The alternative to ambition

I spent last week at a men's group retreat in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. One man I got to know said something about a friend of his that had me thinking about my own attitude to competition.

He said his friend 'works in a factory and lacks ambition' and could do much better for himself.

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Years ago I had a colleague who would stop at nothing to get ahead. He was very inexperienced in his profession and with mixed aptitude. Since then he has capitalised on his not insignificant strengths and risen to the top.

If necessary, he's pushed others out of the way, as you do in a sporting competition and most corporate work cultures. It's his thing, and I respect that. Good on him.

But as for me, I've always avoided competitive sport and have considered myself lacking in ambition. Looking back, I'd say that instead I had - and still have - more of a sense of enjoyment of the moment.

I'd talk about getting to a particular place, but essentially I'd enjoy doing what was within my grasp and 'felt right'. At my best, I'd land somewhere congenial and then I'd play at things and involve myself in a particular project I'd enjoy and - importantly - believe in. When I'd exhaust possibilities, I'd move on to something different.

One of the retreat facilitators mentioned a book which I subsequently purchased to read on my Kindle. It was Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by British-American poet David Whyte, who runs an institute dedicated to what he calls 'conversational leadership'.

Consolations- The Solace Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words

What he writes about ambition accords with my own philosophy of life and work. He says ambition 'takes willpower and constant applications of energy to stay on a perceived bearing'. This is set against a serious vocational calling that 'demands a constant attention to the unknown gravitational field that surrounds us and from which we recharge outselves, as if breathing from the atmosphere of possibility itself'.

He concedes that it's good and natural for youth to be ambitious. But holding on to ambition for too long 'makes the once successful into an object of pity'. The only object becomes 'the creation of larger and larger empires of control'. The more ladders you climb, the more ladders you discover that need to be climbed to get to what will inevitably be a lonely destination.

I'm quite sure that my friend at the retreat does not wish this on his friend when he says he would like him to be more ambitious. I imagine he means that he hopes he will be moved to energetically inspect the menu of the possibilities that his life has to offer.

Honest History credits Mark Latham's 'prescience'

One of my aspirations is to be outside the country on Anzac Day. I have never quite made it, though I will go close this year with my departure for a month overseas on 26 April, the day after Anzac Day.

I've always felt that it was an odd celebration. My skepticism was heightened by the politicisation of the Anzac Legend under prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott. I have been frustrated by what I see as the brainwashing of Australian school children, particularly from the time of the Howard Era, when funding was made available to arrest the long-term decline of the Anzac Legend.

The Honest History Book

This was occurring as historians such as Henry Reynolds were revealing more about the 19th century 'Frontier Wars', in which mainly British settlers put down Australian Indigenous resistence, resulting in the deaths of around 20,000. Teaching about the Frontier Wars was - and is - downplayed or even suppressed.

A strong and reputable voice in questioning the Anzac Legend is Honest History, a Canberra-based incorporated association founded in 2013. They use the term 'Anzackery' to argue, among other things, that Anzac Day 'targets children, to the extent that their psychic health is at risk from a sentimental, misleading portrayal of war'. They stress that it is 'possible to be respectful and regretful about death in war, without at the same time sacrificing thought and judgement'.

Among their distinguished list of office-bearers and members is the president - Professor of History at ANU Frank Bongiorno - and the immediate past president David Stanley - professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy and former principal historian at the Australian War Memorial. New South Press has just published their first book - The Honest History Book - edited by David Stephens and Alison Broinowski.

That they are such a reputable and credible group of individuals makes it interesting that they're currently applauding as 'remarkably prescient' that prince of ratbags Mark Latham, the onetime Labor leader who was this week sacked as a commentator from the SkyNews TV channel for making one too many vile slurs against various people including colleagues and a school student.

Mark Latham as Labor leader

There's an emerging consensus that Latham's comments are so anti-social that we should not give him oxygen by talking about him. But Honest History's honesty trumps that, with one of the commentaries currently featured on its home page celebrating Latham's 'prescience' in 'questioning the tired old Left-Right spectrum' in his 2002 Menzies Lecture at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at King's College, London.

Latham shows how the divide between 'insiders and outsiders' is a more reliable guide to recent politics than Left-Right. 'Insiders' refers to inner city educated elites, while the 'Outsiders' are those living in the suburbs and the regions. He argued that the Howard Government was particularly skilled in appealing to outsiders and demonising insiders.

Honest History says: 'The whole speech is worth a read for its analysis of Australian politics in the Howard era and its insights into our own.'

