Thursday, December 30, 2010


Okay, what’s with all the tattoos on everyone these days? It seems like they’re more popular in western society than ever before.

In the sixties through to the nineties tattoos were something you saw on criminals and sailors. It was a badge that signified rebellion and low socio economic status. This is not to say all people with tattoos were poor, but if someone had a tat they weren’t likely to be a celebrity, lawyer, or a doctor (but they may well have been a witch doctor).

Now they’re everywhere! Glamorous sporting stars are parading them, along with actors, comedians, musicians, teachers and well…young people generally. Suddenly tattoos are common with middle class folk below the age of forty. They no longer seem to say “Careful of me, I’m a tough and angry bastard who’s likely to rob your house”. So what are they saying now?

Well, firstly the style of tattoo is different. The old LOVE and HATE ones on the knuckles are definitely out, skulls are a no-no and the pictures of sexy mermaids and cartoon characters such as Popeye, Olive Oil and super heroes are also rare. These days it’s more like artistic body decoration: swirling patterns in the style of Maori art; flowers and leaf patterns; sea creatures such as dolphins and whales (as opposed to sharks and snakes with vicious teeth); and any number of patterns that might be seen on a curtain or bedspread rather than a body.

Personally I wouldn’t ever want one, and when I see one on someone I immediately think less of them. Why? The obvious answer is that I’m a victim of a prudish, middle class up-bringing, but I think there’s more to it.

I have nothing against using technology to reshape and enhance the human body. I have a tungsten valve in my heart – due to a congenital heart disease – so I’d be a hypocrite to suggest that interfering with nature is wrong. And if someone has an ugly defect in their face or excessively large and unwieldy breasts, or they have some hideous deformity, of course get in there and fix it. No problem. But, like Botox and face lifts, tattoos are different; they’re not about survival or correcting a disfigurement or relieving pain. In fact, they’re almost the opposite in that they actually create a disfigurement and pain. They’re a permanent scar on the skin.

I think what happens is I see a tattoo on a person and I can’t help thinking, ‘That’s there forever you know (unless you undergo painful and expensive surgery), how sober were you when you did it and how pleased are you now?’ Of course I don’t share those thoughts (hey I’d like to keep what teeth I have left) but I think it, and I imagine that’s what I’d be thinking if I had one myself.

So, with tattooing becoming extra popular, is there a growth in tattoo removal? According to a plastic surgeon friend “…you bet there is and thank you very much, I’ve just bought a new yacht.” An article in the New York times in 2007 quotes the FDA as saying there were over 100, 000 removals in the U.S. that year alone. Whether this is an increase, it didn’t say, but I trust my doctor mate who reckons it’s his main source of income, particularly as some tattoos can take up to fifteen laser treatments to remove.

But what’s changed in the western world that’s brought this on? What significant social and historical shift is this related to? And was it a celebrity led trend, i.e. did some actor or pop star got a tat and suddenly it grew from there? Apart from wtaching sport I have little to do with any commercial media so I have no idea about this.

As it’s occurred over the last decade there’s a temptation to relate it either the new millennium or 911 or a mixture of both. But what does the bombing of New York by Muslims (and a consequent war) have to do with young people marking their bodies?

Nothing I’d say.

It could however, have something to do with skin cancer. In recent decades tanning has become unpopular and considered ugly, when as we know brown bods were all the rage for many decades. The fashion mags are full of skin so milky white one can only wonder if Clown White # 4 has been applied. Are the tats a replacement for tanning, almost as a way of saying, ‘Okay, I can’t change my skin via the sun or a lamp but I can do it with ink instead.’ Or is it simply that white bodies are a far better canvas for tattoo art so hey why not!

Heaven knows. What I do know is that Mitchell Johnson’s arm looks bloody stupid, and if he doesn’t make up for it with a few more wickets in the Sydney test, well he may as well chop his arm off. Speaking of which, American comedian Lenny Bruce had a tattoo on his arm, as a result of being in the navy, and often had to answer to his Jewish family for whom it was a sin to desecrate the body. His aunty said to him one day, “How are you going to be buried in a Jewish cemetery?” Lenny replied casually, “Well, when I die they can cut the arm off and bury that in a Goy cemetery and the rest of me in a Jewish cemetery.”

My father has a tattoo for the same reason as Lenny: as a sailor in WWII he got drunk and gave in to peer pressure. It’s a drawing of a black swan swimming on a river amidst some reeds. He later went on to become a well-to-do middle class doctor who is now retired and living in Claremont. Many years ago, at a family picnic, when my father rolled up his sleeves, I overheard my older sister’s boy friend say, “Wow, your Dad’s got a tat!” as if the sun had suddenly turned purple and giant green ants started falling from the sky.

I wonder if at some future barbecue a dad will remove his shirt and a boyfriend will turn to his girl and say, “Wow, your dad’s got no tats!”

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Saint Nick and his naked...

What’s going on in this world that a prominent footballer can’t do a bit of nude posing in front of his mates without it causing a media sensation, and the footballer (Nick Riewoldt in this case) has to go on TV to defend himself? Crazy!

Nuding up is an old tradition, from Grecko Roman wrestling, which was a nude event in itself, rugby players in the showers, blokes running naked on a cricket pitch, dropping the strides when you lose at eight ball without sinking one, chucking a brown eye out the window of a car, to simply parading your buff body to your mates after a shower. And if you’ve got a body like Nick’s it’s worth exhibiting – just so long as it’s not forced upon anyone. Think of the effort and money that goes into creating Nick’s (and many other) sporting bodies. If I had that kind of bod I’d show it off.

Unfortunately I have the kind of body that’s best hidden. If a trim abdomen is called a ‘six pack’ I have a small wine barrel.

Okay, footballers have done some stupid, callous and at times illegal things involving sex and young women; and some high priced lawyers have made sure they probably haven’t all had to face the consequences of their actions. So it’s a sensitive issue for sure.

But if blokes can’t get naked after a match or on a sporting holiday, well bugger me, we’re all stuffed!

Although you do have to question the motives of Sam Gilbert, the player who took the photo, put it onto his computer and left it there. Rievoldt claims he asked at the time the photo was taken that it be deleted. Gilbert said he would delete it but didn’t, either because he forgot or for some other reason, and when you think about that it’s hard to figure out. He’s either obsessed with Nick’s body or he wanted him embarrassed. How they’re going to train and play in the same team is beyond me.

None of this could have happened of course without the internet and its ‘viral’ possibilities. No doubt there were many photos taken of naked and semi-naked footballers right up until the nineteen nineties. But the chances of them being pinched and shown to millions of people were minimal.

The question is: has the internet created an environment where footballers simply can’t get away with carefree, blokey behaviour, or have we moved into a new morality that shines a puritanical light onto everything even vaguely macho and vain? Dare I call it a ‘virtual morality’?

I think it’s a bit of both, and one has created the other; now that things are in the open (or at least can be with one careless slip) it’s much harder to find a place to be a boofhead, and with that ‘openness’ there seems to be a vein of moral judgement toward heterosexual men getting drunk and naked or even sober and naked. It’s come about because of all the other controversies to do with footballers, rugby league players and how they deal with women, so anything that combines footy, booze and nudity gets thrown in the same dirty basket as rape, unwanted exposure and photos of Lara Bingle in the shower.

The AFL has worked its butt off attempting to bring footy players into the realm of sensitivity and understanding towards women. And the NRL aren’t far behind. They’ve introduced “respect and responsibility” programmes designed to teach players that they can’t force or cajole vulnerable people to be involved acts of sex, and they can’t treat women as inferiors. And no doubt there’s going to be some fellows who never get the message; after all they’re not running around those fields because of their prowess at philosophy and human rights law.

But the thing is Nick Riewoldt’s not one of those blokes. He’s the captain of his side because he’s a reasonable and fair player who’s seen by many as a shining light in what the AFL would like to call the new era of player behaviour. The problem is there is a woman involved, a young woman who claims to have actually taken the photo. Whether she’s lying or not (and it sure looks like she is) suddenly it’s all back in the realm of “Ohhhh no, not that again!” Because her claim, no matter how far fetched, puts her in the room. And she also claims to have been impregnated by another football player.

