Saturday, November 19, 2011

Tolerance… or just sitting it out?

Tolerance is an ugly word, and while we are taught to be tolerant, to accept the possible clumsiness or misunderstandings of others, we tend to equate tolerance with weakness, with appeasement (in a Neville Chamberlain kind of way). It becomes a begrudging acceptance of events and actions we probably shouldn’t put up with.

But certain stories and events in recent times have led me to revalue tolerance; and in these particular cases it’s not so much tolerating and more to do with stopping, breathing, not reacting, just letting things unfold: just sitting it out.

At a recent performance of true stories called Barefaced Stories – a wonderful knew phenomenon to appear in the world of performance – I heard a guy tell a story which I at first thought unimpressive and pedestrian, but later realised was significant to me (and clearly to others because his story won the competition).

His story goes like this: when he was a young boy he failed at school and his mother was desperate to find a way for him to improve, so she used positive reinforcement. She heard him talking about a particular toy: a battery operated sword thing that his mates had and he didn’t and really wanted. In fact he was obsessive about wanting it! So she told him she’d buy him one if he studied and improved his grades at school. He studied hard at everything, swatted and slaved at his books, at school, at home. And bingo, he went from being at the bottom of the class to the top of the class. He even won an award for improvement. So he went to his mum and asked about the toy sword. She rang the toy store and they went down to get it but the shop had run out. He had to wait. And after a series of amusing circumstances where it really looked like he was going to get the toy – the boy and his mum were never there at the right time – the mum finally turned around to him one day and said, “That’s it, I’ve had enough of you and your silly sword. You’re not getting it. It’s over” (words to that effect). The boy was upset and confused; it was a deal and he’d very much upheld his end of it. What was going on? What had he done to deserve this? At this point in the story-telling the guy just jumped to the present and kept talking about his mum, how she was nursing her own mother through ill-health and how much he loved his mum for her kindness and concern for her family.

And here the story ends. No explanation for the mum’s weird actions. No angry scenes between him and his mum. No resolution at all, apart from the fact that he got over it. He remembered it, clearly, and it mattered to him, but he got over it. And the beauty of his telling was the very fact that he didn’t explain what might have been going on for his mum. He left that up to us to think about.

Recently I’ve been hanging out with a woman, a friend who is much younger than I, who speaks language I find bizarre but amusing: ‘povo’ instead of poor, ‘whatevs’ instead of whatever and ‘stealth’ as a replacement for great or excellent. She claims that these are abbreviations, but I of course retort with the fact that ‘povo’ has one more syllable than poor, even though I like rhythm and sound of ‘povo’ in the manner of ‘wacko’ or ‘sicko’. But the linguistic difference is fun. What wasn’t fun, at first, was her inability to leave a house in less than fifteen minutes. Now this is a problem I’ve had with many women: the whole charade of preparing to go out. It’s been the subject of lots of comedians’ routines. “Okay, you get ready darling, and I’ll go finish my Phd”. “Oh, you’re doing your make up. Okay I’ll change the diff on the car and retile the roof. Call me when you’re ready!”

Now, my new friend is different, her inability is more of a disability, a bona fide neurosis regarding the process of leaving a building. And it’s not just about checking doors and locks and irons that might be left on, it’s way more than that. Now, I don’t want to name her problem, in the same way that I wouldn’t expect her to talk about my various mental problems in a public place (as this is). But I bring this up because at first I was fuming! ‘How the fuck can she expect me to just stand here waiting for her to faff about? We’ve got things to do, places to go, lives to live!’ Then after a while I just figured ‘oh well, it’s what she does’ and I learnt to tolerate it, and then to actually like it. In fact I started using that time to stop, to breathe, to do nothing. If I had to leave a building quickly – say to go and do a gig or get to an appointment, an audition or a voice over say, well…I wouldn’t put us through that, and this isn’t that kind of relationship so it’s not going to happen.

Perhaps the fact that we’re just friends is why I’m far more tolerant of her, and she of me. Whatever…the fact of the matter is that in the past I have been extraordinarily intolerant of people I’ve been close to, and I’d like to say I’m sorry for doing a kind of Rumplestiltskin act – jumping and cursing – just because I’ve had to wait a bit, or listen, or ponder a problem or just be there for some one.

As an end note, I’d like to say that there are situations to be intolerant: taxi drivers who try to tell you about groups of people they hate; people who talk through the news when you’ve both sat down to watch  and 'listen' to it; yelling at and smacking children; hurting pets – the list is probably endless, but no less endless than the ‘reasons to be kind’ list.  

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Christopher Hitchens

For my birthday I was given Arguably, a large collection of essays by Christopher Hitchens. Up until recently I thought he was some kind of stuffy, ex-leftist conservative of no interest to me. How wrong I was! He has views I disagree with - he thinks the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a worthwhile action – but the man is worth reading (and hearing when the ABC airs interviews with him).

In recent times he’s become notable because of his strong commitment to atheism, which is backed up by his spirited criticism of religion (including his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Spoils Everything); and in more recent times his impending death (from cancer of the oesophagus) has some people ogling – if one can ogle in an intellectual sense – at how his philosophy will prepare him for death.

My recent interest in him came about in peculiar circumstances. My 84 year old mother was in hospital a few weeks ago undergoing heart surgery. It was supposed to be a fairly simple procedure: keyhole surgery on her aorta to deal with an aneurism. The heart surgery went fine, but somehow the blood flow to her left kidney ceased, and what should have been a day in intensive care turned into one and a half weeks as various organs began to fail. Poor mum was connected up to a plethora of tubes and machines.

She’s always been a reader – like no one else I’ve ever met – and has a huge library. So my sister and I found ourselves having to read to her in hospital. It happened that Mum’s neighbour Judy had lent her Hitchen’s latest book Hitch-22: A Memoir. So this is what we read to her over a number of days.
We had to read loudly because of the machines and Mum’s ailing hearing; which of course meant we had to improvise around a few ‘fucks’ and other explicit language. And strangely, we found the hospital staff fascinated - our readings almost became public! And we too found the stories gripping and the writing excellent. So, when mum came out of hospital and my birthday came around, my sister bought me his book of essays.

What’s immediately impressive is the guy’s output - dozens of books and pamphlets, essays and collaborations – but it’s also backed up by a colossal amount of knowledge. It’s like he’s got a spare brain that reads while he can do other stuff like live!

The main motivating factor behind Chris Hitchens is the idea of reason. One can only wonder where reason hid when he was a Trotskyist for many years during the sixties and seventies, (and clearly reason abandoned him when he backed the invasion of Iraq and made absurd claims about BinLadenism as being “a barbarism that…no less menacing than Nazism and Stalinism”) but it seems he’s evolved into something of a modern enlightenment man. His fascination with the American Revolution has led to years of research and writing on the subject of the U.S founding fathers. He also writes about Edmund Burke, the British (originally Irish) enlightenment politician who, while being dismissed by some as an eccentric Tory, produced many apposite warnings of the coming revolution in France.

An essay about humour entitled Why Women Aren’t Funny could easily be misinterpreted as misogynist when it’s simply a whimsical attempt to analyse the sexual function of jokes; it hinges on his spurious idea that women, being bearers of children and generally more attractive than men, have nowhere near as much need to invent jokes as men. This and a few other essays can be skipped for better essays about Evelyn Waugh, Steven Spender, Orwell, Kipling, Wodehouse, Prince Charles (whom Hitchens excoriates as a nutter and dullard) Saul Bellow, Anthony Powell, Nabakov, Updike, Twain, Lincoln, Jefferson, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, European Economics and even Harry Potter.

Yes, Hitchens has aligned himself, on certain issues (an important point) with North American Neo-cons, but this is simply not enough reason to dismiss and consequently not read the guy. I get so irritated at friends and colleagues who can’t even begin to read or listen to a person who has made a political move they don’t like. They’re missing a lot by not reading Hitchens.

It reminds me of an experience I had recently at a writers festival in Geraldton where, amongst a group of interesting authors, journalists, story-tellers and illustrators was the conservative Australian journalist Piers Ackerman. While he made many statements I and many others found laughable, including the suggestion that the invasion of Iraq may have contributed to the Arab Spring and the liberation of Libya, I have to admit the man has something to offer: knowledge, analysis and wit. Were I to ignore a man because of his political opinion, I would never have talked to my own Grandfather or my Uncle Brian, a passionate and emotional fellow whose love of cricket and music far out-shone his political conservatism.

