A trip to outback NSW

I'm spending a few nights with a friend in the historic river town of Wentworth, at the junction of the Darling and Murray rivers in the far south western corner of NSW.

As part of our 11 day rail and road journey, we were to stay in Mildura rather than Wentworth. But that was across the Victorian border, which closed after we booked and reopened following our arrival in Wentworth. As a result, we've had the experience of a small community instead of a large provincial city.

I enjoy a mix of spontaneous and planned activities. We've had a half day tour of the Lake Mungo indigenous archaeological site planned for several months, and we're doing that later today after heavy rains caused caused it to be postponed for 48 hours.

Perry Sandhills

On our first day here we visited Orange World, where a citrus farmer named Mario takes tourists on a tractor train tour through his orchard. Although he is good humoured and obviously enjoys performing as a tour guide, life is hard. He makes only 40 cents per kilo from his oranges, so he's gradually switching to mandarins, which earn $1 per kilo.

We were the only tourists on his train, which looked to have capacity for 60 or more. That is the story of our holiday. Due to COVID-19, the motels, restaurants and other attractions have been near empty. Yesterday we were alone in our exploration of the ancient Perry Sand Hills formation near the Murray River (pictured).

It has been a pleasure to give patronage to local business owners. Yesterday I bought a scarf from a Wentworth weaver. I didn't need it but will enjoy it for its comfort, style and memory of our time here.

Surprisingly there is some optimism. We met a restaurateur who is about to open an upmarket eatery in Wentworth and did not seem too worried about the uncertain times. I hope his instinct is correct.

2BH Radio Station Broken Hill

Our previous stop was Broken Hill, to which we'd travelled from Sydney on the weekly Outback Explorer train. The highlights for us included the Silly Goat cafe, which has coffee as good as any we've tasted in Sydney. They are so proud of it that they give their patrons a 'tasting notes' card.

But sadly the business is for sale. Times are tough also for the local commercial radio station 2BH, where we struck up a conversation with the advertising manager when we went to admire the unique studio building that was built to resemble a vintage radio set (pictured).

For most of the day 2BH networks shock jocks from Sydney but they have an engaging local breakfast program where you get to hear about power blackouts, extreme weather events and listener birthdays.

After Wentworth, we're driving through a few remote semi-desert towns including Balranald and Hay, before spending two nights in Griffith before our train journey back to Sydney on Thursday.

More images at http://photos.mullins.id.au

Deplatforming ourselves

The deplatforming of Donald Trump has brought this new word into prominence. Twitter, Facebook and several other social media platforms have effectively silenced the outgoing US president by suspending him from using their services.

While that is of course very significant, I’m more interested in the idea of deplatforming ourselves, which is sometimes referred to as social media ‘detox’.

I have a history of this. I was an early adopter of various forms of social media, but then just as quickly abandoned them as I became aware that they were taking over my life and exploiting my usage data.

I remember my Twitter consumption being at its peak when Julia Gillard successfully challenged Kevin Rudd for the Labor Party leadership in 2010.

Shortly afterwards, I realised that I was checking my Twitter feed whenever I had a spare moment. I marvelled at how well informed I’d become.

But I was also aware that my total wellbeing had taken a hit. I had to either moderate or effectively abandon my use of Twitter. I chose the latter, though I agree that moderation is always the best way to curb addictive behaviour.

About two years ago, I decided to work on improving my skills as a photographer by posting a photo a day on Instagram. I kept it up for a year but stopped because I didn’t like it that Instagram was part of the ecosystem of Facebook, which I’d strenuously avoided because I genuinely believed it was more evil than good.

In November 2019 I decided to remove Google from my life as far as possible. You can’t do that completely if you own an Android phone as I do. But you can try.

I googled ‘no more Google’ and found a website listing alternatives to Google. Now my googling days are over and I use the DuckDuckGo search engine and many other services that do not send my usage data to Google or Facebook.

I’ve been a constant user of Fitbit health and fitness monitoring devices for nearly six years. So I was dismayed when Google purchased Fitbit a year or so ago. I could see Google monitoring my weight and trying to sell weight loss products to me whenever it sees I’ve gained a kilo or two.

An email from the Fitbit CEO last week promised that wouldn’t happen. But the Australian regulatory body the ACCC looks like it will only be able to achieve a moratorium on such predatory practice for a limited period of time. It is about to rule after receiving submissions from members of the public including myself.

If I count podcasts, I’m still as addicted to social media as anybody I know. This morning I decided to switch off my podcast feed while I was at the gym and give my full and satisfied attention to my body’s reaction to the weights I was lifting.

The era of colonial exploitation has never ended

Yesterday I watched a 1970s fantasy documentary that sets ‘backward’ Filipinos against the more technologically advanced and superior Western nations.

Kidlat Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare was Sunday’s film of the day on my favourite streaming platform Mubi.

In a whimsical semi-autobiographical style, the jeepney (mini-bus) driver in a small village is mesmerised by the American dream of space travel and hi-tech industrialisation. He attends a Scouts convention where he meets a rich American who promises to take him to the US, but they first spend a year in Paris working for his bubble gum machine business.

Jeepney Driver

It’s there that he gets to identify with the traditional street market vendors, who are losing out to the spread of supermarkets. He becomes an advocate for pushback against the consumer capitalism that has so thoroughly exploited his own country. The Philippines was formally an American colony between 1898 and 1946, and informally for much longer.

The film took me back to my three month visit to the Philippines in the summer of 1983-84, where I stayed in villages with people who aspired to be part of the modern world even though they had been impoverished by the self-serving actions of the wealthy nations and their investors.

I remember being disturbed and perplexed by people rotting their teeth drinking Coke and Pepsi and feeling good about it.

I spent time with the Mindanao Development Centre, which was involved in social analysis to lobby on behalf of the poor people who were losing their livelihoods to the multinational corporations. I also visited an Australian priest - Father Brian Gore - who was jailed for emboldening sugar industry workers to assemble and fight for their rights.

I remained interested in the effect of colonialism and neocolonialism on the wellbeing of people in poorer countries. I remember travelling through Java in 2014 and visiting the museum of the 1955 Bandung Conference that sought to unite developing nations against the stranglehold of the developed world.

Then on Saturday, I bought East Timor coffee at my local Carriageworks market in Sydney. I talked with the stall holder about my work with Caritas in East Timor in 1999. She told me about establishing the development aid projects which my coffee purchase was helping to sustain.

But while individuals and small organisations from the developed world continue to do what they can for those in developing countries, the behaviour of governments is as shameful as ever.

We have the continued slashing of aid budgets. There is also the aggressive action by our Federal Government in prosecuting the whistleblower Bernard Collaery, who exposed our government’s 2004 bugging of the East Timor cabinet offices in an effort to gain an unfair advantage during negotiations for a petroleum and gas treaty.

The right amount of wine

For many years I enjoyed half a bottle of wine with my evening meal. I think that’s roughly equivalent to the amount of alcohol my parents consumed while I was growing up, though they drank beer rather than wine.

Although I imagine it’s more than most of my contemporaries, I have been comfortable with that amount because I’ve never exceeded it, at least not regularly. My reasoning was that if I had more than half a bottle one night, I’d be left with less than half the next.

I know it’s always good to monitor our drug and alcohol consumption, even if it’s firmly under control. So when I received my regular blood test results about six months ago, I asked the GP if he could see signs of excess alcohol consumption.

He said no. I asked the same of my nutritionist, and she agreed.

They probably recognise the mental health benefit of drinking a modest amount of alcohol each day, and that half a bottle a day is less than what most problem drinkers consume.

Nevertheless I continued to question the half bottle. Aside from the cost - about $10 over two evenings - drinking that amount meant that my head was not clear enough for me to do any serious reading after dinner. I thought that I would like to be able to read more at that time of day.

So I decided to have a quarter of a bottle a day instead of half a bottle. That worked in that I did not notice any loss of enjoyment of the wine and I had a clearer head afterwards.

Then a few weeks later the National Health and Medical Research Council released its updated guidelines. They suggested that 10 standard drinks each week is the most we should consume if we want to reduce our risk of harm from alcohol. A standard drink is 100ml of wine - half a glass, or a little more than an eighth of a bottle.

I decided that I would try keeping to one standard drink each day. This is less than the 1.4 standard drinks allowed but it assumes I will have more when I go out.

So far it has worked, and arguably my enjoyment has increased because I’m learning to savour wine rather than drink it.

Have an evidence-based Christmas!

A week or two ago my neighbours across the street erected an inflatable decoration with the greeting 'Have a Magical Christmas!'

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I found the emphasis on magic more thought provoking than most Christmas or holiday greeting sentiments.

It affirms this as the 'silly season', suggesting that Christmas is rightfully a time to suspend our usual behaviours in order to give momentary credence to irrationality and wishful thinking.

Magic is based on illusion rather than evidence. We are briefly putting ourselves under its spell so that we can recharge the batteries of our rationality.

It is important that magic does not become the year-round norm for us - as it is for some, including leaders of some of the most powerful nation states.

When my neighbours' greeting went up, I was pleased to see the way they were highlighting the need for our annual refocus so that we can better confront the serious challenges before us.

But circumstances changed quickly and now Sydney's silly season must be suspended until the virus can be brought under control. The message has to be negated. Don't have a Magical Christmas.

Whether or how effectively the virus is brought under control is entirely dependent upon our ability to suspend silliness and keep our minds tuned and eyes open to the evidence. Instead of letting down our guard, we're to wear masks and accept mandatory mask wearing if it is decreed.

It is of course unfortunate that the deliberate emptiness of the 'silly' season is routinely conflated with what Christmas is intended to celebrate. That is the Christian believers' moment of hope for a better world that is real. Arguably this hope is something that rationality depends upon but can't itself deliver.

The Sunday Obligation lives on for a diminishing minority of Catholics

When I was growing up, practising Catholics were very aware of the requirement to attend Mass on Sundays and certain feast days that were designated 'Holy Days of Obligation'.

In a society that was still to some extent sectarian, it did not seem fair that we Catholics were compelled to go to church while Protestants were free to choose. But the Sunday Obligation was a loathsome marker of Catholic identity that you did not question.

I hated having to go to Mass and would often go by myself to an early mass, to get it over with, so that I could enjoy the rest of my Sunday.

To be fair, Sunday mass had some positives. These included its music and theatre, and the engaging craft of some of the priests. But for me, all of this was negated by the Obligation.

When I reached adulthood and developed a broader and quite significant appreciation of certain aspects of the Catholic faith, I grew out of my cultural need to honour the Sunday Obligation.

Indeed, on Sunday mornings to this day, I experience a mild sense of euphoria in being free from its yoke. I would even suggest that this signifies that I suffered from a form of PTSD associated with the Obligation.

During the pandemic, the Sunday Obligation has of course suffered something of a blow, with church authorities having to endorse the state's ban on mass attendance.

I'd hoped that this might have had a lasting effect post-pandemic, with Catholics taking responsibility for deciding on their mass attendance in general, in the way that all citizens are now taking decisions about how to act appropriately in social gatherings.

But last week, Sydney's Archbishop Anthony Fisher put paid to this in his pastoral letter 'Come Home to Mass!' He said:

'I rescind my decree of 20 March 2020 dispensing the faithful of Sydney from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and the Holy Days of Christmas and the Assumption. Under canon 1247 attendance at Mass on those days is now obligatory once again.'

Leaving the Sunday Obligation in its state of being cast aside might have usefully helped Catholic church leaders demonstrate humility in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis.

The need for this arises from the Royal Commission finding that power dynamics in institutional cultures allowed sexual abuse to flourish. But Archbishop Fisher's pastoral letter - and a similar one from the Archbishop of Hobart - has shown that they are determined to exercise a powerful grip on the lives of the faithful.

The good news is that they are fighting a losing battle, with an increasing 90 per cent majority of Catholics rejecting the Sunday Obligation.

Tattoos that heal the scars of war

On the train to Canberra yesterday, I read a newspaper review of the Ink in the Lines tattooed war veterans exhibition at the Australian War Memorial.

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I've avoided visiting the War Memorial because expert commentary I've followed depicts it as a propaganda tool in the culture wars. But I decided to see this exhibition because it seemed different. And it was.

Its focus was on veterans getting 'inked' as a way of dealing with the trauma of war, including killing and witnessing the killing of comrades.

That trauma is now referred to as PTSD, but it was originally labelled 'shell shock'. I remember my mother explaining that her father had experienced shell shock after serving in the First World War.

To me it explained why my grandfather always seemed distant, and it occurred to me that this must have had an effect on his style of parenting. I'm sure this is not uncommon.

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As depicted in the exhibition, tattoos are able to tell the stories that veterans keep to themselves because they are too painful to verbalise. This is how Elaine put it:

'A transformation’s just happened after the tattoo got put on, and it’s like an armour for me to say, "Wow. There is life after. You can recover. You just got to reach out and ask for help."'

