Portrait of a Good Man

Consciously or unconsciously, positively or adversely, our parents influence our lifestyle decisions and career choices. And we don’t choose our parents, although those who believe in the journey of the soul say we do. 

Regardless of what we believe, having a good father is a gift to treasure. Supportive, loving fathers give their children self-esteem, courage and purpose.

My father, John Banwell, a geophysicist who would be 113 today, encouraged my whimsical career choice, teaching me to appreciate the wonders of science as well as the power of magical thinking. We need creators, dreamers and visionaries as well as dissectors, realists, and rationalists in today’s world.  Both veins of thought shape human civilization and the timeless words of Desiderata still ring so true: ‘Keep interested in your career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.’

This is what a good man looks like.

Although this beautiful, modest man would have run a mile from attention-seeking social media sites, I want to pay tribute to his wisdom, kindness and humility today on his birthday. Born in 1908, he died too soon, when I was 25.

My mother once called my father John Banwell a fathomless man of many talents. A geophysicist, piano player, eclectic reader and some-time kiwi fruit horticulturalist, he was as good at fixing locks, pruning trees and building stylish hutches for my numerous pet birds, rabbits and guinea pigs, as he was at pondering and unravelling the mysteries of the universe. He introduced me to science fiction when I was 12 and directed me to possible descriptions of alien visitations recorded in the Bible (Ezekiel 1- 4). He taught my brother and me to revere nature’s wondrous creations, including the terrifying-looking but completely harmless New Zealand weta, which we frequently came across in our wood piles.

Love the weta. It’s one of nature’s wonders.

Unruly Toddlers and Time Travel

I grew up in New Zealand surrounded by natural beauty, books, art, trees, exciting ideas and lively family conversations. I loved the measured way Dad read me bedtime stories. He had a beautiful voice – soothing and deep. 

Sometimes his solutions to challenges – particularly regarding the matter of child care – were unusual. Such as the time when he tied my toddler brother to the rotary washing line so he could mow the lawn without interruption. My mother, when she came home from the shops, was furious.  When she recounted that story, she introduced me to the German word: Fachidiot. That’s a highly specialized and qualified someone who trips over his own feet, spills wine over the hostess at social gatherings and forgets to put out the rubbish. Fachidiots are the kind of people who tie toddlers (Dad defended himself by explaining he did give Martin a few feet of rope so he could roam …) to washing lines. 

Despite his approach to childcare which today might land him in a heap of trouble, Dad never shied away from my frequent impossible-to answer questions, those childhood ‘whys?’ When I asked him once if it would be possible to time travel, he simply said that perhaps one day, but it would take an extraordinary amount of energy.

Energy, of course, was his specialty. An advocate of clean, green energy way before it was a big thing, his work as a geophysicist took the family from Taupo – the steamy geothermal heart of New Zealand – to Mexico City and New York.

His favourite photo – at work, surrounded by geothermal steam in Wairakei, New Zealand.

Fiery Fumaroles

In Mexico, he once accompanied a group of fellow geophysicists to Los Humeros, a volcanically active area where they named the fumaroles after their daughters. So, somewhere in Mexico, there’s a fumarole (a hole in the earth emitting hot sulphurous gases) named Ingrid.  Aside from the troublesome affiliation between females and fumaroles (I suspect this was Latino machismo at play), he always made me feel special. And he revered and adored my mother. She was as fiery as he was calm. As social as he was quiet.

My brother and I grew up in a loving family where our parents were different, but equal. When Dad’s work for the United Nations took us to New York City, I attended the United Nations International School – a place of myriad nationalities – all different but equal. What a wonderful school. What an astonishing, enriching experience.  This was all thanks to a restless father never content with the nine-to-five business. He wanted to change the world through science.  Make it a better, more peaceful and enlightened place. Science was not his job, but his calling.

Geophysicists at work – there’s nothing quite as scientific as a sniff test.

The Full Works

Calm and rational, he wasn’t one for outbursts, yet I’ll never forget the time he discovered I’d been smoking in my bedroom. Bristling over breakfast, the following morning he told me firmly, in a controlled geyser of fury, that he would not tolerate such a disgusting, unhealthy habit. His words stayed with me and I have never been a smoker.

Another day when I was fifteen and weeping over some boy, he told me I must always be independent. That’s another piece of wisdom that has stayed with me. His head ruled his heart and he taught me to do the same; to think before acting, consider different perspectives and independently investigate the truth.

He was a quiet man, but when he blew his nose, sparrows fled from the surrounding trees. At night, his snores shook the windows. He even looked like a scientist, with a magnificent head of unruly black, wavy curls that refused to obey the laws of physics. Until he needed a passport photo. Then, the scissors – attached to my mother – came out.

My mother tamed his unruly black curls for this passport photo.

When he left his job at the UN and we returned to New Zealand, he brought with him one of the very first computers – an extortionately expensive Hewlett Packard slightly larger than a typewriter. With a small blue screen, the size of a scotch finger, it grunted, beeped, squeaked and, when he fed it cash register rolls, spat out reams of squiggles that sent him into scientific raptures. My mother was one of the world’s first computer widows, neglected by a husband who spent hours in his office seduced by the siren call of that beguiling contraption.

With his frequently distracted, absent-minded air, he wasn’t someone prone to glib commentary or superficial social chit chat. If you asked him a question, you got the full, considered works in his reply.

He was also an enthusiastic demonstrator of nature’s powers, once introducing my brother and me to static electricity by sitting near a heater and vigorously stroking our cat’s fur before earthing him on the carpet. Despite the crackles, sparks and hisses, the cat always came back for more – those electric shocks a small price to pay for the warm lap and enthusiastic strokes of that gentle geophysicist.

A Real Man

John Banwell’s mind never stopped inquiring. In the days before he passed away from a sudden coronary thrombosis, he was conducting solar energy experiments in the family garden, using tin cans, wires, and a collection of other mysterious cobbled-together instruments, neatly recording the results in a notebook.  

