Farewell to Ally

Eulogy, 28-7-2015

Although I write words for a living, I don’t have the words to describe how I feel about my sister. I’ll try my best. I loved her and she was a part of me, and she always will be.

Ally was there from my very first days, and she decided to be the best big sister ever – and as we all know, Ally stuck to her word.

I learned how to be in this world from my sister Allison. She was upright in her sense of right and wrong, and judged herself by the same high standards that she held for others.

From Ally, I learned how to be good (even if I have not always heeded the lesson). I learned that it is more important to be kind and humble than rich or famous. Ally’s role models were the brave yet humble women of history, the ones who helped behind the scenes – Mother Teresa, Saint Bernadette, Our Lady. My role model was Ally, who served as a kind of summary of all the virtues for me, a shortcut to God.

Debbie and Dave have talked about what an inspiration she has been to everyone who met her, and what a bossy little sister she could be. As we grew up and Ally got sicker, in some ways it seemed that our roles reversed. But on an important emotional level, Ally was (and will always be) my big sister. You see, I knew she was always there, a blanket of goodwill, shielding me from the greater sufferings of the world – with Ally as my big sister, I could take love for granted – what a privilege – I would never know the absence of someone willing to fight in my corner until their last breath.

Indeed it was from Ally that I learned how to love. Love big, love wide, arms open to hug the world.

From Ally, I learned how to dance in shopping centres, how to be silly in hospital wards, how to laugh loud in the wrong parts of movies and not care what people think, and then discover that they are laughing with you.

Ally, you have left a gaping hole in my life where the rainbow used to be. But I promise to colour my world brightly, a riot of colours, a veritable burst of sunshine on every day no matter how grey.

Whenever I or others visited or called Ally, she would always ask, ‘Have you been behaving?’ Ally, I promise you that the answer will always be a resounding, ‘No.’

Ally-boot, this is our lament, this is our lovesong, this is our leavetaking. On behalf of all of us here today, thank you for spending your time here on Earth with us, helping us to be our better selves, showing us how to delight in the now, reminding us to think of others first, embodying Christ in everything you did, right to the end.

Wherever you go next, I know that you will share your love and radiance; you will pepper the ground with flowers wherever you walk; music will emanate from the air around you; and all will be dancing with you to your songs. You can smile now, if you want. The boat is all set to take you across calm waters now honey. Go with our blessing and our love, Ally slotsonlinecanada.ca.

Blood on Tony Abbott’s hands

Maybe not yet. But calling the tragic events of Sydney yesterday “politically-motivated violence” is like asking people to start racial riots.

This was an act of a crazy guy. A nut job. A sociopath with a criminal history.

Calling this politically-motivated violence is like calling the Cronulla riots an act of patriotism.

Criminals, not terrorists.

But our prime minister’s words will light the keg. There will be racial riots again in this town. MORE PEOPLE WILL BE HURT and it will be our prime minister’s fault.

My question is: where did he get the gun? There seem to have been a lot more guns around in violent crimes in the last two or three years. Could the prime minister perhaps do and say something useful about that, rather than torching the tinder and watching us burn?




Something pernicious is afoot. It’s not a conspiracy; except that it is.

As many of you will know, I research for a living. I spend many of my waking hours talking to people and then thinking about what they said, what it tells me about their views of themselves and the world, and what that might mean for my clients.

In my early “career,” I worked as a policy adviser in the Office of the Status of Women (another Whitlam legacy, already dismantled). So the term “structural discrimination” is not unknown to me.

So why has it taken me months, possibly years, to remember those two words and apply them to some of the equity issues I see arising in the social research I do?

Naturally my ageing brain should take most of the blame: those two words have probably been thoroughly buried under mounds of appointments I have missed and kindy costume days I have failed to remember (luckily, my daughter dresses as if every day is a dress up day).

But you know, for fun, I like to read about the history of neoliberalism (I don’t get out a great deal). I enjoy big words. I like abstractions. Give me a pithy phrase to explain why it is so hard for minorities or women to take advantage of opportunities, and I will use it ten times in the next ten minutes.

So why did it take me so long to remember that unintentional barriers to government services, employment, and justice are not just oversights by well-meaning people; they are actual, real instances of “structural discrimination”?

Here is my theory.

I could not remember those two words, “structural discrimination,” because we don’t talk about discrimination at all any more. On the rare occasion that one of the Human Rights Commissioners is on the evening news, just seeing the word “Discrimination” in their job title makes me sub-consciously cringe.

Implying that one social group could dominate another, is to contradict the fundamental rhetoric of neoliberalism: that everyone can make it on their own merits, and if they don’t it is their own fault. Structural discrimination does not happen; people simply fail to sort themselves out.

