The year of YES

let optimism rein

I am determined to start 2012 off in a positive frame of mind. I recently met a charming Australian woman who had lived in Portland, Oregon for several years. She reminded me of that most endearing of American traits - of American people, that is, not American popular culture - an unbridled and vibrant capacity for positivity and enthusiasm, and a corresponding lack of the cynicism and pessimism that is so prevalent in Australian culture.

It would be easy to be cynical about this - which is I suppose the point - but instead, I have decided to be inspired and wide-eyed. This doesn't come easy to a Melbourne pseudo-intellectual, but I am giving it a go. So rather than looking at the glass half full, as I seemed to be doing for much of 2011 (everything was problematic), I am beginning the new year by counting the positives and moving on from there. Things are good. Uncertainty is a fact, but I am learning to live with it.

On this basis, I hereby declare that 2012 is my year of 'YES'.


Memory is a strange thing. Just the other evening I had a sudden flash of remembrance, not of something profound, but of something more mundane. I remembered a cobwebbed string of brass bells, Indian in provenance, that I had tied up outside the window of my bedroom in Canberra, many years earlier.

My father had kindly built a deck outside my window at my request, and I liked to sit on the deck and look at the distant hills surrounding Southern Canberra. Those hills were a comforting presence, and they represented an 'other' place, a counterpoint to the suburban sprawl in the valley in which I lived. I had walked up those far-off hills one day, many years before that, crossing the border into New South Wales and winding up through a pine forest to break into the paddocks on the hilltops. The views of the Brindabella Mountains from up there were expansive, and served to elevate the otherwise drab suburban expanse of the Tuggeranong Valley in the foreground.

These elements formed the landscape of my life at a difficult time, and I am forever grateful for the calming presence of those distant hills, and indeed those closer to my home, where I used to walk for hours on end. I would walk for up to three hours at a time, climbing to the highest point above the suburb of Monash, and sit underneath the trig station on the crown of the hill. This was important personal time, and intensely creative - I would work through ideas, and imagine different realities, as if testing out fictional settings. The experience was formative.

If I am lacking something in my life on Melbourne's city grid, it is perhaps the presence and view of distant hills, or an appropriate substitute. There is something dream-like about engaging with such a view, and the reverie it inspires is rich sustenance to the creative mind. I still associate those bells with this strange, floating, inward-looking feeling.

Some reassuring facts about

Well, I knew attending a church service was radical - an act of subversion, even - and this was reinforced by the reaction I have received from friends and readers in general. Let me lay down a few home truths.

1 - This isn't about to become a blog about spirituality or religion. Thinking, design and the city - those are the three themes.

2 - I don't have any belief in a supernatural god, although I think the role of religion after the philosophical 'death of god' is worthy of further investigation. Don Cupitt's post-religious theological/philsophical ideas - the idea of a 'religion of life', which is affirmative and resolutely complete in the absence of god - is of interest.

3 - I am far more likely to become a practicing magician than a religious observer in the traditional sense.

4 - Jung's archetypal psychology is more interesting than the bankrupt structures of organised religion, and potentially more relevant to the concept of design, particularly in architecture. Investigation into this might surface on this blog in the future.

So relax, everyone - no conversion on the road to Damascus.

Today I did something radical

I did something radical this morning. I went to Church. Now, I don't want to alarm the people who know me well, I haven't undergone a sudden conversion to this or that creed or dogma. I have certainly not been 'born again', at least not in the last 25 years. This isn't Dylan goes electric.

What I have done, though, is realised that the spiritual dimension of my life needs some attention, and I am interested in particular in what one might call the spiritual dimension of creativity. This is a quiet feeling, and one that I can scarcely account for. In this regard I have recently been reading a lot on topics as wide as kabbala, witchcraft, paganism, ritual and high magic, meditation, Epicureanism, depth and archetypal psychology, and indeed the life and thoughts of Carl Gustav Jung, the master of the archetypes himself.

