Monday, 29 December 2008

Beam Me Up Scotty


Today was the day; one of those rare days when Dunedin is the most beautiful city on the planet: green hills; the harbour like glass; deep blue sky with the sun perpetually low so it always feels like 9:00 am; crisp and warm and still and clear all at the same time. Then, the same carpark,the same waiting room with the same magazines, the same gown, the same shorts that fall down unless you hold them up with one hand. A different machine this time though. This one was spectacularly high tech.

I was shown down a corridor and into rooms with no windows. One room had a curved desk and banks of monitors: big, flat screen, sharp looking monitors, two displaying a movie of the bench where I would soon be lying, one with a very high definition x ray photo of a pelvis, maybe mine, and another couple with columns of incomprehensible but important looking gobbledegook. Then, just down the hallway was the room with the bench itself and a machine that looked like it meant business. It was covered in high gloss plastic coatings and small glass panels. The room itself had green lasers shining from the walls. It all looked like a set from Star Trek; the radiation machine like a flying saucer on a stalk , the roof lights which came on and off of their own accord, the automatic door which made a trekkie type noise when it opened and shut.

Then I laid me down to sleep and asked the Lord my soul to keep.

They put my feet in the polystyrene blocks and precisely aligned the lasers with my tattoo marks. They drew on me with pens. They measured. They chatted. They retired from the room and said they would be back in 20 minutes and please don't move. I didn't. The bed did - precisely millimetres at a time as someone fiddling with a joystick in front of one of the monitors lined me up. And the machine did. Very very precisely. Slow purposeful arcs around me, pausing to sniff out the best spots and then to speak to me in a quiet high pitched hum -quite possibly in Klingon.

As best I could, I kept awareness of my body. I felt the life in my body and felt the hugeness of the earth beneath me as she held both me and the machine. Disinterestedly I observed the itch in my shoulder but felt no inclination to scratch it. I observed the breath at the tip of my nose and my own stillness. I was in no position to meditate but meditation techniques were very helpful both in keeping me still and in letting the whole thing pass me by without any particular emotion. I felt nothing from the process at all, but knew that a dozen or so very narrow beams were intersecting at the precise point somewhere in my lower abdomen around which the machine was rotating and that they were combining to destroy tissue; healthy tissue that would grow back and cancerous tissue that would not. The intersection point was so small I would feel nothing today or tomorrow, and possibly not until there were a couple of dozen such points competing for my body's healing resources, in another few weeks.

There were conversations with the staff before and after; I was told things I knew already but needed to hear again. Then it was out into the sunshine on Dunedin's quiet streets. Away from the Starship Enterprise and into the beautiful still clear city where clocktowers are made of blue stone and tell out the time with magnificent and welcome approximation.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Xmas and Christmas



I am indebted to  This Fine Blog for the following


“Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus,” by C.S. Lewis


And beyond this there lies in the ocean, turned towards the west and north, the island of Niatirb which Hecataeus indeed declares to be the same size and shape as Sicily, but it is larger, though in calling it triangular a man would not miss the mark. It is densely inhabited by men who wear clothes not very different from the other barbarians who occupy the north western parts of Europe though they do not agree with them in language. These islanders, surpassing all the men of whom we know in patience and endurance, use the following customs.

In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound they have a great festival which they call Exmas and for fifty days they prepare for it in the fashion I shall describe. First of all, every citizen is obliged to send to each of his friends and relations a square piece of hard paper stamped with a picture, which in their speech is called an Exmas-card. But the pictures represent birds sitting on branches, or trees with a dark green prickly leaf, or else men in such garments as the Niatirbians believe that their ancestors wore two hundred years ago riding in coaches such as their ancestors used, or houses with snow on their roofs. And the Niatirbians are unwilling to say what these pictures have to do with the festival; guarding (as I suppose) some sacred mystery. And because all men must send these cards the marketplace is filled with the crowd of those buying them, so that there is great labour and weariness.

But having bought as many as they suppose to be sufficient, they return to their houses and find there the like cards which others have sent to them. And when they find cards from any to whom they also have sent cards, they throw them away and give thanks to the gods that this labour at least is over for another year. But when they find cards from any to whom they have not sent, then they beat their breasts and wail and utter curses against the sender; and, having sufficiently lamented their misfortune, they put on their boots again and go out into the fog and rain and buy a card for him also. And let this account suffice about Exmas-cards.

They also send gifts to one another, suffering the same things about the gifts as about the cards, or even worse. For every citizen has to guess the value of the gift which every friend will send to him so that he may send one of equal value, whether he can afford it or not. And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, they have been unable to sell throughout the year they now sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.

But during these fifty days the oldest, poorest, and most miserable of the citizens put on false beards and red robes and walk about the market-place; being disguised (in my opinion) as Cronos. And the sellers of gifts no less than the purchaser’s become pale and weary, because of the crowds and the fog, so that any man who came into a Niatirbian city at this season would think some great public calamity had fallen on Niatirb. This fifty days of preparation is called in their barbarian speech the Exmas Rush.

But when the day of the festival comes, then most of the citizens, being exhausted with the Rush, lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much supper as on other days and, crowning themselves with crowns of paper, they become intoxicated. And on the day after Exmas they are very grave, being internally disordered by the supper and the drinking and reckoning how much they have spent on gifts and on the wine. For wine is so dear among the Niatirbians that a man must swallow the worth of a talent before he is well intoxicated.

Such, then, are their customs about the Exmas. But the few among the Niatirbians have also a festival, separate and to themselves, calledCrissmas, which is on the same day as Exmas. And those who keep Crissmas, doing the opposite to the majority of the Niatirbians, rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast. And in most of the temples they set out images of a fair woman with a new-born Child on her knees and certain animals and shepherds adoring the Child. (The reason of these images is given in a certain sacred story which I know but do not repeat.)

But I myself conversed with a priest in one of these temples and asked him why they kept Crissmas on the same day as Exmas; for it appeared to me inconvenient. But the priest replied, “It is not lawful, O stranger, for us to change the date of Chrissmas, but would that Zeus would put it into the minds of the Niatirbians to keep Exmas at some other time or not to keep it at all. For Exmas and the Rush distract the minds even of the few from sacred things. And we indeed are glad that men should make merry at Crissmas; but in Exmas there is no merriment left.” And when I asked him why they endured the Rush, he replied, “It is, O Stranger, a racket”; using (as I suppose) the words of some oracle and speaking unintelligibly to me (for a racket is an instrument which the barbarians use in a game calledtennis).

But what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, is not credible. For first, the pictures which are stamped on the Exmas-cards have nothing to do with the sacred story which the priests tell about Crissmas. And secondly, the most part of the Niatirbians, not believing the religion of the few, nevertheless send the gifts and cards and participate in the Rush and drink, wearing paper caps. But it is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in. And now, enough about Niatirb.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Deck The Halls

Copyright unknown

It's nearly Christmas. Time for clergy persons everywhere to whine, bitch and moan about the unceasing commercialisation of Christmas. Well, what do we expect? We hijack the Saturnalia and complain when the old pagan festival brushes off its Christian veneer and reverts to form? Get over it.

However, being a clergyman and being rather partial to the odd spot of whining bitching and moaning, there is one thing I'd like to wb&m about. The holiday season offers, yet again, an insight into what I call the Social Credit syndrome. For the information of those of you unfortunate enough not be New Zealanders, and to remind those of you who really should remember your political history a little better (see, I'm in a hectoring mood) the Social Credit Political League was a political party that flourished in our fair country from the 1930s to about the 1990s. And by flourished I mean sputtered along, fueled by the enthusiasm of those who accepted its somewhat peculiar economic theories. Social Credit theory was the brainchild of a certain Major Douglas and had quite an appeal if you were keen on cure all solutions and didn't have a strong grasp of economics. The party was never very popular, but at one stage it managed to get a single solitary member elected into our parliament, where he accomplished...well... not much at all. For the last twenty or so years of its life the party was in a state of decline, -from small to tiny to miniscule - and as it went down the tubes it spent all its energy and resources holding conferences in which it tried to figure itself out and explain itself to itself. In other words, the main business of promoting Major Douglas' theories was gone and instead, the peripheral business of the party consumed it.

