Thursday, 31 December 2020

A year in review, part three: Equipment and devices

Getting Netflix in the middle of January (I wrote about it that month and also in April) was part of a trend that led me away from the ABC News channel to other entertainments. Starting last year I was watching commercial free-to-air TV for the first time since about 2003 – though even then I only really watched the news broadcasts – the fact being that the last time I’d regularly watched commercial TV had been in Japan where I lived almost 20 years ago. Now, as though to compensate for neglect, I started writing reviews of TV commercials (for example, for a dermatological cream and a painkiller).  

Just as I’d begun to read old books that are in my collection – many of which I’d owned for decades but had never opened to read – now I became enamoured of ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ and began to appreciate its distinct charm, a kind of demotic aesthetic of power and desire achieved through language and kinetic images. It screens at 4.30pm weekdays, just before the news on Ten Network. I would then watch the news then, from 6.30pm, ‘Nine News’, then ‘ABC News’ and then the ABC’s current affairs magazine program ‘7.30’, taking me up to 8pm, at which point I’d catch an episode of ‘NCIS’ on 10 Bold (channel 12), or else one of ‘Seinfeld’ or ‘Friends’ on 10 Peach (channel 11) before going to bed. 

Later, when it started to screen, ‘The Big Bang Theory’ engaged me with its riffs, from 15 years ago, on the phenomenon of geeks but on Wednesday nights in November I was watching the ABC’s ‘Hard Quiz’ (8pm) followed by ‘Gruen’ and ‘Reputation Rehab’: an attractive night from the national broadcaster and, I think, the best night of the week (‘Mad As Hell’ had finished by this time of the year) across the whole year. On Fridays I started watching old episodes of the police procedural ‘Vera’ (I reviewed some eps here and here).  

Ten’s secondary channels offer context that’s just as interesting as the primary one. When I was a child such programs only aired early in the morning or late at night. Nine’s and Seven’s secondary channels are also accessible, but to see them you have to go to the 90s and thereabouts in your channel selection, but I took to watching ‘Death In Paradise’ on 9Gem on Sunday evenings and didn’t resent the long journey from the teens on the remote control’s punch dial.

On one of the secondary channels I also watched some episodes of the original ‘Mission: Impossible’ (a US TV drama that ran from 1966 to 1975). Old shows like these – and there are many that you can watch if you flick through the channels during the afternoon while sitting (as I am prone to do) on the couch – are a window into the past and serve to highlight the corny and the lame as much as entertain in and of themselves. What we like today will, likewise, age and become second-rate. 

It’s just a matter of time but old shows can still be compelling despite some awkwardness due to stale ideas or hackneyed dramatic ploys. It’s way too easy to slam old shows (‘Seinfeld’ stands the test of time better than most and ‘Friends’ is also good); I find it more encouraging to try to find redeeming features. Watching such old shows teaches you how fashion is prevalent in content delivered via TV. Just as ‘Mission: Impossible’ now looks ridiculously clunky and, in some parts, downright silly, what we extol today on Netflix and Amazon Prime will, one day, date. Even the best shows of the past have passed their use-by dates except as oddities to be enjoyed in the new era of Divergism (which I’ve written about several times, including in April),  where there is no longer a canonical centre and where the almost inexpressibly large volume of material available to view makes a magpie out of everyone.

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Online, the year contained other novelties. On the second day of autumn I removed the links to the WikiTribune and Civiq Social websites from the bookmarks section on the Settings page in my browser. Neither of these social media sites had any traffic, links sometimes wouldn’t post, and other people weren’t interacting. 

I added Better TweetDeck on the last weekend of March so that I could put emojis into tweets. The extension is made by Chrome and it’s easy to install: just click on a link on a web page and restart your TweetDeck tab. On 24 April I changed the layout of TweetDeck in the browser tab I reserve for this website, and added a column for Amazon Prime tweets, using the hashtag to tune in. I also started to add movies and TV shows to my “to watch” list on Prime’s home page, deciding to see more movies there, not just on Netflix. Prime seems to have more old movies. 

On the second last day of June I updated the postal address for my domain – a bit of housekeeping that had become necessary since my accountant moved to different premises – and on 28 May I started using the new Blogger back-end. This part of the site is more detailed than the old interface, and includes comprehensive analytics that show, down to the second, who is looking at what, though naturally it doesn’t identify who is reading each post. I worked out some tricks – for example, excluding your own visits from the pageview count – by exploring and by searching on Google. As early as the previous year Google had suggested to users to use their new interface but I hadn’t, at that time, bothered to check it out. Now, the old interface would be retired with all users shifted, in June, to the new one.

On 5 July I picked up my new car (I wrote about it herehere, here, and here) and two weeks later I finally disconnected my Optus email address from my email client. The thing had started to demand a sign-in several times a day and I’d anyway pretty much stopped using it, so the company’s annoying reminders were eliminated in one swoop. 

At around the same time I also started using the new Facebook interface. With an eye to their deployment on social media, I began to rename files for slides and negatives I’d had digitised at an outfit located in the nearby suburb of Five Dock. Renaming started on the last day of April, when I also took another box of negatives – as well as some prints – to be done at the same shop. Digital images are much easier to peruse and share and the cost per unit is low; if you get them done professionally you also get a high resolution, it’s faster than doing it yourself, and you get the advantage of someone else’s expertise. To help with the renaming, I brought out an Ikea desk I’d assembled the previous year, now placing it next to my office desk where an L-shaped workspace with more surfaces would help while I used my PC.

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Over a week from 8 August I got my phone organised with apps for the major commercial TV stations, one by one linking them, as well as those for Netflix and Amazon Prime, to my TV. I also downloaded the app for Microsoft Excel so that I could access spreadsheets – located on my computer – on my phone. I downloaded Microsoft’s Word app as well as Adobe’s PDF app. To use the latter I copied files to Google Drive so that I could view them on my phone but this measure was quickly superseded when on my phone I downloaded and installed the OneDrive app, which allows me to see all PC-based files in my hand, or else open in a graphics program on the PC photos taken with the phone. 

The ability was revelatory: to almost immediately see on the PC photos that had been taken on the mobile. Previously, I’d been connecting my mobile to the PC with a USB cable and manually copying photos to the PC. 

Now, all the fuss was dispensed with. I also got files from my doctor chronicling my health over time, so that I would be able to show them to a new GP if I switched once I’d moved to the house (I was still, in summer, of two minds about this). Much of this housekeeping was prompted by spending nights away from home at a friend’s house while home inspections were done at my apartment, which I’d put on the market to sell. I’d needed, while away and in the absence of my PC, to find sources of entertainment, so the mobile served a new purpose. 

In October I downloaded a couple of dieting apps, one of which I thenceforth used daily – in fact for each meal and snack – ‘FatSecret’ providing feedback that became immediately evident on my waist. From the time I started I lost over 5kg in a period of two weeks, and by the end of the first month on the restrictive diet had lost nine kilos. Tracking reduction using a set of Withings scales I’d bought from Amazon (I talk about all of this activity in the “shopping list” series), I’d found low-carb alternatives to many foods, including sweets and bread. 

On 16 November I also bought a Salter kitchen scale from David Jones in Bondi Junction so that I could more accurately track inputs. 

It took a bit of effort to work out how it functioned. I eventually got the idea that the button on the right-hand side of the device has to be pressed to get a reading. If you press the button when something is already on the scales it takes the weight sitting there to be that of a container, and zeroes itself so that you can put blueberries into a bowl or milk into a glass. If you press the button when nothing is on the scale, and you wait for a “0” to display, you can place there an item to find out how much it weighs. All of this coordination was a bit technical for me and initially I had an unsteady relationship with the device. 

Banking apps were easier to set up and use. In August I also downloaded an expense tracking app called ‘Money Tracker’ (made in Japan and purchasable for A$11). 

This is useful for budgeting. I’d tried a couple of apps that link to your bank accounts, but found them unsuitable for my purposes, and the one I eventually decided to permanently use stood out due to its flexibility. You can create categories for each class of expense and each income stream, letting you see for each month or year how money has been spent, and where it has come from, how much in each case being easily tracked from your phone if you’re diligent about recording transactions.

In early November I bought another beard trimmer as mine had been packed up for the house move. I purchased it at Shaver Shop Broadway in Shopping Centre on the recommendation of a store clerk with very, very dark skin and a mass of curly hair. She was so striking I could hardly look at her though she asked me questions about how I wanted to use the device.

