Recent Work By Simon Smithson

Some people go to church on Sundays. I go to office supply stores.

Some people see organisation as a handy but ultimately dispensable tool; a way to corral the events and chores of the day into a docile herd of cattle to drive from the Texas of the morning through the Arkansas of the afternoon, finally coming to rest in the quiet Missouri of the night.

I see organisation as a religion, and every horizontal line on the pages of my daily planner is an ironclad commandment that will keep my eternal soul safe from the fires of damnation and the Devil’s searching hands¹.

Some people are content to let life come as it may and make do with writing the occasional reminder on their Google Calendar that Cobalt Larry expects the money from the book they’re keeping back on Friday and the vig is running².

I pray for these misguided fools, but not often, because I don’t want to throw my schedule out.

I’m trying to make two points here. The first is that suck it Rangers, we won the Series. The second is that my childlike faith in the power of organisation to get me everything I have ever wanted is, at one and the same time, absolutely steadfast and almost completely bordering on the mindless. Especially when taking into consideration the fact that my complex and multi-faceted plans – which can be ludicrously short on detail, but make up for that by being even ludicrouslyer shorter on plausibility³ and correct word usage – rarely go off without a hitch. And that hitch is almost always due to the fact that when it comes time to actually do something, I instead always choose to watch TV.

My reasoning for this is entirely justified. I watch TV because I really, really want to. And while, somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m all too aware there’s an Excel file lying dormant in the far reaches of my computer, at the front of my mind, and much bigger, there’s an awareness that I like to sit on the couch and watch Dexter much more than I like doing any real and actual work, or, indeed, moving much. If it wasn’t for the fall programming break, I would have starved to death years ago.

In principle, the end goal of this kind of hyper-organisation is one of freedom. It stands to reason that if I can get all the things I want to get done out of the way in an intelligent, timely manner, then I will be a) more productive in general, b) more relaxed, and c) left with more time to enjoy my leisure time, as there will be fewer things to crowd in and demand my attention throughout the day.

In practice, this usually goes south in a matter of hours, if not minutes, because inevitably, I fall victim to my various psychological resistances⁴ to accomplishing anything beyond keeping my Spam folder clean of advertisements for Viagra⁵ or, ironically, spamming everyone foolish enough to not have blocked me from their feed yet with constant, unremitting Facebook status updates⁶.

Trying to move past this self-destructive streak is like Tobey Maguire fighting the Sandman in Spiderman 3. No matter what punches you throw, no matter how relentlessly you fight, no matter how hard you hit… you’re still in a terrible, terrible, bad, awful film, and Topher Grace is the only one getting away with his dignity intact.

Knowing this, I still press on.

After returning from the US earlier this year, I decided I needed a plan. I decided I needed direction and structure and motivation. I decided I would put together a list of 20 goals – no more, no less – and knock them over, one by one. I chose to keep the list contained to 20 because I knew I have a tendency to over-burden myself, and, by attempting to do too much, in fact accomplish nothing⁷.

20! I said to myself. And no more! I refuse to fall into the same trap again!

25! I said to myself, one week later. And no more!

I gave myself three months. 25 things across 12 weeks; a mix of the easy and the hard, the time-sensitive and the expansive, the achievable and the requiring of divine assistance.

Given that Plan A hadn’t gone as hoped, I decided to name this goal list Plan B.

Part One.

I enjoy headings.

I completed 17 of the 25 items by the time my self-imposed time limit was done, and the 8 remaining were in varying stages of completion. Not bad, for a first run, I said to myself. And I can’t believe Joe Biden didn’t write back. I thought he was cool. And then, as I was coming back (again) from the USA (again) a few weeks ago, on my Virgin Australia flight, thirty thousand feet above the Pacific Ocean, I started sketching out Plan B, Part Two.

Again, 20 items. Again, 12 weeks. But this time, I decided, I would expand my knowledge base. I would husband the gaps in my ability with the intelligence of others. I would create a Facebook group, and ask for the insight and advice of the people I knew. I would access their knowledge and know-how and make my tasks simpler. Running 10K? What do I know about running 10K? Nothing, that’s what.

But I knew I knew people who did.

I created my group, sent out my invites, and got to the work of creating my list of goals.

Very quickly, the replies started to pour back in, and I nodded, sagely, to myself. There it is, Simon, I thought. Proof. Undeniable proof. You’re a genius. No one has ever thought of anything this smart ever. And I started reading through the accumulated wisdom of my peers.

Alice: Hey, do you know every time you update something, I get an email?

Ben: Hey, do you know every time you make a change on this group, Facebook emails me?

Rachel: ARGH WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING TO MY INBOX?

If you have no experience with the new Facebook Groups system, what you may not know is that the new default settings mean:

  1. People don’t have the option of choosing to say yes to group membership. If you invite them, they are automatically added and it’s left up to them to choose to leave.
  2. People have to additionally uncheck, rather than check, their approval of receiving notifications about each and every single thing that happens in said group.

If you have no experience with the new Facebook Groups system, what you quickly find out is that everyone gets annoyed by:

  1. Receiving 40 odd emails informing them of every single thing that’s written, in a group that
  2. they didn’t agree to joining in the first place.

After posting groveling apologies within the group, as my status and via email, and wondering aloud at the wisdom of a system that could, technically, allow me to add anyone I was friends with to a group titled anything I wanted, take a screenshot of their membership, and then send said screenshot to their place of employment, families, and Fantasy Baseball leagues, I started hastily deleting people from the group so they didn’t receive more of the same messages.

Once again, I blame Zuckerburg for everything.

That has ever happened to me.

However.

Wildly non-helpful mass emailing of the people I had asked to help me aside, I managed to get my twenty-goal list up and exposed to the accumulated genius of the group.

  1. 8 weeks of Spanish revision
  2. Complete and launch an in-progress e-publishing idea
  3. Complete and submit an in-progress non-fiction proposal
  4. Complete and submit an in-progress scripted TV pilot pitch in the States
  5. Write four pieces for magazine submission
  6. Write my reading list for 2011
  7. Write my writing list for 2011 (list of lists are some of my favourite lists)
  8. 12 weeks of working out and swimming
  9. Take my tri-weekly runs from 5K to 10K (or 3.1 miles to 6.2 miles)
  10. Clean and organise everything
  11. A new laptop
  12. A new camera
  13. Pay off my credit card debt
  14. Write 4 pieces for TNB
  15. Work out where to take my Plan B in 2011
  16. Take better care of my skin
  17. Complete and submit an in-progress scripted TV pitch in Australia
  18. Plan out a vacation with some friends over Christmas
  19. Work out a way to live in the USA again
  20. Make $50K.

Some are designed to be easy. Writing lists of books I want to read, or avenues of publication I’d like to follow up? Easy. Surprisingly fun. And a good way to get some items knocked off straight off the bat and build some momentum. And I don’t have to break anyone’s legs (or put myself in a position where someone will break mine) to pay off my minor credit card debt; I simply wanted to be aware of it.

I have less than no idea how to make fifty grand in twelve weeks. But I figured it’s good to have something to shoot for. Also, I’d really like fifty thousand dollars.

And after the initial hurdles, advice flooded in. Don Mitchell and Kristen Elde provided help with running tips and guidelines for how to avoid injury. Photographer friends gave me advice on good camera buys. People told me what worked for their skin, for making housecleaning easy, for pitching scripts. People mentioned friends of their I should get in touch with; and, if nothing good is on TV tonight, I’m sure I will.

So far I’ve completed items #6, #7, #10, and #11, and made a start, at least, on every single other item.

Which is just as well, because with my schedule, it’s really hard to get anything done.









¹ The damnation of wasted time, and the searching hands of the Devil of an unrealistic budget. Also of my friend Clue, who has boundary issues and makes us all feel really uncomfortable.

² And if Cobalt Larry don’t get his end, you best believe someone’s going in the cobalt.

³ Life List Item #82: Be Mayor of Somewhere.*

* Seriously.

⁴ See: Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Paralysed/Maladaptive Perfectionism, and Gerard Butler-by-Proxy

⁵ Where do they keep coming from? Who keeps doing this?

⁶ Everything I think and do is interesting.

⁷ AKA Three Stooges Syndrome.

Departure

At half past five in the morning on a Wednesday Melbourne Airport is empty anyone but airline staff. The sun hasn’t yet risen, and the big bay gate windows face out into a vast darkness broken only by blinking red lights and the dim movement of the great shapes of planes.