There is a principle in here, possibly an important one, and if you are scrabbling round for a topic for your Masters or PhD, you can have this one, free of charge. Here's the principle: as an organisation or institution declines in importance, the peripheral and/or ceremonial trappings associated with that organisation or institution take on ever increasing size and grandeur. Here's some examples:

1. Christmas. As the significance of the Christian faith declines in the West, Christmas has become ever more extravagent and expensive. So for that matter, has Easter. So for that matter have a couple of very minor festivals - St. Valentine's Day and Hallowe'en. The Social Credit principle is seen most clearly in Christmas, though, with the cost of gift giving, feasting and drinking putting families into financial difficulty well into the new year. I would guess that the families most likely to land themselves in these difficulties would be amongst the least likely to have any spiritual or religious motivation for celebrating the festival.

2. Weddings. As marriage has declined in importance as an institution, weddings have become ever grander and ever more expensive. Here is a picture of a wedding in the 18th Century; a time when marriage as an insitution was cruciual to the functioning of society:
Notice the simplicity of the occasion. The couple are decently dressed in clothes they would wear on other occasions. The ceremony is attended by family and friends but the celebration is comparatively brief and inexpensive. By comparison, the average cost of a New Zealand wedding is now around $15,000. Many weddings cost well in excess of $100,000. In all this haemorrhage of money from the nuptial couple, a tiny percentage is spent on the religious ceremony itself, of course. The amount spent on the wedding has no correlation to the longevity of the marriage. Sometimes I suspect exactly the opposite.

3. The British Royal Family. As the political power of the British monarchy ebbed away, the pomp and ceremony surrounding them increased. All the grand ceremonies we are most familiar with - the changing of the guard, the trooping of the colour, for example - arose comparatively late in the monarchy's history, and achieved their present grandeur only in Victorian times or even in the 20th Century.

4. Ordinations. As the
social significance of the church in the West has declined and as the role of the clergy has declined within the churches themselves, the grandeur of ordinations has increased, particularly episcopal ordinations. Within the Anglican church, the rise of the eucharist as a weekly event, and the increase, in most parishes, in the amount of decoration accepted as usual for the eucharist has also paralleled the decline in importance of the clergy both within the church and within the larger community.

Is my observation correct? I think it is. My suspicion is, that we will know the church is healthy again when we ordain a bishop at 10:15 on a weekday morning with 25 people present. We will know that marriage is truly honoured when a community of friends gathers in simplicity to honour together that thing which the couple possesses and which money can't buy. Until then, we sit back astonished as money flows into trundler loads of worthless junk at Christmas and into five thousand dollar dresses at weddings.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Take A Seat


I have been practising meditation on and off, mostly off, for a long time now. It's got a bit more serious of late. When I talk about meditation on this blog, I am not pretending to teach. I'm sharing where I'm up to, that's all. Let me repeat that: this, or anything else on here should not be construed as instruction. If you want to learn to meditate, find a teacher, a real live one, who will talk to you. Join a group. At the very least get a reliable book and/or CD in which someone will guide you through the basics in real time. I'm not some self styled new age guru with a 3 day meditation course behind him who is going to charge a bucket full of dosh for some half baked information. Mind you, if you do find my half baked info useful, the buckets of dosh can be delivered to me personally, bank transfer or cash preferred but all major credit cards accepted

Instructions to meditate usually begin with the simple invitation: Take your seat. It sounds innocuous enough but it's important. I'm told of people who meditate while lying in bed or in the ad breaks, but I'm personally doubtful about how possible that is. Sitting is a key to the whole process. Get this bit right and you're well on the way to learning how to meditate. I think.

Most of the time, most days we are quite unaware of our bodies. They are just there, moving us around, providing a handy receptacle for food and drink and giving us something to park our glasses on. Our bodies do their thing automatically and we don't have to think about them at all except when they hurt or itch or make embarrassing smells or inexplicably fail to do exactly what we ask of them. It's as well that we don't notice our bodies most of the time; after all, the mark of a good servant is to be unnoticeable. During meditation, though, we are going to be completely aware of our bodies for quite a period of time, and we need to sit in a way that makes that possible. We are also going to be still for longer than the body is normally used to, so we need to be seated in way which minimises pressure points and allows us to make subtle adjustments to our posture when it might be necessary. Our bodies are -mostly - reliable servants, but for much of the day they are also cunning and at times tyrannical masters, telling us when to move or eat or fidget or scratch or sleep. The mastery the body has over us happens mostly because we are unaware that it is the body that is in control. For this period,while we are seated, we are going to take complete power over our body and the body doesn't much care for that.

