Friday, December 21, 2012

I don't want to be a cynical Grinch anymore

I'm tired of being cynical. View my Twitter feed this morning and that may seem at odds with where my head's been at, but gimme a break, my head's full of phlegm.

Cynicism is draining. I hate when I get caught up in it. It's egotistical. It's lazy. It's easy. It's pathetic. It's miserable. It's a waste of energy and passion. It's tedious and people don't like it unless they absolutely agree. I'm quite cynical about it.

My cynicism now traditionally spikes around December, or immediately following media coverage of an NRA statement.

The primary cause - nine years working amongst the Christmas madness, three at a bottle shop where people take things very seriously on Christmas Eve. All those shitty, impatient customers and their Christmas sneer.

December is dominated by shopping and it's a jungle of materialistic animals, every man and woman for his and herself. I don't want any fucking presents, any small anonymous gifts left on my desk at work. Let's just be social. I'll even make an effort despite this fucking cold I picked up at work.

Sorry, another momentary lapse. Six years distance from those memories has actually starved my Grinch of a significant amount of bitter oxygen. Also, I spend as little time as possible shopping - either heading out once I know what I want, or at the last minute when I'm resigned to settling for crap.

This year we have a Christmas tree! First time since I left the parental home six years ago. Well we had a 'Christmas branch' one year, in a vase of stones, decorated with silver tinsel, but from my point of view that was as much a 'fuck you' to the traditional tree as it was a delightful decorative piece. I'd have kept doing it if I'd been able to find another such perfect branch, and my housemate hadn't taken the vase, stones and tinsel.

This year's is a real one though. Well, it's fake, but it's a step back towards my childhood Christmas experiences. The happy ones. We even have a Nativity Scene, if only because Mum "inoffensively" insisted. But I don't mind it for pleasant, nostalgic value. Santa isn't real either.

Meanwhile there's so much nasty cynicism from people on Twitter at the moment, who see to build notoriety and popularity by mistaking nastiness for wit. Okay, they're funny sometimes, but I don't want so much of that negativity in my world. I just want to see people more more open and accepting, because it'd make it a damn sight easier for me to be.

Last week I was a groomsman at a wedding for two of my closest friends, one of whom I've known for more than 20 years and was unspeakably stoked to share her special day with.

They think a little differently to me. Out on location a day before, the weather was causing havoc with arrangements, we ran through a rehearsal that was not quite what I'd have done and there was much frantic organising taking place, which continued into the next morning. I wanted to tell them to relax and enjoy the day for what it would be, you can't control these things no matter how much you plan. I should have taken my own advice.

It was perfect. It was their wedding, and 'them' to a tee, and amazing, and - most importantly - truly genuine. I even caught the tiniest salty discharge trying to escape the corner of my eye.

I tried a few times to express to them how amazing I thought it was and how much it meant to be part of it, knowing people sometimes to struggle to know how seriously to take me.

And then on TV last night two quotes summed up what I was thinking. Some guy on the ABC said that "tolerance is not the opposite of intolerance, hospitality is" and Father Bob said on  The Project that people are "so busy whinging you can't hear the beautiful things". Touche. Or see or feel them.

There will always be shit people in the world. Indeed, one must be grateful for it, as it makes it that much easier to be better than most. I want to bitch less, get caught up less in other people's unproductive negativity, but you'd be sorely mistaken if you think that means a reduction in passion, so there will continue to be angry rants with hopefully at least a dash of constructive thoughtfulness.

Back to Christmas. This is the most festive I've felt in years and why should I fight that. There's heaps to enjoy about Christmas. For me, being grateful for friends who continue to stand by my side and some awesome new ones I've made this year, as well as a family I don't actively appreciate enough. Time off and the general opportunity to spend time away from the desk and with special people. Not even gun-toting menaces with cold, dead hearts half a world away, or impatient, rude, selfish shoppers can distract me from that for more than few moments.

I'll do my Christmas shopping and I'll take it slow, and smile at people and let them go ahead of me if they must - unless they're being a total arse, in which case perhaps I'll just cough on them ... I can't fight my nature too much. I might even notice someone else takin' it slow and free and easy. just digging it for what it is - crazy activity in our strange world. And that will make me happy.

Then I'll go have a beer with friends and talk about all sorts of random stuff. And I'll have fun, as long as this fucking cold eases off.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thirty is the new who cares

Never too old to 'meme'
Thirty is the new 'who gives a toss how old you are'. An indifference I expect will - naturally and counter-intuitively - increase with time. The happiest people in the world don't care about their age. Most of them are 'old'. Writing about getting old at 30 must seem as foolish to anyone older than me as it would seem normal to most people younger.

"Are you feeling older and wiser today?" my workmates asked on Tuesday - the day I dropped the "2" prefix forever.

"Yeah," I replied. "Same as every other day."

I don't feel anywhere near as old as I probably seem to those kids that drunkenly stumble around the bars around the corner from my house. Not that I care. I was the same. They'll get it one day. Maybe.

My 18-year-old self would have been shocked to find out 12 years on I'd be renting in a share house, with no wife, no girlfriend, in a barely-satisfying job.

Aging worried me more when I was 16 than it does now. I was dumb. Why spend today worrying about how you might feel tomorrow? How else is there to live other than moving through life?

People complain about getting old, but no one wants to miss out on the privilege.

I didn't get it, but you're not supposed to, otherwise what would be the point?

I could never have dreamed of my life at 30 - the people, the opportunities, more actively getting out and seeing things, looking at small gigs and realising that not everyone buys into the myth of adulthood that's sold to us early on, not everyone lives by the numbers. It can still be fun and that doesn't mean balking at the responsibilities and serious stuff. It just means being happy. I don't have to be married right now (or ever); I don't have to have kids, though it would be a shame given how awesome an uncle I am; I don't have to be bidding on houses in places I can afford but don't want to live; I don't have to start tuning in to classic hits radio.

My twenties were tough. And fantastic. And memorable. Defining. I've picked up so much and left behind a restrictive, miserable, instructed way of thinking about myself and the world. I realised that it's weird to be normal and it's normal to be weird. Normal for you is who you are, what you desire, how you express yourself. Guaranteed it will seem weird to other people but that's just a great filter of figuring out who is worth talking to.

I've never been older, I've never been happier.

Thirty is a good round number, so it's a worthwhile time, sit back for a moment and think about how things are going, write a blog post perhaps.

Life is moving fast, as ever. There's more to do than can be done. But you will never have so much life left again.

Mostly, turning 30 has made me think about my priorities and how to achieve what I really want from my life, particularly the next few years.

Saturn's Return has fascinated me for a few years, because I wanted it to be truth. I wanted upheaval in my life, and better if it came because of some external, universal force that didn't require me waking up to myself. I wrote one of my first blog posts about it, on the occasion of my 28th birthday.

I was excited about this period when “a person crosses over a major threshold and into the next stage of life”.

“The first Saturn Return is famous because it represents the first test of character and the structures a person has built their life upon. According to traditions, should these structures be unsound, or if a person is living out of touch with his or her true values, the Saturn Return will be a time of upheaval and limitations as Saturn forces him or her to jettison old concepts and worn out patterns of living. It is not uncommon for relationships and jobs to end during this time of life restructuring and reevaluation.”
And on turning 30:

"During this time astrologers note that goals are consolidated and people tend to gain a better vision of where they are going in life. There are added responsibilities and a person may reap the rewards from his or her hard work. Many major life milestones seem to happen around the ages of 29 and 30. This is why astrologers believe that the thirtieth birthday is such a major rite of passage because it marks the true beginning of adulthood, self-evaluation, independence, ambition, and self-actualization.”

Maybe I just wanted it to be true, I had the right mindset to make it self-fulfilling. Maybe it was coincidence that that girl passed through my life right at that time and shook everything up. Whether astrological, psychological or random chance, the last two years of my life have been the most amazing, most transformative, of my life. Or perhaps I'm just more aware of myself now.

"You're shit - do stuff!": Friendly advice in early 2010
Two years ago I desperately wanted a relationship, partially as a distraction from myself to make me happy. Instead I did it myself. I had some guidance and good friends, friends who saw the gap between my life and my potential and were willing to say "You're shit, do stuff!". And I did, I am, I will. I got to work on being happy with myself so I could get going pursuing the things that made me happy. I'm keeping an eye out for that special someone, whoever she is, but I don't need her anymore - to the resistant dismay of some friends. There is so much else in my life that drives me and makes me happy anyway. I will never rely on just one person for companionship, inspiration, advice, conversation, wisdom, fun, telling-it-like-it-is, love and everything else my friends provide. I am tired of spooning my pillows though.

