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 Or is the contract rescinded, do I not have divine protection anymore?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.

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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 them? 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?

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.