Our bodies are as seamlessly part of us as our minds and spirits and so connected that what we do with our bodies will necessarily affect what we do with the other two parts of our personal trinity. Of course we acknowledge this fact whenever we kneel for prayer or stand when a visitor comes into the room. In meditation we assume our seat, telling the deepest parts of ourselves that we are here with a purpose.

The way our bodies function can't be completely explained by any doctor, no matter how big an anatomy textbook s/he may have read. They have mysterious but quite predictable patterns of energy. They have rhythms and flows and pathways and junctions and storage points for energy that may all be affected by the way we are seated. We want all this stuff to work for us in the most helpful manner, so we choose our place and manner of being seated with care. Of course, the Eastern books all recommend sitting cross legged on the floor, but unless the session is going to become merely an exercise in pain control and a short one at that, I'm going to sit on something. It's taken a while of experimenting and thinking about it but I have it sort of OK now: a way of sitting that I can maintain for sufficient time, and where I am as unencumbered internally as I might possibly be. So, take your seat. What's next? Easy. Breathe. We can all do that.


Monday, 15 December 2008

Practice Makes Perfect


Let me explain my previous post. I wrote that little story some time ago as a piece of practice writing. Before writing, I set myself some parameters. The piece must:
*be exactly 1000 words long;
*Contain a discovery that leads to conflict;
*Mention 7 objects that all start with 'S' - sleeping bag, soap, sack, satin ribbon, stove, saucepan and soup;
*Have a question in every piece of dialogue;
*Mention every colour of the rainbow plus black and white, once and only once.
This story did not aim to be a great piece of literature; it did not even try to be a particularly good story. It was an exercise, which aimed to make me more aware of my own writing: to help me to be more controlled and precise in my use of words, more inventive with my vocabulary, more aware of structure and the limitations structure must impose on writing. As an exercise, it worked; it worked because other, more serious pieces I wrote after the exercise were much more soundly constructed. This exercise was something I could do in order to help me do something I couldn't do - namely write well for a sustained period of time.

Practicing, i.e. doing something attainable for the sake of achieving something unattainable, is what our spiritual life is about. Just as we sing the scales or quietly practice our putting in order to train our voices for arias or our wrists for the green, so we pray, meditate, attend worship, read holy literature, give alms, keep journals and a thousand other sacred things to train our selves for a life in the Spirit. That is not to say our spiritual practices don't have worth in their own right. Of course our prayer - to take one spiritual practice as an example - is effective, and we pray for the sake of prayer alone; but it is only disciplined, regular times of prayer, incorporated into our life over a long time - prayer as practice - which school us to lead to the life of prayer urged by Paul in Romans 12:12, Colossians 4:2, and elsewhere.

My meditation practice grows unsteadily onward. It does not become easier though it becomes more rewarding. I school myself in awareness and stillness for two reasons. Firstly because it is worthwhile in its own right. It is a benefit to the body and soul to be still and free from my usual inner taskmasters for a short spell each day. Secondly, and most importantly, it is practice; training for a whole life that I hope will one day be lived from a place of inner stillness and in awareness. I know my spiritual practice is working not so much by the amount of time I can sit for, but by the amount of stillness and awareness that seeps out into the rest of my life.

A Broken Rib


A silence as deep and thick and dense as the blanketing snow settled on the tent. The storm was gone now and with it, most of their hope. They had struggled on for a mile or two in the wind, unable to see as the snow wrapped round them, like kelp around stricken divers, until, with no chance of making the supply depot, they had pitched the tent in the white darkness and struggled inside it. The wind had picked up the sled and slammed it into Myers as he crawled through the tiny door, knocking him sideways and breaking a rib with a snap, which sounded above the howl of the storm. All through the night the wind beat and shook the straining canvas, surrounding them in noise that subsided gradually until the indigo stillness told them that they, their tent, sled and all the supplies were feet deep in the silent snow. In their condition, the chances of finding anything under such a layer were negligible unless they could regain some measure of strength.

“Did you manage to save any food?” asked Myers. His cracked lips could scarcely form the words but his hoarse whisper filled the tent. He sat slumped by the door, wrapped in his sleeping bag. His red rimmed eyes blazed above the dark stubbled cheeks. He was ill, and he knew it. It was hope and hope alone, which would keep him alive now. Hope of Scott base with kerosene and bunks and tinned food. Hope of a ship in the summer. Secret hope of Miriam, fresh and clean and strong and laughing and twelve thousand miles away.

“I don’t know. I managed one of the sacks. And you?” said Anderson as his swollen fingers fumbled at the drawstring of an orange supply pouch. He sat, without a sleeping bag, opposite Myers and almost touching him in the shroud like tent. The energy of his movements told that he was the stronger of the two, but he looked at Myers with shuttered eyes. He was here because the raw cold terrors of Antarctica were easier for him to face than the driven, flesh hot terrors of home. He thought of the green ribbon tying back his wife’s thick and raven black hair. and her flashing  eyes the exact colour of the ribbon. Pain. Silence as deep as snow between them.

“I only managed to bring my sleeping bag. Oh. And this. Now isn’t this just what we need?” Myers laughed raspingly, the air wheezing out of him as he held up a small cake of violet soap.

“Don’t knock soap”, replied Anderson. “Don’t mice eat it? But look here. Sweet merciful Mary and all the saints be praised.” He drew a small butane stove from the bag, a saucepan and a package of freeze dried soup.

“What have the saints got to do with it? They should have kept the stove and given us fine weather until Scott Base.”

Anderson’s numb fingers clumsily assembled the stove. He pushed the pot through the tent door and bought it back half filled with snow. He pressed the small ignition button and a blue flame hissed to life in the still tent. He tore open the packet, sprinkling its contents over the powdery dampness and both men watched as the snow slipped down into the pot, turned yellow and, at last, began to bubble. They ate by turns, passing the pot silently to one another until the contents were gone and the pot was licked clean, then sat uneasily savouring the warmth in their bellies.

“Do you think there’s any of the gear left?” rasped Myers

“I’m not sure. Are you up to digging?”

“How deep is the snow, do you think?”

“I’d say six, seven feet maybe. We have the saucepan, but otherwise we’ll have to use our hands. There is no chance of us finding that gear unless we both dig. And we’ll have to start soon. There’s not a hell of a lot of energy in one pot of freeze-dried soup, and every minute we sit here that energy is sapping away. How are your ribs?”

“I think they’re OK. Ribs mend easily don’t they?”

“Yes, they do, but I think I’d better take a look. It was a nasty blow you had. Where exactly is it hurting?”

“It’s here. But there’s no need to look, really. I’m as strong as you are. See?”
Myers drew himself up into a crouch but slumped back. He coughed and a fleck of blood floated with the sputum down his beard.

Anderson sighed. “Just look at you. I can’t go back alone. We’ll both have to dig and we’ll have to get moving. If we stay here we’re doomed. Even if we find it, we have enough food for how long?”

“Three days. But why do you need to look?”

“You may have punctured a lung. Undo your jacket. I’ll only take a second or two. Myers, I am a medic. Why are you so coy? ”

“And why are you so insistent on looking? What on earth do you think you are going to do if you find anything?”

Anderson snorted. He drew himself onto his knees and moved towards Myers. He began to fumble with the buttons on Myer’s outer parka, while Myers with clumsily marshaled strength and purpose tried to fend him off.

“For crying out loud, Anderson, back off. What are you trying to prove?”

“Will you shut up?”

Again Myers raised his hand in feeble defense before he turned his head and dropped his arm limply as Anderson undid the parka and lifted the layered clothing. The rib was broken all right. It showed jagged under the skin, but Anderson didn’t look at it. He stared instead at the satin ribbon tied round Myer’s neck. Grimed with the dirt of Myer’s skin, it was still creased where it had tied back Miriam’s wild hair, and showed still the colour of her eyes.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Into The Shining Ocean


I'm sitting here enjoying a delicious glass of bok choi juice and this sentence contains two absolute lies. Or at least, one absolute lie and one debatable opinion. I'm sure you can figure which is which.

