Death in the Morning

 

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It was a morning like every other morning. I crawled out of bed to the sound of the alarm, 5 am to prepare for my 35-kilometre journey to work. At the time, I was working in Bangkok and though I didn’t start until 8:30, the traffic and the distance necessitated an early start.

After a quick shower I dressed and prepared to leave when I decided to check my email.
And there it was as bold as brass. Title : Mum has died.

It took a second or so to register. I wouldn’t say disbelief, for it wasn’t totally unexpected she was 86, but a surreal feeling of being momentarily detached. My mother was dead, full stop, end of a story.

I spent years wondering how I would react when one of my parents died. The moment had come and to be blunt it wasn’t the way I expected. After the initial surprise ( my brother sent the email and is always direct and straight to the point) I gathered myself and went to work as usual.

Never being close to my mother, I had over the years minimal contact. When I lived in Adelaide I would go visit my parents maybe 3 to 4 times a year, for half an hour or so. Anything longer and we used to get on each other’s nerves, never seeing eye to eye. Arguments broke out easily, the visits were literally short, sharp and shiny. We just never connected as adults, let alone mother and son.

Anyway, I found myself spending that day thinking about possibilities. What if we had been close? Would my reaction be different, how different? What if she had died 30 years earlier? Does your own age dictate the way you react? Lots to ponder and reflect on.

More importantly, that day I thought about my childhood, when I was young and my mother wasn’t an old lady. I remembered things I hadn’t thought about for years. Little things that don’t really matter, but reminded me of the tenuous link we shared as mother and son. She wasn’t a natural mother and in hind sight I think she struggled with her 4 children’s upbringing. Not to say she neglected us, we had more than adequate food, shelter and was looked after, but she lacked an emotional connection with us all – empathy. She was mechanical in the way she did things and that extended to the way she brought up her children. I assumed she loved us, but I never felt it. Nothing was ever said or done to demonstrate it or if there was; I just don’t remember.

The reflection only lasted a day and then life went back to normal for me.

As the old adage goes, we are a product of our upbringing. I look into a mirror these days and see my mother’s face as I get older. I notice the way I act at times is the way my mother did; the way I detested as a youth. We should all learn by our life’s mistakes, though fighting powerful inherent forces that lie within is not so easy.

It’s interesting to talk to others about this. Some feel it’s strange that I never grieved about her death, in fact I was and remain rather neutral in my feelings; somewhat empty. She occupies my thoughts only when something reminds me of my youth. Like all of us, unless we become famous we are only remembered through living memory; children and maybe grandchildren then forgotten for all eternity. In the grand scheme of life, individuals mean very little, the specious propagates unabated through numbers until itself is eventually replaced by something more adept to life.
And circle of life continues on.

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on a carousel of time…

Joni Mitchell

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State Of Decay

 

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The jungle path slowly winds its way onward and upward towards the summit. Early rays of sunlight try desperately to penetrate the thick overhanging canopy. What little light manages to filter through, illuminates the small pools of water that have settled after the morning’s downpour. Water continues to slowly find its way to the jungle floor, dripping and rolling from one leaf to another until it comes to rest on a thick carpet of dead vegetation. The pitter-patter of large drips splashing on this decaying organic matter add to the early morning din of the forest sounds.

The giant black Inch ants are busy in their organised military lines, moving this rotting material here and there to store for a future time of need.

Small birds scream from one branch to another, chattering and darting in a seemly incoherent chaotic way. High up, the hornbill glides from one treetop to another, the aerial king of the jungle announcing its presence by its harsh high-pitched squawk.

All this activity is conducted above the background sounds of the cicada, untuned violinists trying desperately to catch the rhythm and beat of the surrounding environment.

Squirrels occasionally disturb this symphony as their daily struggle for survival means noisily scurrying around in search of food; their next parcel of energy.

Air clings heavily around the mighty hard woods producing copious amounts of sweat for those intruding into their kingdom.

The narrow track continues its journey toward its final destination.

The deep greens of the jungle remain consistent throughout with only the subtlest hint of colour changes here and there in the fern beds that line the pathway. Morning steam rising from the ground adds to the illusion of an awaking green giant, ready to face another day.

Nearing the summit produces an intensity of the tropical sun. Strengthening light pierces the thinning canopy. This place has a soul, a heart that beats continuously in harmony with its many parts.

A large sandstone boulder marks the top. One can easily climb this monolith to obtain an uninterrupted view of the surrounding area.

