stop scaring people. I can't help wondering if these guys (and yes, they are almost entirely male) become surgeons because a) they're extraordinarily bright and b) they have this particular ability to focus, and keep focus, in situations of great stress without distraction. Without succumbing to stress or emotion. And what kind of people can do this? Psychopaths, that's who. But don't get me wrong, I'm not saying all surgeons are nut cases; it's just that they're not known for their people skills. It'd probably make a good thesis.

So, on the Sunday morning they operated again. I had to wait in a the brightest, cleanest room with a hair net on as two anaesthetists wandered in, also in hair nets, and carefully told me what they'd do before placing that rubber mask on my face. Ahh, the feeling of going under. Some hate it but I love it, even if I might wake up with half a brain from a blood clot! And for the rest of that Sunday I slept and woke and slept and woke, rang my sister and my parents, and rang them again only to have them laugh and say, “You've already rung us”.

The next day Mr Lim and the surgical team came round and checked it all out, then told me they'd cleaned up the wound and taken out the wires. This was good news to me as I figured that once the wires were out I should be able to bear weight on the foot and soon get back my work as an actor, comedian, clown, story-teller and musician. So I said, “Great, so you won't be taking the plates out then?” To which Mr Lim said, “No, they'll come out in five to six months.” Of course, my immediate response was, “But I can put weight on the foot before then?” And once again Mr Lim, the small, gritty Chinese Australian in his early forties, looked at me and said, “No, I told you this the night you came in...(the night I was smashed to the eyeballs with whisky and really didn't remember a lot at all)...it's six months of non weight bearing, five to six months after the surgery.”
“So I'm gunna be on crutches 'til February?” I asked, exasperated. “Yeah”, said Dr Lim, getting impatient, “I told you before, this is a life changing injury. You're going to be out for a while. Anyway, we have to be on our way. All the best.” Then he shook my hand and they all shuffled off to the next patient.

February! Wow! I'm really going to be in this friggin moon boot and crutches until then! Hmnnn, I suppose footballers with cruciate ligament injuries have to do the same, and they're not all A graders earning mega bucks.

The woman yelling “Mary” has stopped. Maybe Mary arrived or maybe not. It's a wet and windy day, which I like because I don't miss being amongst it all. I have novels and this laptop and lots of friends dropping in. The nurses are all gorgeous, and I mean that in a platonic way; they really are angels, and this being Joondalup, most are from the UK and Ireland. I particularly like one called Sharron, a big brunette who says, “Yes my darling” in her lilting Irish accent whenever I ask her something.

Anyway, back to my book.


Saturday, August 24, 2013

My Left Foot

Ok, here I am, ten days into a hospital stay after smashing my left foot into a door frame in a drunken stupor at home. My darling neighbour Trish brought me to the hospital after her hubby Rob found me at home, sitting round denying anything was really wrong. “That's broken!” she insisted. So here I am in a bed with a weird vinyl structure in my bed called a 'James Pillow' designed to keep my left foot raised. It's like a ramp you might see kids run up and launch themselves in the air, it's about a metre long, half a meter wide and it's in my bed! Sleep is sporadic and broken by the usual noises of an orthopaedic ward: loud beeps, bells, chatting doctors and nurses waking me for 'obs'.

My room mate in this public ward is a lovely policeman called Terry who's hurt his back by falling backwards off a balcony. He can hardly move, he's a big guy, and when he does it's with help as the nurses do the old “One two three roll” and Terry cries with pain. But he's improving now. We talk a lot, and for a few days all we knew were each other's voices. It's a strangely comforting intimacy to chat into the night and hear each other piss in bottles, fart and groan with every movement.

My prognosis is rotten: three smashed bones in my foot that have to be operated on, followed by many weeks on crutches, then another operation to remove the metal pins, followed by months on crutches. This is a big blow as the next four months are my big earning time, as I work as an actor, clown, comedian, stilt walker, uni-cycle rider, MC and casual bus driver. At this stage it's looking like all that work's going down the gurgler and I'll be on sickness benefits of $490 a fortnight! Last time I was that frugal was at a meditation camp in Sri Lanka. Here in boomtown Perth it'll be a friggin pittance. How do unemployed folk do it! Lucky I like minestrone soup. It's what a mate of mine calls dolefood: soups, spaghetti sauces and stews that last a week.

The latest on the operation is that my foot still has red marks and swelling, so they're reluctant to cut in case of infection. Fair enough but the way they've gone about it today has been bizarre: prepped last night for an operation today, starved all night then given a pre-wash, then a surgeon called Dr Lim came in, looked at the foot and said 'No, too swollen', so it was all off. An hour later the orthopaedic registrar said 'No, that's fine”, so it was back on. Then they all got together another hour later, with me lying there in the surgical stockings, texta arrow on my knee pointing to the correct foot, ready to go under, and they decided to call it off! Doctor Lim casually said, “That's OK, give it a few more days” and they swanned off to the next room. A few more days! Shit.
I attempt to console myself by thinking about folk who spend months in bed (and in the old days a whole year in things like kidney machines) or men wounded in wars or disasters. And I do the old 'it could've been worse, might have fallen and smashed my head' routine, but that kind of thinking simply brings up frightening and demented imagery that consoles nothing.

Suggestions by relatives and dear friends on Facebook all seem to follow the line of “Now this is your chance to write and create something interesting....new material for comedy etc”, and maybe they're right, it's just at he moment all I feel is despondent, depressed and furious at myself for causing the accident in the first place.

But the cricket's on the TV, I have two Murikami novels, many editions of the New Yorker, games on the computer, a free local phone, and my friend Ross has loaded a pile of TV on the laptop. And tomorrow I look forward to many hours of Mozart or Brahms while I wait on the Centrelink sickness benefits line.



Okay, it's now three weeks in hospital! That's right. The operation 'went very well' – what else is the a surgeon to going say? (and I'm surprised I didn't pick up the irony of my orthopaedic surgeon being called Dr Lim!!) But the wound (wounds) haven't healed properly. They are actually three cuts, two of them about 10 centimetres long, like two large caterpillars going up and down my foot, the other a smaller cut at the base of the foot. The doctors and nurses keep changing the bandage, looking at the wound and saying 'No, he can't go home with that'. Now, ten days after the operation, and the wound just isn't healing. Two days ago they put on what's called a PICO bandage. This is a large square bandage with a suction tube in the middle and a pump about half he size of a mobile phone that sits in my pocket. So far the PICO bandage hasn't worked, in that it hasn't really formed a proper seal. This evidenced by the orange light on the pump which means 'not sealing' or leaking. Various nurses have come by, looked at it and attempted to seal it by putting more and more tape on different parts of the foot which now looks like it's ready to post in the mail!

So, after three weeks in one bed and movement limited to going to the shower and toilet with crutches, I lie here, foot still in the air on the James pillow (if ever I meet you James...!!). It's become a strange sensation, a little like a really really really long aeroplane flight but the hostesses give you drugs and prod and poke you with needles. Yesterday my pulse was down to 55. That's lower than I've ever recorded it. The nurse who took it decided to do it again manually because even she was shocked. Sleeping isn't so bad because I'm on some fairly heavy pain killers, but these are being reduced so I'm withdrawing a little.

I've found that I've developed a kind of mental hibernation; time goes by quickly even though I'm NOT having fun. Breaks between meals seem to race along as I read, play bridge online, watch movies, check my emails and Facebook, eat, sleep and take long showers involving plastic bags for the foot and a chair for me. My sister suggested that perhaps I should call this my long service leave – long service for a self employed clown, comedian, actor. And yeah, I suppose it will be that, but the $490 a fortnight sickness benefits is a little less than half pay, and the resort I'm in is pretty boring, although the workers are good people.

So, tomorrow being Monday, the doctors will decide once again if I stay or not. I've had moments when I've thought 'bugger this' but what can you do? Run out of here and end up with a mangled, unusable foot? No, this is a big lesson in patience and time-killing. Strange, the idea of killing time like it's the enemy, it's more a case of just sitting in a big bath of time and letting it just move around me and down a drain made of mindfulness, meditation and meandering thoughts.

Monday, August 12, 2013

My Left Foot

Ok, here I am, ten days into a hospital stay after smashing my left foot into a door frame in a drunken stupor at home. My darling neighbour Trish brought me to the hospital after her hubby Rob found me at home, sitting round denying anything was really wrong. “That's broken!” she insisted. So here I am in a bed with a weird vinyl structure in my bed called a 'James Pillow' designed to keep my left foot raised. It's like a ramp you might see kids run up and launch themselves in the air, it's about a metre long, half a meter wide and it's in my bed! Sleep is sporadic and broken by the usual noises of an orthopaedic ward: loud beeps, bells, chatting doctors and nurses waking me for 'obs'.

My room mate in this public ward is a lovely policeman called Terry (not his real name) who's hurt his back by falling backwards off a balcony. He can hardly move, he's a big guy, and when he does it's with help as the nurses do the old “One two three roll” and Terry cries with pain. But he's improving now. We talk a lot, and for a few days all we knew were each other's voices. It's a strangely comforting intimacy to chat into the night and hear each other piss in bottles, fart and groan with every movement.

