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

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Inner Monk, Stinking Drunk

Like many of the people around me, I struggle with the tension between my inner monk and my stinking drunk. The notion that your body is a battleground is equally true for suicide bombers as it is for crash dieters, though admittedly they struggle through very different abuse curves. But for me, like a lot of friends my age, it’s not a belly full of chocolate or a waist wrapped in explosives that’s the worry – it’s the demon drink.

I’ve done all sorts of stupid things. I once pissed in my girlfriend’s shoe. Or so I was told, because I have no memory of this. I thought I’d made it to the toilet. Apparently, she awoke –horrified, naturally – to find me quietly micturating in the corner of the room. She screamed at me to stop, to which I replied, ‘You’re mean.’ Oh the horror, oh the shame. Another friend of mine was recently discovered by his girlfriend passed out asleep on the toilet (snoring), pants around ankles. Later, as a way of saying thank you for being undressed and put to bed by her, my friend… vomited in their bed. Yet another friend of mine used to regularly complain of waking on post-bender Sunday afternoons with sore knees and incredibly dirty fingernails. ‘The only thing I can conclude from this,’ he told me, ‘is that I crawl home from the pub, and don’t remember.’

I struggle with binge drinking like a lot of people; I’m not as good with it as I’d like to be, but I’m better than I was a few years ago. Most of the time, being broke, busy and needing to be on-the-ball is enough to keep me out of trouble. Occasionally, there are lapses. Sometimes, once a year, there are catastrophes. But it’s getting better – these days, my girlfriend’s shoes get to stay piss-free. Man, I’ve been so good, I deserve a reward… cheers! But the other night, I met a man drunk enough to keep me out of the gutter for… a good couple of months, at least. The other night, I met Barry.

I was drinking in one of those inner-north pubs in which the question of ‘a quiet few’ or even the possibility of ordering a shandy or light beer is rendered absurd by the atmosphere of studied, practised and (for the most part) incredibly skilled and deliberate heavy drinking. Let’s call it the Mayflower. The Mayflower is the kind of place where drinkers go to drink: the kind of people who’ve ruined their livers, their love lives and their pension plans in pursuit of the deep, abiding, reliable comfort of Australia’s most trusted pain reliever. I like the Mayflower: the beer is cheap and fresh, the place is full of ‘characters’, and provided you don’t piss in anyone’s shoe, nobody minds if you’re drunk.

But Barry was something else: a medium-built man blown balloon-wise by diabetes and booze. He walked up, tapped me on the shoulder, introduced himself, then started talking at me. I could tell straight away that this guy was tanked, soaked: the kind of deep, whole-body drunkenness that only a five-decade alcoholic can endure (and still keep drinking). He started at me, and straight away you knew that the guy was pretty much on autopilot, but what little there was left that was conscious and volitional veered dangerously between self-pity, aggression, self-congratulation and maudlin teary nostalgia interspersed with spasms of self-hatred. Barry was the pretty much the walking, talking, reeling id of White Australia – and it ain’t pretty. So anyway, Barry asked me for a sip of my lady’s water bottle. I poured him a beer from the jug and said, ‘Just have a beer, Barry.’
‘Nah, ga’an, give us a sip of yer water.’
‘I’m sorry, Barry, but it’s not mine to give.’
And his whole face turns. He rounds on me.
‘Yer all the same, you know. You fuckin’ Arabs.’
‘Excuse me?!’
‘Where ya from?’
‘Sydney.’
‘Don’t gimme that shit. You’re all the same, you foreign cunts.’

I somehow kept my cool, saying things like, ‘Barry, that’s quite strong. You don’t actually know me.’ Sure enough, two minutes later, Barry was profusely apologising, even begging to buy me a beer. I just said that I’d prefer if he left me alone… and of course, he got aggressive again. So when he went to the toilet, we moved to the other end of the room. For a while, it seemed as if he’d totally forgotten about it: me, the water bottle, and the insults. But then he tried it on again, with me, then with several others there. He was awful, despicable, pathetic – then when the bartender politely asked him to leave, he turned on her, growling,

‘Yeerrrrr a DOG. A DOG! A FUCKIN’ DOG!’