So now, what may well have been boofy men prancing round like ten year olds – nothing to write home about – is front page news and quite possibly detrimental to the career of an outstanding player. And we also have the likes of Victorian Women’s Trust executive director Mary Crooks saying the clubs need to work harder at their respect and responsibility programs. Okay, maybe they do, but wait a minute folks, it’s a photo of two men, one of them in the raw. I can see the development of a super sensitivity to all things masculine, particularly when it’s mixed with frivolity. But frivolous masculine behaviour can be a marvellous thing, and an important thing. Young men need to roll around and act like galoots, to be lose and silly; and no one needs that more than these guys who are so drilled and focused for most of the year.

I’ve always disliked the term ‘political correctness’ and even more so when it was used by John Howard to attempt to justify completely outdated attitudes towards aboriginal history, gay marriage and climate change. Instead I’ve liked the idea of being politically correct, of changing terms like ‘fireman’ to ‘fire fighter’ and ‘spastic’ to ‘disabled’. These are fine human progressions, as are the programmes designed to convince professional footballers to have care, concern and respect for all people, not just women. But we need to beware of establishing a moral tie so tight that we end up with a group of robotic, characterless nobodies. I think the term ‘nothing burgers’, fits best: no meat, no sauce, not even salad.

So, what do we do? Simple. The footy codes put their heads together and they build player time out clubs in every major city. Think of it as very expensive, high tech after school care for semi grown up men. They could have computers for internet, face book and games, pool parlours, coffee bars, reading rooms, meditation sessions, comedians, even snooze rooms. And all of it run by people who know footy, who know what it’s like to be cooped up in a hotel room on tour, to lie there awake because you’re wound up tight – all ready for the big day – or strung out because of a loss the previous day. And alcohol has got to be carefully controlled. Call me wowser but it’s simply not something I’d recommend to high performance sportsmen who at the best of times aren’t fully aware of the consequences of their actions. That’s the big danger of booze: you no longer care, and that’s its seduction too, you can let go.

So why can’t people let go sober? We’re not trained to, and we don’t have the places, the meeting grounds for that. It’s time to encourage these young, exceptionally fit and strong fellas to let steam off, and to do it legally and safely.

Friday, December 17, 2010


Sitting up in the members at the WACA and watching the test match, a willy wagtail flew down and danced its cheeky dance on the metal rail in front of me. Hoping I had food, it just waggled its tail and looked at me. “C’mon mate give us a crumb or two!”

It was a bizarre shift of focus: from this wide view of a match that meant so much to so many, and was being transmitted across Australia and the world; Englishmen sitting at home and in pubs, barmy army revellers at the WACA singing along to the trumpeter, mates in Perth texting each other as the Mitchell Johnson saved the day with his bat – and there, inches from my face, was a brave and tiny being hustling for its life. “C’mon fella. I know you’ve got food!”

I reached down into my lunch bag and gave it some crumbs, then shooed it off knowing for sure it’d stick around for more.

Then I spent the next few hours thinking about survival. The previous night I’d seen images of people failing the survival test as their boat smashed on rocks at Christmas Island. I switched TV channels quickly, but not quick enough to hold it together. Tears flowed. And tears are fine, good in fact; but I’ve been in a mood lately where I feel that if I start crying I’m not sure I’ll stop.

My own survival is in question. Bills are piling up like never before, work is scarce (and shouldn’t be at this time of year) my house is a crumbling mess and my fridge and pantry are close to empty. And worse, I can’t think of anything I’d like to do that might assist my survival.

But there’s simply no comparison is there? Between me and those drowning families I mean. They’d gone so far, put so much on the line, most likely because what they left was unbearable: torture, rape, loss of income, loss of everything they owned. And bang, one bit of bad weather plus a faulty engine. Hard to describe that horror.

But they were trying so hard to survive, to keep their families alive, happy, safe from harm. And that’s why I simply can’t understand why we might despise them or wish them anything but the best of luck. As I write, the local hero Mike Hussey has just scored his long awaited century. He’s a survivor and we love him for it. Times have been very tough for Huss, and for the whole team. And to see a bloke doggedly push through it all despite all the critics, despite the likelihood of being relegated to a lower grade of cricket, is wonderful. It’s what so many Australians like to celebrate: the battler who’s down but fights back and survives. And when they don’t survive but they tried against impossible odds, we turn it into an iconic moment, march in the streets and write songs about it.

So, why can’t we apply the same values to those fleeing families? There’s a strange schism there, a kind of social pathology, a disconnection of such massive proportions that if it weren’t so tragic it might be hilarious. A year or two ago the American social commentator and political Conservative, PJ O’Rourke, expressed similar dismay at they way we tend to treat asylum seekers. On the TV programme – Q and A – he turned upon a Conservative Australian, Julie Bishop, and told her we should welcome those people as heroes because they have such a strong commitment to freedom and equality. We should treat them as a new kind of royalty he suggested.

And while a few of us punched the air in celebration after seeing the mean-spirited Julie Bishop get a dressing down, it was a joy that was short-lived because we knew that as this happened on the ABC, the people who want to stop asylum seekers, the haters and despisers, would have been watching some dribble misnamed ‘reality TV’ on another channel. And certainly no Australian newspaper would have reported it.

I think back to that willy wagtail, with its plucky attitude and ruffled feathers, and yeah, it has qualities that Huss shares: it’s not the grooviest of beasts, not a glamour guy like some in the Australian team; it’s almost ugly, and you won’t find it in too many magazines about what Australia means to the world, just as you don’t often see Huss in the gossip pages or on the TV with Oprah and the like. But I imagine that in some corner of the WACA it’s busily feeding it’s young – in between battles with far bigger birds like crows and magpies – and it’s doing what we’re all doing. Surviving.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On the wagon


(Written in 2006, but I went through all this again just a few weeks ago)

I’m back on the wagon after stepping off for a week. Notice I say ‘stepping’ off as opposed to ‘falling’. Falling makes it sound like an accident. “There I was wandering along, minding my own business when two cartons of cigarettes, several dozen beers and half an ounce of dope just forced themselves upon me and made me consume them.”

I’m in day three at the moment. DAY THREE! They talk about day three and week three as being the hardest. How about month three and year three, or decade three! My understanding is that on day three the withdrawal really takes hold and I begin to wonder what to do with my time. But I have the strategies from the last time I gave it all up: exercise, good food, express how you feel (like now), cognitive behavioural therapy, rewards.

My self-reward is to go down the beach with the dog and, after a long walk or a swim, have a coffee in a crowded cafe. I haven’t given up coffee, I simply can’t see myself saying, “decaf please”. In fact the whole concept of decaf is plain silly. Drinking decaf is like a mild form of schizophrenia – you’re treating one part of your self like it’s a child that has to be tricked. “Looks, smells and tastes like coffee, so it might as well be eh?” No! You still know that it’s not coffee! What’s the point? It’s like a heroin addict coming home and saying to his mate, “I got the gear man. It’s this new stuff, it costs the same amount but it doesn’t have any form of opiate. It’s called Desmack. But try it anyway, it looks and tastes like…”.

People who drink decaf are like people who wind their watch forward so they won’t be late. It’s stupid. Are they really going to look at their watch and be fooled by the “responsible” part of their personality, all the time forgetting that it was them, that self same person with the shocking reputation for being late, who wound their watch ten minutes fast?

I suppose a certain amount of schizoid behaviour is required just to survive. We often say, “Part of me wants to do such and such”. It’s a way of identifying desire or need, and at the same time realizing that responding to that need might not be in the best interests of the whole person. But surely it’s this schizoid behaviour that can get us into lousy situations in the first place. Like when we’re at an after-work party and part of us is saying, “Hey, you can cope with one little drink.” And the responsible part – the part that orders decaf and changes our watch – is gone. It’s like it’s been bound and gagged by the “naughty” bit.