The notion of being a grown up is bullshit. It suggests being done growing. No one never knows much at all, and we know taking life too seriously is hazardous for your health. The day I stop growing as a person is the day I say goodbye, be it 30 or 80.

Today is always today. Yesterday is a memory. Tomorrow will never arrive. This is the start of what I expect to be the best decade of my first four. But maybe it won't be. Maybe I won't see it out. I'll just enjoy living it for better and worse. I'm not going to base my life around a job I don't like and work towards a day I might not reach, only to get there and wonder where the time went?

I'm the least stressed member of my family and I'm the one living the least conventional life (and the one with the - diagnosed at least - anxiety disorder...).

Every day is a highly unlikely gift, so don't make it a cliche - you're not one, once you realise it. Even if that sentence is.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Fond farewell to a man's best friend

Goodbye Lucy, my manic ball of scruff.
Lucy in 2002, age 6, looking innocent

They say dogs resemble their owners. I wonder if you picked up certain unfortunate traits from me, at least me as a youth, things like a palpable anxiety at times (no doubt also due to being zipped over, miraculously unharmed, by a car in the very early days), a fierce temper and being just a little bit, healthily, crazy.

Sixteen and a half years ago, Mum and Dad just sprung it on me one ordinary June Saturday that we were to get a dog. A lesson for all kids there - pester long enough and you can win. Dad had, years earlier, promised me a dog for my eighth birthday, undoubtedly hoping I'd forget. We had an old Labrador for a short while - the most timid animal I've ever met, very unlike you Lucy - but she became too much stress for Mum I think so we gave her to a family friend where she was well looked after. Perhaps if I'd been more aware of things I would not have half-jokingly pestered Dad for the five or six between turning  eight and this June day in 1996. Still, it was a shock. Why had they suddenly come to this decision? Was there bribery involved...?

I don't know why I chose a small dog, I've always liked big ones. Maybe the pressure of the situation. I don't know what stood out about you, I vaguely remember a certain energy. It would make sense if you were the terror of the litter, even at six weeks.

It was so unexpected that Nick and Dave freaked out when they saw what looked like an over-sized rat running around the kitchen upon returning home from a weekend in Queensland. I remember when you used to sleep in Dave's The Late Show cap. He loved that cap. I love that you claimed it. Man, I wish I could find that photo!

I was naive in a lot of ways. I wanted the dog but not the responsibility. But I was now old enough to take on responsibility. I sure as hell didn't know what I was in for. None of us did. You included, I'm sure.

For years I wanted a dog, but as soon as we got you home I became depressed. It wasn't you, it was me. All I could think about for days was that I was going to get attached to you and someday you would die. That was the sentiment in my irrational head and locked-up heart. In the first days you were a constant reminder of an unavoidable sadness I couldn't handle. Maybe it was the sudden change in my life. I never much liked change.

But change is inevitable, and irrationality passes. And who could maintain such detached thinking with such bursts of unbound energy racing around the place.

I'm not gonna lie, you brought more than your fair share of trouble. We had a complex friendship you and me, but that just made it more real. I think I was the only one that actually talked to you sometimes, but don't tell anyone.

Lucy, 11 November 2012, aged 16
I always knew exactly where you stood. Your temperament needed work as much as my energy and motivation did. It didn't make things easy. I didn't train you well at all, but on the flipside, I'm glad we didn't train the personality out of you. You were moody a bit more than is generally acceptable for a dog, and we had to make sure the kids were careful with you - which was sad - but you were genuine. When you came to me, jumped all over me in your unruly, enthusiastic way, I knew it was because you wanted to - maybe because I had a schmacko - not out of mere obedience.

I should have socialised you more. I was not a great owner, but I hope I was as good a friend for you as you were for me, especially in those early years when I didn't have many of the human variety.

As I spent two weeks unable to settle on a name, Nick and Dave - inspired by a film they'd just seen - enthusiastically suggested Kaiser. It would have been somewhat fitting. Dave lovingly called you "Psycho". Unbound sometimes meant aggressively undisciplined, but in all you were a loving, loved, bundle of fun and joy.

It's fair to say I have some regrets, though I don't know how you feel about it all. about lots of things. You didn't want to be trained, and I made mediocre teenage efforts to train you. You had temperament issues, I had motivational ones. In some ways, we made a good pairing, but I think I let you down. I definitely let Mum and Dad down. I'd do things differently, I don't know how you felt about it all.

I'm sorry I had to leave you behind when I moved out. I probably didn't wash you often enough, especially after moving out, but I'm not sure you're too fussed about that one. I was thrilled that we continued to have that special owner/pet bond, as if you know you were "my" dog. Though I don't like the term "owner" between friends.

I'm sorry for the conflicted feelings I felt as you aged. The guilt of leaving you behind, when having a dog around was a stress Mum didn't need and had her own health to worry about. When signs of age appeared - when you stopped racing to the side of the house barking as my car pulled up because you couldn't hear so well, and when you stopped running to the front door as I entered jumping all over me because you didn't have the energy - I felt some relief of this guilt, which was horrible and created new conflicted feelings and guilt in me.

The last week was tough. Seeing you stop eating and fade so fast, no longer responding to your name, I wasn't even sure if I was being a comfort or annoyance. I don't know if you even knew who I really was anymore so far were you gone. You were not the little loveable menace of years past. But you were still Lucy.

The hardest part was that I didn't know what the best thing for you was. I prepared myself to make that difficult decision - on advice - but the vet encouraged persistence. You seemed to have made up your mind though.

I'm sad I wasn't the one there with you on Friday when you fell asleep for the last time, to look you in the eye and comfort you like all those other times the bad man gave you needles (he really is a nice fellow, I should say). I'm sorry one of the last moments we shared involved me forcing tablets down your throat.

I hate saying I felt some relief when we all decided it was time, but I did, for various reasons. It was nothing like my anxious fears when you first arrived. We were all ready. It's horrible. Or is it? Is it coping? Is it the way when a life comes to a prolonged, (almost) natural end?

But now you are actually gone and it's been a long time - before you were born - since I've lost anyone/anything dear to me. Looking at photos of you makes me much much sadder than I felt when I knew your time was up. Do I miss you more than I loved you? Fuck, I hope not, that's horrible. It's reality sinking in. I look at these photos and want to scruff you up again, chase you round the back yard, yell "cat!" and see you bolt out the back to try in vain to intimidate the darn things. I look  at that photo, of the dog that's been some years gone, and still I have to remind myself. She's gone. She's gone. She's gone. I think I had a tear yesterday. I'm not sure, wind was blowing in my eyes. But I am sad.

I'm coming round tomorrow. It might sink in then, seeing your bowl and bed - or not seeing them. I'm going to sit next to where Dad buried you, have a beer and thank you for being the crazy, untameable, troublesome, fun life you were. I'm glad I picked you.

Miss you buddy. You were one of a kind. It was far from perfect, but I hope we gave you a happy life.

A friend gave me some words from Ben Hur Lampman (I'd never heard of him, but he seems to be switched on): "The one best place to bury a good dog is in the heart of his master".

I'm not sure I was ever your master, but you know you always have a comfortable spot there.

Rest well, or just give 'em hell, wherever you are.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


Slightly edited version of internal ramblings jotted down while sitting with a beer at the Weihenstephaner Restaurant, Hackescher Markt, immediately after a five-hour walking tour of Berlin on Tuesday 9 October 2012.

Berlin is exploding my mind.
Ich bin ein Berliner!

I arrived Sunday evening, am staying on the north-east fringe of town - and a large town it is - and didn't really feel it yesterday. All I did yesterday though, was visit the nice but relatively pitiful Oktoberfest set up in Alexanderplatz (comparison aside, it's actually kinda cool) and went up the TV Tower where I finally started to get my bearings. You can study maps all you like but it's not until you've been in and around the city for at least a day or two that it starts to make sense. And perhaps even then, without contextual knowledge of history and culture, this place wouldn't be so flash. Yesterday I walked right past Lustgarten, barely giving it a glance.

Today I did a walking tour. It was five hours of cultural and historical sights and information. A barrage of thought-provoking information bites, one after another for five hours. It was full on. Possibly the best paid tourist experience I've had. Today, back at Lustgarten with a little knowledge, the same space affected me deeply.

Yesterday I wondered whether Berlin would meet my expectations. Today I declare it my favourite of all the cities I've visited! One I could really see myself spending an extended period of time in. I love Germany overall, but this city has so much to offer.

New York makes you feel like you are at the centre of the world, Berlin feels like the centre of modern human history. New York's appeal is largely built on ego. Berlin's is based on culture, counter-culture, history, revolution, misery, and tough lessons that they've taken head on. My country could learn a lot about dealing with shameful history from Berlin and Germany generally.

There is such contrast and diversity in the history and place of this city. So much to think about.
How would modern Australia treat 'wall jumping' asylum seekers?

One place, one city that has been a leader in tolerance, was home to the greatest intolerance and human rights abuses of living memory, was bombed to pieces, ripped in half as part of a conflict not it's own, and came out the other side - finally - as one of the most vibrant, accepting and open cities on the planet.

The Mayor is openly homosexual - surely one of very few in the world - in a city where homosexuals were executed 70 years ago. My tour guide was an Israeli artist who moved to Berlin because it allowed her greater freedom of expression than her homeland. The same Berlin that was the capital of a country that executed six million Jews is now more accepting of some of them than Israel. Shocking, amazing, disappointing, fantastic.

Were the decades of pain and suffering necessary to make the city what it is? No doubt tourism thrives on atrocious historical events, but not culture, right? Why have the people of Berlin progressed so rapidly on respect for others while we in the lucky country languish in the struggle to shift - to open - supressed conservative minds. Perhaps drastic events are necessary for rapid change - sometimes for the worse, as post-World War I Berlin showed - but surely we can progress without suffering. Why does it often take a wall to drive people to seek to move beyond the ground its on.

This man. Is my hero
Berlin is what it is - something great - because of its past. Who's to say what it might otherwise have been? Or more the point, it is the city it is because of how the people of Berlin responded to their circumstances: accepting the past, learning from it and moving forward.

At one point on the walking tour we stopped by a memorial for a man who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1939. The guide wondered aloud, "if he has assassinated Hitler, maybe we would have avoided these atrocities."

It was a pertinent, thought-provoking and troubling. An ordinary man, an attempted murderer, presented as a hero. Yes, I felt a ping of admiration for him. He could have saved millions of lives and spared decades of misery for Germans, particularly of the east. Or maybe it would have made little difference. The Nazis were more than Hitler. Maybe things would have escalated. Maybe all hell would have broken lose. Assassinations tend to start more wars than they end. Who knows?

I'm opposed to the death penalty and certainly people taking justice into their own hands, so it was difficult to reconcile my feelings. If he'd been successful, maybe we'd view him differently - after all, Hitler would have died with far less blood on his hands and no one would ever have known the lengths to which he was prepared to go for his vision and to win the war.

As I said, I felt some admiration towards and sympathy for this man - admittedly given the full and subsequent context of Hitler's life - and disappointment that he had failed like so many others did, before I realised I was perhaps being hypocritical and now I'm not really sure.

Truth is it's complex. I dare say he was a decent man with well-intentioned - even admirable and courageous - motives who tried to do something that was morally questionable. I think questioning the morality of such action is the only way to promote and maintain a civil society. Can you bring back civility with uncivil action? Or is it better to die standing by your values no matter what? It's easy to stand by your morals when you're not the one doing the dying I guess.

That was just one of many complex questions Berlin has thrown at me today

No city has ever made me think so much about the complexities in humanity. Complexities too often glossed over or shoved into a convenient pigeon-hole.

Here the contrasts and complexities are - more than anywhere I've ever been - set free and promoted. By government, but mostly, and somewhat passively, through art.

I get it now. I understand why so many artists come here.

This city makes you think, question, explore - if you're willing to take the journey.

JFK was right, we're all Berliners (not doughnuts), it's the world's city of human struggle. This place has seen it all and has something to teach every person on the planet.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Anxious and travel

We're all prone to lying to ourselves sometimes to avoid uncomfortable or unpopular truths.

I reckon there is a massive myth around the way we travel. Few people ever admit to not enjoying a holiday - it’s sacrilege.

Each year over the last six years I’ve taken three-to-five weeks leave and gone on adventure, almost always overseas. Every time I’ve suffered a bout of depression and anxiety at some point for a variety of reasons – one time so bad I was painfully close to flying home a week early – but I always returned home with a smile and revelled in the photos and stories of a wonderful adventure. I do love travelling; I had just never found the right way for me. But I think I’ve cracked it.

Right now I’m in a Munich hotel, with about 24 hours left of a three-week journey through Germany and Eastern Europe, and this time I can genuinely say has been a fantastic trip; easily the most enjoyable yet. I’m not gonna lie, it hasn’t all been easy, but it’s the first time I’ve consistently forgotten what day it is; the first time I haven’t struggled to occupy my mind when travelling alone; the first time I haven’t started counting down days in anticipation of getting home (though I am now ready). Never before have I been able to so completely forget about home and my comfort zone for such long periods of time.

There are a few reasons. Partly it’s just being in a better place mentally. These trips have always been somewhat of a benchmark of where I am really at in my management of anxiety. I think I’ve kept doing it because I like challenging myself, or I’m a maniacal optimist.

But I’ve learnt from previous mistakes. This time I did things differently. I did it the way that worked for me, not how other people do it.

I mixed things up.

I started with a bang at Oktoberfest with friends, one of the craziest experiences I’ve had and one we’ll be talking about to the point of boredom for those who weren’t there as long as we hang out.

I then spent a week or so on my own. I knew I needed some relaxation, downtime and my own space on this trip. That meant taking things a bit slower that I have in the past and slashing my list of places to visit so I could enjoy those I did and relax as well as get out amongst it. In that time I splashed out and stayed in hotels. I can afford it and the trip was short enough that the extra cost was worth maintaining my sanity by paying to have my own space with the basic luxuries.

One of the lies I’ve told myself while travelling is that people always have fun in hostels - that I’ll meet people and we’ll be friends and maybe I’ll even hook up with someone and it’ll be awesome. Maybe it’s true for confident extroverts but I’m socially stunted when it comes to meeting people, lack the energy to engage with strangers, hate small talk and have had few conversations in the many hostels I’ve stayed in, let alone made friends. In fact, once I start to feel mental fatigue and the downs of travel – detachment, isolation, boredom – hostels suffocate me. I feel like there’s already friendships established so why would they want me talking to them (talking to people in the lobby these days means interrupting them while they’re checking the Facebook on the free wi-fi anyway)and I don’t sleep well from paranoia about snoring and pissing people off. I don’t want to have to flee my base to get the space I need.

I realised if I want to relax, I needed my own comfortable space. It’s not the cool or youthful way to travel, but fuck me, it worked a treat. And I was quite happy being anti-social for a week, especially while I dealt with the mind explosion that is Berlin. It also allowed me to address the single most important element in keeping my head – getting plenty of rest.

In that time I also made sure I had things to keep me occupied in my downtime that weren’t Facebook, or the internet in general. Previously I’ve thought the way to stave off boredom and anxiety was to keep a busy itinerary. But I think, for me, it’s just the opposite. Take time, and have time to myself where I have things to do. Sightseeing is the main activity, but you can’t feel guilty taking a break from it. It should be an experience not a distraction. Don’t drive yourself nuts getting to all the sights listed in Lonely Planet because you feel like you should. See what interests you. Spend a few hours reading or writing or just people watching in a bar and soaking up the vibe of a city. Whatever.

I didn’t want to spend two weeks on my own, and I know I need a bit of force to mingle with strangers, so I signed up for a tour for the following week. One that was long enough to actually get to know people, but not too long that it wore me down. In 2009 when I was ready to pay whatever it took to fly home early, the saving grace was a four-day tour of the Canadian Rockies. It got me out of my own head after a couple of weeks mentally isolated in hostels racking up a massive phone bill looking to Facebook for human connection and made me actually interact with real people.

Once past that awkward initial stage I’m a social animal. I made up for my lack of getting-to-know-you skills by never shying away from activity, especially involving that social lubricant, alcohol. After a few days you realise a few cool people actually like you and you wonder why you doubt yourself so much, because really you are pretty fucking awesome.

