The Decline

ants_1803365bThe decline of the B-52 Ant Colony began around the time the rain began to fail. At that time the colony consisted of maybe a thousand ants, who had to start foraging further and further away from the hub to support the needs of the collective.

It was conversation time. Worries piled on top of worries as ants broke off in twos and threes to discuss their predicament. Worker ants with names like No-name and XX-20 wondered whether their forty-odd years of toil would leave them with a well-deserved nest egg that would allow them to roam around in their final years.

“All that time we spent gathering a few resources for ourselves,” No-name pondered. “I mean, we were like drones. Off to work, every day. Sometimes we’d have to do overtime but not get overtime pay, work at night. We’d leave our kids at home and lose that quality time. And for what?”

XX-20 was more sympathetic. “You didn’t have a choice. There are only two options. Be out there on your own and starve. Or, be bullied by some queen and lose the complete free will to choose how to spend your time. All or none. There never was the option for any balance. Your time never belonged to you to begin with.”

They both sighed. It was an old-age sigh of wishing there was more energy in the (six) legs. No-name’s children had scattered off like ants and he had lost touch with them. They had their own anonymous lives now. No-name had always wondered if he had worked less and spent some actual time with his kids as he’d just mentioned, if their nuclear family would have remained a tighter unit in the long run. But XX-20 was right. What would he have fed them on, if he’d been as free-wheeling as that? There really had been no choice.

Ant satisfaction was ultimately irrelevant. You worked or you withered.

The months went on, and there was less and less food scraps to be found in the surrounds. The Queen, though more a baby-producer than any real figurehead, worried about unrest in the nest. At times she also despaired at the futility of it all, sending these newborns out into a cruel world that would eat them alive. Literally – there were echidnas patrolling the area.

No one had ever led a revolt against a B-52 queen, in all of its history going back generations. But the land had never been as dry as now. Solutions had always come from the land; they only needed to find them.

But this now involved foraging further away from the Colony. This generation did not know the joy of coming home to parents every night. Parents were now far too busy working even at night. This generation had raised itself, without lessons. Groups young ants hung out on the corners – dangerous places that the reputable now had to avoid, lest their toil end up in the wrong hands.

The kids were disaffected. They wanted to express themselves, and some did, but only in a mediocre, ephemeral way, gathering fickle followers who were meaningless when it came time to do something real, and true, and show some compassion.

Ant XY-257 lamented the lack of femininity in his life, the gentle touch that a female ant could have given to soften the harshness of his existence. At the end of a wearying three-day scouting mission towards the east (they were forbidden to look to the west; the direction of the setting sun was too on the nose), three days and nights without sleep with some heavy lifting, he slumped over and chatted with XX-52,032. XX-52,032 was a serious ant, little given to frivolity – the perfect ant for the times.

“Feels like we don’t have much of a future,” XY-257 lamented.

XX-52,032 sighed at this. His companion, he knew, was a dreamer who did not understand how insignificant was his place in the world. “We live, we die, there are millions just like us. We can only keep working, that’s all there is.”

XY-257 replied, “I had always thought that my life would be special, when I was a kid I thought I was destined for greatness. I didn’t realise that my life would be just 50-hour weeks performing menial chores a monkey could do.”

“You as an individual are meaningless,” XX-52,032 imparted. “All you can do is contribute to the collective. Then, what you do matters. Only then.”

“That’s fascism.”

“That’s life.”

Other less world-weary friends conferred in twos and threes. Many wondered if, if there was no more food to be found, they should break off from this community, this way of doing things and decide that they were the new generation, they could start society over again, it was their turn to decide what being an adult involved.

But it was a brave decision to be unconventional. Those who tried something new would be in for hard times, and perhaps only their grandchildren would reap any positive benefits, if they were lucky. Stories were rife of those three or four who had splintered from the colony. Away from the protective structure of the group and how they had always done things, these splinter groups of four or five ants had generally been eaten within hours.

No one ever remembered their names. Really, no one’s name was remembered after about three generations, but at least those who stayed locked in had contributed.

And then the decision to migrate was taken by osmosis. There they all were, moving away from their decaying structure. The B-52s were suddenly in the past.

They found the rain. It was an unexpected downpour that washed half of them away. Some parents broke down, mutely asked the world how it continued as normal when their kids had died, when the worst possible, imaginable outcome had happened. The world did not answer. It just moved on, without them. They asked: Was refreshing the colony worth the carnage?

XX-52,032 knew that it had been. They were advancing towards a goal, collectively. All they could do was continue, work, make minuscule improvements. There was no endgame. There was no perfect society. There was just fixing problems, working through them, and so on to infinity.

 

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Peru

IMG_20190304_231153741_HDRThis is maybe the greatest thing I ever wrote, with the exception of my book about Eve, Noah and Abraham and how Yahweh screwed them over.

This is about my visit to Peru, a country that could certainly stand as a beacon of lost exoticism in anyone’s mind. I don’t want this piece lost to the depths of the internet, so here it is.

It was 2006 and I was 24, my first year in Bolivia. It was nice. For the first time I was getting out and about in life, forming opinions and colouring in the grey lines of who I was as a person.

That was for better and worse, as our opinions make us feel self-important but if you examine it all, opinions are just meaningless and divisive things. I was up and down on the humility vs. arrogance spectrum that year, but tended towards the latter. I was deservedly and necessarily knocked down a few pegs when I later found out that actual work that most people have to do to survive is very hard; much harder than any fortitude I ever had.

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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
  • Sincerity towards others without feeling ego

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.

 

CITY LOST ITS SOUL

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.