World from Words


Monday 23 April 2012

I've been reading a few pieces recently - notably Raimond Gaita's piece in Meanjin and a piece by Will Self on the BBC website.  Both deal with language, and its absence.  Both talk about with the way language - or its lack - defines or flattens our own worldviews.  We are so close to words, they are so powerful, that a few new words into your understanding and wham, out puffs the world, larger and better and more complex and more beautiful than it was before.

That is the power of words.

Raimond Gaita's focus is on the university, and about its scholarly limitations when it has been so enshrouded managerial newspeak - where students are now customers:
It is no small matter, the ubiquitous success of managerial newspeak in the characterisation of university life. Students who learn to speak it, confident in no other language with which to express what it can mean to be a student, will not have the words with which to identify the deepest values of their education and thereby to claim its treasures as their inheritance.

An example will illustrate the point. Recently when I gave a public lecture at the Melbourne Law School, in which I lamented the ways managerial newspeak had estranged politicians, civil servants, school teachers, academics and others from the deepest values of their vocations, a student said at question time that he did not object to being described as a customer in his dealings with his teachers. In fact, he went on to say, he welcomed it because it enabled him to hold them to account if they did not deliver the product the university had advertised.

... I suspect that the student in my example welcomed being described as a customer because customers know—or can set out to know—how to demand value for money. Customers typically know what they want and what counts as getting it. The trouble, however, as I hope my example shows, is that students are initiated into things they don’t understand and which take time to understand. If they are well taught, they discover worlds they had never dreamed of and whose exploration requires disciplines that, at their deepest, can never adequately be captured in the forms they fill out at the end of the semester to assess their lectures and lecturers. When we describe students as customers we do not create a suitable means to enable them to hold their teachers to account. We make many of their teachers servile because they become fearful. We then betray the trust of the students and their teachers.
Well, just quietly, fuck you, managerially-newspeaking universities - and yes, my current one is no exception.   To now gain the higher benefits from your education requires a complete rejection of the values which underscore the university from which you are getting that education.  Your systems and your financial bottom line are not the most important thing here.  Your ability to change the minds of your students, to wake them up, to tap into what they yearn for - that's the most important thing here.  But I can't say that anymore, can I?  Because the university and the culture have removed, stone by stone, any lanes that lead to the space where everybody understands why this is true.  All there are left are empty floating grey bubbles where all the words once were.

Strange times we live in, folks.

It is no coincidence that my university is a lot sexier than it was when I first started there back in 1998.  New, sexier buildings ... but do I detect a faint dumbing down of the syllabus from when I first began back then?  Uh, duh.  (And even back then the dumbing down had begun).

And so I have decided in this little corner of Discombobula that in retaliation I am going to soon begin a series here on words that puff out the world from the small little corporatised bullshit we've become accustomed to into the bigger space that we feel it is.  Words that have fallen by the wayside because they're too big to tweet, too complex to learn in under five seconds, too sexy to fit into McLanguage. 

Are there any words (or phrases) that you hold dear, that you have come upon in your life, delved into, swilled around in your mouth, and had puff out into your world?  Words that have enriched you, made everything feel more mysterious because with your learning them an entire city has fallen onto your horizon to be explored?

Because that's the power of words.

Here and There


Thursday 12 April 2012

Self-Portrait by Bikini666 (CC licence)
Believing you can move from here to there is always going to be shaky and wobbly.  Without any sort of safety net, on hypoglycemic legs, you must jump from one place to another that you're not even sure exists.  Fair Work Australia wouldn't condone it, that's for sure.

And so, because leaving here feels impossible, you sit down and begin a scan.  You trust your brave pair of eyes to do the searching and not to flinch.  You'll know the way out when you see it.  And then, ah, there it is.  This file, it turns out, is labelled Victimisation.  It's funny, but you never really thought that you would own a file labelled such, that had contents in it.  You tried so hard to not be a victim in any way.  But then you realised you could see it in others, and when you did you had a strange reaction to it.  A rather strong reaction.  That was the first clue.

To not flinch and to open that file is to access some of the pain that looms so large on some occasions and is entirely unfathomable on others, a continent away.  The shit you sequestered away because you didn't know what to do with it, the way your body takes mercury and lead and sequesters them away for safety in your brain and in your liver.  Opening that file is an act of bravery understood only by yourself, and able to be done only by yourself.  It is difficult to admit to it, because it feels so sort of middle-class.  My pain, my pain.  You're like Dr Smith from Lost in Space and the whirling robot, all in one.  

Opening that file takes back some stuff from your shadow and really makes it yours.  It's the only way that you can leave this place.

This place.  It's strangely compelling, once you're here.  It validates to you what you can't always feel, that those gaping numb punctures, like flaccid truck tyres on the side of the highway, really are real.  But being here is embarrassing.  It's small.  You never thought you would fall into this sort of thing.  You have fallen so far into the vat, you don't know if you can climb out.  Its walls are so slimy, you start thinking that maybe you're always going to be here.  That this is your destiny.

Back here, the vines casually drape themselves around your feet and your ankles and then dig in, like a pair of too-small undies.  When you are over there, you try to remind yourself to remember, as though to a future incarnation pre-Bardo, that though it feels as though you can't move, you have invisible energy scissors.  Because once you've arrived, staying here is sorta warming ~ in the way that pissing your pants in a snowstorm is sorta warming.

Staying here is like slipping yourself a microgram of mercury ~ not immediately toxic, but draining your immune system, feeding the largest dragon in your repertoire.

Leaving again, it's like you've bust your way through a door that you didn't know was going to budge because it's made of steel, like in Get Smart.  But no, not even busting through ~ you don't even need to do that.  You reach out and turn the handle and walk through.  You grab the bottom rung of the ladder in the vat and climb out.  Ridiculously simple.

When you have jumped from here to there, the air is immediately different.  Higher altitude.  You've been there before.  You were there 10 minutes ago.  But when you're back here, you immediately forget that there exists.  When you're there, you can never forget that here is.  You flinch at the thought of returning, knowing that you probably will.  All you can do is hope that with each walk-through the vines diminish some of their hold, that next time you won't forget what you know there.  That nothing can hold you here.  It's just a walk-through back.

Tus Misterios by Alfonso Maggiolo Pierano (cc licence)



Wednesday 4 April 2012

Has anyone here ever tried SAMe (pronounced Sammy)?  S-adenosyl methionine is a regularly occurring molecule that is being constantly made in our bodies.  In my case, it's proved a pretty fine thing for depression.  On top of that, it's been helping my liver.  The rings that have been under my eyes for I don't know how many years have begun to clear, and the whites of my eyes are whiter.

I am sure glad I have come across this stuff, and I'd be interested to know how others have found it.


Hmm, so it went well there for a few weeks.  The doom I have been experiencing for so many months actually lifted and I felt like ME again.  But then I began feeling a bit anxious and developed a bit of insomnia to boot.  I have been taking 5HTP as well, which is the precusor to serotonin.  For reasons best known to myself I stopped taking that for a while and so the anxiety and insomia (known side effects of SAMe in some people) kicked in.

It's a bit of a trial and error situation.  I admit, I'm disappointed.  After being ruled for so long by my hormones and whatever else going on in my body, to only have a respite of a couple of weeks from that is disappointing.  Oh well, we'll see.

Cat and Mouse Games


Monday 2 April 2012

An edited version of this post appeared in The Big Issue in 2012

In the early hours of Saturday morning, on the way home after a satisfying evening of footy and live music, the car in front of you hits a cat. Before you know it you’re out of the car and running back towards the little shape on the road. She looks so tiny sitting there stunned on her haunches in the middle of the left-hand lane of Riversale Road. If a car came round the bend now it would collect her. You hope, in the quick but slowed-down seconds before you scoop her up, that nothing is broken.

It takes 15 minutes to reach the emergency animal hospital. You and your partner continue to slurp ginger beer and cola Slurpees even while you begin to feel a woozy part of you is stuck behind, still sitting on the road. You have put the kitten on the ground at your feet, thinking that maybe she will feel safer down there. You swear you detect a little purr at one point. She is obviously someone’s pet, a pretty grey and white tabby with a flea collar round her neck with a couple of bells on it. A few minutes before you reach the hospital the shock sets in and she leans forward and vomits a tuna casserole right into the open arms of your handbag.

The man on night shift buzzes you in and directs you in an Irish brogue to sign a form, and as quickly as she came she is out of your arms and off through the double swinging doors. Before you leave you go to the bathroom to clean up. You use paper towel to wipe off the trail of shit that is smeared down your right arm. You don’t know what to do with it, and you push it into the sinkhole through wadded up paper. There is a red blotch on your arm where you didn’t even feel the scratch.

You think of other countries in the world that do not even have 24-hour emergency hospitals open for humans, let alone pets, and you feel a complicated mix of luckiness and guilt. You – and the cat – are here by virtue of a cosmic incomprehensibility, a karmic lotto plonking you down in one of the richest countries on earth.

