Friday, January 31, 2014

Got the Goodes

Last Saturday I got an email from Adam Goodes to let me know that he'd just been named Australian of the Year for 2014. Since most TSP readers are not of this land, allow me to explain. Adam Goodes is a top player of Australian football and an Aboriginal man. He had sainthood thrust upon him last year during a football match when a 13-year-old girl shouted 'ape' at him. His response was so conspicuously dignified that someone really ought to write a text book based on it. I'm not saying this to be facetious. I'm suggesting it because this sort of confrontation almost always ends with everyone involved wearing a facial omelette.

Firstly, he called the child out with just the right measure of severity and then he followed up with some tough compassion. He accepted her tearful apology with good grace and explained to her exactly how and why what she had done was wrong. Most importantly in this age of finger-pointing at the weak and simple-minded as a societal corrective, he chose to shoot the message rather than the messenger. He became one of the prominent faces of a subsequent and ongoing anti-racism campaign.  

As to the title, Australian of the Year, I can be less helpful. I was away a long time and a cursory Internet search won't tell you much about what is expected of this No. 1 citizen during his/her titular reign. Lots of flag-waving, ambassadoring and luncheoning appears to be the general gist. I got a hopeful inkling though, from watching Adam Goodes's acceptance speech, that he might just have something profound in mind,

'My hope is that we as a nation can break down the silos between races, break down those stereotypes of minority populations, he told the audience at the ceremony. Present was his proud and tearful mother Lisa, a member of the Stolen Generations. For Adam Goodes, that goal is very close and very personal. A year can be a useful amount of time given a fair wind blowing through the right ears and a single issue whose time one can only pray has finally come.

Just to clarify, I don't actually know Adam. I got the email because I joined an organisation called Recognise, whose logo appears above this post. Adam Goodes is a leading spokesperson for Recognise. If you click on the first link, you will see a freeze from the video of his acceptance speech. If you ignore the creepy trophy - a cross between a dildo and a lava lamp (?) - and our even creepier prime minister, you may notice that Goodes is wearing a discreet Recognise lapel button. One of the organisation's goals is to secure recognition for Aboriginal people as the 'first' Australians in our Constitution. 

Like all things that seem incredibly simple, it turns out to be massively complicated because it requires us to rethink the decisions made by the pink-skinned, grey-wigged, blue-coated illegal boat arrivals who landed here on 26th January, 1788 and audaciously claimed an enormous continent for the British crown. Imagine how differently it might have played out had the indigenous peoples had the sort of hard-line 'border protection policies' we have in place today. The invaders swept in on the presumed basis that no one lived here already. They were met and challenged by brown people wearing more climate-appropriate body coverings who pointed spears at them and fiercely chanted 'warra warra', (go away). These people were conveniently reclassified as 'flora and fauna' so that the messy business of trading and treaty making could be easily dispensed with. 

You see the problem. Although we have since grudgingly admitted the first Australians to the hallowed ranks of citizenship of this continent and sometimes even felt a bit guilty about the systematic dispossession of individuals, tribes and nations that went on into the 1970s, it's still kind of hard to feel bad about ourselves when we're so invested in feeling good about ourselves, if you get the drift. Not that you need to - there's a vast and tedious epistemology awaiting your poking finger right here.

In Australia we're always threatening to 'start a conversation' about 'important issues that affect our nation', like why, for example, we behave like shits to anyone who isn't a white adult male under 50. Well, I've been sitting here for six years and the 'conversation' about why and how we should bury racism forever has never advanced beyond a round of statements of the painfully obvious. Recent history provides us with a scattering of mealy-mouthed regrets from left-leaning leaders. So resounding a NOTHING has been the end result, that one can only conclude that NOTHING was and always has been the original intention. Every decade or so, someone half-heartedly, or perhaps cynically, waves about an olive branch for a minute or ten and then we all go back to our online shopping, barbecue eating and bigger-house dreaming.

This story really begins in 1967 when, after many years of campaigning, Indigenous Australians finally won the right to vote - and yes, you read that right. Then in 1975, our first Labor Prime Minister in a generation, Gough Whitlam, poured sand into the hand of pioneer land rights campaigner Vincent Lingiari and promised 'restitution'. In Gough's defence, events did rather overtake him in the shape of a constitutional crisis and his government's subsequent collapse but one can't help wondering why such a highly emotive gesture wasn't backed up by at least a plan or two in the works.

Prime Minister Paul Keating's Redfern Speech which crawled into consciousness nearly twenty years later in 1993, came closest of any before or since to inferring that an admission of guilt might not only be appropriate but might even be accompanied by some remedial action. He promised 'reconciliation' and created a committee. And then three inert years flittered by. A new hard-line conservative government followed and it was bent on repealing any previous half-arsed attempts to think through a national soul-healing process. It looks like I'm picking on the lefties. It goes without saying that, when in power, the conservative side of politics does nothing - if we're lucky. Or, it strips Indigenous people of their human rights, as the government of John Howard did in 2007 when it imposed an invidious compulsory income-management regime on Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory under the spurious pretext of protecting children.

