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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Be selfish

It’s been almost a month since I wrote anything here. I won’t force myself to write, neither here nor in my creative writing. One of the things I am trying to do is to live life more freely, without that sense of obligation that others would impose upon me, and which I have long since imposed upon myself.

It’s all part of the process of accepting who I am. If I’m successful at this, others are going to have to accept that too... or not, as they choose. If I decide not to be who I actually am because of that non-acceptance, then I will have failed myself.

Is this selfish? Possibly. I am, in fact, quite a selfish person. It may be a kind of self-justification to claim that all of us are ultimately selfish, but I claim it anyway. It’s okay to be selfish. Some animal parents will abandon their young to a predator if protecting them means that they would die too—leaving the young to die in any case. It makes more sense to save yourself and live to breed another day.

Does this mean I wouldn’t dive in front of a bus to save a child, even at great risk to myself? No it doesn’t. In this case it makes ‘sense’ to save a younger member of the species, who probably has far more to contribute at all levels to the future of the species than I do. Not that such thoughts enter into consideration. Such a response is instinctive, not considered. It is not heroic. If I had time to think about it, I might not do it.

By being selfish, by focusing on the things I enjoy doing, rather than those I feel I ‘ought’ to do, I am actually far more productive. The things I enjoy doing are the things I do best. Or the things I do best are the things I enjoy. That chicken-and-egg debate is purely academic.

Of course, sometimes, to be able to do the things I really want to do, and to enjoy the things I want to enjoy, I have to do and endure some things I don’t particularly want to do to prepare the way. I am prepared to sacrifice my immediate happiness or satisfaction in favour of future happiness and satisfaction. This is something children—and politicians—and perhaps ‘society’—find very difficult to do. Our culture of instant gratification has no place for the postponement of gratification. The postponement of gratification is no less selfish, though. It may be more selfish in the end, because the ultimate pay-off is greater and more enduring. Is the alcoholic more selfish who continues drinking for the sake of the immediate pay-off? Or is it the reformed alcoholic, who sacrifices the immediate pay-off in favour of greater and more enduring benefits?

Let me be me. Let me do the things I want and need to do, and I will be both happier and more productive in the world. 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review: According to Adam, compiled and edited by Beryl Belsky

I haven't written any reviews for a while. Partly this is because of time constraints. Partly it is because none of the books I've considered for review recently have come up to standard. I have decided to be a little more strict about what I will and won't review. While previously I set the minimum standard at 3 stars, I am raising this to 4. Essentially, then, in future these reviews can also be considered as recommendations. They are of books that I consider as ranging from very good to brilliant. 

This is the final review that I am publishing under the old regime, which will begin in the New Year.

Some months ago I reviewed the first volume of writing initially posted on The Writer’s Drawer website (http://www.thewritersdrawer.net/) and brought together by Beryl Belsky. I gave that anthology an overall rating of 3.5 stars. There were some outstanding pieces in that earlier volume, but also some that were less satisfactory. Here in this second volume the overall standard is more even. Although I will be giving this collection 3.5 stars also, I will be rounding it down to 3 stars rather than rounding it up to 4 (as I did with the first volume) where this is necessary. 

In the earlier volume, despite some less successful pieces, the outstanding pieces really lifted it. Here, although it reaches on ‘average’ a similar standard, there are fewer outstanding pieces to lift it higher. Although in general I prefer fiction to non-fiction, the best piece here for me is a non-fiction piece, ‘Sign Language for the Blind’ by Matt Burkholder. This is an excellent piece, beautifully written, without a word wasted or a word missing. This is the only piece to which I would give 5 stars. ‘A Boy, a Girl, and the Sea’ by Richelle Shem-Tov is a moving story, dealing with Arab/Israeli issues. It is simply and elegantly written and is worth 4.5 stars. ‘Snow’ by Dominik Jarco is nicely written, but skirts the edges of being overwritten. It’s actually great that the reader never knows what is really happening in this story. It captures a moment of intimate communication between two people. This also is worth 4.5 stars. The other story to which I would give 4.5 stars was ‘Joaquin’s Gold’ by Robert Walton. It is a nice story, well constructed and well written.

