Thursday, January 17, 2013

Aversion Therapy

Way back when …long before I became the global superstar of international development that you know today; the saviour of the poor and vulnerable everywhere; the wondrous hero of philanthropic virtue; long before the keys to the cities, interviews with my good friend Oprah, Nobel nominations and all that guff, I was but a young, lowly, anonymous Donkey trying desperately to break into the industry.

I tried all the usual tricks to get noticed: hanging around after lectures and sucking-up to my tutors; signing-up to be an usher at international conferences in the hope that some Global Fund Exec would be impressed by how well I wielded my torch; writing hundreds of donor reports while on work experience at high profile NGOs while managers enjoyed three hour lunches; giving hand jobs to tipsy managers after their three hour lunches … but I never got much traction from these methods.  So desperate was I to get out there and do good for the poor people, that eventually I knew I was just going to have to suck it up and devote a couple of years of my life living in poverty as an international volunteer.

After about a year of negotiating the multi-step selection process, getting accepted into the volunteer program and then stewing in my diminishing self-confidence for six months while not a single assignment came my way, the call finally arrived.  “Donkey,” whined the nasal bureaucrat down the line, “I have the perfect position for you in exciting Sri Lanka”.  Wow, I thought.  Awesome!. “You’re going to start-up Sri Lanka’s first ever quit smoking campaign”.

My heart sank.  Firstly, what I knew about health promotion at that time could have fit on the side of a very, very, very small grain of stunted Sri Lankan rice.  Secondly, I had at that time recently returned from travelling around India where I had learned that a pack of ciggies on the subcontinent costs less than seven cents (AUD).  As it happens, despite never having smoked a day in my life, I had taken up the habit for the period of my travels just to enjoy the warm feeling one gets from sourcing a bargain (in fact, I love a bargain so much, I was averaging about four-and-a-half packs a week!). 

With economics like that at play, I knew the Sri Lanka job was going to be a tough gig, and added to that, I was philosophically opposed to any process with the potential of reducing the number of posters and general advertising featuring hot women in white bikinis taking a cool dip in the turquoise waters of a tropical paradise.  So on this occasion, despite my desperation to help the poor people of the world, I declined the offer, and some months later, I was lucky enough to start on my successful journey towards international development in the turquoise waters of another tropical paradise … albeit sans the white bikini (hang-on, that sounds like I was nude … I wasn’t nude … I was wearing shorts … most of time, anyway).

As the years went by and I came to learn a thing or two about health promotion in developing countries, I remained content with my decision of the time; I would have completely ballsed it up, and quite possibly could have walked away from the experience scarred, never again to return to the field.  But fate has a funny way of catching up with you, and just the other day I unwillingly got to participate in what I can only assume to have been one of your more successful quit smoking interventions.

It happens that while en route from holiday back to Vanuatu to re-commence my life-saving development work, I became stranded in the transit lounge of Brisbane International Airport for seven hours.  Like most such lounges around the post-September 11 world, Brissie’s transit stop is a hermetically sealed affair, however it humours the dubious, ‘physiological needs’ of nicotine addicts via a small balcony out the back of the sub-standard café, with comfortable outdoor chairs and tables overlooking the enormous car park.  It’s certainly nothing special, but as smoking lounges go, it’s open, airy and seems to get cleaned every once in a while.

Certainly, in contrast to the nicotine-stained glass ‘smoking rooms’ which are pretty common in Asian airports, this place is actually quite nice.  And even in comparison with the so called ‘outdoor bar’ at Sydney airport, where twitchy travellers suck back on three of four Winnie Reds in the howling gale of the terminal’s aircon exhaust engines before throwing their butts on the filthy, un-serviced floor to join the queue for Immigration, this spot is like a penthouse apartment balcony in a luxurious holiday resort … apart from one small, architecturally overlooked flaw in the terminal’s design.

