Sunday, May 24, 2009

Embracing the dress rehearsal

Under surveillance by Pants

Ever feel like whatever you do, however grand and heroic your effort to scramble to a place of relative comfort and safety, some insidious and uncombatable force masquerading as benign, or possibly even benevolent has you at the top of its ‘to screw’ list?

An ex-friend once misquoted John Lennon to me in a flurry of frustration as I racked up yet another failure to comply with her version of experiencing existence in its full and glorious magnificence. ‘Life’, she shrieked, ‘is what happens to you while you’re busy making plans.’ That salvo ended in a hail of expletives involving liberal use of the c-word on both sides, the cumulative result of which was we never uttered a civil word to each other again.

Some people it seems are unnervingly passionate about the quality of the lives of others, even if their take on the nature of that quality is entirely alien to the recipient. Where on earth do they get the time? What is going on in their own lives while they’re busy critiquing l’engagement de vivre of others?

At the risk of going all Dr Phil, I just don’t get it. I tend not to make firm plans as something invariably gets in the way of them. When plans are unavoidable, I develop a hierarchy of two or three carefully devised strategies and contingencies and even then, I prepare myself for the probability that there are enough spanners in my sphere to bollocks the lot. I’m flexible to the point of obsession about the amount of excrement any given fan pointed in my direction is capable of expelling.

Some people interpret my pragmatism as indecisive or even negative. I have seen rigid individuals rail against the inevitable to the point of apoplexy, regarding themselves positively assertive. No amount of aggression will undelete a cancelled flight, of this I’m certain. The only effective defence against the vagaries of the likes of airline accounting is a large and interesting book. I speak from experience.

Right now I have friends visiting. Domestic standards serve as their compendium of righteousness. I do not complain as I am acquiring all manner of ‘correct’ implements and ingredients, at least some of which will make certain operations infinitely more efficient. For example, I had a dim awareness that the clothes pegs I bought at The Reject Shop were fundamentally flawed in that they were not capable of attaching wet clothes to my external line for long enough to render them dry and therefore wearable. Beyond a general feeling that this was not a good thing, I had no other thoughts on the matter.

Having spent most of my adult life in a flat, I had only ever used pegs to stop sheet music from blowing away at alfresco gigs. It never occurred to me that there might be a type of plastic peg that didn’t spring apart at the slightest gust of wind, depositing your clean jeans in your newly constituted compost heap. I'm very pleased to have acquired a fully functional peg collection but less thrilled that the entire population of Larrikin’s End is now intimately acquainted with my shortcomings in the house and garden department. Mrs Visitor likes to share. Mr Visitor has brought me cases of vintage red, nicely redressing the balance. All’s well.

Getting back to John Lennon, the ex-friend and the misquote. What Lennon actually said was, ‘life is what happens when you’re planning other things.’ Now to me that doesn’t mean, as my ex-friend suggested that one should blast one’s way through life unplanned and unplugged, mowing down any and every shred of resistance until one’s will is fully satiated. I intuit a more nuanced meaning. My interpretation is something more akin to these lines from Robert Burns’s poem To A Mouse,

'The best laid schemes o' mice an' men

Gang aft agley'

In other words, expect the unexpected to leap up and punch you right on the nose at the very moment you think you can finally relax.

When Rose Tremain coined the phrase ‘life is not a dress rehearsal’ twenty years ago, I wonder if she imagined how ferociously it would be appropriated by our selfish gene to justify overriding others’ needs and desires in order to satisfy our own self-interest. Could she have been aware of how much this catchy and seemingly innocuous mantra would contribute to the odious ‘personal growth’ industry? Does she now realise just how much damage she's caused? Life may not be a dress rehearsal but the unavoidable inference that it should therefore be a polished performance is surely even further removed from actuality.

At best, life is improvisation and it would appear the more confident you are, the better an improviser you’re likely to appear to be. Now that seems like a bad peg to me. Just because I’m not loudly and constantly articulating desires, doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally have them. If I prefer to go quietly, minimising the risk of conflict, it doesn’t mean I willingly concede to others’ aspirations for me. Never having been a parent, ambition on behalf of others is not a concept I can readily understand. And I very, very much don’t understand people who have views on the shape of your salad bowl or the size of your coffee mugs.