I would not single out any of the remaining stories as ‘bad’. I would rate them from 3 to 4 stars, with many falling in the middle at 3.5. Some—including the title story, ‘According to Adam’ by Declan O’Leary, ‘A Tale from Ikkapur’ by Sowmeni Menon, ‘Cecilia and Sun Tzu’ by Chris Palmer, ‘The Painting’ by Pothoppuram Kesavan Jayanthan, ‘Pigbeef’ by Niles Koenigsberg, and ‘Rain’ by Peter Hepenstall—would have benefited from tighter and more careful editing.

While the section entitled Biography/Realism seems to stand apart as ‘non fiction’, I found the division between Fantasy/Romance and Mystery/Horror/Adventure unnecessary and unhelpful. Perhaps this reflects a general dissatisfaction I have with the whole concept of ‘genre’. I would have been just as happy to see the whole fiction collection presented in alphabetical order by author, without this somewhat arbitrary division into broad genres.

So while ‘on average’ the standard here was similar to that of the first volume, I enjoyed it slightly less. This demonstrates for me how a collection can be lifted by some really outstanding pieces, even when it contains some poorer pieces. Here, while there were no real clunkers, the only really outstanding piece was ‘Sign Language for the Blind’. This alone was not enough to lift the collection to 4 stars. I will be rounding it down to 3 stars where required.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

'Having a go'

During his recent reshuffle of his cabinet ministers, the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, appointed Scott Morrison as Minister for Social Services. Scott Morrison was formerly in charge of immigration or, rather, what it became: border protection. He was responsible for implementing the government’s hardline, heartless and—some would say—illegal border protection policies. Now he is in charge of social services. Australians should strap themselves in for a bumpy ride.

During his speech while explaining his reshuffle, Abbott explained Morrison’s job to us. His job was to ensure that ‘everyone was having a go’. Not—in a much more Australian phrase—to ensure that everyone in Australian ‘had a fair go’. The implication, of course, is that those who receive some kind of benefit from the government—unless you’re a mining company—are not really having a go. It goes without saying that there are people who are not ‘having a go’ in our society. Some of them are unemployed or disabled, some of them are working, and some of them are in the Federal Cabinet. But Abbott’s word reveals once again his underlying ideology and belief system. We all must be ‘lifters, not leaners’, ‘workers, not shirkers.’ We must all ‘have a go’.

There will always be those who take advantage of any and every system. They are among the poorest and the wealthiest in our nation. But social security should be first and foremost about security (a much more important form of security than border security). It is about ensuring that our citizens are secure when tough times hit. And they do. It is about support. It is about providing a service. People, from time to time, need to lean, and should be allowed to do so. Social security is not a privilege. It is a right. It is—to use a word Abbott hates—an entitlement.

This does not mean that I am some kind of naive, bleeding heart liberal, although I don’t really see those epithets as an insult. Of course we should prevent people (and governments and corporations) from rorting the system. But the primary function of social services is not to ensure that everyone is ‘having a go’. It is to ensure that everyone ‘has a fair go’. It is to ensure that people are given a hand up when they are down. It is to encourage (not bludgeon) people to participate in society. And its purpose is to continue to support people even when they are unable to contribute (at least in the narrow, economic sense of that term). If, sometimes, that means society has to carry along a few bludgers, so be it. The choice is: support those in need and put up with a few bludgers; or get rid of all the bludgers and punish people who are genuinely in need along the way. It seems fairly clear what Abbott’s preference is.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

This Weird Universe

I have been reading a biography of Einstein, and it is reminding me of the fascinating discoveries in physics during the first three decades of the last century in relativity and quantum physics. I cannot claim to understand the mathematics of these theories, nor to succeed entirely in visualising them. Nevertheless, every so often I glimpse, from the corner of my eye, something which, I suspect, is the reality of the universe described by these theories.

