THE ART OF APPRECIATION

As I walk towards the Assembly Hall the feeling of ill ease comes up instantly, unbidden. In through the cyclone wire gates, along a pitted asphalt drive towards the large, squat orange brick building. State efficiency and sixties design.

Not quite belonging, not quite understanding the culture, not knowing what to expect but tense because it isn’t relaxing. That’s what my gut is saying. Why did I come to this reunion? It’s unlikely I’ll meet anyone I want to talk to, let alone connect with. It’ll be just like school; competition and suspicion, tribalism and isolation.

The reality is both better and worse than anticipated. Better, in that I now have a vague idea of who I am and thus little enthusiasm for antler-locking or displays of plumage. I can drift around, having repetitive shallow conversations with people I didn’t know well twenty-five years ago and have little in common with now. Like the buildings themselves, the people are the same but different. I suppose I am too.

A flicker of disappointment that my notional list of who I’d actually like to see remains stubbonly devoid of ticks. Would have been nice to hang out with a mate. And the fantasy of two girls I actually liked (but was much too shy and socially incompetent to ever talk to) showing up and being available for a conversation (I can do that now, if I concentrate; almost like a real grown-up) was dashed. Still, I raise a plastic cup of wine to their memory. To Julie Gill and Deborah Roberts: may your lives have unfolded richly. Salute.

The outsider feeling was strong. They say you turn into a teenager as soon as you step into your parents’ house. Applies to high school too, it seems. I wandered outside. A man who was a smart-arse with a smear of bully walks up to me as I pollute the cool summer air with a roll-up cigarette.

What are you doing these days?

It’s more a challenge than an enquiry.

Now this is tricky. If I say “I’m a Psychologist, I work as a counsellor” people can get spooked. Some primitive fear of mind-reading or instant analysis, I guess. Sometimes I used to offer reassurance by observing I was currently off duty and anyway I charge quite a lot. This usually did not have any helpful impact. Often the reverse. Plonker.

Feeling disconnected does not support empathy.

I’m a psychologist, I say.

Still on the front foot, he smiles. Or sneers.

Huh. People become psychologists so they can work out their own shit.

Yes, I say. Good, isn’t it?

He wanders off.

And it is good.

I learn from my clients. Sharing others’ struggles has made me a better man (and incidentally but happily, a better therapist. Or so I delude myself). I’m regularly moved by the stories and inspired by human resilience. It is awesome (ie: evoking awe) to witness the pull towards healing that is often revealed in our most vulnerable moments.

Sometimes my own shit gets prodded, but I’ve learned to notice and put it aside. Later I’ll reflect and maybe find something to take to supervision or my own therapy. (Still bountifully flawed, you see). My task is not to have worked it all out but to be able to recognise when something pulls me away from the person I’m with. Increasingly, my goal is not to do anything but to be with someone; the other …thou. Irvin Yalom and a phalanx of therapists helped teach me that.

But sometimes a little bit of concrete action is helpful.

A chap I’ve been seeing for a while is struggling with seeing over the wall of negativity that has grown around him. Not surprisingly, the thick foundations were laid in childhood and time and setbacks have added stone.

This week I remembered an exercise I was commanded to undertake by a mentor way back at the beginning of my career when negative was the only terminal of the battery I knew.

You have to practice, she admonished my miserable self. Regularly. Get a notebook, write down three blessings every day.

Blessings?

Oh for goodness sake, she snapped, call them Appreciations. Call them Enjoyments, call them Noticings. Just do it.

And I did. Partially because I recognised a truth in her robust sermon, and partly because she was a little scary.

Did it work? Hard to say. All change is incremental, and we all have to fake it until we can make it. Still, I’ve not forgotten that task in thirty years, and it came to me as I sat with my client. So I proposed the exercise, gently, and volunteered to send him a text to prompt action. Nothing wrong with a nudge now and then.

I sent the message. It was a photo. I thought I could benefit from leading by example. After all, we teach best what we most need to learn. Perhaps he will get something from it too. I hope so.

So thanks, Tony, for helping me remember that, in a shitty world, it’s worth noticing gleams of light, no matter how ephemeral or transient.

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PS. The middle one is a cricket reference. Ashes cricket, no less.

Another PS.  I had to share the friend’s photo with Tony, and I feel the same compulsion here. (Venice Biennale)

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AD VANCE

I’ve been reading a compendium of the Jack Vance stories: Tales Of The Dying Earth#, set in an unimaginably distant future where the sun, the very source of life, is expiring, it’s hydrogen stocks exhausted as it feebly illuminates a future primitive world with claret luminescence.

I still have my original paperback, excavated from a dusty secondhand bookshop in the seventies.  The yellowed, desiccated pages are only tenuously attached to the spinal cord, and this state of deterioration moved me to purchase a twenty-first century edition.

