Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Into the Tiber and Wading

I mentioned in my last post that I'd been looking closely at the Mormon Church.  The counterpart to that, obviously, would be leaving the Catholic church which I joined ten years ago.  Oddly, this doesn't seem much of a wrench.
It would be a bit of a wrench, of course.  Leaving a church which is such a force for good in the world is a wrench, especially when everything else in your life screams out 'loser'.  On the other hand, I ask myself how I would change if I remained in it.
By and large, I've been tolerably at peace with the church's teaching on marriage and on the position of divorcees.  I'm also conscious that it's poor form to look for reasons to be unhappy.  Yet the more I look at my situation as the 'abandoned spouse', the more disenchanted I become.  It seems to me that for all the episcopal blather about pastoral support, my future in the Church is a choice between two unpalatable options:
  1. If (and only if) I'm prepared to remain alone until the day I die, I can remain a member in full communion with the church; or
  2. If I can't endure lifelong solitariness and repartner, I can remain part of the church as long as I'm content to be restricted to sweeping the church, making the tea, running the errands, and keeping my eyes on the floor during Communion.
When I posed this dilemma in a Catholic group on GooglePlus, a commenter pointed out that the way I've worded (1) is a little unfair.  Rather than being alone for the next fifty years (or until I get hit by lightning; whichever happens first), I'm called to live in chastity and continence.  The commenter was perfectly correct, but I still think my wording was justifiable.  Everyone over the age of about 15 knows that the unique bond of love between man and woman is something different from the love one has for one's friends or family.  The latter is at best an ersatz when it's used to replace the former, and it's deception to pretend otherwise.

The second item is more complex.  No less a figure than Pope John Paul II said
I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church, for as baptized persons they can, and indeed must, share in her life. They should be encouraged to listen to the word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts in favor of justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God's grace. Let the Church pray for them, encourage them and show herself a merciful mother, and thus sustain them in faith and hope.
However, this help and care always looks the same: Integrating those who are divorced and repartner into the life of the parish means giving them other roles than being a communicant.  It's unlikely those roles can include being on a church committee, or teaching, or being a eucharistic minister or a lector*.  It does mean that priests should "involve them in the charitable works of the Christian community for the poor and needy, and ... awaken the spirit of repentance by acts of penance that prepare their hearts to accept God's grace".  As I said above: making the tea, sweeping the church and running errands. It's terribly hard not to take this as being told "you really do have a place in our community - just don't forget that it is and always will be right at the bottom".

Probably I'm guilty of the sin of pride, but this is why I'm very close to leaving the Church I was so happy to enter. If I stay, I hate the thought of what I'll become after 50 years of negativity and bitterness.


* "However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church's teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.": John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, at para 84

Saturday, 20 May 2017

The Goulburn, the Tiber and the Great Salt Lake

Hi everyone,

Short update tonight.  It's been a 'kinetic' couple of days.  Wednesday, to Tatura for a cheque handover for SES followed by the Blood Bank to make a plasma donation.  The latter had something of a left field event: because I'd been scrambling to get to things all day, I was still wearing my work clothes, which are by and large grimy, dirty and ragged (typical farm hand!).  Come to find out, it was my 125th donation, and they asked to take a picture of me.  Why did it have to be the day I looked like a man who'd dressed himself out of a brotherhood bin?!?

Thursday I brought mum into town so she could go to the dentist and I could go to the dentist and I could go to the doctor.  I needed a prescription renewed.  Unfortunately my usual doctor was home sick, and so I saw a stand-in who was understandably keen to rattle me through fast so he could see his own patients.  I may need to go back and see my own doctor in due course and have my medication reviewed.  I seem to be having a few days of late when I'm keen to take a double-dose (no, not to try and top myself; only to lift the clouds a bit).  Either that or I can start listening to Little Sarah.

It was a good day and so I went out for a run late afternoon.  While I was running my phone began to buzz with messages as there'd been a callout (a combined assist ambulance / land search job).  I finished my run and drove in.  The team had been well lead and done a great job, so I just waited at the de-facto staging area in case further hands were needed (they weren't).

Friday saw me back in Shepparton to see my new jobsearch provider (I sacked the last one and transferred my file).  God knows if it'll lead to work of any sort.  I'm less than optimistic at the moment.  Just at present, nearly everything I touch in my own life seems to malfunction or backfire.  This may or may not be why I've been feeling a weird pull towards the Church of Latter Day Saints in the last few months.

Perhaps I should explain.  A few months ago I saw a copy of the Book of Mormon at the op shop.  I had a hankering to buy it then but didn't, but the thought of it kept nagging at me.  When I went by the next time, I bought it and I've been slowly reading it.  I'm not completely convinced - yet - that it's divinely inspired scripture.  However, I'm far from convinced that it's a fake.  Even allowing for the accounts of its translation (or composition, depending on one's bias) being embroidered, it would have required Joseph Smith to have an imagination and breadth of vision worthy of Tolkien for it all to have sprung from his brain.  Added to which, it frankly doesn't 'ring' fake (for comparison, try Ronald Weinland's effort 2008 - God's Final Witness).  I've still been feeling a 'pull' in the direction of that church, and the Mormons that I've talked to online simply couldn't be more welcoming.  I've never had any cause to feel not-welcomed by the Catholic Church, save that as a divorcee (which at the moment is a large whack of my identity) you do feel like you're less a member of the faithful and more a problem to be managed.  I guess the thing is that just at this moment, what I want most in life is a fresh start.  The image of the Mormon wagon train heading west to the Great Salt Lake for exactly such a thing has an undeniable appeal.

A Mormon wagon train entering the Salt Lake Valley (Image from here)
I'm sure I'll write more about this in the weeks to come, but right now I'm so badly out of ideas that perhaps any way forward looks good.  And if that way is a challenging one?  I don't think I mind that.  I swam the Tiber once.  Perhaps, despite anything the atlas says, the Tiber flows into the Great Salt Lake.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Cannery Days

Hi everyone,

So I'm out of work again.  "What?  You were even in work?"  This is what happens when I fail to blog for ages.

I picked up some work at the cannery in Shepparton from early March until yesterday.  The work is seasonal and matches the summer harvest season for fruits.  I was initially placed in the peach section for a few weeks, and then I was off for about a month, until last week when I was called back in to work on tomatoes.  Each time I was placed on afternoon shift (that is, 3pm to 11pm).  My role was described as "Knockdown Wash" and was much the same for both peaches and tomatoes: that is, to go to a series of hoses and use them to hose down conveyor belts and machinery so that the produce kept moving smoothly and muck didn't build up.  In each case the challenge was to do this without spraying other people with water by accident,

We couldn't take phones into the factory.  Doing so would have been essentially instant dismissal.  However, the National Archives of Australia have a couple of photographs which are reasonably representative.  The one which most sticks in my mind if this one, of a woman sorting peaches in 1963 -

Sorting peaches before canning, Shepparton Preserving Company
(NAA: A1200, L43906)
It sticks in my mind because the sorting bench in the peach area seems basically unchanged since that photo was taken.  I'm not sure how old the peach slicing machinery was, but it didn't look new.  What did look new was the machinery in the tomato area, which seemed to have been bought from Perri & Catelli in Italy -

Image from here
The work wasn't especially arduous.  A little dull, at worst.  The pay was good.  Every so often I wondered what the people from my past life as a lawyer would think if they could have seen me.  Note: I thought about it, because in an 8 hour shift you have a lot of time to think.  I didn't really give a toss.  It was work and I needed the money.  That's all.

A post shared by Stephen Tuck (@sdtuc2) on

I'm not sure what the next job will be.  Whatever I can find I expect.  There's a climb ahead of me, but at least there's something ahead of me.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

The run for Red Cross

Hi everyone,

Finally blogging again.  I've been away a while - I found some work and also found that the time I had available to write mostly went on things that I thought might pay.  I'll catch you up on all of that in later posts.  I wanted to tell you about an interesting run I was on the other week.

If you're linked to me on Facebook, you'll probably remember that I set up a fundraising page. I was going to run the 26 kilometre (16.25 miles) Axedale-to-Heathcote event in the O'Keefe Running Festival in order to raise money for Red Cross.  I completed the run, and I'm very happy to report that I was able to raise $313.00.

This run was tougher than any other race I've entered.  The day started with two emails that I saw as soon as I woke up.  One was an update fron LinkedIn about a former colleague whose career is going great at a time when mine, well, isn't.  The other was an email from the ex (enough said).  Anyway, those emails pitched me into a bad attack of the blues all the way over to Axedale.  Even my tablets couldn't budge it, which is saying something.

 I walked down to the starting point for the race, by the Campaspe River at Axedale.  It was a beautiful, peaceful setting on the O'Keefe Rail Trail.  I dropped off my bag with the nice folks from Athlete's Foot, collected my race bib, and started stretching as the race briefing started.  What was unusual was that I wasn't excited.  The blues were robbing me of any enthusiasm to race.  The only real thought in my head was "I'm here: let's just get the bloody thing done".  I think it's the only time I've ever started a race like that.  The race photo from the start pretty well captures my state of mind (it's also one of the few race photos of me where I don't look like the offspring of a hippopotamus and the Michelin Man).

The trail follows the route of the old Heathcote-Bendigo railway line.  The line was closed in 1958.  As best I could tell, it rose more-or-less steadily from Axedale to Heathcote.  However, you really didn't feel the climb: the railway engineers who built the line had much the same goal as runners today: as many gentle gradients and straight lines as possible.

The blues kept at me through the run.  I suppose everyone experiences depression a bit differently; for me it's mostly physical.  I feel like I'm wearing a kind of harness that straps a 25 kilogram (55 pound) sack of salt onto my chest and back, and as well as carrying the extra weight they squeeze the air from my lungs.  This was precisely the feeling that accompanied me on the run: a crushing extra weight.  I've run in ankle weights before.  I can tell you I'd pick them over running with the blues any day.

The trail ran through the bush around Axedale and eventually began to climb into more open country.  At about the 18 kilometre mark it skirted Lake Eppalock.  Every so often other groups of runners joined us from other events - the quarter marathon and 5 kilometre for two.  The race was remarkably well organized that way, with cohorts not clashing as they merged.  Drink stations were set up about every 5 kilometres which suited me fine.


I crossed the finish line in Heathcote in a time of 2:41:48.  Not my best time, but reasonable given the length of the race.  The end point of the race was genuinely welcoming: fruit and water were provided to runners, and there was a bevy of community groups holding barbeques and selling coffee.  I love this sort of thing that brings towns together.  It was a nice touch that the finish line was marked by miniature pit-heads: appropriate as one of the major sponsors was mining company Mandalay Resources!

Because this was a point-to-point race, the organizers supplied buses to take runners back to wherever they'd left their cars.  The soft chair in the coach felt heavenly.  The blues were still gripping me when I got back to my car.  In a way this was a relief: there was none of the sense of letdown when the race was over.

I've run longer distances than this race.  I've certainly been over harder terrain.  But I don't think I've ever done a race this tough.  Athletes of all stripes tend to use cliches like "digging deep".  This one required me to go on when there was nothing left to dig into.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

A stranger cared enough

On 23 April 2017 I’ll take part in the 26 kilometre Axedale-to-Heathcote race to raise money for Red Cross.  I’m doing this because of a three letters exchanged between that organization and a young woman.

Photographs from the first world war must be seen to be believed.  Once you’ve seen and believed enough of them, they start to numb your mind.  The endless black and white images of mud and destruction shade into one another.  Shamefully, the young men in uniform become indistinguishable one from another.  Different nations can be told apart, perhaps, by the shape of this helmet or the cut of that coat.  But the ubiquitous khaki of the English-speaking nations causes Australians and Britons, New Zealanders and Americans to become a single mass.  Even the most compassionate person tacitly comes to accept Stalin’s cynical observation that the death of a man is a tragedy and the death of a thousand is a statistic.

