The Inexplicable

Sunday, 31 December 2017
I meant to end the year on a funny note. I mean, funny as in humorous, not funny peculiar or funny as in the kid in the choir finds his voice suddenly breaking, something a childhood spent watching The Brady Bunch led me to believe happened a lot more in real life than it actually does.

But last night I found out someone died, and it occurred to me that I've gotten used to the weird feeling when someone dies. It's definitely the worst thing that's happened for me this year.

Death has been kind of drifting around in the past year and a bit. My confirmation sponsor, a long time friend of the family, died of a sudden heart attack on holiday in New Zealand. That was horrible and sad, and I realise now that 59 is really fucking young to die, but it's...somehow you can place it in the course of life events. It's dreadful, but believable.

The others...I can't even begin to understand.

There was Cindy, who was in my year at school when I transferred to the local high school. It was a big year group - 250 students at the beginning of Year 9 - and we didn't mix in the same groups, although she was in my drama class and performed in the class play I cowrote, so I knew her slightly, not well, and she left school at the end of Year 10 (by the HSC I think we'd dwindled to a class of about 80).

Maybe five years after high school, I ran into her in a pub in Newcastle and she told me "Wow, you got beautiful". We had a brief but friendly, alcohol blurred chat, then I never saw her again.

When a class mate of posted on Facebook that someone had died, and upon asking who, he told me it was Cindy, I was very sad but can't say I was gasping in shock. I don't know what happened. Does it matter?

That classmate was Shayne. Shayne I knew a bit better; he stayed at school til the end of the HSC and we went to some of the same parties. He was genuinely friendly, and was the first person to ever notice my severe depression: "you just look so sad all the time". 

But it was the Nineties. There was no Headspace or Beyond Blue, no helplines or forums. We got on with things. That was not a good thing. It is better now, that there is awareness and help.

He came out a bit later in life, and there was a boyfriend, and then there wasn't, and Shayne took his own life earlier this year. 

Shayne had known Cindy, been pretty good friends with her I think. Did it touch something off? Were the seeds of a contagion in the air? I don't know. Maybe it had something to do with it, maybe not.

But that one, yes, was a fucking heartbreaking shock.

Then Brendon. We worked at the same office for a few years, a pretty small team. We didn't have much in common, and if this was a romcom we'd have fallen in hilarious, opposites-attract love, but as it is we just got on okay as workmates and that was it, then I left and lost touch.

But still, he was only my age I think, and died in an accident a few days ago, and that is just too young to die.

From years of reading the Newcastle Herald Memoriam and Celebration notices, I've long noticed that more people in Newcastle seem to die young, at least compared to the Sydney Morning Herald. And there's been people I've known before.

But these three deaths, of three people born in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and who should then have lived until the 2050s, at least...I can't wrap my head around it. The universe has been off  kilter for a while now, I think everyone gets that feeling. And this, for sure, is three kinds of wrong. 

And soon it will be a new year, a year that leaves these people behind, as time goes on without them. The world is poorer for those we lose. In 2018 I'll try harder to hold on to the ones who are still here.

Spoiling non fiction for everyone

Friday, 22 December 2017
Sad to see the last episode of the First Tuesday Bookclub on the ABC but I've now got years worth of books I've seen on the show, thought "Mmm, I'll have to check that out" then never actually done so to get through, so that's nice*. I've long given up even trying to be current, but Jennifer Byrne assured me that I'm ahead of the curve in one regard: it is the year of non-fiction, judging that two of the best sellers in 2017 were The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck and The Barefoot Investor.

I admit it is a little dispiriting that those best sellers are a leftover from Oprah's Living Your Best Life Self Help series repackaged with a hot orange cover and "edgy" title, or investment advice from a guy who predicted in 2011 that the house prices were going to start falling. There is however a tonne of fascinating and readable non-fiction out there - if us lovers of fact weren't constantly reminded that someone else had read it first. It's a maddening thing. 

Why do people always spoil non fiction? On the internet where popular culture can fly around the planet in seconds (unless you're on the NBN), a culture of not spoiling plot twists for others who haven't been able to read or watch yet has sprung up, and it's really rather lovely, especially if you're an Australian as old as I am and can remember how episodes of popular TV shows took months to reach us but the spoilers didn't; we never got to figure out who shot Mr Burns, because we found out long weeks before we saw it. 

There was even the Keep The Secret hashtag, encouraging people who'd seen Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to keep quiet about major plot points for the benefit of those who hadn't seen the play yet (sparing them the disappointment, apparently).

But when a major work of non fiction is released, it's somehow considered okay - nay even mandatory! - for any discussion of the work to include every damn point in the text. One may argue that in the case of non fiction, these are things that already happened, but all of us have to find out about things the first time once. Anyway, when a non fiction book reveals something really juicy - for example, in Niki Savva's The Road To Ruin - instead of leaving it to readers to discover for themselves, every review and media discussion of the book seems compelled to mention the titillating notion of an affair between deposed PM Tony Abbott and his chief of staff Peta Credlin in the first breathless moments. It's really annoying. Us non fiction readers do it because we like to learn, but we also enjoy ;pacing, character development, the twist in the tale.

But we should be able to encounter these at are own pace, not be left grimly going over plot points already chattered to death by the commentariat like picking over the carcass of the Christmas Turkey on 27th December hoping to find enough meat to make a sandwich. 

Whether on your nationally broadcast radio show or just talking with a friend, if you're discussing non fiction - let us know what the book is about, sure. But don't give away spoilers. You're just as big a dick for doing that with non fiction as any work of fantasy.

* I actually bought Infinite Jest, it's sitting on the shelf with the two bookmarks and notepad I was advised to keep handy during the process and I will read it one day.  

A safe bet the IPA are dangerous idiots

Sunday, 17 December 2017
An astonishing 76% of non-casino poker machines in the world are in Australia, a it was revealed this week. What was even more astonishing was the reaction of the IPA to calls for a ban. It's not so surprising that the far right/libertarian IPA are against a ban, but what was weird and creepy here was the logic of IPA policy director and former Young Liberals president Simon Breheny:

“Yes, it might mean it solves the pokie problem, but it doesn’t give them the tools they need to solve the issues that might come up in their life down the track,” he said. “You’ve got to give people the mental tools to manage those risks themselves.”

Apparently the billions of dollars poured into poker machines each year is a valuable learning experience and if we take them away people will never learn to sort their own problems out.

Of course problem gambling using poker machines disproportionately affects older people and those from socio-economically disadvantaged groups. Maybe what they need is more poker machines to teach them how to manage their disadvantaged lives and achieve their goals.

Heck if poker machines are such a great tool for teaching life's lessons maybe we could send people conscripted to work for the dole to play the pokies. Why not get pokies into schools! That ought to teach kids how to take responsibility for their lives!

Really though. The IPA are a pack of moron flavoured biscuits and their risk management BS is to the psychology of addiction what Pete Evans is to health and nutrition. It's not enough to just ignore them. This dangerous rubbish needs to be called out.

Toxic masculinity makes me want to stay fat

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

It's been so long since I started this blog, back then Mark Latham seemed like a hopeful choice for Australia's future, if you wanted a new ringtone you'd SMS Jamster Mobile for $4.95, Kim Kardashian was only on her first marriage and besides you'd never even heard of her, and I was thin. Really, really thin. It couldn't last though.

As an author, Nick Hornby is brilliant at bringing the stagnant corners of the human psyche to a humorous light, but he gets it way wrong in classic angst tale High Fidelity when he says ageing from 25 to 35 is not life's most fattening journey. I'm sorry if you've not fully crossed that threshold of life yet, but yes it is. Youthful metabolisms slump to a crawl, social (or regular) smoking habits are abandoned, exercise routines (and sex lives) get pushed aside in the service of mortgages and small children, and the next thing you know, you wake up one morning and you're a fat bastard. A 35 year old fat bastard.

Add in plantar fascitis, medication, comfort eating and a recurrence of some old pregnancy issues making it excruciatingly painful to stand and walk sometimes, and here I am. Really, really fat.

And I don't want to be any more. I want to be able to shop retail again without paying $45 for a t shirt that looks like an angry child's finger painting blown up to cover a jazz festival when it rains. I don't want to be G's fat Mum. I don't want to sweat walking to the fridge. I don't want a double chin or the other seven. I don't want to die of a heart attack and have my relatives have to choose between a double wide burial or donating my corpse to KFC.

And whilst body positivity is great thing in principle, I have worries about the Healthy At Every Size movement and fat acceptance in general. Medical research still tells us that obesity is really unhealthy, that being "fat but fit" still results in negative health outcomes, and there are very few medical reasons for being obese beyond eating too many calories and a sedentary lifestyle. There's a lot of noise around this, but as far as I can tell, the best idea is to eat a varied diet with fresh fruit and vegetables and lean protein, get a bit of exercise, and discuss any concerns with your doctor. I don't think any young person in the normal BMI range is going to gorge themselves to obesity in seeking to emulate the social media stars of the fat acceptance movement, but it still creeps me out a little in promoting an unhealthy lifestyle.

So yeah, I want to lose a good bit of weight and get more active, and fit into my non-muumuu wardrobe again.

But there's a little part of me saying "I don't wanna". And it's not even the part that revels in the fact that ice cream is so, so much better than it was when I was a kid. (Why did the manufacturers of those giant 4L 1980s tubs of tasteless ice milk bother with the other two "flavours"? Neapolitan? We just wanted the chocolate).

It's that for the past few years, my fat has been a safety blanket for me, protecting me from the male gaze. It's been glorious. The past half decade or so has been blissfully free from street harassment, from chatting up, from chatting in general, even from men who would ask me what I am reading. Men look at me, their minds instantly register "ugh, fat", and move on. Just when we started to talk about the street harassment, the groping and propositioning and sexual insults, that women face their whole lives for daring to work or study or use public transport or exist in public space, for me it stopped.

Maybe it would have stopped anyway on account of getting old, but by being fat, I have been able to go about my business without anyone staring at my arse or trying to remove my ear buds or sitting pressed up next to me on the bus despite that there's heaps of free seats. I don't think I've even been told I'd look prettier if I smiled.

Maybe not all men who did that intended me harm, but I feared they all did, and from experience.

And I feel almost guilty that I avoided my share of the burden for a bit. I wish I could wipe away all the generations of habitus and years of conditioning that has ended up here, with women finding simply going about their daily business frightening and exhausting, a certain percentage of men making women's  lives scary and tiring, and the rest of them in blissful ignorance. I cannot make that change, not all at once, not enough to make it count on my own. So I feel guilty, in my way, that I avoided the harassment that was then piled on to other women - guilt being another feeling we're familiar with.

We can make it stop, I'm sure, by speaking up. But you know what, instead of women having to do all the work for once, let men take some of the burden in ending street harassment. Guys, if you see a mate doing it, stop him. Heck if you see a stranger doing it, stop him. (And stop him, the man. Don't swoop in as a white knight trying to be the one to get the date. That's just adding to the problem).

And I will lose the weight. I'll just miss my fatty security blanket. Being fat might be unhealthy, but it's also making a statement that my body is mine. It's not for men. No woman's body should be viewed that way. But they are, and that's the problem we have here. It's a helluva choice to be making, but I have to shed my armour and go back into the scary world unprotected. But if I did choose to stay fat, it would hardly be the last time toxic masculinity lead to harming a woman's body.
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