As I read the first part—simply called The Dying Earth—vague memories surfaced of the unconnected stories, but of the later instalments, nothing. Did I even read The Eyes of the Overworld?

It is an amazing collection of four books, dotted across the author’s timeline. A generous lifetime—ninety-six years—but not so much compared to the history of a world.

Vance was born in California in 1916, the middle of the first world war. Poor eyesight precluded military service during WWII, but such was his desire to contribute that he memorised the standard eye chart and thus gained admission to the merchant marine, indicative of a life-long love of boats and the sea.

The Dying Earth was Vance’s first published novel, in 1950 when he was thirty-four. It’s not really a novel, more a collection of stories in the same imagined setting, this wheezing Earth populated by self-obsessed magicians, freakish hybrids, and malevolent monsters (many of which inhabit human physiology). Yes, Vance’s distant future is powered by magic. And the fictional invention and prismatic flashes of language leap out of the pages almost seventy years later.

A sequel of sorts, The Eyes of the Overworld, came out in 1966. It follows the misadventures of an immoral chancer named Cugel (who is, indeed, a blunt instrument) as he attempts to reap what he can from the dying earth. The same unlikable anti-hero re-appeared in 1983, his name celebrated in the book title: Cugel’s Saga. A year later came the final volume of tales, Rhialto the Marvellous, focussing on the small but highly influential group of magicians who inhabit the end of time.

The pall of extinction hangs over these stories, giving a paradoxical sense of both denial and despair. In scattered societies covering the spectrum from puritan to decadent, mundane to supernatural, the folk at the shadowy perimeter of endless darkness are mostly focussed on day-to-day survival within the carefully constructed (yet rotting) fabric of exhausted humanity. Vance doesn’t seem to be much of a fan of the human race.

Yet here they are, in all their mutated and petty-minded glory, countless eons out from the birth of civilisation. A hundred thousand years of continuous procreation may have produced a menagerie of exotic sub-types, yet the parameters of everyday life—food, power, sex, survival—remain consistent as motivators, if unfamiliar in their modes of expression.

There are a handful of chapters still to read before Tales of the Dying Earth is returned to the shelves, leaving the light and warmth of the coffee table for the dusty museum of the bookshelves. In a (perhaps) unconscious attempt to delay the inevitable ending, I’ve been reading some Bill Bryson. I find I oscillate between fiction and non-fiction these days, like a tennis match between university faculties; Arts vs Sciences.

In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson’s commitment to rational understanding and his almost raucous enthusiasm for language collide in a breakneck drive through the history of, well, life the universe and everything. What it says on the cover, really.

In the chapter I read the other day, Bryson reminds us, almost apologetically, that history is packed with species extinctions. Many, many more types of creatures have disappeared forever than are alive today, and there is absolutely no reason to expect the human race will achieve anything special in terms of long-term survival. If Jack Vance had read Bryson, he might not have bothered with his fantasy novels at all. It’s bacteria who rule, Bill observes. It’s their planet and they let us occupy it.

But for how long?

Here’s an analogy that really demonstrates our chronological heft in the 4.5 billion year history of earth.*

Stretch your arms to their fullest extent and imagine that width as the entire history of the earth. On this scale, according to John McPhee in Basin & Range, the distance from the fingertips of one hand to the wrist of the other, is pre-Cambrian. All of complex life is in one hand, and—in a single stroke with a medium grained nail-file—you could eradicate human history.

Fortunately that moment hasn’t happened but the chances are good that it will. I don’t wish to interject a moment of gloom just at this point, but the fact is that there is one other extremely pertinent quality about life on earth: it goes extinct, quite regularly. Species crumple and die remarkably routinely, and the more complex they get the more quickly they go extinct.

Sobering, isn’t it?

So tonight I’ll eat home-made pizza made by the lovely Ms Keyboard, gaze at the evolving boy with a mixture of wonder and love that is almost breathtaking, mediate the exquisite pain of existence with a good bottle of red, and try to be in the moment.

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# Jack Vance (2002) Fantasy Masterworks (4) – Tales of The Dying Earth. Gollancz, London, UK.

*  Bill Bryson (2003) A Short History of Nearly Everything. Broadway Books, NY, USA.

Feature image: “The Dying Earth” by George Barr (1976)

 

THE LONG FAREWELL

When your child starts school, one of the biggest changes is the use of the refrigerator. Not the inside—the essential foodliness of the contents remains the same—no, I’m referring to the outside.

Where once a clean brushed-aluminium surface gleamed in the morning sunlight, perhaps adorned with a socially aware sticker or a novelty magnet, now sprouts a wilderness of notes, notices, essential phone numbers and lists. It’s like the chaotic desk of a harried admin officer has been flipped to the vertical plane and had a handful of advertising magnets flung willy-nilly at the mess.