My prognosis is rotten: three smashed bones in my foot that have to be operated on, followed by many weeks on crutches, then another operation to remove the metal pins, followed by months on crutches. This is a big blow because the next four months are my big earning time, as I work as an actor, clown, comedian, stilt walker, uni-cycle rider, MC and casual bus driver. At this stage it's looking like all that work's going down the gurgler and I'll be on sickness benefits of $490 a fortnight! Last time I was that frugal was at a meditation camp in Sri Lanka. Here in boomtown Perth it'll be a friggin pittance. How do unemployed folk do it! Lucky I like minestrone soup. It's what a mate of mine calls dolefood: soups, spaghetti sauces and stews that last a week.

The latest on the operation is that my foot still has red marks and swelling, so they're reluctant to cut in case of infection. Fair enough but the way they've gone about it today has been bizarre: prepped last night for an operation today, starved all night then given a pre-wash, then a surgeon called Dr Lim came in, looked at the foot and said 'No, too swollen', so it was all off. An hour later the orthopaedic registrar said 'No, that's fine”, so it was back on. Then they all got together another hour later, with me lying there in the surgical stockings, texta arrow on my knee pointing to the correct foot, ready to go under, and they decided to call it off! Doctor Lim casually said, “That's OK, give it a few more days” and they swanned off to the next room. A few more days! Shit.
I attempt to console myself by thinking about folk who spend months in bed (and in the old days a whole year in things like kidney machines) or men wounded in wars or disasters. And I do the old 'it could've been worse, might have fallen and smashed my head' routine, but that kind of thinking simply brings up frightening and demented imagery that consoles nothing.

Suggestions by relatives and dear friends on Facebook all seem to follow the line of “Now this is your chance to write and create something interesting....new material for comedy etc”, and maybe they're right, it's just at he moment all I feel is despondent, depressed and furious at myself for causing the accident in the first place.

But the cricket's on the TV, I have two Murikami novels, many editions of the New Yorker, games on the computer, a free local phone, and my friend Ross has loaded a pile of TV on the laptop. And tomorrow I look forward to many hours of Mozart or Brahms while I wait on the Centrelink sickness benefits phone line.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Toxic



Toxic

A word can’t paint a thousand pictures, but it can have a very strong sense of meaning; however, when that word is over used and over used it loses colour and spirit to the point where it says nothing and is no longer specific. This is the case with the adjective ‘toxic’.
Thousands of people around Australia are spewing up this word, in the press and on Facebook,  in cafes and dinner parties. The 2012 Australian Olympic swimming team had ‘a toxic culture’ said the journalists and the swim team’s critics. We hear all the time about a toxic atmosphere in failed businesses, in army corps and religious groups where bullying or buggery has ruined reputations and caused despair.
            It’s the big word of the last ten years it seems, but where did it get its big lift in popularity? In 2009 parliamentary attack dog Tony Abbott referred to then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as a toxic bore. It certainly wasn’t the first time those two words were used together but it had a blistering affect; it resonated with the many people who not only disliked but deeply despised the prosaic, over educated manner of Rudd. My estimation is that Rudd was never really boring, instead he suffered from hubris, but that kind of word wouldn’t penetrate the public psyche like ‘toxic’. Add the word ‘bore’ and you’ve got yourself one mighty insult, boring being a sin in modern politics so heavily reliant on instant spin and flashy image.
            In a sense the word is being used metaphorically. We don’t literally believe that these mannerisms, atmospheres and cultures are truly poisonous. Kevin Rudd’s close advisers were not landing in emergency wards after contact with him. But when a metaphor is overused it loses meaning and power. Orwell referred to ‘dying metaphors’ in his essay Politics and the English Language. His examples were such things as Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, etc.
            But with the word ‘toxic’, which simply means poisonous, why is it better than ‘poisonous’? Because it’s hard, it starts and ends with hard consonants and it contains a hiss in the x. The word ‘slut’ comes to mind as an equally hard and powerful word. Contemporary comedians talk about dropping the ‘C bomb’ and some are making jokes about rape, but you’ll rarely hear a comedian call someone a slut. ‘Toxic’ also has an association with destruction of the environment; when a river or lake is poisoned it becomes toxic. Dangerous chemicals are toxic. So, before it became so over-used, its meaning was very strong from various socio-political angles.
            Now however, its use simply points to the lack of imagination of the user. When I hear it written or spoken on TV, I can only think the user is desperate for a loaded term and no longer has the ability to describe a feeling or association in their own terms. In this sense we can say that the word ‘toxic’ is a waste word, poisoned by over use, and destined for the rubbish tip of the English language. Well, we can only hope.