In a comment to a post a couple of weeks back, Alden asked me for my opinion on an opinion of John Hick's. To wit, and why anybody in the 21st century except an owl would use the term to wit is beyond me, there is a constantly recurring description in the mystical writings of all the great faiths that the mystical experience is of oneness with God (or Brahman, or the Buddha mind, or Atman or The One or whatever....). The experience is that of a drop of water sliding into the vast ocean and being one with the ocean. John Hick's opinion is that this is a metaphor for an experience beyond words, and is not absolutely true. After all, the mystic is now sitting at a desk somewhere, quill in holy hand, remembering and writing about the memory. Individual identity has obviously been retained throughout the experience in order for there to have been an experience at all. Individual identity is retained in order for the mystic to be remembering, and to be able to say "this is what happened to me".

"What," asked Alden, "is my opinion?"

Easy. How on earth should I know?

I can see that philosophically John Hick is right. I can see that the great mystics are struggling to put into words something that pushes the boundaries of their linguistic abilities to explain. I know that I have not experienced what the great mystics have experienced, so how can I possibly comment on the adequacy or otherwise of the metaphor they choose to approximate their experience? Religious activity is a complex business. In his book The New Frontier of Religion and Science, John Hick talks of the ordered spirituality of tanscendence which is stock in trade of the great monotheistic faiths. This is a belief in a God who is other. The business of the religious organisations is to safeguard this belief and to teach people to order their lives according to the standards of the transcendent other God. This type of belief stands over and apart from what Hick calls "spirituality" (with the inverted commas). "Spirituality" is the pursuit of inner disciplines or practices for the sake of self improvement or the advancement of one's own inner life. There is no necessary reference to anything outside the self in "spirituality". "Spirituality" is seen in the plethora of new age practices of which our society seems to be increasingly fond, but also in some of the trendy liturgies and hymns and resources of modern churches. Hick says that there is also another deeper strand: Spirituality (no inverted commas) or Mysticism which is the cultivation of the direct experience of the divine. The mystical experience is what ultimately lies behind and gives rise to the religions, and it can be found within the religions still, but it is not always obviously present. Pursuing the mystical experience is not only hidden in most religions, it is energetically, sometimes ruthlessly suppressed. He uses an old Buddhist metaphor: the different faiths are like different fingers of a hand pointing at the moon. Religious scholarship and philosophy spends a lot of time examining the fingers, but precious little trying to understand the moon.

I guess my own path has led me to the brink of this experience. To use the Buddhist's metaphor I find myself caring less and less about the fingers; but looking around there is a dim silvery glow which I recognise as moonlight. That's where I would like to explore - following the glow to its source. More and more I am realising that I'm going to have to make the journey alone. But I have no idea whether the metaphors used by past mystics to describe the end of the journey are accurate, or whether John Hick's critique is sound; any more than you will know whether bok choi juice is delicious or whether, truly, I enjoyed drinking it. All you can do is try it yourself and then make a guess -but only ever a guess - whether your experience is similar to mine.

Friday, 12 December 2008

It's Not About The Bike


Sooner or later everyone with cancer gets this book recommended to them. My daughter Bridget gave me a copy and last week I read it. It's an easy read, and for this sort of thing (ghost written sportsman type book) it's surprisingly well written. Take a bow Sally Jenkins. Lance Armstrong is a remarkable human being. In 1996, while he was world cycling champion he was diagnosed with a particularly nasty cancer. He had testicular cancer -a complaint usually found only in young men - which had metastasized to his lungs and brain. Men with this diagnosis seldom live. He went through a most horrific regime of chemotherapy which laid his body to waste and devastated him emotionally and spiritually. He recovered. In 1999 he won the Tour De France, generally regarded as the world's most grueling sporting event. He won it again every year until 2005 marking him as one of the world's greatest sportsmen in any discipline, ever.

The book is an inspiring read all right. If he can recover from that, what the blazes am I worrying about? It's also an interesting insight into Armstrong's character and growth as a person. Here is this year's prize winning understatement: Lance Armstrong is a driven man. In this quite candid autobiography it's not hard to see why, as much for the things he doesn't say as for the things he does. Poor boy in a rich town. Absent father. Mother who seems pretty driven in her own right and to whom Lance is utterly devoted. Freakishly able anatomy and a need to prove himself. Formidable ability to absorb pain. A need to win, win, win - at anything and everything and at any cost. An addiction to going very fast - in anything and everything.

I have in the past dabbled in cycling myself, and found chapter 9 on Le Tour de France one of the most interesting, but I recognise that others might skip through this chapter and concentrate on others. Lance Armstrong is, at times very insightful; for example in analysing how his youthful compulsion to just get on his bike and rush past others by sheer brute force was tempered into the tense, intelligent strategic game needed to win at an international level.

