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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Inertia Variations


I rarely take advantage of the US$8.99 a month I spend on the MUBI art-film service I subscribe to, but I can honestly say I got my money's worth last night.


THE INERTIA VARIATIONS trailer from THE THE on Vimeo.


This story of The The's Matt Johnson and his 12-15 year song-writing/performing block was fascinating. In this documentary, which covers an extended period of his recent life, he sets up his own radio station (on short-wave, so it requires a massive Eiffel Tower-like antenna on the roof of his flat - he owns the apartment block). He plans to broadcast a midday-to-midnight stint which involves live-music (other musicians performing cover versions of his songs), and interviews with socially conscious (lefties, that means) people from around the world, while doing FB streaming and Twittering during the show. It is a complicated process and his room is crowded with assistants.

In the lead up to the broadcast, we see Johnson lie on his couch a lot, thinking deeply it is made clear, or watch him as he fiddles with a vast array of music technology in his crowded attic. His closet is full of identical bespoke shirts and pants so he doesn't have to decide what to wear each day. He drives his classic Rover in the slow lane. He wanders on desolate beaches and sits in lonely cafes writing. Your classic recluse. Importantly, he also muses on the grieving processes after the deaths of his younger brother, and a few years later, his mum, which seem to have precipitated his crisis. We meet his dad, his elder brother - a wonderful artist, and his son. It is also fascinating that his former partner is the documentary maker!

The voice-over of him reading John Tottenham's titular poem cycle was haunting, and the poems' theme reminded so much of the Pessoa book I have on my bedside table [see previous post].

~~~~~~~~

BORN WINNER, SELF-MADE LOSER
John Tottenham

There was a time when I thought
I might have done something by now;
But that was long ago, and over the intervening
Decades I have shifted from prodigy to late-bloomer
To non-bloomer; I have passed my peak without having peaked
Or even begun the ascent, and unless there is something inherently
Salutary to the energy I expend in frustrating myself then
My sacrifices have all been in vain.

~~~~~~~~~
from THE TOBACCO SHOP
Fernando Pessoa (as Alvaro De Campos)

I failed in everything.
Since I have no ambition, perhaps I failed in nothing.
I left the education I was given,
Climbing down from the window at the back of the house.
I went to the country with big plans.
But all I found was grass and trees,
And when there were people they were just like the others.
I step back from the window and sit in a chair. What should I think about?

~~~~~~~~

A little bit of suspense is introduced, concerning whether he will finish a song, any song (he has many, many notebooks of partially complete lyrics), and perform it live for his broadcast, which would mean singing in virtual public for the first time in so many years. [I don't want to give away any spoilers, but his voice is still strong.]

And there is so much to relate to for me, in both the film and the poem, seeing as how I haven't had any belief in my own writing since that first heart scare six years ago.

Sad, but eventually inspiring for procrastinators everywhere and for lapsed bloggers such as

E@L

Saturday, July 07, 2018

On Forgetting Everything.


Quote of The Day For The Aging (like E@L):

"Everything I've lived through I've forgotten as if it were something I had only vaguely overheard." Fernando Pessoa: The Book Of Disquiet.


~~~~~
For example -

Visiting Friend: That's near where you took me last time I visited.
E@L: You've been to Singapore before?
Visiting Friend (confused): About three months ago. We watched the footy with your mates. I was with my girlfriend. Same as the time before.
E@L (even more confused - no memory of this whatsoever): Oh, that's, um, right.
~~~~~

It's time E@L was put down. Seriously.

He did recall eventually, about 30secs late. How can anyone have conversation with this person?

~~~~~

E@L tries to read a snippet of Pessoa before he goes to sleep. His mordant pessimism makes your shitty day seem like brilliant success and you sleep easy.


E@L

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Who Is This E@L?

Who is this person staring back at E@L?

The person in the bathroom mirror with the zipper line of scabs peeling from a scar down the middle of his chest. The person with the healing wounds where drain tubes once sucked out blood accumulating in the spaces between his heart and his chest. Who is the person who would submit himself to such surgical ignominy? Certainly not E@L. E@L would never let people hack at his sternum and prise open his ribs, nor let let them stop his heart, nor let them place a clamp on his aorta - the source of oxygen to his entire E@Lness. He certainly would not let them dig arteries and veins from arm and leg. E@L does not know this front-to-back reversed E@L.