English, American and Australian troops lunching in a wood near Corbie the day prior to the attack and capture of the German positions at Hamel and Vaire Wood (3 July 1918)
It’s a partial reaction of course, because to men and women of the time every soldier was a son or brother or a husband or a boyfriend.  And as we’ll see, total strangers in the Australian Red Cross cared enough to ensure that every one of their fates was recorded.

On 19 February 1916, farm labourer John William (“Jack”) Tuck enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces.  He was aged 22 years and a bachelor.  He was assigned to the 21st infantry battalion.  On 3 July of that year he embarked on the troopship HMAT Ayrshire for England.  While he was en route, his cousin Henry Thomas Tuck had been killed in action while serving with the 46th Battalion at Pozieres.  It would take a year, but eventually the Red Cross would be able to tell Jack and others of the family his fate.  One of his comrades reported that (1)
Casualty went out to the attack on the 11th August at Pozieres near Chalk Pitts.  He was killed outside the trenches by shell fire.  I actually saw him killed.  He was buried by the 5th Pioneers behind the lines.  There was no mark put over his grave as far as I know.  I was present at the burial.
Jack arrived at Plymouth on 2 September 1916.  His service record notes hospitalizations for different illnesses and that he rejoined his battalion in France on 22 November 1916.  He was returned to England, suffering bronchitis, on 16 January 1917.  He did not return to France until 9 August 1917.  He returned to England on 22 October 1917 after suffering a gunshot wound to the left ankle in the Battle of Broodseinde.  His record is tantalizing about what may have happened while he was in England; when we can say confidently is that he was absent without leave from 15-18 December 1917, and that he returned to France on 1 February 1918 and did not thereafter return to England.

Jack’s battalion was caught up in the German ‘Spring Offensive’ of 1918 and by April of that year he was hospitalized with ‘trench feet’.  And it was then that the care of a stranger came into play.  A note in his Red Cross file dated 28 May 1918 records his whereabouts.  Some person must have enquired after him, because a letter (apparently from the army hospital) to the Red Cross dated 30 May 1918 commences “In further answer to your inquiry for [Private Tuck] – We beg to inform you that …”(2).

After Tuck’s discharge, the 21st battalion fought in the Battle of Hamel alongside newly-arrived American troops.  On 23 July Tuck was wounded by a gas shell.  Five weeks later, he rejoined his unit which then took part in the attack on Mont St Quentin on 1 September 1918 and the Battle of Beaurevoir on 29 September 1918.  On 9 November – with the Armistice only days away – he was admitted to the 3rd General Hospital with influenza.  On 14 November 1918 he died of broncho-pneumonia.

Three Australian officers beside a Red Cross car at No 3 Australian General Hospital (Abbeville, France)
On 4 December 1918 the Australian Red Cross Society in London received the following letter –
56 Overcliff Road
Lewisham SE13
Dec 3rd
Could you please tell me if Pte JW Tuck 5126 D. Coy: 21st Battn AIF France, is on the casualty list.  The last letter I had from him was dated 29-10-18 and this morning I had the last letter I sent him returned marked “not with battn”.  I shall be very grateful if you can give me any information concerning him.  I remain,
Yours truly
(Miss) Gladys Allen
The Red Cross didn’t delay.  By 10 December a note in their file recorded Tuck’s death, and on 13 December 1918 the Society wrote to Miss Allen
Dear Madam,
In reply to your enquiry for 5126 Pte JOHN WILLIAM TUCK. 24th Battalion, AIF.  We much regret to inform you that he died of Broncho-Pneumonia on 14.11.18 at 3rd General Hospital, B.E.F.  Kindly let us know if you wish us to make enquiries for details of his death and burial.
With sincere sympathy
Yours faithfully
(Miss) [signature]
A further letter on 5 February 1919 advised Miss Allen that Tuck had been buried in Abbeville Cemetery.