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I wasn’t happy about my website, which I’d paid Melbourne IT to make. Part of the new site contains dad’s memoir, and pages were missing by the time I got around to checking its contents. The company had also done a bad job loading journalism I’d written, so I can’t recommend the company for this sort of work. Their effort was slapdash and unprofessional and it now leaves me looking for someone who can fix up the problems they made, going forward.

Then my daughter asked me to help with her emails and I set up a new domain with the company. I ordered a hosting package so that I could configure an email address to use for her overseas clients. The domain (http://adadasilva.com) won’t contain a website, and will just be used to make and manage emails.

On the third last day of the year I noticed that, due to weight loss, my watch strap was very loose – the thing threatened to twist around my wrist so the face of the device’d be pointed away from me – and started the process for getting the National Broadband Network (NBN) connected at the new place I was moving to. I chose my old provider out of a sense of loyalty – and also because I’d gone with a different company first but then had had problems with the modem delivery (they can only put a physical address into the system; I’d gotten a PO box but then remembered that anything sent to me at my old address is automatically sent to it) – and they put in 21 January for the day the NBN technician would come out to the house to make the connection. I’d initially organised to move in on the 18th but had had second thoughts due to the cost – the owner wanted me to pay rent and I thought that rent should be deferred – so would have to shift the day of the visit when the company called me on the 20th. 

Optus asked me if I wanted to bring my mobile phone across to their network as well but I declined. You save a bit of money by bundling plans but I prefer to diversify where possible as a matter of policy.

There’ll be more about house-moving in a post to go up in the new year, and next year maybe the “equipment and devices” post will include details of a hallway display. In the third week of December I paid about A$50 on a digital artwork published by Sedition Art. The work by Mark Titchner is titled ‘Please Believe These Days Will Pass’ and it runs through a sequence of frames featuring these words, suggesting that history repeats. You can log onto the site from an iPhone app that includes a “vault” where purchased work is kept, and you can also subscribe if you want to (but I didn’t).

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

A year in review, part two: Clothes

Though I was also getting new things I continued a tradition, started late the year before, of using old things. 

Now it was shoes. I had one old pair (pictured in last year’s memorial) and started wearing two other pairs I’d not worn for at least a decade. On the second Thursday in January I used restorative shoe polish (bought in December) to clean the shoes (shown in the photo below, which was taken on the same day in the hallway of a building I had occasion to visit) but the heels began to disintegrate not long after and I threw the shoes away. 


I started, last year, to reuse a lot of old clothes, and this year I had a few other things repaired, including shoes. Upon relocating to Queensland in 2009 I had gravitated away from wearing lace-ups and in many of the years since I wore sandals even in winter due to the climate. Once I moved back to Sydney in 2015 I started again to wear socks and shoes (though slip-ons). But a pair of old lace-ups disintegrated in March and I threw them out. They were the second pair of shoes that had to be dealt with in this way due to perishing materials.

On 5 June I drove to the Broadway Shopping Centre and bought long underwear – in two sizes, as I didn’t know which would fit me – and the next day wore long johns in the morning. I also put on a sloppy joe under my cardigan. I wanted to find a way to stay warm without using the heater (not only does it cost money to run, it gets uncomfortable after a while with all the dry air swirling around the room). I thought long johns might do the trick, a surmise that turned out to be correct, so while in the city later in the same month I bought more at Uniqlo. 

I also bought more stuff online, for example on Saturday 20 June when I went to the Myer website and bought two pairs of trousers and three long-sleeve shirts. Some of my shirts had started to fray and wear. Both these pairs of trousers I took to the tailor’s on Harris Street to get them shortened. I picked one pair up on the same day my apartment was styled prior to sale, and one pair on the day of the second buyer’s inspection. 

In September and October I bought some shirts from Vinnies – very cheap at about $16 each. I also bought, this year, shirts at Blue Eyes in Lakemba – where they cost between $10 and $15 each.

Due to a diet, I began losing a lot of weight in the final quarter of the year. By this time I was living in temporary accommodation in Glebe as I was between my old home and a new one being constructed and certified elsewhere. The Glebe unit had a dual-mode washing machine (wash and dry in the same appliance) but after running the dry mode you still have to hang items out in the air if you want them to dry sufficiently to enable you to put them away. Building managers provide racks for this purpose.

I was losing about five kilos each month but progress was both slow and steady. In December I was still wearing the same pants as I’d always worn, but my belt was on a different notch – number five instead of number two – and my pants fit loosely enough for me not to have to pull them tight in order to make them stay up when walking. Prior to the weight loss it’d been a problem to keep pants above my hips in the street. I’d gotten into the habit of cinching the belt really tight to stop them falling down while out and about. 

When I got around to unpacking my clothes following the home relocation – even before I’d moved in I put all my stuff into the new house with the help of removalists – I registered the old pants I still had in my collection. Pants I’d been unable to wear for a decade. Now, I thought to myself, thinking of a time in the not-too-distant future, I’d be able to use these old things again, and this thought gave me an inordinate amount of pleasure. Just contemplating this scenario – putting on a pair of old pants, unused for ten years – all that time sitting in the cupboard in Campsie or Maroochydore or Pyrmont – gave me a kind of joy that Marie Kondo recommends as a palliative for the routine of modern-day consumption.

But from an opposite source. Being able to conserve instead of rejecting. Being able to keep rather than throwing away. Being able to maintain intact rather than disrupting. Not having to acquire anything new as part of an endless process of renovating existence, as though the old were a source of shame rather than, in essence, of wisdom and strength. This was a welcome novelty, and on Christmas Day I wrote something to put up on Facebook that touched on all these themes (consumerism, the festive season, renewal):

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The first Noel the angels did sell
two kilos of ham and a cheap ringing bell
to place on a tree with celebrant right
like a full stop at the end of the night.

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
born in the shadow of Israel.

In malls where they come to purchase a clock,
or a new trendy garment that will really rock
for their sister or friend as cash goes away – 
frictionless transaction with Afterpay!

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
scorn for the hero of Israel.

At the Boxing Day sales they throw credit cards down
as the kids slurp up Fanta and – look, there’s a clown! – 
watch for RBT pockets on the way home
with the boot full of parcels like Xmas has come.

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
worn out like a new Israel.

In the old city the lures of surfeit come to pall
as tourists ignore ceramics saying “Shalom y’all”
while they flock to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
on every day of a normal year.

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
what comes today from Israel?

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Keeping ham in the fridge for the rest of the year might be problematic – it’d go off and poison you if you then ate it – but I was disappointed by the constant echo on the news about how retail trade was surging with the end of lockdowns at the end of the year. It seemed as though – apart from the obligatory TV address by the archbishop of Melbourne, or the Queen – we’d got stuck in a rut inherited from the rest of the year, and had forgotten the meaning of Christmas. It’s almost laughably trite to say this, I’m aware, but because of mum’s absence I was feeling sensitive on the day I wrote this set of verses.

Not everything was in stasis. All the spare socks I’d bought earlier in the year – not specifically registering those purchases for this post is a source of regret – came in handy in November and December as some old ones finally wore out – I keep clothes until they’re falling apart and, in the case of trousers, will take worn pairs to the tailor’s to be repaired before deciding to throw them away in the garbage. The socks were the short type (having no covering at the ankles); using this sort is better for me because of my psoriasis (they’re also easier to put on).

I bought a dressing gown in October and used it while living in my friend Grant’s house, but of course once I’d moved to Glebe it just sat on the carpet. Later, when I moved to stay with friends in Wollongong – the lease on the Glebe place expired and I’d had to move out – I again used it. The garment is blue with a printed pattern of little squares – a lighter tone and a darker one alternating on the cloth. It has pyjama bottoms as well in case you want to wear pants to bed. I normally sleep in just undies – it’s comfortable and I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember – but the dressing gown ensemble did the trick when I was living in close quarters with other people and I needed to get to the bathroom each day to have a shower.

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

A year in review, part one: Family

My son was with me for the end of 2019. We walked down to the harbour and watched the fireworks. 

It was quite cool; at 8.30pm it was 20 degrees Celsius. At 8.40pm an inflatable dinghy motored eastward with two men on board and three minutes later they returned to pass by where the two of us stood on the boardwalk. They cruised up and down beyond the perimeter of the raised wooden deck – it sits on pylons driven into the harbour floor – on which people were standing while, out in the bay, a launch with the word “maritime” painted on its sides approached boats that had gathered in the strait, and people on board spoke to their occupants, presumably making sure they were operating safely and legally. 

Onshore a crew had put up a metal fence, in preparation for the fireworks, to stop people from getting too close to the deck’s edge. A security guard kept coming along and telling people not to lean on the barrier as, he said, it wasn’t fastened at this point (we were adjacent a set of wooden steps going down to the waterline), adding that the fence might give way if you leaned against it. He told my son not to lean on it and, later, he said a similar thing to a woman who’d sidled in to stand just in front of us.

At 9pm fireworks started in Darling Harbour and we could see them from where we stood. A PA system was pumping out music and someone announced that the main event would be delayed (I found out later this was due to high wind). People stood in small groups made up of families and/or friends and everyone held aloft their digital devices, capturing the display in the sky, and making a seer of J.G. Ballard who, in the 1970s, had anticipated that everyone would be editing the rushes of their lives each day although he had no idea that smartphones and social media would exist or how they would function. The show finished at 8.23pm.

I had spent the day with Vivian visiting my mother’s and my grandmother’s (his grandmother’s and his great-grandmother’s) place of interment or, at least, where their ashes had been placed after they died. The brick wall where this was done is at St Peter’s Anglican church in Watsons Bay, where I’d gone to kindergarten and where I’d been married. Having dutifully acknowledged memories of our ancestors we went in the car to Bondi Junction and shopped for clothes. We got a jacket, some windcheaters, a T-shirt, and some boxer shorts, then made our way outside in heavy traffic. 

Vivian is dreamy and, looking at things he might want to buy, will wander off in the store if you don’t monitor him. He tries on a lot of things on before making up his mind; I’d noticed this propensity when we’d gone shopping, on other occasions, in Japan. He doesn’t talk much and he likes cars and spectator sports. He goes to the gym a couple of times a week and plays tennis with colleagues and customers once a week. He also goes surfing from time to time. He is a good-natured young man who reminds me of my father. 

I had fun getting to know him again. He’s a bit self-centred but absent-mindedly so. On his last day he bought a Moncler down jacket and later I drove him to the airport so that he could go home. 

This year, my daughter had planned to come to spend an extended period of time in Australia – with her boyfriend, naturally – but the virus took the form of a spanner in the works, so in June she approached the consulate in Tokyo in order to find out what he would need in terms of a visa. She also approached a travel agent with questions.

In the end Adelaide and Ryo decided to get married. Vivian signed the application form as a witness and on 27 July they took the completed documents to the city council. When I asked her, once the decision had been made, if she was happy, she said, in a mixture of English and Japanese, that she was very happy: “sugoku happy yo.” When I told family members what had happened almost without exception they congratulated me, which I found puzzling as I’d had very little to do with it. I decided, however, to accept the wisdom of the crowd. Who was I to say it had not been a success if she was so much at ease?

The new house (see section four of this chronicle, ‘Furniture and fittings’) could also be a part-time home for my daughter and her husband. In October I started a process for him to get a partner visa, by asking Grant, a friend, to help with the legal side of things. Later the same month Adelaide asked me to set up an online domain for her, and to help with managing her art business; putting in place an email address would be the next step. We managed to do this and in the first half of November I helped her with communication required by an approach from a major music label that wanted to use her designs in some promotional material it planned to commission. Employees of the company had asked for Adelaide to be the person to do the work, and she got the job in early December with the first draft due in early January.

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At the end of the calendar year I was coming to terms with my personal demons. Even after mum died I still thought about the day, when I was 17 years old and I phoned my father after coming home from school – he was still in his office – to tell him I wanted to give up the study of French. The fact that I called him at this time on a weekday should have been an indication to him that I was worried about what his response would be and that, instead of confronting him at home, I preferred to pose the question to him when we were in separate rooms. 

Indeed, separate buildings and suburbs. The reason for the question being asked in the first place was due to something out of my control. At school my timetable offered a puzzle, since classes for art and French had been scheduled to take place on the same day at the same time. As it happened, I excelled at both and would have felt heartbroken to eliminate either from my schedule due to the pleasure they bequeathed to me in my adolescence, a time that is for everyone filled with what appear to be complex and pressing questions. Dad made it clear to me that he didn’t want me to give up French, so I didn’t, instead breaking a bond of trust with my art teacher who said to me, when I told him what dad had said, “You are crazy.” 

It might have been “That’s crazy”, I can’t precisely remember. Not remembering is, itself, a recurring source of disappointment lying on top of countless others that became my inheritance on the day I dutifully acceded to my father’s wishes. As it turned out, the decision my father made that day literally drove me mad (it should be water under the bridge by now, but is not), and while I’m more interested, these days, in what lies on this side of it – I don’t let bygones ruin my party – I did think about these things once I’d decided to move house to a place where I could paint.

Mum had also come back to haunt me, but this had been earlier in the year. At the end of May or the beginning of June I had occasion to view YouTube – my computer’s sound wasn’t working, the little icon in the task bar said, so I went to the website to check if it was true – and as an offshoot of this activity watched part of a video I’d made on Anzac Day 2016 using a phone app called Periscope. In those days I would sit with mum in the park near her nursing home and, on occasion, take out my phone in order to make a video of her talking. 

“Hello darling!” mum says as we sit on a bench in the park outside her nursing home. “How are you?” I ask. “Fine. It’s a beautiful day,” she enthuses. “Having a good time?” I ask rather prosaically, suspicious of her tone of voice. “Yes, I am.” “It’s a nice day, isn’t it?” “It’s a lovely day,” she agrees, then segues immediately into this: “I think I’ll stay here till I cark.” I laugh woodenly, taken aback by her verbal sally.

Though not really: in truth I’d half expected an expression of despair. “Stay where?” I ask then, ready to catch her off-guard with a sally of my own. “Where I am now,” she replies, not remembering that it was a nursing home. “In the nursing home?” I offer, triumphant. “Yes,” she says with a downward lilt in her voice as though I had read her mind and what she harboured there was, if not depressing, then slightly regrettable or, even, shameful. “You always say that,” I reply, disturbed and dismayed by the sudden bout of honesty coming from the person sitting opposite me. “Do I?” she says, with an upward lilt to fit the question she’s asking; there’s no hint of malice, just puzzlement at learning, suddenly, something she hadn’t known before. “I must feel carky,” she deadpans ironically, with a flat delivery she used to use when she was making a joke that she was (characteristically) too modest to find funny herself. But there is, in her final delivery, recorded there, a worldliness equal to acceptance, as though her living in a nursing home was not surprising, given the circumstances – at the time the video was made she wouldn’t have remembered all the details – and, in any case, her voice also seemed to suggest, there was nothing to be done about it; life was sometimes like that.

She followed my lead. What would be the point of complaining?

But it had been my lead to follow, as she evidently remembered. The video filled me with dismay as she had passed away not long after it was made, in fact she would be dead just over three months later. By 2020, or even earlier, I’d begun sometimes to regret putting my mother in a nursing home. Would I, myself, want to go into one if I was as old as she had been when, in September 2014, she was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (a blood disease similar to leukaemia, but less severe), a second diagnosis – on top of the one for dementia that had come to us in March 2014 – and a kind of existential punctuation mark, like a comma if not a full stop? 

When had her life ended? What role did I play in her death? Must I now chastise myself? Must I tell other people not to put their parents or grandparents into nursing homes? Must I atone? How? To what gods? What kinds of sacrifices could suffice for the purpose of expiating the loss of another’s life? 

It became clear to me that this sadness might not even end with my own death. Another thing that became clear, on the day before Christmas Eve, was that the betrayal I’d experienced would never cease to dog my footsteps but that it was of a type that you cannot evade. People, I came to realise, will always put their own priorities before your own. They will always feel sorry for themselves so that betrayal can appear to be natural. They will always privilege their stories at the expense of your own. The endless cycle of horror, pain, and suffering that threatens always to engulf us with its cloying web is actually the thing that liberates us from responsibility, so we live perpetually behind a mask and we steer a careful course among rocks, taking every opportunity given to us by the wind or the tides to stay clear of snarls. 

As drivers in traffic always seek out an empty space, and change lanes to avoid the guy turning right, we slip around obstacles in our quest for progress but our ultimate aim is to survive. In order to be more effective we deprecate the suffering of those around us, for whom a loss is our gain. 

For those unfortunate enough to be more fortunate than us, we reserve a special type of malice. If you give ground, in the hope of avoiding it, beware the backlash as your reticence is converted into hubris by those near you. There is no level low enough that allows you to avoid the claws of someone trying to drag you down to their level. As well, I thought about how I had done everything in my power, when I was living with my family as a child, to support my father and mother – but my father especially – and to give them all the honour and love that I felt was due to myself.

Thus, virtue became a form of selfishness (or selfishness a virtue).

I was changed by the transformation that resulted from evading the snares people put in my way, made more robust though my youth has escaped along with the intervening years. I am destined to wander the fields outside the walls of convention despite my brother’s accusations – he’d often called me “conservative” when we were both young – and those of people who called themselves friends. 