Dark black smoke appears in the distance blanketing the horizon.

A forest fire maybe…?
No, the smoke is not natural. The factory that is producing it does so every day of the year.
Looking around, all that can be seen from this supreme vantage point is manmade.
We are sitting on top a green island surrounded by a sea of concrete.

Both decay in time.

The forest breaks down slowly to give hope to the next generation. The nutrients are used, reused in the never ending cycle of life.

The concrete that makes up the factories and homes decays as well, into faded dreams and aspirations. It ages with us until at some stage it no longer serves a purpose and disappears into the clouds of time. Forgotten without a trace. This concrete jungle has no soul.
Living without life.

The Lost Art Of Reading

The ironic part of this post is that the thrust of what I’m about to say most probably won’t apply to you. The simple fact you are looking at this means you obviously enjoy reading.

Reading is an activity that most of us do, on a daily basis, without much thought. We read the street signs going to and from work and school. We read the daily news in print form, online or more likely, the headlines on television.

Some of us are “Readers” and some of us are not. What I mean to say is, only a relatively small percentage of the population read books for pleasure. Is this a good thing? You can argue either way, I suppose, but I know through my experience people who read extensively are generally more knowledgeable and interesting to talk to. Of course, that’s a generalisation and I can hear you say from here that Uncle Freddy has never read a book in his life and he’s interesting, the life of the party and knows everything about everybody and everything about everywhere. True, but for all the Uncle Freddys’ in this world, there are plenty of Nigel knows nothing.

Most of us start learning to read at school from early age. We have to be able to read, if we want to learn from our text books and expand our knowledge and understanding of the world. Very few enjoyed the experience though. Reading can be tedious and boring for those who are have not developed the love for it by being exposed to their parent’s bedtime stories.

Not long ago, I was in a senior high school classroom conducting a meet and greet session when I popped the question. How many of you read books for pleasure? Out of the class of 50, only two raised their hands. Out of those two, only one read fiction novels. You might be thinking to yourself, that’s all very well, but these students are busy learning and spending time using their text books. This is true up to a point but here is another example to ponder.

In another senior class for English studies, the curriculum had designated only a single novel to be studied. In the best class for that level, less than 50 percent bothered to read the book. They relied on formulated answers for exam preparation to pass. I would suspect this is not uncommon around the world. Very few want to read for pleasure and even fewer want to read anything with substance.

Is the art of reading dying?

Today’s youth have access to television and computers. To most, watching a movie is much more enjoyable than reading a story.

Movies are visual, of course and the information is fed to us by picture form and sound. We can relax and let it wash over us in a manner that requires little energy or thought. Books, on the other hand, require us to create an image inside our head through words that ignite our imagination. It’s not passive information gathering; we have to work at it.

The question to be asked then, ‘Is child development being hampered by not using reading as a tool for mental stimulation?’ This is not to say television or computers don’t hold an important place in the education development of the young, as they clearly do, but isn’t it like only having 4 senses to survive instead of 5? We can be blind and still live, but we can’t see what the world really has to offer.

Varied reading is like that. It opens our minds up for us to see the many possibilities that exist. It creates new worlds for us to explore; places and events that we may never be able to experience in real life but can dream about through the power of the written word. Sadly, where I live, there is not a single book shop where I can go and buy a novel. It’s an ever increasing reflection on the dominance of other forms of media. I’ll leave you with this thought.

There is a tendency for authorities around the world to attempt to control the content of electronic and printed media. It is relatively easy to do. By owning the TV stations and the press, you can feed the populous, pancakes instead of soufflé. Books, on the other hand, are much harder to censor.

Life awaits you in this beautiful world of words. Go and find out for yourself.

 

 

Writer’s Routine

 

The alarm announces the day with an irritating excuse for an uneven melody. Perfect because it works. Five a.m. and the long days journey into night begins. No light yet, just the stirring sounds of workers reluctantly preparing for a repeat of yesterday.

The dog lets out a barks of frustration as a lone male walks in front of the house. The thought of breakfast breaks through the befuddled mind as it fights the urge to remain inactive. No bouncing out of bed to meet this new day. Slow right sided roll to the edge of the bed, then an arm thrush to stagger into an upright position. Unsteady gait, a balancing act on an imaginary tight rope, undignified thrusting of one then the other leg into the opening of a pair of shorts. The engine needs time to warm up.

