Saturday, March 26, 2005

Ain't you glad you got good religion?

This is something I don't know that I'll be able to write at all well. It's something I've been trying to articulate for ages.

Warning: the following contains religious themes, and the "f-word" (and two "b-words". And a "q word" - I wouldn't normally warn people about the "q word", but it's there, three times, where you don't expect it, and it's a capital Q too, so I thought, three big Qs in a row, people might not be expecting that, kids and the frail aged and pregnant women and so on, best be on the safe side and warn them. So you're warned. Turn away now).

Years ago, I "got converted". It was when I was fourteen, turning fifteen. For some reason I was staying with my grandmother and grandfather - it's possible that my mum was sick. Anyway, a few weeks (or months, as I remember it) essentially alone, with my grandparents, who were elderly and German and, for a fourteen year old boy, difficult to please or understand.

Silverton was at that time really isolated, ten or fifteen beachside huts where retirees fished and smoked and drank beer. There were exactly no people my age in the town. At the time it seemed like it was where old people went to die. I was intensely, bitterly, self-consumedly lonely.

I did stuff. I went down the beach, I walked to the nearest town, I devoured the second hand bookshop, I read HP Lovecraft and wrote bad science fiction stories, I went down the beach again. There was almost nothing else to do. There was nobody at all my own age.

Anyway, after about three weeks of what to me was solitary confinement, I met Tim. Tim was skinny with freckles and a nose that had a fair head start on the rest of his face. He'd gone to my school but left two years back. I fell on him like a starving kitten on a pork chop.

He seemed happy. He seemed very happy, in fact, as happy as only a few people I've ever seen since. He was happy, and he had a million friends, and a remarkably hot girlfriend*, and all this, he explained, because of the great work God was doing in his life. Because of his church.

I might stop that bit of the story there, because the intervening stuff (the baptism in the sea, the tongue-speaking, the prayers for the salvation of my increasingly enraged family, the door to door religious spruiking, the "bashing-my-brain-until-it-was-bloody" against the iron bars of fundamentalism, the slow recovery) are best left for a more dis-inhibited mood. It will happen.

But anyway, what I wanted to write about was this weird, un-nameable feeling I've got. The closest I can come to a name for it is "religious loneliness".

There's that word again. Half the readers turn off. Religion.

See, its something rather difficult to talk about, but that's what this blog is for, so I can talk and write anonymously about the things I find it difficult to talk about. So, religious loneliness.

A lot of what I came to believe when I was fifteen I don't believe now. Some of the articles of faith have withered away, like a neglected plant. Some of them I tore out by the roots, and they had put down remarkably deep roots in such a short time, and some o fthe root might still be there now, pushing its way to the surface. Some of the ideas I suspect had only had a brief lifespan, either because that was the kind of idea they were, the theological equivalent of ryegrass, or because the soil where they were planted did not suit them, or because there was just something wrong with them, "bad seeds".

The fundamentalism has gone. Creationism - gone. Biblical inerrancy - gone. Hell stocked with faggots and adulterers and those who drink alcohol - gone. Heaven and Hell - absolutely gone.

Eternal life - where anything that we can call "us" just goes on and on and on, where our personalities survive our bodies? Where the product of our iffy genes and the bad things our mummies said and our steadily strengthening prejudices lives on for all eternity? Gone, thank God.

God the Father, who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah - gone. God who watches and listens - gone. God as any kind of "person", something outside you that you can have a conversation with and who can tell you things that you don't already "know" - gone.

That's all gratifying and modern and educated and it probably gives me some points with some people. But the thing is, there's still a lot inside.

I don't know if I can come up with a similar list of what from my religious days remains. It may be that only the undefinable things, the things inaccessible to my rational mind, the things you can't put in a credo.

But the thing is, I have what I feel is a strong inner religious life. I have what I still want to call strong Christian beliefs.

(That, by the way, is a word you have to be careful using nowadays. I typed it and I realised that I've almost stopped using it. The word mutates from my mouth to your ear. I say "Christian" and I mean one thing, and by the time it's travelled the few short feet to someone else's ear, it's decayed into something like "homophobe" or "Creationist" or "someone unshakeably convinced that the Eternal Creator of the Universe agrees with him or her in every little thing".

It's a kind of exponential radioactive decay, a theological or linguistic loss of mass and energy. Someone should write down a list of half-lives of words. The more specific words seem to be more stable - I say "spelunking" and people understand I mean clambering about in caves with a helmet with a light on. But short words, like "love" or "God" or "true"...

Maybe it's powerful words that are unstable. Love is a linguistically unstable isotope.

And maybe that's why women can say "No" and the guy can stand up in court later and believe she said "Yes". And that's why when you want to make a word less ambiguous, more stable, you make it longer. Either through elevated language, or that "working class tmesis" thing where instead of "yes" you say "abso-fucking-lutely".)

Anyhow, have to wrap this up now, and I've successfully managed to avoid talking about the difficult topic. So, here goes, in bullet point form.

I have strong religious beliefs.

None of my friends share them. The vast majority of my friends are highly educated atheists who live in the twenty-first century, to whom Christianity is a mediaeval grotesquery. I still occasionally see one person from my old fundamentalist days, she is still a fundamentalist.

I haven't been able to discuss a lot of this for several years, and I want to.

You want to belong, you know. To be surrounded by people who you know have similar beliefs, a tribe. That space-cadet glow.

Boo hoo hoo, poor bugger me. Bloody hell.

Anyway, it's my own fault. My beliefs aren't so bloody unique that no-one shares them - I think I'd fit pretty well into the Quakers, for example. I like porridge. And I could learn to Quake. After exams I may check them out.

Thanks for listening.


*I should point out that at that time I was celibate, and Tim mentioned girls, so I was hooked.

My celibacy at the time wasn't an accident. It was a decision, but a difficult one, an act of deliberate, careful, reasoned choice, made after taking into account the likely consequences at a physical, social, psychological and spiritual level.

It was almost certainly the right decision, even if it didn't feel so at the time, and today I have nothing but respect for Bethany Lilly, Diana Vale, Anna Christopolous, Martina Dubois, Vikki Murchison, Jenny Carpenter, Julie Roume and some blonde girl with glasses whose name I can't remember but whose mother was overprotective to the point of being quite clearly mental. And always, always Helen Priest.

And all of the other girls who had made the deliberate, careful, reasoned, heart-breaking choice that I should remain celibate.


Monday, March 21, 2005

Where did we come from?


In my last few days before failing my exam, my eldest son has started emailing me. He is a jewel amongst sons, but he is a creationist, and I'm not. One thing he asked is "humans have an inbuilt sense of morality, justice etc. - where'd it come from?".

Here is a very brief precis of my response.

"It evolved. Here is as simple as I can put it. The following is a parable, not my suggestion of actual events.

Imagine two tribes : the Bads and the Goods. The Bads have no sense at all of morality and justice (orcs). The Goods have a strong sense of the same. The two tribes go to war. Who wins? The Goods, because they can co-operate to build trebuchets, etc. The Bads are always out stealing each other's CDs.

So in a great war, the Goods destroy the Bads. The Bads become extinct. Voila, a population with your “inbuilt sense of morality, justice, etc.”

Is this us?

Not yet. Take it one more step. Evolution proceeds: a new kind of person appears (spontaneous mutation, snuck in by recessive genes, whatever) in the midst of the Goods. This type is covertly evil – lies when it can, cheats when it gets away with it, sly and underhand. Call it the Lowlife.

It is clear to see that the concentration of Lowlifes within the population will rise until it becomes too great a drain on the Goods and they're beaten by the neighbouring tribe of Goods who have fewer Lowlifes.

Goods and Lowlifes – starting to look a lot like our society.

So it makes sense to be a tribe composed as much as possible of Goods and with an efficient mechanism for detecting Lowlifes - even if it makes sense for an individual to be a Lowlife, especially the only Lowlife in a village of Goods. So how do the Goods survive?

