Articles by A Free Man

And you feel so right, but how come you can’t sleep at night?

In the suburbs
I learned to drive
And you told me we’d never survive
Grab your mother’s keys we’re leavin’…

In my younger days, when the stress tide was rising, I used to pop on my favourite record at the time, crank the volume up to maximum and bathe in an anodyne sonic sea. Cheaper than Valium and a bit better for someone of my addictive nature.

I’ve been a bit tightly wound these last few weeks and the release of The Arcade Fire’s new record, couldn’t have been better timed. All the way home from work today, I was looking forward to a little music therapy. I can usually get some music blaring in the boys’ witching hour between dinner and bedtime.

Boy Z doesn’t get it, he’s got too much of his mother in him and is as likely to order me to turn the music down as he is to dance around the lounge. Not Max, however, he gets it. He’s a rocker. All it takes to turn him out of a bad mood is “Paradise City” at maximum volume. So when Dr. O’C and Boy Z took a trip to the supermarket this evening, we pulled out the new record. Delighted in the anticipation as the cellophane was pulled away from the jacket and those expectant moments of quiet as the disk slid into place and the CD player chirped to life and the speakers roared to life.

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It has been three years since the last offering from The Arcade Fire – a long three years. The Montreal band’s two previous offerings are easily among my top ten favourite albums of the last decade. They were, quite simply, masterpieces. I’ve actually been a little bit nervous since the announcement that their third full-length record was due this week. Could they do it again. Could they make another album that becomes an inherent part of the soundtrack of my life. One of the things that The Arcade Fire does well is to make a concept album that isn’t a novelty album. Their 2004 debut, “Funeral”, was about loss – a theme that struck close to home for me at the time as well. Their sophomore effort in 2007, “Neon Bible”, was all about spirituality and salvation – as was my 2007.

And this one, as you may have guessed from the title, is about suburbia. And an album about suburbia in all its banality, uniformity and, yes, even its hidden darkness is perfect for me in 2010. I grew up in the virulent Florida suburbs in the 1980’s and spent much of the last twenty years trying to escape their  of the 1990’s trying to escape their clutches. The irony of landing two decades later in the bosom of suburbia on the other side of the world is not lost on me.

While the record is as cynical as I am about the suburbs, it is also nostalgic. It’s not a condemnation of the endless 21st century sprawl as much as a resignation to its inevitability. This is the way we live. This is the reality of the 21st century. Win Butler and his merry men see a world slowly crumbling away. And who doesn’t? Maybe not your idea of the way to quiet the grinding gears of your mind on a suburban Friday evening.

But then there’s the music.

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It’s bigger, but not as bombastic as the previous two. The band has made good use of the last three years, delivering an album that is more lush, more mature than their previous efforts. They’ve also embraced a wider range of musical styles veering from straight-ahead punk rock to intricate, even challenging, orchestration. Despite hinging thematically on the banality of the day to day, it’s musically epic. But above all, beautiful and compelling.

Not Max probably missed the thematic overtones and the intricate instrumentation, but he seemed happy enough with the music – and he certainly liked the flavour of the cover. He’s not afraid to let me know when he thinks something sucks. If I’m playing the indie folk for which I’ve got a penchant these days, he’ll fuss and grizzle until I turn on something with a barrage of electric guitar. And as we bathed in a musical barrage, I found the musical narcotic that I needed. As for suburbia?

It is what you make of it, I suppose. And I’ve spent Friday evenings in worse ways.

Hey
Put the cellphone down for a while
In the night there is something wild
Can you hear it breathing?

And hey
Put the laptop down for a while
In the night there is something wild
I feel it, it’s leaving me

The more we move ahead the more we’re stuck in rewind

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I think I have to stop fooling myself. At some point every day I decide that I’m going to take some time and, damn it, blog. But it just doesn’t happen. I’ve spent three days planning to write this little snippet of a post. Life is full. And priorities change. And time is spent, better or not, in other endeavours.

But this space nags at me like a sore tooth. I feel obliged to update, obliged to put myself out there. But I want to be somewhere else.

So this post is punctuation. An official recognition of a pause. But more a semicolon than a period. I’m not saying goodbye, just see you later. A little holiday in the real world.

“Well that is that and this is this.”

She wore red dresses and left the wounded behind

I don’t really have time to write – it’s exam marking time – but I can’t stand seeing that beanie wearing, budgie smuggling, buffoon every time I open Safari anymore. So here’s a photo of Boy Z putting the moves on a cute blonde at a wedding we went to last night.

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Because nothing brings that paternal pride cascading to the surface like watching one of your sons successfully executing the lady killing skills that you’ve been so carefully teaching him.

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Don’t wait up, Dad.

Coup d’etat in Australia?

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Without an election, or even much drama, we have a new prime minister today. Julia Gillard, who will be Australia’s first female prime minister, took over from Kevin Rudd in a “bloodless coup“. Not as exciting as it sounds – it was actually a planned leadership vote in the Labor party, and Rudd stood down quietly to allow Gillard to take power. Not exactly a Carribean coup d’état.

It’s probably a good thing, especially for a middle class socialist like myself. Rudd was plummeting in popularity – he was ineffective in getting the Labor message out there and pretty effective at being a dickhead. And it certainly won’t hurt blokey Australia to have a woman running things for a while.

But most of all, it is good news because Gillard may be the only hope to keep this guy from taking power after the next election:

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This budgie smuggling buffoon is Tony Abbott, the bastard child of George W Bush and Sarah Palin. And the leader of the opposition Liberal Party.

“Laugh and think, this is Australia.”

It’s a shame about Rudd, but I have been impressed this week with Labour Environment Minister, and former Midnight Oil frontman, Peter Garrett. Want to know why? Check out my monthly post at The Greenists.

Images:

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One for Daddy-O

I totally forgot that yesterday was Father’s Day in much of the Northern Hemisphere* until I saw PostSecret’s “Father’s Day Secrets“. And then I got all sappy and teary-eyed. As you do.

Especially over these ones:

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That last one, in particular, got to me. I’ve noticed lately, particularly with Boy Z, this primal need for recognition from his Dad. We do swimming lessons on a Sunday morning. After the rush of pride over seeing him swim on his own for the first few times, it starts to get a bit redundant. Boy Z floundering through the water up the lane. Boy Z floundering down the lane. Sometimes, midway through the class, I reach for my iPod  for a quick game of solitaire to while the time away. But inevitably, Boy Z looks up with a smile whenever he passes me to make sure I’m watching. To make sure I’m bursting with paternal pride.

As you do.

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Because apparently, for a nearly three year old boy, paternal recognition/pride is as important as three squares a day. And it isn’t just the near three year old. These days, Not Max makes sure to make eye contact with me before he pulls plates full of food off the table. I can see that this business of raising boys is just chock full of paternal responsibilities of which I never even conceived.

So there you go. Happy belated Fathers’ Day to all you Northern Hemisphere dads who have spent countless Sunday mornings bursting with paternal pride – genuine or adequately feigned. Especially to my Dad, who has photographic evidence of his presence in the bleachers.

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Based on the relative position of ball and bat/glove in these photos, he must have gotten pretty good at feigning pride.

‘Cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see

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I was feeding Not Max his dinner last night listening to some music, as you do, when the inimitable opening chords of “Free Bird” came on the iPod stereo. “Free Bird” is currently on my iPod because I’ve been watching the outstanding, if slightly raunchy, ‘Californication‘ lately on my commute to work. The song plays a pretty pivotal role in one of the episodes in the second season and since then I’ve had a hankering for some Skynyrd.

But when it came on last night I was reaching to skip the track, thinking that Not Max would probably not consider it the best dining music. But as Gary Rossington’s slide guitar chimed in with Roosevelt Gook’s mellotron, Not Max looked up, cocked his head, smiled and started beating on the table in apparent ecstasy.

I said to Not Max, “Really, Not Max? ‘Free Bird‘? Why?”

To which Not Max replied with more vigorous table smacking. And the longer that very long song went on, the more fervent the table beating became.

“Well, Not Max”, I said, “I guess we’ll turn it up.”

And really, the better question is: Why not ‘Free Bird’?

Fly on, Not Max.

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Solomon falls on his face in love with me

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Allie Larkin is a blogger and the co-founder of The Greenists. She’s also a friend of mine in that sort of odd, social media generation, never actually met her sort of way.

More auspiciously, however, her debut novel “STAY” is being released this week by Dutton.

I got my review copy last week but before I could get into it, Dr. O’C snatched it up and devoured it over the weekend. She declared it an ideal beach book, so good timing for those of you in the Northern Hemisphere.

Once I got my turn, I read a bit more slowly, I like to savour my books. And while Dr. O’C is right in a sense – I think there’s a lot more to it than, say, the latest Sophie Kinsella effort. (Not that I know too much about the genre. What?)

Allie writes with a precision and a dedication to detail that sucks the reader into her world. She’s got a gift for dialogue and bringing her characters to life. The musical references that pepper the book really add to it for me, almost like a soundtrack for the story. And if you’re a dog lover, or like me a dog lover temporarily without a dog, it’s an absolutely heart warming story. Makes me think it’s time to get another dog.

Most of all, however, it’s a ripping good yarn.

In short, if you’re looking for a great summer read then STAY would be a great place to start. It’s out Thursday, but you can pre-order by clicking the little ad over there on the right.

Allie was also kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions for me, largely about the craft of writing:

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AFM: I would be willing to bet that a majority of my readers – including myself if I’m being honest – would love to be sitting where you are. First novel finished, picked up by a major publisher. So, how do you do it? How do you decide to write a book and then carry it out?

AL: The characters and the story really kept me going. STAY started as a short story, and I hadn’t originally intended to write it as a novel, but I kept wanting to know more about the characters. Not finishing the book would have been like watching half of a movie you’re completely enjoying. I needed that sense of completion to the story.

AFM: I was talking to another author friend of mine the other day about the ritual (or lack thereof) of writing. Do you have a special place where you write? Pen or computer? Music or silence?

AL: I go through phases and rotate through work stations (my desk, couch, reading chair, kitchen table, lawn chair, bed) depending on my mood. I write on a computer for the majority of what I do, although, if I’m doing writing exercises, I like to write in pencil on paper.

I set up playlists for my main characters when I write. The playlists are a combination of music my character would like, and music that somehow makes me think of the story. It’s a great way to snap into writing mode and put myself in the right mindset for my character. When I first heard the song On Your Side by Pete Yorn, it made me think of Van’s relationship with Peter, so it went on the playlist. When I worked on some of the Van/Peter scenes I would listen to the song to put things in context for me. But in the last few rounds of revisions, I couldn’t listen to anything (and neighbourhood noises drove me nuts). Even the smallest change that I made had to be carried out through the entire storyline, so it’s like doing a 300+ page word puzzle. Anything that pulled my mind away from the process was hard to manage. I wish I had a sound proof room for that stage of the game.

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AFM: For you, is blogging helpful for ‘proper’ writing or a distraction?

AL: Blogging, Twitter, Facebook, etc., are so helpful. I don’t have coworkers in the traditional sense. There’s no one to chat with in the break room. Being able to have a sense of community and a way to reach out to people on a daily basis while I’m working by myself is amazing. Of course it’s easy to procrastinate and get sucked in to spending too much time in the wrong direction, so I have to be disciplined about how I spend my time. But I think the chance to connect with people like you and the other Greenists and bloggers I’ve been following for years, adds so much to my life, and I really appreciate that connection.

AFM: One piece of advice for a fledgling author with a book in his or her head?

AL: Get your butt in the chair and start writing. Little deadlines are best. I work with a writing group. The first few drafts of STAY were written at a rate of eight pages a week that were due for my group meetings. That writing rate was a very good pace for me at that stage in the game. It was doable, even with work and other responsibilities that took up a lot of time. And I think that’s a stumbling block for a lot of writers. The blank page is scary and the idea of writing a whole entire book gets overwhelming very quickly. Don’t sit down and expect to write your book in a week. Allow yourself to outline, or write badly, or storyboard, or whatever you need to do to sketch out a first draft. Then go back and edit. Know that you will need to go through many drafts. Know that it will take you time. And make sure you like your characters enough to spend that much time with them.

BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott is an amazing book about the writing process, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to write. I read it several times while I was writing STAY, and found helpful advice at every stage of the process.

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After you have a solid, polished draft, start doing research on how to submit work and how the publishing industry works. I found AgentQuery.com particularly helpful. But don’t get ahead of yourself. You can’t submit until you have finished work anyway, so finish something before you clog your head with all that other stuff.

AFM: Who is your favourite living author? Who most inspired your writing style?

AL: Oh wow! Hard question! I have many favoured authors. And one of the coolest things for me about this whole process is the authors who have come through with advice, support, and kind words about my book. They are people I’ve admired for a long time as a reader, and I am in awe of their kindness.

I’ve always loved women’s fiction. From Willa Cather to Claire Cook, I love stories about strong women who are trying to figure out who they are and what choices they need to make in their lives. And I’ve always read those stories voraciously. I also grew up reading any Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, and Pat Conroy book I could get my hands on, and I know that sense of story and a love of complex characters influences my work as well.

AFM: And finally, the obvious one: what’s next? Have you started working on your second book? Any hints as to what we can expect?