Who is he?

What sort of person is he?


What sort of person is this E@L, who decided such violent effrontery was the best idea at the time. This acquiescent E@L, this bowed into submission by logic and research E@L. This E@L who knew that he might die, and comfortably made the choice to take the risk. This E@L who put thing in order: will and testament, bank accounts, password list. 3% is not an insignificant statistic when they do 60 of these a month. This E@L who really thought he was going to be the one in 33 1/3 who died, the one every month and a half. This E@L who shelled out $50k for the promise of staying alive a bit longer. The E@L who wanted to live but knew, in his cramping heart, that he could die: and die easily, quietly, quickly, never waking up. Death. If not now then eventually, and he couldn’t decide which would the be best outcome. The slipping into oblivion, into annihilation and pre-birth emptiness. Peace. Who is he?

Where is the E@L without these battle wounds? The E@L who feared the pain and dependence that would last for months after, should he survive those first few days. The E@L who said “No fucking way.”

Who is this E@L who dismissed the anxiety. Who is this E@L who knew what could go wrong, but shrugged. Who is this E@L who, while on the operation table, agreed to being intubated while still awake, because of his severe apnoea. The E@L who was hit with a massive headache that burst up the large muscle (sterno-mastoid) in his neck next to his skull, that went up into his brain when the central venous line was inserted, and who mentally shrugged and thought (he could still think!), well that’s it, a massive stroke, but whose both hands still felt strong when he squeezed them as he kept testing them.

But the E@L who joked with the anaesthetist about upgrading his ultrasound machine when he came through this, now that sounds like the real

E@L.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Bliss


Every (well, several of them) morning when E@L takes the excellent Singapore public transport to his office way up in the North-East, temptingly close to the airport, he walks down his street to the corner of the main road, to the bus stop (or to the train station, depending on his whim, and the weather), and he is confronted by droves of small children.

They are in their peak cuteness phase, toddling to keep up with their parent or minder, or scooting on mini-scooters (they are under 12, so E@L permits this). They are all tidily dressed in well-ironed pink checked gender appropriate uniforms: shirt with shorts, or a dress, shiny shoes. They are heading to the old building next to E@L's condo. It was refurbished into an upper-echelon pre-school a few years ago.

(E@L recalls it from when he first came to Singapore as a ramshackle old place, dark and a bit spooky, most likely destined, he wrongly assumed, for a complete replacement with a crappy modern, too-small roomed, over-priced, low-rise apartment (height restricted area!) abomination. But no, it was restored into a "Keeping those annoying creatures out from under mum's feet" operation instead, and it looks like it's doing well.)

~~~~~~~

Often E@L has seen one particular lad going slower than the others, on his way to the kindergarten. It's not for lack of enthusiasm though. He moves with an agitated gait; his arms splayed and flailing, his legs kick out in jerks and spasms. His head stays relatively still however, and he seems quite capable of keeping his balance for much of the time, teetering a bit, without his two minders, or maybe with only one.

(Birth trauma or prematurity or something, has left cystic gaps near the middle of his brain that have severed the pathways of his motor nerves to give him such a manifestation of cerebral palsy. For several reasons, E@L prefers to slot his small change into, of all the options, the box held out by the Singapore Spastic Society's porcelain leather and steel calipered girl who stands humbly, demurely, sadly, aching to be pitied, or forgiven, in a blue dress and white pinafore at the exit to the Cold Storage super[well, reasonable]market where he shops.)

This morning, the young boy has ventured from the concrete path, his two minders chasing him as he moves as quick as he can, unaided, on to the wide nature strip, under the lee of a tall tree. There, anfractuous roots are exposed, certain to catch his feet. But he easily skips over them and makes a clang on the steel cover of a concrete drain access. Perhaps he is heading to a small construction machine, a digger parked behind a safety barricade on the grass. (The area is always being dug up and restored.)

His face is aglow, beaming blissfully! His eyes wide and his mouth full of laughter - this was all amazing to him. What joy to see a digger! Look at it! All yellow, metal, angular, mechanical, and caked in mud! How awesome!