I’m also the survivor of terrible experiences, things I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. Always alone but searching for someone to be with, someone to share my strange enthusiasms, my dreams of spires and cities, or tall cliffs and flat rivers flowing, gentle, down the barest of inclines toward the hallowed resort of the boundless sea. For Christmas – in the absence of my mother’s appointments and ministrations – I managed with friends to escape too much melancholy, though it was still a trial to get through the day and its effects lasted well into Boxing Day.

Monday, 28 December 2020

Book review: The Invisible Man, HG Wells (1895)

I bought this book at a second-hand bookstore in Nowra in November.

It’s clear that Wells understood that science and the media are twins of the same beast – material progress – that has animated our world in such a wide variety of ways since the Renaissance. Building on innovations introduced by Edgar Alan Poe a couple of generations earlier, he offers his readers a dramatic story where the law struggles to grapple with advances made in learning. My copy is illustrated – the drawings are not very good – and so is clearly aimed at children. 

Children, indeed, must be the premier audience for this rip-roarer, which contains a good deal of physical violence. The motivations that compel the characters to act are not very sophisticated, particularly with regard to the Invisible Man, who is a bit too much of the psychopath for 21st century tastes. 

More than a detective story this is an action novel but it’s interesting from an historical perspective to see how people lived a century ago. What were they like? How did they think? It’s hard to make judgements based on this slim volume which is, in any case, a bit high-toned. I also wasn’t entirely happy with the rubric “thriller” that is printed on the cover; this is more of an antiquarian novelty than a novel of suspense. Good for youngsters and for those, like me, who want to get a sample of the authentic. A lot of early sci-fi is not as good as this.

Sunday, 27 December 2020

Book review: Daughter Buffalo, Janet Frame (1972)

I bought this magical book at a second-hand bookstore in Nowra in late 2020.

Magical because it describes in graphic detail how subject and object can be subsumed in a narrative but then, when you try to articulate how each works in the absence of the other – the third existence they shelter coming into being at the conjunction of their intertwined stories – they dissolve into nothing and disappear entirely from view like a bank of mist with the day as the sun rises and warms the air. 

This third thing is only discernible when the cool of night presides. At night and in early morning you can experience, like a scene out of a Shakespeare play, populated by sprites and will-o-the-wisps, something amazing and profound. Like a crepuscular passion play or a royal masque; the page standing in for the stage or the altar.

Frame’s novel uses two separate characters to illustrate her philosophical ideas about existence. One is a New York doctor named Talbot Edelman and the other is a mysterious foreign visitor named Turnlung. The names are fraught with secondary meaning; “tall” and “bot” being suggestive of an automaton and “edel” seeming to resemble “adel” – “friend” in German – which brings to mind the name Adelaide, the name of the heroine of a 1969 Nabokov novel that Frame’s work references in other ways.

For a start there’s Frame’s eponymous animal. So, when he was describing his novel Lolita, Nabokov used the image of an animal at the zoo looking out through the bars at the visitors; in Daughter Buffalo Edelman and Turnlung visit the zoo during their brief friendship as they try to address the nature of death. There’s also the use of the poem ‘Annabel Lee’ by Edgar Alan Poe, which Nabokov also references in his 1955 novel (which brought him to fame and to financial security).

Like Frame, Nabokov toyed with ideas surrounding the confluence of the subjective and the objective, notably in 1972’s Transparent Things, but also in earlier novels, those published originally in Russian when Nabokov was living in Berlin.

Both writers try to come to terms with difficult problems, especially through the use of metafictional elements. The plot is almost incidental, though in Daughter Buffalo Frame characteristically ascribes a certain forbidding coldness to the medical fraternity. Edelman is not an attractive person – apart from his experiments on his dog (in a way that will anticipate Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go) he alienates his fiancée, Lenore (more echoes of Poe and Nabokov here) and deals with his parents in a cavalier fashion – and though he is intellectually inclined he is far less sympathetic than the impulsive and emotional Turnlung.

The differences that separate these two characters in the reader’s mind, bolster a critical view that values Daughter Buffalo as a novel of ideas. Even as you scan the plaintive lines searching for resolutions that promise to appear but that, even near the end, elude your grasp like faeries in the gloom of evening, you are full of wonder at the skill with which the author manages her creations. And you think about what it all means. In fact, you think about life and what it meant to Frame, the novelist, who died some years back. What does mortality signify for you, yourself? 

How to deal with the accidental journeys of imagination that animate your days and that – because of the ways that the mind works to generate reality – hurt you or else that fill you with joy, longing, pleasure, confusion, and curiosity? Because Frame’s novel is a keeper and because she reprises themes that other writers initiated (as shown above) and that would be taken up by yet other novelists (ditto), the ending of Daughter Buffalo is a prediction of the reader’s life as well as the simple conclusion of a Postmodern novel. 

The dog in Frame’s novel that Edelman experiments on is, like the character of Kathy H in Never Let Me Go and like the eponymous character in Lolita, female. In Daughter Buffalo the mise-en-abime – a painting that Edelman’s father brings to Edelman’s house one day – succinctly embodies all of the drama the novel retails in, in a single image, making them memorable and portable. Like a consumer good, like an artwork, like anything that is made and used, even if it is made to be talked about (like a novel).

Saturday, 26 December 2020

Book review: Australian Gay and Lesbian Writing, Robert Dessaix, ed (1993)

I bought this near the end of this year in a Nowra second-hand bookstore.

This book could never be published in this form today. Like David Malouf’s ‘Antipodes’ which came out in 1985, explicit paedophilia makes Dessaix’s book completely incompatible with 21st century mores and laws. I do not think that he could have predicted the way that attitudes toward sexuality developed as the millennium turned and information began to flow out of the murky recesses of various churches and from the remoter regions of the internet.

Despite such misgivings, Dessaix’s book is more than just worth reading today, and should remind us of the recent – and not-so-recent – past and of the burden that that past still places upon people living. Because of certain biases implanted in religious codes by certain early Fathers many are forced to deal with a legacy of unwarranted shame but reading some of the stories in this book it’s clear how far we’ve come. The generally censorious attitude, with respect to sexuality and gender, of the generation that came before the Boomers – the latter of whom doing more than any generation since the 19th century to renovate morality – are now, for the main, buried in the fringes (as the marriage equality plebiscite showed) or else in the pages of books like this one. 

If anything should remind us of what is right, it’s the pieces – poems, extracts from novels, short stories – in this book. Where one injustice was so burdensome it’s hardly surprising that other levels of propriety should be questioned, even though, in the end, such avenues turned into dead ends. What we see as logical now was less so at a time because, as Dennis Altman explains in The Comfort of Men (1993), the counterculture was, itself, emergent:

[Ted] was a keen swimmer, played squash, still something of a novelty in the early 1960s, belonged to an amateur dramatic society, went bushwalking and even to local chamber music concerts. People like Ted now go to cafes rather than pubs, watch home videos rather than join societies, and buy take-away food or go to restaurants, of which there were then very few. Apart from the hotel dining rooms, there existed several coffee lounges, of which Helen’s was the most genteel, and two Chinese restaurants, one of them in the suburbs. Even for those who, like Ted, lived alone, eating out was something regarded as a special occasion, rather than, as is now the case, taken for granted.

The problem with the novel from which the above extract was taken is that Gerald – who is in love with Ted (but who is not the narrator) – met Ted when he (Gerald) was a schoolboy cruising for cash after classes ended for the day. Elizabeth Jolley toys with similar ideas in her novel Miss Peabody’s Inheritance (1983), from which there’s also an extract here. The boundaries exposed by the narratives start to break down but those who take the time to pick up Dessaix’s book and spend time with it will see sections of society at the roots of the counterculture that are today described in news reports. 

The work of such writers as Sumner Locke Eliott, Elizabeth Jolley, Mary Fallon, Rae Desmond Jones, and Jenny Pausacker allow us to reach, in our imaginations, back into history. Just as the 1960s were “historically” relevant in the 1990s (when Dessaix’s book was published), nowadays the 1990s are similarly grounded as an artefact of memory, something to be dissected and appraised according to contemporary standards, not to be emulated blindly as being somehow being more “authentic” than us. In the straightjacket of space-time fictional characters are Houdini figures, material for the stories the destiny of which is to become passports for a new generation.

Friday, 25 December 2020

Book review: The Peloponnesian War, Donald Kagan (2003)

I bought this volume at Abbey’s Bookshop in the Sydney CBD while moving house.