After twenty more minutes he got the message, but only after the regulars in the bar turned on him, yelling, ‘Go home Barry, get the fuck out!’ I caught flashes of myself at my worst, and although I’d never shown drunken abuse to anything more sentient than a souvlaki (at least as far as I remember), I thought, good God, this is where it ends up. Three more decades of bingeing, and that’s where I’ll be. It was a sobering thought, a frightening thought. Enough to drive you to drink. So that’s what I did. As soon as Gary left, I picked up the twenty dollar bill he’d foisted on me (during one of his apologetic moments) and I bought my companions a jug. And it was delicious.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Wild With Style

One of the interesting things about living in a big apartment block like mine is getting to watch people come and go; on the days new tenants move in and out, you get boxfuls of inkling about how a whole room is taking shape couch by table, poster by painting. Taste is a funny thing – I know that mine’s better than yours and I believe it sincerely, but don’t we all? And, of course, I only think so because of all of the prejudices I’ve been brought up with about what’s cool, what’s funny, what’s thoroughly un- (mentionable, wearable, thinkable) among the company I keep.

A couple of years ago, I got to know this guy called Adam. Adam had fled the kibbutz he’d grown up on in order to move to Berlin, become a cabaret drag performer, and be fabulous. And he was: imagine Bjork in a ball gown with a neatly trimmed beard and you’re some way there. He had long nails, a dangly earring, and a high titter. Adam was working in the hostel we were staying in, doing a half-arsed job of cleaning up the joint, eyeing off the cutest of the guests, and doing just enough work to not get fired. Then one day, he was gone. But before he left, he told me some stories. One thing stands out above all. We were talking about dance music, and, inevitably, the subject of Israelis and psytrance came up. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but all that fluoro, all those pictures of aliens and mushrooms, all those kids with dreadlocks and bell bottoms off their face on acid on occupied land or stomping down some rainforest? Excuse me, but it’s just so, it’s just so bad taste.”

My lady’s good friend once had a flatmate called Kiara, and boy, did Kiara have bad taste. Kiara was into dolphins, patchouli and the colour purple (no, not the Whoopi Goldberg film). She was also into some pretty dodgy stuff, and one day, like Adam, Kiara was gone, leaving my lady’s friend with the rent, the room and her car. But what a room! Kiara’s room was a temple festooned with glittering trinkets of the kind you get at St Andrews market or in Byron Bay, or in the Fountain Gate approximation of same: dream catcher for the window, purple tie-dyed bedspread with woven plastic gold thread, and the pi├Ęce de resistance, an enormous picture of two airbrushed dolphins jumping a loopedy-loop over a silver moon above a black and silver sea.

Seeing Kiara’s room made me doubt everything – there was absolutely no levels of po-mo ironising at work: she wasn’t living in irony, she really meant it. Kiara really thought that a three-by-two-metre canvas of airbrushed cetaceans was what tied the whole room together – the beautiful, crowning jewel in a space filled with smaller, bottle-nosed sea mammals. There they were: in soapstone on the mantelpiece; in stained glass by the window; in laquered plastic jewellery boxes by the dresser. I never checked, but I know from what I saw her wear that the jewellery boxes were likewise full of dolphin earrings, dolphin bangles, dolphin necklaces.

I hadn’t thought about Kiara for years, when just the other day I stepped outside my apartment to check the mail, and there it was by the bottom of the stairs: a removalist box with the unmistakeable snout of a plastic dolphin protruding from the flap. ‘Kiara?’ I wondered. But no, it wasn’t – it was my new neighbour. From day one (being the bottle-nosed snoop that I am), I noted all the things that were going into the house: first the hints from the mess of boxes, and then the window sill, which was quickly and liberally adorned with trinkety bits until it was chock full of plastic tack. My neighbour’s style (let’s call her Kirrily, written with love hearts over the each ‘i’) is different to Kiara’s: gone is the aggressive emphasis on all things purple and porpoise; muted are the most strident New Age overtones. In its place is something altogether cheaper, nastier and more suburban – it’s like Kirrily went past the New Age shop at Fountain Gate and made for the $2 shop two doors down. You know, the shops that sell finely painted statuettes of grinning pugs as well as shampoos that make your scalp burn. It looked like Kirrily had gone there and cleaned them out of everything she could possibly hang in the window: green plastic bead curtains; black, glossy flower pots and lairy plastic flowers… and, of course, the aforementioned dolphin.

