Monday, December 22, 2008

John Barrymore Stokes: 4 July 1926 - 22 December 2008

Dear Pop,
It's a warm night here in Canberra. Just the other night it was too cold to even walk into town without a coat, but tonight there is a threnody of cicadas, an absolute stillness, a blanket of pin-stars. The perfect night for remembering.

I actually only have a handful of memories of you and I alone together, without anyone else around. One of these was a time at the beach, around the time that I hated everything about the beach, which was the same time of life that Mum and Dad tried unsuccessfully to get me to start doing surf life saving on Saturday mornings. This day we were a little north of North Cottesloe and our towels were a little further away from the water than we usually sat. I was laying on a towel on my front, my chin resting on a little mound, and you were sitting there, bare ankled and making patterns in the sand. You were explaining something to me in a lot of detail - it was either something historical (about the Roman Empire or World War II perhaps) or something scientific (some particular laws of physics) but I can't remember what. I remember distinctly that I wasn't listening to a thing you said. You were taking great pains to explain this thing to me; in fact, it stood out because it was probably the most animated and conversive I'd ever seen you. You were really into it; there you were, just riffin' on this one subject, diving deep into the nitty gritty; and there I was, chin on sand. I realised suddenly, after a while, that you'd been talking for ages, and I hadn't heard anything at all, that my mind had gone to sleep in the sun, and I'd missed all the wisdom you had for me. This realisation was a shock, and I remember that I felt bad.

I didn't know you all that well, Pop. But you always seemed to me a gentle and intelligent guy, a man who loved learning, who found beauty in complexity and reason. Often, though, it seemed to me that you didn't know quite how to relate to other people, how to share in the joy and spirit of others, that, at times, you felt a little uncomfortable. Looking back, you always seemed to associate best through rational discussion and analysis. I don't mean to say you were cold - I never felt that Pop - but I always wondered what you really thought about people, about all the people gathered at Christmas, about me. I always wondered.

Pop, we have always seemed such different men, but I realise more and more these days how, in certain characteristics, we are all too similar. At times, I too find myself unsure in relating to others. I realise that I sometimes shy away from even those I love clearly and vividly, that I can come across distracted and aloof, that my emotions are grey and hidden, even at times when I am most safe and secure. Fearful of something (I know not what), I find solace in the mind. I find myself telling long, enthusiastic, detailed explanations of politics, of genealogies, of geography, of literature, of war. I notice, much more often than I'd like, the eyes of my companions glazing over as I go on too long on subjects which are not always universal in their appeal. They turn their glances, and I am left with half a tale. It's a lonely feeling, Pop, and I wonder if you felt that too.

I think I had a lot more I could have learned from you, old man. I wish I had. I wish I'd asked you more, dug deeper, been more inquisitive. I wish I'd known more about the ancestors whose inscriptions mark the goblets and wooden compasses you gave me. I wish we'd spent more time together in those lucid years of splendid rationality. I wish I knew you more, so I could know myself, more.

Rest easy.


Monday, December 08, 2008

State of My Life Address, 8 December 2008

A. Today I have lived for exactly 28 years, or 10226 days. 28 is the second perfect number; it is also a Størmer, a happy, and a Keith number. Twenty-eight is the number of convex uniform honeycombs, it corresponds to the word koakh meaning 'power' or 'energy' in Hebrew Numerology, and it is the common name of the Western Australian parrot Barnardius zonarius semitorquatus. Neo-Nazis use '28' to refer to 'blood and honour' (with B=2 and H=8), and there are 28 letters in both the Swedish and Arabic alphabets. In the drug trade, 28 refers to the number of grams in an ounce. Chinese astrology has twenty-eight mansions (xiù), each representing a latitude the Moon crosses monthly as it circles the earth. These twenty eight mansions are split into four regions, as follows:
1. Azure Dragon (青龍): Horn, Neck, Root, Room, Heart, Tail, Winnowing Basket;
2. Vermilion Bird
(朱雀): Well, Ghost, Willow, Star, Extended Net, Wings, Chariot;
3. White Tiger (白虎): Legs, Bond, Stomach, Hairy Head, Net, Turtle Beak, Three Stars;
4. Black Tortoise
(玄武): Dipper, Ox, Girl, Emptiness, Rooftop, Encampment, Wall.

B. Purple walled cheaply built brick townhouse with concrete slab, numbered thirty four of seventeen. Cream-beige carpets and cream-grey curtains. Above the street a baldachin of oak trees which drop leaves into the courtyard, where I sweep them on weekends with assistance from the next door neighbour, a six-year-old Chinese girl called Abby who is also teaching me how to speak Mandarin at the rate of one word per month, and who made cut-out monkeys for me which are now on our fridge. My room with the Rapunzel balcony, and the yellow lamp light that reminds passers-by at night of glow-worms. Night sounds: cicadas, neighbouring televisions, the engines of hoons, an occasional possum. We live close by to a Turkish owned fast food shop called Charcoal Chicken, which has very oily pides. The laundry fan makes a terrifying noise, so the switch is sticky taped to avoid accidental use. There are plans for collaborative artworks and furniture purchase trips, even a house-hold dance. Chimeras of community. I live with A.O. who makes salads with tinned mango, pan-fried chicken and macadamia nuts. She counts indigenous people for a living, on an abacus, in Belconnen. I also live with K.B. who must be a spook because I am not allowed to know what she does, and she has a small paper shredder on her waste paper bin in her room. She likes Marilyn movies, and that is all I will ever say about her on this website. On Wednesdays it is family dinner (another chimera), which we alternate in cooking, and follow up with desert in front of Twin Peaks. We have a tiny television. We live in Canberra (population 340,800), the capital of Australia, and sporadically I like it, often I don't mind it, but sometimes I just resent it so much.