~~~~~~~~

This same morning, after 10 days of following his bosses advice: "Take it easy and rest at home, big fella", E@L has to go the office to get his replacement work visa. He is reluctant, like most of these little kids. His eyebrows are close together in a scowl, as they often are when he is outside (or inside). It may be that the sun had assaulted his eyes when came out of the apartment (he raises his arms across his face in a mock vampire pose and hisses, but no-one is there so the gag remains his own, for himself to enjoy with a sardonic grunt as he takes out his sunglasses), or it may be chronic misanthropy, but the permanent crease to the left of his glabella* is a reminder to him, in the mirror, of how little he sometimes admires the physical world.

Now, as he walks, head down, on his street towards the gauntlet of children, his sunglasses are on, his ear-pods are in. They cancel (at $400, so they should) the white noise of the planet, the chatter of the children, the roaring traffic, replacing it all with a left-of centre political podcast which is in the business of confirming all the nastiness and misery that pervades the planet. His feet ache already (still!) despite expensive medication. His chest feels funny. Is it another heart attack, more angina? Can he take another step without falling down dead? Shrug. So what? Or should he belch away some gastric wind; would that be the issues this time?

He knows he has limited time - a mild heart attack two weeks ago... Wake up call number two. But the arteries can't be stented this time. So it's next week for the big bypass operation. He wishes he didn't know so much about cardiac surgery.

He wishes he hadn't observed open heart surgery himself, seen the beating heart glistening in the space between the retracted halves of a split sternum, watched it slow and then pause as the heart-lung machine took over. He wishes he hadn't wondered if they would be able to start it up again.

He doesn't know everything about the procedure and its complications, but enough to scare the living shit out of him if he lets the thoughts creep in... And he knows exceptionally well how smoothly things go when they go right, and how quickly they can go wrong. He has worked in, or visited in his clinical/commercial capacity, hundreds of hospitals over the last 40 years....

He looks up to see a spastic child in rapture at the orange safety barrier next to a small dirty excavator.

~~~~~~~~

Hey, E@L, what's your problem? You're rich beyond your needs, you have a ridiculously untaxing job where you turn up, sit quietly and unobtrusively, keep your poppy-head down, and take home a packet of money each month. You travel extensively for work into fascinating places, stay in great hotels. You have all the books you (and 500 other people) would ever need, let alone read. Your domestic helper has been cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner for you this last week - plus popping her head in at night to confirm you are still breathing.

You are a literate, well-fed(!), employed, home-owning, tertiary-educated, Australian, white male. You are well into the top 1% of the earth's human inhabitants.

You have friends and acquaintances coming out of the Whatsapp and FB wazoo.

What is there to melancholy about? Really. Why be sad? Harden the fuck up, snowflake.

Why worry?

Open heart surgery coming up next week, E@L points out. I could die. Really, I could. This is no joke.

Is that it E@L? Is that what you're concerned about? Everyone knows your heart will, literally, be in good hands, in a world class place.

Stop reading about Ivan Ilyich, and stop memorising those meaningless Japanese Death Haiku.

That 1-3% risk, does it really matter? Just because the previous 97-99 patient were fine doesn't mean you number is up. That's the Gambler's Fallacy: you know this. You're not a smoker, not diabetic, only 60.

~~~~~~~

As one of those Japanese poets says: If you don't wake up, you'll never know that didn't wake up. If you do wake up, even better.

~~~~~~~

Yeah, pain, pain, bad, bad, bad pain for a few weeks. Big man, be tough. It's the price to pay for the next 10-plus years of not worrying about any funny feelings in you chest, because you know all has been sorted.

Maybe even 20 years of getting back on track with your life. Writing (good, bad, crap, funny or not, who really cares?), travelling with friends, laughing, and enjoying great times those good people in amazing places with wonderful wine and food. Won't it be magnificent! Decades of it!

So wake up to yourself now, instead. Look at this kid on the nature strip by the digger.

Give the world a second chance, be thrilled by it. Jump for joy. Laugh. Crack a bottle of that 2006 Barossa Valley Shiraz tonight (and give me a call when you do).

Be the ecstatic kid with cerebral palsy, not your miserable old self.

Enjoy life. It's all you've got.

