THE WISDOM OF JOHN MARSDEN AND JONATHAN HAIDT
WHY PICASSO NEVER VISITED THE SALK INSTITUTE
CLOVER MOORE’S GREEN BIN FIASCO
THE RAREFIED TASTE OF THE CINEMA CRITIC
DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE OF ‘THE SAFE PLACE”
A CREATIVE WRITING TEACHER GETS EVEN
VIDEO – HOW TO INVEST THREE HOURS
THE GETTING OF WISDOM
Facebook has always been the most me-me-me of all the digital platforms. While Instagram can be about beautiful photos, artworks and the like, and LinkedIn is ostensibly about staying connected with other like-minded people, especially in your own industry, Facebook is where you’ll find people posting photographs of the dinner they just cooked, the sunset they’ve just seen on their exotic holiday, their cute pets and, naturally, most of all, lots of posts celebrating clever children and their exploits.
So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when I posted a link to a newspaper interview with author, educationist and critic of indulgent parenting, John Marsden, and it was greeted, to pinch a simile a Cockney photographer once used to me, like a rattlesnake in a picnic basket.Even now, over a week ago, it has attracted just one lone like.
Meanwhile, on LinkedIn, a post linking to the same article is now up to well over 100 views.
“Irreparable damage to kids”
On the Facebook post, I quoted a snatch of the interview from The Weekend Australian when Marsden talks about today’s over-coddling parents and the damage they do: “They minimise their child’s transgressions, have no regard for those hurt by their child’s narcissism… and blame others for their child’s aberrant behaviour… They are doing irreparable damage to their kids.”
Having witnessed just such parental behaviour, I had lapped up what Marsden had to say in the story, especially these lines: “The phenomenon of educated middle-class parents who don’t just love their children but are in love with them has reached a critical level. Such parents think their child is perfect and can do no wrong. They pass on their narcissism to their children.”It’s not as if Marsden’s comments come out of the blue. We have been reading about these over-soothed, over-protected children, teenagers and young adults for several years, the parents who produce them, and the resulting impact on society, the workplace, our universities, and freedom of speech and thought.
Alert: bulldozer parents coming!
A thirty-something friend with two young children laughed when I told her what I’d observed. “They’re called ‘bulldozer parents’” she explained. “They clear everything troubling or bothersome out of the kid’s way.”
When I did a google search, I found this article, “Quit Coddling Your Kids” from as long ago as 2008. The authors have kept updating it right up until now as we seem to be learning nothing.
The American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt who has been visiting here on a speaking tour, had a bestseller in 2018 with the book he co-wrote, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. An earlier article with the same title appeared in The Atlantic in 2015.
His focus is on Generation Z, those born after 1995, and their fragility, and proneness to anxiety and depression, which he and co-author Greg Loukianoff argue, is because they have been over-protected as they grew up and trained not to take risks, all that twinned with the constant exposure to social media.
Haidt sees a real danger to democracy because of the kind of thinking this then produces and the reliance on trusting feelings rather than rational thinking.And now there is The Art of Growing Up (Pan Macmillan) by school principal and young people’s author John Marsden. As well as critiquing what he calls “toxic parenting”, it is full of recommendations about what children really need so they can grow into responsible, resilient, balanced, curious adults who have a real chance at having a fulfilled and satisfying life.
Never criticise a parent
The Monday after I read the weekend interview with Marsden, I heard him being interviewed on Radio National on Life Matters. Again, he sounded lucid, sensible, reasonable – and extremely concerned about the damage being done to kids when they fail to learn to engage with the world so they can learn how to trust the world. When parenting doesn’t allow that, he calls it “emotional abuse”.He urges parents to take charge rather than letting the kids run things, and how “there’s a lack of willingness by many parents to take on the adult role in the family”.
But that reasonableness I heard in him obviously wasn’t what some parents heard. Feedback was hostile and some texted to know if Marsden had any children of his own. (He has six step-children.)
He tells me later that week he gets asked that a lot.