Sunday, October 16, 2011



“Whatever you do don’t look back!” yelled the policeman to the victim as he fled the hideous murder scene. Again he yelled it, “Don’t look back!” and the victim, who hadn’t seen the horrific goings on outside the building, or near the car, or on top of the car (all depends how the story’s told)…just couldn’t help himself. He had to look back, so he did and it was just so awful, so gruesome it remained with him forever.
Why did he look back? Because we all have to; it’s far too tempting to see the guts of a matter, and in a way it’s better to have actually seen it than to imagine it based upon other’s recollections.
            Looking back is something we do. Our personal history can’t be erased, and sometimes we look back with utter joy, other times with remorse, embarrassment, or with that big ugly one: regret!
“I have nothing to regret” I once heard a friend say, and I smiled obliquely, desperately attempting to hide my utter disbelief. How could you have done nothing that you wish you hadn’t? Isn’t that what regret is? Wishing you’d taken a different path, a different action? Wishing you’d given away that third bottle of vodka, wishing you’d not run into that young girl who admired you a little too much, wishing you’d worked it out with an alcoholic lover, worked it out so you could both climb aboard a new wagon or at least a less crippled wagon?
            And the songs about not regretting – Je Ne Regret RienRegrets I’ve had a few, but then again too few to mention – those singers are having a crack – pretending to have no  regrets, like an alcoholic saying “No, seriously I can get home without help…” just before falling three flights of stairs. It’s irony I suppose. But a special kind of irony: brave, careless and dry, like they guy who picks up two hitchhikers while he’s completely shickered, drives down the road, off the road and into a brick wall. And just as his passengers are about to exit the car he says in a calm and polite manner, “Sorry boys, this is far as I’m going.”
            Yes, I have regrets: forgetting to renew the medication I was given some time ago, and spending a night and the next day in the arms of the blackest of black dogs Mr Churchill could ever have named or imagined; going back to ‘the odd sip’ of alcohol when I knew (along with a large team of medical folk) that alcohol drives me to utter despair, even the smallest amounts turning what many consider a wry and friendly fellow into a suicidal mess. These are actions I wholeheartedly regret. Apart from hurting close friends and family who I give the onerous task of nursing this mess, it also costs money. Thousands with every event.
But perhaps the ‘regret deniers’ are saying something about learning from their mistakes; maybe they’ve done some bad stuff but only once, then moved on. Therefore they don’t regret the action because it’s turned into a lesson. Good on them I say.
I don’t seem to learn from the harshest of lessons, but when I look back on them, like now, I wish I hadn’t done them. Simple. Regret. Perhaps I should write a song called No Regrets, and put in it a plethora of true actions and self-inflicted calamities, some funny, others almost impossible to describe in their hurt and anguish, and put my case well and truly that sometimes, yes, one might just have reason to regret

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Tender for meridian

‘Tender For Meridian’ is what I saw written on a small boat tied to the roof of a car. I was in the traffic, dressed as a clown and ready for three hours of hustle and bustle at a giant hardware store, entertaining kids and making the adults smile. And all day long I couldn’t help thinking of those words – tender for meridian.

Something about them made me calm and easy.

I know what they mean: the little boat is the ‘tender’ for a bigger boat called ‘Meridian’. But when I was driving in heavy traffic on the way to a gig - and driving to gigs is usually tense because I’m preparing to be the ‘funny’ guy in a society where the word ‘clown’ is on a par with ‘arsonist’ – I let those words repeat in my head like a mantra, and their different meanings created a sublime resonance. Tender: exposed and sensitive; gentle and sympathetic; young and vulnerable; to make an offer; a person who looks after things. And a meridian is a giant circle from pole to pole, or a pathway of energy in the body.

Tender for meridian.

As this kept bouncing round my mind I worked through the day and things became so easy, gentle and funnier than ever. Emotion spilled forth with ease. I found myself giggling at children.