Current political debate in Australia may not need Latham's style of putting down those he doesn't like, but it could do with Honest History's questioning assumed orthodoxies armed with the facts of historical research.

Eating chocolate as Embodied Spirituality

I have just read Newtown Nutrition's latest blog inviting us to 'tune into food textures'.

One of their nutritionists writes about hot cross buns. She says we can enjoy their crunch by toasting them. Or we can use the microwave and savour them by appreciating their chewiness.

Hot Cross Buns

The principle applies to all foods. We can munch on raw carrot sticks with hummus or some other flavoursome dip. Or we can enjoy the sweet honied sensation that comes with steaming our carrots.

She's encouraging us to consider how we interact with food in order to maximise our sense of pleasure and nourishment in eating. It's about trying to undo the damage some people have done to their relationship with food through a long history of self-denial with dieting.

Recently I recalled some advice her colleague gave me a few years ago, which was to eat 'raw' chocolate. It happened as I was waiting at the checkout at Harris Farm Markets in my local shopping centre and I spotted a strategically placed selection of raw chocolate. So I made an impulse buy, a good one as it turns out.

Raw chocolate is minimally processed so that it offers a higher level of antioxidants. It's also expensive, with six tiny squares costing $6.49. That means you buy less of it and consume it thoughtfully over a much longer period of time. I eat one square at a time and savour its firm outside and soft interior and the flavour that endures for hours.

Raw Organic Chocolate

I find myself wanting to fit ordinary daily activities such as eating into 'the right order of the universe' by studying spirituality and remembering my past exposure to it.

I recall the Application of the Senses in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola. He suggests that while contemplating scenes from the Christian Gospels, we might 'smell the infinite fragrance and taste the infinite sweetness'.

Ignatius also stresses the need to take time out during our day to identify moments of heightened awareness, which obviously include taste sensations.

Recently I've been reading about 'Embodied Spirituality', which focuses on bodily sensations as stepping stones towards our experience of wholeness as human beings.

The Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis speaks of the 'warm physical body which smells of sea, soil, and human sweat'. He then puts it in the context of Christian spirituality. 'The Word, in order to touch me, must become warm flesh. Only then do I understand - when I can smell, see, touch.'

Describing the culture that produced church sexual abuse

A friend recommended I watch this week's ABC TV Compass documentary 'The Judas Iscariot Lunch Part 1', which I did. It featured 13 Irish former priests who looked to be in their 70s, speaking candidly about their training and ideals as young men and also their own humanity and experience of celibacy.

They called their lunch club after Pope Paul VI's suggestion that those who left the priesthood were betraying the Church.

The Judas Iscariot Lunch

However I didn't think they harboured any particular bitterness towards the pope or the Church. They were just telling it as it was. The Church offered them a way out of the oppressive social and economic circumstances of Ireland at the time, as an alternative to emigration.

As one of them put it, 'a way of dodging growing up and dodging Ireland'. It's what they wanted at the time, and what they got.

So were they suggesting that they never grew up? Possibly. At least not until after they left the priesthood.

They referred to celibacy as a gift. As a priest, you either had the gift or you didn't. In other words, celibacy worked for some but not others. If it didn't, things went awry. 'People sometimes took to the drink. Loneliness became a big problem'.

Put simply, that is what happens if you're part of an institution that allows you to dodge growing up. Instead of the usual 'growing up' preoccupations that define the lives of most young people - working out relationships and sexuality - these trainee priests would be focused on listening to and obeying '12,000 bells over [up to] 12 years' of formation.

Of course the elephant in the room was sexual abuse, which I suspect they will discuss in more depth in Part 2. But in a way it was better they left that alone because it allowed the documentary to describe more dispassionately the culture of the Church that made the ground fertile for sexual abuse.

It reminded me of the term 'thick description', which was developed by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his influential 1973 work The Interpretation of Cultures. His idea was that the setting or context for particular behaviour is more meaningful than the acts of behaviour themselves.

Trainee priests

Participant observation - such as the accounts of these ex-priests - is the key to evaluating a culture. This, he argued, was what anthropologists doing field research needed to pay close attention to.

I think that it is also crucial in achieving justice for church sexual assault victims. It provides a clear answer to the question of whether the blame lies with a 'bad' culture or 'rogue' priests. The implication is that if it can be established that a bad culture that produced rogue priests, the more appropriate course of action is redress from the institution that embodies the bad culture (i.e. the Church), more than locking up the perpetrators.