Einstein, of course, was deeply troubled by the development and implications of quantum theory until the end of his life. Quantum theory seemed to undermine the strict rules of cause and effect which he believed were necessary for any understanding of reality. He believed that quantum theory actually undermined physics, and undertook a long and fruitless quest to find an underlying theoretical framework that would reintroduce, at a deeper level, strict causality into the universe. I would not propose that his failure to do so means that such a theoretical framework does not exist and will not one day be discovered.

For the time being, however, I find the idea that strict causality does not govern the universe at its deepest (known) level, and that chance plays a fundamental role in the nature of reality, absolutely fascinating, if not awe inspiring.

There may be those who believe that this lack of strict causality let’s divine causality in through the back door. On the contrary, though, what this says to me is that there is a spontaneous causality embedded in the natural world, one in which creation ex nihilo is a characteristic of nature and does not depend on the intervention of a deity. In my opinion, this makes reality much more interesting and exciting than one into which a deity must intervene.

Friday, December 5, 2014

'Getting through...'

Some of you will have noticed that there has been something of a hiatus in my blog posts over the last month or so. Well, it’s been one of those times when life decided to happen all over me. I went through a change in relationship ‘status’; as a result of which I had to find an apartment to rent; as a result of which I had an almost month long battle with Telstra, Australia’s largest telecommunications company, to get the phone connected and my internet set up. That was only finalised yesterday.

And...

In the middle of all this I discovered that my father has advanced pancreatic cancer, which has spread to his liver and lungs. Now, my father is eighty-seven years old, so eventually something like this was bound to happen. I am in Adelaide at the moment, where my parents live, staying with my sister. Adelaide is about 3000 km away from my home in Cairns. It’s a big country.

Now, I’m pleased to say that my father is in no pain, but he is losing weight and becoming weaker by the day. His worst problem is the difficulty he has breathing. It makes talking a herculean task. Being unable to care for himself he is now receiving palliative care in a nursing home. My mother, although physically quite robust, is not able to take care of herself either, and she is now in the same home—not necessarily the blessing it might seem at first sight, but that’s another story, which will probably never be told.

So my mind has been on other things.

One of the things I have realised is how easy it is to slip into a ‘getting through’ mode of being. The last four weeks have needed to be gotten through rather than lived. I just needed to get through the task of finding an apartment... Through the battle with Telstra... Through the emotional hardship of facing my father. I just have to get through this weekend, not just facing my father, but facing my mother who can [he says with some restraint] be a difficult woman.

I would not want this ‘getting through’ to become habitual, to form the consistent pattern of my life, or become my overriding attitude to life. Life is to be lived, not endured.

Despite my father’s poor prognosis, and despite his obvious physical difficulties, he is in good spirits. He is facing the situation with dignity, courage and even humour. Of course there is fear, and sometimes humiliation, when nurses have to assist him when he goes to the toilet; but he is facing up to these fears and humiliations, and talking about them. In short, he is being heroic. My father has not lived a ‘great’ life. In many ways, from the ouotside, it seems like a rather small, insignificant life. But he is a big man within that small life. I have always suspected this, and I suppose there have been moments when I (and probably he) might wondered what and who he might have been in different circumstances. But now some of that greatness of spirit is shining through for the world to see.

I realised as I prepared to fly down to Adelaide that there was a chance he could even die before I got here. He could still die this weekend. Even if he doesn’t, this might well be my last chance to see him. I wanted to say something to him, without embarrassing him, without becoming too mushy and emotional. I wanted to say to him that the things I like about myself, the things I consider to be my true strengths... These things I owe to him.

I had the chance to say it, and for that I am thankful.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Simplifying the world, i.e., racism

Nothing about the world in which we live is simple. Whether we are talking about the physical laws underlying the universe, the biological and evolutionary processes determining life on earth, or the complex psychosocial world of human behaviour... Everything is very messy and very complicated.

Part of the scientific method involves simplifying certain complex processes so that they can be partially understood. For example, in order to model complex processes such as weather patterns or climate, simplifications are made. It is impossible to account for every variable, so some attempt is made to identify the most important factors. In experimental science, hypotheses are tested under controlled conditions, as much as possible. This means that conditions are created in which only one or a few variables can influence the outcome of the experiment. This is an attempt to exclude the many thousands of other factors that can influence events in uncontrolled conditions. Science always arrives at a simplified view of reality. This is a necessary and constructive process, without which we would be floundering in the chaos that is reality.

Human beings take the same approach in the psychosocial realm: we generalise and simplify. We give things names and we group them together. Consider an object with four legs supporting a level platform above the ground. There are a vast number of such objects, and it would be utter chaos if every single one of them had to be assigned its own, unique name. So we generalise, we draw out common features, and all such objects we designate by the term ‘table’. We are even able to accommodate objects with more or fewer legs under the same term. This is a very useful exercise.

Nevertheless, having carried out this procedure, we do not then draw the incorrect conclusion that all tables are the same. Nor do we think that we have completely and comprehensively defined an object by calling it a table. Is it a wooden table or a plastic table or a metal table? Is it round or is it square? How tall or long is it? What colour is it? We are able to accommodate these differences and acknowledge and value these nuances within the framework of ‘table’. When it suits us, we can do that.

We can also choose not to.

Racism, sexism and other ‘isms’ are cases in which we choose not to.

In such cases we choose to ignore or devalue the differences and nuances, and convince ourselves that all ‘tables’ are the same. Once a ‘table’, always a ‘table’. A ‘table’ never changes its... erm... spots. You can never trust a ‘table’. I’m not furniturist, but, you know, it’s not fair that ‘tables’ get get all the tablecloths.

We need structure in the world, and names and categories help provide some of that structure. Unfortunately, we abuse such structures when it suits us, when it becomes convenient to ignore difference and nuance, to score political points. I’m not even the same as me from one day to the next, so it is silly in the extreme to think that all ‘tables’ are the same.

At its best, science recognises that its knowledge of the world is provisional. What we know and understand today is only an approximation of what the world is really like. Furthermore, it is the exceptions, the counter-examples—the things that don’t quite fit in the box—that serve to expand our knowledge of the world. In the myth of the Garden of Eden, God gave to Adam the task of naming all the animals. But naming something is only the beginning, not the end, of fully understanding and appreciating it.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Literary fiction has not gone entirely the way of the dodo.

I recently read The Luminaries (Granta), the very long and complex novel by New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2013. It’s a very well-written book, although not one that I particularly enjoyed. The reason I mention it here is because it pleases me to think that a book of this type—some 832 pages in length, written in a pseudo-Victorian style, with a very complex formal structure—can find a publisher in this day and age. It can go on to win major literary awards, and also sell quite well. It’s not a best-seller, I guess, in that it probably did not make the NYT best-seller list—if it did, please correct me—and it may not have reached the Amazon top 100—again correct me if I am wrong. But I believe that as of August this year it had sold well in excess of half a million copies. I wouldn’t be whinging if one of my books sold a tenth as many.

I also recently read Burial Rites (Picador) by Hannah Kent, another novel which would hardly be considered mainstream or commercial. Again, it is great that there are still publishers willing to invest in books which have artistic merit, without necessarily having guaranteed market success. Having said that, I think a movie of Burial Rites is at least in the development stage; I believe a mini-series is planned for The Luminaries. So there is probably even money to be made from non-mainstream fiction too, for those who are ready to take the chance on it.

I often complain about the quality of the books that emerge from mainstream publishers. They seem to cater mainly to the current fad, with little regard for literary quality. While I can understand that publishing is first and foremost a business these days, I’m sure there is room within the publishing world to invest some of the profits from the blockbuster best-sellers into projects which may not have best-seller potential, but which nevertheless have artistic, cultural and literary value. There will even be a few of these that, perhaps surprisingly, more than pay their way.

It’s also pleasing to realise that there are plenty of readers out there who are willing to work a little harder, and don’t necessarily want their books to mimic movies and/or video games.