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Prospect or refuge: the choice is ours.

Prospect or refuge: the choice is ours.

Each Monday afternoon, at 5pm, he leaves the writing room, calls The Old Lady of the House to attention, gets her into her lead, and leaves his home for the hills.  Past the old houses, all that red brick and corrugated iron, the good, thick chimneys, some windows with stained glass.  Past the houses from the ’60s and ’70s (not two of architecture’s best decades) and past the newer houses on their big blocks, massive blocks, until they’re five-acre lots complete with post-and-rail fences and four-wheel-drives in the driveways, gazebos too, and water features.

It’s not until he takes a side road and the walking becomes steeper and he and the dog begin to puff that his mind starts to settle and empty.  For this is what he wants: emptiness.  There’s no Facebook up here, no Twitter, and no one can phone him because the mobile’s back on the fridge where it should be.

The road climbs ever higher, and now there are small paddocks with sheep grazing absently between stands of struggling eucalypts.  The sheep are oblivious to the view, but they shouldn’t be – it’s expansive, and endless, which is not so much a fact but a feeling.  To the west is the low rump of a range, wind-turbines barely visible; if they’re turning he can’t tell.

But it’s the south that he’s here to see.  The south is a very different view: glorious, rolling, distant mountains; they must be somewhere between Braidwood and Canberra.  The blue could be from a different planet.

So here he is, late on Monday afternoon, up on the ridge at the edge of town, looking south into that other, mountainous world.

Decades ago, when studying landscape architecture for his undergraduate degree, he discovered J. Appleton’s ‘Prospect-Refuge’ theory.  It explains much about the world.  Humans are attracted to views because they can gauge what sort of weather’s coming, or see an advancing enemy.  Refuge is all about protection no matter what, which is why we like to sit in public places with our backs against a wall.  It makes sense.

When, an hour later, he’s back home and the Old Lady is having a well-deserved drink from her water-bowl, he googles J. Appleton and his or her theory.  But there are no references to it.  Not one.  Did he make it up?

Even if he did, it doesn’t mean that it’s not true.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 21 October 2013.)

Let’s be honest: when all this started I had no idea what I was doing.  But it’s best we go back a bit.

In the autumn of 2009, I spent a month as an artist-in-residence at Bundanon, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to the Australian people on the Shoalhaven River just south of Sydney.  On the last night the other artists and I had a few drinks and shared stories of our time in the glorious creative isolation as well handed out business cards and email addresses and website URLs.  I had none of those things – really, how committed was I to writing?  By the time I’d driven home, I resolved to at least get the internet put on at home and set up an email address.

By October of that year, I had indeed got these things, but I also had a website designed, and I set up this blog.  I knew next to nothing about blogging other than it might be a good way of sharing news, if, that is, anyone was interested.  So here we are, in October 2012 and it seems almost impossible to believe that Under the counter or a flutter in a dovecot (which is, to be frank, a ridiculous name for a blog, a ridiculous name for anything) is heading into its fourth year.

It’s probably as good a time as any to reflect on the positives and challenges, so let’s do it, the reflection thing.

On the whole, I’ve enjoyed my time in the blogosphere, even if most of the online energy appears to have shifted to Facebook and Twitter, leaving blogs to feel just a little old-fashioned, which to a certain extent suits me fine because I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy.  Thankfully, when I started this thing, I promised that I’d post only once per week, and I’ve kept to that, more or less.  Is it true that at the beginning I had no idea what I was doing?  Yes, it’s true, and I still might have no idea, although I have come to think of this blog as a diary that I write with other people in mind.  But it’s not a personal diary; I’ve been fairly keen to focus on writing and literature, music, other arts activity, and some quirky investigations into those little things that happen in a day that might have deeper meanings.  Like the last days of a chook.

I’ve enjoyed asking myself during the week, what will I post this weekend, what’s happened or happening that others might be intrigued about?  There’s a discipline to that, on a number of levels.  I’ve also found it fun to try out different things: writing music reviews (which is surprisingly difficult), trying to approach technology in new and weird ways (the On the other side of the city ‘survey’, and what sprung from it, has been a highlight), and it’s good to know that every one of the fifty or so First Word columns that I’ve written for The Canberra Times is stored here, and the features I’ve written have also had a second life online, meaning that the artists I’ve interviewed have been able to link to them (The Canberra Times has only very recently made Panorama, the paper’s weekend magazine, available electronically).

Plus there’s been the great pleasure of getting to know a number of the regular readers of Under the counter – all of whom, it’s amazing to realise, aren’t from my real-world community, some are even from overseas.  In a way, you are modern-day Pen Friends, or maybe that should be Keyboard Friends.  Some of you have become significant contributors to Verity La, that other part of my online life, and for that I thank you.  And, of course, there’s the handful of blogs that I comment on regularly, because the posts are frequently excellent and thought-provoking – have a look at the blog-roll to the left for the links.  Some of these blogs, for example Whispering Gums, are becoming influential, particularly in the funny little world that is literature, and that’s a great thing – a strong and sophisticated writing culture comes from articulate and erudite public discussion about creative practice (even if that observation and the sentence make me sound like a wanker).

What about the challenges?  There have been times, it’s true, when I’ve been all out of ideas, though this can also be a positive, as it’s forced me to still produce something, even if it’s a hastily put-together collage that looks like a six-year-old did it.  A key part of my blogging routine is commenting on other blogs – I can hardly expect readers to comment on this blog if I don’t comment other blogs.  Do comments matter?  Yes, they matter.  I do want to know what people think; I do want to know if readers have been moved, and a comment is a sure sign of that.  I’d like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you for commenting – it’s made my day.  But it can be exhausting – and time-consuming – to find posts that I want to absorb and comment on.

It was – and continues to be – most gratifying that the National Library of Australia selected Under the counter for archiving in-perpetuity (if that isn’t a tautology) as part of its PANDORA program.  To think that maybe, just maybe, a researcher will stumble across this little old place in a hundred years time is a bit special.  There’s no doubt that without the commenters commenting and the National Library’s interest I would have stopped long ago – there’s only so often you can call out into the digital abyss.  And there have been times when I’ve wondered if the end might be in sight; in fact, to be completely frank, I can see the end right now.  I won’t keep this blog going forever, nor should it just keep rolling on and on and on.  But I’m not done just yet; there’s a bit more fuel in the tank, even if the engine’s developed a rattle.

Many many thanks again, and here’s to a bit more Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot.  For the time-being at least.

I knew something was wrong when I lost my temper while trying to do up my shoelaces – it all just seemed too much.  ‘God, I’m over it, over everything.’  As I eventually got my act together and managed to leave the house to walk down the street to do the grocery shopping, I did an urgent scan of my life.  It wasn’t only the shoelaces that were doing my head in.  I was horrified to realise that my morning coffee, a routine that I’d previously adored, the three-stage process, the smell, the taste, had also become a source of tension and anger.  Even the simple act of trying to open the back door so I could sit in the sun and watch the chooks for a few minutes had become a chore – the door was in my way and I hated it.

Why on earth was I so anxious and uptight? Sure I’ve had a lot on my plate this year: a new novella, I’m Ready Now, will be published by Blemish Books in November, so there has been polish after polish after polish (and worry after worry after worry); and I’m always working on new stories; and I do freelance writing for The Canberra Times; and I edit Verity La; and I’m an active member of an arts advocacy body called The Childers Group; and I maintain this blog.  But I live mortgage-free in a house I love, and home is an easy-going regional town.  And this year I’ve said no to things, over half a dozen, and all were good and exciting, but back in January, as a core New Year’s resolution, I promised that I’d say no more often to make sure things stay well-juggled, and I’ve held myself to that promise.  But the fact remained: tightening my shoelaces and making coffee and trying to open the back door made me lose my head.

Clearly needing to chill-out I decided to ease back on social media for a week – it seemed to be one thing that I could control.  I’m a late-bloomer in terms of Facebook, signing up only last year; I joined because a project in which I’m involved was communicating through Facebook.  Soon I was using the thing for my own writing and life – the word missing there is ‘marketing’ – as well as spreading news about Verity La and The Childers Group.  I run a Twitter account each for VL and Childers; I’m not much of a participant in the Twitterverse, preferring to simply put out a couple of tweets each week – to me it feels as though I’m sending up a flare to see if anyone notices (they rarely do).  In total, across both platforms, I’d probably knock out as few as six posts per week, most non-personal and the majority about people other than myself.  But I did check my Facebook ‘news-feed’ two to three times a day – first thing in the morning, at lunch, and before dinner.  After I read the newspapers on-line I’d sign in and scroll through, click the Like button every so often, make the odd comment, scroll through some more.

Amazingly, within twenty-four hours of giving up the scrolling side of my social-media life, I felt more relaxed.  Much more.  My head seemed clearer.  Actually it felt as if my head was my own again, as well as my mind, my heart too, perhaps even my soul.  I felt more myself, more whole; my natural shape was returning.

