Morbid fascination for the recently deceased

Yesterday I enjoyed Eureka Street's article about a writer exercising his 'morbid fascination for the recently deceased' by reading the death notices in the newspaper.

'[They] offer up the real inhabitants of our world - our neighbours and bosses, our friends and partners, our mothers, our fathers, our grandparents... These people are not the airbrushed celebrities, political blowhards or violent predators that often adorn the front pages.'

Sydney Morning Herald Death Notices

I have a similar morbid fascination. In today's Sydney Morning Herald death notices, I read about Barry. He was 'a unique man who faced life with positivity, determination and a smile that could light up a room'.

He will be 'greatly missed', but the notice promises that his family and friends will 'remember his wacky jokes, shaggy dog stories and universal theories'.

I wish that I too could enjoy some of Barry's jokes, stories and theories. But death notices don't go beyond the bare bones of the person's life. This kind of detail is shared only if the person is famous, and it's in the obituaries rather than the death notices.

SMH front page

Unusually today's obituary is on the front page because of its particular poignance. Its subject is not an airbrushed celebrity but the much loved blind Aboriginal singer Dr G Yunupingu, who died this week at the age of 46.

The obituary quotes a music critic's estimation that Yunupingu possessed 'the greatest voice this continent has ever recorded', one 'so beautiful and so emotion-laden that it invest[ed] every song with a passion and pathos which [were] quite overwhelming'.

In a way the complementarity of having both the paid death notices and the featured obituaries works well. Unfortunately, in terms of accessibility it does not fare well in the transition from its more intuitive presentation in print to obscurity in the now more significant online versions of the newspapers.

Sydney Morning Herald Obituaries

The death notices are very difficult to find, at least in the Sydney Morning Herald. You need to scroll to the bottom of the home page and click on 'Tributes' under 'Classifieds'. Sadly the message of this is that the deaths of ordinary people don't matter.

But the same can also be said for the lives of the famous that are written up in the obituaries. Curiously you need to click through to the 'Comment' section and go through to the second tier of the submenu there to find the 'Obituaries' link.

Worse than that, the obituaries page - headed 'Timelines' - no longer appears in the print edition every day. But only when there is space to fill. The Herald admitted as much to me when I called them a year or two ago to ask why they were not appearing every day as they had in the past. I was told they were not a priority: 'We don't always have space for the obituaries'.


Links: morbid notices obituaries

Escape from the time famine of modern life

This morning I was interested to read an article in The New Daily about time poverty. The headline was 'Money really can buy happiness, if spent on the right thing - time'.

It's based on a global study that found working adults reported greater happiness after spending money on time-saving rather than material purchases. It said this helped them escape the 'time famine of modern life'.

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I don't particularly like the idea that busy rich people can buy their way out of time poverty by employing servants. But it is good to hear it said that those who are chronically unemployed have the upper hand in time wealth, and that time wealth is a more likely path to happiness and well-being than material wealth.

The article quoted local experts, including Dr Melissa Weinberg of the Australian Centre on Quality of Life at Deakin University, who said the study is not about saving time, but the freedom to choose how we use our time.

'Time is a precious resource and the busier we are, the more valuable our time becomes, so it's important we feel that we are in control of how we spend the time we have.'

The implication is that those who are materially poor but time rich could develop a greater sense of self worth and empowerment, and make good use of the freedom they have to choose.

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They might say that they can't do anything without money, and that is true in relative terms. I would not like to see these ideas about time poverty used to excuse government policies that are increasing material inequality.

But there are many life-affirming activities that do not require us to be cashed up. Such as spending time with family and friends, reading books from the local library, and bushwalking. Even study. Most people with primary degrees are not aware that Australian universities don't charge fees for post-graduate research degrees.

People who are time poor simply don't have time to read and study, and there is a huge opportunity cost in that in terms of their total well being.

Kichijoji airbnb in Tokyo

Two years ago I retired at the age of 55 because I valued my time more than the wage and diminishing satisfaction that I was getting out of remaining in a job I'd been in for ten years.

I've chosen to use the time to get fit and to travel. I've found simple ways to do these things, so that I enjoy doing them for longer periods of time at less cost. That's why I'm leaving next week to spend five weeks living in Tokyo renting very basic airbnb accommodation that most people would look down on (pictured).

The material values of our society have conditioned us to think that we can't do anything without money, but the truth is that we can't do anything without time.


Links: New Daily study

Feeling comfortable in the clothes I wear

I'm always fascinated by comparisons between Sydney and Melbourne. On the weekend I came across an observation about men's street fashion, from blogger Giuseppe Santamaria.

'Melbourne is a lot more experimental, more artsy - its arts culture is reflected in the people who live there, and how they express themselves. They take more risks. Whereas in Sydney, you see more of the trends.'

Giuseppe Santamaria photo from Men in this Town blog

Wherever we live, the clothes we choose to wear are a form of self expression. They say a lot about our values and who we are.

I don't wear suits. I bought an Aldi suit about ten years ago for a particular occasion. I wore it just once or twice before discarding it when I was culling my wardrobe. My previous suit had been bought for me by my mother in the 1980s. I discarded it only a couple of years ago, and surprisingly it still fitted me.

Nor do I wear ties. I bought one from an op shop for an event in 2012, and I have only one or two others in my wardrobe that date from the 1980s.

Occasionally I receive invitations to functions that my old school holds in Sydney. I always rule out attending because it is compulsory to wear a lounge suit.

Giuseppe Santamaria photo from Men in this Town blog

I don't own a lounge suit and feel strongly that I would not want to buy one for a function like this. Moreover I think the particular dress requirement is a sign that I don't belong there.

That is something I used to resent. But now I think it's just a sign of who I am, or who I have become. I have moved on from the cultural norms of my old school, even though I respect those who still feel at home with them.

Dress is perhaps our clearest and most socially apt form of self-expression. If I wear clothes that I feel I do not feel comfortable in, it is self-censorship rather than self-expression.

In the past I've paid little attention to what I've worn. Fundamentally I've been risk averse and timid (that in itself has made a powerful if unintentional statement). But as I've moved towards a greater degree of self-possession, I've begun to make more deliberate and striking choices. I'm less reliant on comments and advice from friends.

My choices are in the interest of uninhibited personal definition more than style or fashion. I'm proud of having lost weight, so I tend to wear skimpy clothes to show that off. I also wear Icebreaker merino clothes that rarely need washing, for environmental reasons and also practicality when I travel.

Giuseppe Santamaria photo from Men in this Town blog

I like bright colours, but I'm only beginning to pay attention to aesthetic and ornament in the way that I dress. I've never ever worn jewellery, and haven't even considered how such details as belt buckles and the style of my watch can influence how I feel about myself.

But I was interested to browse through the photos of Giuseppe Santamaria in his blog Men In This Town, which I've copied here. Inspired by the New York Times' unassuming longtime street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, who died last year, he is a street photographer who steals photos of male passers by whose dress attracts his attention.


Links: comparison blog Cunningham

Remembering The Little Red School Book

While spending the weekend staying with friends in Canberra, I visited exhibitions at Old Parliament House and the National Archive. Among the National Archive's current featured exhibits are documents related to The Little Red School Book.

Publication of this book was the subject of intense debate in Australia in 1972. It was banned in several countries but the Federal Minister for Customs and Excise Don Chipp eventually allowed its publication here.

The Little Red School Book

The book's Danish authors encouraged school students to use their initiative against what they portrayed as the authoritarianism of the time. School teachers and other adults needed to be regarded as 'paper tigers' who 'can never control you completely'.

Discussing school education, the authors criticised the majority of teachers who 'think it's unnecessary to explain to their pupils why they must learn certain things'. With regard to sex and drugs, the issue in the minds of the authors was safety, not morality (i.e. harm minimisation). They emphasise technical explanations and advice about the risks of drug addiction and STDs.

Documents in the National Archive exhibit include a protest letter from the president of an Adelaide branch of the Presbyterian Women's Association, who wrote that she was 'appalled by the polution of the mind' represented by publication of the book.

Another correspondent, from South Yarra in Melbourne, commended the Minister for resisting the protestors, who'd sent 'unsigned filthy notes ... worse than the publication that they are complaining about'.

Presbyterian Womens Association

I was drawn to the exhibit by a recollection from when I was in Year 7 at high school. It was 1972 and there was a rare non-conformist Christian Brother who quietly lent me the copy of the book that he'd managed to source.

As a 12 year old, much of it went over my head. But I remember perusing its content and writing a review to enter in a book review competition being organised by the school librarian. I won the competition because mine was the only entry. I'm not sure how the librarian managed to avoid censure from the principal, but that wasn't my concern.

Now when I think of the furore over The Little Red School Book in 1972, I'm inclined to compare it to the recent debate over the controversial Safe Schools Program, which in its own way is also designed to foster student responsibility and to avoid conflating safety with morality.

In contrast to their Coalition forbears who debated and approved The Little Red Schoolbook 45 years ago, it seems that members of today's Federal Government have shown a conspicuous lack of backbone in yielding to pressure from the right wing and acting to gut the Safe Schools Program.

The desire to live in a foreign country

While I was in Malaysia last month I was in email contact with a friend back in Australia. He told me about the retirement visa which the Malaysian Government offers to foreigners to bring investment into the country.

You buy a property to live in and deposit an amount of money in a Malaysian bank. In return you get a ten year extendable visa and an exotic lifestyle at less than one third of the cost of living in Australia.

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On the whole I enjoy living in Sydney and did not seriously consider moving to Malaysia. However I think there is a lot to be said for spending time in another culture to give you a greater sense of perspective on your own.

A major formative experience for me was living in the Philippines for three months in 1983-84. Until that point, I had considered Australia and Australians to be God's gift to the Asia Pacific region and the world.

But I came away thinking of Filipinos as the most gracious and loving people on earth. I really wanted to make my permanent home there. I'd lost interest in Australia and its people, whom I now regarded as gauche and self-opinionated in comparison to Filipinos.

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15 years later, I spent two years living in Rome. In many people's minds, a dream existence. I loved my work and my colleagues and the friends I made. But when I had to choose between the offer of a job in Australia or extending my two year initial appointment in Rome, I leapt at the opportunity to return home. Perhaps somewhere in my unconscious, I wanted the exotic to remain exotic. It seemed that life for me in another culture had a use by date.

However my desire to live elsewhere tends to resurface. After I quickly dismissed thoughts of retiring to Malaysia, I felt attracted to the idea of spending more than a few days in a foreign country. So last week I made a gesture in that direction when I booked an August flight to Tokyo, together with the most basic Airbnb apartment I could find. I will be living simply for five weeks in one spot in the city's inner western suburbs, a world away from my usual home in Sydney's inner west.

Yokoyama Memorial Manga Museum Kochi

There will be challenges. Furniture too close to the floor for what our culture regards as comfort. Having to use a squat toilet every day. But also pleasures. No inhouse bathroom, which means regular visits to the sento. There's also not much of a kitchen, so I expect to be a regular patron at the ramen noodle bars in my vicinity.

Friends think I'm a bit odd to seek out such a rustic existence in an unfamiliar setting. They may have a point. But time spent in the thrall of another culture's bare essentials offers the possibility of new experience for those of us in the later stages of our lives.

Greek cafés in Australia

A few weeks ago a friend sent me a scanned page from a new large format book titled Greek Cafés & Milk Bars of Australia.

It was published last year by Photowrite, a Sydney-based two person team that includes documentary photographer Effy Alexakis and historian Leonard Janiszewski. They have been researching Greek-Australian culture, amassing a huge documentary and oral history archive.

Of particular interest to my friend was the story of Mattie and George Veneris. He knows their grandson James, who is from Albury, where his maternal grandfather ran the Hume Weir Café and his paternal grandfather the Riverina Café.

In the book, James' grandfather recalls their purchase of the Riverina Café in 1954. 'We served American style food - milkshakes, sundaes, burgers ... We stayed until 1977 ... There were about 13 Greek cafés in Albury from the 1950s to the 1970s'.

The Riverina and the Hume Weir are both long gone, but I remember them well from when I was growing up. My family had a dairy farm and our own 'milk run' business, Wodonga Milk Supply, which operated until 1970.

We would deliver 'bulk' (non-pasteurised) milk, which has the purest taste and was still legal in those days. I remember my father telling me that our 'bread and butter' customers were the local cafés.

The Greek café I remember best was the Rose Marie. As was the norm, our father could not cook, and he would always take us to the Rose Marie when my mother was away.

In contrast to today, 'Greek' referred to the ethnic identity of the owners, not the cuisine. At the Rose Marie, I can only recall beef steak and lamb dishes with 'three veg', and desserts including banana splits and sundaes.

I love the memories but would not wish to go back to eating from the Greek café menus of the 1960s. I very much appreciate actual Greek food and that is what I want and expect when I go to a Greek café or restaurant.

I had an interesting experience in November 2015, when I visited the town of Lockhart, an hour's drive from Albury into the Riverina. I'd been told about the Blue Bird Cafe, which was an attempt to recreate something of a café there that was once also owned by the Veneris family. I did a postgrad degree in Applied History in the 1990s and I am very interested in how we try to preserve the past.

The Blue Bird is a family museum that celebrates the past. It sells basic food such as sandwiches, pies and cakes. Although it has shop fittings from the era, is not a recreation of the café like the shops and businesses at the Sovereign Hill gold mining history theme park in Ballarat. It's more piecemeal, and the family wouldn't have the resources for a theme park. Nor is it a café business run on the old Greek café model. It couldn't be. The past is past.

What fascinated me most was the contrast with the rundown Olympia Café in Stanmore, near where I live in Sydney. The Olympia has been operating continuousy for many years, and the publicity shy octogenarian owner is famous for chasing away journalists and documentary makers who try to feature his cafe. A article published last year in the Sydney Morning Herald suggests the Olympia has built its own, very different, mythology, more akin to a horror display in a fun park side show.

'Some imagine something sinister here in the dust and decrepitude, in the gold-toothed gruffness of an elderly proprietor who objects to photographs and only turns a light on his tarnished vintage kingdom when customers rather than rubberneckers visit'.

Remembering the Herald learn-to-swim campaign

There has been an epidemic of people drowning in backyard pools and public swimming locations this summer. There have been almost as many water deaths as car fatalities. Governments are being challenged to spend money to encourage more people to learn to swim.

For me it brings back childhood memories of the Melbourne Herald newspaper's learn-to-swim campaign that was founded in 1929 and continued for five or six decades. Young Victorians were given their 'Herald' certificate if they could swim 25 yards (22.9 metres).

The campaign's longtime chairman was the legendary Sir Frank Beaurepaire. He the program enabled many thousands of people anually to 'hold their own in the water'. Learning to swim, he said, was 'a great step in developing self confidence, and once learned, the ability to swim is never forgotten'.

The ability to swim was an article of faith in my family, as it was in many families in regional areas. We all got our Herald certificate with no trouble at all. In fact we considered 25 yards was nothing. We could easily swim the 50 metre length of the local Olympic pool (54 yards) and would set our sights on 10 lengths.

For me the temporary stumbling block was diving. For a long time I couldn't do it, no matter how hard I tried. I remember the breakthrough happening as an eight year old in 1968 when my uncle visited from New Zealand. Somehow he instilled in me the necessary confidence.

But confidence comes and goes. I remember adult authority figures affirming me as a slow but strong swimmer. That was enough to encourage me to train to become faster so that I might compete. However that quickly came to an end when I went to boarding school in the city and one of the teachers joked that I swam like a whale. While nobody unlearns how to swim, this destroyed my confidence and any ambition I had to do swimming as a competitive sport.

Sometimes I think of the Herald learn-to-swim campaign as quaint and belonging to another era. I'm not sure when or why it ended but am curious. Sadly nothing has replaced it.

I imagine that it was considered lacking in coolness. Last year's ABC TV miniseries on the Christos Tsiolkas novel Barracuda might have changed this, but it was too fleeting and made for the wrong audience. Probably it would take a reality TV event to make learning to swim a must for young people.

I also think about the nature of campaigns run by media organisations. They used to be about public service, but now it's more ideology. Perhaps the Herald learn-to-swim campaign ended around 1987 when Rupert Murdoch purchased the paper. For in recent years, his papers have campaigned against public safety for young people, on ideological grounds, with their opposition to the government Safe Schools anti homophobic bullying program. No doubt that is a sign of the times.

The fragmentation of our attention since 1983

I recall attending a late afternoon history lecture in one of the large theatres at Melbourne University. It was 1983 and the lecturer Dr Donna Merwick interrupted her delivery and glared at a student sitting in one of the tiered rows towards the back of the room.

He was indiscreetly holding up and reading the afternoon broadsheet newspaper The Herald while listening to her lecture in the background. She asked him for his undivided attention and quickly got it.

In 2010 I was doing sessional teaching at Sydney University and faced a similar, but by then impossible, battle for the undivided attention of my students.

Most of them had their laptops open, ostensibly taking notes. But it was obvious that they were listening to me in the background while focusing on whatever online activities they would be engaged in if they were somewhere other than in this room attending a compulsory class.

Short of having mirrors installed on the wall behind them, there was not a lot that I could do about it. And in any case, it was the age of multitasking, and it had become normal for anybody - not just students - to focus their attention on several activities at any given time. What was regarded as insolence in 1983 had become de rigeur by 2010.

I am thinking about divided attention in the context of hyperlinks on web pages. Earlier this week I wrote a piece that referred to an online article in The Guardian. I linked to that article in my first paragraph. One of my readers told me that he didn't get beyond my first paragraph because he clicked on the link and read the Guardian article instead.

The next day - yesterday - I also referred to an article online. But I didn't link to it, instead including enough information about it to make it easy to Google. The reader suggested that I should have provided a link to the article, but I was unmoved. 

In fact I will isolate myself from the flow of information around the web if I don't provide links. This is because Google rewards links with higher rankings in search results with its increasingly sophisticated search algorithms. This has led to the fragmentation of our attention on an industrial scale. Back in 1983, the idea of linking was more or less confined to footnotes in academic articles. Even with footnotes, it was necessary to go to the trouble of consulting the card or microfiche catalogue in the library before your attention was diverted.

Lack of focus is a major explanation for why governments can no longer do anything substantial. With the release of Keating era Cabinet papers at New Year, we were reminded of Paul Keating's ability to command attention and how this made him able to achieve significant economic and other reform.

Certainly Keating's magnetic personality had a lot to do with it, but the real reason it could be done then and not now is that 1992 was several years before widespread use of the Internet arrived and changed everything.

Teaching the rules of English Grammar

When I was in my first year of secondary school, my mother was unimpressed with the quality of the education I was getting from the Christian Brothers.

She wasn't alone. Other parents were pulling their sons out of that school and sending them to one of the government high schools, where the education was believed to be better. She went further, and sent me to the city to boarding school. To the Catholic school with the best reputation for academic excellence.


She didn't like it that almost all schools in regional areas had given up teaching the structure and rules of English Grammar. She wanted me to be taught English Grammar. In addition, there would be Latin, and - if I ended up in the top stream - Ancient Greek. It was a matter of pride that my school was one of two schools in the state that still taught Ancient Greek.

I remember learning the rules of English Grammar in Year 8, in a very methodical manner from a teacher named Mr Harrison. He taught us how to write and structure the Queen's English but definitely not how to speak it. Behind his back we mimicked him giving us the instruction 'Get out your Pendlebury' in his very broad Australian accent. Our 'Pendlebury' was the class text, A Grammar School English Course by B.J. Pendlebury.

I never completely understood why some schools taught English Grammar and others didn't, until the other day when I read an article in The Conversation titled 'Things you were taught at school that are wrong'.

It's quite a good article, more balanced than the clickbait title suggests. It talks about the prescriptivists, who wrote rules prescribing how sentences must be structured, and the descriptivists who compiled guides describing how English was used by different people for various purposes.

Now I know that, in 1972, my mother was taking me out of the hands of the descriptivists and entrusting me to the prescriptivists.

The writer Misty Adoniou makes the not entirely tongue in cheek suggestion that the prescriptivists made up rules to ensure that literacy stayed out of reach of the working classes.

This is beyond the scope of the article, but it seems to me that the teaching and enforcing of language rules and exclusions has proved to one of the most effective tools of social engineering. In particular the assimilation of indigenous and migrant populations into the dominant culture.

But I can't agree with Adoniou's easy dismissal of the prescriptivists, and, in the end, I think the article is misleading and wrong. That is because teaching grammar has a lot to do with educating us to think logically and argue rationally. I know that this would have been my mother's motivation. She was definitely not a class snob.

I remember being taught not to begin a sentence with 'and', 'but', 'or' or 'for'. Now I do not hesitate to do that if it adds to the effect of what I'm writing.

Aside from its help in faciliating clear thinking and rational argument, I'm pleased that I was taught the rules of grammar so that I can pick and choose which ones to accept and ignore. It's a lot like being taught religious doctrine using a catechism. Or studying comparative religion. You're equipped to make informed and rationally argued choices.

Does intercessory prayer work?

I remember when I was a Jesuit novice in the late 70s, that we would drive around Sydney in an orange VW Kombi van. When we needed a car parking space, two of the seven in my year believed we would find one if we said a prayer to St Gerard Majella. Two - including myself - thought that was rubbish, while the other three were somewhere in between.

We would always get a park in the end, and it remained a moot point whether we had St Gerard to thank. I was never convinced. I'm less hard line in my skepticism these days, though I believe that intercessory prayer works if it is not seen as a 'get out of jail free' card but more akin to the power of positive thought and initiative. We don't expect St Gerard to do the heavy lifting for us. He's there more to encourage us.

Oprah Winfrey said: 'The greatest discovery of all time is that a person can change his future by merely changing his attitude.' She would have been referring to major life goals and not trivial matters like car parking. But, according to her doctrine, if we believe we can find a park, and look in the right places, we will. The key is that it will be a result of our own actions.

My previous rejection of intercessory prayer was probably more in line with the reformed Protestant Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which rejects intercessory prayer out of hand.

I've always found it hard to understand how predestination is any different to fatalism, which is defeatist and undermining of human possibility. It's like the Filipino bahala na 'leave it up to God' laid-back attitude that could be responsible for that country's perennially poor economic performance.

This is in contrast to that of the US, where it was the father of free enterprise Benjamin Franklin who said 'God helps those who help themselves'. The paradox is that this self-seeking attitude contradicts the selflessness that is at the heart of the message of the Christian Gospel.

My thoughts about intercessory prayer were prompted by a friend from many years ago who wrote to me on Saturday about the tough time she's had in recent years. Sadly her Catholic faith has not delivered at her time of need. She said: 'I have stopped praying as not one prayer has been answered'.