Maybe it’d be better if we just began with, “All of me wants a fruit juice” instead of blaming it on the virtuous part. “All of me wants to shag the sexy woman I’m talking to.” But it’s not all of me that wants to do the actual shagging bit is it? No, I know enough about the body to realise it’s a very particular part of the brain that’s hankering for that. It’s the same bit of brain that screams out for a drink, a smoke, a hit, a suck on a tit. It’s that childish part that treats life like it’s a permanent smorgasbord, and there’s a stack of hungry people in the queue so you better pile up your plate with a bit of everything now! Quick, shovel it all in! Joy is rare so grab it while you can!

But maybe we can get the “parts” to work together. For example, while one part is saying, “I want to shag that woman I’m talking to”, another part’s saying, “I want to talk to her about films”, and another’s saying, “I want to drive her home safely” or “I want to wake up with her beside me and be able to do it again.” Or is that just too hopeful, too new age?

Perhaps it’s the whole idea of wanting and hoping that has knobs on it. If we spend so much time looking ahead – at all the great things we can ‘line up’ for ourselves – then it becomes harder and harder to enjoy what we’re doing now. Joy is not only rare but ephemeral; other things last longer, like being calm – just sitting in a moment regardless of it’s worth on the “enjoyment” scale.

Is this what meditation is about?

I used to think that Buddhism was just another excuse for not washing up. “No I can’t, I have to meditate, and after that there’s yoga and chanting.” This opinion is most likely based on my early experiences with hippy surfers for whom Buddhism was more a fashion statement than a refuge. Recently however, I’ve discovered a few books on meditation that fit with my sarcastic temperament. They’re silly and irreverent, they laugh at themselves.

But I suppose if one of your basic principles is to seek inner truth then you’ll always fail; who’s to say whether you’re fooling yourself or not? This is probably why Buddhists have a need to laugh at themselves, because there’s always a chance that they’re on the path to self-delusion, so just in case they are they can at least have a chuckle about it. My guess is that the only real way of knowing that we might have hit upon some important inner truth is to feel it, to trust our feelings.

Hmmmmmm…feelings. What a complicated mess they are. If day to day living is a complex thing just imagine the hideous process of untangling feelings as well! The counsellor I saw would often point to his chest and say, “Don, it’s here, you need to get inside here and find out what’s going on.” He also kept telling me that the anger I feel towards people, towards the world, is masking another feeling that’s lying beneath. And afterwards I’d leave the health centre thinking the world of emotions is like some kind of impenetrable puzzle, a labyrinth of feelings, and I’d rather not go there in case I fall in and disappear.

So I kept away. But now I see that he wanted me to name those feelings, to say the words vulnerable, disappointed, hurt. And to sit in that state and feel it all over again. To cry again. Or maybe to cry for the first time because when you’re a boy and you’re hurt, sometimes you don’t cry, you hold yourself up against it. You have to! I mean, hey, you could just collapse from the weight of all that. And who wants to sit in another man’s office blubbering like a baby, reaching for the tissues, convulsing? Yeah sure, they say that you should let these things out, “Don’t bottle it all up inside”. But isn’t that just a little too simplistic? Humans are not kettles. We don’t just let a bit of steam off and then suddenly feel blissful. Or do we? Isn’t that exactly what happens when you do cry! You feel miserable for a while, then you feel tired and sleepy and warm – the same way you feel when you’ve just had a really good laugh, or really good sex. Sober sex with someone you really love. Yeah, a good cry can leave you feeling like you’ve got something off your chest. It’s cathartic.

But what if I become addicted to catharsis? I could spend half my life pouring out my guts to anyone who’ll listen. And what a hideous bore those people are! You meet them at parties, or at some colleague’s house. It’s like they just pop out of the woodwork when you least expect, and chew your ear off about their “troubled” life. And all you think as you listen with feigned compassion and sympathy is “what life? This pathetic bastard’s got no life!” Then they suddenly blurt out some amazing and bizarre piece of brilliance, thus reminding you that – yes, this sycophantic, grovelling nobody with tattered clothes and broken speech was once heading for a glittering career in poetry or mathematics.

So what happens to these people?

In my experience – and I can tell you I’ve met a lot of them, for some reason I attract them – there’s two things common to these ex-genius zombies: drugs - they’re all substance abusers; and apology – they just keep saying sorry. Sorry for being late. Sorry for getting in the road. Sorry for losing that CD, I know it was your favourite. Sorry for existing. What gets into a person to make them want to do this? Yeah sure, drug addicts often end up having to apologise for lying and cheating, it’s all part of being addicted to an illegal drug. But I have a feeling that the compulsive need to apologise was somehow imprinted on some addict’s brains even before they found drugs. It’s almost like they’ve been spooked and then drained of self-confidence.  Spooked by a parent or a lover or an adult who touched them, or just plain spooked by life. And when you get that frightened it must be hard to avoid just wanting to drown yourself in booze or mull or smack, or all of them.

But drugs and booze don’t really help. It’s not like you can get rid of deep-seated fear like you can wipe out a headache with Panadol.

I drank to wipe out reality, to forget. Not so sure what I was forgetting though. No one abused me, no one let me down that bad. I had a blissful childhood, and most of my adult life has been charmed. But I can definitely say I was using grog and mull to draw a blind between me and the world, or what I thought was the world.

But that’s it. What I thought. Those damn thoughts again. No matter how enlightened you are you always have thoughts. I once saw an interview with Baghwan Shri Rajneesh, the eccentric Guru of the Sanyasans or Orange people, and he joked about those people who say things like, “I think I’m angry” or “I think I’m sad” or “I think I’m happy”. He scoffed at these people, mocked them as being hideously caught up in their minds. They should let themselves go and get back in contact with their bodies and their feelings he claimed. But what’s wrong with admitting that you aren’t entirely sure about what you feel? Ambivalence is part of us, it’s a sign that we aren’t sure or certain. People who claim to be certain are suffering from hubris, or just plain lying. Or they’re into religious fundamentalism. And that’s okay. Most of us have met at least one person who’s gone from drugs to God, and I’d much rather them alive and boring than interesting and dead. Just as long as they don’t hit me with their claims on certainty. It’s a sad thing to see a brilliant, funny, sceptical person transform into an unctuous toad with only one belief.

I heard a fellow on the radio say the following:

The charisma of certainty is that which entraps the child within us all.

How alarmingly true that is!  It explains why so many brilliant thinkers once followed dogmatic causes in a belligerent unequivocal manner, like Communism and Catholicism. Then later, when they began to mature, they found themselves questioning such fundamental beliefs. Some found their world began to crumble - the order once promised by those romantic notions vanished and they fell into self abuse: drugs, sex addiction, argument and domestic violence. And some killed themselves. Others just shifted across in a slow and almost seamless transition to adulthood - to a place where they could think and feel and live without harming themselves or anyone else.

So, maybe if we could isolate that thing, that component of a person that allows people to make big shifts without trauma, then we’d have the ultimate social tool.

Some doctors and scientists claim we already have it: antidepressants. And I have no problem with them; they’ve certainly helped me. I have no patience for people who demonise antidepressants as some kind of Orwellian nightmare. These are the same people who tell clinically diagnosed bipolar sufferers to throw away their Lithium. I can’t help thinking these people like attending funerals. Perhaps one day we’ll read the following obituary: Joe Bloggs, social reformer and activist. Rallied against western medicine, in particular psychiatry and mood altering drugs. Tragically shot dead by the relative of a manic depressive who committed suicide after ditching their medication.

But antidepressants are a stopgap. That thing that allows people to go through social and psychological upheaval without losing the plot is probably more than just a “thing”. It’s sure to be a lot of things: identifying and understanding feelings; genetic disposition; physical health; good support groups; and ultimately getting a handle on thoughts.

Yep, it’s those pesky thoughts again. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) really works. Even for someone like me who hears the word ‘Behavioural’ and reaches for the vomit bowl. When I first attended a CBT therapy group, I sat there like a grumpy teenager thinking, ‘They’re going to brainwash me. I’m going to end up with the personality of Tom Cruise’. But I was very lucky. The psychologist who ran the group was a smart and funny woman who really appreciated critical thinking. She also treated sarcasm as a normal glitch in personality rather than some evil and destructive trait to be banished from the world.

