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At the weekends, I sometimes stand with my kids and wife in the supermarket watching the bananas. There are fewer than there used to be, and they’re way more expensive.
Where bananas of old were yellow, many now have a silver tinge: they’ve been rubbed to a shine by the curious and the envious – even though store security guards are under strict orders to smack your fingers with a ruler if they see you stroking the merchandise.
My sallow-cheeked boys look up at me as the well-to-do barge past us, lift one of the few remaining bunches and sweep through the checkout.
I smile and say: Daddy’s sorry.
A bog-standard Cavendish these days sets you back $3.50, or $15 a kilo – nearly 20 times dearer than Britain, where they retail for 18c.
They’ve shot up 470% since my arrival in Oz. How I rue those banana–taken-for-granted days.
You rarely see the dainty Lady Fingers variety any more – only when you look through the window of a high-class restaurant, salivating and banging on the window, as some posho rams one into their gob.
You don’t have to peel back the layers very far to see the problem’s due to Cyclone Yasi in February, Cyclone Larry in 2006, flooding and mudding in the north.
Australia has gone from producing 550,000 trays a week to as few as 35,000.
Trade restrictions mean you can’t import them legally; but something of a black-spotted market may yet come to fruition … the country’s ripe for it.
We get a weekly fruit delivery at work with loads of oranges. But I don’t want an orange. I want a banana. And I want one now.
Thanks to a frosty winter, the nanas that have made it through are of poor quality.
The one time I did splurge, a few months ago, slicing the banana into four equal parts and serving these with water for a special weekend family meal, it didn’t taste the way I’d hoped it would. A bit dry, a bit stringy.
My boys are potassium-deprived – we all are. We gather together to watch Bananas in Pyjamas – it has become our favourite show.
I’ve found myself whistling songs by Bananarama.
We’ve talked as a family about bananas we have known in the past.
I read somewhere years ago that the world’s bananas, after 1,500 years of agressive inbreeding, now come almost exclusively from two wild species, musa acuminata and musa balbisiana, and as such are vulnerable to extinction.
I was concerned enough at the time to write a song about it. It seems I was way ahead of the curve.
Of course, it’s the hope that kills you. I dream at night of six-foot, seven-foot, eight-foot bunches … then wake to realise it’s all come to naught..
State news on the topic is infrequent and unreliable. They say it’s going to get better, that we’ll soon we swimming in peel … But maybe this is to quell the riots.
Meanwhile, I stroke my boys’ heads in their cots at night, tell them I love them.
It’s all I can do.
Some 99.9% of life forms that ever existed have gone extinct, including 29 other two-footed ape species. We’re hanging on in the last 0.1%, alongside bananas – but for how long?
The concept of Noble Silence is fundamental to Vipassana meditation. You don’t talk to anyone for the duration of your stay; you don’t make eye contact; you refrain from singing show tunes in the shower.
By extension, no-one talks or makes eye contact with you. I’ve been to parties in Edinburgh like this, so have no objections in principle.
But this time was different. After being told about the facilities, and reminded we couldn’t leave the site for the next four days, Noble Silence descended. That was in the kitchen block at 7.50pm on Thursday, 10 minutes before the first sitting.
At 7.53pm, in my dorm, I realised I’d left my toothbrush at home. I realised this with my hand, inside my backpack, groping frantically. I had the paste but not the brush.
I rummaged through the bag again. And again. Socks. Panties. But no brush. I drew the curtain across my cubicle and considered suicide. Then I bit my clenched fist, shook it at the gods and mouthed the word Scheiße several times.
My mute dorm-buddies made haste arranging their sleeping bags, toiletries, crack pipes … and there was I, Mr No Brush, twisting in the wind of Woori Yallock.
I sat on the slats of my rudimentary bed, looked at the bare plywood walls, feeling like a prisoner of war …
In the meditation hall, I crossed my legs, wrapped a woolly blanket round my shoulders, back and legs.
Sadly, we didn’t get to see Goenka on VHS, but I was happy to hear him on cassette after three and a half years.
He was the same old Goenka: equanimous as anything, enlightened as bits.
Learn to master your mind, one debilitating leg cramp at a time.
It takes a while to get into it, of course. You breathe in, breathe out, think about your toothbrush, your teeth, your frigging toothbrush …
I would survive the night, but would I make it to Sunday evening? My poor gnashers: I wouldn’t have blamed them if they jumped ship.
I tried controlling my faculties, reminding myself it’s all impermanent, annica, annica … that sensations arise, pass away …
It was Baltic outside the meditation hall – a full moon, clear sky. In the sleeping quarters, the warm smell of my dorm-buddies’ bodies was repulsive and weirdly welcoming.
I thought of the men in Stalag Luft III and other containment camps … my brothers.
In the bathroom unit, I claimed one of four sinks, then sooked a fat blob of Colgate from the tube and tried to swill with it.
This required considerable oral oomph. It was tart; my eyes streamed a beauty.
Passingly satisfied with the fluoride coating, I used my index and middle fingers as a brush.
It was rubbish.
The prisoners at the other sinks brushed as if they’re lives depended on it. One guy in particular thrashed his molars, working up a lather, purging the surface of his tongue.
I watched this in my peripheral vision, while pretending not to, which meant my fellow PoW’s could probably see me too. But as I gagged, I knew we were all gagged: I couldn’t ask for help and they couldn’t slag me off.
Someone banged a gong at 4am on Friday for the first meditation of the day.
It started well. I got some good Anapana in, some decent chill.
We had to focus exclusively on the breath lapping against our philtrums; but in time my gob started mouthing off in my mind’s eye.
I once asked my dentist, post scraping, how long it would take for new plaque to form.
“Hahahahahahahah,” he said, darting a glance at his female assistant, who in retrospect he was probably banging.
“Oh Paul,” he said. “Hahahaha. It’s started already.”
I replayed this scene against the back of my eyelids a few times. It was 18 hours since my last brush, 54 or so to the next one.
My philtrum twitched.
Day one’s objective was simply still the mind. Have you ever stilled the mind? It’s not simple.
You think you’re getting there, but no – off it goes, for a minute, an hour, a month …
As the cranium quietens, you start seeing how these distractions and reactions form. For me, one went something like this:
I felt my shoulders loosening …
… saw a thread getting caught on clothing, drawing the fabric together in tight, little waves …
… thought this was a good analogy for my relaxing shoulders …
… recalled how satisfying it is when you pull the fabric and it straightens out …
… wondered how I’d put that feeling into words …
… convinced myself this thread-catching happens only in nylon …
… pondered the production and use of synthetic polymers …
… got a sudden mental image of my gran’s navy nylon trousers …
… remembered she had passed away …
… started crying.
It’s true what Moses said: the brain’s a mental organ.
By Friday evening my mouth was a festering moth. I could use a sock to clean my teeth, I thought, a T-shirt but, no …
Escape was an option, however remote. Had I not seen, just that morning, two burly laundry men picking up adult-sized bags of linen and throwing them with abandon into a laundry truck? No, I hadn’t.
Ultimately, you’re responsible for your own liberation.
There was plenty of plywood to shore up a tunnel. I could shake earth from my pajama bottoms before the next sitting.
After my last Vipassana course, I was told someone had tried escaping in the dead of night and was “persuaded” to stay – i.e. caught in the carpark and beaten to a meditative pulp by the volunteer management.
How many others have simply disappeared, “become enlightened”, “transcended”?
Naturally, I’d given the site a pretty good recce in my spare time.
A few acres, fenced in; trees around the perimeter; fields stretching to the horizon across the Yarra Valley. If they sent the rottweilers after me I’d be dead in no time.
Under cover of darkness, I kicked some stones about, edged closer to the site carpark.
There were no guntowers as such, but structures either side of the gate: one was disguised as a prefabricated hut, the other as a moss-laden caravan. If I could make it to the car, anything was possible.
I knew there was a Coles supermarket about three miles east, full of brushes – a hair brush would do, a broom, a lint remover.
When the pre-dawn gong went on Saturday, I squeezed more Colgate into my moosh.
Meditation halls the world over are dark and cold at this time of day, which makes it hard to see people sitting there. You knee them in the head as you pass, and can’t even apologise.
You have to get to your cushion, get your blanket on, your hoodie up, yawn, crack your knuckles, scratch your nuts.
My brain was still engaged with Goenka’s free-ranging discourse from the night before.
Goenka: Observe your sensations …
Brain: Gum disease, swollen tongue …
Goenka: Let go of attachments …
Brain: A brush, a brush, a brush …
Goenka: Focus on your breath …
Brain: Erm …
Goenka: Be happy …
Brain: I can’t …
Each time my tongue tapped furry enamel my desire to escape intensified. At several points my mutinous mind wandered out to the tea tree forest on the site’s western perimeter.
I’d sneaked into it the day before, and cut a path through the trees until seeing signs warning me not to go any further.
I’d stood there for an hour and a half singing Leonard Cohen songs.
The signs were alluding to the fact there was, just a few steps away, a sheer drop to near-certain death down a treacherous gully.
But if I survived I could be up to the supermarket and back in an hour, provided my ankles weren’t broken, the gashes in my bonce not too severe.
Was that Lili Marlene gleaming by the barrack gate?
I’m doing it, I thought, still sitting, knees blow-torch burning – I’m escaping.
No, yes, no, yes, no …
The clunk of the penny dropping, that I’d given the course manager my wallet and phone for “safe keeping”, wasn’t pleasant. It knocked the wind from my sails.
Even if I survived the fall, fought off rabid wallabies and made it into Coles in blood-stained pajama bottoms with bad hair and feral mouth, what was I going to do? Ask them to give me a toothbrush for free? Steal one?
I denied myself honey in my ginger tea for the third night in a row on Saturday … Mr McCavity said no in no uncertain terms.
This bugged me. This bugged me a lot. The drink was the only sustenance permitted between 11.30am and 8.30am the next morning.
That did it. I cracked.
I left the kitchen block and bumbled cautiously though the darkness, arms outstretched. I crossed some rough terrain en route to the course manager’s accomodation.
I climbed some steps. Faint light escaped through a gap in his curtains.
When he opened the door we made eye contact, and I laid the whole thing out straight/ slightly sheepishly:
“A problem … I’ve got a big problem … My teeth … haven’t brushed them … my gums hurt … I need a brush …”
The course manager nodded and bowed slightly. “We sell brushes here on site,” he said. “If you come with me, I’ll get you one.”
Part 2 of 2. Read part one, Vipassana meditation: before you go, here.
I’m driving to a place called Woori Yallock in two hours to sit still, or slightly fidgety, for three whole days.
I call it “sitting still” because saying “going to meditate” unsettles me.
I fear it comes across as showing poor judgement or new-ageyness, both of which could be dangerous.
Article 26 in the Journalistic Code of Ethics, right below phone hacking, and lying about phone hacking, expressly forbids: “hippydom, white-boy dreadlocks, and using ‘vibe’ to describe atmosphere.”
Telling people you’re going to meditate feels a bit like telling them you’re a veggie … which I am … oh shit, it’s not looking good.
I know what Vipassana meditation involves because I did a ten-day course in 2008.
You can’t speak to anyone, look at anyone, touch anyone, write anything, read anything, listen to music, play with your phone, receive messages, yank your chain or kill anything. (The last one’s a particular strain).
You eat what the course volunteers cook you, nothing else – which is bearable for me because I’m a veggie.
You get woken with a gong at 4.30am and do ten hour-long sessions a day.
You sit on square cushions with poor yield, close your eyes and feel searing pain in all your joints.
You learn things about boredom you’d never have imagined, but mainly that it’s incredibly boring.
On the plus side:
There’s no special breathing.
No demand for the lotus position.
No guru, unless you count SN Goenka, who delivers infrequent pep talks by rolling VHS.
No lighting of candles.
No leap of faith.
What goes through the mind during the sittings? What doesn’t go through the mind? Lot’s of stuff goes through, then returns for more, the majority of it utter bollocks.
Last time I noticed the White Album playing on repeat in the outskirts of my head: I tuned in for the Lennon tracks but Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da grated pretty badly after, ooh, five seconds. As for Piggies … I still can’t go there.
Of course, the album was remastered in 2009 so I’ll be listening this time for any small changes – less static, more hand claps, burps …
By day three, your monkey has nothing left to hide.
So why am I going?
I need to take stock.
I live in a living room.
I’ve lost a much-loved gran.
I’ve gained a son.
I’ve seen another son growing into a little man.
I’ve started a new job.
I’ve got lost driving/ on foot/ on trains/ in conversation many hundreds of times.
Insights? Yes, yes, fine. But I was already sold with the promise of sitting in a room, in silence, doing nothing for three days.
Part 1 of 2. For part 2, click here.
People have been calling me Plosive Paul lately, largely cos I be poppin ps perpetually.
My bilabial occlusives, I’m told, are particularly aspirated. In phonetic script they look like this: /pʰ/ – which means air shoots from my gob at top speed with words such as pup or pip, as if I’m trying to spit out a piece of peppery poppadom or crepe … it’s crap.
Since being prepped on it I can’t help noticing – I’m looking to wrap it up, to stop; I’ve even considered getting an op.
While the escaping pop isn’t quite enough to knock propped-up postcards from mantlepieces, I’ve thought about procuring a Popper Stopper, those circular, black things on the front of microphones – with the help of a bendy coat hanger, I could wear one like a harmonica holder, like Bob Dylan, except I’d look like a proper prick.
And it wouldn’t be practical – I’d be caught on the hop, given these stops with rapid pops crop up pretty frequently.
It’s got on top of me, not least because I usually lop off the ends of words. I deal with my ts in the Aberdeen way, the guiding principle being: let them drop, or use a glottal stop.
So I don’t have a computer but a compu–er; I’m not a commuter but a commu–er; I don’t think something’s shit, but shi–; this t-culling happens a lo–: it’s jus– par– of being Sco––ish.
In the past, I didn’t feel the leas– bi– self-conscious rabi––ing on abou– my penchan– for Pulp’s grea–es– hi–s. Now I just think: tha– sounds crap, ya plosive pap.
I rue my missing ts because – in a cruel twist of fate – some Australians rock ts that would fear you. They rattle brittly from the end of words but also at the start and middle. As with my ps, these plosive ts are airy – /tʰ/ – with killer aspiration.
I’ve tried to ignore it, sweep it under the carpet. Of course, I take it – what choice do I have? – but it makes me uptight. It’s tantamount to a clout in the snout – or worse.
In layman’s terms the /tʰ/ sounds like “tih”, so listening to the news on earphones can feel somewhat-ih like a baseball bat-ih being whacked-ih off your nut-ih; it-ih’s almost-ih like being knocked-ih out-ih, mate-ih – what-ih’s it-ih all about-ih?
It might be a posho thing, because you only hear it in some places, but it puts the t squarely in WTF?
From an evolutionary point of view, Scotland and Australia are better off at opposite ends of the planet: running such volatile ps and ts together could change things from plosive to explosive in no time: one minute you’re giving it Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers; the next it’s: kaboom, ya Tupperware poop-face twat.
Even on a good day you’d keel over – it’s way too much air for a single person to expel, your pulmonary pipework would collapse.
Or perhaps not.
Maybe I could practise, pioneer, if a pal or mate put me up to it …
I’ll shut up.