Now it’s over and I’m missing a bunch of random strangers who happened to pick the same tour as me that I’d never met a little over a week ago. People I had deep and diverse conversation with that I wouldn’t have with family or work colleagues, and many of whom I’ll likely never see again. I don’t have the stomach to do that over and over for a few months. At least Facebook makes it easier to either stay friends or gently slip away. 

Maybe there are lessons here for others, I don’t know. A lot of people get stressed out when they travel, much more than they’ll admit. Do be confined by how others define the experience of travel. Find your own way. It should be a fun, joyous thing. But as little as it’s ever spoken, there’s a lot of stress that can come with travel.

Modern tourists get caught up worrying about schedules and itineraries. We visit tourist sites because they’re tourist sites, take their photos and leave, not actually really enjoying it. We race from city to city to say they’ve been there so they can partake in masturbatory conversations about the best city in the world (I personally think its Berlin). Even though my travels have been largely based on it, I don’t think three or less days does any city justice, even Canberra. We see places through a camera lens, desperately trying to capture a moment for fear of forgetting it - or so it can be relayed to others (not possible unless you’re a mega creative photographer) - rather than actually immersing ourselves in it with all our senses and soaking up the atmosphere, which a camera can’t do.

Travelling alone makes you more prone to taking too many photos because you want to share all the little interesting moments with someone. I actually find it relieving when places don’t allow photos because I take it in without thinking about the camera.

I don’t care that I didn’t experience an onslaught of cities through booze-wearied Contiki eyes. Better to experience a few places properly than visit a lot briefly.

I’m not bothered that I never spent my youth travelling and/or working in Europe as seems to have become a rite-of-passage for many young Aussies. It’s great for some, it’s not for everyone and it’s sure as hell not an automatic ticket to maturity or worldliness. I know people who never left Australia that are more world-wise than others who’ve been to 20 countries. 

Travel is a fantastic learning experience though. It offers a chance to get outside your comfort zone and away from the daily grind, see different cultures, meet new and diverse people, gain perspective, learn about life and reflect on your own. Do it your own way and learn from the inevitable – sometimes painful, sometimes fun, sometimes hilarious – mistakes and it’s one of life’s greatest activities.

I’ve learnt a lot every time, and no less on this trip time, about myself and this crazy, messed up world and time I randomly find myself in.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Anxious and dating

Painfully awkward at dating. Fuck it, I've got whiskey.
I've never even seen Mad Men. But I like whiskey.
First dates are horrible. Two people getting to know each other, sussing out whether they want to see the other person again, while often being too nervous too reveal particularly much of their personality.

It's worse when you're predisposed to anxious thinking. Even having learnt to deal with it pretty well now, there are certain situations that deem themselves important enough to grant it power.

The doubts, the questions, the 'what ifs' - all return a little, then a lot if you let them. The pressures outweigh the prospects. The ruminations outweigh the romance.

In five years of singledom I've covered many dating scenarios - the online dating date, the friend of a friend date, the work colleague date. I've courted, been courted, rejected, been rejected. Had a couple of one-night-stands, even more one-night-spoons, even a short, intense quasi-relationship.

I don't date a lot. I don't feel the need and, well, I'm no good at it.

There are compounding factors to the whole anxiety thing. It took me a long time to be understand females. I grew up with two brothers and no sisters, went to an all-boys high school, had no real female friends through my teens (or fake ones for that matter). I had not the slightest idea of how to talk to girls. All I knew was to avoid the failsafe schoolyard conversation topics of farts, footy and gay-jokes.

I did grow up with the fantastic notion that a girl would waltz into my life, see through my crippling shyness, and make me happy, distracting me totally and perpetually from all those stupid thoughts and constant 'worrying' (later to be diagnosed as OCD and anxiety disorder!)

Somehow I found myself (sadly that's not much of an overstatement) in a relationship when I was 18 that lasted six years, and I came out the other side at 24 with a much better understanding of women, a growing number of female friends - actually many of my closest - but still no real dating experience.

Five years on, things are quite different. I'm far more confident, capable and calm. I am surrounded by women at work and in social life, they probably more than half of my closest friends and confidantes.

Still. I don't enjoy dating. It's bad enough with someone you've gotten to know, decided you like, clumsily courted, built up the courage to ask out. Meeting someone from the online dating world is a whole other experience, and one I'm going through at the moment.

I find much more intense meeting a person with the immediate pressure of prospective relations.. You might call it 'intimi-dating'. Perhaps not. But I don't enjoy it.

I hate small talk. I hate talking about work. I play it safe, don't bang on about issues I'm passionate about that they might have no interest in. I actually had multiple dates with a girl who said she would never talk politics. Oh the thought of it!

I get ahead of myself, my mind fast forwards, I project thoughts, doubts and feelings. She's talking to me and my mind is trying to run three simultaneous processes: trying to think of something to say when silence falls; trying to assess our compatibility; and finally - given least importance in my tense, distorted mind - listening to what she's actually saying.

I'm naturally cautious. I don't want to throw uncertainty to the wind and find myself suddenly in a relationship I never really wanted. Past mistakes haunt me.

If I'm somewhat interested, then there's a new collection of doubts. Should I kiss her? When? How to do it without awkwardness (impossible!)? What if that leads her on? What if I don't and she thinks I have no interest? What if I do and it doesn't clear my head of all these goddamned thoughts?!!?What next? And when? Will this lead to inevitable hurt? I remember when I was 12 my parents got me a dog after years of me pestering - when we got her I was consumed with the painful thought of becoming attached to this creature that would die and hurt me someday. If the present didn't provide it, I could find sufficient anxiety in the future.

I warm to people slowly, and it's an amazing, crazy few who see through my (now much thinner) veneer of anxiety-riddled bullshit to the comfortable, awesome person I really am. So my initial assumption is the date's gone badly and she won't want to see me again. Mostly I've been right - hooray! What's wrong with all these girls that they can't see that I'm a catch, I'll wonder. A few times I've been wrong. Then I get suspicious. What's wrong with her if she thinks I'm worthy of more time after a pathetic, fumbling performance where I let her buy my hot chocolate?! Do I want to date someone who would choose to spend more time with me, especially having only met the socially inept me??

The level of interest she shows will influence the doubts and questions prodding my mind. I absolutely do not endorse the 'Treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen' advice, but there is a little anxious logic (which may be an oxymoron) behind it.

Where she's showing clear interest and the ball's been pretty much in my court to make the move, often all my thoughts are drawn to reasons not to pursue it - my anxiety monster reminds me of things I may not find attractive or elements missing that I adored in others.

What would my friends think of her? What would I have thought of her if I'd just spotted her in a bar or on the street without this whole context messing with my mind? What of my cherished, now well-established independence!? I don't want to be tethered to any single person. I want to continue to draw inspiration, love and life from a range of people in my life.

But then there's also been those I fancied who were far less forward with their interest, and all I could think of were the things I loved about her! Over-analysing the number and content of messages, trying to figure out her real feelings. And then she'd give me a little rope and I'd start wondering whether I was just overplaying my feelings and looking for a relationship for the sake of a relationship because I think it would be a good distraction from my anxiety, despite the fact this whole line of thinking is driven by anxiety.

Anyway, the solution is quite simple. Just take things as they come. Live in the moment. Enjoy the company of a nice person. Be honest with them, and yourself, and not worrying about what you may or may not feel. No expectations, no disappointments.

But that doesn't mean you can't dream a little. Indeed, if you find yourself doing so, it's a  good sign.

My experiences have taught me to never let my own doubts and insecurity affect my relationships, or potential relationships, with others. Let go of what you can't control, cherish what you have and be excited by what could be without a care for what will not.

I'm still learning to put that into practice though. I still get anxious feet.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Indigenous Exceptionalism - MWF review

Article written for Right Now, and appears on the website with other human rights reviews here.

Is ‘race’ is an inherently negative word and is it time we stopped using it?

‘Racism’ has been a useful term for defining and addressing undesirable attitudes and conduct, but race – a term devised by European explorers – is often a simplistic, generalised method of identification that relies on physical appearance, rather than nationality, culture, ancestry or any meaningful feature of identity. We are, after all, members of a single human race, comprised of millions of ethnicities.

Professor Marcia Langton, Chair of Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, was part of an expert panel set up by the federal government to look into recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Australian Constitution. In a Melbourne Writers Festival address, titled Indigenous Exceptionalism, she discussed race and the need to remove reference to it in the Constitution.

Until 1967, the Constitution allowed the parliament to legislate in the interests of “the people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws”.

Following the referendum of 1967 the words “other than the aboriginal race in any State” were removed.

However, the lingering reference to ‘race’ remains problematic, and the panel’s recommendations, handed down in January this year, included removing it, as well as acknowledging Indigenous Australians as the first peoples of Australia and the aspiration for cultural maintenance, including languages.

Professor Langton called recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution “a large, fraught topic full of legal, as well as moral, challenges.”

She called race an out-dated, crude concept – historically used to justify colonialism by portraying non-white peoples as inferior – and one that is “such a discredited biological and social construct that its citation in a democratic constitution is undesirable.”

“Defining Aboriginal people as a race, as the Constitution does,” she said “sets up the conditions for Indigenous people to be treated, not just as different, but exceptional and, moreover, inherently incapable of joining the Australian polity and society.”

“In the slowly building campaign for constitutional recognition of Indigenous people, it is vital that we broaden the understanding that the constitutional tradition of treating Aborigines as a race must be replaced with the idea of first peoples,” Professor Langton said.

The problem of race is evident in comments such as those by Andrew Bolt, who was found guilty of breaching the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) in 2011, for implying that some fair-skinned Aboriginals were not true Aboriginals. Such perceptions are based on appearance rather than lineage and ties to place and culture.

Professor Langton actually shares Bolt’s cynicism towards some claims to Aboriginality by people seeking access to special treatment. The difference is, however, that her criticism is not based on skin tone but abuses of special treatment by those who cannot be described as disadvantaged, and those who claim Aboriginality on paper to claim benefit, but not in public.

Where temporary special assistance is required, she argued, the test for assistance must be economic disadvantage not Aboriginal ancestry. Aboriginality does not automatically equate to economic disadvantage and Professor Langton believes the entitlement mentality that has developed is poisoning Aboriginal society just as much as it is poisoning Australian attitudes towards Indigenous people.

The challenge ahead is addressing “the poorly understood friction between bringing Indigenous Australians firmly into the national polity and, on the other hand, maintaining their exceptional status as inextricably different.”

Despite her strong stance, Professor Langton believes a referendum should not be rushed, citing Australia’s record of rejecting constitutional change and the potentially harmful outcomes a negative result would have. Not only does she fear defeat would prevent the change being made in her lifetime, but she believes it would also lead to disappointment and bitterness among the Indigenous community, and Australia being seen internationally as racist.

Whether you agree with her views or not, Professor Langton is a formidable speaker and one of those wonderfully fascinating and considered people who seem impossible to pin down on the traditional political spectrum, making it all the more difficult to dismiss her argument’s challenge to one’s own perceptions. On such an important issue, even if a symbolic one, it is important for us all to keep an open mind and consider our own perceptions.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A 'balanced' ABC, or a better ABC?

ABC logoNot many people are happy with our ABC at the moment. ALP supporters think Aunty is leaning to the right and giving Tony Abbott an easy ride. Conservative commentators continue to, as they always will, bang on about the national broadcaster being a mouthpiece of the left.

Mark Scott probably feels comfortable that the criticism from both sides places them nicely in the middle; that it's an indicator of a job well done. Well it's not.

Some of the concerns are valid but many of the party-political calling for a "fairer", "more balanced" ABC seem more interested in seeing their political team get a better run than promoting quality independent journalism.

I'm not sure why this feels like a radical notion, but I'd rather see the ABC forget the left-right divide altogether if they're going to be properly able to report without fear or favour.

Doesn't forcing the national broadcaster to operate in the middle of that one-dimensional spectrum - rather than above it - just restrict independence and the ability to pursue the public interest? Is measuring the coverage of left and right, Coalition vs ALP (and partners) really a meaningful indicator of quality journalism? It's important to be unbiased, but that's not necessarily the same as balanced.

It's like judging the performance of AFL umpires based on the free kick count at the end of a match - it completely ignores the quality and discipline of the competing teams, and (most importantly) the umpires themselves. Unbiased isn't necessarily the same as balanced.

The ABC is meant to provide balance to the media landscape as an alternative to the commercial media, not by walking a careful, inoffensive and tedious line down the middle of politics. Ok, the Charter may disagree with me there, and "the public interest" is probably a little too subjective to measure and report on. *Sigh*.

The role of a public broadcaster is to present a diverse and thoughtful voice that speaks to the public interest rather than the ratings figures. That's why they shouldn’t be afraid to broadcast a documentary like shouldn't be afraid to broadcast an important, insightful documentary like Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, for fear of the appearance of bias. Especially given the current discourse on asylum seekers, which is why a commercial station wouldn't touch it.

In politics, they should be asking policy questions and applying pressure where others will not and fleshing out the issues, informing and challenging us - those of us who wish to be informed and challenged anyway. Not everybody wants to engage politically, and that is totally fine. But they have to vote, so some independent analysis is pretty vital, and the ABC goes to extremes to ensure fair coverage during an election - the one time I'd probably agree with the onerous task.

Perhaps being driven by public interest rather than profit is inherently "progressive". So be it (yes, it suits me - maybe I'm biased too, only human). That doesn't preclude critical analysis of all sides of politics and presentation of a diverse range of views, most importantly views that contribute substance and/or don't get their voice heard in the mainstream media.

Even if that's the case, the cranky conservatives have enough profit-driven media outlets, with a lot more influence, to play with. We need Aunty. We all need her. As much as they may be loathe to admit it, their taxes provide vital diversity and accountability - you need only spend 15 minutes a week watching the ABC's MediaWatch to see how pathetic profit-driven media can be and why a strong ABC is so important. How often does a story on a program like Four Corners end up sparking discussion across the media the following day? (Rhetorical - quite often)

Should they report both sides of the climate change debate equally? Of course not, no one expects tobacco companies to get a right of reply every time cigarettes are discussed. But it should be reported and questioned objectively, with the facts.

But yes, I agree the Aunty's political coverage hasn't been the best of late.

Mr Abbott's gotten away with a lot of BS for much of the last two years, while Prime Minister Gillard has copped excessive criticism - from the ABC and mainstream media. But it's not bias, it's lazy, pack journalism combined with an undisciplined government who don't communicate well. Abbott's deficiencies are mostly policy (or lack of) based, whereas Gillard has faced a stream of scandals and chaos, too often caused by mischievous colleagues. Going after Gillard has offered a better story for attracting and entertaining the audience.

The criticism of the ABC shouldn't be "Hey, attack their guy!", it should be "You're meant to be better than this!"

The tide actually seems to be starting to turn on Abbott now, with the introduction of the Carbon Tax providing a background of reality to scrutinise him against, and allowing for broader critique of a few dodgy (sometimes harmful) lines. With the polls turning slowly on him too, it will probably continue. But a government will - and should - always receive a little more scrutiny than the opposition throughout it's term.

However, it's not about left and right. It doesn't matter how many ABC journalists have joined either major political party. Why should Insiders feel the need to give up a seat to rambling and stubborn people like Piers Ackerman and Gerard Henderson to balance the thoughtfulness of George Megalogenis and Annabelle Crabb? I know there's a lot of complain about the extent of Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) presence, but at least some of the IPA representatives listen and engage in productive discussion.
We (I'm talking on your behalf, you're welcome) just want some real policy discussion, without so many polls and unfounded leadership speculation!

I still love you Aunty - we're very lucky to have you - but you aren't without fault. Just don't listen to the shouters.

Declaration: I begrudgingly accept the label "progressive", provided it is preceded by "open-minded". I do not pledge support to any party and think the left-right spectrum is dumb.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Haters gonna hate ... because they care

I tried to keep my footing on the high ground.

I've never been publicly vilified before. I'm not thin-skinned, I just want everyone to like me. And it's also a little unpleasant reading inaccurate personal smears about yourself on a "news" website.  Not one many people read or take very seriously though, so it's okay.

Long story short, a young journalism student - one with good intentions, from up here on the moral path - wrote a scathing article for a student paper criticising the culture at one of Australia's most influential newsrooms. She raised some important issues but probably undermined them a little by being too passionate and making a couple of silly comments - oh well, she's a student, she's learning.

And what a lesson. The angry mob of haters down on the low road saw her slip and went after her without pause. She got on the wrong side of some of the loudest, haters. (I'm not linking to any of it because I don't think it deserves any more attention, but it's easy enough found)

One group in particular, a small wagon of trolls who go by the name Vexnews, accused her of bullying and backed it up by launched a shameful character assassination in the most irrelevant, personal manner. I thought it was pretty disgusting, and ventured over to Twitter, where the higher road is so narrow its almost impossible to keep your balance, to make a point to the group's leader:
"Andrew Landeryou pretty much declared fair game for personalised hate & humiliation on himself. But I’d rather forget he exists #huntern"
I was trying to encourage some reflection without sinking to his level. It was condemnation of that bullying, not a rallying cry for revenge. Hence the comment was made and I moved on.

Until the next day when I heard I'd been quoted on the website, and was initially somewhat pleased that one small comment from a nobody like me had drawn a reaction. I'd gotten under their skin.

Being presented as the face of a group of  "winged monkeys" displaying "strident inner-urban leftist intolerance and viciousness", many of whom did actually make quite abusive, counter-productive comments, was unsettling. Seeing a photo and information they'd obtained by trawling through my Twitter feed and blog gave me the creeps. Being a diligent investigative journalist reporting in the public interest, I had been "closely examined".

Of course, expressing my displeasure only made it worse. His eyes lit up like Gollum's and he pounced at me. I was now accused of violent tweets and being a "yoga practitioner". Good grief!

Fortunately, I have a common name. It's highly unlikely that a potential employer, partner or stalker will come across this slander through a simple Google search. And I didn't cop anything like what the student did, and many many others have across all forms of media. Still, it's true, I'm not comfortable with the existence of this inaccurate portrayal of me out there on the internet. 

To the editor's credit, I do appreciate that he didn't publish my Twitter handle or blog address. Not that I think the site's horde of haters have any interest in me, which is exactly why I don't understand the whole response.

What do you do though. Until this post, nothing. And this is less a vengeful spiel as a consideration of how to handle these situations without stumbling down from the high ground.

No one ever convinced anyone of anything through aggression, anger, shouting, bullying or swearing. Which is a shame because it's so much fucking easier.

It's just likely to encourage a person to bunker down in their beliefs and more vigorously defend them; they become more concerned with defending themselves than listening to you. Unless they are a supremely calm, awesome person. I'm not, I regularly find myself frustrated and angrily stumbling down the rocky path down to the low road, usually on a Monday night, around 9.30pm. I like to think I avoid anything personal or vicious, but you have to keep your passion in check when it gets counter-productive. Slip ups and falls are inevitable, especially when you feel strongly about something, as the student did.

Are always going to yell and throw shit at you. It can be pretty hard to ignore once you start paying attention so it's best not to look down at them for too long, and the best response is a polite one. It's hard not to hate what Andrew Bolt writes most of the time, because so many people are misinformed by it, but there's no point taking him on or even engaging with someone so self-confident who thrives in confrontation. It makes them stronger. Sometimes you just can't defend yourself against a rampaging snowball of hate - getting caught up in it just makes it bigger. I don't understand what drives Bolt's personal attacks though, he doesn't seem to really care about much at all. Maybe he's just a professional shit-stirrer, and he is damn good at it.

On the other side of the debate, Catherine Deveny is someone with whom I share many views, but I can't bear her attitude and tone. It doesn't get us anywhere, just gives people a simple, flawed justification of their dislike for "lefties". Frankly, I think the whole 'left vs right' way of framing political and social 'battles' is lazy and distracting.

There's always a reason someone invests their time and energy into hateful attacks. For whatever reason, they care. Every spitball of spite they shoot up at you just shows they care, sometimes to the point of obsession. If they didn't care they'd be indifferent - indifference is the real opposite of hate.

They're loud because they need to be. Its easier than actually coming up here and talking to us. And this road is difficult enough to hold without looking down. Actions are more potent than words. It's better,  if much more difficult, to let it go and keep the high ground. If they want to engage, they can put their energy into climbing up a little and seeing how much better the view is up here.

And I ought carry on trying to make my way up a little further, so I can do something good with my time and energy.

I'm sure you lose points for assuming to have the high ground in the first place!

Comrade Ryan out, with a song that always gives me a boost above the shit flying everywhere, and a better outlook on life.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Short story - 'The Other Woman'

Below is a story written for the Stringybark Short Story Award, themed 'Seven Deadly Sins'. It appears, slightly edited (more on that later) in their eBook compilation of Highly Commended entries.

The Other Woman

A heart stimulated by restless yearning can send delusion coursing through the bloodstream. It usually subsided after climax, but recently it seemed to have increasingly infected his mind.

We’d become so familiar, I knew his signals. His chest expanded and deflated rapidly and the ecstatic contortions of his face read like a map. One push, then another, and a long, drawn-out sigh, during which he would seek to lock eyes. I arched my back and dropped my head, letting long, chestnut strands of hair brush over his face. And with closed eyes, I lowered my naked body onto his.

My heart-rate slowed. Feelings passed and thoughts closed in. Everything mattered again as I plummeted from the heights of an all-encompassing climactic moment towards concrete reality. Actually, I rolled off an admirable male specimen and landed gently on what could just be the most comfortable bed ever made. I gave him my back and curled up into a semi-fetal position. The softness of the mattress was conducive to dreams. For a moment I pretended this was my bed, my ‘McMansion,’ my husband lying behind me breathing soft warm breaths on the back of my neck and sending chills down to my toes. Childish dreams of an innocence long since abandoned.

Then I noticed her staring down at me. She had the saddest eyes I had seen in a long time. Her mouth smiled but the eyes, heavy with burden, couldn’t lift. Her hands clutched one shoulder of each of the young boys standing in front of her and there he was, just behind to her right, arm around her waist, smiling with subtly clenched lips.

Family in frame only, I thought, congratulating myself on my wit.

“Do you like it here?” he asked, flashing his confident, whitened teeth and breaking the unprofessional silence.

“I prefer the hotels,” was my retort. It was a rude abuse of his patience but put him on the back foot and gave me moment longer to compose myself.

Withdrawal moved through my veins now, accelerated by the physical activity. The dull throbbing of confusion arrived in party with a light nausea, as my brain buzzed like electricity without the shock; like a shiver without the chill. It felt like I was being dragged out of my body, a strange combination of déjà vu and some kind of profound revelation I could feel but not articulate. The sensation crashed over me like a six-foot wave, overwhelming me for several seconds before gently washing away as expected. I needed my pills and couldn’t believe I’d forgotten the morning dose again.

This was definitely her side of the bed — the bedside table held a trashy romance novel and a copy of Women’s Weekly; his side possessed an iPad and a drawer full of condoms. I could sense the imprint of her body. His hand was crept over my waist. I met it there and sighed approvingly, interlocking with his fingers but ensuring they moved no further.

“You are something else.” He kissed me on the neck and squeezed my hand while I resisted the urge to pull away, even sociably shifting onto my back.

“I earn my money,” I smiled, placing our relationship firmly back into proper context.

More photos straight ahead. Was he getting off on her watching us?

As if reading my thoughts, he tried reassurance. “It’s okay, she’s not here.”

“Wouldn’t know it,” I replied with a surprisingly jealous tone.

His hand now stroked hair over my ear. “It’s not like you didn’t know about her.”

“I know. It’s just strange.” Her eyes were full of beaten life, except in an old wedding photo — perhaps twenty years old — which showed a glorious, faultless bride; a loving, happy couple.

He looked up, briefly forlorn. “We barely talk. If it wasn’t for the kids…” he trailed off as I squeezed my insides.

“I have to pay for good company!” He smiled. I didn’t reciprocate.

“What?” he asked.


Something. I just couldn’t quite figure out what. Of course I knew some of my clients had partners — it wasn’t my business and treating it as such would be bad for business. That’s what I liked hotels: each party stepped out of the real world for an hour (or more). I wasn’t a counsellor.

He nuzzled in close. “Between a train-wreck marriage and a life-consuming job, I look forward to seeing you so much.”

I smiled awkwardly, missing the days when we’d enjoy meaningless post-sex chatter rather than fully loaded sweet nothings. Nothing scared me more than sweet nothings.

Leaning over his charming face, I kissed him on the forehead. “I need to use the bathroom.”

“That’s hardly earning your money, babe,” he chuckled.

