Thursday, May 31, 2012

Trying To Remember...

...what it might have been like to be lonely. As in: greatly desirous of human company.

Thursdays are the closest thing I have to a day to myself. The kids go to school, and while every second Thursday I have to grab them from the bus at 1530 to drive them (and some others) into Launceston for trampoline and gymnastics at the PCYC, on the alternate Thursdays it can happen that all the way to 1825 or so, I might not have other people in my face.

Right now, I've just had a very fine Boags Pure Lager. I've got ABC Dig Music coming in via the TV, which I have just wired to a small amplifier/speaker system because the native sound off the TV was shite. It's dark outside, and pleasantly cool in here, despite the fact that the fire is pootling along cheerfully. I've got a pot of leek and sweet potato soup simmering on the stove, and I've just pulled the bacon out of the grill. When the family gets here, they will have delicious soup with bacon bits and sour cream and chopped coriander.

But you see, there I go: planning already for the return of wife and kids.

What was it like, being alone? I did it, now and again, when I was younger. I took multi-day walks deep into isolated bushland, carrying my food and my gear in my pack. Once I hitch-hiked around Ireland on my own... at least until two very cute German lasses with a car of their own made me a better offer.

Lately, though, I find myself wondering.

Let's be honest: I've never really liked most of the human race. Oh, by and large they're decent enough, but I wouldn't actually seek them out for company. My friends know who they are... but it's an indication of the nature of what I call 'friendship' that Papa Stanley can show up at my house a good seven years after I last saw him, and we simply carry on in much the same fashion as always. We're friends, yes, absolutely. Good friends, I believe - but I know he can live without me, and vice versa.

These days, communicating with the people you want to reach is easier than at any time in history. I have a number of distinct, but overlapping, circles of friends. Some I see regularly and routinely. (Hi, Bruce!) Others I might only hear from once a year or so. (Simone? Julie? You out there?) Nevertheless, I could get in touch quickly, as needed.

What I do not have is that ability to walk away, and experience silence and isolation. I have three kids, and a wife. I have commitments to study, to writing, to family, to teaching, and to the community in which I live. I move from obligation to obligation, moment to moment, breathing in the spaces between, mustering my resources, planning the next engagement on the fly. I may spend an afternoon in relative peace on a Thursday... but nevertheless, I'm tied down, locked in. I picked up snacks and drinks for the kids. I shopped for, and installed, the speaker/amp system so that the others can enjoy TV and games and music. I met the kids at the bus stop, delivered snacks and drinks and paperworks, collected school-bags and books, and organised a few details with my neighbour. Then I went home again, handled laundry, laid my plans for dinner, etc.

And amidst this, if I did feel lonely I have email, and Facebook, and I have a mobile phone too. If I really wanted there's Skype and various chat systems, and the landline. There's the radio. The TV. A backlog of movies and TV series I've been meaning to watch.

I think... I think I might like to walk away for a while. I can't really remember, any more, what it's like to go through a day without confronting other people. I think I might truly enjoy a week, a month perhaps, of genuine isolation. The chance to reflect, to contemplate, to reduce my daily obligations to the absolute minimum necessary for self-maintenance, or self-improvement.

Of course, I can't see it happening any time in the next five years or so. But the fact is that here I am, and it's dark, and cold outside, but I'm warm and the music is good, and frankly, I don't think I'd mind if I could just stay like this for a while...

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Maybe I'm Jaded...

Checked out a film with the Shite Team last night. We had high hopes for it: a thing called Kill List, which is touted as this amazing British horror flick full of suspense and scary stuff and violence and... stuff. Rotten Tomatoes has it at about 75% as I write this, so you understand when I said we were kind of excited.

We'd considered The Grey, but I couldn't face a movie about Liam Neeson punching wolves, at least not without cheering loudly for the wolves. Bruce popped it onscreen for a brief instant, and we got a lovely temperate pine-forest with snowy mountains as a backdrop... but I felt compelled to shout "Look out, wolves! Liam Neeson is coming to punch you!" and after that, the others decided that maybe we should watch something else.

Hence Kill List. And it's been a long time since I was that disappointed in a movie.

