Friday, March 31, 2017

Chasing butterflies

Butterfly - photo by Pants

The Butterfly Effect is the name of a film, a band and, weirdly, a self-esteem programme for girls. Most famously, it's used in Chaos Theory to describe a seemingly inconsequential event that causes a big impact. In the world of Pants, it's also one of the terms I use for the marvellous moment when an idea in search of a host chooses to land on me. This quite often happens when I'm out walking - a fairly common occurrence for creative folk. The artist Agnes Martin said,

'Inspiration is there all the time, for everyone whose mind is not clouded over with thoughts, whether they realise it or not.'

As you can imagine, it isn't difficult for me to empty my mind. Especially now that I've divested myself of almost all worries and complications and settled in a seaside hamlet where everyone is semi-comatose most of the time. Still, there is no setting more likely to yield ideas than a quiet woodland when there's no one else around for them to bless or bother.

A while back, I took the big Nikon for a trek around Larrikin Forest and got lost. On a straight, single track. I was chasing actual butterflies and ended up on a road miles from the camping area where I'd left the trusty Subaru. Happily, a van was coming down the hill as I reached the road. I offered my best old-lady-in-distress wave and the driver stopped. Neither of the two young tradies within could locate with their 'smart' phones either our present position or the car park where the Subaru patiently awaited my return. I, naturally, have refused to get one of these fangly things because my five-year-old 'dumb' phone still works, costs very little and plays the radio. In any case, no phone works in Larrikin Forest. Which makes signposting on forest tracks still fairly important IMHO.

While I was waiting for the tradies to decide to rescue me - far be it from me to ask - a middle-aged power couple Lycra-peddled their way towards us. She powered on up the hill while he stopped to see if he could render assistance. Which he duly did by offering the important information that the car park was 2.4 kilometres back down the track. He said he would have walked back with me but his power wife had already powered ahead. Then he berated me for not having the kind of phone that would not have helped anyway. I tossed the tradies my best I'm-completely-exhausted look. Which I was, btw. It was a hot day and I'd already walked the track twice looking for the exit I'd obviously missed. We set off in the van and got lost again. We had to follow the road all the way to the highway and then track back until we found the road I'd come in on. Half an hour later, I was reunited with the Subaru and the big Nikon contained some photos of interesting leaf patterns and butterflies.

I've been working on a musical for the last 25 years. The ideas fairies have been slow in finding me for this one. But they've showed up in Larrikin's End and my daily walks around Lake Larrikin have yielded great chunks of tune lately. Progress has been good in the last year or so. Fortuitously, I've also acquired a new friend. Caroline has a music room and a, (somewhat grouchy but beggars can't be choosers), piano. I have an old stage keyboard which is good for working out melodies and harmonies but I want to play the songs on a real piano. All the time in London I had a baby grand, literally at my fingertips, but the tunes for the musical refused that invitation. That's how it is sometimes.

Classically trained flautist Caroline and folkie banjo-playing Bruce wanted to learn some jazz. I don't know much but I do know a bit more than nothing and I have a lot of sheet music and that seems to satisfy them. Once a week I drive out to the farm and we play together. It's been a long time between tinkles for me but muscle memory has sustained us so far. Caroline is also acting as a first listener for the songs for my musical. She read the finished script a couple of times, so she knows the piece well. Such dedication. She genuinely seems to like it. I imagine that helps. So far I've played her ten completed songs. The next in line had been sitting on the music stand for a couple of weeks. Shy little butterfly.

Bruce and Caroline have a lot of native foods, or bush tucker, growing around the farm. Last week, Caroline gave me a bag of riberries, fruit of the Lilly Pilly. Walking is one way to entice musical ideas. The other tried and true way for me is to set my subconscious the task of trawling for them while I sleep. This method works for poems and sagely gobbets as well. Often they arrive in dreams. I call these 'pillow ideas'. The day after Caroline gave me the riberries, I found a tub of cooked rice that I'd forgotten about in the fridge. It passed the sniff test so I put it back. I hate to chuck food, even into the compost bin. In the morning, my pillow idea was,

Make riberry rice pudding.

Lovely, I said, but where's my tune?

I made the riberry rice pudding. It was delicious. The first part of the long-awaited tune came as I watered the vegetables at my allotment the next day. There is order in chaos.

I've just had a text message from my phone-services provider asking me if I would provide feedback on my 'recharge experience'. Er, no, I won't be doing that. I will tell you instead. I went to the supermarket and bought a voucher along with my shopping because that means I spend enough to get discounted petrol. Then I filled the Subaru, came home and punched a few numbers into my phone. It went smoothly. It always does, which is why I won't be changing anything until I absolutely have to. 

Trouble-free minds attract more butterflies. You heard it here first. Well, probably not, but at least be reassured. It works.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Now for the latest fake news

And the winner isn't... (Kodakotype by Pants)

I was just saying to TQW the other day, isn't it rich and isn't it queer how there's a weird time/space continuum thing going on between Washington and Hollywood. We had been macro-dosing on LSD, but still. Something supremely spooky is happening there. Tinsel Town could be the last stand of political conscience. Clint Eastwood would be turning in his grave... What's that Barney? You say he's not dead yet? Okay. Fatty Arbuckle then. I'm pretty sure he's dead. Then again, he could be inhabiting the body of d.j. trump, currently MC in da big whitey house. You simply can't trust in dimensions these days.

We three are gathered on the Pants family sofa as usual for our annual Oscars fest. Barney is the surprise show this year. He's been fired as a Trump advisor. He assures us he's in good company. He slides back into his old role of general factotum as if nothing in the least extraordinary has happened in the last six months. Least said, soonest mended.