Today, though, I am seated at the small square table in the tiny studio flat of my sister and her boyfriend, in Carlton, Victoria, Australia. It is a corner apartment and there are windows running the full span of two walls, and the light is pouring in, and there are many green plants in pots along the window sill. I am listening to the New Pornographers' Challengers record. I am wearing a checked cowboy shirt (brand: 'RANCH - BAR') that I bought in a Walpole op-shop in 2002, an organic white cotton t-shirt, grey jeans, white socks and brown, green & red Nike sneakers. I am also wearing the same old spectacles, and my hair is messy. I am a little sunburned from a long and lazy day yesterday riding bikes and wandering at the Collingwood Children's Farm. So far on my birthday I have eaten one plate of breakfast foods, cooked by Kate and Haslett, which consisted of 2 x poached eggs, 2 x slices of bread, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, big tomatoes, avocado, orange juice, and peppermint tea with lots of sugar. I still have seriously weird issues with my digestive system, particularly recently, which one day I might think about getting checked out. I also have a seborrheic keratosis behind my right ear, as well as the last remains of a healing cold sore. I weigh 77.9 kilograms.

D. I have taken the day off work today. I work in the Humanitarian Policy Unit of the Humanitarian & Emergencies Section at the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID). Very few people outside of Canberra seem to understand exactly what it is I actually do, so let me tell you. I am part of a team of four people who manage Australia's strategic policy when it comes to humanitarian affairs. This means that I advise the government on humanitarian issues, help negotiate appropriate text for UN resolutions on humanitarian issues, and spend taxpayers money on things like humanitarian research; provision of basic services and protection to populations displaced by natural disasters and conflicts; and core funding for multilateral and non-governmental bodies like UNHCR, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, and the NRC Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, and stuff. Basically, I push paper and tease my workmate about dressing and acting like a real estate agent. I sit at a desk with my back to the window, the view from which takes in Parliament House, the Lake, the National Carillon, and the purple hills which flank the south of the city. Often there is Toblerone that someone has bought back from an overseas trip, sitting behind me, taunting me like a villain in a children's puppet show. I like my job, actually quite a bit.

E. I also volunteer for CISV International and am one of the Training Coordinators for the International Mosaic Committee, along with A.N. from Canada and B.E. from Austria. I am a member of Board Game Club, with four others, and we frequently play El Grande, Ticket to Ride (Europe version), Tichu and 1960: The Making of the President. I frequently lose. I study Arabic language two days a week, private lunch time lessons in one of the little rooms off the foyer at work, with an Egyptian man who also teaches ballroom dancing. I can feel much improvement in my reading and speaking, which is exciting. My ballroom dancing still requires practice. I believe one day I would like to live in Damascus, Syria, where I will have tame finches in my apartment, cook kofte, and go on Saturday afternoons strolls to watch the dervishes.

F. I have a car, for the first time in my life, a small sea-blue thing with speed-stripes. I have a bread machine and a bicycle and a navy blue bedspread, with pinstripes. I do not have a girlfriend or any pets. I have $161.74 in my savings account.

G. For my birthday I got phone calls, SMSs and facebook messages from friends in Colombia, Germany, Canada, Switzerland, Denmark, Uganda, Israel, Portugal, the United States, Guatemala, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, the United Kingdom, Taiwan, Italy, Egypt, Jordan, Mexico, Norway, India, Lebanon, Thailand, Argentina, Iceland, Austria, Lithuania, Sweden, Fiji, and Australia. I got some homemade blackboards from my sister, a book of Flannery O'Connor stories from Lauren, a Hannah Montana chocolate advent calendar from Claire, a bottle of elderberry syrup from Anneke, a video of a Puebla mariachi group from Abigail, and a video of Flo and Alena eating pizza for breakfast with a birthday candle on the table, from Flo and Alena. Thankyou to everybody! You are golden horse fruit!

