Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Good Life

I just realized that I have been posting these Australia travel notes with San Francisco times ... I will have to go back and adjust the previous ones, and this note will disappear when I have done that.

When one travels, it is hard not to imagine that things are inherently better or worse somewhere else. Certainly things are different, but I would like to operate from the notion that notwithstanding vast differences in practice and expectation, not to mention material well being and circumstance, that most groups of people average the same amount of laughter and sorrow. I would like to operate that way, but not sure if it is right.

The most "exotic" places I have traveled ... and that probably means the place the furthest from my life experience ... are Haiti and Papua New Guinea. In the latter, people laughed a lot and life seemed good notwithstanding the rather restricted range of foodstuffs available to the highlanders. There is a good life in Papua New Guinea that would not seem very bloody good to me if I were compelled to live it. In this sense, Australia is probably the least "exotic" place I have ever traveled because the foodstuff range is pretty comparable to here I come from, the people speak English, and the expectations seem broadly similar.

Even so, the good life in Australia has a different timbre than the good life in San Francisco.

It's quite chilly this morning ... I even have a "jumper" on. A few days back it was warm in the morning, and the TV news was reporting that the weather was nice. The morning heat filled me with a certain foreboding because I fear the insufferably hot days for which this place is famous. The real foreboding should have been that the heat was a predictor for the dust storm of the century.

My point here, as attenuated as it apparently may be, is that the good life here is bloody hot. Most people go about their lives, working and doing, but the tiny strip where sand meets surf is where the good life abounds. The famous swagger of the semi-clad Australian youth points to and derives from that strip, and from the blazing heat and the quenching waves.

Some years ago on the island of Nias, Ian and I were walking through Gunungsitoli to a boat that would carry us back to Sumatra. Blazing hot. A bunch of Aussie surfer guys loudly declaiming as they strutted along, their accompanying women trailing behind, pouting, clearly not having quite the time of it that their males were having. We were cranky about them because they had interfered with our idyll at Teluk Dalam, on the south coast. The Aussie's claimed the western point of the bay on which we were staying because the surf was good there. As we sought inner peace and solitudinous reflection in the evening, they drunkenly whooped it up and made asses of themselves.

This is the favored fable of Aussie surfers. Life has moved on, of course, and Aussie women are as liberated as women anywhere else. But the actual swagger I witness here is not loud and aggressive, but sleek and self-assured. Notwithstanding that there is something cloying and annoying about people who are beautiful, athletic, unemployed and fancy free, yet evidently still with sufficient means to enjoy the good stuff ... the beach bums are the proximate definition of the good life here. They don't seem to need to rub it in or lord it over. They just strut along the street secure on the corner of the good life that has accrued to them. Of course, this notion would be considerably disabused were I to venture to the notorious nocturnal drinking binges where alcohol and youth conspire to turn the good into its opposite ... but I am not looking at the dialectic of sublime and crass here. Rather, I am trying to put my finger on what passes as the middle middle Australian sublime.

Yesterday Shane and I toured Byron Bay, surely one of the most exquisite places anywhere in the world. Natural beauty, beautiful people, leisure ... alas, artless architecture obscuring the few traces of an older more genteel world, crappy souvenirs, cars everywhere. Exquisite these days is not what it once was.

And there's a point ... worldwide, exquisite used to be reserved for the rich, and now there is increasingly an exquisite that crassly goes well down the social ladder. Australia is a particularly pointed argument for this, because it is a place founded broadly on a principle of elevating the working class. There is a leveling force here that brings the very broad middle up. The good life here is for everyone if they make the right choices ... work hard all year and go to the beach on your holidays; that's the meme.

Shane complains about the louts who live on the dole, clog up the streets, do nothing, get drunk and stoned, and view the good life as entitling them to a lifetime of free stuff and fun. Cranky, me too. When you work for a living, you resent those who game your taxes for leisure and indolence. Of course, long-term those who ply this thin trade find diminishing returns; we saw a few of those, skinny, leathered skin, shoeless, ambling. I think most of the beautiful surfer types do it until they marry up and family down.

This is just not a society which believes that the ordinary life is a trap or a failure ... this is not a society that sees Michael Jordan as success and everything else as not good enough. This is not a society that runs by the moronic motto that "you can be anything you want to be if you just try hard enough." The American mythology of excess is tempered here. They have three "footie" leagues that are very successful and barely known off the continent. No athlete in Australian society is making 20 million a year. But they are successful nonetheless.

The night of my dust-induced discomfiture, I asked of the family that we do something out there, something other than the warm embrace of togetherness and familiarity. I was disappointed that my excursion to Sydney was drowned in that now infamous red dawn. Let me wax a little personal on that ... this has been one of those middle-aged voyages of self-discovery in which settling in with my intimates provides an inner warmth and recovery that I probably could not have managed so freely when I was younger. That said, I did want to have my indefatigable wild streak massaged as well. The 24 hours in Sydney was my chance to be a fag, that is a self-actualized, self-defined individual, unknown in the big city, observing, being observed, haunting and strutting in such a strut as I still manage. It was my mid-50s version of the good life, formed up and pared down to a single day and night of forced-march tourism, as I like to call it. It's really all I needed. And the fact that it was stolen by nature's sudden descent did not reduce the humbling that it induced. I am over the humbling now, and back to smirking about how little our little conceits matter in the larger frame. The memory of what I missed is not part of my inner self-mockery, and that will be my mental souvenir. That, and the vow that the next time I come to Australia (in three years for my nephew's promised graduation) I fly into Sydney and do it first.

So back to the family's night out. We went to the Currumbin Surf Club ... an Australian style institution which supports the good life by plowing the profits back to supporting the surf patrol. Leslie and Shane are members; Scott, my nephew, came along as well. Mother was enjoying a Happy Hour with my sister's mother-in-law at the seniors' development. And, to set the scene, Currumbin is surely the coolest town on the coast here, seemingly least developed, most like it ought to be, low rise, long beach, laidback.

We didn't get a table right away, but drank our beers on the balcony ... the air was still filled with dust, though we could see the moon and one start. The In The Bin Film Festival "Board Shorts" were showing on the flat panels when we got our table which was right next to where a bunch of dreadlocked musicians were setting up for what promised to be a bloody loud set of music. Hmmm, we nervously, middle-agedly, fretted. Can we thrust these burgers down fast enough to get out of here before the racket interrupts. Mother was waiting to be picked up at 8, we got our table after 7 ... so this was the big night out on a foreshortened schedule.

And then the band started. They were incredible ... called a FRENCH BUTLER called SMITH. They say of themselves that they are a world music band that plays "high energy Latin, funk, instrumental fusion" ... a little Chick Corea, a little didgereedoo, lots of funk, jumping and jiving. The guitarist, Scott French, was a wave, and the bassist, Jake Martin, was a babe and a force of nature. There was a sax and a trumpet. Wow.

So that was my little sight of the good life on that dusty evening. The Surf Club, the world funk jive grooves, the crowd mixed of middle aged and youth. A skinny kid in a German hunting hat, as I call it, tapping his foot and watching to see who watched him. Huge burgers. And the roiling sky outside, still plugged with the dust that is the harbinger of the ultimate end of it all.

I did buy the CD, and had a sweet chat and a tap of the arm with the sexy bassist pictured below. Ah, the good life.

Photos by Arod. 1. The Lighthouse at the easternmost point in Australia. 2 and 3. Byron Bay. 4 and 5. a French Butler called Smith in performance at the Currumbin Surf Club.

No comments: