The house gets a makeover

There were no obvious signs of deterioration, but I was concerned that my 25 year old gas hot water system must be reaching the end of its life. I could imagine it suddenly failing.

That would force me into a rushed purchase of a new unit, to maintain the supply of hot water. It would frustrate my desire to make an orderly switch from gas to electricity.


So three months ago, I decided to act immediately, even though the old unit was still performing well. I called my longtime builder Jesse to ask him to recommend a reliable company to install an electric heat pump.

What I didn't realise was that he was finally available to tackle the long list of repairs and improvements that I'd been requesting him to attend to for a least five years. Jesse had done the previous renovation of the house, two years or so before I purchased it in 2001.

He hadn't been able to come to my house in recent years because of the labour shortage and COVID, and it was seriously run down. A few years ago my neighbours in the adjoining terraces were worried that our row was literally falling down.

I'd been putting aside funds for the day that Jesse would come, though I stopped believing it would happen. He ended up fixing the cracks in the walls and attending to many other structural and cosmetic issues that owners of 19th century terrace houses can expect to face. The task list kept growing and he worked in my house five days a week for two and a half months.


It turned out to be an opportunity I thought I'd never get. I was not limited to repairs, but I could upgrade the house after two of us had lived in it for 22 years. I was not interested in a luxury upgrade, but instead wanted to make the move from gas to electricity.

So there is now a heat pump, induction stove and electric heating and cooling. I have solar skylights to brighten the dark rooms, and a new set of solar panels with a battery on the way. The promise is the elimination of energy bills, though it will take up to 20 years to recoup my investment.

After the long intense focus on my house for much of the winter, I'm now facing the first part of the northern winter, spending two months in my tiny 5 square metre alternative residence in Paris.

I very much enjoy my environmentally responsible 'small footprint' existence, though there's no escaping the reality that the flights to get here and back have me leaving a large carbon footprint.

The two Johnnys

When I returned from Paris a few weeks ago, I brought with me a gossip magazine titled Johnny, for the member of my household who grew up in francophone Mauritius.

It revealed hitherto unknown details about the life of the late French rock and pop idol Johnny Hallyday, who was sometimes described in English-speaking countries as 'the biggest star you've never heard of'.

Johnny Magazine

This morning I mentioned that I was going to the local Dendy cinema to see the documentary John Farnham: Finding the Voice.

My friend looked at me quizzically until I pointed to the Johnny magazine, which he had devoured.

Farnham was of course not recognised outside Australia until the international success of his 1986 Whispering Jack album. That followed Johnny Farnham's career-saving rebrand as John Farnham.


The rebrand was necessary because he'd never managed to live down the ridicule he continued to suffer due to the overwhelming success of his first release, the 1968 novelty song Sadie (The Cleaning Lady).

His promoters couldn't get it out of the minds of Australians who were growing up during the late 1960s.

It seems that the emotional resonance of the unsophisticated tunes of our childhood remains, no matter how hard we try to populate our conscious and unconscious selves with cultural content of greater depth. That's probably not a bad thing.

Discontent in a free society

Today is May Day, a public holiday here in France. It has added significance this year, with 300 marches expected as part of a mobilisation exceptionnelle against the Government's move to raise the pension age from 62 to 64.

Friends in Australia have seen media images of the sometimes violent protests. They've expressed concern that I may be affected. As it happens, I have kept away and only heard them in the distance.


I have witnessed just one orderly procession, two weeks ago in Avignon. But it is impossible to avoid seeing the damage to public and private property, such as burned rubbish bins and cracked glass.

I assume most foreigners are unsympathetic because they don't receive the pension themselves until around 67. Many would see it as an arguably dignified but unattractive display of a French sense of entitlement.


I agree. But it's what you get when you have widespread discontent in a free society that values the right to protest.

I have read about of the struggles of working class families in northern France, in the autobiographical novels of the young contemporary author Edouard Louis. He sees President Macron representing the privileged classes, and wrote a New York Times op-ed a few years ago with the title 'Why My Father Votes for Le Pen'.


In selecting when to travel outside Paris, I've had to mindful of the protest days that have occurred roughly once a week, with reduced rail services.

I decided to purchase a Eurailpass for this two month stay in Paris, and have been travelling to cities in France including Amiens on Saturday, and Tours, Avignon, Lille and Chartres earlier. I've also been to the Netherlands, Zurich for my first visit to Switzerland, as well as Liechtenstein and Innsbruck in Austria.


Amiens in particular offered a view of the two faces of France. There was the beautiful Cathedral, canals and grand buildings that tourists love to see, but also evidence of the ordinariness of the lives of many people in a large city not far from the town in which Edouard Louis grew up.

The purpose of forgetting

I'm about to leave the Dutch beach town of Zandvoort after a five night stay. It's currently 2 degrees and I didn't come here for the beach. The main attraction was a four day contemplative photography retreat.

The focus was Miksang, a practice of taking photos that is not about documenting or telling stories. Instead its goal is 'pure' seeing.


I have learned a lot about sense-perception in general, including deeper appreciation of everyday delights such as good coffee and wine.

Applying the Miksang principle, I don't pre-judge the wine by studying its label or provenance. I taste it.


I don't attempt to apply sophisticated terminology such as acidity or aroma. I just appreciate it in the moment. The wine has a story, but knowing that does not really help my enjoyment of it.

In the same way, Miksang photos don't tell us much about their subjects or context. They're not meant to. They are close-ups of everyday objects. They often appear artful, but beauty is not the intention.


I heard about Miksang last year during a conversation with a friend who lives in Kyoto, Japan. That led me to read about it and discover that a retreat was taking place at a convenient time and place.

I have always prided myself in my ability to analyse. But the teacher Helen would caution me against thinking and identifying and naming.


She was teaching me to be more alive to visual perception, and encouraging me to communicate it through photos rather than words or concepts.

When posting our photos on her website, she insisted that we not give them a title. I had always thought that artists who called their works 'untitled' were being lazy. But now I understand they are simply helping us to perceive their art without pre-judgment.


The loss of mental agility associated with getting older is usually a source of regret. I remember my mother developing dementia and referring to 'that thing' when she couldn't name an object. I regretted her loss. But now I can see a silver lining in moving beyond the need to name things, talk about concepts and tell stories.



A gloomy springtime in Paris

This is a tiny letter from my tiny five square metre space in the first arrondissement, my base for the next two months.

The city is almost a month into spring, but you wouldn't know it from the mood of the people. Swarms of police and piles of uncollected garbage are the most visible signs of the malaise.

There are a frequent protests and strikes aimed at thwarting President Macron's resolve to increase the eligibility age for the country's unsustainable pension, from 62 to 64. Whether or not it is successful, there is likely to be a groundswell of support for the election of a far right government in 2027.


I arrived on Thursday, before getting out of the city a day later on Friday. I travelled 80 minutes south-west by train to the famous cathedral location of Chartres.

The city's well preserved and restored cathedral was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, three and a half decades after it was mercifully left intact by an American World War II colonel who defied an order to target the German soldiers who were supposed to be holed up inside.

I had long wanted to visit Chartres Cathedral after being intrigued when, in the very secular setting of Melbourne University, one of my lecturers presented it as a pillar of Western civilisation.

Upon arrival, I experienced it as just another cathedral populated by tourists taking photos. Initially its stained glass windows and other features and artefacts lacked surprise. But, as one of them, I soon got to see why tourists go there to take photos. I found the experience of being in that space remarkably transfiguring.

Perhaps being on that higher plane has affected my appreciation of the art and cultural exhibits I visited in the days since.


These have included an exhibition of photos and objects relating to the colonisation of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I spent two hours pouring over its contents, in an unpretentious setting in a relatively small room at the base of a suburban apartment block.

The following day I viewed a most unexpected sexually explicit exhibition of queer art at the Arab World Institute. The Institute is an organisation founded by France and 18 Arab countries 'to research and disseminate information about the Arab world and its cultural and spiritual values'.


It is pleasing that these values are culture embrace LGBTQIA+ living that has to be hidden. I was moved by the obvious courage of these legend artists being at the same time 'out and proud' and Arab.

Yesterday's exhibition was appropriately bleak for this moment in history. It showcased the mixed media works of Chilean artist Eugenio Tellez, at La Maison de l'Amérique latine.


It was a curiously matter of fact inglorious celebration of war that was in fact anti-war. If Chartres Cathedral was about the making of human civilisation, these works represent its 'disarticulation'.

Links: Chartres | Abyssinie-Tigré-Erythrée-Somalie | Arab World Institute | Latin American

Silence over St Mary's Cathedral remembrance ribbon cutting

Following yesterday's funeral of Cardinal George Pell, I was disturbed to read this from a Sydney Morning Herald letter writer: 'I went to St Mary’s Cathedral to tie a ribbon on the iron fence for a friend who was raped by a priest when he was seven years old. My ribbons were cut off by men and women who were physically and verbally intimidating.'

I have wanted to believe that the persistent removal of the memorial ribbons in the weeks since the cardinal's death has been the work of fanatics, and not anybody acting on behalf of the Church.

I have been waiting in vain for the current archbishop to publicly acknowledge that the ribbons have a place in the remembrance of Cardinal Pell and the Church's child protection failings under his leadership.

'We hear you,' is what he might have said, and it's all he needed to say.

Pell was not my kind of church leader. I preferred the preceding Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Edward Clancy.

Clancy was every bit as conservative as Pell - but inclusive - in that he would sometimes embrace as policy, positions other than his own. It seemed he was the shepherd who also cared for those he disagreed with. He was not at war with them.

The example that comes to mind was his support for the Kings Cross medically supervised drug injecting centre proposed by the Sisters of Charity around 2000. I understood it as part of a harm minimisation strategy that was based on the progressive 'proportional reason' thinking in Catholic moral theology, rather than the more traditional 'moral absolutes'.

Pell killed the proposal when he became archbishop in 2001, and the Uniting Church took over and had success with it.

Clancy's approach strikes me as similar to that of NSW Liberal Party leader and Premier Dominic Perrottet. Perrottet is a far right conservative whom, it seems, governs for all, not just his Catholic Opus Dei friends, as was feared when he took over in 2021.

I am particularly heartened when I see him working positively with his political adversaries including the independent Member for Sydney and leading assisted dying campaigner Alex Greenwich. Perrottet's style can dismay conservatives and cultural warriors who expect some kind of loyalty from him.

Pell's biographer Tess Livingstone wrote in The Australian yesterday that Perrottet's no show at Pell's funeral 'beggars belief given his background as captain of Redfield College and the Cardinal’s warmth towards Opus Dei'.

Cynics suggest he's just calculating support ahead of next month's state election. But I think he's showing more feeling for the Church's sex abuse victims than the supposedly contrite church administration presiding over the cutting down of the memorial ribbons.

Outsourcing our dirty work

Later this month, I'm seeing a cousin in regional Victoria. On my previous visit just before the pandemic, she mentioned something her mother had told her.

It was that her mother and mine shared a bedroom during their childhood years. Her mother said that my mother was a good student but she was untidy.

According to my observation of the trajectory of their adult lives, that was true. Her mother was in fact the epitome of domestic virtue, and my mother less so.

Thanks to my cousin's anecdote, I have a better understanding of why my mother paid more attention to our education, than cooking and cleaning the house, while we were growing up.

The state of my house suggests that I inherited her instinct. My bookshelves offer plenty of intellectual stimulation, but there is dust and disarray elsewhere.

Last week my brother sent me an article my niece Mahalah Mullins had published in the most recent issue of the Undergraduate Philosophy Journal of Australasia.

The title is 'Life’s a Chore: Menial Household Labour, Aristotle, and the Outsourcing Dilemma'. She explores the 'moral discomfort' associated with 'paying someone to do your dirty work'.

I have reached the stage where I could afford to pay a cleaner to do my dirty work. I have thought about it. But I've concluded that my moral discomfort would be greater than the physical and spiritual comfort of living in a professionally cleaned house.

However, as Mahalah suggests, it's not so much about avoiding moral discomfort as embracing domestic virtue as a positive, in the form of promoting social cohesion and 'well-rounded human flourishing'.

It seems she is using Aristotle to reflect on sharing chores among the members of her student household.

I wish that I had been able to apply such principles to my life as I was studying Aristotle when I was her age.

But I have a companion in my house, and it's not too late for me to employ domestic virtue to achieve greater social cohesion between the two of us.


Authentic social media

This morning I was asked if I'd made any New Year's resolutions.

I said no, I don't need them. I've got diet, exercise and alcohol consumption right without such help.

But then I thought I could do with a gentle prompt to motivate me to write a TinyLetter at least weekly.

That was on my mind because another person had just asked me when I was going to write my next.

I like to think I'm no longer susceptible to nagging and pressure to perform. Rather it's the enjoyment of a task that gets me moving.

With my low carb diet, I've made a pleasure out of weight loss and its maintenance over four years.

My BeReal

That's because it involves a minimum of self-denial, at least in my mind. I enjoy the taste of cheese and fatty meats that has proved to be 'slimming' with this strange food consumption regime.

I sense that I've evolved to become non-performative in my writing in the way that I don't attempt to create a grand artifice but simply articulate what's on my mind. Some might call it self-realisation, an act that is by definition satisfying.

That is largely what the rising social media platform BeReal is about, in its attempt at being an antidote to Instagram's emphasis on beautiful images.

BeReal's users post a daily photo that is preferably boring. It is judged on timeliness and not aesthetic appeal.

What is important is that they post within two minutes of their randomly timed app notification. Late posts are allowed but looked down upon in the way that boring photos don't belong on Instagram.

Your BeReal friends don't care about whether you can produce beautiful images. They just want to know that you're alive.

Remembering Father Peter Maher

Yesterday I attended the funeral of Father Peter Maher, who was the priest in my local parish of Newtown for 20 years until 2017.

That's when he retired. He was then 67, which is unusually early for a priest. Sometimes I think I might have been a bad - or good - influence and inspired him to take early retirement. I'd retired two years earlier at the age of 55.

Peter Maher

I would have lunch with him - at my house or his - three or four times a year. He was fastidious in his catering for my low carb diet, especially with his swede mash.

I can't remember exactly how I got to know him, as I didn't attend Mass. Perhaps it was the Interplay play therapy sessions he conducted in the church on an occasional Saturday afternoon.

Personal development was a common interest, as was editing and writing for publication.

I was editor of Eureka Street and he edited the National Council of Priests publication The Swag, where he would occasionally republish my Tiny Letters.

In 2015 he was honoured with an Order of Australia in recognition of his service to religion and the community through 'programs promoting acceptance and diversity'.

Like me, he admired Pope Francis' stress on inclusion and his resistance to clericalism.

In a piece for The Swag earlier this year, he suggested that he was not bothered that Francis doesn't seem to care as much for change in church governance or doctrine as he does 'the basics of listening'.

While Peter was well able to hear the cry of those who were 'silenced, marginalised or erased', he also had a well-ordered appreciation of some of the finer things of life, including high end whisky, and overseas travel.

He liked being able to offer me a whisky or two, I think because he didn't drink alone. Before we imbibed, he would give me a briefing to ensure I knew the basics, such as the difference between single and double malt.

A few years ago he stayed in my Paris room. Sadly his return visit that was planned for mid-2020 was thwarted by COVID and the treatment for his cancer diagnosis.

He never got to make that final overseas trip, though he was able to accept this with his characteristic equanimity.

Link -

Tunnel boring machine Dame Whina Cooper

Often on a Wednesday morning I'll see a film at my local Newtown Dendy cinema. Today it was the New Zealand biopic Whina (pronounced Feena).

Whina Cooper was a Maori social and political activist who died in 1994 aged 98. She is best known for leading an inspirational and consequential land rights protest march from the tip of the North Island, to Parliament in Wellington, in 1975.


In 2020, a tunnel boring machine working on Auckland's City Rail Link tunnels was named 'Dame Whina Cooper', to honour her strength and determination.

She was a devout Catholic who applied her characteristic peaceful resistance to the dogmatism of the Church when it stood in the way of her dignity and that of her people.

She reacted with stoicism when the priest publicly denounced her for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Then on a later occasion, she stood up and challenged him at Mass when he railed against a set of Maori carvings that were 'idolatrous' and sexually explicit.

Her stand against the hectoring Irish missionary reminded me of the outrage provoked in Ireland by 80 year old Father Seán Sheehy's condemnation of same sex marriage and abortion rights. Sheehy delivered his outspoken homily ten days ago at St Mary’s Listowel, in his native County Kerry.

Commentator Derek Scally suggested in Monday's Irish Times that 'the problem of old Catholic Ireland was not priests preaching rampant sin but ordinary people feeling – and making each other feel – rampant shame.'

The film showed Whina's ability to lift her people up and make them feel proud.