Thursday, 17 August 2017Welcome to Dispatches, a weekly summary of my writing, listening and reading habits. I skipped last week due to travel and constrained schedules (again).
Triggered on Waking Up with Sam Harris (136 minutes). And for another perspective on President Trump, I really enjoyed this conversation with Scott Adams, who has been a vocal supporter of Trump and his leadership since he became a candidate. This is the most reasonable discussion I've heard about the man, and it's well worth the two-plus hour running time.
Maggie Haberman covers the White House for The New York Times. “If I start thinking about it, then I’m not going to be able to just keep doing my job. I'm being as honest as I can — I try not to think about it. If you’re flying a plane and you think about the fact that if the plane blows up in midair you’re gonna die, do you feel like you can really focus as well? So, I’m not thinking about [the stakes]. This is just my job. This is what we do. Ask me another question.”
The King Of Tears on Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell (42 minutes). This podcast is great in general, but I particularly liked this exploration of writing sad songs, and why country music tends to be more emotionally honest than other styles of music.
In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris and Scott Adams debate the character and competence of President Trump. Scott Adams is the creator of Dilbert, one of the most popular comic strips of all time. He has been a full-time cartoonist since 1995, after 16 years as a technology worker for companies like Crocker National Bank and Pacific Bell. His many bestsellers include The Dilbert Principle, Dogbert’s Top Secret Management Handbook, and How To Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big. His forthcoming book is Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter.
Long Distance on Reply All (50 minutes). This two-part, world-spanning narrative is up there with the greatest Reply All stories they've yet aired. Totally gripping storytelling, and part two is even moreso. Highly recommended.
Revisionist History goes to Nashville to talk with Bobby Braddock, who has written more sad songs than almost anyone else. What is it about music that makes us cry? And what sets country music apart?
Damon Lindelof on The Nerdist (73 minutes). I'm not sure if I've mentioned it here in Dispatches before, but one of my favourite TV shows in recent years is The Leftovers, which aired for three seasons and ended its run on HBO earlier in 2017. Its story consists of just 28 episodes. It's a show about the grief and loss experienced by those who are left behind after two per cent of the world's population suddenly disappears. Damon Lindelof co-created the show, and I can't recommend it highly enough. I also loved his work on the TV show Lost in my teenage years and early 20s, though having tried rewatching that show again a couple of years ago, before giving up, I'm pretty sure that The Leftovers will better stand the test of time. Anyway, I loved this conversation because I didn't know much about Damon Lindelof other than seeing his name in the opening credits of a couple of TV shows I've loved.
This week, a telephone scammer makes a terrible mistake. He calls Alex Goldman.
Breaking News on Radiolab (46 minutes). What will be the purpose of journalism and the search for truth if we can no longer trust what our eyes are seeing? This is a great exploration of a subject that is likely to become more pertinent with each passing year.
Damon Lindelof‘s professional writing career hasn’t quite hit the two decade mark, but he’s already got enough experience to last multiple lifetimes! Or multiple sideways if you want to include his blockbuster co-creation, Lost, and his critically acclaimed yet criminally unwatched HBO series, The Leftovers. Last Sunday night on AMC’s Talking with Chris Hardwick, Damon was the guest of our founder, Chris Hardwick. In today’s special episode of the Nerdist podcast, we’re sharing the extended and extended conversation between Chris and Damon!
Simon Adler takes us down a technological rabbit hole of strangely contorted faces and words made out of thin air. And a wonderland full of computer scientists, journalists, and digital detectives forces us to rethink even the things we see with our very own eyes.
Missing Pieces by Andrew Stafford in Griffith Review (4,300 words / 22 minutes). This is up there with the best essays I've read this year. It was a hard one for Andrew Stafford to write, too, as it's highly personal. While the broader themes are about journalism, integrity and mental health, part of the story is devoted to Stafford looking back at the reporting that surrounded his own sudden disappearance in February last year. Highly recommended, especially for journalists who write about mental illness.
On a bedside computer screen in the cardiac catheter laboratory, an orb-shaped network of dark arteries jumps and twitches against a pale, amorphous background. My eye seizes upon a single vein and tries to follow it through the twitching object, which looks a bit like a jellyfish space monster from an early series of Doctor Who. But there are so many arterial twists and turns that my eye blurs and then arbitrarily closes, as though this peek inside my own heart has already contravened some immutable law. "Nice music," offers one of the technicians, whose shrouded, rustling forms surround me in the gloom. "Thanks," I say, having chosen the accompaniment for my angiogram – Mark Knopfler's soundtrack from Local Hero – only minutes earlier at the invitation of one of the nurses. (Hmmm, I pondered when the offer was made, what would go well with having radioactive dye shot into your heart?) I'd forgotten just how appropriate my choice was. As someone covers me with an X-ray blanket, Knopfler's insistent, spiralling guitar pieces give way temporarily to his vocal with fellow Brit Gerry Rafferty, the two of them complaining piteously, "Why can't it be alright?/ Why can't I sleep at night?/ … Why must there be this price to pay? … That's the way it always starts/Sitting here and waiting on the beating of my heart."
Final Destination by Peter Munro in The Sydney Morning Herald (3,200 words / 16 minutes). A beautifully written portrait of a Sydney palliative care nurse named Justine Betteridge, and the array of dying patients she visits at their homes.
On the evening of 22 February 2016 I scrawled a note to my former partner, threw a handful of clothes and possessions in the car, and took off into the night. I didn’t know what I was doing, or where I was going: north, south, east or west. Somewhere along the way, I fired off three tweets that were unfortunately reflective of my state of mind before deactivating my social media accounts. I drove all night, pausing only at a truck stop by the side of the highway to rest at around 2 am. The noise of the generators, and the adrenaline overloading my system, prevented me from sleeping. I drove on, pulling up again in a country town, watching the sun rise from a sleeping bag on the local sports oval, then got back in the car and kept going. By later that morning, the adrenaline had worn off, the car was labouring and I began to feel the weight of exhaustion, the magnitude of what I was doing and the distress I was causing for others. I switched on my phone, which was flooded with messages, called home and was persuaded to check myself into the nearest hospital. In between, my face was on the front of news websites. I’d been officially declared missing. If I was sure I knew what was going on in my head at the time – and I’m still not – I wouldn’t explain it to you, much less why. I was, however, carrying lethal means of self-harm within the car, to say nothing of the fact that, while stone-cold sober, I drove a twenty-eight-year-old vehicle for more than twelve hours and close to nine hundred kilometres in a highly agitated and distressed state without sleep, food or water. By the time I was admitted to hospital, I’d barely eaten in forty-eight hours.
The Story Of Us by Mark Raphael Baker in The Weekend Australian Magazine (2,600 words / 13 minutes). This wonderfully moving book extract written by a widower had me in tears on a plane a few weeks back.
Long roads lead Justine Betteridge to another life nearing its end. She drives past convenience stores and petrol stations, high-rise apartment towers and houses with drawn curtains. On the front passenger seat of her sedan is an empty box of tissues, as she navigates the twists and turns ahead. She has weary eyes, a generous smile and ropy arms curled round the steering wheel. She doesn’t like driving – sitting still in traffic is the worst – but it’s part of the job. Justine, 51, is a palliative care worker, who visits up to 10 terminally ill patients a week in their homes. Her part-time job with HammondCare, an independent Christian charity, takes her across much of Sydney’s northern suburbs and beaches. Her patients have all chosen to die at home, rather than in a hospital. It’s an end rarely realised in Australia. A draft Productivity Commission report, released in June, found that while about 70 per cent of people want to die at home, less than 10 per cent do so – largely because of shortfalls in community-based palliative care services.
Into Thin Air by Ricky French in The Weekend Australian Magazine (2,800 words / 14 minutes). I'm late to this piece, which was published in 2013, but it's a great bit of writing about how a handful of Australians who have gone missing, and how some of them are never found, despite the best efforts of search parties.
In the 10 months that followed my wife’s diagnosis I watched the most bewildering of tricks, the darkest of illusions unfold before my eyes. I understood what the doctors were telling me – the science behind a tumour that metastasises and eventually prevents blood and oxygen from reaching the heart, until the organs shut down. But those mechanics were not enough to explain the mystery of witnessing the sudden end of her life, or my tears, which flowed like streams of knotted handkerchiefs out of a magician’s empty hat. As I sit at her graveside at the end of her shloshim, the Jewish ritual of 30 days’ mourning, all I can think about is how to find a miraculous way to restore her to life. Her name is handwritten on a wooden stake planted in the ground above her head. KERRYN BAKER. For the past month, I have scoured my memories and ransacked our house for the bits and pieces of her life. I have stared into the empty side of our bed and recalled the 32 years when that void was filled with her warm body. I have looked through the photographs she arranged in albums, and rummaged through drawers and cupboards for clues, hoping somehow to decipher the mysteries about my wife. I shake my head in disbelief, substituting the mourner’s prayer for a rhythmic refrain: I’ll never see you again. I’ll never see you again. I’ll never see you again.
Wordplay by David Astle in The Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum (650 words / 3 minutes). I love reading David Astle's weekly column. This man loves words more than most people love life. I always enjoy Wordplay, but I was particularly taken by this one, where Astle breaks form to tell a yarn about visiting poet Les Murray. I suspect Astle worked hard to make this piece sing, because he knew Les might read it. It's a stunning tribute to another man who loves words.
Lilly Pilly Gully. Its bouncy, child-like syllables paint a fairytale-like picture and there's an element of truth to the imagery. Craggy peaks encircle a bowl-shaped forest of eucalypts and ferns, through which a gentle walking track leads you in a loop. It's a peaceful place in Victoria's Wilsons Promontory, ideal for family walks, a back-before-lunch kind of stroll. I walked this path earlier this year with my family. Not far into the walk I came across a rock which bears a simple, bronze inscription. It was a memorial to a nine-year-old boy named Patrick (Paddy) Hildebrand, who on this spot in 1987 left the track and walked into the woods. Young Paddy had gone on ahead of his family about 10 minutes into the walk. The scene: a mother, calling out for her son to wait. No reply. Louder calls. Running, shouting, rising panic, retracing steps to the car park, and finally a sprint to the nearby ranger station for help. A massive search was assembled. A hat believed to belong to Paddy was found, as well as a bed of ferns, but after a week of combing the area Christine Hildebrand drove away without her son. No trace of Paddy was ever found. He had vanished into the woods.
The poet doesn't trust computers. In a recent poem Les Murray confessed, "The computer scares me/its crashes and codes/its links with spies and gunshot ..." That recent poem is The Privacy of Typewriters, since Les is a lover of "inky marching hammers/leaping up and subsiding". Despite the latest RAM revamp, the highest of high-res screen, the ample Wi-Fi capacity, the poet prefers "the spoor of botch,/whiteouts where thought deepened,/wise freedom from Spell Check …" So where was his beloved typewriter, I wondered, scanning the writer's bungalow. Walls of books stared back – Lorca and Brodsky. A Solidarnosc medal from the people of Poland, a goshawk print, but no typewriter. Indeed, the poet is bereft. Typically, Les composes his verse in longhand, converting his scrawl to the old-fashioned QWERTY, though lately the QWERTY is a WP since typewriters are hen's teeth. His last one carked it and he doesn't know where to find a replacement, even where to start.
Colombiano by Rusty Young (2017, Bantam). Written as fiction but based on extensive interviews with former child soldiers who fought in Colombia, Rusty Young's second book is an absorbing account of a 15 year-old boy's transition from careless teenager to a hardened warrior seeking revenge for his father's murder. His first book, 2003's Marching Powder, told the story of a British drug trafficker who spent years inside a Bolivian prison, and was a vivid evocation of a strange life behind bars. Colombiano is a slow-burner told in nine parts totaling 680 pages, and here, Rusty Young's skill as a storyteller shines once again. The characters are three-dimensional, the stakes are high, and the action propels the reader through a dark, violent world of unsavoury characters with competing agendas. The protagonist, Pedro Gutierrez, hates the Guerrilla soldiers for murdering his father and readily joins their opposition, the Autodefensas. But as he climbs the terrorist organisation's hierarchy, and becomes an experienced soldier himself, he begins to wonder about how much separates the two sides. It's an absorbing and affecting story, and it comes highly recommended.
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