Too often media accounts let the Church off the hook by demonising the abusers. They focus on the experience of the victims at the hands of the abusers without painting a picture of the particular way of life that was the precondition for the abuse.

Learning the other side of the story at the National Museum

While in Canberra on Sunday, I visited the National Museum of Australia as part of my resolve to see as many of the national capital's cultural institutions as I can while my six month NSW country train pass remains valid.

Often I visit a place and only learn about its significance afterwards. There are many stories of Australia's past contained in the Museum but I must have missed the story of the Museum itself, in particular that of its building and location.

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The Museum was established by an Act of Parliament in 1980 but did not have a permanent home until the current purpose built facility was opened in 2001. It is located on the Acton Peninsula near the Australian National University. The site was previously the location of the Royal Canberra Hospital, which was demolished in tragic circumstances in 1997.

These involved a failed implosion that accidently killed one spectator and injured nine others. Large pieces of debris were unintentionally projected towards onlookers positioned 500 metres away on the opposite shore of the Lake. This was a location unwittingly considered safe by the ACT Government, which had encouraged Canberrans to come out to bid farewell to the hospital.

Yesterday I walked past a cream brick building that I imagined would have been part of the hospital. I guessed that it was retained as a memorial to the hospital. I noticed a sign indicating that it was now the Museum's Administration Annexe.

National Museum of Australia Admin Annexe

Most people regard mid 20th century cream brick buildings as eyesores and are quite pleased to see them demolished. But I very much like them and regard them as important examples of our built environment heritage. I thought that it made a fitting historical counterpoint to the spectacular modern architecture of the other Museum buildings.

Inside the main building, I found that I was able to connect with a number of the hundreds of stories contained in the exhibits. One that comes to mind is that of the Canning Stock Route in Western Australia, which begins at the town of Wiluna and takes a route north to the Kimberley.

I visited Wiluna after I drove across the Nullabor in 2003. I recall that I would have loved to have travelled through the Western Desert along the Canning Stock Route in my Hyundai hatch back, which I had driven to that point from the east coast. But common sense got the better of me and I spent an hour or so in the town before proceeding along the straight dirt road to Meekatharra.

It was only yesterday that I learned of the surveyor Alfred Canning's poor treatment of Aboriginal guides following his appointment to the stock route project in 1906. He was criticised for his inhumane practice of using chains to deprive them of their liberty, effectively using them as slaves.

The legacy of Alfred Canning

This led to a Royal Commission, which saw Canning exonerated after the Lord Mayor of Perth appeared as a witness on his behalf. The cook who made the complaint was dismissed. White Australians still celebrate Canning as the pioneering surveyor who plotted the Rabbit Proof Fence. It is good to know the other side of his story.

It was the exhibits involving indigenous Australians that I found most engaging because they unlocked for me the perspective on history that I was denied when I first learned Australian history at primary school. These included the furphy that Tasmania's Aboriginal population was completely wiped out.

The pleasure of paying for what we value

Aside from watching TV or listening to the radio, past generations had to pay for what they consumed. But the internet has given today's young people the idea that content is something you get for free.

Whether it's news, music, YouTube videos or other entertainment, it's all there at your fingertips. Why pay when you don't have to? Getting around paywalls can be very easy.

Pay Wall

My answer is that paying is a pleasure if I value the product that I am purchasing. I am honouring the producer of the product because I believe they are worthy of my vote of confidence.

This applies not only to what we get on the internet but to all goods and services. About 15 years ago I remember telling a friend that I had just bought hair clippers and would never again need to pay the barber for a haircut.

She looked dismayed and worried that I would be hurting my barber financially and also denying myself the human interaction that comes from paying for personal service.

After a few years, I did go back to the barber and discovered that handing over my cash to him was not so painful after all. In fact it was a pleasure to pay for a job well done.

That sense of pleasure in paying for a service that I value is something that remains with me.

I feel good when I pay my annual subscription for The Saturday Paper because I like their journalism. But I have mixed feelings when I pay Fairfax for the Sydney Morning Herald because their management has made so many decisions that I've felt have devalued journalism.

I pay for the New York Times but I wouldn't pay for The Australian or the Wall Street Journal.

When I am registering for a free service on the internet and they ask permission to access my usage statistics so they can improve their product, I think about it. If I like the company and the product, I say yes, sometimes with pleasure. Giving them access to my data is one way of paying for the service.

