The Luxury of Endless Possibilities

“The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.” – Steve Jobs

As much as I’m not at all interested in the subject* (if you’ll excuse the pun), you’d have to be living under a rock in Australia to not know that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge – William and Kate – have had a baby.

While I haven’t really followed any of the media coverage, one newspaper headline caught my attention: “Born to Rule.”

Imagine knowing at their birth what your child will be when they grow up. Imagine being that child. Perhaps in some countries that is the norm, but this is a child in a society in which most children spend their formative years projecting into the future and talking about what they’ll do when they grow up. And then playing at that. Theirs is the prerogative to change their mind frequently, too: I want to be a fireman. No, train driver. No, policeman… etc.

I remember hearing the song “Paperback Writer” by the Beatles when I was about six or seven years old and immediately wanting to be a writer. Preferably of paperbacks. There may well have been other things I wanted to be before then but that’s the earliest one I remember.

By the time I’d reached about 11 I’d discovered a passionate sense of justice and wanted to be a lawyer, to defend the weak. A year or two later I somehow caught sight of a law library and the many thick books I thought I’d need to read and memorise and I let go of that particular dream.

I was about 14 when I decided I wanted to be a journalist, and in Year 10 I secured a week’s work experience at the local newspaper. For the most part they had me sub-editing the television guide and community notices, but I also accompanied two of the senior reporters on their assignments.

First I went out with a reporter who was going to interview a young boy who had cancer. I thought she was incredibly compassionate until we got back into the car and she complained to the photographer that she was “sick and tired of being lumped with the human interest stories”.

Then I went out with a news reporter to a press conference given by a policeman who’d been shot the previous week by a gunman who was still on the loose. The press conference was held at Dandenong Hospital and as we drove there the reporter turned to the photographer and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if [the gunman] turned up at the hospital and started shooting everybody?”

“How would that be great?” asked the photographer.

I’ll never forget the journo’s reply: “We’d have the story!”

My desire to be a journalist more or less ended on the spot.

What happens when a young Prince George declares that he wants to be a train driver? Does everyone roll their eyes? Does a nanny tut-tut him? Or do they humour him?

Perhaps it’s not even like that. Maybe he grows up from day naught knowing that he’ll be a king in waiting all his life (until his turn comes up to do what he was born to do), meanwhile serving in the military.

In Year 12 our careers counsellor provided us with a book that listed every occupation under the sun and the training or skills you needed for each. It’s online now but was a hard copy book back in the late 1980s, and I loved flicking through its pages. There were so many different things you could be and do.

I’m not saying we should pity little Prince George, who has not only been born into a position of wealth and privilege but in a loving family, too (though I’m sure many of us don’t envy the scrutiny under which his entire life will be conducted).

It does make me feel very lucky, though, to have had the simple luxury to dream about the endless possibilities of what I could be, and the opportunity to do what I love.

*I’m reminded of the classic Oscar Wilde story where he was at a dinner party and boasted he could talk wittily about any subject. “The Queen!” nominated one guest, to which Oscar Wilde responded, “The Queen is not a subject!”


Surviving Teenage Friendship

A few weeks ago I went to see MTC’s brilliant production of Arthur Miller’s classic play, The Crucible.

Abigail Williams, a woman in her mid-teens who has been scorned by her older, married lover, wreaks her vengeance by accusing most of the women and some of the men in the village of witchcraft. But it’s not just Abigail. A number of her friends follow her lead and parrot Abigail’s accusations.

In a pivotal scene, Mary Warren, one of the older girls who has been persuaded to finally tell the truth, succumbs to Abigail’s control again and re-joins her group of wilful hysterics. How does Abigail exert her control? By turning her accusatory finger against Mary. It’s a classic example of “If you’re not with us, you must be against us”. In teenage friendship, it’s a powerful tactic of manipulation.

Loyalty emerges as the paramount proof of true friendship when you hit your teens. As you assert your independence from your parents and look to your peers for acceptance and validation, loyalty is the key way to express your new allegiance. At that age, however, loyalty is often expressed through emulation, which is demanded by teenagers who need to have their choices validated, such as those teens who don’t get validation from any of the adults in their life.

If you copy me, you clearly cannot judge me as you will be tainted by the same brush by your own actions.

This is something that Miller captures perfectly in his scenes with the teenage girls, though peer pressure doesn’t always come with a giant signpost and neon-lit arrow. More often than not it plays out in subtle ways, in casual conversations between teens. “You shouldn’t feel so hung up about [insert questionable or risky behaviour here].” “I don’t know why you’re so worried about doing it, I’ve done it a million times.”

The fear of being rejected by the friend who demands emulation is all-powerful. Teens don’t want to be thought of as childish or fearful, and most importantly they don’t want to be rejected and ostracised from the group. Those doing the manipulating know how to leverage that fear and do so to get what they need.

At the end of The Crucible, Abigail Williams absconds, leaving destruction in her wake and abandoning her friends to their own fate.

If you copy me, I will feel better about myself. Oh and by the way, I don’t really care about the consequences for you.

This scenario plays out in teenage friendships all the time – it’s certainly in stories I hear from my nieces and godson – but as you get older, you slowly learn how to navigate through other people’s emotional needs in a more mature way, without sacrificing your own values and surrendering your personal boundaries. You also become more confident. You recognise that showing loyalty is merely being there for your friend and not judging them. You don’t have to copy them. You can be yourself and still keep your friendship.

Provided of course you manage to survive friendship in your teenage years.

One step forward… one step back?

The other day my mum and I were discussing our respective phone bills. Discussing bills is something we often do, competitively comparing how low or high our gas, electricity or water bills are, so there was nothing unusual in that. What did make it slightly unusual is that we were discussing our landline telephone bills.

Usually when people are talking about their phone bills they’re referring to their mobile phones. But Mum and I both have unlimited, “all you can eat” type mobile phone accounts and so we find that increasingly we’re making calls on our mobiles, instead of on our landlines. Which in turn means that our landline bills are getting lower and lower.

At the end of the conversation mum said she was considering cancelling her landline altogether. I implored her not to, pointing out that mobile phone reception is unreliable (especially in her house) and that batteries can die and leave you unreachable. After about a minute she had changed her mind.

I know, I know: people have been ditching their landlines for a while now, not seeing the point in paying two phone bills, and surviving. I have several friends who have not had a landline for several years and recently another close friend announced that she, too, has cancelled her landline.

The other day I read about how a phone number is increasingly associated with a person, not a building. Even I only ever give out my mobile phone to people and I make far more calls on my mobile than I do on my landline, even when I’m at home.

The thing is, I think there is something we are all sacrificing by moving away from our landlines and that something is call quality. Mobile phone reception is unreliable. Calls drop out all the time. Or voices become so garbled that it is impossible to make sense of them. Lines can be crackly and static-y.

I don’t know about you, but there are only so many times I am willing to say to someone, “Can you repeat that, I missed it.” After about the fifth or sixth time I’m just willing to let go and miss whatever it is that is being said or give up on the conversation altogether.

Or you’re trying to get in touch with someone during the evening and the next day they come back to you with, “Sorry about that; the phone died and I had it on the charger and didn’t hear it…” (And I do appreciate that sometimes that’s just a convenient excuse for when you don’t want to answer the phone, but it’s also a genuine phenomenon.)

Isn’t this a step back in time? We’ve come so far with landline technology that it can sound like someone you’re talking to overseas is in the next room to you, and we’re choosing to talk on mobiles which make someone in the next room sound like they’re on the other side of the world. With a hand over their mouth. In the middle of a sandstorm.

It’s not just call quality that we’re sacrificing; it’s conversation quality. It’s communication quality.

Yes, mobile technology is great, and it’s getting better and it’s very, very convenient. I totally get all that. But there’s something about this convenience that I’m a bit sceptical of because it comes at a cost that we don’t really appreciate or acknowledge.

For me it’s similar to the so-called awesome convenience of having a smartphone. I’ve considered getting an iPhone many times. I have a Mac and an iPad. It seems like the natural next step.