H. I've made pilgrimage to this city a number of times this year, and each time its left me sort of shaken. Often times at home people assume I come from Melbourne instead of Perth (most people in Canberra are from interstate; we're a society of wash-ins) - "you just seem so Melbourne" they say. Which I'm not sure if they mean in a positive, negative or neutral way, but whatever it is, it seems to feel that way to me too. The city has long been a sort of Zion, both to me and to those I've grown up with, and to which a lot of those I love have migrated. And yet here I live, in Canberra, a desperately quiet and completely inorganic town of mindnumbing straightness, where culture is something imported from the Dutch Golden Age in bigass packing containers for a limited season at the National Gallery, not something that people, individuals and posses of likemindeds, live and breathe in studios and parks and attics and cold water flats and alleyways and town squares and community gardens and bedrooms and basements and collectives. Where any attention to aesthetic is marginalised in place of the quest to pay off the mortgage, and to slap together more beige suburban townhouses with tile floors to accommodate the inflow of young, engaged public servant couples and Chinese students. There's been some acculturation, but I still feel like a bewildered migrant, displaced and confusing to those I come in contact with everyday - oftentimes kind, intelligent, interesting and humorous people, but still not of my tribe. In Melbourne I am made jealous of the art and architecture, the community and spirit, the stories and images; but I am also reminded of the anxiety and discontent of my kinsfolk, the degree to which we be constantly questioning, forever exploring, fucking up in the same ways again and again. And then, as I get back to Canberra everything seems so lacking in complication, so local, so completely modest and unassertive, that I find myself breathing a long sigh of relief, and greatly enjoying the morning ride to work, and marveling in the simplicity of it all, and getting very confused indeed by what I want and what it means to be grown up, and whether or not I actually like living in this city a little bit, after all, and whether that means I'm becoming more and more boring (actually, I know that I am), and whether this bothers me, or whether all of this anxiety, all of it, is learned, and that all I need is to unlearn it, to be more calm and content in a chair with a book, to ignore the brazenly bland, to distinguish better between that which is good and that which is pretentious, to ultimately become more Canberran.

I. Currently I am reading The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño, Carpentaria by Alexis Wright, and The Responsibility to Protect by Gareth Evans. The last movie I saw was Quantum of Solace (2008). The last gig I went to was Rye Rye at the Bakery in Perth - that was in October. The last non-food item I bought was soap from the organic market at CERES community farm in Brunswick. The last thing I cooked was baklava, for the combined-graduate birthday celebration picnic on Friday. The last girl I kissed was L.S, who apparently no longer exists. The last country I have visited outside of Australia was Singapore. The last alcoholic drink I consumed was a vodka with orange juice.

J. Since my last birthday I have visited Java and Queensland for the first time; started cooking a lot more, and a lot more confidently, than I have in the past; and become well and truly confused by modern youth, with their hair and their shrieking and their enthusiasm for stupidity. I have started drinking some alcoholic beverages, including fruity cocktails, cream-based liquors, and Stones alcoholic ginger beer. For a period of time I started attending Meetings for Worship at the Canberra Branch of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), which I very much enjoyed, but then stopped for some reason, which is unfortunate. I am certainly more spiritual than I was last year, and believe strongly that the human condition is, as Simone Weil describes it, a balance between gravity and grace - a balance which I am still struggling to find. Other than that, I follow Thoreau in believing that "religion is that which is never spoken". I certainly need more time in silence.

K. I ride my bike to and from work every week day, which takes me approximately 9 minutes each way. I play squash occasionally with a group of males. Sometimes I walk up Mount Ainslie with A.O., which makes pain on my lower back, and when we get to the top we sit with our legs looped through the balustrade of the lookout and gaze across the satellite towns to the Brindabellas, which are capped in snow for a short time in the winter. I am contemplating joining an Ultimate team. I went skiing a few times through the winter. This summer I plan to take anyone who comes to visit me kayaking on the lake.

L. My favourite poem is still "Self-Portrait at 28" by David Berman, which, as one of the original vague inspirations for these annual addresses, warrants special celebration this particular year, my twenty eighth. It will be celebrated by my now quoting my favourite passage to end this year's address:

It is a certain hill.
The one I imagine when I hear the word "hill,"
and if the apocalypse turns out
to be a world-wide nervous breakdown,
if our five billion minds collapse at once,
well I'd call that a surprise ending
and this hill would still be beautiful,
a place I wouldn't mind dying
alone or with you.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Anneke told me a story, as we were walking through the eucalypts up Mount Ainslie, about one of her friends who is working in a school on an Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory. She had to break up a fistfight that had broken out between two of the boys in her classroom. Pulling them apart, she asked "Now, explain to me: why are you fighting?"

"We're fighting about which is better;" one of the boys replied, "black Michael Jackson or white Michael Jackson".

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Magic inky cuttlefish friends

Tonight (and this is kinda symbolic of my life, nowadays, in general) I cooked cuttlefish paella with ink and white wine (a typical Spanish ración meant for sharing round a big outdoor table with jugs of sangria) and ate it alone, in my bedroom, while listening to the rain and reading the New York Times website. I had invited a number of people to join me - starting with the housemate who eats seafood (busy), then moving on to my two single friends (busy / didn't answer), before realising that the only other person I could really ask at short notice was a vegetarian. But I'd defrosted the cuttlefish, so I cooked it anyway, and it was fantastic - black and gluggy and warming. I helped myself to seconds, then tupperwared the rest for work lunches.

Today: I wrote a long sentence about Humanitarian Access which may be partially (or even wholly) used as part of a UN resolution. And I missed her more than I told myself I would.