27 January 2011

Lateralist Flags - Vexing Vexillology

For those of you who don't know, vexillology is the study of flags. When asked to name my hobbies, I am want to cite it, if for no other reason than it tends to invite a frown in response.

It seems that some prominent Australians (and when I say prominent in this context, I mean neglected and/or forgotten) are lobbying for a new flag for our great nation. I've longed for this particular debate to return to prominence, as I've got some thoughts.

I've long thought a sheet of corrugated iron would make for a marvellous flag. For a start, it is wind-defiant, rather than being meekly wind-dependent, and thus always flies proudly. Secondly, it's added weight will make it harder for bogans to fly them from their car aerials. And thirdly, its metallic and rusted qualities will hopefully mean that boat-shoo(t)ing rednecks who feel the need to wear it on Australia Day may have a very real chance of contracting the tetanus they so richly deserve.

That's going to be hard to top, but there are some other options worth mentioning. I've always been partial to the idea of a beach-ball as our flag. Why? Well, I've always been a bit jealous of countries who have shunned the rectangular norm and embraced more interesting shapes for their flag. (Nepal's flag is a wonder to behold.) But rather than simply find an innovative shape, why not add a whole new dimension? We'd be the envy of all nations when, during Olympic medal ceremonies the flat bedsheets of lesser nations limply dangle down, whilst our ballsy sphere smugly glints in the light from every direction. Also, we're a beach-going nation, so a beach-ball works for me. And it makes the flag useful on Australia day, in that you can waive the thing patriotically, then kick it around, also patriotically.

If that's too radical for you, then I guess this next idea's probably not for you, either. We keep the shape, but we rent it out to the highest bidder. After all, we're a practical and pragmatic nation, are we not? And if we can't find a symbol we all like, then why not make a little money? Given the recent talk about the need for flood-relief revenue, give some thought to how much a McFlag sponsorship deal would bring in. And you know, I'm not displeased at the notion that empty nationalism might lose some of its bite if we as a nation have to display our ideals through our actions, rather than through the waiving of empty symbols. After all, I've always liked to believe that those who most love our country do so because of what it stands for, rather than the items which we use to represent those those things for which we stand.

I don't dislike out flag; but I do think it's time we had one that represents all Australians in a way that speaks to an equitable future, rather than our all too inequitable past. And if that's too much for you, then I've one last idea. Let's bung a koala on a stick, and combine flag and emblem into one. Heck, make it a kookaburra, and we can get the anthem out of the way as well....

You've got to be prepared to make sacrifices these days. I'm prepared to cut the British. Because I care.

Lateralist Levies - Pain & Politics

The typically (sub)standard political rumblings over the Government's proposed levy are, as usual, depressingly inane.

Naturally enough, our Prime Minister delivered a mind-numblingly soporific speech to announce her plans. The plans, in my humble opinion, were fine; in that a one-off levy to pay for the barely comprehensible damage to Queensland seems fair enough. I don't like many of the environmental cuts she's proposed, but given the choice, I'd rather have a carbon tax in the long term, so I can live with them, assuming she can get one through parliament. (I'm trusting the Government to vigorously pursue one, which is as much on me as it is on them.) Put another way, I'm a pragmatist, and don't believe in a world where the end result of a natural disaster is one where everyone gets to feel happy about things. I just wish she could convey her policies and decisions in a language that doesn't make me want to drink paint.

Whilst many Australians have been exceedingly generous in their donations, I'm a bit tired of hearing how much the everyone has contributed, for the simple reason that I know it's bollocks. Many people have contributed nothing at all. Sad, but true.

And whether people have donated or not, the simple fact remains that to date, not enough has been donated to cover the costs. So what's the alternative to a levy? Tax only those who've not yet donated? I suppose you could do that, if you don't mind the irony of creating a levy by default, but I rather do mind such stupid ideas being bandied about. Donations are brilliant, and too much of the good work done in our society already depends on them in order to continue, but to retain their ideological merit they simply must be seen as adjacent to other revenue. And if you donated (by definition) voluntarily as a pre-emptive strike against an involuntary contribution, then, you're a generous soul, but also a generous fool.