And the CBT process is easy to do. What it really comes down to is identifying the way we talk to ourselves – the voices in our heads that keep telling us things. Yep, the voices. You don’t have to be a derelict street person to have voices. How many times did I find myself calling myself a stupid, useless, idiotic good-for-nothing F%#8@!!! who deserves to be sat in the corner and teased mercilessly? Every time I made the tiniest mistake, like dropping my car keys on the ground or forgetting to buy milk or being late with a DVD. And each time I’d just lay into myself. If I was in public I’d do it silently, but at home I’d be screaming till I was hoarse! Till I hated myself enough to get smashed and forget again.

Through CBT I learnt that the voices are actually thoughts, and these thoughts are often based in belief systems that have been with me for years. And yeah, sure, it might be obvious that self abuse comes about from stupid thinking, but when I was in that hideous moment, that time of self torment, and just about to reach for a drink or the bong or the Valium, it was almost impossible to stop and think clearly. CBT gave me a structure, a pattern if you like, to sort out these thoughts; it allowed me to identify and even classify those thoughts AS THEY HAPPENED! Not later in the therapist’s office, but right then and there – in the car park, at a meeting or down the shops.

So, if CBT’s such a whiz-bang thing then how come I’ve been off the wagon again?

Well, nothing’s perfect.

But it’s now two and a half weeks since I started writing this. I’M IN WEEK THREE! And, at those times when I’ve wanted a drink or a smoke or a bong, there’s been an alternative: a walk, a swim, a meal, a bit of music, a friend! Or there’s writing about it…like this. It’s free and I don’t bother anyone.

Indulgent? Yes. Better than getting smashed? Bloody oath!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Assange (verb intransitive) To scare bullies.

I wonder if soon there’ll be a new word in English: Assange (verb) To expose hidden activities of the powerful, to scare bullies. Spokespeople for the mega rich might meet in private to confess grimly that they’ve been assanged. The process of obtaining and exposing state secrets might be called an assangement.

OK so we already have ‘whistle-blower’ but what Julian Assange has done is far more than that; it’s simply astonishing how significant this whole episode is.

And I love that he looks kind of creepy. If he had a Che Guevara machismo about him, well…it’d be too cute. And if he fitted the stereotypical bumbling nerd with thick glasses it’d be too easy to explain, it’d fit with all those idiotic ‘geek’ movies Americans seem to love.

No, this guy’s a phenomenon that doesn’t fit a mould. The only thing I can relate him to is that guy at Uni who got massively high grades, wasn’t a dork or a nerd, nor was he a leader or part of the ‘in’ crowd, but all the same he ended up with the most beautiful and enigmatic girl on campus, then later started his own Ad agency and became a millionaire, albeit a lonely one because she went mad left him and she was the only woman he ever really loved. Woops - free associating again.

The question about Assange is what’s his motive? Is he doing it for our benefit – so we can live in a more open and honest society (and is that even a possible outcome of his expositions?) or is it for the glory? Or both?

It seems the effect of his actions is nowhere near as important as the fact that he’s bothering the powerful. That’s the real attraction I think; he’s shaking things up in a way the rest of us can only dream about. He’s making the Whitehouse and 10 Downing Street et al quake in anger and frustration because there’s nothing they can do to get him. And he’s doing it without harming anyone, so it’s even more frustrating for them; they can’t demonise him properly. They can try but it’s not working.

He’s the Andy Warhol of modern politics: brilliant, creative, enigmatic but more or less asexual. This is what makes the Swedish charges bizarre, it’s just too hard to imagine him fucking or even kissing a woman or anyone. He's kind of like Kevin Rudd's wayward cousin.

And even more interesting, no elected politician has the guts to back him. Notice Bob Brown and his Green mates have said nothing. They’ve weighed in to a pile of other non-environment issues like justice, immigration, economics and health – but no, this is too weird, too much chance of being pilloried by the right when it turns out that Assange is…is…heaven knows what, he’s too hard to pin down. Apart from the eccentric left – Pilger and Chomsky, and now a few lobby groups – he’s on his own.

But he’s not, he has a huge following of people. But who? Well that’s the beauty of the man: he represents that group that stands for ‘all the rest of us who aren’t connected with a party, a business or a religion’. And he’s doing it with no pretence, no hubris about ‘doing it for the people’ or fighting on the side of justice and truth. He’s just doing it, poking a stick into the spokes of that gigantic wheel of power, that juggernaut small countries fear because it can make and break them, create coups, set up whole nations like Israel, invade countries on the whim of a few men, place trade sanctions on non-compliant nations, commit war crimes while accusing others of that, implement torture regimes, basically act as if it owns the earth. And all the time it works overtime to invent euphemisms and deceptions to hide those heinous actions. In short, he’s poking a pin into the bubble of the self righteous right wing political machine, and wow, isn’t great to see it stumble and stagger, even if it’s just for a month or two.

The important thing is that while the politicians and cranks (how do you categorise Sarah Palin?) attempt to demonise him, we try not to make him a hero. The less spectacular and saint-like the man is the more chance he has of surviving. We don’t need another martyr. Monty Python comes to mind: ‘He’s not a messiah, he’s just a….a… an ordinary looking, slightly creepy, bloke from Queensland with an IQ of about 160 plus'.

One headline I don’t ever want to see is Assange Assassinated.

* Since writing this, I've been informed Bob Brown has supported Assange's actions if not the man himself. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Christmas in Bali

Lots of people I know are going to Bali for the holidays.

It's a great place to go: cheap, great food, particularly the seafood at Jimbaran Bay, the culture is abundant and the natural environment terrific, if not a little polluted.

The first time I went there was in the summer of 1992 with two friends – a couple – who insisted I learn how to haggle. At the time my friends were serious yuppies: school teachers on holiday. He’s not at all now (a yuppie or a teacher) in fact he’d have to be my one of my favourite human beings. But in those days they were both caught up in the power of wealth. “You have to bargain Don. It’s an important part of the culture. They won’t respect you unless you go in hard.”

Next day there we were at a wild and noisy market full of colourful things – clothes mainly. I looked at a T shirt I liked at one of the stalls, went up to the fellow selling it  and asked him how much. He told me some figure – 3000 rupees. I did the obligatory show of disbelief, and yes I smiled as one is supposed to and I shook my head in mock disgust. He paused, waiting for some equally absurd counter offer – 1000 rupees say – and I then said, “How about 4000?”

For a moment there was a strange pause, like I was speaking a foreign language and had gone the wrong way accidentally, but no, we were speaking my language – English. He looked at me imploringly, waiting for me to correct my bid. And when I bid 5000 things got out of hand. My friends attempted to interrupt, but I pushed on with the reverse bidding until I got to a phenomenally high price: about fifteen Australian dollars, in fact the price I thought the object was worth. By this stage there was a crowd of his friends and relatives all laughing and gesticulating like I was some kind of shamanic idiot. I bought the T shirt, shook the guy’s hand, and went happily on my way knowing my friends wouldn’t attempt to involve me in “bargaining” ever again.

Some weeks later, after some great times travelling throughout Bali, Lombok and Java, I caught up with my sisters and their husbands and children for Christmas in Bali. They’d all been staying at one of the many medium priced family houses by the beach in a spot called Legian – a famous spot for strees-free vacations.

They arranged to have Christmas dinner at a restaurant called the Swastika. I couldn’t help joking about this, saying, “So, we’re going to the Swastika to have Nazi Goring eh?” The Swastika was originally an ancient oriental symbol for good luck.  Amongst his other sins Hitler was a cultural plagiarist too.

So we rolled up at the Swastika for Christmas lunch. My brother in law had gone down there the previous day to organise roast pork. It was a typically sumptuous Balinese restaurant with large arches and ceiling fans. Apart from us the place was empty. After we sat down my sister realised that she’d left the Christmas crackers at the hotel, and no one really wanted to travel the distance back to get them, so we sat around feeling despondent at the idea of not having silly hats and corny jokes – possibly the best part of Christmas lunch.

Then one of us – heaven knows who – noticed that all the light shades in the restaurant were the right size for a human head. They were made of palm leaves in a conical shape. We asked the managers if we could wear them and they were happy to oblige. Only in Bali! They even had smaller ones for the kids.