The strange crossover between psychology and spirituality led me in a roundabout way to the figure of Dr. Francis McNab, Melbourne's very own radical cleric - albeit of the apparently mild-mannered, Uniting Church variety. Interested in hearing first hand what Dr. McNab had to say, I wandered up Collins Street to St Michaels. The experience was quite engaging. Not a bit like paganism or witchcraft, it must be said, although some of his critics might suggest that it is a slippery slope. I was made very welcome, I got to sit in a beautiful space and listen to some glorious Bach and cheeky Mozart, and I found the sermon intriguing.

There was also something deeply reassuring and engaging about using my city in a new way - entering and using a sacred space for its intended purpose, even if only for a while. Well, it's new for me. From this little outing - unexpected as it was, even to me - I have much to think about. More in due course, my faithful pagan readers.

Infirmity in the city

A cold, lowering sky

It seems that I am not to get out of winter without a minor bout of sickness, and at the time of writing I can hear nothing at all in my right ear, and I am nursing an insipid, dry cough. My infirmity is minor in the extreme, and indeed in some ways it is nice to be reminded not to take good health for granted. The city seems to be echoing my inner state, with the afternoon closing down beneath an indecisive, rainy and cloud-streaked sky. It would be an ideal afternoon to be in bed, but alas I plod on through my daily chores. I am looking forward to the close of business, so I can retreat to my private rooms and snuggle up beneath a rug with my dog. Even when I am sick, I love winter.

Stardom and its alternatives

It is unlikely that many of us will be famous, or even remembered. But not less important than the brilliant few that lead a nation or a literature to fresh achievements, are the unknown many whose patient efforts keep the world from running backward; who guard and maintain the ancient values, even if they do not conquer new; whose inconspicuous triumph it is to pass on what they inherited from their fathers, unimpaired and undiminished, to their sons. Enough, for almost all of us, if we can hand on the torch, and not let it down; content to win the affection, if it may be, of a few who know us and to be forgotten when they in their turn have vanished. The destiny of mankind is not governed wholly by its “stars."

- F. L. Lucas

Stepping around the gender exclusivity, I found in the quote above much to consider, and reassurance to be found. It seems to me that a necessary condition of the 'inconspicuous triumph' is to aspire to stardom, but it is somehow heartening to be reminded of the enormous value of cultural work, independent of fame and fortune. It would seem important to know and to value those 'few who know us', and to avoid taking them for granted. Of course, the corollary to this is to make a mark on the world - to leave a record of progress, of the process of maintaining the 'ancient values'.

This is a kind of immortality, or at least endurance beyond our short allotted span. I am drawn to this sort of thing, and I have in my possession two documents, one written in 1451 and one written in 1494. (My documents are archivally framed, and difficult to photograph; the image above is of an English document a century older, but the handwriting is similar.) I am yet to have my documents translated, but I know one to be a letter of recommendation for a young man, and the other is a passport, the documentation required to cross the feudal borders of 15th Century Italy. I love these documents, I love that they have survived intact and legible on their tough parchment, and I find them inspiring. Certainly, the handwriting - small and tight, yet flowing and lyrical - brings the presence of the scribe close to the surface of the document.

I aspire to this kind of endurance, this modest form of immortality: it seems far less fleeting, and more achievable, than 'stardom', to use Lucas' terminology. This also lies at the root of my fondness for good paper, bottles of ink and fountain pens. I will continue to write, transcribing my thoughts and aspects of my mundane, workaday world, and we shall in time see what comes of it.

The totemic power of childhood landscapes

I have been contemplating today my experience as a playing child, growing up in Brisbane in south east Queensland, Australia. Brisbane in the 1970’s was a great place to be a child, and this had a lot to do with the abundance of swimming pools and the warm tropical swimming weather that persists for about 9 months of the year. More specifically, though, I had access to two landscapes that were instrumental in my development as a creative individual, and in shaping my relationship to the city and the environment in general in adult life. These were known to me respectively as ‘the creek’ and ‘the city’.

‘The creek’ was the Bulimba Creek, which winds through Southern Brisbane’s outskirts in rough bushland, or at least it did when I was a child. It has been largely contained by now, and lost its sense of endless extension into bush. In the photo above you can see that it is now more clearly bounded by developed areas - the creek is the trapezoidal green space in the middle of the photograph. My old house is indicated by the pink marker.

The creek was a landscape of wonder and endless discovery, and held such exciting features as the Mysterious Cube (a vast, rusting steel boiler canted on an angle in the actual bed of the creek); a number of rusting car bodies in different locations; the Big Tree that had fallen across the creek, providing an excellent and useful bridge; and slightly further afield, The Cliff, an escarpment around a gully. Even further afield - as far as Wecker Road, if you could bother to walk that far in the heat - you could find the Ruined Farmhouse, visiting which seemed illicit in some ill-defined way.

These landmarks loomed large, and their presence in the landscape of the creek was totemic, or mythological. It is not that I thought they were magical - it is just that they were definitive features, wholly specific, and more than a little dangerous in each their different ways. They were there, and they were a bit wild, and that was enough.

I would return home from School and go ‘down the creek’, and thus spent hours wandering the hidden tracks and paths, finding bolt-holes and uncovering those aspects of the place that were far from obvious to the casual (adult) observer. There was a tightly defined circuit, a network of paths that could be traversed, and many branches that could be negotiated to arrive at various destinations, each of which had a particular character different to the others. The bushland had fingers radiating into the surrounding suburb, and by navigating the creek paths you could get yourself to nearly anywhere you might want to be, passing into bushland here and out again there as if negotiating secret passages in an old house. In fact, it felt a lot like doing just that: a parallel world that had branches and outlets everywhere in the ‘real’ world, a way of bypassing the everyday and moving in secret.

If this was the home ground, its opposite number, no less exciting, was Brisbane City itself. At the relatively young age of 11 or 12 I was allowed to hop on a bus and go ‘downtown’, and having done so for years with my grandmother and mother, I could then visit the various different landmarks and territories of the city on my own, exploring at will. Brisbane has some grand architecture, and I was particularly drawn to the older sandstone buildings that were extroverted and urbane, buildings such as the Macarthur Building on Queen Street and the Brisbane City Hall on King George Square.

I would enter City Hall through the big doors, between the bronze lions, and walk the circuit right around the hall looking at the Alderman’s names stenciled on the glass in gilt letters, from the Mayor’s office to the various other chambers and spaces. I remember liking the fact that you could walk all the way around in a circuit and lose track of where you were, with doors to the offices on the outer side and doors to the great assembly hall on the inner side. Little did I know that years later I would be a close friend of the architect’s great grandson, David Bullpitt, himself an architect of no small ability.

The City provided the opposite of the creek in most respects, but in one respect they were identical: they both possessed a sense of danger, and a sense of the illicit, or forbidden. Need I say that this was their chief appeal? To a bookish, church-going little boy, both landscapes, and my pronounced freedom within them, offered endless possibilities.

I am now 39 years old, but the totemic influence of these two landscape archetypes is still strong for me. I am fascinated by their psychological importance to me even now. I now live in the inner city of Melbourne, right on the downtown grid, and it still gives me an ill-defined thrill, even if the ‘city’ of Melbourne is less ‘urban’, in its physical setting and atmosphere, than downtown Brisbane seemed to me as a child, with its dramatic plunge down into the River.

I sincerely believe that I could only truly feel at home living in one of the two archetypes from my childhood: a bushland setting, or the absolute inner city. Or, as a friend put it once, ‘either completely out or completely in’. Certainly I have gravitated to those extremes as an adult; for now I am living the latter condition, but perhaps at some point in my life I will revisit the former. It seems to me that a life spent moving between the two is nothing to regret.

Dumb, simple, wonderful

The view from my sofa

Thursday night after ten pm I spent more than an hour watching clouds scud by the tops of the highrise towers outside my apartment. I was so intrigued by the appearance of the cloud banks, the tops of the buildings and the occasional visible star (there were two, but I think one was a planet) that I dug out my Sony DSLR and experimented with some long exposure shots.

As a photography session it was of limited success. I don't really know what I am doing with that camera, but I managed to get some mildly interesting and evocative snaps, more of interest as documentation than art. One is shown above. In one respect, however, the evening was a complete success: it was really relaxing doing something so harmless and random. I had a similar sensation at Christmas, when I spent about half an hour blowing soap bubbles with my niece Orli and my dog Lucy. Both Orli and Lucy liked to chase the bubbles, and I liked to see how many I could blow with one breath. There is something so engaging about doing...harmless, stupid nothing! I recommend it.

Of course, my evening came good last night almost as soon as I had turned off the television. It is so liberating to suddenly silence that dreadful device, and a calm settles on the apartment almost instantaneously. The room 'depolarises' - it is no longer a tunnel pointed at the screen - and I can hear myself think. In this state I turned my mind to alternative forms of entertainment - I'm not a monk, after all - and I settled on the digital comic. The iPad was made for comics, but they take quite a while to download. While I was waiting I got in the habit of staring up at the clouds, which I could just see from my reclined position on the sofa. Waiting for comics slowly became more interesting than reading comics, and the aforementioned photo session ensued.

This particular patch of sky is, relatively speaking, tiny - but no less captivating for that. Certainly I can see more sky out of my western windows. However, given the choice of being down near the street or up near the clouds, I think I would still stick with down near the street, looking up at the clouds. What's that Wilde quote - we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars? That's how I like it. In my apartment, my floor level is about ten feet above the heads of pedestrians walking on the pavement below, so I am not too low, but I still feel connected to what is going on. Certainly I hear and see everything that happens outside, but safe in my perch, passersby can't really hear or see me going about my business. To be just above street life, and yet able to see the sky - that's the perfect balance.

In the last few years, I have probably only had half a dozen nights spent in without the television to provide its chattering company. I would like to see the television become the exception, rather than the rule, of a night spent alone in the company of my various companion animals. I don't see any real obstacles to this: I enjoy a measure of evening and weekend solitude, which balances out my busy, people-filled week days. Quite apart from the refreshing contrast, I am also interested in this condition of solitude that Rainer Maria Rilke discusses in his 'Letters to a Young Poet'. Rilke speaks of a need to 'scale the depths of solitude' in order to find the inner impulse to be creative. I like this, not the least for which it forms such a pleasant contrast to the relentlessly 'social' agenda of new media and technology. The idea of creative production being deeply personal and driven by a quiet solitude is a contradictory note in these collaborative, connected times, and this alone recommends it for further attention.

Alternatively, I might invest in some detergent, bend a wire coat-hanger and spend my evenings blowing bubbles at my dog. It's all good.

Finish with a diagram

I think that this concisely summarises my current state of being. Today I make the transition from work-state to holiday-state, and for me Christmas is a time of cloudy speculation and dreamy, idle thought. I always make time to see some art - typically at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, where I am staying for the break - and this always prompts new thoughts and a different outlook. The Gallery has also just opened its new extension, and I look forward to seeing the Aboriginal Art in the new wing. It is meant to be quite spectacular and I have been looking forward to it. Who knows what I might be prompted to post in light of such rare stimulation.

Merry Christmas to all readers, and a Happy New Year!

Saint Jerome: designing a personal scriptorium

This is one of my favourite paintings, and it is one of a series of images that are the direct inspiration for a new project, which is the design and construction of a personal study carrol or 'writing closet'. All good design meets some need, and I have two convergent needs that can be addressed with the project. The first is the simple desire to design and build something I can occupy. The second is the need to create a psychological 'bubble' - a delicately balanced room or space that I can go into in order to think and write: a personal scriptorium, or perhaps "physical headspace".

Have a look at these paintings of St Jerome in his study: they each contain at least one idea that I will use to create my 'headspace'. In the frescoe below I see a pleasant homely clutter of writing and study implements including scissors, books and sheafs of paper. I am particularly interested in the overhead shelf.

The painting below shows the Saint in a more contained, closet-like carrol. It is not hard to imagine this 'study' as a box-like room of sorts, or at least an alcove. This painting is a delight, with the Saint's attendant lion stretching its paw up towards his hand. Again with the pleasing clutter of the man of letters.

This painting introduces a spatial relationship of particular interest: the study or carrol as a timber element you climb onto, in the corner of a larger room, positioned beneath a window. Again with the clutter.

The final painting elaborates the theme: platform of timber, corner of the room, positioned with a window integrated into the joinery. The Dutch style of side lighting is also important.

So that's the inspiration. Watch this space to see where I go with it. It is shaping up to be my most eccentric project to date: good times.

On pocket watches and the salvage of time

As part of my intermittent and yet ongoing programme of peronal obtuseness, I have begun to wear a pocket watch, and leave all of my twelve wristwatches at home. There are many fine pocket watches available to the contemporary consumer, including an androgynous and unisex Skagen watch with a leather 'chain', but I wanted none of this. The point of wearing a pocket watch in 2010 is not to politely transmute such an anachronistic object from its past incarnations into the present. No.

The point of wearing a pocket watch is to be capable of taking time in hand, literally, and then putting it away in your pocket. The first of four watches I have purchased as part of this programme is a Swiss watch with a quartz movement. After I had purchased it I realised that this was a mistake. For the experience to really resonate with my position on this topic the watches need to be mechanical mechanisms, and requiring hand winding.

As a result I have purchased three additional watches, which I intend to wear in rotation as the fancy takes me. The first is a French Charles Hubert watch not dissimilar to the one illustrated on this page. The second is a rather more expensive German watch, made by Kienzle, finished as a skeleton case. The third is something of a gem, it is an Elgin watch from 1915, which carries an engraving explaining that it was awarded as the first prize in the Los Angeles Amateur Boxing Championship of that same year. The engraving is very fine, possessing the quality of copperplate handwriting.

So with this small arsenal of timekeeping devices I intend to take charge of my time, safe in the knowledge that if I choose to stop winding the watches, then time will dilate and run down until it finally creeps to a halt. There is something inordinately comforting about this: I am implicated in the entrapment of modern timekeeping, and yet I can make the decision to let it all grind to a halt. Working as I do in deadline-focused environment, and facing the relentless pressure to constantly gain efficiency, there is a grain of comfort in this.

What do you think: futile gesture in the face of crushing obligation? Yes, it probably is.

Instance of the flea

An etching of a plague-transmitting flea Something small to cause something big

If we are to believe the code of the Samurai as filtered through the narration of the movie Ghost Dog (I wasn't interested enough to check primary texts) then thinking about death is not a bad thing to do. Now let me get one thing straight, right up front: I am not 'half in love with easeful death' as Keats put it, and I am pleased to report that I have never contemplated suicide. There but for the grace of the gods go I. This post is not about such vexed matters, and I would refer anyone troubled by thoughts of self-harm to Beyond Blue, a good site for help and information.

No, this post is not about hastening the approach of death, something I am keen to avoid. This post is about life, and the enrichment of same that can be yielded by a quiet, sober awareness of death's inevitability. This is certainly not an original thought, but an important one to touch on early in this blog nevertheless. At any rate, too much time is spent avoiding thinking about obvious or unoriginal things: I have expounded my thoughts on this issue here. Death certainly fits this category.

So what's with the flea? Of course, there is the obvious - this tiny agent of chaos was instrumental in the decimation of the population of Europe in the mid 14th Century. How many prodigies of art, music and science were culled from our history? Several centuries later the poet and polymath John Donne (1572-1631) understood the metaphysical potential of this diminutive creature, although in his case the metaphor was one of sex, evoked by the image of the mixing of blood in the flea's mouth, rather than death.

There is something about these two aspects of the flea that seem intrinsic to its nature. It is a mere fleck or mote, and yet with a long enough lever it may shift the foundations of the entire world. Death is never far away, and as vain and superfluous as it is to say so, I think that's ok. It's not like any of us have a choice about it! The presence of death in my personal network over the last two years has made the following very clear: some things matter, and many things really don't. Friends and family fit the former category, while career and most other things do not.

I've been thinking...

Cropped portrait of Marcus

Welcome. This is it, post one of A Flawed Mind, the blog I am dedicating to the deceptively simple phrase 'I've been thinking...'

I am a thinker by habit, but it has not necessarily always been a comfort. In fact I was recently told by a friend that I tend to 'think a bit too much'. This is undoubtedly true, and in the past I suffered from a far more obsessive strain of thought than I currently enjoy. There were dark times, and I occasionally wished that my head would explode and be done with, at least in a figurative sense.

Despite the shadows, happily somewhat distant now, I continued to prize thinking highly. Thinking, and its more casual cousin 'reflection', are central to my job, or jobs, which have become a personal vocation. I am in the creativity business, working right now as an architect and an itinerant freelance journalist. Both crafts require a surprising amount of reflection, or at least they do the way I practise them. Up until recently I was also a design teacher at an architecture school. That too required a great deal of thought before, during and after contact with students.

Now entering the third year of a self-imposed sabbatical from teaching, I find that I have a great deal of extra time in the week, and I am keen to use this time to lead a richer life. To help make this happen I have been slowly re-engineering my life (and my lifestyle) to include more time and space for reflection. Reducing my daily total commute to (literally) about three minutes is a great improvement on the previous record of three hours a day, and this too has liberated my body and mind for many more hours each week.

Thinking and reflection (I might use these terms interchangeably in this blog, but not all the time) are only possible, of course, if they are nurtured and fed regularly. This requires a commitment to reading, looking, listening, photographing, writing and drawing on a regular basis. I am trying to dedicate more of each day to these activities. Fortunately may day job includes most items on the list.

Private reading and listening are particularly important, and I can generally do both every day. I am indebted to two quintessentially American and quintessentially 'new economy' business ideas for the enrichment of both activities. For reading, in addition to the many physical books I purchase I have just got my hands on an Amazon Kindle. This is an interesting device, and I have already subscribed to the MIT Technology Review, Salon and the Times Literary Supplement, just to kick things off. In fact the Christmas shopping season just ended saw digital books for the first time outsell physical books on Amazon: could the oft-predicted e-book revolution finally be upon us?

For listening purposes I rely on one of the most successful internet startups of all time, This fantastic subscription service for audiobooks and other listening goodies has managed to secure $US20 of my personal funds each month for about three years now, and I have enjoyed interacting with an online business that actually does create new value where none previously existed. The whole adds up to more than the sum of the parts.

On a domestic front Radio National remains the stimulation source of choice. Chafing at its perceived intellectual authority I recently tried to pen a polemic entitled 'Why we must turn off Radio National and start thinking for ourselves'. Good soundbite, but in the process of researching it I increased my listening time, and came to the conclusion that Radio National actually is generally good for my brain.

In case this is all sounding a little too highbrow (and on second reading of the above, it is) let me hasten to introduce you to the soft, stripy underbelly of these more intellectual habits. The 'underbelly' is where I attend to the workings of the subconscious or unconscious minds, and for reflection to occur these 'other' minds need their own kind of feeding and love. The techniques I prefer all have these things in common: they are apparently trivial, superficially time-wasting, gently distracting and largely harmless. Three such techniques are 1 - mindless television crime drama in general; 2 - watching endless repeats of The Simpsons; and 3 - driving in the country while recording rambling, unfocused monologues grounded in stating the obvious. These all serve a purpose, and that purpose is to occupy the conscious mind so the unconscious, or subconscious, can go to work. This is the reason that you always remember a forgotten name when you have stopped trying to think about it directly. But you knew that already, I suspect.

And what sterling work the subconscious can do if it is only left alone for a spell, every now and then. This leads us of course to the thorny issue of creative problem solving - but that, as they say, is a whole different kettle of poisson. And it is a kettle that we will stir together many times as this blog evolves. Thinking keeps my dog and cat in expensive imported dry vittles, and me in sparkly drinks and party pies, but it's not all work. Ultimately it is quite fun to spend your time thinking about stuff and working things out. I recommend it as an ideal vocation.

So that's it: post one. Join me again for the next instalment, all in good time.