They become better at detecting the Lowlifes. Those groups of Goods who have a strong hatred of Lowlifes, who punish them when they catch them and seek them everywhere, will probably do better than Goods who just let the Lowlifes take what they want. So survival of the fittest continues and we have societies of Goods and Lowlifes where everyone is always talking about and arguing for good and trying to detect and punish and destroy evil. Lets call this third "type" Witch-hunters (Witch-hunters can be either Goods, Bads or Lowlifes, as we shall see. It probably makes more sense to talk about Witch-hunting as a behaviour that anyone (Good, Bad or other) can exhibit). A tribe with lots of Witch-hunters (whether Good, Bad or Lowlife) out-competes a tribe without.

Looking more like us all the time.

One last development. All this good of the tribe is all very well, but evolution works principally on the individual level. Protecting the tribe only makes sense to the extent that they share “your” genes. But who’s looking out for number one? Wouldn’t it make sense (from an individual survival point of view) to preach righteousness but to sneak whatever you could when the Witch-hunter's back is turned? You’d do better, your kids would do better… doesn't it make sense to be a Hypocrite? Like a Lowlife but loudly trumpeting your alleged values , talking about trust as you betray, justice as you steal, peace as you mobilise the bombers. Urging the Witch-hunters on in their pursuit of the Lowlifes. Calling loudly for law and order as you feather your nest.

So, what kind of society would evolve from this pretty straightforward application of game theory?

A few out-right Bads - the neighbourhood threats, the psychopaths, the bad seeds.

A sizeable (but unknowable) proportion of Goods - Joe and Jane Average.

A finite number of Lowlifes - confidence tricksters, alternative therapists, people who do things on the quiet.

Almost everyone a Witch-hunter, whether Good, Bad, Lowlife or Hypocrite. Read the paper, listen to the PM or the Pastor, sit and listen on the bus. Everyone is always keen to identify and punish those who do wrong.

And practically everyone a Hypocrite. Argue with that if you can.

Sound familiar? Just what the Bible says, too."

Well, that should cheer him up. I used to be a door-to-door evangelist, you know?

Only two weeks until I pay thosands of dollars and fly thousand of miles to fail two exams over three days. Sigh.

Who needs Armageddon?


Wednesday, March 16, 2005


Something I wrote a few days ago but was too daft to send.

Years back I did a subject in Uni called Chinese Philosophy and Religion. The way I remember it, at one stage the examinations to get into the public service (one of the only courses of advancement for young men) was via the extremely difficult entrance exams. The way I was told it was thus: The exam lasted five days. The candidate was lowered into a doorless room by crane, having brought his own food, water, etc. The examinations were basically regurgitation of great reams of Confucius, etc, tens of thousands of words. Pressure was vast, stakes high, suicide a frequent occurence.

Looking back on it now I doubt either my meory of the subject or the veracity of the lecturer. It all sounds a bit too Sax Rohmer for me.

Anyhow, makes my exams look simple. I have realised that that two ro so weeks sick is possibly going to make the difference between passing and failing, but the thing is I am learning stuff, even as I grow fat and weak and friendless hunched in front of the computer week after week.

Look on the bright side - after this I'll be able to survive anything.

SCENE: Chernobyl.
General (in Russian): We need someone to go in there and shut down that flaming nuclear reactor.

Scientist: But sir! It's certain death! The gamma radiation is enough to read a book by and the local reindeer are already festering. The surrounding lichen has evolved into a four-piece banjo outfit, and the sniffer dog we sent in has developed Dutch Elm disease. And the containment suit is off at the cleaners, and is a most unfashionable colour. No-one human could survive in there.

General (dramatic pause): Maybe not someone human. But perhaps... someone who once was. Someone who's survived every hideous, festering, mind-melting horror that this world can throw at them.

Scientist, recoiling in horror: Not...

General: Yes. Send in the third year medical students.