Deserted airports are unsettling places. As many of the flights I’ve taken have been during peak traffic hours, I’m used to being surrounded by people; long lines of people, stretching away from the check-in desks manned by energetic, white-shirted staff with great skin, or waiting to be herded through the thin cream plastic gateways of metal detectors while security guards turn their heads away to joke with each other, but never with passengers, or standing bored at the boarding gate, the long blue-carpeted corridor and the sense of forward momentum that just being on a plane brings only a tantalising few steps away.

Sitting here all by myself is a little eerie.

I want to stay awake as long as I can, in order to reset to California time faster – if I can go to sleep eight hours into the flight from Brisbane, I’ll be well on the way to coaching my body over the line and past the worst of the jetlag on the other side of waking. But because I’m up so early, I’m already fatigued, and if I go to sleep too soon, I’ll end up setting myself back further. My plan is to sustain myself by drinking thin, complimentary airline coffee, the taste of which, inexplicably, I love anyway, and focusing on some writing I want to get done until it’s time to sleep.

The flight from Melbourne to Brisbane is OK, although Brisbane Airport is no place for a young man. Leathery middle-aged women with missing teeth and low-cut pink halter tops over their flat and freckled breasts and entire families resplendent in identical rat-tail mullets and Juicy Couture roam the halls, delighted with the presence of a solitary Krispy Kreme outlet staffed by a lone and defeated Indian man.

I make it through to my gate and find there’s no one here, either. Just a long concourse, clinical and neat in its white tiles and in its empty tables and chairs. It’s quiet; lifeless in a way that seems to have no expectation of ever being anything but.

Where is everyone today?

People arrive and sit in pairs and groups around the departure desk throughout the next hour. When boarding is announced and I take my seat on the plane to Los Angeles I wonder idly if there are going to be any young children sitting nearby. I’m situated two rows behind the main bulkhead, and as the plane starts to fill, my insides clench. Beside me is a family with an infant. To my right, a family with two toddlers. Ahead of me, two more families with young kids. As I watch, another two families, infants in tow, come down the aisle and take the rows across the aisle to my left.

‘Isn’t this nice!’ one mother exclaims to another. ‘All these families here! All the kids can play together!’

On cue, one of the younger babies starts to bawl, which sets off another on the other side of this grid of horror, this devil’s game of tic-tac-toe I have found myself imprisoned in.

‘Excuse me,’ I say to a stewardess as she walks past. ‘I see a seat up ahead is spare. Do you think I could…?’

Thank God, thank God, thank God I’m so good-looking, I think. She’s going to give me anything I want.

‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ she says, smiling professionally. ‘That’s Premium Economy. I can’t let you sit there. But there are some seats spare down the back. After take-off, you could go and have a look to see if there are any still free? If someone else hasn’t beaten you to it?’

‘Thank you,’ I say, and sink back into my seat for take-off.

As soon as the fasten seatbelts light chimes off, I’m up and moving. Like a hungry ghost, I fly down the aisle.

And I see it.

It.

An oasis of solitude – empty seat surrounded by empty seat surrounded by empty seat; row after row of unreserved space. With one smooth motion, I strip my jacket from around my shoulders and launch it through the air. It soars in a graceful arc, its empty arms lifting like the eagle wings of sweet liberty herself, and lands perfectly in the middle seat of one of the empty rows, a message to the thieves and jackals who couldn’t think as fast as I: mine.

That night we hit the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced, and my three empty seats bring me no comfort. High above the Pacific, one of my three blankets tucked under my chin, and my three pillows gently cushioning my head against the shakes and buffets of the squalling wind beneath our wings, I close my eyes and think  Goddamnit. I’m never going to get to sleep on this flight.

I am right, and my next chance to close my eyes and rest comes at LAX. I catch a fifteen minute nap there, and thank God for the opportunity to sleep on the connecting flight to SFO, even if its only for an hour or so. After I’ve taken my seat, a pale and tousle-haired hipster kid slinks his way down the aisle. He is wearing jeans so tight I worry for his future children’s IQ, and a loose beige cardigan that matches his perfectly dishevelled, scruffy hair. He sits next to me, and before I take my nap I wonder what he would do if I warned him that sometimes I scream in my sleep.

But I do not, and I’m sure I will be sorry for this later.¹

*

Arrival

It’s Wednesday, still, more than twenty four hours later, and I wake from a deep and dreamless sleep as we’re touching down in San Francisco and catch a taxi from the airport to my hotel. The Huntington is a towering old building just below the top of Nob Hill on California Street that I can only afford because of the cut-rate prices on Priceline.com. My room number is 11-11, which I take as a good omen.

‘What brings you here?’ the desk clerk asks as I’m signing in.

‘Halloween, man,’ I say. It is the first of a hundred times this week I will say this.

‘You came just for Halloween?’ he asks. ‘Really?’

It is the first of a hundred times someone will ask this.

I shower and unpack before heading down the hill to buy toiletries and food and coffee. I’m here. I’ve done it. This is my time.

At last, I will have my Halloween.

*

Inside Baseball

It’s Thursday, and Meredith texts that she and her friends are going to watch Game 2 in a bar in Glen Park. On arrival, I am greeted by a sea of Giants fans in orange and black, and a buzz of friendly noise. I order a drink, Meredith introduces me, and I have to ask the group: ‘So how do you play this game?’

The rules are explained to me, and suddenly the bar erupts as we score against Texas.

‘OK!’ A, one of Meredith’s friends says. ‘Let’s drink a shot every time we score!’

In the eighth inning, Posey singles up the middle. Holland walks Schierholtz and Ross to load the bases, then walks Huff. Lowe walks Uribe, Rentería singles to left field, and Ross and Huff score. In the space of five minutes, the Giants score six runs, and we decide it may be in our best interests to abandon the drink-a-shot-whenever-we-score rule. Instead, we start drinking freely, and when the game ends with us victorious, we pour out into the night looking for another bar.

This is much better than any Australian sport.

*

Before Halloween

Just as I’d hoped, Halloween is everywhere and by serendipitous coincidence, with the city in the Series, the streets are decked out in orange and black.

Everywhere I look, there are carved pumpkins on porches,  or toy ghosts hanging in store windows, or cartoon witches soaring on broomsticks through supermarket shelves.

It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life.

My first real taste of the day comes as I’m getting a haircut at a salon a floor above street level. ‘Oh, quick!’ Joey the hairdresser says and puts down her scissors. ‘The kids from one of the schools nearby are trick-or-treating! You have to come see this, you’re going to love it!’

She drags me to the window and from our viewpoint about the street we can see the long lines of kids, held in formation by the watchful shapes of teachers, dotted at regular intervals along the column, dressed in costume. Sunlight glints off astronaut helmets, off fairy wings, off the blades of cutlasses worn through belts.

I hate all of the children. Their bright and shining faces remind me that this could have – should have – been mine, and it never was.

Also, one of them has a bitchin’ Lady Gaga outfit.

I could never pull that off, and I know it.

Saturday night is Meredith’s all-girl football team fundraiser. Ten bucks at the door buys unlimited PBR, and Sue’s packing a giant bowl of Jello shots. Me and Zhu and Emily, Kate and Tara and Lindsey, and Lyn and Erin and Casey shout at the TV as the Rangers take the lead in Game 3 and beat the Giants. We turn to the bottomless PBR to drown our sorrow. Someone puts twenty bucks in the jukebox. The fundraiser tails into an invitation to a house party in the Mission, and we drag ourselves away from Stray Bar in Bernal Heights and work our way there across 18th, across Dolores, by bicycle, by taxi, by car.

The house party is being held by someone named Tersch, a werewolf with a kitchen full of Brazilians. She paints my face in black and red and shows me where the drinks are.

Zhu and I make it our unspoken mission to have more fun than anyone else here. We drink the unfinished Jello shots, we shoot Tersch’s whiskey, and when someone starts passing around a bottle of Jager, we can’t seem to avoid it. Twenty minutes into the party, Zhu’s doing a handstand against the wall and I’m holding onto her boots while she drinks a cup of water upside down to cure her hiccups. A nerd and a Native American and Cupid look on and laugh as Zhu proclaims her temporary illness finally fixed.

Somehow, a half dozen of us end up sitting on the side of the street, under a blanket in the bed of Cupid’s truck, crowds of hundreds of migratory Halloweeners laughing and partying and shouting out around us. Someone steals Tara’s crutch while we’re not looking, and I run across the street to ask security at the nearby street party if they’ve seen it.

I see a girl sitting holding onto a crutch and I think Aha! I’ve got you now!

Then I see she’s wearing a giant moon boot.

‘Can I help you?’ she asks.

‘Oh.’ I say. ‘Well, see, someone stole my friend’s crutch, and I thought… ‘

She looks at me, and with the honesty of someone who’s been drinking for about six straight hours, I say ‘I figured maybe you’d be the kind of awful human being who would steal someone’s crutch, but now I see that you have that big boot on, so you probably need your crutch, but I kinda hoped that whoever stole the crutch maybe thought it was part of a costume, because who steals a crutch? So I came over to check, but it looks like you actually legitimately need your crutch, and you didn’t steal it from my friend. Oh. Both of your crutches, I see.’

‘Your poor friend!’ she says. ‘I wish I could give her one of my crutches.’

‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘Anyway, I’m gonna go.’

*

Halloween

It’s Sunday, and I’m going to meet  friends in a bar in Bernal Heights to watch Game 4 and grab a few quiet drinks. I catch the 22 to the top of the hill, and when I get off, the sky is still that perfect hazy shade of powder blue and ice-cream white.

I have no way of knowing that Bernal Heights is where people take their children for trick-or-treating. It’s like the whole suburban neighbourhood turns into a small town for the night – I crest the hill to see an ocean of people with their children, everyone in costume, wishing each other the best and knocking on doors. Jack O’Lanterns sit outside houses and stores alike; ghosts and witches hang from streetlights, the doors of haunted houses are thrown open to reveal thick cobwebs and polished skulls and grinning demons.

This is so perfect I’m almost on the verge of tears. This is everything I ever wanted from my childhood, and it’s right here. This is exactly how I pictured Halloween as being when I was a kid. I move through the crowd, taking photos, talking and smiling and never wanting to be anywhere but here.

*

Fear the Beard

It’s Monday night and Meredith and I are in the Mission. We’re sitting and watching Game 5 with two friends of hers. Lincecum is pitching what may turn out to be the game of his life – firing off eight innings of death from the mound. I wonder if he’s related to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and why his face looks like it’s always going to crumple into tears.

The ninth rolls around with the score 3-1 to the Giants.  Wilson takes the mound. He strikes out Hamilton, Guerrero grounds out, and Cruz takes the plate.

We’re watching the game on a TV with a delay of maybe two seconds, so as we see Wilson wind up for his final pitch and a roar suddenly goes up over the Mission, we know we’ve won.

Meredith and I take to the streets to meet some people I know, and the city has become a madhouse. Everywhere, Giants fans are roaring, running through the streets, slamming their palms down onto the horns in their cars. There are cops and roadblocks in the Castro, while people shout and sing and throw rolls of toilet paper over the streetlights. No one is inside; it’s like we just won every war that’s ever been fought.

Later that night, as I’m walking down Market Street, I come to a pedestrian crossing in front of a line of cars that goes back three blocks.

Unable to help myself, I yell ‘Go Giants!’ and the intersection explodes with the sound of people calling back to me and honking their horns. I’ve never seen anything like it.

The next day I read that people were burning mattresses in the streets.

Those guys party much harder than I do.

*

Jornada del Muerto

It’s Tuesday, and we’re in a giant open warehouse with a skull-headed DJ playing beats. For five dollars, make-up artists will paint your face with spray guns, shading paints, brushes and pads and pencils. But there are too many people here, and the line is too long, and the parade starts at seven. Zoe takes me to the DIY table and makes me up with black eyes, a hollow nose, and lipless teeth. She makes up Lexy too, before we head off for the parade. The organiser with giant hoops in his ears is bitchy about giving me my money back.

‘Well, I guess you’ll have to get here earlier next year, won’t you?’ he says.

Well, I guess that would help if I lived here.

Five of us start off through the Mission, following the route of the parade for Dia de Los Muertos, but Zoe’s stylist, whose name I can’t remember, hangs back to meet some people. Lexy and I and the other girl, another forgotten name, lose Zoe, then find her, then I lose the group. We stay in phone contact as I wander through crowds of the dead. Hundreds, thousands. Skulls and candles and offerings are everywhere. A giant black coach emblazoned with calaveras moves slowly through the mass of people that packs the streets. People hoist paper skeletons high on poles. Dead women in white dresses and dead men in black suits move through the crowd to the beat of graveyard drums.

I find myself at the head of the parade; dancers in long headgear shake and writhe under long banners. Somehow, I’ve overshot the mark of meeting everyone. There’s an anonymity here, all of us dead together and reaching out to offer a spark of life and love to that other black world that crowds in around us tonight.

I can’t believe I’ve never been to Dia de Los Muertos before.

This is the best week ever.


 

*

San Francisco

It’s Wednesday, and I start to realise just how much I miss it here as I walk into Walgreen’s for the first time.

I miss the way the light breaks over the top of houses in Bernal Heights and Noe Valley.

I miss the way coffee shops with dark wooden interiors and twentysomethings with yoga mats using Apple computers sit alongside Starbucks full of professionals with that wholesome mid-Western American look.

I miss that cold clean breeze that moves through the streets when the end of the afternoon starts to deepen into the start of twilight, and I miss the inexorable chill that signals the sun is going down.

I miss standing on the porch in the Castro and seeing the city spread out in front of me at night.

While I’m here, I walk from Chinatown to City Lights bookstore. I catch the Muni as much as I’m able, from Powell to Church, to the Castro. I catch the BART out to the Mission. I walk through Nob Hill, through the Mission, through the Embarcadero. At long last, I catch a cable car. I sit in Barnes and Noble and drink caramel lattes, and I want to be back here.

We drink at the Lex, we drink at the Argus, we drink at Stray Bar. We get coffee at Philz, at La Taza, at Urban Bread.

I get lunch with Angela Tung, and a bird relieves itself in my hair.

I sit in Dolores Park with Meredith, and we talk about traveling and settling down.

I buy a Giants cap at the Westfield Mall, and, unwittingly, take off and throw away the hologram on the brim that will result in it being worth money some day. I don’t care; I’m never selling this thing.

I promise myself that I’m going to get back here. Some way or another.

 

*

Los Angeles

It’s Wednesday, and I arrive, exhausted, at the Grafton, on Sunset. I make a couple of calls, send a few texts, and open up my laptop  to discover that the loose casing (my fault) has finally cost me. A wire is visibly broken, and my computer won’t turn on. I sit down on the bed and wake up the next morning.

*

My American Year

It’s Thursday, and my friend Erinn comes into town from Ventura and spends the day ferrying me around. We go to Olvera Street and I buy a bunch of Dia de Los Muertos souvenirs for people. I pick up a 50-piece jigsaw puzzle for my mother, suddenly acutely aware that I have never once brought her back anything from overseas.

Better late than never, right?

We head out to the beach and I insist we find a place where I can buy a yearly planner for 2011. My reasoning is that if I buy it in America, it will be a sign to the universe that 2011, for me, will be a year spent in America.

I’m wearing my Giants cap, and we pass a woman wearing the same as we cross the streets.

‘Go Giants!’ I say, cheerfully. The woman stares at me blankly as we walk past.

‘Who were you talking to?’ Erinn asks. I shake my head and make a note not to show off any more.

Then as we’re in line at Barnes and Noble, where I’ve found a planner I like, I see a guy wearing a Giants cap two places ahead at the counter. He sees me looking at my hat as I see him looking at mine. He doesn’t say a word, just gives me a silent, satisfied nod of affirmation. Erinn laughs beside me.

‘Yeah,’ she says. ‘I saw.’

*

The Usual Suspects

It’s Thursday night and I can’t help it; if I think of Hollywood I think of Los Angeles, if I think of Los Angeles, I think of Lenore and Duke. If I think of Lenore or Duke, I think of Los Angeles, and I think of Hollywood. It’s just the way it goes.

Lenore and Duke pick me up from my hotel and we go to Delancey’s for dinner. I like that this is where we go when we’re together in Los Angeles, like it’s kind of where you go if you write for TNB. There’s an empty place at the table for four, and we allocate it to Zara, who calls a few moments into the meal. The food, as always, is good. Duke gets the chocolate cake for dessert, and I am jealous, as his choice is superior to mine.

It’s good to see them, and it’s strange to think I just got here and already I’ll be leaving tomorrow night. On the way back to the car we pass a cat who wants to play with us, and we decide that Zara’s place in the group can be taken by our new cat friend.

I secretly cannot wait to tell Zara she has been replaced by a cat.

*

Departures

It’s Friday, and I’m hanging out with my friend Linz. I’ve stolen Ben Loory’s delicatessen, Greenblatt’s. This is his place, as far as I’m concerned, but I want the hot pastrami dip sandwich. I must have it. I can have nothing else. The waitress is from San Diego and makes idle chatter as we wait about how good San Diego is, but has trouble pulling out specifics.

‘Hang on,’ I say. ‘We’re going to settle something.’

I call Joe Daly and ask him what the best place in San Diego is.