He also reports that overall, feedback about the ideas in his new book has been 70 per cent positive, 30 per cent negative. “I was expecting to be kicked from pillar to post,” he confides. (Comments he made about bullying – that it can be due to unlikeable behaviour – have been widely reported and criticised. He has defended himself, and criticises the wide use of the term “bullying”.)
What drives these parents?
But what I want to know is: who are these coddling, narcissistic parents? Where did they come from? What made them decide to behave like this?
And this gets really interesting. Marsden talks of people now having “reduced lives”. Now that would be the very opposite of what most of us think, given the ease of international travel, how many kids take airplane trips for granted, and the way we can access pretty much anything in the world via the internet on our many electronic devices.
But he enlarges: “Families are very small, at most one or two children. They live in a suburban house, often don’t know their neighbours and the extended family is a long way away.
“The parents have so much invested in their parenting because they have so little else in their lives. They think it’s about having two cars, a big house, an overseas trip …
“Firsthand experiences really matter but a child might only be able to talk about what they’ve seen on TV or what happened to their parents or grandparents.”
It’s a revelation and one that is all to do with increased urbanisation and the pressures of having two working parents.
Things were once so different.
How to have a not “reduced life”
When I was born, my parents were growing bananas in a plantation in Carnarvon, on the north coast of WA and fighting cyclones. By then, my father had already been an officer in the war and then, afterwards, had been posted to New Guinea to first, supervise Japanese POWs, and then, with my mother and their first two children joining him, to become a patrol officer in the provisional civil administration.
After Carnarvon, my parents moved a little further south to Geraldton where Dad worked in what was later called Aboriginal Affairs, and regularly went out on “patrol” into the outback. Occasionally we all went along too. My parents also bought an untamed block of land, which ran down to deserted sandhills and a pristine beach. There my father grew olives, my brother kept his horse and my mother alternated between teaching us how to draw and paint, and how to go on aromatic, two hour walks in the bush and along the coastline.
That was the very opposite of a “reduced life” and though my parents may have had a few more adventures than others, I never felt my childhood was that different to that of my friends’. They were those kinds of times.
And in those days too, almost everyone had relatives on the land so holidays and visits to farms – the outback dunny that smelled of creosote! – were just part of life.
Feel the cold, feel the risk
I know much of that is impossible for today’s city kids but Marsden urges parents to work out ways to give their children adventures in Nature, if not out in the bush, then maybe in a neighbour’s vegetable garden. At the two schools he runs outside Melbourne, no notice is taken of inclement weather. “They play in snow, hail, fog.” We need to teach children to feel the cold, and all the other sensations, he tells the Life Matters audience.
But back to these “suffocating” parents who “are controlling every aspect of their [children’s] lives”.
In an interview, on the ABC’s 7.30, Marsden had said “one of the great aids to adult life is the ability to investigate or explore a range of different strategies when there’s a difficult situation and if you don’t have that, you will have a troubled adult life.”
What kind of parent would wish that on their child?
Marsden stresses he’s not after headlines but instead a thoughtful approach, and he’s careful in his answer.
“Parenting has become this very sensitive area because people’s lives are so much reduced. Children’s lives are more and more impoverished. Even being allowed to go to the corner of the block they live on, on their own! And yet sex predators are rare.
“So many decisions are made at the bedside of an injured child… “ he laments, and schools have become more fearful as well “in a very short space of time”.
Remember the trailblazers
“The big independent schools used to have headmasters and headmistresses who were trailblazers and ended up influencing the country. Betty Archdale at Abbotsleigh in Sydney, Dorothy Ross at Merton Hall [the senior school of Melbourne Girls Grammar], James Darling at Geelong Grammar … They had ideas and energy and that was inspiring and pretty contagious. Now headmasters are like the CEOs of big organisations and the boards are anxious to keep their schools in good shape financially. They won’t want to take risks.”
Finally, he speculates that another influence on this kind of “toxic” parenting is that “psychology has grown and grown and people are very familiar with pop psychology. And in the ‘60s, there was this huge growth in individualism.”
