It Happened at Midnight, One Christmas Eve

Aaaaah fuck it.

Here I was being as quiet as possible, avoiding all the damn booby traps and there he is at the foot of the stairs, pointing a goddamn smartphone at me. He’s not taking photographs either, he’s actually shooting video.

Hope that’s something you were planning to upload later and not live-streaming to a mate somewhere else, little buddy.

“Gotcha,” he says with a smarmy, gap-toothed grin.

Fair cop, kid. You got me. Here I am in the jolly red suit, long white beard and lugging a sack full of loot, and you’ve sprung me. I’m even lit up by Christmas tree lights to make the video clearer. What did you reckon, you too-clever little shit? This time of year is easy pickings for all sorts who want access to people’s houses. Despite all the fear being peddled by politicians and the media, people just get too fucking trusting around the holiday season.

Doesn’t mean I should be less cautious, though.

I hate when this happens.

Does he genuinely believe I’m Santa? He’s young, like eight or nine, and the superhero graphics on his pyjamas suggest he reckons he’s older than he really is, but he’s not too old to not believe in Santa any more. Is he the one who insisted on the home-baked biscuit and glass of milk on the coffee table? There are even carrots there for the reindeer. It’s a nice enough house. Both parents work by the look of things, and the home-made decorations on parts of the tree show the little sister is a big believer with a heart of gold and the artistic talent of a deranged meerkat.

He’s still grinning, but even from here I can see he’s trembling too.

“So what’re you gonna do now?” I ask. He shrugs. Springing me had been the priority. What came next was something he was probably going to try and work out later. He hasn’t yelled for anybody yet. Maybe I can sweet-talk the phone off him. “Did you get my best side?” He nods. “Can I see?” He shakes his head and holds the phone behind his back.

Devious little bastard.

“What did you bring me?” he gushes with a little hop. Like I haven’t heard that one before. This whole area has always had some snot-nosed junior piss-artist ready to challenge the rumours Santa’s not real and wait in the shadows on Christmas Eve. Makes getting around a bit harder than usual, but the pickings are just too easy to resist.

“You’ve been naughty this year, so no bike for you,” I tell him flatly. He’s genuinely upset. There are the beginnings of tears, but even from here I’ve got doubts they’re real. If he wails, the rest of the family will be awake and down in a shot. “I did get you a mini drone,” I quickly assure him, gesturing to the pile of presents under the tree. The tears evaporate and his appreciative eyes widen.

“What did you get for your sister?” I ask, trying to distract him. Maybe I can make my way over and snatch the phone away. He points. There’s a wooden doll house. It’s not big by any stretch, and looks like the carpenter had hiccups when he put it together, but the thick coat of paint and big red ribbon are guaranteed to win over his sister’s heart.

“I made that for Maddie,” he says.

Did you now? Clever and talented. Hmmm. At least he’s been a bit good. His sister’ll be thrilled.

“I’m gonna show my dad the video of you coming in through the door. He said you came down the chimney but we don’t have one and he didn’t believe me when I told him you’d have to come through the door,” he declares and turns to head back up the stairs. “It’s why I left it unlocked.”

“Jasper,” I call. He looks back, shocked. Of course I know your name. It’s all over every second tag under the tree. “Don’t. You can’t let your parents know I’m here.”

“Screw that,” he says with a laugh and takes the first step.

You made me do it, you stupid little shit. At the end of the day, you’ve only got yourself to blame.

“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen! Hang on tight Jasper, this is going to be a bumpy ride!” I yell with a crack of my whip as the sleigh rises from the roof into the crisp night air.

Mother Christmas is going to have to set an extra place this year, but we’ve always managed every time it’s happened. Besides, there’s always room for another pair of hands in the factory.

Just have to remember to magic him up some pointy ears.

Child labour’s a no-no these days, but nobody bats an eye at elves slaving away in Santa’s workshop.


’Tis the Season

Now the crass commerce of American Thanksgiving and its shadowy cousin “Black Friday” have permeated every corner of the globe thanks to the internet, the stage is set for the crass commerce of the “holiday season”, which seems to span the month of December. Merchants and retailers the world over sweat bullets in anticipation of the biggest consumer spend of the year. Giddily, they line up yet more junk nobody needs but so many want because it will make them look better, nicer, and—most important—richer to their friends and colleagues.

Here in Australia, hot on the heels of adopting Halloween as a worthwhile event, some retailers thought they should cash in on the American “Black Friday” phenomenon, completely ignoring Australian custom of naming any day of bushfire tragedy as a ‘black’ day. Oops. They also conveniently ignored Australian custom of heavily discounted sale day being Boxing Day (i.e. 26th of December), but that probably won’t stop them providing sale opportunities at that time as well. Two for the price of one, so to speak. As long as the money flows. Looks good for the economy, and augments the myth the 99.9% are well off enough to permit tax cuts for the 0.1% and all that. The politicians and their owners must be in serious danger of breaking something from laughing so hard, but since folks are sheep-brained enough to vote for them, they thoroughly deserved to be fleeced.

