Commentary on Mark, 11 January 2021
The latest update to my Markan commentary is here.
(Updated November 24 2021)
The Tunnel, 12 January 2022
A bunch of teachers and parents took a bus load of school kids to Adelaide. After the long, dusty trip down the old Stuart Highway, we boarded the train up to Mt Lofty station. The kids were chattering away with the kind of racket only a bus load of happy and tired kids can create, when everything went black, and the clatter of the train turned into a roar. The shock silenced every conversation in the carriage. Then someone remembered: “We’ve read about this in books. This is a tunnel!” And there was an eruption of laughter, and relief!
Except that one of the adults sat bent forward, eyes shut, in terror. They were subjected to another 3 trips up and back to our campsite, and the tunnel remained a horror. On the last trip, with the good will of the train driver, and the help of friends, they stood in the little cab at the very front of the train, watched the hole in the hill coming, and managed to keep their eyes open until we reached the light at the end of the tunnel.
I have always admired that person, but it took me years to understand that, on this last journey down the hill, I witnessed an act of utter courage. I began to understand what was going on when I met my version of that tunnel three or four years later.... Read on >>>>
Felix was a big old cat who'd been on the farm nearly as long as me. We found him asleep on the bonnet of the ute one afternoon as we piled in to go down to Uncle Des' farm, a couple of miles away. He ignored us. "He'll get off," Dad said. Felix stayed where he was until we rumbled over the grid out onto the track. Then, instead of jumping off, he hopped over the roof and curled up in the back of the ute.
There are two things to note about those old FE Holden utes. The first is that by 1965, they were old. It took half a mile before we'd chugged up to 50mph down near Flavel's gate. The second is that there was a bit of a ledge where the door bulged out from the glass in the window. Felix knew about this, and when it became too windy for comfort in the back, he walked along this bulge with the intention of coming in the window behind Dad's back. This is where my sister and I saw him, just as he discovered that, for some unaccountable reason, Dad had the window shut... Read on >>>
When I was about ten, my Christmas Day was brought to a stunned physical halt by a wave of feelings which took me years to articulate. It was as though a congenital melancholy had forced its way into my attention. It bubbled up every few months for years, a kind of sub-clinical depression, which I finally understood as an inability to see any point to life. Some instinct kept me walking and running, which probably prevented my being overwhelmed. And for my final three years at university, I rode a pushbike, often hundreds of kilometres a week, and this seemed to drive the whole agony underground.
About a decade after that first onslaught, I stopped taking the direct route from my university college out to the Waite Institute. Instead, I would ride up Greenhill Road each morning, speed down from Mt Lofty to the Crafers exit on the new freeway, and then ride down the freeway to The Waite. This involved a short climb out of Crafers, after which I was on competitive terms with the rush-hour traffic. I used to count the number of cars I could pass between the Eagle on the Hill, still a pub in those days, and the Old Tollgate at the bottom. My record stood at 24 cars.
I raced into the Devil’s Elbow one morning, a well-deserved name, holding way above the recommended speed, with cars all around me, and both the front and back wheel began to aquaplane. I was... Read on >>>>
I’ve been bedding in a new bike or, more correctly, bedding myself in after going back to drop bars after 12 years riding flat bar bikes. I’d done 80 or 90km at a time and was now concerned to see how my back stood up to longer distances, and how the new bike handled gravel.
The first trip included a gravel loop out from Angaston through the high country to the east, coming back into the bottom end of the Barossa near Lyndoch... Read on >>>>
When the frame on my Blade4 died in early 2017, its replacement was sitting on the floor of the local bike shop: a beautiful Scott Sub 30. The Sub30 has also succumbed to long miles on the road. Replacement was not so easy this time. Steel frame bikes are scarce due to Covid shortages. Eventually, I visited a shop in Adelaide to inspect a very expensive Curve Kevin, which was not my first choice owing to its carbon forks. I discovered a Bombtrack Arise Tour next to it, even though their website said none were in stock. I bought it on the spot! ... Read on >>>>
Somewhere out past the Victorian border a bloke had delivered a load of superphosphate to a farm. He had a boy with him, five or six, and they sat in the paddock gateway for a minute or so, watching me ride towards them. When I was a hundred metres or so away, the semi turned on to the road and slowly began to build up speed and pull away. Perhaps that's why I didn't hear the other semi-trailer, the one behind me. It rocketed past, well over any speed limit, and barely a foot away from me.
They say time slows down when something like this happens. Perhaps it's that so much happens in a second or two that it takes much longer to replay it in the mind, let alone write it down. A few hundred metres ahead of me, the second semi's driver suddenly realised he was about to drive up the back of a much slower truck. He jammed on the brakes and began to slide on the bitumen.
Perhaps the first driver had seen him coming, but misjudged how fast he was travelling; I could understand how that could happen. Or perhaps he'd not even seen him in the setting sun, and was looking in his mirrors to see where I was. Either way, he managed to get his rig off the road with all the speed and agility of a trail bike, which meant the offending driver skidded past, straightened up, and roared off. The second semi pulled back onto the road and followed him as I breathed in burning rubber, and heard my tyres swish in the still molten skid marks.
I thought the second driver must have fallen asleep. Or perhaps he was sending a text. Then I realised that if he hadn't seen that big semi until those last seconds, he probably hadn't seen me at all... Read on >>>>
I came home furious this morning. Truculent shoppers and supermarket staff with their masks below the nose, or no masks at all, may have been the occasion for my anger, but there was something deeper happening. I don't like crowds, and never have. They make me anxious. They exhaust me. Any group larger than a table of friends is hard work, and even a night with friends is tiring.
I've grumbled to myself of the last few years that I seem to be getting more introverted as I get older. But I wonder if that's true. It's now been two years since I left work, and I think retirement is letting me, finally, be me. It's not that I'm more introverted, or more anxious; it's that I no longer have to "play the game" to hold down a job. This might account for why I discovered I was profoundly exhausted when I took a few weeks off, two years ago. So exhausted that I never went back.
Somewhere in my forties, I lost any desire to work at a job... Read on >>>>
Someone told me, "Madeleine has broken the laminator." Perhaps this was a little unfair. After all, Madeleine had merely sought to preserve some material that was getting a bit tatty, by feeding it into our August and Venerable Office Laminator, just as we have all done. Only this time, it swallowed the offering, and nothing came out.
However, it could be that my informant was referring to the mess on my designated desk, which I found covered with a largely dismembered laminator lying amongst a scattering of screws. When Madeleine arrived some time later, she informed me that the plastic laminate sheets had curled around one of the rollers for some reason, but she couldn't work out how to remove some plating to get at said rollers.
I pointed out the circlips which seemed to be holding everything together, and was tasked with removing them. My heart sank a little. Not only were we lacking Special Tool 3A Mark II for-the-Removal-of-Circlips, but the whole unit had the look of something the designers had never envisaged being deconstructed.
Lacking the non-existent tool, we settled upon two pairs of office scissors and eventually prised off the first circlip, which I heard first hit the ceiling, and then one of the walls.... Read on >>>>
One of the gifts of my childhood was to see the pain that the entrenched and discriminatory gender roles of our society caused my mother. In our own new marriage, my partner and I determined to be good evangelical Christians and live the equal but different roles which 'complementarianism' as it is now called in some places, dictates as God's will for us. It didn't work. Not least from my observations of my Mother's pain, I recognised that the whole effort was destructive for my partner. At some nascent level, I also understood it was doing me no good; I certainly did not want to become like the avowed 'head of the house' males I was observing.
It seemed to me that all the paternalistic theology of household in Ephesians 5 was subverted by just one verse: Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… (Eph 5:25)
When we want to maintain our privilege, and the safety of the status quo, then of course we remain stuck in our tribe's interpretation of the social strictures of the first century. But seeing the damage this was doing, I decided to ignore the whole headship thing as an anachronism and seek to live not only as true equals, but to live seeking to love her as Christ loved the church.
Obviously, the young idealist me possessed a hubris completely unmoderated by his naiveté! Yet this commitment proved to be an astonishing experience... Read on >>>>
We were discussing family pets around the table after tea. The Little White Dog is secure in the knowledge that she is one of the human beings, and not a mere pet. So, bored with the conversation, she curled up on her chair at the end of the table, and went to sleep. It had been a lovely meal, not least because of our guest Mia, with whom our second born was so obviously besotted, that it was clear she would probably become a daughter-in-law sometime in the future. In the discussion about the many and various cats who have lived with us, Mia mentioned that when she was a little girl, she’d had a cat called Nugget. When one is new to a family, it’s a bit disconcerting to say something like this and have the collective Priors explode with hoots of laughter! We explained that, even asleep, the Little White Dog had heard the magic NUGGET word ,and was now sitting bolt upright, and on full alert.