I don’t like cute, never have: those clowns and fairies and jesters who do little more than smile, dance, juggle and generally patronise children. I have to challenge everyone, dig into egos and prod with irony and wit. And over the years I’ve done this because…well, it’s why I became a clown; I’ve always said and done what most are too scared or polite to do or say. Like the time a few years ago when a policeman saw me driving with my Jack Russel dog on my lap. He pulled me over and said, “What are you doing driving with the dog on your lap?” and I thought for a bit and said in a serious tone, “Well, he’s kind of handy because I don’t have an airbag”. At first the cop was flabbergasted but he let me off, and as he and his partner drove off they were roaring with laughter.

This need to challenge has however, gone too far at times, to the point where my clown character – Edward De Bozo (the famous lateral-drinker) – has upset people and occasionally caused complaints such as, “He was rude to me” or “He sang a love song to my wife that made me look like an idiot” or “I told him to get away from my stall and then he went and told everyone else to get away from my stall so I didn’t sell anything for the first half hour”. While ninety percent of these complainers have deserved all the needling I could give - in the same way that Frank on the TV show M*A*S*H deserved every bit of teasing Hawkeye gave him – these events have ultimately left me upset too. They were real.

So, in recent times I’ve sat back a bit, been less acerbic and a little sweeter. It hasn’t turned Edward into a mindless patronising character but it hasn’t been that exciting either. But today I touched a softness and an absurd and gentle ease that came about I believe because of those words – tender for meridian – and everything they imply.

Hippy rubbish? Maybe, but I really think it’s time we embraced gentleness; not in an automatic ‘please and thankyou’ kind of way, but as an active embrace, a truly enthusiastic grab at being kind...and tender.

Monday, March 7, 2011

One and a half men...and a monster. US morality has lost its Sheen.

There’s always got to be one, or even a few, but usually the media likes to focus on one, and he or she often starts with some kind of extraordinary talent; and if not that at least a siren-like attraction, a la Marilyn Munroe, then we gawk in awe as they plunge to their death on drugs or utter humiliation and loneliness or all of the above.

The latest is Charlie Sheen.

They’ve ditched his TV show, just as the juggernaut of his personality ensures the ratings of Two And A Half Men go berserk!  Who isn’t going to be watching now that he’s given the bird to the producers? Even I who can’t stand those sarcastic, dehumanised Ad vehicles called American sitcoms will be glued to the box, just to see the guy who every day walks the plank of commercial excess, and he’s doing it with such impudence, such utter disgrace.

This is the paradox of capitalism: do it, do it, do it, do it….woops, you’ve done it, you terrible man! Every TV magazine, advertisement, bill board, pop song, sit com, film clip – you name it – is pumping out the idea of going overboard, getting that little bit more out of life; but once someone really does it they’re pilloried by the press, by comedians, by psychologists and moralists, warned off by parents and teachers across the planet.

Charlie’s paying two pretty women to live with him. Sure, they’re blonde and plastic looking versions of women, but they fit the commercial mould nicely. And no doubt millions of married men are secretly wishing they were Charlie for a week or so, and I’m sure millions of American women are wishing they were doing Charlie for a week or so. He’s doing exactly what a commercially successful playboy should be doing: taking drugs and alcohol and getting laid a lot. Is there something else in the handbook of excess?

Well, yes apparently so. Amongst all of this striving to the pinnacle of garish taste and profit is supposed to be some kind of philosophical integrity, some human standard to which one must adhere in order to still be liked by the ‘family viewer’.

‘Family entertainment’ was the famous sardonic catch-cry uttered by American comedian Sam Kinison as he blundered Viking-like into the prudish realms of late night TV shows, smashing their mores and morals with his ‘anti-preaching’ stand-up routine. It’s the family entertainment tag that’s keeping Sheen from being simply relegated to the category of just another talented loony, in the same way that footballers like Brendan Fevola are admonished for their excesses: it's because the kids might be watching.

Well, derr! The kids are watching alright, but they’re also participating in their own world of online excess filled with porn and violence way beyond anything Charlie or Brendon might be involved with.