Then, a day later the music started. First there was the Spice Girls. Then there was something that sounded like the Vengaboys covering funk metal; then there was the unwholesomely whippety Celine Dion… then there was something else… I don’t know quite how to describe it. Imagine Evanescence singing a duet with Wendy Matthews, then remixed by Tiesto – kind of Hi-NRG EmoMoR… it was truly monstrous, but, you know, it fitted perfectly with the trinkets… in fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realised –there was a highly developed aesthetic at work, and it was being applied judiciously, consistently and selectively. Just like Adam’s psytrancers and Kiara’s purple patchouli dolphin universe, Kirrily has bad taste. Terrible, appalling taste. Adam was right about the Israeli hippies and he was right about bad taste. But, you know what? In their own way, they’ve all found their universe. All of them have built themselves a world to live in, and however misguided it might seem to others, that also means they have style – in fact, I’d say they’re wild with style. And that’s more than I can say for most of us.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Choose Your Own Adventure

What’s best about a night out? Or no, I’ll ask a different question: where do the best nights end up? Well, I don’t know about you, but for me, the best nights are those that swerve toward somewhere completely unexpected. The ones you end up having cherished (if hazy) memories of years later are always those that hovered somewhere indeterminate (between the first rosy flush of drunkenness and the grumbled half-desire for last transport) before sidewinding back to hit you in a way that’s so absolutely daft and unforeseen that you still have to scratch your head and wonder. Nights like these are true adventures.

Some people go out for the routine of getting wasted; some go in the hope of getting laid. Some dickheads’ idea of a good night out is all about getting into a fight. But if you ask me, all the wasting, all the flirting, all the expenditure of time, money, and energy is all in vain if it doesn’t contain a possible adventure. In fact, I’m coming to the conclusion that the possibility of an adventure is really the only good reason to go out. The day that possibility shrivels up and dies, I hang up my mead horn.

But adventures are hard to have, simply because you can’t make them happen. They happen to you – it’s an ambush. You can’t very well book yourself in for an ambush in the same way you make a doctor’s appointment or a reservation at a restaurant. In fact, it’s almost the opposite of a good dining experience, where things get better the more they meet (or even exceed) your expectations. And probably, if you’re eating out (or going to the doctors) then a ‘real adventure’ is probably the last thing you’re booking for. True adventures can’t be reserved – they’re a risk, they’re unexpected. If you have your reservations, you won’t have your adventure. But at the same time, they only happen if you’re prepared for them. They can take you by surprise, but if whatever happens shocks and frightens you, you’re more likely to turn tail and head for home. You have to be up for it, even if you don’t know what ‘it’ is.

And even if you are open to ‘it’, some nights the stars are out of alignment. Sometimes it just ain’t flowing adventure’s way – swim against the current at your peril. In fact, having a talent for adventure is also about knowing how to quickly disentangle yourself before it’s late, you’re bored and your wallet’s empty, or (years later) before you’re an alco, an addict, or sad loser who can’t or won’t let go of fun, even when they’ve had so much that it’s no fun at all. For most of us, this is a work in progress – but at the same time, it wouldn’t be an adventure without the ever-present risk of boredom and strife, and a would-be adventurer has to be open to this.

But as a bulwark against baulking and a safe bet against the forces of pike, the prospects of adventures are also enhanced, and even ensured, by the company of other, likeminded adventurers. Everybody knows one – an adventurer is a rare species: the enemy of habit, inertia, boredom, regularity, and repetition-compulsion, the adventurer proposes, invokes, suggests, and even ensnares you with possibilities, even as they involve you in things which can quickly turn back into the very things they’re against – habit, inertia, boredom, regularity, and repetition-compulsion. Nonetheless, the likeminded adventurer remains the opponent of the kybosh, sworn foe of the naysay. The likeminded adventurer is the embodiment of ‘up for it’: (s)he comes shooting out of his or her comfort zone like a hell-bent homunculus spat high out of a cannon. To a would-be adventurer, this is a great and precious thing, and a welcome sight to behold.

More than anything, embarking on an adventure involves taking control of your own surrender, a gesture captured by the dangerous phrase ‘ah, fuck it, why not’. Say these words and straight away you expose yourself to a weird combination of knowing very well what you’re doing while simultaneously letting yourself run with the rapids, without really knowing whether there’s a lake or a waterfall waiting at the end. Yes indeed, it could turn bad, it might get hairy, it’ll probably cost you dearly – but if you’re worried about that, not only will you’ll never find out, you wouldn’t have enjoyed it if you had. But if you think you might, all you’ve got to do is find your fellow adventurer, then do two (contradictory) things simultaneously: seize the strong current of feeling, and (at the same time), totally give yourself over to it. That’s the beginning of all adventure. With folly close behind.

The Author

[almost nothing] about me

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