Sep 12 2014

This House Of Grief – Helen Garner

Nicole Lobry de Bruyn

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I have just finished reading Helen Garner’s This House of Grief. It is a remarkable achievement, especially since the story is so well-known that there is virtually no opportunity to create suspense. Yet it is suspenseful. It is not suspense as to the outcome of the trial. It is suspense over what will Helen think? How will the experience end up for her? What will she feel after having witnessed, day after day, the trawling, the mucking out of people’s lives? Since Helen is us – the reader – she asks the same questions. She has the same doubts over innocence, the same tingling in her gut. She is not frightened to tell us.

“One day, when court rose for lunch, I took my sandwich to the Flagstaff Gardens and lay on the grass under a tree. Why had Farquharson, during the first trial flashed outraged grimaces and vehement head-shakings at his sisters whenever the word ‘suicide’ was mentioned? Was there a moral register on which suicide was more disgraceful than murder? Perhaps the most shaming thing of all, a failure of nerve that no ‘Anglo-Saxon country bloke’ could possibly admit to, would be to launch a murder-suicide and not complete the act. I recalled a famous Sydney story about a man who threw himself off the Gap and was caught before he hit the rocks by a huge and timely wave. The coastguard vessel picked him up unhurt. ‘The minute your feet leave the ground,’ the saved man said, ‘you change your mind.’ An American mother I read about drove her car full of children into a river; she drowned and so did all her kids except the eldest, a ten-year-old, who fought his way across her lap and out through a part-open window. He told police that as the car began to sink his mother had cried out, ‘I made a mistake. I made a mistake.’

Was the core of the whole phenomenon a failure of imagination, an inability to see any further forward than the fantasy of one clean stroke that would put an end to humiliation and pain?

Cindy Gambino had observed that Farquharson had become a better father after their break-up. Perhaps a hard-working husband is screened from his children by the domestically powerful and emotionally competent presence of his wife. When the marriage ends and access visits begin, he has to deal with the kids on his own. He is shocked at first, finds his new duties exhausting and difficult and often tedious; but gradually, by virtue of this unmediated contact, the children’s reality penetrates his armour and flows into his nerves, his blood. Now that he knows them, and knows their love, his exile from their daily life causes him a sharper suffering. To a man who is emotionally immature, bereft of intellectual equipment and concepts, lacking in sustaining friendships outside his family, his children may appear to be not only the locus of his pain, but also the source and cause of it. If only he could put an end to it – amputate or obliterate this wounded part of him that will not stop aching! As the judge in the first trial put it in his sentencing, he forms a dark contemplation…

I watched the thought, to see what it would do. It firmed up, like jelly setting. And there is sat, quivering, filling all the available space.”


Sep 1 2014

Seven Thousand Three Hundred Days

Nicole Lobry de Bruyn

Pemberton tree

We drive through constant rain in a car that knows it is raining and switches its own wind screen wipers off and on.

So different from the leaking Kombi. No protruding springs through ripped ruby vinyl. No view of the bitumen rushing beneath.

Even the seats are heated.

We are without child. Sans enfant. For we are celebrating twenty years of union. To those we can’t be bothered to tell we aren’t married, we says its our “wedding anniversary.”

In a car without our child there is a lot of silence. It is not brooding. Just comfortable. No need to speak. There is also our own choice of music. Bill Callahan. There is the retelling of the This American Life episode, but without Ira Glass’ enigmatic style. I feel a school girl-like glee to be on our own.

We are heading to the forest. Here the trees are tall and straight; good for the masts of tall ships and once used to paved the streets of London. But how much better to be standing here still, pushing skywards. To be beneath them is to be made midget in the most majestic of ways. This corner of bush hangs on in this damp and undulating part of the south-west. The ground is soggy. Water sits on its surface in large puddles and rushes in streams down the sides of roads. But, it is a timber town still. Rednecks have stickers on their utes, “Die Greenie scum.” Pastures are press studded with the black dots of Angus cattle. We see emus. We are constantly surprised by green. Green this fluorescent is a rarity in Western Australia.