It was about five hours into my static ordeal, and by this time Donkey had done his best to squeeze as much as he could from the airline’s compensatory refreshment vouchers over the terminal bar.  I ran into the men’s lavvy in considerable desperation and didn’t take much notice of the décor and fittings as I dropped my strides and relieved myself at the sparkling urinal.  Moments later, with an empty bladder and a much clearer head, I took advantage of my solitude to turn around for a look at the facilities as I lifted my strides.  Only after having completed a 180 degree turn did I notice the large, untinted window looking out over the enormous car park … the very same car park one can see from the smokers’ balcony … as the penny dropped, so did my jaw.  There I was, standing for all to see, my pants in one hand and my hairy, ever-apologetic penis in the other, while the assembled, horrified smokers desperately butted out their ciggies to join the frenzied crush at the balcony exit.

So there it is.  Many years later, and quite by accident, I (or at least my hairy, spotty arse and unattractive member) have now done my very own, small bit (no pun intended) for the anti-smoking lobby.  Strangely, while this methodology is certainly bound to be effective for male smokers, perhaps this helps to better explain why young women continue to take-up smoking at a higher rate than their male counterparts.  Clearly there is still some thinking to be done on this.

What I really wanted to post  here was a pic of the old ‘Fresh is Alpine’ ciggie ads from Australia in the 80s.  Each one featured a birds-eye shot of a bronzed woman in a white bikini lying on a boat/board/whatever over turquoise water (sometimes with, but not always, a male version in white shorts).  But it seems that these things are no longer on the internet … I find that amazing.  The anti-smoking lobby is clearly as powerful these days as its nemesis.  Instead, here’s one of the poor guys I could/should have helped.  Pic:

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Read your entry in "Who's Nobody"

It’s hard to pin-down exactly what turned Breaking Bad’s Walter White into a homicidal, manipulative, self-serving, methamphetamine producing-turned cartel baron egomaniac, but definitely a running theme of the fantastic TV series has been his unrecognised potential as a chemist of some brilliance, and the deep resentment he feels towards his University peers who reached great heights in the field of industrial chemistry to become multi-millionaires, while the equally brilliant Walter wound-up teaching high school chemistry to disinterested, unmotivated teenagers by day, and scrubbing strangers’ cars in a run-down car wash by night.

There’s nothing like returning to one’s home town to bring back all kinds of latent memories, and in particular, to drag from one’s closet - clackety clackety – a whole crypt of condescending, grinning and highly reproachful skeletons.  Yesterday, in the stinking summer heat, the family and I commenced a road trip to the high-brow climes of the Mornington Peninsula, via a short stop to catch-up with an old friend in one of Melbourne’s beautiful, bay side suburbs.

It’d been ages since Donkey had spent much time in this part of the leafy South, where he’d previously spent years of his life servicing the bored housewives, distinguished gentlemen and plastically-enhanced daughters of Melbourne’s established, moneyed families.  Day after day, Donkey had slaved away in accordance with their whippish demands for buffed bunions, magnificent nails and honeyed heels; a little callus chipped off here, a nail edge filed away there and wrinkled old ladies groaning in long-forgotten, post-menopausal orgasmic pleasure as Donkey’s magical, lubricated hands did their thing to wind-up a messy session of grinding away at gnarled toenails and horned corns.

For all this labour, and the accompanied pleasant, inane conversation which was all part of the service, Donkey would extract a pretty penny from his clients, but after a few years, the high-yield and resultant, high-paced lifestyle of shiny red sports cars, cocaine-fuelled cocktail parties, court-side box seats and luxury holiday villas proved too high a price for the sheer boredom of the work, not to mention the all-too-frequent, inadvertent glimpse up an octogenarian’s panty-less skirt which is an occupational hazard for any hard-working podiatrist.