Then, when we’d finished our entrees of delicious Balinese food, my brother in law asked if they could serve the pork. And out it came – in the form of a small pig! Beautifully barbecued and baked whole pig.  Instead of an apple in its mouth they’d placed a banana. And when the Swastika manager walked up to my brother in law with a carving knife, expecting him to do the honours, something had to be fixed, and quickly. The children were clearly upset, so my sister took the manager aside and politely asked him if the pig could be removed and returned as a plate of carved pork. Us westerners don’t like to see the corporeal shape of our protein.

The Balinese manager did as we asked, the pork, which was perfectly cooked, was eaten by all, and no one was badly affected by the incident (although I have to note that years later my brother in law and one of my nieces ended up vegetarians).

And more importantly the Balinese took it all in their stride. It’s they way the are; they simply let things happen, even when angry English and European tourists yell and thump tables, they just smile and let it slide.

And when I find myself waiting for a friend at the airport, and bunches of Australians come through the gates from Bali looking sanguine and relaxed, I can’t help feeling that …well yeah… maybe it’s starting to rub off.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Christmas – a time of cheer or cheesiness?


Amongst many of my colleagues in the comedy fraternity, Christmas is nothing more than a target for ridicule, a plastic orgy of commercialism and insincerity. But how easy it is to mock religious festivals; and anyway, most of those comedians will go home to revel in the Christmas carnival, no matter how tacky it is, and return the obligatory five kilos heavier.
I personally find myself groaning and gritting my teeth in the start of November when the first hints of Christmas pop out at the supermarket. Why?

Hard to say really. Perhaps because I’ve always despised being told how I should feel, particularly by commercial media. No, I won’t be joyous just because you want me to. All the same, I do like the idea of being full of cheer. It sounds far more realistic than joy, wonder or merriment. “Cheers” we British based folk say as we clink glasses in the hope that life will improve or at least not get any worse.

Really though, what bothers me most about Christmas is the mass of things – it’s the objects to which I object. Glittery boxes, cardboard santas pulling reindeers, plastic holly, fake snow, fruit cakes and bulging bags. It’s all so excessive, so fat. And the presents! I can’t recall a single year (apart from when I was nine and my father bought me a foam surfboard) when I perused my presents and thought ‘Wow, what a haul!’. The most useful present I’ve received was a book on feng shui simply because I was able to make a joke about how it didn’t come with instructions as to which part of the house to put it, and therefore I threw it in the bin. Boom boom!

For many years now my family has had an under ten dollar rule (amongst adults) which was great when ten dollars was of some value. Nowadays we either cheat or hand each other something utterly stupid like another pair of plastic salad tongs or a paper weight that doubles as a reading glasses holder! And whenever I actually do stick to the ten dollar rule I find myself going out to buy about 130 dollars worth of rubbish only to receive my very own pile of rubbish worth way less.

One year I’d like to say, “OK, how about we do stuff rather than give stuff” and see what happens. Everyone has some kind of ability or skill. OK if it means making a present, that’s great, although I wish my brother-in-law would make something other strawberry jam, I now have a backlog. No really, wouldn’t it be great to have your gutters cleaned, a garden bed dug, your favourite old shirt repaired, the car cleaned, a baby sat, a song sung, a lawn mowed, a neck massaged, a path swept, a pavement painted, a head of hair cut, a dog washed or a story told; and from non-relatives who are cute something saucy like a striptease late at night to whatever piece of music you choose.

Speaking of which, most carols are hideous but not all of them. Silent Night is beautiful, and even better when it’s mimed with no sound, just suggestive actions (try it sometime). Come All Ye Faithful is pretty, and The Feast Of Steven is listenable. Actually the general theatre of Christmas can be funny. A journo friend told me a story about a supermarket in South Korea where the Christmas message got a little mixed by some Korean window dresser. My friend walked into the supermarket to find Santa nailed to a cross! One can only wonder what they’ll do in April: the Easter bunny rising from the dead?

But anyway, cheer it should be – as best as one can do. No more than that. None of this ‘love everyone’ or ‘forgive everyone’ or ‘fill everyone with joy’ crap! It’s just too much to ask. When we’re told how to behave, isn't it delightful to do the opposite. That’s why so many family rows occur at Christmas. Just as things are so much funnier when we attempt to suppress laughter, spite and hate can really fill a room when we’re told to act ‘nice’.

So, this Christmas….cheers to you all.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

pilbara encore

Once again, the Pilbara can produce some peculiar beauty.  Amidst the hottest temperatures and harshest environs it's such a wonderful surprise to see what can emerge. Even stranger is the way mine workers have little appreciation of this place, but some mine sites have walk trails and enviro officers who are prepared to take people on tours in the tiny windows of time they have off.

              Big Col and Troy at Fortescue falls - in the Karajini National Park

                        One bit of our advertising at Port Hedland pub - The Last Chance Tavern. Boy was that a shot hole, but the audience wer fun, albeit tattooed and loud.

                   Setting up at the Atlas mine north of Port Hedland.

                 MC and tour organiser Chris Dooley. He's swatting flies, not his own head. It's bizarre, and kind of funny, what peculiar insects can fly right by your face as you perform in these places. This particular gig - at Atlas iron ore mine - was a beauty, even though there weren't many people there. The small crew at this mine are very close. We had a great sing-a-long afterwards. One bloke was an amazing song improviser, with a song called "I don't play volleyball" and there were a few Maori guys with beautiful voices.

                              Big Col does his stuff. Pretty amazing to perform in environments like this.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Pilbara

Welcome to the Pilbara: a vast expanse of 'outback' West Australia. While the following photos are your typical non-descript landscapes taken from a car, there's something magical about this place. It's vast and mysterious, and when you get out of the car and take a stroll through the bush, some peculiar beauty starts to pop out at you: plants you've never even imagined; insects that look like something out of a Starwars movie (and almost as big!); ravines and gorges that take you into a sub-tropical wonderland amidst the extreme dry of the bush. This really is the jewel of WA, mainly because it's not spectacular immediately like the Kimberleys or the South West with its surf and wineries. No, the Pilbara is a paradise that takes work; you have to drive and walk and look into it with an understanding of the sheer age and vastness of this wilderness.

Tomorrow we'll be going to the gorges, and I'll post photos of waterfalls and plants, and four comedians wandering through this ancient land.

 Hope Downs mine. All mine sites in the North West have these cyclone warning boards.

This tennis court at Hope Downs is one small example of the luxury the mining  and catering companies are implementing to keep mine workers sane and healthy. Gyms, indoor cricket, cinemas, internet in every room, free phones, swimming pools, and visiting comedians are but a few of the day to day comforts shared by WA mine workers.

                          MC Chris Dooley getting the crowd revved up at Hope Downs mine in the Pilbara.

                                     Me as Big Don Smith at Hope Downs. This was taken from the non-smoking  section, which meant a whole 100 or so people were watching from the side and kind of fenced off. Stupid laws! Even non-smokers like me think these laws are ridiculous.

                                              Troy Kinne in the middle of his act. It was a great night, followed by Big Col,
                                               but alas - no photo of Col in action.

Monday, November 15, 2010

coral bay

Coral bay is a coastal paradise about 1400 k North of Perth. It's famous for fishing, divng, coral, cool-looking European back-packers and a few drunken Aussies (us). The beach here is the main beach in town where people snorkle supposedly in safety. The locals tell you it's safe. But just around the bay is a shark sanctuary! It's interesting to see how fascinated people are by beaches and bits of coral. Sure the odd colourful fish is a buzz, but personally I can't figure out why these things might be interesting. The fishing is good (although it took me three days and much bait to catch a snapper) and there's glass bottom boat tours. But really, it's just a bloody beach. Australia has millions of them! I don't see the point.

                                           Big Col and Dooley back at the camp. Col is playing with a pair of plyers. I'm not entirely sure what he intends to do with them, but I'm not brave enough to ask.

                              Troy at the camp. No one seems to be interested or even vaguely enthusiastic about anything, not because we're having a bad time. It's just really hot! These camping places are always much more pleasant in the morning and evening.

The swimming pool at the camping ground has this folly of a waterfall. I'm amazed that someone put time into this under the illusion that they might have been imroving the aesthetic of the pool area. This will be sent to the Worst Of Perth website where there many wonderful examples of hideous art, culture and behaviour can be seen - all of them emanating from some spot in West Australia. I love the sign. The whole thing is about four foot tall.

Friday, November 12, 2010

trashed tarago comedy tour

Well, here we are in front of the tarago. Ready for the big tour to mines in WA. That's me on the left (Big Don), Troy Kinne, Chris Dooley (the organiser and MC, looking despondent because he's not drunk yet) and Big Col...aka Colin Cole. We've just arrived at out first gig: Murrin Murrin nickel mine 60 k East of Leonora. At this mine we had to carry a resuscitator and poison gas detector. If the detector goes off you have 20 seconds to rip open the resuscitator and run to an up-wind position. As Troy said, bit of a bummer if you're on stage and suddenly the audience all dive for their gas masks! The night show was a ripper - about 150 people all hollering and laughing. The morning show (at 7am!!!) wasn't so well attended. Imagine doing a 12 hour night shift, coming back to base to have a meal, drinking a few beers and then staying to watch a comedy show. Audience were geat, just a few in numbers.

 Here's big Col in Leonora. Spends most of his life in London, working as a ship tour entertainer, gambling, doing shows in the UK and selling contraband ciggarettes (bought on the ship cruises) to pommy smokers. None of us have really managed to upset him yet, and I sincerely hope that if and when that does happen, it's not me. This guy loves to bet on horses, which we'll be doing tomorrow, in between driving all the way to Exmouth.

                                  Kalgoorlie businessman whith a sence of humour.

This is Mount Newman, also simply known as Newman. It's a big town in the middle of the Pilbara (North Eastern area of WA). All around this town are mines: Gold mines, iron ore mines, mineral sands etc. People usually work at these mines as FIFOs. This means Fly In Fly Out, which is what they do, most often on a roster of two weeks on, one week off (but this varies). When the are "on" they're working 12 hour shifts, and there's not really a lot to do. Consequently the mining companies have built villages that contain pools, gyms, cinemas, internet, indoor cricket, beach volley ball courts, (free phone on some sites) and excellent food. The accomodation consists of many rows of air-conditioned metal and plastc sheds called "dongas". As Chris says, "They're called dongas coz all you can fit into them is your dick". In the old days - 1960s to 80s - mine sites were really rough, all male, everyone was pissed and stoned, and fights broke out every day. Nowadays it's very different. There's quite a few women, no drugs, each miner has to blow "zero" on the alcohol tester every morning, and anyone who fights faces instant dismisal. They also employ "enviros" or environment officers - generally science grads whose job is to cut down on rubbsih and waste in the village.

                               This is a little fella called Paddy Hanan, supposedly the first person to find gold in Kalgoorlie, the boom town settled in the 1870s in WA.  Kalgoorlie may well become world famous soon, as they're about to make a film about the 600k water pipeline that was built (between the caost and Kalgoorlie) in the late nineteenth century by another Irishman called C Y O'Connor. Many people considered the pipeline as a crazy folly that would never work. Days after it was opened - and no water seemed to be flowing - O'Conner succumed to the barage of criticism and rode a horse into the sea south of Perth and shot himself. The next day the water flowed and he became a celebrated man.

                             A sculpture outside the depratment of housing in Mount Newman. I imagine it's supposed to represent the nuclear family, the big fallic thing being the Dad.

                    This should give an idea of just how big the trucks are in the North of WA. This one has three carriages but some have four. It takes a bit of practice to pass these things on the open road. If you ever have to, remember that they have a signal system: if they flick on their right indicator briefly, it's clear to go round. You can trust them as they have far better vision of the road ahead (due to their height). A word of warning though. Stay back before passing - at least one car length per 10 k per hour. If you tailgate them, a) they can't see you, and b) you can't see what might be coming the other way.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Snapshots of miss-utterance

Ten years old. With the family in the hills. We visit Uncle Alan. He’s forty now and the home brew’s showing. We all stop as he turns to see us in his kitchen. A big silence. Which I break with, “Boy you’re fat”.

Later I’m admonished quietly.

Seven. At school. My first divinity class. Never heard of God. I’m there with my sister who’s there because of a boy. The chaplain is young and eager. It’s our first class and maybe his. He builds it up, let’s the story sound big: Christ, Adam, Moses, the whole thing up to now. Wants us all to gawk and gape. I try to help him, thinking mistakenly that the best way to show you’re impressed is to whistle – Whooo Whooo!

He asks me to leave. No more God.

Italian class 1997. Many women studying with me and one other bloke. Teacher is warm and motherly. We discuss Andrea Boccelli. The blind singer. Apparently he’s not just handsome but angelic and many other things. La Professoressa’s way of exploring adjectives. Focus comes to me. “Ecco Don, le piace Andrea Boccelli?” (Do I like him?) I pause before asking in English what the Italian word for saccharine is. Groans of despair and disappointment.

I’m no longer the amusing guy. (Saccarina by the way).

Hospital. Early forties. Just had cardiothoracic surgery. My aortic valve has been replaced with a tungsten one. A big moment. The nurses - terrific, warm, loving - laugh and giggle at the morphine antics. Early morning on the ward. In and out of the opium daze, happy it’s all done. The TV a bleary box in the air. I wake to see the doctors doing their morning round. All at the foot of my bed: Indian surgeon, Pakistani registrar, pretty Vietnamese med student. Very pretty. All standing where the TV was. The nurse shakes me awake. I look. They smile. I say, “Who switched over to SBS?” (the ethnic TV channel).

They don’t laugh. The nurse, imploding, has to leave.

Six days later, after the doctors have found me to be just a wag and not so nasty. I’m keen to go. Feel ready! Please docs. Want to go! It’s been a week. But they say I can’t go until my heart rate is below 90 beats per minute - resting. Been practising. Meditating and long breathing. Got the rate down. Down. Calm. The doctors arrive at 8. “Mr Smith” says the Indian as his head does that dance. They all smile. I sit up ready for the pulse test. The Pakistani doc says “No” as the nurse tries to take my pulse. He nods to the beautiful Vietnamese girl. She slowly moves to me, takes my arm in hers, takes my pulse. Pulse of 95! Libido’s back! Damn!

Again his lovely sub-continental head wobble. This time with a big smile. “Sorry Mr Smith. Maybe tomorrow.”

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Racism at the bank

What does it take to convince people that their objection to refugees arriving in Australia by boat has no rational basis?

There’s a deep and irrevocable fear in the minds of many Australians, a fear of alien arrivals, a fear of invasion. While this fear is expressed as anger about people not ‘joining the queue’ or not ‘coming here in the normal manner’ it really is just that – fear; there’s no evidence that refugees who arrive by boat could be a danger to us, or even disadvantage any other person in our community. So, when that fear has no historical basis (a generation ago in Australia a fear of Japanese people was understandable) it really is a kind of social pathology.

Where does it come from? 

Last night I listened to a Buddhist monk talk about conflict. His simple approach is that we should attempt to ‘be’ the person we despise.  So I suppose I should attempt to see from the perspective of a person who is frightened of refugees.

How do I do that? I’m not sure. It’ll have to be a future project. But in the mean time let me tell you about something that happened at the bank a few months ago.

I was attempting to cash a cheque at my local Commonwealth bank. This particular branch is often full of people from all over the world: Vietnam, Cambodia, Africa, Iraq, Korea, Sri Lanka and Europe (including Britain). Some of them are refugees, others simply immigrants, but on any given day it’s guaranteed that over three quarters of the people in the bank will be of Asian, African or Middle Eastern origin.

It was a Thursday afternoon, a time when many banks in poor neighbourhoods are full. And yes, the word ‘poor’ is appropriate; it’s a suburb once full of poor English immigrants and aboriginal people living in Government housing. Nowadays the newly renovated low-cost housing is inhabited by refugees or young people who can’t afford to buy closer to the city. White anglo saxons like me are now a minority.

