The Great Leap Forward!

Originally published on 1 March 2017 in the form of a short poem, titled ‘Seasons Greetings,’ this piece has been substantially revised.

Yesterday was summer. Today is autumn, or fall if you will. I started my job on Monday the 29th of February 2016, a leap day in a leap year. Much will be made of this anomaly, herein.

So, I won’t be celebrating my first work anniversary today. Well, I can’t. Not for another three years! Presuming I will still be in the same role, how then should I mark my work anniversary in the intervening period? I don’t know. I suppose when 2020 finally arrives, I could happily exclaim ‘Hooray, this is my second leap year in the job!’ But that would sound a bit trite, wouldn’t it?

Starting a new job not just in a leap year but on the day that gives the year it’s eponymous name is not only uncanny. It’s a rich source of symbolism. Depending on how you look at it, this phenomenon has both a temporal and spatial quality. In a spatial sense it’s an in-between zone. Grey, not black or white. Indefinite. Unbounded. Ambiguous. In a temporal sense it’s fleeting and rare. Ephemeral. Of course it was pure chance that my first day in a new job fell on a leap day. But it did anyway and the question is what should I make of it?

Unlike most other people, I’m precluded from celebrating my work anniversary every year. But only in a calendrical sense, not a duration-based one. To clarify the distinction, the calendrical date, Feb 29, only comes around once every four years. In terms of duration, 12 months is simply 12 months, irrespective of date. Getting back to my point (about being precluded) does is it really matter anyway? The short answer is, no. Does anyone even celebrate their work anniversary, like they do say a birthday or wedding? Apart from the good folk at LinkedIn, probably not.

But even then, this anomaly may render me susceptible to bouts of paranoia. An unlikely scenario but picture this: Cutting a lonely figure in an empty cafe there I quietly brood. Hunched over in a corner, glowering suspiciously, I rail against the invisibility this aberrant date has cloaked my working life in. Slowly stirring my luke-warm coffee, I turn over a crazy plan that involves alleging social exclusion in the workplace! Without a doubt, airing such a grievance would raise immediate concerns about the state of my wellbeing. However, the experience of exclusion can play out upon the subtlest planes of the unconscious mind. So who knows. Maybe a visit to the employer subsidised counselling service, Employee Assistance Program (EAP), might uncover some kind of disturbance to the underlying seam of my equanimity. Maybe not.

On the other hand I could take a sunnier view, which I’m inclined to do, and draw on the affirmative qualities I raised earlier. On a symbolic level, the accident of starting a new job on a leap day is a little blessing. In fact, I relish ambiguity. Not because I pretend to have a natural affinity with a state of prolonged uncertainty, but rather because I accept, without caveat, that this is how life and industry is: Messy and unpredictable. That I, in my mundane fallibility, strive for order, clarity and consistency in all that I do, only serves to accentuate and lay bare the utter hopelessness of such a project, especially when things don’t go to plan. That’s not to say, however, that one should abandon such ascetic ideals. On the contrary!

In my opinion, aiming for predictability, systematicity and simplicity are essential foundations for great communication, critically important in collaborative environs. I won’t elaborate further here because it’s probably safe to say this is first-hand knowledge for anyone working in a functional team based dynamic. Notwithstanding that, reminding myself that I started work on a leap day can serve as a source of inspiration. In fact, I have sought to distill the essence of this novelty and put it into service as the True North of my compass!

Taking the conceit further, here then are cardinal points of the compass which guides and informs my daily outlook:

  1. North: Maintain an open mind
  2. East: Question commonplace assumptions
  3. South: Entertain new possibilities
  4. West: Embrace novelty.

Novelty, not just in terms of difference, but in the sense of fun and laughter. Joy. Indeed, when you’re knee-deep in work and under fathoms of pressure, it’s helpful not to lose sight of that.

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Au revoir 2016

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I’m not morbid. Just curious.

From an early age I was attracted to the lives of others, and though I’ve never penned one myself, I’ve had a long and abiding interest in the art of the obituary. In the wake of an unanticipated sequence of deaths over the dying days of 2016 (sorry, the pun was too delicious to overlook) I feel compelled to share a few personal insights.

Death is the full stop of a lived biography. I choose the word ‘lived’ carefully, because a posthumous biography is conceived in the interstices of death and the opening sentence of an obituary.

The dead, in a figurative sense, are the living dead until such time that they are forgotten by all and sundry.

What distinguishes a famous person, a ‘Name’, from your and my lower-case one, is highlighted by the polar-opposite preoccupations of two equally brilliant but scorned disciplines of the last century: Biography and Sociology.

Biography’s reason has, is and will continue to be the art and science of remembering people of public note, particularly deceased ones. Contradistinct to this, Sociology is historically obsessed with agglomerates: A mass of people as a distinct entity whose values, attitudes and behaviours can be subjected to empirical observation and analysis.

In the world view of Sociology, there are no individuals empirically worthy of individual study. The study of individuality as a social trend is what matters.

To the biographer, the face of a particular man or woman is sovereign. Whereas for Sociology, reading the face of the crowd continues to be axiomatic to its calling.

What this means, on the ground, is that a few generations from now when the last living memory of us as individuals is extinguished, we will be forgotten for eternity. However, if there is any consolation here, sociologists, of the historical persuasion, will look back and try to make sense of what was particular about our society (that is, the society you and I are custodians of). So, we’ll still be kind of important, but only in a collective sense.

On the other hand, biographers won’t give a damn about you, unless you once answered to the name of Muhammad Ali, in which case although we never had the pleasure of meeting, I just want you to know that I really do think you’re the greatest.

Tomorrow, New Year’s Eve celebrations around the world won’t be any less muted as a result of the shattering end to 2016. As much as it will be a celebration of the year to come, NYE 2016 will also be a ritual cleansing, an institutational catharsis, and the wake we had to have.

Do the Beatles still matter?

2016 Ron Howard (Director) The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years, Apple Corps.

YES OF COURSE THEY DO. How could they not? They are the standard bearers of how a pop group should look, sound and behave on and off the stage. This in itself is a huge legacy. But they achieved much more than that. Their popularity, unassailable for a decade, was so colossal that they brought taboo and underground practises into the mainstream: Think experimentation with LSD, flirtation with mystic religions, a tolerance of, if not faux appreciation for, the avant-garde in art, literature and technology. Although their influence in the cultural sphere was for the most part osmotic, it was sometimes direct and personal, as in the case when Paul McCartney, playing the role of king-maker, interceded on behalf of Jimi Hendrix to get him onto the artist roster for the Monterey Pop Festival. Had it not been for McCartney’s manoeuvring, Hendrix would have remained an obscure curiosity of the European club circuit and iconic brands synonymous with the guitarist’s name, such as Fender and Marshall, would have gone out of business ages ago.

As I make my way into cinema 1 at the Dendy Opera Quays to watch Ron Howard’s The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years, a different question presents itself: Who cares? I mean, no matter how important historians think the fab four are, who dwells on the subject of the Beatles in the twenty-first century? Judging by the number of people in attendance, not many it seems. That said, it’s quite typical for audience numbers to peter out a few weeks after a film screens nationally. But still, there’s hardly anyone here!

I settle comfortably into the darkened cinema and wait with some anticipation. Ron Howard is a thoughtful director so I’m optimistic he’s going to give us something, at least a few perspectives or insights, we haven’t encountered before.

The results are mixed but not unedifying. Using a fairly tried and true music documentary format that cleverly cobbles together live footage, band member and celebrity interviews, Howard delivers a slightly less familiar version of the Beatles than we’re accustomed to.

As promised by the subtitle, ‘The Touring Years’ focuses on the period from 1960 to 1966 spanning the Beatles’ Hamburg days to their performance at New York’s Shea Stadium, one of their last major public gigs. Howard organises the footage in a historical sequence interspersing it with an animated time-line. This feels like a clever and fun way to guide the viewer through the musical narrative.

The synopsis of Howard’s account is this: The Beatles were a tight-knit group with a social conscience. They were a bloody good live band because they played their bums off for ages before they were discovered. But, no matter how good they were, they couldn’t have made it without the smarts and connections that Brian Epstein brought to the table. Although this pretty much sums up the story-line there are nuances worth mentioning.

  • When they toured America in 1964, 1965 and again in 1966 they refused to play to segregated audiences in the South. Given their popularity at the time this political gesture would have definitely been a positive force of change.
  • Lennon and McCartney, maternally orphaned at a young age, found in music a vehicle to articulate this loss. Their shared biography and passion for rhythm and blues bound them together into one of the most successfully creative partnerships of the twentieth century.
  • The Beatles, pre-fame, were on the brink of breaking up more than once and we are told that it was Lennon who kept their flagging spirits alive through sheer force of his charismatic personality. Interesting.
  • The Beatles were quintessentially working class lads from Liverpool. It was this salt of the earth work ethic that underpinned their persistence in the face of crappy hotels, and disinterested and rowdy audiences. By the time they were discovered they were a polished act.
  • Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr were destined for humdrum working class lives. The impact of the Beatles’ fame on their personal biographies cannot be underestimated. Nothing in their respective life histories prepared them for Beatlemania. What insulated them from the pressures of fame (drug abuse, madness etc.) was safety in numbers. They were four, not one, like the trail-blazing but tragically lonely Elvis Presley.
  • In a peculiar kind of way the Beatles sound is the sound of Liverpool. It’s delicious to think that after the Beatles we’re all a bit working class in our tastes. As if to make the point there’s a great little segment in the film (available on YouTube) featuring a 1964 football match between Liverpool FC and Arsenal where thousands of Liverpudlians are singing Help! in unison. Really powerful stuff.
  • John Lennon’s 1966 ‘we’re more popular than Jesus’ faux pas rates a mention in the film. This has been covered a million times before. Indeed, it’s a turning point in Lennon’s biography. Two things come to mind: First, the resulting public furore was a catalyst in his renunciation of the fickle nature of pop fandom and the beginning of his gradual withdrawal from public life. Secondly, the fact that he would come to live and die in the country which deserted him at the height of Beatlemania has a quality of irony that hadn’t occurred to me until tonight.
  • By the time they were limbering up for the Shea Stadium concert we learn that the Beatles were tired, exhausted and freaked out by the unwieldy beast they had co-created with Brian Epstein and George Martin. Smaller venues were no longer an option due to crowd control issues and safety concerns. But surely there was an economic imperative in playing to arena sized crowds, even if the sound system was abysmal. Apparently the Beatles couldn’t hear themselves above the screaming din. For all these reasons we’re told that George Harrison didn’t want to perform live anymore. The others fell in behind him. After all the Beatles were, McCartney and Starr remind us, a democratic unit. At the same time the adverse public reaction to Lennon’s irreverent comparison of the Beatles with JC must have weighed heavily on the group’s mind.

Google the words ‘Beatles’ and ‘Tour’ and it will become immediately evident that the boys had a punishing touring schedule from 1960 until they ceased performing live. Is the film’s subtitle, ‘Eight Days a Week’ an acknowledgement of this? Maybe.

Howard is clearly a Beatles aficionado and this film feels like a labour of love. Why else would a bonus 30-minute reel of the Shea stadium performance be included at the end of the feature, bringing the total viewing time to 2 hours and 38 minutes. I wonder if Howard himself was at Shea? We do know that Whoopi Goldberg attended. Her story of what the Beatles meant to her and how she came to see them that night is so touching that it’s worth the price of the film’s admission ticket alone. The glamorous Sigourney Weaver also makes an appearance. To be honest I can’t remember what she said because I was completely bowled over by how beautiful she looks in her older age.

But this is Howard’s baby and the question is will there be a sequel dealing with the Studio Years? Interestingly, he relegates their studio achievements from 1967 to 1970 to footnote status, rushing through these critically important years at the very end of the feature. If brevity of treatment implies disinterest, then I won’t hold my breath for Howard’s follow-up.

The feature concludes with the famous 1969 film recording of the Beatles performing ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ on top of the Apple Corps Building in Savile Row, London. It would be their last gig together.

Authorised documentaries are susceptible to touchy topics not being given a hearing, or the past being viewed through the biased lens of individuals and entities cooperating with the film maker. Howard’s effort is no exception. It’s interesting that hardly any other band or artist is discussed in the film. Moreover, Pete Best, the drummer of the Beatles from 1960 to 1962 barely gets a mention, even though he was with the group for the first third of its touring life. For a film that promises to cover the touring years, does this omission undermine its value as an authentic historical document?

I stay on for the bonus half hour Shea Stadium concert which I quite enjoy. This too is available on YouTube, but it’s a superb viewing experience on the big screen.

The performance finishes, the credits roll and the screen goes dim. The house lights come on, gently bathing the cinema in a warm soft glow. It’s ghostly quiet. I look at my watch and it’s nearly midnight. The last ferry has departed from Circular Quay. I rise from my chair and look around. Ha! There’s no one here. As it turns out I’ve been watching the film all by myself for the entire evening.

Walking out of the Dendy into the cool spring night, I start singing the words ‘she loves you yeah yeah yeah’ over and over and over again.

Letter to self

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Life courses for us all, rather predictably
And yet we believe we’re all different.
How are we so?
How are we different?

You love to travel.
He loves to make money.
She loves to write words.
They love to try new dishes.

And yet these are just flourishes of the same.
In the headlong rush for connections
We forget those who miss theirs
At train stations and life stations.

And so you say ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’
What of it?
So you slept rough one night.
The following evening I saw you at Bodega!

No matter how much we strain
To identify with the Other
It makes no difference to them
If we feel better for having done so.

Police Report 6226

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JUST BEFORE THE PHONE CONVERSATION ENDED, I was assured by Tammy at the NSW Police Assistance Line that details of the incident would be wired to the local police station at Balmain. The tide of questions only came to me afterwards. Would the police follow up with a phone call? What would they do with the information?  Would I just be another reportable statistic? In any case, I was relieved to have told the authorities. I had done my bit for the community and also had a report number for my insurance claim to be lodged on Monday morning.

Have you ever experienced the feeling of dread that creeps up on you when you gradually realise a sinister plot against your personal property has taken place while you’ve been away or asleep? At 10.45 this morning as I was making my way down the stairs of the low rise building I live in, I noticed my bicycle, Cyril, who is locked to a baluster on the ground floor, had shifted. Suspicious, I took a closer look. His panier had been tampered with, but not opened. This was my cue to scan the rest of his frame. I was disheartened by what I found. There was an empty space where his front wheel had been. Being a quick release wheel, this was the only part of Cyril that was not safely secured. I had paid the price for becoming complacent.

When I park my bicycle on Darling Street each morning I lock the front tire religiously with a cable device. But after initially doing the same at home, I felt that because Cyril is tucked away in the corner of the building in our safe little community of White Bay this was over-kill. Alas, I have been proven wrong!

As I stood there, stunned into silence, I experienced a conflicting set of feelings: Admiration for the thief’s awareness of Cyril’s chief vulnerability. Disappointment at the thief’s lack of society and the blight they’ve brought to our street. And frustration about the time and effort it would take to put things in order before getting back in the saddle. Indeed, it will be weeks before I ride again, which is a big deal, because I depend on my bike for commuting, socialising, shopping and keeping somewhat fit.

While I carefully and methodically catalogued the individual parts and their dollar value that went into constructing the wheel, Tammy, drawing on what seemed like an endless reservoir of patience, asked me if I suspected who might have stolen it. I told her I had no idea. It was probably not someone known to me. And even it was an inside job it didn’t seem personal, because there was no evidence of malicious damage to the bike. But the thief did leave some clues about their handicraft.

There was a certain amateurishness and violence with which they executed their fiendish plan earlier that morning. A whirlwind had hit my bicycle, smashing it against the railing of the stairs. Felled to the ground as if a limb had been torn from his body, I found Cyril in a bad way, balancing precipitously on his forks. The cable housing had been ripped out of the left break lever, an entirely unnecessary and heavy-handed action for making off with the wheel. I put this down to the thief being in a great hurry. If they had had more time I believe they would have opened the pannier and ransacked its not invaluable contents: A brand-new 3M visibility vest, two matching octopus straps and a hessian shopping bag.

Oh well.

In Spring time the green foliage of trees is prettiest when it glistens with the droplets of a rainy day. Especially on a Sunday. Looking out of the large westerly facing window that frames the wall in my living room, I trace the outline of Lillyfield against the dull grey sky. I wish I was floating somewhere up there in the clouds far away from worldly matters such as stolen wheels and other humdrum events that keep my feet close the ground and remind me all too often that life is as pathetic as it is beautiful.

Effeminate?

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I’m sitting in a deserted restaurant minding my own business.

An old waiter from Bologna approaches my table and pours me another red.

He draws near and utters knowingly:

“To be a man with an effeminate side is to enjoy the best of both worlds.”

What a random comment! Intrusive too. But I’m surprised by his eloquence.

 

Work in progress

IT’S STRANGE working on a book idea you’ve no idea will ever see the light of day. The question I’ve continuously asked myself as I’ve been writing it over the last couple of months is does Sydney need a book on cycling by someone who rides a bicycle? I think the answer is it absolutely does. Sydney is a sick man. It needs to get off its proverbial and get real. I’m a staunch advocate for more bums in saddles than on seats, and this book is an expression of that.

The follow up question is, what should that book look like? The answer is I have no idea. But the one I’m writing is personal and opinionated. It contains short daily diary entries in the first month of winter. Each entry features a theme, an observation and a concluding statement on the advantage or disadvantage of cycling versus driving. I’m not sure if the format works or if the words sing on the page. But as a friend of mine fondly reminds me whenever I voice my doubts about this endeavour: ‘It is what it is.’ You can’t argue with that!