Friends and co-workers have tried to persuade me. “Think of all the things you’ll be able to do,” they say. Whenever I do think about how I’d use it, though, say to check my emails or Twitter on the train on the way to work, I realise that I really enjoy using that time to read a book. Or to just stare out the window and daydream. I like not being connected all the time. I like being disconnected.

Not to mention which you can’t tell me that squinting down into a small screen all day long (and I’m including those massive Samsung Galaxy phones here) is good for anyone’s eyesight. I’m already wearing contacts and my optometrist tells me that it’s only my deteriorating short-sightedness that is balancing out my emerging long-sightedness. I’m not messing any more with my eyes, man, not for all the convenience in the world.

It’s why I still have a dumbphone, not a smartphone. And why, as long as they’re available, I’ll still have a landline.woman and man in Victorian clothing each holding a tin can to their ear connected by string to each other

The Artist’s Voice Cannot Be Silenced

Earlier this year I submitted some poetry for consideration in response to a call for submissions by publisher Inkerman & Blunt, who were planning to publish an anthology called Australian Love Poems 2013. It was the first time in over 12 years that I’d submitted poetry – or anything for that matter – to a publisher in the hope of being published. The call was for poems that covered all aspects of love: being in love, losing it, dealing with heartache. I have poems about love up to the wazoo, so to speak, so I chose three of my best and submitted them by email.

And then I waited. It wasn’t till early June that I found out whether any of my poems had made the cut or not. As the date approached I found myself thinking about what it would mean to me if the poems were accepted; what it might mean if they weren’t.

Would being published validate my work? Would it validate me? Would it mean I was a real writer? A real poet? If my poems weren’t published would that mean they were inferior? Mediocre? Would it make me less of a poet?

How much of my confidence as a writer – how much of my belief in my self as a writer – was reliant on having something, anything, published?

Last Friday there was an article in The Age online about the artist Joyce Meier, who, Dewi Cooke writes, laboured “for the sake of love, of painting every day and everywhere just because she couldn’t imagine doing anything else, even without the encouragement of mainstream recognition.”

There is a quote from Joyce Meier herself, aged 96 now: ”There was nothing much else to do, was there? I just did, I don’t know, I just did it. That’s all.”

The photos accompanying the article tell a story of a life lived dedicated to painting, to expressing herself through her art. Of painting nonstop.

I found the story of Joyce Meier utterly inspirational. She had gone to war; she’d gotten married and had a family. She had lived a full life. She had not become famous. But you couldn’t stop her from painting. And despite never having become famous, she was still an artist. She had always been one and would always be one, even though, the article notes, she has now stopped painting.

The other woman who has inspired me recently is Vietnamese American blogger Vy Chazen, who wrote a wonderfully passionate argument for having her voice on the bookshelves on her blog, The Letter Vy. She points out that more often than not accepted literary depictions of her cultural heritage are clichéd and stereotypical: they’re about the war, or tragedy, or feature old people who speak in proverbs, or they cover stories of assimilation.

All very important stories, sure, but they all position Vietnamese Americans as other.

In her post – I’m Asian-American and I Want a Voice on the Shelves! – Vy writes: “I want a book about us today. That’s why I’m writing one.” And in her comment back to me, she states that what she wants is “the recognition that, “hey, I belong in this society too. I bring something to the table and I’m worth being heard.””

We all want to recognise ourselves in the stories we read, the films we see, the songs we sing along to. This is why stories, films and songs about universal themes do so well.

On 3 June I received a very lovely, gentle email from Inkerman & Blunt advising me that I was one of 600 poets who’d submitted 1,501 poems but unfortunately… well, you can guess. My poems didn’t make the cut.

Vy Chazen has helped me understand why it is that I will continue to seek to be published despite this knockback and the ones I’ve received in the past and the ones I will receive in the future (and there are bound to be): I, too, want my voice on the shelves.

Joyce Meier has taught me that even if I’m never published I will continue to write because I am a writer and I can’t do anything else but write.

And together these two very different women have shown me that the artist’s voice cannot be silenced; it will always strive to express itself.