~~~~~~~

Good luck with the surgery,

E@L

and never refuse an offer of that blissful pain relief.



(* Look it up.)

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Calculus


[NB: First written in July 2012. I was either in Sienna just recovering from my heart attack, or in Hamburg staying with friends right after that, waiting to be allowed to fly long distance again. This was amongst some (I think) unpublished rambles I found in Evernote while tidying up. . Maybe I used some of it in other posts, but I can't find evidence of that right now (and the swimming pool is beckoning). Some attitudes to life from that time are probably not well placed in a post "#metoo" context. Another one or two old unposteds to come, I hope.]

~~~~~~~~

A man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong -- acting the part of a good man or of a bad.
Schopenhauer.

~~~~~~~~

I'm not suddenly getting philosophical. I've alway been struggling to understand how a knowledge of philosophy can influence my actions (preferably for the better). It's more than just remembering which philosopher said what (and not a chance of me remembering anything correctly), but it's also the implementation of their philosophy into my life. Perhaps I mean the moral code (whatever that means - and epistemology is also an issue) they offer, suggest or demand. Perhaps I am referring to The Meaning Of Life, or perhaps my reasoning leads to that just because there is no god, and no meaning, and one needn't be polite and scrape the mud off one's shoes before entering another's sanctum.

However, in our second by second existence, life moves too fast. Often it is not until after a situation has passed that I realise an opportunity to make a philosophical decision has passed. Sigh. So rather than being proactive, my philosophical thoughts tend therefore to be post hoc, and I end the day contemplating my failures, and kicking myself for such moral recidivism, after the event. I look back at the muddy footprints and hang my head.

Essentially I see myself as a good man who occasionally plays the bad, and then agonises about it in the pub afterwards. Well sometimes I don't agonise, sometimes I tell everyone how brilliant it was, but that's not the real me. Really.

Writing a blog, a public diary, gives you a chance to examine yourself and your life, to lay it all out in public to incomplete strangers (I feel like I know you, all four of you - hey I do know three of you!), which is what I have been doing in many of my posts, whether you've noticed it or not.

And, now, writing after I've recently had a momentously memorable memento mori moment and was mere millimeters of coronary artery lumen from being no more, well, that is most likely to push a ruminative soul into thinking fuzzily about the otherwise petty matters of life and death, right and wrong, love and sex, and Woody Allen movies in general.

~~~~~~~

Am I lying when I write in my blog? I do try to be honest in essence, even when I am making things up, because it's the general mood underlying the exploits of the composite character that is Bruce that I most wish to convey. The tendency to anger, frustration, and recrimination when you are aware that you (or others, usually the others!) are violating codes that you once held as immutable, but now see as arbitrary. These are out there forever at least until the heat death of the universe, or until something better than the Internet comes along, whichever comes first, so it's too late to go back now.

Not that anyone in the future will give a flying rat's arse. There are already way too many physical books in the universe, let alone all this electronic verbiage. Who would bother? No-one reads the old plays of Voltaire any more, even though these were the basis of his fan base when he was alive (I heard this on podcast - fuck reading them). It cheers me to think this in a way. Because he didn't write Candide until he was 65, and here I am 55 and done fuck all.

~~~~~~~

"The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Socrates

That old chestnut. The Unexamined Life - great name for a blog! Do you think about what you are about to do, what you end up doing, what you have done? More than just wondering what a certain hero might have done in a certain situation - what would Bryan Boytano, Jesus Christ, Tyler Durden, Atticus Finch, Timothy Leary, or Calvin/Hobbes do - are there any hesitation any more, any second thoughts? I wonder about my friends sometimes: Have they just given up on thinking about these issues. Am I Robinson Crusoe here? Was I right in doing that, was the outcome for the best? Primum non nocere? Was anyone watching? Is my reputation (hah!) tarnished? If you answer Yes to any of these questions, Press 1.

I don't necessarily approve of certain behaviours that humans get up to given the chance, though I groan at certain excesses, I don't condemn them out of hand and obviously I don't shy from the milder ones either. I just like to think about them. And sigh. And wonder. And take a Xanax if sleep won't come.