I've never thought about getting a tattoo because it's not something that those of my generation and social grouping do. That is unlikely to change. But when I consider the scars of my years of institutional living, I can see how tattoos can help with the healing.

How not to help people who seem to be struggling

A few months ago somebody complimented me on my positivity. But I also remember another person earlier criticising me for my positivity, insisting that I didn't know what it was like to be in the dark place he was.

He rejected my constructive and rational solutions to his lamentable situation.

'You're not helping', he told me.

'How do I help?', I wondered.

Last week I read an article in The Independent in which a psychologist recalls a book that influenced her practice.

The book's author Dr Irvin Yalom was always keen to avoid diagnosis, which he argued was useful only for 'accessing a particular service'.

'You have to tailor your treatment plan to fit the actual person in front of you'.

That reminded me of the approach of the elocution teacher I had as a ten year old. I was terrible at memorising poems to recite, and I rebelled. She got me to write stories instead, and I excelled.

If her brief was to prepare me to win voice-speaking prizes at eisteddfods, she would have failed. Instead she considered it more important to help me to find my creative voice.

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Last week I also read an interview with American talk show host Trevor Noah, who has developed rapport with a white homeless man who sleeps near his TV studio.

'I remember once, when I first got here, I felt guilty. I was like, "Hey, man, can we do anything?" He said, "No…I'm fine living the way I live".'

Moreover the man challenged Noah's world view: 'He's homeless, but he'll say super-racist or sexist shit to my employees, like the women.'

'It's a really interesting dynamic. In the rules of wokeness, I don't know how it works. I don't know what the rules are.'

Noah's instinct was to immediately call out the man's racism and sexism. But he came to realise it was smarter to first understand it.

Listening to our body

Yesterday somebody I was talking to posed an important question for self-reflection: What do I find calming?

Then last night I visited a tantric masseur's blog that I discovered two years ago, about the same time as I considered the suggestion of a friend that we 'listen to our body'.

She was referring to diet, but the principle also applies to physical exercise, as well as attempts to avoid the over-thinking that can undermine our calm, and much more.

The tantric masseur is a young Frenchman named Florian. He presents himself as a life coach focusing on intuition and 'emotional presence'.

I guess intuition makes him some kind of clairvoyant, and the primacy of emotion is archetypically French. His approach is non evidence-based, unashamedly so. It's intended, as he says, to 'complement ... actual therapy'.

His English and French websites are different. On the English he talks about 'Shadow Work' allowing us to 'understand and integrate the mechanic of our emotions, our [troublesome] subconscious behaviors which repeat themselves in our life'.

Meanwhile on the French, he explains his role as a masseur: 'As I lay my hands on your body, I feel your blockages'.

He goes on to discuss the reality of 'corporal' expression and the need to listen to what our body is saying.

'Your body ... knows what it has to do. It knows [when] it needs to move, what it needs to put in order. It knows and it speaks to you, through pain, and through well-being'.

How to overcome the fear of failure

After I wrote that I'd been meditating, a relative reminded me of a previous discussion in which we both indicated we'd sworn off meditation after our earlier negative experiences of it. Mine involved a brutal power play by the novice master not long after I began my Jesuit training as an 18 year old.

After that, I always felt diminished when I attempted meditation. However in recent years I've developed the confidence to reassert myself pursuing various activities I'd struggled with earlier in life because of a power imbalance between myself and another person.

'Power imbalance' is used to describe the exploitation of one human being by another where the exploiter has significant power and influence over the exploited. It can involve the sexual gratification of clergy or politicians where the victim is a minor or a junior staff member.

But it can also be a more insidious assertion of the cultural dominance of all-powerful institutions.

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Catholic schools were infamous for having certain teachers who would try to get their students to make something of their lives by telling them they would never make something of their lives.

Some students took this as a defeat, while for others it was a challenge.

The Irish born actor Gabriel Byrne tells of overcoming the negative aspects of his Catholic schooling, to become an actor, in his memoir Walking With Ghosts. I read this last week, after getting to know him through watching all 106 episodes of the TV series In Treatment - in which he plays a therapist - as part of my lockdown routine earlier this year.

He writes about how he learned acting: 'Sealed off in a windowless room, I dare to take risks. To free myself from judgment. Battle with doubt and fear of failure. Marry movement to emotion. Be brave. Be still. Trust myself. This Sisyphean pushing of a rock up a hill; slowly gaining confidence.'