On counting

Who is your favourite character from the Muppets?MissPiggy

Excluding Miss Piggy of course, because She is such a great hero and role model for us all, not to mention such a powerhouse amongst pigs, that I don’t think it would be fair to make the rest of us compete on the same playing field as Her.

Mine is The Count. I loved him from the first moment I saw him. There are so many things about him that are absolutely great. Like, he’s a vampire, yet he isn’t all that scary. He’s a really sharp dresser, with an intriguing, Bohemian-sounding (literally) Eastern European accent. He’s highly educated, loves organ music, and is always happy. He made capes cool long before Harry Potter came along.

Image result for the count muppet

And he counts. Everything. As character catchphrases go, they don’t get much better than “I love to count! Mwu ha hah.”

For me, he is a soul mate.

My relationship to counting is not so much one of love as addiction. I can’t help counting things. I feel a responsibility to the world, to make sure that things are adequately counted, so that it is known how many of them there are. That way, things will remain under control.

No doubt, that’s why they tell women in labour to count the seconds between contractions.

Now those of you that know me, and know how much I love maths, might think that this is just a manifestation of that general phenomenon. But it’s not. My love of maths is about depth, symmetry, harmony, aesthetics, the joy of finding a new pattern. Whereas my need to count is just a tic. I count steps when I’m jogging, magnets on a fridge, bricks on a wall. I do push ups on Tuesday and Saturday mornings just so that I can count them out loud in German – because that sounds so much more profound than counting them in English with an Australian accent. I count seconds between lightning and thunder, seconds of held breath when trying to dispel hiccups, and number of children in a class walking across the road on a school excursion.

In nothing is my need to count more apparent than in counting the storeys of multi-storey buildings. I put this down to growing up in Canberra in the seventies, when the only high-rise buildings in our known world were two office towers in Woden, of which I think one was about twenty storeys. Whenever I went there, I needed to count them again, just to make sure none of them had worn away or otherwise disappeared. It’s odd then that I no longer remember how many there were. I’m sure it was at least twenty, and not more than twenty-five, but I can’t tell you more than that. You’ll have to go and count them yourself.

Those high rise buildings symbolised sophistication, cosmopolitanism, urbanity, everything that Canberra then wasn’t. We even had a café owner that had to fight the council for years just to be allowed to have outdoor tables and chairs – something that must have been viewed suspiciously as Too European (meaning continental Europe, not Britain, which was Home) and in those days to be European was considered only one or two steps away from Communism.

But nevertheless, those Woden towers – so many storeys – my how grand! To a little boy, those big buildings in Woden were very exciting, although I never went inside one, and still haven’t.

When I got bigger, I sometimes got to visit Sydney then, ultimately, came to live there. I thought it was amazing how many tall buildings they had. There were several skyscrapers, the largest being the Australia Square tower with fifty storeys. That ruled the roost for more than a decade, to be eventually surpassed in 1977 by the MLC Centre with sixty storeys. Like a true country bumpkin, I would walk up to the tower, look at the ground floor, then slowly tilt my head back until my gaze reached the top – a tiny point in the sky, seeming so far away.

But I didn’t count the storeys. There was no point. You always lost track. Anyway, the really impressive thing was not these few skyscrapers, but that the average building in the CBD was at least four storeys high, often six or more. Coming from Canberra – a sea of one-storey bungalows – that was the real shock – that just ordinary street buildings could be so high. The fact that most of Sydney was a sea of boring bungalows just like Canberra didn’t seem to matter when you were in the CBD.

So I started counting. For every building I passed I had to start at the bottom and count until I got to the top – was it five, six or seven? No, wait, there’s a little penthouse, or a row of dormer windows just below the roof, so that’s eight. Unbelievable!

I have lived in Sydney for more than half my life now, and worked in the CBD most days. But I still have to count any building with more than two floors. If it’s more than four then I feel a small surge of pride – like ‘that’s proper urban that is’.Paris_Hausmann

My family took me to Europe this last northern winter. We stayed on the fifth floor of an apartment building in Paris (that’s sixth floor for Americans). I think there were seven floors altogether – the top one being attic style with windows peeking out through the dark-grey, zinc roof. In Paris nearly all buildings are between six and eight storeys, because it was all knocked down and re-built in a period of about twenty years under central control, directed by Baron Hausmann. You’d think I could have relaxed knowing that all the buildings were of height seven, give or take one but NO, I had to count most of them that we walked past, just to make sure. After all, if I didn’t do it, what if nobody else did? Then it wouldn’t have been counted and where would we be?

Same thing in London. At least there’s a bit more variety in height there (don’t tell anyone, but sometimes I wonder whether the much-praised uniformity of Paris’s Hausmann streetscapes is just a little bit boring). And of course Liverpool.

Anyway, next time you are at a musical show and you just have to know how many chorus members there are, don’t be shy. Go ahead and count them. Then tell your companions after the show. They’ll be glad you did. Certainly the Count and I will.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, November 2018


On Interrupting

What a difficult skill is conversation! And the hardest aspect of it is interruption. How and when does one interrupt? I have been participating in conversations for about fifty years and I still have not managed to figure this out yet.

As children we are taught that it is impolite to interrupt, and so it is, mostly. Yet in many conversations, especially when the pace and intensity increases, it is very hard not to interrupt. If someone pauses after a sequence of words that can serve as a completed sentence, and I start to respond to what they have said, I often find that all of a sudden we are talking over the top of one another, because what I thought was a full stop at the end of their sentence was actually only a comma – a pause for breath – in the middle of it. That can be awkward. Then one of us needs to stop talking and let the other continue, but how do we know which one it should be? It can become like that awkward dance in a corridor when the South-going and North-going person who have almost collided keep on moving simultaneously to the East, then the West, then East again, to try to let the other through, only to find that they both continue to be blocked.

The natural way to try to avoid such conversational difficulties is to wait longer before responding, to make sure that it really was a full stop and not a comma, or perhaps a semi-colon, hyphen or ellipsis. But how long should one wait? One second? Two? Three? If I wait long enough to be sure, I usually find that, yes it was a full stop, and now my friend has started a new sentence, and is perhaps a little disappointed that I offered no reply to their last sentence, which perhaps they felt was particularly insightful and worthy of comment. In fact, you can only ever be sure that a spoken sentence is finished once a new sentence has begun. But then, of course, it is too late. Trying to spot the end of a spoken sentence is like trying to spot the ‘bottom’ of a stock market slide.

This becomes even more difficult when the conversation involves more than two people. In a two-way conversation, one’s friend will often wait quite long for a reply if they expect one. But in a multi-way discussion, somebody will almost certainly plunge in if the pause exceeds a couple of seconds. That’s as it should be, most of the time. But if I consistently over-estimate the appropriate length of pause, I may end up having nothing to say all night, and people may wonder why I am so sullen.

The degree of difficulty rises yet again when the conversation involves some element of challenge. Perhaps the two parties are trying to persuade one another to change their view, or are at least challenging or questioning the opinions offered by the other. I might for instance ask whether my friend agrees with the principle the Labor party was trying to apply in the 2008-9 financial crisis – that rapidly increasing government expenditure (‘fiscal expansion’) would prevent a recession arising from the contraction of private credit. If my friend replies by explaining their view that the fiscal expansion was implemented poorly, citing numerous cases, my question has not been answered, because I am not wondering about the effectiveness of the implementation but rather about whether the expansion should have been attempted at all. Three minutes later my friend may be still waxing eloquent about how poorly he thinks the policy was implemented, without having said anything about the in-principle merits of the policy itself. As they launch into yet another compelling example of poor implementation, should I interrupt, to let them know that I have no opinion on, and have not asked about, the quality of the implementation?

Sometimes I do interrupt in such cases. But it’s a risky strategy. Some people don’t mind being interrupted, but some react ferociously. A meeker approach is to try to hold in my mind the question I originally asked and patiently wait for my friend to finish his diversion before reminding him of what I actually asked. In practice this can be difficult, because unless I look away and try to close my mind to what is being said, I usually find that the flow of rhetoric has driven my previous thoughts completely out of my head and I no longer have any idea of what I wanted to know, or what we were even talking about before the conversation shot off on a tangent.

We see this sort of thing all the time in political interviews, when a journalist asks a probing question and the politician answers a completely different one with great length and passion. In those cases the diversion is deliberate, which is not usually the case in discussion amongst friends. But despite the different motivation, the dilemma is the same – do we interrupt and bring the discussion back on track, or do we silently and patiently wait for the (often unintentional) filibuster to end, to avoid being rude.

Even where there is no dispute, difficulties can arise in long answers, if somebody uses a term we do not understand, and that renders most of what they subsequently say meaningless to us because of its reliance on that term. Is it permissible for me to interrupt a five minute discourse on the iniquities of schwerms, in order to ask what a schwerm is?

If only there were a universally recognised time limit we could apply! It would be great if if Mrs Cartland included in her etiquette guide, advice about the length of time into an answer after which it is acceptable to interrupt to indicate that the answer is off-topic, or incomprehensible. 30 seconds? 60 seconds perhaps? Sadly, there is no such guide, so I am left guessing, and mostly getting it wrong.

There are some conventions we could introduce that would ease the difficulty. One is the ‘hand up’. I would like to be able to raise my hand, like in a schoolroom, when something is said that I don’t understand or that sends the reply off topic. Ideally the friend would, like a patient school teacher, pause and say in a kindly tone ‘yes Andrew, what was it that you wanted to know?’. I have not been able to bring myself to do this though. I fear others might laugh at me.

Another Really Useful Convention would be if we agreed that nobody should ever talk for more than say one minute without seeking permission to continue. A standard form of words such as ‘there’s more to come, but first are there any questions? shall I continue?’ could be adopted to make this work. That would provide an opportunity to query unexplained terms or point out that the answer had veered off topic. We would of course need time-keepers, or perhaps clocks with big push-buttons like they use in chess. Such a convention is unlikely to get off the ground at the suggestion of a nonentity such as me though. I am hoping that George Clooney or Ryan Gosling will pick up the idea and promote it.

Some people are professional interrupters. Political journalists, mentioned above, are an obvious case, but by no means the most interesting. They operate in an atmosphere of conflict, so the interruption seems to fit. A more intriguing example is a radio announcer talking to a caller as the hour for the news bulletin approaches. They need to manage the caller’s comments so that ideally they finish exactly 20 seconds before the hour. Too early and the announcer is left with ‘dead air’. Too late and they have to cut them off. What often happens is that they exhort their caller to ‘be quick, because we only have 30 seconds before the news’, upon which the poor caller then panics and either gets stuck on an ‘er’ or ‘um’, or else descends into a flood of breathless verbal diaorrhea.

Even highly cultured and revered broadcasts, conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect and academic impartiality, suffer from this problem. I enjoy listening to ‘In Our Time’ on BBC Radio 4. Melvyn Bragg discusses abstruse topics in history, science, philosophy and culture with three or four experts from prestigious universities. All very nice, but Bragg – though tremendously erudite – is an incorrigible interrupter. He constantly interrupts his experts, in the nicest possible way, to tell them that they are talking too long or that they are off topic. Sometimes it turns out that they weren’t off topic at all and that Lord Bragg had just misunderstood. This gets increasingly frenetic towards the end of the show, presumably because the dreaded News on the Hour is looming. I understand that his job is a difficult balancing act, and that what he does is necessary but it still sounds strange to hear esteemed experts being cut off and bossed about like that.

It feels as though there is such a thing as an appropriate amount of interrupting, and an appropriate time at which it is acceptable to interrupt. Melvyn Bragg perhaps interrupts too much (although we can forgive him for that because he picks such lovely topics, and usually coaxes his guests to give interesting explanations). Rookie political interviewers probably interrupt too little. As for me, I still feel like I am just guessing in the dark.

I’m still learning this conversation business. The process is very difficult. I think I am getting better, just very, very slowly. Perhaps by the time I’m 80 I will have mastered it.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, September 2013

Mindfulness at the dentist’s

I went to the dentist today. It was just a routine check-up. I’m a recalcitrant patient though, stubbornly resisting the six-monthly reminders they send me. This time I was especially tardy, leaving it for fifteen months, maybe longer.

My dentist is an excellent fellow, but he managed to punish me for my negligence by finding that a filling had gone missing, and proposing to replace it today, rather than making an appointment to replace it later.

How could I refuse? When any backward step would be interpreted, quite correctly, as cowardice.

But that’s not all. My worthy dentist informed me that I could choose not to have the local anaesthetic injection if I wanted, so that I didn’t have a numb jaw for the next few hours. He said I might ‘experience some sensitivity’ during the drilling, but that it would probably be OK.

I suppose if I really was the Renaissance Man I pretend to be, I would have said ‘No, give me the anaesthetic’, because I’m so in touch with my feelings and I am not ashamed to admit that I don’t enjoy having my teeth drilled.

But I was brought up in the seventies, when boys were expected to display the characteristics of men as quickly as possible, and men were supposed to grit their teeth stoically in the face of pain (although that wouldn’t work very well at the dentist’s would it?). So of course I said, doing my best Clint Eastwood impersonation, ‘Forget the injection. Let’s just do it!’ (actually the exact words I used, which I can’t remember, were probably much less impressive and manly than that, but the information content was the same).

It wasn’t just about pretending to be macho though. I have been dipping my toe in the water with Buddhist Mindfulness techniques recently, trying to learn some basic meditation skills. I’m too busy at present to take classes and learn it all properly, so I’ve just read something about it and listened to a podcast. It seems to be mostly about focusing attention on physical sensations, and gently but firmly sending away the other thoughts that try to crowd into one’s mind. Breathing is the classic sensation to focus on, but apparently it doesn’t have to be that. I sometimes practice focusing on my breathing when in bed at night, and I think I’d be much better at it by now if it weren’t that I always fall asleep within a minute or two of starting.

Before the drilling, the dentist did some cleaning and scraping, which was really most uncomfortable and provided an excellent opportunity to practice before the Big Event. I tried to focus on the feel of the electrical scraper against and in between my teeth, a feeling of pressure and vibration, and every now and then a minor surge of pain when a tender spot was probed too inquisitively. I found that, for as long as I could focus my attention entirely on those sensations, batting away thoughts such as ‘I wonder what the drilling will feel like’, the experience was not altogether unpleasant. The sensations were objects of interest or wonder. It’s a little like when you realise what a peculiar word ‘kettle’ is and you say it slowly over and over to yourself to contemplate its sudden unfamiliarity, its strangeness.

Sensations are strange things. They are impossible to describe because the only thing they can be like is themselves, or other sensations that are so similar that expressing the likeness gives no further information. It’s like replying to the question ‘Where does Betty live’ with ‘Oh, she lives next door to her neighbour Bob’. My natural tendency is to try to describe sensations visually, such as saying that cool breeze feels ‘white’. For me this is not synaesthesia but rather just an indication of the impossibility of expressing a sensual experience in words. I think the reason I reach for a visual simile is that for most sighted people, vision is the dominant sense, and we tend to primarily think of things in visual terms. I imagine it is very different for someone born blind.

This peculiarity and strangeness of sensation is useful at the dentist because it makes the object on which we are trying to focus attention peculiar enough to be worthy of that attention. It is easier for me to focus attention on a physical sensation than it is to focus on a mental image of sheep vaulting a hurdle in the old, but mostly useless, ‘counting sheep’ technique for getting to sleep. Sorry sheep, but I just don’t find you interesting enough!

Maybe I was a wimp. I don’t know. I can’t objectively evaluate my internal bravery level because I’ve never been anyone else. I did my best to show no outward signs of wimpiness, and the shambolic, amateurish attempt at mindfulness helped with that.

But I really don’t like having my teeth scraped, descaled and whatever other things he was doing to them.

The funny thing was, when he finally got around to drilling for my filling, it didn’t hurt a bit! It would be nice to think that’s because my attempt at mindfulness was working. But realistically, it’s much more likely to be that he was simply telling the truth when he said it would probably be OK.

I think I have a lot of work ahead of me if I ever want to be able to tolerate unanaesthetised wedge resection, passing kidney stones, or maybe even chest-waxing, with equanimity.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, March 2013

The dilemma of once-worn clothes

It’s time for the ABC to stop dodging the big issues. I’m as mad as an upside-down turtle about the censorship the MSM (that’s Mainstream Media for those of you that aren’t fully hip to the Drum lexicon) applies to one of the greatest moral challenges of our time. No, not that one, the other one – the dilemma of what to do with once-worn clothes. Surely a Nobel Prize awaits the person that can solve this problem.
Now I’m not talking about undies here. Or socks. Contrary to popular belief, we of the masculine persuasion do have some rudimentary standards of hygiene. Well, there is the age old trick of resting the socks for a day or two and then wearing them inside out but, to keep things simple, let’s just rule that one out of bounds for now. Worn undies and socks go straight into the wash.
But, I’m talking about t-shirts, I’m talking about trousers. You know what I’m talking about! In winter, I’m talking about jumpers and fleecies. You’ve worn it once, ….or twice. You take it off and get ready to toddle off to bed. The garment doesn’t smell and there is no discernible evidence of mud, sweat, ink, tomato sauce or less salubrious additives. Now what do you do with the darned thing? Does it go back into the cupboard with the clean clothes, or does it go into the washing basket? In the interests of sounding knowledgeable and analytical, let’s call these the Cupboard Option and the Wash Option [memo to self. In the unlikely event of lucrative offer for syndication into the US, change the former to Closet Option].
The Cupboard Option is great: neat, tidy, and helps justify the money you outlaid and the time you spent trying to assemble that super-capacious, mega-airy, architect-designed Snonk cupboardatory system from Ikea.
Living life the Cupboard Way is just one long festival, an obsessive compulsive’s dream, until one day, maybe a few months later, you take something out of the cupboard and realise it has gone green and furry – and not in a good way. You could just wrinkle up your nose and throw it in the wash, perhaps with a prefatory detour via a bowl of bleached water. But then your heart sinks as you realise – what about the clothes it was nestled up against inside the Snonk? Has the new life form you have unwittingly created spread and maybe infected the whole drawer, maybe even the whole cupboard? What should you do? Wash the whole drawer? Wash all of your clothes? Burn all of your clothes? Burn the Snonk?
Where you went wrong of course was that you lost track of how many times the garment had been worn. By camouflaging itself cunningly amongst a bunch of clean, unworn clothes, the offending sartorial component had cunningly concealed the fact that it had been worn every other day for four months, and by now had accumulated enough microscopic life forms and general grunge to destroy the entire ALP backroom powerbroker population of New South Wales.
OK then, maybe the Wash Option is the best way to go. You know where you are with the Wash Option. There is only one rule: when you take it off, it goes in the wash. Everything you take out of the cupboard to wear will be guaranteed washed, clean and brimming with freshness.
This goes pretty swimmingly for a while. You have to buy a bigger laundry basket, but that’s a small price to pay for the twin miracles of Order and Hygiene. Then, a little later, you get called into the boss’s office at work. She wants to know why you’ve been an average of two hours late for work every day of the last fortnight – Oh and also why are you sitting in her office wearing a Kevin 07 t-shirt and a pair of (fresh, newly-washed) acid-wash jeans, very de rigeur circa 1989. As your mind races for excuses, you toy with the idea of telling her the truth – that your daily washing obligations have increased so much that you have been spending most of your waking hours loading and unloading the washing machine, hanging out the clothes, bringing them in, folding them (we’ll assume thre’s no ironing, because you’re a bloke, after all), and even so you still only manage to have a couple of pieces of dry, clean, wearable clothes available at any given time…. – but then you decide it would be less embarrassing to just resign. You’re also worried about the threatening letters from the water and electricity companies and the hand-written note from Al Gore expressing his disappointment that your personal greenhouse footprint now exceeds that of Texas.
Tragic scenarios like those above have moved some of our foremost public intellectuals to propose alternative solutions to the great once-worn dilemma.
There’s the ‘Leave It Out’ solution. Here you leave any garment that has been worn but doesn’t yet need a wash, lying on the nearest available horizontal surface, as a daily reminder of its availability. This is great if you wear the same sort of clothes every day, but otherwise you will soon get to the point of being unable to find your bed, let alone the dinner table, under all the laid-out clothes.
There’s the Cache solution, in which you have a big basket just for once-worn clothes. Neater than Leave It Out, but you soon forget what’s in there and the basket just becomes a big, overflowing eyesore, with all the best bits buried at the bottom.
The Bucketing Option (aka the Extended Cache Option). Here you use not just one but a series of buckets or baskets, numbered from one to say three (or thirteen, depending on your hygiene standards), and place each piece of clothing in the bucket numbered according to the number of times it has been worn since the last wash. The only problem with this option is that it is silly. Nobody has that much space.
There’s the Kerry Packer option. Thus named not because the aforenamed individual invented it but because this is the most popular consensus view of focus groups convened to discuss what Australian swinging voters believe mega rich people do about their washing (I’ve heard the ALP party machine conducts these to keep in practice when they don’t have a Prime Minister to dispose of). Under this one, you only ever wear new clothes. When you take them off, one of your minions spirits them away to be given to those less fortunate than yourself (you know: stockbrokers, shock jocks, managing directors of public broadcasting organisations) and another minion fetches replacements from the warehouse in the East Wing of your garden.
Regrettably, this option is currently unavailable to many, including myself, for reasons that will have to be the subject of another essay.
Lastly, there’s the Diogenes option. Under this, you give away all your clothes except one set. On wash day you borrow a towel and hope it won’t rain. Simple but effective, and available to anybody with sufficient self-belief and Sternness of Resolve.  The only trouble with this option is that it’s unpleasant, and I don’t know of anyone since Diogenes who adopted it voluntarily. For some it is forced upon them by circumstances, and there’s nothing at all funny about that.
None of these options are satisfactory. As nobody else seems willing to step forward and solve this problem, I will have a go myself, as a public service. My proposal is called the Velcro Option, and it has two parts:
Firstly, all new clothes sold in Australia would be required to have a label indicating their inter-wash wearing capacity (IWWC). The label would bear words along the lines of ‘This garment may be worn up to n times between washes by a standard adult (under laboratory conditions) without their being regarded as a schmutz.’ The value of n would be determined based on rigorous testing by a new Commonwealth Government department staffed by chemists, apparel technologists and sniffer dogs.
Each label would have a section with n rectangular orange cotton strips attached to it by velcro, bearing the numbers from 1 to n, where n is the IWWC of the garment. The instruction CD accompanying the garment would explain that, after each wear, the user should remove the highest numbered velcro strip from the label and place in a drawer (are you still with me?). When there are no strips left, the garment will be due for a wash. After the wash, the velcro strips would be re-affixed and the cycle begins again.
With this system in place, you can put your worn clothes back in the cupboard, secure in the knowledge that they won’t end up exceeding their IWWC, and won’t that be a splendid feeling!
I know what you’re thinking:
– what a great idea!
– why hasn’t anybody thought of this before?
– calloo, callay, all my problems are solved, my life will be an absolute breeze from here on in!
– will the world’s Velcro-producing nations be able to keep up with demand?
– hang on a sec, I bet this is patented and he’s planning to make a fortune by charging like a wounded Prime Minister for its use.
Well I am delighted to inform you that that is the best news of all: I shall not patent this idea. Like the human genome, this discovery is too important to the future of mankind to lock it up with patents. It’s yours, for all of you, to keep. Use it well.
Now I wonder whether I can get one more wear out of this grey cardigan.
Andrew Kirk
July 2010