We can surmise that Miss Allen was Jack Tuck’s girlfriend.  He cared about her enough to write to her between returning to France on 1 February 1918 and his last letter of 29 October 1918, and she cared enough about him to try and find him.  The romantic in me likes to think that she was the reason he went absent without leave between 15 and 18 December 1917.

I imagine that this was a common story.  In each of the belligerents of the Great War there must have been many thousands of young men and young women who met, loved, lost and sought.  Many must have been left wondering what happened to the young man they cared for and asking whether he had been too mutilated on death to identify, or run away, or been taken prisoner.  Why am I raising money for Red Cross?  Because these strangers cared enough about one young man in my family to find out what happened to him.

(1)  Statement of Cpl. S. Mahaffy to Red Cross on 18 June 1917.
(2)  The initial enquiry to the Red Cross has been lost, as has Red Cross’ enquiry to the army and their earlier reply.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Review: Euripides, Alcestis / Hippolytus / Iphigenia in Tauris

Euripides, Alcestis / Hippolytus / Iphigenia in Tauris (trans. Philip Vellacott), (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1974)
When I was a young undergraduate and studying classics, I remember thinking that ancient Greek plays should ideally be read in summer on a beach somewhere.  The culture that produced them, after all, was addicted to life, to sunlight, and to personal wholeness.  Reading this selection of Euripides’ plays I’m even more persuaded that this is the case.

The theme that seems to link these plays is the theme of personal strength.  That is, the strength that comes with self-mastery.  The collection begins with Alcestis.  The play begins on the day on which Alcestis, wife of Admetus, is to die.  She had previously agreed to meet death to save the life of her husband.  Admetus is inconsolable and refuses to set any bounds to his grief (p.71) despite the chorus offering a rebuke (p.55):
Her death, Admetus, is a blow which you must bear.
You are not the first of mortal men – no, nor the last –
To lose a noble-hearted wife.  Consider this:
Death is a debt which every one of us must pay

The day is saved (somewhat improbably) by the arrival of Heracles en route to one of his labours.  Heracles – physically powerful, unsophisticated and earthy – treats the matter simply as a problem to be solved (p.70):
The woman’s newly dead; and I
Must save her, and pay my debt of kindness to Admetus,
Setting Alcestis safe again in her own home.
The black robed king of the dead will come to drink the blood
Of Victims offered at her tomb.  I’ll go there, hide,
And watch for him, and so leap out and spring on him,
And once I have my arms locked round his writhing ribs,
There is no power that can release him, till he yields
Alcestis to me.  And if I miss my prey this time,
If death does not go to the bait of blood, I’ll go
Down to the sunless palace of Persephone
And Pluto, and I’ll ask for her.  And, by my soul,
I’ll bring Alcestis up again, and deliver her
Into Admetus’ hands

This he does, leading to a mildly comic happy ending.  The contrast the play stresses is between Admetus’ inability to master his own grief, and Heracles’ literally Death-defying confidence in his own strength.

Hippolytus covers another aspect of self-knowledge.  The hero (if that is the word) in the title is a young man whose life is dedicated to honouring Artemis, virginal goddess of the hunt (pp.84-5).  He shows little respect – even contempt – for Aphrodite, the goddess of love (in this case, sexual love): “My body is pure … I have no liking for a god worshipped at night” (p.86).  Aphrodite, in revenge, causes his stepmother Phaedra to become infatuated with him.  Phaedra’s secret is revealed to Hippolytus by a servant.  He is incensed and excoriates them both (pp.102-3).  Phaedra, in despair, hangs herself.  She leaves a note accusing Hippolytus of raping her.  This provokes Theseus (her husband) to curse him in a fit of rage, causing Hippolytus to be killed by a bull - that is, a breeding animal.  The play ultimately works as a lesson on self-control, and the lack of it.  Phaedra kills herself to break the grip of an uncontrollable passion.  Hippolytus’ almost fanatical self-control makes it impossible for him to understand the pain his rejection and vituperation causes her.  And Theseus’ loss of self-control leads him to kill his own son.