*

I should make it clear that I’m a person who does get anxious at a drop of a hat.  You should see me trying to pack up to go away for a couple of days – now that really is too much!  And when I’m in the city and have to drive in traffic, well, that’s no good for anyone.  Anxiety is in my genes; it’s etched onto my DNA.  I can keep everything in check by daily exercise, especially walking and lap-swimming, and listening to certain types of music, and gardening, and being alone – too much socialising knocks me for a six.  Exercise has to be a daily thing otherwise I unravel very quickly.  If I don’t write for a week (which is a very, very rare event) I start going all wobbly at the knees.  So my life is a fine balance.  Whose isn’t?  But what I realised was I’d upset this fine balance by plugging myself into a – let’s not sugar-coat this – stream of random crap.

As each day went by in my new non-news-feed world I felt more and more at ease.  I could go through the back door without wanting to smash it down.  I could get together the coffee and enjoy the process.  Yes, I can even do up my shoelaces and have a smile on my face.  Why was social media having such a negative impact?  It is, after all, social, albeit in a vacuous kind of way, and I’m not someone who can be social 24/7 – a good week is one in which I’m able to spend 30% of the time in my own company, not that I prefer my own company, it’s just that I don’t need constant connection and engagement.  I also like a single source of stimulus, a book, a film, a piece of music, but not all at once.  Facebook is as if life has been shoved into a blender and the slops injected into your veins.  At the risk of mixing up too many metaphors, it’s also like the staff-room in an office or the student refectory at university or the common-room at school – I don’t mind ducking in and ducking out, but I loath lingering there for hours.  So social media may not be the best for non-social people like me.

But it’s also about the type of socialising that happens on Facebook.  The vast majority – 99% – is, of course, banal.  Someone saying that they had a good cappuccino, or a bad cappuccino, or an average cappuccino.  A picture of a cat with a vaguely funny caption.  A link to a video of a song from thirty years ago, a song that we’ve all forgotten and there are good reasons why we’ve all forgotten it.  Or those manipulatively demanding status updates where someone writes ‘Wow, that upset me’ or ‘I wish I hadn’t said what I did’ so we’re forced to ask ‘What upset you?’ or ‘What did you say that you shouldn’t have?’  And then there are those who use it as though it’s a counsellor: ‘I’m realising that I’m an okay person’.  Good for you.  That sounds bitchy, I know, but can anything truly good and long-lasting come from someone who is seriously down in the dumps trying to seek comfort in a machine?  Is crowd-sourcing psychoanalysis actually healthy?

However, even thoughtful posts from my more erudite ‘friends’ (those inverted commas are necessary because I haven’t met these people) become annoying after a while – it’s like being stuck in a world where the only program on offer is the ABC’s Q&A.  Or posts from very worthy organisations pleading for me to send an email to a politician, or to take action against some kind of abuse.  It all adds up to a bombardment.  It feels like I’m forcing myself to scavenge in the tip.  Worse: it feels like I’m allowing myself to have the tip poured over me on a daily basis.  (These metaphors keep coming.)  It’s not just about feeling dirty; it’s about feeling as though I’m being buried alive.  And then there’s the sense that the boundaries between ‘self’ and ‘other’ are being eroded, so much so that identity is deformed before lost altogether.  Some commentators like to say that social media is a great aggregator, but really we’re just being mashed up into oblivion.

And then there’s the addiction.  You know you’re in trouble when you’re in a mad rush, you have to be out of the house RIGHT NOW, in fact five minutes ago, but still you check Facebook to make sure there’s not something there that you really need to know about, even though you know that there isn’t going to be something there that you really need to know about, so now you’re even more late, but – hang on – one last check.  Or you find yourself simply scrolling through, not reading, not engaging, just scrolling, like the smoker who simply needs something to do with his hands.  (That’s it: I’m done with the metaphors.)

Sure, there are good things to be found in the social-media world.  One morning a radio-producer friend put up a post saying that he was going to cover for a presenter who’d come down sick so was looking for news items to fill the program.  My first novella, Fall on Me, had recently been published, so I sent him the publisher’s media release and that afternoon I was on-air talking about the book.  Another example: a page I ‘liked’ which highlights publishing opportunities in North American put up a post saying that a particular literary journal was looking for a certain type of story; I submitted a piece and months later had a story published overseas.  And it’s true that sometimes someone will post a comment or a photo or a video that is genuinely poignant and memorable, but I can count these experiences on one hand.

It’s also true that social media can be worthwhile for a project like Verity La – if a well-crafted post about a new story or poem or review can draw a couple of hundred people to the work and the writer then I’m more than happy to do it.  Similarly with The Childers Group.  Recently I was astonished to receive from Facebook a statistics update on Childers page which claimed that the potential reach was 18,000 people, even though only 50 people have actually formally connected with the thing.  For a voluntary body that’s trying to increase discussion about the value of the arts it’s hard to ignore the possibilities of these figures.

*

As I write I’m in the second week of my Approach Facebook With Caution way of getting through the week, and I continue to feel more relaxed and clearer in the head.  I’m still posting things about Verity La and The Childers Group but am no longer posting personal status updates, you know the ones, those that are put there simply to fill the void.  When I bring up the Facebook login screen and see that there are no little red marks in the left-hand corner indicating activity I simply don’t enter – like the alcoholic outside the pub, I’m learning to walk away.  (Damnit, another metaphor.)  I know that this isn’t really in the spirit of Facebook: if I want people to engage with my posts I should engage in posts by others.  It’s also hypocritical: I don’t want to be polluted by my news-feed but I’m more than happy to pollute other people’s news-feeds.  Rather frighteningly, Facebook seems to have noticed that I’m no longer accessing the site on a daily basis so it has given me login-free access, meaning I’m taken into the site as soon as I click on the Facebook icon in my list of favourites.  Perhaps this is a coincidence, but it does make you wonder if the machine is becoming too intelligent for our own good.

A quick Google search of ‘Facebook’ and ‘anxiety’ and ‘stress’ and ‘mental health’ reveals a potentially endless list of articles quoting peer-reviewed research into the negative impacts of social media on quality of life.  No doubt the worthwhile mantra in this context is everything in moderation.  But what I’m suggesting is that for some people social media – which can be defined as a perpetual and invasive onslaught of random and mostly meaningless ‘thoughts’ and ‘observations’ and links and images – is as potentially harmful as trying to walk across a six-lane freeway at peak-hour.  Clearly I’m not done with these metaphors: they’re starting to feel a lot like a Facebook news-feed…and I’m getting the jitters.

So why don’t I just quit?  While I’m writing books and editing a literary journal and being active in an arts advocacy body, I will continue to use social media to communicate (although I doubt that communicate is the right word to use in this context) things that might be of interest to others.  It’s reported that up to 10 million Australians are on Facebook – 45% of the population – and 6.6 million people check the site daily.  And we’re just one tiny country; it’s probably impossible to know how many people there are around the world who are regular Facebook users.  It can only be assumed that many enjoy it.  So that’s a massive audience who are willing to be engaged through this medium.  Writing and literature – any kind of creative practice – is a tough game, and all tools have to be seriously considered if we want to cut through to the general populace.

However, I do wonder if for many, including myself, the personal cost of being immersed in this environment could reach the point where it’s fatal.  I’d certainly like to be able to keep doing up my shoelaces without wanting to ram by head through a brick wall.

So far, so good.

*

Update: here’s a very interesting article from The Sydney Morning Herald about how some high-profile novelists are dealing with social media and its impact on their writing.

Betwixt and between.  It’s a wonderful phrase, partly because it sounds so good, all that alliteration and rhythm and balance, and partly because of its meaning – neither one thing nor the other, somewhere between the two.  Grey is a good example: it’s neither black nor white.  And Grey is my middle name, and I’m telling you the truth, so being neither one thing nor the other has been etched onto my DNA.  But what exactly am I between?  I’m between the old and the new, I’m between old age and youth – I’m stuck in the middle.

Increasingly, just like most people, I’m spending more and more of my life on-line, running websites, writing blog posts, handling a weekly avalanche of emails.  And then there’s Facebook and Twitter, those necessary evils if you’re trying to make a go of a creative career and there are people out there who want to know what’s happening.  It’s all very stressful, isn’t it, juggling these digital balls, making sure you don’t miss something important, even though 99 percent of what’s on the internet is…well, let’s not go into that.  But there are joys, it has to be said –someone who regularly comments on my blog, someone I’ve never met in person, sent me a book to read, a real book, it turned up in my letterbox.

Speaking of my letterbox, something else miraculous turned up recently.  A postcard.  An actual postcard!  On the back were handwritten sentences about a trip to a rehabilitated clay mine in Cornwell, followed by fish and chips overlooking the water, we just hope the weather holds for our canal-boat trip starting Monday.  What really caught my eye, however, was the correspondent had correctly addressed my house: she’d used my house’s name: Leitrim.  Yes, my house has a name, because it’s an old place, 1890s, high ceilings, picture-rails, a Hordern and Sons coal-burning fire, and leadlight windows.  I adore it, I really do.  Slowly I’m filling it with old furniture – my guilty pleasure is spending Sunday afternoons scouring shops selling secondhand goods in the hope that I can find something beautiful I can afford, like a chair, or a piece of cast-iron.

But still this house is where I update my Facebook status and send tweets.

Betwixt and between indeed.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 28 July 2012.)

This week two stories have formed a backdrop, or more, they’ve been twisting and turning in and around my life, my blood and bones, defining me, in a way, like all good stories do.

The first story:

A week ago, on a Sunday night, I was reading a locally-produced collection of essays when I was reminded about a magazine for young women called Lip, which, if my memory serves me correctly, was established by USA national Rachael Funari when she lived in Canberra some years ago.  Lying in bed I wondered about that magazine because it was a good idea done well.  According to its masthead, Lip is a magazine for girls who ‘think, feel, create, speak out, live’.  It’s a professional publication.

The next morning, via Facebook, I discovered that Rachael had recently gone missing while bushwalking on Bruny Island off the south-east coast of Tasmania.  The Facebook page, called ‘Rachael Funari missing.  Heard from her?’, had been established by a group of people concerned about their friend’s welfare.  Was this true?  Yes, this was true.

Rather inanely, I ‘liked’ the page and for the past seven days have been receiving updates in my ‘news feed’.  Friends have posted their love and worries; maps of the parts of Bruny Island where Rachael is thought to have gone walking have been uploaded; there have been updates from the police about the search, the fact that a dog trained to find bodies has been flown in from the mainland.  It’s been harrowing, even for me who never knew Rachael, in fact I haven’t even read a copy of Lip Magazine, just knew her to be someone who pursued an idea.

A moment ago I checked the Facebook page and the most recent entries tell me that Rachael’s sisters have flown from New York to Tasmania then Bruny Island and have received a briefing from the police.  The chances of finding their sister alive are very slim, the rescue is being scaled back but it remains an active investigation.  It seems that Rachael may have fallen from a cliff while walking, probably tumbling into the ocean.  It might be as simple as that: a misplaced footing.

I’m not sure why I’ve dwelled in Rachael’s story.  Perhaps it’s because I’ve been able to follow her disappearance through the prism that is Facebook.  Or it might be because I’ve watched as the story (is it right to call her disappearance a ‘story’?) has gone from hope to despair in the space of a few days?  Would I have been as interested if I’d not known about Rachael and her good idea, the idea she followed all the way through to implementation?  Probably not – people go missing all the time.  The people of Japan would know a thing or two about missing people at the moment, and so would the people of Libya.

Maybe it’s just because no one really knows what’s happened to Rachael.

How devastating that is.

The second story:

This week I’ve been away from my little house for longer than usual.  Cat the Ripper, who is twelve years old now, had to stay home and guard my – correction: our – place, except he does nothing of the sort, he just sleeps and sunbakes and gives the sparrows that share this rickety joint the most deathly of stares, though he does nothing about these tiny nervous birds, because he’s retired from his hunting ways.  It’s a small garden I have these days – it’s not much bigger than two car-park spaces – but there are plenty of shady spots and sunny bits for him to enjoy.

This week, however: would he be alright while I was away?  Would he cope with being alone for those two extra nights?  His feeder is only meant to last forty-eight hours, not the four days required, so I had to over-fill the trays, and include dog food, which he likes but only once he’s knocked off the official cat food.

So it was with trepidation that I came round the corner and pulled into the lane that runs down the side of my house.  Ahead: the driveway gate was open.  This wasn’t good.  The garden gate: this too was ajar.  How could this be?  I secure both gates when leaving, especially the driveway one which has two latches.  This really wasn’t good.

But there he was, Cat the Ripper, my mate (though he can also be a shit, this is true), walking up to me, meowing, curling his body around my ankles.

Together with the Old Lady of the House, we checked all the doors and windows, the computer and printer, the stereo, and the CD and record collections.  All was okay.  Best of all, despite the gates being open, CTR had decided to hang around, and how this humbled me.  Sure he needs the food I give him, but perhaps he also needs me, which almost makes me cry.

Hundreds of kilometres south of here, and in other places around the world, people wonder what on earth it is that’s happened to Rachael Funari.  They miss her, they’re grieving already.

But here, in Goulburn, I listen to my cat purring on my couch.

There’s no sense to this.

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