The whole problem is that shows like Two And A Half Men rely so heavily on the comedy of the anti-hero, in the same way Punch and Judy revolves around the psychotic, scary behaviour of Punch, and we love that Punch is there to actually do those hideous things that we might do if we completely lost our moral compass, just as Charlie is there to do what a good family man wouldn’t. The difference is however, that Punch is a puppet and Charlie is a real guy; his character is his real name, he’s based on a real guy who really does this stuff. And while the real Charlie is walking off set to get smashed and have real sex with real hookers and porn stars, the Two And A Half Men writers and producers are desperately attempting to build a morally acceptable TV show based on the idea that the Charlie guy is wrong, not the guy to follow kids! “No, don’t be like the handsome, witty, commercially successful, wealthy son of a film star and brother of two other extraordinarily talented film stars. Be like the dowdy guy about whom we know nothing.”

In a sense Two And A Half Men is a form of reality TV because it’s premise and it’s fame are based on a real guy; and hey, this does give it an added paradoxical complexity. The problem is that the producers have tried to keep the old school family morality attached to it all; they not only want their cake and eat it, they want to sell the cake at top dollar, lace it with liquor and drugs, smear it over naked imaginations of prime time TV viewers, then claim it’s a lovely wholesome cake for general consumption. And in a way it is wholesome, but the guts of the cake – the luscious, sexy, heart of it – Charlie – is something they don’t own. The can’t keep him locked in a cabinet until next week. He’s a walking, breathing Punch if you like. Imagine allowing Homer Simpson or Family Guy to wander off into the real world and wreak moral havoc amidst the citizens of Los Angeles.

We do the same with our footballers, of course: set them up to be overtly aggressive, arrogant and wilful; then when they display that behaviour in public, we can't cope. Similarly, we shake our heads at the behaviour of Matthew Newton who spent several years on the film sets of Underbelly, a rootin and shootin moral quagmire that celebrates murder, drugs and prostitution and somehow attempts to imply that we shouldn’t be doing these very exciting things.

In a way, people like Charlie Sheen and Matthew Newton are walking, talking embodiments of capitalism gone too far, they are monsters spurned from the fetid excess of commercial TV. And before Charlie Sheen, Matthew Newton or Brendon fevola go to their deaths hounded by the press and the fading memories of their own glory, I say to those TV producers and AFL managers: you got what you asked for, you greedy pricks, and now you don’t have the guts to actually take responsibility for it.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

On The Dole Again, a song NOT written by Wille Nelson

On The Dole Again, a song NOT written by Wille Nelson

On the dole again, I just can't wait to be back on the dole again

I'm so glad I chose to be a thespian

I can't wait to be on the dole again

On the dole again, not-even-dremin-of-goin-to places I've never been,

eating food I wish I'll never eat again

Oh how I love to be on the dole again.

On the dole again, we take the bus 'cause we can't afford the highway

We're a bunch of fiends, insisting that the world pay for some of our way, what an outrage!

On the dole again, pretending that I'm looking for a stupid job again

love is standing in that giant queue again

Oh how I love to be on the dole again.

Bridge 2
On the dole again, like a bunch of losers we hitch hike down that highway

We've lost all our friends, 'cause we get drunk and sing songs like  My Way

(Sing first two lines of My Way by Frank Sinatra...sung like a sad drunk)

Whoops! On the dole again, I can't wait to be on the dole again

Oh how I love to eat two minute noodles with my friends

I can't wait to be on the dole again....Rpt. End. 

Friday, February 18, 2011

"On The Dole again..."