In the interim I continue with the kidneys. They are close on my least favourite vital organ, although I've never had much time for the hypothalamus. Kidneys don't even taste good, which is not surprising considering they spend all their time making urine. This is probably why those pies with giblets in them taste so foul. Think about it:

Kidneys - make wee
Liver - makes foul-tasting bile
Gall bladder - stores foul tasting bile, occasionally flavoured with stones made out of something like chalk.
Pancreas - makes chemicals so toxic if you rupture your pancreas you actually dissolve yourself from the inside
Bowel - makes poo
Slippery little jubbly bits - don't know what they are, but they're in there, and they can't be up to any good.
Eyes - they don't SAY the pies contain eyes, but what else would the butchers do with them? Where else would they go?

Okay, perhaps its time to take a walk outside.



More study today, only interrupted by little old ladies calling to tell me they might want to board their cat (my wife breeds and boards cats) but they haven't made up their mind yet, and several calls from telemarketers from India (dead set) calling to offer us stuff we have told them we don't want and can't afford and will never ever buy from them.

I feel sorry for people who do that job. They must know at some level how welcome they are, that they are the human equivalents of pop-up menus on your computer screen. Somehow our name has got onto a list of "gullible, weak-willed cashed-up suckers" and we get rung every day or so by people asking for our money, time or compassion, all of which are in short supply at the moment.

I have had to come up with a number of responses. They always ask if they can talk to the owner of the business. Recent responses have included -

He's dead.
We went bankrupt
There's no-one here who speaks English. These are the only words I know. There is no-one here who speaks English, these are the only words I know (repeat until they hang up)

Responses I have yet to use may consist of -
He's gone to prison, he murdered a telemarketer.
Oh God! He's dead, dead, dead! And he was so beautiful and we were going to get married (burst into tears)
Hold on, I'll just get the boss (grab a cat, put it near telephone receiver until it meows)
He is in the Inner Chamber, communicating by space-phone with Starfleet Commander Zorgon.

One thing I would like to try is to say "I'll just get him", wait a few seconds, and then speak irritably down the phone in an implausible 'foreign language':
Wubba! Wubba wub wubbubba!! Wub wubbi wub wubba? Wubbe wu Polish sausage porkchop wub wubwu!!" and so on.

The Polish sausage thing may really throw them.

Anyhow, back to the kidneys

Thursday, March 10, 2005

The way it is

This is a story I heard today. All names are changed. The event is as true as you can be sure anything is. I've seen the blood test results, the rest is authoritative hearsay.

The guy who tells the story is the doctor who used to go out to the prisons around Melbourne, places like Ararat, Bendigo, Fulham,Tarrengower, back in the eighties.

What he said was a while back there was a shipment of heroin that came in to one of the medium security prisons, early September. It happens all the time, nothing anyone can do to stop it, people who know they'll be staying a few months can bring their own. It’s suprising how capacious some body cavities can be.

It was a fair sized shipment and those involved get together to divvy it up, and they’ve got whole set up laid out, and then this guy, Jacobsen, wants in.
(This guy Jacobsen was the patient the doctor who told the story ended up seeing, the one who told him the original story. A skinny red-headed guy, tall but skinny, with home-grown tattoos of improbably proportioned women).

Jacobsen was due to get out in a few days and he wanted some pretty badly.

“Come on, you guys” he says, “I’m hanging out, just a taste.”

Now Jacobsen had been in on these deals in the past, but he hadn’t had the cash for this one.

“What’ve you got?” said the smuggler, a big Maori guy with those facial tattoos. He was talking about money, equipment, anything. The thing was, him and Jacobsen hated each other, they’d met before. He knew Jacobsen would be good for the cash down the line, and he knew Jacobsen knew he knew, but he also knew Jacobsen didn’t have any money now.

“Pay you Friday, I promise. On my mother’s grave.” said Jacobsen, and the Maori guy laughed, and no matter how Jacobsen begged and wheedled and what he said he’d do, he couldn’t get in.

They passed the fit sat around and hit up and then the Maori guy held the spoon over the flame and burnt it clean, so Jacobsen couldn’t even get the dregs, and he laughed some more. Not one of those people who mellow out on drugs, apparently. And that was the end of that.