‘My house,’ he says, sounding surprised that such a question would even occur.

I promise Joe that Zara and I will make our next trip soon, and we will come to San Diego.

The day goes by too quickly, and soon I am back at LAX. I talk in my bad Spanish to the woman in front of me at the security checkpoint. She is from Colombia and going to Wisconsin, of all places. She is old, with bad teeth and a shy smile. We sit together after going through the metal detectors and put our shoes back on. Something falls from her bag, a piece of paper, and I hand it back to her.

‘Gracias, senor,’ she says.

‘De nada, senora,’ I say in reply. ‘Que tenga un bueno noche.’

‘Si,’ she says. ‘Y tu.’

I have no idea how to say, ‘I’ve had one of the best weeks of my life and I don’t want to go back to Australia yet,’ in Spanish. We haven’t covered that at El Patio Spanish Language School. So I smile and go to catch my flight, and in my head, I am laying plans for my return.

This week I have had my first baseball game, my first Halloween, my first Dia de Los Muertos. I have drunk my first Old-Fashioned, eaten my first tamale, done whatever it is you do with your first Jello shots. I have seen people I love and don’t see enough, people I don’t see nearly as much as I want to, because they’re so far away.

I could do this week every day of the year.

 

 

 

 





¹ – correct.


I don’t have many memories from kindergarten. I remember Paul Angelos, heavyset and Greek and the first bully our class ever encountered¹, scrawling a curse word on the side of our bright red plastic playhouse. I remember guiltily stealing an intricately-detailed toy space shuttle that had been die-cast from some kind of dense metal – I stowed it in my palm and could still hide it completely by closing my fingers, such was its size, and yet it had considerable heft, and dragged at me in my pockets as I walked out of the gate and home. I remember also a night one December when my father read Christmas stories to a group of us as we sat cross-legged in pajamas around his chair; what stands out most in my mind is that it was the first time I’d heard ‘Saint Nick’ used as a sobriquet for Santa Claus.

SS: Hi, Cynthia Hawkins! I’ve been enjoying your cinema posts on TNB; given that people are discussing and deconstructing literature and music and poetry it seems only fair that film is included. I’m glad you’re picking up the slack on that front, and I’m glad you seem to have become TNB’s resident movie buff. However, for this particular piece I’m not even going to make an attempt to go highbrow or even to attempt a neat segue … because what I’d really like to discuss is ’80s action flicks. The ’80s (to me) seems to be when action movies really hit their stride. I’m talking Terminator, Aliens, Die Hard, Predator… First Blood, Tango and Cash, Commando. This was the golden age of guys like Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Do you think there’s a defining quality, or qualities, to the action films that were such an iconic part of the 1980s?

CH: Why, hello, Simon Smithson! You don’t know how happy it makes me to take up any slack there might be in the TNB movie department. Finally, I feel as if my movie-geekness is being used for good instead of evil. And by evil I mean being unbeatable at Scene It on X-Box. It’s like I finally have a true purpose now, and that purpose is to talk about ’80s action flicks with Simon Smithson. I’d say ’80s action flicks were equal parts mullet, saxophone, slip-on shoes, and kicking ass. But more importantly, I think what seems to set the ’80s action flicks apart as a golden era is that they departed from the gritty realism of the ’70s action flicks and took action movies over the top. Everything was bigger and flashier — the actors, their personalities, the explosions. The same thing was happening in music as well, if you think about it. It’s like going from Boston to Motley Crue.

SS: Well, if you were to have any kind of life purpose, you probably couldn’t get better than talking about ’80s action flicks with yours truly.

Obviously, I’m kidding.

There’s no place for the word ‘probably’ in that sentence.

Do you think advances in special effects had anything to do with the hallmarks of the era? The technical ability catching up with the film-makers’s vision? Because you’re so right – reality went straight out the window. Suddenly, the archetypal story became the one guy, killing a whole bunch of other guys, in the most explosive ways possible, and kind of enjoying himself while he did it.

CH: Your description of the jubilant one-guy killing machine immediately brings to mind Bruce Willis yelling “Yippee ki yay, mother fucker!” in Die Hard. That has to be the quintessential ’80s movie moment. It has everything except a mullet. Now that you mention it, I don’t think the bombast of the era could have been facilitated without those advancements. But it’s funny to think of them as “advancements” now. I remember at the time The Terminator was, in true James Cameron fashion, supposed to be the second-coming of movies thanks to its use of the absolute latest in special effects. Watch that now, though, and it looks a bit chintzy by today’s standards.

In fact, it’s a little hard to pinpoint ’80s action films that do stand the test of time, whether that’s due to the special effects or not. They tend to be so very ’80s even when they aren’t supposed to be. Take Young Guns, for example. A western, so I’m veering a little from the action genre here, but even Billy the Kid has a mullet in Young Guns. And I’m pretty sure there’s a Casio on the soundtrack. The ’80s flicks unabashedly embrace the tastes and trends of the era in ways I don’t necessarily notice films in the decades after doing to that same degree. It’s not too much of a distraction for me, though. I love The Terminator anyway, even if a shot does look like an egg beater getting mangled in a high-school wood-shop vice. Since this is one of your favourite eras and genres, I’m wondering if there are a few that do stand the test of time for you — or if perhaps their rebellious refusal to do so might be part of their allure?

SS: I think you’re right – there’s so much about ’80s movies as a whole – not just action flicks – that are so soaked in the unique ambience of the decade that it’s impossible to see them as anything else. In terms of special effects, some films stand the test of time… some really don’t. So much of a film’s longevity comes down to storytelling, and so much comes down to how and what special effects are being used, and how judiciously – Aliens, for example. The menace is hinted at in darkness, and done with model work as opposed to the shoddy early-era CGI that started coming in afterwards. And it’s amazing how the monsters in Aliens look so much realer than the creature in Alien 3.

I think what makes an action film stand the test of time is – and I’m loath to say this, I really am – honesty. For want of a better word.

Take Die Hard, for instance. It was a new take on a genre that was still being figured out; the storyline was one everyman up against terrible odds, he’s human, he’s damaged, he keeps getting beaten down… then compare that to Die Hard 4.0, which is slick and highly-produced and had tens of millions thrown at it in post-production. Die Hard is, by far, the better, more memorable, and more re-watchable film. Because I think they were still taking risks and trying new things and working from an idea rather than market research and exit polls, as opposed to the hollowness of Die Hard 4.0. Even though, I guess, Die Hard was one of the films that moved action films into the ’90s.

So. Schwarzenegger. Stallone. Willis. Van Damme. Russell. Norris.

Any particular favourite? And why?

CH: I noticed you left Mel Gibson off that list. Does his sharp turn into utter misogynistic, racist madness cancel him out of ’80s flick glory? Talk about things that can make a movie largely unwatchable. Is it possible to watch his Three-Stooges flip-out scenes as Riggs in Lethal Weapon without inserting that weird animal huffing followed by something like, “And I’m gonna chop you up in little pieces and put you in the garden! Rawr!” Tsk, tsk, Mel. You coulda been a contenda.

Stallone. I’d have to say Stallone is the stand-out for the variety of iconic characters he portrayed, the success of the majority of his films, and the fact that his works span that entire decade (whereas someone like Bruce is just getting started at the end of it). Stallone’s characters tend to be dark, brooding outsiders, which always appeals to me because there’s something in that darkness that implies this person is capable of wreaking serious havoc without a moment’s notice. You have faith in this person no matter the odds.

It’s an interesting list you’ve created, though, because each of them had such strong and distinct personalities driving their films. And if there’s anyone I’d cross off it’d be because their personalities just don’t click with me. Chuck Norris for example (I think I just unleashed the hate mail kraken!). Norris’ films just seemed comparatively sub-par in my estimation and his characters weren’t quite compelling enough to remedy that for me. I know I’ll meet with dissenters on that score, and I’ll probably deserve it.

I expect you to answer this question of favourites now, because if I’m going out on a limb here you’re coming with me compadre!

SS: Mel has, unfortunately, lost all cachet with me. Even home-town pride only goes so far, you know?

I have to go for Stallone as well. He gets a lot of flak for his less cerebral roles (which, let’s be fair, sums up most of them), but I would have dinner with him any day of the week.

Admittedly, he would pay.

The guy wrote Rocky when he was 30 and won an Academy Award for it. Say what you like, that’s a better script than I see myself writing at 30. He threw himself into action roles – First Blood is a good movie too; there’s a reason the word ‘Rambo’ became synonomous with the genre – but there’s a lot of darkness and thought that went into Stallone’s performance. I’ve never actually seen a Norris film – I just suspect I wouldn’t care for him, and I don’t really feel any yearning to challenge that assumption.

It’s interesting you say ’80s flick glory – because there’s a lot of glorying going on in ’80s actions flicks. I can’t help but link it to the fact the US was riding high in the ’80s – there’s even a scene in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where they talk about how people aren’t patriotic any more, and Mac says ‘Not like we were in the ’80s!’

Your thoughts on this matter, Ms. Hawkins?

CH: You do realize that there are now parts of the U.S., Texas mostly, in which we’ll only be able to travel incognito due to our Norris sentiments. And I live in Texas. There’s such a fervour over Norris of late, and I haven’t figured out if it’s a joke (like nominating Carrie for prom queen) or if it’s genuine admiration for the guy. I think I’ll quietly tiptoe away from this one and move along…

Oh, I absolutely agree that the bigness of those movies is reflective of the bigness of America’s collective sense of self at the time. I’ve always suspected that the best way to get a handle on any era is through its pop-culture. That said, this is the U.S.A. of the ‘80s based on Rocky IV: “If all we have is a donkey cart to train on, we can still kick your ass. And we will do it to synthesizers. Now, step back and take in the awesomeness of my shimmery satin stars-and-stripes shorts.”

But this reminds me that as much as we love them, these films aren’t entirely representative. They’re largely white, and they’re largely male-centric. Your thoughts on this, Mr. Smithson? (It’s like I just dropped a grenade at your feet and ran away!)

…Okay, I’m starting to feel bad for sticking you with analyzing 80’s flicks for NOT ONLY issues of race but gender as well. I mean, sweet jeebus, how much time do you have? If you’d rather, I was also going to ask you about what you thought of Stallone’s comment regarding the “death” of the genre as it was envisioned in the 80’s. If you’d rather go that route, here’s the official set-up…

Ahem…

So, Stallone told the Los Angeles Times recently that he felt Tim Burton’s Batman marked the beginning of the end for the 80’s-style action hero such as himself. Suddenly, someone more ordinary, less ripped, someone like Michael Keaton, could be the hero. He also felt that the “visuals took over,” becoming more important than the individual. Do you think the 80’s brand of action movie and action hero is truly dead? And, if so, would you agree with Stallone’s assessment of why? I’ll remind you he’s still really big and he’s buying you dinner.

SS: But wasn’t that what America was all about in the ’80s? White guys kicking ass all over the world? Even if they had a decidedly non-American accent. Huh. Can I even say this? Wesley Snipes didn’t become an action hero until Passenger 57, in ’92. Jackie Chan didn’t break for Western audiences until Rumble in the Bronx, which was what, ’95? Bruce Lee was a one-off in Hollywood, so it was up to Chan to open the market for guys like Jet Li and Stephen Chow. Carl Weathers and Bill Duke were probably the most well-known mainstream non-white action stars, and Sigourney Weaver was the sole representative for female heroes (although she beat the other guys to the punch – Alien was ’79). I don’t know, can you think of many other non-white, non-male action stars with the same level of notoriety?

As for the Batman idea… that’s really interesting. I remember reading that there was an outcry surrounding Burton’s decision to go with casting Keaton; people thought Keaton, known up until then primarily for comedic roles, couldn’t pull it off. I would say Stallone was right on the money there – although I think visuals probably would have been just as over-the-top as they are now, if they’d just had the technology at the time to do them. There is an element of escalation – action movies have to keep upping the ante, it seems, which could be one of the reasons they’re becoming so blase and staid.

I think now we’re seeing a combination of 80s and 90s heroes. Bond and Bourne and Batman are just as buff as their 80s forebears ever were – it’s become mandatory to have an shot of someone’s amazingly-ripped body as they train or fight; every film since Fight Club has sought to include it (Pitt’s toplessly muscular fight scenes set the gold standard). But they also have to be psychologically fascinating – the best of both worlds?

And of course, that brings us to The Expendables

CH: I think you’ve covered it well! If there is, by chance, any non-white or non-male kick-ass action hero we’ve left off, I think the fact we’ve forgotten them says it all about their unfortunate status in the ‘80s. I distinctly remember watching Burton’s Batman and feeling really anxious at one point when it seemed Batman was utterly defeated. He’d just gotten the crap beat out of him. His Batmobile was trashed. And I thought, “What is this? Stallone would have had this wrapped up twenty minutes ago.” Of course, he manages, just barely, to get out of trouble, but Burton’s vision of the action hero introduced a level of vulnerability and ordinariness you just didn’t see often in the ’80s. I think that’s the direction the action hero has continued to go coupled with that attention to visuals Stallone laments.

So … The Expendables. Have you seen it? Is it on where you are? I’m going this weekend, so I’ll report back on it afterward. I was going to avoid it, actually, but after our chat I’m feeling a little nostalgic for that bunch. Except maybe Dolph Lundgren. I’m not feeling nostalgic for Dolph. At all. Until then… I really want to know two things. What is it about this era of action movies that appeals to you, and if I asked you to queue up one of these films to watch this evening which one would it be?

SS: Are you kidding? Lundgren is one of the unmoveable Scandinavian pillars of the action genre. He’s blonde death incarnate. At least, he’s blonde death incarnate up until the last five minutes of any film, when he usually gets iced by the hero. Did you know he has a master’s degree in Chemistry, speaks seven languages, and competed in the Olympics? Which makes two ex-Olympians in The Expendables, along with Statham (and yes, it will shortly be on where I am, and yes, I am going to see it).

I think the simplicity of the concept is what appeals to me. There’s no pretense in ’80s action flicks – the good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, and an explosion will, most times, take care of any problems admirably. Most Hollywood movies – most movies, really – despite how high their aspirations may be, don’t really have all that much higher-level functioning to them as a matter of course. Which is OK, because, honestly, how much philosophy and understanding of the human condition can you fit into two hours of running time? Sometimes it’s nice to see something that dispenses with any kind of effort to be anything but gun porn.

Any one of those films? Damn. You know, I might go with the original Terminator. It’s been a very long time since I saw that film. Did you know that in every James Cameron film that Michael Biehn stars in, Biehn gets bitten in the hand?

I wish Snipes and Van Damme could have made it into The Expendables. That would have been perfect.

So how about you? Any single ’80s action movie?

CH: I do appreciate Lundgren for one thing: uttering the words “I must break you.”

I have to say that Die Hard, First Blood, and the first Terminator are all movies I watch more than the normal person should. So I’m going to follow your lead and pick something I haven’t seen in a very long time. Predator. For one thing, it offers one of my other favourite movie quotes with Arnold’s “you one ugly mudda fucka.” For another, it has Carl Weathers who survives just slightly longer than most non-white people do in ’80s action movies. And then there’s the awesome heat vision special effects, the jungle razing explosions, and an alien enemy who leaves its prey hanging like strips of beef jerky in the trees. What’s not to love?

SS: Nothing.

I’ve been in something of a funk, recently¹.

I’ve been pondering some of the awful life choices that have brought me to my current point in time (did I ever really and truly think my childhood detective agency, The Four Investigators, would solve a single crime of note?), and, I’m sorry to say, it’s brought me down.

I wish I had more money; I wish I had some really, really great shoes. I wish I’d read more serious literary works; surely I had the time?

And so I’ve been sifting through my mental archives, opening my files, shuddering at what I’ve found, and hastily closing them again. Every now and then, a stifled ‘FUCK!’ emerges from the darkened shelves of the Congressional Library of my memory.

It’s been a long, dark, Sunday afternoon of the soul, fitfully illuminated only by the release of the first episode of Season 2 of The Vampire Diaries and Ian Somerhalder at his very finest.

And then… inspiration.

And I realised that my current trajectory can be traced back to a single moment in time, a fulcrum point, when I struck out, horrendously, horribly, and also, kind of humorously, with a French girl who looked just like Milla Jovovich.

I don’t think it’s at all hyperbolic to say If the back-and-forth between us had been a Zeppelin launch, then it would have been the Hindenburg. Which at the time had been on a mercy mission to save orphaned kittens. And everyone who watched the footage would have suddenly caught syphilis.

And yet… I wonder.

What if I’d gotten it right? What if, rather than making an inappropriate observance on the weather, I had come up with the perfect line? The perfect thing to say in that situation to sweep my Milla Jovovich doppelganger off her feet, out of her breath, and into the pleasantly-appointed bedroom I assume her suburban host family had provided for her?

What that line would have been, I don’t know. Something about Napoleon, probably.

Although I would have avoided any references to the Western Front.

Too soon.


*

‘Ow do you feel?’ Laura asks me, her eyes clear and steady, like an ocean, in the soft rain.

‘Like Napoleon when he first set eyes on his beloved horse, Emmanuelle, ma cherie,’ I say, softly – even softer than the rain that damps our faces.

She melts, and I take her in my strong arms.

We make sweet, unconcerned, French love in the night. Already soulmates, we move back to France, where she finds me a job in her father’s boulangerie and boot-resoling store.

With my sudden disappearance, two minor parts are left unfilled in our high school performance of Whistle Down the Wind. Rather than recast any of the understudies, who are even more useless at acting than I, Mr. Ritchie, the director and year 12 drama coach, gives both parts to my friend Ben, who is already a lead. Ben’s performance of three characters is rightly received as magnificent, and he is awarded the title of Australia’s Best And Greatest Actor. He flies to Los Angeles, where the creators of 6 Feet Under swear they will have him as their own. They make David Fisher a much younger part. Michael C. Hall never gets the gig, never comes to the wider attention of the public and thus, Dexter is never created. After Oz, David Zayas cannot find work, and sinks into depression. He contracts syphilis from a prostitute he knew during his time as a New York beat cop, and dies.

I have killed David Zayas.

*

‘Ow do you feel?’ Laura asks me, her eyes open and assured, like a secret agent’s bank vault, in the tender rain.

‘As if I’ve been dosed with arsenic, mi corazon,’ I say, even more tenderly than the rain that falls on our shoulders.

‘That is Spanish,’ she says.

‘Oh.’ I say.

She swoons, and I take her in my strong arms.

We make passionate, stylish, Parisian love in the early evening. Fuelled and impassioned by true love, I write a magnum opus about a traveling Russian pony circus that touches the lives of people everywhere, and becomes a movie starring Michael C. Hall as the head pony. It is translated into dozens of languages, and I am a hero. Everywhere I go, screaming crowds scream my name and throw double handfuls of money at me, because they know that is the only thing that will get my attention these days. Laura and I move to Los Angeles, but the pressures of fame, and my growing flirtation with Milla Jovovich, who looks even more like Milla Jovovich than Laura does, lead to our bitter, acrimonious, and very public divorce. Laura flies back to France, weeping endless hot and bitter tears, her only companions her beloved pet tortoise Stuart and her new and almost totally debilitating cocaine habit.

Milla Jovovich and I go to the New York premiere of my film together. Secretly, I am destroyed by my divorce from Laura, and Milla Jovovich is getting on my nerves. I drive drunk, and I accidentally hit David Zayas, who is directing traffic. When the inevitable press comes out, Luc Besson realises that Milla Jovovich is cheating on him, and throws himself into the ocean.

Damn it.

I’ve killed David Zayas again.

And Luc Besson too.

*

‘Ow do you feel?’ Laura asks me, her eyes black and lacking in even the most basic sparks of intelligence, like her pet tortoise Stuart’s, in the gentle rain.

‘Like the guy who killed Napoleon,’ I say, gently – even more gently than the rain that is ruining our hairstyles.

She blushes, and I take her in my strong arms.

We make foolhardy, art-noveau, Eiffel Tower love in the haze of twilight. Laura reveals her family is secretly rich, and neither one of us will ever have to work again. We drop out of school and travel the world, smoking French cigarettes, wearing denim jackets and striped scarves, and getting fauxhawks before anyone else realised they were fashionable.

We go to a West End play starring Laura’s old family friend, Michael C. Hall. Laura takes me to meet him backstage after the show. Although I have never been attracted to a man before, there is an undeniable spark between the actor and I, and I yearn for him to take me in his strong arms. Laura notices the flirtation between Michael C. Hall and I, and the next week is cold and stilted, and I cannot enjoy the afternoon we spend at the Rockefeller Centre. One night, after too much red wine, she makes several cutting remarks in French. What she does not realise is that in our time together, I have learned to speak French perfectly.

Sobbing, I run from our hotel room to a nearby payphone. There is a storm. As rain pummels the glass box, I call the only person I know in New York – Michael C. Hall.

‘Can I come over?’ I plead. ‘Laura and I… we’ve had a fight.’

Michael C. Hall says of course I can come over. But David Zayas, who has long nursed a crush of his own, sees me going into Michael C. Hall’s apartment.

In a drunken fit of jealousy, David Zayas kicks down the door, and, with his service pistol, shoots me, Michael C. Hall, and then himself.

I have killed us all.

 

 

 

And Laura marries Ian Somerhalder.

 

¹ and while I’d very much like to be the boss, I’m afraid that’s just not a cost I can pay right now.

Dear National Aeronautics and Space Administration,

Sup?

I hope you are all keeping well. If there’s a guy named Todd working there, please tell Todd I say ‘Hey’. Feel free to throw ‘Toddster’ in on the end of that. So it would then become ‘Simon says hey, Toddster.’ I hope he had a good weekend, doing whatever it is the T-Man does on his spare time.

This is a very exciting weekend for all of us in Australia.

Wait, did I say exciting weekend?

I meant, ‘carnival of idiocy’.

I wish I could say this is because the jetpack I ordered from the internet has finally arrived, and hasn’t, as I feared (and ruefully suspected), turned out to be nothing more than a box of candles sent from an untraceable address in Russia (although, after my recent mail order bride debacle, could the same lightning really strike twice? All that matters is that my box of candles and I are very happy together in our trans-Adriatic wedded bliss). Because, believe me, when that jetpack finally does get here, I plan on playing host to a carnival of idiocy such as the world has never seen.

I wish I could say this is because I have won Italy’s Super EnaLotto, a jackpot that currently stands at US$165,000,000.00. Because the idiocy I would unleash in the wake of that development would make Two and a Half Men look like Einstein’s finest work; the material he released on his own underground label before he went commercial.

I wish I could say this is because I have finally gotten my hands on a US visa. Because as soon as I have carte blanche to zoom out of this country (maybe via jetpack, giant bags of money in both my hands – who’s to say?) and away from the thought – the promise –  of consequences… my God. The sheer level of idiocy I plan on inflicting on an unsuspecting populace makes my mouth go dry.

But, no. This is the much less fun version of a carnival of idiocy.

This weekend sees (at least, we hope – Jesus Christ, we hope – it sees) the final culmination of Australia’s federal political saga, in an ending that, no matter what, will please nobody.

To get to grips with what’s happening, you have to turn the clock back to 2007, which was a good year for Australian federal politics.

In 2007, John Howard had been Prime Minister for 11 years – since 1996, he had lead the Coalition of the  Liberal Party of Australia and the National Party of Australia to election victory after election victory in the House of Representatives. The Coalition is one of the two major parties in Australia – the modern Liberals are a conservative, right-leaning party that trade on their economic strengths, their abilities to keep illegal immigration in check, and a lasting appeal to Baby Boomers. The modern Nationals are much the same as the traditional Nationals – they appeal to, and support, the rural, bush, and farm populace of Australia. In Howard, the Coalition had a political streetfighter as canny as Australia had ever seen as a leader, and the Opposition, the Australian Labor Party (historically leftist, working-class and union-supported, but growing steadily more progressive over the last decade) simply could not find traction.

Howard had faced down and beaten three Labor leaders – Paul Keating, Kim Beazley, Mark Latham, and, once again, Kim Beazley. It was after Beazley’s second defeat Labor turned to the rising star and media darling Kevin Rudd, electing him leader and placing him squarely into a showdown with Howard.

And in 2007, Labor, under Rudd, was in no mood to fuck around.

(this photo was taken shortly before the time-honoured Australian political tradition of opposing leaders fighting each other with a Bowie knife in one hand and a rattlesnake in the other)

After years spent languishing in the political wilderness, Labor launched the US-inspired Kevin 07 campaign, and no one was under any illusions. The ALP had come back with all guns blazing – determined not only to win, but to take the Coalition’s mother on a date afterwards.

Rather than fall prey to the wedge politics (a favourite ploy of Howard’s) that had so often divided (and defeated) them in the past when they found themselves on dangerous policy grounds, this time… Labor simply agreed with the Coalition. On issues of progressive politics, they outlined bold new objectives, making the Coalition – and Howard in particular – look like a group of tired old white men. They recruited celebrities and star candidates to challenge the Coalition’s sitting MPs – dotcom millionaires, rock stars, newsreaders. And Rudd himself was everywhere – on daytime TV shows dancing and making chocolate cake, in the paper insisting on televised debates, on the world stage showing up Howard by addressing Hu Jintao in flawless Mandarin in a speech to the assembled political powers of China, right after Howard had done the same… in English.

When the election came, the ALP, as expected, mopped the floor with the Coalition. The final twist of the knife was that, after losing the country, John Howard lost his own electorate to one of the ALP’s star recruits, ex-journalist Maxine McKew.

