Category: social comentary

I love time manipulation stories, from H.G. Wells to Doctor Who and everything in between (or perhaps it’s more scattered and nonlinear with no in between). Anyway, it’s no wonder that when my workload became a little unrealistic recently my mind turned to a fictional way of dealing with it. Much to the chagrin of those around me, I find practical solutions often appear to me once I’ve first eliminated flights of fancy. I wasn’t thinking of the Hermione Granger approach so much, jumping in time so I could get everything done. Being at work and home at the same time sounds efficient but it could get confusing. No, I simply wanted a way to stop time for everyone else, so that I could complete all the tasks on my list, then restart time again and miraculously be on top of everything.  

Alas, I’m not a scientist. Popular science and how it weaves into speculative fiction in a way that appears true but probably isn’t, is much more my bag. As such I’m not going to build a time machine. It’s also unlikely that I’ll find a magical wardrobe, or a hidden doorway, a secret window or uncover a magical incantation. Looking around my humble surroundings there is seriously nothing available to me to pause time.

Then again, when I looked a little closer, it dawned on me that I was in fact, surrounded by time machines. Firstly, my alarm clock. When I set it an hour earlier, I remarkably have more time in the morning. I can get so much more done with that extra hour. Conversely, I realised my phone and laptop were time-sucking machines. If I combined ignoring them with the extra hour the alarm clock gives me, then it turns into even more time. The laptop, of course, is a mixed bag. Allowing work but ignoring social media and other online distractions is a tricky balance. Both take time, but only one provides income. With increasing work deadlines, it made the work option an easier choice to make. Looking at social media or reading the news doesn’t feed my family, nor does it nourish them with my company. It takes time away from them. Occasionally they may be grateful for that, but not always.

Filtering my surrounds through the prism of time I discover there are a bunch of other time machines at my fingertips. My dishwasher, clothes washer, vacuum cleaner. They all save me time while appearing to take it away. It can get confusing.

The most obvious time machine of all, the one that is constantly ticking away and tracking everything, is the one sitting in my head. Are we not, by our very nature, walking talking time machines? Our whole construct is based on time passing, from the cradle to the grave. It could be that our ability to conceive of time travel arose from a subconscious awareness of the fact that we can’t time travel. Or perhaps the idea is born from the understanding that we can only travel in one direction and at a set pace. We are locked in a body with a clock ticking away every day. We don’t know when that clock is going to stop, but we do know it’s ticking.

The mind is a very powerful time machine that directly affects how we perceive time passing. We can slow it down and speed it up. We can use tools to moderate our perception of time like meditation, relaxation and doing things we enjoy. We can speed it up using adrenaline and stress. And yes, we can waste it on things that seem important but on reflection were just distraction. Then there is reflection on distraction that compounds the waste of time but let’s not get stuck in that time loop. There’s a difference to being in the moment and letting moments pass without awareness.

Having explored the unrealistic, I’ve arrived at a rationalisation of time and that helps me get things done in a way that wastes less of it. It’s all relative but perhaps not in the way Einstein explained. One person’s waste of time can be another’s pleasure. Still, to be more in control of how I feel about what I do with my time, given I can’t control time itself or how much of it I have, feels anchoring. What more can we want when we are adrift in a sea of time on a journey of unknown length and destination? 

Evan Shapiro
Author – Road to Nowhere
A near-future pre-apocalyptic novel set 30 years after a climate crisis

Venturing out for some culture on Sunday afternoon, my partner and I found ourselves at the Nick Cave (artist, not singer) exhibition, ‘Until’, currently being staged at Carriage Works in Everly, Sydney. A fine example of immersive work that raises questions, peaks emotions and disturbs sensibilities.

More disturbing than the artwork however was the intrusion of the mobile phone. We couldn’t walk more than a few steps without running into someone trying to take a selfie, without seeing a tourist tilting head forward, shoulder back with hand on hip or a young couple capturing their happiness to the artistic backdrop.

The exhibition has four different immersive experiences and many patrons seemed to be missing the point by trying to insert themselves into the surroundings, smiling and posting on social media.

Not only was it increasingly frustrating to walk through having to avoid being an accidental photo bomber while people persistently set about recording themselves, but I started to get annoyed on behalf of the artist, his work was, after all, being reduced to a mere backdrop. The point of the exhibition is lost on the vain creatures who fail to observe and are preoccupied with their own image. Ironic given the dark undertones of the exhibition that explores racism and cultural misappropriation. If felt to me that work is being misunderstood and misappropriated as a tool for self-promotion. I guess the benefit to the artist is the inadvertent promotion but is that a fair trade? Is it a given for any artwork to be used in this way if publicly displayed?

One section of the exhibition is a room with multiple projections. The floor an ocean of waves moving over rocks, the walls change from large all-seeing eyes to a questioning of historically inappropriate racial symbols. Yet one young woman seemed to think this was a good place to take sexy videos, contorting her body as best she could with arm reaching out at full extension, faithful camera phone in hand. No shame in the fact that others were in the room wanting to appreciate the artwork, it was suddenly her private backdrop to an array of lurid poses. I’m no prude. I don’t mind a little lurid pose every now and then, but it felt a little yuck seeing an artwork used out of context. 

I walked away muttering a deep discontent for fellow visitors and a little broken hearted for the artist and the organisers of the exhibition, disturbed by the fundamental selfishness of the selfie. I was angry at my fellow humans for their shallowness and lack of consideration, collectively displaying an inability to act with regard for others, not just the artist but other patrons like myself that actually wanted to appreciate the art work and not feel like it’s an intrusion on a photoshoot.

The mobile phone has brought many advantages, but it’s hard not to judge it as a major culprit in the degradation of manners and appropriate social behavior. Perhaps I’m just a cranky middle-aged man looking for things to get annoyed with, but frankly, I wonder if the mobile phone should be prohibited in certain situations where their presence is an intrusion or where my fellow humans are unable to regulate their use.

What do you think? Am I just a cranky misanthrope or do I have a valid point?

Evan Shapiro
Author – Road to Nowhere

On this day 35 years ago my grandfather, Sid Sperling, departed this earth. He left behind a loving family, many great memories and an indelible mark on those that knew and loved him. He lived a full and happy life. Along with my grandmother, Essie, a strong bond was created with each of their 11 grandchildren. My life has been underpinned by the strong sense of love, community, compassion and care modelled by these two wonderful people. I don’t just think of Grandpa on this day, the day he left us, I think of Sid and Essie often and feel grateful they were a big part of my childhood. But this time of year inevitably brings these memories to the fore and also makes me think of others who have lost people they held dear. It’s not a sadness I feel, though I miss Sid and I miss Essie. I miss others too, who are no longer here. These precious people who helped build my life, now live with me like characters in a book. Sometimes I see them in dreams, sometimes they are just thoughts that drift across my mind. One day I will be like them, existing as a memory in other people’s minds. No, it’s not sadness I feel. It’s a weird determination that at some future point, when I’m not here to do it in person, that the thought of me will make someone smile. That’s what Sid and Essie have given me. That’s how I remember them. What more could they have hoped to give?

18 December 2018

Evan Shapiro
Author – Road to Nowhere

I like a morning walk. Most days I get up with the sunrise or just before and start the day with a brisk walk. My regular walking track is along parts of the Cooks River. It’s not the cleanest of systems but there’s something to be gained from walking along its paths, listening to the wind blow through the trees, nodding hello to fellow walkers and generally doing something mentally and physically out in the real world, before the digital demands of the day start. It never involves whales.

Recently I ran a blog workshop that happened to be near the coast. Rather than battle peak hour traffic that would take me across various road work and contentious public transport constructions I dashed out early to take my morning walk along the Maroubra headland.

It was bracing at first, surprisingly cold given the recent heat wave, but the freshness of the air and the cool temperature was a welcome relief my body gladly accepted.

As I walked along the headland, down the hill and onto the promenade I began to notice a few groups of people engaged in intense exercise. Strangely their harsh body movements jarred with their intense stares out to sea. Rather than focusing on their exercise, they were entranced in a collective mass distraction.

Naturally, their stares out to sea piqued my interest and I turned to the ocean to see a whale fin breakwater.

A sense of wonder and joy took over me, and I too was now a gawking spectator, disregarding my original purpose, for the sake of spotting a giant sea mammal.

What is it about spotting whales or other sea creatures that so fascinates us? Is it no more than their majestic beauty? They are so fundamentally different to us, yet we share biological systems and life patterns inherent to all mammals. Regardless of how much I might try, that whale will never understand my perspective.

There is both frustration and freedom in that idea. If I were to try and read my blog to him or her, I wouldn’t get too far in communicating my perspective. Conversely, the whale is in no way concerned about what fills my head, what makes my world tick. While enjoying the spectacle and filtering my thoughts through my own narrow view, I realise it places no demands on me.

I breathe in the fresh sea air and feel grateful for this unexpected whale of a time. Simply by swimming by and flipping a tail through the air, this beautiful creature, knowing or unknowingly, has reminded me that there is much in the world that is beyond our understanding and control. Sometimes the best thing to do is just watch and appreciate how lucky we are to be in the right place at the right time.

Evan Shapiro
Author – Road to Nowhere

I’m a regular listener to podcast ‘This American Life’. This week featured three acts about loneliness and while all three have great merit for very different reasons, I want to tell you about the first one by producer David Kestenbaum. You see Kestenbaum was feeling sad, I mean really sad, because of Fermi’s Paradox. The paradox concerns the high probability of the existence of alien life compared to the fact that we haven’t actually seen any. The paradox evolved from a casual conversation physicist Enrico Fermi had with colleagues while working on the hydrogen bomb in Los Alamos in 1950. When discussing the probability and extreme likelihood of alien life existing, Fermi stated ‘Where is everybody?’.

Kestenbaum become sad, truly sad, because he felt we were alone in the universe. Before turning to journalism Kestenbaum was a Nuclear Physicist. This might explain why Fermi’s Paradox resonated with him, why when he crunched the numbers the great uncertainty made him feel sad. When he raised what he’d been going through at a story meeting all his colleagues laughed. I understood that reaction, I laughed too, but I also really felt for Kestenbaum. He was looking outside the everyday existence of our reality and what he saw was a lonely lonely planet in the vastness of space. In the podcast, he turns to other physicists to discuss the issue and help with his feelings.

What Kestenbaum’s journey made me feel was not so much a sense of loneliness but a strange glimmer of hope. It seems terribly strange to me that our species, locked on this small blue ball, continues to be so horrible to each other and to the other living creatures we share this world with. Of course, on top of that, we are also extremely hostile to the very planet that makes our lives possible. I’m getting to the glimmer of hope, trust me, but first…

Is there other life in the universe?

In exploring all the possible options around the existence of alien life my mind was led to one question. First here are some of the options;

  • There are alien civilisations, but they are too far away
  • They are inherently like us i.e. self-destructive
  • They are so much smarter than us that they simply choose to stay away because we are dangerous
  • They are only microbes
  • They existed in the past
  • They will exist in the future
  • It’s just a matter of time until worlds collide (not literally)
  • Over the vastness of time and the distance of the universe all the above possibilities are also realities.

Glimmer of hope

Finally, here is my glimmer of hope. Will it take alien life, be it aggressive or benevolent, breathtakingly advanced or microscopic in nature, to make us finally realise we are all on the same side? Will proof of the existence of life on other planets pull us out of our collective funk, make us celebrate our diversity and our commonality? Not in a way that means we have to defend ourselves but perhaps more in a way that we like to project when we send probes into space that celebrate humanity. If only we could take on our ‘greatest hits’ that play on the Voyager probe’s golden record and drop all the other crap, we might just be a species that other life in the universe would want to get to know.

Perhaps Fermi’s right, but who really knows…certainly not us at this point in time.

Evan Shapiro
Author – Road to Nowhere


PS. The other two stories featuring Ester Perel and an equally amazing young girl who attempts to connect with her father are both compelling. They give me hope we are aliens worthy of knowing.
Here is a link to the show.

Just before Christmas, I met a young man named Mitch. He was living on the streets of Sydney. My girlfriend and I almost walked by him as many people do. Choosing not to see someone because it’s somehow uncomfortable. Acknowledging the homeless also acknowledges that you are doing nothing to help them. The city was filled with Christmas shoppers and the homeless are an unwanted obstacle in the path of those fulfilling their consumer missions. Ironic, people so obsessed with securing gifts for others because society says this is the time to give, yet ignoring those in obvious need right before them.

Something about Mitch made my girlfriend stop. Perhaps it was how young he looked. I was making pace for the station, ready for the trip home when I noticed she was no longer walking next to me. I took a few steps back to join them. We introduced ourselves and my girlfriend asked Mitch if he would mind sharing why he was living on the street. At 21, Mitch is frank and clear-eyed, drug-free apart from a smoking habit. I don’t think it’s fair to share the details of his life without his permission, suffice it to say his story was one of misfortune, abandonment and ill-treatment. He expressed a great desire not to be living on the street. He shared his plans to get an apartment of his own. He freely admitted life had put him in situations that had led to bad choices, choices that made it more difficult now to find work and housing. Waiting for social housing was likely to be long and fruitless, other services only solve immediate problems, like a charity food voucher for $15 that might get him a meal once a month.

As we spoke, standing to one side of a busy Martin Place, a woman walked right between us, completely disregarding our conversation and Mitch’s presence, her shopping bags nearly knocking us over. We all had to take a step back and collectively laughed in disbelief. But part of me wondered if I was any better than the bustling intruder. I’ve occasionally bought meals for people living in the streets, or given money, but like many of us, I’ve also found it easier sometimes to walk by. I like to think I’m a little better as a human being because I see these people, even if I feel powerless to help.

Mitch said he didn’t want to say, ‘See you next time’, because next time we come to Martin Place he didn’t want to be living there. He wanted to take his social security and start paying rent. From there he hoped he could get work. We asked if there was anything we could do now to help him. He simply said a hot meal would be nice.

Mitch could have turned his life into a sob-story. For various reasons, he’d been rejected by his family and society, but he expressed a determination to make something of his life. He possessed a strong sense of self-determination. He took responsibility for the poor choices he’d made, despite many of them being made as a result of even poorer situations outside of his control.

We gave Mitch some money to get some food and he thanked us for taking the time to stop and have a conversation. He thanked us for listening and for seeing him. We all agreed we didn’t want to see him next time we might pass through Martin Place. Hopefully, because he will have his own place and maybe even a job. I’d hate for him to become a long-term member of the invisible homeless, ignored by thousands every day, too busy with our own lives to stop and help. But Mitch not being on the street doesn’t change the fact that others will be and as long as there are people on the street can we honestly say we live in a fair and compassionate society? More likely we are living in an age of misaligned priorities. We look beyond the obvious, we relegate problems like homelessness to our peripheral vision, choosing not to see because it has become an issue that is hard to change. The reality is though that change is just as much an act of will as keeping things the same.

Evan Shapiro
Author – Road To Nowhere