The word discrimination, like feminism, has fallen out of common usage as the neoliberal agenda has gained ground. (An interesting aside about neoliberalism: despite the rhetoric that greater labour market flexibility will lead to greater prosperity, in no single country has this been found to be true for the common man or woman. By contrast, corporate wealth has most definitely increased. See? I did read the first few chapters of Piketty).

People don’t want to feel like victims, which is fair enough. But it denies a simple truth: sometimes, we are.

Of course, you can turn yourself from a victim into a fighter pretty bloody fast. But that does not change the fact that bad shit happens to good people. Sometimes it is unavoidable: a car crash, a cyclone. When it is the result of discrimination, it is totally avoidable: a government service offered only in English; a continuously renewed contract which runs out just before you (publicly) announce you are pregnant.

But you can’t avoid it if you don’t name it.

“It” is discrimination. “It” is accepting that you cannot always win on your own merits. Sometimes the cards are stacked against you, and you need someone to change the deck ukviagras.com.

It helps to name things for what they are. That way organisations, politicians, and well-meaning people who may simply not have thought about it before, are confronted with the consequences of their in/actions.

So come on, friends. Let’s do some naming.

1. The Gang of Breastfeeding Nazis Calling Themselves Community Health Workers

I find it interesting that the last 15 years have seen the decision not to breastfeed equated practically with child abuse. There are some (actually fairly minor) health benefits proven to be associated with breastfeeding (See “Is Breast Best?” for a great summary). But what about the economic, psychological and societal benefits of having women back in the workforce if that is where they want/need to be? Something is going on here. When government-supported services for new mothers push you towards a choice, on slim evidence that it is actually worth stopping your career for, then I think you have to question what is happening. I blame no one. I have not done the research. But I question it. I certainly question it.

2. Career Opportunities Which Require You to be Single and Childless

Never overtly, and often not even intentionally. But if an opportunity has no flexibility about working near or from home, when the work would lend itself to it; if an opportunity means you lose your childcare, or you cannot do the childcare pick up or take care of your ageing relatives for extended periods because you have to be away; then the providers of the opportunity may be structurally discriminating against you. Even if they don’t mean to do it. Even if they would be horrified to hear those words applied to them.

3. A Tertiary Education System With Uncapped Fees

Since Whitlam’s passing, we have all been keenly mourning Australian society as we knew it. Good-bye, meritocracy; hello uncapped fees. This will structurally discriminate against poor people and retain power in the hands of a few.

4. A Petrol Excise That Disproportionately Discriminates Against Poor People

That was a classic, wasn’t it? Joe Hockey trying to explain that rich people would be more affected by a petrol tax, because they had more cars; as if he had never heard the concept of proportion. The Treasurer of the country.

5. Negative Gearing

Housing prices and rental prices will always be too high for many because of a tax system structured to discriminate in favour of the middle class and against those trying to get in.

I could go on. But over to you. Name it.

The role of art in a post-religious world

The first time I tried, and failed, to remove myself from God, I was 10 years old. I lay on the carpet, playing with the dust motes in a shaft of light which came in through a sneaky gap I had made between the heavy, dark pink drapes my mother kept closed all year around. i wondered if they were atoms; if I was seeing the smallest building blocks of matter. I dared myself. There is no God. You don’t believe in God! The world tipped sideways (I rolled on to my back and pushed myself up). It was the scariest thing I had ever thought, and I had not left the living room.

My next crisis of faith was when a documentary came out about the Dead Sea Scrolls. I was 11, just shy of my Confirmation, which is a Catholic event where you, as an adult, confirm the faith that was first confirmed on your behalf when you were a baby, your godparents speaking for you.

At your Confirmation, the bishop asks you, “Do you reject Satan?” And you say, “I do.” They really ask you that, in front of the parish. You stand up in your white dress with a red sash across your chest, representing the Holy Spirit, and you say that you reject Satan and turn faithfully to the gospel. You will have no gods but God. You believe in Jesus Christ our saviour. “I do.” “I do.” “I do.”

On the day of my Confirmation, I first encountered the dilemma of hedging your bets. I wasn’t sure about God, ever since that documentary (it had been on Channel Seven, which should have been enough to discredit it, as we only watched the Channel Nine News). My parents sent me to bed before I could see it, but I had seen the ads, I had heard the introductory statements. “Was the face of Christ really imprinted on the Shroud of Turin? (Yes, that is a real thing, not something from a Tolkien novel. Where do you think fantasy authors get their ideas?) “Jesus spoke Aramaic.” “These Scrolls reveal the shocking truth, buried for hundreds of years, about the man we know as Jesus.”

None of this should be especially confronting. Yes, Jesus was a Jew, and he spoke the local dialect. But – hidden scrolls! A secret language! What did they reveal?

I knew what they revealed. Jesus was not God. Jesus was just a man. I went to bed, scared.

On my Confirmation, I could feel the lie on my tongue, a physical presence. If there is no God, I reasoned with myself, then I am not going to go to hell for this. I did not want to disappoint my family (Allison), and I did not want to be embarrassed by refusing the bishop’s blessing. Things were a bit muddled – I saw myself, just like a Christian hero, refusing to proclaim my faith, prepared to be ashamed publicly for it. i wasn’t an idiot. I knew I had it the wrong way around – you can’t be a Christian hero if you don’t believe in Christ.

But this is what it is like, when you become post-religious. You still have all the trappings; the inner quest, the need, the longing for closeness to the divine love, the love which encompasses and frees.

Frankly, I had never felt that love. I was 12 years old. I had no idea what love like that would feel like. I tried to imagine it, there on my knees, eyes shut tight. I felt it as a warmth, a smile in my direction from a consciousness as all-enveloping as night time http://viagrasstore.net/.

I lay in bed in the room I shared with Allison. I thought about eternity. It made no sense, unless it was actually about right here, right now in this very moment, that eternity was possible. And eternity would be like ecstatic fusion with Jesus. It could happen at any moment, that was the main thing. And hell? If God is love, I surmised, then hell would be spending eternity – a forever, timeless moment – feeling how you had isolated yourself from love viagra naturel.

You can work things out for yourself, even when you are 12 years old. I am pretty sure I figured out the meaning of life one night, as I lay in half sleep. But I was too comfortable to write it down and by morning, it was gone.

Later, in my teens, I returned to God with a vengeance which I wreaked upon myself as punishment for all of that disbelief. While other ninth graders wrote Led Zeppelin and Metallica in heavy black Nikko on their canvas backpacks, I wrote “Life is God” on the outside flap, where everyone could see it, and “Individuality” on the inside, so long I had to squish the “ity” together at the very end. I was a missionary, just like the boys smuggling bibles into communist China: Springwood High was my China.

One day, as I waited outside the library with my friends, three twelfth grade boys found my bag and saw the slogan. They pulled it down and kicked it around on the ground, laughing. I looked straight ahead. My friends, nervously grinning, looked at me. After the boys left, we did not talk about it. Even now, when I do not believe in God, when I have developed a certain fondness for my young, evangelical self, I have never forgiven myself this sin.

Art in a post-religious world. Art in my post-religious world. Art is all I have left. It is the last remaining passage into mystery; the only breath left uncounted. When I hear a piece of music which touches me, I go beyond my emotions and my personal pathos, and I head out into the love that god was meant to be; that all-encompassing pain of knowing you are everyone’s mother, that every single bogan and arsehole in the world is just like you.

As I have said before on this blog, the art I am most familiar with is creative writing. When I read a book that I feel grateful for, it is because the writer has connected me through themselves to the world, but without creating a physical presence in my life, a presence which would demand and require. Instead, the writer lets me be. It is always a surprise, which adds to the gratitude. If you expected it, you would be disappointed.

When else do we get a sense of connection so deep that it transcends our individual selves? Churches are peaceful places. But they only create a sense of un-belonging for me now; a quaint reminder of something I will never have again. In short, they hurt to be inside.

Art (not all art, but some art, the stuff which you recognise as a gift) on the other hand, is not there for me, it is there for everyone. It is where the individual and the group meet, the ultimate fusion of the human condition.

I think that God is the result of society’s need for cohesion in the face of bigger enemies. She has an actual place in our brains, which scientists sweetly call the God-spot, an evolutionary result of needing to balance the survival of the group with the survival of the self. Humans’ two greatest assets, the key to our dominance – our reasonably well-timed selfishness and selflessness. The group and the individual, always in tension with each other.

Now, as religions fade and politics is a sham of self-interested groups, as public spaces become advertising arenas, art unbounded is so very, very necessary. The things we need to pull the pendulum back to the group: community gardens, where we can play out our natural animosity and find our collaborative pecking order. Libraries, where we can feel glad we pay our taxes. Parks, where we can sit with strangers and not feel the need to kill each other. And the excess; the unnecessary; the stuff that makes us laugh and delight. Art. Places where we are safe from the self (our own or other people’s) are shrinking. We need to breathe air into our souls that we didn’t pay for. We need the gift of art to be preserved.








Sleeping alone

I sleep alone. I am beautifully, deeply, very married to a man who doesn’t take it personally. I tell people that it is because he is a snorer and I am a light sleeper, both of which is true. But as we all know, there can be more than one truth which relates to an event, either causally or by correlation.

(I never lie. I prefer to call it “summarising.”)

There was one time I remember when I slept with another person. It was 20 years ago and it lasted more than one hour, less than three. It was so completely unexpected – that is not the sort of thing I do. I was the person who could not casually allow a girl or boy friend to crash on the other side of my double bed when I was at uni and everyone sought to be as casual as possible about everything, even big things. (I lacked perspective). I would let them in to my bed, determined to be relaxed, then lie, stiff, alert; for what? A move towards intimacy if it was a boy friend; a call on my duties as hostess if it was a girl.

