Monday, November 28, 2011

It's a Wrap

I went to a wrap party for the new Kath and Kim movie on Sunday night. The bits I saw looked wonderful and everyone seems very happy with it. The party started at 6.30, but generally I nod off at 7.30, owing to what my weird recovering brain is up to. It's amazing how many muscles can be affected when you have a stroke, even a small stroke like mine. Of course the muscles aren't really affected, the brain just forgets that they are there and needs to be reminded. For example, eating can be tricky. There's a muscle called the depressor arguli Oris, which is between the back of the lips and the gums. This muscle is used when masticating (don’t get too excited, Andy G). It pushes your chewed food back over the teeth and onto your tongue, where it may properly be dealt with. There are 57 muscles in the face, and you never think of a muscle like that. But when it isn't working you sure know about it. A great wodge of food just gathers there until you have to dislodge it with your tongue or move it with your fingers to where it should be. Pretty horrible, really. I didn't last long at the party, because my non-functional depressor arguli oris was beginning to get on my nerves. I'm a vain creature and I was becoming somewhat self-conscious about the bizarre things I was forced to do with my mouth. You also live in permanent horror that when you kiss someone you might just leave a little drool on them. (So, sorry Rick M, but I had to pass on the kissing. Air kisses could well have been devised for stroke survivors.) Stroke is certainly no respecter of persons. The solution at a party or social function, is, of course, not to eat or drink or chit-chat and have a thoroughly lousy time, though it's not a solution I care to employ just yet. Speaking of drinking, I have been told I must forego all consumption of alcohol until February next year. Perfect timing, eh? Thanks to the stroke, I sound like I'm drunk anyway. I woke up to the news that English film maker Ken Russell died in hospital, following a series of strokes. The world simply won't let me forget what has happened. But one of the upsides to the whole stroke business is that I have been very moved by the cards, emails, books and pictures that I have received from well-wishers. Shaun Micallef even lent me his complete set of Morecambe and Wise DVD's (which are quite rare) because he knows I like Eric Morecambe so much. He also reminded me of one of my favourite jokes:
'The doctor told me I needed a lobotomy. Well, I gave him a piece of my mind.'
Every little joke helps on the path to recovery. I'm pretty confident I'll be back in the saddle before long, and this blog will become focused more on writerly matters. I think I blogged about daleks before because when we are recuperating from something potentially life-threatening we often reflect on childhood fixations. And since most of my working life depends on exploiting these fixations, it's only natural that the daleks should turn up. My apologies.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

More Stroke Memories

When you're recovering from stroke you spend a lot of time resting and waiting for your brain to mend itself. (It can do that, apparently, but you have to do more than just wait. You have to give it the odd prod, give it some work to remind it of its former function.) One of the most interesting sessions I had in rehab was occupational therapy where I had to prepare my lunch and eat it. And just to make sure my brain got plenty of exercise in that part where the cells had given up the ghost, I had to do it all with my left hand. They gave me a mitten like a boxing glove to wear on my right hand to ensure that  I didn't use it. My therapist took me to the Occupational Therapy Kitchen and showed me what ingredients were at my disposal. There were fresh eggs and ham, along with some pasta. It seemed my best bet was to cook pasta carbonara. Breaking eggs into a bowl using just one hand is hard enough, but when you're using the less dominant hand it's well nigh impossible. Cooking the pasta was easy, though I encountered more difficulty when slicing the ham. It doesn't take long before your mind declares 'Enough!' and I was well past that point when the therapist asked me how I could tell if my pasta was correctly cooked. I remembered an old trick that I had picked up somewhere, took out some strands of pasta with the tongs, then flicked them at the wall. From memory, if the pasta is correctly cooked it will stick to the wall for a moment then drop off. But I had failed to take into consideration the fact that I might be a lousy shot, since I was using my left hand and all. Without a word of explanation to the therapist, I hurled some strands of pasta. They missed the wall and hit the window. The therapist, who was young and enthusiastic like all the staff at Caulfueld Rehab, looked as though she was about to call a CODE GREY (Dangerous patient requiring restraint). She asked me what the hell I was doing and I tried to explain the never-fail al dente pasta test. I don't think she believed a word, but one of the other patients, who had mercifully been out of the way when I flung the pasta, conformed that there was an element of truth in what I was saying, even if it was a bit of unreliable household lore. This new patient and  shared lunch, after I had cleaned the window. His meal was somewhat better than mine. My new friend seemed to know quite a bit about food. He told me he was a food technologist who had once worked for SPC. During his time with the company, there was an achievement of which he was particularly proud. He had managed to convince the doubting powers that be that there was a market for tinned mushrooms. They thought this was a stupid idea. Mushrooms grew wild, so why would anyone pay for a tin of them? But my lunchmate was obviously a very persuasive man, and before long, tins of mushrooms were rolling off the production line. They became one of SPC's strongest sellers.

It was an interesting conversation. The food technologist told me how it was possible to recreate the taste of chicken by mixing apple and peanuts and something else that I forget. I wish I could remember, but I'm pretty sure the third ingredient wasnt 'chicken'.

Intersting who you meet in a stroke ward. There are probably thousands of food technologists out there who know the secret of creating artificial chicken taste, I just didn't know they existed until I shared a ward with one. I'm glad I didn't throw hot pasta on him. And he confirmed something that I had heard to be true. The fake cherries in boxes of mixed dried fruit are made from turnip. This is why they can never be listed on the box as 'cherries' but go by the deceptively reassuring name of 'cherros'.

Now, at the top of this post I mentioned how recovery from stroke allows you ample time to look back at your life and contemplate on the good and bad things you have done. I know a comedian who had a similar experience, and found himself so appalled by himself that he rang many people to apologise for awful deeds he'd done. After much deliberation, I sent an apology to Shaun Micallef because I was sure I had said something rude to him while I was producing his show for the ABC. Shaun doesn't recall it. But I would definitely like to apologise to Red Symons for writing a mean and unfunny letter about him in The Age. The bloody thing is still on the Internet. This is one of the problems of the modern age. When we get to the Pearly Gates, St Peter will no longer have to consult a cumbersome book, where our sins are all listed and cross-referenced. All he will have to do is google for a bit. In which case, I am definitely damned.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Special new post - bad-ass cockroaches

I'm sure you've been on a flight, when dinner arrives and there are little blister-packs of butter and salad dressing or UHT milk. The chances are, when you tried to open these, you ended up wearing some of the aforementioned foodstuffs. They're apparently hygienic, efficient and very  cumbersome. This is why I think it's rather ironic that meals in the stroke ward where I was staying often arrived with these little blister-packs. If you ordered a salad, you'd get two little plastic containers of salad oil and mayonnaise.  Now, one of the many things that stroke patients find difficult, is using fingers for any task that requires a fair amount of dexterity, so come dinner-time the nurses have their work cut out trying to open the packages for us patients. But since nurses quite rightly believe that their talents would be better employed helping people who have fallen or gone into cardiac arrest, they often place these food-opening tasks fairly low on their to-do list. And so we patients struggle away with these stupid portions of jam or salad dressing entombed in plastic. We try holding the packs with our teeth then using our 'good' hand to tear along the dotted line, or wherever we're supposed to tear. The result is usually messy - little explosions of condiment fly about the ward. Patients have pyjamas or bedclothes covered in splots of dislodged marmalade or projectiles of jam. And should the viscous liquids land on the floor, a patient, visitor or even a nurse is liable to slip and go arse over tit.

I decided after my stroke that I wouldn't do jokes about my time in the ward, because the nurses and doctors were so great that I didn't want to make their dedication the stuff of comedy, but I think it's probably more interesting than blogging about bloody daleks. And I'm almost fully recovered from my stroke so now I figure there's enough distance to make stroke jokes. Sometimes, when I'm having intense difficulty making myself understood (this usually happens when I'm on the phone) I tell the person gently that I've had a stroke and it would help if we could talk more slowly. Yesterday I rang Penguin in Sydney and managed to get past the recptionist, but I ended up with someone's personal assistant and she really couldn't understand a thing I was saying. I apologised and told her that I'd had a stroke. I was surprised when she replied that she had it too, the whole office did and so did her boyfriend and it was horrible and he really should be home in bed. I realised she thought I'd said that I had a cold, because that's what people usually say, and she went into automatic response mode which is to imply that her lot is much worse than yours. Or perhaps I'm wrong? Perhaps the entire Penguin staff had been struck down by a stroke pandemic? And perhaps the personal assistant and her boyfriend really did suffer a joint stroke, in which case they should most certainly have been in bed.

It's important to keep your brain active after the stroke, so when I'm not doing physiotherapy I'm doing crosswords. I've also been writing mash-ups, since I'm not yet able to tackle a full script, novel or even a short story.Here's one, I'll be putting awhole heao of them in my next special Christmas post.
Here is the cover that Penguin's Karen Scott designed for my next book. It may relieve you to know there isn't a joke in the whole thing and absolutely no mention of strokes. I did, however, do the first copy edit after 'the incident' so expect some rather bizarre renderings of the English language.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Facebookers who are like daleks.

Please note that the photos in this blog feature daleks made by fans of the series, and not the BBC. If you want to know more about this unusual and apparently global hobby go here. Mine is not featured.

Regular readers will know by now that I have a very soft spot for TV's Doctor Who. My favourite villains are, of course, the daleks. Indeed, when I was an obsessive teenager, I spent several weeks building a dalek which went on permanent display at the old Oldmeadow Booksellers in West Heidelberg, where I used to work. It was a construction of wood, steel and rivets on Shepherd's castors. There was no fibreglass, so it was not a perfect copy of the Raymond Cusick originals, but it brightened up the store. I was in charge of the non-fiction department. But every now and then, if my sales figures were good, I was allowed to climb in the dalek and scare the bajeesus out of any school groups that came to visit for storytime. I even frightened away nuns.

This is not as mean-spirited as it sounds. For some reason, nuns always arrived about two minutes before closing time and spent hours in the non-fiction department, my responsibility. I had a very nice girlfriend back then and was always eager to get home, but if the nuns turned up I knew I would be stuck in the store till 7pm at the earliest. Being the most recent employee I was furthest down the pecking order, so I was usually allocated 'nun duty'. This wasn't really such a great chore. It was my job, after all. But when the nuns came in at 5.25 I knew I wouldn't be able to leave the store till 7pm at the earliest. This was in the days before barcodes. I had to record in longhand every single title and its price, then add them up on a machine only marginally more advanced than an abacus. So you can't blame me if every now and then I hopped into the dalek and pursued the tardy nuns, while loudly yelling, 'You will be ex-ter-mine-ated, you tar-dy nun!'
Far too much has been written about the real or perceived weaknesses of the daleks. I'm glad the new series made much of the fact that they can levitate and are no longer hampered by stairs (and just to pacify all you rampant Whovians, I do know that the first time a dalek floated up a flight of stairs was in an old Sylvester McCoy story, but few people saw it because by that stage the series had become acutely embarrassing and quite unwatchable). People also make jokes about the fact that daleks apparently have a sink-unblocking plunger as an unlikely weapon. Here again, we can thank the new series for showing us just how deadly that plunger can be. In episode six of the first new series we saw a man get his face suckered off by a dalek plunger. Very nasty.


Thus, another weakness of the daleks from Skaro was cleverly banished. But there's a third weakness that people don't talk about so often, because it's a little more lateral. And that particular weakness is the fact that the daleks feel the need to tell you exactly what they are doing, or plan to do, or have just done. My previous example of the dalek yelling, 'You will be ext-er-min-ated!' is a good one, straight from the original series. When daleks stalk their foe they inevitably scream 'You will ext-er-min-a-ted  or 'We will ann-i-hil-ate you!' Now, one of the hallmarks of being a good stalker/hunter is the ability to maintain silence, rather than let your foe know that you aren't far away. It's certainly inadvisable to yell, 'You will be ext-er-min-ated!' as this rather tips off your foe that they should get the hell out of there, and quickly. But daleks can't help themselves. Even when they are performing tasks that should really be blindingly obvious to other daleks, they are liable to announce, 'I have im-pris-oned the enemy!' or 'I have open-ed the door!' or even, somewhat notably, in one of the old black and white stories, 'I have fal-len in-to the sea!' But daleks are very loyal to their own kind. In response to a frankly self-evident remark like this, they would never squawk, 'It's bleed-ing ob-vious that you have fal-len in-to the sea, you id-i-ot. I suppose you want us to res-cue you?' (Another fatuous but typically dalek-like remark.)
In this respect, daleks remind me of a particularly annoying kind of facebooker - you know the type, they feel the need to tell us exactly what they are doing every moment of the day, dalek-fashion. For example, 'I have just made a flour-less or-ange cake.' Big deal! What really surprises me is that there are always dozens of other Facebook daleks who respond to such trivial news with comments like, 'You are very clev-er to make a flour-less or-ange cake. I wish I could make a flour-less or-ange cake too.' or 'I would like to eat your flour-less or-ange cake.' You get the idea. Weirdly, it seems to be fantasy authors who are best at writing these inessential dalek-like comments. Maybe their minds are so full of fantastic incident, that they lose track of what is important and what isn't. And yet, the fantasy writers are the ones who have a go at us other writers for being dull because we write books about everyday people to whom bad things happen. (Which is kind of how stories work, even if there aren't vast armies of sword-wielding Betegeusian Farrkensnoggs to heighten the action.)