In these difficult times of predatory online discount sellers like Alibaba and Amazon, many brick-and-mortar retailers have every right to be nervous about the changing landscape of consumerism. Booksellers have been a miner’s canary for retail, demonstrating just how much of an impact a well-positioned mouse click can have on the real world. Of course, the demise of so many, wreaking havoc on real estate, experienced staff, logistics specialists and sundry others who made their living from the sale of books in the pre-internet days, in favour of a few, seems to be the way of things now. Why worry about a thousand people losing their jobs across one nation when a handful in a single city in a completely different nation can add a few extra million to their bank accounts every few days instead? Living the capitalist dream, after all. Yet in all this, the underlying constant is the actual books themselves. The books remain, whether they’re sold online or in a brick-and-mortar shop. Printers might be missing out as more people opt for ebooks, while requests for hard copies are fulfilled by print-on-demand (“POD”), which can now crank out a paperback, but it’s about adapt-or-die. Why pay talented specialists to run printing presses when an underpaid spotty 19 year old can press a button on a machine instead? Think of the savings!

What comes out at the end of the POD process tends to be comparable to the cheapest of pulp paperback of the 1960s, whose pages half a century later, brown and brittle, are easily forgotten and crumble to dust if they’re not binned first. It’s anyone’s guess where an ebook might end up half a century from now. Gone are the days of widespread quality book production. Quality books are still produced—the bookshop in my favourite art gallery stocks luscious titles in scintillating binding, with paper so tactile the pages make love to both your eyes and fingers as you fondle each word—but the cost of doing so tends to be so prohibitive, only the most exclusive titles celebrate such treatment. Thus exclusivity becomes the norm. Books become a luxury, and reading survives chiefly via self-published ebooks. The problem is those very same self-published books struggle to gain eyeballs as authors are left to promote their own work in a sea of voices clamouring to be heard. As a result, the next Shakespeare, the next JK Rowling, the next Edgar Allen Poe, the next new voice capable of shaping and challenging and improving the world gets lost in a morass where commerce is king and content is commodity first, concept last.

Do the world a favour. If you feel compelled to give something to someone this holiday season, make it an original work of art or a book. The world doesn’t need another piece of moulded plastic. What it needs are ideas. Thoughts. Emotions. Humanity. Fewer beneficiaries might be in the chain leading from author to reader these days, but the reality is perhaps someone who has suffered a job redundancy might read new words which provide an idea or inspiration to set them on a new path in life. Books can give hope, just as they can share wisdom. In a world now seemingly led by crass, self-centred and stupid people, now more than ever the world needs intelligence. Don’t be part of the problem, be part of the solution. Give a book, and may a wonderful, life-improving, inspirational book come your way too.

How Complimentary

I received a compliment the other day.

So what? I hear you mutter as you roll your eyes. Why would something like that be noteworthy?

I don’t normally receive compliments. My less than stellar physical appearance combined with appalling self-esteem means I am typically unsuited to being complimented. Having been raised in an emotionally abusive household, from a young age I was indoctrinated into self-loathing. In the event someone has something nice to say about me, I instantly go into siege mentality. I become suspicious. What do you want? I ask silently. Why are you trying to be friendly? What is it you’re trying to get out of me? What do I possess that you desire?

Yes, it’s really unfair, toxic and dysfunctional. Welcome to my world.

In order to receive a compliment and process it as an actual compliment, I have to intellectualise what has been said. I have to read the circumstances and the person and how they said what they said. By the time all that has been achieved, the moment for an appropriate response has typically passed, leaving little more than an awkward, uneasy silence.

People can be left thinking I lack gratitude, am arrogant or something else. The reality is something else again.

Complimenting my work is another thing. People do it a lot. My art, my writing, all of that celebrates positive feedback, which is—to me—not about me as such, but a form of reassurance my work is on the right track and should concentrate more on that kind of thing. Encouraging my work is somehow acceptable. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

The compliment I received the other day was for achieving something I wasn’t expecting I could do. It’s all part of that self-esteem issue. Filled with self-doubt, I reluctantly applied myself to the activity with trepidation and an automatic expectation I would fail. Instead, I succeeded and saved the day. I stepped back from the job and nodded satisfaction it wouldn’t be a problem any more. My satisfaction became tempered somewhat when the compliments flowed, but then I did something I’ve come to determine is the right thing to do for normal folks not dealing with an affliction like mine (childhood abuse mixed with Asperger’s plus a raft full of other issues).

I lied.

I was nice. I thanked them.

In so doing, I have no idea what they actually said, however the appreciative noises and smile suggested I’d done the right thing.

Fulfilling the task successfully wasn’t the best thing I could do. Being nice to someone was.

I’m approaching fifty. You’d think by now it’s a lesson I would have already learnt and taken to heart.

Think again.

I don’t get compliments. I get ignored. When it comes to receiving positive reinforcement, I’m way out of practice.

I don’t like lying, but this isn’t about me. This is about other people. Other people need care, consideration, compassion, empathy and kindness. Am I capable of those things? Even through my natural defensiveness and paranoia, my social anxiety and my shyness, of course I am. I wasn’t subject to such considerations when growing up, but that doesn’t mean I should be denying it to others, as if it’s a finite resource to be hoarded. Instead I prefer to think of it as an infinite resource to be tapped as often as possible and shared with wild abandon.

So please consider complimenting someone today. Find something good about them and let them know. If you can’t find it straight away, search. Everyone has something special and wonderful about them. Even the ones who are ugly and defensive. Let them know, and do so without expecting anything in return. Share that wondrous resource. Lie if you have to, but do it. There’s no way of knowing how much it might mean to the recipient.

Do I feel better for having been complimented? Not really. Kindness is water off this duck’s back. Nearing fifty, it’s been approaching half a century of cruelty, abuse, indifference and isolation. Turning all that around and accepting positivity, affection, regard and respect is not something to happen overnight.

Give it another fifty years. Maybe then.

Uh-oh … Cynicism Time…

Note: parody! Not a challenge to be like this!

“We at Mega-Super-Awesome Literary Agency want strong fiction and narrative non-fiction for adult and young readers (no picture books, no screenplays or stage plays, no poetry, nothing religious, no science-fiction, no fantasy, no adventure, no romance, for God’s sake nothing with vampires or werewolves, nothing with more than four syllables and nothing Beryl in accounts receivable thinks might be particularly tawdry or immoral). We prefer writers rather than categories though, so those who have the potential for identifiable, long-term career-development we can mercilessly exploit are welcome to apply.

We want authors who are committed to being life-long professionals with unique storytelling talents. If anything you’ve written remotely resembles anything anyone ever throughout history has ever written, we’re not interested. If you’re a new writer, sucks to be you. We want authors who have already published. We’re not spending our precious time worrying about some gormless git under the age of sixty who can’t already pull in six figures writing flat-pack instruction pamphlets. Already self-published? Stay the hell away from us. We have no interest in any of that newfangled internet crap.

Are you the next Tolstoy, Dickens, King or Austen? Let us be the judge of that. Neville in Human Resources claims he owns a box filled with the entire works of Lady Blitherington-Smythe’s “Nursery Rhymes for Special Needs Children Except Roger Who’s a Deviant and Has to Sit in the Corner (Third Edition)”, so we know what we’re talking about. We’ll balance the entire worth of your literary career on your query letter where you’ve had to condense your entire life’s work into two sentences we won’t read anyway because you haven’t addressed your letter to Beryl in accounts receivable as stipulated in the footnote on page thirteen of our website we haven’t bothered to update since 2002.

Yes, we are that good.

Since this is now the age of do-my-job-for-me-yet-still-pay-me, you’re going to be responsible for all the marketing of any book we assist you in getting published. Doesn’t matter what any publisher might want. We’ll get them to send the entire marketing budget to us, and hold it for you while you toil in futility at social media and self-funded book signing tours to whatever godforsaken patch of nowhere you can find that still actually has a bookstore. Of course, our holding onto all that cash will incur various fees and a special reserve tariff (which invariably ends up costing more than the funds we’re already holding for you).

We aim to respond to queries within three to four years. We’re all terribly busy here dealing with people far more important than you (especially Beryl in accounts receivable, who can be positively insufferable if she doesn’t have her cup of tea at precisely 10:30am … and woe-betide anyone who forgets her shortbread biscuits and lemon-scented refresher towel). Any submissions found to have spelling errors, grammatical mistakes or words of more than three syllables will incur a special query proof-reading charge of $95/word.

We don’t provide feedback on submissions. In fact we don’t read submissions. We just look at your email and if it’s more than one sentence, we hit ‘delete’ and laugh and laugh and laugh at all the good times we’re having at your expense.

Have a nice day.”

Beggars Can’t be Choosers

There’s an old saying: “Beggars can’t be choosers”.

I guess for most of human history that’s been true—people asking for something without paying should be grateful for what they do get. In this age of mega-corporations masquerading as charities though, it’s a case of beggars get to demand what they want.

When a truck arrived at our house to accept a load of surplus furniture, electrical goods and soft toys we thought would be helpful for those in need, they went through it all and ended up taking only a couple of things. The rest they left behind. What they chose was based purely on what they could make money out of from re-selling, rather than taking everything to hand out to the needy. Yes, they’re a registered charity. WE could have sold everything on eBay or Gumtree, but we decided to donate to help the less fortunate. Turns out we were helping those way more fortunate than most others.

How times have changed.

The same could be said for publishers and literary agents. More than a few websites I visit to find an agent for my own work, and all I see is “we don’t want this, we don’t want that, and if you’re an unknown, we don’t want you unless you’ve been through hoops A, B and C; or you could pay our subsidiary assessment company wads of cash to go through your manuscript and tell you after months of nail-biting we never wanted you anyway”.

Self-publishing never looked so good.

I understand why some agencies do this. I imagine if I was bombarded by so much purple crayon get-rich-quick aspirants I’d become a bit guarded or jaded as well. The recent controversy on Amazon where the purple-crayon-brigade were artificially inflating their readership numbers to score “bestseller” status merely proves there’s always a few rotten apples prepared to game the system for their own benefit at the expense of everyone else. I don’t doubt agents are vulnerable to those seeking to game the system somehow as well.

So how, in amongst all this noise, is it possible to be recognised and appreciated as a genuine writer with a genuine manuscript (plus several more waiting in the queue)?

To me, an agent is an important component of a winning machine. Self-publishing aside, a writer can’t publish all by themselves. They need marketing experts, distribution networks, beta readers, editors, printers and e-book formatters, and a host of other things to make a success of their hard work. If I come across an agency website where there is snobbish dictatorial attitude oozing from every syllable, I move right along. I have no intention of calling such people my colleagues, confidants or team-mates. What comes across is not a collaborative attitude, it’s snide bullying that wins no friendship or allegiance from me. If an agency is so accomplished and filled to the brim with winning authors, hooray for them, but why are they still advertising for more? Is it like the charity, combing through what’s on offer and simply cashing in on what they can lay their hands on rather than recognising what’s in front of them is useful to someone somewhere? I don’t get it, but then I’m a simple fellow with simple needs.

My current problem is I’m too simple. I don’t have the aptitude to adequately self-publish. The technical side is—for me—a doddle. Cover design? Interior layout? Professional typesetting? Graphic design? No problem for me—decades of experience in desktop publishing has that covered, no dramas.

It’s everything else.

The marketing. The paid promotions on social media. The newsletter lists and email addresses harvested from free handouts. It’s the cross-promotions, reviews on well-patronised blogs and all the other places where people can find out about your writing. It’s effusive Goodreads coverage and Amazon star ratings. In this brave new world where expert literary critics have been put out of work by everyone’s-a-critic, the signal to noise ratio has skyrocketed, and meaningful cut-through is hard-earned and rare.

Imagine if JK Rowling had the first Harry Potter book ready to go today instead of twenty years ago. It’s a book aimed at middle-grade readers (9 to 12 year olds). It’s urban fantasy. Imagine she’s still a struggling mum, living on welfare in the boondocks of an English town. She hasn’t the finances to pay for Facebook promotions. She has a couple-hundred contacts across Twitter and Facebook, most of them friends and family with a few mildly interested onlookers. Agent website after agent website tells her they’re not interested in urban fantasy that doesn’t have vampires and werewolves, especially from a first-time author. She might come across a few who are, but they prefer a female, LGBTI or “diverse voice” perspective (i.e. not a white male protagonist). Some agents prefer women’s romance where the most money is made, and could Harry be a 20-something woman maybe. Some might be looking for Young Adult opportunities, but Harry’s too young, despite possible subsequent novels (which can’t be mentioned in the pitch) qualifying. After careful consideration and refinement of her query letter (which costs her the equivalent of two week’s rent to get looked at by specialists), she sends out pitches. Rejection after rejection, and that’s not to find a publisher—that’s to find an agent who will represent her to a publisher.

She can’t find anyone. There are lots of “not taking submissions at this time”. She still sends off query after query to those who have their door open, each pitch carefully customised to the agent’s preferences as laid out on their website. It’s a lot of work. This isn’t writing, but it’s an essential element in getting writing recognised. A lot of agents don’t even bother to respond, while others send form letters to let her know she’s not what they’re looking for. If she’s lucky, she might get one or two who ask her why they’re reading about the Dursleys and not Harry in the first chapter. If she’s really lucky, she might have an agent offer a critique and perhaps recommend she get the manuscript looked at by a professional editor.

She looks to self-publishing again (after writers groups on Facebook warn her of the dangers of vanity presses). She hasn’t the money to promote, nor does she have the resources. More importantly, she knows middle-grade literature requires specialised marketing to parents looking for a book for their youngster, and even more specialised to youngsters capable of the “nag” factor, neither of which is available on social media, but is available in bookshops (conducted by publishers, not the bookshops themselves). Where does she go from here? Does Harry Potter ever see the light of day?

Now, I’m not saying my own literary work would be the next Harry Potter, but that analogy is where I’m at, and I really don’t want to try and self-publish middle-grade. I’m at a bit of an impasse. Agent after agent either aren’t looking for submissions or what I have to offer. So what does one do? The first answer to come to mind is: be patient. It’s a shifting landscape out there. What’s good one year becomes passé the next, dictated by the whims of consumer-spend statistics combined with whichever way the wind is blowing, or chicken entrails or whatever horse wins the derby or how hot the agent’s cup of coffee was that morning.

I’ve kept a record of all the agents and agencies I’ve sent queries to, partly to make sure I don’t send the same thing to them a year or so later, but mostly so I can work out who’s worth dealing with and who’s not. Like being completely ignored, a form rejection letter three months after the promised eight weeks is a definite black-lister for me. A kind “I’m not looking for this kind of thing right now, but I encourage you to consider re-submitting in a year” rejection definitely goes in the ‘potentially awesome’ list. A punctual rejection is somewhere in between. It’s a growing list but there will come a time where I will have exhausted the possibilities. I’ve been through the query letter refinement process. I’m not fielding rubbish, and I’m certainly not a purple crayon writer. I’m a serious writer with a growing portfolio who will consider themselves an ‘author’ once I have a published work in my hand. I’m also perfectly capable of researching how to write query letters, and have refined and refined to the point where I don’t believe it’s possible to further refine. The cruel twist is many agents judge a writer’s work not by actually reading it, but by how the query letter is worded. It’s like judging a painting by how good its frame is. For some, they simply don’t have the luxury of time. For others, it’s because they can’t be bothered.

My self-publishing attempts have been expensive and futile. I know where I need to be. I might personally have not even two pennies to rub together, but I refuse to beg. I’m not begging for my manuscripts to be published, I’m offering a partnership, a collaborative relationship where everyone involved wins. For those who think something like that is too hard, good luck to you. For those with vision and heart enough to recognise it, I’m here, and will continue to be here for as long as it takes, or I die in the process.

Just please don’t be that charity and take what’s on offer for granted.

Social Values and the Male Body

The other day I was doing some research for a book I’m writing, and while the following isn’t about the book as such, my research uncovered some material that hit a raw nerve for me. Indeed it was so potent I stopped thinking about the book (bad) and started thinking about why the issue was such a sore point for me (not so bad). So after quite a bit of ruminating and only a little more research I penned the following (good, can we get back to the book now?).

I must preface this essay by stating this is my own perspective, and while some readers may disagree or have different perspectives, this remains—at least at this time—my own take on what appears a poorly explored and inadequately discussed topic.

Let me start by saying that sadly, my father never really did the “dad” thing.

We never shared father-son moments.

He was distant and perhaps a bit bewildered with having sons, which meant there weren’t terribly good connections established. When I was small, I was artistic, creative, observant and cheeky. He was a straight-laced disciplinarian (while being quite undisciplined and lazy himself), given to serious acts of selfishness, gruffness and openly foul language (which—of course—I picked up and got into trouble at school about on more than one occasion). I learnt much later that above the manipulative, domineering attitude he brought to bear on his offspring, he was also likely jealous.

That jealousy manifested itself in myriad ways. School accomplishments were denigrated or ignored. Growing taller wasn’t proudly measured with pen marks on a doorframe, it was met with exasperated eye rolls and criticism of needing to buy new clothes.

From an early age I was made to feel guilty for … well … existing.

As a pre-teen in the 1970s, I wasn’t really aware of the wider fashions of the time except the occasional TV ad (my TV consumption was kept to a minimum), and my fellow school students, who I only ever saw in school uniform. Being a private school with ethics, morals and operating habits firmly rooted in the Victorian era, the uniform was based on English prep-school designs of large shorts, a blazer, collared shirt with tie, knee-high socks, shiny black shoes and a little cap. Of course, starting school meant everything was sizes too big so one could ‘grow into it’ to make it last. The shorts and blazer were made of heavy woven wool and unlined, which meant they itched all the time on thighs and lower arms. They were also too hot for the Australian climate, but the nation’s slavish following of all things conservative English was deeply etched into the establishment psyche of the time, so no youngster was ever going to be in any position to point out such absurdities.

As I grew older and we moved house, I went to another type of school. This one had more relaxed requirements of school uniform, the ubiquitous public school short grey cotton shorts, poly-cotton collared shirt (no tie), socks worn whichever way and black shoes (Clark brand, of course). Clean, neat and tidy was the rule, and I accepted the cotton rather than wool with much relief. No more itchiness. At nine, I was already becoming aware of my body in ways I hadn’t considered before. Thanks to the more sleek cut of uniforms, I was also noticing the bodies of my fellow students. Little was I aware but the first stirrings of puberty were already twisting and curling their way through me. As the seventies closed and the eighties dawned, fashions changed, and boys were beginning to wear closer-fitting clothing. School uniforms were left to be outgrown, bodily shapes emphasised and the stuffiness of cultural imperialism gave way to a realisation there were more appropriate garments for the culture and climate of Australia.

Not for me, though.

That stuffy, almost Victorian-era too-big-as-new attitude extended to my casual clothing. A new pair of jeans weren’t skin-tight stretch blue denim like my fellow students wore on weekends and after school. My pants were biscuit-brown cotton woven so thick it was as stiff as a board (despite repeated washings with extra fabric softener), with a large brass zipper that curved and dug uncomfortably into the groin. The design was a form of bagginess last seen on the kidswear fashion catwalks in the early 1960s and wouldn’t become fashionable again until the mid-nineties grunge revolution (complete with outdated bell-bottom legs). I was made to look different, be different, and be uncomfortable but not be ungrateful and certainly not to criticise or even speak up. I had no say in what I wore. I simply had to accept what was brought home every six months or so and accept it with good grace. What I didn’t realise at the time was I was being dressed in clothing which—to me, subliminally—told me there was something wrong with my body that had to be hidden and covered up.

The eighties was for a young Sydney kid growing to teen years a decade of stretch jeans, short-shorts, Speedo briefs in the pool, a celebration of health and vitality in the great outdoors. Olivia Newton-John sang of getting physical; the Kenny Everett Video Show featured a team of dancers called “Hot Gossip” who writhed and gyrated in aerobics costumes to emphasise the human form; and Young Talent Time involved kids who danced and sang with innocent exuberance in celebration of joy in a sea of weekly smiles and trim, trendy outfits. Yet here I was, hidden away, clad in bulky, clunky gear, a decided contrast with all that. As an adolescent, I was told I was never going to be good enough. I was too skinny, too pale, too weak and too stupid (my father by this time had become all-out abusive), and my unfashionable clothing only served to emphasise all that. I was teased by fellow students who saw me on weekends, jeered and maligned, ostracised from social tribalism so vital to developing youngsters.

The family never went anywhere. Holidays were usually celebrated by other families by travelling interstate or overseas or to theme parks and the like. My family stayed home. It’s not as if going somewhere was beyond financial reach. My father simply decided he didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything. I made do by reading, working on my art and writing in my bedroom. Any friends I had were off travelling. One summer day six months after I’d turned fourteen, my mother had a shouting match with my father about being kept in the house too much. As a result, it was declared we were going to the beach. It might sound amazing, but in all the years I had lived in a city with arguably some of the most awesome beaches in the world, I’d only ever visited the beach twice before, and that was as a guest of the family of friends. I knew guys at school who practically lived at the beach, their tans and sun-bleached hair testimony to their love of surf and sand. I had never even seen a real surfboard in the flesh. This time was going to be different. It was a good day for a swim, so off we went. I had a pair of swimmers for swimming in a pool, but didn’t own any beach gear.

A fourteen year old is little more than an unhinged walking chemistry laboratory with the bunsen burners turned up too high. Wrap all that up in clothing unsuited for any beach and the beginnings of Social Anxiety Disorder and you start having problems. The family found a spot, draped towels on hot beach sand and settled down. Only after being repeatedly shouted at in front of startled beachgoers did I disrobe, leaving lily-white me in a pair of Speedo briefs amidst a sea of tanned young men and their pretty women friends and colleagues. I was then paraded from one end of the beach to the other by my mother so she could admire all the healthy and fit young people as they exercised, swam, socialised and otherwise enjoyed themselves on the pale sand. As we walked, people literally stopped and stared at me, the gormless, white-as-a-sheet, nobbly-kneed dishrack-chested skinny kid. When we returned to the beach towels, my father stared at me and shook his head in disgust. That crushed me.

That day couldn’t end soon enough.

The following morning my father walked in on me flexing my biceps in the bathroom mirror. He laughed and laughed, and kept laughing through the morning before criticising me for being vain. All I had wanted was to see how far I needed to go to be anything like some of those men I saw on the beach. It was the last time I gazed into a mirror for anything other than making sure my hair was combed. To this day, I genuinely feel ashamed any time I approach a reflection for any purpose other than to make sure I’m not startlingly presented or maybe on fire.

I think it’s fair to say that day was when the last of my self-esteem curled up and died.

I stopped caring.

When I finished high school and moved out of home to attend university, I thought perhaps I could start to build a new me. The trouble was the damage had already been done. The end of the eighties ushered in a new era, when aerobics and cycling became an influence for casual male fashion. Young kids were tearing around in fluorescent colours, skin-tight shorts and muscle tops, while adults were sporting acid wash stretch jeans and bright colours inspired by beach fashion and a love of exuberant beach resort-themed fitness and health.

Not me. I wore grey. At a time when I could choose my own wardrobe, I wore grey. I even bought a pair of jeans for myself, but I never wore them.

I was living in a perpetual state of being ashamed of my physical form. I was still skinny. Well … wiry, actually. I didn’t want people to look at me. I wanted to be invisible. I studied, joined a few groups (including a drama group for the benefit of my theatrical studies as part of my Bachelor of Arts in English) and otherwise observed while trying to not be observed. I was lonely, but that was all right—I’d become convinced I didn’t deserve friendship, happiness or success. Yup, my old man really did a number on me all right. I was a habitual beta (actually more an omega), so he could remain an alpha. Yay (this conclusion has been reached after years of psychotherapy, by the way—until that happened, I had no idea where all this came from).

The drama group challenged me, but I found a way to deal with it. I could never go on stage, so I stayed off-stage and wrote. I directed, I designed. I provided the necessary support structure so the others could be seen. I remained unseen, and I was fine with that. While the girls and guys strutted around on stage in black or blue leggings and figure-hugging T-shirts, I stayed in the wings in my baggy grey slacks and oversized collared shirt and nobody bothered me.

After university and approaching my thirties, I suddenly became fat. I’d been driving a keyboard for a while as part of my work, and around that age the metabolism changes. Mine did. I developed a big tummy. My legs and arms stayed slender, but now there was a beer gut. A bit of a surprise, as I don’t drink beer. I didn’t care, though. I wasn’t physical. I didn’t do sport, spent no time with anyone except my work, and had no ego to bruise. By my mid-thirties, my doctor was yelling at me. I had the warning signs of developing type-2 diabetes. I was told to find a gym and use it to conduct regimented exercise. He also told me because of my Asperger’s, I had physical co-ordination issues, so I should add Pilates to the regular gym workout, and if I could find a way, attend dance lessons.

Dance? Me? One day in primary school I had infamously declared I really enjoyed dance (dance lessons were taught during days designated for Physical Education but when it was raining). I was laughed at and teased by some of the other boys who reckoned dance was just for “poofs”. Such bullying utterly destroyed any aspirations for dance as a possible extra-curricular activity. A shame, as it turned out I genuinely sported an excellent physique for a dancer. Dancing would have given me physical activity and an opportunity to meet people. Mind you, my father would have been appalled, so not doing dance satisfied all those other people after all. Selfish me thought I could perhaps aspire to find things and do things I liked. Nobody had told me everything I did had to satisfy everybody else first. Oh well. My doctor also warned my system was susceptible to circulatory issues and rapid onset of lactic acid build-up during exercise, so he strongly recommended I wear compression gear while working out.

Wait … me wear tights?

In primary school one year, the end-of-year concert involved a fairy-tale story which saw every student on stage wearing an assortment of exotic costumes. Every single boy and girl ended up in tights … except me. I was a narrator, and wore a suit. I even had to wear a moustache. Made to be different again, and my chance for tights had been blown. Now here I was in my mid-thirties, being instructed to wear a garment that I had never worn before, which also happened to go against every fibre of my being. Wear something close fitting? Something that let people see the shape of my body? Who the hell would think that was okay?

Some deep-seated issues were being confronted head-on.

The thing was my self-esteem wasn’t opposed to it. My self-esteem—for what it was worth and whenever I could find it—simply didn’t care. It had stopped caring long ago. I was even in two minds about caring about the ramifications if I didn’t follow my doctor’s advice. Diabetes? Meh. If I rolled over and vanished from the face of the Earth, nobody would care anyway. Even if I showed up at dance lessons, would everyone laughing at me prove too much of the wrong sort of distraction for the class and I’d be asked to leave? I had no idea. In overthinking it all, I was going nowhere. Then a chance discussion with a colleague while working on a contract assignment gave me the necessary impetus. She thought my attending gym, Pilates and dance classes was the perfect antidote to my depression, anxiety and non-existent self-esteem. She was a world of encouragement and support the likes of which I had never been the recipient of before. I was bewildered. Where had this generosity of spirit come from? Was she sure she wasn’t confusing me with someone else? It turned out she was genuine, and I had the fortune to come across the diametric opposite of someone like my father. A genuine, bona-fide cheer-squad. Holy hell.

Shame she was already married.

So, I took the plunge. I bought the gear, enlisted in classes, and started. Nobody gagged and guffawed as I walked into the gym. There was a complete and utter lack of anyone laughing and pointing as I entered the dance studio. All I had were first-day intrigued side glances at someone so badly out of shape they needed help. There was a shrug of acceptance and then the getting-on with their own thing. I wore the tights. Compression tights for gym and men’s running tights for dance (men’s dance tights were phenomenally expensive at the time, so I opted for the cheaper athletic pants). Both the gym and the dance studio sported floor-to-ceiling mirrors. I caught sight and didn’t recognise myself. Holy hell, I looked awful. Not because I was in tights, but because I really had let myself go, and my outfit showed that as never before. I didn’t need bathroom scales to tell me something was wrong. There it was, right in front of me, plain as day.

The compression gear genuinely helped. I didn’t get the cramps and acid burn I’d suffered any time I’d been physical in the past. I felt great in them. They were more comfortable than anything I’d worn before. There were other guys who wore them too. At the time they were becoming increasingly popular, whether it was for showing off physique or for medical reasons like I had. Young and old guys alike sported them, and for the first time since I was a wee lad, I actually relaxed about my body image. Decades of body-shaming seemed to slough off as I focussed on getting fit and healthy so my doctor wouldn’t yell at me so much. I even told myself my goal was to be in shape enough where I could walk down the street in my workout gear and not feel ashamed (were I to be a normal person with a normal level of self-esteem and no social anxiety disorder, that is).

Then work changed. The contract ended. In one fell swoop, I lost my cheer-squad-in-the-wilderness and with her, my incentive. Out the door went my three-times-a-week workout habit. The dance course concluded, and I noticed I wasn’t tripping over my own feet as often any more. The dance classes were a serious workout, and it was only because of work at the gym that I was able to dance. With no more gym, I had to hang up my dance shoes as well. I resumed the sedentary life. In time, the tummy returned, and I lost the fight against developing type-2 diabetes. My doctor started yelling at me again. My vaguely stirring embryonic self-esteem took another dive, and I no longer cared again.

Not all stories have a happy ending.

I wrote this essay not because I wanted to describe the ups and downs of my health. Rather, I wanted to describe the damage that can be inflicted when a male gets body-shamed (and body-shaming in general—I think females have it far worse than guys but guys still have a problem, hence this essay).

I’ve noticed that particularly in English-speaking countries there seems to be a propensity of body-shaming any guy who wears close-fitting gear and who’s not already a buff Adonis. In recent years there seems to be a subtle push towards the eighties vibe of skin-tight (“skinny”) jeans, leggings, tights (especially compression/athletic tights) for guys, mixed with the sleek aspirational image of athletes. To seemingly counter that exuberance, men and boys are made to compromise by some quarters of the community. Hipsters wearing leggings or skinny jeans are sneered at, derided and even have their sexuality questioned. Guys wear shorts over compression tights (except sportsmen, such as football players here in Australia). A popular US brand of athletic and compression wear emphasises their range as being considered “under”garments. Yet in Europe, Asia and Africa, as well as on the sporting tracks of professional athletes and the Olympics themselves, it’s unusual to see males treating their sport gear that way. In socially-mature and liberal-minded France, guys don’t usually wear shorts over their compression gear. Their athletic wear is what they wear as “overwear”, and they’re not body-shamed into covering up.

Some might argue over-shorts are for the sake of “modesty”, but they’re not really. They’re so critics can feel better about themselves being confronted by men accepting themselves as they are. Would that fourteen-year-old me have worn compression tights had they been around at the time? Had I not been subject to so much body-shaming abuse, I dare say I would have. When I attended the gym to work out, my personal trainer said to me the gym was about watching out for yourself and not to be concerned about what others thought. Everyone was on their own journey, and some had far more to travel than others. He understood (and agreed with my doctor) why I attended in compression tights, and assured me if anyone had “issues” (nobody did), it wasn’t up to me to worry about what they saw. All they needed to do was stop staring and get on with their own workout. I’d like to think such an attitude could somehow continue into the street, where the message is “kindly stop minding my business, thank you”. If a guy wants to wear athletic gear, let him. If they’re an overweight, under-fit guy like me, what difference does it make? Stop staring, it’s rude, and what’s ruder is telling me what I can and can’t wear. Generations of women have suffered and continue to suffer under the same domineering regime to their collective detriment, and doing it to guys is similarly unjustified.

When a critic declares wearing such garments as being “scandalous”, “indecent” or even “perverted” all they do is reveal their own rather perverted perspective, where everything is sexualised, scandalised and demoralised. In the eighties, boys and men, young and old would flock to beaches, swimming pools, waterparks etc in their swim briefs, and nobody thought anything of it. In these modern times, almost everyone is covered up in T-shirts and board shorts, briefs relegated to competitive swimming and diving. Even briefs themselves have been extended into knee-lenth “jammers”, which somehow seem more acceptable, as if the upper thigh were some offence to the sensibilities. All I learnt from that lesson drummed into me when I was young was there was something wrong with me. For me, it was because of comparing myself to my peers. In the modern world as everyone is similarly clad, it’s the ‘norm’ and therefore potentially not as harmful, but why hide everything away? Is it because everything is seen through scandalous, indecent, perverted and sexualised eyes?

Can’t we see the world with better eyes than that?