Maybe I'm jaded, okay? But the film starts slowly. Very bloody slowly. We're presented with the rather unlikable Jay, a man in early middle age living somewhat beyond his means in a suburban house in England; a house loaded down with expensive furnishings, exercise gear that Jay clearly doesn't use, jacuzzis, and toys for Jay's beloved son.

The opening scenes drag on through domestic strife between Jay and his wife over money, through a tedious dinner party with Jay's Irish buddy Gal and his deeply strange partner Fiona. Jay throws a tanty and ends the meal on a sour note. More shouting occurs offscreen. Gal attempts to placate Jay's young son. And then gradually the adults get their shit together. But then they get drunk, and stupidity follows.

None too bloody quickly, we discover that Jay and Gal are ex-soldiers, having done time in Iraq. They now work as contract hit-men, and the implication is that they get hired to kill nasty, unpleasant, frequently criminal people. Well, okay. Nothing new in that. Oh - and about a year ago, they had a job in Kiev that went very wrong. But we don't know how or why.

Anyway. Jay accepts Gal's suggestion, and they go off to get a new contract. By now, Weird Fiona has inscribed a stupid little geometric symbol on the back of a mirror in Jay's bathroom, and has apparently gaff-taped a 'dear john' letter to Gal's dick in the night. Eh. You get that on the big jobs, right?

The contract goes askew immediately. The old man doing the hiring says "Necessary", and slashes Jay's hand with a knife, then cuts his own, and splats blood on the contract. Jay doesn't really seem perturbed by this. Okay.

From here on in, things just get uglier. Jay and Gal go out to fulfill the eponymous Kill List, and Jay goes farther and farther off the tracks in the process. Meanwhile, the world in which Jay moves inexplicably gets more and more weird, with victims thanking him profusely as he beats the ever-loving shit out of them with various kitchen and garage impedimenta.

By the final murder, the movie has -- as Robert Downey Jr puts it so aptly in Tropic Thunder -- gone 'the full retard'. Jay and Gal are hanging around the vast estate of the palatial (I'm sure I recognised it from some historical doco or another) house of an MP who's made it onto the shit-list. It's night, and a troop of loonies in mixed garb (some wear calico smocks and straw masks; others are just naked, but not an enjoyable, 'wish that was Scarlett Johansson' sort of naked; they're all too pale, pasty and lumpy for that) parades through the forest, carrying torches. They carry out some sort of generic death ritual in which a random woman gets hanged - though she seems quite happy to participate - and Jay loses it yet again. Blazing away with guns, Jay and Gal retreat from the howling loonies, fleeing (for some inexplicable reason) into a stone-lined tunnel system.


Loonies stab Gal. Gal dies. Jay shoots many loonies. Jay escapes. Loonies follow Jay to his hideaway. Trouble ensues. Jay is captured. Jay is forced into an embarrassing knife-fight with a hunchback wearing a calico smock and a straw mask. Jay wins. The identity of the hunchback is revealed... oh my, how shocking. And then the straw mask loonies unmask, and there's the client who hired Jay among others, and there endeth the film.

It's an effort to do The Wicker Man all over again, with Jay at the centre. Unfortunately, because Jay is an unlikable twat and we're never actually given any reason to be interested in him or his doings, Team Cool Shite and I just flat out didn't give a bubbly brown fart what was happening to him. And as for that "final, shocking revelation" - well, I guessed half of it. But immediately after I voiced my idea, Q-dog spoke up in a very weary voice and predicted the "twist" down to the last, hackneyed, cliche-raddled image.

The film is violent, yes. But then, there's so much violence on screen now. It isn't particularly affecting unless I have something invested in the victims. And Jay's victims are a bunch of lowlives, while Jay himself is completely uninteresting, so it's hard to care. All that's left is the 'ick' factor you always get with excessively violent hammer murders.

The film is not spooky, unless you're susceptible to schoolyard tales of ghosties and serial murderers. I'm not.

 It's not atmospheric: it's slow, frequently boring, and in between times, flat out incomprehensible.

And that "industrial soundtrack" they mention in the reviews? The one that builds atmosphere? I don't know what atmosphere it was building, to tell the truth. Frankly, it reminded me of a flaccid fart.