At a town on the way we eat a BLT and a burger. A group of sixty-somethings sit around another laminex table in the same cafe. “One day we will be them,” says Graham. “You will wear a cardigan like that.”

An antique shop in the town has a sign on the door advising, “No children, including teenagers.” I decide not to enter either.

Settled into our accommodation, I give Graham the present I have brought down south with me. It is a book of photographs of the Port where we live. I also give him the story of us that I have written. A small part of me feels on show, as if I am handing an assignment to a teacher. What grade will I receive? The story is called Seven Thousand Three Hundred Days.

I write us a few thousand words. Our story. In my words. For him. Unpick, unravel. Having gone to the archive, the narrative springs forth. A fresh, new image. After reading, he says, “One day we will give Jasper the story.”

When I told Jasper that I was writing the “story of us” for his Dad, as a gift, he thought it was a “dumb” present. “I hope you are going to give him something else too.” But the story would have been enough. It has weight and substance. Like developing a lost reel of film. It unlocks. In staccato images an animation of our journey leaks out. In third person, then in first. It moves him. Relief. For a moment our faces are smooth again. His hair is long and mine is short. We don’t need glasses. Not a cardigan in sight.

We walk the circumference of the Big Brook Dam. It is paved and easy. There is abundant moss. It is no Dove Lake. Fallen leaves make the path their canvas. There are green weeds in motion under a foot bridge. Like the tendrils of a drowned river maiden, they wave languidly in transparent water. The air here is different from the city air we are used to in Fremantle. There is no salt. There is no industry. No smell of trucks or train. No scent of scared sheep. The air is motionless. Like each molecule pushes its neighbour far away. Holds it at arm’s reach. Fremantle air is laden with salt and sea, feels heavy with the life of the port, clingy and jostling. Here the air feels cleansed by rain. Standing alone, drenched through. It feels see-through, like the most polished of panes.

reeds

At our special dinner on the long table at Foragers we are seated next to a couple on their “baby moon.” Who knew there was such a thing. And next to them are some locals, Billy and Elaine. Elaine is an artist. On their property she films the decomposition of a dead kangaroo on a security camera; watching the animals come to the carcass and slowly dismantle it. “It’s good for my work,” she says and we know exactly what she means. The couple on the “baby moon” are wishing for an infant that sleeps all night and never cries. We all have a laugh about that.

At Foragers there are Wessex Saddleback pigs in a paddock. They have mud. They have a hut. They are lean and jaunty. They come to the fence when you go by, curious, thinking you might have come to feed them.They are busy with their snouts in the dirt.

On our drive home we come across a juvenile hawk standing by the road side. It does not move as we drive by. We turn around and go back. Sure enough it is injured. It cannot fly, but merely flaps a few feet in front of Graham as he attempts to catch it. He snares it under a billowing rain jacket. We inspect it for injuries and can feel its crunchy bone beneath the skin of its wing. Its keel bone tells of its struggle and suggests it has been injured for a while. We doubt it will make it, but the beauty in its eyes tell us to try. Certainly it will die if left to fend for itself by the side of the road. Our plan is to take it to the zoo in the morning. But in our care it succumbs too. A few hours after its rescue it flaps noisily inside the box and then is found dead. Jasper has not even seen it alive and is saddened to be shown the body of the dead thing. He names it instantly and wishes to bury it. Graham wants to let the worms work at its head to reveal its white as white bird’s skull. I, too, can see the value in that.

leaves Big Brook Dam

 

 

 


Aug 7 2014

Straw House

Nicole Lobry de Bruyn

straw house

Remember the story of the three little pigs – each attempting escape from the wolf in their houses – one built of straw, one of sticks and one of bricks.

The one built of straw did not fair well. One huff and one puff and I will blow your house down.

But he was the happiest of pigs.

I am watching Masterchef and the contestants are delivering food to a table of food producers on a property using the produce of the people they are feeding. Matt Preston asks the farmer about the pork – throwing around the words organic and free-range. All the farmer gets out is that the “pigs are raised on straw.” Cut to the next shot of lavish food. I think how lost on most viewers would be the concept of “raised on straw.”

But here’s the thing. Pigs love straw. Uncut, long, manipulable, regularly-changed straw. Being omnivorous means they are curious searchers. Being omnivorous means you will investigate all manner of things in search of food. There are many reasons why the raising of pigs in the modern tradition poses welfare concerns. When your natural desires are thwarted you are driven to do unnatural things. When we place pigs in their brick houses, away from the wolf, we take away their ability, but not their want, to explore the world. Deprived of rooting material they nuzzle one another. They chew each others very interesting and mobile tails. For what else is there to do?

Coles seems to want us to be seduced by their “sow stall free” pork products. But do people even know what this means. A “sow stall” is a small confined area designed to restrict the movement and hence promote the growth of the gestating sow. Being “sow stall free” does not mean that the sow, once having given birth, is not once again confined to a farrowing crate. Given a choice a pig might build a nest in the straw for several days before giving birth. Housed, all she can do is pace and paw the ground. The farrowing crate is an enclosed area with bars supposed to protect the piglets from the squashing weight of the sow as she struggles to lie down slowly on a concrete floor.

How much better would the life of a pig be if her need for straw was recognised? Straw, more so than toys or dangling chains, does more to improve the welfare of intensively housed pigs than just about anything.

Driving in the hinterland of NSW I see pale skinned creatures dotted over tussock land. I am surprised and delighted to see they are pigs. This is so rare a sight. Not only do these pigs have straw, but also mud and wallowing. Free range pigs – doing what they love to do – building houses out of straw.

Back home I visit the Fremantle markets and ask the seller of a supposedly free range pork where the pork is from. I wonder if she will mention the Byron hinterland pigs. It seems a natural question, and one I am expecting a detailed answer to. I imagine the purveyor to be selling such a product because they care at least about the conditions in which the animal has been raised. But sadly, she seems perplexed and confused by my questioning. Is their only care the empty assumption that people will pay more to ease their conscience? It is from over east, she offers first. I try again. But where? Perhaps she thinks I am interested in slow miles, so she says she has local stuff too. It is compressed into a vacuum bag without a label. It could be from the moon. Asked about the location of the “local” property she answers, “God knows.”

You would think that selling free range, organic produce would be a choice made out of compassion for animals’ needs and wants. You would think the vendor has thought long and hard about the decision to sell such a product and hope that they had done their research into the product they were selling. Naively, I even think that perhaps they have travelled to the farm to view the animals’ conditions. Do they think that consumers are happy enough with labels telling them a product is “sow stall free” in pretty pink chalk board writing, reflecting nursery rhyme style memory?

What I want to know is: do the pigs have any straw?

 

 

 

 

 

 


Jul 12 2014

Disappointment

Nicole Lobry de Bruyn

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What is disappointment?

I know it now.

Having failed my oral Animal Behaviour membership exam the feeling is of huge disappointment. The word is not being enough.

We are driving in the Byron hinterland when my friend calls my mobile to tell me my result. Immediately on hearing her voice, flat and lifeless, I know the call is not what I want. It is a moment of disbelief. I have spent most of my time imagining what it might feel like to pass. Imagining how relieved and elated I will be. Instead I am feeling that spiraling, hideous feeling of chagrin. There is shock too. There is disappointment.

Graham pulls the car over on to the verge of deep winter green grass. Two women, out on a morning stroll, peer into the car to see me in tears, hauling myself through the gamut of negative emotions. Perhaps they think the man and the woman are fighting. Perhaps he is revealing an affair. No one can see the 12-year-old boy in the rear seat. He has collapsed down on his belly with his head in his hands and is sobbing too. It seems I have wrecked everyone’s dreams in a moment.

So how can I explain what went wrong? A subject I love, and have taken into my soul, and have studied endlessly, was not able to be revealed to the two examiners seated beyond the table with the navy blue tablecloth. We are on the 21st floor of a Gold Coast Hotel. The sun is over the water and shining into the room. It should be a view to savour.

My brain becomes a series of ill-fitting cogs. It jams with a wooden block, allowing it neither forwards nor backwards movement when confronted by a question that no longer makes sense. The examiners continue to ask for the same information over and over again. Time warped. All I can do is repeat the question back to them – making no sense of the words, like a new arrival trying out a foreign language. There is a question on the welfare of circus dogs and despite my knowledge of canines and welfare I suspect I don’t give them the answers they want to hear. Why else are they repeating their interrogation? Haven’t I just answered that? Nightmarishly repetitive. They hammer away, driving the block deeper, with each successive repetition. There is a question on cockatoos invading a grain field and the way to control them, and despite knowing much about feral animal control, the picture of the swarm of birds lodges the block even further into the mechanism of retrieval of memory. Asked about the disadvantages of lethal methods it is as if the word lethal has never been heard before. Suddenly I have become a non-English speaker. When asked about drugs to help an old dog sleep I talk about benzos. They want more, and despite knowing other drugs, I give them nothing.

My hands are sweating and I am balling up tissues in my palms, as I try to get my brain to move forward out of the cog it is stuck in. I try joviality and humour. I mention my lucky shirt. I am dying on stage like a comedian with no jokes. Like turning the key in the ignition and hearing the dead sound of a car that won’t start. Still I keep trying. Repeating the questions seems to take the answer further out of reach. Answers flutter out through gaping holes never to be retrieved.

What is it about stress that sees it screw with my mind?

Having studied behaviour we all know that stress destroys the ability to remember. But I had never expected to become a blank page.

The tears come again, recalling what a dunce I must have appeared.

In the lead up to the exam my partner and child make up behaviour questions to test me. It is fun in the kitchen by the stove revealing my knowledge to them. Jasper asks me to tell them what I would do with an orca that is attacking the other orcas in his pool. In his eyes I am a behaviourist. Graham asks me for my treatment for a dog who is anxious travelling in the car. I practice to myself too. Nothing is the same as the way it is in the Hotel room.

One day after hearing the news of my failing the oral I am alone in the hut on a coffee plantation in the Byron hinterland. The boys have gone hiking. There is sun on the hillside and cattle in the distance. It is hard. I want the opposite feeling to what I am experiencing. I need not practice more resilience. I want to be making plans for my future as a behaviourist. Instead I am imagining being here again next year and again awaiting news of pass or fail. How can I change my brain to cope better under the stress next time?

 

 


Apr 26 2014

Hemming Grey School Trousers

Nicole Lobry de Bruyn

hemming

Today I have traces of my mother running through me.

For lunch I cooked corn fritters. Jasper ate them like I did at his age – pulling them apart with his fingers and dunking them in mayonnaise. After we might have settled down to an afternoon of Tarzan or else a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy. The square box television. Instead he has a comic. It has absorbed him all day. He leans half-on and half-off the couch in what looks like an uncomfortable position. He is still in his pyjamas. He has the dog for company. Graham attempts brioche that fails. Old expired yeast. Or maybe he’s just not a baker. But the pulled pork for dinner has slow cooked all day and…

After corn fritters my Dad would have taken to his garage. My mother might have watched the movie with us whilst writing her letters on her lap. Scrawling off letter after letter on pale pink notepaper. Some letters to friends, other searching for autographs and letters back.

I take Jasper’s long grey school trousers up by three inches. I take the waist in too. I use a needle and a thread. I jab myself more than once with a pin. It’s not a great job, but it’ll do.

I take the dog for a walk because I need a break from the study (how does a ewe recognise its own lamb, the flehmen response in cattle…) and the moment I am out of the house the rain starts. It is soft. I think gossamer. I think georgette. Walking along I try out words to describe the sky. A favourite distraction. The old skate park is empty now there is a new one in town. But a small boy takes his father there because it is empty. He has it to himself. No teenagers. The rain softens and fades and soon is gone. It does not sink through the dog’s heavy wire coat. Little balls of wet silver rain just travel with him. Rain brings memories always. Wet roads do that. Wafts. The jacarandas have a scent when they’re wet. I am back in my yard beneath the trees where the chooks scratched at the dirt. My dad is in the garage and there is the smell of motor oil. Rain makes the train louder too. Smell the metal off the tracks.

Scent is like that. It pushes its way forward – just sometimes.

For animals scent is everything. A trained canine is capable of detecting a finger print left on a glass table six weeks earlier. Having two nostrils separated by just several millimetres is enough for a dog to discern from which direction the odour is coming. Sometimes us humans can barely smell smoke. Our vestigial noses. Hardly smelling a thing in comparison. To the rest of the animal world we are almost anosmic. Yet. Sometimes we do. When we smell it feels ancient. The world gets big and small at the same time. We are connected. Suddenly thrust back into childhood. A molecule of odour passes through membranes and assaults our brain as if it is memory itself. This might be a fraction of what animals feel and know as they busily sniff and sneer at each lamp-post, each blade of pissed-on grass. For them it is more than memory. They are sending email, on dating sites, telling each other of their sexual availability, their state of oestrous, whether or not they can tend offspring or fight off other suitors.

Chipotle chillies are smokey flavoured and remind me of pimento and a meal I once had in France full of intestines and innards. Visible amongst the red tomato sauce was the tell-tale texture of an animal’s stomach wall. It was inedible. The smell reminds me. 


Apr 2 2014

Vinculum

Nicole Lobry de Bruyn

maths

Today I learnt what was a vinculum.

It is the kind of thing you might learn when you help an eleven year old with his maths prior to a test. Yes I remembered what was a denominator and even a numerator but I had no idea the line that separated them was called a vinculum.

To spellcheck the word does not exist.

To google it is a tendon before it is something in mathematics.

Lately I have learnt how to do factor trees. It is something brand new to me. Not quite as much fun as learning that leaves transpire water from their surface just the same way we breathe. But. It’s maths. Quite fun really, but something I feel I have never done before. Did factor trees exist in the 1970′s? Where were factor trees when I was in grade seven? Between the rise of the white board and the demise of the blackboard did the triumphant factor tree emerge? Surely maths doesn’t change. Then, between straw-sucks of a liquid cereal breakfast, he tells me two negatives multiplied make a positive number. Are you sure? This rings a bell. I will have to check since I don’t do negative numbers. Pass me the iPad again. How is it that two negatives multiplied make a positive? Please don’t ask me why. My mind is spinning. It is only 7.30am. I wonder why negative numbers exist. You can’t have minus three apples any more than you can have minus six.

Then there is the school tie. If you want to wear a jumper – and it is cold outside – you need to wear a tie. But it looks ridiculous. No it doesn’t. Everyone will look ridiculous. It feels wrong. You’ll get used to it. Scream. Scream.

Under my breath and not under my breath – God save me. Save me from myself and my pettiness. Just wear the tie, so you can wear the jumper. Please.

If a submarine is 160 metres below the surface and then rises 90 metres and then submerges again by 170 metres how far is it below the surface? In my underlining you can see my purpose. I want it in cement. I want it drummed in. If I rub hard enough, underline often enough, say it louder it works, right? It makes me hate myself.

He trudges across the oval with the heaviest of chiropractor approved school bags. Must weigh ten kilos. He has the legs of a stick insect. There is dew on the oval. I call out looking good and a smirk creeps out. Don’t let her see it. Turn your body in case. Your morning track across the oval, like a giant snail trail.

I so wish the vinculum was just a tendon.


Mar 13 2014

Rubbish Man Jogger

Nicole Lobry de Bruyn

joggers

An Autumn morning. A splatter of rain. Spits really. The boy is excited. He loves rain. It hasn’t rained for years, he says. It can feel that way. A sky permanently blue. A sun a constant burning white. Today the sky is filled with storm clouds and there is the crack of thunder in the distance. A sky of substance. Something to look at and make into animals. Somewhere else it rains. Here a few drops dry instantly on the pavement.

 

From my verandah I see a man hopping on one leg up the steep embankment of the park. He is not injured. It is not the hop of a lame man. It is a vigorous hop. I watch him to see what he will do after he reaches the crest of the bank. He jogs now down the slope on two healthy legs. He weaves in and out of the eucalypts, occasionally bending down to pick up rubbish. He is the rubbish-man-jogger. Daily, on the oval, he performs his series of exercises mixed with the task of collecting food wrappers and tin cans. His jogging shorts are pulled higher on his waist than those of a regular jogger. The shorts are old and thin, worn constantly. He has no fat on him. His muscles are always working, if only at a trot. Up close you can see the tension in his face. In his neck you see the sinuous muscles of a man under strain.

 

Maybe this jogging is his meditation. It keeps him calmer than he would otherwise be. I imagine him as a tightly wound clock. Does he count his steps too?

 

I am leaving the house and come across him again – this time outside my house weaving his expert steps between the bollards that line the park. How large do the blades of grass appear? He has his head down, intent on purpose, but he senses me there and raises his head and smiles and waves. We exchange the wave of pedestrian and jogger. In his hand still is the collection of waste he has collected from the park. He will deposit it in the bin shortly, and then run on.

 

I wonder about him while I wait for my train. Something about him reminds me of my father. It could be the high pants. It could be the loose skin over muscles straining hard. It could be his work ethic. His doggedness. His assault on the hill on one leg. I see his tight tendons. Everything at breaking point. A mind stretched taut?

 

I miss my train by seconds, still fumbling with the notes at the ticket machine, as the train pulls up. I mutter a Fuck to make me feel better. It does nothing. I try it again a couple of times. Fuck fuck fuck. But in truth I am not late for anything. I have a date with books and words and texts. Twenty minutes later they will all still be there. In the library, joggers are not.

 

And it means the train will be empty. Only the late people. And ones who bring their bicycles. A middle aged woman wearing a shirt with paws on it – giving her away as a volunteer at the dog rescue, asks a younger man in high viz gear, cradling a hard hat, How is it that you are that handsome? then quickly steps off the train. Never on the 8.40am.

 

A nice morning for the jogging rubbish man. Man jogging rubbish. Jogger man. Rubbish man. Hopping up hill.


Feb 8 2014

The Giant, the Cook and the Cripple.

Nicole Lobry de Bruyn

Image 3

Pat Metheny plays. I stare at the knots in the wood of the orange pine ceiling. On my single bed. I remember studying ceilings; a past time of the spinal patient.

 

I think of yesterday.

 

On a quad bike. Held between the thighs of the Giant. Meanwhile the Cook roasts the chickens and tomatoes with fennel. Roasted sweet potato encrusted by macadamia crumble. Stone fruit tarts for after. Her kitchen is her castle. Stainless steel. Plywood. His is the scrub. The glades. The sandhills.

 

But after all what will I remember?

 

Freedom. Air rushing past. Being without my chair. The spray from the ocean waves as we hurtle along the wet shoreline. Hubert, tan galloping, keeps pace 38,39,40km/hr. His ribs showing. Tongue lolling. Eyes of an athlete. Hound. Rescued, he must think he is the luckiest dog alive.

 

After us comes the eleven-year-old on a tinier bike and then my Small Good Man. The eleven-year-old wears a motorcycle helmet that makes his head look like a pumpkin. He putters. But he’s getting the hang of the lean. Always into the hill. Faster too. He hits a bush. He learns to reverse. The Giant tells him whatever happens don’t let the handlebars hit the ground.

 

It is another lifetime ago since I straddled a machine. European pine forest roads, mountain switchbacks and black ice. A tasselled leather jacket because I could. Thighs that clenched. Now, I don’t feel the seat.  Mine is a flaccid lower half – legs like the stick insect the boys later find. When he lifts me my limbs dangle like laundry off a line. This is a different kind of pillion. Think disfigured damsel. Wedged. With my right hand I link his forearm and he grips me around the middle. His brachium is like a leg about me. He is my seat belt. My saddle. After he says, some embrace.

 

There is a grove of peppermints and a fairy forest; a place for taking children and singing lullabies to the chugalug of an engine. The black trunks and the feathery green leaves. The Giant and the Cripple hum along. There are reeds and rushes and swarms of small midgies. The ground water is close and the mud gluey. There are gouges raked into the earth where a tractor bogged. But on the bike it is all just a surface on which to ride. A platform to view the rear of a big roo bounce away. Hubert takes chase. He’s called back by the hoot of the horn. Lean forward, scoot. Lean. Fly.

 

A dragonfly hitches a ride to a giant’s woodshed. A dead snake twisted into dried leather hangs from the wire fence.

 

He lifts me from the bike like I am a sleeping child to place me back in my wheelchair. Like laying a toddler in a pram. I am lofted high. A memory of being plucked from a pony ride floods back. Being placed on your feet by a large man. A momentary lapse between you and the earth. Like stepping from the rollercoaster.

 

Later at the table we talk of surviving house fires and losing stuff, of book edges turning sooty but not burning right through. Of losing to fire the exact same George Haynes’ etching of a naked woman under the dappled light and shade of a south Fremantle tree. Of waking to the sound of picture glass cracking. The Cook once found an unexpected photograph of me in the rubble of another house fire in a whole other place. She picked the photo from the detritus and placed it safely in the elbow of a tree. The man and I had long since parted but somehow the image of me was there for her to see. And rescue.

 

Image 16

 

 

Pat Metheny plays the theme for Cinema Paradiso. Guitar strings squeak. Hearts break. A child hits a tennis ball against the wall of a mud brick house. A dog lies on a three-dollar charcoal wool blanket from an Op shop in Albany where white-haired women helped a homeless man clothe himself. A Small Good Man says the best reception for the phone is in the toilet.

 

He works outside on a large jarrah table, in this pocket of still bush. He has postcard sized images that he shuffles about. They are photographs of another forest place. He worked long hours, from dawn till dusk, but it is the crepuscular shots that form the ballad. A place of mountains and the people that are drawn there. More treacherous than here. Beauty turns to tinder. He stops and looks again. He moves them like someone arranging cards for a magic show. Eventually they settle where they will hang on a gallery wall to speak a narrative of place.

 

Assassin flies make roads in the air three inches off the ground as if involved in a grand prix circuit across the grass. Sometimes a magpie picks one out of the air. Teaching its baby, who squawks beside it.

 

A large karri stands near the house, orange spirals about its trunk. Some branches are dead and grey. It is bigger than all the other trees. It spreads itself wide in ownership. Beneath the karri are peppermints and kangaroo paws and smaller gums. Closer to the water the chalky white of the Paper Barks can be seen. The karri’s rusty skin catches the sun and shines. It is windless but still there is the sound of bark falling. Like footsteps in the forest.

 

Sometimes a distant cow can be heard, baying morosely, as if for a lost calf. At dusk the waders from the mud flats take to the skies. The sound of their flight suggests air is not nothing. They go to their place to sleep high in the trees. Tomorrow they will stalk the mud once more.

 

Image 12

 

 

 

 

 


Feb 7 2014

Coolidge Effect

Nicole Lobry de Bruyn

Frank Beach

When an ethologist, Frank Beach, needed to name an effect he had noticed whereby male animals show a renewed interest in sex when presented with a new and receptive partner he chose to use the anecdote of the 30th President of America, Calvin Coolidge, as he toured a farm with his wife Grace.

The President and his wife visited a government chicken farm in Kentucky and separately were taken to inspect the workings of the farm. In a large barn a rooster was busy servicing many fowl. Mrs Coolidge asked the stock man if a single rooster was capable of mating many times a day. Yes Ma’am. She asked the attendant to make sure he told the President when he came by. When the President arrived in the same barn the rooster was still mating. The manager said to the President – your wife wanted you to note the capabilities of a single rooster, Sir. The President, known to be a man of few words then asked the stock man - Same hen? To which the attendant replied, No Sir, always a different hen.

Make sure you tell that to Mrs Coolidge, said the President.

 

This is how the phenomenon, witnessed in mammalian males whereby there is an increased appetite for sex with a new partner, came to be called the Coolidge effect. It is the reason why a single bull can service many cows. It is the reason why a single ram can do the same with a flock of ewes. Maybe it is the reason men are aroused by affairs and strip tease. Maybe it is the reason why marriages fail or become loveless. Is it why men use the service of brothels more than women seek the service of male prostitutes? And is it why fluffers are required in the pornography industry? After all we are all just animals in the end. We like to think we are more than hormones and brain chemistry.

Frank Beach was a great scholar with a keen sense of humour. He also believed in seeking knowledge and continually learning. Beneath a list of things “to do” he wrote, “Of course, I shall never accomplish all the goals just listed, but that is unimportant. What counts is to have aims, to be able to work hard toward them and to experience the satisfaction of at least believing that progress is being made. I do not want to cross the finish line of this race – not ever – but I do hope I will be able to keep running at my own pace until I drop out still moving in full stride. It’s been one hell of a good race.”

Compare this effect with that called the Bruce effect after its discoverer, zoologist Hilda Bruce, in the late 1950′s. She discovered that mice could block their pregnancy if they were placed with an unfamiliar male after mating. This effect is seen only in some rodent species but is thought to have arisen because male rodents tend to kill offspring unrelated to them. Evolution has ensured that mice are capable of miscarrying and then mating with the new male rather than wasting time and energy gestating young that are likely to be killed after they are born.

Don’t you love science?


Jan 8 2014

Fear of Falling

Nicole Lobry de Bruyn

fear of falling

When orderlies move the non-ambulatory patient they slide their hands between the person and the bedding. It is a delicate, intimate thing to do. To touch someone there. But not just touch – hold and lift. Support.

On my count, the lead-lifter may say. One, two, three.

In the non-ambulatory patient support of this type is vital. It is a kindness to prevent panic and fear.

Do you remember before you walked? I don’t think it is a memory most can recall. It is just too far back. What fear did you as a toddler feels as you pulled yourself on to your two stumpy feet and tottered away from the safety of the sofa?

For fear of falling is a primal fear. There is no stopping it. We have it like the rest of the animal kingdom. It is deep in our ancient brain. When animals are lead to slaughter one of the biggest improvements in their welfare is seen if you can prevent them from slipping. When a hoofed animal’s foot moves rapidly beneath it to prevent it from falling then this is slipping, and slipping is scary and causes a stress reaction and release of cortisol. Of course it is measurable in observable ways that does not need test tubes. It is written over the face of a slipping cow and it is in their vocalisation. When you see the white of a cow’s eyes you know you are seeing panic. What makes pain and fear so unrecognisable to us with the big brains?

An abattoir of high standard should have less than 1% falling and less than 5% vocalisation in their animals.

Walking calmly to your death is not as stressful as slipping your way there. I think of the hangman and the fall away beneath the feet of the box or opening of the trapdoor floor. A fraction before your neck is snapped no doubt there is that unsupported feeling. Falling.

What then makes some people able to override their fear of falling and take to the rocky sides of mountains or the sheer face of cliffs? Do they have an insufficient amygdala incapable of arousal?

You hear screams of panic at amusement parks where people willingly place themselves in positions where they feel unsupported and as if they are falling. Somehow the knowledge that the ride is safe is enough security for people to voluntarily place themselves in a simulated fall. They feel the adrenaline release as they plummet and soar again, await the rise and then the fall. People report that they feel more alive after the ride. It is the brain chemicals that have fired and their release is addictive.

A pony-tailed man throws a delighted toddler in the air. He is unsupported and higher than ever before. On his face is pure pleasure. A squeal. A laugh. A giggle. Machine-like. He looks forward, not down. His mouth agape, his eyes twinkling. Each time caught and then thrown up again. Like the surprise of the jack-in-the-box, the thrill gradually subsides, and the fun wears off. The chemicals are exhausted, depleted. Kaput. Till next time. Throw me higher. Make it faster. Spin me more. Us and our addictive brains.