Whenever I see a dark cloud outside, I check the Bureau of Meteorology’s weather radar for incoming rain. I love it, especially when it comes from those dense vertical clouds that flash and rumble and darken the landscape. I’m not concerned with suitable clothing or whether to sport an umbrella, I just really want to know whether it’ll rain, and check the radar with the frequency of an addict, such is my desire to know whether the clouds on the horizon will wet my local area.
There isn’t a person on earth who could tear me away from my beloved radar. It’s one of countless services that the Internet has bombarded me with, instantly accessible, and satisfying my craving for information. It strengthens and encourages my idle curiosity—the desire to know something that has no use; pointless information that I must consume, despite it having no real value or utility. Why are we such junkies for this kind of info?
Jumping back 2,000 million years in our evolutionary timeline, when we were mere bacteria, 5,000 times smaller than a pea¹, the first information we needed was about our environment, which allowed us to move away from danger, and towards food. As bacteria, we got this information by developing an ability to detect chemical changes—our ancestors’ first ever sense. The information we needed back then was a matter of life or death, and as our species evolved into weirder and more complex creatures—sponges, fruit flies, leafy sea dragons, salamanders, peacocks, shrews, howler monkeys², and more—our senses and brains developed too, allowing us to detect and control our environments with incredible precision, eventually placing us at the apex of our food chain.
As a human in the 21st century, I don’t have to worry about being swooped and carried away by a bald eagle, or mauled by a flash of black and orange. My need for critical information has lessened, but the survival needs of my evolutionary ancestors is entrenched in my brain, and so regardless of being a modern human with a respectable job and a taste for Japanese whiskey, I still crave information because for 2,000 million years, information has been a way to predict and control my environment. When your species has evolved in a world of razor sharp teeth and claws, you want as much certainty as you can get.
Enter the World Wide Web—an unfathomable amount of information, made effortlessly accessible by Google. Our ancestors never had access to such a treasure of novel curiosities, and when it was thrust into our world in the early 90’s, we could hardly believe how incredible it was; how useful and endlessly stimulating it was. But information is only good if it improves our lives in some way, and the dopaminergic reward system in our brain doesn’t account for this distinction. It identifies the possibility of new information, and because information enhances prediction and decreases uncertainty (helping us become better survivors and procreators), it releases a squirt of dopamine that propels us towards the “reward,” regardless of whether the information is valuable.
Now, defining whether a piece of information is valuable is stepping into murky philosophical territory, where subjectivity reigns as king. In the wake of god’s timely death, assigning meaning and value has fallen to the individual. We harbour a consciousness that allows us to reflect on our decisions, and write our own commandments. What you value now falls within your responsibility, and that includes deciding whether a piece of online information is helping to improve your life, or whether you’re being lured in by the boundless novelty of the Web in order to feel “safer.”
It isn’t difficult to do. I look up a lot of useless information to satisfy my idle curiosity. For example:
Checking IMDB to find out where I know an actor from.
Checking the social media account of an old colleague to see how well he’s doing compared to me.
Obsessively checking my Medium stats.
The list goes on for miles. None of this information helps me. All it does is satisfy my idle curiosity; my burning desire to just know, so that my environment feels a little more predictable and certain. It’s nonsense, of course—the modern equivalent of a Neanderthal constantly peeking out of his cave to check for a tiger, except today, there’s a hell of a lot more for us to check. The reward system in our brain doesn’t know the difference between death and triviality; between tiger and actor. It just seeks, seeks, seeks, to reduce uncertainty. With so much to keep an eye on, and such easy access to it, we risk becoming insatiable automatons who spend large portions of their time pursuing pointless information. Our idle curiosity makes robot slaves of us, whose existence is defined by an appetite for the shallow and thoughtless.
There’s no value in knowing for the sake of knowing. It fragments our attention, scatters our brain, and steals away our time, while training us to be mere consumers—lab rats pushing levers for so-called rewards. As we slip into a constant state of foraging, satisfying our idle curiosity over and over, we strengthen the neurons for the behaviour in our brains, making them ever easier and favourable, and replacing neurons once used for challenging and worthwhile tasks such as reading books. Books seem laughable in the age of the Web—why read a book, when I can read a snippet? There’s no longer any inclination for the long-winded or difficult. We’ve plummeted to the abysmal reality of the information junkie, stalking the hollow pages of social media for our next hit of mindless stimulation.
Curiosity is a wonderful thing, helping our species invent technologies that extend and improve our lives. Idle curiosity is a peril that steals our attention and damages our collective intelligence. Our digital addiction has us drowning in a sea of worthless information, still desperate to satisfy our craving even as we gasp for breath.
The Banana Bread Walk is a one-way Brisbane River jaunt that starts in Teneriffe and ends at our home in West End, passing some of the city’s most beautiful spots. It begins with a ride on board the City Glider, which as its name suggests, sails through the inner city suburbs of Brisbane, collecting and depositing humans along the way. As we climb onto the sapphire blue bus in West End, the driver usually offers an enthusiastic hello, and I can’t help but compare this to the bus drivers where I grew up in south-east London, who’ll barely make eye contact from fear of being stabbed.
If I’m first on the bus, I sit in the maroon-coloured priority seats near the front, which are reserved for the older residents of the city, and always empty at this time of morning. My fiance and long-term walking partner dislikes this, as she envisages hoards of geriatrics boarding at once, who’ll curse our young limbs and batter us with their hardwood walking sticks until we move to our proper place. I secretly hope it’ll happen one day.
The blue and white stripes of the bus flash past the Davies Park farmer’s markets, which at 7am, is already being descended upon by hundreds of West End residents on their Saturday morning ritual for fruits and eggs and vegetables and meats, pouring with sweat as they jostle about, dodging dogs and prams and granny-trolleys amidst yells of 2-dollar deals. The one-lane maelstrom is strewn with escape routes to a grassy nirvana, where the people and pooches no longer pay any mind to the position of their paws, but extend them fully in spacious rapture.
Davies Park disappears from view, replaced by the countless apartment blocks on Montague Road, where people nestle in their thousands and curse at the din of the Saturday morning traffic. Within moments we’re converging on what might be considered the centre of West End—the corner of Boundary and Melbourne street, enclosed in part by a large bug-like art installation, painted dull-white, creating shade for the indigenous folk who settle on benches and look as though they’re trying to forget themselves.
Soon the bus reaches Victoria Bridge, arching over the Brisbane River, and overlooking Brisbane’s luscious South Bank with its sprawling pines and cycads and luminescent purple bougainvillea canopies, its expansive lagoon and barbeques where tourists swim and sizzle while admiring the glassy swelling of the city across the river, showers of sparkles glittering in every window.
With the bridge behind us, we merge into the shadows of the central business district, where the weekend shopworkers rise from their seats, reluctant for another day of materialist madness, and unaware of the delights of the Banana Bread Walk, which they would surely quit their jobs and embark on immediately if they had an inkling. A few minutes later we exit the city into Fortitude Valley, a place replete with watering holes for the young, host to alcohol-fuelled weekend bedlam where the boys and girls drift from bar to bar and stick their chests out for different reasons. All is quiet in the Valley at this hour, its recent occupants dispersed to their homes, their shrivelled brains crying out for water as they sleep.
We reach our stop at the low end of the Valley, outside the Maserati showroom, where a brazen friend of mine took a $200,000 car for a test drive after dressing himself in a 3-piece suit and speaking la-di-da to the salesman. We make our way south-east through the towering office and residential blocks, past Bin Chicken Alley, where gangs of ibises will immediately stop scavenging to stare you down, as though you want a piece of their delicious trash. After a few minutes we arrive at the official starting point of the Banana Bread Walk: a cafe called Bellissimo that serves squishy sweet banana bread and some of the best coffee you’ll ever drink, evidenced by the queue that spills onto the street. There’s at least two cute dogs outside, one of which is a French Bulldog belonging to a girl clad in overpriced Lorna Jane activewear who doesn’t understand the word “cliché” and doesn’t carethank-you-very-much.
Once we’re fuelled with banana and caffeine, our 13km walk begins with a north-eastern beeline for the river at Teneriffe, passing rows of redbrick wool factories that have been converted into stylish properties, with a great deal more character than the cut-and-paste apartment blocks found elsewhere in the city. As we emerge on the riverside, the landscape opens up before us, swathes of early-morning sparkles scattered across the river’s surface, and enthusiastic rowers with bulging lats sweeping through them.
We walk south towards the river’s source, along a riverside path guarded by polished chromium railings, and placards that reveal Teneriffe’s industrial past. When the Brisbane River was dredged in 1862, wharves were constructed along the riverbank for trade, spawning ten woolstores in Teneriffe by the 1950’s¹, eventually being requisitioned for an American World War II submarine base where you could see up to eight vessels and hundreds of fresh-faced submariners⁶. Today, Teneriffe is one of the most desirable places to live in Brisbane, and as we saunter past triple-story red brick buildings, their huge facades filled with white-framed windows underneath looping arches, amidst lushious verdant gardens filled with prodigious Moreton Bay fig trees, it’s easy to see why.
A motley of humans roam the pathway—young families with wandering toddlers and little dogs with protruding teeth; glistening mums and dads jogging with prams; gym junkies with swollen limbs, squeezed into too-little fabric—coveting lungfuls of crisp winter air, the soft swishing of overhead leaves, and the post-dusk warbles of tropical birds. The Teneriffe riverside is a popular sleeping spot for pigeons, who tuck their feet into their bodies, nestle their heads into their chests, and pay no mind to the snuffles of passing dogs.
Soon we reach the suburb of New Farm, the battered facade of the Powerhouse rising in the distance. The Powerhouse is a decommissioned electricity station that provided power for Brisbane’s obsolete tram network, and at the turn of the millennium, was transformed into an arts and music centre for exhibitions, comedy, concerts, and more. The main entrance faces away from the river—a 10-metre tall glass box, striped with chrome, incongruous against its wall of crumbling bricks and blocks of white paint, as though the refurbers decided to leave this side unfinished for effect. Before reaching the momentous building, we feast our eyes on the bedlam of the New Farm dog park, with its schnauzers, collies, pugs, poodles, retrievers, labs, shepherds, snags, and every other dog you can think of, all mixed together in a frenzy of tails and paws, lolloping about and shouting at each other.
In a few moments we’re stepping onto the green of New Farm Park—an open stretch of grass scattered with trees and rose bushes that sits on the edge of the New Farm peninsula. The park is one of the few outdoor places in Brisbane where you can drink alcohol without punishment, so it’s common to see people picnicking and sipping beers under the shade of its trees. It’s also weirdly common to see cats on leads, who seem confused about the constraining ropes around their necks, and anxious to get out of them as quickly as possible.
The riverside path temporarily stops at the end of New Farm Park and Brunswick Street, forcing a little street walking. We pass a house that usually has two chocolate labradors resting against its gated entrance, and when we stop to say hello, they wiggle their butts and stick their pink noses through the bars. I’m disappointed if they’re not there.
We rejoin the riverside path at the edge of Merthyr Park, a belt of green edged by apartment blocks, and a quieter alternative for New Farmers to wile away the hours. At the eastern edge of the park stand six tall sentinels of dark timber, positioned a few metres away from each other, and containing little abstract paintings framed in silver. The path ends at a deserted ferry stop, requiring another few minutes of street walking before descending back to the riverside.
The Banana Bread Walk is as much about the delights of Brisbane as the delights of walking. The amount of physical and mental effort needed for walking is a perfect balance of focus and effort, raising our energy enough to release endorphins, and making us more alert, perceptive, agreeable, and open to the world. My inhibition tends to melt away, leaving a confidence to broach all manner of topics; to explore ideas that broaden our minds; to natter about anything and everything that fascinates us. We oscillate between being lost in our own little world and being enveloped by the sun-soaked sky. The doors of the world are thrown open, my anger at the current state of the world forgotten, the helplessness all but vanished; hypnotised by the never-ending delights of the city, and the company of my wonderful fiance, whose love seems more assured. My enslaving phone is forgotten during the Banana Bread Walk, no need to check messages, social media, the news, or weather radar. At that moment, the world is wider and more real and more fascinating than anything that could be offered by the measley LED display of my mobile. My partner and I are at our most open and accepting; loose-lipped and crinkle-eyed as the Banana Bread Walk leads us on yet another magnificent adventure.
The return to the river is the most spectacular part of the Banana Bread Walk. As we turn the corner of Merthyr Road and rejoin the path, where the river loops around to the city, the shimmering skyscrapers of the Brisbane CBD engulf the horizon, nestled behind the criss-cross steel of the Story Bridge. The entirety of the city is in full scope, to be appreciated all at once, set against the tree-lined bank of Kangaroo point, and the swirling brown of the Brisbane river. Being aware of the magnificence of this perspective, the city’s engineers created a floating boardwalk that hugged the western edge of New Farm (called New Farm Walkway), only to be swept away by the torrents of the 2011 flood, large chunks of which were rescued by tugboat captain Peter Denton, and repurposed as a pontoon outside of Brisbane². The boardwalk was replaced in 2014 by a solid, 840-metre structure of asphalt and steel, grounded in the bedrock of the river. It’s wide enough to accommodate cyclists and walkers, and dotted with shaded areas and drinking fountains, offering respite from the ferocious Queensland sun.
As we amble along the twisting walkway, on our right, the expensive riverside houses and apartment blocks gradually rise with the ascending New Farm cliffs, their ever-extending pontoons reaching out to connect with the boardwalk, until finally, the gradient of the weather-stained cliff defeats them. The Story Bridge—originally built in 1940 to reduce traffic congestion in the CBD, and the longest cantilever bridge in Australia—looms larger with every step, its two supporting structures rising into the sky, and dotted with tourists undertaking the “Story Bridge Climb.” 4 people died during the construction of the bridge, and many more have thrown themselves from its girders into the brown snake of Brisbane, resulting in the erection of curved fences along its perimeter, and telephones linked to suicide hotlines. At night, the Story Bridge is speckled with fluorescent colour which alternates to celebrate Australian events⁵, like maroon during State of Origin, pink during Brisbane Festival, and red and green during Christmas, which makes it look like a gigantic toppled Christmas tree. The Story Bridge marks the halfway mark of the Banana Bread Walk—roughly 6.5km.
As we align with the Story Bridge’s southern point, the boardwalk veers right and rejoins solid ground, an important area of land called Howard Smith Wharves that provided additional shipping resources for early 20th-century Brisbane, but fell into disuse a few decades later. The area underwent major redevelopment last year, and is now one of Brisbane’s most popular merrymaking spots, with a large brewery, a handful of bars and restaurants, a 5-star hotel, a selection of hireable venue halls for events such as weddings, and what seems like a million people eating, drinking, laughing and gesticulating their lives away in a frenzy of food and booze. Many of the buildings use timber from the original wharves, lending great character to the architecture. There’s stretches of immaculate grass, and a battered old trawler boat alongside Felons Brewing Co to commemorate the journey of the four felons—runaway prisoners who sailed from Sydney to discover the Brisbane River. Thousands of weekend beers are unknowingly tipped in their favour.
The Wharves are quieter in the morning, peppered with couples and families sipping lattes as they take in the views. As we pass under the gigantic cross-stitched underbelly of the Story Bridge, approaching the sprawling base of the first city skyscraper, we take a sharp left onto the City Reach boardwalk, which runs about a kilometre south along the eastern edge of the city, constructed of solid wood, polished chrome railings and torpedo-like concrete posts with little lights that illuminate the walkway at night. Across the river to the left is the lanky peninsula of Kangaroo Point and the Story Bridge, and to the right are the skyscrapers of the city, towering over waterfront bars, cafes, and restaurants. After five minutes we reach the majestic Customs House, a heritage-listed, classical style building with rows of Doric Greek columns set against a sprawling two-story colonnade, cream-coloured sandstone facade, and a lime-green umbrella dome that makes it one of Brisbane’s most handsome buildings, particularly at night when flood lamps repaint it an ivory gradient. The building opened in 1889, having originally been built for the collection of customs payments, and now a function venue and restaurant. When it was constructed, the building was an object of public pride³, becoming one of the city’s most loved landmarks. Even when overshadowed by skyscrapers seven times its size, Customs House wrenches your gaze and begs to be admired.
As we continue south along the boardwalk, the garbled murmur of tourists fills the air, as they recharge themselves in the slew of riverside restaurants and cafes. This is a popular area known as Eagle Street Pier, originally a gateway for visiting ships, now a gateway for visiting tourists. At night this area buzzes with locals who guzzle booze in its riverside bars and glance at the tumbled Christmas tree overhanging the river. The area is also home to the Kookaburra Queens II cruise boat—a 30-metre long, 3-story paddle wheeler, which would look more at home on the Mississippi than the Brisbane river. With its distinctive white beech posts and red cedar design, it looks like somebody has plonked a Queenslander house on the river and asked it to float. The vessel was named in honour of the bird that is “never seen to be drinking water,” in the hope that it’ll inherit the same future.
It becomes quieter again as we distance ourselves from Eagle Street Pier, save for the occasional thrashing of a cyclist, and the alarming rattle of wooden beams as they whoosh past in a flurry of colorful lycra. The boardwalk ends at the northeastern corner of the City Botanic Gardens, a voluminous 200,000m² of grassy splendour, filled with cycads, palms, figs, bamboo, mahogany, macadamias, jacarandas and dragon trees, with placards to identify and explain each, and sprawling frog-filled lagoons accosted by ducks, red-nosed Moorhen, lapwings with blades on their wings, cormorants, skittle-coloured lorikeet, damselflies, water dragons and beaky bin chickens taking a well deserved break from garbage rustling. The wonderful diversity of the gardens come from the actions of curator Walter Hill, whose experimental planting program in 1885 led to the creation of the botanical paradise that you see today. The site is considered so beautiful, and so culturally important, that the Queensland Heritage Register describes it as the “most significant non-Aborginal cultural landscape in Queensland.” It’s a cornucopia of flora and fauna—another priceless Brisbane gem that makes the Banana Break Walk such a joy.
As we enter the gardens from the northeast entrance, we join a shaded path that hugs the perimeter, just a little elevated from the river. In this corner of the park you can usually find an older Asian lady in an airy blouse of flowery chintz, wearing jet black sunglasses, taking slow and deliberate steps in what I assume to be some kind of meditative walk (possibly Tai Chi). Despite the flurries of people whirling past, jabbering, giggling, and Instagramming, the lady’s face is a picture of serenity. I like to think that any time we visit that northeastern corner of the park, she’ll be there—the Oriental spirit of the Botanic Gardens, demonstrating our beautiful capacity for peace. In sharp contrast on our left is a Scottish cannon sitting on the crest of the bank, shipped to Brisbane in the 17th century to defend the new colony of Queensland⁴, and somehow making the meditating lady seem even more honourable.
We continue on the path, the occasional beam breaking through the whispering canopy, creating dances of light on the criss-crossed pavement. Across the river on our left, the golden cliffs of Kangaroo Point rise up like a formidable defense, its volcanic rock dotted with fluorescent early morning climbers determined to overcome its craggy face, barely perceptible through the haze of the morning sun. We loop right with the formation of the river, skirting the southern end of the peninsula, until a lofty brick stage appears—Riverstage, a 9500-capacity venue that opened in 1989, and plays host to some of the world’s best musical talent. Riverstage’s sloped, amphitheatre-style layout allows even the shortest of hobbits to get a decent view—a symphonic feast for Tooks, Brandybucks, and Bagginses alike—with the crest of its hill only 50 metres from the stage. It somehow achieves the task of feeling intimate while also holding ten thousand people. We’ve enjoyed some serious musical debauchery at this venue, and will continue to do so until our backs and knees can no longer support us.
With Riverstage behind us, we exit the gardens under the sprawling branches of a Banyan Fig Tree, which in its thirst for ever-more water, grows mutant-like vertical roots from the upper-ends of its branches that stretch down to the ground, and to continue with the Tolkien metaphors, looks like an Ent from outer space. When my folks were visiting from the UK a couple of years back, my mum was amazed by the weirdness of its vertical roots (branches in England usually grow upwards).
The path splits into a few directions at this point—right and up towards the Queensland University of Technology, its glass and silver campus shimmering in the morning sun; straight ahead towards the western flank of the city, or left over the Goodwill Bridge, which is where we head. A green canopy of branches stretches over the start of this footbridge, which at night, twinkles with fairy lights, delighting party goers as they leave Riverstage. I was once scolded by a policeman on this bridge for not wearing a bicycle helmet, and forced to walk the bike home because he said I “couldn’t risk it,” as if I were riding a Vincent Black Shadow. This is one of Australia’s many nanny state laws—infringements on personal freedom, based on the assumption that the average person is an idiot who must be protected from himself. The list of bicycle-related fines in Queensland reveals the absurdity of it all. Some of my favourites include:
Riding a bicycle while not astride the rider’s seat facing forwards ($133)
Leading an animal while riding a bicycle ($133)
Riding a bicycle within 2m of the rear of a moving motor vehicle for more than 200m ($133)
You can even be breathalysed on a bicycle, and get penalty points on your driving license. This wonderful convict-descended nation seems determined to expel the once-cherished larrikin, to become a nation of—what? Docile law-abiding subservients, who’d sooner thrash their own mothers than slam their foot on the accelerator? Spineless toadies whose lungs would never feel the pungence of a mammoth choof hit? Thankfully, there’s still plenty of people in Australia who realise that nanny state laws are to be broken, and fuck the fines.
As we descend towards South Bank the Queensland Maritime Museum appears, which my dad insists we visit whenever he’s over, spending hours wandering around the decommissioned frigate that sits in the dry dock, and chatting to the rickety sailor who once served on it. Our path loops back towards the river, emerging onto the southern tip of the South Bank Parklands, where more tourists are satiating themselves with breakfast and magnificent views of the city. To our right is the River Quay Green—a semi-circle patch of grass on the riverbank that hosts free live music on Sundays, where you can sip booze and listen to the trilling of a twenty-something singer.
We continue through the shaded parklands, passing a little man-made stream lined with stones, leading to a shallow and colourful pool area where toddlers dart and delight in the jets of water shooting from the ground. Soon enough we reach the main lagoon of the parklands—a 100-metre stretch of water elevated from the riverside promenade, making it feel like an infinity pool, and skirted by a small man-made beach. 11 million people visit this area every year—they say you should keep your mouth closed if going for a swim.
Our twisting bougainvillea-clad path takes us past the South Bank Piazza—a 2000-seat amphitheatre that never seems to host any events. In the seven years I’ve been in Brisbane, I haven’t seen a single person in there, or anything being advertised, which is odd considering its prime location. You could put a wind-up monkey on its stage and people would probably sit there and watch it.
We exit the park into Brisbane’s cultural precinct, which includes the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC), the Queensland Art Gallery, the Queensland Museum, and the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA)—something for everyone when a summer storm comes rumbling. We once saw Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi at QPAC, whose achingly beautiful performance sent scores of people to sleep, jolting awake to realise they’d spent $100 for an uncomfortable nap.
We cut left through the middle of the cultural precinct onto Melbourne St, finally turning away from the river, and after thirty or so minutes of streetwalking, with legs and minds aching from the effort, we arrive back at our apartment on Montague Road, gratified and charmed with all that the wonderful Banana Bread Walk has given us, and feeling lucky to call Brisbane home.
There are many statues and images of the Supreme Leaders in the Democratic Republic of North Korea, and as a visitor, you must abide by some rules. Breaking these rules will result in life imprisonment, followed by the one-by-one removal of your toes.
As a dissentious foreigner, you’ll want to know why. These are the reasons that you cannot fold an image of a Supreme Leader:
A Supreme Leader’s body is tougher than all of the bodies of the world combined. Folding their image would be disregarding this fact.
A Supreme Leader’s face was chiseled by angels and is sublime. Folding a Supreme Leader’s face would be like folding your Mona Lisa, even though we know that your Mona Lisa is worthless when compared to a picture of a Supreme Leader.
Supreme Leaders are tall and powerful and must not be made shorter by folding their legs.
Every image of a Supreme Leader’s face is a wondrous miracle. Why would you fold a miracle?
Folding the Supreme Leader’s face in unusual ways is a desecration to his peerless beauty. The impudent dog responsible for this image was hunted down and forced to eat his own intestines.
Note: we will take your passport for safe-keeping when you arrive in the Democratic Republic of North Korea, and fold it however we like.
In 2012, a skinny boy joined the software company that I was working for, ten years my junior, but twenty years smarter. Within a few hours he was suggesting fixes for my lousy code. I felt immediately threatened, resentful but too proud to show it. He probably noticed anyway.
He’s a close friend today. And thank god, such natural forces are better as allies. But I can’t be chums with every clever bastard, and in a meritocracy, where people are rewarded on their intelligence and achievements, the rest of them are my enemies. The office is a carpeted battleground where my disadvantage is apparent. I lose limbs from the skillful feats of my opponents, and my own dismal failures. I’m chopped away bit by bit, reduced to a disabled and bloody stump, little worse than before.
A meritocracy takes the brutal competitiveness of nature and turns the dial up. Perform, or be outperformed. Be smart, or be outsmarted. Was it created by some clever demon who wanted to torment those of average intelligence? I seem destined to struggle in a system that illuminates my mediocrity; abandoned at the foot of a ladder too slippery to climb.
“They are tested again and again … If they have been labelled ‘dunce’ repeatedly they cannot any longer pretend; their image of themselves is more nearly a true, unflattering reflection.”
I’ve worked with some blockheads over the years, their actions a sharp reminder of my own shortcomings. Once, a guy from our sales team received the contact info for a lead, and dialled 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9, believing it to be their real phone number. I can still feel my cheeks burning on his behalf. He’d learned to gloss over his repeated stupidity with roars of laughter, but his eyes brimmed with sorrow. Floundering was his default mode, like he’d been born into an ill-fitting world, where confidence is as durable as a fart in a hurricane.
In a meritocracy, self-esteem is a precious reserve controlled by our leaders, who like gods, release it at their leisure. It might be granted as a smile, a touch on the shoulder, or an awkward thumbs up, at which point we’re thrust skyward, breaching the altitude of the high-achievers, who are visibly aggrieved, but satisfied as we plummet back to inadequacy—our rightful place. Inadequacy is the destiny of the unexceptional. Gold stars aplenty, just not for us. And as we witness the effortless confidence of our glorious colleagues, every accolade received, every favourable look, every round of applause intensifies our jealousy.
Meritocracy is meant to eliminate the luck of feudalism—success purely on merit. But luck wasn’t removed, just altered. With feudalism, luck is status at birth—kings, nobles, nights, and peasants. In a meritocracy, luck is intelligence at birth. Today’s kings are determined by their brain power, not their castle-shuffling parents. Also, the luck of status remains in a meritocracy: being born into a wealthy family leads to better education, and greater intelligence. Though a meritocracy teaches us that we’re entirely responsible for our own success, it’s still highly influenced by luck.
The system makes my head spin. Every fibre of me protests. I want to clothe myself in black and storm Parliament; seize the scheming pollies by the scruff and demand something better. How can the average Joe be confident in a society that rewards intelligence, and scorns the ordinary? We’re commanded to be exceptional, yet unequipped for the job. Like American Beauty’s Angela Hayes, we realise that there’s nothing worse than being ordinary. It’s failure. Ordinary is the rule, not the exception. Most of us have to live with that.
Social media makes things worse, with its curated streams of colourful perfection, stark against the humdrum grey of our own lives. Every post reinforces our pathetic, flawed existence, until our eyes are flooded green, and heads horned. Here’s a video of a Japanese man with eight perfectly obedient Welsh Corgis, and all I have is a wily cockroach with an appetite for bin scraps. The washboard abs plastered across my news feed are cutting reminders of my own burgeoning paunch. Everyone is exceptional except me.
The solution? Break the rules. A meritocracy is just a game invented by a society that values intelligence, with victory counted in cash. There’s other values to live by: kindness, courage, humour, wisdom, fortitude, temperance, compassion, loyalty, and a ton more. Some degree of intelligence is required to earn a living, but it doesn’t have to be priority number one. If the rat race is exhausting, and you’re too fat and slow to win, there’s other races.
Our worth isn’t defined by our IQ, economic rank, or position in a company. It’s defined by whatever we merit. The beauty of Western freedom is that we don’t have to play by society’s rules. We can write our own, creating a place where status anxiety is quieted to a murmur; where the average Joes and Janes of the world can flourish in a game of their choosing, and realise that there’s nothing shameful in having an unexceptional brain.
In the summer of 1996, when I was about 13 years old, my buddy Neil got himself a handheld video camera. For a group of impoverished teenagers, it was a thing of wonder, and the first thing that our group of friends wanted to do was to fake an embarrassing fall, so that we could post the video to entertainment show You’ve Been Framed. For those unfamiliar with the program, it features a string of home-video gaffes such as people falling off tables at weddings, dogs running headfirst into bushes, and children using footballs to splatter ice creams over their dads’ faces. If we were able to stage a convincing fall, where one of us trips at just the right time and bundles into the unforgiving concrete, we might become television stars!
The stage was our usual spot for playing football—a vacant, semi-detached house with a large windowless side, which we could blast the ball at without complaint. Most of the game was played in the road itself, with only the goalkeeper on the footpath, slightly raised up on a kerb. The plan was for Lee—the oafish, bravest lump of our friendship group—to line up a shot on goal, trip on the kerb, and crash into the pavement. It was full-proof.
With the camera rolling, the ball was passed towards Lee, and the confusion caused by the charade made him trip on his own feet, and his great mass of flesh was sent flailing into the air, followed by a spectacular clattering onto the footpath. We watched the clip again and again, until our cheeks and sides ached from laughter. The clip never did get featured on You’ve Been Framed, but it didn’t matter—that little moment of joy was what we really needed. I loved my group of friends, and wouldn’t have changed anything for the world.
Having close friends and spending time with them is arguably one of the best aspects of human existence, but despite being awash with technologies that allow us batter our chums with messages, photographs, and video clips, people around the world are feeling lonelier than ever. Nearly half of Americans claim to feel regularly lonely¹. A third of Britons say the same¹. In Japan, there’s half a million people under 40 who haven’t interacted with anyone for at least 6 months¹. A study from the General Social Survey showed that between 1985 and 2004, the people with whom the average American could discuss important matters dropped from three to two, and the number of Americans who had nobody to discuss important matters with tripled⁵. Since the 1970’s, American teenagers have been meeting with their friends significantly less—roughly half as much as they used to⁶.
The problem is so urgent that scientists have declared a “loneliness epidemic”, with great concern for the public’s health. Lonely people are 30% more prone to stroke, or to develop coronary artery disease². People who are blessed with supportive relationships have lower blood pressure, and reduced anxiety². Shockingly, loneliness carries a bigger risk for premature death than smoking or obesity³. The people sitting in their homes pining for human connection are 32% more likely to die than those who have friends⁴.
“A robust body of scientific evidence has indicated that being embedded in high-quality close relationships and feeling socially connected to the people in one’s life is associated with decreased risk for all-cause mortality as well as a range of disease morbidities.”
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Theodore F. Robles, David A. Sbarra³
As a teenager in the 90’s, if I wasn’t in the mood for galavanting the streets with my friends, I stayed inside and entertained myself with reading, television, or Super Mario Bros. Eventually, I’d get bored and go out anyway. Today, we’re faced with an onslaught of solo entertainment, of anything we could possibly imagine. We can spend eight hours absorbing the spectacular neon storytelling of Stranger Things, or committing virtual murder on Call of Duty. We can listen to a fascinating Joe Rogan podcast, as he quizzes a guest about the spiritual benefits of ingesting magic mushrooms. We can shift into zombie mode and scroll through our Instagram feed, with an endless number of adorable puppies to light up our cute receptors. We can fire up a virtual music studio and compose a thundering techno track. Or we can strap on a VR headset, leave this cruel world behind, and forge virtual friendships instead. There’s a form of entertainment suited for everybody, and it’s becoming more and more accessible.
With so much guaranteed entertainment at our fingertips, why bother with the effort of interacting with real people, with its risks of mediocrity? Human interaction is a roll of the dice—you might win and end up with closer friendships, or you might lose and lumber home dejectedly, after having bored your companions to sleep with stories of your dog’s anarchistic bowel movements. Being a conversation conjurer is a tough job, particularly if you have a problem with being vulnerable, or a burning desire to be always right. Even the most confident socialites fail from time-to-time, temporarily blighting the group with awkwardness, until someone in better form steps in to relieve the tension. Moments such as these can drive us away from our companions into the soothing arms of the latest Netflix sensation, pleasure all-but guaranteed, and not a social faux pas in sight. But despite its many excellent benefits, Netflix isn’t going to keep you warm at night, or lend a sympathetic ear for your creeping sense of sadness. It can’t offer concerned advice about your burgeoning drinking problem, or innocently tease you about the additional weight that has found its way onto your face. It can only entertain you, and while it’s a champion in its field, it doubles up as a devil that steals away the time needed to fortify friendships, and stave off loneliness.
Measuring up to modern entertainment is tough. My conversation doesn’t have the depth of an episode of The Wire. It doesn’t transport you to an entirely new world, weaving a beautifully-constructed narrative that portrays the precariousness of being a resident of Baltimore. It isn’t as thrilling as gunning down outlaws on Red Dead Redemption 2, nor does it offer the same sense of achievement. Reddit’s most popular posts are all funnier than me. Why settle for something subpar, when you can have something sublime? But as we hide ourselves away in our homes, distracting ourselves with all-singing all-dancing entertainment, our sense of loneliness swells. The descent into social isolation isn’t accompanied by a melancholy solo violin, but the optimistic chimes of candy being crushed, amusing you into solitude, one lemon drop at a time. In the small window of downtime when YouTube counts down to the next autoplay, you might receive a whispered internal reminder of your social isolation, followed by cravings of human connection, difficult to alleviate after years of rejecting invitations in favour of sofa-bound inertia. Can we be blamed? Social interaction can be a messy business—entertainment is anything but, and can even be addictive. One only has to witness the madness of a teenager having his World of Warcraft account deleted to get an idea of how important entertainment is for some people.
The advance of technology provides new opportunities to gratify us, with artificial intelligence being used to create even more potent forms of entertainment. As we happily sign up for brand new apps in exchange for unbridled access to our personal information, artificially intelligent systems are able to gorge themselves on our data, producing models that accurately predict the most effective way to entertain us. Data gurus PricewaterhouseCoopers predict 2019 to be the year of media personalisation⁷, with refinement and filtering of our entertainment becoming more popular, allowing us to curate endless hours of tailor-made fun. This is like injecting steroids into an AI system. As we endow it with unbridled access to our preferences, it can use that information to offer up even more enthralling forms of entertainment. Eventually, and oh-so-gradually, we might find ourselves transformed into the chair-bound blobs from WALL-E, thoroughly entertained, but lonely beyond belief.
Back when the world was black and white, our grandparents would huddle around the radio as a family. Since then we’ve gained access to the television, VCR, game console, online news, Compact Discs, MTV, the world wide wide, talk radio, DVDs, blogs, the iPod, social media, smartphones, and more. The plethora of entertainment now available to us has quashed the possibility of boredom, but makes the forging and maintenance of solid relationships a secondary thought, as though it’s more important to be entertained than loved. Nothing could be further from the truth. As we become exposed to even more forms of entertainment, bigger and better than before, we may find ourselves slipping further into isolation, delighted by rainbows of colour and sound, but estranged from the only thing that can offer us a treasured sense of belonging: our fellow humans.
In a few short weeks, I’m about to re-enter the world of unemployment, with the intention of moving to a writing-based career. At this point, what bothers me most isn’t the sudden lack of income, or the fear of measuring up in an unfamiliar endeavour, but the fakery that tends to accompany job interviews. These rare and awkward encounters seem to me like a game of poker, in which I’m trying to convince my opponents that I have a full house, when in honesty I have little more than a pair of two’s. The deception required to bluff through a job interview, persuading your potential employers that you have all of the necessary tools to bring value to their company, is something that I’ve always loathed. What I’d really like to do is put all of my cards on the table and say “this is what I have, and I’m a nice guy who gets along with most people. Can I have a job please?” Nothing contrived or rehearsed—just pure, unadulterated honesty.
Given our species’ penchant for putting on appearances, such a situation seems foolishly utopian. Certain scenarios require us to dance the dance that has been chosen for us, or withdraw from society completely to live on our own terms, like Viggo Mortensen’s character in the wonderful Captain Fantastic. But in my experience, the varied situations that I’ve undergone during my time as a regular, city-dwelling homosapien have proven to be best tackled by being honest, as often as possible. People just seem to like you more when you’re straight with them, and those who mutter offended scoffs can go and boil their heads. This isn’t giving yourself license to act like an arse—politeness and social niceties are essential for emotional creatures such as ourselves, with the capacity for horrific violence. It’d be impossible to make friends or get along with anyone if you’re staring them down with a chimpish grin.
“Masks beneath masks until suddenly the bare bloodless skull.”
With honesty, all manner of playacting is made redundant, and with it, all of the exhausting responsibilities required to convince the world of your brilliance. It’s the relief a theatre actor might feel when stepping away from their persona for the evening, unshackled from the obligation of remembering lines, striking poses, and fabricating emotions. Instead, every emotion is allowed to rise naturally from the depths of their soul, rather than their intraparietal sulcus—a part of the brain used when acting a role¹. New-found legitimacy engenders a wonderful lightness, as though we’ve been wearing heavy work boots for most of our lives, and have just swapped them for obscenely fluffy, Merino-wool slippers. Given the stress required to live a life of pretense, the buoyancy of honesty might even extend beyond the metaphorical, as stress makes you gain weight. As every little morsel of chicanery dissipates into the ether, our relaxation increases, until we feel able to navigate the world as unapologetically ourselves, in full defective glory. As if by magic, the words that we were previously too frightened to mutter come bursting forth, with little worry about whether it splits our audience in two, or whether we’ll upset the sourpuss in the accounts department. Honesty can have the same effect on our inhibitions as a glass of the Hunter Valley’s finest Shiraz, and feels comparably soothing. In fact, as I’ve gotten older and become gradually more honest, I find that alcohol has much less of an effect on my inhibitions, because they no longer have such a ferocious hold to begin with.
I can’t begin to imagine how much energy I’ve wasted in my life trying to paint the “perfect” picture of myself. 300 hash browns worth, at least. The kicker is, regardless of how perfect you assume your behaviour to be, there’s always a select group of people who’ll continue to dislike you. With honesty, those people are lit up like the Star of Bethlehem, which you can quickly turn your back on in pursuit of something a little more your style. Most people seem well-equipped to detect pretentious behaviour anyway—trying to hide your faults can have the unfortunate effect of bringing them into the limelight. Why not just cut the bullshit and be yourself? No longer will there be any requirement to paint yourself cool, admirable, smart, capable, attractive, or anything else that society deems important. Think of the brainpower that you’ll save for something that’s actually worthwhile, like watching season three of Stranger Things.
“To conceal anything from those to whom I am attached, is not in my nature. I can never close my lips where I have opened my heart.”
The universe can be a pretty cruel place to exist, especially during those uncomfortable moments when we reflect on our own mortality, and what the hell it all means. Slipping into a role for which society would give a boring and predictable thumbs-up is dangerously easy, putting us on a cookie-cutter path that might destroy our uniqueness. The more honest that we are with ourselves, the likelier we are to discover off-roads that could lead us places that feel wholly authentic. We’re born into a greyscale world, devoid of any intrinsic meaning. Honesty is a paintbrush that allows us to colour the world with meaningful vibrancy—we know which colours make us wide-eyed, and we can use that knowledge to paint our masterpiece, with no instruction needed from a higher authority. Only when we muster the courage to be honest can we carve out a meaningful path for ourselves.
“Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.”
At times, reality can be a tough cookie to crack. Our existence as unique, separate beings makes us prisoners of our own subjectivity; we understand reality in terms of our senses, and from what others say about it. If everyone went about their day lying through their teeth, it’d be a lot harder for us to determine what reality actually is. Our brain’s interpretation of our senses would become king—a mediocre choice for a mass of tissue that has a ton of biases, uses mental shortcuts to make decisions, and can hallucinate the most fabulous nonsense imaginable. The level of honesty within our species plays a large role in determining our understanding of the world. If Google decided one day that its maps should only be 50% honest, you might find yourself in the middle of the desert, wondering where all of this sand came from. We owe it to our fellow humans to give them an accurate reflection of the world, whether it’s an external, shared truth such as the weather, or an internal emotional truth, like the grouchiness you’re feeling after last night’s tequila competition with a rustic hidalgo from Guadalajara. With truth comes clarity of vision for all.
“Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs. This state of mind is not common, but it is essential for right thinking…”
Bending the truth only seems necessary in times of peril, when the stakes are extremely high. You probably wouldn’t want to tell a suicide-risk friend that their new haircut makes them look like a deranged poodle, lest they make a beeline for the nearest precipice. The loveable robot TARS from Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is programmed with a 90% honesty setting, claiming absolute honesty to be an unwise approach for dealing with emotional human beings. I’d argue that 99% is the preferred setting, with the 1% reserved for those rare moments that dishonesty seems to be the correct moral choice. Anything greater seems to be unnecessary, exhausting pretense—strapping on a straitjacket and a plastered smile. In an era infected with all manner of falsity—Donald Trump; tampered elections; fake news; climate change denial; the efficacy of Capitalism; Flat Earth theory; anti-vaxxers, and much more—honesty isn’t just chicken soup for our souls, but a moral necessity, to give us the strength to claw our way out of this filthy bog of crock into which we’ve fallen.
At school, for a period of a few years, I was a racist little bastard. Most of the black kids in my school were taller, wider, and a hell of a lot tougher than I was, putting their physical prowess to use by skipping lunch queues, taking the best seats in class, and shouldering me effortlessly off the ball during games of football, as though I weighed about the same as a cocktail sausage. During break, they’d nestle into their desired spot in the playground, and blast the surrounding concrete with the tinny, harsh sounds of 2Pac and Busta Rhymes, to the distaste of every Verve or Lenny Kravitz fan in the vicinity (this was a boy’s school, so no self-respecting lad in the 90’s would own up to liking the Spice Girls). These injustices, together with the fact that I could do nothing to restore them without receiving an eye-watering pummelling, created a burning rage inside me, discharged among friends with mutters of “fucking wogs” or “those black bastards are at it again.” At the time it seemed the most natural thing in the world; a righteous point-of-view that dragged us from the lowly position of pathetic, weak and useless, to an elevated position of power and superiority, even if it was just in our minds. Puberty was the boggiest of slogs, and when you’re just trying to drag yourself through something in one piece, reality and truth seem to have less importance. Racism just happened to be a readily-available psychological defence mechanism, used to cover up feelings of ineptitude and worthlessness, protecting my meager sense of self-esteem. I just felt like a skinny, useless white boy, surrounded by all manner of kids who were bigger, stronger, and smarter than me. I was like the frightened little dog that barks because of its fear, fooling nobody aside from myself.
In the first year of sixth form, I escaped what would have undoubtedly been a severe beating, after my racists comments were overheard and passed onto the most enormous black kid in the entire school—a six-foot brick shithouse who, if my memory serves correctly, went by the name of Kwame. The charge against me was “wanting to stab a black boy”, which proved to be a complete lie on the part of the informer—a compact Indian kid who wanted to embellish my intolerable racism as much as possible, in order to see me punished. After weeks of successfully dodging the formidable wall of muscle that wanted to squeeze me to death, the snitch pointed me out to him in our common room, and after politely asking my nemesis to step outside (a request that he took as an invitation to fight), I talked myself out of the entire pickle by declaring that someone with mixed-race cousins such as myself wouldn’t dream of saying something so abhorrent, because such a thing would technically apply to my very own flesh and blood, as though I harboured desires to stab my own family to death because of their darker complexions. That part is true, by the way—I do have mixed race cousins. My silver tongue saved me from a trouncing on that day, but in hindsight, I probably deserved a smallish beating.
Today, whenever a racist peeks over the parapet with a unintentionally blatant comment, my first response is usually contempt. I marvel at their ability to pigeonhole an entire race of people, while conveniently forgetting that I used to do exactly the same thing, for probably the same reasons. Thankfully, my confidence and self-esteem increased with age, blessing me with fresher, clearer perspectives, and a hardier ego that didn’t require cowardly racism in order to protect it. For the remaining racists wandering the world—shaking in their steel toe-capped boots whenever a burly black gentleman passes them in the street, and cursing them quietly under their breaths—changing their views might be a lot more difficult, particularly when surrounded with like-minded friends, each one more chicken-hearted than the last. Many racists appear to be nought but frightened pussies who never developed the true confidence of adulthood, but instead remain in pitiful immaturity, shielding their fragile self-esteem with hateful vitriol, but lacking the knowledge or the motivation to understand why they behave in such ways. To know thyself is tough, but judgement is easy, and feels oh-so-good. The easier path is always more tempting, particularly for the psychologically weak, who might trapse along it comfortably for their entire lives, lacking the courage and will to take the harder road, and forgoing a happier existence in the process. Ignorance is most certainly not bliss.
Art has a way of blessing us with truth and understanding, in unintended ways. Aside from an increased sense of confidence, a turning point for my own bigotry was reading Lee Harper’s To Kill A Mockingbird, a book so beautifully written, weaving a story of such crystal-clear clarity, that you’re left with the fiercest sense of injustice for the main characters, and a greater sense of empathy for their terrible plight. I suspect that Harper has softened the views of many a small-minded bigot, with the potential to remedy many more, but in our age of ignorance, where social media and tabloid journalism serve as dominant teachers, conveying little but righteous outrage and fear, the likelihood of such a person reading the book seems about as feasible as Tommy Robinson marrying Malala Yousafzai. These types of noxious media can act as tribalistic echo chambers of disdain, shrinking our world down to scant collections of regurgitated hate, with little existing outside of it, and little chance of us breaking away to something good and admirable. Such comfortable bubbles have a limited amount of oxygen, before we suffocate. An exceptional story, on the other hand, can be a masterful teacher of empathy, and help to shift the views of the most stubborn extremist, if we could somehow force it upon them without impinging on their freedom.
For me, school was a time for survival, rather than self-improvement. I’m fortunate enough to have been raised with the support of kind, caring parents, satisfying the majority of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and once school was over, affording me the luxury of self-actualisation in the guise of endless books. Some people aren’t so fortunate. It’s tempting to become immediately self-righteous when faced with intolerance, but such a response displays a lack of understanding in itself, the exact same source as the racism. Babies don’t emerge from their mothers with their arm held aloft in a hateful seig heil, but instead develop such behaviours as a way to soothe their fear, protect their delicate egos, and forgo the effort needed to actually understand the world. What is a racist, after all, than a frightened dog, yapping to protect itself?
Out in the barren desert exists a swollen spread of light and colour, as though mustered and plonked by some alien species—a kind of base experiment, to be observed with scientific, oversized eyes. It glows like a party of a million writhing fireflies, criss-crossing their way across sandy dancefloors, and buzz buzz buzzing through the all-too-quick night, spindly legs shaking in protest at the emerging glares of the unsought sun as it peeks over the horizon. No matter, another night awaits, and another, and another, until bellies, livers and minds become bloated to excess, desperate to burst with raging torrents of sickly vomit.
Spic and span is the money-making plan—every surface must be gleaming, carved from imitation marble, threaded with lavish bands of silver and platinum. How better to gain riches, than to present richness? How better to stoke vanity than with the illusion of splendour, nourishing the confidence of its imprudent admirers? Here’s a gleaming pyramid, surface spotted with warm, yellow luminance; here’s a soaring water feature, radiating with the sheen of a thousand beams of light, undeniably beautiful, but designed to hypnotise nevertheless. A city filled with gratified cooing, senses endlessly feasted, treated like the kings of old, perched atop their garish thrones peppered with gold and jewels, celebrating their awesome stature with the enthusiasm of a thousand unhinged men. Every seat suitably padded, every bed perfectly soft, every whim wholly satisfied—grunting, belching, slapping and snorting our way to hedonistic ecstasy, ingesting Mitsubishi-stamped pills and mounds of white powder with the stench of chemicals, blood trail leading back to the slums of South America, too dark and distant to be perceived.
Luckless ladies weave throughout the grid, targeting men of every kind, their ill repute disguised beneath a glossy-lipped smile of feigned interest. Wife waiting back at the hotel? No problem—we’re here to please, not to judge— take my hand and let me lead you to the softest of places, that may or may not be smeared with hair-clinging crustaceans, waiting for the opportunity to clamp their yellowy claws onto a victim new. We even take chips as payment. Swappin’ plastic for fellatio, just don’t ask us to swallow—a hangover remains. Not interested? Then fuck you. Flee to the pole-clinging strippers, stuff their lace with paper, and forego the satisfaction of a real happy ending. Try to ignore the empty look in their eyes as they thrash about like reluctant puppets, wondering how it all went so tragically wrong—but wait, I love this song!
Rooms packed with sweat-glistened bodies, jostling and grinding to the sunken soundwaves of the latest musical fad, sipping extravagant, overpriced vodka—same stuff, different label—obvious, pitiful peacocks, drowning in feathers and arse, deficient in novelty. Swanky swimming pools peppered with brown bodies, arms flailed in the direction of a sunglass-wearing douchelord—a commander of the most basic of sheep. Respite is taken in the squishy comfort of a private poolside cabana, waited on by a bony young waitress wearing a plastered smile, serving spirit from a $750 bottle—every penny soothing our insecurity through the illusion of status. In the Nevada desert, eminence is expensive, and oh-so-fleeting.
Just a couple of colours to determine your destiny, with another thrown in, sometimes twice, to cheat you out of it. A table surrounded by expectant faces, one moment joyful, the next despairing, as the chips inevitably make their way back into the owner’s overstuffed pockets, ready to be reinvested into some shiny new thing—a glistening fountain; a glossy chrome staircase, or a younger, red-lipped waitress—whatever it takes to bring in the hapless punters. At table forty-two is a man with his head in his hands, who sold his home to make it big—a hundred thousand chips shrunk down to one, with remorseless masters grinning in the shadows, and beaming as a fresh-faced mug nestles into the seat next to him.
It isn’t really the money we’re after, but dopamine, to be got at all costs, with peril ignored—a teeny brain squirt after every little success, scantly experienced, yet catching us hook, line, and sinker, over and over again, until our mouths are dry, and pockets desolate—an empty space where even the most dishonourable moth wouldn’t be caught dead. Success at the table is not the same as success at life. Moments of jubilant triumph, laden with chips of the richest colour, are equalised by periods of exhausted devastation, when you’d better hope that there’s someone who loves you enough to comfort you. On its most lucrative days, the city carves out our insides until all is hollow—nothing left but an empty shell whose hopes and dreams have been efficiently collected and deposited.
But don’t worry, you can win it all back next time.
Beauty is typically reserved for the exceptional—the chiselled, masculine jawline of a testosterone-fuelled male; the gorgeously undulating curves of a heavenly, chestnut-haired female; the lustrous, delicate interior of St.Peter’s Basilica, sparkling vivid gold and blue, or a formidable, soaring snow-capped mountain range, spanning the distant horizon. Such things harness the power to take our breath away, and their proclamation as beautiful seems both natural, and right. We may even be tempted to label such things as “perfect,” relegating all else to the sorry state of “imperfect,” and forgoing the need to commit any of our precious attention towards them.
But beauty, far from being confined to the extraordinary, can be found in the most unexpected of places, in the most unexpected forms. It’s the fumbling awkwardness of two teenagers trying to interact; the overly-macho construction worker paying for his workmate’s lunch, without the need to nudge him and call him “bro.” It’s the long, drawn-out purr of the single mother at the end of her day, as she stretches out on her threadbare chaise-lounge to rest. Beauty is all around us, and if we have any interest in appreciating it, we’ll require an attitude of open receptivity, willing to receive that which would usually be met with an upturned nose. Finding beauty in the mundane obliges us to forgo our misguided judgments. Nothing destroys beauty more efficiently than a negative preconceived notion, as illustrated vividly in cinematic masterpiece American Beauty, when Ricky Fitts swells with emotion while describing his favourite homemade movie: a plastic bag swirling in the wind.
“It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. Right? And this bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”
Trash, by its very definition, is the last thing you would consider to be beautiful. But Fitts is anything but conventional. His slow, deliberate receptiveness equips him with incredible clarity of perception, bringing into focus a world of breathtaking beauty, hidden from those whose default approach is judgment. Our penchant for rapid assessment allows us to navigate life quickly and efficiently, but the trade-off is a decreased appreciation of the sublime. The faster we go, the harder it is to perceive the majesty of our astonishing, improbable existence. Our scope for beauty is reduced to the grand and spectacular—the “perfect” landscape, the “perfect” architecture, or the “perfect” face. The result is a tragically diminished sense of awe. The emblem of American Beauty is the red rose—society’s typical symbol of perfect beauty, but instead consistently used throughout the movie’s most contrived and ugly of moments, and absent during scenes of flawless, graceful honesty. The rose teaches us that there’s much more than superficial appearance would suggest, and that we must look closer to appreciate underlying beauty.
“There is room for beauty in every facet of existence”
Alan Ball, American Beauty screenwriter
During the Dutch 17th-century period known as the Golden Age, Jan Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch were also trying to teach us how to find incredible beauty in the mundane, by focusing on simple, everyday life for their exquisite paintings, such as women plucking ducks, pouring milk, or exchanging money with servants. Such commonplace activities might be considered dull by most, to be carried out as quickly as possible. But for Vermeer and de Hooch, trivial, everyday life held a fascinating allure that produced worthy subjects for their art. They realised that if we’re able to reject our preconceived notions, and offer our prolonged attention, an abundance of beauty can be found in the lives of ordinary, everyday people, elevating their chores into something almost sacred. The simple act of a kitchen maid pouring milk is as exquisite and important as the most traditionally grandiose of objects, to be equally revered.
Our world is delightfully complex—a twisting, warping smorgasbord of vivid colour, sound, texture, taste, and scent, each with seemingly infinite detail for us to experience. As we blitz through our lives like winged bats cast from the flaming pits of hell, flush with desperate ambition, a single, jutted branch can offer us the moment’s peace that we need to hang for a second, take the deepest of breaths, and open up our senses to the wondrous marvels around us. We can recognise the peculiar, humorous amble of the common domestic pigeon, bobbing its green and purple neck along the edge of a train platform; we can listen to the softly shimmering rustle of a towering oak tree, as it sways in a northerly breeze; we can pay attention to the unique texture of a limestone cliff face, as we delicately run our fingers over it; we can extinguish the glow of every screen and focus on the taste of the scrumptious, crispy roast potatoes that we’ve lovingly prepared for ourselves, or we can close our eyes as we breathe in the deliciously subtle, honey-like scent of a Balsam Poplar tree. Each and every experience is brimming with hidden beauty, waiting to be discovered with the use of our wonderful, fortuitous senses. One only has to witness a person suddenly gifted with a previously missing aspect of their senses, to realise how incredibly lucky we are to possess humanity’s full range. Every sense is a gift worthy of the gods, and using them to the fullest is the most fitting display of gratitude we can demonstrate. There’s always more detail to be discerned in the world around us, and we happen to harness five extraordinary ways to reveal it, each one providing a wholly unique, seductive experience.
“Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough… I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of god.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Time spent in our own heads—those never-ending, anxious ruminations that do us little good—is time lost for appreciating the gorgeous beauty of our world; for finding beauty in the mundane. As our focus turns inward, our senses are dampened—their sharpness dulled to allow better concentration on our internal thoughts, at the expense of noticing the comical little idiosyncrasies of your father-in-law as he tells a war story; the glistening sheen of a canal, being warmed by the afternoon sun, or the polite and orderly queue of a string of Monday morning commuters as the train pulls into the station, begrudging their obligation to work, but retaining their civility nonetheless. Our outward attention is required to enjoy such little delights.
“Life is so fast and hectic and filled with distraction that you have to teach yourself to be still, and be quiet, and allow yourself to look for what I call beauty.”
Alan Ball, American Beauty screenwriter
Mindful, extended observation is also made difficult by those pesky little gadgets that we’re so obsessed with, stealing away our precious attention with their incessant dinging, buzzing and vibrating. Though our dependence seems entrenched (they’re useful, after all), striking a good balance is critical for our increased appreciation of the tremendous planet on which we live. As we sit in a restaurant and wait for our lunch to be prepared, we can opt for mindful sensing—to look, listen, hear, and smell the world, at risk of seeming a little socially odd—or delve into the luminous comfort of our phones, probably on some form of social media, as bad for your soul as cigarettes are for your lungs.
Beauty is by no means confined to the exceptional. It’s waiting to be discovered in the most unexpected and delightful of places, deserved of our precious attention. There’s endless fascination hidden beneath the surface, waiting to be discovered, and as we open up our senses, it’s revealed to us in high-definition, in the most dazzling, impressive, and unpredictable of ways.