When the boy was young, we had a couple of non-matching sets of letters and numbers on the fridge door as an encouragement for him to forever associate words with food. Just joking. They were for play, and for announcing special timelines or events.

“Four weeks to Xmas!”

“Cats for the premiership!”

“8th Birthday party on Saturday!”

The exclamation mark was one of the most used tiles.

As he became a little more sophisticated, sometimes I’d put up a phrase relating to current affairs and see how long it took him to notice the covert communication. In the lead-up to the last election, for instance, I mounted a political message:

“Darth Vader for President”

Usually it took the youngster mere seconds to notice the change on the fridge door, but he’d only comment when he thought the line was worthy of notice. Our fault. We’ve trained him to be a critical consumer of media, even fridge-memes.

Change is constant. Every phase of childhood is more complicated than the previous one; the new version overlays the old so effectively you can sometimes forget what the little fella was like. Browsing old photos or mini-films can mist you up quicker than you can say “The long farewell”.

Because that’s what it is, being a parent. A series of lettings go coupled with moments of holding close. When he’s sick he still needs us for comfort and re-assurance, but other times he’s immersed in a world for which we have no key, no entry pass, no real training. It’s how it should be, and doesn’t change one jot the immense love I feel, but often I notice a twinge of sadness, a stab of pre-emptive grief. Childhood, endless when we traverse it ourselves, passes in a blur of days for a parent—especially when there is you and a single child.

In our home, we are fast approaching the end of Primary School. Six years of elementary education have been completed; the new year will usher in a new adventure. Not sure if we are ready, but the boy is. He is tall and twelve and up for the next challenge. Deep into the endless Wheel of Time fantasy novels, downloading complicated sheet music for Undertale tunes, using language I was grappling with in senior high school. I hope I can keep up.

Yet in the rush of daily routines and weekly cycles, some things stand out.

Recently the lad was unwell. Just a cold, but a nasty one that laid him low for the best part of a week. Mum re-arranged things so someone was at home, offering paracetamol and comfort as required. He lay on the couch and read or watched old DVDs. It’s funny, that. When he’s unwell he reverts to entertainment from long ago, like Thomas the Tank Engine or re-reading Captain Underpants.

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A.A. Milne’s classic books were featured one sick-day. As I departed for work he was well into Winnie-The-Pooh and when I returned around supper time he had just finished The House At Pooh Corner.

I sat next to him on the couch. And after checking on his recovery, I made an observation.

You look a little sad, I said.

He fiddled with the sash on his Star Wars dressing gown and nodded. The books sat next to him on the other side. The same volumes that had entranced and entertained me as a child.

Not quite knowing how to proceed, I waited (a skill still needing considerable practice on my part).

It’s the ending, he said.

Of the books?

Yes, he said. The second one especially. Christopher Robin is leaving. He’s going to school. It doesn’t say exactly, but that’s what’s happening.

There was a very slight quaver in his voice.

It’s a long time since I’ve read The House At Pooh Corner, I said. Maybe I better refresh my memory.

He reached for the book and carefully opened it.

CHAPTER X

IN WHICH CHRISTOPHER ROBIN AND POOH COME TO AN ENCHANTED PLACE, AND WE LEAVE THEM THERE

The boy sat quietly as I read the chapter, easing a little closer as he detected the occasional sniffle.

Eeyore’s poem provides an eloquent summary.

Christopher Robin is going.

At least I think he is.

Where?

Nobody knows.

But he is going—

I mean he goes

(To rhyme with “knows”)

Do we care?

(To rhyme with “where”)

We do

Very much.

Yes, we care very much.

And when Pooh and Christopher Robin are at The Enchanted Place, and Christopher Robin knights Pooh and Pooh worries about being a bear of little brain and how he’ll live up to being a knight if he doesn’t understand Christopher Robin’s world, and when he wonders if “being a Faithful Knight meant that you just went on being faithful without being told things” it was all the boy’s daddy could do to contain his love and grief and overflowing heart. So he reached his arm out for a hug and the boy nestled in and they held each other and who’s to say whether there were tears or who was comforting whom but it felt good.

A few days later I noticed a new message on the fridge door.

Time g0 to

colLge and

make U prouDs!

Eeyore would complain about the grammar, but Pooh would understand.

It’s the long farewell, you see.

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THE WINDOW AND THE WALL

In the late eighties I was living alone in a small house in Footscray, an inner-west suburb of Melbourne nestling between industrial docklands and a waste management terminal. Bunbury Street was quite special not for any Oscar Wilde association but because a railway line ran underneath it, lengthwise.

It was a goods line from the industrial complex across the river so the trains rumbling down-under were lurching, heavily laden affairs that took forever to pass and seemed to be causing the strip of five conjoined “workingman’s cottages” to slowly subside towards the tunnel. No exaggeration here: while I was in residence a pot-hole larger than a car tyre and deep enough to hold a basketball opened up in the footpath near my front gate. Could’ve swallowed a jogger, but given the pollution and the demographic, exercise hounds were rare in that part of the world.

The house itself was what Real Estate agents like to call “original condition”. The walls sported a network of ever-widening cracks while the bathroom was reached via a covered walkway out the back door. In the back yard was a brick pigeon-house (not in use, but with sedimented evidence layering the floor) and on the back fence, the outhouse. Once you got used to the trek and the occasional need for an umbrella it was actually quite peaceful. Though very draughty.

The cottage next door was a mirror image of the one I occupied, though ‘improved’. I deduced that they put the rooms to different use as his lounge room appeared to adjoin my bedroom. Note the location of the windows and the stereos. This information will become important.

Fig. 1 Plan

Figure 1. Plan

Though I do not know what his job was, I do know that my neighbour worked late. No problem there.

He liked to relax with some music on returning home, usually around midnight. No problem there, either. In winter.

But on a muggy Melbourne summer’s night these little brick houses become awfully stuffy. You gasp for all the air you can get, opening every portal to catch a whisper of breeze.

Referring back to Figure 1 you will note that the actual distance from the recumbent would-be sleeper’s head to the right speaker of the neighbour’s stereo is about nine feet. With both windows thrown open, that’s nine feet of air. My ears were substantially closer to his hi-fi than to my own sound system.

Now I am, and have been these many years, a serious Pink Floyd fan. The entire catalogue resides on vinyl and on CD too. If you visit Vinyl Connection you’ll find several feature posts. I’ve seen them live in Melbourne and Hannover and ridden a bicycle through Grantchester Meadows in homage to the Ummagumma song of the same name. Been there, heard that, own two t-shirts.

But I do not enjoy The Wall. Didn’t like it in 1979, don’t rate it now. It is one of only a handful of albums I have written scathingly about, including the following review:

Power corrupts. By 1979 Roger Waters had all the power in Pink Floyd and TheWall is his dystopian personal vision unshackled from group quality control. The album is over-long, over-serious and vastly over-rated.

At the end of side two when Roger moans ‘Goodbye cruel world’ you sincerely hope he means it, but no, there’s a whole other record to go. If it was not for some terrific playing, especially by David Gilmour on guitar, you’d be hard-pressed to find much to like in this dismal self-indulgent rant. Richard Wright was so depressed he was sent home. And don’t bleat about how marvellous “Another Brick In The Wall, Part II” is—that’s only because you’ve heard it so often you’ve forgotten it is used three times on the first disc and are able to ignore the manipulative use of a children’s choir to cover a bilious attack on education generally. (Where did you go to school, Roger?)

The best thing to be said about The Wall is this: it is better than the album which followed it.

So when, late one sticky summer night, the maudlin sounds of “The Happiest Days of our Lives” wailed through the window at substantial volume,  I was considerably less than entranced.

But how to respond? I started subtly with some muted coughing and harrumphing. Not surprisingly, given the volume, this had no discernible impact. I shut the window. Then I opened the window and shut it again, firmly. The third time I positively slammed the sash closed, hoping at the very least to make his stylus jump but alas, although some plaster showered down upon my head, the soundtrack continued.

Collapsed on the bed, panting from my exertions, I pondered the options. A plan of devious malevolence took shape in my heat oppressed brain.

Padding off to the lounge, I uncoiled the speaker wire; maybe there was just enough. Lifting the box on its stand, I staggered down the hall and into the bedroom. The cable pulled taught. Not exactly at the open window, but perhaps close enough. I paused, listening intently, then trotted off to my shelves.

Fig. 2 Response

Figure 2: Response

Crouched at the amplifier, the Floydian noise bouncing down the hall from next door was somewhat muffled; still it was not difficult to find the song currently booming out. Waiting with fingers poised until the end of the song, I cranked up the volume and let the next track rip a second before his began. As my future echo surged out the window I added a bit more volume for good measure though not so much as to drown out his, now slightly delayed, transmission.

I have no idea what it sounded like next door because I stayed in the safety of my lounge-room. But the stereo delay caused by my own separated speakers was quite disconcerting enough, so I can only imagine what it sounded like in the neighbour’s lounge.

The side ended. The stylus lifted.

Silence.

Relieved rather than jubilant, I slouched back off to bed, happy at least that a window of opportunity had created a constructive use for The Wall.

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An earlier version of this story appeared at Vinyl Connection in January 2014