Friday, June 29, 2012

A suburban holiday

Not actual street
For the next month I'm taking a trip into the fading Australian dream. I'm living in a three-bedroom house in the middle-suburbs with a yard, a dog and a desktop computer, house-sitting/dog-sitting for my brother and his family while they travel North America.

Richmond lies in wake and will no doubt stay awake; it's vibrant streets, bars, shops, and constant activity now out of reach as I hole up in my suburban Fortress of Solitude.

I'm not gonna lie, I've been looking forward to this anti-social experiment. I've never lived alone and - the way the housing market, and my current and prospective pay, is - this may be my only chance to ever live in a house with a patch of grass, let alone on a quarter-acre block.

The timing is good. The Fortress is warm, unlike the dated Richmond Igloo. Tracksuit pants and hoody are don't need to be worn to bed. Add to that functioning bathroom heat globes and water pressure that meets basic human rights standards and getting ready for work is almost pleasant.

For me, this is like a country retreat. From activity centre to quiet neighbourhood street. It's all relative right?

The unusual solitude also offers unaccustomed luxuries. The bathroom is mine for the taking at any time I please, no queues. I don't have to endure Top Gear or The Big Bang Theory if I feel like sitting in the lounge room (Richmond Igloo's only heated room and my only access to digital TV) and didn't get to the remote first. Hell I have two digital TVs now and can just about position myself with a view to both; so I no longer need to choose between 'Drunk, Dumb and Racist' and 'QI' - I can have both on, listening to the witty intellectualism of 'QI' while having my disillusions reiforced by the can't-look-but-can't-look-away-and-at-least-if-they-were-drunk-they'd-have-an-excuse car-crash viewing offered by 'Drunk, Dumb and Racist'. I also have such ready access to the stove and oven, and such an array of cooking utensils that I probably should actually cook. Also because, like much else, take-away isn't readily accessible by foot. Sadly, the untrusty old car will be required much more. Two days in and I already feel a little disconnected, despite my constant access to social media.

I'm also living in an entertainment paradise. As well as a more movies than I'd have time to watch, I have an XBox AND a Wii; and no idea how to operate either. An Amiga 2000 or Commodore 64 would have been ideal though.

Daisy the Golden Labrador
Of course, I also have a dog.

I'm not in the habit of planning my movements around anyone but myself, let alone keeping in mind that this being depends on me for food (i.e. to survive. As a creature of whimsical flexibility and stubborn independence, that burden almost brings a creeping resentment. Maybe I'm not ready for another relationship...

Fortunately she's an utterly adorable, if hyper-active like a puppy, Golden Labrador. I'll admit, it's nice to be welcomed home with such enthusiasm - bounding about and licking eagerly while panting with excitement. Maybe I do need a girlfriend.

I'll enjoy my break but not gonna lie, I'll miss Richmond like Richmond misses AFL success.

But this may be my one chance to experience the dream, even i it's a dying, unsustainable one for us Gen Ys. But I'm not sure I ever want it. Just as some dream of life by the beach, I want nothing more than living among the energy of a vibrant city like Melbourne.

I want to hang out in unpretentious bars (without pokies) with friends over a quiet pint or five while we talk about life and death. I want to be close to music venues and festivals and geeky Wheeler Centre events to fuel my spirit. I need the MCG nearby to get my Essendon footy fix (and money's worth on the exorbadent MCC membership). I enjoy the Tan being my local running spot and sharing that gorgeous track with other runners. I want to get my arse up to the Richmond market more often because it's more lively, interesting, social and ethical than Coles. I want to be close to it all so I can sense the mix of all these kinds of activities in the passers-by when I'm just walking the local streets, with my own private space quietly tucked away just up the street.

Even if I do someday in the near-future leave my little old sharehouse with it's pretty courtyard, inescapably cold hallway and bedrooms, and single digital TV, Richmond feels like home. I can't see myself straying far.

And as much as I need my own space, I don't really want to live alone - I'm an introverted social animal.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

We're not so different after all, us writers

This post has taken sooo long to write. It's been over a week since I finished reading The Emerging Writer and, though it contains enough writing about writing, I felt compelled to write something about this book of writing about writing. 

Because the book, as well as the Emerging Writers Festival in Melbourne, was informative inspiring and articulated so many senses of thoughts I felt like I'd had.
So I've been pondering, jotting down thoughts and flicking back through the between other commitments: the full-time job, half-marathon training, yoga, socialising, eating, sleeping, tweeting ... life is hard for a hobby writer.