Well, it would have been, except for a few years later when the guy telling the story put
all this together, because he was working for infectious diseases, and they were trying to pin down the origin of a nasty little nucleus of what was begining to be known as Aquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. It turned out the Maori guy, who’d brought it in and so had first hit, had HIV. Never knew, of course, hardly anyone knew back then. And now so did everyone else in the circle. They hadn't shared needles, they'd got it off the spoon.

So they tracked down the HIV infected prisoners, most of whom were still or already back inside, including the Maori guy. And there wasn't much they could tell him about the other people, confidentiality and all that stuff, but the guy telling the story reckoned it was "remarkable" that the one guy this Maori guy hated more than anyone was the guy who’d life he’d saved, and the people who’d scratched together their cash and promised shares of this and inside knowledge of that, they’d paid and begged and bargained to die.

Now isn't that ironic. Don't you think.*

There is presumably a moral in that, and presumably you get to choose the one that confirms your preexisting prejudices. There's the basic one about sharing needles and spoons and so on with tattooed guys in prison. But the one that sticks in my mind is the image of the watershed.

You know those diagrammes you did in primary school on the water cycle, how a drop of water
falls from the sky and lands and trickles down the hill and ends up in a river and then the sea, maybe thousands of miles away?

Well, if two drops of rain land on opposite sides of a ridge or a mountain or something, they end up in different places, because they fell in differnt watersheds. They fall a few metres apart but one ends up in the Southern Ocean, another might end up drying out in the desert.

Huge differences, because of one tiny event. The road not taken, the bus missed, the wrong number dialed or the word mis-spelt. Adenosine thiamine guanine cytosine. A protein folded wrong, something your dad forgot to say, the extra step you didn't take. The needle that passed you by.

I shouldn't write these at the end of a long day, my sucrose detector isn't working. Anyway, thing I'm trying to say is that I reckon a lot of what we're proud of in ourselves is fortunate accidents that happened to us, and a lot of what we despise in other people is just what happened when the dice rolled different, came up with different numbers.

Anyway, enough meandering. I still reckon it's a remarkable story.

Maybe next blog is "Bad Doctors".


*That woman didn't know the difference between "ironic" and "a pissoff". Ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife isn't ironic, it's a pissoff.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

The Scrotum in the Corporate Box

Now, which author does that sound like? Early Agatha Christie? One of Lovecraft's less sinister visitations - "The Lurker in the Groin"? One of the forgotten adventures of Sherlock Holmes - "The case of the speckled scrote?"

Anyhow, part time I work at this youth-friendly service in the depressed southern suburbs. We service all the surrounding area - Gehenna, Gehenna Heights, South Mordor, Morbing Vyle, Innsmouth, Slytherin Glade, all the way up to Sheol and Fang Rock. I'll call the practice Hogarth House. It's young people (12 - 25), aboriginal, gay/lesbian/etc friendly, into harm minimisation and so on. It's government run, because private enterprise isn't young people (12 - 25), aboriginal, gay/lesbian/etc friendly, into harm minimisation and so on.

Anyhow, current doctor population is three. By some miscarriage of justice, I am in charge. Underneath me is the Paediatric registrar, a man with vast knowledge of obscure genetic defects but little experience of fourteen year olds on speed, and the junior medical officer, Doctor Bill.

Doctor Bill is excellent - energetic, knowledgeable, committed, caring, and well on his way to a reactive psychotic episode if he keeps on like this. He cares deeply, which is good, and he is empathetic, another good point, and he tries to see things from the patient's point of view, and helps as much as he can. Which means from nine to two he sees eight children (and that's what they are) in a row, of whom six are suicidal, five are on drugs, four are confused about their sexuality and one of whom appears to be confused about his, one is pregnant, two are hearing voices again, one has been kicked out by her dad, one had been groped by his uncle, four of whom cut themselves with razors or glass or bread-knives, and four of whom are in prison.

I am worried I might have to put him on some other thing for a while. Maybe get him to do a research project, prepare a fifteen minute powerpoint presentation: "how many people can I help if I end up crazy myself?"

Anyhow, this is what happened to Bill. He was at the football, watching the local team getting hammered by Hawthorn*, drinking bitter and getting rowdy. he'd been invited there by his mate who had a seat in the corporate box. Plentiful alcohol, oystery kind of refreshments at quarter time, the works.