Essentially, this film tries desperately to be atmospheric, intense, portentous and spooky. Instead it becomes tedious, repugnant, and irritatingly silly. If the film-makers actually wrapped it up, and tried to tell a functional, coherent story that tied up a few of their loose threads, it might have been interesting. I get the impression, however, that they realised they'd written themselves into a corner, and being unable to construct any kind of rationale for what they'd done, they decided simply to say fuck it, and pile on the wannabe-creepy imagery in the hopes that the audience would be overcome by the woooo-spooky! stuff.

Didn't work.

Mr Flinthart gives it: Four G&T - meaning that if you drink four stiff gin and tonics quite quickly, the second half of the movie should at least provoke a few giggles as the looniness sets in.

Friday, May 18, 2012


Well, that was nice! My old boon companion Papa Steve rocked up. Not quite out of the blue, mind you. He dropped me a line a couple weeks back declaring he'd be in the area, and we worked out an overnighter between us.

It was very fine to see the man again. I don't think I've actually been face-to-face with him since an epic wedding about eight years ago. Steve is one of the best; one of those who has the right to call when and where and however, and expect an answer and as much aid and assistance as I can come up with.

He got along with the kids famously. Genghis was particularly impressed, since Papa Steve is himself a bass player of many years standing. He picked up the 1/8th size bass that Genghis plays, and proceeded to jazz it up very nicely indeed.

Unfortunately, Steve was also the victim of Sudden Transplant Syndrome. These days, he's a hothouse flower, living up in Cairns. From the layers of clothing he was wearing, I don't think that our 2C evenings and cool, rainy afternoons really agreed with him. He was surprised to see I was only wearing sandals on my feet when I collected him. I pointed out that the only reason the sandals were there was because my heels were cracking up again... otherwise I would have been barefoot, as ever.

We fed him up okay. He got a good dose of Nasi Ayam - chicken rice, Malaysian style, and I made a decent effort at producing a Key Lime Pie. I'd not tried that before, but seeing as how it's one of the all-time classic USAnian desserts that turns up in every random chunk of fiction you care to name, I figured it was about time I had a go at it.

Rather disappointingly, Key Lime Pie turns out to be very similar to a simple Lemon Tart... except with a biscuit-crumb base, and (Florida) Key Lime zest and juice in place of the usual lemony bits. Oh, and of course, it uses sweetened condensed milk (plus a bit of cream) in place of rather a lot of cream and sugar. But that's about it, really. No big deal. If you can do a decent Lemon Tart, then Key Lime Pie is no big thing. Oh, and apparently the substitution of the standard limes you can get at the supermarket for the Key Lime is perfectly acceptable. I was lucky, though: turns out someone is growing limes locally around here, and I bought a bunch of them, ripe, fresh and cheap at one of the petrol stations in Scottsdale.

Limes growing in Tasmania? Who knew? I've got two little lime trees, so I guess there's hope for them. Unfortunately, the one I've got in the ground got... Natalified. She decided it needed to be weed-free, so she lifted the wire cage around it, stripped the weeds - and didn't put the wire back. In one night, the wallabies ate every leaf off the tree, and the ends of most of the branches. I've put the wire back and given it lots of care and attention, and I'm hoping it will recover. Meanwhile, the one in the pot on the deck (I'm hardening it against winter, so I can put it in the ground too) is doing fine. I'll plant it out in spring.

Hmm. Heh: I picked up The Rolling Stones: Rolled Gold the other day. Had it on the player in the car when I was driving the kids to school this morning. They were absolutely delighted by some of the tunes. Paint It Black got their attention, as did Jumping Jack Flash. Sympathy For The Devil went over quite well, but the stand-out was Satisfaction.

Listening to it again, for the first time in quite a while, I have to admit it's a genuine classic. That unmistakeable guitar riff, so arrogant, with just enough distortion on it to sound like a snarl... and then Jagger comes in, but he knows enough to rein in his often sharp, slashing vocals so those famous first couple of lines come out almost like a purr, in marvellous contrast to that vicious guitar. Fantastic stuff.

Of course, the kids have been dancing around all evening, singing off-key versions of the thing. But that's okay. It feels good to bring them another nifty piece of the world to enjoy.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

What Happened To Parenting?

I'm proud of my kids. Yep. I admit it. It's a bit stupid of me, really, since a lot of it is genetics, and a whole bunch more is just the kids themselves learning, growing, being people. But I'm a parent, and being proud of the offspring is an occupational hazard.

I was thinking about it the other day, though. The kids get quite a few compliments on their behaviour and their outlook, and that's nice and all. And I'm aware that as often as not, people are trying to find a way to say You're doing something right, Mr Flinthart, but as usual, I'm not so good about taking a compliment.

Can't dodge forever, though, can you? So I suppose this is a good time to say 'thanks' to everyone who's spoken nicely of my unruly spawn - and most especially, to the very many people who've had a hand in their upbringing. Some of you know who you are. Some of you don't.

Every adult who comes through my life makes an impression on my kids. They remember all the mad friends that come through here. They remember peripheral people, who turn up once or twice because they're studying medicine... and then they go off to be doctors somewhere, and we don't see them again. All these people have all had a role in helping me raise my kids.

Seriously: you may think that half-drunk afternoon you spent here, raving about movies and science fiction, knocking off Tasmanian wine and eating sumptuously barbecued salmon and garden-fresh veg was just a lark. But you know what? You behaved like a decent human being, and my kids noticed. And I'm grateful. You silly bastards who read to my daughter in her bed, or climbed into that princess-tent of hers; you mad pricks who wrestled on the trampoline with the boys; you daft tossers who played gin or lost at Zombies! or giggled your way through an incomprehensible game of Robo-Rally -- you've all played a part, and I'm grateful.

All of this occurred to me the other night when I was telling Genghis that he was going to do his bass practice, and I didn't care whether he liked it or not. I was thinking about it, wondering why I was being such a hard-ass, and long after the event, I kept thinking. It's not easy to summarise, but the high points go like this:

Nat's a product of a divorce family. So am I. And that's not actually a bad thing, really. Given the stories I have from both my mother and my father of the "traditional nuclear family" of the 1950s... all I can say is Fuck That Shit.

Mum used to talk about being beaten with a 'switch' - a piece of springy branch, stripped of bark. The worst, she said, was when her dad made her go out and pick the switch herself, and prepare it so it could be used on her. My dad's a little more closed, but I've talked with him, and I've met his family, and that's all I really want to say.

A lot of things got all shook up in the late sixties and the seventies. All that flower-wearing, hair-growing, Vietnam-protesting crap was tied up with a cultural groundswell. The social institutions were, for the first time, open to question, and to attack.

One of those institutions was the Traditional Nuclear Family. And I have to say: good fucking thing, really. My impression of the TNF of old is one of repression, and thinly-restrained violence. Children to be seen and not heard. Spare the rod and spoil the child. Father Knows Best. And so forth.

But to give the TNF its due  it did, at least, provide a blueprint. Sure, you might have been raising miserable, repressed, fucked-up kids who would grow into suit-wearing serial killers... but at least you had guidelines, right?

The Great Cultural Revolt threw those guidelines out. Anybody remember Dr Benjamin Spock and his touchy-feely bullshit? Yeah. Or that idiotic Feminist approach that said boys and girls only acquire masculine and feminine characteristics because of the way we raise them? Oh, shit, how I wish the people behind that crap could have seen my 11 month old son Jake making pistols out of his very first Lego set, and shooting with 'pyew pyew!' noises at  his surprised and mortified mother. Holy crap, there was a lot of shit vomited up about parenting back in those days.

I sympathise strongly with my parents. The old rules - of all kinds! - had been shown to be false. The new rulebooks were pretty much made up on the spot by people who didn't do a very good job of hiding their personal political axe-grinding. So what the fuck were you supposed to do?

Thinking back, I would guess my parents were just trying to avoid making the mistakes they saw from their own parents. My sister and I got a lot of encouragement to be individuals. We also got a lot of other stuff, particularly from my dad, who has long since admitted he really had no idea what the hell he was doing. What we didn't get was a sense of yes, this is how parenting is done.

And I'm guessing that many, many other people of my generation got something similar.

If my kids are doing well... okay, yes. I'll take some credit. But how do you take credit for 'choosing a relatively sane mother'? Because that's important, you understand. Natalie and I have our differences, but we're pretty solid on the whole child-rearing thing, and we support each other there. The kids can't play us off against each other, because we deliberately present a united front. Even where we disagree, we work out the position we're going to take, and we stick to it. No wedge politics from my kids: they know where they stand, and the rest is up to them.

And how do you take credit for 'stubborn bastardry'? I make sure Genghis practices his bass because I have thought it through. He's a kid. He's nine years old. If I leave him to his own devices, he'll play computer games and cause mischief all day long - in between reading ferociously, of course. His whole life to date is just nine years. He has no conception of the long-term value of practice, or of music. He picks up something, shows an interest, futzes around with it... and left to himself, he would put it down and move on to something else. Eventually, he'd wind up at the end of high school with mediocre academic scores, an abiding interest in computer games... and not a whole lot else.

How the hell can I expect someone as young as he is to have real persistence? How can he possibly conceive the lifetime of rewards which comes with learning music, and mastering an instrument? If I don't sit on his head and make him do this, then at best, he'll be like Natalie, and take up an instrument in his mid-twenties, and curse as all the kids around him learn faster and play better than he does. At worst, he'll be like my father - who is always utterly delighted whenever any of us does anything musical around him, because much as he loves music... the making of music is a closed world to him.

So you see, I can think this shit through, and explain why I'm doing it. But is that worthy of some kind of credit? Having more experience than a kid, and being stubborn enough to make sure the kid gets the benefit?

I'm not sure. I do know this. Jake is really starting to enjoy the 'cello, and he writes much better than I did at his age, and if he works with me, he'll have a legit black belt before he's twenty. Genghis hasn't passed the hump with his bass yet, but he's getting there, and it's amazing how fast he picks up Swedish vocabulary. The  Mau-Mau loves showing off her piano chops, and she's handling gymnastics well, and is learning ju-jitsu at a spooky rate.

There have been things they've been permitted to quit, of course. The boys do trampoline now, not gymnastics. Spanish has given way to Swedish. Jake put aside the piano for the 'cello. But overall, they are being not just encouraged, but physically, mentally, and emotionally dragged into learning these things, and more importantly, into the practices and habits of learning and overcoming. It's hard fucking work, and it costs a lot in terms of sanity, but it's happening, and that's all the scoreboard shows.

I do know of others who've taken this kind of approach. Props to John Birmingham, for example: he once mentioned to me how much work he and Jane put into monstering their kids until they learned 'restaurant manners', and could be relied on to go out for dinner without causing disaster. But at the same time, I have a lot of sympathy and understanding for the people who haven't gone down that road. There were a lot of really goddam ugly elements to so-called 'parenting' in the old-school Nuclear Family, and we're better off without those. The art of being more stubborn than your kid, for the right reasons, is on the surface very similar to a lot of the things that got thrown out with good reason.

Look, I'll be honest: times are it feels like hell. It feels like I'm bullying my kids. Take the 'clothing on the bathroom floor' shit, for example. I spent more than a year trying to get the little bastards not to leave their dirty clothes on the bathroom floor, but no amount of cajoling, punishing, example-setting or any other behaviour made a difference. In the end, I figured it out: I gave the kids the right to fine each other 20 cents if they found clothes on the bathroom floor. The kid who'd left the clothes behind not only had to pay the other kid... but they still had to pick up their clothes and put them in the laundry.

The boys learned fast. The Mau-mau... not so much. And she absolutely hated having to pay up her 20 cents. Huge, huge tantrums. Massive crying jags. Screaming blue murder. Hated it.

It took her four months longer than it took the boys, by my estimate. But here's how it is now: they do not leave their clothing on the bathroom floor. They hang their towels up when they're done. They put their dirty clothing in the laundry.

Is that a particularly good thing? I don't know. I do know it extends the life of the clothing, and makes the bathroom safer, as well as tidier. I also know I endured countless hours of heartbreaking rage and sadness from the Mau-mau to achieve this, and that it would have been infinitely easier to give up, and just pick up the clothing for her.

So. Very. Much. Easier.

That's the point of this screed. There was an awful lot of shit associated with the old-school version of parenting, and I'm very damned grateful my parents didn't try to pass it on to me. But along with all that horrible shit, we also lost the good stuff: the rules that worked, the ideas that made sense. Natalie and I are lucky: we're smart, educated, stubborn as fuck, and well situated. We can make decisions on this kind of thing, talk it over with one another, and then put a plan of action into place.

But how's that supposed to work out for a single parent with three kids in a welfare suburb?

I know. You see shitty, nasty little kids every day, and you wonder what the hell is wrong with the parents. Sometimes I feel exactly the same way. But when I stop and think about it...

... I really feel for them. Parents and kids both. Because here's the real secret, the hidden truth:  in the short term, it's heartbreaking to battle your kids, and it's horrible to deny them simple things they want, and it's incredibly draining to force them to act like human beings, But in the long term, you have to live with the little bastards, and you have to deal with what they bring into your life.

I'm playing the long game, and I hope I'm teaching my kids to do likewise.

Friday, May 4, 2012


I went to a Laser Tag session last night, for one reason and another. The boys were invited too. Everybody had a great time, but I noticed -- once again -- that I'm not shooting as accurately as I did on the one occasion I tried it out back around 1994, at somebody's birthday in Brisbane.

Halfway through the second game last night, I realised what was going on.

Back in 1994, I didn't really give a shit about guns. So I played one session, and by the third game, even though I was playing with some fairly experience folk, I was shooting up a storm. Yeeehaw!

Since then - well, yes, there's age to consider, of course. But the difference is greater than that, and it dawned on me about the twentieth time that somebody came round a corner and shot me before I could bring my laser gun quite into line.

The big difference is that in the intervening period, I went and got a gun license, and now I occasionally use a real gun quite seriously.

Everybody else in that Zone Three place was running around with their lasers pointing straight out in front of them. Me? Whenever I wasn't specifically shooting at someone, the gun was pointed down and away from my feet. And that meant whenever I had a surprise encounter, I had to whip the gun up and bring it to bear, and that made me slow, and inaccurate.

Interesting. I tried to remember to keep it levelled - but every time my concentration wavered, the gun would resolutely swing down again, into the safety zone. Had it been a 'real' evening, I wouldn't have shot anyone at all by accident in the course of the game... and that's great, from a 'being-safe-while-shooting-rabbits' perspective. Just not so good from a 'frag-hell-out-of-the-other-players' viewpoint.

Do I want to change that habit? Can I programme my brain to treat the laser gun - designed and weighted to look and act like a weapon - as a toy, while still keeping my ingrained safety practices with the real thing? Do I want to even take that risk?

I don't know. It's a really interesting question. It's also the main reason I never tried competition fighting back in Brisbane, under Mark Haseman. I trained with plenty of people who fought in competition, and it did look like fun, but at the back of my mind I was always aware that the habits you train into yourself for competition are not the same as the habits you need to keep yourself alive and healthy if things turn bad and you have to fight. There's a young man at my classes at the moment, for example. He has kickboxing behind him, and he likes sparring and competition. He's able, energetic and athletic, and he learns well - but every now and again I mention eye gouging, or biting, or tearing tendons or breaking bones and joints, and he gets kind of quiet and wide-eyed. It's a bit horrible from his viewpoint.

Weaknesses. One thing or another. It's a tough call, sometimes.

Writing, for example. I can be distractable. I need to get into the groove and really start rolling before the words flow. Otherwise I struggle, and things go slowly. I need to be inside the POV, understanding the action and the cadence and the pace. I can't dip in and out. If I get interrupted, things get really difficult.

But I'm a dad, too. And when my wife and my younger son fight like cats and dogs outside the door to my study, I find it impossible to ignore them. I love them both, and I literally cannot hear them squabbling without being pulled out of the place where I'm trying to go.

It's futile trying to write while they're both home at once, at least while they're in earshot.

Do I want to break that habit? Do I want to be able to ignore them while they snipe at each other? Is that right? Can I really call myself a father and a husband if I can learn not to hear the distress that my wife and child are causing each other?

I don't know. I do know I'm not getting this shit done.

I'm going to put my current workfile onto the little notebook machine. Then I'm going up the top shed. The keyboard is cramped, of course, and the shed is cold and dusty. But at least there, I won't be able to hear them.

They can fend for themselves for a while.