Bad is relative. I'm sorry, but it is.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Utilitarianism used to attract me. Simple rules: maximise pleasure and minimise pain, and not just personally but universally. If it doesn't hurt anyone and you are having a ball, why not? Or it does good and you won't injure yourself, (the other way round) why not? I think that utilitarianism is attractive because of my previous employment as a fetal deformity hunter-killer. Hunger Games with an ultrasound probe. For the best it was, Skywalker. The ostensible justification, to minimise suffering and grief, reduce the overall pain and infirmity in the world. The hidden agenda: save precious resources, defend hospital budgets, doctor's time, preclude those expensive surgeries to keep fixing things. (I am only half serious here.) Protect parents from unnecessary grief and diminished freedom or whatever you want to call looking a disabled child, or at least give parents the information to make an slightly less ill-informed decision.

There are so many "push the old man in front of the train to save five young lives" situations in medical ethics. After a while it gets to you. No, that's wrong. After a while it doesn't get to you any more.

[Don't misunderstand though, I am completely pro-choice and my old job - I still justify it this way - was to provide full and accurate information so that, if necessary, a genuine informed choice could be made.]

~~~~~~

So I am still happy with that part of my history, mostly. But in the rest of my life, now that these justifications are no longer required every evening as I look in the mirror? I am no longer convinced that the narrow moral calculus of Utilitarianism offers the most realistic way to live, despite its persistence into the present time, such with Peter Singer's tit-for-tat stance on how we should live in a practical, real world.

Kant, not that I understand much of this stuff, whoah, nothing really except this: he proposed a matrix of moral action. One was the Categorical Imperative which - I blur like sotong over this - means something like - whatever should be done when a certain situation arises, must be able to become a universal law: it must be done every time, for everyone, everywhere. (Categorical as in "complete" - I categorically deny those allegations.)

But who or what has the power to define what should be done? God? The Bible? Allah, The Q'uran? Calvin & Hobbes? Kant, being a good Christian, said God.

Are there any universal imperatives, however? Thou shalt not kill? -- Except in war, except in prison, except in self-defence. Not universal then.

Thou shalt not wear thy shoes in the house. Thou shalt not get a rub and tug. Thou shalt not take a girl (or whatever) home from the 4FoWs or Nana Plaza. Thou shalt not push in the train queue or overcharge for a taxi ride. Thou shalt not have sex with family members, or animals. Thou shalt maintain marital fidelity.

Believe it not, almost all of the dilemmas mentioned are taboo in one culture, but not in others. For example, the Targaryens marry siblings in order to keep the blood-line of The Dragon pure. Hey.

Kant also makes the point that it is the act itself which is under consideration for being a categorical imperative. The act of pushing of the old man in front of the train, not the resulting saving of other lives. (That would by the hypothetical imperative, I believe.) So killing, while always wrong, is not always wrong.

While I at once preferred Nietzsche's modification of Kant's CI - you should only do what you would do if you had to do it again, that is, if you had to live your life over again to bring you to the exact same point of decision making. Would you do it over and over again in a Groundhog Day scenario? We know what Phil Conner did. He kept modifying his behaviour until he got it right, and eventually managed to shag Rita. If that is what you consider a successful or ethical life, then there you go. (I'm no longer sure this works for me: Andy MacDowell has aged a lot since then. Those teeth, too?)

And if I was a superman, beyond good and evil, and god was dead, then I could easily and consistently commit an act that those who share my cultural capital (all the benefits that my upbringing in my society and culture has given me) would consider to be wrong, because my will dictates it. I want to do it, and I can do it because I am better man than you. Seig Heil! So maybe not taking it that far.

There are then relativities to Kantian categories - they are not universal, or imperative after all. The utilitarian equation is not straight forward arithmetic. The numbers are weighted. What if, instead of pushing an old man in front of a train to save five young people, you have to push a your girlfriend in front of the engine in order to save five Nazis?

I am not satisfied with Nietzsche or any of the rationalists now, because even when I can see in advance the decision points that are going to arise and I know what I should do according to my reasoning, what I would want to do if it came to this again and again, but I can't stop myself from transgressing.

I am merely the mahout of reason on a untrained elephant of will (desire, urge, emotion).

My elephant is bigger and stronger than me. Rationalizing is what most of the time we consider reasoning: Yeh, that's where I wanted to go anyway, because... *see utilitarianism, above. That rider/elephant metaphor is an old one, but recently reinvented in some books I just read; Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, and The Happiness Myth. Which is partly where this discussion originates, that an Michael Sandel's Justice: What's The Right Thing To Do. Light reading.

~~~~~~~~~

Why do I (or Bruce) go Orchard Towers or to Soi Cowboy, or to Kings Cross for that matter, when I know I'll feel bad after going there, for a dozen reasons previously described elsewhere in this blog? Why do I throw my conscience out the window when physical gratification is on offer for a price? The answer is, I try not to any more. And I don't mean any less either - OK, yes I do, I mean less. Not everyone is (i.e. me), wants to be (i.e. me), or can be (i.e. me again) in a sexually satisfying relationship. OK, not everyone cheats in one of those unsatisfying relationship but, in unrelated news, not everyone is happy with their lives (and the utilitarians would say get the fuck out of there - or get out of there and fuck). And when the social pressure is somewhat relaxed thanks to certain cultural differences (real or imagined) in certain parts of the world where concepts such as marital fidelity are not so important, or perhaps more correctly, where infidelity not so disastrously unexpected - every HK Chinese wife expects her man to have his little wife in Shenzen, and her job is to look after the kids, not give BJs all the time - and peer pressure (elephants follow each other) is high, the sprit is willing but the flesh is tumescent.

~~~~~~~~

So I am talking about looking at what you do and what you have done, analysing and judging it: is this the way you want to have spent your life? Is this the way you want to be remembered? When you look back, are you proud of everything? Could you survive a parliamentary enquiry?

Is this how I anticipated living when I was back in Australia? Aren't there better things for me to do with the limited time I have? And this limitedness is feeling particularly real - as I was so unpleasantly reminded a few weeks at the top of the San Gimignano tower in Tuscany when that elephant seemed to be standing on my chest.

Short answer: I have no idea. I balance pleasure with slightly less pleasure, I balance the exploitation of women with the exploitation inherent in my needing to pay for sexual release (not that the money I pay all goes to the person I just screwed) due to urges I have no control over. I balance my guilt at this with the knowledge that my abstinence is not going to change anything; I balance rampant gadget greed with charity; I balance visiting prostitutes with masturbation. Elsewhere in life I balance little white lies with truth; I balance my privacy and my frequent isolation (work travel or angina attacks in Italy) with friendships and Facebook; I balance my atheism with the belief that people are usually good whether they follow a religion or not; I balance the awareness that I am not perfect with the frequent confirmations I see that there a hell of a lot of people out there doing a hell of a lot worse or more outrageous things than I would ever consider.

~~~~~~~


"It’s only human nature!”
"Nature, Mr Allnut, is what we were put on this earth to rise above!”


~~~~~~~

I thrash it out, but I do not despair that the answers don't come as easily as the questions. I relax. I shrug. I do what I can. I try makes others smile. I try to enjoy myself. I try to explain myself.

E@L


Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Same Same But Diffident


From the amount of time I spend in Thailand you'd have presumed no doubt that I have cadres of friends in BKK and Chiang Mai just itching to get the team together and get back partying with that wild and crazy E@L guy.

I don't.

I don't make friends easily out of casual acquaintances, out of the blue, across a crowded girlie-bar, even at work.

E@L

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Going Gently

E@L's  sleepwalking mum's tough questions at 5am: 

"Why are we here?" 

"Is this where we are meant to be?" 

"What are we supposed to do?" 

~~~~~~~~~~~

"I don't understand," she sighed as she settled under the sheets.

~~~~~~~~~~~

E@L's  superficial knowledge of Epicurean philosophy, nicely explained he thought, got her back to bed but obviously didn't help ease her existential concerns. 

~~~~~~~~~~~




~~~~~~~~~~

His sister, with her own issues, deals with their mum's fading lights every day and every night while E@L cavorts in sultry climes.

E@L 

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