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.



The Triple Frontier

eldorado_misiones_300aJune 13, 2014

The Triple Frontier is a point at which three countries meet – Argentina (the small town of Puerto Iguazú), Brazil (the larger city Foz do Iguaçu) and Paraguay (Ciudad del Este). It’s famous for the Iguazú waterfall – ‘Big Water’ in Guaraní – the pharaonic Itaipú hydroelectric dam a tad further north, supposed to be man’s greatest ever public works project, and for the shadiness of the commerce that goes on on the Paraguayan and Brazilian sides.

This was the area I was to start my World Cup. The flight was full of Aussies off to the Brazilian cowboyish hinterlands to see Australia vs. Chile. As we arrived into the Argentine airport it was a reddish brick building that reminds me of old fashioned churches and is typical of the red dirt, fertile green surroundings, picket fence vibe of that area and of the entire country of Paraguay in general.

My memory of the Argentine part was foggy, a place where the sun was shining and everything was rosy when I travelled there in 2006 with a mate, Jonas. But arriving there direct from Australia this time felt so strange. The teenagers were out wandering about in their school uniforms, finished for the day, and I was hustling around looking to change some money in small tourist agencies.

I had a lucky break, one of many, when three Melbourne boys let me share their taxi into town. The young blonde driver told us that the Argentine side of the falls was closed due to a flood of biblical proportions, the water rolling over its limits in a breathtaking show of unanswerable force. Go to Brazil if you want to see the falls, she said.

I took a taxi across the border with an Argentine driver who wrote off Argentina’s World Cup chances and said 80% of his countrymen did likewise. I told him Argentina’s team has a good reputation internationally and he waved it off. Suddenly we were in Brazil, where Spanish social order, innate social respect and reserve were no longer factors.

Brazil! With its slurry language and mutt-like people, a mix of God knows how many races. This was the seat of the World Cup, a country teeming with people who whatever the up and coming oil richness at the top could never stop running on the treadmill, for among 200 million competitors if they paused for a moment they would surely fall off.

That was the mood. I took a bus to Curitiba with a bunch of people who had nicked across the open Paraguayan border to buy up a bunch of goods in the free-for-all market of Ciudad del Este and sell it surreptitiously in Brazil. The dodginess of it all was confirmed when the bus rolled over a police weigh station – all people at the front of the bus went to the back to lighten the front load, then rushed towards the front once the front wheels had passed. But they were foiled by uncomprehending me blocking the aisle, not knowing what the fuck was going on. They subsequently failed the weigh station but an uncaring officer waved them through. Lucky all over, again.

I was aided by the milk of human kindness and by my wonderful friend Regiane and her husband. Arriving in Curitiba, there had been an article by a Spanish journalist saying “Curitiba is not Brazil”, a sentiment I’d heard before, not as festive, black, hot, dancy or whatever else Brazil is supposed to be. To which I can say: thank God, for the moment. I can’t keep up the pace.

Here in Curitiba we saw Brazil’s handsome it boy Neymar score twice in the opening game. His first goal was what a champion team needs – in any sport when things are nervous, you need an X-factor to pull a scoring play out of nowhere and lighten the load. I think I have a crush.

What do we do when we no longer have our youth?

I was having an unhealthy lunch in a certain chain restaurant on Smith Street, there more for the quality time I could spend with myself than any other reason. Except I didn’t end up doing that because two people on either side of me talked to me throughout.

They were both getting on in years and didn’t seem to be eating anything or there for any particular reason. They both seemed interested in what the time was. One leaned over and told me my watch was nice. She told me she’d lost some of her photos from her wedding in 1957. The other started asking me about how iPads worked. As she continued talking to me about her flatmates taking her clothesline space and whatnot, the other had closed her eyes and appeared to be fighting some sort of rising anxiety.

The whole subject inspires a rising anxiety of my own. What the hell do we do once we’re no longer marketable? What kind of emptiness does life entail once our looks have gone and there’s no palpable reason for people to sit and talk to us?

I hadn’t realised what a supernatural effort it takes to keep living past, say, forty-five if you find yourself alone in life, whether actually alone or distanced from people. Keeping it together is a struggle even for me at 31, so how do people stay sane when they are double that age with no stimuli to tie them over? One was talking to me about TV shows like X-factor, stuff I would dismiss as low culture for the brain-dead, except that disappointingly university lecturers talk about those things too. What keeps the mind sharp when there is no one around to bounce ideas off and you have one too many conversations inside your own head?

It scares the devil out of me. There’s no more employment at those ages unless you’ve clung on grimly to your existing work for decades. There is consequently no money (read: freedom) either. The lady next to me told me she can’t get a pension until she’s 66.

It opened an already semi-open glimpse into the purposelessness of life. It’s all well and good to play games with our looks and myriad of acquaintances and hook ups in our culture-friendly ages of 20-30, but what then when friends dry up and we no longer have the goods to get some new ones?

On one hand, beatnik writer Hunter S. Thompson killed himself at 67 once he could no longer call the shots in life. (His suicide note was entitled “Football season is over.”) On the other, philosophical/rapey TV shows like Oz had the ex-neo Nazi character James Robson convince himself that he must lower his standards and do whatever it took to survive, whatever the cost, since that is the very foundation of being alive.

I just hadn’t realised the fortitude it takes to do what on the surface is a default setting.

The blues of busking

It was Saturday. The rain wasn’t yet falling but would later on, getting my beautiful second-hand saxophone a bit wet and making me worry about rust, the ultimate triumph of nature and the fact that taking it to the streets is ultimately overrated.

What are the streets going to provide, anyway? Revolution? Egypt’s triumph of the masses has gotten a little convoluted. Affirmation? Unlikely. Definitely not comfort. People are only out in the streets because they’re trying to get from Points A to B. The journey is uncomfortable and the destination is everything. That’s how it always appears, until my girlfriend told me that the journey/struggle really is the meaning, and the destination is just a promise to keep us going.

Busking either makes me very happy or very unhappy. One can either find a comfortable, spacious place to play a musical instrument in the CBD (result: no money), or hustle where people congregate and be told to piss off by business owners and other buskers. The council restrictions read as follows: “You are not allowed to play anywhere fun. Or practical.”

So, why do it? There’s affirmation and a bit of money. It’s better than just playing for nobody in my bedroom. That is probably the order of the priorities unless you’re a dude with a guitar who has it and knows how to rock the casbah. They make cash, colourful notes. Others just make coins. Or nothing, if you fancy yourself as a lost soul playing alone under a bridge. Beware of trolls.

I’ve come to hate Swanston Street, from a busking (and aesthetic) perspective, but there are few alternatives (Bourke is for semi-pros). Business people don’t care about noisy quasi-vagrants, which crosses off the CBD westside. The older we get, the more our heart dies?

Sometimes I get two or three fans. People seem less inhibited to ask directions from me. What do you know, I’m a fixture. The best are people who take a film of me playing on their phones, or want to take their picture with me. Maybe I’m briefly not a nobody, to them I’m a Melbourne icon! I could care less if those people give me money, they are giving me something else, something better. But money makes the world go round too.

I have my staple songs but tire of them rapidly. I know what works for sax, in the circumstances: no songs with repetitive notes, or that are too slow and indistinct. I read sheet music like a grade prep learning to read, all pauses and squinting, so it all has to be in my head. Occasionally I connect and a couple of people tell me I’m awesome. Yeah, I knew already. Oh, you mean at sax?

Sometimes I am not on, make many mistakes and have to smother a rising humiliation. I’ve already scattered some pre-coins into my box to not look so pathetic since many people look not at me but into my box, wondering if they should quit their own day jobs.

Of course they should, but for unrelated reasons.

On the night the dream died

I have a lifelong obsession with the country Paraguay. This is an obsession that has subconsciously guided all of the decisions of my life. The goal is incomprehensible, and therefore so are the actions that need to be taken to achieve it. I can’t rationally explain (or justify) to other people the reckless and irrational things that I do, because I can’t explain to them the irrational goal.

This year I was in a perfect position to achieve my aim of living there for perhaps the half a year or so needed to get it all out of my system. I had a perfect combination of money, time, material and relational detachment, a plan and relative youth, but I did not use the three-month window that was open to me, thinking that there would be more time later on. There wasn’t; my brother in Australia became sick, and going ‘home’ to Australia again wasn’t a decision to be made. I was about a week or two away from touching a lifelong pipedream, but the chance once again became an insane impossibility fit for only fantasies, the way pipedreams are.

I went to Encarnación, a small city in the south of Paraguay across the river from Argentina. I was scoping out what I would miss, as I had previously decided that I wanted a smaller town in which to conduct my business and my life. I was tired of distances, transport and travel times. Encarnación would have become my new home.

Paraguay was celebrating its 200th year of existence as a nation, and painted murals on the fences and the red, white and blue number 200 in lights in the plazas were celebrating this everywhere. It was raining as I walked around Encarnación. I wanted to see the central plaza (bigger than usual Latin American plazas, impressive) and the mighty Paraná River across from which the Argentinian city Posadas with its buildings and a few lights appeared from the rainy mist list like an apparition. On that same street – the Costanera, the street that ran along the river – were the stands left over from February, when Encarnación is the carnival capital of Paraguay, another thing I would have participated in with relish.

It was my curse, to only see Paraguay, a tropical country, in the gloom of its short-lived winters (although a hotel worker told me it always rains in winter in Encarnación), like an entire country’s weather system was merely a message to me. I imagined the sun coming out the second I left the country. Message received.

The houses were small but were only behind tall picket fences and not ugly, forbidding walls. The streets were deserted, for who but a fool would be walking around in the rain? This was Paraguay’s day; that night they would play (and win) the semi-final of the South American soccer tournament and many people were wearing the red and white striped shirt of Paraguay’s soccer team. I entered a bank, and five of the six employees were in red and white. I’d just been to Brazil, where they hadn’t bothered wearing their colours. Brazil has action, but Paraguay merely has their country. There were possibly even more women than men wearing the shirt, a masculine pastime played in feminine colours. These quiet beauties had white skin, big eyes, black hair, small and beautiful figures, and spoke in their incomprehensibly sexy (and plain incomprehensible) Paraguayan Spanish-Guaraní accents.

I thought that going to Paraguay and experiencing the stillness, the bored tranquillity, had killed my desire, but when I left I found that the desire was still there, to torment me for the rest of my life. In Encarnación there were unaccountably a couple of Asians here and there, and the next night I ate at a classic Japanese restaurant, where an Asian family behind me had a daughter who spoke her family’s language with a very Guaraní accent. When I walked away from the restaurant in the cold along the ten blocks back to my lodging, looking at the one-story houses, feeling the small size of their city and the small size of life, I felt that I could love Encarnación.

The next day was the trip across to the second option I had considered for myself, the small town of Villarrica, which would have been home if I had considered dropping off the map entirely (Encarnación, at least, is the third biggest city in Paraguay, which indicates what a small, rural nation it is). The countryside in between the two places featured dirt roads, palm trees, magnificently green plains and waterways, and large houses that were usually pained green or blue in accordance with Paraguay’s nature vibe. There were cute towns along the way called Yuty and Caazapá, but unfortunately Villarrica had an ugly centre that consisted purely of shops, and I couldn’t have possibly lived there. It had Paraguay’s quiet, forgotten, naturalistic feel, but it also had the unpleasantness of Paraguay’s other vibe, a large market of things being sold; a buyers’ and sellers’ country, a nation that was simply one large shopping centre of objects of dubious origin. Villarrica was too small to have action, too big to be beautiful, although the outskirts were pretty. Reports that Villarrica possesses an Alliance Française school (I wanted to teach French in South America) just didn’t seem possible. Verdict: Encarnación yes, Villarrica no.

Someone waved to me from a balcony in Villarrica, as I disconcertedly made my way back to my lodging. The Paraguayan people were so straightforward, smiling and friendly, although I couldn’t penetrate their way. Once I left that unreal country whose existence I can’t be one hundred per cent sure of, the world became real again.


My girl in Bolivia told me she hopes I wake up from the dream-like state I float around in, before she never said another word to me. She could have been the woman of my life, but she was sandwiched between the two other things that I wanted more than anything else, and The Dream dictated that I had to leave her. I hurt her, a principled, consistent woman who will probably have nothing to do with me again. I believe it truly isn’t worth it, getting into relationships on the road and with the necessity of cutting them just when they are flowering. The first girl I was with in Bolivia understood this better than most, and clamped down on any residual feelings, and burned me. Years later I learned from her and adjusted my feelings accordingly, but other women were more straightforward with me, more natural. They treated me as a genuine option and not just as a plaything, and I still can’t bear their sadness when I left them.

I still haven’t woken up to myself, but when I picked my brother up from hospital here in Australia – the reason The Dream had died – I felt guilty for even wanting things for myself at a time like this. Waiting for him to be finished, watching him, I had a slight window where I had to force myself not to tear up, and wondered what exactly God was thinking when he made life such a sad thing.