Charge your glasses, comrades, it's going to be a long afternoon, potentially only redeemed by a great deal of alcohol and some very fetching canapés.

Wait up, there's a naff alert, right out of the gate. A Justin Timberlake medley and close-ups of Nicole and Keith singing along and mum-n-dad dancing. Doesn't get any better than that. JT cedes the stage to host Jimmy Kimmel and does that weird angry/grumpy look that would get you thrown out of every acting school in the world but is somehow fine for a prize-giving ceremony for the best acting in the world? How we pray for a catastrophe on the scale of Hugh Jackman's opening number in 2009. Not to be.

We have to content ourselves with a Mel Gibson joke from Kimmel.

There's only one brave heart in this room and he's not going to unite us.

Guffaw. And then one that would be funny if it wasn't actually true in dimensions beyond our ken but would make perfect sense if we lived the kind of multicultural harmony we claim to inhabit.

Black people saved NASA and white people saved jazz.

At Seat of Pants, we've been complaining for years about how restrained and tasteful the Oscars have become. And missing Joaquin weird-outs, impeccably bad dresses (seriously, what has become of Sarah Jessica Parker?), with a desperation we'd have found hard to contemplate even five years ago. Maroon velvet jackets. We never thought we'd pine for them. Even a whiff of Jared Leto wouldn't go amiss at this point. Looks like Casey Affleck is trying to mess with convention at least. As much as he dares given he's up for an Academy award and accusations of sexual harassment in the same season. Probably not a record.

Meryl Streep gets her 20th nomination this year. We saw Florence Foster Jenkins on DVD here at Seat of Pants. It was one of two films we've seen this season. The other was La La Land, which we took in at the Larrikin's End Cinema/Squash Court. Research, people, research. For the record, we're with the Blah-Blah Bland brigade. It's pretty, fun, crass, not really a musical and better than Xanadu, just. Kimmel has to make a Streep joke, for reasons too numerous to mention. A spat with Lagerfeld did need to be cauterized as a matter of urgency. Kimmel obliged.

That's a nice dress, is it an Ivanka?

Two birds with one stone. Cut, print, moving on. I'm noticing something odd.

Guys, did anyone pick up on tonight's theme?
No. I don't think there is a theme this year.
Oh, come on, there's always a theme.

Note - if Hollywood is not hitting you over the head with a theme, something is very, very wrong. We hate all that dream big dreams shit. But, the absence of it is worse. Pointless is ground zero, non? And also a BBC television show that might not be half bad in one of those other dimensions we mentioned earlier.

We go through the motions. Mahershala Ali wins Best Supporting Actor. He thanks his teachers who apparently told him, It's not about you. Good advice for any human. It's a miracle that an actor finally took it up and made it work in Hollywood. Respect, Mahershala.

And that's as thrilling as it gets for the next couple of hours. Kimmel cracks the obligatory sexist joke,

This is the fun part of the evening before people start losing and you realise you've taped your dress to your boobs for nothing. We're thinking Casey Affleck has done no such thing, so will inevitably win for Best Actor.

Four-time Costume Design winner Colleen Atwood claims to be 'genuinely', (and yet somehow utterly implausibly), 'floored' by her win. You can't even count on Dwayne Johnson to break the dress code. 

Hacksaw Ridge gets the Oscar for Sound Editing. You can't go wrong blowing a lot of things up and I suppose we have to be grateful for white-soled shoes when we can get them. The guy's Mom was called Skippy. And he almost cries. I sure hope Skippy's enjoying a Miller Lite with Matthew McConaughey's Daddy. Is MM nominated for anything this year? He can always be counted on to go Fresno on us. What are they putting in the Vitamin B shots these days? Must be actual Vitamin B. How else is all this sense and sensibility explicable? How useful would a star gate be right now?

Next best thing. Mark Rylance explains that women are much better at opposing without hatred - the whole supporting/opposing metaphor thingy falls flat. Way too psycho-sensitive for Hollywood. But may go some way to explaining why the winning Supporting Actress, Viola Davis, rolls her Oscar up in her red dress. Less explicable is her speech.

There is one place where all the people with potential are gathered. That's the graveyard. Exhume those bodies of the people who dreamed.

Not quite what we had in mind when we waxed nostalgic about the absence of dreaming and dreamers.

There are lots of shots of Haraji P. Henson looking delighted. Lots of shots of Nicole and Keith looking like they think they're twenty thirty years younger than they actually are. Lots of shots of Mel Gibson looking confused. Lots of shots of Denzel Washington looking, well, very Denzel.

Finally the theme for tonight's show is revealed. It's Inspiration. Frankly, none of us here at SOP would have guessed that. Turns out that Charlize Theron's inspiration is Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment, because,

She makes a black-and-white film feel like it's colour. 

That so needed saying.

Barney, is there any of that Trump jerky left?

Finally, someone mentions the wall. That task falls to Gael García Bernal, self-describing as a migrant worker. It would be tragic if he could never work in the US again not to mention Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón. And if that wall was built, you can bet those guys would be the first behind it.

The will to live is on drip feed at this point until Zootopia wins for Best Animated Film. And the makers explain that they had the crazy idea of talking about the world through talking animals. Imagine. Now that's what we call inspiring here at SOP. We're cooking.

Barney, would you mind inspiring my glass?

You know things are dire when you find yourself hanging out for the In Memoriam segment. And wondering if they'll fit Bill Paxton in.

Barney, my plate could do with a little inspiration of the canapé variety.

Seth Rogen was inspired by Back to the Future? Different strokes. At least he's wearing non-reg shoes. And there's another shot of Haraji P. Henson enjoying herself.