I don’t remember falling asleep, of course. I remember waking up. I looked up at the ceiling of Frankfurt airport. My friend sat peacefully, my head on her lap, looking around, not in any particular hurry. Multiple miracles: that she was still here, when I had tearfully farewelled her only hours ago, she for the US, me for Australia, our year of desperation (student exchange) over. The things I felt: total and deep peace. I was so completely and surprisingly safe. Wonder: I was completely and surprisingly safe, asleep in the most vulnerable position I could imagine – asleep, in a public place, at the end of happiness, at the beginning of 48 hours flying “home.”

I thought I would curse myself for wasting my last hours with my friend asleep. But I have never regretted it. This miracle. This gift. So many things have faded, but this has not. The sheer, pure wonder and the feeling of waking up, unharmed against all expectation.

I wonder at people who can sleep next to the person they love, every night. I wonder if they wake feeling such deep nourishment every day. I wonder about what I am missing.

I think I should perhaps try again. But I tell myself, and it is true, causally, correlatively, there is never a good time in our busy lives to conduct an experiment which involves losing nights of sleep.

My husband now has a snoring machine, and I have tailor made ear plugs from a cheery audiologist who wished me good luck. Last time we travelled, I slept in the same room and it was ok. It was OK. There was an alertness, but still.

I try not to think about this in terms of progress. And I try not to think about what buried bones make me so alert in my sleep. Maybe nothing. Maybe something. I try not to think.

It was so unexpected: waking, seeing the ceiling, then realising what I had just done. Wonder at myself. Love for her. I only saw her once again in my life. I googled her, but there is no trace. I do not think I will ever see her again.

It was the result of a strange combination of utter exhaustion and bonus time. A gift. Extra, spent in a miracle. Sleep like that is pure luxury: in broad daylight, in public, with someone you may never see again and love desperately because of it. There is nothing of need or functionality about it. It is pure excess, which is why it stays with me, year after year, as close as I have to an experience of mystery, of total surrender, of encompassing peace. Of god.







The Gift


I keep hearing the words of gift. Gratitude; generosity, giving, receiving. Love.

There is another layer to the language of the gift. Reciprocity, exchange. Hospitality. Hosting. Obligation and the eternal return.

I think, perhaps, that people know about the rules of the exchange instinctively. In the business world, even men (even men!) understand the implicit rules of the helping hand. You have to be careful what gifts you accept. And how you decline. Best to not be in the line of receiving some gifts at all.

But what about the rules of the gift, sans exchange? The gift, where no one is obliged? Does this exist?

Here is my hypothesis. Yes, they kind of exist. (I wonder if I can say this in my dissertation?)

By which I mean: you can never have a gift without a return. It’s not how we work as humans. See, gifts operate at a primal level, at the basis of evolutionary snake-brain society. Society itself only exists because of the rules of exchange, give-and-take. We all know that when these rules break down – when you cannot trust someone to let you in on the road merge – the skies darken a bit. You start thinking of those other words, the opposite of gift words – social exclusion; isolation; a merciless society.

But humans like the idea of transcendence. We like the feeling of, momentarily, finally, flying.

Enter the gift of art. Art is a gift which is made to yourself at the same time as it is made to others. Art is a “giving-and-receiving,” in the words of sociologists Andrew Metcalfe and Ann Game.

When you make a work of art, you do not demand a direct return. You make your offering and you put it out in the world. You might make money from your art, but this is relevant only to your survival, not to the nature of the work.

I am speaking here about the art which with I am most familiar – creative writing. When you write creatively, you give yourself a gift. Time, permission, space for the unexpected. Something else too. Some sort of essence, a connection with the feel and flow of time and timelessness. And some sort of dispersal of essence; a letting go of the necessary; an unbounded feeling; a recklessness which allows you to fly freely.

The marketplace is there. You pay for books.

But there is the thing which you do not pay for, because it is a human to human thing on the level of the spiritual. It is outside the mechanics of a money transaction, the myth of an objective, measurable reality which can be superimposed onto the sticky, fluctuating relationships between people.

I am talking about the essence of the thing, the thing that you feel grateful for because you did not pay for it. The thing that transcends and surprises you into feeling something you did not expect. The thing which Lewis Hyde, in his book on the gift, describes as that which “revives and refreshes.” Which “has nothing to do with the ticket price.”

When you publish your writing, you can only put out your humble offering and look away. When you read, and you have the experience of seeing something, knowing something, of being powerfully and present to something which you did not expect, then you can only say thank you. Your gratitude overflows, because you cannot repay this gift. And you are not required to repay this gift directly. There is no meanness to it. You have to give it on, by which I mean, now, share it – with yourself, giving yourself the respite to read and perhaps dabble in something of your own, your own gift creation. With others, by offering them this book, or perhaps some other subtler moment of recognition, a smile in the direction of community, palpable or otherwise.

To make a leap (because I can hear my daughter waking up), this is why art and books are crucial to society. This is why we cannot over do the transactional experience of the arts. There must always be preserved the gift. In how we support art creation, distribution and experience. This is why the work of Luke Jarman is so beautifully received. A “gift from the gods,” one member of the public called it in Melbourne when they saw his street pianos appear over night. This is what it feels like to be seen and thanked for seeing.

Art as gift has never been so important before. As religion and other oases from consumption shrink, the importance of spaces where we can simply relate as people has never become so necessary. Libraries, galleries, public festivals; books.






Playful cities

Last week, my husband and I attended a panel discussion at UTS entitled “The Future of Creativity.” It was hosted by the UTS Business School and brought together Sydney Theatre artistic directors Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett with Prof Roy Green from the UTS Business School and Lisa Colley, Director of the Creative Industries Innovation Centre. Patrick McIntyre, the Executive Director of Sydney Theatre Company, was the panel host.

The discussion was about business and creativity, and how the two intersect. Despite Lisa’s attempts to get people talking about real world examples, the conversation never really got past the basics – ie defining “business” and “creativity,” and emphasising the importance of allowing for risk taking and failure as part of the creative process.

In the car a couple of days ago, I listened to another panel discussionon Radio National, this time about “Knowledge Cities.” This conversation had been recorded in Melbourne, amongst a variety of experts in innovation and information access. The panellists made some interesting points, about the need for cities to allow for “playfulness” and maker spaces which supported collaboration as well as spaces which allowed for quiet introspection, and ultimately, cities which supported investment in ideas.

The two talks got me thinking. How does a city support an innovative economy? How do businesses make sure they allow for creativity? We have all heard of Google’s HQ and its play rooms and giant, coloured balls. But how about public infrastructure and councils? Governments and agencies? And small businesses looking to make it in the tertiary economy?

According to Abraham Maslow, the oft quoted psyhcologist who came up with “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” creativity in self-actualising people is the type ofcreativeness you see in people who tend to anything in their lives “creatively.” An essential aspect of this type of creativeness is what psychoanalyst Carl Rogers called an “openness to experience,” and which Maslow describes as being able to see the “fresh, the raw, the concrete, the idiographic, as well as the generic, the abstract, the rubricised, the categorised and the classified (Maslow 1968: 137).” As a result, they live “far more in the real world of nature than in the verbalised world of concepts…and stereotypes that most people confuse with the real world.”

In other words, they live authentically. They see reality and they not only embrace it; the milk it for all it is worth.

Maslow alos observed that “self-actualising” creativeness was very similar to the creativeness of happy and secure children. Self-actualising creativeness tended to be spontaneous, effortless, innocent, and free of cliches.

People with this type of creativeness tended to be relatively unfrightened by the unknown, and may be attracted by it eg to puzzle over something. Their quest for truth however is not a dire stretching for certainty as it may be for the neurotic. They can live with the unknown, even enjoy it. They are also relatively unaffected by worrying about what other people think of them.

These self-actualising creative people also can’t be characterised as either/or. For example, they are both selfish and unselfish – these two are not incompatible but exist in a “sensible, dynamic unity” as in Fromm’s “healthy selfishness.” (Maslow 1968: 139). Similarly, these people also showed other unities, eg between cognition and conation, as instinct and reason come to the same conclusions – “Duty became pleasure…the distinction between work and play became shadowy.” (Maslow 1968: 140). These people also have the strongest egos yet are also most able to be ego-less, echoing the Dalai Lama’s exhortation to Westerners not to confuse understanding the emptiness of the self with negation of the self (Dalai Lama 2000).

There are innumerable, interdisciplinary tracts describing and defining creativity – if you are interested, take a look at Teresa Amabile’s work as a good starting point. I merely wanted to talk about Maslow’s because I like how it reminds us that creativeness in one’s everyday life can be connected to our wellbeing and ability to live authentic lives. Also, Maslow talks about the need to balance and integrate creativeness.

As a normal person “adjusts” to the “real world,” she may find herself pushing away those parts of herself which tend towards play, silliness, and creativeness. These parts of herself are now dangerous as she tries to adjust to a world which demands a “purposeful and pragmatic striving” rather than play and revery (Maslow 1968: 142).

Maslow reminds us that we need these parts of us to be creative. So how can cities and government agencies support this when a large part of what these authorities currently do is encourage conformity with the mainstream in the interests of public regulation?

Hmm. This is a dilemma. Playful cities could perhaps be encouraged through Council plans for “playfulness,” which does elicit a grimace but how else can a government agency do it except to plan? How does a city plan for playfulness, and encourage non-conformity, within the bounds of social acceptability?

Times of the year and spaces within the city could be marked off as period or places for playfulness – maker spaces, low-level acceptance of artistic graff and street art, as examples. Some areas could specifically be cultivated as creative clusters, which lots of cities have jumped on because it is something they can plan for. But how else can you encourage a playful attitude amongst your citizenry?

There is a role of public leaders encouraging play by being playful themselves. By being honest about their own imaginations and urges. By being visionary and daring in their language and then in their actions. There is a level of small funding or simply a willingness to not enforce planning requirements which agencies could give to disruptive arts, eg street poetry, flash mob collectives, guerilla performers.

Most importantly, it is about getting creativity – people behaving creatively and the outputs of their creativity – out into public spaces in spontaenous or at least apparently spontaneous ways. Things have to be a little less controlled. Cities have to open their arms and be seen to be opening their arms to a little bit of chaos. Just a little bit. In the open and not just in the galleries and regulated spaces.

A city needs to breathe an air of creativity; it needs to make it part of the mainstream identity, so people in the middle, who would be more creative if they thought it was OK, can feel comfortable with their own minds saying “What if?”

There are always going to be outliers who will be creative no matter what – we don’t need to worry about them so much. It is the vast middle ground of people who would live a little more fully and have ideas to offer their employers and their cities and themselves, but do not because it is just not part of their days, and it is not anywhere to be seen on their street on the way to work, so why would they think of it?

I am afraid I have offered no hard solutions. Only a call to action. Let’s play!

Maslow, Abraham, Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd ed, Van Nostrand, New York, 1968.
Dalai Lama, Transforming the Mind, Thorsons, London, 2000.

Why Apple will fail without Steve Jobs

It’s not so much that Apple will fail as a company. I mean, they have a massive amount of cash and they will probably carry on as a strong player in technology.

But when they lost Steve Jobs, the Apple products lost their heart.

Here is the thing about consumer goods like Apple. Like all art that touches us and speaks to our souls, Steve Jobs’ Apple products connected to us on a person-to-person level. Steve Jobs spoke to us through his products. He said, this thing is beautiful. Remember how dismissive he was of consumer complaints about the fact that the earlier models of the iPhone didn’t work as a phone unless you used a special case on it? It was like telling Pollock that Blue Poles was too big. It’s as big as it needs to be, would have been Pollock’s response. It is art.

Lewis Hyde’s book, The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World, first published in the late 1970s, describes how works of art contain a spirit which has nothing to do with the price of the ticket at the door or the barcode on the novel. This spirit, Hyde argues, operates in a “gift” economy – an artist receives some part of her talent as a gift, perhaps from her own soul, in what University of NSW professors Ann Game and Andrew Metcalfe would call a “gift-relation.” This is a time and space that an artist carves out of her day, which allows for moments of grace.

Hyde’s artist must on-give her gift through her art, which then circulates amongst us, replenishing souls as it does so. We have all probably got memories of books which have made an indelible print on our hearts or minds, or a performance which seemed to speak directly to us, or a painting which transcended speech the first time we looked at it.

I think that the iPhenomenon is a market example of the same principle. There is a core group of Apple followers who line up at the stores, buying everything that Apple puts out. This kind of lust goes beyond fandom and consumerism. Sure, there is a lot of simple consumer manipulation at work. But terms like brand loyalty are also hiding something else which is also going on, something more personal.

When someone buys an iPhone, they are receiving a little bit of Steve Jobs. He operated like an artist in his designs, putting some part of himself into them. He did not think exclusively of the marketplace when he made his phone – in fact sometimes he didn’t think of them at all, as the complaints about the phone’s faults have attested. But he did see creating something which could behave as a computer in people’s pockets, transforming how they lived their lives, as a life work. He communicated some form of personal truth through his Apple products. A phone made solely with buyers in mind could never command the kind of loyalty that Apple does. A phone which combines savvy marketing and technological merits with the final ingredient – the precise vision of an artist – can.

There is a similar phenomenon at play in the world of the TV personality, which I call the “Oprah-effect.” People literally love Oprah, although they may never have met her. You can see why – she is personable, friendly and warm. She is loving. And so people don’t just like her – they love her. You could get 10,000 people to like a TV personality. But if you can get just one viewer to love that person, then you can get a million people to love her; and then you have a multimillion dollar business.

Love. Yes, love. We talk about brands and money and consumers, but ultimately we are talking about the mass distribution of things or personalities that people can love. Just as in a work of art, but perhaps more direct, a TV personality who can communicate some part of their true selves to a camera and a live audience is imparting something which is more than the sale price of the TV set or the cable subscription. If they can speak from their soul to yours, you are touched. You are grateful. You and they may operate in the consumer economy, but you are also operating in the personal one – the economy of the gift between people. You have shared something which is inalienable; something in other words, which cannot be bought.

