Month: April 2016

“What a piece of work is a man!”

An effective tool to counteract the onset of tedium induced by the interminable routine of work is to think of oneself as being an actor on stage. Ultimately it is all entertainment that is short-lived; this relieves one of the burden of taking oneself too seriously. Like life, the nature of work is full of contradictions. It is while doing what we loathe that we understand what we enjoy and even as we pursue what we love we encounter moments of dreariness where we hate the activity. Wittgenstein suggests that when we think we are exploring ideas we are really only exploring the language that represents the ideas. Since language, as the construction material of understanding, hovers between the negative and positive poles of binary opposites, we should not be surprised that life mirrors this perpetual tension.
Perhaps we have become addicted to pleasure and chase the ‘happy’ fix as a by-product of particular action or thought. Pleasure is not happiness and expecting life or work to offer a consistent flow of happiness is a fantasy, like trying to attain the never-ending orgasm. We need to experience the tension between loving and hating to settle into contentment where acceptance of both generates balance. The workplace offers us this tension in abundance and becomes the testing ground of our personal philosophies and belief systems. As emotional beings it is no wonder that we seek pleasure over pain. However, we are also rational beings and this is the space where we process the needs of our work and deliver the goods.
The industrial revolution introduced the era of technology, of systems and production that threatens to transform humankind into units of labour and consumption. It mechanized war and initiated medical breakthroughs which have contributed to increased longevity. Despite increased health and leisure time we appear to be more depressed than ever before. We hate work and in a manner befitting the twenty first century, are consuming our way to happiness with fanatical frenzy. Edwin Brock’s poem “Five ways to kill a man” remains an apt reflection of the human condition. In the poem he concludes that the simplest way to kill a man is “to see that he is living somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, and leave him there.” The dehumanizing effect of the modern world is a central feature of our art and literature. It is why we still need to come to terms with the notion of work and its impact in our theatre of being.
The prospect of a lifetime of a daily routine to and from work terrified me as a young man and it induced a crisis of being in my early 20’s. The anticipation of being bound to a lifetime of tedium seemed like suicide by slow ordeal. Overcome with hopelessness and growing despair I began searching for meaning within the perpetual slog of repetitive daily routine. I discovered Camus, Leonard Cohen and resilience. My work, engaging young minds in a classroom was fulfilling, but beyond the classroom the rigid regulation bound world of school systems was an internal corrosive. I felt little more than a bureaucratic cog in an immense sausage machine tasked with churning out productive, law abiding citizens who would in turn feed the system ad nauseam.
An event in my first year of teaching illustrates my growing sense of isolation in the school system. Walking along a corridor I came across a year 12 student standing and facing the red brick wall outside a classroom. His nose nearly touched the wall. I suspected he was the subject of Calvinist rehabilitation (corporal punishment was regarded an essential aspect of education then). I paused and shuffled up next to him to stare at the wall,
“OK, I’m looking but I don’t get it?” I said.
“I left my homework at home.” He replied.
“And you hope to find it here?”
He chuckled, “ma’am (female teachers were addressed as ma’am) told me to stand here like this.”
“I suppose it’s better than being inside” I said. We both laughed, too loud. The classroom door opened and the diminutive but steely tyrant stared me down, sneered, sniffed dismissively and shut the door. In that instant I was no longer a colleague but a bumbling school boy. Embarrassed and confused by the situation and my own response, or lack thereof, I slunk away like a child.
It was a seminal moment that began to shape my attitude to work. I felt like a failed court jester and knew I could never expect the system to nurture or support me beyond the meagre salary it provided. Fulfilment at work would depend less on the work being done and more on my frame of mind while doing it. “I work for myself” became my mantra rules became a rough guide secondary to creativity and fun. I wanted to generate enthusiasm and curiosity and have students look forward to getting to class, as much for myself as for them. I admitted ignorance to my students, I could be honest and debates were commonplace; students were learning and I was having fun at work. Later that year we first year teachers were being lectured by a teaching veteran, “work at discipline, work hard and work will be easy…”his voice droned on but all I could hear was Hamlet sigh “words, words, words …”.
By Mike Scallan

Continental drift

The ‘Seismic Shuffle’ is a continental dance, it’s an old one and slow – at 2 cm a year one hardly feels one is moving. It’s not a dance we can choose to sit out,  it’s part of a package deal and  comes with no guarantees and limited warranties (eventually we all fall through the cracks anyway). But it packs a punch, cleaving a rock in two on Pangea around 200 million years ago it placed one half in the Alps and the other half in Africa. Continental drift, sounds like it should be a long, lazy Mediterranean cocktail. It belies the gargantuan forces at work beneath the surface. As surface dwellers we generally assume that surface is everything.

I understand continental drift. I have drifted. It’s a slow business, drifting to the invisible force -a “something there is” sort of push. The type that broke down the wall that Robert Frost spoke of mending. To drift is to surrender to the momentum of life. If one is fortunate enough to have control of one’s limbs it is easy to imagine that all movement is conscious, self directed. It is pleasing to oneself to think ‘I did this” or “I did that”. We are  however, carried along by our lives and imagine that the small choices we make direct it, maybe they do? However, I suspect more significant than direction is being ‘there’ when you’re there, whether you’re moving or not.

Ultimately everything moves: the continents, the planet, the solar system, galaxies and the perhaps the cosmos moves too. Movement is no big deal, everyone moves in one way or another, even when we’re not. Can we extract from this the axiom that movement has value?  I stir this cup of tea, ergo I control the direction of my life. Movement is arbitrary and movement is change. One step forward, two back – It’s like waltzing with entropy. I am, therefore I move. Once removed, I was. Therefore, I like to move it, move it …



Dry and cracked mud close to where the bus parks, c.2016 or artist’s impression of Pangea (not to scale).

The Coolgaardie Gallahs

I saw a Magpie Lark doing this strange thing. It was walking around in small circles at the base of a tree with its beak in the soil. I was sitting in my car and this was in a car park with a row of those municipal trees that look like they’re dying, tied with thick rubber bands to a pole on either side of the tree. They make the tree look like its been stuck there as a punishment. The Lark stopped a few times and looked me straight in the eyes and carried on. They’re gutsy little fellas, fraida nothing. Then I saw it peck at something and swallow. Ants maybe. Once I saw a flock of pink Gallahs circling overhead and it looked at first like they were chasing a long necked bird, maybe an Egret or perhaps a duck. Not sure, had a long neck. Then they turned and the long necked bird followed so they weren’t chasing it. It was a clear day and the sun was still high in the sky cos as I followed them I looked into the sun and nearly blinded myself. I watched for several minutes and they were flying together, not at each other. Maybe the long necked bird thought it was a Gallah? Maybe they thought they were Egrets or ducks or whatever. Maybe they don’t think. It was strange cos usually animals don’t seem to mix like that, or play like that. Or maybe I just don’t get out much. It felt good to watch, made me feel hopeful. Next day we were in Kalgoorlie, in the town centre near that absurd little statue of the kid, Saint Barbara the patron saint of miners, with the story written on plaques on stones in a circle around it and there were these two women shouting and swearing at each other and I was eating a pie for lunch but straight away I lost my appetite. I felt bad for them, for everyone and wondered if it was cos I was raised Catholic or me just being crazy or if everyone felt the same. Truth is I watched some of the people watching and some of them were smiling and that disturbed me more than the shouting and swearing. One night after supper we were walking down the main street and there were all of these homeless blokes setting up for the night in the doorways of shops probably to get out of the draught that comes through town and is probably cold. They all asked us for money and the first time I gave a bloke the coins I had in my pocket then he asked for a cigarette so I gave him a couple and then next time I just ignored the bloke and carried on walking and felt bad for doing that. All the way back to the hotel I was involved in this internal dialogue and justifying why I never stopped each time and again wondered if all people passing someone homeless feel this way. Guilty for not helping every time and is giving cigarettes helping? Engagement with people is exhausting. Whatever you do and wherever you go there’s always this post-mortem of events and thoughts and shoulda, coulda, woulda and makes me just want to never come into contact with people ever again and reminds me why I enjoyed watching the Gallahs and the egret or duck and the Magpie Lark.

Before this, before we even got to Kalgoorlie we passed through Coolgardie and maybe that was where we saw the Gallahs, I can’t remember and does it really matter where they were cos they were in the sky as we watched. But, as you enter the town there’s this little house on your left that you can’t miss cos it looks like someone’s spent forever turning a refuse tip into a work of art. It’s all rubbish composed and arranged in such a way that you have to stop and if you don’t you wish you did and spend the next five kilometres thinking maybe if you turn back it won’t be too late, then don’t, then it is. But all around this house there is the strangest collection of everyday objects: hub caps, safety helmets, pots, cups, plates, baths, lengths of pipe … It’s like an alien landed and began gathering anything related to human daily life and left before he could do whatever he was going to do with them. Strange how everyday objects just piled up feels strange when that’s what we do anyway, collect and stockpile stuff. The mystery of the place lingers cos there’s no indication of what it is or why and I guess locals could tell a few stories and it was probably just some eccentric person who after losing their job or partner started this project to keep busy and maybe before the person died it looked better than it does now. There’s a visible history of someone’s life here and I would’ve liked to talk to that person cos they woulda been interesting and I reckon they would’ve been grumpy as hell or friendly and all smiles. It was after that we saw the Gallahs and the Egret or duck. After leaving the house I felt sad that we were just walking through someone’s life work. What was he thinking? I got the sense of a him from all the car stuff but girls can like cars too I guess but whoever it was I felt how full their hearts must have been as their hands placed each object here. Now it’s only stuff, or is it? I see stuff all the time but with this stuff my first thoughts were of the person behind it. So, no, it’s never ‘just’ stuff. Things are crutches for life in a world where everything’s always falling down or apart or both. We prop up our hearts with stuff, the sorta crap that helps bring meaning to the absurdity of existence and if the stuff looks crazy, why shouldn’t it? and in our ordinary ways we are all a bit crazy like Gallahs and Magpie Lark’s. He was a brave fella the bloke who lived in this house. I reckon he was brave cos he was honest and generally, we don’t like honest, we like to think we’re better than we are.


Photos by William Venters

Birthing a shadow

I’m birthing a shadow; pushing out a form from within, and

glad to have it out –

to end years of kicking and

pushing and peristalsis in my brain, my

birth canal.

But now, i am shaped around the form that is gone,

the thing got the best of me.

left me squatting over a puddle

where my soul once was.

What did you do there? God will ask me.

I shall say I leaked.