He talks of the delights for a child, or indeed anyone, of sitting on a verandah reading a book or gazing out over the water, of helping others, visiting an old people’s home… Even of children doing such traditionally naughty things as playing truant. “They can’t do that anymore because they’re so closely monitored. The parent will get a text at 9.05am.”
The coddled child’s strategy
He continues in the same anti-monitoring vein: “It’s so counter-productive to fill up a child’s schedule with dancing lessons, music lessons and when parents are both very timid and very controlling, they are manifestations of the same thing.”
What happens next is that the child’s first strategy for coping with anything difficult is to call Mum. “Even if they’ve lost a textbook,” sighs Marsden. “That is their strategy.”
His book contains all these points and more and he does see hope ahead, especially given the many parents who do listen and understand, though “it’s frustrating knowing we could achieve far more”.
He concludes with this, that there is one vital thing that keeps being overlooked: “We seem to have forgotten wisdom.”
When polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk chose Louis Kahn as the architect to build his dream of a research institute set on the pine-studded cliffs north of La Jolla, in California, he said he wanted him to “create a facility worthy of a visit by Pablo Picasso”.
Kahn achieved exactly that; it is still one of the most breathtaking man-made structures in the world. Seeing it for the first time in real life is like a rush of cleansing purity to the brain. Sharp, clean lines against the sky; towers that are objects of beauty rather than forbidding monoliths because of the play of light, shadow and form; the warm teak window panels; the wide courtyard space between the two sets of five towers with a narrow water channel guiding the eye to the ocean and horizon; and the way the carefully chosen concrete glows with a faint pink tinge in the sunlight. At the western end of the building, the sea end, chunky seats hewn out of concrete echo Picasso’s cubism.
How wonderful life is
But in one of those fantastic ironies that make life so well worth living, four years after the Salk Institute for Biological Studies had been completed in 1965, Salk met Picasso’s ex-lover Françoise Gilot in late 1969 at a private lunch in La Jolla. He was quickly smitten – she was an artist, he was a scientist but they both loved modern architecture – and they married eight months later, in mid-1970.
Picasso had been furious when Gilot, worn out by his affairs and temperament, had finally packed up and departed their relationship. “No-one leaves a man like me!” she told The Guardian he had stormed before trying to destroy her career and livelihood.
And then she went and married a man who the entire world worshipped for having helped end the scourge of polio.
But Salk’s words to Kahn are there on a picture board which greets visitors entering the institute.
My own visit was a highlight of my recent trip to the United States and it remains a brain-cleanser because the tale of its creation is so inspiring – and so rapid in comparison with the torturously slow pace of the high-tech 21st century.
Salk conceived the idea of his institute with the world’s leading minds at work in 1957. By 1960, he had chosen the land and six months later, he had been granted it. By 1962, he had recruited nine of his thinkers. The Institute – with its millions of dollars worth of new buildings and laboratories – opened for business in 1965. Mind boggling.
Look at today. We are so consumed by the idea of process, committees, accountability, consultative streams, taskforces, data collection, focus groups and the like that everyone involved in these lengthy and expensive manoeuvres seems to have forgotten how to actually do something. (Though not how to draw a salary or big fees for years and years on end.)
It makes me want to scream.
Bring in the fierce manager
It’s not as if Salk and Kahn didn’t face problems too with their dream building, and some were of their own making.
Kahn was notorious for not meeting deadlines and Salk, who had connected with Kahn immediately at their first meeting – “It was love at first sight” he once said – and who was himself single-minded in reaching his goals expeditiously, had neglected to check this aspect.
Kahn’s architectural plans for the Institute were due by mid-January, 1961. That came and went. Salk still hadn’t received anything at the beginning of 1962.
The solution; the board of trustees appointed a fierce general manager. Kahn was forced to cancel a trip to Israel, and, according to Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs’ excellent biography Jonas Salk: A Life, there was a “telephone conversation [that] was so upsetting that Mr Kahn was unable to work effectively for three days”. But then he got to work. (That is, he didn’t rush off to HR or a lawyer or a Human Rights tribunal.)