His title is intriguing, as much for the fact that he doesn't really dwell on why he chose it. It's not about the bike. Winning races is not about the equipment, it's about the person. It's about attitude and desire and motivation. For someone as famously particular as Lance Armstrong about his gear and its set-up, he spends almost no time discussing cycling equipment. It's not about the bike. He himself draws the parallel between his cycling and the cancer. It is as though whatever demons he is struggling against by way of the metaphor of cycle racing have taken form in his body and he fights exactly the same war - on a different battlefield but using the same tactics. And he wins, he wins, he wins.

Late in the book he makes a statement that has had me thinking ever since I read it. At the start of chapter 10 he says, The truth is, if you asked me to choose between winning the Tour de France and cancer, I would choose cancer. Odd as it sounds, I would rather have the title of cancer survivor than winner of the Tour, because of what it has done for me as a human being, a man, a husband, a son, and a father.

Wow!

Of course Armstrong's life subsequent to making this statement puts it into the context of the great path of growth that is his lifelong task, but he has recognised one of the great truths of existence. Life is not about the great prizes we pursue so passionately and squander our lives upon; it's not about the baubles and toys; not about the career or the reputation or the achievements. It's not about the bike.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

The Visitor


This powerful little film begins with a widowed university lecturer, Walter Vale,living in Connecticut and sleepwalking through his safe and comfortable life. The lights have gone out for him: he takes no risks, he is alone and seemingly half asleep. He wears a tie and clutches an anaesthetising glass of red wine He recycles old lecture notes, is not engaged with students and makes half hearted attempts at learning the piano in an effort to hold onto something of his deceased pianist wife. Reluctantly he goes to New York to present a paper and finds that unbeknown to him, his fusty Manhattan apartment has been illegally rented to Tarek, a Syrian drummer and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab. In a moment of uncharacteristic compassion Walter allows the couple to stay for a few days and his life is never the same again.

Of course it is all a little predictable, or it could have been had not the direction and writing (both by Thomas McCarthy) been so beautifully crafted.Walter is captivated by Tarek's drumming, and a friendship develops between the men, despite Zainab's caution and reserve. Tarek is arrested and imprisoned as an illegal immigrant, and his widowed mother Mouna, also an illegal immigrant, enters the story. A gentle love begins to develop between Walter and Mouna as, simultaneously, warmth and respect also flower between Mouna and Zainab across barriers of culture and age. The characters are slowly but exquisitely drawn. Casting has been superb and the acting from all the principals flawless. The movie might have ended as a feel good love story, but McCarthy opts instead for his characters to be faced with hard decisions and choices which reflect their depth as people. He gives us an ending which, though poignant, is intellectually and emotionally satisfying.

I found it easy to identify with Walter, and all the other characters are likeable people. Perhaps this is the reason I left the movie so profoundly moved. Or perhaps I need to follow my own advice and reflect on the polarities in the movie: beginning /ending; provincial/urban; scripted/free; thought/feeling; legal/illegal; East/West; formal/informal; young/old... and see that, as in every case where a narrative grabs our attention, it is becuse the polarities of the movie so closely mirror those of our own lives.

The key to this movie lies in the title. Who is The Visitor? Who is being visited? McCarthy has an admirably light touch with his symbolism but there is a telling little encounter when Walter takes Mouna to see the prison where Tarek is held. "It doesn't look like a prison", says Mouna. "No", replies Walter, "I think that's the point." All the characters in the film are in prison, especially Walter, but their places of incarceration, especially Walter's, don't look like prisons. In another telling little metaphorical vignette, Walter reveals that although he has seen the Statue of Liberty countless times he has never been inside it. The film opens with the shot of a door, and a vistor ringing a doorbell. Many of the scenes are shot through doorways, with the framing visible: we are looking from the outside into people's restricted lives. People move in and through doorways: all the characters visit each other - enter each other's prisons for a brief spell, but ultimately all of them must leave and return to another life. Great use is made of light and shadow, with its symbolism of known and unknown. Colour is carefully chosen: The ugly squat prison sits in the centre of the film -starkly red and white in an otherwise autumnal palette - as a visual symbol of the huge inner and outer forces which bind all the characters individually. This metaphor of imprisonment works at all sorts of levels in the film, from the personal and psychological to the political. On the grandest scale, post 9/11 America itself has become a sort of prison, as the process of protecting Freedom actually curtails freedom and drives away the "visitors" - those from outside who bring new perspectives and new hope, and whose very presence is the essence of the American Dream.