Perhaps Oprah and iPhones are ever more popular because of this – because in a world where productivity and self-interest are preached as the core goals, we are grateful for instances of real contact. It is perhaps sad, or perhaps shoddy, that such instances come mediated, and with all the impurity of money attached. Some would call it an indictment on the current condition, or the failure of community. But we could also see it as a new direction for human flourishing. We could take heart from it, knowing that the human soul will always find a way to grow, and share, and love; no matter what the disincentives.

Project managing parenting

Is it wrong to apply the skills from work to your 7 month old baby?

I just read this post on Mamamia from a mum who applies her skills as a lawyer to her children. She has spreadsheets and applies the SMART principles to parenting.

This struck an OCD chord with me. I have thought on occasion that I could actually map out my goals for bubba. Not in terms of making sure she can play the Moonlight Sonata by age 3 (4 should suffice ;-)). But rather, in ways to make sure I am covering off things I wouldn’t naturally do, but probably should in order to give her own character the chance to develop along its own lines rather than mine.

So in terms of things like, making sure she has a balance of adventures, time at home and things I don’t enjoy doing but if they are on a list, I might do them. Like going out more often – I am a couch potato so sometimes need to review whether I am doing this enough for bubba. Or water polo, or dolls, or playing with other kids. A sort of baby’s bucket list.

Not that I think it is a good idea to get too OCD about it. I put enough pressure on myself to be a good enough mum, and a lot of confidence in mothering is really about thinking I as a person am pretty ok, and am probably setting a decent example of a human being for bub just as me.

But lists. I do like lists.

So maybe a short one? And one of things I might like to do with bubba:

1. Blow bubbles. They are so fun and beautiful.
2. Spend some time with flowers. So pretty!
3. Now the days are shorter, go outside rugged up, and watch the sun dip through the leaves on the balcony
4. Snuggle time, not just before sleep
5. Airplay. Maybe we can do aeroplanes in the park, as well as the living room
6. Upside down baby. I think I may be more into this than bubba.
7. Food fun. Try new things, like roast chicken, and kiwi fruit.
8. Sand. And dirt. And grass. Everywhere.
9. Shopping. I don’t like malls, but I imagine they must be a welter of lights and sounds for small, wondering faces.
10. Music and dancing. Bubba likes to sing, especially to cocktail music.

I like this list. It does not make me feel anxious about getting things done, but like all reflective activities, it reminds me of the simple things I can do to enrich my day as well as hers. I like bubbles too.

Post-Catholic Easter

Being post-Catholic at Easter, I think of the Jesus story with a wistful sort of yearning. Good Friday’s service, the Veneration of the Cross, was always my favourite service out of the entire Catholic calendar, even better than Christmas in my estimation.

I explained the Easter sequence to my husband last night, and in so doing, realised how the Easter and Lenten gospel readings are really the best part of the church calendar, because they tell a consecutive narrative, building up to the Easter week, and the culmination of how Jesus came to his dark end.

For those of you who might not know the detail the same way that a post-Catholic does (the only other story I know quite so well is Lord of the Rings), Lent starts with Jesus heading into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. He is soul searching. He is alone, trying to face his demons. In the story, Satan tempts Jesus with various visions of an easier road, but Jesus resists. And at the end of his 40 days, he knows what he has to do.

Jesus was at the top of his game. He was gathering followers and momentum. People had started calling him the Messiah, the Son of God, and he picked up on the poetry of it, speaking of God as his father. He asked people to be their higher selves, suggesting that we turn the other cheek rather than strike back; that we focus on the delight in small things, rather than constantly wanting more. Jesus’ God was like a really great parent rather than a god; according to Jesus, God was loving and kind, rather than easily offended and vengeful.

But the crows were gathering. The powers of the existing, dominant religion wanted him to stop firing up dissatisfaction with the politico-economic, temple machine. And so Jesus meditated on it in the desert. And he emerged resolute, like Aragorn after gazing into the Palantir, or like Harry Potter after he buries Dobby and knows what he has to do.

Jesus went to Jerusalem, where he knew his life would be in danger, but where his own principles told him he had to go if he were to really change things. On Palm Sunday, the beginning of Easter’s Holy Week, Jesus entered the city on a donkey and people threw palms at his feet to pave his way. But despite all the adulation, he knew it would be short-lived, like all fame. On Holy Thursday, Jesus ate the Passover meal with his best friends. He already knew that Judas was scheming to betray him, but he had chosen the path of non-violence and he was going to see this thing through. He also knew that his best friends, full of wine-fuelled bravado and riding high on the attention, would not stand by him.

Why couldn’t he have done a runner? Because that would have been cowardice; because that would have meant he did not believe what he preached, and Jesus was a man of his word.

But he was only human, and he was sad, and no one wants to be alone. So he went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray on it and asked two of his best friends to stay with him and keep watch. Jesus begged his God to let things go some other way. When he came back to his friends, they had fallen asleep. They couldn’t even stay awake for a few hours for him. You can almost hear Jesus sigh down the years.

Judas came with the guards, and kissed him on the cheek as the signal that that was the one to arrest. Jesus’ friends, who had so recently professed that they would stand by him no matter what, all went to Splitsville.

The rest is pretty well known. The trumped up charge they got him on was calling himself the “King of the Jews,” although throughout his interrogation he refused to say it, and indeed, the gospels never have him saying it – it was a political twist on his words, “son of God,” so that he could be committed for a crime against Caesar. The Roman representative in Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate, could see that Jesus was a smart, good man. He put him up for release – it being Passover and a key Jewish holiday, the Romans let the Jews select a criminal to free. According to the story, Jesus’ enemies amongst the temple hierarchy paid off the crowd to vote for Barrabas, a nasty piece of work. Jesus was to be executed.

Where were his best friends during all this? Peter, whom Jesus had told would betray him, did exactly that. He loitered outside the jail while Jesus was interrogated, and when some of the guards accused him of knowing Jesus, he denied it – three times, apparently. When he realised he had done exactly as Jesus had predicted, he ran off in shame. That shame would fuel Peter to set up an entire church around Jesus’ words. It’s a powerful, powerful emotion.

But first, torture and humiliation. Jesus was whipped, and then dressed in a ludicrously lavish robe and a crown made of thorny branches, a joke on the “King of the Jews” allegation. He had to carry the cross they would execute him on through the streets of Jerusalem, and he kept falling under its weight, piling more shame on top of despair. The Romans got a stranger from the crowd, Simon, to help him carry it, and a kind woman wiped his face for him. His good friends were nowhere.

Finally, he reached the execution ground. They nailed him up. On either side of him were other men being executed. One jeered at him whilst the other asked him to put in a good word for him when he got to heaven; although Jesus was dying, alone and far from the highs of the last few years, he spoke to the man with kindness.

Jesus was a man abandoned. It was one thing to commit to seeing something through on principle; but for all he really knew, he was dying for nothing, as so many men and women have died for their principles in lonely corners of the world before and ever since. There is little poetry in death, and we none of us have control over our final thoughts, or words, or deeds before we die. At his feet, the guards gambled to see who would win his robe.

Finally, his ageing mother and one of his best friends, John came to see him. I don’t know if his step-father, Joseph, was still alive or had simply refused to come and see him. At least he was not alone when he died, and that is something. He told them to take care of each other.

“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” he cried. Poor Jesus. One of the guards, checking if he was dead yet, stuck a spear into his side, and thankfully cut deep enough to speed this torture to its conclusion. “It is finished,” the gospel has him saying. Not long after, he died. Because it was the weekend, Mary and John couldn’t bury him properly, so a rich man and quiet Jesus sympathiser, Joseph of Arimathaea, offered a nearby tomb. Again, Jesus cared for even in his death by strangers while his friends hid. The story of Jesus is the story of being alone.

The resurrection never really rang true for me. I would love to think of Jesus getting up a few days later, all happy and glowing with an inner light. But I don’t believe it happened. Instead I think what really happened was this:

After lying low, Jesus’ friends organised a clandestine meeting a few weeks after his death (on what is now Pentecost Sunday). His mother was there too. The group agreed that they had to do something. Peter was probably pivotal: never having a chance to tell someone you are sorry is an incredibly powerful motivator, and Peter never let it go. He used his grief and his remorse to power him outwards, tirelessly pressing on to spread Jesus’ teachings. In that way, they thought, Jesus was really alive again. At his own death by execution on a cross, Peter asked to be hung upside-down because he was not worthy to die in the same way as Jesus had. What a heavy burden to carry.

As I said, Good Friday was always my favourite of the Easter services. The church stripped bare. The candlesticks, the colour, the music, gone. The crucifix behind the altar, draped in cloth. A plain wooden cross placed in front of the altar, for veneration. We hear the story of Jesus’ sadness; we remember that we all ultimately die alone. We know the truth of death as we know no other truth in our lives. For the hour of the service, we can put out of our minds the excuses, the games played on Easter Sunday to pretend that it was otherwise. It was not. Jesus died, tortured, humbled, shamed. By the time he died, the principles of his life had faded in the pain of his death; but we know he was still a man of his word by what he said to the strangers and his mother and friend as he died. Jesus was a good man to the very end, and for that we are grateful.

For, even though we must die alone, and even though the world can be a harsh and unforgiving place where unfair things happen to good people; even though we can’t see the point in dying young for the sake of a few words; even though most of us, like Jesus’ friends, would rather stay hidden and accept a lesser sort of worldview than die ourselves; we are grateful for people like Jesus, who believe in something, even if they no longer believe in salvation. To me, that is an even greater demonstration of the principles Jesus lived by, than if he really did die, thinking all the while that he would come back to life.