The next morning you call up the animal hospital. She’s doing well on some morphine, has been walking round on all fours and smooching, the woman on the phone says. Luckily just battered and bruised. She’s at the RSPCA now. The microchip in her left ear has identified her owners, who have been called.

A happy ending. You feel so good for having stopped, a Samaritan. Your love for humanity bubbles. You wonder if the karmic balance of rescuing the cat has altered at all your murdering of the mice.


You have always thought that if you were an actor and needed to cry on cue, all you would need to do is think of your dog dying and the tears would swell without the need to appeal to a surreptitious jar of Vicks VapoRub.


The mice have been rustling every night for months. They’ve begun leaving holes nibbled in the bottom of things in the pantry, so that you have to throw away almost-full packets of pasta, bags of nuts and raisins. A telltale hole develops in the thick plastic bottom of the 20-kilo bag of sunflower seed that feeds the rainbow lorikeets, king parrots and rosellas. You begin to smell the musty miceness as soon as you walk through the front door, as you sit on the couch in the evenings.

They have been living in the roof and getting into the pantry via the space that Anthony has now boarded up with a new piece of Bunnings plyboard. You feel a little mean cutting off their easy access. You have cartoonic visions of them standing, hands folded across their chests, deeply put out, the way you would be if you moved specially to an area for a particularly amazing Thai restaurant only to have them board up three weeks after you move in and go somewhere else.

Except it’s been a little longer than three weeks. The night after Anthony boards up their direct route you stand near the pantry and hear them, scrabbling and crying in the walls.


When you are 17 you cannot bear the thought of eating animals any more. The chops on your plate rear up on their hind legs to accuse you and refuse to lie down and be chops. “We are lambs,” they insist, and you lose your appetite and become a vegetarian for an entire year. One Sunday morning, nursing a hangover, your desire for a Big Mac overshadows everything else, and so ends your full-blown vegetarianism, but not your distaste.

You are a selectively hypocritical murderer who loves some animals, kills others and –even worse – eats yet others. Who goes to the supermarket and buys minced-up cows to feed to the kookaburras that come visiting on the railing. You buy chicken that is flatpacked in plastic so that if you want, you can pretend that chicken is blubs of white stuff, not a bird that squawks with a beak and makes cool brrrrrr noises and lays eggs and has chicks and feels terror when it’s killed. You think that if we were all forced to kill whatever meat before we eat it, My Kitchen Rules would have a very different menu.

You hoped very fervently that boarding up the pantry would make the mice think twice, and go and live somewhere else where it’s not your responsibility to deal with them. But the next night they have managed to find the long way into the pantry, and that rustling noise starts up again, fills you with despair and anger.

The next time you are in the supermarket you buy some Ratsak. Well, actually, Anthony makes the executive decision, but really that just makes you a handballing selectively hypocritical murderer, because even though it feels distressing to you, you are leaving it sitting on the conveyor belt. You don’t say, for example, “Hey, how about a bunch of ethical mousetraps instead, that I will personally take outside and release into the wild seeing I’m the one who is freaking out about this?” Nope, you don’t. Instead you stand in line at the checkout reading the packet instructions and feeling dread in your guts.

“How are you today?” the Fresh Food girl says to you by way of introduction. “Horrible,” you want to say, and, because you are feeling guilty like a handballing, selectively hypocritical murderer should, you begin running off at the mouth in a nervous blather as she bags up your stuff.

“What if,” you say, “some weird radiation thing happens in the future, and mice grow bigger and humans grow smaller? Do you think they’re going to look kindly on this? I don’t think so. And we’ll deserve it. It will be karma.”

She smiles and says the necessary things, that mice in kitchens need to be disposed of, but that doesn't make poisoning them right though, does it?

Sometimes you leave old fruit out on the decking for the couple of possums that come by each night. It does not escape your notice that possums are rather like giant mice and it is only by virtue of their larger size that you are feeding them instead of killing them..

The few days after the Ratsak is laid there is increased activity in the roof. You don’t know which is worse – the accusatory scrabblings or the eerie silence that descends a few days later when truly not a creature is stirring all through the house. Especially not the mice, because they are up in the roof, dead. And it may seem like such a small and inconsequential thing when you look at the suffering of the rest of the world, but it still makes you cry because they suffered. And what separated those mice in the end was an “s” – on the wrong side of the complicated fence that separates pets from pests.