Archive for the ‘The Odyssey of Life’ Category

In attempting to explain the world to my two and a half year-old son, I have come to realise that human artifacts are divided into two very simple categories: “Tools” and “Toys.” It all seems rather obvious when you consider that things are either designed to enable one to complete a task, or simply to be played with for the sake of pleasure. These categories are by no means exclusive and, if one were to create a Venn diagram representing human artifacts, there would be a great number of items which shared the space where the circles overlapped; at least with regard to how they are employed.

The Oxford English dictionary defines a tool as “a device or implement, especially one held in the hand, used to carry out a particular function.” This seems a pretty sound definition, although we shouldn’t be too swayed by the use of “especially” into thinking that things not held in the hand are not actually tools. After all, considering this more broadly, we might categorise a table or chair as a tool, in that they allow one to carry out a particular function – whether it be sitting and eating dinner or standing upon either of them to change a light-bulb. Approaching the problem from this perspective brings almost anything that is useful under the same very large golfing umbrella. A car is a tool for carrying things, including oneself, between places; a book is a tool for conveying information; a towel is a tool for drying oneself, and so on. If it isn’t designed purely for pleasure and serves a functional purpose, then surely we might consider it to be a tool.

Toys, on the other hand, are defined as “an object for a child to play with, typically a model or miniature replica of something.” While the definition of a toy as something to play with seems right enough, I strongly dispute the rather limiting idea that they are merely for children. Irrespective of this, a toy ought to have no functional purpose beyond pleasure and play. A toy car, for example, isn’t much use for anything beyond the recreational, although I’m certain it could be used in a more functional manner under the right circumstances. Equally, one might say that a teddy bear cannot be classified as a tool, unless we wish to be very open-minded in our consideration of all possible situations and imagine that it might serve as a pillow, insulation, or, under extreme circumstances, a weapon. We might also define a teddy bear as a tool for helping get a child to sleep, but this does seem rather to push the reasonable boundaries of the definition. Either way, if we apply these broad definitions to such artifacts, then one can see that pretty well all objects are either tools or toys.

Of course it is possible to play with almost anything at all, whatever its original purpose, which is precisely why I have come to this realisation in the first place. My son far prefers to play with things that aren’t toys most of the time; screwdrivers, knives, kitchen sprays, drills, lighters, scissors, shampoo bottles and the like. Of course, it is the dangerous things that are most attractive to him, largely because they are interesting objects, but mostly, I suspect, because we constantly tell him that he shouldn’t be playing with these things and frequently confiscate them from his hot little hands. I have now become so boring about this whole business that he even repeats the mantra of “it’s not a toy, it’s a tool”, without in any way changing his behaviour. Yet, in being forced to define things in this way, the world has become quite sharply divided, not so much into things which are tools or toys, but into things which ought to be played with and which ought not to be played with. The degree of subjectivity one might bring to this is mindboggling, and I do harbour more than a little reluctance in suggesting, for example, that one can’t have a good time with a hammer. For my son’s sake however, perhaps I should be pleased that while he is successfully learning the categorical boundaries, this is not in any way limiting his desire to play with things that are not toys. It’s a tough one; I don’t want to stifle his creativity, but, as the Easter Road Toll song says “Fingers don’t grow back,” and I’d like him to reach adulthood physically intact.

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Considering his fascination with monsters, tunnels and dark places, I imagine that if we left our son Magnus to his own devices he’d probably develop a rich mythology, even a religion, within a few years. It is impossible to truly grasp what it is that he is thinking when he talks of these things, but the reverence, awe and fear with which he regards them exhibits the attribution of agency to natural phenomena that underlies our rather sorry invention of religion and superstition.

Recently his focus has shifted significantly to an obsession with tools and machines, which are his favourite objects and, more often than not, playthings. He certainly enjoys playing with toy cars, trucks and animals, but these are almost invariably trumped by a desire to play with or impersonate screw-drivers, Allen keys, drills, saws, scrapers, trowels, air blowers, chainsaws and whipper-snippers. Every day he begs us repeatedly to play with my tools, of which I own but a few and which, if such a wish is granted, leads to him making a buzzing, whirring, sawing or grinding noise, while pretending to fix things about the house.

His favourite “book” at the moment is a hardware catalogue from Mitre 10, which he flips through repeatedly while naming all the tools. On a recent morning, I took him for a walk through the wonderfully overgrown Newtown Cemetery before proceeding to the hardware store to look at tools, and now, having associated these two things, he asks me daily if I will take him “to the cemetery to look at the tools.” On a second visit to the hardware store, we were approached by a member of staff who quizzed him about the names of things, and Magnus was able to answer every question with impressive accuracy. I was especially proud of his response “that’s a measuring tape” when presented with arguably the most challenging question of them all; his use of the more formal title seemed to surprise his questioner considerably.

At the moment our house is undergoing renovations and we have been fortunate in staying at a friend’s house which is presently vacant. Initially Magnus was desperate to return home – as one might expect – but now he only really wants to go there to see the huge array of tools being used by the builders. “That’s an electric saw. That’s an electric drill…” It is almost impossible to stop him from trying to pick them up and examine them or play with them, and hence something of a concern with regards to his safety. At home, he likes to play with knives at every opportunity, which he sees as just another tool, and so these must all be kept high up out of his reach in the cupboards above the stove. His obsession with tools is such that he gets upset if we don’t stop outside the window of the crappy pawn shop on the corner of King Street, where a rather moribund collection of dusty and rusty screw-drivers is on offer. For him it is like visiting a shrine and, having made his obeisance, he is content to move on.

Were he to elevate his obsession into a religion, then I suspect that the chief deity in his pantheon would be a vacuum cleaner. Whenever he hears one, sees one, hears something that sounds like one, or sees anything remotely vacuum-cleaner shaped, he becomes immensely excited. Once, watching a TV show, in which a vacuum cleaner appeared very briefly, he spent the entire next ten minutes asking “Where is the vacuum cleaner? Where is the vacuum cleaner?” With his limited understanding of narrative, it might as well have been the protagonist. Nothing else mattered.

While vacuum cleaners might sit at the top of the pantheon, any kind of machine that cuts, digs, chops, sands or hammers comes close in status and respect. Recently the whipper-snipper came into vogue after a trip to a public park in Marrickville where the council were maintaining the lawns. Magnus uses the verb “need” in place of “use,” and, consequently, after witnessing the whipper snipper in action, he kept repeating: “Man is needing whipper-snipper. Man needs whipper-snipper.” From that day forth the whipper-snipper has featured regularly in his games. He will pick up anything, however unlike a whipper snipper it may appear, and walk around making a sawing sound whilst intoning “I cutting the walls” and “I cleaning the leaves.” He refers to my mother’s travel hairbrush as a  “whipper-snipper” and asks her for it almost immediately when she visits.

One very positive upshot of his obsession is that he loves the idea of cleaning things. Despite being far better at making a mess than cleaning up after himself, whenever any liquid is spilled on the ground, he heads for the bottom drawer in the kitchen to grab a tea-towel or swab and tries to join in the efforts to dry the floor. Upon every visit we make to the local supermarket, he wriggles out of my arms and runs towards the aisle with all the cleaning products, grabbing either a “sprinker” (his word for a cleaning spray) or one of the mops and brooms hanging from the rack. He will then proceed to clean the floor in the supermarket, leaving me little choice but to humour him or else risk a meltdown and tantrum that is best avoided. We can only hope that this obsession with and willingness to clean carries on throughout his youth, not merely because we’d like him to help around the house, but because recent studies have shown a close correlation between doing household chores during childhood and being successful in life. If his behaviour so far is anything to go on, then it looks as though he will be a very successful person indeed.

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My son Magnus is obsessed with “storm thunder”. Ever since he was first really conscious of thunderstorms, they have seemed fascinating and intimidating to him.

In the early days of his flowering awareness of the world, we went through a spell without any thunderstorms at all. It was not until he was already a relatively advanced little being that a particularly violent one struck. Quite naturally, he was terrified.

We were putting him to bed when the storm began. The low rumbles on the horizon hadn’t yet caught his attention, but when a very loud and much closer crack resounded, he was terribly startled and began to whimper.

“It’s okay, mate, it’s just a thunderstorm. That’s the sound of thunder.”

His face was distorted in a frozen cry of fear. Then, slowly, in a frightened staccato plea, he said, “No. More. Storm. Thunder.”

“No. More. Storm. Thunder.”

He repeated this several times, standing at the side of his wooden cot, arms resting on the frame, hands held by his parents. The poor little bugger was shaking and tears welled in the corners of his eyes.

“It can’t hurt you, little mate. You’re safe in here.”

His mouth curled in despair. It seemed as though all was lost.

“No more storm thunder.”

Since that night storm thunder has almost perennially been in his thoughts. Every day, when a plane flies over, he says: “Sounds like storm thunder.” When a heavy truck bangs its weight in a pothole, he says: “Sounds like storm thunder.”

At some point, on a daily basis, when he is walking around the house, or running around the play park, he will say “Don’t be scared storm thunder. Don’t be scared storm thunder.” He is reassuring himself; a personal reminder that loud noises are not necessarily a problem. On account of his pronunciation, however, it comes out rather more like “Donkey scared storm thunder,” giving his mild anxiety a humorous note.

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At night our kitchen is ruled by slugs. They start coming in around ten PM and spread out across the rooms downstairs. They come in droves; twenty, thirty, maybe forty slugs or more, some bigger than a middle finger, others smaller than a pinkie. One must tread very carefully when using the downstairs bathroom or foraging for a midnight snack. In the darkened loungeroom, if something is needed, it is best left until morning or risk the nauseating squishiness of a slug exploding underfoot.

In the early morning the slugs make their way home and by sunrise most have left. A few stragglers cruise slowly around the skirting boards and slide under the door during breakfast, late night revellers after a long and fruitful crawl.

Their principal food source is my two-year old son, Magnus. Since he was big enough to start dropping food everywhere, the slug population has exploded. Of course, we sweep and wipe and pick things up all day long, but with the sheer volume of stuff that gets distributed around the house, enough makes it through to keep the slugs coming.

Magnus, with his flourishing vocabulary, though still unable to pronounce Ls, calls them “Sgusting shugs”. He is excited by their presence and comments often on their size:

“Ooh that’s a big one!”

“Just a baby shug.”

He is sensible about not touching the slugs, though he often hovers over them with mischievous intent. Those that are particularly in danger of being stepped on, we pick up carefully and put outside. Keen to help on this front, Magnus often goes straight to the cutlery drawer and grabs a teaspoon when he spots a stray one in the middle of the floor.

The slugs have clearly made a big impression on Magnus, as have most of the local fauna. Whether it is beetles, spiders, butterflies, moths or “hiding lizards” he is overcome with excitement at any sighting. Just a week ago, in the wake of great storms, we found a frog in the rain-filled inflatable pool in the garden. When I prodded gently it to see if it was alive, it darted off through the water, running circles round the rim of the pool. Magnus was so excited that I had to take him back into the house. In his enthusiasm to make it swim, he nearly whacked the frog with a stick. Fortunately, for its own sake, by the following morning, the frog had moved on.

Magnus especially loves butterflies and has a poster from the Australian Museum on his wall filled with green, blue, orange, red, yellow and black butterflies. He frequently stands and studies this, and, as with the slugs, remarks upon their size or colour.

“That’s a blue one!”

“Very big butterfly.”

One night recently, when Magnus awoke crying, his mother went in to see what was the matter. Sitting up in his cot, reaching out for a comforting hug, he cried “Sgusting butterfly!”

While he had seemed in distress initially, now that his mama was present, he shifted into a more enthusiastic mood. “Sgusting butterfly,” he repeated, unable or unwilling to articulate more. “Sgusting butterfly.”

The idea that Magnus should find butterflies disgusting seems at odds with his love of them, and he must have had a nightmare of sorts. The following day he mentioned the “sgusting butterfly” several times and has continued to talk about it since. Just last night he awoke in the early hours, clearly distressed. When we entered his room, he was standing in his cot saying “sgusting, sgusting!” No doubt the lingering impression of another such dream.

Though Magnus is naturally upset at this recurring nightmare, V and I are also excited about getting this rare glimpse into his imagination. His thoughts are certainly on display much of the time as, like most children, he offers a running commentary on all his play activities. Most of the time, however, his imaginations on this score seem more mundane.

“Car car going the shops get milky.”

“Horsey fall down in the water.”

The sgusting butterfly is something else altogether.

Lying on the couch one morning, I tried to visualise this dream of his and found myself imagining a giant slug with butterfly wings. Perhaps this is what he saw that night, some strange agglomeration of these two very different creatures that are ever-present in his life. Did the Sgusting Butterfly monster him? Did it chase him? Did it speak? Did it take him by the hand and lead him to the promised land? Who knows. Yet we will forever cherish this unique, if somewhat unsettling window into his young mind.

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Tunnel Dark

All toddlers have their own highly idiomatic and original way of speaking, and my son Magnus is no exception. From the very first time he said “dog” – his first word – we have eagerly watched every slow but sure step in the process of language acquisition. When he first began to learn the names of things, however mispronounced they were, it opened the door to many rewarding, if still frustrating exchanges. “Milky,” “Mama,” “Dadda,” “Miaow miaow,” “Car car,” “Bottle,” “Bathy,” “Beddy” – his vocabulary inevitably reflected his context and the daily needs and simple pleasures around which his life revolved. Being able to name things meant he could request them, just as we could more easily offer them and gain his enthusiasm for the thing.

It was curious to note how, without prompting, Magnus developed the common tendency of saying the name of each thing twice in a row or adding an “ie / y” ending to words, particularly if the word only had one syllable. It took until he was perhaps eighteen months old before he really began to string two different words together to link nouns with verbs, for example, or to attach adjectives: “Mama gone,” “Dadda running shoes,” “Big building,” “Yummy dinner,” – as modest as this progress might seem, having doing the hard slog with a complete linguistic newbie, this conceptual leap was extraordinary to behold and it is nigh impossible to convey the excitement we felt at his expanding ability to interact with us and the world.

In many ways the advancement of his language has moved in close relation to his increasing mobility and dexterity. As one might expect, the greater his ability to negotiate and navigate the world, the greater his sense of ownership and mastery over it, the greater his capacity to handle, manipulate, reach and examine objects, so his vocabulary has grown. In recent weeks, being taller and longer legged and able to step up whole stairs without leaning on the walls or holding the bannister, being able to run with real speed and accuracy in his strides, his language has taken even greater leaps forward. It was perhaps only four or five months ago, in the weeks before his second birthday, that he began to construct entire sentences which again opened a whole new level of communication. “Where is it?” “What are we doing?” “Where mama gone?” “Going to beachie?” “Many big buildings down the city,” (he always says “down the city”). The satisfaction from these exchanges seems almost exponentially greater than that which came before, because it meant that at last I could really explain things to him. Now I can say such things as, “Today dadda has to go to work, so Granny-ma is coming over after your sleep and she will take you to see the boys ,” and he will understand me. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he likes what I tell him! He hates it when I go to work, for example, which is funny considering I feel exactly the same way about it. Indeed, his sense of separation anxiety seemed to increase with his ability to communicate his dissatisfaction.

One of his favourite expressions is “tunnel dark”, which, as you might imagine, is pretty contextual. Whenever we go through a tunnel in the car; whenever he sees one, either in life or on television; when he looks under the coffee table or couch; when he crawls under pillows or beneath the bedsheets, and whenever we are in the bath and my legs are arched so that a sort of cove has formed in the dark, bath-sloshed space beneath, he says “Tunnel dark.”

In many ways these two seemingly simple words are both a story and a poem. For him the words are rich in connotations and narrative elements. From the nature of his play and the things he says in relation to “tunnel dark”, it is clear that he imagines being afraid; that he feels the presence of monsters (or “mosters”, as he says); that he considers being lost, or something else being lost, and he often talks a lot about “hiding”. Most of these ideas are derived from play we have engaged in, though his mother and I were initially baffled as to where he got the idea of monsters, as we had deliberately avoided creating any unnecessary fears in him by mentioning such things. Yet, of course, he spends time with others and watches some television, though most of the shows contain few scary elements. Either way, “Tunnel Dark” is the most evocative window into his vivid imagination and it feels like a privilege to witness this kind of nascent, raw escapism.

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My Pet Baby

I’ve had some pretty interesting pets in my time – not so much for variety, we’re talking dogs and cats – but insofar as they had very entertaining and distinct personalities and lived to ripe old ages. We tend to anthropomorphise pets, seeing distinctly human traits in their behaviour, and, ironically, in return, they zoomorphise us, reminding us that we too are animals. This anthropomorphising is hardly surprising with dogs, considering they are humanity’s first experiment in selective breeding and have co-evolved with us from a species which already lived in social groups and understood social dynamics. Cats, on the other hand, are largely wild and transit between the domestic realm and the night-time hunt with ease. We still tend to humanise them, but they are too independent to be anything other than selfish parasites much of the time and, whilst they can be loving and loyal in their own way, it seems largely to gravitate around their own gratification.

It has been almost twenty years since I last had my own pet and have, in the meantime, had to make do with the cats at my parents’ house, or stolen moments with other people’s pets. Recently, however, around fourteen months ago, my partner V and I got a rather special kind of pet – a human baby. We acquired him by fairly traditional means – insemination, gestation and then, nine-months later, birth, and he is, without a doubt, far and away the most interesting pet I’ve ever had.

Magnus - dangerously cute infant Homo Sapiens

Magnus – dangerously cute infant Homo Sapiens

Never before have I had the opportunity to observe, up close, an infant primate – an animal, just like all the other pets I’ve ever had, but one with the potential to do quite incredible things – including rocket science. Let’s face it, however cunning our old Poppy might have been, she was never likely to create an ap or design a new form of propulsion for interplanetary probes. Not that Magnus has done any of these things yet, and, of course, he may never do. But so much is possible, and the possibilities, when contrasted with the present period of utterly dependent infancy, are a constant reminder that Homo Sapiens is, far and away, the most sophisticated animal on the planet – and, initially, the most helpless.

Before Magnus was born, before we even knew his sex, I jokingly referred to our child as ES1 – Experimental Subject  # 1. Because, despite being a very small sample size, I knew that what awaited me was a fascinating opportunity to study a human baby and get a truly intimate sense of how skills and knowledge develop, and to see the process happening before my eyes. This has been one of many saving graces over the last year and a bit; gaining detailed first hand knowledge of something I only understood in an abstract manner.

It is, however, a frustratingly slow process. For the first month he just lay there, moving his mouth like some automated grub, whose only form of communication was to indicate that he wanted feeding. Both V and I were unprepared for how animal-like he was – his eyes even seemed blank, like there was no one home.

7499 Magnus

Hello, anyone in there?

I’ve heard that some people refer to this period as “the fourth trimester”, as though the baby is still, in effect, in the womb and undergoing an extension of gestation. He certainly didn’t seem human and it was a little alienating, though we loved him to pieces and felt nothing but the deepest care and affection for him. Once he began to smile, after roughly a month, he acquired a whole new level of humanity that had been sorely lacking.

From that point forward, it has been a long slog of small milestones. Yet, whilst it is amazing to see him display new skills: Babbling, laughing, holding things and putting them in his mouth, rolling on his side, crawling, standing – there are such long gaps between these developments that one starts to focus on how long it takes for him to realise how to do something very simple. It is a very longue durée approach and I often find myself wondering why the process is so darn slow. At the moment, when playing with one of those toys where one places different shaped blocks through different shaped holes, despite three months’ practice and a couple of very patient teachers, he still doesn’t really get it. Humans are celebrated for their skill at pattern recognition, yet Magnus hasn’t quite grasped that only the triangular block will fit through the triangular hole, the square block through the square hole and so on. He occasionally gets it right, but this seems more random chance than anything else, a lucky hit. It’s also possible that he just doesn’t see the point, yet that doesn’t explain the bashing frustration he sometimes experiences when it doesn’t fit.

He has another toy, which took him about a month to master – a simple wooden triangle with three round holes in it. This came with three round wooden pegs in the primary colours which could be pushed through the holes. If I placed the wooden peg in the hole, he would push it through, no problem.

Pushing through...

Pushing through…

But, when handed the peg and left to do it himself, he continually tried to push it through the wood where there was no hole at all. In fact, he seemed to have the idea that the pegs had special properties which allowed them to be pushed through anything, because he tried for a long time to push them through the floor, through the wall, and, indeed, through me. This experimentation is admirably human, sure, yet the length of time it took him to understand that the pegs went through because there was a hole there already was surprising.

There is, apparently, no cause for alarm with any of this, as it seems most babies are pretty slow at picking some things up. Rather, it is simply the case that with so many complex fundamentals of the world painstakingly learned in our own infancy, we forget how many concepts need to be understood to make sense of something like this.

What's it all for?

What’s it all for?

The only thing I have to go on as to how bizarrely naive Magnus’ view of the world must be, is my own inability to understand basic physics when I was a child. One of my earliest memories, which I have mentioned before, is of being in the bath with my father, around the age of three, possibly slightly younger. When he stood up to get out, naturally the water level went down. Yet this made no sense to me and I asked him why it went down when the water now had so much more room to move around in. My father explained Archimedes’ principle to me and I remember having to really think about this to adjust my understanding. What that memory tells me is that babies, and indeed, toddlers, have almost no innate understanding of physics and geometry. I don’t mean complex maths, but rather, very basic stuff like gravity and motion, shape, mass and the like. They just don’t get it, and it takes at least a couple of years for them to work much of it out. We worked it out so long ago in that early automatic phase, that we forget we had to learn such things at all.

Of course, it would be unfair to focus only on these slow-burns when there are areas which he has mastered much more quickly. He worked out how to swipe touch screen phones to unlock them in a jiffy; it took him just two goes to learn to turn the light switch on and off, and he patiently taught himself how to remove and click my camera lens cover back into place in one session.

I've got this...

I’ve got this…

It took him about a week to work out how to replace the plug in the bath after having removed it. He went about teaching himself this with admirable determination; practising positioning and balancing himself in the water so that when he bent down, his face did not become submerged. Once he got it right, he continued to do it, over and over again, until he was completely confident in his new skill. Now when I say “plug, plug” he will crouch down carefully and pull the plug out – most of the time.

What impresses me most of all with all this is the sheer diligence and determination with which he will approach these tasks. Sure, he doesn’t have much else to do, but when he is determined to learn something, he will go at it for literally hours on end. This was the case with learning to go downstairs backwards. He mastered going upstairs in no time, clambering from step to step like a crazy crab. Yet, as with mountain climbing, coming down is the hardest and most dangerous part. Magnus applied himself to this task admirably and after a week or so of patient training and dedicated effort on his behalf, he nailed it.

Stair champ

Stair champ

As with adult learning, often the best results come after one has gone away and slept on the problem. This was certainly the case with the stairs. One morning after we got him up, he crawled out into the corridor and, first thing, without being shown, just turned around and went down the stairs backwards. Go synapses! For several weeks after that we just walked up and down the stairs, following Magnus while he improved his climbing techniques, poised like wicket keepers to catch him if he slipped and fell.

These achievements all mark great cognitive leaps; seemingly simple ideas such as that things have a place, that things can be pushed two ways, that some things bounce and some don’t – these are pretty radical concepts, especially when your operating system doesn’t come pre-packaged with software and has to write itself. To extend the analogy, Magnus is like an automated unit that crawls around hoovering up data, then processing it into functional software that enables him to perform basic tasks.

I can crawl!

I can crawl!

Another thought that has come to mind in observing Magnus is how, at this stage of life, without any understanding of the trappings of human culture or its meaning and purpose, the developed world in which he is growing up is just another environment. It might be very different to the forests, savannahs and shores of his ancestors, yet, without language, and without any sense of the origin of things, the world must, to him, bear no distinction between the natural and the manufactured. In this sense, his way of interacting with his environment is probably no different from that of Homo Sapiens children of a hundred and fifty thousand years ago. He crawls around, puts things in his mouth, babbles nonsense, picks things up, examines them, throws them, tries to eat them a second time, and then moves on to the next thing. I don’t doubt that this is precisely what human babies have done since our species first assumed its present form. We’ve hardly evolved since then at all – just a few tweaks like lactose tolerance – instead, our culture has evolved and we have shaped our environments.

What's this? Fruit?

What’s this? Fruit?

This morning I was letting Magnus wander about in the front yard, playing with the neighbours’ cat, Oliver. Magnus pulled the gate open – he’s nailed that – and crawled out onto the pavement. Oliver followed, and this cute little pair of quadrupeds drifted about, followed by me, an adult ape. They seemed somehow an appropriate pairing; roughly the same height when on all fours, yet there was no doubt which one of them understood his environment more intimately – the cat. Oliver, who has lived with a human baby already, is very patient with Magnus and follows him around like a world-weary feline chaperon. It seems almost unfair that one day soon Magnus’ intellect will far outstrip his, that he will eventually wield so much more control over his environment than a cat could ever hope to do. For now, however, the cat definitely has the edge on the ape. A strange inversion of what is, let’s face it, the perfectly natural order of things.

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What is it about discussions of commitment that brings up so many thorny interpretations? When we talk about commitment, more often than not it is in the context of relationships, marriage and children, though of course, the word also applies to other contexts – commitment to work, to a cause or ideal, for example. In the former sense, commitment is usually characterised as something women seek and which men are either reluctant or unwilling to engage in. There is a long established narrative in which adult males are pilloried for a variety of reasons – immaturity, promiscuity, insincerity, instability, fear of the loss of freedom, inability to love unconditionally – it’s a long list that leaves them seeming like anything other than adult males in the wash up.

When women hold off from marrying men, we call it independence. When men hold off from marrying women, we call it fear of commitment.

– Warren Farrell

Commitment is, of course, a complex matter and has a wide variety of conditions and consequences for everyone, and fortunately, the situation has changed dramatically for men and women in recent decades, especially so far as individual freedom of choice and acceptance of alternative situations is concerned. Yet whilst reality might reflect far more variables than the predominant narratives, those narratives still persist in the oppressive and obsessive promotion of partnering up for life – as though not doing so makes one’s life meaningless and empty. It also seems part and parcel of what I consider a wholly mistaken premise about the way people are expected to be – that men or women should act in a way that satisfies the expectations, desires and goals of the opposite sex. Why do something that is so contrary to one’s nature? As Steve Jobs famously said:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.

In a recent article in the Guardian, Chris Mandle writes:

the problem with having women tell us (men) how to be men is the implication that we should be doing these things for the benefit of women. That if we make ourselves into better men, women will like us. Naturally, this isn’t an aspiration all men will strive towards…

The same applies for women, far too many of whom spend their time trying to accommodate men. But why, why do we bother trying so hard? Mandle’s argument, quite rightly, points out that what is most important is to be a considerate and decent human being, but anything beyond that is a choice. If you feel you have to compromise so much for the sake of commitment, then don’t commit. It’s as simple as that, and, similarly, if we expect people to change to suit our expectations, then we are being entirely insensitive to the other person’s nature. Is that not the ultimate selfishness? To try to have things the way we want them, even though the other person’s inclination is not the same? Why should men feel guilty about not wanting to have children at the same time as their partner? This does not make them villains. They are, after all, different people with different desires. Of course, accepting another person’s agenda is precisely what compromise is, but too many people accept unworkable compromises because they think it is the right thing to do. Well, you don’t need me to tell you that it isn’t always the right thing to do.

A quick search on the net under the topic of commitment brought up some rather ludicrous soundbites, many of which are designed to make us feel that commitment is something to strive for and achieve, a worthwhile life goal, but which actually make it sound like a terrible chore. Having spent some time recently musing on the idea and entertaining myself by reading some of the nonsense that people write about commitment, it’s fair to say that there is an almost unfathomable amount of rubbish written on this topic, some of which I would now like to shred. Here’s a few samples.

The American writer, Madeleine L’Engle wrote that:

 If we commit ourselves to one person for life, this is not, as many people think, a rejection of freedom; rather, it demands the courage to move into all the risks of freedom, and the risk of love which is permanent; into that love which is not possession but participation.

Which seems at best confused, and at worst, illogical. Firstly, the idea that “if we commit ourselves to one person for life, this is not… a rejection of freedom” rests largely on the attitude into which people enter a commitment. In most cases they choose to do so, and in most cases their motive is unlikely to be a desire to “reject freedom”, but this does not mean that they haven’t actually rejected freedom, for, let’s face it, they have denied themselves the freedom to have sexual relations with other people, to engage in romantic adventures, and to do as they please without checking in with another person’s agenda. As to the rest of this rather garbled statement, exactly what she means by “the courage to move into all the risks of freedom” is not entirely clear, unless one accepts that somehow, illogically, commitment is one of the risks of freedom. It strikes me only as a “risk” of freedom, should one accidentally, for example, become committed to someone in the process of enjoying one’s freedom – an unexpected pregnancy and a partner unwilling to terminate, for example, or a prison sentence incurred in the pursuit of pleasure. As to “love which is not possession but participation”, this is purely semantic trickery. What is, after all, more possessive than an expectation of permanent commitment? And how is a non-committal relationship characterised more by possession than participation? One does not own one’s fuck-buddy after all, and nor is there a legal document to say otherwise.

Here’s another cracker by Criss Jami, lead singer of the band Venus in Arms and a published poet:

To say that one waits a lifetime for his soulmate to come around is a paradox. People eventually get sick of waiting, take a chance on someone, and by the art of commitment become soulmates, which takes a lifetime to perfect.

Another load of bollocks. “By the art of commitment become soulmates?” pull the other one. You are either soulmates (not that I believe in the existence of the soul, that too is bollocks) or you’re not. What he’s actually saying here is that ultimately everyone accepts a compromise, ends up with someone who isn’t their ideal choice, and then, with all the phlegmatic zeal of a defeatist, learns to put up with them over a period of decades. Clearly I’m not sold on this one either – it’s about creating a comfort zone, not a thrilling, happy life or something to be truly excited about, but what psychologists call, behaviourally, mood reinforcement. It’s a kind of habit-based sedative that is, we are told, better than continuing the quest for perfection, or an engaged and committed loneliness. Not the most convincing quote, I have to say.

We have to recognise that there cannot be relationships unless there is commitment, unless there is loyalty, unless there is love, patience, persistence.

This quote comes from Cornel West, a man who has written important work on race, gender and class in America. If it appears here out of context, then that is because I found it presented to the world out of context on a site brimming with these nonsense quotes about commitment. Reading this, one can’t help but ask: Really? What kind of relationships are we talking about here? What actually is a relationship? Can you not have a perfectly good relationship with your fuck buddy? Does the absence of “commitment” and “persistence” (god that sounds dreary) invalidate every human connection?

Define loyalty. The only loyalty I understand is to the set of conditions that govern a relationship, and that might include the freedom to sleep with other people. In that case, loyalty is wearing a condom when you fuck around. Patience, sure, is important, but there is a limit. If someone pisses you off too much, why bother with them any longer? And as for love, what is wrong with a basic, decent level of mutual respect? Love is really going too far for most human relationships, and no one seems to be able to define it adequately anyway. Is it an idea, a fantasy, an overdose of oxytocin leading to an irrationally high level of trust and empathy? This quote sounds rather exclusive to me, and not especially helpful in understanding the range and complexity of relationships that exist for people in the real-o-sphere.

Marriage is those two thousand indistinguishable conversations, chatted over two thousand indistuinguishable breakfasts, where intimacy turns like a slow wheel. How do you measure the worth of becoming that familiar to somebody—so utterly well known and so thoroughly ever-present that you become an almost invisible necessity, like air?

– Elizabeth Gilbert, Committed: A skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage

Wow, talk about a wet blanket. Is this some kind of nightmare she is describing – a recurring dream or groundhog day? The slow wheel of intimacy sounds more akin to the wheel of pain featured in the original film version of Conan the Barbarian. If the conversations are indistinguishable what is the point of having them? Is there any value in a situation entirely devoid of stimulation and excitement, a little unpredictability? Does anyone want to be so familiar to someone as to be reduced to an “an invisible necessity”? Not that I like surprises in the morning, but two thousand indistinguishable conversations sounds a hell of a lot like another fine example of mood reinforcement. Give me the comfort zone, or give me death. And nothing is more disquietingly smothering than the comfort zone. Looks to me like making peace with marriage had the same effect as a life-time prescription for Prozac.

Real love has little to do with falling. It’s a climb up the rocky face of a mountain, hard work, and most people are too selfish or too scared to bother. Very few reach the critical point in their relationship that summons the attention of the light and the dark, that place where they will make a commitment to love no matter what obstacles-or temptations- appear in their path.

Stacey Jay, Juliet Immortal

Oh lord, this one’s a cracker. At least, however, it acknowledges an important truth, that “most people are too selfish or too scared to bother.” Or how about, too sensible, too smart, too aware of their own requirements and what actually makes them happy to commit to something that is bound to fail and make them hugely miserable? What, after all, is wrong with selfishness? Why do we frown on it so much? Of course, I don’t mean the kind of selfishness where we fail to care about the suffering of others in the world, don’t give to charity and vote for self-interest ahead of the greater good. But that’s not the kind of selfishness this vapid quote is referring to. She means the kind where we don’t sacrifice ourselves for someone else’s happiness in the vain hope that somehow we might get something “meaningful” out of it.

If it takes that much effort to “summon the attention of the light and dark” (lol) then maybe, just maybe, it’s not worth going there. And why are people scared? Because commitment through thick and thin is neither necessarily pleasurable or satisfying and does not by any means always produce a positive outcome. They have every right to be scared of being trapped, of stagnation, of claustrophobia, of a future of thousands of indistinguishable breakfasts all compressed into a nightmare of samey dullness… I pity my mother who has hung around with my father, hoping, for the last twenty years, that things might prove worthwhile, yet all she’s had is misery and disappointment to the point of disgust. Don’t climb that mountain unless you really want to. Be selfish – it’s your happiness that matters, not someone else’s.

Now, on a more positive note, I found a quote from Paulo Coelho which I rather liked, surprisingly, considering the mild contempt with which I regard his well-meaning light-on philosophising:

Freedom is not the absence of commitments, but the ability to choose – and commit myself to – what is best for me.

– Paulo CoelhoThe Zahir

Hear hear. At last, someone talking some common sense. And what is best for you is what really matters, surely. Not what other people need or think or believe to be right, but what actually makes you happy. That commitment might be to anything – to hiking, exercise, reading, work, writing, self-education, computer games, drugs, casual sex, television… or all of the above. It only makes sense to commit to things that give you pleasure or make you happy in the long run. Of course, this is often classified as “self-indulgence”, but that is just a bullshit term applied by people who aren’t comfortable with devoting their lives to pleasure instead of some idiotic idea that we should be working all the time and producing “results”, whilst humming the industrial age’s “work, consume, obey, die” mantra – a minor improvement on the medieval “slave, worship, die,” singalong.


I sincerely hope that the future will be very, very different. Of course, we’re going to fuck up the entire planet and nothing can stop that now, but it would be nice if the human race could go down unburdened by an antiquated sense of “commitment.” The assumption that the ideal human state is one of monogamy, that deviations from this are in some way a problem, that we should feel sorry for people who are “alone,” is so past its use-by date that it looks more akin to something one might find in an Anglo-Saxon burial mound. Humans are now so complex and sophisticated that they can freely choose to engage in whatever level of relationship and commitment they desire. We are also, to my knowledge, the only species in the history of evolution which can overcome its biological imperative to breed. Sure, some species avoid having offspring during times of environmental stress, but humans can reject this desire any time and remain perfectly happy, occupying themselves with all manner of hobbies and pastimes. The desire to pass on genes, once rationalised, becomes a lifestyle choice – especially as this burden might easily taken on by close kin, and for me, genetically, near enough is good enough.

The human brain is, to our knowledge, the most sophisticated thing in the universe, why waste its capability on tiresome chores and obligations, social or otherwise, when it could be employed solving far more interesting and engaging puzzles, or merely indulging its innate curiosity? Why endure years of commitment to an unsatisfying job or relationship out of a sense of necessity or obligation? Why put up with people who make us unhappy, or feel like hard work, when we have absolutely no need to do so?

In a nutshell, commitment is a form of suicide. We murder one part of ourselves in the hope that another might thrive, yet it does not always work out. If you get married, you are killing the person who was free to sleep around, free to pack up and move to another country without having to discuss it with someone else. If have a child, you are killing the person who was free to sleep whenever they wished, or work as little as they liked for they had no dependents. That person is gone – replaced by someone from whom the law can demand money, time and effort, or punish for neglect. Only the wealthy can truly afford to avoid such commitment by walking away and paying whatever is necessary to cover the costs.

Fortunately, the nature of human relationships is rapidly evolving and many people are voting with their feet and avoiding the pitfalls of commitment, or its antiquated models. The relative freedom in the developed world to partner up with whomever one wishes is something to be celebrated, as is the freedom not to partner up. I recently read a piece by a bi-sexual woman discussing the fact that bisexuals occupied a difficult place between heterosexuality and homosexuality. Straight people tended to see them as promiscuous, while gay people distrusted them for a lack of commitment to homosexuality – as though they were flirting with something and not taking it seriously enough. These surprisingly negative attitudes are derived from the oppressive history of enforced commitment in society – the meta-narratological mantra that uniting with someone or something for life is in someway better than not doing so. With the degree to which bi-sexual people now feel free to inhabit their sexuality comfortably (in most of the developed world, that is) – a quick glance at OK Cupid will indicate just how many bi-sexuals there seem to be! – I’d like to think that we are progressing towards a society where this old idea that commitment to anything or anyone is a) normal and b) desirable is going out the window.

The old model of the family has been changing dramatically in recent decades and children are growing up in a wider variety of circumstances – some have two mums, some have two dads, many have unmarried parents or just a single parent, and many experience the divorce of their parents during their childhood. None of these situations is necessarily deleterious to the child’s upbringing or well-being. If the situation is highly acrimonious, abusive or neglectful, then yes, naturally, it will have a negative impact – but as someone scarred by the failure of my parents to divorce, and instead put me through years of ugly arguments and bitter acrimony – I place no higher value on the ongoing commitment between a mother and father than any other situation. In truth, I’m far more worried about children forced to endure a religious upbringing – their minds filled with bigotry, exclusivity and intolerance and made to feel guilty about pleasure, which is classified as sin. The only sin worth going to hell for is that of condemning people to a life plagued by guilt and hang-ups about their sexual activity or sexuality. Oh, and creationism. That shit is toxic. Evolution is a fact, read a book.

Humans are highly adaptable and continually evolving, if the standard model of the family ultimately breaks down, then no doubt humans will adjust and ultimately accommodate to new circumstances. Since we first emerged from Africa as hunter gather groups, we have completely transformed our diet, environment, habits, lifespan, living conditions etc. Why do we think we can’t handle changes in group relations? There is an age-old concern that children will have difficulty forming permanent, committed relationships in the future should they come from a “broken home”, or an “unconventional” parental relationship, but why do we assume that they need to do this anyway? Why do we want to limit humans to an expectation of monogamous life-long commitment? If people wish to do it, then that’s wonderful, I wish them all the best, but to pressure people into thinking that it’s the only acceptable normal is not only grotesquely wrong, it’s dangerous. Who is to say that in the future we won’t do away with family-based child-rearing, that it won’t evolve into something more communal? Human evolution is occurring at a rapid pace as international connections stir the gene pool more vigorously than ever before and cultural differences and new technologies encourage us to consider alternative lifestyles. I don’t know where it will all lead, but to try to stamp the future with the models of the past is anachronistic. Valentine’s Day has much to answer for in its commodification of human relationships.

The way we read statistics is telling. Whilst divorce occurs eventually in just under 50% of marriages in Australia (the length of time before this happens varies considerably) unmarried couples are more than twice as likely to break up than married ones. This has been identified as a negative statistic, and used by those pushing for marriage as an example of why people should get married. But is it actually being married that changes things, or just the types of personality attracted to marriage in the first place? Did the unmarried couples choose not to marry because of a lack of commitment or because they think, as many do, that marriage is antiquated and unnecessary? Or was it simply that they were unsure about their capacity to endure each other for the rest of their lives and they got out once the negatives outweighed the positives? This seems very sensible to me, and in no way makes them bad parents, if, indeed, they were parents. It just makes them complex human beings like all of us, whose own needs might outweigh those of their child (yes, that is actually a reasonable proposition) and anyway, staying together might have been far worse for the child’s wellbeing in the long run. It takes courage to walk away, it’s not necessarily cowardice.

On a slightly different tangent, yet still on topic, is that response that is so often made by people who think a match has little likelihood of enduring. How often have we heard the expression “that’ll never last” or, “as if that’s going to work?” Well, let me tell you, if they’re having fun now and enjoying each other’s company, then it is working and that’s all that matters. If it doesn’t endure forever – who gives a crap? Honestly, does it really matter? The law of diminishing returns dictates that any situation is going to diminish in its pleasure-giving capacity – perhaps the relationships that “will never work” are ultimately more satisfying, precisely because they won’t live beyond a reasonable use-by date. Get in and get out while you can.

In this same light, casual sexual encounters are often trivialised as meaningless, as though their brevity robs them of any truth or significance. What could be more glorious than two people getting together for a night of pleasure? In those moments, when they are breathless with sexual excitement, exploring each other’s bodies for the first time – something most people not burdened by ludicrous levels of guilt, shame, inhibition or low self opinion find thrilling – there is a connection worth celebrating. If you come away from such a situation feeling remorse, then perhaps you shouldn’t have gone there in the first place. Guilt, after all, is a wasted emotion mostly derived from bad decision making. People talk of the “walk of shame” – heading home the following morning in last night’s clothes. Why is this not a glorious walk of proud success? Punching the air with a visceral love of life and the pleasures it can offer? Or perhaps it’s just the hangover. But seriously, what makes this connection any less “meaningful”, and why are we so obsessed with “meaningfulness” in a world functioning according to the laws of physics, which, whilst not entirely random on account of those laws, is, in effect, as random as anything can be?

It is also common for people to describe relationships as a waste of time, which seems oddly incongruous. They must have seen something in it to have been there in the first place, and if that wasn’t sustained and not giving them what they thought it ought to be giving them, then why, why, why, did they hang around waiting for a “result?” I accept that people find themselves in dangerous or abusive situations, where trying to leave is a serious risk, but it’s not those that I’m talking about. Why, without any pressure or necessity, stay in a relationship that isn’t working? Understandably, the relationship might go through a rocky patch and people will wait and hope for some improvement, yet surely it would have to be absolutely awful to constitute a waste of time, in which case, why stick around? And does the unhappy end to the situation immediately invalidate all the happiness and pleasure that were present at the beginning? Can we not just accept that most relationships have a use-by date? Does the rather plotless third season of Girls make season 1 total crap? Of course not.

The reason for this, of course, is that there is pressure – societal pressure, familial pressure, peer pressure – that relationships must produce “results”. Without a marriage or children, they’re too often considered a waste of time. Thankfully, judging by the wondrous promiscuity of young people these days, this kind of oppressive stupidity will not persist into the future.

As to commitment, take it or leave it, it’s your call. I’m not by any means against it, neither philosophically nor in practice, yet I am against pressuring people to value it above other levels of connection. Considering the range of sentiments genuinely available to humans and the freedom they have in many cases to pursue them, then commitment must only be considered a lifestyle choice. There are many, many people who would benefit from unshackling themselves from the pettiness of undesirable but constant contact with others. There must be millions, considerable millions of people in this world who would thrive if only they could be alone and commit themselves to their true interests. Just let it go, and do whatever the hell you want.

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One Year On

It’s now more than a year since I moved to my lovely place of residence, a sunny little studio in Glebe – the aptly named Cornieworld 2. I should start by pointing out that there was, as implied, a Cornieworld 1. This was my previous apartment in Glebe, which I inhabited for roughly one year, between 2005 and 2006. This place, which was also lovely and sunny, and, it must be said, considerably larger than its sequel, was dubbed Cornieworld by my former partner in crime, “Pockets”, on account of my surname – not actually Rollmops, incidentally.

Cornieworld 2 is really very close to Cornieworld 1 geographically – so much so, that if I stick my head out the back window, I can see the balcony of Cornieworld 1 across the backyards and through the trees. It is not more than eighty metres from where I now lie on my beloved bed, writing this piece of fluff. I remain as deeply attached nostalgically to Cornieworld 1 as I have to many other favourite places of residence, and, indeed, to this one, in anticipation of the fact that I shall have to leave here at some point in the not too distant future.

So, one year on, my place has changed very little, physically. I’ve kept the same arrangement of furnishings, have not changed the decorations, and have kept it clean and orderly by regular vacuuming, dusting, polishing and the like. Consequently, it actually looks identical to how it looked once I’d completed my initial wave of home-making, which is nice, because I like to think I nailed it first up.

Having now experienced all four seasons in my studio, I can safely say that it’s a lovely place to be, come rain hail or shine. It did get a bit stuffy in summer and my failure to buy a larger fan was a regrettable oversight, yet it was rarely, if ever, unbearable and the amount of light and space I felt inside, despite its small size, was always refreshing. I’m also very partial to the blue-green end of the spectrum when it comes to living spaces. Without blues and greens I feel oppressed and desolate, and need these colours to comfort me. Too much red and brown leaves me very sad indeed, both impatient and harassed, and the colour scheme here has always been much to my taste. I can’t claim credit for the pale blue-grey of the walls, yet I do like to think I have balanced this nicely with the various pictures I’ve put up. Now, with the trees and grape vines on the trellis blooming fully again with fresh, spring greens the atmosphere is, more than ever, one of refreshing and beautiful calm.

When I wrote about moving here back in August last year, I titled the piece Sleeping with a Fridge. The reason for this was that, inevitably, in a studio, without a separate kitchen, there is little choice but to share the space with a fridge, and we all know that fridges have a habit of rumbling and grunting in their own sweet way. Having moved in, I was very soon reassured that my fridge would not be keeping me up at night or distracting me, and this has, fortunately, continued to be the case. The only times I notice the little guy is when he stops his quiet churning – an event punctuated by a brief stumbling as the parts cease to move. On such occasions I am assailed by such a sense of peaceful stillness that I am forced, every time, to remark at how I hadn’t realised the fridge was running until it stopped. And so, on that score, I can safely say that the fridge has proven to be a good housemate, and I’d quite happily share with him again.

My studio has one rather odd feature about it. The ceiling slopes down from one end to the other, so that above the door and the compact, yet spacious bathroom, there is a space which begins at roughly two feet in height, and reaches a height of three feet at the point where the ceiling meets with the wall. This space is the depth of the bathroom, about four and a half feet, and thus, above the bathroom and door, there is a sort of miniature loft. When I first moved in here, I wondered if it would be at all possible to make use of this space – perhaps getting a ladder to make it accessible – and for months used to joke about installing a Korean student and subletting for a hundred dollars a week. Well, I never did buy a ladder nor make any use of the space, and, for the sake of my peace and well-being, and, indeed, my sex life and privacy, I’m pleased that ultimately no Koreans were installed.

When I first moved into this place, I was riding high on a wave of personal revolution. Emerging like a phoenix from the ashes of a devastating break-up, I was full of an almost unbearable, restless energy and threw myself at everything I did with a vengeance – be it writing, photography, running, weightlifting and, indeed, dating. In this intense state of being I also found myself assailed by memories of the intense work ethic and level of output I’d had during my last time in Glebe, where I’d not only taken a lot of photographs and written a lot of prose, but spent much of my time agonisingly crafting poetry.

Thus, shortly after returning to this neck of the woods, inspired by the sheer compact brilliance of my studio, and totally in love with life in a new and profound way, I found myself writing a lot of poetry again. I do think some good material came out of this, but the new wave of enthusiasm for writing poetry soon petered out and has now evaporated.

This is unfortunate in that writing poetry is very much a craft and the less I do it, the less well I do it. Back in 2004 when I first began my Creative Writing Masters, I had a very excellent mentor in the form of Robert Gray, who was teaching poetry at UTS. I’d dabbled in the stuff before, but it was mostly pretty trite and unpolished and lacked any real technical sense. After being in the presence of this most erudite and kind man, who seemed not only to know everything it was possible to know about poetry, but also to be gifted with the wisdom of the ages, I was so inspired that my first poetry submission to Meanjin was successful. As soon as I was given such a sense of credibility, I was overwhelmed with a sense of destiny and, after an initial celebration in the form of a long, hard run where I pumped my fists a lot and shouted “I’m a fucking poet!” I kept it up and, for the next four years I diligently worked on my poems.

It seems strange in retrospect, having always considered myself a prose writer and having turned almost entirely to prose in recent years, that for a while there it was the poetry and not the novels or short stories that came out most completely. Much of the best material was written during my time in Cornieworld 1 and my second stint in Cambridge. Yet, when I returned to Australia in 2008, I ran out of steam and stopped working on poetry altogether.

It was nice therefore, albeit briefly, to find joy once again in crafting poems. I do hope this desire comes back, but for now it is the photography that has taken over as my preferred form of expression. Again, however, on this front, I have my return to Glebe to thank for this. As I’ve written elsewhere, I long ago grew tired of Sydney as a photographic subject, but over the last year, I have come to love shooting the place again. Photography too is very much a craft and whilst it might not be the same for everyone, I find that the more I do it, the more my eye is “in form”. Thus, much of my time here has been spent on editing photographs and putting together collections to publish on this very blog. It’s something I’m very pleased about, as I feared that only the stimulus of a foreign country was sufficient to get me out of my shell have take photos. I now never leave home without my camera, except when going running, and thus am well placed to catch those unexpected and ephemeral compositions that life throws up.

And so, the next phase of life approaches. Having been very fortunate in finding love in the last year, I shall be packing up this little haven in the next couple of months. It will be very sad to leave, but it has served me so amazingly well that I wouldn’t want to stress the relationship I have with the place and grow stagnant. For now, however, Cornieworld 2 lives on, and I shall make the most of its glorious last days.

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Turning 40

Well, I just turned forty. More than a week ago in fact, which is probably just enough time for the new reality to sink in. It was easy to be honest, all I had to do was stay alive and sure enough the day came along as so many others have done: roughly 14, 610 to be precise. But seriously, despite some inevitable reflection and re-assessment of my circumstances, I didn’t feel overly anxious or depressed about it. Indeed, I surprised myself by being relatively philosophical about the whole thing.

They say that forty is the new thirty, which is nice considering the old thirty was the new twenty, which makes me feel almost half my age. These days, with the cost of living in Australia being what it is, they say the fifty is the new twenty, and I can only hope this also applies to age, when that more ominous fifth decade begins.

Turning forty is one of life’s many arbitrary milestones. As with so many “significant” numbers – like the millennium or our birth dates – it has no actual importance and is merely a human conceit for the sake of record keeping and measurement. The number itself is meaningless, yet this will not stop people from weighing it down with vast amounts of baggage as it does, inarguably, represent a sort of rough half-way mark. There is a certain weightiness to the idea that as much as half of one’s life might already be over.

A quick scan of the accumulated ‘wisdom’ on the internet offers many different perspectives on turning forty. Some say it is a time when people begin to enjoy the hard work of their twenties and thirties, which is all very well if you actually bothered to work hard in your twenties and thirties. Others say that it is a time when men go off the rails with a mid-life crisis in an attempt to recapture lost youth. Again, that’s all very well if you let your youth go earlier and lived a responsible hard-working life to this point. It’s also said that most people have already come to accept responsibilities by this age: family, children, mortgage – what Zorba the Greek called “The full catastrophe!” – and have thus achieved a certain emotional and psychological stability. Again, “the full catastrophe” is something which has eluded me, along with learning to drive, superannuation and most forms of appreciable work experience. Still, after years of constant philosophising and, more recently, head-shrinking, I do feel more in control of my emotions and psychology, particularly in how I relate to people.

I’ve approached forty with the outlook that most people sport around thirty – namely that it’s time to “get serious”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. I’ve put off “getting serious” as long as possible, partly because it seemed so utterly undesirable, but mostly because there were other more fun things to do first. I’ve never had much interest in being responsible for other people, and only marginally more interest in being responsible for myself. Indeed, life, until now, with the exception of various bursts of zeal for some sort of stability and career, has been about maximising pleasure and experience. Ironically, however, outside the bouts of travel, study, freedom and self-indulgence, the status quo has mostly been a lot of unpaid hard work and agonising.

Throughout my late thirties, I often wondered what it would be like to turn forty. Indeed, I wondered about it so much that it almost felt as though I were hanging around waiting for it to happen. I put life on hold, lost myself in computer games and travel, indulged in writing and photography as hobbies rather than commercial ventures, worked part time and lazed my way along. I needed a deadline of sorts, or rather, a starting line, beyond which point I must work hard to secure the future I wanted to have. But what was that?

Having dreaded the idea of turning forty for so long, when the approaching reality finally began to loom, I switched tack and started to see things more positively. Quite simply, it was a decision I made, having grown tired of carrying around a gloomy outlook. Where, I ask, does that get you? There’s nothing wrong with a little righteous indignation about the world, but who wants to go through life whining and complaining, especially about one’s personal state of affairs, when a little positive thinking can make life far more pleasurable? “You always take the weather with you,” and whilst I’ll always love the rain, of late I’ve been toting sunshine.

I’ve never really wanted to be rich, but then I’ve never really wanted to be poor. When I turned forty I knew I must begin to say yes to settling down, partly because the old paradigm of freedom wasn’t working so well any more. Despite my love of restless roaming through life, the lack of grounding has taken its toll in constant exposure to the anxiety of uncertainty. Whilst in many ways it is easier to remain aloof in life, it requires a singular energy and confidence to do so. Consequently, while many at this age are rebelling against their early establishment of security, I have gradually been developing a longing for its sense of permanence.

This longing for permanence has finally begun to take shape. I knew something was changing in me when I began to answer the question of children with “well, I don’t want not to have them,” instead of the requisite “screw that.” This change has occurred in the last eighteen months – indeed, as recently as February 2011 I reaffirmed my desire not to have children in the only piece I’ve ever pulled from this blog. It was written in response to the news that the partners of two of my oldest friends were newly pregnant, which caused me to take a good long look at where I stood in the world. I had meant the article to be light-hearted and entertaining, but when I re-read it some months later, it came across as awfully mean-spirited and so I pulled it.

My principal concern then was the loss of freedom:

Would I ever see a film at the cinema again? Could I ever just clear off to India for two months as I did last year? Would I ever sleep again? I plan to cling to my bachelor existence as long as humanly possible. If that means for the rest of my life, then so be it and here’s to me. Let’s face it, someone’s got to do it.


It’s a very reasonable concern given the way in which the lives of my friends with children have been transformed. Yet of course, on another level, it also reflects a rather trivial shallowness. Selfishness I can accept as a motivation, but the conclusion that life is only meaningful or satisfying when free of responsibility is not self-evident.

So, turning forty was, in the end, absolutely necessary and couldn’t have come a moment too soon. Indeed, it was a relief. I have had difficulty throughout life in understanding what age I actually was at the time and knowing what was expected of me at that age. This is largely because I long remained infuriatingly childish and didn’t give a rat’s arse about what was expected of me, and indeed, resented anyone who had the audacity to expect anything from me, but also because I spent fifteen years at university. The world of work and careers and suits and responsibility may have its merits, but it seemed far more interesting to stay in school indefinitely having wonderful romances, challenging conversations and intellectually decadent junkets. For my twenties and thirties, the motto was always “when in doubt, do a degree.” And I can say this much – I fucking loved it.

Spending so much time at university left me at odds with the professional world. My peers were always students – aspiring writers, academics, scientists and historians – and so I was largely insulated from the working world and found it all rather distastefully vulgar. The apparent drudgery of a stressful Monday to Friday job compared to sitting on the banks of the Cam drinking Pimms and talking about the fall of the Roman Empire, was so gut-wrenchingly unappealing that I vowed to do everything I could to avoid it for as long as possible.

Yet of course, this was a vow made with a different energy and a different psychology. Things changed, in part, when my age caught up with me at last. When I was thirty-five, everyone looked at me and thought I was thirty. When I turned thirty-seven, everyone thought I was… thirty-seven. I took a look at myself in the mirror and saw that despite running regularly, doing weights and paying at least some attention to my diet, sufficient to keep my body in shape and my face lean, the wrinkles of worry and anxiety had gradually accumulated around my eyes. My hair was peppered with grey at the temples and my eyebrows had a certain mature bushiness. I took this template of selfhood with me and held it up against the men on the street. My gods, I thought, when I realised who my peers were. They look like the dads in mortgage commercials, and so the fuck do I.

At least I still have my hair, and a wonderfully thick and full-bodied covering to boot. And while I am slowly but surely revealing my deep and abiding vanity here, I might as well go on to say that I have always equated hair with youth. If I ever lose it, I will go straight to Advanced Hair and pay whatever it takes to get it back. Baldness is not an option and I dearly hope to be sporting a Bob Hawke silver bodgie when I reach the dear old age of one hundred and twenty. So, from a purely physical point of view, having reached forty, I look just how I always wanted to look at forty. That’s quite a relief.

Having said all this, I still feel largely out of place in the world. It never ceases to amaze me that people I went to school with have serious jobs, own houses and cars, and heaven forbid, have children as old as ten. How on earth did they manage it all, and why did they want to do so?

A week before my birthday, whilst walking to a restaurant with my father, he displayed his special brand of tiresomely contrived surprise when, in response to his question, I told him I was turning forty.

“Forty! Forty! Mate, you can’t be turning forty.”

“Do the maths.”

“Forty! Jesus, mate, when I was forty I’d already had three sons and two marriages. I was a top journo at the Australian.”

“Well, I’ve got three degrees including a PhD from Cambridge.”

“Stuff that mate, they’re just pieces of paper.”

“Fuck you.”

“Mate, I was just joking.”

But of course he wasn’t, and of course, I didn’t give a rat’s arse either. I’m pleased to have found my own way to forty, and whilst the next decade might prove to be ostensibly more conventional, I can assure you I shall be doing it in my own idiom.

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Recently, my interest in online social networking has waned considerably. For a while now I’ve been questioning the motive behind expressing my feelings, desires and frustrations, or simply providing factual information about where I am and what I’m doing at any given point. I have, of late, been tweeting and updating Facebook much less frequently, and have completely failed to jump on the Instagram / Foursquare bandwagon. This seems slightly ironic considering the fact that after several years of wanting one, I finally acquired a smart-phone two months ago and thus have the capacity to be connected at all times.

There are, of course, many reasons for participating in social networks and people use them in a variety of different ways. Whether it is to maintain contact with friends, to make new friends, to pursue romance and sex, to promote themselves or their business, or simply because they can’t resist telling everyone everything about their life, people the world over are using social networks in ever increasing numbers and are likely to continue to do so.

Recently, sitting at a bar in Melbourne with my girlfriend, V, I realised that, despite being on holiday in another city, and despite doing a variety of different and exciting activities, eating great food, visiting galleries and museums, seeing quality exhibitions, going to a variety of cool bars and cafés – precisely the sort of thing people often tweet or update Facebook about – I had not once tweeted nor updated Facebook. For those of you out there who have never felt the urge to join Twitter or Facebook, this will all seem perfectly natural, yet for those of us who have been on social networks for some time, it’s the life-logging equivalent of a black hole.

I started talking to V about this as we sat drinking a most excellent local, cloudy cider in a new joint on Brunswick Street, and her first suggestion was that I didn’t feel the need to share everything because I had someone to share it with already – namely, her good self. This seemed to hit the nail right on the head, and it got me thinking that actually my waning interest in sharing such personal information and experiences was in large part due to being in a relationship. Was this really the sole, or, at least, principal reason? I doubted the former, but had to ask myself the questions: why, after all, did I join social networks in the first place, and what purpose did they serve in the present?

I suppose I got a taste for it from playing World of Warcraft. Despite only playing the game for a couple of months in mid 2006, the random connections with people the world over and my experience of the collective power of in-game Guilds was both eye-opening and intimidating. As a shy person, new to the game, I suffered the dreadful fear of being a noob and being seen to be such by other, more experienced players. Yet, shortly after joining, I realised that actually most people were pleasant enough and perfectly willing to help or give advice. I must have got lucky, I suppose, knowing in retrospect how many trolls inhabit the average game server these days. Either way, I came away from World of Warcraft loving the idea that I could connect with people the world over and have fun with them, even if the exchange was not necessarily meaningful. Being single at the time, living in a foreign city where I had as yet made few local friends, this was an attractive and easy way to have company.

It wasn’t long after this that I joined MySpace, to which I was introduced in late 2006 by work colleagues at the Corn Exchange theatre in Cambridge. My first inclination was to deride MySpace as a shameless vehicle for self-promotion and egotism, but reserving judgement publicly, so as not to risk having to eat my words later, I tried to be more open minded about it and soon found it rather inviting. What ultimately drew me to MySpace was, ironically, the shameless egotism of it. It seemed like a fun idea to have an online profile which somehow reflected the Me that I liked and allowed me to present myself to the world in what I considered a cool, flattering yet also slightly ironic, self-deprecating manner. I also joined because it enabled me to connect with my colleagues and have fun with them at work in a new and interesting way.

In truth, beyond these rather self-serving motives, I couldn’t see very much point to my MySpace page. After all, the people I was primarily connecting with were those I sat next to at work. I did, however, get a buzz from being able to be friends with He-Man, James Bond and Monkey among many others. Back then MySpace didn’t make it at all easy to customise one’s page, post a photograph, or anything for that matter. Indeed doing so involved copying long lines of code into the appropriate field, which required a MySpace code-generating program of some variety. I liked having a few friends on MySpace, and I enjoyed recruiting a couple of old friends in Australia in order to make contact with them easier and more fun, and yet, it didn’t actually make contact much easier. In fact, it was still easier to contact people via e-mail and most of my friends weren’t especially interested in setting up a profile. Fair enough.

Indeed, e-mail still remained the principal means of contacting my friends and family in Australia. I have written elsewhere about my diarising – having kept a diary and not missed a day since the age of 13 – and, as a writer, I always liked to try to entertain people by sending an occasional e-mail to my closer acquaintances, describing recent adventures. It served a dual purpose: putting my life into a narrative context, and, ideally, entertaining my friends and maintaining a dialogue with them.

The last of such group e-mails was sent earlier that same year, in 2006, and the following year I edited them as appropriate and posted them on this very blog. No doubt it would have been easier to start a blog sooner, and I probably should have done so years before, yet I still felt a desire to conduct the conversation in a more private manner, and also to try to keep, in my mind, the sense of unity amongst my friends – most of whom I was now very far away from. A group e-mail would often provoke a lot of responses and it felt like the nearest thing to seeing all these people at a party – something I could not otherwise do.

I can’t deny that the motivation to tell people what I was up to was also largely egotistical – something discussed in more detail below. Perhaps I needed people to recognise that I was living a good life, an adventurous life – no doubt largely on account of my innate sense of failure so far as my two chosen career paths were concerned – namely academia and creative writing. Yet, I’d always been a terribly loud person at parties who liked to entertain – was that due to some form of extroversion, or the explosive, drug and drink inspired bluster of the introvert? Either way, I had long wanted to be the entertainer in groups and tried to play that role, with, it’s fair to say, a degree of success.

I first heard of Facebook when I started dating an American geneticist who had been invited to join by many of her university colleagues in the States. Yet it wasn’t until after we had parted ways, around April of 2007, that my friend Georgina, who was also on MySpace – and World of Warcraft for that matter – told me after a brief trial that she found Facebook to be far superior to MySpace. Not only was it a great deal easier to create and update a profile, it was also far more interconnected than MySpace, with the ability to tag things and thus create hotlinks between profiles. This interconnectedness seemed, at the time, quite revolutionary, and I instantly took to Facebook like a duck to water. Once I was hooked, line and sinker, I fired off e-mails to everyone in my address book, inviting them to join. This recruitment drive was far more successful than my MySpace recruitment efforts, and, within a couple of months, the new arrivals having similarly spread the word, almost everyone I gave a shit about was on Facebook. There were, of course, a rare few who remained for a long time reluctant, and who still shun joining any social networks of any kind, and sure enough, I lost touch with them after that. Oops.

Once I had a large network of friends – and on Facebook, to begin with, I was only friends with actual friends – I found myself using the site constantly as a means of staying in touch. It was, of course, satisfying for many reasons – reconnecting with people, catching up on news, sharing something amusing and generating an entertaining discussion. It was also fortunate that the people in my age-group – mostly mid thirties – were mature enough not to participate in any trolling or bullying and so the interactions were almost universally carried out in a dignified and courteous manner. Though, of course, there was the occasional lewd and inappropriate comment to add some spice to the mix. It was also pleasing to see how many people got together back in Australia as a result of Facebook. I felt rather envious of their ability to hook up in person so easily, and in truth, it likely would not have happened without Facebook or another similarly easy to use social network coming along.

When I finally returned to Australia, I was certainly in a better position to catch up with people and knew how to get in touch with them. And this remains the very best aspect of Facebook: it is the ultimate address book. Whilst some people come and go, switching their profile off for a while, most people remain pretty firmly on Facebook. And even those who do turn off their profiles often seem to pop back on at some point and rejoin us. So, full marks for connectivity, and for ease of contact and access. These days the only e-mails I send are for professional reasons or to my parents, who haven’t quite made the leap into the ageing present, for better or worse.

So there I was in Melbourne wondering why I was no longer very interested in trying to entertain people on Facebook or Twitter, nor feeling any inclination to share my adventures and experiences. Had I finally begun to feel self-conscious about talking about myself in public? If so, why this… Or was it the nature and relevance of the information that was now being called into question?

The conversation with V. progressed through a discussion of various psychological motivations for social updates – most prominent of which being pure, unadulterated ego. There is no doubt that ego plays a very great part in our participation in social networks. We like people to think we are doing well and take full advantage of the fact that we can doctor the public image we present to people through media such as Facebook. We post images of things we like, because we want other people to think our taste is cool; we untag unflattering photographs of ourselves and post attractive ones because we want people to see us at our best. We tell everyone about what a wonderful lunch we had, what a cool restaurant we’re in, what a wonderful sunset we saw, and post a photo of it so people will think we are living an enviable life and either admire us or be jealous of us. We are proud of our likes and dislikes and wear them like badges on social pages. We assert our opinions because we think they are valid and that others ought to take note. Parents post photos of their children, even going so far as to change their profile shot to one of their child – something I personally find rather disturbing, after all, I’m not friends with the child and I’m not sure it’s appropriate – because they are proud and want everyone to tell them how cute their children are. Through all of this, I doubt very much that the desire is purely one of sharing beauty with other people in the hope of brightening up their lives, but rather it is largely about drawing attention to ourselves as the providers of beauty, wit, opinion and cool things generally.

Of course there are different levels of connection within all social networks and different means of communicating. The “wall” on Facebook is where the public discussion takes place, often very frankly about private issues, but mostly about trivial likes and dislikes or pleasant, but otherwise quotidian experiences, such as eating a good lunch or seeing a good movie. Behind the wall one can initiate a far more intimate conversation about things one genuinely wishes to keep private, and people usually reserve the message format for such purposes. No doubt most of us have had the experience of a public exchange on the Facebook wall leading to a private exchange to determine whether everything is okay after having inferred something from a comment. Equally Twitter allows one to conduct private exchanges with followers, yet the limitations of the 144 character format make it more difficult to conduct a profound discussion.

Not all our expressions on social networks are positive by any means. People very often use Facebook and Twitter to vent, whinge, or lament their circumstances; often in a good-humoured fashion, but also in an angry or unpleasant manner. I certainly have been guilty of this on occasions when the world has seriously pissed me off, or when I’ve felt especially low on account of some personal upset. Such venting will often result in sympathetic responses, but also in ominous silence.

Interestingly, research has shown that because most people post about positive, happy experiences on Facebook, people who regularly use social networking sites often have a more positive outlook on life because they believe that all the important people in their lives are happy and doing well. Equally, however, people prone to status anxiety or those who feel less successful can also experience strong feelings of inadequacy on account of the perception that everyone else is doing better than they are in life. Have you never had that feeling of “Fuck you for having a good time, I’m having a shit one, thanks for rubbing my face in it”? We don’t tend to post such things, but I strongly suspect many of us feel it more often than we are willing to admit.

Generally, however, as is the case with social relationships in all bonded groups in the animal kingdom, particularly amongst primates, the benefits of maintaining social networks far outweighs the negatives. It is why intelligent animals, including ourselves, invest so much energy and make significant sacrifices to maintain social networks. Sustaining a friendship requires a lot of effort – be it baboons grooming each other for extended periods of time, or attending a function we’d otherwise rather not go to.

Our efforts online mirror our real-world social efforts: by liking someone’s post, writing a complimentary comment, or simply “laughing” at a joke, we sustain the sense of unity, trust and like-mindedness just as we would by attending an after-works drinking session or turning up for a BBQ. In reality, most people are capable of maintaining a maximum network of about 150 friends – the so-called Dunbar’s number. This can be broken down to roughly 5 intimates, 15 best friends, 50 good friends, and 150 friends, with, of course, some considerable degree of flexibility according to social skills, gender and personality. It is very difficult for people to maintain more friendships than this, because the effort required is simply too great, and the net benefits diminish as the number grows too large to be economical and sustainable. We may have many more “acquaintances” such as local shop-keepers and colleagues or clients, and there may be an even greater number of people we “recognise”, but Dunbar’s number holds largely true as a relative maximum for most people. Research also indicates that roughly sixty percent of our social time is devoted to our five closest friends, which means the rest is very thinly spread indeed.

So, having said all of this, and having had so many positive experiences on Facebook in particular, why was I now feeling a sense of pointlessness, or even, embarrassment, at the idea of making a harmless, friendly, possibly amusing and entertaining social update? What, I wondered, was my relationship to these connective tools, to these interfaces? Had I shifted away from the spirit of sharing, entertaining and egotistical self-promotion to seeing Facebook as merely an interactive address book? How did I want to use Facebook and for what purpose? Did it matter?

In recent years, I’ve become something of a slacker at reading other people’s updates. I often don’t look at Facebook for days and then get a slightly guilty feeling that I’ve missed something important. And I have missed some seriously big somethings at various points – births, marriages and a whole bunch of special occasions. I long since switched off all the e-mail notifications and I often don’t check the Facebook notifications, so I miss a lot of event invitations in particular. Sometimes I don’t even notice that people have messaged me directly. Then, one day, with the aforementioned feeling of guilt, I’ll plunge into the Facebook log and like a whole lot of stuff, post a comment or two, before clearing off again without waiting to see if anyone replies. It never feels very sincere. It’s not that I’m not interested in what my friends are doing – I am in fact very interested, but I can’t pretend I’m interested in everything they’re doing, just as I hardly expect them to be interested in everything I’m doing. I’m just glad to see my friends happy and prosperous.

What surprises me when I do log in is just how many of my friends seem continually to inhabit Facebook. Some of them appear to be there all day everyday, liking, bantering, commenting, posting… Indeed, more often than not, Facebook resembles a crèche or parents’ club – indicative of my age cohort and demographic – which leaves me feeling conspicuously out of place for not having children. I wonder if this perception has contributed to my gradual retreat from Facebook. I certainly don’t harbour any feelings of negativity or resentment, I just feel a little out of place, and perhaps a tad unnecessary.

So why make a status update? Why tweet? Why tell people what I’m having for lunch and show a picture of it? As I’ve said, I’ve always been a diarist, an historian and a collector, and Facebook makes a great log of one’s life which is immensely satisfying as a repository of experience and communications. I’ve also long been writing creative fiction and non-fiction and taking photographs and I suppose there is an intrinsic inclination in nearly all artists to want to share their work – partly for the sake of recognition, but also certainly because it is pleasing when other people take pleasure in it – for their sake. It is nice to have touched their lives in a positive way and apart from feeling chuffed about my work, compliments always give me a feeling of having done something good and worthwhile.

I suppose it’s a combination of these two principal drives that encourages me to produce material for publication, yet I wonder if I have come to draw some sort of line between art and life. What is the difference between an arty photograph and a photograph of someone’s exotic-looking lunch? Is there a difference when posted on Facebook or anywhere else for that matter?

A part of me thinks that there is a difference, so far as what makes me feel comfortable. In recent times I have become less comfortable with providing purely personal information – where I’m at, what I’m doing, though I have no such qualms about publishing a collection of photographs with some kind of written narrative, or, indeed, posting a piece such as this. I’d like to think that the “art” or discussion is in some way educational, stimulating, provocative etc, just as this piece of writing might be in some way informative and educational. I don’t mean to suggest the photos I take or what I write is some worthy, lofty thing, or that I am in any way  superior to other people, it’s really about where I feel I ought to be putting my energies and what I consider a worthwhile form of expression. I guess I have lost the desire to be so open on a day to  day basis: where I’m drinking, what I’m having for dinner, what I’m listening to, watching or anything else for that matter, just doesn’t seem relevant to other people.

So, I’m left wondering, have I become boringly anti-social, have I drawn some unnecessary distinction between art and everyday life? I’m not sure, though I do feel less inclined to post purely social updates as I can’t shake the feeling that the only true motivation is to solicit attention, which seems somehow unworthy and makes me feel like a desperate fool shouting “look at me!”

So, sitting there at the bar in Melbourne, I was perfectly placed to check in on Foursquare, Instagram the bar, tweet about the cider and write a status update telling everybody just how bloody great a time I was having, except that, in reality, I was having far too nice a time and a good conversation to want to do any of that. My amazingly capable phone sat idly by, ready to help where necessary, but otherwise content to perform its basic functions of telling me the time and receiving calls and messages.

I suspect this stepping away from social networking is a phase. When I was single I continually inhabited the net, because I really wanted to make connections. I turned the Facebook instant messaging service back on, I put profiles on several dating websites and played the game hard, constantly instigating and answering e-mail conversations with prospective partners or bed buddies. Now, in retreat from unnecessary contact and communication – which is time-consuming and often undesirable – I feel somewhat reassured that my motive was not purely egotism, but the desire to find a cure for loneliness. Should I ever find myself single again, which I sincerely hope will not be the case, then I imagine I’d take up Facebook and Twitter again, along with other connective interfaces, with enthusiasm. For now, however, I need to find the motivation to do the bare minimum to sustain my existing friendships – which is challenging enough in itself!

ps. As a final irony, I’m now going to post this on Facebook and Twitter : )

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