Since then, the Little White Dog’s hearing has faded, and her once bright eyes are a little milky. If she were Homo sapiens rather than Canis familiaris pulchrior, she’d had have hearing aids and a couple of cataract operations by now. But the nose… The nose is as good as ever.
We were out today, so we cranked up the aircon for an hour or so before we left. Even so, the 38 degree day meant it was warm inside when we got home. The Little White Dog was a bit limp, and even though we had turned on both the aircon and the ceiling fan, she merely sniffed at her tea and went back to bed. The healing balm for a Little White Dog who may be a tad dehydrated is… tuna. Wendy opened a small can, and poured some of the spring water and few scraps of tuna into a clean bowl, and added a small amount of the rejected tea. Instant response, followed by definite indications that if similar condiments could be added to the rest of her tea, she’d eat that too.
We were also a bit limp. So we took the tea we’d thrown together and ate sitting in our easy chairs. Since we were not at the table, the Little White Dog ignored us and concentrated on cleaning out the tuna can. After the can had stopped clanking around, the click-click of little claws on lino betrayed a nose-tip grid search of the kitchen. The undiluted powers of that nose were telling her there was more tuna somewhere. Eventually, she gave up and came over in our direction and began to wipe her face on the carpet… as you do. And stopped when she saw us, bowls in hand! “I knew I could smell more tuna.” Cue instant pleading puppy-face as she watched each of us carefully, and calculated the physics of the overhead fan, and other factors opaque to us mere humans. Then she bounced up to Wendy: “It’s you whose got the tuna, and I love you.” [Archived here]
Our signature crops were tomatoes, melons, and table grapes. I thought they would be nicely complemented by some of those fruity capsicums you can eat like an apple, so I ordered a kilogram of seed up from Adelaide. When it finally arrived on the transport, I had just slit the seal on the tin when I saw something about Hot Chillies. I don’t know if it was the store-person at the seed company, or me, who read the catalogue numbers incorrectly, but we were now stuck with this tin. And with a five year supply of chilli for the entire state north of Gawler.
There was a stray dripper line running across the front of the vineyard, left over from some experimental work I’d done. I put in some chilli seed‒someone might use it‒and we soon had a peppery Pitjantjatjara parody of those lines of roses you see along the edges of Barossa vineyards.
The chillies loved the Ernabella soil and weather. It was a heavy crop. I casually bit off half a chilli one morning, and had just enough time to think, “Huh? These are sweet!” before being hit by a wave of heat and pain unlike anything I’d ever tasted. A couple of days later, one of the gardeners asked me, “What are those things!? I thought I was going to die!”
Now, the bloke who ran the Ernabella farm was a born raconteur, equally at home with federal government ministers, research scientists, and his own grandchildren. He was also handsome enough to fit into any TV documentary which needed your typical easygoing and guileless Australian farmer. So it was the most natural thing in the world for him to tip his hat upside down and be picking a hat-full of chilli while our Community Adviser, Mike Last, talked to a dozen visiting senior Canberra bureaucrats about the farm. Even Mike didn’t realise what was happening as the farmer offered them these new fruit‒“really sweet,” that we were “very proud of.” I guess there wasn’t time for Mike to ponder why the ever-polite Mr. W. hadn’t offered him any of the new crop.
So it was that a dozen or so senior Dept of Aboriginal Affairs public servants‒it seemed like the entire senior echelon bar the Minister‒were suckered into eating the hottest chillies on earth, watched deadpan by six or eight Pitjantjatjara farmers. Our visitors were on their best non-racist behaviour, so nothing was said beyond a nod or two, and a slightly strained, “Very good,” from someone. And the entourage continued on its way as though nothing had happened, while the farmers nodded goodbye, and mooched off back to whatever they had been doing, without the hint of a smile.
Which suggests to me that, contrary to the proverb, revenge is best served hot. And with a straight face. (Archived here)
On my first day at school, I found myself all alone during the morning recess, and began to cry. Some of the girls from Grade Two found me, and comforted me, and everything was alright. In fact, for a lonely boy out on a farm, school was a delight. Because new students finished early for the first half of the year, another kid and I got to sit under the Upper One teacher's desk and play for an hour and a half every afternoon! Then I would climb on the bus home, with all the other kids.