With a batted eyelids and a nonchalant smile I turned to grab my bag and headed for the ensuite thinking about the money. It was funny that thinking about the money eased my anxiety somewhat, even if it was only a distraction. Half the reason I’d started this work four years earlier was to fund the psychologist consultations, medication and study — all necessary for a happier life. Now the money was far too good to give up.

But, even though I still couldn’t bare the idea of dating again, I also needed intimacy; in a form that was non-threatening and disconnected.

I pushed the door behind me and considered vomiting. The little bottle of pills was buried deep in my bag.

With a slight tremor I clasped the bottle. The door swung open. Startled, I fumbled the half opened bottled, which fell onto the tiles scattering little pale-blue pills across the floor.

“Fuck! Don’t you knock?!”

“Sorry babe, the door was open, I thought…”

I gathered myself. “Sorry, it’s okay, don’t worry.” I was too embarrassed to be angry. I hit the floor to recover the pills.

“She always leaves them lying around,’ he said picking up the bottle before I could get to it.

It had my name on it – my real name, and address – but he didn’t look, just placed it down next to another, almost identical bottle beneath the cabinet. He looked at me staring dumbfounded at the twin bottles.

“Is she okay?” I asked, forgetting myself.

“She’s fine.” His eyes rolled at the thought. “I don’t know what those are but the bottle’s pop up everywhere.”

“Maybe you should ask?”

“Don’t you listen to anything I say either? She won’t talk to me! Whose side are you on anyway!”

I don’t need this. “Sorry, no, I didn’t mean it like that. I just …” That’s all I had.

“You what? You a marriage counsellor as well as an escort now? Well there’s a fucking interesting mix!”

Stunned, I could only look at him.

“Sorry,” he said with the immediate regret of a man pulled in all directions by misplaced desires.

“I’m going to shower,” I said, making it clear I would do so alone. As he stepped out I swallowed the pill in my hand.

When I returned to the bedroom he sat on the bed in a towel, pouting like a needy pup. For a moment it felt nice to effortlessly wield such emotional power. And then it didn’t.

“It’s okay,” I said to clear the air, and looked towards the two large walk-in wardrobes either side of the ensuite. “Which is yours?”

He showered while I replaced all my clothes except the G-string. Stepping out of his wardrobe, I looked again at her image. Whose side was I on? How did this even happen?

I felt like I’d been asleep at the wheel and woken up on the wrong side of the road just before hitting an oncoming car — too late to avoid it, but with horns and lights and screaming that stimulated every nerve in my body, urging me to do something. She was urging me.

I wandered across the room, slid open the door to the other wardrobe and threw the g-string onto the floor. It was a self-indulgent act of sheer and helpless bloody-mindedness. I hoped to spark her voice, so she might confront him and help herself.

Ten minutes later he was in his business suit, ready to return to work from his ‘important meeting’. We walked out together and I let him put his arm around me.

“Got everything?” he asked at the front door.


He kissed me on the cheek and I walked to my car.

At the bottom of the long driveway, I pulled away from the house for the first and last time. Doubt started to overwhelm the short-lived sense of victory.

You just killed your career, I thought. He would be understandably furious. I had retrieved the bottle, but he could find me professionally even if I changed my number. If he pursued me, my alias would have to cease existence.

But worse, what if all I sparked was the full blown explosion of that train-wreck marriage. What if I’d killed it once and for all?

What if she was surviving on the delusion?

I wept.


Postscript: For the published version the editors removed the second last line (which I, admittedly have amended now myself). I can understand why, but reckon it's removal significantly altered (and softened) the story's ending, so was a little disappointed. Ah well, published at least! 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Why so serious about Batman?

Indulge me, while I ponder my obsession with a character that dresses up like a bat.
It seems a little childish, but I actively embrace my inner child - keep it locked up so it doesn't escape. And I love Batman.

Have done for 20 years, inheriting my eldest brother's fanatacism around the time of the Tim Burton movie - which finally returned the character to his natural habitat of darkness - and the return to TV of the campy, colourful Adam West series, which was more age-appropriate for me at the time. But everyone was jumping on the Bat-wagon in the early '90s until Burton and Joel Schumacher produced increasingly silly films. But my fascination with the character himself endured.

It seems ridiculous to be drawn to a a comic character. I'm not even a comic geek. I don't like many non-Batman superhero films.

But Batman's not really a 'super' hero, is he? I always liked him best of the lot because he's an ordinary guy. He didn't come from another planet with super-powers, wasn't a nerdy kid bitten by a radioactive spider, or a nerdy scientist who somehow survived a radioactive blast or some other ordinary/arbitary person-turned-instant-superhero/villain by some kind of freak event. In Batman's world radiation is bad for you.

Then Christopher Nolan came along. Batman Begins smashed my previous imaginings of what the character could be.

He did something with the characters, and their world, no one had ever dared with a comic adaption on-screen. He took them seriously and grounded it in reality. I think 'gritty' is the word commonly used.

Finally I could legitimately appreciate the character as a relatively mature adult. Relative, of course, to my maturity as a child.

Unlike many other comic heroes and villains, Batman is an organic persona, born of tortured but determined mind, trying to reconcile his demons and fix things in a corrupt, crumbling world (well, city). He's a deeply flawed hero and not always one to be admired. Indeed, he has many shades of grey. He is more.

Nolan explored the psychology of Bruce Wayne. I'm surprised no one had really done it before. There's plenty to work with - the guy has issues. He's not a clean hero (or 'white knight'), he's conflicted and complicated. But that makes him one that's easier to relate to (aside from the whole vigilante thing), right?

Nolan even took the time to necessarily explain the some of the generally sillier elements - like the cape, the ears, where he gets his wonderful toys and why someone might dress up like a bat and become a vigilante in the first place.

Threats and adversaries in Nolan's trilogy don't coincidentally pop up in the same town and the same time - due to exposure with radiation or falling into a vat of chemicals - they are closely tied to Batman's own story, feeding off each other with a complex and fascinating mutual causality.

All of this allowed the movies to explore real-world questions of justice (vs revenge), morality, violence, corruption, and the ripple effect of Batman's very presence. Nolan delved into broader themes like fear, duality, chaos, socioeconomics, social order and politics. He posed questions like what it takes for people to abandon civility, how easily that might fall apart in an age where fear is everywhere, and whether the not being afraid of death is a strength or a weakness, just to name a few.

The discussion of escalation at the end of Batman Begins was beautifully pertinent to the politics of our world, as well as an example of how Nolan wanted to explore the grey areas of the character. He's the hero, no doubt, but not without complication.

The world's just not that simple, even if the a lot of people want it to be, but maybe that's why we get so many dumb films from Hollywood and an intelligent blockbuster is so rare. 'Ambiguity' is a dirty word in Hollywood these days.

Lots of the criticism, particularly of The Dark Knight Rises is of the various characters 'speechifying', but the dialogue in the film - while not always perfectly written - was critical to the exploration of those themes and character development.

The proof of how strong Nolan's story is, how rich the films are with layers and thought-provoking questions, is in how much has been written about them.

Even serious conservative commentators got on board, although I think they completely missed the point. Andrew Bolt claimed the interrogation scene (one of the trilogy's best) from The Dark Knight, and the film as a whole was a supportive nod to George. W. Bush's 'War on Terror'. I read the scene in the opposite way - torture is futile, Batman has "nothing to do with all your strength", and he loses this one depsite his aggression. It's actually my favourite scene of all three movies and has so much going on and is so well written, that it's sad seeing it cherry-picked, and so badly.

Again recently, upon viewing TDKR, Bolt was one of many conservatives - and even some concerned progressives - to taint Batman with the dirty brush of hasty misunderstanding, claiming TDKR was an anti-'Occupy', among other things (some on the left called it pro-facist!). Aside from the fact the script was written long before the Occupy movement, you only need to listen to realise that the leader of Gotham's 'revolution', Bane, actually has no interest in revolution. He's using it as a ruse to rally people and cause chaos before destroying the city. It's the social inequities and political injustices that allow him to do so, by plying the gaps in society. What does that say about conservative values, Mr Bolt?

I don't know Nolan's politics, but, if anything, I read the movies as being critical of Republican-style conservatism in many ways.

After all, the hero of the film has a blatant 'no guns' policy (other than on his vehicles) and his main virtue is his explicit refusal to kill. He may be part of the '1%', but he seems pretty ambivalent towards his wealth, other that using it to help others. Brooding as he is, Batman is an idealist with an unshakable belief in the people; he's a lone rebel trying to take down the corrupt elements of the city. That's something to identify with, right? A brooding, rebellious idealist - what more do you want?!

I could go on about for ages about the themes and interpretations, so I won't - there are plenty of articles arguing all sorts of angles online already and I don't need to say more about that. But, in the end, I don't think Nolan was making any specific statements (especially political). Rather, like most good art, the films merely pose some deep and pertinent questions.

And any film that affects you so much they leaves you reading, talking and contemplating their world, characters and meanings for a few days - like all three did me, and I'm writing this almost two weeks after seeing TDKR, so... - is likely to endure regardless of box office takings.

That is, basically, why I love these films so so much. That and I think Batman is pretty cool, and I'll always appreciate a dark, brooding hero fighting for the everyman/woman. I also kinda like Catwoman.

So, just as Joel Schumacher killed off the initial Batman movie franchise with the horrendous Batman & Robin, Nolan has pretty much ruined the two I did still like - Burton's Batman and Schumacher's Batman Forever. They are still good films for what they are (simple fun) - Batman in particular - but, to the disgust of a few Bat-friends, I am going to struggle to appreciate this character now without the depth and story Nolan gave us. Batman is more, and I just can't watch them without wanting that now.

Nolan also - to my knowledge - has provided the first comic book adaption with an actual ending, which must have irked the studio, but it's just another thing about the man to admire. It's all about the story.

It still feels a bit silly talking about Batman like this, but I don't care. These three films are visually stunning, thought-provoking, thrilling, and explore intriguing characters and themes through a fantastic story from start to finish. And I'm going to come back to them many times over the years.

Yes, I am a Bat-geek.

But maybe I'm taking this all too seriously...

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"Foreign Aid Is A Waste Of Money" - IQ2 Debate review

Article written for Right Now, and appears on the website with other human rights reviews here.

Foreign aid is a waste of money.

That was the proposition put forward at the IQ2 Debate, hosted by the Wheeler Centre, at the Melbourne Town Hall on Wednesday 4 July.

Arguing for the proposition were The Australian’s Foreign Editor, Greg Sheridan, member of the Management Committee of Aid/Watch, James Goodman, and Director of the Intellectual Property and Free Trade Unit at the Institute of Public Affairs, Tim Wilson.

Defending the use of foreign aid were World Vision Australia’s Head of Public Affairs and External Relations, Martin Thomas, National Director of the Global Povety Project, Samah Hadid, and Executive Director of Oxfam Australia, Andrew Hewett.

Firstly, a summary of the arguments put forward in support of the proposition.

Greg Sheridan opened by acknowledging the difficulty that lay ahead: “Ladies and gentlemen, I stand before you a man in desperate need of aid, foreign or domestic, for I fear I am destined to lose this debate,” he said.

He didn’t know it yet, but a pre-poll of the audience revealed that just ten per cent supported the proposition, while 67 per cent opposed it and 23 per cent were undecided.

While acknowledging that most who enter the aid industry are motivated by “altruism and a desire to better the lot of humanity”, he implored the audience to extend the same sense of goodwill to critics – people who simply believe there are better ways to alleviate poverty that don’t waste billions of dollars.

Sheridan conceded that aid is not entirely unworkable, expressing support in situations such as natural disaster or where a society is attempting to recover from civil or international conflict.

But in general, he believes aid merely takes money from one nation’s taxpayers and puts it into the hands of another’s corrupt officials. After 35 years working as a journalist in the field in many poor nations, his conclusion is that aid is “next to useless in combating poverty, and infinitely less effective than foreign investment or free trade.”

He cited US aid in Afghanistan being paid to members of the Taliban to provide security for aid workers; the US$3.5 trillion the Chinese government holds in international currency reserves while Australian taxpayers still provide it with aid; and the “massive imbalance” of Australia’s foreign affairs and trade budget, where $800 million is spent per year on our diplomatic network and $5.2 billion on aid.

James Goodman may have been a little out of step with Sheridan and Wilson’s free-market ideology, but he outlined many problems with aid, which backed up Sheridan’s claim that foreign aid needs much greater outside scrutiny. He did so through the context of what he says are the three main causes of poverty: debt, the cost of food and climate change.

Goodman believes that aid simply deepens the problem of debt. It is loaned, via agencies like the World Bank, for projects that fit their agenda rather than the developing country’s needs, and when the project fails the developing country is left with the debt.

The developing world produces two-thirds of the world’s food and prices are rising because it cannot keep up with demand. Goodman was critical of free trade moves in agriculture by the World Trade Organisation that have enriched agribusiness while decimating small farms. He argues that this has been compounded by programs like Aid for Trade have, which have locked developing countries into agreements that are not necessarily in their interests, and can leave them more reliant on agribusiness and less able to feed themselves.

Climate change is a problem largely caused by the developed world but felt most severely by the world’s poor – ninety per cent of people displaced by climate change live in developing countries. Goodman said that, in this regard, rich countries owe a debt that is not being repaid. Rather, many continue polluting while using aid to finance projects that produce carbon credits.

While Goodman listed many legitimate problems with aid, he failed to offer solutions or alternatives.

Tim Wilson did, if from a different ideological perspective. He believes that to promote development institutional problems in developing countries need to be fixed – problems perpetuated by foreign aid’s largely top-down approach.

He also acknowledged that aid can play a role, but believes it is mostly a waste of money and misallocation of resources that has “almost universally failed as a policy mechanism to promote development. No country on earth has foreign-aided its way out of poverty, but hundreds of millions of people have traded their way out of poverty,” he said.

After all, the countries with the most economic freedom are also the wealthiest.

Wilson promoted the role migration can play in alleviating poverty, saying that working migrants send home around $440 billion each year. But he thinks the enormous potential of this policy is being missed because unions oppose it, though it would cut out aid agencies, allowing money to go directly to where it’s needed.

We should be giving people opportunities, not foreign aid, Wilson summed up.

But the question is whether these opportunities are available without aid?

The first speaker in support of foreign aid, Martin Thomas, suggested that, having been born in a land of plenty in a world that spends three times more money on diet products and services than it does on foreign aid for the hungry, we have a moral obligation to help those born into extreme poverty.

Despite many grim statistics, he believes “we are winning the war on poverty.” For example, 12,000 less children under five die each day compared to 1990 thanks to the provision of vaccinations, vitamin supplements and mosquito nets.

Thomas said that aid should not take the place of improved trade and other policy measures, but that it “has a role in reaching the very poorest.”

Samah Hadid picked up on this theme, saying: “Aid is a crucial part of a set of measures that help people escape poverty … so that they don’t need aid in the future.” Combined with things like trade, good governance and debt forgiveness, it can offer people born into broken systems the opportunity to escape extreme poverty.

Without basic literacy and numeracy skills, for example, a person’s ability to work and participate in the market is limited. Aid can foster trade by facilitating a better-educated, healthier population, and help guard against corruption by educating citizens, allowing them to hold government to account.

“Aid helps create the crucial pre-conditions for communities escaping poverty,” Hadid said, “it is not a silver bullet, but there is no simple solution to such a complex issue.”

Andrew Hewett was a fitting final speaker, summing up the issues through a discussion of good and bad aid.

“Essentially, bad aid is that aid which is motivated by the interests of the donor, rather than that of people living in poverty,” he said.

Good programs are accountable and owned by the people they are directed at. They strengthen the capacity of individuals and organisations, locally and nationally, as well as the capacity for communities to hold their governments accountable for delivery of basic services and the impacts of their decisions.

Hewett agreed that foreign investment and fair trade are important but, like bad aid, bad quality foreign investment and bad trade policies hurt people. What really makes a difference, he argued, is good quality investment and trade, side-by-side with aid policies.

The result of the vote after the debate was, predictably, a resounding defeat of the proposition. Though there was a small, but not insignificant, shift in voting, with 27 per cent now supporting the proposition (up 17 per cent), 60 per cent opposing it (down seven per cent) and 13 per cent still undecided (down ten per cent).

In the end the numbers matter little, and don’t offer much insight into the general view of the audience. Such a complex issue cannot be easily framed around a simple, and absolute, proposition, but that is the nature of debates.

Andrew Hewett perhaps summed it up best: “Aid is important, but it’s not sufficient.”