Friday was autumn in its first shy appearance: the colours aren’t those of deciduous trees around here, but mostly silvers and greys. The sea turns to glass and the sky to chromium haze. The swell finds length and depth after the choppy peaks of summer, and it peeks around the corner from some unseen place.
I surfed with my daughter – her on the powder-blue mini-sim we gave her for her eighteenth birthday, and me on a fish. It was two-foot and sleepy. We didn’t catch many waves: the surf was a farewell of sorts, because the next day we would drive her to Melbourne to start her new life as a uni student.
We talked about a lot of things out there, and it was all I could do to keep the conversation away from the maudlin and the nostalgic. Because you can’t help, as a parent, comparing points in your life with the same points as your children pass through them. First day of high school. A broken bone. Getting braces/your licence/dumped. And you can hear yourself doing it: (don’t do it, stop, stop, whoa up…). “You know, this reminds me of the week I started uni…”
Is the world a better place now, a generation down the track?
I started uni as the eighties were in their death throes, and all the borrowed money was washing away on the tide. I got into a course I had zero interest in, but I dutifully enrolled because my parents thought it was a good idea. It’s laughable to imagine the assertive young woman floating beside me ever enrolling in anything because we told her it was sensible. She does it on her terms, every time.
The average life expectancy in Australia, the week I went off with my ring binders, was 76. (Now, as Raph heads off with a Macbook Air, it’s 83 – but at least ten years less if you’re Aboriginal. More about that in a minute). Hawke was prime minister, Benson & Hedges sponsored the cricket, and all manner of workplace ugliness and racist abuse was commonplace and legal. Homosexuality was still illegal in three states.
Things were better, things were worse. O-Week has lost its fangs now, and you can call that the nanny state or be grateful that she probably won’t wake up from a drunken stupor, as her father did, face-down on Swanston Street mere inches from the squealing undercarriage of a 50-tonne tram.
But what’s lost, and it’s real and measurable and damaging, is the human face of university life. Long before the pandemic turned physical academic settings like giant lecture halls and stoned tutors into zoom screens, there was already a neo-capitalist raid going on. Why export sheep and grain when you can sell degrees? Great in principle, until it becomes clear that some degrees are more saleable than others, and some services and ways of thinking and indeed employees are probably dispensable.
There was a war going on back then. I mean, not the week I started, but soon afterwards. Saddam invaded Kuwait, and before we could all find the place in an atlas, George the Elder had obliterated the Iraqi conscripts who were made to do the dirty work for their dictator. Within a year, the Road to Basra – an incinerated column of men and machines in the desert – had become a visual byword for the war’s brutality, as was Nick Ut’s image of the screaming burnt girl for Vietnam.
As Raph heads off a generation later, the Russians are storming Kyiv. Do we ever learn? In place of Saddam, our cartoon villain this time is Putin: different optics but the same psychology. Incineration now is done by means of something called a Thermobaric Weapon, the physical properties of which are too hideous to describe. Someone invented these things, thought it was a good idea and went home and kissed their children.
These are the distant fronts of our moral failings. Some are closer to home. In 1989, as I took my first train ride to uni, Bob Hawke was still promising a treaty with Aboriginal Australia by the next year, 1990. We’re still waiting. Malcolm Turnbull, seen by many as the most humane of the rancid ghouls that pass for Australian conservative politicians, invited Makarrata, and then rejected it. We’re a diminished nation as a result. We’re left with the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a document filled with pain and pride and continuing generosity of spirit. So there’s another thing I wondered as we drove our daughter to town: if she has a child and they go off to uni, will there be a treaty by then?
In my second year at uni, an unknown and unlikely bogan named Shane Keith Warne made his first-class cricket debut. He changed the sport forever, then transcended it, becoming some sort of endearingly flawed everyman hero in the process. He died this week. Strange how affected you can be by the deaths of people you never met. I’m sure I’m not the first to observe fate’s tendency to cut down the bringers of joy too early – Warne, Anthony Bourdain, Mark Lanegan, Andy Irons – while it hands an endless, invincible senescence to some right bastards like Rupert and Donald. Henry Kissinger, the unindicted war criminal who ordered the secret firebombing of an entirely innocent nation, is ninety-fucking-eight not out.
Europe’s on fire. America is paralysed by hate and lies. The pandemic rages on. Half the east coast is underwater and still our leaders are squirrel-gripped by the oil and gas lobbyists. It’s impossible to see all of these things in their full, awful detail and add them to the sorrows and challenges in our own lives without winding up curled in a ball on the floor. So how can anyone construct a durable personal ethic in opposition to it all?
I don’t know the answer but I can show you my workings.
There’s a reef near home that I struggle with. I surf it all the time and I simply can’t figure it out. The wave comes from deep water and as it stands up, it pinches shut from halfway down. I know the rock to sit above that gives you the best chance, but even then I pass up wave after wave because the mental chatter tells me no, not that one, you don’t want a flogging. A flogging would hurt. The aching for breath, the wrenching of the back, the slamming on a rock, the not knowing how close the sharp edges of the board are spinning in all the turbulence. So I pass up wave after wave. Nah, not that one, bit late. Not that one, bit deep. Bit big, bit doubled-up. And the second it goes past, rather than congratulate myself on my sound judgment, I curse myself because it looked pretty benign after all.
This, it occurs to me, is a metaphor for life. Things that looked fearsome on approach turn out to manageable. Time is short. We’re all mortal. Warne was no philosopher but he sure as hell knew how to live in the moment. Why wouldn’t you paddle into the looming peak and see what happens? Isn’t this the lesson of lives like Warne’s? Isn’t this the antidote to being an impotent spectator to global horrors?
We can express sympathy, denounce terrible behaviours, donate money. We can boycott the products and services of the vicious and the crooked – yes you, Gerry Harvey – and we should do all of these things, often. But we can also cherish the tiny moments of opportunity rather than fear them. My girl’s gone to the big smoke and I’ll miss her. But I’m glad she’s there, and living her heedless, happy life in the face of all this despair.
History grinds down our hope over the years, but we win it back in the moments.