What is the truth?

  • Touching, expressing and introducing something beautiful and unique to others
  • Performing actions that bring joy to both yourself and others at the same time
  • Completing work in detail; no shortcuts
  • Expression of true feeling; showing vulnerability to others

I would like there to be a record of this. Talking about Amy Winehouse, I realised that I was touching on a feeling that there is a nebulous  truth out there, but I could only define it by what it wasn’t – materialism, pop culture, commercialism, division.

Things must be defined by what they are, not what they are not.


Amy Winehouse and me

Amy WinehouseMany years ago I saved a strange newspaper article by someone named Dean Durber, who wrote commemorating the death of River Phoenix and why he never got over it. He discussed that had he lived, Phoenix could have been used to say so much. He could have been anti-corporate culture, anti-commercialism, anti-materialism, anti-pop and entertainment culture, which I’m sure are the things that are all the opposite of the truth. Or indeed, he could have been used by these powers as their shill. “But he didn’t,” Durber wrote. “He just shut up and he died. What a star!”

This is all out of order, and maybe that’s all for the best, because at least I won’t write this in a formulaic way. But there was a completely random person in the arts who stated years later, not knowing her, that he had never gotten over losing Amy Winehouse.

In a small way, neither did I. I already wrote about this same thing once before, about Lauryn Hill, about a person who released some truth in to the world early in her life, then broke from the experience. But I can write about it again. Amy Winehouse had the gift of being able to channel some truth that touched a lot of people, but then couldn’t handle it and she died.

At least Lauryn Hill continued a life for herself afterwards. Pras Michel, an original bandmate of hers, told the world that she had a gift of being able to move people, which is rare, and she was wasting it.

Did she? Did Amy waste her gift? Like the transcendental soccer player Ronaldinho, are we grateful that they showed the extraordinary to the world once, or pine that it didn’t last longer?

I watched the documentary Amy, only really interested in her musical bits and the start of her life, not the downfall, which was at least half the real reason she was doco-worthy. I have the album, I hear the voice, I see the cute beehive hairdo. I hear the words.

There is not a dominant theme in what she says, just that these songs are all about her life and they are honest. And they are all about uncertainty.

I could go off on super tangents thinking about that. About how when you’re young, a teen or in your twenties, your emotions are stronger than can be controlled. In your thirties, they are controllable. Even heartbreak. But I think that is not a good thing. I think it’s because we put the brakes on our emotions because we already know what supreme hurt feels like, and will avoid it again by not going all the way emotionally. Or else the emotions are just not as strong; which is just as terrible. “Children, I would say,” Brian Phillips wrote as a semi-joke. “Except I’m not at all convinced that they are any worse than adults. We do everything they do, after all. Only less whole-heartedly.”

At the end of the Amy doco, Tony Bennett says, “Slow down, you’re too important. Life teaches you how to live it, if you live long enough.” He couldn’t reach Winehouse on time. We are smarter, I think, at this age now (I’m 35), and not just less emotional. We can maybe see through things, through the haze of confusion and negativity and media frivolity that consumes us and hides everything real.

Why didn’t Amy keep producing her art the last five years of her life? Why don’t I? Why don’t we just channel what comes naturally, just sit down, do the work? I worry. I worry that I will not write the right thing for the occasion, for what needs to be said, that it will be out of order, that I will miss something. It’s illogical, but a blank sheet offers infinite promise. Until you commit yourself, and fill it.

Amy. I love your eye makeup, your beehive hair, your long thin legs and big feet. I hear your songs, I know that someone sent me flying, the way “You sent me flying when you kicked me to the curb.” I know that despite the obscuring propaganda about sex, sex is actually clumsy and often not completely fulfilling (it’s the condoms, they ruin everything): “Upstairs in bed with my ex boy. He’s in the place but I can’t get joy.” I know that sometimes you try to love the person who loves you, but you want to be with someone else: “How can he have her heart? So he tries to pacify her, but what’s inside her never dies.” And then: “You go back to her, and I go back to black.”

Above all, life is messy, and some lucky people just don’t understand that about others. Mistakes happen because so many problems swirl around, including our own self-created ones, and we are simply incapable of controlling them all.

Actions and behaviours come out wrong, but we are more than just the sum of our actions. There is always a person underneath, even if they achieve nothing. Even if they achieve everything. That person is always sad, is always dying little by little, is always longing.

Oh, Amy.

