Living in the seventies

Eric Whitacre.  Have you heard of him?  I hadn’t until
last night when I went to see him in concert at the Robert Blackwood Hall at
Monash University. He’s a composer and conductor currently settled in London
but originally from the U S of A. 
Eric Whitacre is a man of extraordinary talents but to my mind almost too good
to be true.  It’s not his talents
per se but the whole package. 
Between conducting his songs and music he talked briefly and wittily
about his life, his wife, his passion for music and poetry.  The audience loved him, encore
after encore.  
My daughter was
singing in the choir and glorious singing, too, but Whitacre stole the
night.  His wife, he told us, was for
once able to be there and she added to the overall allure.  Here was a man in love with his wife,
after a fifteen year marriage.  In
love too with his seven and half year old son who came along to the concert
as well.  His wife, Hila Plitmann, is a famed soprano with her own extensive following of admirers.  
See how often I write the words ‘also’ and ‘as well’ here.  These attributes pile up, one on top of the other.  
Before the performance began the son scrambled past me
with his beautiful mother as I flattened myself back into my seat to make room.  I had noticed this young boy as he
approached from one side of the theatre.  I could not but notice him.   As he slid past each person already seated he pointed
to their programme on the front of which an image of his father took pride of
‘That’s my dad,’ he said. 
‘That’s my dad,’ and he squeezed past me while his mother half
apologised, half laughed at the antics of her proud and equally beautiful
All three were blond, the son, the
darkest in hair colour.  All three
beautiful in that movie star way.  Whitacre’s hair reminded me of this advertisement: men using women’s shampoo.  Hilarious and almost surreal.   
Ash, the son – Whitacre told us his name during the performance but I may have spelled it incorrectly –  wore a
grey suit not unlike the suit his father wore on stage.  Ash featured in many of his father’s
stories about how Whitacre came to compose this or that particular piece of music.
I’m not usually taken in by so
much beauty but as I say it was the entire package.  Not only the man’s ability as a composer but also his
ability to present himself to the public, his warmth and generosity.  It took
me by storm.  
A voice inside kept
saying this cannot be.  It
cannot be so picture perfect.  But
why spoil it with my doubts?  Am I
envious?  Why want to tone it down with a few
hard edges?  Even the overall
effect for me became a hard edge, but why can I not trust to the appearances
and enjoy the ride?  Why so
I stood around afterwards for at
least half an hour chatting to my daughter and her friends and when I left
there was still a queue of people waiting to ask Whitacre to sign copies of his CD.  The queue stretched the width of the Blackwood hall and I felt for this man who after
the fifth round of applause had raised his hands to his mouth in a gesture of
drinking.  He then looked upwards as if to say to the audience, enough adulation no, let’s all
go upstairs for a drink. 
No drink for him I imagine till
well after midnight, but I suppose it’s all part of the deal, the price of
fame, and it sells CDs. 
I gave a talk myself on Friday
afternoon to a small group of psychology students at Swinburne.  I’m not an accomplished speaker but I
tried hard to present material in such a way that they might be
From the onset, as I spoke, I noticed
a man directly in front of me about five rows up who sat beside another
man.  Both were older men, older relative
to many of the students, and they chatted
openly to one another during the prepared part of my talk. 
I had the impulse to stop speaking
and to ask them if they had wanted to leave.  For the first time in my limited lecturing experience I knew
what it felt to be a teacher with unruly students.
At one point the instigator of the
chats, at least as far as I could see, stopped chatting and turned  to face the side of
the small lecture theatre away from the other man.  He sat that way for at least half of my talk.  I kept
waiting for him to leave.  I wanted
him to leave, however much it might have seemed like a public thumbs down from him. 
This man gave me no sense of confidence
in what I was saying but I ploughed on. 
I knew in time I would play some you tube versions of therapy and that
we could discuss them altogether and that the event might become more alive,
more alive than having me simply drone on.  
Not that I droned on but I had worried that students these
days do not value being lectured to. 
They prefer interaction. And indeed things came more alive after I had
explained where I was coming from and launched into a discussion of other
people’s performances as therapists as portrayed online. 
To my surprise when it was all over
the disruptive man came down to me at the podium and expressed his gratitude
for my talk.  He introduced himself
and offered to show me his written feedback, which he must have written during my talk.  
It was the strangest of feedback wherein he described the first part of my talk
as like ‘Skyhooks – Living in the seventies’, because I had described in some
detail my origins in the field, and then he told me that the discussion part where I
explained my position had completely changed his view on ‘this caper’, as he
called it, this caper by which I presume he meant psychology. 
He was fifty years old he told me
and new to the field.  How
strange.  I could not get him out
of my mind for some time. I still do not know whether he was critical or
pleased.  He seemed to hear my
words despite his chatter but what he has made of them I suppose I will never
The person organising the course
made a fuss of distributing the feedback sheets before the talk and her intern
collected them after the event. 
Somehow to me the collection of feedback sheets so close on the heels of
my talk felt a little like people throwing money at me as if I had become a
busker.  The more money paid the
more successful I would be.  The
better the feedback the more I deserved to be paid.  Another strange feeling. 
I do not intend to make a habit of
these talks and so I tell myself the feedback is not of such huge consequence  but of course I dread the thought I may have bored them silly. 
I am no Eric Whitacre, such a
talented man, but I thought I had something worthwhile to say.  My only hope now is that I could be
heard.  Isn’t that why any of us do
these things?  To be heard?  

