Saturday, 26 July 2014

Memories of a tall man.

This first appeared as a column in The Age two weeks after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. It seemed appropriate to post it again. Sympathies (again) to families and friends of the victims of MH 17.

Like many people I guess, I’ve been watching the footage coming out of America all week. Gripped by morbid fascination and wondering if the world is slowly sliding towards a long war. I probably shouldn’t have watched so much, because inevitably it stirred up memories of my own and the echoes and the disturbed sediments are still swirling around. Death and disaster always seem to trigger my own little honour roll of the dead. Like a long fishing line that drags up all sorts of crap from the bottom of the sea, they come up all of a bunch, all tangled together. And all disasters share a certain family resemblance. Whether it’s bombs, plane crashes, earthquakes or bushfires there always seem to be rubble and twisted steel. That’s the footage that always gets me.

My father was killed in the Granville train smash in 1977. It was during school holidays and when the first radio reports came through we had no idea how bad the crash was. We thought dad might have just hopped on the next train and gone to work as normal. Hours later when the first TV footage came through and we realised the seriousness of what had happened, we started saying the same things I’ve heard on the telly this week. Maybe he’s helping the rescuers. Maybe he’s unconscious in a hospital and doesn’t have any ID on him. Maybe he’s wandering around with amnesia. But at midnight we got the phone call that his body had been pulled from the wreckage. A close church friend was dispatched to identify the body because back in the 70s it was considered too distressing a task for the family. I never got to see his body. That is one of my only regrets. They now know the importance of being able to see and touch the body. To make it real. To help with the grieving process. As it was, I couldn’t take my eyes off the coffin during the funeral because it didn’t seem the right shape. It seemed too short and too wide. My father was a tall man.

Grief works in mysterious ways. In the weeks following the tragedy all the miraculous near-miss stories started emerging. People who’d missed that train by less than a minute. The people who decided to take a day off at the last moment. I found myself really resenting the “lucky bastard” stories. It just rubbed in the fact that my father was spectacularly unlucky. But it was also in those weeks that we discovered the depth of generosity of average folks. When the names of the victims were finally published in the paper, my family received literally hundreds of cards. Many of them with five dollar or two dollar bills attached. Just small anonymous offerings to help out our family. It’s kind of sad that it takes tragedies like that to realise how good most people can be.

The worst thing about having a family member die in such a public and newsworthy fashion, is that it can never be left in the past. The poor folk in America are going to have to get used to seeing the footage again, every year, on the anniversary of the event. The anniversary of Granville is the one day of the year when I try to avoid all news reports because I am sick to death of seeing the damn footage. It may be just history for everyone else, but it was where my father died and I wish they’d stop showing it. I wish they’d renamed the suburb as well but I guess that’s going too far.

The weirdest thing of all is that life goes on. The pieces get picked up, the crying stops (mostly) and laughter returns. In somewhat a guilty fashion at first, but it does come back. A couple of years ago I was working in Sydney and I decided to go and see the memorial at Granville. I’d never been before. My oldest and dearest friend drove me there. Neither of us had been to Granville before and we got a bit lost. We ended up parking on the wrong side of the bridge and had to walk across it to see the memorial. Which really threw me quite frankly. I got distracted. I almost stepped in front of a car. My friend threw out her arm and stopped me. Then looked at me and said: “That would be too ironic.” She was right. Imagine being killed by a car at the exact same spot where your father was killed by a train. I laughed so much I had to sit down.

The laughter comes back. And to all those people reading this, coping with their own personal echoes and sediment, my thoughts are with you.


Sunday, 25 May 2014

The real cost of austerity measures

  Well now we know. In a surprising reversal of usual political policy, the pre-Budget policies floated in the media and designed to scare the living crap out of people, were milder than what actually turned up in the Budget. As a result, fear has tipped over into anger and personally, I’ve never seen such a reaction to a Budget. When’s the last time you saw protestors burning copies of the Budget?  The only thing that isn’t a surprise is the savagery with which healthcare funding has been attacked. It’s just par for the course in these days of austerity measures after the Great Global Financial Crisis of 2008.

There is a certain brutal logic to cutting the health budget. With healthcare being one of the major items in the Budget, any trimming done in that department is more effective than trimming in other areas. A cynic might also say that it is easier to take a small amount of money from a lot of poor people than it is to take a large amount of money from a small group of rich people. But is taking a razor to the health budget really such a good idea? New data from Europe would suggest not.

When Greece got into trouble and was slashing government funding, healthcare took a major hit. When Spain moved into austerity mode, the very first policy they announced was the removal of all government subsidies on medication. A soft-hearted soul might think that that would lead to a lot more deaths. And they would be right.

A recent article in New Scientist magazine, (1st March, 2014, p6) contained some very scary statistics about the real effects of the healthcare slashing in Greece. Between 2007 and 2011, suicides increased by 45 per cent, cases of depression doubled and because all needle-exchange and free condom programs for injecting drug users were cut, by 2012 new HIV cases were 32 times the 2009 levels. A hard-core economic rationalist in an unguarded moment might say, ‘Well who cares about druggies? As for the depression and suicides, suck it up princess! It’s a time of crisis, everyone has to do their bit, we all have to dig deep and tighten our belts etc etc.’ But there is one statistic that should make everyone pause and have a bit of a think. In those same years, infant mortality rose by 43 per cent. I’m pretty sure that not even Scrooge would say ‘suck it up princess’ to a new born child.

It’s time to ask, what the hell are our priorities? Is keeping big banks and the IMF happy a good enough reason to virtually sacrifice babies on the altar of ‘austerity’ and ‘economic responsibility’? How ‘responsible’ is it to cause that much death and suffering to your own people? I know social disruption is not one of the economic values that banks factor in to their equations, they only see debt and balance sheets, but maybe it’s time that they did.

One of the few immutable laws of economics and finance is that debt grows faster than income. A small example would be, how much interest do you pay on your credit card and much do you receive on your savings account? Bit of a gap there I think. Taken up to the macro level this means that any government, regardless of their ideology, given enough time will start seeing their debt burden grow. If you add an unexpected financial crisis, that debt will grow even quicker. When debt starts to really balloon and government debt overtakes national GDP, barring a miracle, there is simply no way for that debt to be ever paid back.

Banks and governments know this. However much banks insist that governments must pay off all their debts, they know it will never happen. That’s when deals start to be made behind closed doors. That’s when debt gets re-structured, re-negotiated, rolled over or re-financed. Bail outs are offered, temporary loans are given and private creditors are asked to take a ‘shave’ on what they are owed. You may be interested to know that last time I heard, the private creditors of the Greek government were asked to take a ‘shave’ of 74 per cent of what they were owed. Which is more an amputation really, than a ‘shave’.

The point is: deals will be made. Debts will be partially forgiven. The country will survive and eventually struggle back to some form of economic health. My question is: if we all know what the end game will be, if we all know where this is heading, if austerity measures are ultimately pointless and destructive, why are we spending so much time on them? If we know Act Three is waiting in the wings, couldn’t we fast forward through the pain and boredom of Act Two and stop inflicting so much misery on our own population? How much of a sacrifice do poor people have to make to maintain the purity of an economic theory? How many babies need to die to keep bankers happy?

If that last sentence strikes you as extreme and inflammatory, as opposed to diabolically accurate, it’s a measure of how distant economic theory is from real life. Maybe it’s time for economics to be wrangled into serving real people, instead of forcing people to adapt to dubious economic theories that promise nothing but pain.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Time for a new word

I wish to lodge a new word into the political discourse concerning environmentalism and the necessity to ‘save’ the planet. The word I wish to introduce is ‘hair-shirting’ and describes policies that are allegedly aimed at saving the environment but are in fact completely pointless beyond make life a bit more difficult/uncomfortable/painful for the average person. The original hair shirt was usually made from goats’ hair (presumably not Angora) and was worn close to the skin and used by religious types to cause discomfort and pain as a sign of repentance and atonement or ‘mortification and penance’ if you want to go old school Catholic. The modern hair shirt phenomenon I’m talking about is just as annoying and pointless. I assume that the people introducing these policies believe they are  helping by ‘raising people’s consciousness’ about the issues involved but personally I think the small amount of suffering involved is actually about giving some people a self-righteous little glow of satisfaction that they are ‘doing something’ about the planet. If things are just that little bit more difficult to do and it feels like you’re giving up something in the process, you must be doing something good for the environment, right? Wrong. You’ve merely been given a hair shirt, nothing more.

Some hair-shirting is minor and merely annoying, like swapping over from incandescent light bulbs to long life fluorescent bulbs. Apart from the fact that who the hell wants more fluoro lighting in their lives, there’s the inconvenience of getting rid of the bloody things. You can’t just wrap them up and put them in the bin, there are too many toxic components in the bulbs to put into landfill so you have to save them and then find an authorised collection point to drop them off at. And if those toxic components aren’t fully recycled and used again, I would question whether they’re a net benefit in the long term.

Then there’s the low-flow shower heads that I loathe with a fiery passion. I hate all the versions. The small heads with tiny holes that turn out a stream of water that feels like you’re being hit by dozens of sharp little needles. The larger head that looks like it will put out decent coverage but it turns out there’s only a large outer ring of water falling and the centre is empty. Nasty, fraudulent little shower head; I hate you. I’m a big person and with some of these new showerheads it feels like I have to weave like a cobra in the shower to get proper coverage. This seems to be a policy based on a belief by the policy makers that we are too stupid to adjust the flow of our own showers, too moronic to manage having a short shower and therefore can’t be trusted with a traditional shower head. Thanks for the contempt guys.

Probably the stupidest and most insulting hair-shirting green policy was brought in by the Victorian State Government about five years ago. The state was still in drought and some mouth breathing moron decided that in attempt to save water, pool owners would have to top up their pools by using buckets instead of a hose. How this would save water I have no idea. Presumably they thought pool owners were again, so stupid that they’d forget they’d put the hose in and accidentally overflow the pool. Something I don’t think any pool owner has ever done. Personally I think it was a passive/aggressive plan designed to force pool owners into thinking about giving up the pool. It was a purely punitive measure as far as I can see. I filled the pool once by bucket, with the help of five friends and swore ‘never again’. Our nearest tap was 30 m away and up a flight of stairs but we couldn’t use that tap because it was so close to the hot water system we couldn’t fit a bucket under it. So we had to go up another flight of stairs and use the tap in the laundry. Stupid, stupid, moronically stupid is all I can say. I ended up doing the same thing I suspect many people did; I surreptitiously topped up the pool by tying the hose to the bottom step of the ladder into the pool. No noise, no fuss, no aching backs and not once did the pool overflow.

The final word on the stupidity of this policy I leave to a story my pool guy told me. One of his other customers was so outraged by this policy that he got a plumber to install a tap directly over the pool and then hung a bucket with a hole in the bottom on it. The story will have more impact when I tell you that the other customer just happened to be a judge. When a senior member of the legal profession is happy to break a law, someone should note that the law makers have truly stuffed up.

But now I want to look at one of the latest green fads that turns out to be a complete nonsense: the energy saving power boards that allegedly deal with the terrible dragon of Stand By Power. Oh yes, all those little glowing lights on your appliances that cause such a terrible drain on our power supplies had to be defeated. If you’re not prepared to downsize and do away with unnecessary equipment (some people have more than one telly, can you imagine? How greedy!) then at least use the power boards so they don’t drain energy all night. Plug that board in right now so you can walk through the house at night and not be stared at by the glowing red eyes of environmental vandals. I think that’s the general gist of the policy and claims were made by some people that you could save up to $200 a year on your power bills. Turns out, that was an outrageous exaggeration.

I disliked the things from the start, almost as soon as the nice lady from the council dropped them off at our place and showed us how to plug them in. I didn’t like the little box that now sat in front of my telly and flashed at me if I didn’t used the remote for a while. I can’t multi-task to save my life and get terrible tunnel vision when I watch telly, so I never noticed the flashing light in time and was forever cursing and scrambling for the remote when the telly suddenly turned itself off. At least ours flashed on the hour instead of the half hour like some of the early models. Another minor annoyance was having to reset the clock on my X-Box every day when I booted it up. But at least we were doing something good for the environment, right? Sadly, not so much.

Last year I was lucky enough to come across an article written in The Skeptic magazine by the mathematician Steve Roberts. It was called ‘Standby for action’ (Vol 33, No 1. March 2013, p 32.) and it pretty much demolishes the rationale for these power saving boards. It turns out that energy use in standby mode can be measured in simple Watts, not Kilowatts. Most electrical devices only use between 1 and 3 watts in standby mode and some things like iPhone chargers and electrical drill chargers don’t use any energy at all while in standby. Mr Roberts then went on to calculate how much energy is actually saved by these boards (after factoring in the information that the power boards themselves are perpetually on and use 1W each, per day) and came to a very interesting conclusion,

‘Thus the overall savings is really only about 4W; say for 20 hours a day. That is 28kW per year, or about $3.60 – less than 0.5 per cent of my electricity bill and way short of the claims for the device.’

 He then went on to calculate that taking into consideration the energy costs involved in making the power boards in the first place and the fuel used by the nice lady from the council to drive to my house and show me how to plug it in, it would take almost three years before the devices delivered any actual savings. I would only add, good luck with the power boards even lasting that long. The useless, piece of crap boards we were given started playing up within three months. The printer next to computer stopped working until we put it in a normal board and the one for the telly suffered from early onset Alzheimer’s and started flashing at random and turning itself off with no warning. So, like many people I know, I’ve ditched the bloody things and am enjoying guilt free days watching the cricket, uninterrupted by a stupid flashing light. Beware of the hair shirt and all the mindless policy generated by the zealots who love them, because if they can get away with hair-shirting it won’t be long before it’s followed by sackcloth, ashes and self-flagellation.




Monday, 14 October 2013

Changes to Equal Rights Legislation

Right, about these recent changes to the EqualRights legislation here in Victoria, I’m not happy and I have concerns. Let me say straight up that I don’t think there should be any exemptions to the law.  It defeats the whole purpose of the law and effectively implies that there exist second class humans unworthy of legal protection. Allowing religious organisations to discriminate against gays, lesbians (and the whole queer spectrum), as well as single mothers, people living in ‘sin’ and whatever else offends their mediaeval morality is a giant step backwards for human rights in general. As a lesbian myself, I find the privileging of religious bigotry in our legal code deeply offensive.

Some of you may be thinking, ‘Goodness, what’s all the fuss about? Surely no gay person would want to work for a church that doesn’t approve of them?’ The trouble is, we’re not just talking about churches and schools anymore. Ever since John Bloody Howard turned over some of the functions of the welfare system to private enterprise in the late 90s, religious organisations have got their fingers in more pies than ever before. Now we’re talking about hospitals, universities, nursing homes, respite care, disability services, charities, camping grounds and employment agencies, among others. That’s suddenly a whole lot of jobs in a whole lot of sectors where gays, lesbians, single mothers and de facto lovers are no longer welcome. Whatever pathetic, specific cases were made in the past, such as that having a gay teacher in school was potentially hazardous (presumably we were able to waft invisible gay germs at the students), they don’t add up as a justification for a blanket ban across so many different sectors. If these groups receive government funding they should obey federal laws but instead they’re allowed to thumb their nose at us and go back to discriminating against whomever they wish. It sucks.

The truly disgusting irony in all of this is that the people now being allowed to indulge their bigotry are precisely the same people who historically tortured, hanged, burnt at the stake, imprisoned and locked us up in asylums. The Christian church has been a powerful bully, used to getting its own way for more than fourteen centuries. During that time it fought every democratic, educational and tolerant initiative. It only lost its coercive power over ‘heretics’ and unbelievers in the last couple of centuries and like so many other bullies that have been stripped of power, they have the immense gall to turn around and squeal that now they are being discriminated against! ‘Oooo-er, stop oppressing me! Stop restricting my right to exercise my deeply held religious beliefs! Respect my God-given bigotry!’

Homophobia is not the only prejudice deeply embedded in the Bible. You can make a similar case, with loads of scriptural justification, for slavery and racism. With this new government respect for religious views are you going to allow churches to be racist again? I thought not. That would be a step too far in the twenty-first century. So it’s just the queers and the fornicators on the bottom of the heap…again. Gee, thanks. Speaking of the queers, it might be time to reflect that historically we are the last minority to be picked up by the tolerance bandwagon and the first to be pushed off when times change. The only people who fight for our rights, are us. I’ll be turning 50 soon and I’ve seen the pendulum on tolerance for queers swing three times in my life, from increasing tolerance in the late 70s to the homophobic backlash when AIDS was discovered in the 80s to the increasing tolerance again in the 90s. With a new conservative government in power in Canberra, I wouldn’t bet against that pendulum swinging again. Maybe it’s time to forget the trivial side issue of gay marriage and concentrate on the ongoing fight for full, equal, human rights. Sixteen centuries and still waiting.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Oops, I think I want to hit you.

I was raised a fundamentalist Christian and I have religious scar tissue. And a fair whack of residual anger as well. I keep it under control most of the time, but occasionally, especially if I’m pre-menstrual I can get quite snarly and rude, as some unfortunate Jehovah Witnesses discovered last week. They had no way of knowing that on that particular day I was snarly enough to head butt puppies and stomp on cute little bunnies without a second thought. So when they came knocking at my door, I tried to be polite but couldn’t stop myself from blurting out something along these lines, ‘Don’t waste your time my friends, I’m really not interested. I was raised a Mormon and nowadays I don’t want anything to do with that violent nut-bag Yahweh or any of his minions.’ They were a little taken aback. I don’t think they’d ever heard their god described as a nut-bag before.

Sadly, this is not the weirdest thing I’ve said to religious types who’ve come knocking at my door. Many years ago I was living in Brunswick. It was the anniversary of the Granville train crash and I was thinking about my father, who died in that crash. I’d always blamed his death on the fact that that day, of all bloody days, he’d decided to give up smoking. Instead of sitting in the smoking carriage at the back of the train, he’d sat in a non-smoking carriage in the middle of the train: the carriage that took the full impact of the bridge collapse. If he’d been sitting in the smoking carriage as he usually did, there was a good chance that he would have survived. The reason he had given up smoking was because he had become a Mormon shortly before his death, but for some reason I hadn’t really linked those two things before. I’d blamed the non-smoking for being in the wrong carriage but not the Mormons for making him give up smoking. That day however, I suddenly made the connection and felt a surge of anger towards the Church. In an example of gob-smacking synchronicity, just as I had this realisation there was a knock at the door and there were two Mormon missionaries. I spluttered incoherently for a while and then managed to spit out, ‘YOU GUYS KILLED MY FATHER!’, before slamming the door in their face. I’m not proud of it, but hey these things happen. If either of those guys ever read this, I’m sorry. You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There have been many other times and occasions when I’ve got very angry about religion and its effects, but in all that time I’ve never once been tempted to smack someone in the gob. For that level of outrage, it took a New Age person. I loathe the New Age movement. I see it as a pointless, smug, middle-class, secretly self-loathing, self obsessed, navel-gazing adventure that usually ends with people disappearing up their own fundament and thinking they’ve found God, instead of their own crap. I particularly hate the idea that there are no bad things in the world, just ‘valuable lessons’. The most vivid example of this pathetic sort of thinking happened to me after a gig. I’d been talking about being a survivor of childhood sexual assault. I hasten to point out that it was my step-father who abused me, not my real father. After the gig a New Age wanker came up to me said, ‘Wow, your step-father must have really loved you to give you that beautiful lesson. He’s probably your soul mate, because only someone who really, really loved you would choose to incarnate as your abuser so you could benefit from such a difficult, wonderful lesson.’ I am rarely speechless, but that day I was without speech. I was too busy trying to figure out whether to punch her in the nose so hard that it would end up in her brain or whether I should try and rip her ears off. She didn’t seem to have a single clue as to how insulting and horrible her misguided thoughts were. It is the closest I have ever come to doing physical damage to another person.

Since then I’ve thought a lot about this ridiculous magical thinking of the New Age. For starters where is the head office or the clearing room where all this careful allocation of necessary lessons is being organised? Who is behind it all? ‘Cause if there is some organising committee, they’ve failed dismally. If all this crap is being carefully meted out for the personal growth and development of every single person on the planet, then no one would ever commit suicide. Someone must have got the dose wrong. Taken to its logical extent, this sort of thinking is a recipe for apathy and non-action in the real world. Because if every single person in the world has ‘chosen’ all these things, if there really is a good reason for all the horrible things that happen in this world, well then, we don’t need to change a single thing. The world is perfect exactly as it is and we don’t need to worry about stuff like poverty, hunger and disease any more. It’s all meant to happen. And if you believe that, then a) better check and see if your brain has accidentally fallen out of your skull and b) I’ve got a bridge AND an Opera House I’d like to sell you.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

You Wouldn't Bloody Read About It

Over time you get used to the cultural imperialism and arrogance of America. You get so used to history being re-written in World War II films that you no longer react when you see only American soldiers depicted in D-Day films. You merely sigh when a different film shows the American military capturing an Enigma machine instead of the British. After a while you even stop noticing that although our TV screens are awash with American product not one of our shows, not one, will ever appear on the mainstream channels in America. If they like one of our shows, they’ll remake it with an American cast, but you’ll never see the original. These are all old insults and like I said, we’ve all got used to it.