So, there we were, about fifty customers in a small Commonwealth Bank branch; and, having just arrived, I was at the end of the queue. After about a minute of waiting I heard an angry customer ticking off a bank teller. Many people get angry at bank staff, I’ve done it myself years ago, but it’s something I consider futile as it’s not the tellers who make the rules. But this person was ramping it up, letting everyone know he was upset. He was a drunk white man, early thirties, well over six foot and well built, looked like a labourer.

It soon became clear that he was upset about not being able to withdraw money immediately, and the teller, a young Asian woman, was trying to inform him that he’d have to wait. His voice became louder, he looked around to see who was watching and listening, and the largely ethnic crowd simply looked out the window or at the floor. Staff behind the counter were tense and scared. Then he said, “I put fifteen thousand dollars into this fucken bank and I can’t take out a lousy one hundred.” The woman mumbled an apology and the white bloke then said, “It’s OK for you. Ya fucken boat people, coming here and taking all the jobs.”

That’s when I piped up. I can’t help myself. Always have done, always will. I called out with my broadest Ozzie accent, “Hey mate, pull your head in...” (a colloquialism meaning ‘be quiet’ or ‘hush up’) “…you don’t need to be abusive.”

The big fellow turned towards me, took one look at the minuscule frame of a short fifty year old middle class entertainer and said, “What’s it got to do with you?” Then he walked towards me. I just stood there thinking ‘what the fuck have I done now?’ as he stopped and looked down at me. I said, “You won’t get any where by abusing people fella”. He began a sentence along the lines of “I don’t give a flying fuck what you think…” when another voice behind me called out, “Shut up you bloody racist.”

I turned to see a small African guy, early twenties, wiry and cocky. The big guy then walked towards him and asked what he wanted as the African guy called him a big fat redneck. And I thought, ‘Oh shit, what have I started!’ as the Ozzie bloke started poking the African fellow with his finger. Things looked like they were really hotting up when a middle aged Asian woman, the manager as turned out, stepped in and told us to go outside. The Ozzie bloke then looked at her, and I could see he wanted to hurl abuse at her as well, but instead he just turned to me, held up his palms and said, “I just want some money for the weekend.”

In that moment I could see the guy was tired, upset and helpless, and I could identify with that; we’ve all been there. So I told the bloke to come outside, and he did but not before once again threatening the African fellow.

Outside, he told me he was down from the mines and I told him I’d toured to many of the mine sites. We chatted about where he worked – a site I’d perormed at – and it turned out the mulitbillionaire company he worked for had bungled his payment so it was in late. He wanted the bank to understand, well at least someone to listen anyway; so I did my best. Then the little African guy came out of the bank and glared at him. Once again it was on, swear words from both of them, before the African guy scooted off towards the car park. Then the Ozzie bloke went off in the same direction, and I just thought ‘stuff it, I’ve done my bit’, so I went back into the bank.

By this stage the queue was even bigger and once again I was at the end when the manager came out and insisted I go to the front. So, amidst many smiles of thanks from the staff and customers, I did my banking, withdrew some money and left.

And after I bought a paper and some groceries, I was heading towards my car when I noticed two security guards chatting to a white woman. They were saying something about an African guy. I wandered over and told them what I’d seen at the bank. They allowed me in on their conversation, and the security guards questioned the woman: “Are you sure it was a gun?”. The woman responded with, “Yes, I’m…well, it looked like a gun…it was…well, he was pointing it at the other fellow.”

I looked down at the pavement, felt kind of sad and left them to sort it out.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


I’ve been asked to work at a boxing night. Not as a boxer, I’d last about ten seconds less then a Danny Green opponent. The promoter wants me to MC and gee up the crowds between bouts.

Yep, it’s one of those ‘in two minds’ things. Not really a dilemma because I’m doing the gig. It’s just that I know there’ll be people there acting tough, acting like they’re king of the crowd: robbers, wife-bashers, road-ragers, bigots. They’ll be yelling stuff that’s nasty and hurtful.

Umm, it’s a boxing match Don. What do you expect, Mary-friggin-McKillop?

I have to admit that I like boxing. And it’s not because I like Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer, because I’m not that enamoured with those writers who loved to parade their macho side amongst their softer bohemian mates. No, it’s simply because I like to see skill, tactics, strength and strategy all working together, and boxing is one of those sports where that happens absolutely. There’s no contest. For watching, the martial arts beat all other leisure activities.

Australian football is spectacular and beautiful, but there’s no strategy. Lots of skill and strength but you can’t put 36 blokes on a field with an egg shaped ball that can be passed and kicked forwards and backwards and tell me tactics and strategy will come to the fore. Same for rugby but at least they’re generally moving in one direction. Basket ball is way too fast, tennis is ok but full of posers, and don’t get me started on golf! Cricket comes closest in regard to skill and strategy, particularly when you play it, but when you watch, it’s sometimes hard to know where to look (hence the reliance on replays).

With boxing there’s no mistaking the rules, no missing a moment because you were looking at someone in the outfield, no one in the road of your vision. It’s just so simple and pure in form but exceptionally complex. It’s chess with muscle and blood. It’s as close as you can get to live tragedy without the death (hopefully). Someone has to lose and lose hard; and there's no turning to fellow players to share the burden of loss; just one guy standing (or lying) and taking it while the other guy jumps and yelps like a puppy on a beach.

So, would I go to a pro boxing match? No, not my scene and too expensive. But I love to watch Olympic boxing: 3 rounds with head protection. I’ve argued with mates who reckon, generally in a drunken stupor, that the head padding makes no difference. I don’t believe that for a second.

I have boxed though. In 1976 I worked, like so many young blokes, on the wheat bins of West Australia. It was a tiny siding not far from Lake Grace, a town best forgotten in the middle of wheat fields and salt plains. Can’t help thinking that the guy who wrote Wake In Fright spent a bit of time on a wheat bin.

There was a young bloke called Roo, tall and gangly, not many teeth, a local who fancied himself as a boxer. I’d heard from a few locals that Roo had lost a few fights at the pub but that he never gave up. He’d take on anyone.

At the time I was very fit. I was 19, and I’d just returned from England where I’d spent four months throwing bales on to trucks. I was only five foot five but, like a lot of short guys, I talked a lot. I call it the Jack Russell complex: they might all be bigger than you but if you make a bit of noise and look into their eyes they’ll back off.

Not Roo though.

He liked me and I him, even though we came from opposing sides of the class divide. It was fun to play practical jokes on each other, take the piss out each other’s accents, and joke with the farmers, many of whom looked down on Roo like he had rabies. He’d clearly made a name for himself.

And every day Roo would say, “C’mon Smitty, box me. Box me mate”. I’d find ways of discouraging him: comparing the length of our arms, our differing heights, my complete lack of experience, the likelihood of us being sacked, or our lack of boxing gloves (given my desire to continue playing guitar).  

But one afternoon the boss was away and a farmer dropped off a case of beer. Roo and I got drunk, he badgered me for a fist fight and I said “Why not?” So we simply walked over to a patch of gravel and went at each other. The tension was fabulous. And the focus! Two guys, one tall and the other short, ducking and weaving, jabbing, dancing in the heat. The other workers, both city guys like me, were watching and yelling, “Hey, you guys are crazy. Stop it!” But secretly they were mesmerised.

And it wasn’t that difficult. Roo had huge hands that I could see coming from way back, so it was simple to deflect every punch. Then it all got serious when I landed a punch on Roos gut. He paused, took in a breath, then came at me with a series of fast jabs. One of them hit my chin and that was it. It was like someone had thrown a lump of wood at me. Thump. I wasn’t dazed but I was very shocked. Roo could see I’d had enough and that was it. We laughed and went back to the shed.

The thing I remember most about that moment was how incredibly exhausted we were. It’s really hard work! But it was strangely satisfying. It was like Roo had given me a little taste of his life, his bliss.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Aropax (written in 2005)

Just came off Aropax – the famous antidepressant everyone’s talking and writing about, and a few commercial current affairs shows are warning us all against. Yep, the same one that’s supposedly causing so many suicides and murders. I say “supposedly” because there may have been a few variables other than the drug itself, misdiagnosis and misuse being just two of them.