Watch out for the undertow

This morning someone used the towel which hangs
in the bathroom, the one I claim for myself.  I’m not so much critical of the fact that someone else used
my towel – these things happen – but more the fact that when I went to dry myself,
the cold wet of an already damp towel jarred and left me in ill spirits on an
otherwise perfectly fine morning. 
Or is it a perfectly fine morning? 
Today I have promised one of
daughters that I will help her with an essay on the topic of fear and anxiety.  
We all know fear : that cliff
you’re about to drive over, that near miss on the road, that accidental slip of
the knife.  Fear, actual and
intense that sets off your adrenaline big time and leaves your underarms prickling with
sweat and a racing heart. 
But anxiety is worse.  Anxiety is insidious.  Something out there, sometimes you know
not what, sets your heart racing, your pulse soaring and all you know is that
you feel a deep sense of dread. 
The old fight/flight response to fear kicks in but it doesn’t budge.  It hangs around.  
When I feel anxious there’s nothing clear cut to
fight.  There’s nothing obvious to
flee and so I’m stuck, bathed in these hormones with a vague sense of what
might be troubling me but an inability to shift it because it is not what
might be called real. 
Even now I can feel it.  I try to attach it to something: that
talk I’m to give to a group of post grad students at the end of the week,
rehearsal anxiety, free-floating fear of the unknown, but is that enough? 
I’ve prepared for the talk.  It should be okay.  Is that enough? 
For me sometimes even thinking about
anxiety can make me anxious.  And
anxiety is contagious.  I pick it
up from other people, quick smart, especially from those who are near and dear
to me. 
It’s also the stuff of terrorism, the
ways in which certain people play on our fears to divide and conquer. 
In Thomas Keneally’s novel, Flying
Hero Class
, the narrator anticipates the
hijacking of a plane and makes a plea for solidarity among the passengers.
What they will do these hijackers,
he says, is to select a few of us for special treatment – cruel treatment.  Those selected will be chosen for some
fault of their history, culture or some such thing.  They will be isolated and punished.  Basically they will be punished in
order to split up the rest of the group. 
It’s an old technique.  Those not selected will gradually find
themselves withdrawing from these victims.  Gradually those not selected will feel a sense of blame
towards these others, a sense of their badness.  And all of this will emerge out of a sense of not having
been chosen. 
We must avoid the process at all
cost, the narrator argues.  Solidarity will help
us.  Black and white, Jew and
gentile must come together to avoid the divisiveness of the hijackers. 
‘I’ve seen hesitant people
bludgeoned by an appeal to solidarity,’ she writes.  ‘Solidarity can be used to mock genuine doubt, to blur a
fatal skid in reasoning.  Run the
flag up the pole and see who salutes. 
Whenever I feel in myself the warm emotional rush of righteousness of
belonging, that accompanies the word solidarity, I try to remember to stop and
wait till the rush subsides so I can have a harder look at what has provoked
I too can feel the clash of anxiety,
alongside my wish to belong when I press the send button to make a comment on
that controversial blog, No Place for Sheep, where people can be very generous and thoughtful and yet a other times they might brawl on line
about important topics and some actually abuse one another. 
But I am drawn to this anxiety, too, like
a toddler to an open socket.  I’m
drawn to the excitement of it, the kick-in of hormones that can leave me
feeling more alive.  
anxiety life might become too drab and ordinary.   But watch out for the underto, or the ‘under toad’ as the young Walt, a character in John Irving’s novel, The world According to Garp, calls it.  
Anxiety needs to be optimal to inspire and fire you up.  But too much anxiety and you wind up paralysed.