Watching the wheels

 

Big Issue cover #442
The Big Issue

THE FIRST TIME my partner, Sophie Chishkovsky, suggested cycling up the east coast of Australia, I thought she was crazy. “That’s impossible!” I said. I was an inner-city yuppie, and my only daily physical activity was a 5km bike ride from home to work, after which I sat at a desk for 10 hours. I was part man, part adjustable office chair. How would I cope with pedalling thousands of kilometres?

The bigger question, of course, was why do it in the first place? I was on the cusp of my thirties and had started to think more seriously about settling down, but the idea of committing to a mortgage in the suburbs, and the decades of full-time work required to pay it off, filled me with dread. I wanted to explore some other options – not just the obvious ones – before embarking on the next phase.

Australians are not doing it tough

Eureka Street
Eureka Street

THROUGHOUT THE 2013 Federal election campaign, both major parties have pledged to address ‘cost of living’ pressures. Kevin Rudd used the phrase 14 times during a press conference the day after calling the election, and the Liberal Party includes ‘cost of living’ among its 11-point criticism of Labor on its campaign website. Tony Abbott’s recent announcement of a generous paid parental leave scheme is another example of tapping into middle-class anxiety over making ends meet. But is the average Australian household really ‘doing it tough’?

A reading list for climate change deniers

Eureka Street
Eureka Street

THE TERM ‘CLIMATE ALARMIST’ is usually reserved for high-profile activists, scientists or politicians — think Bill McKibben, Tim Flannery or Al Gore — who raise concerns about the catastrophic impacts of future global warming. But with the release of some frightening reports over the last 12 months, those who deny the scientific consensus on climate change will have to expand their list of ‘alarmists’ to include some unlikely suspects — the World Bank, PricewaterhouseCoopers and the International Energy Agency.

Changing Gears: A Pedal-Powered Detour from the Rat Race

Changing Gears Front Cover onlyFrom March 2012 to November 2012, my partner and I cycled 6500 kilometres up Australia researching the simple living movement for a book titled Changing Gears: A Pedal-Powered Detour from the Rat Race, to be published spring 2013 (through Affirm Press). You can read about our adventure in this Age profile or at our website www.simplelives.com.au.

From the blurb:

Greg Foyster quits his job in advertising and decides to live more simply. Looking for inspiration, he and his partner Sophie cycle from Melbourne to Far North Queensland (via Tasmania, naturally) scouting out ideas.

Preposterously underprepared, they are propelled by the inspiring and eccentric characters they meet along the way – from a forest activist living up a tree to an 18th-century woodsman and a monk walking barefoot through Queensland.

Featuring eye-opening encounters with DIY downshifters and leading figures in sustainability, Changing Gears is a jaunty adventure that explores an important question for the future: can we be happier with less?

Ride rage

The Age (Melbourne) Magazine

WE COULDN’T have chosen a worse time to ride. It’s been raining all day, there are floods in the state’s north-east, it’s nearly peak hour and the rapidly darkening sky is threatening to unleash another torrent. Yet we’re about to enter four lanes of traffic on Dandenong Road in Malvern East, following a route on which our guide, Lachlan Toose, has come off his bike five times in two years (when we first met, he held up his elbow to show the result of a recent run-in with a delivery van door. “Just scabs,” he said. “To be expected”). Now we’re on a tour of his collisions, a 12-kilometre journey from Orrong Road, Balaclava, where he works as a primary school teacher, to his home near Warrigal Road in Camberwell. Toose speeds up on his blue Giant racing bike, mud flicking from the back tyre onto his T-shirt. Up ahead, the Dandenong Road intersection is a lagoon of shallow puddles. Toose rarely sees cyclists out this far from the relative safety of the inner city and, apparently, neither do drivers: shortly after we cross Dandenong Road, a silver Holden hatchback swerves in front of him to reverse park. Toose says it’s comonplace: a driver cuts him off once every three weeks, someone opens a car door on him – an illegal act – once every few months, and he receives verbal abuse fortnightly, with the usual insult an unimaginative but revealing, “Get a car!”

The big pitch – selling advertising to the public

Kill Your Darlings (literary journal)

THE ADVERTISING INDUSTRY can sell just about anything. Whether promoting the slave trade in the eighteenth century, peddling quack medicines in the nineteenth or flogging cigarettes to impressionable youth in the twentieth, advertisers have persuaded the public to consume an astonishing variety of unethical, ineffective and sometimes deadly products. But there is one thing the advertising industry has always had trouble selling – itself.

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Profile – Anj Barker

The Age (Melbourne) Magazine

In 2011, I wrote 33 profiles of inspiring Melburnians for The Melbourne Magazine. This is my favourite.

ANJ BARKER’S right hand does a lot of things. In the mornings, it grips the rail attached to her bed, helping her get up. During the day, it controls the joystick of her wheelchair. At awards ceremonies and high schools, it presses palms with people inspired by her story. But at the moment, Anj Barker’s right hand, which lies at the end of her only fully functioning limb, is giving us the finger. The gesture is not meant to offend, but to communicate. Brutally bashed by her ex-boyfriend at 16, Anj suffered substantial brain injuries and for years couldn’t speak. But she could move her right hand, so she developed a characteristically cheeky sign language: thumbs up meant yes, flipping the bird meant no — or that she was in severe pain.

The problem with privatising penicillin

Crikey

A LEADING medical expert has claimed the privatisation of drug company CSL contributed to the rationing of benzylpenicillin, an important antibiotic for public health.

Professor Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases specialist at the Australian National University in Canberra, told Crikey the supply of important antibiotics should not be entrusted to a single for-profit company.

Where does your recycling go?

The Age (Melbourne) Magazine

IN ONE SMOOTH MOVEMENT, the recycling truck empties five tonnes of plastic bottles, cardboard boxes, newspapers, aluminium cans and steel tins into a heap on the concrete. Amid the faint smell of supermarket dumpsters and the sound of shattering stubbies, a grotty yellow Caterpillar loader shoves the pile onto a towering six-metre-high garbage dune.

We’re at the Visy Materials Recovery Facility in Heidelberg, the first point of call for empty Coke cans and crusty pizza boxes from some 400,000 households, most of them in the inner north-east.

Birthday behind closed doors

The Big Issue
The Big Issue

“MAJNUN,” they call. “Majnun! Majnun! Majnun!” The word, meaning ‘crazy’ in Arabic, comes from The Story of Layla and Majnun, an Islamic folktale about a young man sent mad with love. If ‘crazy’ is another way of saying ‘unusual’, then Maile fits the description. For the young Australian is standing in a car park wearing a bright red dress and holding a tray of baklava swaddled in wrapping paper. Today is her 22nd birthday: to celebrate, she’s hosting a party in an immigration detention centre. Majnun Maile, indeed.

Social networking essential link for asylum seekers

IN THE RECREATION ROOM at Broadmeadows detention centre in Melbourne there are four computer terminals. Teenage asylum seekers, dressed in tracksuit pants and jumpers, sit in front of screens browsing Facebook. But for these boys, the social networking site is more than just a place for sharing gossip and posting flattering profile portraits — it is an essential link to the outside world.

My inner old codger

Beat Magazine

MY PHONE’S stuffed, and I’ve got to buy a new one. Being young, white and middle class, I’m genetically predisposed to Apple products, so the iPhone seems the natural choice. And oh, I’ve seen what these babies can do. I’ve salivated over the full-colour GPS maps, marvelled at the pinch-zoom and blushed over the vibe app. And yet, I can’t bring myself to buy one of the things. In the back of my head there’s a little voice that says, “Do you really need all that crap?”

I call this voice my inner old codger.

Parable of the unwelcome stranger

Eureka Street

THE YEAR is 2001. You live in a large sharehouse on the south side of town. The place has millions of rooms and people are always coming and going. One day a stranger knocks on the door. ‘Help!’ he shouts. ‘The people in my house are trying to kill me! I need to hide here for a while.’

Instinctively, you reach for the door handle. A wrinkled hand, old yet firm, grabs your wrist. You look up and see your landlord, a bald man with thick rectangular glasses and bushy eyebrows. ‘We will decide who comes to this house and the circumstances in which they come,’ he says, sternly.

He locks the door.

Sydney’s crazy car culture

Eureka Street

HE WAS the angry driver from Hell.

The green Commodore screeched to a halt, and out stepped a hulking bogan with a shaved head, wraparound sunnies and tattoos from head to toe. He lumbered down the road, stopped face-to-face with the shocked cyclist he had almost run over, drew back his fist and screamed ‘I’m going to punch your head off!’

Give a possum a tree

New Matilda

YOU know an animal is in serious trouble when you start counting its habitat trees individually. David Blair, a member of the Australian National University team monitoring the federally endangered Leadbeater’s Possum, stands on a dirt track in gumboots and a green vest, pointing out old grey eucalypts one by one. “Probably 14,” he says when he’s finished counting.

An alien in Tasmania

Kill Your Darlings (literary journal)

THE Spirit of Tasmania isn’t a ship. It’s a floating civilisation. The giant ferry has a disco, a food court and even a movie theatre. The cabins come with all the usual conveniences – clean sheets, thick blankets, and mints on starched pillows. Outside it’s near freezing and the gales are upending gulls, but in here it’s a comfy 25˚C and the only breeze is steam billowing from the shower.

The first Europeans to make this trip braved Bass Strait without heaters or hot water to keep them warm and cosy. But that’s not to say their boats were without technology. On board were the most advanced tools and weapons ever seen in these waters, technology the Europeans used to overpower the inhabitants of the island and change its ecosystem forever. The landing was an alien invasion, unexpected and irrevocable.

As I leave the boat and board a waiting bus, I’m acutely aware of my place in this, the story of Tasmania. I am a descendant of those aliens. I have come to visit a world my ancestors conquered, to drive along the paths they cleared through the bush, to camp in the forests they claimed as their own. Most tourists travel to see a foreign culture; but here, on this island at ‘world’s end’, I have come to see how my own culture is faring in a foreign land.

The green brain

G Magazine

YOU’VE heard the phrase “you are what you eat”. Well, psychologist Dr Bob Rich thinks you are how you act. “Habits are everything,” he says. “Your very personality is a network of long-standing habits. Everything that can be said about you is something you do.”

In fact, almost 50 per cent of behaviour is habitual, and those habits can take many months to form. One recent study found that the average time for an action to become fully automatic was 66 days. Even simple behaviours, like eating a piece of fruit with lunch or running for 15 minutes before dinner, can take more than two months of daily repetition to become ingrained.

Breaking your old, wasteful habits and forming new, sustainable ones isn’t easy, but this article will give you the psychological know-how to achieve that goal. So take your typical route to the lounge room, settle into your favourite armchair, adopt your usual reading posture, and let’s get started.

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To buy or not to buy

G Magazine
G Magazine

With the silly season just around the corner, we put the question to every environmentally conscious shopper: can buying green save the planet?

YOU’RE standing in a store facing a shelf of sustainable products. Their earthy green packaging beckons. For many an ethical consumer, a heated inner dialogue ensues. If you vote with your dollar, you’ll be supporting sustainable industries, runs one argument. But what happened to the message of reduce, recycle, reuse? Do you really need the item or is it just a waste of resources cleverly marketed to make you feel like you’re doing your bit for the planet?

Touring a supermarket and eco-store with advocates from both camps, G opens the debate and welcomes your opinion on when to fill your trolley with green goodies and when to walk away.

A write-off

Emerging Writers' Festival anthology

THREE make-up artists. Four producers clutching clipboards. Five cameramen. I’m sitting in the studio of SBS quiz show Letters and Numbers, trying to count how many people are working behind the scenes. The glare from the coloured stage lights casts everything in magenta and cyan shadows, like a 3D image before you put the glasses on. It’s hard to see, but I can spot at least 15 crew members.

When the episode goes to air, viewers will see only five people. They’ll be seated around a semi-circular desk against a blue background. One of the regular panellists will be David Astle, playwright, novelist and long-time freelance journo. Right now the cameras are rolling and he’s flicking through a massive Macquarie Dictionary propped up in front of him. He’s my first profile subject.

‘Borzoi,’ he says. ‘A Russian Wolfhound. Very tall, long nose, extremely quick.’ Remove the Russian reference and Astle could be describing himself. Lean and lofty, he has shaggy, salt-and-pepper hair, a rapid-fire wit and a dominant proboscis. In this, I’m sure he can weather the insult. This is a man who once described an Italian chef as ‘built like a gnocchi ball’.

A funny upbringing

The Big Issue
The Big Issue

MANY teenage boys are embarrassed by their mothers. I had good reason to be. When I was in high school, my mother became a professional clown.

As a young woman, she was the person you would least expect to spend her days playing the fool. From what I’ve been told, she was an introvert. She went to teachers’ college, got married and settled into a life of domesticity. Then she hit middle age and flipped out. She threw off her apron and, with it, others’ expectations. She was over 40, she had had her kids, and she would do whatever she wanted, thank you very much. Unfortunately for me, what she wanted to do was wear silly costumes and act like an idiot in front of my friends.

Vict govt laws stifle democracy

Crikey

CONTROVERSIAL Victorian climate change protest laws breach freedoms of political expression and are “stifling democracy”, a prominent barrister and Greens candidate has claimed. Brian Walters SC, who is running for the seat of Melbourne in the Victorian state election on November 27, told Crikey that new penalties relating to “critical electricity infrastructure” specifically target climate change protesters.

The next wave

G Magazine

TWELVE days after usurping the Labor leadership, new PM Julia Gillard outlined her “boat people” policy to an anxious public. The plan? A “regional processing centre” on East Timor.

There was nothing new about the idea – regional processing has been part of Australia’s response to asylum seekers since the first wave of Indo-Chinese refugees in the late 70s. The only novel aspect of the policy was the astonishing speed with which it was cobbled together. A hasty call to Timor-Leste’s President Jose Ramos-Horta, a quick chat with the UN, and Gillard was ready to strike asylum seekers from her pre-election to-do list.

Yet the issue of “boat people” can’t be swatted away so easily. Australia needs to develop a considered, long-term approach to asylum seekers and refugees because they could be heading our way for a long time to come.

A pleasant day at the zoo

Veranda 25 Deakin University
Veranda 25 Deakin University

STEVE looked up from the dinner table to see a panda standing in front of him. It was his wife, Margaret. She had synthetic fur – black for her paws and hind legs and white for her belly – up to her neck. Above that was her face, red and sweaty from wearing the costume all day. Under her arm was the panda’s head, its eyes rimmed by inky bruises, the pupils plastic but somehow alive.

Steve stared at his wife, speechless. He was surprised because she usually came home dressed as the arse-end of a hippo.

‘Cutbacks,’ she explained. ‘A hippo requires two actors to look convincing. A panda, just one. Guess the zoo went with the cheaper option.’