So we're left with the need to raise money through a levy and the cutting of spending. Of course, Abbott's had a cry about there being more fat (govt spending) to cut, and has clasped the chance to sink the boot into the NBN with both feet. (Which will perhaps take more balance and poise than he's got.) I don't blame him for taking this tack; after all, he's in Opposition, he's a blunt instrument, and as yet, the Government have shown no ability to counter this approach. I mean honestly, how hard can it be to corner him into naming the further cuts he'd make and then put them (the cuts) on a human face? It's not hard, and still the Government doesn't do it. If they're going to get better at Governing, they're going to have to get better at politics. I mean, should we sell Parliament House to rebuilt an Ipswitch suburb? No, probably not. Logically, it's a matter of degrees, with a movable line. The Government simply must get better at fighting for where it wants the line to be.

I mean, when Abbott speaks of "fat", how hard is it to get him to clarify his point?And the same goes with the NBN; no disaster, short of nuclear war, is big enough to shut down all other projects and infrastructure. And given the independents want it, does he really think that Gillard will shelve it and doom her own Government? I hardly think so. So he's either stupid, or he thinks Gillard is stupid, or he thinks the electorate is stupid. Either way, it's probably time for a new theme.

Although it might have seemed sound politics for Gillard to promise a quick return to a budgetary surplus, it plays as hollow when the only reasons offered for doing so seem poll-driven, rather than fiscally sound. And the tragedy is that a quick return to budget surplus is fiscally sound, as is pressing on with the NBN, but once again, the Government has done a lousy job of selling its policies.

I don't know why I'm annoyed. I should be used to this by now. I can only be grateful that, incredibly, Colin Barnett has come out in favour of the levy, which will take some of the wind out of Abbott's sails. And it's interesting that some of the independents are lobbying for permanent levy for an emergency relief fund. On first glance, it's not a bad idea. People are encouraged to budget for emergencies, so why shouldn't a country?

And perhaps it's for the best that she's likely got a fight on her hands to get this through Parliament. After all, tough decisions deserve that title for a reason.

22 January 2011

Lateralist Reputation

I'm quite a fan of Dame Helen Mirren. At least, I was until I saw her trying to flog Wii Fit merchandise. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

It's not that Mirren is unqualified to do so; she's sixty-five years old, and certainly entitled to try and sell whatever she likes. It just that I now find I can't take her seriously anymore, which is depressing, given that she's one of the premier actresses of her generation.

For a start, she professes to find her pixilated trainer, "Steve" sexy. This is disturbing, given that "Steve" resembles a blurred lego figure, but without the facial detail. So, she's either participating in a very shabby snow job, or the poor woman's vision is going. I know she has a reputation as a sensuous and sultry woman, but I'm not sure that this reputation need be extended to the point of distortion whereby viewers are compelled to see to her portraying herself as being turned on by a animated crash test dummy. It just seems weird to me.

It's also weird, and a little embarrassing to watch an four-time Oscar-nominated actress gyrate slowly (and awkwardly) within an invisible hula-hoop, and then to state with measured (read limited) enthusiasm that her Wii Fit age is now 37. Her Wii Fit I.Q., perhaps, but her age? Please. She seems positively dementia-ridden, which is terrible, because I know she's not. A promotion designed to promote youth has aged this vital and virile woman by at least three decades. It's just appalling to watch.

There are times when celebrities or folk of a certain ilk lend a mundane or even dubious product an air of credibility. And unfortunately, there are times when good celebs are brought down by the very product they are trying to sell. This is one of those times.

I sure hope they paid her a lot of money, because she looks like a bloody goose. I just wish Wii had gotten hold Betty White to sell their crap; at least she's nearly ninety. Or the legendary octogenarian, Clint Eastwood, perhaps. I'm not saying he'd not look foolish; he would, but at least in his case I'd be too scared to say anything. And when Clint tells you to buy something, you buy it. (Clint's the guy you use to sell tampons to men.)

Advertisements are funny things. Dame Helen, please find something else to sell, while your reputation still allows. Wii Fit or not, Dame Judi Dench, who's eleven years your senior, looks like she could beat the shit out of you. And if you keep demeaning yourself like this, for the good of actresses and Dames everywhere, she might very well have to....

21 January 2011

Lateralist Favourites - Cricket & Advertising

If you're tired of me banging on about cricket or advertising of late, then this post isn't for you.