Likewise, Salk was forbidden to go on a planned trip to Philadelphia because it would surely lead to “aesthetic ramblings which will delay the work which needs to be done”.
Presumably these trustees were people who had either served in the not-so-distant war, or observed it at close hand, and knew that the Allies hadn’t won by asking for more data, more process, and more consultants. There would be more delays and hiccups during the birth of the Salk Institute but the same steeliness and brevity went to work.
Salk, hugely influenced by the 1959 Cambridge lecture by C.P.Snow, “The Two Cultures”, about the divide between science and the humanities, had come to envision a place “for biological studies but which also contained the conscience of man”. And he wanted it located somewhere so beautiful, that Jacobs writes, the atmosphere would be “conducive to harmony and creativity” and the world’s most imaginative thinkers, humanists as well as scientists, would want to work and study there, side-by-side, each, according to a later article in Life magazine “an enzyme which will catalyze the activities of the others”. Their purpose would be defeating all the illnesses plaguing mankind.
Salk was alive to the dangers of process and financial roadblocking and how to outwit both. Jacobs quotes Salk: “If it had been left up to the accountants, the Institute would never have been built.”
Salk also wanted to ensure that there would be enough funding so that scientists at the institute would not be wasting their time, constantly applying for research grants. He succeeded. He also offered them the carrot of being free of university regulations.
The institute was affiliated with the new University of California-San Diego but autonomous, and to be initially funded by the National Foundation (the fund-raising organisation originally set up by Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis).
The day I visit Salk’s Institute, I shell out for the docent tour (no small decision given it’s US$150 versus $US7.50 to do your own self-guided tour). It’s one of the best decisions of my trip, especially as I’ve been honest with the tour administrators about the low Australian dollar and what I hoped to learn. They give me a guided tour of one, conducted by architect/artist Shari Grant.
I’m entranced. She shows me details like the way light penetrates to even the lowest floors below the central courtyard via wells with small bridges over them; the way the travertine of that courtyard matches the marks in the concrete that was left unfinished on purpose; the steel of the stair bannisters; the way the spaces for wires, pipes, ducts and the buildings’ technology were created between floors so that maintenance and updates never have to disturb work in the laboratories. The laboratories themselves were designed so the equipment in them too could be easily updated, spaces reconfigured, and new discoveries incorporated.
So that’s the architecture.
Did the institute function? Does it still?
On the frail human side, in 2017, news broke of three senior female scientists who were suing the Salk for gender discrimination. The suits were all settled by last November, 2018, with minimal comment. A leading Salk scientist resigned in June that year, over allegations of sexual harassment which he denied.
As for the laboratories and the people attracted to them, a board at the institute’s entrance lists its achievements. Salk can boast six Nobel Laureates; 580 American and foreign patents have been issued for Salk technologies; it is regarded as one of the top five research institutes in the world for “high quality, high impact, scientific collaborations” and 39 Biotech companies have been spun off as a result of Salk Institute discoveries.
Brimming with life
Salk was able to recruit, for his first intake of resident fellows and non-resident fellows, Jacob Bronowski, Francis Crick, Seymour Benzer, Melvin Cohn, Renato Dulbecco … in all, Jacobs writes, “nine of the world’s most creative scholars”.
Many distinguished researchers and scientists have been involved since. Australian Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn served as Salk Institute president between 2016 and 2018.
This Institute is alive and thrumming.
At various spots, I see that blackboards are attached to outside walls so anyone chatting in the courtyard or by the stairwells with colleagues can take a piece of chalk and start outlining his or her ideas. Or scientific jokes.
The central courtyard itself, and the positioning of the towers, reflect Salk’s appreciation of the cloister of St Francis of Assisi which he visited on a trip to Europe in 1959.
While I’m there, I see teams of young researchers at their work. A young man rushes from a lab with a vessel spouting smoke or steam.
Looking down into the lightwells, I also spot surfboards; the irresistible California waves are close by.
If only I’d studied science…
On a detour to the institute library that day of my visit, I also meet neuroscientist, author and television producer Roger Bingham, who co-founded The Science Network and created various television science series including The Human Quest. We talk for two hours about ideas and projects and then he invites me to afternoon tea in the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory.
