Tuesday 16 July 2013

The secret of eternal happiness

Mr Barker's wardrobe supplied by St. Vincent de Paul.
Rather an ambitious title for this post, but stay with me through my multiple discursions and you'll find out what it, the secret, is.
It all started at the gym a few months ago.
I swiped in at the front desk as usual and the nice young woman behind the desk said, "what do you do for a job?"
"I'm a gardener", I replied, then added, "why do you ask?"
"Because you're always so filthy."
I looked down at myself and I had to admit she had a point.
I do remember to take off my boots if they are mud-encrusted, a not uncommon occurrence up here, but usually my shoes are the only things I change.
But then I've never really understood the point of dressing nicely to go to the gym as within a short period, particularly in summer, your clothes become a sweaty, rumpled mess.
As a gardener I am each day up to my knees and elbows in soil, weeds and mulch, and these various outputs of the Earth seem to find me comforting and cling to me with a touching degree of affection.
I might add, when I was living as a freaky hippy down near Port MacQuarie I realised I needed a job so applied to the local indigenous council for an advertised position as web designer/system admin for their new website.
My girlfriend at the time was on the panel that interviewed me and later that night she said, "I take it you weren't aware that there was a twig stuck in your hair during the interview?"
I wasn't, and I didn't get the job either.
So most of my life I've felt an affinity for this character from the Charlie Brown comics, PigPen.
I hasten to add, I don't want to attract the nickname PigPen, but even I have to admit that it is pretty apposite.
So put your seatbelt on as we swing wide through some sidebars before returning to the main point.
When I did my teacher training I had a very good lecturer called Mike King.
He told us many useful techniques and one was, "never give out schoolwork as punishment, because the kids will come to see all schoolwork as punishment."
(If they don't already, I certainly did.)
When I heard this and understood what a good point it was, I suddenly realised another of the infinitely, ludicrously poor parenting techniques that my mother used.
To wit: she made us do housework as punishment.
Thus when my brothers and I made our various escapes from Bathurst we all refused to do housework and were appalling people to live with.
We were pigs.
We were slobs.
We made Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons look like an anal-retentive neat freak.
My elder brother Robert lived with two mates from his rugby league team in Coffs Harbour while they played for Sawtell in group 2 of the NSW Country Rugby League.
The three of them had one pot, one plate, and one cup.
"We ate in relays," Robert said.
So Noel would cook his pasta, then eat it, pass the pot on to Les, who would cook his pasta while Noel used the plate to eat, then Robert would have his turn.
I presume they washed each item between uses, but there's every chance they didn't.
I likewise was appalling and remember in my second year at Uni living in a flat in Newtown, Sydney.
My room had two boxes about waist height with a couple of slabs of particle board across them which was my desk.
I had a matress, with no sheets or blankets, to sleep on and that was it for furniture.
My clothes lay in a huge conical mound on the floor and my one concession to a system of cleanliness was this.
When it was time for bed I would take off what I was wearing and throw it on the top of the pile, then next morning I would take a shirt and pants from the bottom of this fecculent mass and put it on and go to uni.
My logic was impeccable in that whatever was on the bottom of this teetering, mouldering pile had been there the longest and therefore I hadn't worn said items for the longest period.
Not a good system, but a system nonetheless.
What my long-suffering friends who had to sit next to me in lectures thought is not recorded, probably though, now I think about it, their clothes were in a similar state of terminal decay.
However, bad as the situations of Robert and myself were, they were nothing compared with what awaited me in our middle brother, David's, flat on the shores of Botany Bay in the summer of 86/7.
At the end of the uni year I had a job as a storeman and packer at a factory in Redfern, so I gave up my flat and went to mooch off my brother for the summer.
He had a flat in San Souci in a block with the title Sans Vista, obviously chosen by a someone not conversant with basic French as it means "Without a view", a title unlikely to get renters queuing to sign a lease.