There's a cricket advertisement from KFC which once more reveals just how stupid the advertising world really is. In the advertisement, Doug "thatched roof" Bollinger is steaming in to bowl when he is interrupted by a distinctly American-sounding organ riff being played.

Understandably, he curtails his run-up, and looks around for the source of the noise. The camera cuts from person to person, before settling on the familiar faces of Bill Lawry and Tony Grieg, who, after a few seconds, look behind them to see a fat klansman (i.e. Colonel Sanders) fingering his tiny organ. It is at this point that we hear the slogan, "it's just not cricket without colonel".

Let's examine this pitch. You'd think that if cricket and KFC had some kind of established relationship, the whole advertisement probably shouldn't have been built around the notion of KFC and its American-themed "culture" being so utterly incongruous with one another, that the game can't proceed when the KFC-themed music kicks in. I mean, if they they were joined at the hip, would Doug-the-Rug really have aborted his run-up and thrown his arms in the air in a "what-the-f*ck-is-going-on" way? Probably not.

To be fair, I don't blame Bill and Tony for being somewhat bemused that a corpulent redneck playing a kid's keyboard has gatecrashed the commentary box. That said, given that it took these veteran campaigners so long to twig that he was there, is perhaps a sign that retirement beckons for them both. It certainly explains why Tony's commentary in particular only meshes with what's happening on the ground in unconvincing fits and starts; it seems the poor bugger can neither see nor hear anymore.

Despite the best efforts over the years from the likes of Warnie, Boonie, Big Merv and the sadly neglected Greg "Fat Cat" Ritchie, Australian Cricket and KFC have never really had all that much to do with one another. I'm not saying that's good or bad; I'm just saying that's how it is.

But I think if sports are going to continue to forge sponsorship alliances with fast food, alcohol franchises and the like, then I think they should go all the way. I'd like to see the Australian team be obliged to consume a family bucket of the Colonel's finest every day. Each. Then we'll really see how well cricket and KFC can really get on.

Whilst I'm genuinely committed to this idea, I'm prepared to hold off on demanding its immediate implementation if Shaun Marsh is given an apology and a spot in Australia's World Cup squad. And the Test Squad, while we're at it.

Of course, that may mean that there will be a lot of a surplus KFC lying around. Not to worry; I have a solution. Andrew Hilditch can eat it. Given his clearly fact-adjacent ability to deduce from Australia's shellacking in the Ashes that he and his fellow selectors had "done a good job", I'm sure he'll be able to convince himself that he's eating healthily, even as he visibly gains weight in real time.

As for the maligned Michael Clarke, he should have listened to that kid's coaching advice. His footwork is about as classy as a KFC snack box. Hang on; maybe cricket and KFC have something in common after all....

20 January 2011

Laterally Stupid - Crocodile Tennis

I've seen some stupid advertisements in my time, and I've even written about a few of them on this site, but the recent Optus/Tennis Australia where two crocodiles play tennis by belting a sugar-glider (or possum) back and forth with their tails is probably the stupidest thing I've ever seen. And I've seen John Howard try to bowl.

I can't for the life of me imagine how on earth such an idea was ever allowed out of the surely drunken (or possibly stoned) mind in which it was first formed. It defies literal and symbolic interpretation. I know I'm possibly being a tad high-minded when I say this, but I don't think any animal would relish being a substitute for a ball, so I can't for the life of me see what there is to be gained by creating such imagery. Are we being urged to sympathise with the ball? Or are we being given the green light to find a decent-sized lizard and try to belt a willy-wagtail around with it? I just don't know.

I know you'd have to be pretty stupid to take an advertisement like this in so literal a fashion, but given its astonishing inanity, it's either going to be taken wrongly, or avoided like a bloke sniffing paint on a train.

I'm all for surreal advertisements, but this one has got me stumped. In no context whatsoever does animal cruelty work for me, even if the animated marsupial seems to be enjoying itself. So next time, I'd like to see an animation of two crocodiles smacking Paul McNamee back and forth for a few sets. And then eating him. Sound harsh? Ok, perhaps it is. Well, if not McNamee, how about an Optus phone that has failed to last as long as the contract to which it was affixed? At least in that particular case, there'd be no danger of running out of balls...

Lateralist Coaching

Whilst I don't want to make a habit of talking about Michael Clarke on this site, I couldn't help but smile as I watched him graciously receive some unexpected coaching tips from a teenager who'd invited himself to one of Clarke's press conference.

Clarke handled the situation very well; he smiled, listened, and promised to try out the young man's tip in the nets. If it had been Ponting, there would have been tears. (Alan Border simply would have shot him.) But it now simply remains to be seen whether or not he actually takes the advice out into the middle. The way I see it, his batting is currently about as interesting as his haircut. In fact, I see so reason at all not to immediately replace incumbent coach, Tim Nielsen, with the as-yet unidentified young man.

Actually, why stop there? Why not give him the spot on the selection panel as well? I mean, when you've got a mob whose selections seem about as scientific as nominating a suitcase on Deal Or No Deal, it seems unlikely that he could do a worse job. Right now, nevermind finding the right players, I don't think Andrew Hildtich could find mud in Queensland....

But if that seems too much like hard work, then there is a simple short-cut; just give the kid Clarke's job and be done with it. Given how things have been going for him, I'm not sure he'd be dead set against handing over the reigns, anyway.

For now, I'm going to set myself to lobbying the Australian Cricket Board to get Ricky Gervais to host the Alan Border Medal. Short of getting David Boon and Bob Hawke to compete in a drinking competition, I can't think of anything more likely to entice me to watch.

And incidentally, if they did have a booze-off, even with him being in his 80's, and after more than thirty years on the wagon, my money would still be on Hawke....

18 January 2011

This Sporting Lateralist

I couldn't help but feel a bit sorry for Michael Clarke when I read that he's currently being taken to task for allegedly having a few (or even a few more than a few) ales with Philip Hughes (and assorted strangers) on the night prior to Australia losing the final Test against England.

It seems poor Clarkey just can't pick the line of the ball. A few years back, Simon Katich nearly strangled him when he (Clarke) had the temerity to request that Australia's celebratory song be brought forward in the schedule so that he might be able to attend a family-related function. Very un-Australian of him, apparently. And now, when he does probably the most Australian thing he's ever done, he gets crucified once more. He must be wondering what on earth it takes to be an Australian cricket captain these days. Indeed, it's a question worth asking.

In the 70's and 80's, Australia played some of its best cricket, and some of its very worst. And throughout most of it, players were getting on the sauce. Doug Walters' drinking prowess was legendary. He once made 254 following a bender that lasted virtually the entire night. David Boon averaged in the sixties after almost drinking his average in cans on the flight from Sydney to Heathrow. There was, at any given time, more residual alcohol in Rod Marsh's moustache than there was in a can of Swan Gold. In fact, according to Richie Benaud, the great Australian all-rounder of the 1950's, Alan "Davo" Davidson was quite partial to having a snifter of port on chilly afternoons during the final session of certain test matches. So, it seems there's no clear relationship between player success and player drinking.

So what's Clarke done wrong? Was it unprofessional for him to drink prior to losing a test in a series already lost? I'm not sure how. He could have strapped a couple of cans to his baggy green and sucked them down for the duration of that final day's play, and it wouldn't have made a lick of difference to the final result, because Australia was batting, Clarke had already batted, and unless the English were going to re-write laws of the game, Australia were not going to be taking the field again for any other reason that to shake hands with the victors.

I think that some folks have criticised Clarke for his drinking because it signified his belief that the game was a lost cause. No, the scorecard did that. He just endured it. If he'd not been firmly convinced that the game was a lost cause, then I should think he should have been tested for hallucinogenic drugs, rather than alcohol.

But if he can be criticised for anything, it should be for using the (pending) result as an excuse to drink. Some folks (like Dean Jones - that clarion voice of reason) have suggested that Clarke (and the current crop of players) aren't good enough to drink whist playing. I think this misses the point entirely. Off-field actions should not be determined by on-field performance, because it is simply too dangerous to create an atmosphere where successful players can operate under the belief that they can do whatever they like in their own time, as long as they keep winning. One only need look at Tiger Woods, Ben Cousins and Rugby League for evidence of this.

So, it's much safer for all concerned if Clarke begins to drink constantly from now on. Personally, I think Clarke should be dropped until he finds some form, but he wants to recover it in a bar, and fill his bat with whiskey once he finds it, then I reckon that should be his call. And to be honest, given that the next few years are basically going to be a living hell for all involved in Australian cricket, he might as well experience them in a foggy haze of booze. And if we start winning, he should bloody well keep drinking. You know, for good luck.

Australian cricket needs a bit of a kick in the head. A big night on the sauce will certainly give it that. And let's face it, if Clarke can one day back up a bender with with a ton, people might finally leave him alone. Unless of course he's on the white wine, in which case he's only got himself to blame.

Lateralist Musings - Politics and Leadership

It seems that very few people have offered anything other than unreserved praise for Anna Bligh's management of the Queensland flood crises. For what it's worth, I agree with the general consensus; she's seemed calm, measured, compassionate and utterly in command of the situation. That some commentators have suggested that her handling of the situation thus far might yet reverse the flagging fortunes of her Government and win it another term is neither here nor there, really; in that I very much doubt that such concerns have been in her mind. Indeed, when your husband has to evacuate your mother, and you spend the better part of a week sleeping in your office, you've probably got more pressing concerns on your mind.

But whilst the praise for Bligh has been virtually unanimous, the same cannot be said for Julia Gillard. Whilst it's certainly true that Gillard has seemed less assured and less in command than Bligh, I'm not sure she's deserved the criticism that she's received. After all, she is not in charge of managing the crisis; Bligh is. She (Gillard) was always going to appear somewhat superfluous to requirements. And yet, if she'd stayed away, she'd have been pilloried with in an inch of her political career. I can't help but feel sorry for someone who can't seem to win either way, and yet who has done nothing wrong.

Gillard's role and Prime Minister in what is effectively - in spite of its geographical size - a localised crisis is to ensure that the appropriate Federal resources are mobilised. This she has done. Beyond that, she really needs to simply appear like she cares, and then not get in the way. This too she has done. She also needs to ensure that the country does not devolve to being a single-issue concern, and again, I think this has occurred.

So what's to be concluded? There are two things, I think. Firstly, I think the reason that Bligh's performance has been so widely praised is due to the fact that she's been in a position to avoid politics entirely, and simply focus on leadership. It's a sad reality, but it seems that the two concepts are virtually mutually exclusive. But whereas Bligh was in a position to do this, I don't think the same can be said for Gillard. Her position as a national figure doesn't really afford her the luxury of setting aside national concerns, even for a local issue as profoundly affecting and tragic as the Queensland floods.

That said, I think Gillard is certainly yet to find her feet when it comes to engaging with the media as Prime Minister. As Deputy, she was comparatively assured. But as Prime Minister, especially one who leads a minority Government, her role is starkly different, and under constant (and considerable) scrutiny. I'm not surprised that there are many who think she's done a pretty ordinary job so far. But to those holding such views, I would suggest that they reconsider the scope of the political job at hand.

Gillard's primary role is to convince the electorate that her Government can hold. To do this, she has to blunt Abbott's almost ceaseless attacks for as long as she can, in order that his questioning of her Government's stability becomes weaker with every passing week. In another six months, she'll have done this. She'll also have made it to the point where majority control of the Senate passes to the Greens. Whilst will hardly give her boundless control (given the make-up of her Government), it'll certainly put her in a strong enough position to actually implement policy than she is in right now.

She's also needed to allow time to pass for the hyperactivity of Rudd's Government to be replaced with a style of leadership which is more moderately paced. Why? Because Rudd's style, in spite of how in initially appeared, was haphazard, unsustainable, and in its haste to act, prone to error. To change this, Gillard needs to be seen to divest power back to Ministers and Departments, rather than blindly hog it in the manner that Rudd was so determined to do. The best Australian governments have functioned this way. Again, I think she's done this.

Is this enough? Of course not. At some point, there needs to be a genuine sense of proactive leadership, even if one's business is politics. But by rights, leadership is as much about responding to the needs of the day as it is about implementing ideologically derived policy. Gillard's measured approach to things gives her as good a chance as any to get this balance right, especially if she's prepared to work with the Cabinet, rather than in spite of it.

But she's still going to need to get better at being herself. As anyone who's been in any kind of leadership position can attest, this is not easy, and should one fail to make a seamless adjustment to the demands of a new position instantly, that this does not mean that the leader in question is not up to the job. I still think Gillard has the ability to do the job, simply because none of the reasons I've heard that suggest otherwise hold sufficient water for me to change (or close) my mind. That day may come, but it certainly hasn't yet.

17 January 2011

Lateralist Language - Extreme Sports

Whilst driving today, I noticed a sticker on the back a ute which simply read, "Extreme Motorbikes". Even now, I'm wondering what it meant.

What modifications are necessary for a normal motorbike to become an extreme motorbike? I suppose there are several options: make it bigger or smaller, faster or slower, or perhaps, and most ironically, less like a motorbike. (A car, in a sense, is an extreme motorbike, isn't it? A horse, even more so?) Still, as all of these modifications are harmless (and inane) enough, I'm not sure where the word "extreme" comes in. So the other option is forgive the misplaced grammar of the sticker, and to consider that what was really meant to be considered as extreme was the use of the motorbike, rather than the motorbike itself.

What's extreme in motorbike riding these days? Going really fast? Nah. Everyone on two wheels tries to do that. Riding in strange places, or over tough terrain? Again, it's been done. People have ridden motorbikes over deserts, in jungles, and over the ice of Antarctica. Why? Because motorbike riding is pretty dull, really, no matter where you do it.

Which leaves me to believe that the word "extreme" has been ill-used. I think it's high time that people stop using it; not just to ill-desribe motorbikes, but other things, too. Let's just give "normal" a run for a while, shall we? And there needs to be a second category for some reason, let's go the other way, and instead adopt a descending nomenclature, whereby, to continue the topic at hand, there is motorbike riding, and then there is moderate motorbike riding. Or, if you'd prefer, mild motorbike riding. Or better yet, push-bike riding.

Naming is primarily about image - a tag or hook by (or with) which to engage with the world. I'm all for spin, but in this crazy, post-modern world, why not try to spin things in a way that takes the edge off things, rather than make it even more cutting?

Or at the very least, let's leave words like extreme for situation that could really use them. The floods in Queensland are an example of extreme weather, not Perth suffering through four days of 40 degrees. You see, if we waste our big-gun words on matters trite, we end up sounding stupid. For an example, look no further than the term, "supermodel".

Language is precious. It is the river of communication in which we all swim. Therefore, it makes sense to be vigilant and retributive when people try to piss in it.

Ricky Gervais - Lateralist Warrior

I've just been reading about (and watching excerpts of) Ricky Gervais' performance as host of the 2011 Golden Globes. I have to say, it makes for incredible viewing. (Check it out on youtube: - here's the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BvHXzP2SpLA )

Gervais pulled no punches during his stint as host in 2010, and was, I think, surprised to be asked to return this year. He said he was determined to make the most of it. If he gets asked to host again in 2012, I'll be definitely be tuning in.

In his opening monologue, he ridiculed Charlie Sheen, the Golden Globes themselves, the voting panel, the cast of Sex and the City 2, Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie (and all involved in The Tourist), Hugh Hefner, Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Cher and a few others I've forgotten. In under five minutes.

The blogosphere has been suggesting that his performance irritated the audience. I don't know if that's true. It certainly unsettled many of those in the room, but then I don't think they were Gervais' audience. Rather than pander to the celebrities at his feet, he was giving them a right kicking for the benefit of his audience at home. And let's face it, if you watched, you tuned in to worship, or to sneer. If it was the former, please, find a worthier deity. If it was for the latter, then you're a shallow person who's in for a treat.

Gervais has made a career out of lampooning people, most notably himself. Therefore, for him to do anything less than skewer the sycophancy that so often blights these mutual back-slappings would have been a underwhelming sell-out of the lowest order. I'm sure not all of his barbs hit their marks, but I think he deserves a great deal of credit for trying to fire off so many, and landing as many as he did. And I reckon you've got to be a pretty self-righteous believer in celebrity hype not to think that the majority of his digs were anything less than extremely (and outrageously) funny.

And it's quite ironic that in the blogs/articles I've read that criticise his performance are a smattering of inferior versions of those same barbs. So what's going on? Has Gervais crossed some kind of societal line by insulting people to their faces, rather than behind their backs? Or has he simply stolen the thunder of the blogosphere by out-bitching anything they could possibly have come up with? I wonder. Perhaps attacking Gervais could seem a prudent way of scoring a few brownie points with a few insulted celebs; who knows.

Gervais might have gone too far in the minds of some, but let's remember what we're talking about here; we're talking about a self-congratulatory awards show. For actors. It's not like he's insulting war veterans, nurses or those who actually keep society functioning. No, instead he's simply pissed on a few egos. With any luck, people will actually see vacuity of celebrity for what it is, and sales of Who and other trashy mags will plummet.

But somehow, I don't think this is going to happen. But until then, I doff my hat to Ricky Gervais. Mr Gervais, Sir, you've got balls of steel.

11 January 2011

The Queensland Floods

My wife and I went to the movies on the weekend. We opted for some fairly mindless entertainment, settling on the film, Unstopppable, which if you're unfamiliar with its premise, focuses on the attempt to bring to a halt a massive and rapidly travelling unmanned train. I really enjoyed it, for what it was - a popcorn movie.

Between then and now, large areas of Queensland have been overwhelmed by surging torrents of water of unimaginable ferocity. Ten people have been confirmed dead, and tragically, that number is almost certain to rise.

I now find myself reflecting on the differences between fiction and non-fiction. I don't mean to seem callous or detached; but I can't help but wonder how I was able to experience the disaster of the film so easily, and yet sit in horrified disbelief as I watch fellow human beings, fellow Australians, look on helplessly as their lives and towns are destroyed. I can't help but wonder about the rather puzzling relationship between disaster movies and actual disaster.

The simple answer is that one is real, the other is not. Whilst this is undoubtedly important, I think that it's worth trying to dig a little deeper.

We have a strange ability, almost a need, I think - to fabricate stories out of notional tragedy. It's not a case that we want to film suffering, or vicariously experience it, I don't think, but nor is the desire completely noble, either. I think we seek the overwhelming connection to humanity that such films offer, because that is precisely what disasters like the unfolding floods of Queensland compel those affected to embrace within themselves and their experiences. It's why we watch tv shows like Law & Order; not to see crime - although there is an undeniably ghoulish aspect that cannot be ignored - but to root for justice, and to see the world through the eyes of those battling to see it realised.

Ultimately, it is when we are truly tested that the greatest truths and beauty of humanity emerge for all to see; and this last point is particularly important, more so perhaps than it should be. For in reality, it ought not take a flood of biblical proportions for our instinctive empathy to activate, and for our admiration for those struggling and persevering in the face of extreme adversity to rise to the surface of things. After all, only a fool could believe that before the flood, all was roses for all the folk now flood-affected.

I remember thinking that Unstoppable needed a more coherent narrative conceit; that the train ought to have been readily accessible as a broad metaphor for an unstoppably changing world, or some such. A real disaster needs no such structuring; in fact, there is no way of imposing a structure. That's what makes it a disaster; some force, some immutable power has swept aside the familiar order of things, and turned the lives of thousands of people upside down.

It's impossible to say what people will draw from this tragedy, in terms of how various folk will eventually begin to move forward. All I know is that I wish to God there was a way for people to care as much about each other's wellbeing as they so readily do when property, livelihood and lives are threatened. I know there will be looters, and failings, but a disaster cannot erradicate humanity's failings; it can only give as rise to set them aside as best we can.

I'm not so reductive or simplistic to assign any kind of providence to such disasters, for to do so is profoundly insulting to those affected; but I will offer the thought that we have, whether we like it or not, been given countless opportunities to cohere as people. And cohere we do, until we forget; until life (for most) returns to normal.

One day, it is my hope that we will find a better kind of normal.

Until then, my thoughts and prayers are with the all the affected citizens of Queensland. And if you're reading this, I you urge to make a donation. Whoever first coined the phrase "every little bit helps" was not kidding; it really can.

More than you can imagine.

03 January 2011

Lateralist Consumerism - Extending the Festive Season

I received some lovely gifts for Christmas. I'd tell you about them, but I'm wary of implicitly creating the appearance that I favour the relentlessly consumerist flavour that Christmas has attained recently. (When I say recently, I am of course referring to the last century or so.)

Unwittingly seeming in favour of consumerism is the last thing I'd like to do, when in reality, I want to appear unstintingly and unoquivocally in support of it; in fact, I think a massive and sweeping expansion is required urgently. To that end, I'd like to see the festive season commence no later than January 15, before concluding on December 25. Forget the twelve days of Christmas - I think 344 days has a much nicer ring to it. The revised "344 days of Christmas" song might cause the odd fatality if injudiciously sung without the necessary supplies (food, water, first aid) on hand, but I think that's a small price to pay.

We are a society of people who like giving gifts. Or better yet, who like to be seen to like giving gifts. Because we often lack the requisite sense of self to be valued for who we are, we give gifts, and enjoy the ensuing warmth for what we have given (or done) rather than suffer the embarrassment of being valued for who we are. We are also on occasion, lazy, and hope that gift-giving will act as a kind of barrier for other social obligations, such as civility or general fondess for relatives and family members. It's easier to give an annual gift- or better yet, annual gift voucher- than seed and nurture a relationship of genuine growth.

Obviously, this isn't always the case; we buy many (well, a couple) of gifts out of genuine warmth. And we buy many gifts - even for those we truly love - under considerable duress. How often have we proclaimed that a particular person is so hard to buy for? I've lost count, myself. And yet, I'm yet to meet a person who doesn't use anything. It's just that Christmas gifts need to be of an elusive type; wanted, but not really needed. As such, we can blunder about for days on end, wearily dragging ourselves from mall to mall, before finally settling on yet another barbeque set for Dad, despite knowing full well that the given to him last year cannot possibly yet have rusted, even if it had spent the better part of the last twelve months in a barrel of brine.

Gift-giving brings with it a certain responibility for equanimity. It's a little embarrassing to be given a dining set that one doesn't need, in a colour one despises, but it's all the worse if one has given a teapot in return. It's a complex business, fraught with emotional risk, which is perhaps a little surprising for an excerise often derided as being pointlessly commercial.

In fact, it's often hard enough to decide who to buy for, nevermind selecting the gifts themselves. Most people probably level out at buying for between four to eight people, with an exceptional few who might buy for around fifteen or so. In my newly expanded festive season, that's not going to cut it. But if you multiply four by eight, and then by fifteen, I reckon you'll be getting close to the newly revised average. Yep; 480 gifts seems about right.

Now, I know that many of you are likely to proclaim that you don't even know 480 people. A cursory glance at the number of friends you have on facebook is likely to call your protestations into question, I'm sure. And what about all the other people you value in your life? Hairdressers, gardeners, former school-teachers, the taxi-driver who drove you whom when you were profoundly inebriated, the hung over vet who lanced that anal boil on your beloved pet on Boxing Day; all are worthy of a pressie in Yuletide 2.0.

I'm sure you're wondering where you're going to find the time to buy 480 gifts? I was wondering that, too, which is why I've thoughtfully expanded the festive season to 344 days. If you buy three gifts every two days, you'll romp it in. It'll probably leave less time for you to spend on yourself, but that's small price to pay, isn't it?

And anyway, what's the point of time, when you've got no money? 480 gifts aren't going to fall from the sky. Thought you could do it on the cheap? Hmm. Not quite. The standard gift needs to be worth about $50, times the number of years of association. So if you're my age, a parental gift is going to cost $1800. A bit steep, but not too bad. But I admit; once I've fulfilled my gift-giving obligations, there's not going to be a lot left over for yours, truly. And I think most folk are going to be in the same boat. So I guess we'd better know people well enough to ensure gifts are actually needed and wanted, lest we end up with 40-odd barbecue sets, but no barbecue, and no food!

See, the spirit of giving could actually transcend the consumerist bubble that has subsumed it, if we work at it. But it'll need to actively become a part of who we are, rather than a domesticated ritual of grab, wrap and give. The other option might be to give of spirit; after all, no grandparent really wants handkerchiefs; they want time with their grandchildren.

So perhaps that idea could be kicked around for a bit; giving of the self - one's time, talents and love, to all who matter to us. For that, I'd be prepared to decrease the expected gift-count. How does 344 sound? That works out to just the one nice act per day of the festive season; one act of giving, forgiveness or generosity for each person who matters to us. Anyone who thinks that would make the world a shoddier place, please raise your hand.

Alright then! If you'll excuse me, I've got some planning to do. The Christmas season is right round the corner, you know....