The one character in the film who is really free is Tarek, and all the other characters in the film are defined by their relationship to him. "To play the drums", Tarek tells Walter, "you have to stop thinking". It is his freedom - from time and from the rules of the subway - which cause his imprisonment. In his friendship with Tarek, Walter is freed. He sells his wife's piano. His tie disappears and so does the wine glass. The prison of thought he has built for himself crumbles and we last see him at a subway station, joyfully -and angrily -playing Tarek's drum. He is awake and free.


Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Just looking


The good thing about going to Hospital outpatients is that you get a parking permit for the hospital carpark. It saves $2! Woohoo! Who would NOT have cancer when you can get deals like that? I got my $2 worth yesterday. I was there at 8:00 am bright eyed and bushy tailed, well maybe bushy is not the word. There's details about bowel preparation I will spare you. I changed into one of those hospital gowns that someone has spent an entire post graduate design degree on getting to look as unflattering and to fasten as puzzlingly as possible. Then, with my human clothes in a plastic bag, I went into the waiting room. A waiting room is a waiting room is a waiting room. They all have a look about them: neat rows of chairs bought from a catalogue; cheery posters on the walls advising you in 3 languages to get a mole map done; and magazines. Piles of magazines. I read the only two copies of Classic Car in the heap and then reflected that there were 33 more visits to go and only Women's Weekly and Proctology Today left. There was also a stack of jigsaw puzzles. 1000 piece jigsaw puzzles. Dozens of the darned things. People obviously spend serious amounts of time in this waiting room.

The preparation took effect. I was asked for number 2 but on no account number 1 if you catch my drift and sorry about the unfortunate turn of phrase there. Anyway, tricky. Then forms to fill in. Advice to listen to. A pleasant woman with trendy glasses and an extremely trendy hairdo who led me through the whole process and into another CT scanning machine.

This one was was made by Phillips, the people who make microwaves and toasters. It had lasers to line me up to the nearest millimetre, and special little foam blocks to hold my feet in place. The pleasant woman and her beautiful boy assistant measured me with very precise looking metal rulers and retired outside to press the buttons, because, apparantly, it's not safe to be too close to this machine, and no-one would catch them dead - again, sorry about the unfortunate phrasing - in there when the lights went on. I was in there. The lights went on. It buzzed. It whirred. It moved me back and forth through the browning tray. They came back in and drew on me with felt tip pens. They measured me again with the lasers. Then the pleasant woman gave me my first ever tats: one on each hip. Very stylish. None of your crass anchors or skulls, but a minimalist rendering of a bird (just the eye. Actually, just the pupil.) And then it was more instructions and then home.

All this measuring and scanning now goes into a computer which runs a program so complex it will take a couple of weeks for programmers and physicists (yes, actual physicists) to work it all out. Radiotherapy works by blasting the affected area with very high energy x-rays. Everything that gets hit by the x-rays suffers, but the normal tissue recovers from the assault and the cancerous tissue doesn't. It's a great process except that x-rays are no respecters of boundaries and are very stupid. They hit the cancer and just keep right on truckin', right on through some bits that, on the whole and all things considered, you would really prefer them not to visit. With me they are using a quite new advance in radiotherapy. Instead of one big high energy beam they hit the desired area (well, actually, it's the undesired area but lets not get too pedantic) with a whole lot of small low energy beamlets, each one coming from a different angle. This means that while the target gets the required high dose, all the sourrounding tissues get much less. It takes a clever program to work it all out, and very careful positioning of the target, and by 'target' I mean 'me'. For every one of the 33 sessions, I have to be in exactly the same position I was last time, and my innards have got to be in pretty much the same state of fullness and emptiness if you catch my drift, and sorry for the phrasing once again. Hence the measuring. And the tatttoos. And the preparation.

So, in a couple of weeks, it's back to the magazines and the puzzles and the funny gowns. And the free carpark. Woohoo! All those $2 savings and I'll have my Ducati in no time!