The early morning pre-dawn air is thick with moisture as he walks up the stairs to the kitchen at the back of the house to prepare the breakfast. Two bowls of cereal and three cups of coffee begins the ritual. Pairs of eyes stare into miniature screens to peruse any information that has made a difference. The sounds of eating, ironing and bathroom duties reverberates throughout the house as time watching becomes increasing paramount.

Six a.m. is the deadline for departure, to be met by most members of the household except for me. The first sliver of tropical light dances over the surface of the weatherboard houses. Wave goodbye, watch the car disappear around the corner and like a recluse retreats to the sanctuary of electronic aids of information and creativity. The door is firmly closed and locked to shut out the increasing active outside world.

Time marches on, an active mind makes it fly along, an inattentive one grinds it to a halt. Reflection and mulling leads to periods of both. Hours can turn into minutes or minutes turn into hours; the dice of daily fate decides. Thus is the meanderings of a reluctant scribe.

Inspiration flows like a creek bed in a dry country; flood or drought with zilch in between. The tap is either on or off.

Working feverishly on the keyboard, thoughts to bytes building upon themselves creating layers of stone to support the complexity of ideas that form the structure of a new story.
Otherwise, lying on the bed watching the mosquitoes circling the room wondering which one will attack next.

Ten thirty and the next pattern begins. Showered and prepared to enter the outside world of predictable chaos. The ebb and flow of unbridled emotions a constant in the background during the walk from one sanctum to another – the coffee shop. Twenty minutes of automation, one foot in front of another, no thought involved, a well ingrained path in the memory of routine.

Sanctum Two, the weigh station, the second home of possible creativity. Coffee and cake, the fuel needed to plough on through a very long day.

Fleeting moments of conversation coupled with reading and writing; the pattern never straying too far from the original. Struggling to avoid the pitfalls of staying relevant to the world of the reader, staring and thinking, examining every nook and cranny for inspiration.

Twelve thirty, work completed, uncompleted or not started. The dice only knows;
automation takes over again.

Inner sanctum one has changed shape and form by the afternoon light. Neither comforting nor reassuring, but a place that separates the outside world from the existential self.

Period of satisfaction or despair, the struggle continues on and off until five pm when the routine of others intervene. The need for sustenance brings with it normality as daily events are discussed around the table. Writer’s inspirational thoughts and ideas simmer in the background all but forgotten.

Domestic duties prevail until seven thirty. Propped up in bed, no television, nor radio for distractions, just the electronic companion which screen dimly lights the four nondescript walls. Ideas surface without warning; being prepared to grab and mould them when they do is the key. The search never stops, the peak is never conquered, good is never good enough. Productive or not, the end comes when the writer no longer needs this day but yearns for the next.

 

The Nectar Of The Gods

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What makes a good wine? Ask a dozen people and get a dozen answers. I’ll state from the very onset that I have very limited knowledge about wine, no connoisseur here, I only drink the stuff, so that puts me with the 99% who haven’t a clue either. Am I qualified to make comment then? I think so, because it’s the 99% that drive the industry. For these people only one criteria that matters – liking the taste or not.

I was brought up in an area surrounded by some of the better wine growing districts in the world. (The French might not agree.) Neither of my parents drank alcohol, so it wasn’t until I became an adult that I started drinking wine. Beer and spirits never appealed. One you had to drown in lolly water to make it drinkable, the other was bitter and bloating. Wine is neither. After developing a palate for the reds tannin in preference to the mostly sweet whites, I found red to be the most satisfying to consume. By volume, it doesn’t bloat and usually complements the food I ingest. A glass of Shiraz goes down well with a McDonalds hamburger! (Philistine I hear you scream.)

This brings us to last night. Our friends invited us for dinner at their place and I was specifically asked not to bring a bottle as the host had a cupboard full that needed to be drank. Been given the honour of deciding what to drink, I inspected the 10 bottles on show and earmarked 2 for immediate drinking. Both were close to 10 years old. One of those, a Merlot 2005 from my old home town was opened first.

As most of us know, proper storage of wine is critical if you want to create the conditions necessary for it to reach its full potential. You couldn’t imagine a worse case scenario in this case, storage in a non air-conditioned room standing up right.

My worst fears were realised when the cork started to disintegrate during removal. In fact, it broke in two and I could not get enough purchase on the remaining cork, so I did what any good wine expert (cough,cough) would do… use a knife to push the recalcitrant cork fragments into the bottle.

Finding a tea strainer and plastic container I filtered as much of the floating cork particles from the wine as feasible. Two attempts later, all of the contaminate was removed or as much as the naked eye could tell.

Oddly the wine had little nose. In other words, I couldn’t smell anything that clearly resembled any wine I knew, just a nondescript slightly sweet bouquet. The colour was unusual as well, chocolate brown with a dash of blood red.

All this pointed towards a tasting disaster, but to our utter astonishment it was tasting extravaganza. What a pleasure to the palate, smooth and silky, sliding down the throat, leaving a delightful after thought behind. Even the non drinkers were impressed. And to top it all off, we displayed no after effects the next day.

Perfect!

So it goes to show, in this case what should have occurred didn’t happen.

In the end it’s the taste to you that matters and not any extensive wine knowledge.
Having said all this though, I have recently witnessed wine being mixed with coke! Now there is a limit to everything.

À la vôtre

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Smoker’s Story

I was walking into the bank this morning when I passed a young slender teenager who was looking rather solemn, leaning against the wall with a cigarette hanging out the corner of his mouth. The image created made me reflect on the previous evening’s conversation.

Whilst sitting around the kitchen table, the talk turned to smoking or to be more specific the health risks associated with it. The topic was very poignant because the grandfather of this particular family had died of lung cancer in his early forties some 30 odd years ago and currently his youngest son is about the same age and a smoker.

As I walk the streets of Sandakan, I often see many young and old smoking. Of course I don’t know the percentage of those who do smoke but I suspect it is quite high compared to other parts of the world.

This is not going to be a piece on ‘stop smoking or else’, but of the choices we make during our life.

In another life, I used to work as a nurse in Adelaide and in that capacity I had to deal with a lot of different people; some pleasant, some not so.

This took place almost 40 years ago. I don’t remember the name of the man central to my story, so for the sake of this tale we’ll call him Harry.

Harry was the sort of person who you could take too almost immediately. Despite his debilitating condition, he came across as chirpy, cheerful and personable. He struck up conversations with almost everybody on the ward. I was 19 and very shy but I immediately felt comfortable in his presence. At the time, he would have been in his early seventies but looked much older. His craggy-character-filled face told of a life of excesses and through his constant stories, obviously one he never regretted. Ever the optimist he refused to look at anything in a negative light. He must have been in excruciating pain but brought an immediate cheer to the otherwise depressing environment of the ward.

You see this particular ward was for amputees. Mostly people who had experienced trauma of some sort, severe diabetics, or in the case of Harry sufferers of PVD or peripheral vascular disease.

Harry was a chain smoker and had been since the age of 12. He loved his cigarettes and couldn’t imagine a life without them. He enjoyed the odd beer or two and smoking went hand in hand with that activity.

I’m not going to go into the intricate details of PVD other than to say the majority of those who contract the disease smoke.

Harry’s feet and lower legs were almost black through lack of blood supply. In other words, his limbs were dying. On this blackness grew large fluid filled blisters that constantly burst giving off a putrid odour whenever the wadded dressing was changed around his ankles.

The afternoon he arrived, the doctors had decided that he was to lose both of his legs above the knee. Harry took the news in his stride and tried to make a joke of his predicament. Everyone was amazed with his attitude, some thought he was in denial.

Harry could not stand to be in bed lying down. He said it was too painful but looking back I think in reality he just wanted to sit up so he could have a smoke. In those days, it was okay to smoke in hospital, so even though he was about to lose his legs through smoking the idea of not having a cigarette never crossed his mind.

You could see he was in great discomfort but he didn’t complain. He lit one cigarette after another deep in thought between the storytelling. This man had been a born entertainer.

Evening arrived and the anaesthetist came to see to Harry and talk about the next day’s surgery. He inspected his legs for a short time and asked to be excused. Soon after a team of medicos arrived and gave Harry a more thorough examination. After a short discussion among themselves, Harry was told the worst possible news. The circulation in his legs had completely shut down. The creeping blackness had now almost reached his groins. There was nothing they could do.

From what I remember Harry wanted to be alone for awhile. For the next half hour his only companion was a cigarette.

Later that night, I happened to go past his bed. I felt awkward and he could sense it. He smiled at me and that helped break the ice somewhat. He started one of his life’s stories, but stopped abruptly midstream and said,

“You know, I have done a lot of stupid things during my life. Things I am ashamed of. But not for one minute do I regret the general direct my life took.
I started smoking as a young boy; stole my old man’s tobacco and rolled my own. You know this may sound strange, but if I had my time over again I would still smoke. I loved it, those around me didn’t, but I did. It’s going to kill me. I can live with that.”