‘Game of Thrones’ fans would appreciate this book about war, international rivalry, and celebration. I won’t spoil the fun by giving away the ending – Wikipedia can be consulted if you want to know the outcome – but I did look up the relevant web page at about page 100 in the book. 

Prior to that moment, I had no idea who would be the victor, and who would have to succumb to another people’s dominion, but it became clear in the reading that this is a book about the essential strength of democracy. For it’s the “Peloponnesian” war – in other words a story from the point of view of democratic Athens – and not the “Athenian” war, as it would’ve been if oligarchical Sparta had been the main focus. 

Historians agree on this point but an additional point can be made: the reason for this bias might be because, due to the public debates that routinely went on in Athens, there is just more source material deriving from that locality.

What differentiates this book from the TV show, is that with Kagan often the identities of the minor players overwhelm the major ones. A rash of referents can compromise the reader’s ability to process information and make it hard to follow what’s being told but you also have trouble seeing individuals acting independently or else in concert with others. This is a kind of paradox. The book is mainly about men acting in groups; whether the sailors of Samos looking to secure more rights for their kind, or else the oligarchs of the Four Hundred seeking to curtail the same. Women rarely feature, which is a shame.

Due to the paradox mentioned above the narrative founders, sometimes, amid a recount of some secondary uprising, with its associated agreements and alliances, or else a minor naval battle during which the Spartans once again flee before the superior naval force of Athens. You wonder how what you’re reading relates to the main thread of the story, which tends to disappear from view. The map you make in your head is, however, sufficiently remote from our own globalised ecumene as to make Kagan’s story seem exotic. Hence the ‘Game of Thrones’ reference above.

Those small towns’ names – and images of barbarians fighting with antiquated martial methods – impinges on your imagination to foster an idea of a small, cloistered, and somehow cartoonish world where, indeed, giants with one eye might realistically exist. Not so now when, at home, you can tune in with your browser to see a pair of eagles nesting in New York on your computer screen. Now, surrounded by your appliances and other creature comforts you can visit exotic places and vicariously experience the sort of strangeness Kagan provides. 

The appetite for this kind of story seems to be stronger now than ever before but I wonder if many will pick up this entertaining book. The author’s aim is to present something coherent but where (due to the passage of time) the names of the cities and the generals and “navarchs” (admirals) fielded for the purpose of battle, are distinctly unfamiliar – though I kept reading, entranced by the drama. 

I hesitate to ascribe Kagan’s failure to anything other than a lack of skill. Certainly, he seems, himself, to be on top of the sources, but his challenge is to relay that propinquity to the layperson. That said, he is a good storyteller and, given how “global” this conflict was in the fourth century BC – if not global at least broad in its consequences – I do wonder how it might’ve been possible for him to improve his narrative.

It’s clear that the Peloponnesian War – between oligarchical Sparta and democratic Athens – is one which should have relevance for a 21st century Australian. The reason for this is that, within this struggle, it is possible to discern more proximate conflicts. How does it compare, for example, to today’s politics where, once again, you have oligarchies (Russia, China) ranged against democracies (the USA, Australia, Britain). What is it about such polities – so different in their constitutions despite being contemporaneous – that makes them discordant in their relations. How does the form of government affect a community’s performance in war? Which form of government is better at organising itself for the purpose of war? And what of the public sphere. Does democracy have any shortcomings that mean that, under pressure, it starts to crack at the seams? Is it robust enough to survive a state of war?

Sunday, 20 December 2020

Dream journal: Thirty-two

This is the thirty-second in a series of posts chronicling dreams I have had. As usual, the date shown is the date the dream was captured. This is usually the morning after the night the dream took place. You can’t wait very long before capturing a dream because it soon disappears from memory.

17 May 2020

Dreamt I was in the shopping centre at Vaucluse just across the road from where my mum and granny had their shop. I had parked my car – the same gold Aurion that, at the time of the dream, I used in real life – on the front apron of a building, where there were other parked cars, and went off to do something though I don’t remember what that was. Later, when I came back from completing my task, I found that my car had been put onto the tray of a flatbed truck, preparatory to it being driven away. There was a policeman there also, attending to someone who was on an ambulance’s stretcher. The ambos were hanging around or doing something that seemed to be important (I couldn’t see through all the people at that precise spot).

I went up to the truck and tried to get to the cab so I could talk with the driver, when he came out of it and walked toward the back of the truck, where I was standing. I introduced myself and told him that the car on his truck was mine and that I would like to have it back so I could drive it. He demurred and we talked in this way – I don’t remember all the details – until, with a flourish, he pulled out a kind of receipt book and a pen and wrote something on the top sheet of the pad. 

He showed me the page and I saw that he had, using his pen, written the number “3” next to a printed number “50”, which in turn was next to a phrase that said something about payment. Presumably he wanted me to pay $350 to him in order for me to get my car released. I wanted to offer him $50 – cash – if he would let me have the car, and now said to him that I only had $50 in my wallet, asking him when he could let me have the car in exchange for money. He said something about midnight and I looked at my watch and saw that it was still only eight o’clock – it was still light outside so in the dream it must’ve been summertime, though it might’ve also been that the daylight was driven by dream-logic – and when I mentioned this to him he didn’t address the point directly, and let out a stream of words that obfuscated the issue. 

He managed to make it appear clear that he had to wait until the time he had mentioned. I was becoming frustrated and said something like, “So I have to wait four hours to get my car back?” And while he didn’t answer directly this direct question, it was clear I wouldn’t be getting my car back anytime soon. At this point I woke up.

 25 May 2020

Dreamt I was working in Tokyo (I worked there from 1992 to 2001) and I had a job to do but I was doing some other stuff first. The person who was tracking my progress on assigned tasks was a Japanese woman – in real life they’re called “office ladies” though, depending on the company, they can have quite senior roles – who had a desk at the other end of the floor where my section’s area was located. On my desk was an old Apple Macintosh and I had to get a file copied onto a three-and-a-half-inch floppy disc so that I could give it to her.

But I kept on getting up to do other things, talking to people and walking around busily. It wasn’t clear to me – or, at least, it isn’t clear to me now, while I am recalling the dream – what other things I was engaged in doing, just that I knew I had a task to complete (several, in fact) that I wasn’t doing. Then, for some reason, my desk changed and I had to find the correct floppy disc in a drawer full of discs – it was one of those specially-designed floppy disc drawers made of plastic that are put on your desktop for easy access.

Then it was time to go home and I went to the cupboards at the end of the row of desks to look for my jacket. I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt but it was winter and very cold outside. Since I’d moved desks to a different row my jacket wasn’t where I could see it. I kept opening cupboard doors and seeing jackets belonging to other people, but mine couldn’t be found anywhere. This was a serious problem due to the low external temperature. Then I woke up.

Friday, 18 December 2020

Podcast review: Dolly Parton’s America, New York Public Radio (2019-20)

I don’t remember which of my Facebook friends suggested this one to me, but I’m glad they did, it’s scrumptious! The way this show talks about – not just America – but the world, is eminently satisfying, as Dolly Parton (aged now in her 70s) emerges as a sympathetic figure for people across the political divide.

Imperceptibly she’s become an icon of popular culture as demonstrated by this show, which was put together by a Tennessee native named Jad Abumrad (whose father, a doctor, had treated Parton following a minor traffic accident). Once again we see the strength of American journalism, an enterprise with many branches that has an ability to commit resources in the service of a bigger cause by focusing intently on the particulars of individual cases.

For most progressive (certainly, in my case) Dolly Parton was, while I was growing up, an emblem belonging to the enemy. But her dogged commitment to a singular style – country music has reached new heights in recent years with such artists as Taylor Swift rejuvenating the brand – and a willingness to embrace its kitschy overtones, has meant that Parton has triumphed where other singer-songwriters of the 1960s and 70s have languished, since the 1990s, in obscurity – only remembered when they die and tributes briefly flow. Parton, on the other hand, uses a flinty brand of commercialism to overcome obstacles by appealing to a wide audience. Her listeners are as likely to be gay as Trump voters.

Parton has flowered, her ability, at the same time, to embrace both feminism and femininity – two apparently conflicting sets of ideas – meaning she’s more popular than ever, though she’s reached an age when most artists put down the tools of their trade and take the road to retirement. It seems Parton still has things to say.

Abumrad has one of those standard American accents – which I’d also found with the accents of the narrators of ‘Shittown’ and ‘Joe Exotic’ and ‘Bear Brook’ – that contrasts with the down-home accents of Parton’s voice. In one episode Abumrad examines the issue of regional accents in detail, helping to paint a vivid portrait of America.