Question - if we nodded off, would we miss anything?
That's a question?
Point taken.

The Sci-tech awards. Hope springs. Someone who is responsible for the techy stuff that makes all this magic possible is bound to come on and tell us he/she doesn't know how it all works really but is sure that it's a spooky marriage of big dreams and super daring. No such luck. All we get is a picture of Matt Lucas's face needing no adjustment at all to play Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Javier Bardem was inspired by The Bridges of Madison County? Whatevs.

Emma Stone says her character in La La Land was inspired by an ant. That explains a lot.

Ah, Samuel L. Jackson. What would the Oscars be without him? Is that a  Royal blue suit? Good man. Lord, let it be velvet lest we give up on showbiz completely.

La La Land wins for Best Original Score. Original? Well if that means a combination of notes that no one has put together in exactly that order before, well, yeah, we can see how that might work.

Jimmy Kimmel is inspired by We Bought a Zoo? Oh, he's making a joke. Nice. Almost resuscitory. Almost.

Ben Affleck looks old. And fat. Sweet. Manchester by the Sea wins for Best Original Screenplay. Moonlight wins for Best Adapted. Ducks are lining up. Where's The Rifleman when you need him?

Speaking of which, Barney, the champers flutes are a little short on inspiration over here. Thanks old bud, we're going to need all our strength for the final push.

Damien Chazelle wins Best Director for La La Land.

Barney, how about some inspiration in a julep glass? Vodkamisu time, I think. Do you get the feeling that we're carrying this theme here are SOP?

Denzel's stopped smiling. Casey Affleck wins Best Actor. Casey says he was inspired by Denzel. Not a consolation, apparently.

Best Actress - Emma Stone. Who, we will recall,  was inspired by an ant.

Enter Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway to state the appallingly obvious. Man they look old.

La La Land. Cue the self-congratulation masquerading as humility,

Repression is the enemy of civilisation. Keep dreaming your dreams...

Barney, my glass is gagging for some inspiration over here.

Oh wait. Something very weird is happening here. There's been a mistake. No, not the donuts falling from the ceiling in little parachutes or tourists bused in to receive blessings from the sainted Denzel. An actual bone fide miracle. A correction in the time/space continuum, if you will.

It's Moonlight that has won Best Picture. We can't even begin to unpack the ironic complexities tonight.

Best Oscars ever. Thank you Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Now, on to Washington...

Saturday, January 14, 2017

So, we round up the usual suspects...

I have just the thing, an apartment on the Gold Coast (Kodakotype by Pants)

The Oxford Dictionary defines 'entitlement' as

1. (mass noun) the fact of having a right to something.

and then offers the interpretations,

1.1 The amount to which a person has a right.
e.g 'her annual leave entitlement.'

1.2 The belief that one is inherently deserving of special privileges or treatment.
e.g. 'No wonder your kids have a sense of entitlement.'

Two stories running concurrently in Australia this week have been providing us with the kind of political ouroboros that we find gruesomely compelling. The first is linked to interpretation 1.1. The Government has been using an automated service to dispatch demands for immediate return of benefits money it says has been overpaid. The system is obviously and fatally flawed. Even the guy the Prime Minister hired to oversee digital transformation, (whatever that means in the post-digital era), says that if it were a private company, Centrelink* would either go broke or be shut down for committing fraud. Many of the people getting these demands say they don't owe anything. The Government apparently knows that it is demanding money that isn't actually owed from the nation's most marginalised people. And yet it has no plans to discontinue the practice, because 'it is working'. Well, yes, armed robbery generally does work if the aim is to collect a lot of money and scare the fuck out of the populace.

The second story relates to interpretation No. 2. The question of parliamentarians' expenses claims pops up fairly regularly in this country. Every now and then one of them does something truly over the top like take a helicopter ride a few miles down the road or use their taxpayer-funded credit card for a drunken night out at a strip club. A 'review' is called for, and duly promised. Last week a cabinet minister was suspended after it was revealed that she bought an investment property whilst on a work-related trip to the Gold Coast. It didn't help that the minister brushed off the $800K purchase as an 'impulse buy'. Tangerine lip gloss is an impulse buy.

I wonder if the image consultants who thought up the name of the agency overseeing benefit entitlements knew that a centre link is the piece on a leg iron that connects the two chains to the leg shackles. Perhaps that's the point. Anyone claiming unemployment or student allowance in this country is presumed to be a criminal. The Government plans to conduct 1.7 million of these 'compliance interventions' in the coming years. By my calculations, just about every claimant will get tapped. If a government agency is making that many mistakes, then we can safely assume that many more people will fall victim to this unseemly racket. Although our welfare safety net can sometimes look like it has been mauled by a Great White Shark, it still exists and people still have rights.

Add to the mix the peculiar spectacle of the Deputy Prime Minister saying that people who access social security payments must understand that they are getting 'other people's money', so therefore must comply with any and all demands, no matter how outrageous or arbitrary. On the other hand, we have a cabinet minister refusing to hand over her diary for last week. Her movements ought to be a matter of public record, especially since we're paying for them. And then yet another minister claiming that attending sporting events and parties on the taxpayer dollar is not only righteous but expected.

As I've been writing this, Sussan Ley has resigned as Health Minister. Bruised but unrepentant, she says,

"Whilst I have attempted at all times to be meticulous with rules and standards, I accept community annoyance, even anger, with politicians' entitlements demands a response."

There's that 'entitlement' word again. More of a 1.2 than a 1.1. Ley's meticulousness did not, on this occasion apparently, extend to evaluating her moral responsibility to her employers - the people. And a rather grim-faced Prime Minister has agreed to finally get around to doing something about this perpetual mess. Not only will the 36 recommendations of the last 'review' into parliamentarians' expenses be 'implemented' but an attempt will be made to clarify what exactly constitutes 'official business'. It has come to this. The privileged need to be given quite explicit guidelines on how not to behave like a complete cunt. It might be more useful to append a long list of what is not 'official business'. Accepting invitations to parties given by wealthy business people who wish to 'showcase themselves and have conversations in relation to important matters' should not qualify. Some of us would call that lobbying.

Either we have got the world's dumbest politicians, (and I wouldn't entirely rule that out), or they must know that they're transgressing. They clearly think it's worth the risk. Occasionally one of them gets caught. Cue dramatic dive onto nearest available sword. There may be a longer-term strategy in play. They just keep pushing the boundary in the hope that we'll eventually give up trying to temper their greed and amorality. With Donald J. Trump leading the charge now, the conventional view of what constitutes acceptable behaviour for a politician is about to be challenged in ways we haven't yet conceived. Not only are we no longer in Kansas, we could be so befuddled by the constantly moving goalposts, we could even come to believe that Kansas never existed in the first place. The endgame, a suspicious mind might conclude, is to re-establish the old notion that a small number of 'haves' ruling a mass of 'have nots' is the natural order of things.

In a rare betrayal of self-reflection one of our politicians recently gave us a glimpse into the way these people think. Sam Dastyari was caught out forwarding a bill for travel expenses to a private company because he'd maxed out his own allowance. When questioned by journalists as to why it never occurred to him to cough up himself, he said, 'I just didn't want to pay it.' And there you have the exquisite juxtaposition. The powerful senator, with the means and obligation to reach into his own pocket for a relatively tiny amount of money but not the slightest inclination to do so. Compare and contrast with a single mother being forced into a debt recovery agreement for a vast amount she doesn't actually owe. And you can immediately see why the word 'entitlement' needs two very different interpretations. Claimants of public money through Centrelink face jail if a machine makes a mistake while those grabbing their obscene overshare from the parliamentary purse may have to sit out a paltry penance on the back bench until their malfeasance is forgotten if not exactly forgiven. There is no question of them even having to pay interest on the misappropriated funds, much less serve jail time.

The concept of a 'meritocracy', as proposed by the likes of Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s seems almost twee now but I'm wondering if that didn't set the stage for the establishment of a new ruling class of people for whom the rules, assuming there are any at all, really are different. I'm thinking of the interview David Frost did with the impeached President Nixon in 1977, the one where Nixon, apparently completely believing this to be true, says,

'When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.'

Perhaps there's a hint in that of what was to come. The idea that there's any way to fairly assess merit without first achieving racial and gender equality is preposterous anyway. But somehow, it's embedded itself quite firmly in the psyche of the political class. They've proved themselves capable of high levels of self-delusion. They seem to truly believe that any which way you can manage to claw your way to the top can be attributed to 'merit'. There is no qualitative distinction between acts or methods. All that matters is the goal. Now with Trump as their standard-bearer, who knows how much further they'll advance that project? All that stands between us and authoritarian rule is the strength of our institutions. Dismantling them is a high priority for a lot of people running countries these days.

I've signed two online petitions this week. One calls for an inquiry into the Centrelink fiasco and the other for an independent anti-corruption regulator at the federal parliamentary level. (Just to be clear - I'm not a prominent Australian.) The second is more likely to succeed than the first. If there were to be an inquiry into the Centrelink scam, I would hope there would be some assessment of the institutional damage as well as the trauma suffered by individuals who've been egregiously set upon. As citizens, we have a right to expect that our institutions do not suddenly go rogue on us. One has to consider a possible motivation in all this might be to discourage people from claiming their due entitlements. There is likely to be an unintended consequence - it may well discourage people from undertaking part-time work. Most errors have occurred through crude and flawed data matching when people have worked for a while and claimed benefits when they had no work, as is their right.

If there is a review of parliamentary entitlements - the 1.2 kind - the scope should be expanded to test some of the other glaring conflict of interest issues. Sussan Ley's troubles began when she took a side-trip to buy an investment property - her third. Australian federal parliamentarians own an average of 2.5 properties per member. Is it any wonder that none of them have an appetite for reforming the laws that currently give them huge tax advantages when they buy and negatively gear investment properties? Sitting parliamentarians should be banned from owning investment properties.

*Centrelink is our national social security agency, within the Department of Human Services. When did we get all of these creepy names? I know, I know, the names are the least of it.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Cheerful? Why yes!

On Gossamer Wings (2016) by Pants

Well 'tis the season for it. Although times are testing, to be sure. With 2016, the new millennium has turned into the most petulant of teenagers. The important thing, as any parent knows, is to try not to panic. To prepare for the worst, hope for the best and keep fucking smiling. How difficult can it be? Easy for me to say. I'm well cushioned against future shocks. It's taken many years of practice and discipline to reach the comfort and satisfaction I now enjoy as well as some preemptive sacrifices and a fair bit of swimming against the tide. All things considered, life is good.

What if someone told you the secret to help you save money and the world, inoculate yourself against many of the ills of modern life and enjoy everything more on both the sensual and profound levels? 

So began an item on ABC Radio National's Life Matters. I don't normally listen to this drivel. Nor do I need the advice. It became necessary to plug my ears with something after I stumbled from the surf at Noosa Beach with my boogie board under my arm to find that the surf school had adapted my favourite spot under a clump of sheoak trees as a mobile classroom. After evicting a budding bombora buster from my neatly laid-out towel, I connected myself to some earphones and held my ground as the red-vested tyros learned how not to get smacked in the face with their malibus. And this is why I'm (mostly) cheerful. I'm always prepared when someone decides to chuck a Zed & Two Noughts at my Zen. I make sure the Zone is always within reach. Refusing to get annoyed at small, fleeting acts of cuntishness helps to ensure a speedy return to cheerfulness.

A 'secret' is what Australians call something that is so blindingly obvious that only a moron could miss it. Remember Rhonda Byrne? The key to happiness is to be satisfied with your lot and believe, like Scarlett O'Hara, that tomorrow is another day? A no-shit-Sherlock moment if ever there was one. Incredible as it may seem, a lot of people need instruction on how to live with the circumstances in which they reside, no matter how cushy. I generally find that the universe cooperates with me provided I keep my demands modest and infrequent. For people who seem incapable of intuiting the incontrovertible, there will always be a self-help book.

Turns out that I've been practising something called The Art of Frugal Hedonism for years. A new book with that title is the subject of the equilibrium-preserving interview. Annie Raser-Rowland, one of the authors, is the interviewee. The suggested frugality measures should come as no great revelation to anyone used to shoestring living. All the usual don'ts are present. Don't buy shit you don't need. Don't be lured by advertising into believing that your happiness depends on having the latest this or that. Don't focus on what you don't have. And the do's should be equally familiar. Do grow your own food. Do take advantage of facilities that are free - libraries, museums, forests, beaches. Do enjoy what you have and be grateful for it. Well, yes, yes, yes, yes. Only a tosser would live any other way.

Obviously, I haven't read the book. There may be more depth to it than this précis indicates. In the interview the author doesn't talk much about the hedonism bit, which is the more interesting aspect of the strategy. No sacrifice without reward, I say. Easy for me to claim success in this realm as I mostly live alone these days. Barney has taken up his new post at Trump Tower and TQW is more or less redundant since I've resolutely stopped trying to overlay logic on idiocy. They've both promised to be back in time for our annual Oscars party where we take hedonism to the limit of credulity. Here's a tip. Go super frugal on the news feeds and mega hedonistic on good old-fashioned arts and letters.

Saying that, the methodology is all well and good, but most people will spend most of their adult lives working. And that means they spend most of their time in a situation that they can't control. I've been in a very happy headspace since I stopped working for fuckwits and started working under my own direction. It was a good decision on my part. The pay sucks but my manager is a peach. I do not care about sucky pay so long as I'm happy doing what I do and don't have a psychopath standing over me. Having said that, when I did work I was always paid extremely well and, most of the time, it wasn't hideous work. Since the financial crisis of 2008 wage stagnation coupled with overwork and lack of purpose seem to have made work nigh intolerable for at least half the population of most western countries. Even in supposedly laid-back Australia. Not working can be financially challenging but working at something you hate for less money than you think you deserve has to be the pits. I've never had much money. Big amounts tend to come to me in windfalls. I've either saved it, travelled on it or made a big and vital purchase, like a car or a house.

To me, frugal hedonism means directing all of your resources, however meagre, into activity that is fulfilling, beneficial and, wherever possible, neither wasteful nor harmful. Good wine cheap from auctions. Luxury food from the 'reduced for quick sale' section of the supermarket. I'd dumpster-dive but around my way they lock the bins up. Growing crops that are expensive to buy - strawberries, tomatoes, aubergines, beans, garlic, salad greens and herbs. Knowing when the roadside walnut trees fruit and the best time and place to collect pipis for fettuccine alle vongole. And spending most of my time exploring worlds both internal and external.That's how I do it. I understand that not everyone is cut out for uncompromising independent living. If you have a strong need for company, it's probably not ideal.

There was one plank in my journey towards ultimate frugal hedonism that I've only recently set down. I've finally mastered the art of not giving a fuck. (Another book I didn't need to read as I'd been in training for it all my life.) Misha and I have been friends for forty-five years. Having lunch with him the other day, I realised that he has never, ever listened to a word I've said. I guess I must have known that all along, and simply internalised it. When I thought about it later, I realised that I don't mind. In fact, it's profoundly liberating. The thought that I can say anything to him and it won't penetrate. It used to really piss me off to be ignored. As a woman, I have had a lot of experience of being dismissed, ridiculed and seen my ideas blithely appropriated by men when it suited them. None of it matters. I don't know about saving the world, but I'm doing pretty well at saving me. That must count for something.

Of course, everything goes up the chimney at Christmas. I'm in Noosa, Queensland. Lounging on the best beach for elderly boogie boarding in the world, every day. Being lavishly supplied with tropical fruits. I never buy mangoes, pineapples or papaya at home. They're far too expensive and they only really taste good in the tropics anyway. Although every year the Pants family solemnly pledges to go light on the gifts, brightly coloured packages pile up under our 56-year-old cellophane tree. (It is truly frugal to have had the same artificial tree for almost one's entire life.) There will be (slightly) too much food. Years of me ranting at Ma Pants about waste finally bearing a little less in the way of perishables in her warehouse of a fridge. When I'm with others, especially family members, who are all extremely loveable, it's easy enough to relax and go with the flow. Although I do sneak out at 5am for a solitary jog with just an audiobook for company and I sometimes pretend I'm going down for a nap in the afternoons and do a bit of writing instead. Old habits, etc.

Now I hear Ma Pants stirring. Soon the rest of the family will be here. Better go. I wish you all the cheer that can be mustered and I will leave you with a fine thought from Ralph Waldo Emerson,

'Can anything be so elegant as to have few wants, and to serve them oneself?'

I think not.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016


Best Before (2016) by Pants

Democracy has thrown up a lot of lemons lately, and not the kind from which you can easily make lemonade. Unless you're a cartoonist or comedian. In which case, Mazel Tov! Although perhaps not. American satirists are complaining that their attempts at lampooning Donald J. Trump mostly fall flatter than a gluten-free crêpe. (The J. doesn't stand for Jerk-off, as I'd assumed, btw.) Trump supporters either judged the spoofs mean or found them oddly endearing. There you go. As our own Tim Minchin sang-whined last week,

'It doesn’t work any more to laugh at a fool. The fool is now the king. When the jester becomes the king, what do we do?'

 What indeed? There's simply no defence against a man who claimed that the election was rigged when he thought he was going to lose it and now claims it was rigged because some people apparently voted for the other candidate. All comedy is redundant in the face of such diabolically clever farce. It's the Twitter equivalent of an Escher drawing. So, how does this man manage to fool many of the people all of the time? Again, forests of digital trees have been sacrificed explaining the classic despotic moves Trump has so successfully deployed - Big Lie/Liar technique, Man of the People trope and, by far the most penetrating - tell the people what they want to hear. Even if it's not rationally conceivable, a dream, even an impossible one, is better than nothing. Dreams are currency in America. Hope? Well, that's obviously for pussies who haven't got the balls for winner takes all.

There probably isn't a lot of point in bringing up history when so many people were apparently born yesterday, but I happen to be re-reading The Past is Myself, a memoir by Christabel Bielenberg. An English aristocrat married to a Hamburg lawyer, she was resident in Germany from the rise of Hitler and the Nazis until the end of the war. The book includes some poignant, retrospectively insightful and seriously scary observations. At the risk of falling foul of Godwin's Law, I think it's worth looking again at the relationship between Hitler and the public he so successfully exploited, given that it ended up plunging the world into a six-year war, nearly wiping out European Jewry and destroying great chunks of Europe.

The Bielenbergs fell into a category not a million miles from the much disparaged 'cultural elites' of today who find scoffing at Trump the only rational response. They and their friends watched the Nazis rise to power with the same dismayed but dismissive distaste most of us broadsheet-reading poseurs now direct at Trump et al. Persuaded by their gentle, respectable neighbour Hans to at least give the National Socialists a look in, Chris and Peter Bielenberg attended at rally at which Hitler was the star attraction in 1932. They laughed when they discovered the venue was Hagenbeck's Zoo. Crammed up against the giraffe house, they listened with awed incredulity. Afterwards, Peter Bielenberg remarked to his wife,

'You may think that Germans are political idiots, Chris ... and you may be right, but of one thing I can assure you, they won't be so stupid as to fall for that clown.'

Three months later, Adolf Hitler became Germany's Chancellor, rendering 'famous last words' forever speechless. Having previously 'kampfed with four turgid pages before giving up' on the Hitler manifesto Mein Kampf at Hans's insistence, Bielenberg admits to bafflement and asks herself,

'What had Hitler provided which seemed to satisfy so many and persuaded them so easily to relinquish their freedom and to turn aside from the still small voice of their conscience?'

Turns out the question could only be guessed at in hindsight,

'Hitler understood his Germans well, or maybe he had just chanced his luck with human nature. There was a titbit for all in his political stew pot. Work for the unemployed, an army for the generals, a phoney religion for the gullible, a loud, insistent and not unheeded voice in international affairs for those who still smarted under the indignity of a lost war: there were also detention camps and carefully broadcast hints of what might be in store for anyone who had temerity enough to enquire into his methods too closely, let alone openly disapprove of them. He made every move, though, behind a smoke-screen of legality and also of propriety, for he was shrewd enough to know that the spirit of his revolution came from the disgruntled, disenchanted, dispossessed middle classes. He must strike the right note therefore, and he did so by making respectability the quintessence, the irresistible pièce de résistance, of all that he had to offer.' 

Spot the parallels. Well, we know Trump can stitch his own deepish pockets to one or two other pairs of similarly endowed trousers. Maybe he can build a media network big enough to qualify as a propaganda machine in the Facebook era. Perhaps he can get a get a mass surveillance and suppression system to work in the Instagram age. We'll see. Hitler's grand plan was an immediate success because he was able to conveniently loot Jewish wealth to fund it and later to keep it running with slave labour from conquered territories. How is Herr Trumpf to pump-prime the Make America Great Again project? Empty the coin purses of deported domestics? What we used to call the quality media outlets have been chasing down and quizzing professional, articulate, outwardly sane Trump supporters and posing the wtf question to them for months. They know the guy's an arsehole. Turns out they want, even think the country needs an arsehole at the helm. That's the point. A final parallel from Christabel Bielenberg's memoir,

'How was it though that Hitler had succeeded with some of the more intelligent ones, with those who still possessed personal integrity, unless he had provided something more, something which had made them long for his leadership to succeed, in spite of the ever more obvious viciousness of his régime? Would it have been with that sense of national identity which he could conjure up with such mastery?'

It would appear so. And that's the thing we all need to be afraid of. Trump has that ability. To unite and divide all at once and with potentially devastating results. There is a momentum there which we would be foolish to continue to underestimate.

It's taken a long time to get this post together. The shock and disbelief about the crazy events of this year have been repeated and repeated in and on my preferred news sources, as if chanting our collective incredulity will somehow alter the outcome. Why not? If trickery can deliver Trump the White House and the three stooges of British politics their Brexit, why can't good magic make it disappear? There are plenty of people suggesting that what we've seen this year could be part of a wider trend. There's to be a study published in January showing a severe decline in the percentage of people living in a democracy who say it's 'essential' to live in a democracy. It's particularly low in the Anglophone countries and most particularly amongst the young. Less than thirty per cent for Millennials. Democracy is an idea that must be believed in in order to survive. Doesn't look good for the Democracy Fairy.

This article by Martha Gessen appeared in the New York Review of Books this week. She is currently in Australia talking about the threat of Trump to democratic principles. Gessen  cautions against accommodation and compromise. She offers a different historical context for the dilemma of acting against moral instincts in the belief that ameliorative engagement  will enable some control and possibly deliver a less terrible outcome. She relates the story of her great-grandfather, a leader of the Bialystok Judenrat, (Jewish councils set up by the Nazis to administer the ghettos). Ultimately, Gessen's antecedent was forced into the task of compiling 'liquidation lists'. He complied, believing that by choosing the sick and dying, he could at least save some and fearing that the alternative was mass slaughter. Gessen concludes,

'We cannot know what political strategy, if any, can be effective in containing, rather than abetting, the threat that a Trump administration now poses to some of our most fundamental democratic principles. But we can know what is right. What separates Americans in 2016 from Europeans in the 1940s and 1950s is a little bit of historical time but a whole lot of historical knowledge. We know what my great-grandfather did not know: that the people who wanted to keep the people fed ended up compiling lists of their neighbors to be killed. That they had a rationale for doing so. And also, that one of the greatest thinkers of their age [Hannah Arendt] judged their actions as harshly as they could be judged.

As Trump torpedoes into the presidency, we need to shift from realist to moral reasoning. That would mean, at minimum, thinking about the right thing to do, now and in the imaginable future. It is also a good idea to have a trusted friend capable of reminding you when you are about to lose your sense of right and wrong.'

I'm a great believer in protest and peaceful non-cooperation. In those heady, happy days before political correctness finally went mad and someone apparently took it out back and shot it, some of us found it quite pleasant that people weren't constantly calling us names based on the accidental circumstances of our birth or upbringing. And all of it took struggle. I'd prefer it if we didn't go back to clubbing each other over the head to get what we want. Now is not the time for passive acceptance of what we presume is the will of the people. The will of the people can be wrong. Has been very wrong. Democracy is corruptible. It takes work to keep it honest. Eternal vigilance and all that. Better to be awake and overcautious than screwed whilst asleep.

There are times when I despair of our version of dithering Democracy here in Australia. In moments of frustration, I often fantasise about a monster descending on Parliament and giving them all a good slap. And then I remember that thing Churchill said about Democracy being the least shittiest of all possible ways of organising a society. Just a note on the passing of Fidel Castro - wouldn't it be nice if it were possible to believe in excellent education and healthcare and not be a brutal dictator? Sorry, dreaming.

I have been a fan of President Barack Obama. One thinks of how much worse the last eight years could have been and how much deeper in the shit we would most certainly be now if not for his calm, reasoned presence in the White House, and in the world at large. Ditto Angela Merkel, easily the most effective politician in Europe for a generation. Imagine my consternation when I read the laughably lame op-ed piece they jointly penned on the future of Transatlantic relations in the German Daily Wirtschaftswoche. The full text in English can be found here. This snippet gives a sense of the tone of the piece,

'Germans make pilgrimages to Silicon Valley, where people practice and think about the future of the digital economy more than anywhere else. Americans thrive in Germany’s many world-class manufacturing and engineering companies, small and large. Americans and Germans learn from each other’s labor systems and study how each benefits their citizens: Americans study Germany’s remarkable labor apprenticeship system and Germans learn from how American companies benefit from the United States’ spectacular diversity.'

What is that? A pantomime horse called Chamberlain? No, no, no. This will not do. President Obama - have you not heard the joke doing the rounds of the rust belt,

Used to be they made cars in Flint and you couldn't drink the water in Mexico. Now they make cars in Mexico and you can't drink the water in Flint.

It's time for the stalwarts of Democracy to stand up. And that means you. Your work is not done. You don't solve this kind of crisis by exchanging research scientists. President Obama - you have a new job. The movement to save and rejuvenate Democracy needs a leader. You're it. Pants says. You and Michelle job-share it. Tag-team it. However you want to do it, just get it done. The Nelson Mandela mantle falls upon you. Oh, and Angela, I'm very glad that you're seeking a fourth term and good luck with that, but should you find yourself with spare time next Autumn, feel free to join in. I have a feeling the war won't be over by then.

Postscript: I've been making an American flag out of plastic tabs for years. I now have almost enough to complete the mission thanks to the kind donations of people who eat more bread and potatoes than I do. It will be completed in the New Year.

Sunday, October 30, 2016


Seat of Pants (ink drawing by Pants)

Whenever I have one of those what-the-fuck-was-I-thinking moments, I try to remember that there are two very good reasons to live in Australia. The wine is good and cheap and you can have a big house by the sea. There was a third reason for my return to the birth-mother country eight years ago. It had supposedly tired of being the dickhead of the world and had elected a progressive government. That hope bubble burst almost immediately. Old habits die hard. But the wine's still cheap and I still have my lovely house by the sea. Lucky me.

Plenty of my fellow residents aren't so lucky. Home ownership rates have been steadily declining for years in this country, which would be fine if there were lots of cuddly housing cooperatives and decent socially owned accommodation for fair rent and with secure tenure. For someone like me on a low fixed income, the alternative to owning my own home would be living in my car. Much as I love the Subaru, I don't think it would do much for my mental or spinal health. There are many good reasons for being a homeowner other than it clearly helps your finances if you don't have to pay rent. Nobody can tell you to leave or get cross at you for putting lots of holes in the walls. Both things would be constantly happening to me if I were in that position.

The fastest rising demographic for homelessness in the country is older women. Increasingly, having a home of your own costs more than most people can afford to pay. Why this state of affairs? Absolutely baffling, it would appear. Like every other challenge in Australia, it's one of those wicked problems that defy the best efforts of our most gifted thinkers. Building lots of houses where people want to live might be a start. Or perhaps build some cheaper ones not terribly far from where people want to spend a lot of their time and pop in some fast, reliable transport and a local job or two. And at the same time, remove the tax breaks for people who already own lots of houses and want more houses so they can pay less tax. Chewing gum whilst walking on the moon, apparently.

We have had a succession of fine minds at work on this thorny problem for some time. A former national Treasurer advised,

'The starting point for a first home buyer is to get a good job that pays good money. Then you can go to the bank and you can borrow money.'

Who knew that's how it worked? Or you could always marry money. Like he did. And buy lots of houses. How did we reward this genius for his crystal clarity? By appointing him Ambassador to the United States of America. That bastion of clear-headed housing policy. On to Genius II who has concluded that the housing-affordability crisis is basically a planning issue. Which is the responsibility of the states and therefore not anything to do with him. He offered this enigmatic insight,

'Housing in Australia, especially in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, is expensive and increasingly unaffordable but that does not mean it is overvalued.'

Well that's a relief and must provide some comfort to the people who are facing a future domiciled in a caravan park. As the mastermind in question has taken to wearing a little Australian flag lapel pin, one can only assume he's in training to follow his former colleague on to Washington, where he too can get a lovely big house for free, collect a couple of salaries and charge his household expenses, (including babysitting), to the Australian taxpayer.

Most issues in Australia quickly reduce down to some sort of demographic conflict. This is no different. Basically the Baby Boomers have bought up all the houses, leaving the Millennials no option but to squander all their hard-earned cash on brunching out. Yes, it's either a two-bed semi-detached or the luxury of having some even poorer sap smash avocado and arrange it on fancy toast for you. Speaking as someone who's always been a bit partial to smashed avocado on toast, (with freshly squeezed lemon, cracked pepper and a little sea salt if you don't mind), I suggest that it's possible to have it both ways, with a little creativity. Smashing your own avocado is a good place to start.

One of the reasons we Baby Boomers were able to get a foothold in the property market is that we didn't have to pay off student debt. I get that this gave us a massive advantage. But we were also prepared to live in places that no one else wanted to live. It was lucky for us that this included the inner-city areas which we found very attractive because they were littered with old pubs that we could turn into music venues and abandoned factories that we could co-opt for our art collectives. I won't deny that these were good times. Millennials might think about giving us some credit for revitalising abandoned city centres from Sydney to London, Berlin to New York and beyond. 

I spent a lot of my youth living in drafty share houses, squats and hard-to-let London council flats. Yes, it was cheap but it was also quite hard work at times. Repairing broken windows, carting furniture home from skips and sprucing it up. We didn't have eBay or Freecycle. Sacrificing comfort while you're young enough to not care can pay dividends later on. We agitated, organised, found resources that were going begging and used them.Why not form a collective and house pool or jointly buy a property in a regional city to rent out? Then you too can negatively gear yourself an income low enough to evade paying back your student debt and give the government one in the eye while you're at it. They'd soon take notice of that.

I've only ever had three full-time, permanent jobs in my life. None of them lasted much more than a year. On the first two occasions, I took the opportunity to qualify for a mortgage and bought the cheapest house I could find in a rundown area. The first time, in Brisbane, I was just twenty-three and although borrowing the $1,000 deposit from my parents was easy, getting a bank loan for the rest was not. The barrier for a single woman was the potential for pregnancy. Fortunately for me, I had a very nice boss who also happened to be on the board of a building society. He managed to convince the loans officer that I was so ghastly no one would ever be likely to want to have a baby with me. He was right about that. I sold the house for a big profit then went to live in England. Had I stayed and if I'd had a permanent job, I could have used the money for a bigger deposit and stepped up from my starter home. That's why it's called the property ladder, folks.

I was over forty when I bought the London flat that inadvertently secured my financial future. It was in Hackney. A place that, until fairly recently, no one wanted to live in. Fortunately, they all changed their minds at exactly the time I wanted to leave. Saving the £5,000 deposit wasn't all that difficult because I had a council flat where the rent was very low. I was also eligible for a shared-ownership property, which meant a fixed price, low interest rate and easy access to a building society loan. It really is a good system, but suspiciously socialist-sounding so very unlikely to ever take off in Australia.

Given the present predicament, it would seem that there are rather more opinions on its causes and rather less in the way of sod turning and loop-hole closing than is good for anyone. The sooner our multiple layers of government can agree that people are unlikely to stop having children and that everyone has to have somewhere to live and work out which layer is going to sort out which bit of it, the sooner we can all get on with our Sunday brunches in peace. Yes, it is extremely bad that my generation is hogging houses. But then again, many of us don't have huge superannuation balances and all the tax breaks that go with them. For a lot of people my age, property is a way to fund retirement. One of my neighbours, a single parent, built a very good house next to hers and rented it to a family on a permanent basis at a reasonable rate. That's the system working. We need more of that. And there should be heavy penalties for investors who buy property and leave it empty. The system enables far to much of that at present. 

I maintained my winning strategy of buying cheaply in a seriously uncool place when I moved here. I've been lucky twice in anticipating gentrification - although in Hackney it did take twenty-five years for the hipsters to crack on. Larrikin's End has a ways to go. Some days I'd kill for a decent baguette. But I do have my own lemon tree and I've got a couple of young avocado plants. And I'd rather have the view than quality coffee. If a perpetually single woman with an appalling employment record can do it, it's doable. Believe it.