I remember always feeling encouraged. Respected. Loved. Never judged. He never, never, made me feel less for being female. I thought this was the way the world worked. But back in the nineteen seventies and eighties, as a young woman, I stepped into a very different landscape. After taking his paternal nourishment for granted, I entered a world where women were often looked down on, bullied, disrespected, exploited, oppressed, stalked, taunted and harassed. It was a rude shock.

Over forty years later, it seems astonishing that so little has changed. Navigating this world is still a challenge for many women.

So, I want to also pay tribute here to the fathers in the world who encourage their daughters to be self-respecting and independent, the men who set fine examples of manhood to their sons. Being a real man means being brave enough to be gentle and loving, open-minded, empathetic, respectful and encouraging. Being a real man means being a man like my father, John Banwell.

Thank you, Dad, for all your love and all your gifts. Happy 113th Birthday.

Thank you for those precious 25 years. I couldn’t have wished for, or dreamed of, a more perfect father. Your love, warmth and encouragement remain an inner fortress lit by a never-ending glow. You were and always will be, a treasure.  

Feminist Lip Service

Recently, a man I personally know is a serial abuser of women posted a picture of himself on Instagram holding a sign that proclaimed his support for gender equality.

Tempted to write ‘hilarious’ in the comments section, I decided instead to take a more nuanced approach. I chose – as many women do after going through experiences of abuse – to not identify him. For one thing, being on the pointy end of his wrath would not be pretty.

For another, (and a part of me attributes this to the same gullibility that sucks people into these fabulists’ worlds in the first place) I think, or hope, he might have changed. It’s doubtful. The rational side of me is well aware the creature in that Instagram post is one shaped by the observer. What we see is a mirror in which our own desires are reflected back at us. Dig deeper and we find – like the quantum physicist researching the subatomic realm – something that makes no sense and is mostly empty space.

Fishing and Fairy Tales

Social media is of course, a pretender’s paradise. It’s a fabulous place for fabulists to pay lip service to the zeitgeist, hop on the bandwagon and wave that bright banner of solidarity. And dating apps brimming with an infinite supply of women looking for the fairy tale are all perfect fishing spots for liars, fakers and other predators to reel in their victims with the heroic, affluent and successful masculinity narrative.

After finishing Fake – Stephanie Woods’ beautifully written, candid and well researched book about narcissistic sociopaths and after watching the recent slew of news stories about abuse of women in Australian parliament I’m experiencing a nauseating whiff of familiarity. This has all happened before.

Actually no, you don’t.

I come from a generation that grew up accepting harassment as part of the whole business of being a woman in a male-dominated world. What I see, sadly, is that over the past forty years, not much has changed. These days, abusers with a bit of guile still know how to say the right things to succeed in business or politics, get laid, or prove their previous girlfriend was a psycho. And those platitude-flashers – often no more feminist than I am a fruit bat – use this current national conversation around women’s rights to varnish their social media profiles.

The Bigger Picture

So why are we still falling for this garbage? And why are an alarming number of men still behaving this way?

In this world where we don’t know what to believe anymore, part of the problem with those false masculinity narratives is guidance from the top, from the supposed example-setters. Just as with those feminist platitude-flashers, it’s easy for politicians to pay lip service to social and ideological movements, to say the right words and appear to be doing the right things.

As Barbara Ehrenreich in her splendid book Living with a Wild God says (attributed to monotheistic religions but no less relevant to patriarchal governance): we conflate authority with benevolence, and hierarchy with justice.

I’m convinced nothing will change until we transform the bigger picture. We need to utterly change the way we do business. And I mean radical change – a complete upheaval of the current power paradigm.

That’s because women are still fighting a losing battle in an overwhelmingly masculine system of competition and conquest. We still live in a world where compassion and a moral core are encumbrances standing in the way of power and profit. For millennia humanity has been all bent out of shape by this disconnection with nature and disrespect for our deeper, gentler, wiser, selves.

Misogyny Land

An American friend recently commented that Australia – particularly compared with its smaller more progressive neighbour New Zealand – seems to be a particularly misogynist nation. Indeed. Just look how Australia treated Julia Gillard, our first and only female Prime Minister. Oh, the shame. I would add that pathological lying, derailing and undermining– common strategies of the narcissistic sociopath and social media faker – are also common practices in our parliamentary system. Just like those online fabulists, so many men in governance lie, dodge, slither and procrastinate inside that fossilized fossil-fueled, testosterone-fest that is the boxing ring of politics.

What example is such a culture setting for a younger generation of men? And who profits from this current system? It sure isn’t women. And certainly not Mother Nature. Despite, for instance, science and logic (thank you, sexist Aristotle) being an essentially masculine construct, many global political and business leaders are still turning their backs on the science of climate change because it doesn’t suit their agendas or their ideologies of power.

Lessons from a Pandemic

Globally, climate change and toxic manhood are intertwined. There’s a link between Australia’s poor record in dealing with the climate crisis and its treatment of women. Our government is still behaving – on a collective level – like that Instagram platitude-flasher and those fraudsters outed in Fake.

Our system lacks a moral core. Our system lacks femininity.

Surely what Covid19 has laid bare is we need to live on this planet differently. Surely the obvious message of a pandemic that evolved from our disregard for wildlife and the environment and so fatally spread because of the willful negligence of certain men in power (I’m pointing at you, President of Brazil Jair ‘it’s just a little flu’ Bolsonaro) is that our current habits and mindsets are unsustainable.

Shaping the Narrative

So, once more, it all comes back to women. Men need to see their wives, sisters, daughters and mothers standing up for themselves, using the right language, being kind and supportive to those who sincerely believe in equal rights. We need less corralling and conquering of nature (and women) and more cooperation and respect. We must all regard femininity not as a handicap, but as a power. We must encourage the good men in our lives to regard their gentleness and sensitivity not as a weakness but a strength.

Finally, a social media picture may tell a thousand lies, but used effectively, social media is also a power tool.  So, let’s take the hedge trimmer of gender equality to those sprouting weeds of hypocrisy, change the narratives and shape our world into something more curvaceous and feminine. As a closet optimist, I like to think we’re gradually getting there, but I suspect it will be a lot slower than some of us would like. Shapely and mature topiary takes time. In the meantime, brace yourselves for a great deal more lip service.

Men of Earth

With the painful and necessary conversations Australia is currently having around sexual politics, International Women’s Day feels like a good day to post this cover painting for my latest book: ‘Men of Earth.’

The rebellious offspring of the Handmaid’s Tale and the Stepford Wives, it’s a story about how men treat women and how women want to be treated.  Of course, being a work of fiction, it’s not a diatribe, but a metaphysical thriller with a hefty dose of reality.

Thank you to my first test readers – your feedback has been wonderful.

Just a bit more editing and final readability tests before it’s ready to be seen…

#IWD2021

#ChoosetoChallenge

Men of Earth

Crazy Cat People

As far as the writer and philosopher John Berger is concerned,  animals are household gods. How could any pet lover disagree?

I wrote this reflection on the misgivings and metaphysics of pedigree pet ownership after it dawned on me that I was indeed our cat’s humble servant.

A household god? Me?

My apologies for ignoring the dog. One day he will get his own two thousand words.

Confessions of a Cat Custodian

When the cat pram arrived – a loud, bright-red affair complete with coffee-cup holder – I cringed. ‘The neighbours will think we’re crazy,’ I muttered as my then twenty-one-year-old daughter gleefully unpacked and assembled that outrageously indulgent pet accessory.

The pram topped other cat paraphernalia Francesca purchased over the years – a bumblebee suit, a hat in the shape of a shark’s fin, a mermaid tail, a pink lace dress. Miso – our indoor Birman cat – hated them all.

As I watched, I cursed those predatory online stores that enticed gullible people with cheap, colourful crap. I should have been a firmer parent, but now, it was too late. By this point, Francesca had a job and her own income. It occurred to me not only had I failed to educate my daughter about money management, I was enabling animal abuse.

‘He’s going to love it,’ Francesca cooed as she squeezed Miso into a harness that matched the colour of his eyes.

I sighed, knowing she wanted to show him off. Miso is a very good-looking cat. He has long silky white hair with chocolate-tips on his ears, legs, face and tail. He has white paws – as if he’s wearing ankle socks. Topping all this off, are eyes the iridescent, mystical blue of a distant galaxy. Birmans – the Sacred Cats of Burma – are thought to have originated in the temples of Burma and are accorded special treatment as they are believed to be reincarnations of Burmese priests.

While Miso does have an air of the divine about him, he can also look as if he is plotting to kill you. And there were times – like the pram debacle – when I didn’t blame him.

This household god may be plotting to kill you.

My eyes watered as Miso finally settled into that pram with the resigned air of one of those meditating Burmese priests. This was animal indulgence carried a step too far. Humanity – and my family in particular – had lost its grip on reality.

It turns out, however, when it comes to going loopy over our pets, the Japanese are masters. Pushing one’s pet around in a pram is de rigueur for Japanese urbanites, as is dressing them up in designer outfits, giving them expensive grooms and gourmet food. Considered family members, pets’ well-being is enshrined in a Japanese law which recognises the special status of any animal homed by humans. Thanks to beliefs that go back to folklore and Shintoism the Japanese believe animals (in particular companion animals) inhabit the same spiritual plane as humans.

As I watched Francesca depart with Miso like a handmaiden serving some god in his gleaming chariot (no way was I going with her – this was her personal crazy), I wondered: How had this happened? When did we transform pets into such overbred, luxury lifestyle accessories?

I grew up with semi-feral cats – unvaccinated, unneutered creatures – that mated rowdily and reproduced prolifically in our sprawling suburban garden. In our woodshed, I watched a cat give birth. This was before the feline parvovirus vaccine, when many kittens died of what we called back then ‘cat fever’. The cats that survived were tough, independent, flea-ridden, and snarky. My parents had an unspoken respect for our pets’ animal wildness. At a certain point, Mother Nature ran her course. When my father placed my favourite kitten Sylvia – erased too soon from the book of life by that virus – on a pyre of burning garden rubbish, I watched in frozen sorrow as she transmuted into smoke, flames and ashes. Pets were part of my induction into the unfathomable mysteries of the natural world.

With Australian laws now requiring owners to neuter and register our pets, over the years I have witnessed pet ownership metamorphose into something more akin to over-protective parenting. Along with a plea from the breeder to keep him indoors at all times, Miso arrived in our home with registration papers, a pedigree certificate listing parents with exotic, dreamy names and a detailed family tree that put Ancestry.com to shame. Having no say in his individual rights, he was also microchipped.

Thirty years ago, I would have regarded all this as absurd extravagance. Yet according to an Animal Medicines Australia study, last year, Australian households spent 13 billion on pet-related products and services. And somewhere in those figures are the costs of special scientifically-concocted foods for hairy indoor cats, catnip mice, tunnels, feather-duster toys and prams for cats like Miso.

An hour after Francesca set off to cruise our Sydney neighborhood with Miso, she returned, her eyes radiant. Passers-by stopped and swooned, she told me. They took photos to post on Instagram and Facebook. Our cat was now a local celebrity.

The Dysfunctional Cat

I confess, I had hoped Francesca’s outing would serve up a lukewarm dish of natural justice. Or result in a smite from Mother Nature’s cosmic light sabre. Perhaps Miso might express his disgust by scratching her with his syringe-sharp claws or defaecating in his pram. Instead, it was one of my reaping what you sow moments. I had, after all, started off this chocolate-tipped snowball-roll by owning an exotically handsome cat. In purchasing and incarcerating Miso, I had contributed to the whole inbreeding and anthropomorphism debacles animal welfare organisations like PETA and the RSPCA loathe.

This wasn’t even my first crime against feline nature. Once, I had been a prison-guard for cats that had never felt the wind’s breath tease their whiskers or munched on a blade of grass. When I lived in New York, I regularly cat-sat, looking after a variety of neurotic, cantankerous, calculating and dysfunctional cats who were as complex as their New York owners. In one apartment, I was given a water pistol and told to fire when the cat tried to wake me up at dawn by knocking over everything on the bedside table. The owners of a pathologically shy cat warned me that if I had visitors, the cat would vengefully defecate in the middle of the living room carpet while I slept. I did have visitors and, as promised, the cat deployed. All those cats lived indoors. Some – like their owners – regularly visited psychiatrists.

Warily, I watched Francesca unhitch Miso from the pram. Was he traumatised by this outing? Were we denying Miso the freedom to be his wild animal self? Had he enjoyed this outing or would we soon be paying a small fortune for a pet psychiatrist?

Miso, free from his restraints, strolled into a pool of sunlit carpet, stretched, and preened. ‘See? He’s happy,’ Francesca said. ‘He had a wonderful time.’

‘He’s relieved to be home,’ I snapped.

I would not be complicit in any form of animal abuse. I wanted to ensure Miso was happy going on these walks.

‘Next time, I want to go with you,’ I announced.

We set off the next day with our pet-on-wheels. Miso leaned forward, his front paw dangling from the pram as if he were a playboy in his convertible.


Reincarnated Burmese priest and wildlife killer.

It occurred to me all he needed to look completely cool was a pair of kitty sunglasses. I said nothing.

Half-way up the street, our neighbour Janet was trimming her front hedge. Janet detests cats. Wildlife killers, she calls them.

Janet’s gaze dropped to Miso in his pram.

 My insides squirmed. ‘We’re crazy cat people,’ I explained.

Janet sneered. ‘If I see you at the shops with that…’ She pointed her clippers at cat and pram. ‘…I’m going to pretend I don’t know you.’

‘I’ll wave at you,’ I replied, avoiding her irradiating gaze. 

I could almost hear her thoughts as we walked away. Oh, you shallow morons! Paying good money for a killer! Treating it like a baby! What are you? The cat’s slaves?

The Anthropomorphic Cat

My insides a maelstrom of defiant shame, I wondered if I was not only a bad parent, but a bad pet-parent. It occurred to me that while we raise our children to be independent, our pets remain dependent until the day they die. If humanity suddenly vanished, wildlife would return and thrive but pure-bred, incarcerated Miso wouldn’t even know how to nudge open the toilet lid to get a drink. Miso – who had only hunted the occasional cockroach or fly rendered sluggish by insecticide – would die of thirst and starve.

Amidst these inner flagellations, I kept my eye glued to Miso for signs of cat misery. I saw the treetops and sky reflected in his gemstone eyes. His nose twitched as the wind ruffled through his whiskers. His ears rotated towards the bird songs.

My thoughts see-sawed as we walked. At least, like those Japanese animal-loving Buddhists, we respected living things. At least we weren’t like the Ancient Egyptians who bred orange cats to sacrifice to Ra – their sun god. Humankind had moved on since those superstitiously ignorant times. My daughter, my cat and I were inhabitants of a more sophisticated, informed and scientifically savvy era.

Across the road, an elderly man gawped. Then again, was our cat a sacrifice to the gods of excessive consumption, gene-tinkering and ridiculous cat fashion?

was our cat a sacrifice to the gods of excessive consumption, gene-tinkering and ridiculous cat fashion?

The wind rippled through Miso’s fur. He looked radiant and dashing – the perfect picture for a kitty calendar.

The perfect candidate for a kitty calendar

Wild or tame? Couldn’t Miso be both?

I decided then we were responsible custodians of a purpose-bred, superior cat. The Japanese – with their animal spirits – worshipped and respected their pets. Miso represented progress.

I took a deep breath and held my head high as we turned towards the main road.

A passing car tooted. Another car slowed. The driver stared, ignoring the pedestrian crossing ahead. In my mind’s eye, I saw a headline: Cat in Red Pram causes Fatal Traffic Accident.

The Paradox of Miso

By the time we arrived at our local square I was harbouring a new set of doubts. We were idiots. We were infantilising an animal whose wild ancestors once roamed the mountains, plains and forests. Plus, we were a threat to road safety.

A delighted squeal shattered my plummeting thoughts. A group of women ogled Miso.

‘Oooh! How cute!’

And so, it began. We chatted to doting strangers. A toddler sang Miso a song. A friendly dog inspected him. When a grim-looking couple – the woman in a wheelchair – saw Miso, their eyes lit up. Laughing, they gave him strokes and cuddles.

Through all this, Miso – our reincarnated Burmese priest – maintained an air of gracious and accepting calm.

Pondering the healing power of animals, re-setting my wobbling moral compass, we sat at an outdoor table at our local cafe. 

When the food came, Miso eyed the bacon on my Eggs Benedict and the yoghurt on Francesca’s blueberry pancakes. In a moment of collapsed resistance, I gave him a sliver of bacon. Francesca took my cue and offered him some yoghurt.

Assailed by another stab of darkness, glimpsing this ridiculous scene from a distance, I considered how I had sunk another level down the anthropomorphism wellhole. At the very least, explosive cat diarrhea would be my punishment.

Just as swiftly, my qualms evaporated. Gazing into Miso’s fathomless galaxy eyes, past and future compressed into a singularity of spacetime. This child who had lost pets from car accidents, poisonings and infections was now a woman sitting with her own daughter at a café with a vaccinated, parasite-protected cat happily dining in a red pram. And, a year from now, Francesca – studying animal law and feeding the stray cats on her university campus – would volunteer at a Peruvian wildlife refuge on the edge of the Amazon rainforest.

In that Zen moment of calm, with rashers of bacon digesting in my stomach, I embraced the paradox of Miso.

The paradox

Looking at our harnessed, pram-bound pet contentedly licking yoghurt off his lips, I decided he was the luckiest cat in the world.

On our way home, Francesca took Miso out of his pram. After a stroll on his lead, after rolling in a patch of sunlight, he settled onto a seat under some frangipanis and star jasmine.

Paws crossed, his fur spread about him like a celestial robe, I saw the world’s secrets embroidered into his eyes.

He looked mysterious. Wise. Like Buddha under the Bodhi tree.

‘He’s having fun,’ I confessed.

After regarding me with a triumphant smile, Francesca photographed Miso and posted his portrait on Instagram.

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CAPSULES OF COURAGE

A few weeks ago, I visited a place in Canada called Lynn Canyon. A short bus ride from Vancouver, it’s a popular tourist spot with a suspension bridge, hiking trails, waterfalls and swimming holes surrounded by temperate rainforest.

Lynn Canyon is full of signs warning people not to jump into the inviting water pools in the chasms below.

Clearly these signs are written for hot summer tourists with impulse management issues. Yet, surrounded by all that fragrant forest beauty, one sign made me pause for thought.

‘Your fear is smarter than you.’

In a world of short concentration spans, I appreciate we are guided by such simple aphorisms, but I longed to argue with the writer of that sign.

Because sometimes I have found fear is an obstacle.

Sometimes your fear is dumber than you.

And perhaps the most insidious fear of all is fear of the unknown. Fear of the unknown can lead to insularity, superstition and prejudice. It can shut down our brains.

For millennia, fear of the unknown, along with its Siamese twin ignorance, have been exploited by clergies, governments and tyrants to oppress people, isolate entire communities and countries and justify all kinds of heinous crimes.

So how do we counter this very human tendency to retreat from things we don’t understand? How do we fight that fear than can swamp our bodies and brains when we encounter something new, confronting and different?

Reading is a good start. Information is a slayer of ignorance. So, incidentally is fiction. A good story with empathetic characters in challenging situations can capture profound truths about the human condition.

Acts of courage regularly triumph over fear.  We just don’t read about these quietly heroic deeds very often because most of us, including yours truly, are addicted to our regular fixes of drama, bad news and scandal.

In the stories below, names and details in have been changed to protect the identities of the protagonists. Except where they don’t.

 

A MAGICAL TEACUP

 

The world may be broken but thank goodness for the superglue of compassion, common sense and courage.

It was mid-morning in an office in Tehran, and Aminda – a temporary employee contracted to do some book keeping – had been invited to join the other workers for morning tea.  In the office kitchen, everyone took a cup from the selection in the cupboard above the sink. Aminda chose a teacup with an attractive floral design. As she pulled the cup from the cupboard a colleague gave the teacup a dark look and vigorously shook his head. ‘You shouldn’t take that one,’ he advised. ‘Return it to the cupboard.’ When she looked perplexed, he leaned in and whispered between his teeth. ‘That cup belongs to Husayn.’ He gestured through the door to a man sitting at his desk working. ‘He’s a Bahá’i.’

Aminda, who, unbeknownst to her colleague, also happened to be a Bahá’i, smiled graciously. ‘In that case she said, ‘I really want this cup. It’s a very nice one and will do just fine.’

After I heard this, similar stories of idiocy, superstition and hostility towards disciples of this benign faith followed.  A young woman told me the story of her Muslim grandmother who separately washed the cups and plates of her daughter’s Bahá’i guests.

In Iranian towns, villages and city streets, people wiped down public phones after they had been used by Bahá’is. Insults were written on doors of Bahá’is and their windows were smashed. Rather than risk physical contact, a teacher poked his Bahá’i students with the eraser end of his pencil.

A café proprietor openly smashed the cups of Bahá’is to placate his Muslim customers. There’s far more – the list is long and astonishing. I have met people fired from their jobs and children expelled from school for being Bahá’i.  In Iran, Bahá’is can’t go to university.  These are not the worst stories. Bahá’is have been imprisoned and killed for following a faith that believes in unity and peace. And this is still going on today.

Many have fled Iran to escape the persecution. Some have ended up in Australia where I have had the pleasure and privilege of meeting them.

The Bahá’i friends I have are some of the most wise, gracious, peaceful, forgiving and dignified people I have ever met. They understand much of this hostility in their home country comes from ignorance fed by fear. They carry many devastating memories with courage and even sometimes, humour.  They miss their families and friends –both Muslims and Bahá’i – but they daren’t go back to Iran while the current government is in power. Yet they bear their oppressors no ill will even though the rumours spread by the government about the Bahá’is are so preposterous they belong in the dark ages.

I will say no more. It makes me too angry. There is no way I would have been able to face all those superstitions with such peace, wisdom and fortitude.

 

For more on this beautiful faith here’s a link:

Home

 

 

TERRIFIED MOTHER VS ENDANGERED WILDLIFE

 

Once a beloved family pet, Flor the Saki monkey was handed over to RAREC in exchange for a pair of shoes, so a little girl could walk to school.

 

In May of 2018, a young Australian woman on a university exchange in Canada searched for ways to fill her summer break. She didn’t want to come home to the Southern Hemisphere. She had a whole world she longed to explore. The challenge was: how to do this all on a budget? As a foreign student, she wasn’t allowed to take on paid work and she wanted to travel.

She decided on a trip to South America but was concerned at the prospect of travelling on her own. Despite asking her friends, she couldn’t find a suitable willing or available travel companion.

Then, one day, a post popped up on her Facebook feed. It was a call for volunteers to help at an animal conservation and refuge centre deep in the heart of Peru on the edge of the Amazon rainforest. Accommodation and meals would be provided in exchange for helping with the management and running of the refuge. The travel cost was cheap. She would be met at Iquitos airport by a member of the centre.

When her mother – back in Australia – heard about her planned trip, a maternal meltdown ensued. Fear reared its ugly head. All the potential pitfalls of travelling to what sounded like the middle of nowhere consumed this mother’s brain. So many things could go wrong! Disease, kidnapping, assault, pythons, deadly spiders, man-eating fish, travel disasters – the list was endless.  And was this Facebook post a scam?

‘Don’t go!’ said her mother. ‘It’s far too dangerous!’

Steadfastness is a close cousin of courage and sometimes, particularly where a parent-child relationship is concerned – this can be construed as stubbornness.

The young woman wasn’t backing down. This was an exciting opportunity and she was going.

Meanwhile, the mother – trying to master her rising fears – did some comprehensive googling.  The organisation seemed legitimate. But still. Peru? South America with all that male machismo, poverty and political unrest? The Australian government’s Smartraveller website confirmed her worst fears. ‘Exercise a high degree of caution,’ it warned, listing the numerous and terrifying catastrophes of previous travellers.

Still the young woman dug in her heels. She was going. She would be fine. She would be sensible.

More maternal conniptions followed and continued, via Facebook messenger – all the way to Peru – where the young woman was met – as promised – by the owner of the rescue centre. From here she was driven into the depths of Peru to have one of the most transformative experiences of her life.

For two weeks her fretting mother woke to videos and photos of her deliriously happy daughter cuddling orphaned baby monkeys, gathering food for manatees and going for jungle walks with a tame ocelot.

And then, came the finale to this story, the other lesson learned, and the reason why having children is also such a life-transforming experience.

After another day of monkey-hugging and ocelot-schmoozing, mother and daughter spoke over the refuge’s surprisingly good internet connection.

‘Mum,’ she said. ‘I ’m so glad that I didn’t follow your advice.’

The mother was me and that brave, determined young woman was my daughter.

I am now an exuberant supporter and follower of  RAREC (Rainforest Awareness Rescue Education Centre).  I am so touched by their courage and perseverance. The work they do is truly visionary. They understand that to promote animal conservation in an environment plagued by poverty and sometimes ignorance they must educate and offer locals alterative, sustainable ways of making a living. They lobby. They work with the police to try and stop animal poaching – endemic in an area inhabited by so many beautiful, exotic animals. They stand against corporations plundering the rainforest and decimating habitats for profit. It’s a hard job and they constantly need donations and volunteers.

Here’s the link to this amazing organisation. Please help them in whatever way you can. They are doing so much for the animals and our planet.

https://www.facebook.com/RescueParks/

or: https://www.givingway.com/organization/rarec

Thank you, RAREC for not only looking after but also inspiring my daughter. And thank you also for all the wonderful, selfless work you are undertaking to save those beautiful animals.

Hopefully one day, thanks to the kindness, hard work and courage of people who want to protect the planet and help human civilisation progress, instead of followers of beautiful religions and instead of endangered animals, it will be fear and ignorance facing extinction.

Meanwhile no matter how hot it gets, I won’t be jumping into any canyons.

At least not literally.

 

 

 

THE YEAR OF THE TRUE LIE

As we farewell the star-swallowing black hole that was 2016 – a year in which truth took an extended holiday and is currently threatening to permanently depart our little blue planet, do we need to redefine our relationship with reality?

Amid the racket of tweets and soundbites, exhortations and accusations, fact and its close relative truth have flown off with the fairies.  So it comes as no surprise that the Oxford Dictionary has declared ‘post-truth’ as the word of the year. Never mind it’s two words – that’s so post-truth, it’s perfect.

So how do we coax truth and trust back to our watery world?

Through religion? Oh my God. That word is so loaded the martyr’s sword is already at my throat. After all, one person’s profound truth is another’s  fairy tale. Religions, in their various incarnations, have been plagued by lies, corruption and power-plays since the first ape-man looked up to the heavens in wonder.  Our ambivalent relationship with this complex ideology is beautifully summed up words of the 14th century Person mystical poet Hafiz: “The great religions are the ships, the poets the life boats and every sane person I know has jumped overboard.”

man-praying-with-speech-bubble

What about science?  Even this embracer of reason and empiricism is suffering a crisis of epic proportions. This year polls – those supposedly scientific predictors of opinion – have failed. Twice and sensationally. But the current debate over human-influenced climate change must be the biggest clanger.  Despite all that evidence (rising Co2 levels, studies, graphs and expert’s warnings) the deniers, with their political and corporate agendas, are shouting so loud, the sound waves from their cries are enough to dislodge another sheet of ice from a melting glacier.

After all, quietly rising sea levels of evidence are far less sexy than greed and bellicose subjectivity.

So as I sit and steam like a frog in boiling water in record Sydney heat, I can’t help but think we need to completely change our relationship with truth.

If we can’t even trust science where do we turn?  To art, of course.

I predict, as the final nail is hammered into the coffin of 2016, that 2017 will be the Year of the True Lie. Art, after all, is honest in its homage to illusion. It begins as nothing more than a work of imagination. And this is where things get interesting.  Embedded in visual and literary fictions, we often unearth unassailable truths about the world and the human condition. It’s all about perspective.  After all, when we ponder the fathomless mysteries of the universe or look deep into the mind-bending quantum world, we‘re reminded of how we are limited by our perceptions. In the end, we’re forced back to ourselves – our consciousness – the ultimate conductor of reality.

I’m not the first to suggest we may be residing inside some kind of celestial simulacrum.  So. If everything is an illusion, then art is the mirror that reflects this ultimate truth.  Look how entire tracts and moods of history have been captured in a sublime work of art, literature or music. Look at Picasso’s Guernica. Or Goya’s Satan devouring his children. Veils of propaganda, tradition and propriety have been pushed aside to reveal humanity in its darkest moments.

2016, not only the year of post truth, was also the 500th anniversary of the passing Hieronymus Bosch – an artist who depicted the corruptions of the clergy through his weird and wonderful paintings. History is filled with master illusionists distilling the reality of the human condition. Art  after all, captures truths we have yet to fathom.

And in this past Year of the Lie, I’ve discovered some glowing illusionistic stars. I’m delighted Liane Moriarty’s wonderful novel ‘Big Little Lies’ is being made into a television series. It’s a masterful study of the lies we not only tell others, but ourselves.

For really frightening reading, there’s Ian Leslie’s ‘Born Liars’ –  a book driven by the premise that humanity has conquered the planet because we have evolved into masters of self-deceit.

Then there’s the fabulous movie ‘Arrival’ – which examines how language shapes our perception of time and reality. And ‘The Light Between Oceans’ – a beautiful, heart-breaking book by M L Stedman and now an excellent movie – shows us how sometimes right and wrong can look exactly the same.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that in troubled times, people turn to fantasy.  In 2017 there will be so much political crap flying out of the global fan that many who can afford to do so (and many who can’t) will retreat into illusion.

So 2017 will be a year to look to art as the ultimate purveyor of truth. The Year of the True Lie. A year in which we must confront the fictions of our own existence through monumental escapism –imagined journeys to exotic foreign worlds where we must prise open our minds,  shatter and then mend our broken hearts. All from the safety of our couches.

And thanks to these fictions, 2017 will be a year in which we turn back towards the truth. And hopefully do something real to build the world of our dreams.

A CHRISTMAS MEDICAL MYSTERY

Hello, my name is Ziggy and I have ataxia. If you see me walk, you will think I’ve been hitting the Christmas egg nog. That’s because I have congenital cerebellar disease, which affects the balance and coordination part of my brain.

ziggy-christmas

This turn of events has also affected the equilibrium in my owner’s brain. I’ve recently watched her tear at her hair and shout: “WTF! This is my first dog! I prepared for this puppy! I researched and googled! I choose a breed known for its good health!”

Instead, she got me. Diagnosed last week with this rare, untreatable neurological condition which may or may not get worse.

Now, I may have cerebellar disease but I’m still a supreme mood reader. I can feel hearts squeeze every time I fall. Although for me, stumbling, tripping over my feet and skidding on wooden floors seems perfectly normal, my charming puppy clumsiness is now a sign of a serious condition with an unknown prognosis. Ah, knowledge can be painful!

Personally, I think there’s a lesson here for my owner.  Life can sometimes be a bad Santa who brings crappy, unwanted gifts. So I’m here to teach her acceptance.  I’m here to remind her we can’t control everything.  After all, randomness is built into the very fabric of existence.

In other words, shit happens.

Sadly, my owner – being human with a tendency to over-think and let her imagination run off with the fairies – is still seeking an explanation for the cause of my illness.

Was it that time during renovations when I fleetingly chewed on an arsenic-infused chunk of wood?

Or was it that piece of really, really, smelly poop I once ate?

Then, there’s this doozey: Perhaps I’m a reincarnation of a Soldier of the Third Reich, my imperfect goose-stepping walk (characteristic of this illness) not only a reflection of the eternal life of the soul but also clear evidence  the universe, in all its wisdom, understands the transformative power of irony and poetic justice. Either that or there’s a deity out there with a warped sense of humour.

I prefer to simply see life as a balancing act. And if there is one thing that is certain in this world; it’s uncertainty.  May I add, all this unpredictability is no excuse to lie on our backs, expose our tummies for a rub and yield to complacency.  No. There are still some things we can change.  So.  A moment for practicalities, please.

We little dog-animals are bloody hard work. So no giving of puppies for Christmas.

I am also a glowing example of the importance of pet insurance. Diagnosing my condition ( X-rays, blood and fluid tests, an MRI scan and specialist consultations),  has cost a small fortune.

On the bright side, to compensate for my awkwardness, I’m strong. Really strong. Just try and pull me away from some fabulously interesting smell. I can still jump insanely high and when I run, I’m like someone with a speech impediment who sings like a star.

Plus, there’s one thing of which I am certain.  I know what makes the world turn, the oceans stir and the stars come out at night. I know I’m wildly loved. I know my family will be beside me on this journey and pick me up when I fall.  I know they will care for me, do all they can to make sure I live out a happy life, no matter how brief that life might be.

After all, who among us knows how long we have in this wonderful world?

So look into my eyes and succumb to the enchantment. Smile, poke out your tongue and drool. Happy Christmas. And I hope you like my hat.

THINGS THAT MAKE MY BLOOD BOIL – EPISODE TWO – Putting the Green Squeeze on Big Business Bastardry

The other day I visited a new local enterprise called Juiced Life and chatted to the owner as she made me a freshly squeezed juice. When she gave me the drink in a very attractive glass bottle, I asked her if I could return with the bottle and re-use it. No, she said. It’s against the law.

She told me (rather sadly, may I add) Juiced Life’s original business model was one where customers would buy the juice in a branded bottle, then return it for their next drink. It makes sense doesn’t it? Fewer bottles in landfills, less overheads and energy wasted on recycling. She explained they even had a bottle cleaning machine on the premises ready to make sure the returned bottles were thoroughly cleaned.

Alas, legislation here in New South Wales forbids such environmentally responsible initiatives.

Outraged at such irrational,  small-business-crushing legislation, energised after my deliciously nutritious drink, I stormed home and googled.

My first guess as I searched for answers was this nutty law had something to do with the nanny state and potential litigation. If a bottle isn’t clean and a customer gets sick, someone can be sued.  Yet when I dug further, it turned out the beverage and packaging industries have lobbied to curtail any changes to current legislation.