Digression: Speaking of badly named things or places.
I heard one afternoon on the radio a guy from the Realtors institute saying that the worst place name in Australia (possibly the world) to try to sell real estate was Dismal Swamp.
At first I couldn't believe it, but here it is.
And just to combine my digressions, before returning to my brother's flat, one of the reasons there is no "meaning of life" or not one "Secret of happiness" is that each of these nebulous concepts is highly specific to the individual.
Thus there must be seven billion "secrets of happiness" on this planet.
A tribesperson from Ethiopia only desires a regular supply of food to be happy.
A north Korean wishes for the removal of the clinically insane leadership and brutal totalitarian generals to attain some degree of contentment.
An Argentinian only wishes to win the world cup soccer, preferably beating Brazil 9-0 in the final.
A Chilean likewise wishes to win the World Cup, first, beating Argentina in the semi, then gubbing Brazil 10-0 in the final.
An American Republican wishes for all democrats voters to be forcibly relocated to a communist country and another, bigger gun to have in their home.
And so it goes, we all want different things to be happy.
A vole.
So back to the flat.
I opened the door and all I saw (at first) was dirty clothes.
They covered the floor in every direction, shin deep.
In amongst these clothes was a series of trails like Voles or Pikas leave in the grass as they scurry about the tundra collecting their food.
I should add at this point that both my brothers arrived independently at a system for clothing that meant they never had to do a wash, they bought a new set of work clothes every Friday.
Thus, there on the floor of my brother's flat was every piece of unwashed clothing he had bought for, well, god knows, but say a year, easy.
I followed the little trail down the hall to the door of the second bedroom.
I shouldered open the door and found that every other piece of junk my brother had was stacked inside.
Vole trails.
Boxes of junk, unused winter clothing, opened and unopened mail, electronic components (my brother was a minor Dick Smith-ish character and liked tinkering with stuff like that) were all in there.
I observed the terrain and noticed a tilt in the topography against the far wall and guessed that the bed was there.
I kicked and shoved the junk aside and waded, rather than walked, over to the bed like a beach goer moving through waist deep water.
I picked up a box of Christmas decorations and saw in the space under it, the top of a mattress.
So I "made" my bed.
This consisted of taking the various pieces of junk off it and depositing them around the room wherever I could find somewhere to stack it where it didn't immediately fall off it and clonk me on the head.
Once I had enough surface area to sleep on I threw my rucksack down on it and went to explore the rest of the flat.
And believe me, "explore" is the correct term.
Neither Livingstone (Africa), Sturt (Murray river) or Giles (Nothern Territory) faced the same trepidacious passage as I did wandering along my brother's Pika trails.
If some Japanese soldiers who didn't know the war was over had been hiding under the couch it wouldn't have surprised me.
The floor I have described as covered with soiled clothing and moving up in elevation things were just as bad.
Every level surface of that place above floor height had one, or more often, many takeaway food containers on it.
The little table in the hall had at least thirty, certainly the stack was a metre high, KFC chicken buckets on it, with the phone clinging precariously to the edge.
As you can see in the pic the buckets are shaped to stack neatly inside each other and clearly each evening he had come home eating his chicken then stacked the box inside last night's.
In the kitchen every cup, plate, pot, bowl, knife, fork and spoon in the place was stacked, dirty, in a huge teetering mound in and around the sink.
Any other square millimetre in the kitchen without dirty crockery on it had more takeaway food containers on it.
McDonald's, Hungry Jack's, you name it it was there.
The only part of the flat that wasn't covered with detritus was the little table-cloth sized porch out the front, but as you will soon see, I was gonna fix that!
I'd like to say from this remove that the first thing I did was set to and clean up, but I was as slobby as my brother.
Also, those of you who have been watching this space will probably guess what I did next.
That's right, I went and bought some beer.
All that  flat really needed to be "really" messy wasn't it?  A load of empties cluttering up the joint.
Without harping on it (I hope) my brother and I had different reactions to our parents' abuse.
I, in the words of a country song I like, invested in "Cigarettes and whisky and wild, wild women".
While my brother David overate.
He is very obese, apart from overeating, he overate the worst fatty kind of shit food that you could find.
The only green thing in the flat that remotely resembled food was some fungus growing on the carpet.
So I hied me round the corner to Ramsgate shopping centre and bought a case of beer.
I brought it home and discovered with some surprise, but then understanding, that the fridge was empty.
Why empty?
Clearly, he only ate from Maccas and such like, so didn't go shopping in the conventional sense.
Why then was the fridge on?
Of course.
I opened the freezer and sure enough it was stuffed to the gills with ice cream.
However that suited me so I put all my 24 cans in the fridge, opened one and then wondered what to do with the box.
To say there was not a square picometre of space left was an understatement.
I wandered back uptrail to the living room and saw the glass door leading to the porch.
I opened it and saw a wonderful area to stack my beer boxes.
I put the box out there and then commenced "what I did in my summer holidays", viz: drinking a can, going out to the porch, crunching it underfoot and throwing it in the box.
In a staggeringly short period of time the number of boxes mounted and in another trifling gesture toward domesticity, if a box fell off the top of the pile onto the lawn below I would go out and put it in the bin.
(I really wish I was making this up.)
The weeks went by and David and I became friends with the Kogarah Council Health Inspector who began dropping by, asking us, at first, "to clean this F*^%&ing filth pit up", but by mid-summer he began coming on Friday afternoon and having a beer with us.
I still get the occasional Christmas card from his kids.
Then my mother came to visit, and two things happened that were unique.
First she did some housework (we had a cleaning lady back in Bathurst) and twenty or so loads of washing later, the living room carpet reappeared (it was light grey. I had wondered.)
And finally we return to the "secret of happiness".
Despite the filth, for the first time in our lives my brother and I were happy.
I'm thinking now that it was the first time we had been able to spend in each other's company without our parents present, and so we weren't, for the first time in our lives, cowering under our beds while our parents smashed up the house.
I was under way at Uni, passing (mostly), while my brother was in his dream job, working with computers.
I stored and packed my boxes at the factory, earned some much needed money, then went home to sunny San Souci and drunk beer on my brother's couch.
So there you have it, the secret of happiness is to live in filth.
I encourage you to turn your house into a pig sty.
I certainly worked for me.

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