It all came crashing down one afternoon when I was met by three big girls at the school gate, and the bullying started. I was devastated, but I didn't cry. It seems that somehow I had already worked out what all boys of my generation knew: cry, and you are dead. Never let them know it hurts. After that first day, I never cried at school again, ever.
Today, the ever present anxiety I inherit from one part of my family, and which was greatly exacerbated by my school experiences, got the jump on me. By the time we got home from a morning visit to the supermarket, I was distraught. Did I say anything? No. I carried on so successfully that my partner had no idea I was falling apart. Like the good little boy of long ago, hiding it all, I got home and began putting the shopping away, saying nothing. She only realised something was up when I began dithering and couldn't manage to fit the groceries into the pantry.
Are you alright?
No. I'm absolutely distraught.
If it were her, or any of her women friends, they'd seek each other out, ring a sister, talk, weep a little—or a lot, and things would soon be much better. I needed to howl, but could not. Much less could I articulate what had been going on for me in the supermarket. I lay down at half past ten, slept until lunch, and then for an hour and a half after lunch. And I'm still exhausted.
I've been healed of many of my old school enmities. Mostly, I feel sorry for the kids who picked on me. I understand how tough life is for any kid, and looking back with adult eyes, I know now that some of the kids in my school had it really tough. My life must have seemed so privileged to them.
But I grieve and resent the relentless conditioning to be a certain kind of male, and to fit certain kind of masculinity. I think I withstood that conditioning better than some of my peers, but I am still barely emotionally literate. I am slowly becoming aware of the feelings and passions within me, and I treasure them. But I still struggle to read them sixty years after starting school.
I can't do conversation: I am driven to be the one with another, and better, story.
I struggle with empathy: I cannot simply listen to someone in distress. I have to fix it, solve the problem, and can't seem to not do that, no matter how much I try.
And when I am in distress, all I can do is wall myself in to protect me and the world from 60 years of pain and rage and tears. Because if I begin to let them out now, they might all come out, and God only knows what damage I might do. And, almost always, I can’t cry.
Don't stop your little boys crying. Don't force them into trousers if they want to wear a dress, or pink, or go to ballet, or play with the little girls. Don't tell them to be a man. Or to get over it. Comfort them while they decide when they are ready to start over. Don't just leave them to fix it on their own, either. Or they will. They'll keep going, button themselves down, force themselves to keep going, and you'll never know that something of them has died inside. Some things can send out fresh shoots when you chop them off, but some things never grow back. (Archived here.)
One warm evening, when Deb and I were riding up the Linear Park, we noticed a Labrador taking a lazy swim in the River Torrens. Not another person was in sight. The dog scrambled out of the water, chugged up the bank, and disappeared. I suspect the family were out for tea, or perhaps engrossed in a TV program, and the dog had decided to use its private exit from the back yard to take a restorative swim while no one was watching.
I suspect the labbie took a similar joy in its secret to that of my mother, who had discovered a hidden passage out of her aged care complex. After tea she could take a relaxing evening stroll without being interrogated, or even stopped, by the staff at the front door. She told me with a conspiratorial smile that all she had to do was be home before they locked the dining room doors into the residents' garden.
Both mum and the dog knew a key antidote to hard times... Read on >>>>
The Little White Dog's behaviour has changed over the years. She used to spend a lot of time on Mum's lap, but now there are no cats to look down upon, she's rarely interested. A lot of her behaviour seems to be about influencing us. One night we had guests for tea, and the Little White Dog came down from the bedroom and began eyeballing us from the doorway. Then she began to walk to the table, and back to the door, with an impatience so obvious you could almost hear the sighs. Our guests thought it was hilarious; their dogs do the same thing. "It's bedtime. Send these people home, feed me, and come to bed so I can relax."
In the mornings, she used to be content to get up whenever we did. Now she's awake as soon as it's light, and impatient for breakfast. (To be fair, we do get up later these days, because we no longer have the long commute in from Elizabeth.) What's interesting is the changes in the Little White Dog's approach to getting us out of bed. An early strategy was to come and stand over me and stare. This is the classic guilting technique used by many dogs. Then she began the scratch-off-the-sheet-and-quilt phase. "If he's cold, he'll get up!" As I became better at tucking the top of the sheet down, she changed to a new strategy: ear licking is a powerful incentive to get up. And you can lick someone's ears through the sheet. I fought back by giving her little hugs and body rubs to keep her away from my head and face. To her surprise, and mine, she quite likes this, and it frequently earns me another half hour in bed. Sometimes she relaxes and goes back to sleep, so that I get a whole extra hour! But now there has been another change. For the last few mornings she has employed an old and powerful methodology: Magic!