So Bill and Ben are getting slightly voluble and some guy says "Who's your mate" to Ben, and Ben says "This is Bill, he's a doctor"
A murmur went through the (smallish) crowd and several drunks pressed near.
"Wonder if you might take a look at this" said one, showing Bill what appeared to be a completely normal nasal passage.
"My mum had her cancer cured by eating nothing but walnuts" said another
"I've put on twelve kilos since Christmas" said a man with a meat pie in each hand "reckon it's my glands"
"Haven't felt quite right since 1964" said a pale woman with staring eyes. "It's the birds".
And then, and Bill swears this is true, and I've never known him to lie, a large, hirsuite man in shorts hoiked up the leg of his shorts , jiggled about a bit, and protruded his scrotum from his pantsleg. Bill reckons it slowly bulged it's head out, like a shy baby potoroo emerging from a burrow in one of those David Attenborough shows
"My left ball..." began the man, then paused. "Where'd he go?"

Bill reckons he was half way down the stair before the weirdness of the whole thing hit him, and
he had to lean against the wall and laugh until he cried. Passers by in their team colours on their way up to the corporate box regarded him strangely. But he reckons it's cold meat pies and a seat out in the rain for him from now on. And if anyone asks, he's unemployed.


* all football teams have been heavily disguised

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Stupidity rating scale

Just a quick note.

There are several examples of startling stupidity in my life, this is the latest. Beware that the next four paragraphs seem like me whinging - but there is a purpose.

For the last few weeks I've been feeling fairly crap. I've lacked energy. I've had difficulty concentrating - I read stuff and it doesn't go in. I've been short tempered, and my moods are a matter of public record. I've been unenthusiastic about exercise, I've had to drop judo, I've been yawning a lot and my eyes hurt.

As a practising physician I've treated this with coffee and a determination to get my mind on the job, and shouting to myself inside my head to stop being so bloody self indulgent. I'd changed my medications, and occasionally I've wondered if I was coming down with a virus, and or if I should get my thyroid checked.

Anyhow, this morning was Saturday. I woke up at seven, got up, started studying, got about an hour done, then my eyes were hurting too much and the mental half-life of what I read was about seven seconds. So I gave up, and went back to bed.

Next thing it was early afternoon and I'd slept an extra six hours.

Appalled, I got up and got to work. But in the intervening hours a miracle had occurred. I was no longer irritable. My eyes felt fine. I had energy. I understood what I was reading. I felt great.

It was almost as if - don't laugh - that few hours of rest had cured me.

I have decided to put a name to this obscure condition, which seemed to be some sort of systemic dysregulation of multiple inflammatory markers with predominantly neurovegetitive sequelae, and I've called it "being tired". The treatment protocol I've developed I've abbreviated as the "Supine Longitudinal Encephalic Erasure Posture", or having a "sleep".

This could catch on. It is my belief that a veritable epidemic of "tiredness" is stalking unchecked though our cities and towns as we speak. It strikes the rich, the poor, the old, the young, it seems to single out those who have least time for it. It seems to be associated with this whole "running faster and faster on this little wheel thing" we've all been suckered into, but I don't have time to write about that now.

Unfortunately S.L.E.E.P is not a pharmaceutical product, so I can't copyright it, but I should be able to get a few papers published. Or go the alternative route and go on Today Tonight, do a tour of the cities, run a few workshops, write a best-selling book.

Next post, two possibilities suggest themselves.

1. Byron's Law and the medical profession - doctors I have met who are mad, bad or dangerous to know.

2. The scrotum in the corporate box.

We shall see.

One last thing - I understand that one of the thrills of writing one of these is the freedom to be as beliigerent and aggressive as you like, the ability to trumpet your own opinions without fear of dispute. Well, Robert Browning was the best poet of the nineteenth century, leagues ahead of anybody else in everything important, and I'll smack out anyone who reckons different.

Any takers?

Didn't think so.

You know, in a month or so I might get unterrified enough to allow comments here.