Standing in a Centrelink car park, staring at my car with its bonnet up, steam spurting from the radiator, thinking to myself that maybe, all those years ago, theatre arts probably wasn’t the best choice. That morning my 84 year old mother rang to tell me there are carer jobs in the paper. Thanks Mum, I’ll think about it. Maybe I can find a carer for me while I’m there.
            Is this a lesson in humility or just the culmination of years without planning? Both I suppose.
            It’s a good car though, the only car I’ve ever really taken seriously; bought it almost new and had it serviced and cleaned regularly. As I stare at it and wait for the RAC man, I think of a joke: my car isn’t a station wagon, it’s a stationary wagon. Ho ho! Not a belly laugh for sure, but it suits my whimsical mood.
            In my mid-fifties I’m becoming used to the inevitability of decay. The vortex grows each time it appears and I become accustomed to its chaotic wash. Colds and flues are bigger, noises harder to decipher, words at the wrong end of a telescope. A plus is that music is more resonant, it touches my soul with a firm embrace, and not just the old songs - every tune presses whatever that thing is (a button?) in my mind that leads to tears of joy or despair, or a deep and sensual groove.
            The mailman dropped off an invite to my Nephew’s wedding in Cancun, Mexico. Luke. Sweet fellow who lives in Chicago and works for Porsche as a graphic designer. Marrying Molly, a big and beautiful Irish American. A wish is all they’ll get from me, but a warm and loving wish ‘twill be.  
            And every day and night I hear reports of the extraordinary shows being seen at the Perth Arts festival that runs through to the middle of March. I suppose this sounds like a gripe but it’s really just a simple fact that few of us local performers can afford to see any of it, unless a work mate has a ticket or, as is the case for a few, they’re collecting the tickets and watching from the aisles.  
            Could this be a chance to create a modern version of Crime and Punishment, an Aussie Raskolnikov, a middle-aged clown who, instead of murdering an old aristocratic lady, runs down a wealthy fly-in-fly-out mine worker in order to steal their theatre tickets? He then attempts to justify his actions by riding the coattails of the AWU secretary, Paul Howes, who is currently battling the mining bosses and making veiled threats in the press. But Howes, who it turns out loves opera and ballet, just happens to be at the same show as the bitter and jealous murderer who recognises the Union boss and tries to appeal to his sense of justice and retribution. But Howes dismisses the man as a fool and a 'clown' and the sad buffoon is led away amidst the stares of new moneyed men and women.
            Instead I could just go down the beach and sit on the sand with my dog, knowing I at least didn’t have to pay for the parking or the beautiful view. And there, on a beach by the Indian ocean, I can read a book and attempt to forget the hideous realities that have been happening on this ocean. But it’s hard to do that, in fact it’s hard to believe what’s happening to those desperate folk who tried so hard to save their families only to watch them drown.
My cares are nothing compared to theirs. Only trouble is, it’s a whole lot easier to forget, to turn a blind eye, when you’ve just paid big bucks to watch talented Europeans in a warm and comfortable theatre. I wonder what some of those performers are thinking about us Australians and our selective welcome mats.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Certainty, the bugbear of mankind

I don’t know why people have an incessant desire to be sure about anything. Where did it come from, this need for certainty and truth? We are animals of the earth, organic and changing according to the wind and the rain, as ephemeral as a flame. We breathe, that’s about it, and even that will cease one day or even one hour or second. Who knows? Is predictability that important? The need to know that tomorrow or next week we’ll be here next to that tree with a mountain over there and the same river flowing by, and those we love will be still there, loving us in return.

Okay, so it’d be a little unfair and also implausible if I came home tonight and found my neighbour had turned into a rhinoscerous and stampeded into my yard, wrecking my garden and smashing down my house. Or if a man went to the house of his lover to find he’d simply imagined her, the smell of her hair, the touch of her hands, her embracing smile – all just gone. And I really don’t expect to hear a report on the news that scientists have finally discovered that the Indian Ocean is really a large bowl of jelly. These things are what we call absurd.

But there are times when our environment is changed to such an extent it may well seem that reality has been replaced by an inscrutable and absurd alternative. During WWII there must surely have been a sense that some foul creature had reached into the heart of reality and rearranged things forever. As a reaction to that, absurdism and surrealism came into being, frivolous, child-like expressions where words and images shifted and morphed into the ridiculous and often hilarious. Was this a way of saying, “We don’t know, so don’t try to be certain.” Was it a warning to the world that ideologies based on certainty are crazier than any wild thing we might attempt to invent?

Or was it simply escape? The world has no meaning so why should we? And if there is no pattern, no God, nothing to guide us then we may as well be silly and have a little fun in the mean time.

Those Queensland folk who have dealt with floods and a cyclone, and some people in Victoria who only two years ago had a massive fire and now floods, must be wondering about the overall pattern of life. To have a natural event destroy one’s house and completely wreck one’s dearest possessions must make it difficult to trust the future. Why do anything, why build a living environment when it could so easily be taken away?

When a close friend or relative dies suddenly (and particularly by their own hand) one is left with a gap, a disconnection from what we might call the normal pattern. It’s more than a shock, it’s an onslaught on our very being, leaving us empty and cheated by circumstance. But really, by being more than just sad over our loss, by allowing it to infiltrate and shake the core of our belief system, we’ve actually cheated ourselves. We’ve been left with a philosophical mess we never saw coming.

Impermanence is one of the central ideas of Buddhism. Death is never left undusted on the shelf, it’s brought to mind with as much constancy as food and drink, warmth and friendship; it’s part of the family of life. Does this mean that Buddhists cope better with death and destruction?

When I toured to Sri Lanka recently I met many people who talked about the tsunami and how it affected them and their businesses. Not one person described a horror even though it probably was; they always smiled and shrugged as if to say “It was what happened” and their lives went on, perhaps a little less comfortably. And no doubt there are many in Australia who will do the same. I did meet a few Sri Lankans however, who needed to borrow to rebuild their houses and restaurants and are consequently in debt at very high interest rates. All the same, they weren’t spitting in anger over the usury (as one might); they talked about the bankers with a sanguine acceptance.

And the most devoted Buddhists, the monks, well they’re mainly in the central highlands, way up in the safety of the mountains, far from the hustle of tourism, far from capitalism and its co-conspirators style, comfort and glamour. And far from tsunamis.

Perhaps this is what our attachment to consistency comes down to: material wealth? If we define ourselves by what we possess then we’ll need to fight hard to hang on to a reality that could any day be taken from us. I began writing this piece because a friend quoted the American poet EE Cummings: “To be nobody but myself – in a world which is doing its best, night an day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.”

My friend, a fellow blogger and inspirer of many, posted this quote and simply asked what we thought of it, thus sparking an interesting (and still on-going) debate about the nature of self and the concepts of reality and certainty. Questions arose, such as “Do we need to know ourselves?” and “What’s wrong with doubt anyway?” and so forth.

E.E. Cummings was a man who lived through both the world wars, was arrested by the French on an accusation of espionage, and became one of the preeminent examples of the absurdist poet. His poetry and his drama, inspired by the writing of Gertrude Stein and the painting of Picasso, are perfect examples of the escape into the ridiculous. But is it an escape – to create sentences and ideas that challenge the normal pattern? Is it somehow ‘less’ to take words and images and to chop them up, juggle them around, then throw them into the air and see what lands, how it lands and how it makes us feel?

But Cummings poetry, and the work of the absurdist playwrights, while often
nonsensical, always made some kind of connection; it was never dribble by any means, always somehow sparking a feeling about the world around us, and always allowing us to revel in the mysterious nature of reality and unreality. It’s hard to comprehend the idea that Cummings or Spike Milligan (the Pope of absudism) might somehow be unduly influenced by the prevailing mood of society to the extent that they might be not be themselves; that these giant personalities might be subsumed by fashion or societal pressure is simply unbelievable.

But maybe that’s part of being a writer, a painter, a performer – the creative mind will always be fragile and vulnerable, in the same way Mozart was a victim of his critics and peers, and the idea that they could be swept under the rug of conformity is an ever present horror, just as meaninglessness and madness are feared by so many in the western world.

Everything has its dark side, its possible downfall and disintegration. Perhaps that’s why Buddhist monks spend so much time telling jokes. The journey to enlightenment might be a silly hoax, so hey, let us laugh as much as we can in the mean time. Or is it just that disconnection is the key to inspiration, so let us experiment with, indulge ourselves even, with chaos and uncertainty in the hope that the flight out of uncertainty will give us a new insight, an epiphany if you like, which will let us cope a little better the next time the bottom falls out of our world.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

australia day

Australia day is looming. 26th of January is the day we celebrate the landing of Captain Arthur Phillip at Sydney cove in 1788, one week after the five English ships landed at Botany Bay only to find it too windy and lacking in fresh water. So a party was sent to what’s now known as Sydney (then known as Port Jackson) and Phillip landed with several sailors to perform a small ceremony on the Saturday.

What we don’t learn in school is that the next day, after all the other ships arrived in Sydney cove, the women convicts were unloaded and literally handed over to a large party of sex-starved marines. A drunken, violent orgy ensued, and to this day in cities all round Australia, that party is reprised.