Laughing when he realised what he had just said. The conversation went on a little longer; I don’t remember anymore.

We said our goodbyes at the end of the shift and my parting memory was of a burly man sitting upright in an armchair, eyes fixed on some distant object with a sly almost indistinguishable smile, a cigarette butt firmly fixed in the corner of his mouth.

He died at 2 a.m. sitting in the same position I left him, still smoking until the very end.

One of the night staff told me that the last thing he heard Harry say before he passed away was “They can bury me with a packet of cigarettes; with me in life, a reminder of what killed me in death.” He was apparently chuffed with the idea.

The teenager was still there, cigarette in hand, as I started my walk home. I wonder if he’ll be one of the lucky ones or if it does eventually kill him, accept his fate the same way Harry did all those years ago. No regret?

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On A Wing And A Prayer

 

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A bleak afternoon, thunderstorms and driving winds. I arrived at Kota Kinabalu International Airport 4 hours early for my flight back to Sandakan. Very early I know, but being the conservative person I am and the water rising in the street, persuaded me to err on the side of caution.

This airport is only 6 years old and I must say usually a pleasure to arrive or depart from compared with most. It’s medium sized as airports go, the third biggest in Malaysia after KL, catering for about 12 million passengers a year who visit Sabah. It’s modern, metallic and has 12 air bridges, never feels busy and you can easily find a place to sit away from others.

After disembarking from the taxi drenched, I sloshed towards the check-in counter and waddled through the x-ray past immigration that appeared to make only a cursory glance at the screen whilst continuing their more important discussion on the day’s current gossip. Maybe I don’t look like a terrorist.

I arrived before my wife and her conference colleagues, waited in a state of misery, some what exacerbated by the building’s cold air-conditioning.
Being a creature of habit I had immediately gone straight to my flight’s departure gate, indicated by the electronic board as A8.

My wife and her friends duly arrived and as per usual discussed work, ignoring me. Feeling neglected, I got up and wandered around the terminal which is mostly empty of things to do.

The major shortcoming in the departure hall is that most of the allocated shop spaces are empty. There are dozens and dozens of empty ‘shop fronts, in a myriad of short passages coming off the main thoroughfare. It’s possible to go into the bowels of the retail area and be completely alone.

Interestingly there are two terminals at this airport which are diagonal across the runway from each other. The low cost terminal which is smaller is always very busy. It seems odd to me that they don’t incorporate both under the same roof; more efficient way of using space and I suspect a way to enliven the retail areas. Anyway, the authorities must have their reasons, I suppose.

I happened to glance up at the departure board to discover, to my surprise, that the gate had changed to A6. I duly informed the others, so we gathered our belongings and moved to the new allocated gate.

Upon arrival, only a small group of tourists were milling around, we sat ourselves close to the front counter. The electronic board flashed up Sandakan and the flight number. A man sat there doing his paper shuffling and all seemed well. Except…

The gate next to us was experiencing some sort of commotion with a group of about 10 passengers milling around an official all looking very animated. I had no idea what it was about, but can only assume it was something to do with a communication breakdown. ( maybe the infamous departure board) I couldn’t hear anything from where we were, but it was highly entertaining and helped while away the remaining 45 minutes.

Being the observant creature I am , I noticed as the departure time approached, a distinct lack of passengers and no aircraft in the bay. Besides that, the little man at the front counter had suddenly disappeared and the electronic sign board had stopped flashing Sandakan. I walked to the departure board and as I am sure you have already guessed, discovered we were now back at A8. !!!

A mad dash to the new gate ensured where we joined the throngs who were about to board the aircraft. ( How did they know and not us?) Throughout all of this there were no announcements on the intercom that things had changed.

Lesson to be learned. Mistake on my part – If I hadn’t constantly been checking the departure board we would have been blissfully ignorant of the transitory change. Don’t assume officialdom will tell you everything you need to know in this part of the world. Most information seems to be gained by the mysterious process of mental osmosis, you are just expected to know. For some reason, the authorities don’t like giving out info unless it’s deemed unequivocally necessary (to them). Who decides this is anyone’s guess, so be prepared to expect the unexpected.

One little side issue to finish, Just before take off, after the safety video, a short prayer was offered for the safe passage of the flight.
Now that really does instil confidence!