Short cuts and the long way

It’s tempting to take the short cut, to imagine that you’ve found a quicker and easier (painless!) way of achieving something. Everyone else is a stickler for unnecessary rules, or unimaginative, or caught in habit.

What this view doesn’t take into account is that everything has a price. Whether in energy, time, money or emotional labour. Even the short cut.

Why this is important is that the price for the long way is obvious in advance. You know what you have to do to get there. The sticker is on the box.

The price for the short cut is hidden, opaque. You don’t know what it is but you will still have to pay it. More time maybe. Or more money. Or blood-boiling frustration.

Taking this hidden cost into account, the short cut may not be worth it. You might not be such a genius for thinking of it. Perhaps there is a very good reason “it’s always been done this way”.

Gambling

I’ve never really warmed to gambling. I understand that it’s one of those things that you’re meant to at least slightly enjoy, especially in Australia where the value of “having a flutter” is a foundational cultural myth. It doesn’t even leave me cold – I find it stressful and mildy boring.

I don’t claim to be particularly virtuous here. I just suspect that my brain is wired slightly differently to many people in this respect. There appears to be a pretty strong correlation between potentially addictive behaviours and particular neural configurations, and I seem to be deficient in the bit that controls impulsive behaviour. This is good and bad. Maybe I’m not as “fun” as the next person.

When there’s something on the line, as in all types of gambling, I immediately become anxious. The process stops being a game to me and suddenly becomes a situation where I have to protect what I have. If by chance I win a hand of poker I become acutely aware of the precariousness of victory and seek to cash out my winnings as quickly as possible. The enjoyment for me is in the “play” aspect – when money is invovled it feels like a school assignment and all the fun is vacuumed up, along with my cash.

Even Australia’s silliest holiday, the Melbourne Cup, means little to me. I attended Cup Day at Flemington once, dutifully bet on horses picked at random, and then lost all my money. My overwhelming feeling was one of relief that I didn’t have to participate any more, having made the token gesture.

No doubt I would be no fun at Vegas. I accept that. But on the up side, I’m not likely to get a pokie addiction either. So there are some benefits.

13 May 2019, Blackburn

I went to vote yesterday. Being an early elector, I forwent the democracy sausage (don’t ask how the sausage is made) in favour of a surprisingly long queue slightly outside of my electorate.

We have a very good-natured democracy, but one still has to run the gauntlet of people handing out flyers. Apart from the ubiquitous redshirts and blueshirts (reminiscent of chariot racing in Byzantium), we were joined by many greens, some aqua, a smattering of yellow placards (although no individuals) and a variety of small-time independents with poor graphic design skills. The only colour not represented seemed to be purple, perhaps because that is the totem of the Australian Electoral Commission and therefore sacrosanct.

Some people take all the how-to-vote cards they’re offered, so as not to offend the rainbow volunteers and to give no hint as to how they intend to vote. I choose to go the opposite path – I accept nothing.  The lower house voting is normally not a problem without a cheat sheet, but the Senate can get quite complicated. I forget whether the Pirate Party are civil libertarians or uncivil buccaneers.

I left with a sense of relief, but with an urgent desire to hear the results. Now! Man’s lot is to be unhappy, and that appears to extend to having to wait for the results of a national popularity contest.

Swimming in the sea is to be commended

I am not a water person.

My parents will attest to this: decades of swimming lessons, panic at being forced to jump in the deep end and the humiliation of school swimming sports have all left their scars on my psyche. As an adult I made a deliberate effort to acquire as much swimming skill as was necessary to not drown embarrassingly, but not a stroke more. The smell of pool chlorine still makes me anxious.

But later in life I have discovered something else – swimming in the sea is wonderful. It’s been a revelation for me. It took no small amount of courage to wade out, past groin-pickling depth, into water deep enough to swim in. My first instinct was to get out immediately. But something atavistic rumbled in the depths of my hindbrain which told me that it was safe, indeed that it was right to be shoulder-deep in salty water.