Magic is where those initiated into the secrets of our existence perform the movements, and say the formulae—the spells, which manipulate reality. It fascinates me to see a dog seemingly mimic our behaviour. The dog door in our flat is a magic portal. The Little White Dog knows that if you go outside to the toilet and come back through the dog door, you get chicken nuggets.... Read on >>>>
The frame on my bike has given up. The new bike has the brake levers in quite different positions to the old bike. As I rode the new bike home, I came to the end of the street where the bike shop is situated, and my hands closed over non-existent brake levers, and the bike kept going! A shock like that only happens once or twice before the position of the new levers is well and truly dialled into the brain. And, sometimes, when we seek to change the way we live, change is that easy. We have a hiccup or two, but the change to new actions and habits is simple and easy.
The situation with the new bike's gears is quite different. They, too, are in a different place on the previous bike. But there is something else. Most modern gears have what are called "indexed shifters." You push the lever and, with a click, the system moves the chain precisely onto the next cog in your gears. Originally though, gears had "friction shifters." These took time to master. You had to judge just how far to move the lever, or you would skip a gear, or end up with the chain slipping between two gears.
Friction shifters are very rare these days. I had not ridden with friction shifters for over 30 years. But the new bike has one indexed shifter, and one friction shifter. (Bike nerds will deduce from this that I have a "mullet drivetrain," but that's another story.) Even though it is 'in the wrong place' on the new bike, my hand goes automatically to the indexed shifter every time. But when it comes to the friction shifter, some weird muscle memory and brain wiring frequently sends my left hand not to the left-hand shifter position of the new bike, or of the old bike, but down to the place the friction shifter sat on that bike of over 30 years ago! I've ridden 500km on the new bike, which is a lot of gear-shifts! But I still occasionally find myself grabbing air on the downtube!
Follow me for a few moments more: Forty-five years ago, as an adult, and for enjoyment, I learned to use a friction shifter. Now, not having touched one in 30 years, show me a friction shifter, and old brain patterns, unbidden and unwanted, burst into life! How much more strongly implanted then, will those brain patterns be that were laid down in childhood, perhaps as a response to surviving abuse, or other trauma? And perhaps with a couple of decades worth of muscle memory built up from daily practice for survival? Is it any wonder then, that when someone, or some situation, reminds us of something in our old life, that we lash out, or grasp at the air, as the old muscle memories and brain pathways kick into gear?
Our inability to quickly "change gears" and move on from those things is not a sign of weakness, or of illness. It is, first of all, a sign that we learned our lessons well. We survived! And, secondly, it is a witness to how hard it is to change the deep and early patterning of our brains. For these things are, in a sense, who we are! We are not so much seeking to change as seeking to become a new person. It took us a lifetime until now to become the person we are; becoming someone else will take time, too.
Life is not about being the perfect person. There is no such thing. Life is about the journey, the becoming who we are each day, as we seek to love those around us. I will do well to remember the steep hill of a few days ago. While I was thinking about something else, the brain kicked in to change gears as the slope increased. The clashing muscle memories from various bikes took the chain off the rear cogs, and jammed the pedals so that I could barely unclip my feet in time to avoid falling over. What a stupid thing to do!
I worked out what had happened, got grease all over me, but still managed to un-snare the chain, and continued the ride. It's a good picture of those meltdowns and other failures which derail us and tip us over, time and again. They're humiliating and messy. But we can get back on the bike, and ride on. It's the journey that counts. And, very slowly, the brain learns new ways of being, and the little child that we are is healed.
And God? Well, God loves us anyway, no matter how well we think we are doing. [Archived here]
This site is about celebrating life. My own life is too busy; my work is almost designed to keep me from reflection and enjoyment. In the busyness and competition of life, it is hard, especially for men, to be honest about fears and feelings. All this works against celebrating and enjoying life except in a most shallow fashion. So here, I seek to be unbusy.
One Man's Web has grown haphazardly, reflecting the interests of friends and myself. You will find abandoned blind alleys, ideas we no longer adhere to, things we never believed but "hung out there" to see what would happen. There are areas where I am remain passionate, but can't keep up; the area on Australia's refugees is one.
If you find some enjoyment or challenge here, I am glad. Celebrate life!