We, the populace of Australia, voted the ALP into office, and we were promised great things. Rudd seemed superhuman – a man who apologised for the Stolen Generation, who forged new understandings with other nations, who made bold claims about the salvation of the environment, the stewardship of the economy, the certainty of employment for future generations.

When Obama was elected, Rudd was right there on our screens congratulating him, reaffirming the ties between Australia and the USA.

When the GFC hit, Rudd, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and Treasurer Wayne Swan pumped cash into the economy, steering Australia past the recession that engulfed so much of the rest of the world.

When the Cophenhagen forum opened to discuss global emissions targets, Rudd threw himself into an attempt to secure a binding agreement between the countries of the world.

On water, on health, on education… Rudd was there. And his popularity surged and surged again.

Until it became apparent Rudd was there a little too often. After the first few years in office, a wavering picture began to emerge of a man who slept few hours a night, who refused to delegate even the smallest decisions, who burned out staffers with demands for ever-more work to be done, who threw tantrums and who became increasingly isolated in the corridors of power.

In the meantime, the Liberals churned out and discarded new leadership candidates in the hopes of finding a new messiah. Brendan Nelson succeeded John Howard. Malcolm Turnbull succeeded Brendan Nelson. Finally, Tony Abbott, a man regarded as unelectable due to his religious beliefs, his lack of belief in climate change, his statements on women and his perceived arch-conservative position on just about everything, came to lead the Liberal Party.

As it turned out, Abbott, a political brawler and favoured son of the previous Coalition government, was just the man to unite the shattered Opposition. And, just as his star rose, Kevin Rudd’s, spectacularly, imploded.

Rudd’s failures began to stack up in the headlines, and, subsequently, the polls. A government-backed home insulation scheme that had tragically lead to house fires and deaths. A failure to introduce an Emissions Trading Scheme after declaring climate change ‘the greatest moral challenge of our generation’ (more than a failure, a capitulation). A proposed new resources tax that proved hugely unpopular and brought the Government into direct conflict with Australia’s powerful mining industry. These disasters gnawed at Rudd’s popularity until, finally, his own party conspired to bring him down. The Labor Party is known for its factionalism – one such faction, the New South Wales Right, found the inter-party numbers to cut Rudd from office and install his Deputy, Julia Gillard, as Australia’s first female Prime Minister.

Gillard called an election, and the race began.

And then when it came to the election itself… both parties lost.

As Chris Kennett has pointed out.

Neither the Labor Party nor the Coalition gained the necessary number of seats to form government in their own right. And it became clear that in order to become the next Federal Government of Australia, either party would need to enter into a power-sharing agreement with the few independent candidates who had won office.

Which has left us with the situation of the past two weeks.

Adam Bandt, the first elected MP representing the Greens party in the House of Representatives, has thrown his lot in with Julia Gillard.

Andrew Wilkie, ex-spy, Independent Member for the seat of Denison, Tasmania, has done likewise. In doing so, he has turned down the promise of one billion dollars in funding for his electorate from Tony Abbott.

Now, Gillard and Abbott are falling over themselves to throw money at the three undecided candidates who will form a minority government with either party and become the next government of this country. Gillard only needs the support of two of them; Abbott, all three.

Or, of course, we could go back to the polls and vote once more.

Because now three men control the fate of the country.

Three men. From one electorate each.

One of whom is this man.

Did I say jetpack?

Shit. I’d swim.

The populace of Australia has roundly rejected both options in the two-party system. Because they’re both awful. However, the Westminster Parliamentary System has no option for what to do after this happens. And so no one has any idea what’s going to happen next.

Apart from one thing.

Whoever loses (more so than they already have)… the bloodletting will be ferocious. Already, knives are being sharpened in Labor Party back rooms on both sides – from those who believe the backstabbing of Kevin Rudd played so badly (and it did, especially in his home state) that the public turned against Labor, and from those who believe that the disastrous leaks that exploded through the Labor campaign in the early weeks were Rudd stabbing at Gillard from hell’s heart via the media.

Australian politicians will always be ready to devour each other if they think it will bring them even slightly closer to the Prime Ministership of the country. This week, which the independents have flagged as being when they make their decision… dinner is served.

 

I had seen neither Twilight nor New Moon, and yet, shortly after touching back down into Los Angeles, I found myself at a preview screening of Eclipse with my friend Lindsey and two of her friends. As it turns out, you don’t really need to have seen the previous two movies if you’ve paid attention to any newspaper in the entire world for the last two years. Vampires, werewolves, no sex, Taylor Lautner without a shirt, and you’re good to go.

Dakota Fanning.

What a bitch.

I freakin’ love San Francisco. I mean, I love it.

It’s a weird hybrid of its own unique spirit and architecture and people, and the parts of my home town of Melbourne that make Melbourne, Melbourne. The trams, the street art, the tiny pockets of arts and culture, the live music, the bookstores (and the books)… the mix of parks and streets; green and grey. Progressive politics and e-commerce side by side; innovation and cultural projects and tiny bars down tiny streets that you have to know about to get to.

And, also, Zoe Brock!

On the flight from LA to SF I sat between a burly guy named Ken and a skinny young guy, whose name I forget. I feel a little bad that while I don’t remember his name, I remember that he misheard my introduction and called me Sam.

I like it when people mis-hear my name as Sam, which happens more often than you might think.

I wonder who this Sam guy is.

Sam Smithson.

I had no idea how many miles we had driven.

I’d lost all track of how many cities and towns and truckstops we’d been through.

The TNBers we’d met, at least, I could keep track of.

They call it the Big I, the huge, drawling loop of loops of freeways that lies on the outskirts of Albuquerque. It has eight main bridges and 47 smaller bridges, shaded a soft orangey-pink and aquamarine, rising up out of the sparse, desolate ground. It flows, a strange marriage between American highway culture and the desert; the colouring of it sits against the blue sky so perfectly that it just seems… right. Like remembering something you’ve seen in a dream but forgot until you saw it again.

It was OK, I guess.

After sudden rainclouds and sudden rainstorms, all of which avoided me as I slept in my warm hotel room and landed squarely on Zara as she foolishly went out to experience and enjoy life, we drove from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. We noticed as we drove that we had stopped caring at all about any journey that was under, say, eight hours. If it took above eight hours, then, yes, we would admit, that was a long drive. Anything else was a hop, skip, or jump.

Not even a big one, at that.

Seven hours, fifty nine minutes?

Whatever, man.

I could do that standing on my head.

Scene:

Melbourne, Australia, Friday 13th, 11:13pm-ish.

LOCATION: STUDY, INTERIOR.

Pan in on SIMON at his computer. SIMON is 28, dark-haired, with an air – no, an aura – about him, perhaps something around the eyes, that seems to say, ’24 hours later, I’m still amazed by the fact I made a conscious choice to start drinking Swedish strawberry cider last night, and, 24 hours and kilos of bacon later, I’m still amazed by how hungover I remain. You tricked me, Sweden. Again. Fuck you.’

Also, he’s really VERY HANDSOME; like Cary Grant, Billy Zane, and someone who onlookers would describe as ‘really very handsome’ all rolled into one.

Soundtrack: This Busta Rhymes – AC/DC mashup that SIMON cannot seem to stop listening to right now.

We see the small red notification informing SIMON he has received a new message appear on the Facebook taskbar. The message is one in an ongoing conversation between SIMON and his friend DARCI in New York. Regrettably, this conversation is about FRED DURST (not present in the scene). The discussion focuses on how anything can be made funny by adding FRED DURST to the equation or rather, SIMON’s half of the discussion focuses on this.

SIMON then makes a reference to the once-famous phrase ‘DON’T FAKE THE FUNK ON A NASTY DUNK‘ and how he finds it just as hilarious as the existence of FRED DURST.

We see SIMON, suddenly inspired, update his status to read ‘SIMON… NEVER FAKES THE FUNK ON A NASTY DUNK.’

Moments later another red notification sign flares into life. This time, it is the small square with rounded edges that sits at the corner of the little blue world globe, letting SIMON know someone has commented on his status. He clicks on it.

Note: Simon remains VERY HANDSOME, but the moment is about to get ugly.

Not Simon, though.

CUT TO: Focus on the screen, where one of SIMON’s friends has commented: ‘Gay.’

SIMON: does that kind of reverse whistling/suck in air thing you do when you see someone bark their shin on a car door and draws back from the computer into the cushions of his chair.

End scene.

*

Now, it was about this time we hit trouble.

Seconds after the first notification, a second friend, from the same group, left a comment on the same status: ‘Double gay.’ A third, again from the same group, left another: ‘Triple gay.’

And I just went… Really?

And that was when I realised that maybe I was about to get caught in the middle of a nasty dunk. And if so, then no matter what else I did, the one thing I could not do was fake the funk.

*

The Nasty Dunk

See, I know these people – some of them for over twenty years. They’re among my best friends. None of them are hate criminals, if that’s a term.. They’re tertiary-educated, cosmopolitan, well-traveled types. They’re not close-minded or mean or particularly bigoted, or at least, my experience of them, which is a fairly comprehensive one, says to me they are not.

On the other hand…

It took maybe twenty seconds for my brain to itemise all the 21st rules of speech and political correctness involved. Everyone involved was and is past the point of ignorance; we’re all internet users, we’ve all been exposed to the difficulties of comment culture, we’re all past the point of being surprised by online speech. And a quick Google search revealed no one had split the gay lingual atom while I wasn’t looking; there hadn’t been some mass acceptance of the term as fair game.

And so that’s where I was: the term gay denotes a particular sexuality, and the term gay was being used as an insult, so, therefore, we’ve got textbook discrimination here, right on my Facebook page, where I am both the owner and the owned of any information that goes back and forth.

With acknowledgment of that fact came the confirmation of my suspicion that this was indeed a dunk I had on my hands, and, furthermore, a nasty one. My question to myself was what would constitute faking the funk, and how could I avoid such an outcome?

*

Faking the Funk

As I saw it, there were a number of options available to me, many of which would constitute faking the funk – the very situation I wanted to avoid.

Funk Fake #1: Over-seriousness.

I’m a firm believer in the use of humour and discussion to deflect and resolve conflict, especially on the internet, when disaster is never further than a LOLFAG! away. Not every situation calls for charging out, guns blazing – doing so can often be counter-productive, because it only makes people dig in their heels and sound off all the louder. I didn’t want to start a giant debate or flame war, because, given that I assumed these people were probably hanging out, and drinking a little, and working themselves into a mentality of poorly-thought-out teasing, rather than expressing any deep and true homophobia, bringing the hammer down wasn’t an option that would do any real good for anyone.

And because, really, when the shoe’s on the other foot… fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.

Funk Fake #2: Under-seriousness.

But at the same time, if I was to just let the issue slide… that would be a tacit endorsement of speech  I don’t agree with. To engage positively with the name-calling or to say nothing would be to indirectly say ‘Hey! You can use the word gay as an insult, no matter how minor your intent or disconnected from definition, and that’s perfectly OK by me, Simon Smithson!’

It’s not as if I thought the whole world was watching with bated breath; the goings-on on my Facebook page were hardly going to carry over to influence much of anything, anywhere, ever. But still…

Would that go on my passport?

Simon Smithson: Feels OK about discriminatory insults. Facebook proves it.

I could see, in my head, a vision of trying to get back into the USA, and the staffer behind the immigration desk looking at me, looking at my passport and reading those accusing words, then looking back up at me… and slowly narrowing his eyes.

Of course, in my head, he is a member of an ethnic minority. And transgendered. And he/she’s a Scientologist. Who likes Yanni. And the film Glitter.

God.

The shame.

My shame, I mean.

Although the transgender customs official would be right to be ashamed of liking Glitter.

That fantasy aside, all I could think of was this at the 1:30 mark.

Funk Fake #3: Total and Complete Hypocrisy.

99% of humor is based on laughing at someone or something. There has to be an object, which means, no matter how you slice it, there’s potential for someone, somewhere, to be offended. And I laugh at horrible things all the time. I make inappropriate jokes, delight in the shattering of taboos, and if you show me a sacred cow, then I’ll tell you a story about how it cries during sex and also, it’s fat. And we should eat it. Because its tears make it taste sweeter.

At the same time… I pick my audience. And I’m aware of setting. Context changes everything; it’s why the line ‘that’s what she said!’ is funny; why you don’t swear in front of children. It’s why we don’t, when asked by our new girlfriend’s parents how our day was, say ‘It was retarded!’ It’s why you don’t have the same conversations with your girlfriend as you have with your grandmother.

Unless they’re both performing on stage in the same North Korean sex club at the same time.

Because we’re not idiots.

Funk Fake #4: Weird Co-Opting of a Crusader Identity.

Because, just like Ludacris, whose words I try to live by every day, especially when it comes to bitches… man, I don’t want to do that. I want to have a good time and enjoy my Jack, or, rather, my Swedish strawberry cider.

It’s midnight. On a Friday. I don’t want to set off down some moral pathway where I start to define myself as someone who voices disapproval of the possible infringement of the right of a group of people to enjoy an existence untainted by bias¹. I certainly don’t want to end up in some foggy internet netherworld of political correctness and high horses and debate over definition and intent.

Especially because it’s unpleasant and unappealing and nobody likes it.

And yet, here I am. I’ve been put here.

Goddamnit.

You dicks.

Funk Fake #5: Freedom of Speech.

Which is something I believe very strongly in. Where does my subjective truth about what is acceptable or not end and objective truth begin? Can I be justified in calling people out for expressing whatever it is they’re going to express? Isn’t that, like, Communist, or something? It’s definitely Russian, I know that much.

Can I balance thoughts of consequence against thoughts of censorship and find that the scales tip one way or another? Don’t we have freedom of speech on the internet, of all places? We’ve certainly got freedom of porn. All of these questions welled up before my eyes.

But then three sweet, sweet words emerged in my head: right of reply.

*

Then I figured fuck it. I’d just delete the offending comments, the writers would, I hoped, get the message, and we’d all move on with our lives.

I deleted them, and then thought Ah… damn it. Deletion isn’t really explicitly saying hey, don’t do that, but… ah well. The problem has been dealt with.

Seconds later, more comments appeared from the same people. About censorship, me being a gay little lesbian², uberhomo, quintuple gay (you skipped quadruple, idiots)… et cetera. And I thought damn it! I’ve forgotten the law of the schoolyard! Don’t fuel the fire!

And then I thought Wait, what? I’m 28 years old. These people are 28 years old. And no matter what they say about censorship, there’s no way they’d use the term gay pejoratively in, say, a job interview; they’d self-censor at the drop of a hat and jump squeaking through any hoop that was put in front of them.  They’d contort themselves into mewling pretzels to avoid the appearance of bigotry.They just think they can get away with it in this specific instance.

My next step was to write something non-engaging and non-condoning. I searched for the perfect phrase, and, again, found three simple words.

‘Dude. Not OK.’

To me, that was the perfect pitch of disapproval without judgment or self-righteousness.

It didn’t work.

So I followed it up, explaining that on my personal Facebook page, my online representation of my day to day life, I would censor who and what I pleased, and I don’t condone the use of the word gay as an insult.

Again, this didn’t work.

And I thought You know what? Harvey Milk wouldn’t put up with this bullshit.

Also, I’m getting disrespected here. And yeah, that really kind of pales in comparison to the larger issue, but still… this whole thing is really getting out of hand.

Three times, I had expressed my disapproval. I don’t know what it is about the magic power of the number three, but, there are the three aspects of God, luck runs in threes, apparently the Condor has three days… and so I said to myself The next person who mouths off… well, we’ll just see about that.

At this point, a friend from high school, and the same group, who had been previously silent, lumbered into the discussion and dropped the g word, and subsequently became a cautionary tale of the power of the block button.

A tingling taste, like raw power, or sherbet, or a delicious, fizzy mix of the two, spread across my tongue.

Before anyone had caught on, one of the earlier perpetrators commented again. “You’re so concerned about people saying gay on your stupid facebook page. That’s gay in itself.”

Boom.

Blocked.

Awesome.

And I don’t care if you are my best friend’s girlfriend.

My phone started to ring at this point, and I ignored it. More comments appeared, this time about hurt feelings.

Not from the people I’d blocked, of course.

Because they couldn’t comment any more.

I spoke to another, unrelated friend about this today.

‘Did you give them any warning?’ she laughed. ‘Maybe they didn’t know that you were going to block them.’

‘Well,’ I said.

‘They fucking know now, don’t they?’

*

This kind of censorship and debate is a new experience for me. I haven’t found myself in a situation before where I’ve felt the need to tell someone they can’t say something, or that I disagree with a public statement they’ve made, on grounds of discrimination.

I’ve certainly been told in the past that I’ve said things that are out of line.

Which is probably fair, in practical terms, if nothing else.

But it raises the question – who’s to say what’s allowable, and what isn’t? Who is to say, objectively, what can and cannot be said, in which theatre? Who is to say what the appropriate steps to engage with such discussions are?

The answer, frankly, is clear.

I am.

 

 

 

 

 

 

¹ – these are also Ludacris lyrics
² – as if I’ve never been called a lesbian before