Moonlight's open-ended moments of melancholy

Yesterday I got to see the movie Moonlight, and found that it gripped me from the beginning and was as easy to like as I was expecting.

Chiron in Moonlight

It's the Oscar winning American film about growing up black and gay with an unstable crack addict mother. It keeps these issues under the radar. But while its 'treatment' of them may be implicit, it is more powerful as a result.

More front and centre is the mood of melancholy, which is beautifully presented and defines just about everything in the film, which is poetic rather than naturalistic.

One New York Times reader commented that the film failed to engage her because its narrative was 'obtuse'. That's the point. It's a meditation not a documentary, even though it is partly based on the life of the co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney.

In the final act, the main character Chiron - now a drug dealer in Atlanta - comes to meet his boyhood friend Kevin - who now runs a restaurant in Miami, where they grew up.

Kevin and Chiron in third act of Moonlight

Kevin, who has an infectious smile and a bubbly personality, is a picture of coolness. He's also an open book. Happy being a father and busy in his job. His circumstances are humble but life appears to have worked out well.

Chiron, on the other hand, is a man of few words who is scarred by the emotional abuse he suffered as a child. He's slightly overweight and has a fragile sense of self-worth. But he's established a certain equilibrium in his life. He can hold his head up when he chooses to.

Kevin ribs Chiron for being unforthcoming about his life in Atlanta. The most revealing detail we learn is that Chiron has not been sexually intimate with anybody since the moment he shared with Kevin on the beach when they were boys.

Has he tried and failed, or was it just that he could not be bothered embracing his sexuality? The fact that we're left guessing is one of the strengths of the film.

That's because it doesn't matter. What matters is his attitude to life and to himself, which I think is at once tenuous and steadfast. He's always had an uphill battle and still suffers far too many moments of sadness. But he's survived.

How John Olsen looks at landscape

Yesterday I went to the Art Gallery of NSW to see the John Olsen: The You Beaut Country exhibition. It has just opened there after moving from the National Gallery of Victoria, where it received mixed reviews.

John Olsen - Sydney sun or King sun 1965

The 89 year old is often described as Australia's greatest living painter. But there was faint praise for the exhibition in The Age's review last September, which was headlined 'mildly entertaining at best'. It goes on to refer to the 'merry narratives and bright topographies' of the stand out works, as if they belong to the same genre as Ken Done's paintings.

In fact the works are deeply spiritual. They are mostly landscapes which initially struck me as mind maps with plenty of colour and verve. But the penny dropped when I saw the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem 'Pied Beauty' printed on the artwork label of a painting that is titled 'Pied Beauty' (Glory be to God for dappled things...).

I think that the concepts most commonly associated with Hopkins - inscape and instress - can equally be applied to Olsen's landscapes. Inscape is the distinctive design of everything in the universe, and instress is our ability to recognise the inscape in the world around us.

John Olsen - Pied beauty 1969

So what I called Olsen's 'mind maps' is also a kind of genetic code that reflects the inscape of the landscapes. When he paints, he instresses.

I don't know whether Olsen himself sees it that way, but that was my take on the paintings, having studied Hopkins when I was at university in the 1980s.

Viewing the Olsen exhibition made me think about how I look at landscapes. There are landscapes that stay with me in both my conscious and unconscious being.

When I visited Canberra at the weekend, I was moved by the harmony between the built and the natural environment. It stayed with me.

The buildings are mostly low rise and their architecture tends not to be ostentatious. The autumn colours were quite arresting and the sparseness of the buildings ensures that they do not dominate as buildings do in most large cities.

I also have an isolated memory from my first visit to Tasmania in January 2006. It was of the landscape around Queenstown which had been completely denuded by mining - moonscape was the word that came to mind. I would say that I was 'taken out of myself' when I looked at and experienced this 'moonscape'. It is quite remarkable that I retain the particular memory with such clarity after more than a decade.

John Olsen - Sydney Harbour 2016

My experience of these two landscapes was heightened. I would normally say that I was arrested by them, but I think the terms inscape and instress are more apt to use in describing the way in which I apprehended them.

If I was John Olsen, I would paint them, and if I was Hopkins I would write a poem about them. But for me, they are just imprints on my memory, as such heightened experiences of landscape are for most of us.

Remembering The Little Red School Book

While spending the weekend staying with friends in Canberra, I visited exhibitions at Old Parliament House and the National Archive. Among the National Archive's current featured exhibits are documents related to The Little Red School Book.

Publication of this book was the subject of intense debate in Australia in 1972. It was banned in several countries but the Federal Minister for Customs and Excise Don Chipp eventually allowed its publication here.

The Little Red School Book

The book's Danish authors encouraged school students to use their initiative against what they portrayed as the authoritarianism of the time. School teachers and other adults needed to be regarded as 'paper tigers' who 'can never control you completely'.

Discussing school education, the authors criticised the majority of teachers who 'think it's unnecessary to explain to their pupils why they must learn certain things'. With regard to sex and drugs, the issue in the minds of the authors was safety, not morality (i.e. harm minimisation). They emphasise technical explanations and advice about the risks of drug addiction and STDs.

Documents in the National Archive exhibit include a protest letter from the president of an Adelaide branch of the Presbyterian Women's Association, who wrote that she was 'appalled by the polution of the mind' represented by publication of the book.

Another correspondent, from South Yarra in Melbourne, commended the Minister for resisting the protestors, who'd sent 'unsigned filthy notes ... worse than the publication that they are complaining about'.

Presbyterian Womens Association

I was drawn to the exhibit by a recollection from when I was in Year 7 at high school. It was 1972 and there was a rare non-conformist Christian Brother who quietly lent me the copy of the book that he'd managed to source.

As a 12 year old, much of it went over my head. But I remember perusing its content and writing a review to enter in a book review competition being organised by the school librarian. I won the competition because mine was the only entry. I'm not sure how the librarian managed to avoid censure from the principal, but that wasn't my concern.

Now when I think of the furore over The Little Red School Book in 1972, I'm inclined to compare it to the recent debate over the controversial Safe Schools Program, which in its own way is also designed to foster student responsibility and to avoid conflating safety with morality.

In contrast to their Coalition forbears who debated and approved The Little Red Schoolbook 45 years ago, it seems that members of today's Federal Government have shown a conspicuous lack of backbone in yielding to pressure from the right wing and acting to gut the Safe Schools Program.

Symbolic vengeance against big business greed

Pope Francis has said he's inclined to give a few coins to beggars on the street. Enough to send a token message of support but not enough to create a dependency on charity.

This would not work for me because I do not carry coins. But the news item did make me think about messages we send by how we choose to pay for goods and services.

Stack of cards

I used to think that I was sending a message of solidarity to small business owners if I handed them cash rather than a card. But about ten years ago my mechanic told me he prefered card payments because the cost of handling cash was higher than the card fees they had to pay the bank.

He claimed it was a furphy that bank fees for card payments cost merchants more than cash. With cash, they need to have change on hand and pay staff to securely take the bags of cash to the bank. Charging a fee for card use was a scam, he said.

Obviously each merchant's circumstances are different, but since the conversation with my mechanic, I have had no hesitation using a card for payment.

Which card, though, is another matter.

In addition to my Mastercard, I have a now rare Diners Club card, which I got fee free in a promotion about 20 years ago. It appeals to my sense of history because it was the world's first payment card when it was introduced in the 1950s.

But I actually like the fact that - in common with American Express - it costs merchants about twice as much in bank fees compared to Mastercard or Visa, every time I use it. I never use it for payments to small businesses, but Diners is my card of choice when I shop at Coles or Woolworths.

It is to give them a token financial sting as payback for their exploitation on several fronts of farmers and other small business owners. I know that vengeance is never a good thing, but it does give me satisfaction to know that I have the power to use my Diners card symbolically in such a way.

For years they have put financial pressure on these small businesses through their policy of delaying payment of invoices for the supply of produce and other goods and services. However at long last, Coles announced this week, with some fanfare, a change in policy. They have promised to pay invoices within 14 days, in what they are disingenuously touting in newspaper advertising as a show of support for farmers.

I will consider changing my own policy in favour of using my Mastercard rather than my Diners when I shop at Coles.

The desire to live in a foreign country

While I was in Malaysia last month I was in email contact with a friend back in Australia. He told me about the retirement visa which the Malaysian Government offers to foreigners to bring investment into the country.

You buy a property to live in and deposit an amount of money in a Malaysian bank. In return you get a ten year extendable visa and an exotic lifestyle at less than one third of the cost of living in Australia.

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On the whole I enjoy living in Sydney and did not seriously consider moving to Malaysia. However I think there is a lot to be said for spending time in another culture to give you a greater sense of perspective on your own.

A major formative experience for me was living in the Philippines for three months in 1983-84. Until that point, I had considered Australia and Australians to be God's gift to the Asia Pacific region and the world.

But I came away thinking of Filipinos as the most gracious and loving people on earth. I really wanted to make my permanent home there. I'd lost interest in Australia and its people, whom I now regarded as gauche and self-opinionated in comparison to Filipinos.

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15 years later, I spent two years living in Rome. In many people's minds, a dream existence. I loved my work and my colleagues and the friends I made. But when I had to choose between the offer of a job in Australia or extending my two year initial appointment in Rome, I leapt at the opportunity to return home. Perhaps somewhere in my unconscious, I wanted the exotic to remain exotic. It seemed that life for me in another culture had a use by date.

However my desire to live elsewhere tends to resurface. After I quickly dismissed thoughts of retiring to Malaysia, I felt attracted to the idea of spending more than a few days in a foreign country. So last week I made a gesture in that direction when I booked an August flight to Tokyo, together with the most basic Airbnb apartment I could find. I will be living simply for five weeks in one spot in the city's inner western suburbs, a world away from my usual home in Sydney's inner west.

Yokoyama Memorial Manga Museum Kochi

There will be challenges. Furniture too close to the floor for what our culture regards as comfort. Having to use a squat toilet every day. But also pleasures. No inhouse bathroom, which means regular visits to the sento. There's also not much of a kitchen, so I expect to be a regular patron at the ramen noodle bars in my vicinity.

Friends think I'm a bit odd to seek out such a rustic existence in an unfamiliar setting. They may have a point. But time spent in the thrall of another culture's bare essentials offers the possibility of new experience for those of us in the later stages of our lives.

The devil in the unrevealed detail of the ABC's Michelle Guthrie

Cautious early commentary on yesterday's restructure announcement from ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie has been broadly positive.

200 mostly middle management jobs are to go. The number of internal divisions will be cut from 14 to nine, and $50 million will be made available to boost video and digital content production in regional Australia.

With ABC and other 'legacy' media audiences in steady decline, nobody disputes the need for radical change in order to confront digital disruption from the likes of Netflix and Facebook. The question is whether Guthrie is going about it the right way, and as yet it's difficult to tell.

So far, she has been light on detail, and not very forthcoming when she has been asked to explain her decisions in forums such as Senate Estimates.

When challenged to justify the ending of shortwave broadcasts, all she had to say was that there had been only 15 complaints from members of the community. Some of her interlocutors were stunned by her lack of detail, and there is no doubt there will be pressure for her to be more forthcoming in the future.

But for now, we're being left to join the dots in what could be a deliberate strategy to facilitate a slash and burn approach to reforming the ABC. In other words, the wholesale removal of functioning infrastructure that has taken many years to establish and cannot practically be rebuilt should her plans turn out to be mistaken.

Yesterday's announcement included news that the ABC's international division will be absorbed into other divisions. Does this mean that the ABC is no longer interested in providing a service to listeners in the Pacific and PNG, which it has done for many generations through Radio Australia?

It appears it does, and that it's quite significant. It's the broadcasting equivalent of cancelling the most needed part of Australia's international aid to developing countries.

The ABC has just discontinued shortwave broadcasts to the region, ostensibly as part of the move towards distribution of content through the internet. But a report yesterday on the industry news website radioinfo.com.au reveals that Radio New Zealand International (RNZI) has stepped into the void created by what is being depicted as Australia's abandonment of the Pacific and PNG region.

Radio New Zealand CEO Paul Thompson said: 'Remote parts of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu who may be feeling the loss of the ABC can rest assured RNZI will continue to provide independent, timely and accurate news, information and weather warnings as well as entertainment to its Pacific listeners.'

Radio New Zealand came to international shortwave broadcasting only in 1990, and its CEO is obviously proud to be able to help these nations at their hour of need. This begs the converse question of why Michelle Guthrie is not ashamed that the ABC has apparently disabled its ability to provide them with assistance and why it does not matter that the ABC will no longer have a separate international division.

The ABC withdrew its shortwave broadcasts at the beginning of this year as Radio New Zealand was reasserting the need for them. Metaphorically speaking, the two broadcasters are not on the same wave length.

The Radio New Zealand CEO claims that they broadcast timely cyclone and tsunami warnings via shortwave and can continue to be heard should local FM broadcasters go off-air due to a cyclone or other disaster.

We need to hear a counter claim from Michelle Guthrie that the warnings are not vital or that they can still somehow be accessed through the ABC's online services even while there is a power cut. Or that the welfare of these people in a crisis is not the ABC's or Australia's concern.

Messing with the Mass alienates Catholics who might return

In February, Eureka Street published an article titled 'Time to repeal "ugly" Mass translation'. It was written by Gerald O'Collins, an Australian Jesuit who has been one of the most recognised and respected theological voices in the English speaking Catholic world of the past 50 years.

He welcomes the news that Pope Francis has appointed a commission to revisit the Vatican document that shaped what he calls the 'ugly, Latinised translation foisted on English-speaking Catholics' by the 'clumsy, difficult' 2010 Missal.

The 2010 Missal that is currently in use replaced the accessible English of the 1969 translation. It opts for 'supplication' over 'prayer', 'wondrous' over 'wonderful', and 'oblation' over 'sacrifice' or 'offering'.

Such terms do not have currency in today's spoken English and I believe that their use in the liturgy amounts to a winding back of one of the major breakthroughs of Vatican II.

Gerald O'Collins is arguing in favour of instituting an 'incomparably better' translation from 1998 that was never used. But my view is different. I would prefer to see a reinstatement of the 1969 translation, largely for selfish reasons.

I accept his expert assessment that the 1998 is a better translation. But the 1969 is what my generation grew up with. And I am a member of what is arguably the most significant generation of Catholics that has been largely lost to the Catholic Church.

I say that not just out of baby boomer arrogance. I believe that, for various reasons, we are the ones who are the most likely of any generation to return to regular Mass attendance at this time. Yet the new translation - any new translation - alienates us as soon as we walk in the door and Mass begins.

Sometimes I even tell myself that it was intentional. We rejected the Sunday Mass obligation, so they don't want us back.

I know that's not true, but paranoia feeds my sense of alienation from the Church, as if it is a sect like the Exclusive Brethren, where you're either in or out. Cardinal Pell always criticised what he called the 'smorgasbord Catholics'. He was referring to those who wanted something from Catholicism but were not content with accepting all the teachings and rituals of the Catholic Church as a 'package deal'. That's me.

In common with many of my generation, I resented being forced to go to Mass as a child. It made me 'hate' the Mass. So I deal most effectively with my childhood trauma by choosing not to go to Mass as an adult. It's that simple.

In fact, often on a Sunday morning, I will pause briefly to give thanks to God that I have been mature enough to make an adult decision and not go to Mass. How perverse is that? The fact is that I cherish my self-given freedom from the Sunday obligation and it feels good.

The tragedy is that we all need public ritual in our lives, and the Catholic Church is the most powerful and significant source of ritual and community that is easily available to people like me. I do think about going to Mass. My local parish is blessed with one of the most gracious and creatively intelligent priests I know. But I know that the moment I enter that beautiful stone church, I will hit the brick wall of the unfamiliar Mass translation.

Choosing the pleasure principle over self-denial to lose weight

This morning I noticed an article on ‘mindful eating’ in the Australian edition of the Huffington Post. I was interested to compare the writer’s ideas with my own, which I set out in a list before visiting my nutritionist late last year.

My personal journey towards a right relationship with food goes back to primary school, when I was stigmatised as the fat boy in the class. Subsequently it became a life goal to reach normal weight. I was never obese, but over the next four decades I was mostly overweight, sometimes significantly.

I would tell myself that I was happy being moderately overweight. But I don’t think that was really the case. I wanted my weight to be ‘normal’.

I achieved my goal two years ago. The turning point was selling my car in 2012. I had felt the need to justify owning my car by using it. When I no longer had a car, I adjusted my life so that many of the services I routinely accessed were within walking distance.

Measurement was important. I got into the habit of weighing myself every day and set and achieved high step goals, which I monitored using the various electronic pedometers I owned.

My scales talk to the Fitbit app, and - as a matter of both pride and weight maintenance - I keep my eye on the graph in the app that tells me my weight is in the middle of the recommended range.

I was not preoccupied with diets or counting the calories of my food intake. But I would have very productive conversations with my nutritionist, who did not recommend crash or fad diets.

I have been keenly aware that most people who lose weight put it back on within a year. Not me. I set a new goal for myself, which was to develop a habit of what I called ‘mindful eating’.

That is something I worked out for myself. It includes spiritual and ethical dimensions as well as practical measures such as eating with small bowls. I didn’t realise until I read this morning’s Huffington Post that mindful eating is a concept talked about by the experts.

For me, the underlying principle is that it’s like meditation. Focus on the food rather than extraneous thoughts. Watching TV or doing another activity while eating is taboo. Even unchecked eating with others in a social situation works against mindfulness unless the conversation is about the food.

The Huffington Post writer Juliette Steen is familiar with what happens if you take your mind off your food: ‘You start eating a meal and look down a few minutes later to see an empty bowl, even though you don’t remember eating everything’.

I’ve often wondered why the French tend not to be overweight even though their diet includes many high calorie foods such as butter and goose fat. My theory is that they’re always talking and thinking about the food they’re consuming. Their eating is mindful.

The idea is that the pleasure of eating is maximised by the level of awareness, not the quantity on the plate. This is something the French know and Americans (and Australians) don’t. It’s also the basis of the ordered pleasure principle of the ethics of the Greek philosopher Epicurus.

Clinical psychologist and author of Mindsight Dan Siegel says that in developing the capacity to label and describe our internal world, we become more nonjudgmental and develop a greater sense of equanimity.

As a means of dieting, and indeed regulating our intake of any of life’s pleasures, it beats self-denial. Indeed it makes us much nicer and more balanced human beings.

Helping the poor without a social work degree

I remember spending six weeks ‘helping the poor’ of Sydney’s eastern suburbs at the end of 1978. I was a Jesuit novice, and two of us were seconded to work with a small Australian order of nuns that specialised in providing nursing services and material assistance to those living on the margins.

Within the order there was tension between one of the younger nuns, who had a social work degree, and some of the older sisters, who believed such degrees were a distraction from the order’s core mission of providing aid.

The younger nun and her supporters argued that the order needed to adapt its mission towards lifting people out of poverty. What they'd always done - providing ongoing stopgap assistance - was keeping them marginalised.

In retrospect, I think they were getting into a discussion of liberation theology, which was then dividing the Catholic Church in Latin America in its efforts to make the church socially relevant.

The Sydney order was Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor, also known as the Brown Sisters. The young nun in 1978 was questioning the teaching of the order’s founder Eileen O’Connor. O'Connor was reflecting the thinking of the time when she told her sisters in 1913: ‘The cause of a person’s poverty is not yours to question. The fact a person is poor is the reason you help’.

Last week I was reminded of this debate in the order when I read a report in Fairfax Media questioning the work of the 22 year old founders of the Orange Sky free mobile laundry and shower service for the homeless.

In January 2016, Nic Marchesi and Lucas Patchett were awarded joint Young Australians of the Year for their social entrepreneurship. But the Fairfax reporter set about putting their remarkable achievement into perspective by seeking comments from professionals in social work and related disciplines.

University of Queensland social work academic Cameron Parsell told Fairfax that services such as Orange Sky undermined people’s dignity when they were forced to shower and wash in public spaces, ‘particularly when we know that ending homelessness is possible and cost-effective’.

Parsell’s research showed it cost the taxpayer more to keep a person chronically homeless ($48,217 each) than to provide permanent housing ($35,117).

Meanwhile the acting chief executive of the Council to Homeless Persons, Kate Colvin, urged philanthropists and organisations such as Orange Sky to consider where to channel their energy and funding.

‘The reality is that ending homelessness starts with boosting affordable housing, not providing comfort measures,’ she said.

The professionals’ point was well made, even if it misses the point that Orange Sky’s core mission is to connect people. Orange Sky would say that many people with a roof over their head are lonely and do not feel spiritually and emotionally whole.

One of the young entrepreneurs - Nic – responded: ‘Lucas and I are two young blokes who are volunteers and by no means are we experts in the homelessness sector.’

It could be that their passion and experience makes these 22 year olds perfect candidates to enrol in social work degrees and become experts in the homelessness sector.

Selfishness as the new moral norm

Many people were relieved this week because President Trump finally gave a speech in which he tried to be nice rather than nasty.

I’m not relieved. It’s merely a change of tone in his behaviour and rhetoric. He’s not moving away from his ‘America First’ philosophy that makes a virtue out of selfishness.

The most unfortunate thing is that because he’s finally learning how to be presidential, he could end up a two term president rather than a ‘mistake’ one-term president.

We will have a generation of young Americans growing up thinking that it’s good to be selfish. Moral aspiration will be focused on keeping Americans safe rather than making the world a better place to live.

To this end, on Monday Trump signalled a $54 billion increase in defence spending and a corresponding decrease in foreign aid.

There is no question that Australia will follow America’s lead. Within a week of Trump taking office, Scott Morrison was uttering the phrase ‘Australia First’.

Yesterday – Ash Wednesday – was the beginning of the Project Compassion Lenten Appeal of Caritas Australia, the international aid and development agency of the Catholic Church.

I thought that the ‘Love Your Neighbour’ pitch of the giving campaign was sadly out of step with modern times.

Instead of ‘$10 a month during 2017 could provide 110 children in Cambodia with anti-malaria treatment and vaccines’, it could have been ‘$10 a month could power a border patrol vessel to prevent refugees entering Australian waters for one hour’.

Caritas Australia and other aid and development organisations such as Oxfam have always put a lot of their resources into education. Caritas has worked hand in hand with Catholic schools to teach young people to be good neighbours. That is why graduates of Catholic schools have often had a strong sense of social justice.

This is at odds with the Federal Government’s new emphasis on good citizenship that means putting Australia first at the expense of our neighbours.