Yes, thousands of white Australians gather on the shores of their prospective rivers beaches and city centres to get plastered, sing the praises of their country then bash whoever needs bashing (and many who don't). Whether they go home and re-enact the largely non-consensual sex bit is hard to say, it’s not an easy thing to do a survey on (although I’d like to see someone try – Excuse me sir, after you’ve bashed this man senseless are you intending to go home and rape your wife?)

So, if you’ve ever wondered where the chauvinist yobbo behaviour might have come from, it started on day two. Every nation has its stereotypical characteristics, and Australia’s is all about mistreating women. One of the few Aussie jokes I know goes: An Australian bloke walks into a bar, goes up to a woman and says, “Do you want a fuck?” The woman says, “No” so the bloke says, “Well do you mind lying down while I have one?”

And Australian men will laugh louder than anyone at that joke. It’s a given that Aussie blokes like to get smashed, punch on for a bit, then ‘root’ whatever sheilla’s at hand.

But chauvinism isn’t just about mistreating women. The word comes from the behaviour of a legendary French yobbo (yes, they have them too) called Nicolas Chauvin, one of Napoleon’s soldiers during the Italian campaign, who not only mistreated women (hey, he was a soldier) but also liked to kill, maim, rob and rape the locals with a vigour that surprised even Napoleon. The story goes that Napoleon gave him a medal of honour for his commitment to fighting for his country. Thus the original concept of chauvinism connects it more with patriotism and violence rather than sexism.

And it seems that aspect of the Australian national psyche – the violent, racist one – is receiving traction as a key part of our reputation. A young fellow recently sent me his version of an ‘Aussie’ joke: What do you call an aboriginal flying an aeroplane? A pilot you racist prick! No doubt people like Pauline Hanson and John Howard helped that reputation along, but they weren’t operating in a vacuum. No, fear and hatred of aboriginal people began in the first settlement too, we simply don’t have records of it.

According to most historical records, however, including historian David Hill (in his book 1788), not long after settlement Phillip decided one day to attempt to convince the aboriginal people that the whites were a friendly and trustworthy mob. He did this by ordering his soldiers to bring him a well known aboriginal character called Arabanoo in order that Phillip might teach him English customs and language, and Arabanoo might then go back to his people to explain what he’d learnt.

Okay, sounds sensible. But did Phillip tell the soldiers to go talk to Arabanoo and make overtures to him in order to carefully encourage him into the settlers’ society? No, he told them to ARREST him! This in the age of enlightenment.

Anyway, a long and perhaps not so proud tradition began.

Another national tradition we attempt to hide, which also seeps unwillingly from our collective pores, is an obsession with homosexuality. So many Australian jokes are about buggery, so much of the ‘jokey’ behaviour between Australian men is to do with the possibility of anal sex ‘(taking it up the poo shoot’ or ‘vegemite mining’). Go to a pub or workplace in Australia and witness the ‘poofter’ antics.

This behaviour, like our collective treatment of aboriginal people, isn’t officially recorded by the early settlers (strangely!) but any observation of anglo saxon prisoners allows us to make some basic assumptions about what must have been happening. There would have been man on man action all over the place. The convicts, the marines, the sailors – all would’ve been into each other. But they certainly would’ve been shush about it; in fact Captain Phillip, who was originally against capital punishment for acts of violence (including murder) issued a threat that any man caught in the act of buggery would be sent to New Zealand and marooned amongst cannibals. Yeah, that’s right. All poofters will be eaten by Maoris. Gives a whole new significance to the Haka!

But, as any school teacher will know, once you prohibit a behaviour it becomes both taboo and delightful to perform. And that taboo is permanently imprinted on our national psyche along with the racism and the sexism.

With a day or two to go the flags are really popping out now, mainly on big white four-wheel-drives, particularly in working class suburbs such as mine. Even my neighbour Kim – who emigrated from Korea with his wife and kids – has flags on his car, big flags. No doubt this is his way to say, “Hey, I’m Aussie and I’m proud too.”

Just today he pulled into his drive, flags flapping away, and got out of his car with a big smile.

We greeted each other before going inside. And a naughty, provocative part of me felt like going up to him and saying, “Okay Kim, you’ve got the flags, the thongs and you’ve probably started eating shit food, but not once have I heard you tell a poofter joke, give the bird to a black fella or yell at your wife.”