We all know how this parable ends.
We all know how this parable ends.

Before I say more, here’s  a link to a related piece of research on the topic from The Conversation.

http://theconversation.com/spin-the-bottle-the-fraught-politics-of-container-deposit-schemes-37981

Here’s an excerpt that made my juices curdle:

The beverage and packaging industry have, over the years, provided modest funding for litter-reduction campaigns or initiatives to reduce packaging, in exchange for governments resisting calls to introduce a system which puts responsibility for recycling cans and bottles on the companies that make them.

So where does this leave a small business that does want to take responsibility for their packaging? Breaking the law, apparently.

Many small businesses run on the smell of an oily rag and owners often work hours that would have employees screaming exploitation and racing to their unions or the Human Rights Commission.  So, short of spending vast amounts of time and energy fighting for change, there’s not a lot a small business owner can do except adapt to current legislation, which is what Juiced Life has been driven to do.

But there’s hope. Consumer demand is the force for change. Consumers have the power to put the squeeze on those bloated, self-serving manufacturers of preservative-riddled, tooth-rotting, chemical-infused beverages in non-recyclable packaging by refusing to buy their products. By buying natural and local, making responsible and informed choices and supporting small business, consumers can make a huge difference. Because didn’t someone important once say the meek shall inherit the earth?

After all, look what happened to Goliath.

David chats and beheads Goliath

THINGS THAT MAKE MY BLOOD BOIL – EPISODE ONE – Invasion of the Thought Parasites

I wrote the following piece a while ago in a moment of fury and decided not to post it. Now I’ve read it, I’m fuming all over again. So here’s it is…

The situation involved an already hot and humid Sydney summer morning, a stressed man and a willful puppy. I’d just crossed a busy road on the way to work when the aforementioned puppy escaped its lead and bolted. Too overwhelmed to give chase, the man previously attached to the puppy suffered a medical episode and collapsed on the sidewalk.

Strangers appeared everywhere to help and comfort him as he writhed in pain and gasped for breath. A man ran down the road and retrieved the escaped puppy.  Another called an ambulance.

I sat with him and held his hand as we waited for the ambulance. More people came and stayed to make sure he was OK. Then, a woman arrived and pushed her way into the gathered crowd. She knelt beside him and said: “Now. Let’s pray to God for help.”

To some of you, this may seem a harmless response to a person in distress, but my first thought was one of shock and affront followed by an intense urge to shout at her and say: HOW DARE YOU ASSUME THIS MAN BELIEVES IN GOD!

I have to admit to feeling so angry, I wanted to tell her to sod off. To assume a stranger follows a particular brand of belief is, to me, a massive act of arrogance. To impose one’s ideology on someone in this way in a moment of need is to me, both deeply inappropriate and offensive.

While your defences are down I will infect you with my doctrines
While your defenses are down, I will infect you with my doctrines

Look, I know she had good intentions, but her gesture came across as massively rude. All I saw that morning was an opportunistic bully attempting to cajole a stranger who could barely speak into muttering utterances to her dogmatic version of the unknown. This woman was applying the heat of religious indoctrination when all that man needed, until medical help arrived, was warmth and compassion.

Aware this was neither the time nor the place for an argument over matters of theology, I held my tongue. Thankfully, as this happened near a fire station, a fire engine arrived and began to minister practical help to this distressed soul and rescue him from that fevered evangelist.

On that steamy Sydney footpath, there were two fires that needed extinguishing that morning – the flames of that woman’s righteousness and my own smoldering indignation. So. Thank God for the fire service.

THE LOSS OF LUNA

On Tuesday Luna – our beloved Chocolate Burmese cat – suddenly passed away.

Just before the deploying of the 'don't humiliate me' bite.
Just before the deploying of the ‘don’t humiliate me’ bite.

Although I’ve lost cats before, the children grew up with him and have known him as long as they can remember.  Most of us have, at some point in our lives, lost a beloved pet, but it’s particularly hard on children, and often their first experience of grief and loss.

As well as being a shock as painful as a punch in the gut, an unexpected loss like this is also a sage reminder of how fragile and fleeting life is and how it can all change in an instant.

Yet what Luna taught us about unconditional love has been priceless. Despite the heartbreak, knowing and loving him, watching him grow from full-on kitten into occasionally sedate senior has transformed us. A cat with a huge personality and a bottomless capacity for love, every day, he made us happy. Now, we smile at all those memories.

For Luna, it’s now cat heaven with no more painful bouts of pancreatitis, or humiliations being dressed up in silly Christmas hats or monthly flea treatments or the poking and indignities of rectal thermometers at the vets.

Being a pragmatic sentimentalist, it’s worth listing here, the things I, as primary cat-caregiver, won’t miss:

  • The litterbox cleaning.
  • The cat puke surprises I’d find on the carpets or down the backs of couches.
  • The gifts of fleas collected in the garden.
  • The occasional dismembered cockroach delivered to a bed in the middle of the night.

Nothing of course, compares with what we will all miss.

  • That Burmese meow which sounds like a tortured peacock.
  • That furry bundle that was always somewhere – sleeping on a bed, a couch, a chair or stretched out in bliss on the deck in the sun.
  • The tinkle of his collar and the shrieks of the myna birds that heralded his return from his territorial inspections.
  • The sudden shake of the bed in the middle of the night as he arrived or departed on one of his bed-hopping sprees.
  • The beautiful sight of him snuggled up next to a sleeping child.
  • The cuddles, the purrs and leg-rubs and that cat-smile that was one part smug, nine parts bliss.

So much about life is choosing how we react to the curve-balls it throws at us; how we approach love and process its inevitable sorrows. This wonderful article on resilience says it all.

http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/the-secret-formula-for-resilience?mbid=social_facebook

Finally, here’s to thirteen years of love with a cat so special, he must have been made just for us. What a Chocolate Burmese ride.  Thank you Luna for everything.