As the horror and mental burn-out set in, Donkey set off on a new adventure and new career, and before long found himself saving the world in far off, exotic locales.  I’ve never looked back, and in truth have found the mental stimulation and physical exertion of working in and with remote island and mountain communities to be tremendously fulfilling and truly life-giving.  Well, that is until yesterday…

As we drove past the beautiful homes of Ocean Highway, with their steady, socioeconomic scaling-up in proportion to their distance from the city, I pointed out to Mrs Donkey the various homes, sports cars, tennis courts and swimming pools of my former colleagues, and before long, their well-appointed, beach-side holiday homes and luxury yachts.  I ignored her popping eyes and increasing, green-tinged pallor as these dwellings became more and more extravagant, and I ignored her uncomfortable fidgeting beneath tightly packed luggage inside our rusting, third-hand beige Toyota.

Before long, we stopped at my friend’s home for a very pleasant lunch of antipasto, French champagne and post-meal cognac.  We marvelled at the marble floors, seventeen-foot ceilings, walk-in wine cellar and three-hundred and twenty-five inch flat screen TVs in every other room, and we listened attentively to talk of the booming podiatry business, mid-week golf and winter-long Mediterranean getaways.  Eventually, we waved good bye with a promise to visit again soon, and drove in tight-lipped silence all the way to the coast, where we joined our newer friends in our rented holiday home for the next few days which, we were relieved to discover, was similarly appointed to the home of my friend and former colleague, with beautiful, architecturally designed hallways, sea-view balconies, airy designer kitchen, multiple cavernous bathrooms and pleasant hallway water features.

Within an hour I was fully relaxed and just settling into a chilled beer and crisps (definitely more Donkey’s style these days) when I noticed a note from our landlord requesting his tenants to be careful not to mark the ancient teak floor boards - ‘imported from Borneo’ - with high heel shoes (and this accompanied by a picture of a stylish man and his fashionable lady returning from a polo match).  As I read casually through this missive, my eyes were drawn to the bottom of the letter, and to the landlord’s name resting beneath an ostentatious, flourishing signature. 

An icy chill crept up my stiffening spine as I realised that the owner of this magnificent, beach side monument to modern hedonism was none other than one of my fellow podiatry students from years ago, who had failed his final year of university and who, rather than repeat the year, opted to open a podiatry equipment supply facility which he later franchised, floated on the stock market and went global in the biggest small business start-up of the pre-internet age.

It was quick work, but Mrs D managed to talk me down off the roof within the hour, and the hyperventilating soon subsided.  As a precaution for the safety of private podiatry practitioners and their families in the greater Melbourne metropolitan area, she’s got me tethered to the extravagant, four-poster bed from where I am being forced to write this using voice-recognition software (hence the typos) while staring at the kind of ocean vista that can only be purchased on the backs of a million well-manicured toenails.

Seems a bit over the top from my good wife.  I mean, it’s not like I’m bitter or anything.  Sure, this landlord … and all my podiatry friends, in fact, are rich beyond my wildest dreams, with Swiss bank accounts as fat as their spoilt, sedentary offspring, with wives as well manicured as their landscaped gardens, and mistresses as fresh as the waxed ducos of their Jaguars, but it’s not like I am going to turn homicidal and hunt them down in merciless, resentful cold blood.  Sure, I might be up for a bit of hedge burning and perhaps even a spot of spooky stalking of their children down the well-lit streets of their exclusive, gated communities, but I’m not about to commit anything which could be considered physically dangerous.

No, that’d be an act of a bitter man … a man who felt that he had been denied all the breaks and opportunities to excel in his field and become rich, fat and powerful.  I’m not that.  I made my own choices.  I love being this poor … ah, I mean, happy.  Happy, not poor.  And in fact, in the happiness ledger of life, I am rich indeed.  You may untie these bonds my good wife.  I am stable and I am content.  Now, I am just popping-out to the shops for some matches … I mean milk.  Too-da-loo.

What would tip a mild-mannered, failed podiatrist into a Walter White-esque, homicidal maniac.  Pic: