tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:/posts MICHAEL MULLINS' TINY LETTER 2018-10-03T09:54:59Z tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1326491 2018-09-27T16:22:05Z 2018-09-27T16:22:06Z Where strong borders belong in the museum

I'm currently in Luxembourg for two days. I'd long been curious about the country that is the world's second richest and the EU's second smallest. It's a grand duchy, which is really no different to a monarchy ruled by a king or queen, except that its head of state is a grand duke.

Luxembourg itself is not on the tourist map because it's dominated by banks and is not a spectacularly charming city. But the natural landscape and the rural villages are another matter, as I discovered this morning when I decided to travel to Schengen.

IMG_20180927_120458

While it's only 33 km by road from the capital, Schengen is in a remote corner of the tiny country. It's where Luxembourg intersects with France and Germany, and it requires two separate regional buses to get there.

It's best known as the location of the 1985 signing of the Schengen agreement that abolished border controls between most EU countries, and a number of non-EU countries including Switzerland, Iceland and Norway.

IMG_20180927_110828

I enjoyed a visit to the European Museum, which is all about the vision for a Europe without borders and how that came to be realised. Reduced border controls were seen as an antidote to the nationalism that was responsible for the suffering and destruction of the two world wars of the 20th century.

Nationalism and strong borders go hand in hand, whereas international co-operation invites us to rethink the need for strong borders, which divide humanity artificially and, arguably, unnecessarily.

I was aware of this as I walked from Luxembourg into Germany and then into France, all in the space of less than half an hour. The regions I walked into - Saarland in Germany and Lorraine in France - have been passed between France and Germany, as recently as the 20th century.

IMG_20180927_121024

Does it really matter whether they're in France or Germany? Regional identity is one thing. It defines cultures. National identity is something else.

At the museum, the elephant in the room was the sad reality that the vision for a humanity united without borders is unravelling, with Europe's migrant crisis and the proliferation around the world of 'strong man' leaders who insist on strong borders.

The museum's focus on the lifting of border controls is intended to celebrate a remarkable achievement that is part of our present. The fear is that it will come to be viewed as a marking of the history of an idea that came and went.

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1324454 2018-09-22T18:00:04Z 2018-09-22T18:00:05Z The Parisian virtue of idleness

While I was working out at my Paris gym today, I was listening to a podcast of Geraldine Doogue's Saturday morning ABC radio program.

She was interviewing Irish professor Brian O'Connor on his book Idleness: A Philosophical Essay.

He was presenting idleness as a virtue, or at least a state of being that does not deserve a bad press.

The message is that many of us have to fill our lives with productivity because that's what our various insecurities demand. We have a craving for recognition and think that the only way of achieving that is to do something others will notice and give us credit for.

Was I working out in the gym because I want others to regard my body as easy on the eye?

IMG_20180920_205401

That was certainly part of my initial motivation a few years ago when I first started going to the gym in Sydney.

But these days - particularly here in Paris - it's just one of my various states of being. Gym time is thinking time, people watching time, podcast listening time, and body stretching time.

Perhaps it's idleness. At least I'm not a slave to anything, which is what you are if you are preoccupied with working hard to fulfill the expectations of others.

That is perhaps where there's a difference between the gym in Paris and the gym in Sydney.

In Sydney you're more likely to see people thrashing themselves in the hope of becoming something. In Paris - the home of existentialism - it's more a matter of being. As I see it, they're already proud of who they are, and some outsiders choose to regard that as arrogance.

IMG_20180922_180137

There's definitely a different energy, and our term 'work out' to describe what gym goers do seems strangely out of place in Paris. You're there because you're there. Of course you don't just sit around. You do pump iron and jump on the treadmill. But essentially it seems less about goal orientation.

My approach is much the same during the hours I'm not at the gym. I walk around the streets of the Marais every day with no particular purpose in mind.

Today I entered five or six small art galleries and looked at the paintings on the walls and chatted to the attendants. In one sense I was idle and just passing time. But I don't feel the time was 'wasted' because I'm at home now with a stimulating mix of vivid images in my mind. A variation on the physical high I experience after my return from the gym.

I sometimes wonder whether I should feel ashamed that I'm a few minutes walk from some of the world's most famous art museums including the Louvre and don't feel inclined to visit them. It's too much like hard work.

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1322864 2018-09-18T10:39:39Z 2018-10-03T09:54:59Z Eating fat and avoiding obesity

I'm back in Paris after four months in Australia. There's no doubt the Sydney winter was more comfortable than Paris' summer heatwave would have been. Especially in my tiny non-air conditioned top floor room.

Louvre Pyramid

Even the city's autumn weather is unseasonal, with daytime temperatures currently in the mid to high 20s. I'm wearing shorts, and sleeping at night under the cover of just a sheet. When I arrived here in March, I was greeted with snow and sub-zero temperatures.

That's not the only thing that's different this time around. I've decided to limit cake consumption and to suspend my half-baguette a day bread habit, in favour of one or two croissants a week and a few high-fat treats.

Croissant aux amandes

It's the result of reading a new healthy lifestyle book that my brother put me on to when I visited him six weeks ago.

The book is written by former Australian Cricket team physician Dr Peter Brukner and titled A Fat Lot of Good. It's part memoir and part commonsense interpretation of the ketogenic or low carb diet. The diet advocates maximising meat and fat and vegetables grown above the ground, and minimising grains and sugars and processed foods.

Peter Brukner A Fat Lot of Good

I know that there's no good reason for me to tamper with my choice of foods. For several years I've maintained a healthy weight and blood pressure and enjoyed a balanced diet.

When I mentioned it to my GP, he was not particularly fussed one way or the other, as long as I manage to contain my zeal and my portion sizes. He pointed to a study in The Lancet that challenges thinking that meals such as bacon and eggs for breakfast can be a healthy choice. The study suggests we should replace grains and sugars with vegetable rather than animal products.

My motivation in varying my diet is to enjoy some of the delicious high fat foods available to me here in France. My rationale is that if I'm prepared to say no to baguettes (high in carbs), I can opt for croissants (which are mostly butter and therefore high in fat).

Shopping basket

On my first day here, I headed for my nearby good food store Causses and brought home a duck terrine, Andouille pork sausage and vanilla butter. I've been using the vanilla butter to flavour the undeniably healthy broccoli I've steamed in the microwave.

I have long wondered why the French eat all these delicious foods while maintaining a low obesity rate (15% compared to 28% of Australians). Obviously portion control is a major factor. But I think that it's also their tendency to be less submissive to received orthodoxies.

According to Brukner, Australians have been duped in their acceptance in recent decades of the teaching that fat is bad and sugar is more or less OK.

The important thing is not to go to the other extreme and believe that fat is all good. The French don't believe fat is good or bad. They consume fat, and also sugar, in good measure.

My attitude to a healthy lifestyle is similar to my approach to religion. Our interests are best served when we take responsibility for our own choices and leave hard line preaching to the professional zealots.

UPDATE: I had an email exchange with Peter Brukner, who did not specifically mention croissants in his book. It turns out that they may be mainly butter, but they're still bread containing a significant proportion of carbs. So consuming them will be an occasional, not a daily, ritual. He also dismissed the 'crap research' contrary study that warned against animal product foods. He suggested it is discredited paid-for content from a commercial offshoot of the Lancet. He pointed me to articles and video that argue it is methodologically flawed data collected by individuals with a grain industry political agenda.



Links: Lancet | Causses

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1302000 2018-07-11T00:13:30Z 2018-08-01T01:51:10Z Laughing at mental illness

The Melbourne writer Isabella Fels often uses whimsy in telling of her experience of living independently with mental illness. In her article for Eureka Street this week, she writes about her unsuccessful attempt to learn to drive. 

She gently mocks what she describes as her instructor’s failure to understand her mental illness in a way that suggests it is as ham-fisted as her own efforts to master the fundamentals of driving a car. 

I feel for Isabella because she would fail to grasp a range of life skills due to her instructors’ inadequacies  – rather than her own. But the truth is that the instructors are frequently not up to the job because they do not have the preparation and resources necessary for dealing with people with special needs.

That is one of the conclusions of an author featured on yesterday’s NPR Fresh Air podcast. Her name is Alisa Roth, and she visited a range of prisons in the US to research her recently published book Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness.

In framing the incarceration and treatment of the mentally ill as the ‘next civil rights issue’, she has some sympathy for the much maligned corrections officers. 

‘They’re forced to play this dual role of caretaker and enforcer but, more complicated than that, is the fact that they really don't have the training ... to, say, identify schizophrenia versus depression.’

We can point the finger at the justice system. But there’s another book to be written about how our entertainment and media industries treat mental illness. They have an important role in normalisation efforts but they can shamelessly exploit mental illness for its perceived entertainment value.

I remember the controversy generated four years ago when the Perth Show was forced to cancel one of its amusements following a public outcry.

It was a recreation of London’s Bedlam psychiatric hospital where, in the 16th century, they raised funds by allowing members of the public to pay to visit so they could ridicule and taunt the residents.

I was reminded of this last week when a Prime7 regional TV news bulletin referred to the now closed Mayday Hills mental health facility at Beechworth in north-east Victoria as a former ‘lunatic asylum’. 

The new owners of the historic property have established a holiday park with a horror amusement aspect that includes the house featured in the 1998 Australian comedy film The Castle

This is how a local tourist website promotes Mayday Hills:

‘Evening Ghost Tours will take you through the deserted buildings, where your guide will share stories and myths of patients of likes of James Kelly, uncle of the notorious bush ranger Ned Kelly and Ida Pender the wife of gangster Squizzy Taylor.’

An American website called The Hauntist has an entry on the ‘Beechworth Lunatic Asylum’ claiming that ‘a quick search for haunted locations throughout the world will consistently place Beechworth Lunatic Asylum at the top of the list.’

Why does this sacred ground have to be repurposed in such a bizarre and offensive manner? I had a cousin who was periodically a resident at Mayday Hills in the 1970s. Was she a ‘lunatic’ in the ‘asylum’? 

The juxtaposition of mental illness and humour is a delicate undertaking. Andrew Denton mastered it back in the 1990s. Comedians such as Hannah Gadsby have taken it to new heights more recently. And Isabella Fels does it in her writing for Eureka Street. But the new Mayday Hills and its promoters take us back to a time of darkness and inhumanity.

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1299911 2018-07-04T23:06:30Z 2018-07-05T02:15:30Z Retiring with imagination

It’s mid-winter in southern Australia. The weather is variable, with a comfortable 23 degree day ahead of us today in Sydney. Crops are failing in rural areas due to unusually dry conditions, even though Sydney had its rainiest June in decades.

Usually the weather affects just my spirits and how much walking I can do around the city. But on Sydney’s wildest and wettest day – Tuesday 19 June – I had three appointments that prevented me from sheltering in the comfort of my home.

At one moment I got caught in a freak horizontal rain storm. I think that was responsible for contaminated rainwater leaking into the space between my left eye and its contact lens. 

The result was a serious eye infection that had me feeling very sick one night and turning up to Emergency at the Sydney Eye Hospital in the hours before dawn. For nearly three weeks now, I’ve had the best of care and expect my health to be back normal shortly, though I won’t be wearing my contact lenses until at least the end of the month.

Until the past few days, I’ve been unable to look at screens or read printed matter. But I’ve enjoyed listening to all the podcasts of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which took place in May. It’s as if I attended the event in person, as I did the Sydney Film Festival a few weeks later.

Lying in my warm bed listening to the various conversations without the distraction of screens turned out to be an unusually pleasant and stimulating experience. But I wouldn’t say the same about trying to navigate the aisles of the supermarket not being able to read the labels on the different products. That has given me a genuine insight into how people feel marginalised by their disabilities and health conditions.

It has me thinking about a talk I’ve been invited to give to fellow retirees at the beginning of next month at the local University of the Third Age (U3A) in Cootamundra in south-west NSW. 

With the anxieties of youth and middle age behind them, so-called retirees can focus on looking after and fine-tuning the various dimensions of their lives, and possibly enjoying a more fulfilled life in their later years than earlier. I'm referring to health, finances and imagination.

It is imagination which tends to get less airplay when we decide on how to configure and manage our post-work lives. Yet it is every bit as important as our health and our finances. Without it we might stay working even though we no longer really enjoy it. Or just retire and allow boredom to set in.

The ‘grey nomads’ who tour Australia with their motor homes tend to be making the most of their imagination. For me, imagination led to my purchase of a room in Paris to use as a base for four months of the year. Which is what prompted the invitation from my Cootamundra friend to address her U3A chapter on the topic of ‘Living a Double Life’.

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1286760 2018-05-23T19:58:34Z 2018-05-24T08:59:53Z Wilson conviction exposes Australian bishops’ lack of contrition

In January this year, a friend took his own life while suffering psychological torture that was apparently caused by a priest sexually abusing him in Newcastle more than 40 years ago.

I think of him when I reflect on Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson’s conviction this week for covering up the claim of another sexual abuse victim in that diocese around the same time.

Nothing is known of the circumstances of my friend’s sexual abuse. But I can’t help wondering that if church personnel in positions of authority had routinely acted on knowledge or suspicion of sexual abuse, he might have been spared the suffering that led to his suicide.

Instead they failed to act because priority was given to preserving the good name of the church. There was a culture of arrogance that appeared to value the integrity of the institution ahead of the welfare of the people it purported to serve.

Unfortunately it appears - to me at least - that there has been a lack of fundamental change in the attitude of the Australian bishops as a body.

Yesterday a friend wrote in an open Facebook post addressed to the Australian bishops: ‘If it were appropriate for every one of Chile’s Bishops to tender their resignations to the Holy Father, why is it appropriate that a convicted criminal ... retains his position [as Archbishop of Adelaide]?’

He was referring to the Chilean bishops’ recent acceptance of their failings and their offer to resign. Pope Francis had accused them of destroying evidence of sexual crimes, putting pressure on investigators to downplay abuse accusations and showing ‘grave negligence’ in protecting children from paedophile priests.

According to testimony heard by the Royal Commission, that is exactly what took place in Maitland-Newcastle Diocese under Bishop Leo Clarke. Clarke was Archbishop Wilson’s superior at the time, and Archbishop Wilson was required to dance to his tune.

As it happens, Archbishop Wilson did decide to step down late yesterday. But only after dragging his feet and being supported in doing so by Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference President Archbishop Mark Coleridge.

Why was it left to Archbishop Wilson - with his understandable lack of objectivity - to decide on such a crucial matter? How could it be that a convicted criminal was allowed to continue to serve as Archbishop of Adelaide and to make that decision himself? Surely Archbishop Coleridge should have  publicly exhorted him to stand down immediately after his conviction, if not before (Coleridge does not have the authority to remove him).

Moreover I interpreted Archbishop Coleridge’s short statement after Wilson’s conviction as a slapping down of the criminal justice system and, by implication, the victims whom it had vindicated. Why was it relevant for Coleridge to mention in such a brief document that Archbishop Wilson ‘maintained his innocence throughout this long judicial process’? To me, Archbishop Coleridge appeared to be publicly questioning his colleague’s criminal conviction.

As a recent President of the Bishops Conference, Archbishop Wilson was a leading light in the Bishops’ attempts to implement programs and policies to protect children at risk. He seems to be of good character. However the court has decided that he has a criminal past that he must atone for.

If I ask myself whether I want him to go to jail, I have to say yes. If he doesn’t, there will be little or no justice for those whom he failed all those years ago. They are individuals who remind me of my clergy sex abuse victim friend who did not receive justice and took his own life.

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1284078 2018-05-16T14:07:48Z 2018-05-16T14:07:49Z Where I'm also at home

Yesterday I returned to Paris after spending a few days visiting my sister across the English Channel in Kent. 

I’m here for less than two days before leaving Sydney in the morning. I’ll be there until I travel to Paris again, for two months from September.

Before I departed England, my sister asked me what it felt like to be going home. I thought she meant Sydney, but she insisted she was referring to my ‘home’ in Paris.

I’m in a space I ‘own’ but I’m only ever here on a tourist visa and I hardly speak the language. So I haven’t thought of it as ‘home’.

But she got me thinking about what we mean when we say we are at home.

Today I had a few thoughts while reading back over an invitation I received recently from an Australian friend who is organising a six day spiritual but non-religious personal awareness retreat in rural France in August.

The intention is for the participants to find their ‘authentic selves’. 

To some people, a phrase like that is just another piece of new age jargon. The retreat is not meant for them. 

My friend and the retreat leader have in mind people who have might have undergone life changes such as leaving a long-term relationship. Or perhaps jumping into the void from an all consuming work life. 

We might once have felt ‘at home’ in our former circumstances. But change – either chosen or forced – challenges us to recalibrate where we feel at home. 

To do this, most of us need to gain perspective by breaking out of whatever shell that could be preventing us from reaching a deeper level of awareness.

I’m not going to the retreat, but I have been working at living life at this deeper level. 