If males were permitted to love themselves for who and how they are, to aspire to be that tanned sack-of-walnuts buffed ideal yet accept where they are on their journey in the meantime, then body-shaming could be relegated to the dustbin of history where it belongs. There’s also a better than decent chance such respect might also come to be brought to women and girls, since much of what is foisted on them comes from the deep-rooted insecurity of men. As the fourteen-year-old paraded on that beach, a part of me knew there was no hope for me amongst all those svelte men and their tanned pecs. I was the absolute omega on that beach. I was shamed into accepting that implicitly. I also saw where I needed to be. I was presented a goal. Had I the self-belief (and support of family), I may have worked to be like them, or at least worked to be a better version of myself. Instead, with no self-belief, with no support or even an encouraging word in my ear, I withdrew and became a fat, sick nothing.

I know for my part it’s unlikely there will ever be self-respect. One does not build a house on unstable foundations, then attempt to fix the foundations afterwards and expect a solid, dependable house. All I can hope to do is bolster and buttress my house as best I can lest it come crashing down altogether (been damn close a few times). I don’t hold myself to any ideals, because to this day I still battle with any sense of worthiness in reaching any ideal (and there is no cheer-squad, either).

At the same time, and more for the sake of others, I still feel the need to take a stand and declare that body-shaming is every much a part of anti-social bullying as driving a car into a crowd of innocent people. Body-shaming can kill. It can lead to eating disorders, drug abuse, and so much else. My own self-harm has drawn me close, but I’m still here. Maybe I’ve allowed my diabetes to be my noose instead. Maybe something else. Who knows?

It’s time to stop the bullying. Time to stop the mean-spirited anti-social behaviour of those who feel some moral superiority because they come to believe in their own perspective alone. Time to accept and respect, to see with eyes of maturity and peace and hope and understanding and empathy, because frankly I think the modern world has had a gutful of the alternative.

I know I have.


Art is an Expression of Humanity

Art is an expression of humanity.

To be without art is to be without emotion, without feeling, without what it is to be human.

Some of the earliest surviving artefacts from human history are art. Art has solidified and coalesced spirituality and human relationship with the environment into tangible form, from rock art of the Pilbara to frescoes of the Sistine Chapel.

My own journey of art started like most other infants—scrawlings on scrap paper, discovering line, colour and early structures. Unlike most children, very early on I drew what I saw, rather than what I knew. Art for me became an extension of expression and a reflection of context. I was drawing portraits of the cat, perspectives of a tree outside my bedroom window or experiments with the way afternoon sunlight reflected off a door at around the same time as I was learning how to walk. I didn’t consider this as ‘art’. I simply thought of it as a way to communicate in the same way as I was being taught how to speak or sing or body language to tell a parent something important, like I was hungry or needed a wee.

As I grew, so did my art. I discovered art books, and goggled amazed at lifelike portraits, rough sketches, sculptures in bronze, clay or marble and so many other wondrous things. My own art supplies expanded and painting became a dominant medium for me. To me, treasure wasn’t mountains of gold coins or fancy clothes. It was art.

Through my tortuous teens, art was my refuge, my solace, my love. In studying art, my eye differed to those of my fellow students—architectural lines of the Sydney Opera House or the muted tones of a late Rothko were profound to me in ways inconceivable to most others my age. I didn’t gaze upon the voluptuous curves of naked flesh in a Rubens and think ‘porn’. Instead I thought in terms of light and shade, flesh tones and body language, sensuous vulnerability, high drama and story created at a time before movies and television. I could also see proportion, composition and recognise the golden ratio.

As much as art was a part of me, from time to time there were shades to drive it into inaccessible corners of my being. Subject to appalling emotional abuse from an early age, depression would frequently stultify my art, and I would endure periods of blank oblivion. Much of what I had created was destroyed, relegated to the bin to make way for more important things, according to my elders and betters. Of course, art was never to be a career, never anything other than an indulgence that called into question everything from my intellect to my sexuality. That abuse also created a negativity inside myself which persists to this day. It’s not a voice to criticise what I create, instead be critical as to why. Even on medication it persists and with it the inevitable blank oblivion. Sometimes words will come and I will write (I consider writing as simply another art form), but canvases and pages remain idle, ink in its well, paints in their tubes, bronze as chilled ingots of copper and tin. Inspiration abounds, and sometimes the motivation rises to set up easel and commence, but my system is so sensitive all it takes is a single critical word and my art comes to a halt. All too frequently, that all-important word comes from within.

Yes. I am my own worst enemy.

I persist with professional therapy. There is so much damage to repair I may not live long enough to be entirely free of it (lesson: be kind and supportive with your children, respect their learning and never be jealous of their accomplishments and possessions. Also, never neglect to give them cuddles). The constant challenges of my mental health drive me to want to draw or paint for nothing other than therapeutic value, but for the last year every single attempt has ended in abject failure.

Recently I witnessed an art exhibition which left me utterly frustrated. While many of the works had their own particular delight and had been crafted skilfully, so much of it was also banal, flawed, dull or uninspired. I questioned myself on why my own work languishes while so much of this is not only exhibited but sold for quite considerable sums. “Because you’re a loser who doesn’t deserve success” comes the voice. “Stop being so egotistical. As if anyone would like what you create,” it persists, in spite of having sold works in the past. “Stop bothering other people with your lacklustre talent and small-mindedness. Nobody’s interested and nobody cares,” and so on.

I have yet to find the strength to not only pick up a brush but apply paint to canvas. I have done it before, but while that anti-ego voice fills my head with self loathing, cynicism, sarcasm and general negativity, I have yet to do it again. Even words fail to flow, although sometimes a tiny ray of sunshine will penetrate the gloom to illuminate the darkness and give rise to something. Today, it’s this essay.

Until I can return to my art properly however, to me I remain far less than what it is to be human.