I remember when my psychiatrist first recommended it, the name Aropax had a kind of symmetry and rhythm to it. AROPAX.  I’ve always liked the suffix ‘pax’ or peace. Serapax, the sleeping pill, means ‘night peace’. Hmmmm…cute. The ‘aro’ bit actually means ‘to plough’, so Aropax means to work in peace.

The active constituent of Aropax is Paroxetine, and when I checked it in the MIMS drug compendium – after my second day on the drug – I found a list of possible side affects so large I was gob-smacked! Then I noticed almost every drug has a similar list; it’s a basic scientific obligation to say how some people reacted during clinical trials. But I was gob-smacked all the same.

While Aropax is fast developing a reputation similar to Thalidomide, I have to say I’m ambivalent about it. It served its purpose. For three years on Aropax I managed my life better, suffered less from anxiety, slept okay, and no longer felt a need to kill myself. From my normally stoic perspective the side affects weren’t that bad: just a bit of edginess, weird dreams and difficulty reaching orgasm. And hey, I’m a heterosexual man, what better pick up line than, “I’m on these drugs, and…well… it takes me ages to come.”

So why go off it?

The weird dreams were more than just weird, they were cold, insidious and heartless. I used to call them my ‘Tarentino’ dreams because that’s what they were like: fast, vivid, violent, often very funny but generally lacking in compassion. i.e. A Quentin Tarentino movie. I once dreamt that in the middle of a shoot out scene, when the handsome antihero is about to be shot by the ugly psycho, the antihero casually stares into the psycho’s eyes and says, in that cool Clint Eastwood fashion, “I thought you guys were supposed to kill innocent people. I’m not innocent, I’m an evil prick. Why don’t you shoot someone who’s innocent?” The psycho guy then turns and shoots a woman walking past, giving the antihero just enough time to escape. But that wasn’t the end; these dreams went on and on from one clever but dispassionate scene to the next. They almost had end credits!

As for the orgasms…nahhhh…we’re talking hours, literally. At first it was great, I got to see it from the ‘turner-onner’ perspective, and it was kind of fun to say, “ Hey, I just love watching you enjoy yourself.” And I agree with the adage that getting there is most of the fun, but there’s no fun in ‘getting there’ if you don’t actually get there! Tantric Schmantric, I want the big pay off, and with Aropax that was rare. When it did come, or should I say when I did, the feeling was more relief than ecstasy.

My big reason for ditching Aropax was to do with feelings. Strong feelings. Not deep ones, strong ones. Deep feelings imply complexity, and with Aropax things are complex alright - sophistication abounds. One of the selling points of the drug is that it improves concentration. But strong feelings are about having something well up inside you and allowing it move around your body. I suppose that’s why we call it ‘being over-taken by emotion’. We lose ourselves in it for a while, and it doesn’t matter if it’s crying, laughing or orgasming, it’s glorious to be lost in that. Just for a while.

On Aropax it never happened. I could perceive feeling, understand it, analyse it, even feel it coming on; and sometimes I’d laugh along with friends who were bursting with laughter, or cry with others who were keening and wailing, but I knew I was never really there - a bit like trying to get drunk with your mates while knowing someone’s switched your liquor for water.

I realised this when I was playing guitar alone one night. I’d found the music to a song that was sung at my brother’s funeral - in the days before I took Aropax. It was beautiful Irish ballad about some guy who wishes he had it in him to visit his true love across the sea, but he just can’t bring himself to climb out of the shit hole of his life. And it was a wonderful feeling to pick up the guitar and belt out this wild, irreverent Irish love song – to remember that massive feeling of loss … and to re-live it … almost! After one rendition of the song I stopped and realised I wasn’t crying, and I was so damn close! I wanted to cry so much but I couldn’t, and for that I felt even sadder, but I still didn’t cry. It was like my body was just aching to go through all that shuddering and shaking and blubbering. But it got to a point where it stopped, as if my emotions were being governed. And in a way I suppose they were.
Sure, there were tears and a quiver in my voice but I never really let myself go.

It was then I realised the drug was holding me back. So I figured it was time to be rid of it.

But you can’t just go off these drugs, particularly Aropax (as my doctor told me later). Weird things happen. After the first few nights of cold turkey I started getting nightmares. But these weren’t your traditional “scary” dreams; they were a cross between frustration dreams (where you’ve lost something or can’t find your way through something), humiliation dreams (where you feel like an idiot) and dreams of sheer horror. A horror that’s hard to pin down though – insidious and creepy, not quite there yet. A horror that’s about to arrive but holds itself back so you can never really see it, just feel it. “Ephemeral and plastic” was the paradoxical term I once used to describe it; but it was other things too, sometimes visceral, emanating from within. 

With most nightmares, particularly recurring ones, the dreamer develops an ability to wake up and recover knowing it was just that rotten dream again. Consciousness becomes a kind of escape hatch. And sure, going back to sleep can be onerous but at least you have a choice. With the Aropax withdrawal dreams however, the escape hatch simply disappears. You can spend hours in a situation of stupendous horror and crippling embarrassment. You’re back at school again but in your forties, still failing exams. The teacher’s calling you dumb again. The exam has just started but you’ve dropped your pen and broken your pencil. You reach down to find the pen when suddenly there’s a feeling of dread beneath you. Some ‘thing’ is coming from the earth, rumbling it’s way up from the bowels of hell, but you’re not sure what it is, all you know is it’s coming to get you. And above your head the howls of derision continue.

When I did finally wake from these nightmares, it was more than just a sweat I found myself in; I was absolutely buggered. I’d been through an emotional marathon! 
This made life and work hard to endure. So I went back on the Aropax.

But recently, after some very big changes in life style – cognitive behavioural therapy, no alcohol and lots of exercise (and some very good professional advice) - I kicked the Aropax. I found a lovely place in the country where I also happened to be doing lots of work. I was surrounded by people I love and trust, and I had Valium for back up. But really it was sheer determination and fitness that got me through.

I’ll never forget the drive back to the city. After two nights of drug-free, dream-free sleep I cruised on up that highway, and when the radio got boring I turned it off and rummaged through an old box of tapes I’d brought along because my car doesn’t have a CD player. Anyone over forty has a collection of these tapes – a kind of aural version of a photo album – full of memories, old feelings and scratchy bits of life. And wow did I let loose! To the eighties ballads I howled like a baby. To the Blues songs I screamed with fury. And during one of the old comedy tapes I laughed so hard I had to stop the car and get out.

It was a wonderful thing – to be standing there laughing to a bunch of black and white cows in a green field surrounded by hills. A few of the cows casually looked up as if to say, “What are you laughing at and why should we give a shit?” And I just kept laughing, and then crying – really crying, where you go into spasms and fall to the ground. But then I was laughing again. This went on for a while, and fortunately I’d turned off a side road so I was away from the highway – I hate to think what could happen to someone found in this state by the wrong person – really! After a while I just stepped back, took a few deep breaths and leant against the car. And for a minute or two I just closed my eyes and thought of nothing. Nothing!

Then I got back in the car, and as I drove back to the city I thought about Aropax and Zoloft and Cypromil and all those drugs that work by increasing serotonin; and I figured it’s foolish to demonise them. What really matters is how the drug companies sell them, how the doctors hand them out, and how we consume them. In my case Aropax was helping me continue a lifestyle I’d become used to over twenty odd years: working hard when I had work; feeling rotten when I didn’t; hitting the grog and dope every night; eating badly and exercising occasionally (on a dance floor) then pushing myself to function the next day. So, when I suddenly shifted all that – dropped the dope, booze and hard work/hard play behaviour – life was unbearable! It was harsh, bright and had a buzz to it. Reality had very sharp edges. I then realised that all that time I’d been using Aropax to make up for the hard-at-it life style; but the booze and dope were taking an edge off the harsh reality caused by the Aropax. And I realised so many of my friends were caught in the same whirlpool of emotional dysfunction and chemical dependency.

But now reality is wonderful and multiform – soft, harsh, loud, peaceful, boring, glorious, stupid and occasionally drunk. It took a lot of work to realise that I don’t always have to control my feelings. Sometimes I can just sit back and let myself drift.