Sunday, May 22, 2011

Eating on your own

At a table for one there is not a great deal of conversation. I quickly realised that at most tables of two, even less conversation was underway than at mine.

Eating on your own can be a strange and unusual activity. When I was younger, I found it very hard. I always felt that I was an oddity, sitting there without anyone to talk to.

I needed a newspaper or a book to shield me from the rest of the world, to make it appear that I had something to do – that is apart from staring at every one else in the restaurant, wondering why they were there and what their relationship was to the person sitting opposite them.

Eating on your own, without the distraction of companions, leaves you with a great deal of time to observe your fellow diners at adjacent tables.

As you can imagine, at a table for one there is not a great deal of conversation. I quickly realised that at most tables of two even less conversation was underway than at my sparsely populated table.

Perhaps talking to yourself is not such a silly thing—at least you can comfortably fill in the silences when you feel like it, without consulting anyone else. At least there is only one set of silences to fill.

But then I have often thought that the background noise – of wild parties and extravagant drinks, of idle conversation, of buying and selling – can be so loud that you fail to hear your own voice asking what you are doing, who you are and why you are here – or anywhere for that matter.

I think I am going to recommend to myself that I eat alone at least once a week. That way I will get a good meal. an interesting conversation without too much disagreement, and a chance to get some serious thinking done without interruption.

Perhaps I’ll also recognise the sound of my own voice.

See also
An everyday life worth living – indefinite articles for a clean, clever and creative future
‘My blog “indefinite article” is irreverent writing about contemporary Australian society, popular culture, the creative economy and the digital and online world – life in the trenches and on the beaches of the information age. Over the last ten years I have published 166 articles about creativity and culture on the blog. This is a list of all the articles I have published there, broken down into categories, with a brief summary of each article. They range from the national cultural landscape to popular culture, from artists and arts organisations to cultural institutions, cultural policy and arts funding, the cultural economy and creative industries, First Nations culture, cultural diversity, cities and regions, Australia society, government, Canberra and international issues – the whole range of contemporary Australian creativity and culture’, An everyday life worth living – indefinite articles for a clean, clever and creative future.

Nation-building – dam busters turned dam builders
‘I have always seen the building of community culture as being about nation-building from the ground up – but a different kind of nation-building. It’s not so much about bridges, dams and buildings but about connections and skills and capabilities and social institutions that can make a country worth living in. It’s one that is inclusive of different cultures and different groups. It doesn’t pit one nation against another. It recognises that diversity and the positive interaction between cultures builds resilience and innovation, creativity and productivity’, Nation building.

Predicting the weather
‘I grew up in a world where there was a definite set of things you knew - and one of them was not what would happen with the weather. The other day I was talking to someone who must have grown up in the same period. We were chatting casually about the weather and she made a comment - quite seriously - that weather forecasts were usually wrong. Unfortunately she was thirty years out of date. What amazes me is that the weather forecasts are usually so right’, Predicting the weather.

Floating world
‘Australia’s national capital is a strange floating world by a mountain lake. Reflecting the dream-like nature of the city, the lake is not a real one and the city is a compromise between warring states. It’s a large regional town on the roof of Australia that happens to be the capital city. As a result it has facilities and features not found elsewhere in Australia. The nation’s capital is a contradictory mix of a place to work—which just happens to run the country, or at least thinks it does—and a place to live. The two often do not coincide’, Floating world.

Happily ever after - the bethrothal of royalty and popular culture
‘Republicans can gnash their teeth but the reality is that royalty has managed to do the swift manoeuvering required to move it from antique and declining relic to funky pop culture icon. We can finally pretend they were harmless and charming all along, not founded on the basis of beheadings and torture chambers, murders and arranged marriages, at the end almost a benign presence – like a pandemic that has run its course. It’s true that fear of the guillotine certainly played an important role in inducing self reform – that’s not something to forget, survival is a strong instinct. No-one has to tell royalty that culture counts – and the more popular the better’, Happily ever after - the bethrothal of royalty and popular culture.

Wormholes in space
‘There has been a lot of speculation about the possible existence of ‘wormholes’ in space. Wormholes are kinks in space and time that can connect two distant parts of the galaxy almost instantly. I’m convinced that they exist and that there is one connecting Waverton on the Lower North Shore in Sydney and Burrawang in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales’, Wormholes in space.

Meeting someone
‘Is it any wonder that modern dating at times seems extreme and unusual (if not cruel as well). But is it really? In earlier centuries, it was not unusual for women to marry someone’s sword or for someone to receive a photograph or a painting to assess the merits of a potential partner. Shiploads travelled from Britain to fill a gap in marriageable young women. Advertising was not uncommon. It’s the age old problem of distribution. Take two people who could easily get on very well, but live in quite different countries on either sides of the world and think about how they would, under normal circumstances, ever get together. It’s hard enough to imagine when the people involved live in the same city, let alone on the same planet’, Meeting someone.

Half empty, half full
‘I am beginning to think that the world is made up of two kinds of people. There are those who spend all their time stopping bad things from happening and there are those who are much more focused on making good things happen. These strike me as the same people for whom the cup is either half full or half empty, but that might be cruel. For myself, if asked whether the cup was half full or half empty, I’d have to ask: why wasn’t it completely full?’, Half empty, half full.

Too close to the television
‘When I was growing up, we were constantly warned not to sit too close to the television screen. Now everyone I know spends their whole life sitting too close to a television screen. Electronic screens have become our second set of windows looking out on the world around us. Like all technology, it’s what you can do with them that counts. If there were no television programs, why would you watch television? Producing the stories, pictures and sounds that come to us through these screens is now one of the most important industries in Australia and worldwide, and fast becoming the industry of the future’, Too close to the television.

Senseless – cures for the common cold
‘With the range of modern, life-threatening viruses around, there are plenty of diseases to be worried about in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. Despite all these extremely serious diseases, what worries me is something far more simple. What really worries me is the common cold. I want to know why it is common. If it was less common maybe I wouldn't catch one so often. What about ‘the uncommon cold’ – why can’t I catch that, maybe every ten years or so?’, Senseless – cures for the common cold.

The safety of strangers
‘I was reading a front page article in a newspaper recently. It mentioned with a sense of alarm that several people accused of murder were currently free in the community. I read more closely and was intrigued to find that every single one of the people mentioned had been charged with murdering someone they were close to – a friend, a relative or partner. They hadn’t suddenly seized upon some totally unknown stranger and murdered them out of the blue. It brought home to me a terrible truth that keeps being forgotten—the person most likely to murder you is someone you already know—and the closer to you they are, the more likely it is’, The safety of strangers.

Fat held up by salt 
‘Years ago, I was at a wedding reception when I looked down at a plate of antipasto and realised that it was essentially assorted forms of fat, held up by sugar and salt. I used to buy large quantities of these smallgoods—a name I could never understand because it was never clear what was small about them. It was enough to make someone embrace heart attacks and rapidly thinning arteries. I realised my arteries weren’t getting hard—they were getting really difficult’, Fat held up by salt.

The history of the future
‘I find it interesting that many people who would claim they don’t read fiction, are avid readers of the popular magazines that appear from nowhere in newsagents, doctors surgeries and your mother’s latest emergency parcel. Popular magazines are the last great home of true fiction – if their stories aren’t true, then they should be’, The history of the future.

One-sided conversations
‘Once, after a particularly virulent cold, I contracted pharyngitis (a bit like laryngitis) and found my voice straining and fading. My voice became fainter and fainter, until it was almost inaudible. You have to stop talking. The more you stop talking, the quicker you recover, the less you manage to stop talking, the longer you are without a functioning voice. The phone calls were the hardest. The face to face contact was difficult in its own peculiar way. I would have long one-sided conversations with strangers. They would talk and I would quickly write my half (perhaps a slightly smaller proportion) of the conversation in a spiral notebook I carried everywhere’, One-sided conversations.

The whole truth
‘How often have you heard someone say that they don’t read fiction? What they don’t realise is that they read fiction every single day—everything is fiction. This is a world in which we are surrounded by the movie, the theme park and the whole virtual experience’, The whole truth.

Beaten by the clock
‘Have you ever noticed how every electrical appliance nowadays has its own clock, hidden somewhere within it? I notice this every time the clocks have to be changed at the beginning—or end—of daylight saving time. Forget about the curtains fading, the chickens forgetting to lay or the kids going to school in the dark—most of us go to work in the dark and stay like that all day. The real terror of daylight saving is changing the clocks. As soon as it comes time to put the clocks back an hour or forward an hour, I face the huge task of resetting every clock I own. How can there be so many of them?’, Beaten by the clock.

Greatest hits
‘I never again want to be told I am hearing the greatest hits of the 60s, 70s and 80s, or the 70s, 80s and 90s, or any other long gone time. It has been said that if you remember the 60s then you weren’t there. I think that if you were unfortunate enough to be there the first time, why should you have to go through it again?’, Greatest hits.

Applied creativity
‘I have been dealing with the issue of creativity for as long as I can remember. Recently, I have had to deal with a new concept—innovation. All too often, creativity is confused with innovation. A number of writers about innovation have made the point that innovation and creativity are different. In their view, innovation involves taking a creative idea and commercialising it. If we look more broadly, we see that innovation may not necessarily involve only commercialising ideas. Instead the core feature is application—innovation is applied creativity. Even ideas that may seem very radical can slip into the wider culture in unexpected ways’, Applied creativity.

