in which the naked chimp is unmasked, his machines debugged, and his bugbears debunked

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Kick, push, kick, push (mind the gap)

Nothing is ever quite how you imagined it would be. As a thirteen year old on the cusp of puberty, I feared my own pubic hair and hankered after a skateboard with equal intensity. I used to sit around at my friend Alex’s place, watching the Bonez Brigade videos (Future Primitive is still my favourite), first of all just eating hot cheese rolls and making cups of coffee, later adding ‘sneaking out for a cigarette’ to our repertoire. Around about the time I took up smoking (Camels Filters – blech), Alex and I started hanging around the local shopping mall, which was my area’s equivalent of Fountain Gate or Knifepoint. I dunno how we did it, but we really managed to eke a endless hours of entertainment out of that horrible place: we played Mortal Kombat, we stuck McDonald’s pickles to the roof, we racked pornos. Once, for no particular reason, I even lifted an enormous candle from the furniture department of David Jones, which I hid in my enormous Kepper jeans. What larks, what larks. And between all these activities, Alex and I would dream of skateboards, squirreling away a tenner here, a dollar there, until finally the day came when I asked mum if she’d help me pay (the remaining two hundred dollars) to get a deck.

I chose an Evol slick, with Venture Featherlites and teeny tiny Real wheels that were little more than a loincloth for the bearings hugging the axle. At that stage, kickflips were all the rage, and the argument with the pissant wheels was that it made pulling tricks (and maybe even girls) easier. Perhaps, but it also made riding the skateboard a real biznatch, especially when you hit the inevitable pebble and ended up arse over tit. I feel like the same thing is happening at the moment with the whole fixed-gear craze, where you have hipsters (who’ve never really ridden before) negotiating unpredictable traffic on track bikes with no brakes – and no, I think you’ll find that locking up the wheel does not count when it’s raining and you’re running slicks.

But I got my skateboard, and there I was, suddenly the proud owner of the friction-regulating object I’d been lustfully jonesing after for the past nine months. Now all I needed to do was learn to ride it. In six months or so, I thought, I’d be Ed Frickin’ Templeton.

Three days later and I’d already learnt one thing: riding a skateboard is difficult and dangerous. I kept thinking of the truism of L7’s album title: Bricks are Heavy. They really are. And conrete is hard. Really, really hard. Falling off… well, it really, really hurts. I was (and am) extremely unco, but with three months daily practice, I could jump puddles, I could ollie gutters, I could do shove-its, I could drop-in at the baby size quarter pipe. BUT! Something was rotten in the state of Denmark… it just wasn’t quite right… somewhere in all of this (even after I worked out how to drop a stair or two) there was this pesky sentiment that just wouldn’t stay silent, that kept buzzing around me like a mosquito in a sleepless bedroom. Skateboarding… it just wasn’t how I’d imagined it would be. It was good, yes, it was enjoyable, true, but it simply wasn’t exactly as I’d hoped, and, fundamentally, it wasn’t what I needed it to be. There was a nasty little gap there, and it wouldn’t budge.

Smoking, meanwhile, was all I’d hoped for (and more). Yes, in fact, smoking was exactly what I expected it to be, and I liked it, even though, if it becomes a drug you do every day, it doesn’t work (and if it does it only makes you feel bilious). But it was helping me to meet girls, who, as other smokers, tended to be… well, more advanced… or were trying to be… more fun, at least – you know what I mean. But within a year or two of pursuing my new hobby, the ‘gap’ returned, with a vengeance. I was listening to a copy of the Basquiat soundtrack that a girl friend had lent me, and I heard PJ Harvey singing that Peggy Lee song ‘Is that All there Is?’ You know the one? Her dad takes her to the circus, she sees the clowns and the elephants, BUT! Well, I’ll let Peggy and PJ tell you the rest: ‘And as I sat there watching/ I had the feeling that something was missing/ I don't know what/ But when it was all over/ I said to myself/ “Is that all there is to the circus ?”’

Is there something missing, or is it in your expectations? Is it the skateboard? Is it her? Is that all there is? Is it you? ‘NO, it’s not you, it’s ME!’ Well, whatever – in my experience nothing is ever quite how you imagined it would be. There is always a gap. So what’s the best thing to do? Deal. You’ve either got to persist, or accept. You’ve either got to just keep on with the kick, push, kick push (and keep an eye out for pebbles), or just learn to mind the gap. And maybe ride a fixie with no brakes and smoke a few cigarettes while you’re at it, so you make sure you reach your destination nice and early.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Believe and Achieve (or just keep on being pathetic)

As a child I once became incredibly depressed. Not from the usual childhood stuff (ennui, Ambien, and hard liquor) – the thing that really got to me was Mozart. I was reading an illustrated biography of the composer, and learned (to my juvenile chagrin) that at seven Mozart was already publicly performing minuets that he’d written at six, pieces you or I would have struggled to play badly at nine. ‘Good God,’ thought nine-year-old me, ‘I’m hopeless. Over the hill. Past it. Useless.’ Then the biography ended, the feeling dissipated, and I went back to playing Space Quest II. By the following Tuesday (the time of my piano lesson), I had almost cracked Space Quest, while the minuet… it’s too depressing to think about.

From this experience (Mozart, not Space Quest), I developed a deep hatred of prodigies. I’m not talking about people who are talented and hard-working, I’m talking about those people who appear to float on a flooded river of talent: winning fame, bursting dykes and floating cattle with power that’s as overwhelming as it is oblivious to the devastating swathe it cuts through the world.

Prodigies are irritating because they are not only so inhumanly good at whatever it is they do, but they’re also almost indifferent to their advantage – they appear to produce excellence with the same natural, unclenched ease that the average human produces excrement. Incidentally, did you know that the average human produces twice their own body weight in shit each year (more on a leap year)? Humbling, isn’t it? For some of us this is the greatest thing we will ever produce, if not in quality, then almost definitely in terms of quantity… (Bear in mind that this is the average human – what of digestive prodigies?)

But worse than the prodigies are the do-gooders, who should (if there was any consistency in a world that also includes ‘woodpeckers’), be called ‘good doers’. Do-gooders – Bono, Mother Teresa, Young Rotarians – are infuriating not just because they remind us of our limited abilities, like prodigies, or even because they remind us of our narrowness, our complacent self-satisfaction, our deep selfishness and our inability to ‘take action’ or ‘give generously’. More than anything, they’re hateful because they have this horrid whiff of certainty about them. They really believe, and they really believe they can make a difference. If the prodigy shits us with their talent, do-gooders do it by their privileged possession of ‘the truth’. Art worships the former, religion the latter… meanwhile, maybe you’re somewhere in the middle: confused, despondent, dubious of your talents and doubtful of the truth… so what are you to do? The answer?

Don’t be pathetic.

To me, the only thing worse than prodigies and do-gooders are pathetic people, the kind who carry with them (and live by) the following unfortunate combination of sentiments: on the one hand, they think, ‘What I do/say/think makes no difference’; on the other hand, they behave like they are the most important thing in the world. What you get from this is that unfortunately typical combination of egotism and apathy, the kind that marks (and mars) lives. Never mind smoking or drink-driving: being pathetic is the real killer, and the worst thing of all is that this is a condition that leaves its victims apparently unharmed. Worse still is that some people will never even realise they’re sufferers.

I wish prodigies would realise the swathe they cut (or at least be really, really bad at something), just as I wish do-gooders would show a little cynicism and self-doubt – but more than anything, I wish that pathetic people would realise that they’re far less important than they think they are, BUT, at the same time, I wish they’d recognise that what they do is more important than they give their actions credit for. Fact is, everything a person does, says or thinks makes a difference – it’s just that it’s a tiny one. ‘Making a difference’ is much more subtle than people give it credit for, and this is why it so often passes un-noted. This is what good parents, great musicians and the best school teachers understand… the way you treat your kids, no less than the hi-hat you choose or how you dilate the minds of your pupils – it matters. No, more than that – it saves lives. Be sure to be reading next week, when we’ll be looking at the roll that Body Thetans play in preventing you from achieving this.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

‘Tis the Season (to talk timing)

Wedged as we are between Fashion Week and the Comedy Festival, I thought it might be the perfect time to talk timing. In fashion, there’s a time and place for everything – just not here, not now… please? The teased victims of faux pas should understand and take comfort, it’s never an objection to butt floss or loon pants per se, just context and placement. If you want to be in fashion, all you really need are deep pockets, a huge closet, and… a perfect sense of timing. Same goes for comedy – Ross Noble can use the repetition of the word ‘satchel’ to get the audience in stitches, but you just try re-telling one of his ‘jokes’ to someone. Or remember Eddie Murphy’s joke about people fucking up his jokes while trying to re-tell them… whoops…

It’s the incubator on the egg, the fruit on the vine: the moment of ripeness is only reached for the briefest sweetness. Sit too long on that egg and the chick is a chucker; wait too long for that banana and you’ll be on the receiving end of a mushy mess. I have a friend who takes too long: the magic prize has always passed to other hands by the time he finally plucks up the determination to reach whatever it is (whoever she was). By that stage, she already really, really values him ‘as a friend’. I often wonder if it’s a species thing – among the giant turtles of the Galapagos, he’d probably be considered rash and o’er hasty. I have a friend who leaves the fun too early and never hears the silly giggled confessions that keep the friendly glue stuck fast – and then he wonders why he feels alienated. I have a tendency to linger longer than anyone sensibly should, past the tipping point: and I get shot down by drunkenness and left to drag my sorry self home in a way I can’t afford. But at the same time, I have an undiminishing hatred of encores…

Try this, all you would-be genii out there. Whatever it is, whenever it is, start before you feel ‘ready’, and finish or leave before you’ve ‘had enough’. It’s a toughie, and it goes against your beast, that slow and speeding part of you that demands satisfaction (but can’t get none) no matter how long or how much it takes, while in actual fact, by the time you start to feel full, you’ve always already had too much… no doubt you know this from the bitter fact of experience, but you probably need reminding. Almost everybody does.

There are a few proven ways to do overcome your beast. In the East, Zen calligraphy masters do it with stillness and speed. They meditate in front of the blank paper for days until it hits, then they finish the character in a Mcflurried second of strokes. In the West, we’ve developed the rhythm method, but unfortunately it’s notoriously unreliable – as James Brown’s calls of ‘I got ya’ demonstrate. You gots to have muscle memory, Mary. Another friend of mine’s tactic is all about dry-humping the pant leg of your giggle repeat button. Because we’re slow, or just because we may not have heard it right the first time, he tells the same anecdote twice, word-for-word. Somehow, it works for him, but…no, I don’t suggest that. There’s simpler ones, too, so maybe try these (for a change or a start). Sit still. Shut up (and listen). Practice. Rush in. Then get the fuck out of there. Before it’s too late…

We always hesitate, then linger. I can only imagine how puzzling we are to the sloths and otters, with our jets and credit cards and cameras. No other animal has such a skill for racing ahead of itself while simultaneously dragging its heels in everything it does. That’s why we’re so in awe of the most seemingly talented people. More than anything, they’ve just got better timing than you and I. Maybe genius is just good timing. And deep pockets. And a huge closet.

Saturday Night Rage (and a nice cup of tea)

Recently, a friend of mine ended up getting filmed for Channel 7’s shiteful, xenophobic, ratings-winner Border Security. But not ‘cos they’re one of the ‘heroes’ (read: patronising rednecks) who ‘star’ in the show; nor ‘cos they were a sprung mule or some unfortunate gentleman with the wrong eyes or a false bottom (in his suitcase). Nope, they got filmed because it’s a ‘condition of entry’ – just like it is for you, me, and everyone else. Is this a waiver that anyone ever signed? Or could sign? And how could you, I, or anyone else effectively refuse? You want in, you gotta submit.

At the airport, passengers submit to a suspension of their civil rights and a level of intrusive surveillance the likes of which exist in few other places on earth – you’d be amazed what ‘they’ are allowed to do to you. But hey, it’s all ‘necessary’ for ‘our security’, right? And as any conservative will tell you, ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear…’ Because, of course, the a) system is infallible, and b) the staff administering the system are perfectly well-trained, incorruptible, and would never in a million years do anything arbitrary because they were morons on a power trip… But what about a place where the kind of ‘national security’ argument which justifies such conditions does not and should not apply? A place where people don’t have to pass through, but in fact, choose (and pay) to enter in order to forget about their worries, let go, and relax?