Oh, did I just call myself that?

Well there you go. I'm doing that now.

Sure, I have a communications job and I love being creative with words - when it's flowing, which can be the key to, or a distraction from, productivity depending on whether I'm at work or not. But I've always been loathe to call myself a 'writer' or even tell people I write stuff other than the work content they don't care about or the social workday emails they're subjected to. What if they want to read something? I'm not as good as I want to be yet!

I don't even really promote this blog among my friends (as in, people I know - 'tweeps' are different). There's just a lonely little link on my Facebook 'About' page for those who are interested enough to find it.

So when can one call themself a writer? When they speak like they're writing a period play or know whether to use 'themself' or 'themselves' (still gets me)? It doesn't require a qualification or a paying job; there are sub-categorical, official titles for those roles - journalist, novellist, public relations specialist, bullshit artist. You're a writer - whether you choose to write for fun, fulfillment and/or funding - when you believe you are and do something with your passion for words.

I run - I'm a runner (not an athlete); I do yoga - I'm a yogi; I tweet - I'm a tweeter; I drink - I'm a drinker (not an alcoholic [and that's not denial]). I write - I'm a writer. It doesn't matter whether you write stories, articles, plays, haikus, blog posts, letters, toilet wall commentary, whatever. Artists are the last people who should be drawing restrictive boundaries around who is and isn't a writer, and the rest wouldn't know anyway.

The book discusses all of this, so I digress.

The festival and book were amazing antidotes to my self-doubt. I realised just how much other writers (man I love using that word inclusively!) experience, or have conquered, the same uncertainties. Just the fact that other people I absolutely consider writers had trouble calling themselves writers helped me get past my hesitation. It's a big, important step too, because it means you believe in what you're doing and just get on with it. As Alan Bissett contributes: "An ego bereft of self-criticism becomes mere vanity. But if you're not sure you can actually do it then, quite simply, you won't"

As well the tips, information and entertainment value, the whole experience was somewhat cathartic, almost like a group therapy session. I came away rejuvenated and energised about writing and it's possibilities for me. 
Sadly the festival only lasts ten days or so and uncertainty stumbles back in the door eventually. So thank god for The Emerging Writer. It not only reaffirmed the possibilities instilled by various events, but fleshed out some of the issues in more depth and offered a greater range of voices than I'd been able to see at the festival. And, most importantly, it's now on my shelf for returning reference and affirmation.

So many thoughts about writing that I hadn't been able to articulate; so many doubts and difficulties I'd experienced but not really discussed; so many questions I had about how others write but didn't have the network to ask... the book nailed it all.

Words are strange. They seem instinctive, but they're not - they're learned. How we experience life internally is unavoidably somewhat different to how we express ourselves. We feel and sense and attempt to convey that in words. Some of us are better than others at it. Yet we continue to rely on people's statements as perfect summaries of their thoughts and feelings. We never get it exactly right, but that's where body language and other context helps.

Throw in a little pressure and the impatience to blurt something out, and extract a little context, and you see why tabloid journalism has ruined considered political discussion. We under-appreciate and oversimplify the complexity of self expression through words.

I feel like I can never find my words. I need time to think and let go of the anxiety over not being able to find my words. I'd be crucified as a politician. And may I never defend them as a group again.

But words are critical. Leah Gerber discusses translators in The Emerging Writer. I'd say all writers are translators - English is our second internal language. Writers explore and seek to make sense of the complex human experience through that powerful, but restricted, human constuct called language.
Most writers seem to have a love of music. Music is the international language, at its best a raw expression of these feelings that often transcends words. Sometimes it works better than words. That's why lyrics can be so simple, obscure, unintelligible or unnecessary. Sometimes it resonates in ways we can't articulate. But a writer's job is to try and translate those feelings, senses and experiences into words, to enhance human connection. Language is all about connection.

The Emerging Writer reassured me that I'm not the only one who agonises over the process of turning a notion, a sense, a feeling or an abstract idea into worthy text. I feel like I have some fantastic ideas, but still so often worry I ruin their meaning as I attempt to put them into words. After years and years of doing it, I'm still learning. Still finding my voice.

A few things were reiterated time and time again at the festival and in the book. Firstly, if you want to get good, write often - every day. I stopped writing for enjoyment for a long time, thinking I'd pick it back up when I felt I could do my aspirations justice, when anxiety wasn't a roadblock anymore. That wasn't going to happen entirely, so - at the insistence of a friend - I started blogging.
Secondly - don't tell, show. It's a writing mantra - one for living too, in my opinion - and the one I'm working on getting better at (in writing and living). It's crucial, but it's more than that. Don't make the reader aware with impressive words, find the right words to make them feel. As unfathomable as it may be to aspiring artists, being pretentious doesn't resonate with anyone. Except the wankiest, untalented arts student.
Then there's the ever-present battle to translate free flowing imaginative, creative thought into meaningful words. Why is it I get the most ideas when I'm in a yoga class or running the Tan, with no ability to note them down - the more I try and imprint an idea or sentence in my mind the more I struggle to remember it and when I sit down to write the pressure to do so blocks the flow. Maybe they weren't properly formed arrangements words anyway.

My favourite thought from my favourite contribution to the book, come from Esther Anatolitis:

"Writing is not about making words form neat sentences, tight paragraphs, concise verse and complete texts. Writing is about making meaningful connections between ideas as they develop, harnessing what's linguistic about them and crafting this across the page."
So that's that. Another post done. Now I'll enjoy the feeling of accomplishment and get back to my work, before being consumed by the next idea (or thinking about how I could have written this better).

Hell, maybe I'll even pitch to The Emerging Writer next year.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

You can dance if you want to (in the street)

You're sitting in your car on the way home from work, frustrated by traffic and stuck at a red light because the dickhead that just squeezed in front of you stopped for the orange light. And across the intersection there's some guy with a massive grin wearing headphones, flailing his arms about and shaking his hips.

The 'Kew Dancing Man'
And you just think, 'What .. the .. ffuuu...'

You would, right? I'm pretty sure I did the first time I saw 'Kew Dancing Man', Robin Madden doin' his thang. I'd hazard a guess most people's reaction to seeing him for the first time was bemusement, if not amusement. People don't do that; it's not normal!

It's a pretty brave move to dance at a busy intersection where many passers-by will wonder what the hell is wrong with you. But what the hell is wrong with us?!

Most people dance, yeah? If you don't, you should. It's good for your mind, body and soul. We dance in groups at music venues and celebrations, and some of us dance in the privacy of our lounge rooms (I assume other people do too), but once you dance alone and someone sees you, you stand to be mocked.

Imagine how onlookers, or even the police, would respond if someone started dancing inexplicably (who needs a reason?!) on the corner of Swanston and Flinders Streets.

WHY? I want answers goddammit!

Why do we feel unsettled - even threatened - by people who behave 'unusually' in public places (even if the same behaviour in a private space is perfectly normal) and feel the need to bring it down with mockery or worse?

Anyway, the second time you saw him, you generally, genuinely smiled - if not, go looking for your heart. He became a much-loved local celebrity even for blow-ins like me who worked up the road at the local Dan Murphy's for a couple of years. I never met him, but we loved his presence.

He was just a happy guy making people smile and enjoying himself. More of it please, society.

Sadly, he passed away late last month, but it was amazing to see the reaction and number of people talking about him on social media, as well as coverage in mainstream media. This is the kinda soul we ought to celebrate.

He probably brought smiles to the faces of many thousands of people. Just by dancing. That simple. A lot of 'successful' people will go to their grave with a fat bank account having achieved far less.

So let us not judge anyone who dances in the street or acts in a manner that is seemingly a little unusual to our own experience. Who the hell are we to do so?

Goddammit, there should be more dancing in the street. It is perfectly normal, it is good for the body, good for the mind, makes you and people around you smile ... I get strange looks just singing to myself walking down the street sometimes. What, these people don't sing? Meh, their loss (yeah, I wish I was that comfortable with unwarranted judgement!)

Why are people so quick to judge harmless breaches of the rigid, anti-social 'code of conduct in public places' that's become prevalent, particularly in the city? Imagine a tram - over 50 people squeezed into a confined space and nobody talks. Now that's bizarre social behaviour - a sociology study in waiting.

But I think the Kew Dancing Man proved that, if you're brave enough to break down these barriers, people love you for it. Social norms are made to be broken. May his legacy live on! Dance, dance, dance!