The first two programs listed in the above paragraph also evoke the cultural border between small-town America and the America of New York and Chicago and Los Angeles (and sundry other cities where a counterculture has been able to grow). It’s a border present in the very voices of the people used to tell the story, including that of the narrator. The textures of the sounds hold up for view a certain set of ideas that belong to a phenomenon that is visible from anywhere in the world. 

Abumrad and the producers at WNYC radio have produced something indicative of larger problems that America faces. And in slightly different forms they apply in other countries, too.

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Podcast review: Joe Exotic, Wondery (2020)

This series is based on the same sequence of events as was used for the more-famous Netflix series ’Tiger King’ but Wondery spoils the fun by inserting ads every now and then that completely wreck the feeling of continuity you should have with a podcast. It’s hard enough while driving to stay on top of all the characters and events without dumb ads and if anything might push me away from the company’s products these obnoxious intrusions would be it..


Apart from that gripe – did I say how annoying the ads for other programs are while listening to ‘Joe Exotic’? (You see when I mean …) – Wondery’s producers tell a compelling story centred around the keeping and breeding of big cats. It’s wonderful how America storytellers are able to remove the strength from pronouns like “they” and use the resources at their disposal to paint – in vivid colours, but in auditory form – the delineations of desire that abide in that multifarious country in North America.

Do not read the Wikipedia page about the Netflix series as it contains spoilers (you don’t want to know what happens to Joe Schreibvogel – aka Joe Exotic the “Tiger King”) but Wondery’s story is not only focused on one person. There’s also Joe’s nemesis – one Carole Baskin – a woman from Florida who also has an interest in big cats. 

In Baskin’s case this interest takes the form of operating a sanctuary, whereas Joe is an entertainer. The clash of wills that ensues is epic in scale but also – despite the rarity of the issues at stake (not everyone is passionate about big cats) – emblematic of contemporary society, where people become polarised in the public sphere around certain trigger ideas, for example climate change or the rights of African-Americans (it’s also symptomatic of Donald Trump’s effect on the country). For boomers Schreibvogel and Baskin, big cats came to dominate their lives. Their singular focus is one of the things that turns them into good material for a podcast and a Netflix series.

The other thing that makes Baskin and Schreibvogel compelling subjects for this kind of dramatic treatment is that they are otherwise so ordinary. We have such false ideas about what makes someone interesting – fame deriving from some form of expertise, or wealth – so the Wondery show acts as a corrective, demonstrating how it’s possible to reinvent yourself without recourse to totemic categories of career. Where we imagine someone turning their life around by coming from a childhood of penury and abuse to graduating from university, then becoming a doctor or a lawyer, in ‘Joe Exotic’ Baskin goes from being homeless to operating a wildlife refuge in Tampa, Florida.

Baskin’s animus vis-à-vis Joe Exotic is a symptom of a love of big cats both of these individuals share, and if you can bear the ads for shaving products you will learn, near the end of the series, about the court case during which Joe Exotic is tried for crimes the show details. If you can tolerate also the tawdriness of the drama and Joe Exotic’s odd voice – he sounds a little like the late comedian Jerry Lewis – Wondery’s show will help to pass the time you need to spend in traffic near where you live.

Friday, 11 December 2020

Podcast review: The Allusionist, Helen Zaltzman (2020)

This podcast has actually been going longer than indicated above, and started a number of years back. The website has transcripts for the truly committed nerd, plus details for if you want to contact Zaltzman.

Like ‘Shittown’, I was put onto ‘The Allusionist’ by Facebook friends after I put out a call in a post looking for recommendations since I’d bought a new car and had the ability to use Apple CarPlay – which allows you to link your mobile phone to your automobile, and listen from it while driving – so was in a position to delve into sources of mobile entertainment divorced from the dreaded talkback regions of commercial radio. I’d gravitated to 2Day FM at the end of the previous year as I migrated away from a pure-ABC feed and when 2Day Fm played music it was fine but when the hosts chatted about stuff it drove me mad.

‘The Allusionist’, on the other hand, is intriguing although its host is a little too left of centre for my taste. As noted above, her show is ideal for geeky people for whom details about choice items from the English lexicon is an ideal for of fun. Each episode concentrates on one or two words and there’s plenty of social commentary – perfect for progressives – as politics naturally infects language. We live in language, to be sure, and use it in order to achieve our goals and to get the things we want to possess, for example money or companionship, belonging, or a feeling of entitlement. Innate to the species, it is a tool, like the opposable thumb, that is incorporated into our very beings.

Zaltzman invites different experts onto her show and it’s well produced, with the sound quality set to a high standard to make listening easy. The variety of people she conscripts in her search for a superior mode of meaning is impressive, and you feel, at the end of each episode, as though you’ve spent your time profitably.

I checked Twitter to see if a hashtag had been made with the name of this program, but what was there was old and out of date. I imagine that a truly viral program might be able to conjure up enough enthusiasm among listeners to make a hashtag, but evidently the level of excitement the show inspired in me isn’t shared by many. I must be a geek 😀

Thursday, 10 December 2020

Podcast review: Shittown, Serial and Chicago Public Media (2017)

Whatever you do, don’t read the Wikipedia page for this show (which is filed under “S-Town”) because it gives away the punchline in an inconvenient and rather spectacular fashion. The Wikipedia editors should be challenged on account of a destructive failure of tact. There’s also a rather florid web page (see image below) that doesn’t give away crucial details, but it’s just a placeholder for people searching for the show.

The journalist is named Brian Reed and on a number of occasions he travels from New York – where he lives and works – to rural Alabama in order to investigate claims made by a local character named John McLemore. While in town, Reed meets a bevy of other misfits and outcasts, devising a portrait of a dysfunctional society where the people who don’t want to conform are prevented from participating fully in the community, and this theme will come to dominate the podcast as Reed delves deeper and deeper into McLemore’s life through conversations with friends and acquaintances. 

But form of protest chose by the outcasts is itself questionable and they end up losing the opportunity to engage with a broader community of thinkers oddballs. It’s a queer story that goes off the tracks soon enough. The reporting is solid and despite the flaky characters – it’s all real, keep in mind – there’s plenty of evidence that the makers of this program put in a lot of effort to get the story right. Just going by the auditory evidence it’s almost as though there are two Americas out there: one educated and northern, and one ignorant and southern. McLemore is, of course, an exception to this rule.

The cute American bowdlerisation of the show’s name points to one of the reasons for the zany antics of McLemore and his friends, some of whom Reed gets to meet in a bar hidden behind a concealed door at the back of a tattoo parlour. If you thought ‘Pulp Fiction’ illustrated something irrational and dark about America, wait until you listen to this wonderful show.

At one stage Reed and McLemore go to the town’s library looking for evidence of a murder – the “fact” that, in the first place, drew Reed down south from his home in New York – but they struggle to turn up evidence. McLemore counters by saying that that would be the case in Woodstock. That’s the name of the town, by the way. Shittown, in McLemore’s parlance.

It’s a place readers of novelist William Faulkner might recognise. What’s striking however is the lack of insight that the people heard in this show evince. Neither the goofy southern characters Reed meets with nor Reed himself seem to understand the reasons behind the malaise that infects the lives of the people in Woodstock. A higher minimum wage, more unionisation, a stronger education system, and what Americans call “single-payer healthcare” might go a long way toward improving the lives of the people who surround McLemore. 

His voice reminds me of that of the ex-PM of Australia, Kevin Rudd, but whereas listening to Rudd fills me with an existential despair, McLemore is always interesting even when, as he was wont to do, this self-destructive man complains at length like a Baptist version of Karl Ove Knausgaard. He was also in many ways a man apart, his hobby and metier being the repair of antique clocks. A gay man with an endless appetite for arcana and a commitment to saving the planet, McLemore embodies an instinct to rebel – whether it is something unique to America or not, you’ll have to decide for yourself, but maybe one day we’ll hear a program about a Chinese misfit as entertaining and profound as ‘Shittown’.

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

Book review: Unfabling the East: Enlightenment Encounters with Asia, Jurgen Osterhammel (2018)

I bought this frustrating book at an independent bookstore in November.

A German historian can be especially interesting to read because he or she will take a different stance with regard to sources compared to a scholar of the Anglosphere. So, for example, in Osterhammel’s book there are plenty of German and French sources in addition to the usual suspects like Gibbon and Burke. At one point Osterhammel tries to come to grips with this problem and calls a British writer “typical” because “discursive”, giving support to my own negative feelings about his own work which felt to me like a catalogue rather than a story. His method being to take a theme and elaborate on it using examples from the literature, but in the event not moving very far away from the originary theme. Not far enough to be able to tell any individual’s story in any detail, although he returns to some characters time and time again in an effort to understand his subject. His method has the shortcoming that your emotions don’t engage very strongly with the material. I felt most of the time like I was reading a list rather than a narrative, and this problem added to my feeling of alienation due to the lack of familiar sources (apart from Captain James Cook and Sir Joseph Banks).

Taking Said as his launching point, Osterhammel looks at how 18th century intellectuals tried to understand the world that had been opened up by advances in Portuguese maritime exploration dating from the Renaissance. Parts of the world that had been places of fable were suddenly being written about in books that could be bought or borrowed in London or Berlin. Europe’s highly heterogeneous political and print culture promoted a wide range of ideas and the market for this kind of writing was such that travellers, once returned to Europe, had an incentive to publish their thoughts and experiences in narrative form.

In the 18th century things were different from the way they would become during the period – the 19th and early 20th centuries – of colonialism’s peak. 

This is because in the early 19th century attitudes in Europe toward Asia altered. So for example tourism appeared where, earlier, people had travelled with a specific purpose in mind. The way that Europeans thought about Asia became less tolerant in the 19th century, as well, and suddenly – as a friend of mine pointed out – it became undesirable (or even unthinkable) for East India Company factors to marry Indian women whereas before this had been routine. With the age of refinement that the 19th century – or, at least that part of it that fell after about 1830 – most certainly became, arrived a more rigid and unpleasant kind of exceptionalism and Osterhammel demonstrates what this looked like by focusing mainly on the earlier period. 

While he has produced a revisionist history – a corrective to commensurately rigid attitudes held by scholars in the Global South – that demonstrates impressive scholarship, it is precisely due to the lack of “discursiveness” – the quality he ridicules the British for using in their work – that the book is so hard to read. You skitter erratically across a rolling slew of facts that are as unstable as scree beneath your cognitive feet. This book was doomed from the outset because of the author’s typically German totalising impulse, a need to categorise every conceivable expression of any feeling or idea, like a crackpot amateur botanist on the hunt for that elusive growth that will make his name in the tables. I needed a hook on the wall upon which to hang the images my mind produced while reading. Unfortunately, Osterhammel gives few of these. Exhausted, I didn’t finish his book.


Tuesday, 8 December 2020

Like a crazy monsoon

This post follows on from one made in the winter of 2018 (‘The left-right tango is dead’) in which I predicted something worse than Trump in the future, and it seems like my hunch was accurate. Not only has Trump refused to concede defeat in the 2020 presidential election, but some people on the right are redefining what America means. In fact, they’re redefining words used to describe it.

At 2.31pm Australian Eastern Daylight Time (AEDT) an account called Turning Point USA tweeted an image that contained these words:

We are not a democracy. We are a constitutional republic, it’s a huge difference. – Charlie Kirk

The image had the face of a young man on it, a man probably in his late 20s or early 30s. His smile was slight, a mere line of the lips to indicate something like thought was going on in his head. His eyes looked straight out at the viewer – challenging the viewer to look back, into his eyes (if someone looked at you on the street like this you’d probably look away) – and at the bottom of the image, in the left-hand corner, was the organisation’s name. 

This was a branded statement of belief, like a prayer. My brother (who lives in the US) tweeted in response:

"republic" means is the source of authority is not a monarchy. The archetypal Democracy was literally a Republic, the Athenian Republic. The biggest Republics today are "Peoples Republics".

There were a few logical and orthographic problems with his statement, but I understood where he was coming from. In reply to him I tweeted:

Wow ... Amazing! This kind of redefinition of the meaning of words is Orwellian. It's like the Soviets in the 50s.

This prompted a response by an anonymous user: “Lol what. You okay?” The rise of China – the archetypal contemporary dictatorship – was rearranging the world in curious ways, ways that Bill Clinton, when he granted Most-Favored Nation status to China in 2000, could never have anticipated. 

China had begun to remould the planet in its image and the disaffected in America were helping President Xi and his ilk to question the very basis of democracy – elections and the processes that entails – with Trump and his acolytes assisting with seemingly gay abandon, not wanting to share power with anyone apart from people who think the same as they do. 

From history, it’s pretty clear where this trend can lead. The only questions is whether there’s a circuit breaker that can stop the decline. Once America is infected, how to stop the spread? Perhaps a war – but who would wish that on anyone – might reset the scale to true, or perhaps a new North Korea – a nation isolated socioeconomically from the rest of the world so that ideas do not get in and exports do not get out – might emerge to terrorise little pluralistic democracies in the free world.

Prognostications are difficult because of the rigid structure of the universe (we can only see things in hindsight, not in advance). It might be unwise to predict global catastrophe but, on the other hand, the astute take advice from a wide range of sources. Even bloggers, who participate enthusiastically in producing an impossible quantity of images and texts mesmerising or dismaying in its scope. How to deal with the unceasing avalanche of expressions of desire, of statements of belief, of vocalisations of honour and shame and regret, the cascade of promises, of wishes, and prayers? In this fuzzy, entangled environment it's even harder than it was a generation ago to work out where you end and the next person starts. And since we're social animals, the yells, cries, and sobs we hear are sometimes intensely personal. We must GIRD ourselves with passion and principle to cope with the onslaught. 

Hence the new generation is a committed and motivated one, one that brings its personal concerns to the workplace. They want to change things, and they will but, as we’ve seen, there is already a reaction (I’ll talk more about this later on in this piece). The challenge is not just to bring about a more just and equitable society. The challenge now is to stamp onto a coin of the most noble metal the face of, indeed, the very system of government we use to afford progress. It’s clear, having said this, that extreme views predominate today, and this compounds the problem of communication. For even though getting a single-payer healthcare scheme is important for Millennials living in the United States of America, for everyone in the world the more pressing issue is how to preserve democracy in the face of forces that want to destroy it. 

The only way for them to stop the tide of liberalisation is to tear down the very system of government the fascists overseas, with their very beings, hate so much. David Bowie sang of “young Americans” but, today, his understated anthem of hope never sounded so poignant, as evil forces line up against them in serried ranks like some dauntless horde in a Peter Jackson movie. As country after country veers sharply to the right and denies communities the voices they yearn to wield, young Americans stand in the teeth of the gale that blows across both hemispheres like a crazy monsoon.

And just as it’s important, for the sake of accuracy, not to simplistically generalise from the appearances of one example in order to try to understand the causes of the shifts that are happening in the world today, it’s also incumbent on progressives not to damage their brand by adopting as a sacred vow every stray idea that reaches its feelers across their cerebellums. Not every cause is a noble one. Not every project is worth fighting for. In fact, by spreading themselves too thinly, today’s liberal voters risk undermining the entire program. If you discredit your judgement by backing some whacky scheme to outlaw this or ban that, then you will find it harder to bring along with you the critical centre of the community. 

But, then again, you have to do what you think is right. As a consequence, progress, when it comes, will be slow and not every step forward will be followed by another one.

Sunday, 6 December 2020

Dream journal: Thirty-one

This is the thirty-first in a series of posts chronicling dreams I have had. As usual, the date shown is the date the dream was captured. This is usually the morning after the night the dream took place. You can’t wait very long before capturing a dream because it soon disappears from memory.

15 May 2020

Dreamt I was working in Tokyo (I worked there from 1992 to 2001) and was being fired. I had gone into my unit manager’s office to write a note for him in order to complain about how everyone else was busy except for me, and to ask for a new computer – a PC (I was using an old Macintosh with a tiny screen and it wasn’t even connected to the internet). It was true. During the day when I was in the office I would walk around the office and wherever I looked people were tapping away at their keyboards or talking into telephone receivers, doing something productive, while I had absolutely nothing on my plate. Doing nothing like this is torture when you are an employee, your life has no meaning and you just think about why it has happened this way. Japanese companies that don’t want an employee but cannot fire him or her will use this tactic to try to force the employee to leave of their own accord.

I leafed through the notepad looking for a blank sheet of paper to write on, eventually opting instead to use the cardboard support at the back of a lined A4 pad. I started to write my note when an employee from another section came up to the desk and asked me to work for the remainder of my contract, then leave the company. I was gobsmacked and reacted violently, grabbing the man by the face and shouting at him. I could never do this in real life, but now I was acting like an action figure from a superhero movie. I turned him upside down and held him like that, while I shouted to complain about the conduct of the company.

Then I went upstairs to the department manager’s area, and approached his desk, walking past other employees who were busy working. There were three desks arranged in a row at the back of the room, facing other desks, desks which were arranged in pairs in the centre of the building’s floor. At the left-hand most desk of the three was Moriyama-san (I’ll call the man by his real name), and he was talking loudly with the two sub managers at the desks located to his left (my right).

I came up to his desk and loudly started to complain. We were then on a hill outside the building and I was talking in this way: “I’ve been doing nothing for two years, being punished for what happened with Karen [my manager in Tokyo for the first five years I was with the company] then when I’m about to ask for a new computer, you fire me?!” I was enraged beyond toleration. I shouted more, and at one stage hit him in the face. He was looking at me with unsmiling patience, as though, were I to stop talking, he would just walk away. When I hit him with my palm across his face his expression turned sour, and he said something like “Now you’ve done it …” but I don’t remember clearly. In any case I felt I was being persuasive, and so kept talking. It seemed to me, looking at Moriyama-san’s face, that he might reconsider his verdict, and let me stay. I might even get a new computer. “Who knows?” I thought to myself. So, on I ploughed.

I was shouting at the man: “I dream about writing application reports for Honeywell” – then I changed this, and put in the correct company name – “for Yamatake. Every night I dream about it, and you take it away from me?!” I said other things as well but I don’t remember everything clearly.

In real life I had started working for the company when it was named Yamatake-Honeywell, as it was a Japanese-American joint venture. I had previously worked for Honeywell. Then, in 1997 or thereabouts, Japanese investors bought out the stock that had been owned by Honeywell, in order to go it on their own. Relations with the parent company soured and became tense, and the nature of the communications role changed. It was no longer about communicating with Honeywell; now, it would be about communicating with customers of the company that used English for their day-to-day operations. Eventually the company changed its name to Azbil and seriously went global. I had been making materials for its English-language marketing and communications but the company in real life let me go when I had a health crisis. 

Saturday, 5 December 2020

Podcast review: Bear Brook, New Hampshire Public Radio (2018-19)

This quality program sort of defines what publicly-funded radio is, and what all radio can be. It’s hard to see how this much effort could be packaged like this by a private corporation working in the interests of shareholders. I was mightily impressed by this show, as well as entertained.

Working in the interests of subscribers and other listeners, New Hampshire Public Radio has gone out on a limb to produce something special. To make this multipart program, the producers and journalists interviewed dozens of specialists – from police to amateur genealogists, even a relative of the killer – involved with a cold case. 

The murders happened in the early 1980s but it wasn’t until the current century that the investigation really got underway. The Bear Brook case – the placename is in New Hampshire, in a heavily forested area – opened up new avenues of enquiry because it was the first time that genealogy (the makers mispronounce it “geneology”) was used in a police investigation. Asking amateur genealogists to join the investigation, local New Hampshire police were able to zero-in on the identities of key individuals.

I won’t say any more for fear of spoiling the show for those who have not listened to it but want to. If you, like me, like crime, then this show ticks all the boxes. If you are triggered by details in stories of child abuse, then perhaps leave it alone.

Friday, 4 December 2020

Podcast review: The Philosopher’s Zone, Radio National, ABC (2020)

This is a fun but low-budget podcast that can honestly fill in dead time in the car. Should do the trick if you want to feel virtuous but also want entertainment. I find the host, David Rutledge, to be credible and conversant with basic principles (I learned about the difference between “epistemology” and “ontology”, which was nice). The dozen or so episodes I caught were all recorded this year and even this small sample – the program actually started airing at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 2005 – convinced me ‘The Philosopher’s Zone’ is worth the time spent listening.

Saying that this show is low-budget shouldn’t discourage people looking for material that deals in ideas. It’s low-budget because the format of the show is the interview. Rutledge simply finds someone in a position of professional standing and calls them on the phone. The call is then recorded and edited for broadcasting, and also for inclusion online as a podcast. Easy.

The host seems adept at manipulating the referents and identities that are commonly found in the world of ideas; as such, he’s not a neophyte. But the show differs from other types of podcast journalism in that episodes don’t contain conflicting views beyond what you find within the minds of the interviewee and the interviewer (who can, of course, act as devil’s advocate).

Rutledge tries to make each episode topical – another touchstone of journalism – by turning the focus of the discussion onto contemporary politics, or onto such social issues as online bullying or the erosion of truth in political discourse. In this way, he brings the listener into the orbit of concerns which might otherwise seem remote and forbidding.

While this popularising tendency is welcome for people not used to philosophical discourse, on the other hand the ideas retailed in are not debased by oversimplification. In each ep Rutledge is adequately conversant with the relevant discourse and asks pertinent and probing questions. His subjects reply in kind, keeping in mind always that the person on the other end of the conversation – the listener – is possibly not conversant with all of the concepts being used, so while the pace is fast enough to be compelling the program doesn’t get lost in sophistry.

Thursday, 3 December 2020

Book review: Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War, John Stubbs (2011)

I bought this wonderful and instructive volume on sale at Gleebooks in November: it was on a table on the pavement outside the store, and I picked it up as soon as I read the title. Good decision ..

Stubbs thought the royalists (loyalists) of the English Civil War deserved a fresh take, hence this examination of the lives of a number of men – and a few women (but not many) – who lived in the first half of the 17th century, a time of inequality and inequity but also of rising incomes and standard of living. The cavaliers deserve our regard also for the reason that ideas they embodied remain attractive to us, now, especially in popular culture. The brooding artist, the sulky pop star, the rebel without a cause – all of these belong in the same broad basket of enterprise as the men described in Stubbs’ book.

That’s not to take away from the importance, as an element forging our contemporary polities (in the Anglosphere and beyond) of the English Civil War. Due to the increase in the discretion given to Parliament as a result of those events, we have a higher standard of living today. Not just in Australia but everywhere, though the Enlightenment project hasn’t yet finished.

But that sequence of events mustn’t be considered as a phenomenon apart from Continental history. The decision of Charles I to avoid entanglement in the religious wars that had raged in Europe for 100 years was critical to the emergence of a disaffected element in English society. There were scores to be settled, accounts to be balanced. Charles’ decision to add uniformity to the forms of worship in two of his kingdoms – England and Scotland – served to profoundly irritate many people. Thirdly, his decision to rule without Parliament added to instability as it removed one forum in which legitimate community grievances could be aired, and the emotions linked with them resolved through means other than military ones. By the time he called for a Parliament, the demands that were put to him were so intolerable that he preferred to die than compromise his prerogatives.

The book looks in some detail at Charles’ own efforts to refine society. Sometimes this took the form of dramatic performances – something that he, like his father, enjoyed – and hence Stubbs is able to examine in some detail the ideas of men who wrote poetry and plays either for private circulation, performance, or publication. The idea of the dilettante – which we’ve regrettably jettisoned today – lived strongly in the minds of the cavaliers who, while they sought out a way of being that we’d describe today as “middle class”, who also rejected the puritanical obsessions of certain parts of the community, people for whom “popish” forms of religious service – which the Scots so passionately rejected – were anathema. Nowadays, we must admit to enjoying ceremony for its own sake – be it the telecast of a royal wedding or the annual Academy Awards. Ritual helps to organise society and is instinctively embraced, but for Puritans in the 17th century it stood as a manifestation of evil.

Stubbs shows that the received idea that is concentrated in the word “cavalier” is not quite apt when you look at its origins through a strong lens, one that can sufficiently magnify the features and the minds entombed by time – this is the job of history – so that each of the men examined becomes an individual, though general patterns of conduct can be discerned. They are often attractive subjects – despite the excess when it came to romance, elaborate jokes, and wine – but their stoicism and their love of art shine like beacons in the distance.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this entertaining book. Stubbs uses a subtle form of humour in his narrative in order to castigate, judge, and understand the motives of people long dead. The reader can join with him, diverge in his or her views, or skip to another point of focus without effort. 

I was however disappointed, but in a good way. Not enough attention given to Puritan writers means you get a slightly one-sided viewpoint. Not that this defeats Stubbs’ purpose: quite the opposite – the book’s title signals his intentions clearly – but once the king is dead Stubbs turns his focus to one Commonwealthman who wrote – Andrew Marvell. This part of the book lets you see the heritage of Cavalier wits influencing the politically opposite camp. 

The Cavaliers unquestionably represented more than just the commonplace rogue, and in fact defeat almost completes the model, as Stubbs shows by examining parts of the lives of several notable men, including some who, like Charles himself, spent time in prison. The resort of the unfree body being places visited by the free mind. 

What is inescapable is how modern the Cavaliers seem in contrast to their religious peers. Puritans hated frivolity and feared losing God’s grace if they indulged in it, so it’s a happy fact that most of the writers Stubbs deals with were royalists. Stubbs takes a slightly longer look at another Puritan of note – Sir Archibald Johnston (Lord Wariston) – a Scots lawyer who rose to prominence from humble origins, but Milton is only touched on.