Yep, I’m talking about Nightclubs, lad(d)ies. In your average Melbourne nightclub, not only are you under constant surveillance (which I guess most of you knew or assumed), but the place where you think you’ve gone to ‘cut loose’ is actually one of the most repressive places you could visit in our fine city, a place where you appear to have no rights, where you are vulnerable to arbitrary treatment and the possibility of physical violence at any moment…

I’m not talking about being busted in the bogs doing lines or anything like that. That does happen, and while it’s proof that the toilets in a lot of larger places are on CCTV (smile), it’s tough to make an argument against it when you’ve been busted doing something illegal. ‘Bang bang bang, come on, get out!’ Okay, fair enough. Even if you are in a place where Melbourne’s finest reputedly hoover buckets and buckets of the gak out back (with the owners, natch), you haven’t got a powdery leg to stand on. The owners are guarding their arses, and you’re endangering their licence. Fair cop/sniff. But what if people try to chuck out of a club, not for doing something illegal, violent or anti-social, but just for minding your own business? Well, that’s precisely what happened to me on Friday night. Twice.

The first time it happened, I was sitting on a couch in the back room, nursing a beer and recovering from the all-out assault of the main floor. The conversation my friend and I were having lapsed, and so we were both just sitting there sipping. I think I was nodding my head in time with the music. Next thing I know, two bouncers are standing by me. One of them beckons me over. ‘What?’ I ask, staying seated. The guy beckons me like he’s calling a pet to heel. I stand up as he walks up looking ticked off, then I ask the guy, ‘What’s up? What do you want?’
‘You have to come with me.’
‘Just come with me.’
‘Why? What have I done? Come where?’
And so on, with no explanation offered, round and round, until my friend intervened and we managed to convince him… of what exactly? This was the weirdest thing of all –I was doing nothing but minding my own business, and some bouncer (because he was bored, or a moron, or needed glasses) thought I’d passed out, or just decided to hassle me, or something… who knows? The scary thing is, I don’t, and the thug didn’t even feel the need to explain what I’d apparently ‘done wrong’. Anyway, I didn’t get kicked out, but only just, and it talk three minutes worth of soothing pleading. But what would have happened if I had questioned assertively, or resisted? And who would I call if I’d been headlocked, beaten up, or worse? Fact is, if you’re ‘having fun’ in one of our city’s nightclubs, you’re not only totally at the mercy of these arseholes, you’re paying top dollar for the privilege.

Three hours later, and my luck had worsened markedly. Different venue, but more or less the same scenario, with two differences. In this case, my friend had gone to the toilet. It was very late/early, and we were just about to leave, so I took a seat close by the bogs. Now, I may have closed my eyes for a moment, but no more than that. As far as I was concerned, I was awake, self-aware, and minding my own business. This time the formalities had been dispensed with.
‘Out! Out buddy! You’re out!’
It was the same penis who was being a complete arsehole about moving people in and out of the smoker’s corral an hour or so earlier. I realised at this late juncture that it was pointless arguing, and I was just about to leave anyway, so I said, ‘Yeah, I’m just leaving, but I’m waiting for my friend who’s in the toilet, would you mind – he’ll just be a second.’
‘No, you can’t – I don’t give a fuck, you can wait for him outside.’ And I was promptly escorted from the premises by penis & sidekick, both of whom seemed more than willing to give me a quick demonstration of their brutality if I resisted.

What the fuck is wrong with the nightclubs in this city, the staff they’re hiring, and the security policy they’re pursuing? I for one resent paying my hard-earned money to go to a place where I’m treated with contempt, patronised, bullied and threatened with violence, and this, moreover, appears to have become the unfortunate norm in most of the more popular venues. The normalisation of this state of affairs has created an environment where, just like the immigration queue at the airport, all clubgoers are desperately trying to ‘BE NORMAL,’ on pain of expulsion and assault. All that has to happen is that one thug doesn’t like the look of you, and you’re out, or worse… Who would voluntarily put up with this state of affairs? Fuck Saturday Night Fever, you can keep it. The way things are going, Saturday night Rage (and a nice cup of tea) has never seemed like a better idea.

The Author

[almost nothing] about me

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PC is an animal of the antipodes believed to be related to a gibbon.