Studying philosophy – knowing tables exist
‘I spent six years studying philosophy. I cannot imagine studying anything for six years anymore. At the time, I studied, I wrote essays, I left to join the workforce. I thought no more about it. Many years later, I was discussing some subject and I stopped for a moment and looked at how I was thinking. I realised that all the things I had learned had been absorbed. It is common to hear calls for a return to “basics”. There is no time for subjects that have no immediate practical value, like philosophy. But nothing is more basic than philosophy — like mathematics, it underpins everything’, Studying philosophy.

Through a glass, darkly
‘I used to possess a pair of glasses with photochromatic lenses. Whenever the day was exceptionally bright (or, to tell the truth, even a bit bright), they would respond by becoming darker. I lived in Melbourne for much of the time, a location, which though one of my favourite cities, can be very grey. Years later, in Sydney, I took off my glasses. I was shocked to realise how dark they were – they were never totally clear. As soon as I could I replaced them and my whole world became a lighter place. I’ll never know whether all those years in Melbourne were constantly overcast and grey or whether it was just my glasses’, Through a glass, darkly.

Where change comes from
‘It’s very pleasant belonging to a group, fitting in, being like everyone else, speaking the same language, liking the same things, having similar ways of viewing the world, doing things in the same old way. It’s very comfortable and reassuring. Unfortunately this can mean that nothing much useful happens—it can limit innovation, restrict new ideas and encourage complacency. Because of this, those who initiate, or even just welcome, change – often outsiders – are very important’, Where change comes from.

Looking down on birds
‘For decades I lived with gardens, watering and weeding and inspecting the progress of plants. Since then I have been steadily relocating to ever more urban locations. Life as an apartment dweller is the culmination, perched high in the sky, looking down on birds up amongst the clouds. I navigate this ethereal world, adjusting the blinds as though I was trimming sails on a yacht, using the elusive breezes to cool down. You can walk in and shut the door and close yourself off from the world’, Looking down on birds.

High country
‘When I moved to Canberra, I discovered that I had come back to the country where I grew up—the dry, high winter country in the shadow of the mountains. But I didn’t grow up in Canberra, but rather in the dry centre of Tasmania, where the Great Lakes and the mountains of the Western Tiers define the brittle, stony landscape. It’s as if there is a large mirror placed here, duplicating the other location, with the same images appearing again and again’, High country.

Exercising in the gym of happiness
‘I was watching a program recently about scientific research into happiness. The approach of the program was all about technique — how to learn how to meditate in order to be happier than before. The trouble is that there was nothing about content – living a good life, valuing your relationships, helping others, being selfless. It was as though happiness consisted of no more than an exercise – learning to meditate quietly or breathe properly or do one hundred pushups on your knuckles in the endless gym of happiness’, Exercising in the gym of happiness.

Creative industries – applied arts and sciences
‘The nineteenth century fascination with applied arts and sciences — the economic application of nature, arts and sciences — and the intersection of these diverse areas and their role in technological innovation are as relevant today for our creative industries. From the Garden Palace, home of Australia’s first international exhibition in 1879, to the Economic Gardens in Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens these collections and exhibitions lay the basis for modern Australian industry. The vast Garden Palace building in the Sydney Botanic Gardens was the Australian version of the great Victorian-era industrial expositions, where, in huge palaces of glass, steel and timber, industry, invention, science, the arts and nature all intersected and overlapped. Despite burning to the ground, it went on to become the inspiration for what eventually became the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences — the Powerhouse Museum’, Creative Industries.

Life on a movie set
‘Walking through South Bank in Brisbane was a bit like when I some overseas cities, part of a massive theme park. In Paris and New York I felt every day that I was on a movie set. It was partly the iconic surroundings—streets, buildings, geography. But it was also the whole theatrical experience. The dramatic lighting everywhere used to maximise effect, the fact that I knew the names of the locations around me, from years of reading books and magazines, seeing films or hearing songs. Life doesn’t resemble art, it copies it, like two facing mirrors, reflecting backwards and forwards in an infinite regression’, Life on a movie set.

Lines of desire 
‘Lines of desire appear everywhere. They are the shortest distance between two points, the paths worn by people who do not want to follow the prescribed walkways of planners and architects and administrators, but instead make the path that suits them best. Good planning should be about matching actual lines with desire lines. The most appealing thing about desire lines is that they confirm the enduring tendency of humans to take the easiest route— something I find very satisfying—and they also confound those who think, despite all evidence to the contrary, that they know what is best for the rest of us’, Lines of desire.

Pristine cities
‘Visiting old German cities, the compelling thing that strikes you about them is the sense of how brand new and pristine they seem. Compare this to a city like Lyon, which is genuinely old and worn and dirty. In Germany, everything seems to have been bombed. After the war, in a vast miracle of recreation, after the rubble women had cleared the wreckage by hand, whole city blocks were built again from long-forgotten plans and drawings in a miracle of hyper-renovation’, Pristine cities.

Remembering Dresden
‘The age we live in is one of small, short wars. It affects some of us in large ways, but most of us, hardly at all. This is a return to the norm, for the widespread horror of world war is unusual this century—at least, so far. During World War 2 one of my uncles was a navigator on the Lancaster bombers that fire-bombed Dresden. It’s hard to imagine how young they were, in strange countries, thousands of miles from home, seeing the world in ways they could never have expected – through bomb sights’, Remembering Dresden.

Irregular contact
‘I find it curious that many people still look at the quirky world which has grown out of email, the internet and ubiquitous computers as something unusual. When new technologies are first introduced, it always seems to be the technically minded who are most interested and involved. However, as the technology becomes widely dispersed and part of the everyday—to the point of becoming invisible—then it’s those who maintain social connection who pick it up and make it their own. To find the perfect example of this we only have to look at the history of the telephone. It’s hard to imagine life without it—how else would dispersed families, friends and community and business colleagues ever keep up with each other? Lack of access to a phone is a true sign of poverty, because it restricts ability to communicate’, Irregular contact.

A tourist in your own town
‘Those for whom a certain language is their second are often more acutely aware of the idiosyncrasies, foibles and strange delights of the language than are its native speakers. It is much the same with travelling physically. It is usually the inquisitive visitor who fulfills the function of tourist, directing locals to wonders and curiousities they drive past every day without a glance. The true gift is to be able to be a tourist in your own town – to see your everyday locality with fresh eyes every day’, A tourist in your own town.

Murrumbateman Field Days
‘The other day I went to a Murrumbateman Field Day. I have to do things like this, because so many of my relatives now live on the land, and have a pressing need to buy heavy duty agricultural tools or baby goats or water tanks. All this is totally irrelevant to me practically speaking, but endlessly fascinating’, Murrumbateman Field Days.

‘On a recent trip to Adelaide I did some of the interesting things that tourists do. One of these activities was a piece of ongoing detective work. l have some Scandinavian-style lounge chairs, curved ply and leather which were purchased years ago. The designer was a German who came out to Australia after the war, but no-one could remember his name. I visited the Immigration Museum to find out who he was when I was last in Melbourne because someone had seen the chairs there, but there was no longer any sign of the chairs or word of the designer’, Chair.

Like a long-lost masterpiece
‘Many decades ago when I was much younger and a student I used to march in National Aboriginal Day Observance Committee marches. They were shorthanded to NADOC marches, back in the days when Islanders hadn’t yet been included and there was no ‘I’ in the name. I realised a while back that I must have been marching under the new Aboriginal flag at its birth. I had a poster from those years which I used to cart around with me from city to city until one day when I was about to move yet again I decided to donate it to the National Library of Australia’, Like a long-lost masterpiece.

Making a (small) difference
‘Every year when I have to replace the registration sticker on my car I thank whoever dreamed up the peel-off sticker. Whoever brought in the new sticker could retire having done not one other good thing with their life and know that they had made a huge difference to the sum total of human happiness. It might not be up to the level of fixing Indigenous disadvantage or ensuring no child lives in poverty in our life time, but it was achievable, it did happen and there’s no going back’, Making a (small) difference.

Blowing up balloons
‘I have a secret fascination with the ancient art of ballooning, a skill from the beginnings of flight, a moment where humans finally caught up with birds. This is despite the fact that I haven't yet managed to face the moment where I hang underneath a large canvas bag full of nothing but hot air high above the landscape in a shallow wicker basket. With their ability to break free from gravity and escape into a lighter world of their own, balloons represent for me the same force that fights the gravitational pull of great cities, like a black hole that swallows everything, even light’, Blowing up balloons.

More silence
‘In a recent survey by my gym I was asked if I would prefer more music or more video—I replied ‘more silence’. I can never work out the need to be surrounded by noise. It is definitely noise, not sound. If it was quality, interesting sound perhaps it would be more bearable, but it usually seems to consist of someone telling us in a loud voice why we should buy something we don’t seem to want at all, let alone need. Why I have to pay to listen to this loud advertising by virtue of belonging to a gym which costs me a fortune, I can’t work out’, More silence.

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