However annoying these things are, they’re all in the realm of fiction where artistic licence (and cultural arrogance) are pretty much expected. But when it comes to the reporting of history, you expect better. If you consult a book that purports to be an encyclopaedia and find breath-takingly inaccurate information, you’re allowed to get a little grumpy.

So here’s the thing. I’m working on a new introduction for the book I’m writing. I wanted to have a line about how the sky is no longer the limit and hasn’t been since the 1950s when Sputnik was launched. I thought I’d better check that Sputnik was actually launched in the 1950s and not the 60s. I could have Googled it, but the computer wasn’t on, the Microsoft start up takes so bloody long and besides, I can’t fricking stand that Google always seems to send me to bloody stupid, bloody annoying, bloody poxy Wikipedia first.  I find it simpler and easier to consult the reference section on my book shelf. Call me an insane old Ludditte but I trust books more than the Internet.

Sadly, the book I picked up let me down badly. So badly I even briefly considered throwing it in the bin. It’s a little one volume encyclopaedia put out by Columbia University Press and ok, it was published in 1983 but it’s still useful in terms of history and Sputnik should have been in it. The cover assured me that it was not just ‘..comprehensive and authoritative,’ but ‘was prepared under the guidance of  a distinguished panel of scholars.’ A distinguished panel of incredibly biased American scholars would have been more truthful. I’d known for some time that this particular encyclopaedia was really good for facts about America, but not so much for other countries and their histories. I’d encountered omissions before, but not outright fraud.

So I tried to look up Sputnik. No listing. Rude but not unusual I thought. It’s probably in the section a few pages back, under the heading of Space Exploration, I thought. But no, by a clever sleight of hand and the drawing up of biased categories, there was not a single mention of Sputnik in the entire section. The two categories listed were Manned Space Flight Programs and Space Probe Programs and because Sputnik was not technically a probe, they managed to ignore it completely, the rude bloody bastards! The first human made device to ever leave the Earth’s atmosphere, the first ever artificial satellite to orbit our globe and 26 years later the Americans who wrote this book couldn’t even bring themselves to mention it. I mean, I knew the Americans were touchy about losing the early stages of the Space Race, but to hold a grudge for almost 30 years, that’s just nuts. (In case you’re interested I did manage to find the launch date of the first Sputnik -1957- in another of my books, a dictionary. An English dictionary.  From England.)

The rudeness didn’t end there. By another sleight of hand in the listing of the various space programs, they managed to disguise the true Russian contribution to the exploration of space. By listing the programs alphabetically instead of chronologically they managed to give the top six entries to America instead of Russia. It starts with all the Apollo launches and you don’t get to anything Russian till half way through. It’s only when you carefully check the column headed Year of Launch that you realise that you’ve been conned. Especially when you notice that Yuri Gargarin and his first manned flight comes last on the list. Damn the Russians for using words like Vostok and Zond for their missions! If only they’d named them all Aardvark or Aasvogel (a South African vulture) they could have beaten the Americans linguistically as well as in the real world!

Wait. Strike that. The American authors would have figured out some other scheme instead to keep them at the top. Those thin-skinned, delusional, arrogant, petty-minded, bloody purveyors of American propaganda. I could go on, I know lots of other rude words, but I might end it here. Can’t be too rude about America these days. Not since Obama signed an Executive Order that allows the American military to grab anyone they want, from any country in the world and then take them back to America to stand trial for the crime of terrorism. Or being Un-American. They’re the same thing aren’t they? Either way, better zip my lip.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Weirdness of Time

Ever since I was a kid I have been fascinated by the bendiness of time. It amazed me that two hours spent watching a film could flash by in seemingly no time at all but that two hours of church on Sunday could drag on and on and on…and on. Once I thought I could even see new grey hairs appearing on the head of the person sitting in front of me. Church time dragged that badly. Time going slowly wasn’t always a bad thing. In primary school it meant that the six weeks of summer school holidays seemed to last forever and when school started again my friends would have visibly grown or changed over that time. Seems odd to think about it now when six weeks can fly by and nothing seems to change at all. Actually it’s not just weeks that fly by as I get older, whole bloody years seem to evaporate before my eyes. Didn’t we just have Christmas like ten minutes ago?
My first real taste of how bendy and flexible time could be was in a psychology class at college called ‘Altered States of Consciousness’ and Len Kane, if you’re out there, you were one of the best damned teachers I ever had. The class took place in the evening and the first thing Len did was teach us a few basic relaxation and meditation techniques. So each class would start with everyone lying down for ten minutes practising those techniques. It was a fine way to start a class, even if some of us nodded off and started snoring. After we’d been doing this for a few weeks one night Len said, ‘Ok I’m going to play some music now. When it stops I want you to come back to full consciousness.’ Once we’d all sat up, Len asked us how long we thought the music had played. The guesses ranged between 6 minutes and 12 minutes. Len just smiled and said that it was only 90 seconds long. Which surprised us all, but proved that time can flow differently depending on what physical state you are in.
The next experience I had with bendy time was when I became a comedian. It didn’t happen often but occasionally I’d forget what I was going to say next or someone would heckle me and for a moment on stage I’d freeze. As my mind raced frantically to figure out what to say next, time would sort of telescope and start running at different speeds. In the outside world, probably less than 5 seconds would go by before I spoke again, but on the inside that 5 seconds would feel like minutes. I could have whole conversations in my head and re-run routines to figure out which bit I’d missed, all in the space of 5 seconds. It’s a very odd feeling.
So I have a bit of experience with the nature of time and how it can telescope in and out and run at different speeds, but I was still astonished by something that happened a few years ago. Thanks to the joys of telephone banking, I can now tell you precisely how many coherent thoughts I can have in the space of a second. For those of you who haven’t used telephone banking, when you ring up to get an account balance, an automated voice tells you much money you have in the account. The pre-recorded voice runs at normal speed until it comes to the actual dollar amount. That bit can’t be pre-recorded so it takes a bit longer to say the dollar amount as the computer pulls from its files the right sequence of words to match the numbers. As a result it sounds a bit like this: ‘You have…two…hundred…and…thirty…two…dollars in your account.’ The time gap between the numbers is less than a second. It’s noticeably slower than the rest of the message but not too annoying.
So here’s the background to my little adventure. I had about a hundred dollars in my account. I was waiting for two payments to come in. If just one had been deposited in my account it would have gone up to over five hundred dollars. If both the amounts had gone in, it would have been over a thousand dollars in my account. So when I rang to get my account balance I was really hoping to hear an amount in excess of one hundred dollars. When the computer voice started saying my account balance, the first number I heard was, ‘You have…one…’, and everything you are about to read happened before the next number was said. First came the absolutely-speed-of-light assumption that my account still had only one hundred odd dollars in it. Then came a whole bunch of quick thoughts; ‘What?! At least one of those cheques should have come in! That gig was four bloody weeks ago. We’re going to have to make another follow-up phone call. Damn it!’ And then the voice said the second number, ‘…thousand…’. Both the cheques had gone in. Happy days.
But when I got off the phone and thought about what had happened, I was quite stunned that by a computer quirk I know knew that I could have five coherent thoughts in less than a second. I find that mind boggling. All the thoughts differed in length but seemed to take exactly the same amount of time to unwrap in my brain. And there is simply no way that I could have physically said out loud those five thoughts within the space of a second. I reckon it would take at least 8 seconds to say them. I’d always known that thought was faster than speech, but I was staggered that according to my rough calculations, thought is eight times faster than speech. It explains how writers can pop outside for a cigarette and come back five minutes later with a whole book sketched out in their mind. Because five thoughts a second means that you can have 1500 thoughts in the space of five minutes. It sounds incredible, but I suspect that it’s true. Unless my brain is a complete freak of nature and thinks faster than anyone else on the planet, which even with my genetic Dutch arrogance I find very difficult to believe. I’m just not that special.
The other implication from this accidental experiment I find a little disturbing. Because by the end of my five thoughts in one second I had built up quite a bit of anger about what I thought were late payments. It only lasted till I heard the second digit, but it was definitely anger. The fact that I could generate genuine anger within the space of a second, I find very scary. It means that I can get angry before I can even say the words to explain why I’m angry. It makes me wonder how many times we get angry before we even know ourselves why we’re angry. It might even be possible that by the time we verbalise it we’re already rationalising and justifying something we didn’t consciously start. It’s enough to make you want to have a Bex and a good lie down. Or have a long chat with a neuroscientist. Or maybe just have a few too many beers and a quiet think. Hmmm, think I’ll go the beer option.