AL: I am working on something new with completely new characters. It’s still in the early stages, so I don’t want to say too much. I’d also love to revisit the characters from STAY some day. Van is one of my favourite imaginary people.

Allie Larkin’s debut novel STAY is out Thursday and available at a bookstore near you, or from Amazon.

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Belly was Throwing Muse Tanya Donelly’s brief solo project in the early 90’s. I had almost completely forgotten about Belly until stumbling on “Star” while browsing through eMusic a wee while back. Listening to”Star” after more than a decade was good fun. It’s not the best album of that period of time, not even the best dreamy girl rock band album of that period of time, but there are a few good tracks on “Star”. This is why I like eMusic, you can find albums that you may not want to pay iTunes or CD prices for, but would be willing to shell out a few bucks for on a whim.

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright

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It is winter in Australia which means that it is football season it Australia. And by football, I don’t mean steroid stuffed giants in full body armor standing around for three plus hours, nor overpaid Brazilians kicking a round ball around for an hour and a half in the quest for a nil-nil draw. No, I’m talking about that odd game that you may have seen during a spell of insomnia that involves thirty skinny Australians occasionally kicking a rugby ball in between bouts of beating the crap out of each other.

Ah, footy. For a couple of years now, I’ve been trying to develop a passion for the game with only minimal success. Why bother, you sensibly ask? A couple of good reasons. First of all, tea time conversation topics. I work for a pretty ‘blokey’ school and was advised early on in my employment to choose a team as it would make Monday morning tea conversations flow a lot more easily.

True that. Most of the words bouncing around the walls of the tea room on Monday morning are ones like ‘Crows‘, ‘Power‘, ‘Cats‘, ‘Magpies‘, and so on. Over the last couple of years I’ve been able to learn the jargon well enough to feign interest, but I still don’t care that much about who’s atop the ladder or the weekly Crows crisis.

Secondly, and more importantly, I’m on a mission to give my kids a true blue upbringing despite being the children of immigrants. They’re boys. Aussie boys like sports. Aussie sports are cricket and footy (at least in SA and Victoria). Now we’ve got no problem with cricket, I took to cricket straightaway. It’s baseball, more or less, so no problems. (No worries.)

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But this damned football, or footy as the locals call it, is just a bit too bizarre for my taste. Far too much punting. And I don’t understand why they haven’t developed the forward pass. I mean, I know Australia tends to lag a bit behind their North American and European cousins in adopting technology, but the forward pass has been around since 1906.

Whatever. We need a team. How to pick a team if you don’t really care for the game? Well, I figured it out – let the kid decide.

Now, without getting too inside footy, we’ve got a couple of AFL (major league) clubs in Adelaide – the Crows and the Power – both of whom suck. They also play in one of the worst stadiums I’ve ever seen and charge an obscene amount of money to sit in the rain and watch bad teams lose badly.

But we’ve also got the South Australian National Football League, a collection of local teams that would be kind of homologous to a AAA baseball league. They play at smaller ovals around the city, charge $10 for adults and nothing for kids and, best of all, let you go out on the pitch during the quarter breaks and kick your ball around. The latter, for a two year old, is the clincher.

A couple of weekends ago, Boy Z and I headed off to watch the Sturt Double Blues play host to the Glenelg Tigers, the two closest clubs to our house. I made the decision before we went that whoever won this game would be ‘our team’.  But while we were watching, I had a moment of genius  – ask the boy who he liked.

“Boy Z”, I said, “the blue ones are the Blues and the black ones are the Tigers. Who do we like?” Maybe an unfair question, because Boy Z knows that ‘tigers’ are fierce giant cats and ‘blue’ is just the colour of our Mazda hatchback.

“Ti-ers.”

Ti-ers it is my boy. Ti-ers it is. We’ve got ourselves a team.

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We’ve been to a handful of games now and everything is now Tigers. He wants to wear his ‘Tigers’ shirt every day. We’ve hunted down ‘Tigers’ socks, although a few sizes too big. Stupid Australian sizes. He sleeps with his ‘Tigers’ football. We have endless conversations about the next time we’re going to see ‘Tigers football’. (Answer – the next time it isn’t raining on game day).

And I’m actually starting to like the game myself.

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Image credit:

Glenelg Tigers

May my love reach you all

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This is my new favourite photo of Boy Z. I think it just personifies him. In motion. Hair flying (Enjoy that hair, little one. Male pattern baldness is hereditary). A cheeky crooked smile. A little bit feral. It’s just essence of Boy Z.

It has been kind of a lost weekend. Not like those that were frequent in my 20’s – days of memories lost to booze, drugs and the trappings that went along with them. No, lost in the sense of time that is irretrievable. Lost to a combination of driving rain, a dodgy tooth, a croupy kid and the subtle malaise that accompanies the beginning of winter.

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I don’t mean to imply that it was a bad weekend. Weekends are never bad. Time with Dr. O’C and Boy Z and Not Max is never bad. Trying? Sometimes. Challenging? Often. Stressful? Usually. But also filled with laughter and the serenity of a good life. This weekend, however, a rapidly festering abcess sent me into a haze of self-pity and analgesia. A haze that made much beyond a basic level of function impossible for your underwhelming narrator and a fair bit of Friday evening was spent supine on the couch emitting soft moans.

Then the rain came and put the kibosh on our planned football outing. And then Boy Z started barking like a seal, which meant a Saturday planted in front of various kids movies on autorepeat. Boy Z wheezing and croaking and me whinging and moaning.

And then the lights went out.

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A power outage, a minor occurrence to adults, is a source of much excitement and consternation to little boys, one of whom has a mild fear of the dark. “Where are the lights?” “Turn the lights on, Bubba!” “When the tricity coming back, Bubba?”

But we settled into that rustic groove that a blackout inevitably brings – reading books by candlelight, bumping into various bits of furniture and relying heavily on my battery powered iPod dock for dancing in the dark. But strangely, not to Springsteen.

And to put the final brushstrokes on the whole Laura Ingalls Wilder scene, the after-hours doctor turned up for a house call. He checked Boy Z by candlelight and declared him croupy. Of course he spoke with a strong Persian accent rather than a Minnesotan and trotted off in a Holden rather than on horseback and then the lights blazed back to life and with it 21st century Australia.

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But there are a hell of a lot of worse places to be than 21st century Australia. And a lost weekend in 21st century Australia with these particular 21st century Australians isn’t ever really lost.

This post is all over the place and I don’t have much to say, really. I just wanted to point you to my monthly post at The Greenists. And show off some pictures from a weekend past. One that wasn’t lost.

“You’ll never take me alive”, said he.

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Saturday was our two year immi-versary, the anniversary of our immigration to Australia. I stumbled off of a 24 hour flight into to the blazing South Australian with Dr. O’C and a seven month old Boy Z. I’d never been to Australia and despite befriending several natives (including the one I had lived with for seven years) and doing extensive research into my Antipodean future home, I hadn’t a clue what to expect of the place. I was jobless, carless and clueless. It certainly wasn’t my first move, it wasn’t even my first international move. But I’ve never felt so lost.

We arrived the day before ANZAC Day. I hadn’t a clue what an ANZAC was, nevermind why he/she/it/they had a day. All I knew was that when I managed to wander my way down to the closest grocery store to the faceless suburb into which we had landed was that it was closed up tight.

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Two years later I’m not quite as lost. Inexplicably I’ve still got Dr. O’C. I’ve got a two-and-a-half year old budding fascist dictator in Boy Z and his rapidly growing lieutenant, Not Max. I know my away around my adopted city like I’m a native. I’ve got a job that I love a car that Dr. O’C keeps bashing up and a place to lay my head with a sea view when I wake up. I even know where to buy a carton of milk on ANZAC Day.

More importantly, I’ve come to feel at home in my home. I don’t feel Australian, but I feel comfortable among the Australians. I feel a part of Australia, that I can participate in things Australian. I feel a part of, something that I haven’t in the six and a half years since I left the country of my birth.

And I can tell you about ANZAC day. It’s a day of remembrance for the Australian and (less importantly) New Zealand Army Corps that fought at Gallipoli in World War I. The Battle of Gallipoli involved allied British and French troops landing in Turkey in a futile attempt to take Constantinople from the Turks. It involved a significant Australian presence and something like 8,000 Australian casualties. They tell us on ANZAC Day, that Gallipoli helped to established Australian national identity. I find it a bit odd that a thrashing at the hands of the Turks marks the beginning of Australian national consciousness, but it’s one of those idiosyncrasies that make Australians such a winsome people.

So the groceries stores are closed and there are dawn services around the country and in Gallipoli. And we have biscuits. And football. And I’ve learned, on this my third ANZAC Day and the second anniversary of my arrival in this enchanting corner of the world, that if you get out of the way and let it, life keeps getting better from one year to the next.

April 2008

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April 2009

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April 2010

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