And remember:

'If life seems jolly rotten,
There's something you've forgotten,
And that's to laugh and smile and DANCE and sing!'

('Always Look On The Bright Side of Life', Monty Python)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Life begins at the acceptance of death

"As a day well-spent brings happy sleep, so a life well used brings happy death"
 - Leonardo Da Vinci

Ageing can and should be fun
My earliest memory of anxiety is being perhaps five years old with an insurmountable problem. Distressed, I told my mum that I didn't want to die, but neither did I want to live forever. Understandably, she didn't know what to say. Most kids would be comforted by the idea of eternal afterlife, but I was just as uneasy with the idea of eternity as ceasing to exist.

The idea of forever and ever and ever and ever (etc) messed with my mind, like when a camera focuses on a screen projecting it's image so the screen shows up on the screen perpetually and you try and visualise where it ends.

Death was probably central to many of the obsessive fears I went on to develop, whether they related to health, religion, meaninglessness, ageing and achievement or any number of other concerns.

Anxiety turns the burden of proof on its head - a tiny seed of doubt fed by compulsive reassurance-seeking will grow quickly into an all-consuming fear that feels like an all-but-certain truth. Only once the pain of excruciating reassurance finally outweighs the original anxiety of the doubt would I finally let go, which offered a strangely sweet sensation of release - 'all that wasted mental energy, if only I'd just stopped thinking about it,' I'd chastise myself.

It took more than fifteen years before I found a way to do that, but I had the basic idea right. Acceptance is the key to happiness. Letting go is the only way to move forward

When your growing up birthdays can't come around quick enough. And then you hit 18 (or 21 in America) and suddenly want to hit the brakes. But in the long run happiness seems to realign with age, increasing alongside one another. So why do we get so hung up about our twenties (I have five and a half months left)? Some of the happiest, most content people around are also the oldest. They've moved on so many times, they know worry doesn't stop anything.

I think about death every day. I don't enjoy the fact I'm going to die, and I'd rather the thoughts were less frequent visitors, but hey, I'm a natural obsessive and I now know it's better to let them come and go, and to be open about it than lock them up inside or try to outrun them.

So, yeah, I let myself think about death, and sometimes relish talking about it with certain friends - it helps me understand this crazy, unlikely existence. I wish it didn't occupy my mind as much as it does, but it doesn't often cause any distress.

Currently, I'm reading the fantastic official publication of the Melbourne Emerging Writer's Festival, The Emerging Writer, and just this morning got to Maria Papas' wonderful piece 'Forgiving the Dead: Writing as Release'. In it she discusses writing and talking as tools for healing and quotes Hannah Arendt:

'We humanise what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it, we learn to be human.'

I think this is true of dealing with fear of death, the most pervasive human fear. And as Yoda said in possibly the only memorable line to come out of The Phantom Menace: "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."

Religious zealots, a lot of whom are surely driven in their faith by fear of death, prove this point nicely. Yet Atheists can be just a zealous and aggressive so I wonder whether an underlying fear drives their often religious-like activity. For the record, I'm agnostic and happy to admit I don't have a clue about how we all wound up here, and the question of 'why', frankly, hurts my brain.

The philosophy I am trying to instill into my psyche these days is all about the living in the moment. It's all you've ever got.

However, knowing that, one day, all will be gone can be a celebration of the wonderful, precious moment. I think half the reason I continue to pay to see Graveyard Train play live (six times in 18 months) is to sing joyously with a bunch of strangers about the fact we are all going to die. It's incredibly cathartic.

Because, well 'it's one life, it's this life, and it's beauuuuutiful'. Don't judge the present, don't dwell on the past, don't anticipate the future - live and love for now in a way that will ensure a happy sleep tonight.
So forget proclamations about life beginning at 30, 40 or whatever the new trendy age is (however old the first Gen Xs are probably); it begins when concern about your expiry date stops taking up valuable mental energy that should be spent living with passion and youthful enthusiasm.

Who knows whether Da Vinci was right in the end. All I know is he was right about how to achieve a happy sleep, and that the most peaceful moments in my week come during meditation at the end of my yoga classes, lying in Savasana, or 'Corpse Pose'. It's an amazing peacefulness, the kind of state I would like to think I'll feel when my time comes - in the knowledge I've lived my days well, and can peacefully release.

But I've spent too much time now thinking about all this. It's time to focus on something lighter for a little while!