Dunking my head underwater, normally only achieved with great force of will, became perfectly natural. Saltwater in my nose was almost pleasant compared to the acric chemical burn of chlorinated water. Although there was no chance of opening my eyes, the underwater world of the sea felt like a womb, albeit a womb where you are occasionally tickled by passing lifeforms being swept along by the current.

I don’t know what it is about immersion in salty water, but it changes your entire outlook on life. The usual niggling cares recede into the distance and you are left with just the interaction between you and the oceans of the world. Whether you actually go for a swim or not isn’t important, it’s the action of merging with the primal broth which makes the difference. It washes away who you used to be, and you can briefly revert to being a simpler organism.

I still don’t enjoy swimming in pools, even ones treated with salt water. I find them artificial and uncomfortable, as if I were required to perform in some way. But put me in the sea any day. I don’t care if it’s cold, I just won’t stay as long. But I can never get enough. At the end of a day at the beach, gritty, hypothermic and tired, I still watch the waves washing up on the shore wishing I was back out there.

Churches are to be commended

There’s a lot to like about churches.

By that I mean the buildings, not the ethically compromised trans-national bureaucracy of men with funny hats. I’d also further clarify by saying that I’m referring to churches with a bit of age on them, the ones that refer back to mediaeval times, even if they’re not quite that old. As far as I’m concerned modern churches with “creative” architecture are universally sterile and dull.

I rarely, if ever, set foot in religious buildings but yesterday was an exception. I visited a giant Catholic cathedral for work, and it was like a breath of fresh air. Not only was it cool and refreshing after the 42 degree nuclear blast of the weather outside. I could smell incense, candle wax and old stone.

They’re magical places, even if one doesn’t subscribe to that particular variety of magic. Over the millennia they’ve evolved to evoke very specific feelings – awe, peace, majesty, separation from the mundane world. This is still of value in this post-religious age, because it fills a basic human need. We all need to step outside ourselves from time to time.

Perhaps of interest to architects and town planners is the idea of architectural evolution. Churches do their jobs very well due to an awful lot of iterations, each a slight embellishment on the last. Styles of religious architecture have cross pollinated, each finding different ways to achieve the same aim.

Perhaps we could pay attention to this – often the best solutions are extrapolated from past solutions, rather than revolutionary change ex nihilo. I suspect that this is as true of architecture as it is of politics and other manifestations of human nature

Medicine = flow

Ultimately, a lot of medicine is about understanding flow. Blood through vessels, air through bronchioles, water across membranes, electrolytes through cellular gates, neurotransmitters across the synaptic cleft. If you can understand the flow, especially if you can gain an instinctive feel for it, a lot of things start to make sense.

Heroes

People hunger for the heroic.

Not the high achiever (necessarily), but the person who can peer behind the veil, if only a little bit, and understand the universe more deeply. We forgive that person anything because they are more than we are.

Instead we’re stuck with movie stars, athletes and politicians, who we invest with our dreams. But then we punish them savagely for their human failings. We hate them because, in the end, they turn out to be just like us.

Adventure: Walking the Capital City Trail

Recently I walked the length of the Capital City Trail, a 30-ish km circuit walk around the inner suburbs of Melbourne. It passess through about a dozen suburbs and links up a series of walking and cycling trails that are human-powered arterial routes. I’ve wanted to do this walk for years as it seemed like something that was achievable in a day but also demanding. I also wanted to see how all these areas linked up without relying on motorised transport. The day I walked it was around 37 degrees – not my choice, but that’s the time I had available.

The whole circuit is pretty well signposted, except for the area around Docklands. Still, it’d be worth taking your phone to make sure that you’re not too far off the path. Drinking fountains can be found around every 2km and food sources abound.

The Eastern section – Richmond, Abbotsford, Clifton Hill

I started here, at Riversale Road, because it is the closest to my home. Most of this section follows the Yarra River and parts of Merri Creek and are accordingly prosperous, leafy and pleasant to walk along. This is by far the most attractive section of the Trail.

The Northern section – North Fitzroy, Parkville

By the time I got to the north it was seriously hot. I was sweating like a cornered nun and was happy for the drinking fountains every half an hour, since that was about how long it took to empty my, by now blood-warm, water bottle.

Much of the trail in this area follows the path of the former Inner Circle railway, so you’ll be sharing the path with lots of cyclists. Cafes and other food sources abound, including one where I spotted Eddie Perfect.

After passing through North Fitzroy, the Parkville section can be pretty uninviting. It’s still parkland, but a sparse and dusty one dominated by hot winds. Much of the track runs parallel to the Upfield train line so it’s tricky to get lost.

The Western section – Flemington, Docklands

To be honest, the western section of the walk is pretty grim. After the greenery of the east and north, you pass under a freeway at Flemington Bridge station and don’t emerge for another 5 km. Much of this route is underneath the Citylink freeway and beside the train line, with a stagnant stream on the other side. It feels a little like a post-apocalyptic wasteland, part of the downside of car-centred city design. That said there is an abundance of street art and interesting posters.

Passing out from under the freeway and crossing over Footscray road, you find yourself in the recently invented suburb of Docklands. It’s all very shiny and new, with loads of shops and apartments, but no-one seems to want to be there. I lost the trail at this point due to poor signage, but decided to just walk south until I hit the water. After stopping for lunch at a largely abandoned cafe I wended my way through the sterile offices of Australia’s banking industry, before crossing Spencer street and finding the Yarra River again.

The Southern section – CBD, Cremorne, South Yarra

The first part of the southern section passes through the southern edge of the CBD, with superb views and ample refreshment stops. At this point I had to stop at a chemist to buy some tape and tape up my abused feed. I must have looked hilarious to the passers-by – sitting on the concrete in a side street, sweating profusely, and using a pocket knife to cut up medical tape.

Once past the eastern side of St Kilda Road, you find yourself amongst the boatsheds of Melbourne’s posh secondary schools. Here the path diverges – you can choose to walk along either bank of the Yarra. I chose the northern bank, and was rewarded with a swampy grated walkway. It would have been unpleasant, except the views across to the South Yarra side were great, and I came across an outdoor rock climbing park under a freeway that I’d never realised was there. Around the bend at Yarra Boulevard and I was back at my starting point, 8 hours after having begun.

Lessons learned

  • Apply anti-chafing cream before setting out
  • Set a phone alarm to remind yourself to reapply sunscreen. Only idiots get sunburned.
  • Drink water. Lots of water. The best place to store it is in your body.
  • Provided adequate food and water, the human body can basically walk forever. Given our ancestral history of nomadism and migration, this makes a lot of sense.
  • Don’t leave home without a hat. I would never have made it without some sun protection
  • When fatigue and boredom are setting in, just keep putting one foot in front of another.
  • Pedestrianism triggers a strange magic – ordinary worries float away and repeated footfall becomes mesmerising. It’s almost easier to keep walking rather than stop.
  • The goal is not the goal. The goal is to enjoy the journey.
  • Walking allows you to see and enjoy the small things that are around you all the time.

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Lawns

Lawns are virtue signalling of the worst kind – where the owner can’t even remember what virtue is being signalled.

Lawns originated in ancien regime France as a way for aristocrats to demonstrate their wealth. In a time and place where subsistence farming was the majority occupation, what better way to show off than to use arable land to cultivate useless grass? And then to employ staff to maintain it!

The idea of the large lawn was transmitted from the formal European garden to the middle-class Anglosphere backyard. In this culture we worship the lawn, despite it being a great way to destroy soil quality and waste water. Neighbours compete with each other over their lawns by means of an arms race of herbicides and fertilisers.

When pressed we might defend our lawn on the grounds that it’s somewhere for the kids to play. But in our hearts we know full well that it’s a weak echo of the natural world that the kids actually want to spend time in. They want the bush, not a denatured paddock.

So here we are, virtue signalling using the language of ancient monarchs.

Give up. Let it grow wild. Plant vegetables and native plants. Abandon the monocrop fantasy.

Phillip Island

Phillip Island is nebulous and inchoate – both to itself and the hordes of visitors. A very driveable 90 minutes from Melbourne, 79 minutes of which seems to be spent getting out of Melbourne, it tries hard to be the complete holiday destination. Some days it succeeds.

You arrive at Phillip Island after a brief drive through the countryside of south Gippsland, passing such exotic attractions as the State Coal Mine and a deer abbatoir.

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Surf Beach, looking towards Cape Woolamai

The trip would be shorter except road access to the island is via a causeway on the the eastern end, rather than the more conveniently located western side. It is unclear whether this is a failure of planning or just a cunning plan to ensure that visitors are forced to drive through the mudflat called Tooradin.

The Island, as the locals call it, was previously largely agricultural but that has definitively shifted in the direction of tourism. The main drawcard for most tourists, especially the international ones, is the Little Penguin sanctuary. Every night hundreds of birds the size of a hand come ashore on a handful of specific beaches and proceed to march up the dunes in search of their burrows. They’ve spent the day fishing in the sea, and I do wonder whether floodlights and human cooing is in their best interests. Regardless, they’re cute and the tourists lap it up.

It was the Japanese in the 1980s who really made the penguin parade a major attraction. Having a national fixation with all things cute, these tiny waddling birds were like catnip to the wealthy Japanese salarymen of the day. As Japan’s influence has faded and China’s has risen there has been a smooth transition from yen to yuan.

Acceptance of overseas visitors is variable, but it seems to me that the Chinese are less welcome. Lacking the over-the-top politeness of the Japanese, their habits of dress, behaviour, and rudeness (by Australian standards) are tolerated rather than endorsed. I was walking down the main street one afternoon when I saw a minibus disgorge a clot of Chinese passengers, who proceeded to wander up and down the street three abreast before being herded into a truly unsanitary looking Chinese restaurant. When in Rome, I suppose.

For many of the native Australian visitors, the main attraction is the Moto GP, a weekend of motorbike racing on the course in the centre of the island. It attracts a crowd of petrol-heads, motorsport enthusiasts and other Ostrogoths, and the town sells out of beer in short order. As I understand it this is a major event, but the world of loud engines generally leaves me cold and I haven’t sought to expand my knowledge.

That said, I had my own encounter with the track itself a few years ago. A group of my work colleagues planned to do a Tough Mudder mud-run event a few years ago, which was located on the track. There were worse ways to spend a day, although it was neither as gruelling nor as rewarding as I’d been led to believe, ice-dunk notwithstanding. Although these races claim to be democratic in their appeal, our group learned early on that it helps having a heroically square-jawed, 6’2″ athlete on your team.

For many locals, and indeed for visitors like me, Phillip Island is mainly a beach holiday destination. This overlooks the fact that it’s cold and rainy for nine months of the year. But it has the distinct advantage of being driving distance from home and doesn’t require negotiating the horror of Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport.

As a coastal destination, The Island (as the locals call it) caters both to family beach holidays and also to surfers and other daredevils. The north coast is sheltered on three sides and has vast sandy beaches.

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Exhibit A

The south coast is rugged and faces directly onto the Southern Ocean. The aptly named Surf Beach is one of several venues for what is reportedly some of the better surfing to be had in this end of the country. The local Island brand of surfboards attests to this, and is advertised by every second car on the streets. Some truly hideous boxy houses have been built by the wealthy on the more popular beachfronts, all the better for Felicity and Fiona to host their girlfriends during the school holidays.

Winter is tough though. Some hardy souls continue surfing in full wesuits but swimming is right out. The full blast of the Southern Ocean scours the island clean of tourists, petrol-heads and penguin-fanciers alike. Only the hardiest come to visit, despite the sleet and grey brutality.

If I were a local, it would be my favourite time of year.