There are companies I don't particularly like or trust, such as Google. Their services are free, but often I will prefer to pay for an alternative, especially if they're a small business with personal service. That's why I pay $US5 per month to a little known company called Posthaven, for the blog platform I use in preference to Google's free Blogger.

The pleasure of paying for things we value presumes one thing. That we have the money to pay.

It is true that all of us have some money and we can and need to cut our cloth to suit our budget. But the fact remains that the generation of young people who don't want to pay for content online often find it difficult to pay because they don't have the secure employment we took for granted.

The New York Review of Books and other upstart review rags

Listening to a podcast yesterday, I heard a tribute to the longtime New York Review of Books (NYRB) editor Robert Silvers, who died on Monday at the age of 87. He had been editor since the first issue in 1963, with one of the founders Barbara Epstein as co-editor until her death in 2006.

nyrb

The NYRB is a major English language cultural institution, but in a way I would like to see it die with Silvers. I fear a giant media company such as Conde Nast will buy the title to exploit its legendary status. Its editorial decisions would then be determined by commercial considerations rather than the passions of an obsessed longtime editor.

Silvers' passions have defined the NYRB, and often a publication's story can be just as interesting as its content. For me the NYRB's wider story includes the London Review of Books (LRB) and Sydney's own Newtown Review of Books (NRB). Australian Book Review would qualify if it was called the Melbourne Review of Books, but it's not and therefore it doesn't.

Aside from the 'Review of Books' in their titles, what they have in common is that, in their own way, each of them is an upstart.

lrb

The NYRB was founded when a printers' strike shut down seven New York City newspapers, to take advantage of a gap in the market for book reviews. Similarly the LRB was started when publication of the Times Literary Supplement was suspended during the year-long management lock-out at The Times in 1979. Curiously the LRB was included as an insert in the NYRB for its first six months, in an umbilical cord kind of arrangement.

The NRB's 2012 'upstart' founding was a little different, more in the nature of fandom. Or perhaps 'taking the piss'. I'm never sure. It was the hobby of a couple of Newtown locals from the world of publishing and editing, one of whom is married to the 'Godfather of Australian crime fiction' Peter Corris, who write's the NRB's 'Godfather' column.

The editing of the NRB is very professional, and like its more wordy and worthy namesakes, it does takes itself seriously, though in a different way.

It has a tight discipline and invariably does what it says it does. That is 'to provide intelligent reviews of books people will want to read'. It covers a range of subject areas that is eclectic but excludes poetry and children's books.

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The stylistic counterpoint to the reviews is the 'Godfather' column, and it does an excellent job in filling out the NRB's 'eclectic' brief. It's always a good read. This week's is on hair. Corris, with his hairline intact, pontificates on the comb-over and other options available to balding men.

As a hobbyist online publication that cuts a professional cloth, NRB is part of a local tradition that includes the film review site Urban Cinefile. The editors Louise Keller and Andrew Urban decided to call it a day last month after 20 years and 1040 weekly editions.

I always found their reviews every bit as compelling as those of David and Margaret. But sadly the media acolades that marked the ending of their review partnership did not, as far as I can tell, extend beyond the Manly Daily.

Andy Warhol and his mother

When I visited the Art Gallery of NSW last week, I spent time at the 'Adman: Warhol before pop' exhibition.

I probably wouldn't have made a special effort to see an Andy Warhol exhibition because I have always dismissed him as superficial. Indeed this collection was focused on his career in the advertising industry.

A quote that I read the other day would seem to reinforce my attitude: 'I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They're so beautiful. Everything's plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.'

Andy Warhol and his mother

Yet this exhibition revealed to me that I can be very superficial in my evaluation of other people's apparent superficiality. Warhol was in fact much more grounded as a person than I'd realised.

There are the obvious contradictions. He was at home in the drug addled world of New York in the 1970s and 1980s but at the same time a 'devout Catholic' of the Eastern Rite who is said to have attended Mass almost daily and volunteered at a shelter for the homeless.

But what I found more interesting was the aspect of his personal - and professional - relationship with his mother Julia, who is described as 'the passion of his life'.

One of the panels in the exhibition tells the story: 'Warhol needed some text for an assignment in a hurry and asked his mother to pen it for him in her own baroque and rather quirky handwriting. The client loved the spontaneous yet decorative result, and an important feature of Warhol’s commercial art was born: Julia’s calligraphy.'

Warhol and his mother went on to collaborate on many commercial projects, and in 1958 the Art Directors Club of New York awarded a certificate of merit to ‘Andy Warhol’s mother’, as she was always known.

The Story of Moondog - Julia Warholas calligraphy

The two would together observe their Eastern European traditions. Julia made traditional folk art and also decorated Easter eggs and embroideries for the church, while Andy would often incorporate the religious motifs and the gold of church decoration into his art.

She looked after him domestically while they lived together until just before her death in 1972.

Then we have the Warhol of the 1970s and 1980s that we're much more familiar with. But now I can look at that Warhol through the lens of his relationship with his mother and appreciate his depth as a person and cultural icon.

TV may be shallow but it keeps us together

My favourite technology writer is Farhood Manjoo, who has written the State of the Art column for the New York Times for the past three years.

In the confusing and always changing world of emerging technology, he has the ability to see and articulate what is really happening. His predecessor David Pogue wrote about how the latest gadgets make our lives easier. But Farhood Manjoo is interested in their impact on people and society.

On Air Sign

Earlier this year he wrote about the death of broadcast TV and the rise of Netflix. 'There was a lot to criticise about broadcast TV, but it brought the nation together. Streaming services are doing the opposite'.

He talks about the 'polarisation of culture' and the creation of 'echo chambers' which isolate us from our fellow citizens. 'We're splitting into our own self-constructed bubbles of reality'.

It's true. We all have digital content menus that are unique to us. They might be Netflix playlists or whatever we follow in Facebook or Twitter. They reflect of our own interests and personalities.

That might sound like a positive development. We're no longer media zombies. We're self-actualising, to use a jargon term. But, as a result, mass media is finished and it's not at all good for our society.

Reality programming and certain sporting events represent the last gasp of television and media as a glue that holds society together. Like the Melbourne Cup, they have us all acting in unison. As long as My Kitchen Rules and similar mass interest events manage to survive, there will be something to talk about at the water cooler.

But the network bosses are struggling to keep their audiences, and also the rights to the big sporting events, with telcos such as Optus starting to outbid them. With justification, they are going to Canberra to lobby the Communications Minister to cut or eliminate the licence fees they must pay to use the public airwaves.
 

freeview channels

It's easy to see society fundamentally divided in the results of last year's elections in both Australia and the US. In neither country was the system able to produce a leader who could act on behalf of the nation. That's because there was no longer a nation, at least not in the sense that we had come to know it.

History will look at the 60 years from the middle of the 20th century as the high water mark of social cohesion in the US, and also Australia. It was also the period in which the institution of broadcast television rose and fell.

'We're back to normal, in a way, because before there was broadcasting, there wasn't much of a shared culture,' says Lance Strate, a professor of communication at Fordham University. 'For most of the history of civilisation, there was nothing like TV. It was a really odd moment in history to have so many people watching the same thing at the same time.'

Graceless politics affects us all

One of the many dispiriting but remarkable moments of the Trump presidency occurred when he met German chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House on Friday.

After photographers asked the two to shake hands, Merkel leaned in and quietly asked: 'Do you want to have a handshake?' But Trump continued to hold his hands together between his knees.

Trump and Merkel not shaking hands

In his short time in office, Trump has set a new tone that has replaced civility and grace in politics with a calculated bluntness that diminishes the propensity for bridge building between political adversaries. This has taken root elsewhere.

When we watched it together, a friend remarked on incoming WA Premier Mark McGowan's acceptance speech on election night just over a week ago. Instead of congratulating his defeated rival Colin Barnett for a 'hard fought campaign', he paid tribute to the people for rejecting the 'stupidity and ignorance' that, in his view, Barnett represented.

Barnett's campaign was not hard fought, but that's not the point. You find something positive to say about your rival because civility in politics contributes to making the world a better place to live for all concerned.

I think this new standard of division has also affected my own attitude.

Recently I told this friend - slightly tongue in cheek - that I liked to be 'politically correct'. It was a stupid thing to say, but I said it instinctively, to distinguish myself from the likes of Trump and The Australian newspaper, who often use that term to put down their rivals.

In characterising myself as 'politically correct', I wasn't thinking of my support for positive values such as social inclusion, which are ridiculed every time this pejorative term is used. I was playing the nasty game of political division that is more interested in point scoring and crushing rivals than in action to improve people's lives.

My friend said that he wished there could be more 'civil conversation'. He was speaking in the context of our discussion of the Bill Leak cartoon satirising negligent indigenous fathers. I continued to be outraged by the cartoon, while he hoped that its publication and notoriety might lead to productive discussion.

I can see that he might be the one to shake hands with Bill Leak while I would look the other way.