Friday, 28 June 2013

A Sweet Suite in Sunny Stonesville

We are not long back from the wedding of the year. A couple of students whom Cam has discipled for years, dewy-eyed with youth and tenderness, tied the knot in subtropical central Queensland, in a town which, to protect the innocent, I shall call Stonesville. The bride was beautiful, the groom was beautiful and their relationship was beautiful. I wept because beauty triggers my internal sprinkler system. The only blight on all this beauty was that we were plagued by sore throats. And we needed our throats as Cam was to deliver the sermon (a first) and we were both to MC the reception. But luckily, a fellow campus missionary had suggested a cure – a swig of overproof rum. The high alcohol content kills germs, he admonished sagely.

We stayed in a fabulous, 4-star hotel. It was very nice, yet mysteriously cheap. The local bikie gang must enjoy a bargain too. The Courtly Cutthroats’ favourite watering hole/burnout zone turned out to be our hotel. Courtly Cutthroats is not their real name. I made that up so they can’t google themselves, stumble across my blog and hunt me pester me for further hotel recommendations. All 200 of the darlings turned out for our visit. In full gangster regalia, they came to dinner at our hotel. Then they performed for us in a cavalcade of biking prowess...or as the locals call it, bogan laps. This audiovisual treat was given free of charge... for hours.

When we arrived, we found our visit coincided with Stonesville’s daily Bottle Throwing Festival. A certain dentally reconfigured demographic was huddled around the entrance to our hotel, hurling bottles at a certain bottle-appreciating demographic on the other side of the street. They went back and forth in this spirited exchange for many entertaining hours. What an arresting display of marksmanship they put on for us tourists! And what a compelling way to create free-form municipal mosaics!

The hotel backed onto what must surely be the set of a Hollywood horror flick – how glamorous! The building was fenced off to give it a foreboding air, then bombed out and graffitied to give it that authentic look of dereliction. The effect was completed by a slime-filled swamp artfully sprawled before it. With such Oscar-winning set design, you could almost believe the urban rumour that a gruesome murder had taken place there at 2:48am on June 2, 2013 leading to an arrest by Police Inspector Bill Veracity, Badge Number 7829751.

In fact, Inspector Veracity seemed to be part of the welcome committee/community theatre group. After we had settled into our suite, we gazed out at the lovely vista of Stonesville before us. To our amazement, there below, was Inspector Veracity himself putting on a great show of making a difficult arrest of a feisty gentleman. Both put on a commendably convincing display of cops and robbers. It made us feel so at home and at ease!

Dressed up in my finest wedding frockery, smiling happily as I left our hotel room, I could only guess from the hungry looks locals were giving me, that I must have looked like a hot dog. Then a random, unworthy thought crossed my mind. I voiced it to Cam. “Do I look like a cheap hooker?”
“Oh no dear,” he reassured me quickly. “You look like an Expensive Escort.”
It was such an endearing thing to say, that I let myself run with the spirit of the moment and punched him in the eye. This gave a lovely magenta glow to his ocular socket to match those of my many admirers. Cam appreciated the service I rendered him. Everyone who knows Cam knows how much he loves to blend in. They don’t call him FURRY Cam for nothing. It stands for “Fly Under the RadaR, Yeeha!”

After the wedding, we asked selfless, Christian, Student Life students to drive us home. Where are you staying? They wanted to know. “At the Luxurious Leichardt Lounge for Lechers,” we told them. They must be in the same community theatre group as Inspector Veracity, as they did a very believable job of pretending they’d never heard of it and if it was in the part of town they thought it was in, they never wanted to hear of or see it in this life or the next and couldn’t we just get a taxi back?

We found our own way back – the students didn’t break character, they must be method actors, bless them. And we decided to end the day as we’d started it...with a swig or two of overproof rum...for medicinal reasons...and to help the locals with their free-form municipal mosaics. 

Monday, 1 April 2013

White Light Dude

It was 20 years in the making. Our first holiday without the kids. Our first holiday overseas. Our first holiday that wasn’t tacked onto a ministry trip. Our first holiday that didn’t begin or end with a fight. Our first holiday where nothing went wrong! We actually came back refreshed. It was so good, that on our return, we experienced our first post-holiday blues. We had left our hearts in New Zealand and it will be years before we can retrieve them.

But it wasn’t incident-free. We had loads of incidents, most of them fun. Like accidentally 4-wheel-driving our weenie rental down rocky sheep trails through ultramarine salmon farms. And accidentally stumbling on wild sealions. And accidentally stumbling on rare dolphins. And very deliberately gorging on seafood at a cook-shack where freshness was guaranteed by the boat ramp running from the sea straight into the kitchen.

There was only one incident that wasn’t fun. It was a bit nasty. But love turned it around. With a twist.

We were in gorgeous Queenstown, an eye-achingly beautiful village nestled on the edge of a clear, cold lake flanked by dark green mountains. It’s full of young clubbers, extreme sporters and whatever we are. 
New Zealand: the perfect place to unleash the panograph function on Cam's iPhone

Cam and I went for a drive to the ski fields just outside the town boundary. The ski fields were closed for the season, but the car parks were open and offered breathtaking views. We stopped to absorb one of these views. I concentrated hard on the spectacle spread below, willing it to imprint itself on my memory so that on return to mundane life, it would fuel my artistic soul or something. It didn’t work. It never does. Other stuff keeps imprinting over the top. Like what happened next. 

A van hurtled into the car park and pulled up unnecessarily close to where we were parked in the large, unmarked, mostly empty, public car park. Men on a mission started throwing equipment out of their van and onto the ground. One barked at us through our window to move our car. 

They were paraglide operators, about to take a group of tourists over the edge. We would have stayed to watch, but their rudeness was a turn-off. “Move your car!” the man demanded again. I wanted to say, “Why should we? It’s public land and you’re trespassing on our view.”

But Cam, who is nice, said, “I’m happy to move our car if that helps you.” We started to reverse away. We had only gone a few metres, when the man was at our window, tapping angrily. My instinct was to accelerate away. But Cam got out to see what was wrong. Apparently we had run over a helmet holding the man’s video camera.

My instinct was to say, “Well who’s a bloody idiot for throwing expensive equipment onto the ground behind a car, then demanding the car be moved?!” But Cam is more conciliatory. He said, “I’m sorry about your equipment. I didn’t see it there.” 

The man, whose name was Alfresco, did not accept the apology. His helmet was cracked, but the video camera was fine. Alfresco’s humour was not. He continued to scold Cam who continued to be polite and conciliatory. He demanded compensation and Cam’s contact details. Before I had a chance to whisper to Cam not to give his number to an irrational, angry stranger, Cam gave his number.

We drove away and received a series of brusque texts demanding compensation. We may be better off than many who never get to travel for fun. But we are not wealthy compared to Queenstown tourists. We were holidaying on a budget and had said no to lots of things, including paragliding, because of the cost. So I was none too keen to fork out unknown sums for extreme sport equipment we were not responsible for. 
Crystal clear waters of Queenstown

We checked our travel insurance to see if it might cover this sort of thing. The response, of course, was that it’s the responsibility of the paraglide business’ insurance to cover damage to their equipment. 

Alfresco was not happy with this news, so Cam suggested we meet in town at an adventure shop to price a replacement helmet. I wanted to text alternative messages of a shove-off-and-take-responsibility-for-your-own-problems nature. But Cam shook his golden mane at me sadly, like Aslan with Edmund the Betrayer, and said, “I can’t see Jesus doing that, can you?”

I argued my case. “We don’t owe Alfresco anything. Yes, I’m sorry his helmet got cracked, but he should not have thrown it on the ground, in the path of a car that he demanded be moved! We’re offering him compensation anyway, and he’s still being a jerk! His rudeness has quenched any spark of good will. Not only do we not owe him a helmet, I wouldn’t even buy him an apologetic beer!”
Discovering the colours of nature outside Queenstown

“You are right, Moleskin” said Cam, using my father’s nickname for me because he knows it soothes me, “But Jesus said to be good to your enemies. He said if someone demands you walk a mile with them, walk two miles. None of us deserves grace. But all of us need it. You don’t know what misery in Alfredo’s life he might need compassion for.”

Cam was right, of course. It's not hard to be good to your mates, but it takes a dose of Jesus juice to be good to jerks. Jesus told oppressed Jews that if Roman soldiers commandeered them into lugging their kit for a mile, as was their custom, they were to volunteer to lug it yet another mile. That’s where the phrase “going the extra mile” comes from.

I love Jesus. So why was this so hard for me?

I agreed to a compromise. We would meet Alfresco at a coffee shop to discuss terms and check out replacement helmets together, and I even agreed to cover Alfresco for any cappuccinos incurred during negotiations. But on one condition: that it be made crystal clear to Alfresco, just how good we were being to him.

Cam smiled at me indulgently. “I don’t see Jesus doing that either, Moleskin,” he said. “He let people take advantage of him, and let them come to their own conclusions about his goodness.” Dammit, you can’t argue with the life of Christ. Well, you can, but you end up like Inspector Javert.

We did some preliminary helmet research at an adventure shop we liked the look of. We got chatting to the shop assistant. His name was Jett. He turned out to be one cool dude. We told him why we were checking out paragliding helmets and he was helpful and sympathetic. He was a paraglider too, and said he was aware of the arrogance that can go with the sport. He said he had deliberately chosen not to go the arrogant way himself. He showed us a video of him and a mate being dropped by chopper at the peak of a snow-capped mountain, then gliding off it. It looked terrifyingly thrilling, but to Jett, the fun was wrapped up in the camaraderie. It wasn’t about money, looking cool, impressing chicks, or even about adrenalin. It was about human connection. This endeared him to us. And we decided, if Alfresco agreed, to buy a helmet from Jett. On special, they were about $100. 

Alfresco never showed up. Instead, we got another terse text to the effect that he’d already gone and bought a helmet at a shop of his choosing, at twice the price Jett quoted, and he expected us to reimburse that shop.  

“There! You see?” I said to Cam, “You see what happens when you’re nice to a jerk? He just jerks you along further. Now can we be done with him?”

No, Cam said. Love perseveres. 

So we hatched a new plan to respond lovingly and floated it to Jett:

We would give Jett’s shop $100 for a gift voucher to be made out to Alfresco. We would text Alfresco that as a gesture of goodwill, there was a gift voucher waiting for him at Jett’s shop to spend on whatever he wanted. If he didn’t collect it within 3 days (Cam said a week, but I insisted on 3 days), the gift voucher would become the property of Jett.

Jett looked at us both and grinned. He said, “Dudes! That’s awesome, turning a positive into a negative like that. There is white light coming out all over you!”

This made us feel warm and evangelistic, so Cam gave him a Knowing God Personally booklet and I said cornily, “We get our white light from Jesus!”

I don’t know what poor Jett made of that, but he was still nice to us. He invited us to watch him and his mate tandem paraglide at dusk into the heart of Queenstown, and to wait for him at the lakeside beach. 

We gathered at the beach, along with a gazillion other tourists, because it’s a popular night spot. We waited, eyes peeled for Jett’s distinctive red-and-white sail to appear over the top of the mountain. When it finally did, we were the only ones who noticed its quiet descent...until it seemed to suddenly manifest, right in front of everyone, just above the water. There was a collective gasp. 

Then a black silhouette of a man disentangled itself from the chute and plummeted towards the water. The gasps became shrieks as the crowd wondered if it was watching a man fall to his death. Then at the last conceivable nanosecond, the man pulled another parasail. The crowd breathed a sigh of relief. Then it gasped again as the man banged his foot on a street sign. He was going to miss the beach and hit a wall! The crowd gasped harder. But with some tricky steering, the man landed safely on the beach after all. The crowd sighed with relief again. It must have been a planned stunt. Phew. 

Then the crowd turned to watch the other paraglider...who fell into the water! Gasp. But got up onto the beach unscathed. Phew. What a thrilling show! The crowd applauded. But Jett didn’t care about applause. He was in it for mateship. And his mate’s banged foot was a mistake, not a stunt. He hugged his mate. We were so excited and relieved, we hugged Jett and then stood there, grinning like idiots. 

The next day, we left Queenstown for the next leg of our journey. We never heard from Alfresco again. But I might just hear from Jett. He’s a blogger too. We swapped blog addresses. If you’re reading this, Jett (and you know what your real name is), thank you for your mateship. We might have left Queenstown with a sour taste, but when we think of you...and Jesus... we grin like idiots. White light, dude! It’s coming out all over you.

The santa clauses of Queenstown were as close as we got to snow

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Thank You for Your Ulcer

I was quietly minding my own business, watching the telly. Suddenly, my eye started to twitch, itch, hurt and stream tears. And it wasn’t because Harvey Norman was having another loud, garish sale. It was because a large grain of sand had gotten lodged under my eyelid. At least, that’s how it felt. No drama, I’ll just rinse it out. 

I rinsed and rinsed, but the pain persisted. I did not panic. I am a long-term contact lens wearer and no foreign object in the eye can scare me. Even if it’s a pebble, which is what it felt like by now. I decided to sleep it off. It would wash out in my sleep, surely. It hurt to keep my eye open now, so I might as well close both of them for the night, even if it wasn’t dark yet. 

For the next 7 hours, my eye streamed its way through 227 tissues. I counted them by feel, because by 1am, the gentle light of the bedside lamp was painful even to my good eye which had gone out in sympathy. At 2am, Cam said “Right, you’re going to hospital.” I said no, I’m not going to hospital for a grain of sand in the eye. ER doctors get angry with people who don’t have the decency to knock on death’s door first. A 000 call centre operator once told me how aggro Emergency Services get when people ring for help with their chicken soup. One more of these calls, and she would give them the recipe:

First, catch your chicken.
Then take up your carving knife.
Put the chicken down.
Fool about with the knife until the point of excessive blood loss.
Get the chicken to call 000 so Emergency Services can talk to someone intelligent.

She had snorted derisively at these dangerous idiots who jeopardise others’ lives wasting ES’ time.

Believe it or not, I don’t want to be a dangerous idiot. I don’t want to anger the medical establishment. It doesn’t pay to piss off people with syringes. Also, I have a strong desire to keep people who aren’t Cam, happy with me. So I held out against hospital. Cam insisted. I resisted.

We were at an impasse. In nearly 2 decades of marriage, we were having our first stand-off. This was new territory for us and neither of us knew how to proceed.

At that moment, I heard a voice. A small but unmistakable voice quietly said in the back of my head, “Why don’t you go along with Cam to hospital? The worst that can happen is that irritated medicos turn you away. But Cam has proven himself. He has your best interests at heart. So why don’t you cooperate with that?”

“Oh all right,” I said to the voice. So we left the sleeping kids in the care of their sleeping grandparents, and sped off into the night to hospital. 

I didn’t notice it at the time, but in hindsight, something of a miracle might have occurred. There was no waiting. An ER nurse once told me that if you get in to see a doctor in under 7 hours, you are uncommonly lucky. Also, it seemed the way to the irritated medicos’ hearts had been softened for me. We were followed from the car to the ER by a madwoman clutching her robes and babbling loudly about discrimination against people with weak bladders and loose bowels. She didn’t put it that articulately, but that seemed to be the gist of her ramblings. She was barred from entering the ER by an angry security guard who hollered as we arrived, “You don’t bloody need to do another bloody poo! No one needs to do that much pooing. Go home, you dirty poo machine.”

The security guard muttered to us by way of explanation: “She doesn’t need to do another poo! Why can’t people poo at home?” I said I didn’t know and promised to not make my poo other people’s problem. He let us in and I said to the ER nurse, “I’m so sorry for wasting your time. It’s NOT an emergency. I just wonder if someone could spare the trouble to look in my eye. Something seems to be stuck in there. Also, I have no plans to overuse your amenities.” Instantly, doors were opened to me that are closed to ablutionary vagrants.

A nurse looked at my eye, smothered me in drops and blankets, and got a pair of international ER doctors to assess me. They weren’t good with eyes, they said, but they’d have a look. They dropped dye into my eye and studied it under UV light. They footled about with optometrist equipment that was clearly alien to them. I knew which bit the chin rest was, so that was a start. After the machine wheezed and groaned from being wound in the wrong direction, the Hungarian doctor wound it in the right direction, peered at me through the ocular-embiggener and said, “Ve need to scrape your eyeball viz a needle.” 

The Irish doctor said, “Oh now, let’s not be too hasty. Let’s not be pokin’ at her eyeball with a red hot needle until an ophthalmologist says we need to.” I love the Irish.

The Irish doctor then came at my eyeball with a CB140, or in layman’s terms, a cotton bud. To the Hungarian doctor’s delight, he scraped away painfully with the bud but couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Cam said it looked like a gouge. The Irish doctor said, “No, it’s not a gouge. It’s an unidentified foreign object, to be sure, to be sure.”
“A UFO, to be sure?” asked Cam. “I reckon it’s a gouge.”

“Well, to be sure, she needs to see an ophthalmologist to be sure. But they’re all ironically getting some shut-eye. You’ll have to wait 5 hours.”

We waited 5 hours, my eye still streaming and unable to tolerate light. When I finally saw the ophthalmologist - or rather, he saw me, because I couldn’t see anything through my tears and medically dilated pupils - he said, “Well thank goodness you came in when you did. I can clearly see a gouge. You have an ulcer on your eyeball and if you’d left it much longer, you’d have gone blind.”

Cam grinned. “I told them it was a gouge,” he said. ”And I told you you needed to go to hospital.” Being right is a bit of a hobby for him. I graciously give him lots of opportunity to indulge it.
The ulceration is only visible under UV light, but you can see it's an evil eye
The ophthalmologist did not know how I’d gotten an ulcer. It could have been from a dodgy contact lens or from a weird bacteria that survives in contact lens cleaning solution. One in 10,000 contact lens wearers get it. I’ll bet it was that. But if we waited for pathology testing, I would certainly go blind. Anyway, whatever the cause, the cure would be the same: 3 different drops, staggered throughout the hour, every hour, day and night, for the next 3 days and nights and the week following. 

We only made it part way through the first night before sleep deprivation claimed us. But it was enough. My sight was saved. A week later, my eyeball had a scar, but was otherwise completely healed.

I started taking Cam along to my optometrist appointments. Or rather, he took me, because he could see. Or so I thought. I asked my optometrist to assess Cam’s vision. I was sus that Cam’s opto wasn’t giving him quality eye care. Cam kept claiming he had perfect vision, then donning his outsize, outlandishly googly goggles he wears for motorbiking, to watch TV.

Beyond coke-bottliness, Cam’s “special needs” glasses have been a source of contention in our marriage. He thinks they’re fantastic. I think that anything you can drink out of should not be strapped to your face. But it gives Cam a special thrill to hoik them out at church and at the movies, like Hugh Grant with his snorkeling mask in Notting Hill. At a function at the la-de-dah Empire Theatre, a funky young lad sitting in front of us caught sight of Cam’s tremendous peepers. He swivelled around to say, “Dude! Cool glasses!” Cam had turned his googly gaze upon me and said, “You see? Hip young men think they’re fantastic. What do you say to that, old girl?”
They may look like medical equipment for diagnosing nerds, but these are, in fact, Cam's reading glasses
Well old ulcer-eyes got the last word. My optometrist assessed Cam and said, “Good grief lad, you’re almost as blind as your wife! Those outlandishly googly goggles of yours are doing almost nothing for your vision and even less for your sex appeal. You need a new script and contact lenses.”

OK he didn’t directly comment on Cam’s appeal, but I know he wanted to. I asked him how Cam had been able to get around and drive if he was nearly as blind as me. The opto explained that vision is composed of 2 things: visual acuity and the brain’s ability to interpret what the eye perceives, or should perceive. 

“Cam’s brain is very good at interpreting,” the opto said, “and can fill in the blanks for what should be there.”
“What about my ability to interpret?” I asked.
The opto looked at me pityingly. “Well...let’s put it this way...your brain is smarter than you are.” Cam grinned smugly.

But he also started wearing a contact lens. Just the one lens in one eye, because his brain is so smart, his other eye just falls into line, dammit. 

That first lens-wearing day, as we drove home through the streets of the town he was born in, Cam “saw” Toowoomba for the first time. He kept exclaiming, “Look at the grass! Look at the trees! I can see leaves! I can see caterpillars eating the leaves! And what’s that in the distance?”
“A mountain,” I said.
“A mountain?”
“Well a hillock, at least. You may have heard, Toowoomba is perched atop the Great Dividing Range of Hillocks.”
“Wow,” he marvelled. “And I think to myself, what a wonderful world!”

And so it was that I won a 20-year-long argument that nature is worth beholding, and Cam took me to New Zealand to see mountains, Frodo!

As we stood at the foot of Mt Cook with its snowy peak gleaming whitely in the sun, and stripey ice burgs bobbing above bright blue glacier lakes skirted with shimmering golden aspens, Cam drew me close to him, gazed deeply into my eye – just the one because it’s not possible to look into both eyes simultaneously, try it if you don’t believe me - and whispered tenderly,
“Thank you for having an ulcer.”

And like a dangerous idiot whose brain can’t interpret, I replied,
“Any time.”