Rising to a special 2020 challenge

We’re now into the final month of this year, 2020, year of the plague; the year when the days ran into each other without bearings or markers, and ruled by fear. Check in. Wash your hands. Sanitise. Remember your mask. Wipe it down. Use an anti-bacterial, use a detergent. Don’t get too close. Don’t breathe. Sleep. Wake up. Repeat. 

You couldn’t help but be moved by the anguish of loved ones stranded between countries, of people dying alone in hospitals, or being locked in aged care without visitors. The cruelty of the pandemic. The boredom. 

My family was lucky. Our work continued, we had our own rooms and studies, a garden and a makeshift gym. But even with all that, it wasn’t easy. The 2020 black belts-to-be at the Australian Martial Arts Academy were facing the same challenge as when I got mine in 2015, and so much more. Ann, Renee, and Shane told me how they and their families pushed through this year.

Discipline can be liberating

Taekwondo teaches us discipline—we learn to get back up and do it again. There can be relief in setting a routine and sticking to it. When Zoom classes started, I got out on my mats for a class every second day, week in week out. It gave me something to hold onto at a time when nothing seemed real.

Renee was so excited she went to every single class – 19 a week! For months without her work, she said that the Zoom taekwondo classes were the only appointment in her diary. Every day, she put on her uniform, set out her mats in the living room, and put her phone on a tripod. ‘I just kept showing up and working hard. The enthusiasm and positive attitude of the instructors did wonders for my own attitude during a challenging time.’ 

Ann said that was difficult to keep up the intensity of training but she and Patrick managed three to four classes a week, either outside, or after moving furniture around inside. ‘Our dog wasn’t sure what the heck was happening but we stayed mostly focused.’

Having a goal—something to focus on

There is nothing like working on a difficult technique to clear the mind. Concentrating during lockdown was hard but Renee said that training took over and her anxiety about Covid would disappear for a short while. It’s that moment of flow, when your focus on one thing eclipses all else.

Lockdown training meant Renee could finally nail a perfect reverse hook kick and she now feels that her snap kick has become one of her strongest. Darren’s work on his jumping back kick has made it one of his most powerful and Shane loves the tornado—‘when it comes off, you feel you’re floating.’

Training together…and just checking in

All agreed that making time for friends and being able to train with family members was crucial. Shane said that ‘without a doubt’, he got through because Ed, his son, was also working to the same goal. He also eased lockdown craziness through scheduling regular sessions for games with friends—now over Zoom instead of their regular Sunday night meet-ups. 

Renee and Ann both said how much they missed the camaraderie on the mats and the chats before and after class but found friendships were strengthened. They continued to check in on each other outside of the Zoom classes.

Finding that strength

In adversity, we can learn things about ourselves. For Renee, it was that obstacles really can be overcome. She said, ‘They always tell us to “never give up” and they actually showed us that these are words to live by.’ Ann said that she learnt that she and Patrick realised they were a lot more resilient than they had thought. Extraordinary circumstances need changing plans and flexibility.  ‘We can achieve anything if we pull together as a family.’ 

What AMA means to us

Renee and Shane told me that the hardest part about training in lockdown was the lack of in-person interaction with the instructors and students. I had to agree. I’m an early morning person and I anticipated that getting a class in before breakfast would be a practice I would continue. Ahem….!  I haven’t done one since AMA reopened. We all realised the enormous boost we get from training with others and the supportive atmosphere of the Academy—asking a teacher for a quick refresher on a technique, working together, taking stock, comparing our progress.

For Shane, getting back to the AMA for classes in-person was such a lift: ‘You don’t realise how much you miss something until you’re able to do it again.’ 

None of us will remember 2020 too fondly, but this cohort achieved something remarkable. I’m proud of my black belt because it’s hard! Knowing you’ve earned it is immensely satisfying and a Covid silver lining may be that this group finds it even sweeter. 

Their stories made me wonder whether having the black belt goal might have helped them after all in this strangest of years.

Congratulations all.

Finding flow: the alignment of challenge and capacity

My taekwondo instructor, Master Hakan from the Australian Martial Arts Academy talked about flow in a Zoom class this week. He’d just taken us through a strenuous warm-up, exercise after exercise, pushing us hard. As we were catching our breath, he talked about that state which sits between the mental and the physical, where our engagement with our task is so complete that we forget time. It’s a state which others might know as being ‘in the zone’.

American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi articulates the concept in his classic book, Flow: The Psychology of Happiness, first published in 1990. He says, ‘The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself. Even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding…. It provide[s] a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality’ (2002: 67).

Part of the deal, of course, is that it takes work and this was Master Hakan’s point. A state of flow emerges when we’ve put in the effort and are pushing our capacity to the limit. We see our kicks become more defined and accurate, can hold our balance for longer and our stamina surprises us.

The elements of flow, of indeed happiness, are ‘clarity of goals, feedback, feeling of control, concentration on the task at hand, intrinsic motivation, and challenge’ (89). Understanding this changed my life. When I read Flow in 2013, I saw that a few things had gone missing. But I knew where to find them.

I recognised that feeling when I worked with words: writing, editing, creating meaning in text. I became absorbed in my task. I drew on my strengths, extended myself, and found the work intrinsically satisfying. I changed my career, gained a second Masters degree, and set up my own business.

This is also my martial arts journey in a nutshell. We start as white belts and as we learn more and more difficult techniques, we are challenged to go longer, harder, higher. But that sense of optimal experience which Csikszentmihalyi describes can just as easily come from a perfectly executed white belt foundation kick. You can see and feel your mastery; the feedback is immediate.

This morning, I felt lighter and stronger, with energy to spare … With a hot shower, breakfast and work to get on with I didn’t keep going, but it was nice to feel I could have! As I sit here now, I am still alive with sensation. Yes, it’s partly endorphins but it’s more than the physical. Flow changes you: ‘[After] each episode of flow, a person becomes more of a unique individual, less predictable, possessed of rarer skills.’ (41). And this is the extraordinary compounding effect that allows us to improve, to keep on.

Finding the balance between challenge and capacity, finding your flow, is the biggest game-changer of all because, ultimately, it is the source of our happiness.

Like Mother, Cassandra Austin

On an ordinary summer’s day in 1969, in a small Australian town, a new mother finds her baby missing from her cot. In this gothic novel, Cassandra Austin draws out the isolation and claustrophobia of new motherhood — and the judgement heaped upon ‘bad mothers’.

My review of Cassandra Austin’s novel, Like Mother, is up now at Newtown Review of Books. An intriguing read.

Cassandra Austin Like Mother Hamish Hamilton 2021 PB 304pp $32.99

Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane

My review of Jessica Francis Kane’s funny and moving novel, Rules for Visiting, is up now at Newtown Review of Books.

I loved its insights and it made me laugh out loud. In one particularly comic scene, May finds Hello Barbie, the new doll belonging to her friend’s daughter, tucked into her bed.

When I pulled back the covers, she spoke to me. ‘Yay, you’re here!’ she said. ‘This is so exciting. What’s your name?’
‘May,’ I said, against my better judgment.
‘Fantastic,’ Barbie said. ‘I just know we’re going to be great friends.’
I wondered if I needed to cover her head to turn her off. ‘How do you know?’ I said.
‘I can just tell that you’re a nice person,’ Barbie said thoughtfully. I was silent.
‘You’re welcome, Barbie said happily.

The ‘dialogue’ goes on, and gets even funnier.

Enjoy!

Bookshops in the digital age

As an advocate of digital, I have watched the changes in bookselling clear-eyed, albeit with some nostalgia. Is the independent bookshop viable? Recently, I listened to Jemma Birrell’s interview with Sylvie Whitman, owner of Shakespeare & Company, that famous bookshop on the banks of the Seine in Paris, and it prompted some thoughts. 

As technology replaces bits and pieces of the product and traditional publishing processes are inexorably changed, social media pleas to support your local indie bookshop, to buy print, to keep them in business, are rife. While I understand the sentiment, it strikes me as an odd way for the market to operate. I learnt that independent bookshops in France are supported through a tax subsidy—a recognition of their cultural value, like opera.

When a retailer depends on heartstrings pulled, or touting their valued community, or offering titbits on the side, or seeking subsidies to sell products that can be bought cheaper elsewhere, it may be a heads-up that that industry needs to adapt. Lures like this are used in sales everywhere, of everything, but the difference with books is that technological competition could literally make print books, and the shelves on which they sit, redundant.

But publishing has never been agile. Between the 1960s and 1980s, corporate management theories propelled waves of mergers and acquisitions as publishing and global media swallowed competitors. The conglomeration of the industry led to a cowed conservatism where the marketing department ruled and editors became product managers working towards revenue targets. Yet while they continue to look for rational strategies in selecting books for publication, they were no closer to predicting success. Finding out what sells, and how to sell it, is elusive. 

The rise of publishing conglomerates was accompanied by bookselling moving from a high street mix of independent and chain stores, to the megastores with massively increased shelf space. Multinational publishers mirrored the approach in other sectors: squeezing out competitors and reverting to populist market dominance instead of looking for creative solutions. Window blocking where large publishers paid chain stores to showcase a book in window displays was one such tactic. The megastores killed off many an indie bookshop but failed to produce the returns that strategists expected. Even with the lure of ‘lifestyle’ products – candles, cards, soaps, cafes, wine bars – a diversion from their core product –the megastores were, themselves, replaced within a decade. Hello Jeff Bezos. 

Now we don’t need to step outside to buy any book our heart desires, and more cheaply. While he had no love for literature, Bezos understood that books could be warehoused and shipped more easily than other products. And it opened up readers to many new authors—another industry gatekeeper is the distributor. If a publishing house is small, or an author independent, getting books into bookshops is near impossible. This is especially so in a country like Australia with a tiny market but vast geography to cover. Amazon gave indie authors and small presses new readers.

While Amazon’s business model and impact on the industry has been extreme and tax loopholes that advantage it over other retailers should be closed, it’s clear that there’s no going back. And we haven’t even got to ebooks yet. 

Indie bookshops joining forces to sell online through shared services in direct competition with Amazon is a start. Much more print on demand, cutting ties with distributors and networking directly with publishers may be other solutions. Could bookshops provide a browsing experience, then take a cut of ebook sales for those who prefer to buy digitally? Spineless Wonders, a small multi-platform company specialising in Australian short fiction encourages readers to order its books through their local bookshop but also sells through its website. Similarly, Tablo an online independent publishing platform provides uses local printers to supply a network of 40,000 retailers, and 30,000 libraries, with print-on-demand books on the platform.

I think the answer is in the technology and we have to be prepared to live with fewer bookshops, which coexist symbiotically with a reading and writing community which is also online. Like record stores today, they will be sought out niche places, staffed by people with knowledge and passion about their products. And, like Shakespeare & Company, they need to support authors directly, if not with a bed or a meal, as it famously provided, then by grasping the need for change and pushing a reluctant industry along. Policy mechanisms to provide a standard for universal service provision, to oblige publishers to keep information in the public domain, and to support libraries, are all key issues. I look forward to more debate.

In Westerly 65.1: What makes for a good author–editor relationship?

“The author–editor relationship is little understood outside the publishing industry and often mischaracterised by those within it. Commentators agree that this relationship is difficult to define and complicated, with the distribution of power ebbing and flowing in response to a variety of pressures…. Adding to the mystique, the editor’s role in book production is opaque. Editors have been seen as either minor players—an optional extra—at one end of the spectrum, or as gatekeepers to publication at the other.”

I talked with authors and editors, and delved into my own experience, setting out my findings in my essay in Westerly 65.1, ‘Exploring Attributes of a Successful Author–Editor Relationship in Creative Writing.

The Snow Leopard

Travel, exploration, philosophy, religion and science in one luminous work—Peter Matthiesen’s 1978 classic The Snow Leopard is unlike anything I’ve read before.

Matthiesen has joined an expedition to the Himalayas with a zoologist friend, G.S., to study the bharal, a sheep/goat which has proven elusive to classification—somewhat like this book. Meditation on old and new cultures and spirituality are interspersed with field reports on the bharal and his changing observations of his companions. The book’s title comes from the elusive creature he craves to glimpse during his sojourn in the mountains—a symbol of our constant searching.

As a story of exploration into the wilderness, tension is high: the reader does not know whether both men will return home until the closing pages, or whether the scientific research has been rewarded. The expedition’s course is never certain and the author never lets us forget their near-absolute isolation.

The language both soothes and stimulates. I would wander off into introspection only to be drawn up by some abruptly realised danger. When it is time to leave the monastery where they are based, the porters who arrive to escort him back bring letters from home but he puts these away, unopened. He knows he cannot move any faster in the event of bad news. ‘ (Matthiessen, 2010, p214).

Matthiesen’s acute sensitivity towards cultural difference would be one reason to read this book. Or for the science, calibrated to a lay audience, and dryly humorous. In his description of how the male bharal has evolved to protect their heads while ramming other males, he muses: ‘Why nature should devote so many centuries – thousands, probably – to the natural selection of these characteristics that favour head on collisions over brains is a good question….’ (Matthiesen, 2010, p.229).

And humour, often at his own expense, is frequent.

‘October 25 …. Parts of the ledge have fallen away, and the gaps are bridged by flimsy scaffoldings of saplings.  Certain sections are so narrow and precarious that more than once my legs refuse to move, and my heart beats so that I feel sick.  One horrid stretch, lacking the smallest handhold in the wall, round a windy point of cliff that is one hundred feet or more above the rocks at lake edge, and this I navigate on hands and knees…

The sherpas come, and…GS appears, moving as steadily as the rest; I am glad the cliff corner hid my ignominious advance on hands and knees.  Squeezing by, G.S. remarks, “This is first really interesting stretch of trail we’ve had so far.”  How easy it would be to push him over.’ (Matthiessen, 2010, pp141-142).

Matthiesen is an intriguing figure of vulnerability and toughness and left me hungry for more. Writing this piece now, I find myself wanting to read it again.

Matthiessen, Peter 2010, The Snow Leopard, Vintage, London.

 

Why we need to read digital

 

Someone with a pretty sizeable following tweeted recently that reading digitally wasn’t really reading. Go read a book, you animals, she said. I wonder. What is a book?

The words. It’s the words, folks. Who is more deeply moved by the quality of the paper, than the words printed on it?

Yes, I understand that one can appreciate the tactile, but the paper and ink and glue is not why we read. To hold onto that is a sentimental romanticising — or a fetish.

What makes a book?

A book becomes ‘publishable’ when, after writing, it has been edited, designed, illustrated and typeset. Marketing and promotion start in the lead-up and continue after release. So, then what? What else makes a book?

First, we build and run machines to print words onto sheets of paper. That brings considerable environmental baggage starting with the trees, of course, but also from toxicity of inks and dyes and bleach. Then we cut those paper sheets into small rectangles and glue these printed sheets between thicker sheets. Sometimes we bind them into a solid casing needing more glue or stitching. More machines.

The supply chain

These printed and bound wads of paper need to be shipped. From printers, which may be anywhere in the world, to distributors’ warehouses to booksellers’ warehouses and then to retail booksellers. And bookselling is the great unknown. Finding out what sells, and how to sell it, is elusive.

If the bookseller is a shop, the books then go onto shelves. If it’s an online store, more warehousing. When they aren’t sold, they are returned: ‘remaindered’. More logistics, and warehousing is expensive.  A publisher never wants to print too many. These are pulped. Great for the environment, that step. Sometimes they’re pulped because the publisher doesn’t have room, and even though this book might have a readership, it becomes ‘out of print’. Time to move on. Shiny new authors are always around the corner. Sometimes books are pulped because they have an error. It might be a typographical error that is just too embarrassing (book production is a human process) or it might be a legal issue. More pulping. After corrections, then more printing. More packing, distribution and warehousing.

Profits are in volume

Sometimes the publishing house is very tiny, or the author is independent. The distribution of books between factory to warehouse and into bookshop is difficult, especially in a country like Australia with a tiny market but vast geography to cover. It’s expensive and exclusive. If you can’t get a distributor, you can’t get your book into bookshops. There’s a reason that publishing houses have become huge conglomerates (80 percent of books sales are controlled by only a few firms): this system benefits from economics of scale. Operators with volume.

Every one of these steps costs money. And none, none of the above, has anything to do with writing.

Digital is better for authors and for readers

When the financial returns to authors are so small, most make less than AUD$12,000 each year, what steps can be cut out?

Digital is better for readers who can download immediately and read more. We need more, better and cheaper ereaders and we need to be able to buy ebooks from multiple sources. I don’t want Amazon to have any more power than it already has. And we need more options to ‘gift’ ebooks than we have in Australia now.

It’s happened with music

This isn’t even new—we’ve crossed this threshold with music. Most music is streamed now and we’re all still standing, albeit with some nostalgia. I heard Zan Rowe interview Norman Cook (aka Fat Boy Slim) on Triple J recently. Cook seemed aware of an inherent contradiction between his desire for music to be played, and a certain wistfulness about today’s world. We can find and listen to anything anywhere anytime. But has something been lost, he mused? Has the passion gone? Growing up, he recalled the joy of finding copies of records which might only exist in one or two places and he loved them all the more because of the struggle to get them.

We will always need some print books: for libraries, for people with special needs, and for collectors. And books of photography, art, and design, of course. For this, there is print on demand. But for the bulk of trade, or consumer, books, we need to be buying digitally.

Is exclusivity part of the deal? Nope. It’s not. And I think most struggling authors would agree with me.

The Chain, Adrian McKinty

Newtown Review of Books published my review of Adrian McKinty’s The Chain this week!

This is one hell of a ride. If you’re looking for a book to keep you up and turning the pages, this is for you. Adrian McKinty, author of the Sean Duffy series set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, has shown his versatility in producing a tight, intricate thriller which unfolds with escalating horror.

Rachel Klein is pulled into a waking nightmare when her child is kidnapped and will only be released when she has paid her ransom, kidnapped another child, and then demanded that child’s parents pay a ransom and in turn kidnap another child. As a sinister plot device, harnessing the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her child is genius. It is also limitless, and Rachel has just become its next link.

Who runs this psychopathic business? The reader gradually finds out through McKinty’s agile shifting of perspective. For some chapters we are in Rachel’s point of view, living her collapsing world, but then we meet a pair of twins who, as children, delight in the manipulation of other kids. Who are they? We also enter the lives of the reluctant kidnappers and get into the headspace of Rachel’s daughter, the victim. Kylie’s voice is authentic.
She knows she shouldn’t have gotten into the vehicle. That’s how girls vanish …You don’t get in the vehicle, you turn around and you run, run, run.
But she doesn’t. She has a gun to her head.

While The Chain is a twisted adaptation of cyber extortion, its trade being children, the business model is not too far from the truth. I read this book, serendipitously, while covering a seminar on cyber-crime and Internet security. McKinty has done his research. The profile of The Chain’s criminal masterminds is accurate. Hackers are not hoodie-clad misfits living in their mothers’ basements. They are smart, tertiary educated, and use their cyber skills to solve more and more arcane intellectual challenges. The spyware, malware and intricate cyber breaches used to take over data systems is now so sophisticated that these extortionists set up helplines, hire translators and develop navigation tools to allow their victims to make the transaction as smoothly as possible. The corporate crowd attending the seminar I covered were advised to ‘park the criminality’ and see them as businesses.

McKinty prises open a conundrum: we have used information to defend ourselves, to minimise our vulnerabilities, but have we become hostage to it? Social media that broadcasts our every move has now been overtaken in its sheer scope by the Internet of Things: baby monitors over a cradle can tell you where a baby is, when she is sleeping, and how far away her parents might be; GPS trackers in kids’ shoes; doorbells that record every coming and going. McKinty’s commentary on the technology is timely. We have become accomplices to our own surveillance—we enter the Panopticon willingly.

And if one turns to crime—to rescue a child, to kidnap another, to buy narcotics—the information you need is there. When Rachel breaks into a house, Pete, her brother-in-law, asks how she learnt to break the lock. ‘Google,’ she replies. Of course. When searching for a child to kidnap, she turns to Facebook:
There are a breathtaking number of people whose profiles and posts are public and can be viewed by anyone. George Orwell was wrong, she thinks. In the future, it won’t be the state that keeps tabs on everyone … it will be the people … We are our own secret police.
As the reader becomes aware of the operation of the Chain, the secrecy, the reach of its tentacles, it is impossible not to think of Stasiland, Anna Funder’s powerful examination of East Germany’s secret police. At its height, it was thought that one person in four was in its fold reporting on their own community—family, friends, neighbours. Anybody can be watching. When Rachel sees a strange man look at her and then nod ‘grimly’, she thinks, ‘Is he another one of The Chain’s agents?’

Another time, Rachel is fiercely punched in the stomach, in public, by another stranger. A message from The Chain. The Chain is a perfect example of the gig economy, our outsourced culture where the victims themselves do all the work. Once corrupted by their own complicity, they cannot turn to authorities. The operation runs on fear and they are self-policing.

While The Chain multiplies, its corruption spreads like an oil slick. Doing evil makes us evil. Its insidious takeover of our ‘better nature’ is part of the its power. Rachel becomes aware of the contempt in her voice as she discusses the mother of the boy she is about to kidnap: ‘She remembers that Tacitus line about how you always hate those you have wronged.’

Rachel is on the road when she realises what she has to do to get her child back. She pulls ‘Into the slow lane, into the medium lane, into the fast lane.’ You will too, and don’t forget: the best kept secrets are those hidden in plain sight.

Adrian McKinty The Chain Hachette 2019 PB 368pp $32.99