The collection ends with Iphigenia in Tauris, which shows us the end-stage of self-mastery.  Iphigenia was the daughter of King Agamemnon.  She was to be sacrificed by him to induce Artemis to allow his fleet to leave harbour and sail to the Trojan War.  At the last moment, however, she was taken by Artemis to Tauris where she would serve as the goddess’ priestess, preparing foreigners as human sacrifices on the orders of King Thoas (pp.131-2).  She pines to return to Greece and to see her brother Orestes again.  Iphigenia and Orestes are descendants of Atreus and the nth generation of a family wrapped in a cycle of crime and revenge which has involved cannibalism, incest, curses and more homicides than a season of Midsomer Murders.  Orestes arrives in Tauris, having recently murdered their mother Clytemnestra.  He and Iphigenia recognise each other before he is to be sacrificed.  Through a ruse they escape from Tauris with a sacred statue of Artemis, which Orestes has been tasked with stealing in recompense for the murder of Clytemnestra.

The setting in Tauris and the escape seem to be included for the sake of dramatic completeness.  What is more interesting is the decision of the key participants to renounce vengeance.  Iphigenia helps Orestes to steal the statue (and so free himself of bloodguiltiness for the murder of his mother) when it is within her power to kill him.  She also renounces vengeance of Agamemnon and his posterity for attempting to sacrifice her (p.161):
now my wish is matched with yours – first, to release
You from your torments; next, renouncing bitterness
Against the hand that offered me in sacrifice,
To restore the shattered fortunes of my father’s house.
So my hand would be guiltless of your blood, and we
Could all be saved.
This action ceases the long cycle of violence and ends the curse in which “anger grimly returns, cunningly haunting the house, avenging the death of a child, never forgetting its due” (Aeschylus, Agamemnon (trans. Louis McNiece)).  The end of the curse is made possible by Iphigenia’s innate self-control which allows her to renounce vengeance.

The modern West lives a long way from faith.  Scanning the death notices of most newspapers shows recollections of times spent together and a vague notion that people will ‘meet again’ someday.  Our world may be one from which gods have either been banished or upon which they have given up in disgust.  If the heavens are no longer able to suggest how a person can honourably live their life, then Euripides would be a good place to start seeking a replacement.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Review: Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling.

Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (trans. Alastair Hannay), (Penguin: London 1985)

I can comfortably tell you that this is kinda sorta about Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-14).  However, that’s about all I can tell you after slogging through the longest 158 pages of my life.
Image from here
I’d love to tell you that this "lynchpin... of the existentialist movement" opened my eyes to a new way of living.  However, I found Kierkegaard almost completely impenetrable.  The problem seems to lie partly in his extremely repetitive use of abstractions and symbols.  He refers constantly to “making this movement” (which I think means ‘making a decision’), “becoming absolute in relation to the universal” (or possibly vice versa), and being a “knight of faith” as opposed to being a “tragic hero”.  If any of these terms were defined, I missed it.  I’m assuming Hannay’s translation is sound and the book is equally inscrutable in Danish.  The editors of Wikipedia seem to think the same, since the article on the book mostly consists of slabs quoted from it.

The other problem is that Kierkegaard seems addicted to changing his style and subject.  You find yourself reading a speech in praise of Abraham.  A bit later you’re reading about whether it was ethically permissible for that patriarch to conceal the intended sacrifice from his family (a fair enough question).  And then for no obvious reason he wants to talk about a fucking mermaid (pp.120-125).  I was disappointed in my hopes that there’d be a postscript telling readers that the whole thing had been 1843’s version of the Sokal hoax.

If you’re a student and you’ve been set this text for a course, you have my pity.  If you’re looking for your next book, save your money.  But if you’re looking for a cure for insomnia, this is it.