I’m afraid of dying without fulfilling my mission

Three years ago I made a deal with non-existent God beginning January 1st, 2015: “Please, God, guarantee me three years of life and I will use every single moment of them.” I would not have a single idle hour, but instead I would get on with writing my book, making some money, giving someone love, and such things that life should be dedicated to.

I didn’t do it. I spent my spare time lying around and reading about ephemeral sports articles on the internet, same as the first 33 years. I became a tour guide, went to live in Bolivia with my love but blew it, came home, and now I have no money and ‘have to’ go back to being a tour guide to clear debts.

I like the mini-relationships and conversations that I form on that job, although when the tourists leave at day’s end without any acknowledgement or backward glances like the tiger in Life of Pi it always breaks my heart, every time. But I worry that, driving through the dark at 100 km/h speeds over several fatiguing hours, I will one day drive off the road or fall asleep at the wheel and the job will cost me my life.

That’s being melodramatic, as I know people who have done that job for 10 years; 40 years. But I am not a robot. I am a guy with a bad knee controlling a vehicle hurtling through space threading a tiny tarmac ribbon. This job statistically puts me in greater peril than showing up to an office. Beyond this, by repeating the old stuff I am wasting my days.

Back to my pact with ‘God’. Does ‘he’ still guarantee me these last six months, even though I did not hold my end of the bargain? Or is the contract rescinded, do I not have divine protection anymore? All I know is that, though I’m an agnostic/atheist these days and the treaty is sort of a joke I share flippantly, I can’t risk still doing this go-nowhere job after December 31st, 2017, because there are no longer guarantees I won’t die.

In Bolivia I had a psychologist, Khuska. As a linguistic experience, seeing a psychologist in Spanish is up there near the top with living with the goddess, sharing her day-to-day things, mixing Spanish with English.

I told her about the three-year deal and she asked me if I was afraid of dying. I thought about it and answered: “Tengo miedo de morir sin cumplir mi misión.” I’m afraid of dying without fulfilling my mission.

What will you say afterward when they ask you why you didn’t? she asked. There’s not much you can say if you fail, if you didn’t try. Life is not exactly a voyage of discovery and opportunity, whatever they promise us as kids. It was even less so in Bolivia. Life, real life, modern life, is more like a tunnel of repetitive and depressive mood and habit and once the routine (including emotional routine) and the parameters of that tunnel or filter are set, it is very hard to break the mould and focus more on doing what we should be doing. I’m already caught in Australia, but here there is ability to set things right, and I will do it. In Bolivia you are trapped in your routine of merely surviving, forever, of dealing with one million tiny, self-inflicted problems every day.

Get cracking, I hear Khuska’s implied suggestion.

Before, in mood it didn’t matter so much if I died, my life and emotions were going nowhere. But I got off a train here in Melbourne again yesterday and realised: Please let me live, let me give love and understanding and laughter to people who need it. I know I wasted our deal, but please give me some more decades to use.

City lost its soul

Amazonia ResisteTwo years ago my mate had just gotten married and signed on the dotted line to own where he slept. I met up with the usual high school foursome and he mentioned how he’d just connected his internet and bought a printer.

I love him and was proud of him and admired where his shit was going, but I privately reacted with something like disdain – for the world, not for him. Is connecting a printer and buying internet all there is to life? my head asked myself.

A few months later I talked about this with them. One has settled and has the business and the daughters, but could see a forest from trees. I told him that I don’t think this suburban shit is it. I said I should be having these thoughts as an 18-year old hippy, not a 33 year-old. He asked what else there was and I said I don’t know.

I kind of know; there is something graspable, a nebulous truth, if only we focus and ignore the razzamatazz. It’s there and I think it’s achievable.

But I got a job just after that and felt relief in a routine I could live with. In the days off I could justify just relaxing, and when you do that the day escapes you easily. If you have a job you can bear, that’s a sustainable way of living until your last breath, without regrets that you didn’t go for greatness because in modern society greatness may not exist. You’re doing well just to keep your kids alive.

But then I went to Bolivia and got the woman I’d always wanted but lost my insulating money and my easy routine. Life wasn’t comfortable anymore, and I’d lost that cosy feel that life could be.

In the last year before I left I wanted to write a novel based on the Mayan 2012, where the world ends (in Melbourne) but it hardly matters because we’re too surrounded by the modern world to notice or care. I think I can still do it, write something with an edgy feel that something is not quite right, something is slightly missing. I understand now, that’s the vibe of all my writing, and I’m blessed to have been given that.

Here’s something I scribbled in a small book I have. It’s about how modern life has lost its elders, its guides, its right path to take.



There are people who remember when the human race was different. Everything we needed could be gathered. If we needed help, our parents, all the people who came before us, had been instructed on the best ways and had no problem hanging with us and telling us the best ways too, keeping us in balance.

Now there is no one to help them, they didn’t know how to help us, and we don’t know how to help ours. They will walk around bereft, adrift, without ways, without a direction. Then the bad things will take over.

Over there are the mountains but we cut down the trees. We need music in our psyches, we need gentle physical love, but the direction was ignored and became too unimportant. So what took over was rough sex, between two people who didn’t know each other, and the music started singing about this, the conquering, invasive reggaeton beat that thrust its way into her body, and she was scared and groaned in pain. She had been tricked. There was nothing soft now.

The man walked away looking for another way to survive, beyond passing his seed against her will. He needed money but had nothing to get it. Except his wits. It was him against everyone else, against the world; but that was ok. He expected nothing. There would be drugs involved, and he would inflict violence on someone, and he would somehow survive. And the next day he would have to be on edge again, and earn, win, defeat someone for his survival again.

There were alcohol and drugs. Those who came before us knew that we needed to change our minds sometimes, to open and expand our mind to understand that the world has many unseen avenues and corners. But someone needed to be there to assure them that what they had seen was as real as their real lives, but that once back in the present they didn’t need to come down. The return could be sad and frightening but if there were stronger, kinder people around her or him to reassure him, there could be a return without consequences, that the human race was there to help each other and not compete with each other, and there was no fear, and there was death but the dead person just moved on to the next game, to the next experience.

Over there, they connected their computer but what was going to be produced from it? You could market marketing but something pure needed to be behind it all, something moving. A truth, some truth. But we forgot that truth. It was there but we didn’t have the time to feel it, because we created a struggle to survive when we could have just survived.

We were drowning in plastic bottles with harmful drink when we could have made both our bodies and our home – nature, our planet – a temple. And what was out there, on TV, the trivia feeding our minds was not nourishing it. Something was wrong, but we couldn’t put our finger on what it is.


He was an animal!

In our daily routines of driving the kids to school, having a latte at a café, absent-mindedly kissing our spouses goodbye as we go to work, and sautéing our brazed mushrooms or whatever the fad is in haute cuisine, when we the last time any of us ever did anything really animalistic? Maybe we yelled at someone in mini-road rage, feeling a fit of pique that in modern society – rightly or wrongly – has nowhere to go.

There’s an animal side to us that we don’t use these days. It’s perhaps less animal than it is a hard-edged set of emotions that if we acted on them would trample over others and get us incarcerated.

I saw a dance show at a Brazilian restaurant last month. The dance was presented as the idea of Brazil in all its advertised forms, and the main theme to come out was Brazil’s traditional connection to our wilder, unhinged selves. The women and men got lost into each other in a whirling passion. They were still connected to the old times when human beings had to hunt and kill to live, they lived out their wildest fantasies in which sex and anger all rolled into who we were and all that mattered was this moment, because survival was something that was won moment by moment and could not be planned for.

Now almost all of us survive by default. Our bank savings or government pensions insure against our bleakest despairs. The question is whether we need to experience those roller-coaster highs and lows to maximise life. Is there greater beauty in the more extreme states of being alive?

There probably is, but then, some people bounce back from despair better than others. Some rise up to later feel the highs, but some people just get mired. They cannot escape from depression, or some cannot feel a true connection with anyone no matter how many people enter into their lives. So for these people perhaps the low-key, middle path is the best emotional way.gettyimages-2667899

There was a profile written about the singer Nina Simone by Brian Phillips. He talked about how in Simone’s voice you could perceive the loss and terrible difficulty that 21st Century society has taken large steps to forget about.

“The art of historical winners tends to grow thin over time. So many white male American novelists of the 20th century curdle after the war years, when they start to fetishize pretty imagery and lose their fear of any fate worse than humiliation or disappointment.

Think of the slightly forced obsession with sex in a lot of these writers. Doesn’t it often feel like an attempt to play up the one primal force with which privilege has left them in contact? No hunger anymore, no death, no real threat. But at least we can fashion a nihilism out of this.”

I guess in the worst of times, unlike our ancestors at least we’re not horrifically digested by savage carnivores. Our problems, like our feelings, are slower-burning but last longer.

808s and Sadness

heartbreakYou take the highs and the lows with Kanye West. But I’ve always looked at this album from 2008 and believed that it reveals a great depth of feeling and emotional intelligence on his part.

The front cover of the 808s and Heartbreak album features a heart-shaped balloon that has been punctured until the air has nothing left in it. The rest of the background is grey.

The music itself can be summed up in the word ‘sparse’. The backing beat is minimal (coming from the 808 drum machine of the album’s title) and the singing is a low, flat sound that does not jump high or low, as if from someone that is just going through the motions of living.

The punctured heart of the picture, the greyness, the sparseness, it all adds up to a particular type of sadness. That sadness is not the famous sadness where you cry your eyes out and have to tell everyone about it because you’re so full of emotion that you’ve lost your mind. It is not the one that most sad songs are about.

This album commemorates the sadness that comes after that. It is an unrecognised type. You’ve done all your crying and then all that is left is that you have to silently live with your loss for a long, long time. As seen on the album cover of 808s and Heartbreak, there is nothing left in your heart. There is nothing left in your life. You just go through what you need to do but your hope is gone. The world is grey, and nothing will ever make you happy.

This album was made in the wake of Kanye’s mum dying. His first three albums had been all about the success of his striving, but several songs of this fourth album dropped lines about the hollowness, the futility of that star life. “My friend showed me pictures of his kids. All I could show him was pictures of my crib,” and “There is no clothes that I could buy that could turn back time.” There was once a video leaked about a lady asking him what he was so angry about all the time. He replied, “My mom died for this shit.”

By the time of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010 there was colour back in his life again, with a bright red album cover. But the song Blame Game sums up a new breakup. In this song, there is a voice that is so hurt, so constricted that there is a sense that the person has blown an emotional fuse, that the hurt has been so much that it ruptured his insides to the point where he is now unable to feel again. The voice of the second verse is literally of a robot going through all of the angry events that destroyed the relationship. By the third verse there is just his normal voice wondering how on earth so much love can fade into nothing. “We erase one another. With so much of everything, how do we leave with nothing?”

But this is only one song of 13, not an entire album of tracks called Welcome to Heartbreak and Coldest Winter.

They say that Kanye’s anger has always fuelled his creativity. Is suffering a prerequisite for being artistic?

On Phil Walsh and being a man

A year ago Phil Walsh died and I wrote this. It still disconcerts me how, once we get over the shock of someone dying unexpectedly, it just becomes another story and we get used to it.


These days men are trying to reconcile the gaps between being traditional men who are tough, who work, drink and fight, and existing as thinking, feeling beings.

Back in the 1980s anyone who reached for their water bottles in the middle of an arduous training session was considered a wimp. Now sports science is the word and knowledge has often become the new muscle at the elite level of footy – of course the body needs hydration to keep on trucking.

Perhaps it’s simply a case of muscle and toughness being non-negotiables. Therefore I suppose footy teams – and perhaps men in general – have decided these days that you may as well be tough and smart rather than simply tough.

Or maybe we can now put some (necessary or unnecessary?) emotion into it all, and go the Nathan Buckley route, in which every moment in life should be part of a constant evolving towards a goal, towards excellence, including mental and emotional excellence. But ‘evolution’ is too abstract a word, so it’s about the “journey”.

Phil Walsh had a nine-minute interview on The Sunday Footy Show on April 12 this year, after the Adelaide Crows had won their first two games of the year. I was impressed by the way he spoke. He was a man’s man, very to the point, no bullshit, someone who could keep control of a situation.
Much of what he discussed about being coach was leadership 101. He said he was big on ‘man conversations’, which meant that the players have to speak up when they need to get something off their chests.

He’d entered a club that had split with previous coach Brenton Sanderson in difficult circumstances (really, does anything ever end well?). Walsh said the first thing he did was tell the players to be men about it, were there any problems that needed addressing? There weren’t, and they moved on.

The leader leads, and isn’t an equal. Walsh described: It’s ok to disagree with some issues but then the team must commit or else it goes nowhere. You’ve got to have a relationship with all your players, you’re never going to be their friend. It’s an employer/employee relationship.

“You’ve got to find out what makes them tick, how far you can put pressure on some players, how much you need to be more of that fatherly figure. I always say pressure can break people but can push them to break records.”

It’s all stuff that is common sense yet difficult to achieve in any sphere in which more than fifty personalities are meshing, including Crows administrators. That was the rationale with which he’d selected Taylor Walker as Adelaide captain for 2015. With Tex, he said, there’s a sense of ‘Follow me or else, there are consequences if you don’t.’ That’s how collectives hold together, with discipline.

But man is not made on strength alone. “I surf. That’s my outlet, that’s my pilates or yoga.” Could men have even mentioned the word ‘yoga’ a decade ago? Even the Phil Walshes of the world need to be rounded, and need a connection. Maybe they always have had that need, but now they can admit it.

Three years ago Walsh was hit by a bus in Peru. He had never been desperate in his career before, but it was a moment to make him realise: I want to be a senior coach. He sent his wife back there to take a photo of the intersection he was hit and used it as his laptop background as a reminder to stay positive. He started learning Japanese. He tried to establish a better relationship with his son, who in the end allegedly murdered him.

I wonder if using transcendental experiences in mundane settings like laptop photos lessen their emotional effect through the repetition of routine. Mentally switching on to an emotional need, trying to replicate that sense of desperation that every moment must be used to its full, is not an easy thing to remember even if a photo of a road is staring you in the face.

Even the interview seemed more ordinary when I watched it just now for a second time. Impact is hard to maintain indefinitely, or even twice. How did Alastair Clarkson maintain it so effectively for over ten years?

I don’t take a shine to many people I don’t know, so when I did with Phil Walsh it was slightly sadder than it could have been to me, with slightly more of a personal touch. His murder became more unbelievable – when I first read the headline, I actually thought for a few seconds maybe it really didn’t happen.

Seemingly nothing can go back to normal after a man is cruelly, randomly handed death – until it simply does again. I thought I’d never get over the nagging shock of young cricketer Phil Hughes, who one minute was going about his cricket, maybe that night he needed to pick up some groceries or something, and a second later had been struck and killed, just like that.

But by the end of the summer Brad Haddin was telling admirable Kiwi batsman Grant Elliott to fuck off back to the pavilion and nothing had changed. Now to me, Hughes’ death has become simply something that happened.

Last night’s Hawthorn-Collingwood match in prospect seemed impossible. How could players go full tilt at a football when a guy like Phil Walsh has just been murdered? In the event, it was the great match, and greater occurrence, of the season.

There was no hoopla. There were no childlike club songs based on corny American dandies. It was just 44 men pushing themselves to their limits, and when the siren went they could simply rest, and be happy, in Hawthorn’s case.

Nathan Buckley has always been about recognising that people must go below what is apparent on the surface, to recognise what is truly important. When racism was an issue, he stated: As well as racism, we also need to think about and help people who are rejected anywhere, for any reason. For a guy who carries himself so strongly he is dangerously close to recognising that emotions go hand- in-hand with being human, for an industry that in the past couldn’t even reach for its water bottles.

His message yesterday read: “So sad to hear of Phil Walsh’s death. No sense to it. We are all flesh and blood. Love each other. Thoughts with all family and friends.”

I was not surprised that Buckley could come up with that but was that the l-word could come into a footy forum even in these exceptional circumstances.

I was also not surprised that he could be involved in the best gesture I’ve ever seen on a footy field. Two sets of players all got into the same huddle with two coaches arm-in- arm. It was Clarkson’s idea, told to Buckley and two experienced players who could handle the information beforehand without their game going to pieces.

They were Scott Pendlebury and Luke Hodge, a straight shooter similar to Phil Walsh. I thought the two were unusually chatty at the end, when losing players are supposed to sink into the mire rather than soak in the occasion of a match well played or reveal through body language that a loss didn’t affect them like Brendan Fevola did a few years ago. AFL players still have to be tough. They still have to act it at times, even in this PC era. I guess, losing should hurt, otherwise you don’t strive to get better. It was Buckley as a commentator who had decried Fevola’s relaxed chatting in 2008.

I loved the silence of post-game last night. I watched with long breath when each Collingwood player linked with a Hawk and they bowed head in the centre circle. As Rohan Connolly once wrote when describing Hawthorn chairing off Leigh Matthews after the 1985 Grand Final: the best moments cannot be choreographed.

Vale Phil Walsh.