Neither Ms Ex-friend nor Mrs Visitor has ever given a thought to the possibility that I just might have different priorities. Both have interpreted my habitual compliance as fecklessness.

I only refuse interference if there are clear and present disadvantages to the proposed alterations or additions. I just don’t care enough to resist and that alone guarantees I’ll lose any ensuing argument. Better to save your strength for battles that matter. If they were really that keen to see me right, they might have made it their business to become literary agents or publishers. Now that kind of intervention I could have happily gotten used to. Robert Burns has a neat little couplet just made for those too busy making other people’s plans,

'O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as others see us'.

Having strong views about unimportant things would seem to me the very antithesis of ‘life’. Surely it’s better to have no views at all than to clog your head up with facts and figures about DVD players and hosepipe fittings. There is something hideously narcissistic and competitive about comparing your dishwasher to someone else’s dishwasher. Both Ms Ex-friend and Mrs Visitor have a worrying fascination with white goods which I’m confident I will never acquire. A fridge is a fridge is a fridge and then only so when it breaks down and needs replacing.

What does it matter if sometimes 'life' as others would have it passes you by while you’ve got your head firmly planted in a book?

Oh my, look at the time. I must go now, I have rehearsals to be getting on with.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The gospel according to Seasick Steve

St Larrikin's aims for zeitgeist, hits passerby instead by Pants

My water bill came. It’s $176.00.

The cost breakdown is as follows:-

$6.00 – water usage

$170.00 – standing charges

I phoned the water company (note : water company as opposed to water authority. Could someone please remind me of a single reason why anyone ever thought that privatising essential services was anything other than criminally insane),

Me : Surely this charge can’t be right.

WC: Oh yes (with rather more relish than is strictly tasteful). You’re in a remote area and it costs more to deliver the water there than it does in the city.

Me : But I live next door to a lake. Doesn’t the city get its water from us?

Like most things nowadays, it falls apart when subjected to a rudimentary sense test but satisfies the broad customer service definition of ‘explanation’ from the corporate point of view. I believe the first principle is tell them anything that will convince them to go away. It did nothing for my mood to discover the five brochures on water-saving measures accompanying this joke bill. Rest assured I’ll be taking very long showers from now on. Logic dictates that if I’m spending all this money getting water delivered to my house, then I ought to make it worth my while by using some of it. That’s just good economics, innit?

Our local godpod, St Larrikin’s, recently raised the inspirational sign above. You wouldn’t have had to venture far out of your shell to recognise it as a paraphrase of Boxcar Willie clone Seasick Steve’s recession ditty, ‘I started out with nothing (and I still got most of it left)’. In its zeal to squeeze its frumpy old frame into the zeitgeist, St Larrikin’s has mangled both the spirit and the syntax of this song. Let us pray that the good burghers of Larrikin’s End don’t ever discover Leonard Cohen once wrote a song called ‘Hallelujah’.

Seriously, the economic theory encapsulated in Seasick Steve’s simple shanty could form the basis of post-recession thinking. As the value of cash assumes the shelf-life of a muffin, surely the less money you have, the better off you are. If you have any money at all in the present economic environment, you have to be concerned that it will be worth so little that you might end up having to pay someone to take it off your hands. I’m not quite sure how that would work. Perhaps you’d have to pay in turnips. I hope it’s turnips.

The Australian Government delivered its budget yesterday. There’s an immediate deficit of $57 billion and an estimated red hole of $200 and something billion over the projected course of this negative fiscal cycle. Why this seems so terrible to everyone is a mystery to me. Government debt is not the same as personal debt. It’s not like a bailiff is going to show up at Government House and remove all the Queen Anne occasional tables. In a recession, what tends to happen is someone finally notices schools and hospitals are about to disintegrate and decides now might be a good time to do something about it. I never got why a government gloats about its ability to accumulate a surplus. We give it our money to spend on our needs. So, why the inference that it’s all much more complicated?

The previous Coalition administration was very proud of its surplus and is now infuriated at the perceived squandering of it. A national treasury is no more than a cash account and is subject to the same vagaries of the free market economy as yours or the Pants savings is. Now all the surplus money that wasn’t spent on schools and hospitals when it could and should have been has been wiped off the slate. It’s best to spend it while you have it – a stitch in time and all that.

National debt in a country like Australia is a bit like a mortgage. You pay it off over thirty years and it’s just another thing you spend your money on. You don’t really notice it until it’s paid off and you’ve got money for holidays. It’s a shame you’re too old to enjoy holidays now that you can afford one. The opposition is moaning that everyone’s children and grandchildren will be saddled with a debt burden from the current borrowings as if some scruffy debt collector with a dirty suit and an iron bar will be waiting at the school gates to relieve them of their iPods in lieu of payment. Britain was still servicing its World War II debt until three years ago. It made absolutely no difference to the quality of citizens’ lives. Most of us didn’t even know about it until the media marked the occasion with a news item.

The less money you have when a recession hits, the less you have to lose. These days I’m trying to keep it as simple as possible. No loans and no contracts, in fact no commitments of any kind. Not even a credit card. I wouldn’t mind a bit ofwork but I can get by on my student allowance if I don’t eat or go to the movies and only buy ex-library books at 25c each. At least I feel confident to splash out on water now. If I could find a way to turn it into wine, I'd be laughing. Seasick Steve seems to know how to do that, perhaps I should ask him.

On the subject of work – has anyone noticed the number of feasibility studies that exist for so called ‘tele-working’ opportunities? Uh-huh? And have any of you ever come across an actual tele-working job in your travels? Didn’t think so. If you should happen upon such vocational gold dust, please email me. I’m very diligent when it comes to lying in bed with my laptop.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

My brilliant careen

Tiger in an urban jungle (surprised) by Pants

My first canvas is complete. If you think you recognise bits of it, you're right. It's an established convention called 'appropriation' that allows the artist to swipe other people's ideas, chop them around a bit and call them her own. Ask Chris Martin of Coldplay. He knows all about it. I had the good sense to use a work that is well and truly in the public domain as the centrepiece of this painting. The background comprises imitations of a combination of masterpieces by a living artist who has much better things to do than chase me down and are so naively rendered as to make them unrecognisable anyway. I'm accepting bids over US$400,000. Krug doesn't come cheap.

One of the top universities in Victoria today announced it's ditching all foreign language courses except for Vietnamese (don't know why - that lecturer is the only one with tenure?), to focus on the study of English. It may already be too late to reintroduce literacy into our tertiary institutions but I applaud the gesture.

Although the tutors at Larrikin's End School of Fine Art and Advanced Macramé are all exceptionally fine artists and indeed deliriously advanced macramists, not to mention reassuringly attired in eccentrically clashing patterns, not one of them has been tempted in the direction of a dictionary of late. I have given up trying to convince Mistress of the Brush that 'complementary colours' are those sitting opposite each other on the colour spectrum, whereas 'complimentary colours', should they exist, would be more interested in telling you how much they like your red and green swirly leg-ins... ohh, now I get it.

I believe it was Kant who said, 'an intelligent child who is brought up with a mad child can go mad', and I beg your leave to invoke him. I have a feeling that I once used to be smarter than I am now. Perhaps there's only so much you can blame on negative subliminal messaging but it often feels like I'm spending all of my limited head time on trying not to lose what I already know rather than on channelling a blossoming conscientia.

I've been following with a melancholy mix of anger and outrage the plunging fortunes of the British Labour Party and failed lamentably to scratch out the poignant, witty and insightful responsive piece I imagined I had in me. I realised, going over some of my old posts about the Labour Government and Gordon 'Scrooge McDuck' Brown in particular, that I normally need a comic spike to inspire me. The laughs are all lead balloons now. I reproduce in full below a post from January 2007, before Scrooge became PM, and we could all still see the funny side. Enjoy.

A Scrooge Loose

Watching as Gordon ‘Scrooge McDuck’ Brown fluffs himself up and waddles self-consciously into the international spotlight is almost always a painful experience. With equal parts of David Brent, X-Factor contestant and third choice best man giving a wedding speech, he invariably looks as if he will break down at some point during the delivery of his routine quackery and start blubbering that all he ever wanted to be was a retail marketing manager for a small to medium sized enterprise in Dundee. Pity us world for he is our next leader.

This week he’s in India fielding questions about our perpetual inability to get along with people from other countries following accusations of racist bullying by three of our finest belching and farting chavs on Celebrity Big Brother -

'Yes I know we invaded your country and enslaved your people while we systematically stripped your natural wealth, following which we invited your compatriots to live and work in our country and subjected them to appalling bigotry but we still want to be seen as a nation of fairness and tolerance.’
It’s worth a try.

Unfortunately, Scrooge’s trusty moral compass was confiscated at Heathrow Airport
due to heightened security threats, (‘I’m sorry sir, they interfere with the aircraft’s ethical guidance system’). This meant he had to hoof it when listing his heroes and went a little off course, citing Winston Churchill as a source of inspiration. Hang on Scroogy old chap, Winnie batted for the other side. Surely you mean Clement Atlee or Harold Wilson – those were your guys. Scrooge told our BBC this morning,

‘I think it was Churchill who said that you cannot meet the challenges of the future by simply building the present in the image of the past. And therefore I'm also seized that we face new challenges, first of all a security challenge, secondly an environmental challenge, and thirdly, of course, the challenge that British people want most of all is the prosperity challenge. And that will need new policies.’

Probably better not to quote Winnie in his ‘vintage’ period, and by that I mean the things he said after his fourth bottle of Pol Roger. Still, it’s nice to see that Scrooge is acquiring his soon-to-be predecessor’s finesse with the non sequitur.

Remembering where he was, Scrooge explained that Mahatma Ghandi had also been one of his great heroes. (When in South Africa,it’s Nelson Mandela. When in Jamaica, it’s Marcus Garvey. When in Germany, it’s Gerh… Yes, well). Scrooge explained to our BBC about Ghandi,

he showed a strength of belief and a strength of willpower, a determination to move for a more just and fair order. And people of courage always inspired me.’

I know I’m nitpicking here, but the thing I remember about Ghandi is that he didn’t move. That’s right isn’t it? Forgive me, but didn’t he sit and meditate? Wasn’t that the whole point and what made it so powerful?

What Scrooge says next indicates that, in conjuring Ghandi, he might have been invoking a particular historic era and perhaps needs to get out more,

‘I think if you look at the shape of the international institutions, you will see they were built for the age of 1945. We are in a new age. Reshaping these institutions can give us an environmental improvement, they can give us a security improvement, and they can give us also greater prosperity.’

If this is true, what’s happening in all those new Norman Foster buildings that we’re paying for? The fashion for neo Bauhaus architecture aside, what is slightly more worrying is Scrooge’s recent repetition of the phrase ‘there is a new world order’ whenever a microphone appears. It’s not a topic that has surfaced in the ‘community conversations’ in which we are encouraged to participate. Perhaps there’s a hint in this,

‘We need to strengthen the alliances we have, a strong alliance with America, a strong alliance in Europe, a strong role in the Commonwealth. But we also need, and I think this is now very clear to people, to reshape the international institutions so that they can meet these challenges of the future.’

I’m not entirely sure what ‘people’ he had in mind to be the recipients of this particular clarity but as a citizen of Britain born in a Commonwealth country, I can tell you I have no idea what these ‘international institutions’ might be, or indeed, what shape they might assume. Could there not be a reality TV show to assist me? How about Colour Your Commonwealth, hosted by Rolf Harris?

It all seems horrifying until you remember that politicians are scary and if all they’re about is trying to work out what will keep them in the positions they don’t even think they’re smart enough to have, then they are probably not that dangerous. Prove me wrong McDuck or you’re paté.

Sources – and my warped imagination.

PS - It's Pants from the present. If you're still with me, come for breakfast tomorrow at Seat of Pants. Specialty of the house - duck paté on toast.