I leave the institute with massive reluctance, cursing that I opted to study English literature and journalism, not science.
Kahn later said of the institute: “Of all the buildings with which I have been involved, this one alone, in its execution, exceeded my expectations.”Nathaniel Kahn, in 2003, released his film about his father’s life, My Architect. Nathaniel said of the Salk building’s beauty and placement, “You somehow connect with what it is to be a human-being and you feel your own potential.”
If only that could be the aim of us all, in whatever way we do, whether it’s to build roads, mend them or sweep them, or write books or win elections or devise policies or run think tanks or, especially, teach children, that, every day, in every way, we should do something that helps us make that same connection.
Because that’s what life should be all about.
Thank you, Jonas Salk. Thank you, Louis Kahn.
NIGHTMARE ON ‘GREEN’ STREET
The City of Sydney says its aim is to be: “Green. Global. Connected.” The Lord Mayor Clover Moore is a proselytiser for sustainability, carbon reduction and all things green.
However, she and her team are currently struggling to work out how to collect the green bins in this huge council area.
These bins are for garden cuttings, weeds, branches and the like and I have been a fascinated and astonished observer as a neighbour has argued for almost three weeks with the council over when they’ll collect her green bin.
(4pm, July 30 update: A huge, spanking new council truck pulled up to finally empty the green bins. The workers were most obliging and mystified by the lengthy delay.)
A week ago, that bin was joined by another neighbour’s bin – also now still uncollected.
This morning, July 30, I noticed that a third green bin has joined them. Not surprisingly, passers-by are now dropping non-green rubbish into the bins.
Invisible bins, unheard complaints
The first bin was due to be picked up on July 11 and my neighbour let the council know it was uncollected on the 12th.
Since then, she has been dealing with Anna and Margaret and a host of others, all of whom have promised the matter will be fast-tracked.
When I rang the council this morning – July 30 – to find out what on earth could be going wrong, I got the human version of an automaton who assured me the bin would be collected and it was “within the time-frame” because apparently the council has 48 hours to collect a bin after a complaint and a complaint had been logged on the system today.
“But do the maths!” I insisted. “What about the complaint you have logged from the 12th?”
That didn’t compute.
What’s more, she told me she could only see two complaints on the system, from the 12th and today, the 30th, which means that the many calls my two neighbours have made have not been logged. (Which is very odd indeed, given that is something the council used to be very good at doing.)
More importantly, it would mean that the email my desperate neighbour sent to the Lord Mayor herself on Sunday, July 21, and which was answered by offsider Amy on July 22 can’t have been logged onto the system either. (When my neighbour emailed Amy again, she’d gone on holiday.) My neighbour’s second email on July 29 to Moore likewise didn’t show up on the system.
Information missing too
I don’t believe it. The complaints must be somewhere. But where? And is anyone looking at them?
The council worker I spoke to said she had no information as to what was going wrong. “There’s no reason on the system.”
But what my neighbour gleaned from one conversation with a supervisor was that there were new contractors who were “very good” but the real problem was that they didn’t know who had green bins and who didn’t and so didn’t know where the bins were to be collected.
My neighbour swears she was told by the supervisor that when people requested green bins and they were delivered, the addresses weren’t noted down. But clearly someone once knew where all the City of Sydney green bins resided because this is a new problem, this financial year.
“What else am I supposed to do?” asks my neighbour. “Wheel the bin down to Town Hall?”
“You’d be amazed by the number of complaints we’ve had,” the supervisor chattily divulged to her.
And why so much grime anyway?
Taking my photos early this morning, I couldn’t help notice a pile of household rubbish propped against an apartment block down the road. We residents of this area complain constantly about the sheer dagginess and unpleasantness of lower Oxford Street and what we see around in this area.
Most of the houses date back into the 19th century; some were built as early as the 1850s.