Another eleven years wafted into the ether of historical inconsequence, (otherwise known as The History Wars - see link above), and up pops a new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, with yet another speech in 2008. 'Sorry' - easy to say yet seemingly impossible to recompense. Why? Because of the dreaded c-word - compensation. It appears that if we white people make any admission that our ancestors might have done a bad thing, then we'll all have to give up our homes and be, well, stateless ourselves! See how impossible it is to do the right thing when you approach it in our time-honoured fashion?

Just to recap - getting on for forty years ago one prime minister promised 'restitution' - a very big word in this context. OED definition - the restoration of something lost or stolen to its proper owner. And sometimes that's even happened. Two decades later a prime minister softened that promise to 'reconciliation' OED definition - the restoration of friendly relations. Difficult because there never was a 'friendly' state to restore. Cut to the present day and we have yet another prime minister tentatively offering, all in good time, mind, because we don't want to mess it up, you understand, 'recognition'. OED definition - the action or process of recognizing or being recognized.

And that, friends, is the lesson of the three 'Rs' - Australian style. In the last 40 years, everything that's been chipped from the prize has been added to the obstacle course. I relay all this - and thanks for staying with me - to indicate just how high the mystic mountain Adam Goodes has set himself to conquer really is. I predict one of these three things will happen.

1) He'll succeed in dragging us a few baby steps towards the unification* we so badly need.
2) His year will drift by with not much happening apart from lots of charred meat being consumed.
3) He'll fail, not from lack of effort and will, but because he's been set up to do just that.

* I'm dispensing with tradition here and offering the u-word as a circuit breaker. OED definition - the process of being united or made into a whole.

I hope against hope for Option 1, expect a version of Option 2 and dread Option 3. 

I have no doubt whatever that Adam Goodes is dedicated and focused and more than averagely diplomatically skilled. That he has the nous to send an immediate email to everyone who signed up to Recognise tells me he's a communications genius.

The goal he's set himself is well within his capabilities to achieve - in a willing world. But we don't live in one of those, sadly. This is Australia. Influential interests are heavily invested in maintaining the status quo, which is a subdued and dispossessed population of first peoples who cannot effectively operate as a power block because they are far too busy tackling their own, often insurmountable, local problems. It suits these interests to elevate a few high-profile Indigenous people so that they can point to them and say, 'look at those ones. They've made it in our world the way it is. How hard can it be?'

Defeating racism is self-evidently the first and essential step necessary to achieving binding equality on this continent. In that sense, the task Adam Goodes has set himself is the smart, right and only one possible. And yet he risks so much. The cost of failure has, in the past, been high. The obstacles thrown at people who attempt it are tried, tested and entrenched. The political rewards to those who want to keep power in the small number of hands that currently hold it and to their friends who run the industries that profit from it are immense. Historically, the nah-nah-nah-nah-nahs pitched at failed efforts resound for a couple of decades. And then the cycle of hand-wringing and report writing starts again and off we set from square one with the burning resolve to 'start a conversation'.

I'm concerned about the forces that might rally against someone so strong, so determined and so apparently driven by destiny. I think of Barack Obama. I think of Julia Gillard. And I worry.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Subdivided Self

Self-actualising dog (2013) digital photograph by Pants

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said something like 'applicants for wisdom should enquire within'. My Intro to Classics 101 is a little rusty but I have an idea that he got there before Aristotle. And many have gone there since - Nietzsche, Sartre and Rilke, to name a few. These days it seems like a no-brainer of deductive reasoning that nourishment for the soul is most satisfactorily dispensed via the inner automat. It's not like there's a traffic jam down the Avenue of Enlightenment, after all. In fact, you could even say that one's personal GPS is the only reliable instrument for pinpointing one's ethical safe house in a culture where self-actualisation is more likely to involve cosmetic surgery than a quest for a transforming truth.

Ma Pants's pooch, Louis the Bichon gets through his fair share of inner reflection if the amount of time spent lying about on the sofa chomping on teething toys is any indication. And he watches television. Much to the amusement of the entire family, he takes a special interest if a dog appears on the screen. He's also stimulated by the appearance of zebras and orang-utans. Animal Hospital had to be banned - Louis seemed particularly incensed at the sight of those cone things they make dogs wear after an operation.  We did encourage him to watch a segment on 'small dog syndrome' as he has taken to snarling at other dogs on his daily walks, a gesture which has proved unconducive to community harmony. We can only hope he has internalised the lesson. Ma Pants won't be subscribing to the special television channel just for dogs though. For such an occasion was the expression, oh puleeese! invented and we are grateful for it.

I don't make New Year's resolutions normally but I'm thinking now a useful one might be to avoid Jung until at least June. Just kidding. I'm not reading Jung. I'm reading Tim Winton's new book Eyrie, actually. And very good it is too. My NYR is to 'keep calm and carry on'. External craziness doesn't tend to impact too much on Fortress Pants. Having said that, Australia in 2013 certainly presented a challenge to defences at times. I learnt long ago that if you want to get anything done, you put on the blinkers and run the race as if you're the only horse in it.

There are aspects of self-knowledge where I reckon I could give Heraclitus et al a run for their drachmas. I'm acutely attuned to my own needs when it comes to gratification and I design personal projects very specifically for maximum payout. My strategy has two strands; one is for directing process, the other to ensure a steady stream of product. Time is already conveniently broken down into all manner of useful chunks. I just use the framework that's already there. To keep things simple, I divide my day into three large segments - morning, afternoon and evening. And, like Nick Hornby's character in About a Boy, I dissect those into hour-long, or sometimes half-hour-long blocks. An hour is a useful amount of time. Just enough to achieve and not so long as to get bored. The circuit breaker is that it's a minimum rather than a deadline. If I want to keep working on whatever I'm doing, I go with the flow.

Sometimes when people retire, they panic because there is no one telling them what to do. Consequently, they have no idea what they are going to do for the rest of their days. (Note to people on the cusp of retirement - if you have no idea what you are going to do with your retirement, give it some thought now.) I, on the other hand, have never been especially good at being told what to do by others. In fact, the only person I've ever willingly taken orders from is, er, me. See, I told you I had this Heraclitus thing sorted. You could say I was born retired, or, at the very least, into a state of aspirational hermitage. Unlike Will Freeman in About a Boy though, my freewheeling is not funded by the royalties from a Christmas song written by my late father. This is why you will very often find me picking through the throw-out vegetable bin at the Larrikin's End Foodworx or digging in my own veg patch, activities for which I schedule a half-hour twice per week and one hour per day, respectively.

Despite global contraindication, I can honestly say I was entirely happy for all of 2013. I seem to have gotten a lot done, but also spent a luxurious amount of time lolling about and contemplating the beauty of the ocean and the sky and thrilling at the infinite wonder of their intersection. For me, that's a perfect balance. It took about a year for me to get my mojo back after a really dreadful work experience. I still made notes. I still made plans and I'm very glad that I did. Self-motivation is only partially the result of efficient scheduling. Even more important is the generation and management of ideas. If notions were currency, I'd be very wealthy indeed. Some people will tell you that ideas are worth money, but I have no desire to sell any of mine, even presuming I could work out how to do that. They are much more valuable to me as raw material. I work on the principle that every idea has a conclusion. I just have to follow one until we get there.

The second strand of my strategy is to have a portfolio of Works In Progress comprising small and large, repetitive/planned and innovative/improvisational. Here's where the pay-off comes in. The small project, (collage, pastel, poem, blog post, mowing the lawn), can be conceived, executed and celebrated in an afternoon segment. These are excellent for using up ideas - except mowing, which is only good for using up petrol. 

The large projects (novel, oil painting, renovating the house), I break down into stages so that the celebrations come frequently. (As do the bills in the case of house renovations). Completing a chapter, a layer, a room - all hurrah! moments. The reward, in case you should be in any doubt, is wine. It turns out that I'm pretty good at project managing my life, so naturally, I accrue rewards. This is the only part of capitalism that I actually get. Where I fall down is that I don't like to compete against anyone but myself. I would have made a great tennis player but I have fat legs, poor eyesight and a lousy serve.

I always have a novel and a large painting on the go. I can usually finish a painting in 3 months - or I could when I was working in acrylics. Right now, I'm working on an oil painting with lots of layers. It will take me up until next winter sets in, at least. During the coldest months, I only undertake projects that can be done on the laptop under three duvets. I can heat the whole house with free, legal firewood that would only rot on the ground otherwise but the parsimon* in me refuses to allow it. Besides, I don't need an excuse to stay in bed all day - just a reason. I have Proust on my side in this so don't even think about judging me, okay?

On the novel front, there may have been a deadline failure on my part in 2013 but that would very much depend on one's definition of a deadline. I faithfully promised my writing buddy Phil that I would complete The Full English, (WIP for ten years and counting), last year. I partially broke that promise. I was only a hundred pages into the revision before I realised that I was just working on another draft (No. 11, as it happens). So I finished that. I still didn't manage a vaguely plausible resolution, even in draft. I learnt last year that Hemingway had written 47 endings for A Farewell to Arms, and that made me feel slightly better, although I'm not sure why. But, it means I have work to do on it in 2014 and that can't be bad.

Small projects are living. Big projects are life. Combined, they are purpose.

* I know it's not a word but it ought to be. It's derived from the Latin. Why shouldn't I be able to make up a word that comes from Latin too, eh? EH?