My minimalist lifestyle here in Paris enables me to be at home here because a deeper awareness takes the place of the material ‘stuff’ in my house in Sydney. Living part-time in my tiny room on the other side of the world completes my sense of self.

I’m not ready to burn the books on my Sydney bookshelf that are a monument to my past. But they represent almost all stages of my life and act as a powerful symbol that stares down at me every day and can hold me back if I let it. 

There is in fact much that I cherish about my past. But I need time out from the books and the other things in my house – to be in my other home – in order to be who I am at this stage of my life. 

The size of my Paris room is intentionally too small for me to accumulate things. Instead I’m relying on my inner resources for that all important sense of self. 


Link: I am that I am Retreat

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1280655 2018-05-05T14:14:51Z 2018-05-05T14:14:51Z My visit to the former Soviet republic of Georgia

I’m a few days into my week in Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet Georgian republic. With its picturesque architecture and natural surrounds, as well as a lively cultural and gastronomic buzz, it seems set to become a tourist hotspot some time in the near future.

Tbilisi architecture

One of Georgia’s claims to fame is the invention of wine some 6000 years ago. A wine geek friend told me that it is a wine geek’s paradise and to look out for the orange coloured white wine made using the traditional Georgian method that retains the skins and stems of the grapes.

I found it in a wine and cheese shop in a back street, where the owner told me he makes his own and is particularly ‘proud’ of the cheeses he also makes.

I’ve noticed the Georgians seem very proud of their culture and history. But it’s obvious that this is not to be admired in every instance.

Yesterday I took a one hour train trip to the town of Gori, which is the birthplace of the feared and discredited Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Georgian orange wine

Locals are still proud of him, although they did remove his statue from the main square in 2010. However two years later, the municipal assembly voted against changing the one-sided pro-Stalin perspective of the Joseph Stalin Museum.

A banner with these words had been placed at the entrance: ‘This museum is a falsification of history. It is a typical example of Soviet propaganda and it attempts to legitimise the bloodiest regime in history’. The banner was subsequently removed.

Gori – and its main street that is still named ‘Stalin Street’ – has a noticeably ‘Soviet’ feel to it when compared with Tbilisi. 

The woman at Gori railway station sternly refused to sell me a ticket to return to Tbilisi because I couldn’t produce my passport. At Tbilisi station, the woman selling tickets had asked for my passport but bent the rule, obviously imbued with a western-style customer service imperative. 

In Tbilisi the pro-west hero of the 2003 Rose Revolution, President Mikheil Saakashvili, showed his enthusiasm for Western institutions and politicians by renaming the road from the airport George W. Bush Avenue.

Zurab Tsereteli Brothers

But Saakashvili is gone and the works in the Zurab Tsereteli retrospective currently on display in the  Museum of Modern Art could be seen as a cultural bridge between Russia and the west.

The 84 year old painter, sculptor and architect – who controversially supported Putin on Ukraine – is Georgia’s best known living artist. 

In some ways his ‘monumental’ style reminded me of some of the art I'd seen earlier in the day at the Stalin Museum. It has the bright colours and distorted perspective of Russian folk art in combination with influences of the avant-garde of 20th century Europe.

With the current lack of any political bridge between Russia and the West, at least there’s some consolation in seeing a cultural bridge in Tsereteli’s art, and also in the general ambience of Tbilisi.

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1276809 2018-04-25T15:09:32Z 2018-04-25T15:09:32Z When the church and aristocracy lost their influence

Yesterday afternoon I ventured into the Marais for one of my typically aimless walks. I like to explore back streets in particular, and never know what I will see or discover. In one of those streets I came across a mid-size museum I’d never heard of, the Cognacq-Jay.

It is among the 14 Paris museums run by the public institution known as Paris Musées. It’s billed as a museum of ‘18th century taste’, a reference to style and outlook rather than food. 

I’d never before been to a museum of ‘taste’, and most of the visitors are probably not so interested in that descriptor because it’s clear that the Cognacq-Jay’s contents are entirely paintings, sculpture and ornaments. 

IMG_20180424_165621

But it intrigued me, as I’m most interested in social history. I like viewing art works  not as ends in themselves but as reflections of the lives of people and sub-cultures of a given time or place. 

What distinguishes particular peoples is what they regard as being in fashion at their moment in time. That is their common taste and it is reflected in the style of their collective lives and possessions. 

When entering the museum, I thought to myself that I’m not so interested in the 18th century, as it was the 20th century that most shaped my own life and culture. But I was wrong.

I learned that the 18th century was known for the diminishing influence of the church and aristocracy as all powerful entities that dominated people’s lives. There was the rise of a middle class consisting of tradesmen, administrators and artists who were claiming a voice and power for themselves. 

These changes were reflected in the art of the portrait, which established the role of the individual’s own personality. Spontaneity and openness were dominant in the paintings and sculptures of the 18th century.

IMG_20180424_165359

These people were fascinated by ways of life in other parts of Europe and beyond. Some embarked on the Grand Tour, while others were taken up with exoticism or the idea of ‘elsewhere’ (e.g. India and China) and its magic and curiosities, as well as the discovery of new species.

According to notes accompanying the displays in one room, ‘The import of new exotic products such as spices, drinks and craft objects, brought about changes in consumer habits that blended European culture with imported items’.

As I see it, the church and aristocracy were not being replaced, but instead invited to play a part in the lives of the people alongside the new influences from outside. If they chose not to play ball, they would be ignored by the mainstream. 

Churches and the aristocracy can still be dismissive of taste and values other than their own, and also the blending of various spiritual and cultural influences that has become the norm. It was therefore clear to me the continuing relevance of the explosion of taste in the 18th century. 

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1276381 2018-04-24T10:50:33Z 2018-04-25T04:02:28Z Living austerity in Paris

Over the past few days I’ve had contact with a friend with whom I’d been out of contact for most of the past 15 years. She has been intrigued by a few life decisions I’ve made in recent years, including my decision to retire at the age of 55 and to buy a tiny five square metre room in Paris to live here for four months of the year.

I’d depicted the room as austere, and indicated that’s the way I like it ‘for the moment’.  I think she interpreted what I’d said to mean that I might have plans for a major renovation at some stage, or to use the room as a stepping stone towards the eventual purchase of something larger with more luxury.

Natural Light

But the truth is that I sense I’ve reached a stage of life where I’m able to live comfortably ‘in the moment’. I like to think that I – and many of us – am already living the dream, and my particular gift is the realisation that I’m doing just that. 

I’ve learned that there’s no point in envying others. It’s likely they envy us as well. I have one friend whom I envy because he speaks perfect French. He envies me because my circumstances allowed early retirement.

I wouldn’t absolutely rule out a grander Paris living space at some time in the future, but it’s simply not on my mind.  That’s the point of living for the moment. It’s related to a mindfulness and the savouring of what is available to our senses now. 

My previous two month stay followed my taking possession of the room last October. It was taken up with emptying the room of somebody else’s ‘stuff’ and furnishing it with what I felt I needed such as a microwave, a slow cooker and a Japanese futon bed-chair.

However those things are ephemeral compared to what I’ve come to cherish as the room’s best asset other than its central geographical location. That is its position at the top and back of the building. This brightens the room with a generous amount of natural light and ensures I get a good night’s sleep despite being in the vicinity of many bars and restaurants. My Fitbit watch data tells me I’ve been sleeping eight hours on average, compared with six and a half in Sydney. 

I also feel good about being able to climb to the sixth floor many times a day without breathing more heavily than normal. It’s a constant reminder that working on my physical fitness has a purpose. 

Obviously there will be come a time in my life when this will no longer be the case. That will be another moment. But for now I am consumed by this one.

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1274552 2018-04-19T12:31:18Z 2018-04-19T12:31:18Z Bee emergency in Paris spring

I’ve failed to time my visits to Japan to coincide with the cherry blossoms that are out at the moment. But this week the chestnut blossoms depicted in the song April in Paris are charming both locals and visitors alike, with standing room only in the city’s parks and gardens.

Spring weather is of course variable, and this is the first week I’ve been able to cast aside the winter jacket for shorts and t-shirt. It was 28 degrees yesterday, with similar temperatures predicted until the middle of next week when it will dip ten degrees and we’ll once again be pulling our winter jackets from the wardrobe.  

Reading books in the park

It means a lot to me because I felt challenged by the sub zero temperatures and the snow in my neighbourhood on the day of my arrival on 18th March. Those who live here or visited earlier in the year had to endure floods, low temperatures and constant rain. Now it is possible to detect a definite upward swing in their spirits.

Yesterday I walked through a few parks in an effort to capture something of this mood. I’d wondered what Parisians do in springtime and thought I might see vigorous physical demonstrations of their love for each other.

But it turned out that it was the bees that were in springtime overdrive, seemingly upsetting public order by getting too excited by the blossoms. As I walked through the Luxembourg Gardens, I witnessed a bee emergency underway. 

Apiculteurs au travail

There was a large area roped off and teams of beekeepers in helmets and white baggy suits trying to bring the situation under control, whatever that involves. It had never occurred to me that blossoms could be the cause of such consternation.

Nevertheless visitors on the other side of the gardens near the Luxembourg Palace seemed unfazed. They were enjoying the weather chatting, reading and, of course, watching each other.

When you spend time in colder climates, you notice that the contrast of the seasons can be much more pronounced than it is in Sydney and parts of Australia further north. In my view, it’s something to be cherished.

Luxembourg Gardens

In Australia there are increasing attempts to beat seasonality, for example selling cherries imported from California in winter. I buy them although I don’t like what such availability represents.

I’ve noticed that the fruit and vegetables available in the shops in Paris tend to be those that are in season. At the moment the large white asparagus are everywhere. Next month it’s strawberries, eggplants, cucumbers, turnips and cauliflower. If you let it, seasonality brings variety in addition to the mood swings.

 

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1274150 2018-04-18T11:10:04Z 2018-04-18T11:10:04Z The art of making a spectacle of ourselves

I’d been wondering why many French cafés have lines of outdoor seats facing the street. I haven’t seen it elsewhere and it has seemed odd to me. 

Yesterday I realised that its purpose is to enable the café’s patrons to get a clear view of people walking along the street.

Paris caf chairs facing the street

In other cultures, people watching tends to be frowned upon. It’s seen as voyeurism, an invasion of another person’s space and privacy, or at least failing to mind your own business. But for the French, it’s celebrated as an important dimension of the interplay between human beings. 

You don’t have to have business to transact with a person in order to look at them. An active gaze at someone is a statement in response to the way that person has often deliberately projected a particular energy or visual aspect. It might lead to an exchange of words or more, but usually it’s just as fruitful if it doesn’t. 

It’s about performance and spectacle and etching yourself into the consciousness of others. To do that, something about your dress or accessories or movement needs to stand out from the crowd.

Instinctively I do the opposite, so that I blend into the crowd. It’s how I was brought up. I delude myself into thinking that I am not being people watched, and that that’s the way it should be. 

But yesterday I realised that nobody in the streets of a big city is anonymous, and that that’s a good thing. It was when a woman came up to me to express admiration of my Australian-designed Crumpler loose fabric draw string backpack. She had people watched me, and in this case it had led to a conversation, about how she might be able to buy one for herself.

Then in an art gallery, an older woman who was an attendant gazed at me. But not in a way that suggested a suspicion that I might damage or steal an artwork. There was a slight smile and a facial expression approaching awe. I interpreted it as a compliment. 

I had looked admiringly at the smart bright yellow shawl she was wearing, and perhaps she had noticed my notice of her and was reciprocating. I will never know. But it is an intriguing pleasure to wonder about it.

I think the lesson is that we don’t need to hold back when we find ourselves drawn to look at somebody who, in our estimation, stands out. They have made themselves up, precisely because they like to be looked at, and it is a source of satisfaction for them that another person has noticed them.

The French put great store in the quality of their presence in the street or at a public event. It’s almost sacramental. It’s about performance in a culture that esteems performers. 

They would not think much of parents in other cultures who admonish their children for ‘making a spectacle’ of themselves.

The act of making a spectacle of ourselves and being noticed is not an escape from reality. Instead it’s an embrace of the world, and indeed the perfect cure for melancholia, depression, and poor self-esteem.

 

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1273796 2018-04-17T10:48:34Z 2018-04-17T10:48:34Z The Paris district most like Sydney's Newtown

Recently my neighbour invited me to a party for his girlfriend’s birthday. He introduced me to a male friend who works on the Paris staff of an Australian based organisation. 

The friend had just returned from a visit to head office in Sydney and told me that my neighbourhood – Newtown – was the part of Sydney he most appreciated. He was even able to name the restaurant he’d dined at.

My neighbour asked him what locality in Paris is most like Newtown. The 11th arrondissement was his reply.

So I decided that I had to put the 11th arrondissement on my bucket list of places to visit before I return to Australia next month. 

IMG_20180416_135046

This up and coming district on the right bank is described as one of the most densely populated parts not only of Paris, but of any European city. It is known for its high concentration of fashionable cafés, restaurants and nightlife, as well as a range of boutiques and galleries. 

To most Australians, its most recognisable establishment would be – sadly – the Bataclan rock music venue, where 90 people were killed in the coordinated terrorist attack in November 2015.

I decided that yesterday was the day for my walk to the 11th arrondissement, which is 30 minutes from my room in the First arrondissement, essentially on the other side of the Marais. I set out around midday, and passed the Bataclan theatre on my way to rue de Charonne. 

My research had suggested that rue de Charonne would remind me of King Street Newtown, and it did. It’s a long street, gentrified at one end with the feel of grunge at the other. 

IMG_20180416_135234

There were the expected restaurants and cafés and clothes shops. But what struck me most was the number of what we call ‘old wares’ shops. They’re the businesses that sell secondhand items to people wising to give their often nondescript apartment spaces the ambience of a particular past era they like to romanticise. Romance is of course very important to Parisians.

IMG_20180416_144634

What topped off my comparison was rue de Charonne’s location in the vicinity of a remarkable cemetery, Le Cimetière du Père Lachaise. King Street Newtown is a few hundred metres from the historic Camperdown Cemetery, which is listed by the state Heritage Council.

The Père Lachaise, which was named after Louis XIV’s Jesuit confessor, is the largest and most visited cemetery in Paris. It is home to the graves of many famous people. In the short time I had before my return walk, I looked at the tombs of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison.

 

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1273332 2018-04-16T10:16:15Z 2018-04-16T10:16:15Z On the edge of my linguistic comfort zone

On Saturday I returned to Paris after my week in Sicily. 

I thought I would avoid the frustration of waiting up to 25 minutes for an airport bus by walking to Catania airport, which should be not much more than an hour from the city on foot. However Google Maps failed me and I found myself outside a remote and sleepy corner of the airport far from Departures, even though I had selected the ‘Departures’ option it had given me.

Luckily there was some passing traffic and I was able to attract the attention of a kind local, who drove me to Departures in good time for the boarding call.

During that moment of panic, I found myself speaking what seemed fluent Italian, to explain my situation to my new best friend and express my gratitude to him for saving me from missing my flight. 

He appeared to understand exactly what I was saying, as did others I’d had dealings with in Italian during my time in Sicily. When I arrived at the airport at the beginning of the week, the bus ticket vendor I approached for my ticket to Ragusa pointed to another booth that was not attended. 

Non c’e nessuno! was my spontaneous reaction to him (there’s nobody there).

I was proud of the language skill I did not realise I had. Like most Australians with a tenuous grip on a foreign language, I usually construct my thoughts in English before translating them into the other language.

It reminded me of my long history with the Italian language. In Year 9 at school, Father Ferruccio Romanin offered lunchtime Italian classes. I think he was the one who planted non c’e nessuno in my unconscious, where it has remained for more than 40 years.  

He gave me a good grasp of the basics, which I was able to build on later when I did a year’s Italian language at university and then a crash course much later when I went to work for the Jesuit Refugee Service in Rome at the beginning of 1997.

However despite all the effort, I never grasped the language in any serious sense. My Italian was regarded - affectionately - as a joke among my work colleagues and my fellow volunteers at the refugee hospitality centre. My tendency to translate Australian and other English idioms literally would both baffle and amuse them.

Now, in Paris, I find myself having to suppress the tendency for Italian words and phrases to come up like weeds and strangle my attempts to respond to people in French. 

Almost daily, the receptionist at the gym will greet me with ‘Ça va?’ (How’s it going?) I will either utter the Italian response ‘Bene grazie’, or spend all my mental energy trying to suppress it and not be able to find the words to respond in French.

Recently I have started to comfort myself with the existentialist thought that my grasp of language, and limited ability to acquire new language skills at my age, is what it is. In other words, it’s part of my character and personality as an Australian with good English skills venturing outside my linguistic comfort zone to explore life in foreign cultures.

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1271836 2018-04-12T15:22:04Z 2018-04-12T15:22:04Z Enjoying Sicilian street food

I’m with my sister and brother in law in Catania, the largest city on the east coast of Sicily. They’ve come here from their home in England’s south-east. 

She enjoys cooking, and her idea of a holiday is to take a serviced apartment near an interesting food market and use the kitchen to prepare a nice meal herself, rather than rely exclusively on restaurants.

What caught her attention at the market yesterday were the wedge clams. They’re a species of small shellfish native to the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of western Europe. They’re known here as telline, and are similar to pippies in Australia.

IMG_20180411_185232

She cooked them in a pan with garlic and olive oil and we enjoyed the dish as an entree with a glass of Sicilian rose. She was trying to reproduce part of a sensational meal we enjoyed last May at the home of a former Australian work colleague of mine outside Nîmes in the south of France. 

After returning from the market, my sister had thought she’d bought too many of the wedge clams. She was proved wrong.

These past days I’ve had in my mind the phrase ’Sicilian street food’. It’s because of a tiny cafe called Ballaro that opened late last year in King Street, Newtown, not far from my home in Sydney. The cafe describes its offering as ‘authentic Sicilian street food’. 

This includes snacks such as arancine, the deep-friend rice balls with various succulent fillings that I see everywhere around here. There are also the tubular cannoli pastries. The filling is ricotta cheese, with a generous quantity of sugar. The one I enjoyed in Ragusa had ground pistachio nuts at each end.

Perhaps the most vivid food memory I will take away with me is also the simplest. When I first arrived, I was provided with a large bowl of oranges and lemons from the garden of the parents of my airbnb host.

As I wasn’t planning to do any cooking, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with the four or five lemons. I thought I’d squeeze a glass of orange and lemon juice, and accidentally learned that Sicilian lemons - these ones at least - are sweet enough to eat in the way we’re accustomed to consuming oranges. 

So for breakfast this morning, I bought a lemon and two oranges from a vendor in a small truck parked outside the apartment building. The oranges turned out to be blood oranges, which are currently in season. 

IMG_20180412_144020

This afternoon I returned and bought a bag of six of the blood oranges for a euro. Almost immediately, I sat down to eat one read about them online. They’re of the ‘tarocco’ variety that are famed for their sweetness and juiciness. As a bonus, they have the highest vitamin C content of any orange variety grown in the world, mainly on account of the fertile soil surrounding Mt Etna.

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1271288 2018-04-11T07:02:54Z 2018-04-11T07:02:54Z My unexpected fascination with papyrus

Yesterday I spent six hours in the south-eastern Sicilian city of Syracuse. It is the important centre of politics and culture in ancient times that Cicero described at ‘the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all’.

The vast numbers of school students and tourists and buses put me off the large archaeological site I headed for in the morning. But later I was walking around the waterfront area and came across the papyrus museum, the Museo del Papiro of the Istituto Internazionale del Papiro. I was the only visitor at the time, and I found it unexpectedly engaging.

papyrus

Papyrus is the thick paper-like plant material that was used as a writing surface from ancient times. It was the medium of choice for Vatican documents until the 11th century, and was also used for baskets, ropes, boats and other artefacts, most notably among the ancient Egyptians. The museum depicts its use in African cultures until recent times.

The displays are essentially the story of the work of the local scholar and adventurer Corrado Basile, who has been to Africa many times since the 1960s to study the use of papyrus. They include three papyrus boats that he brought back from different parts of the continent and numerous other artefacts.

Its relevance to Sicily is that, aside from Africa, it is the only location in the world where papyrus grows. The most significant presence of papyrus is along the banks of the Ciane River, just a few kilometres from Syracuse. It is also an indication of the physical proximity of Sicily to Africa, where papyrus grows throughout the continent.

I’ve long had an interest in the history of publishing and media. What most fascinates me about papyrus is that it was the only medium used for the dissemination and preservation of the work of the philosophers and poets of ancient times. Without papyrus, there is so much that would be lost to us. We can compare its usefulness and influence, and perhaps notoriety, to other media such as the printing press, radio waves and the internet.

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1270562 2018-04-09T11:15:52Z 2018-04-09T11:15:52Z After 20 years, I've finally made it to Ragusa

Late on Saturday I arrived in the inland Sicilian city of Ragusa. With about 73,000 inhabitants, it is built on a limestone hill between two deep valleys. It is one of eight cities in Sicily’s south-east that is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

When UNESCO put the towns on its list in 2002, it described them as ‘representing the culmination and final flowering of Baroque art in Europe’. 

IMG_20180408_133730

That is because they were destroyed by a large earthquake in 1693 and subsequently rebuilt in the baroque and renaissance style that was current at the time. A bit like Napier in New Zealand, which was razed by an earthquake in 1931 and rebuilt with Art Deco architecture.

Why did I choose Ragusa over the other cities, which are undoubtedly all beautiful? It’s because I’ve had it in my mind for 20 years that I wanted to visit Ragusa one day. It is the home town of a former colleague, and also a couple that I was friendly with when I lived in Rome in 1997-98.

They would talk about Ragusa with love and affection, although it was clear that they preferred to live in the big city. It seems my airbnb host Giuseppe is much the same. 

Giuseppe lives and works in Milan and his plan is to have his parents help with looking after guests. Nevertheless he was at the local bus station with his parents when they came to pick me up after I’d taken the 90 minute journey from Catania Airport on Saturday evening. I am his first airbnb guest and it seems he is determined to get things right.

IMG_20180408_162944

As expected, I’ve noticed many older people and not so many young people about the streets. There are empty shops, but clearly the residents have a sense of pride in their city, which is well-maintained and gradually being discovered by tourists. 

My gauge of a tourist location is how easy it is to manage in English. In Paris, I’ll ask for something in broken French and they will answer me in English. Here they are answering me in Italian. Fortunately the patchy Italian I learned many years ago has come out of hibernation after my 19 year absence from the country. 

After my ten kilometre walk around the older section of the town - mostly up and down steps - I went to the railway station to book my ticket for tomorrow’s journey to Catania, where I will spend four days. 

The train takes the scenic route, and the travelling time is over four hours. The station was deserted and slightly derelict, as I guess most locals would favour the 90 minute bus trip.

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1269532 2018-04-06T11:20:09Z 2018-04-06T11:20:09Z My daily demi-baguette

In Australia, one of my secrets to avoiding weight gain is no bread. When I’m in Paris, I don’t even try to stay away from baguettes. 

They are so much a part of life here. There’s always a boulangerie around the corner, and you constantly see baguettes poking out of people’s bags as they walk around the streets.

Every day I buy a half (or demi-) baguette in the late afternoon or early evening. I cut it in half and have one piece fresh with my evening meal around 8:30 and the other for breakfast, occasionally with Vegemite.

I’m careful to get it by 8:00 pm when the boulangeries close. If I miss that deadline, I will need to go to a supermarket, where the baguettes are a pale imitation of the real thing. 

The ‘real thing’ is always baked on the premises, and is often still warm when you buy it. In other countries, the word ‘artisanal’ can be slightly pretentious. But here it’s signposted outside a boulangerie as a statement of the fact that they bake on site.  

I’m lucky to live in an area where there are dozens of boulangeries. In one direction - Rue Saint Honoré - there is one about every 200 metres. I have tried most of them, and discovered that some are better than others. 

There is one that is part of a chain that makes a big deal of its Meilleure Baguette de Paris 2016 award. I prefer the next one along the street, which you need to Google to discover that it has won awards every few years since 1996.

For reasons of economy, I previously bought the basic baguette for around 50 euro cents. But one day they had only the baguette traditionnelle, which costs 10 cents more. It is not as white, has holes, and looks to be less processed are more wholesome than the cheaper one. It is certainly more satisfying, and now I always ask for the traditionnelle.

Part of my current ritual is to cut it in half with a proper bread knife, and then to break it as I consume it. I did not get a proper bread knife until last week, as I’d been trying to make do with a single chopping knife in my tiny kitchen space. But there is always room for the important things. 

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1269128 2018-04-05T10:54:48Z 2018-04-05T10:54:48Z The untidy workspace of the father of modern sculpture

Yesterday I went to the Pompidou Centre in the hope that the train strike would have restricted visitor numbers to the National Museum of Modern Art. 

But the queue snaked well into the large courtyard, and the rain. So instead I visited the museum’s annexe - the Brâncuși Studio - which tends to be overlooked by many tourists including myself.

Notwithstanding Rodin, Constantin Brâncuși (1867-1957) is often described as the father of modern sculpture. He grew up in his native Romania and travelled to Paris in 1903. He started work in Rodin’s studio, but left after two months, saying ‘nothing can grow under big trees’.

With characteristic single mindedness, he set up his studio in a room in the 15th arrondissement. Over the decades he extended it by acquiring the leases to a total of four adjoining rooms or workshops.

IMG_20180404_150520

He was insistent that certain sculptures belonged in the environment of his studio, with its particular light and spatial properties. 

So when he bequeathed the studio and its artworks to the French state, he imposed the condition that it must be reconstituted in its entirety, including ‘works, drafts, workbenches, tools, furniture’. The reconstitution was completed in 1997 by the original Pompidou Centre architect Renzo Piano.

I was reminded of the 2014 recreation of the ordered chaos of Australian painter Margaret Olley’s Paddington, Sydney, home inside the Tweed Regional Gallery in northern NSW. The Gallery’s director said at the time: ‘It was the layering that fascinated me, clearly everything had a place’.

The English translation of one of the explanatory panels in the Brâncuși Studio reads: ‘In the rather untidy place... the sculptor was taken unawares by the contiguity, juxtaposition and combination of forms’.

The sculptures blend with the context of the work benches and tools, as well as Brâncuși’s mezzanine bed space, his cooking utensils, and even the guitar that was used to create musical entertainment with his bohemian friends including composer Erik Satie.

IMG_20180404_160700

I sometimes think of the particular spatial properties of the rooms in which we live our own thoughtful and creative moments, including my own tiny five square metre room a few hundred metres from the Pompidou Centre. 

The ‘jerry-built’ fittings tell one story. There’s another in the particular natural light afforded by its situation on the top floor of the building. That gives it a gloss that is perhaps compatible with a creative existence. Together they give me an insight into the philosophy of existentialism.

  

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1268790 2018-04-04T10:35:03Z 2018-04-04T10:35:03Z The gloom of springtime in Paris

It’s springtime in Paris and I’ve been here a little over two weeks.  But although a sunny 21 degrees is expected on Saturday, being here at this time is not entirely enviable. 

I’d missed the floods and heavy rains that had made life miserable for Parisians earlier this year. But when I first arrived, there was snow cover at the airport and it was even snowing in my street in the first arrondissement. Temperatures were sub-zero, and they took some days to approach a level of relative comfort.

However the real gloom in the air was created by the strikes in the public sector. The unions released a calendar of train strikes that will take place three days a week between now and the end of June. Air France had two strike days last week and there will be another two next week. In addition, the public electricity utility EDF is also expected to be subject to strike action.

On my flight to Paris, I was sitting next to the mayor of a small town in the Loire Valley. He explained that it was about resistance to President Macron’s agenda to curb the cushy conditions that are an obstacle to France’s economic competitiveness in the modern world.

In my experience, strike action is often a mix of idealism and worker self-interest, with self-interest often dressed up as idealism. 

When I worked at the ABC in the 90s, it was creeping commercialism eroding the values of public sector broadcasting. That was real. But it seemed those values were inseparable from upholding a longstanding and arguably unrealistic high standard of working conditions that I never enjoyed in my post-ABC employment.

According to survey results reported on the nightly television news on France 2, about half the general population is broadly supportive of the strike action. I suspect there’s an element of nostalgia for the past and skepticism about globalism and its purported benefits for the those who don’t belong to the economic elite. Not too dissimilar to the sentiment in the UK that led to the Brexit vote.

The nightly news tends to focus on the gloom of those waiting on train platforms for the approximately 20 per cent of trains that are still running using what we might call ‘scab labour’. But I think there are also those who are able to dodge the worst effects by working from home or travelling outside the peak. 

My Air France flight to Sicily next week was booked for what became a planned strike day. Luckily I was able to bring my departure ahead three days. My Sicilian holiday is extended and I will avoid both the Air France strike and the two successive days of train strikes that could have prevented me from travelling to the airport. 

Yesterday a friend observed that the transport paralysis seemed to have reduced the number of tourists in circulation, suggesting that today - another strike day - might be a good day to visit one of the usually crowded museums. That is my plan for the afternoon.

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1260132 2018-03-12T07:26:18Z 2018-03-12T07:26:18Z Coming late to style

Today I had lunch with an old friend and work colleague I first met 30 years ago. 

She recalled two other female colleagues taking me on as a 'project' to try to give me a sense of style. 

I was very much lacking in that aspect, partly because I was still a Jesuit. We proudly regarded ourselves as counter-cultural. 

Most of us were from comfortable middle class backgrounds. But we sought to 'identify with the poor'. I remember my mother buying me an expensive suit that I was too embarrassed to wear. 

We dressed down, grew beards when they were out of fashion, and gave each other rough haircuts. Overweight was OK, and working out in the gym to build a beautiful body would be to worship an alien god. Our style was to eschew style. 

But in effect we were making a virtue of sloppiness. Eventually I worked it out that sloppy does little to enhance the dignity of the poor. Whoever the poor were, I hope they did not pay too much attention to the well-intentioned standard we set.

Thirty years down the track, my colleagues' wish for me has been fulfilled. 

I try to be mindful of my dress and grooming. I also pay attention to how others present themselves. 

I sometimes find articles of interest in GQ men's fashion magazine, although my current favourite is the Men in This Town blog that pays homage to men who express their personality in the clothes they wear.

A visit to the gym each morning has taken the place of daily Mass. It can centre me as a human being or it can be boring. But my better body shape, and attention to dress and grooming, contribute to a greater sense of well-being.

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1249670 2018-02-18T22:25:07Z 2018-02-18T22:25:07Z The real scandal is Joyce's schooling

One of the friends I caught up with at the weekend is a therapist who has just published a book titled Kind Man, Strong Man. 

I bought it for my Kindle and read much of it last night. It is about violence in men towards their intimate female partners. The author – Eric Hudson – worked for five years providing emotional support at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

From my reading, his book is about attitudes and values that contribute to a society in which women are not respected or treated as equals. The question of physical violence is often irrelevant.

Hudson says: ‘I remember so clearly the moment when a woman said to me, “You know, he has never hit me, never laid a hand on me, but there are some times when I wish he would hit me! Because then I would have the bruises on the outside where they can be seen, not on the inside where no-one can see them.”’

The recent commentary about Barnaby Joyce that has resonated most with me has centred around the words ‘power imbalance’. It suggests – rightly or wrongly – that we are dealing with male abuse. In other words, the circumstances in a man’s life where all the women are not respected or treated as equals to men.

I don’t think it is helpful to judge Barnaby, especially in the way the prime minister Malcolm Turnbull did on Thursday. It’s better to focus on a critique of the culture. 

We can hope that Barnaby and other influential men will see the reality of how they treat women and act for change. There’s no point in provoking them to try to defend the indefensible.

It is true that Barnaby’s personal choices appear to have caused immense suffering in the lives of the women in his life. But because he is the product of a culture that has little respect for women, the odds are that his actions will reflect that. 

I would say that it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that he was schooled to treat women as second class citizens. 

It was the same for me. He was a country kid in an all male Jesuit boarding school, St Ignatius College Riverview in Sydney. Just a few years earlier, I was a country kid in another all male Jesuit boarding school, Xavier in Melbourne. For months at a time, we did not have girls around us to relate to as fellow human beings and equals. 

Girls were always on our minds, as sex objects. It is not surprising that boys from similar schools graduate to institutions like the infamous St John’s College at the University of Sydney, where the ritual humiliation and abuse of women and less macho men was not questioned until recently. That is the real scandal.

Joyce’s leadership of the Nationals may be no longer tenable, and the Nationals are having to deal with that. But the best thing our political class can do for the long term is to make laws that foster respect for women.


LINK: Kind Man, Strong Man

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1241175 2018-02-01T03:48:46Z 2018-02-01T08:50:18Z The mission of a bank nerd

I think I'm what you would call a bank nerd. I count the number of accounts I have rather than the amount of money they contain. There's no doubt that the accounts count produces a more remarkable figure.

I have accounts with twelve banks in Australia and one in France. I am proud of the fact that I avoid fees in all but my French account and that I have the best ongoing savings interest rates on the market.

It's something I learned from my father. I remember he shopped around for the best deals and switched his business from the Bank of NSW (now Westpac) to CBC (NAB) at a time when most families were loyal to the one bank for generations.

He encouraged us to save our pocket money and to invest in a quasi-bank that was known as a Permanent Building Society, which offered seven per cent interest. Then he got us to switch to another that offered nine.

I'm thinking about this because yesterday one of my banks - ING - informed its customers that we would need to make at least five transactions per month on our debit cards in order to keep our currently high 2.79 per cent interest rate.

I exercised my mind and found a solution to that one. But I'm still coming to terms with the ethics and practical challenges posed by Citibank's changes to its credit card rewards program.

Citi's rewards now direct its clients towards its 'partner' merchants. Before the changes, certain cards earned one point for every dollar spent anywhere. Now there's one point if they shop at Coles or Woolworths and zero points if they shop at IGA.

I sometimes wonder whether such nerd - or maven - behaviour enhances the personal wellbeing of the nerd, or of society in general.

I think it does. Because some of us are more demanding of businesses, they are kept on their toes and are less likely to exploit the non-nerds. If everybody was a bank nerd, the banking royal commission would not be necessary.

I have been trying to convince a friend to stop paying ANZ the $5 a month fee for a basic account and switch to an account elsewhere that offers interest and no fee. But he just laughs and tells me to get a life.

The problem is that dismissing the need to be more engaged in our consumer behaviour plays into the hands of greedy businesses, especially those that are prepared to behave unscrupulously.

Many banking customers get a much worse deal than my friend when the self-interest of their trusted financial advisors causes them to accept bad advice that is destined to cause them financial pain down the track and diminish their personal wellbeing.

I know what it's like to be overwhelmed by all the choices we have as consumers. I have no interest in studying the detail of either home and contents or health insurance products. As a result, I pay a lot of money for insurance that undoubtedly serves the needs of the companies much better than it does mine.

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1238055 2018-01-26T01:51:13Z 2018-01-26T01:51:13Z What happened to my Australian accent

I spent the summer of 1983-84 in the Philippines. During this time I fell in love with the Philippines and its people and felt ashamed to be Australian.

I can't remember exactly why I was ashamed, but I think it had something to do with Australia's misplaced sense of superiority in South East Asia. It was the era in which Singapore's prime minister Lee Kuan Yew felt he had to warn Australians that we were in danger of becoming the 'white trash' of Asia.

I decided that I did not like the Australian accent because it reflected this ugliness, which we ourselves did not seem to be aware of.

Not entirely tongue in cheek, I worked to modify my spoken English. I wanted a neutral accent that would ensure I was not immediately recognisable as Australian. When overseas these days, I still get told that I don't sound Australian.

After three and a half decades, my shame is not what it was. But I am keenly aware that every week there are new reasons for me to feel even more ashamed. A few days ago it was news of the planned overhaul of Australia's national security laws that could lead to journalists being jailed for doing their jobs.

Indeed if there is such a thing as an international shame index, Australia would have to be much more prominent today than it was in the 1980s. We are punching below our weight in so many areas. Examples include the promotion of human rights and acting to mitigate the effects of climate change.

I tell myself that Australia is a work in progress and that for every step backwards there is arguably a step forward.

We had Paul Keating's 1994 Redfern speech on the treatment of Indigenous Australians, which was broadly accepted by the general population. It gave us a lasting sense of national contrition that led to the 2008 Apology.

Now we have genuine and widespread criticism of the Australia Day celebration as inappropriate because it represents invasion and the beginning of annihilation for the first Australians. The celebration is on the nose to the extent that the online advertising and marketing website Mumbrella is warning brands that they should not risk damage by endorsing Australia Day.

I'm not against Australia Day, as long as it evolves to include an element of contrition alongside the self-congratulation. Shame is not a bad thing, to the extent that it acts as a reality check. And it could even bring the nation together.

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1233466 2018-01-17T19:58:45Z 2018-01-17T19:58:46Z Actual slow travel is better than watching a long train journey on TV

In recent weeks we've seen the surprising success of SBS TV's experimentation with the Slow TV genre. They've screened three and 17 hour versions of their documentary on The Ghan rail journey from Adelaide to Darwin.

The three hour 'director's cut'  was the station's highest rating program for the past year. The popularity of the three hours was such that they broadcast the 17 hour version the following weekend. Perhaps they will even try for 54 hours, which is the actual length of the journey.

But it's one thing to watch a long slow train journey on TV, and another to actually do it.

About this time last year, I was at Strathfield station in Sydney and saw an ad for NSW Trains Discovery Pass. I bought one the next day.

For $550 first class and $420 economy, the ticket allows six months travel on NSW country trains and buses that travel north to Brisbane, west to Broken Hill and south as far as Melbourne. I did one trip from Sydney to Brisbane, one from Sydney to the Gold Coast hinterland, one to Albury, and about four day trips to Canberra.

Friends thought I was a bit odd. Most people write off long distance rail travel in Australia because it's 'too slow'. But for me, slow is the best way to go if I can make the time to do it.

I think most people can if they really want to and make it a priority. Those who say they don't have the time to do such things probably pack too much into their busy lives and can't see the wood for the trees. They're the people who don't have the time to read novels.

Those who only have time for travel by air, or fast trains overseas, will never get to take in the meditative experience of the gradual change of landscape and vegetation over many hours and days. For me it is the equivalent of a religious retreat, and Australia's lack of enterprise in not building fast trains can be construed as a virtue.

Slow travel can also take the form of a long drive.

I discovered that it awakened something deep inside of me in 2003 when I drove from the east to the west coast of Australia. I had always wanted to do it because it's a thing many Australians 'must' do once in their life, just as Muslims go to Mecca.

The drive across Australia was such a peak experience for me that six months later I was off on a driving holiday through the wide open spaces of the USA.

I flew into San Jose and drove through the California Desert and along the old Route 66 to the Texas pan handle. I then went north towards Wyoming and Montana before returning to San Jose from Washington state close to the west coast. Around 9000 kilometres.

I also enjoy very long distance slow bus trips. In 2015, I took a bus for 25 hours through the windswept terrain in southern Peru between Lima and the Chilean border town of Arica. Then a day or so later I travelled in another bus for around 32 hours, through the Atacama desert - the world's driest - to the city of Valparaiso, not far from the capital Santiago.

Of course I do 'drop in' travel as well. But there's nothing like taking lots of time to reach a destination. Or not having a destination at all, which was actually the case when I set out from Albury for my 2003 road trip that ended up taking me as far as Meekatharra in Western Australia.

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1218590 2017-12-18T20:43:29Z 2017-12-18T20:43:30Z Who really killed confession?

Amidst the negative publicity the Sacrament of Confession received after last Friday's release of the Child Abuse Royal Commission final report, one positive moment stood out for me.

It was the religious broadcaster Noel Debien making a personal allusion on Friday evening on ABCTV's The Drum discussion panel. He 'outed' himself as a practising Catholic who goes to Confession.

He was suggesting that his practice of the faith, including Confession, was a means of enrichment in his life. That struck a chord with me and I felt that I too would like to go to Confession when the opportunity presents itself. But on my own terms.

I think that most Catholics have stayed away from Confession for decades because the thought of it has made them feel small and unworthy. Good on them.

It's not dissimilar to the dynamic of sexual abuse, which made its victims feel small. It is part of what critics of the Church see as a power play that is designed to tighten the screws of the institution's psychological grip on its faithful.

But it needn't be the Church at its worst. Confession can offer a pathway to wholeness and growth. 'I can and want to be a better person.' Who does not have that aspiration in their life?

The good news is that ethical and moral virtue is within our grasp.

I felt this yesterday during a phone call with a friend who is a spiritual mentor in another context of my life. We were discussing the Royal Commission report and Confession and my sense of how cathartic it can be when done right.

As if to demonstrate my point, I mentioned some of my actions from last week that I wasn't particularly proud of. I manifest them to him and owned them. Then, right on cue, I felt I'd taken a step up the ladder towards virtue nirvana. I'd become more whole as a person.

I questioned why the Church cannot seem to give us that experience.

After Vatican II, it was on the right track when it renamed Confession the 'Sacrament of Reconciliation'. It was as if it was offering us our own personal truth and reconciliation commission. The kind of thing they have when they want to right wrongs and make a fresh start in countries where there have been human rights abuses.

Then came the pullback of the John Paul II and Benedict XVI papacies. It reverted to Confession and the rhetoric once again implied the play in which the Church and its officials make us feel small and that this is somehow for our own good. They killed it.

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1217272 2017-12-15T20:33:42Z 2017-12-16T06:47:02Z When church teaching says Confession should be killed off

As a junior bishop during the Church's World Youth Day in 2008, the now Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher angered many when he suggested that raising historic cases of child sexual abuse amounted to 'dwelling crankily ... on old wounds'.

Nine and a half years later, he's made another statement that is memorable for the wrong reasons. At his media conference following yesterday's release of the report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, he said that 'killing off confession is not going to help anybody'.

He was responding to the Commission's recommendation that a new law be passed to require priests to report cases of child sexual abuse that they learn about while administering the sacrament of confession. Such a law would conflict with the 'seal of confession' of the Church's own canon law.

Archbishop Fisher fears it would 'kill' confession. But Melbourne canon lawyer Ian Waters suggested last night to viewers of ABCTV's The Drum that priests hearing confession have infinite room to move pastorally and that there are means of ensuring abuse is reported to police without necessarily breaking the seal. Where there's a will there's a way was his message.

If a priest did find himself breaking the seal, he would easily find reassurance from Pope Francis himself. Francis has become well known for his insistence that the imposition of church law and doctrine must be qualified by a demonstration of love and mercy towards those who are most vulnerable.

Ten years before Francis became Pope in 2013, the leader of the Australian Jesuits Father Mark Raper made clear to viewers of the ABC's 7.30 Report his view that the Church as an institution is less important than the people it cares for.

Responding to the suggestion that rejecting legal advice by apologising to a child sex abuse victim would be costly to the Church in terms of financial compensation, he said: 'Well, the assets are not as important as the people that we seek to serve. What is the point of doing what we're doing if that's not the case?'

Yesterday my thoughts turned to the principle of 'subsidiarity', which is the bottom line of Catholic social teaching. Subsidiarity, which is most commonly applied to workers' rights, insists that any regulation of economic and social affairs must give priority to the dignity and rights of individual persons.

The principle of subsidiarity is not usually mentioned in the context of sacramental theology. But for me, it's enough to give confidence that 'killing off confession' is justified if the dignity and rights of sex abuse victims are at stake.


Links: Waters | Raper | Subsidiarity

 

]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1216862 2017-12-14T20:33:49Z 2017-12-14T20:33:49Z Mothballing the clerical collar will help prevent clergy sexual abuse

About 15 years ago, I was editing the Catholic Church's online news service CathNews when stories about clerical sexual abuse were beginning to appear in significant numbers.

It was usually difficult to find a photograph or other visual image to illustrate the abuse stories. But eventually I settled on one generic image that I felt would suit all of them. It was a plain and simple graphic depicting a priest's clerical collar.

I recall that we stopped using it following representations from more than one bishop.

The first was a gentle plea. We were tarnishing the good name of the clergy and damaging the reputation of the Church. Then came the more heavy handed 'cease and desist' order that gave us no choice.

There had been no protracted deliberation involved in my choice of the image. Like a lot of decisions editors made on the run, it was intuitive. But in hindsight - as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse wraps up - it seems prescient.

I say this after seeing this week's issue of the email newsletter from Francis Sullivan of the Church's Truth Justice and Healing Council. One of its headlines was extracted from a story published in the National Catholic Reporter in the US: 'Australian bishop urges end to clericalism'.

The article features the views of Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta based on a talk he gave in August that was published in the December issue of the National Council of Priests newsletter The Swag. It points to the culture of clericalism as a major cause of sexual abuse.

'In my testimony at the Royal Commission I maintained that we need to dismantle the pyramid model...which promotes the superiority of the ordained. ... Abuse in the area of sex is a form of abuse of power. I believe that we cannot address the issue of clerical sexual abuse without examining the clerical culture in which unhealthy attitudes and behaviours are fostered.'

It is often possible to know a priest's views about power and privilege in the Church simply by looking to see if he is wearing a clerical collar. In many circumstances, priests will make a deliberate choice whether or not to wear the collar, knowing its symbolic power.

I remember being a Jesuit novice in the late 1970s and the intense speculation about which of us would choose to wear a clerical collar rather than a suit, when we took our first vows at the end of the two year noviceship.

In retrospect, I think it was the most powerful statement we could make concerning whether we believed we were entering a life of power and privilege or one of service.

Indeed I can now suggest with confidence that an attitude of superiority on the part of a priest or other religious functionary carries with it the distinct possibility that they will abuse their position by taking sexual advantage of someone less powerful. On the other hand, if they genuinely think of themselves as servants, sexual abuse is most unlikely.

I think it's now time for the Church to consider mothballing the clerical collar. This would be a fitting follow up to Bishop Vincent Long's suggestion that 'we cannot address the issue of clerical sexual abuse without examining the clerical culture ... of power and control that has been our cultural captivity'.


Link: newsletter]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1215362 2017-12-12T05:09:01Z 2017-12-12T05:09:01Z Tribalism and Australian marriage equality

This morning I was listening to a podcast from US National Public Radio on the topic 'word of the year'. The commentator Geoff Nunberg chose 'tribalism' as his word of the year and focused his explanation on the politics of identity.

I've been thinking a lot about tribalism this year, trying to decide whether it's a good or bad thing. Nunberg says people often 'use "tribal" to obliterate the differences between solidarity and blind group loyalty' and that this can lead society to become 'fragmented into factions that deny one another's legitimacy'.

At various moments of the debate on same sex marriage in Australia, I could see this kind of 'we are right you are wrong' attitude on both sides. So I was heartened that the 'yes' case supporters in the public gallery of Parliament House chose 'I am Australian' when they broke into song after the vote was passed last Thursday.

The song's refrain - 'we are one, but we are many' - specifically recognises the legitimacy of tribes beyond our own. It implicitly affirms identities that are centred around many commonalities including gender and sexual preference. Thursday's cause for celebration was the successful passage of the bill that meant our nation's marriage law would now include identities it had previously excluded.

In the lead up to the postal survey, I found it interesting to read an article in The Conversation identifying tribes within the GLBTI community that were notably unenthusiastic about voting 'yes'.

These groups were composed of predominantly older GLBTI people who were proudly countercultural. They feared that marriage 'would become the gold standard for same-sex relationships and other relationship styles would be regarded as less worthy'.

As I understood it, these groups were not denying the legitimacy of GLBTI people wanting to get married. They just hoped that equal marriage supporters would return the favour and recognise the legitimacy of their rejection of marriage as a lifestyle choice. I believe that they got their wish, at least to the extent that they did not suffer criticism from the 'yes' supporters.

With regard to the Catholic Church, it has to be argued that the majority of bishops supported a position that exemplifies the negative characterisation I quoted above. That is a non-recognition of the distinction between solidarity and blind loyalty that leads to a denial of the legitimacy of those with opposing views.

It was therefore gratifying that so many Catholics followed the lead of the few bishops who advocated a vote according to conscience on what they insisted was in any case a secular matter. This turned out to be a demonstration of the good that can exist in tribalism - solidarity and qualified loyalty.


Links: Nunberg | The Conversation]]>
tag:michaelmullins.org,2013:Post/1208359 2017-11-26T18:56:22Z 2017-11-26T18:56:22Z Parisian attitude that is nurturing

It's time to return to Sydney after being in Paris for most of October and November. Somebody asked me if I felt I could stay longer or if it was time to move on.

I said that I was looking forward to being back in Australia but pleased that I am coming back here in three or four months time. I went on to explain that life for me is not complete in Sydney and neither is it complete here in Paris. But between the two cities it is.

Tuilleries

I'm very aware of how fortunate I am to be able to establish myself in two cities. I believe it's important that we all use our imagination and resources to seize the opportunities and challenges that our circumstances offer.

I think it's about finding an equilibrium in my state of being, which is something we all need. The term sure-footed comes to mind. I feel that I am excessively sure-footed in Sydney and not at all sure-footed in Paris.

Lego ptisserie at Les Halles

People face this kind of challenge in various ways. Some establish themselves in their professions and social circles, and then they welcome children into their lives even though they know it will upturn their established order. Others don't have children and look to extend themselves in different ways.

I find it easiest to write these letters when I feel there is order in my life. That is why they've been few and far between during these two months.

Here my energies are focused on tasks such as getting the right pieces of paper that will allow me to establish accounts with the electricity utility and the bank. My bank account works but I still have to jump through one more hoop before the debit card they sent me will work in ATMs and supermarkets.

Performance art exhibition at Richelieu Library

Years ago I used to hear it said that the French are rude and unhelpful. My experience has been the opposite. I have found them nurturing.

I remember telling a shop assistant that I did not need a bag. I said 'pas sac', and he corrected me by indicating that 'pas de sac' is how it's said. His tone was nurturing, not a put down. That experience was repeated multiple times, most recently when the woman at the Bastille Market told me I wanted 'une carotte', not 'un carotte', which is how I'd put my request.

I feel affirmed by these exchanges, and each is a small step towards becoming more sure-footed in my new surrounds.

Jewelled slippers

Years ago I remember feeling small after an offhand remark from a guide at the United Nations building in New York City.

'Is this where you get to see how the UN works?', I asked, stating the obvious because that's what came into my head. 'That's the general idea' was his put down response, which reflected the kind of attitude that I'd grown up expecting to get from the French.

]]>