They are mostly small and some residents have lived here for decades, buying when prices were low and few others wanted to live here. But as homes have gradually received the Cinderella treatment from proud owners, to be blended with spanking new apartment blocks, the bits the city looks after stay relentlessly down at heel. William Street, as everyone knows, is a shocker.
As for lower Oxford Street, which should be a spectacular sweep down to beautiful Hyde Park and the now renovated War Memorial, with the city’s skyscrapers gleaming behind, that remains a dump. It is grimy, grubby, with too many cheap shops selling tat, and, at the wrong time of night, dangerous.
Over the years, the Lord Mayor has vowed to smarten it up and yet another new initiative was reported by The Sunday Telegraph on July 21. According to the article, renovations were first mooted in 2011. It’s now 2019. (Remember Salk’s timeframe????)
The importance of knitting
This is what happens – and we see it all the time now – when an organisation is so busy promoting itself with virtue-signalling that it loses sight of what it is supposed to be actually doing – and what it is paid to do.
Stick to your knitting indeed, Clover Moore. It’s a true statement of 21st century nuttiness when residents struggle to get a “green” Lord Mayor to collect their green bins.
WATCHERS VERSUS VIEWERS
A couple of weekends ago, three of us walked, slightly stupefied, out of a screening of the German film Never Look Away. It’s over three hours long and mesmerising. We all used the same word “wonderful” to describe what we’d seen.
Director and writer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has taken the basics of the life story of German artist Gerhard Richter and turned it into a story about creativity, but also about evil, conformity, resistance, and how the past shapes us, creates us, catches up with us.
The film moves from Nazi Germany to East Germany under communist rule in the 1950s to the artistic explosions in West Germany in the 1960s. All three of us wanted to see it again.
Which just proves what silly, ignorant monkeys we are.
Just a melodrama (yawn)
When I got home and went online to read reviews from around the world, I discovered that instead of watching a gripping drama with captivating performances, I had really seen a movie that deserved, according to Vulture website, “the Middlebrow Beanbag award of 2019”, an “unevenly acted and sometimes frankly misjudged sexy-sentimental melodrama of epic length” (The Guardian) and “a pulpy tale of war, political repression and creative genius” (The ABC). Richter had originally co-operated with Donnersmarck, who also directed and wrote the 2006 film The Lives of Others. The artist then pulled out for reasons that aren’t clear but various other critics and commentators from the art world then indulged in a merciless pile-on. Ann Lewinson writes snottily on Artnews: “It’s easy to see why Richter, who agreed to many hours of interviews with Henckel von Donnersmarck, has since distanced himself from the film.” She lands an especially vicious kick, criticising Donnersmarck for exploiting the Holocaust for “thrills”.
I see a pattern here.
And another (yawn)
A while ago, I watched The Exception on a rental DVD and liked it so much I then watched it on cable a month or so later with a friend. He liked it so much that, after he’d had to go home late that evening without seeing the final third, he came back the next afternoon to finish watching it.
Silly monkeys, that we were.
The Exception – which fictionalises the time the abdicated Kaiser Wilhelm (Christopher Plummer) spent exiled in Holland, under the Nazis, and loads it up with a household spy, members of the resistance and a conscience-stricken SS officer – also turns out to be a terrible film. “Ridiculous, raunchy” (The Guardian), “flawed and rather puzzling” (Adelaide Review), and finally, there’s this patronising judgement “hopeless tosh – but expertly done hopeless tosh” (The Boston Globe).
Bohemian Rhapsody, the story of Freddie Mercury and Queen, also copped disdainful reviews. Audiences loved it. The 2018 film cost $US52 million to make and by April this year, 2019, box office had passed $US900 million.
So what do the critics love?
Then we couldn’t wait for it to end and to get out of the cinema.
Dreary, seemingly endless (though only 88 minutes in reality), lacking any original insights, and with a thoroughly unlikeable lead character in Zula (Joanne Kulig) which made the lead male character’s obsession with her and sacrifices for her mystifying.
But apparently, what we watched was “a sweeping tale of passion and politics” (The Guardian), “visually stunning, passionate, wistful, and thoughtful in equal measure” (Vulture), and a film that “swells your heart and breaks it” (Roger Ebert).
Could have fooled the two of us.
The ticket-buying vote
Now, back to Never Look Away. My two friends and I who watched it spellbound that day couldn’t be more different, ranging from a conservative antiques expert to a left-leaning book publicist, to me, centrist, addicted to good story-telling. What’s more, we had accidentally met up at the Verona Cinema in Paddington where the Saturday 2pm session for this lengthy film turned out to be – amazingly – sold out. We rushed to buy the last tickets for the 2.50pm session at Palace Central and scarpered over there in a cab.
So audiences are loving Never Look Away. Admittedly, the Palace cinemas showing it were small but, as the film had been on for a couple of weeks, clearly word of mouth was at work. And who knows how many more people would have gone to see it but for the art house critics?
This has to be yet one more example where a small group of people who claim to know far more than the rest of us just have no idea of what’s really going on.
THE REAL BLACK HOLE – “A SAFE PLACE”
No-one comes back from a trip overseas without presents for friends. And so, on a Tuesday, I was finally catching up with a friend for lunch to deliver his presents, and a birthday card for his partner. Except, as I ran out the door, I couldn’t find the gifts nor the card. For weeks, they had been sitting in a small and neat pile on my long dining table. Where were they? I had the faintest memory of tidying them away a few days ago and “putting them somewhere safe”.
Ah yes, never to be found again.
My disappointed friend, when I got to the café, remembers how he regularly picks up cherished photographs at home and thinks to himself: “I’d better put these somewhere safe”.
That’s the last he sees of them.
What were we thinking?
Decades ago, my then husband put his British passport “somewhere safe” in our tiny flat in London’s Little Venice. For months afterwards we searched for it until he gave up and got, with much wrangling and paperwork, a replacement. When we finally left the flat and did a big clean-up a couple of years later, I lifted the phone (it was the 1980s) off the phone-table and there was the passport tucked underneath. In its “somewhere safe” spot.
Who hasn’t had this conversation: “So, for months, I had that folder on my desk so I always knew it was there and then one day, tidying up, I thought, ‘This is important; I should put this somewhere safe’”. Gone forever.
In a 2017 New Yorker piece, writer Kathryn Schulz comments: “If you’ve ever lost something that you deliberately stashed away for safekeeping, you know that the resulting frustration stems not just from a failure of memory but from a failure of inference. As one astute Internet commentator asked, ‘Why is it so hard to think like myself?’”
That’s what is so infuriating. We know our habits, our ways of thinking so well – until we use the “safe place” strategy. Right now, I am trying to find a bag of receipts from my last American trip. I have the receipts from my other two recent American trips in a special drawer, each pile neat in its own packet – but no, I didn’t put the bag there. Nor have I put it on the shelves where I keep all my tax and financial material. I go over and over what might have been my reasoning and I get nowhere.
How to lose a truck
The New Yorker piece is headlined, When Things Go Missing, and in the first few paragraphs, the author details how she moved to Portland, Oregon, for one summer and instantly morphed from an organised person to someone who could lose her wallet twice in one day. She loses her keys on two succeeding days and then a brand new bicycle lock that was in her hand just moments before when she got distracted by a phone call.
Her triumph is to misplace a giant truck, so big that its tyres come up to her midriff. Nevertheless, when she parks it close to the bookshop she is visiting, it takes her a frustrating 75 minutes to locate it again: “I found the truck, in a perfectly legal parking space, on a block so unrelated to any reasonable route from my house to the bookstore that I seriously wondered if I’d driven there in some kind of fugue state.”
When she finally gets home, exhausted, she decides to ring her sister, a cognitive scientist, to get an explanation for what she’s doing and why she’s losing so many things. Except she then realises she has left her cell phone back in the bookshop.
The mystery of the 200,000
During Schulz’s research, she learns that the average person will lose/misplace 200,000 items by the time they turn 60.
Apparently, there are two possible explanations. The first, scientific, is that we simply weren’t concentrating enough when we put the object down or away in the first place. The second is Freudian: we wanted to lose the object because of its connotations.
Schultz is unconvinced, concluding that we lose things because “life is complicated and minds are limited. We lose things because we are flawed; because we are human; because we have things to lose”.
We lose things because we’re busy. We lose things if we change our thinking habits (hence the danger of the “safe place” unless you make one area in your home a “safe place” and that’s it for everything, for ever after … which, of course, could then negate its designation as a “safe place”, bulging as it now is with bits and pieces).
Help from on high
There is another saviour to which we can turn. One Friday morning at work, I realised I wasn’t wearing my rather precious watch. At first, I thought I’d just left it at home in the pocket of my bathrobe. No. I rang the taxi company I had used the night before. I searched a bit more. Nothing. I reported it to the police. That weekend, I methodically ransacked my home, especially my bedroom. I kept thinking: I remember taking it off and putting it down on the bedside table before my shower. Was it anywhere there? No.
Then, on the Sunday afternoon, I told a neighbour, Adrienne, who then rang her 90-something mother, Val, in New Zealand who then prayed to St Anthony, patron of lost things, lost causes.
Half an hour later, despondently checking inside my pillows for the umpteenth time, I shook out the last pillowcase – and out plopped the watch. I was so thrilled, so stunned, I finally understood the phrase, “I couldn’t believe my eyes”.
Proving the 18 inch rule – “whereby the majority of missing items are supposedly lurking less than two feet from where you first thought they would be” – I realised I had taken off my watch in the dark, dropped it on the bedside table but it had fallen instead, inside a pillow propped on its end by the table.
But I would never have found it without Val and St Anthony. So forget Freud, forget science. Just rely on someone with effective and saintly connections.
I spend a lot of my time, these days, seemingly skiving off and reading. My big research project is so expansive I can pretty much justify reading almost anything, from Richard Parker’s biography of J.K.Galbraith to Movie Love in the Fifties to Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything. I’m also, for another project, starting to explore our attitudes to evil: well, there you go, more carte blanche to reading everything from thrillers to chronicles of resistance to Hitler.
And finally, given how I have made my living, any book about writing, journalism, creativity, is allowed too.
Along the way I come across terrific quotes, asides and passages that deserve to be passed on which I will now do regularly. Here’s one of my recent favourites from Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, winner of the US National Book Award in 2018, especially relevant given the comments of Marsden and Haidt above.
The main character in The Friend teaches creative writing and, as the years go by, she is finding her students less and less appealing:
“That was another thing I noticed about the students: how self-righteous they’ve become, how intolerant they are of any weakness or flaw in a writer’s character. And I’m not talking about blatant racism or misogyny. I’m talking about any tiny sign of insensitivity or bias, any proof of psychological trouble, neurosis, narcissism, obsessiveness, bad habits – any eccentricity. If a writer didn’t come across as the kind of person they’d want to have as a friend, which invariably meant someone progressive and clean-living, fuck‘em.
“I once had an entire class agree that it didn’t matter how great a writer Nabokov was, a man like that – a snob and a pervert, as they saw him – shouldn’t be on anyone’s reading list. A novelist, like any good citizen, has to conform, and the idea that a person could write exactly what they wanted regardless of anyone-else’s opinion was unthinkable to them.”
It’s no wonder that the same character, earlier in the book, writes this cameo:
“In the faculty club. Another teacher and I drink gin and amuse ourselves speculating: in the event of a school shooting, which of our students would we or would we not take a bullet for.”
And now back to reality, and another reminder that the new grim, no-laughs, PC, processed life always finds a way to imitate art. Last week, the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art announced, in an exclusive report from Ashleigh Wilson at The Australian, that from now on “artists accused of ‘serious misconduct’ will be scrutinised under a new policy to determine whether their work should be embraced or rejected”.
I must start writing fiction.
(The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez, published by Hachette Australia, $22.99. and also available as an e-book.)
VIDEO – THREE HOURS YOU WON’T REGRET
It’s still possible to see Never Look Away. If the item above didn’t convince you of the best way to spend your next free three hours, here’s the trailer: