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Not mad, just barking

Barking owl

I met this little fellow in the garden today. The resident pair of peewees were kicking up a godawful racket (something peewees are quite adept at) so I went to check it out, expecting to see the neighbour’s cat trying to climb the grapefruit tree that houses their nest and newly emerged hatchlings. Instead I found a juvenile barking owl hiding in the long grass I reserve for my rabbits.

If you see an owl on the ground in broad daylight you’re probably not looking at a happy, healthy bird and sure enough it was soon clear that this one couldn’t fly. So, lacking leather gloves, I wrapped my hands and forearms in old t-shirts and equipped myself with a large cardboard box. Luckily for me the owl was placid, despite its obvious fear, because if it had wanted to it could have shredded those shirts within seconds and sunk its powerful talons deep into my flesh. As it was, one claw found its way through to a finger when it tried to grip my hand as I lifted it into the box, but I wasn’t hurt.

I was a bit anxious taking it to the RSPCA. If a wing had been broken they would have put it down. But trying to care for it myself was out of the question even if keeping owls in NSW wasn’t illegal. I have no aviary and where was I going to get the live birds and animals I’d need to feed it? (As I write this my pet rabbit Ananda is peering suspiciously at me.) When I rang back a couple of hours later I was assured the owl wasn’t seriously injured and was fit to be handed over to the specialised wildlife carer who was on the way in to pick it up. A happy ending.

Barking owls are extraordinary for a couple of reasons. One is that they will prey on almost anything that moves, including birds and animals larger than themselves. That includes rabbits (calm down Ananda), possums, cockatoos and frogmouths. No wonder the peewees were upset.

More extraordinary than the dining habits of barking owls are their calls. Their namesake noise is almost indistinguishable from that of a small dog and their nocturnal territorial cry is bloodcurdling – it sounds just like a woman being hideously murdered.

When Europeans first came to Australia barking owls were common and it seems my Aboriginal ancestors decided to have a bit of fun with the naive settlers, telling them of a terrifying monster called a bunyip which had learned to mimic the death screams of its victims. I can tell you from personal experience that when you’re out in the bush at night, miles from the nearest town or homestead, it can be difficult to convince yourself that what you’re hearing is just a medium sized bird. Of course there are no bunyips in Australia really. The drop bears ate ’em all.

Bipolar? Or gifted? – Taking the Mask Off

An outstanding blogpost by psychiatric nurse and psychiatry survivor Cortland Pfeffer at Taking the Mask Off.

If you or someone you care about has been diagnosed with a mental illness I urge you to read it.

Judge not lest …

I just read through my first trial judgement on AUSTLII for over a decade. God. I’d forgotten how pompous and self-indulgent they can be.

The majesty of the law is a medieval sham. Camp acting in bad costumes. And the judiciary knows how hollow its authority is and tries way too hard to bluff it out.

The archetype dates from an era when to be able to write your own name was probably to be over-educated and judges still pretend they’re far wiser, more knowledgeable and more cultured than the rest of us. Some, such as Michael Kirby, can almost pull it off, so long as you don’t listen to what they’re saying. Otherwise you’ll notice its just pub wank, but with formally correct grammar, legal precedents and the odd gratuitous classical reference thrown in.

And it goes on and on. Those guys can make the judgement seem longer than the sentence.

If you look under horsehair expect to find a horse’s arse.


You can’t know beauty.
Let go the distinction between subject and object.
Be beauty.

You can’t know innocence.
Let go the distinction between good and evil.
Be innocence.

You can’t know love.
Let go the distinction between self and other.
Be love.

A meal of meat

 The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass … – Isaiah 40:6

I scrupulously wipe the final gobbet of flesh from the plate, lifting it to my mouth with an index finger, rolling it slowly across my palate, savouring the last delicious morsel before consigning it to the enzymes and acids of my gullet.

At what point does it become part of me? This miracle of biological process. This relay baton of life. Passed first from the sun to the green leaf of a plant. Packed into a grain in the forlorn hope of reproduction. Absorbed into the body of a battery hen where it is broken down and rearranged into new protein, different DNA. Now feeding my gut flora even as it releases nutrients through my digestive membranes and into my blood. Soon that sunshine will be captured by my own cells. My muscle, my fat, my neurons. Is its energy already flowing from my fingertips into these words? Has some of it now become part of you?

And what of the suffering that has been transmuted into my pleasure? Could the chicken have enjoyed eating the grain as I enjoyed eating it? A bird born and bred to be consumed, living its stunted life alone in a tiny cage even as its ancient genes cry out for forest and flock. Could it have known elation and despair? Yearning for something that was not to be? Or just a grim, grey emptiness that could only find relief in the terror of the slaughterhouse. How much misery in that tasty mouthful?

To live is to suffer. To live is to inflict suffering. Even in the midst of pleasure.

I roll the words around my mouth like pieces of well cooked corpse.
Carnage. Carnal. Carnivore.

Social MEdia

As we progressive liberal types well know, the Guardian is the ultimate arbiter of all that is intelligent, tasteful and politically correct. If we want to know our opinions on anything from the Syrian civil war to the latest scientific breakthrough to Jamie Oliver’s recipe for fried bread the search function of the Guardian website is always ready and waiting to tell us what we think.

So it was with some trepidation that I clicked on an article about social media induced narcissism, complete with an accompanying self-diagnosis quiz. What if I’m a chronic cyber-wanker, hopelessly addicted to my daily hit of follows and likes? Would I have to write one of those embarrassing emails to a Guardian agony aunt so she could prescribe my penance and display the details of my humiliating affliction in her column for the entire slightly socialist world to see? (“Dear Annalisa, I’ve fallen deeply in love with a self-obsessed egotist I met online …”.)

As it turns out I needn’t have worried. Us gen-Xers are too mature and well balanced to be led astray by WordPress, Facebook and Twitter. It’s the Millennials who are rotting their brains and destroying their futures with soft-porn selfies and retweeted Bieberisms. I already knew young people today are going to hell in a hand-basket. Plato told me.

Besides, I don’t need blog readers to let me know how wonderful I am, despite the fact that no-one who’s met me in person seems to have noticed. I knew I was extraordinary long before I started blogging. From emails.

Russian women consider me hotter than a hat full of Hollywood heart-throbs. I get regular eager missives from stunningly beautiful Moscow ladies who are gasping to get into my pants. Being exotic and European their tastes are far more sophisticated than those of all the Aussie sheilas who never give me a second glance.

To Nigerian billionaires I’m one of the most trustworthy people in the world. Dozens of them want my bank details so we can collaborate in transferring hundreds of millions of dollars out of their country. They have complete faith I’ll keep my side of the bargain and be satisfied with only 40% of their huge fortunes rather than just grabbing it all and doing a runner.

And entrepreneurs the world over recognise me as one of the sharpest businessmen alive. They know I can make thousands of dollars per week with only a few hours work from home and just a modest initial investment of a few hundred dollars. I expect George Soros will be in touch to seek my advice any day now.

Who needs a mirror when you’ve got a computer screen? Every day I’m told how beautiful, intelligent, witty, talented, virtuous and wholesome I am. Why would I depend on the petty flattery of social media when my inbox is always full of extravagant compliments addressed directly to me?

BTW, the ‘Like’ button is just a few lines down.

Pretend we’re dead


“The only possible way I could have had my unique set of experiences is by living my life as it is, and that means dying when I die.” – Max Edwards (died 26th March 2016, aged 16).

Mary died a few days ago. She was my grandmother’s last surviving close friend at the Brisbane granny prison in which she’s incarcerated to await her own demise (“Don’t ever let them put you in a place like this, Michael”). Her funeral is the day before Nan’s 95th birthday.

As it happens, Mary died in the same week a popular death cult celebrates the torture and execution of its god. If the day on which their Lord and Saviour was betrayed to his killers by one of his closest companions is Good you’ve gotta wonder what Christians would consider a Bad Friday.

All the death and despair and chocolate in the air got Nan and I to talking about dying. Not that we need much encouragement. So what happens to you when you die? We agreed neither of us have a clue but she assured me that if it’s possible to come back and haunt people then my home is set to get a lot spookier after she croaks.

I guess the minimalist answer to the question of death is nothing. No sensation. No place. No time. No consciousness. Not even blackness, an abyss or the absence of something. Just nothing.

Of course there’s other possibilities. Maybe our bodies don’t actually give rise to our sensations and memories but channel them from some other plane of existence. That’s never seemed likely to me. The senses seem too caught up in the chemistry of the body and the physics of the environment. It’s scarcely credible a sense like sight would exist in the absence of eyes, optic nerves and the visual cortex. And there’s so many other ways to interact with the environment. If I can still see after my eyeballs have decomposed why not echo-locate and taste radio waves as well? Would my perceptions of reality continue to be conditioned by my now non-existent neural pathways? Could I still abuse drugs?

Memory too seems closely linked to the body, most specifically the brain. A bit of acquired injury or the slow burn of senility and your memory’s gone while you’re still alive. Seems a bit optimistic to imagine it would still be there after your head has gone up the chimney or been eaten by worms. It can barely survive a good night out.

I was about eight when Mum and some of her New Age friends tried to sell me on the idea of reincarnation. They were using pendulums and past-life regression to work out who they were thousands of years ago. It’s odd that so many Egyptian Priestesses and Roman Centurions get reincarnated as Woy Woy housewives and bank tellers. Karma must have a sense of humour.

So I’m walking along a lane trying to remember who I was before the indifferent winds of fate blew me into the body of a very bored schoolboy. But no matter how I strained my memory and stretched my imagination there was always something in the way. Me. Then it occurred to me I had to get rid of my memories and preconceptions and hopes if I wanted to know who I was before my current life landed on me. Straightaway I knew. That weird thing happened. The altered state of consciousness familiar from some of my asthma attacks. Of course I hadn’t yet learned to call it an altered state of consciousness. Or a psychotic episode. But the bliss came over me, the tears poured down my face and I knew who I was when I wasn’t me. Everyone. Everyone who is, was or will be. Not very impressive, eh? Not like being Isaac Newton or Genghis Khan or Chico Marx. There’s not much to boast about if you’ve gotta be Richard Nixon as well. So much for reincarnation.

The Buddha’s angle is a bit more credible. He didn’t believe in reincarnation. He preached rebirth. There’s no spirit or soul or self that migrates from body to body, life to life. There’s just craving and cause and effect. So after you die your greed carries on and causes the birth of another needy, greedy, sensation seeking little being. Doomed to dissatisfaction and suffering just like you. It’s like a flame being transferred from candle to candle so it can keep eating wax. Or those silver balls in Newton’s Cradle that forever bounce back and forth, back and forth, until all their karma has dissipated through entropy. It’s not really the same person, any more than adjacent frames of a film are the same picture. We impose the illusion of continuity ourselves. If you’re asking what you’ll be when you’re dead, or what your original face was, or who you were when you started reading this sentence, you’re asking the wrong question. You need to ask what you are here and now. And the answer? Nothing. You never existed in the first place. You don’t even have to wait until you’re dead.

So I don’t think my memories or senses will continue after I die, but what about my consciousness? Those were the lines I’d been thinking along one of the many times I annoyed my father.

“Hey Dad”
Suspiciously, “What do you want Michael?”
“You know when you die?”
“Not yet, but I expect I’ll find out soon enough.”
“But you know how when you’re dead your body stops working?”
“So your eyes stop and you stop seeing and your ears stop and you stop hearing and your nose stops and you stop smelling and your tongue stops …”
“I think I get the idea.”
“… and your brain stops and you stop thinking.”
“It might be a nice change if your mouth would stop.”
“So nothing new could ever happen to you. Time would stop too.”
“I suppose so.”
“The whole world would move on to the next second but not you. You’d be stuck in the moment you died, always seeing the same thing and feeling the same thing and thinking the same thing. Forever.”
“Which is probably why you shouldn’t waste so much time thinking pointless, stupid things. You might die and be stuck with them.”

It’s pretty hard to imagine how consciousness might arise from electrochemical processes in the body, so it’s hard to dismiss the possibility it might be able to exist independent of the body. That thought has been keeping people up at night for some time.

Rene Descartes was convinced people are an amalgam of two completely different kinds of stuff. Body and soul. Consciousness enters us from another realm and animates us through our pineal gland. Maybe to see Rene as a great thinker you need to compare him to the people he hung out with. Nonetheless it’s the Cartesian conception of the body as a meat machine that informs both sides of the mind-body dualism/monism debate to this day. Nothing beats a metaphor of human beings as artifacts when it comes to crippling critical thought.

Physicalists believe consciousness is an emergent property of the brain, which they think of as a meat computer. ‘Emergent’ means they don’t have to specify how or why consciousness might arise from a complex interaction of neurons across synapses. It just does. Like magic. Except to physicalists there’s no such thing as magic or mystery. Just matter and energy. Physicalists also believe that if you can simulate a brain on a computer it will really think. Why not? If you simulate money on a computer it will really buy stuff. This is a huge advance from Descartes. Computers are smarter than your average machine.

The New Atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett follows that line of argument to a conclusion. Of sorts. Since subjective experiences can’t be objectified and measured they can’t really be said to exist. Consciousness disappears in a puff of reductionist logic. I don’t think therefore I’m not. I suspect he learned this conjuring trick from BF Skinner. If you can’t explain something, explain it away. Maybe the Buddha would have agreed, but I doubt it. As a New Atheist Dennett knows he’s rational, objective and absolutely correct. He knows your consciousness far better than you do. But he doesn’t think he’ll convince you. That’s because he also knows you’re stubborn, superstitious and impervious to facts.

David Chalmers is probably the best known philosopher of consciousness alive today. He agrees with physicalists that everything you think, say and do is ordained deterministically by the actions of your neurons. He thinks you could replace every neuron in your head with a functionally identical microchip and you would behave exactly the same. I have no idea why he believes this. Microchips are nothing like neurons. He says he does though.

But Chalmers thinks consciousness exists independently of brain activity and doesn’t influence it. Your life isn’t affected by consciousness any more than a movie is affected by its audience. I don’t know if consciousness walks out on particularly boring lives but apparently it isn’t into George Romero. So if you’re a p-zombie you have to get by without any consciousness.

P-zombies would have bodies and brains like regular folk but no internal life. They would look and act in exactly the same way as someone with consciousness despite having none. They would appear to fear death though they would be unable to experience fear, pain, hatred, love, boredom, joy or anything else. They might even write books about consciousness despite not having a clue what it is. So I keep a chainsaw under the bed in case Daniel Dennett breaks the door down.

Chalmers thinks the physicalist universe might be missing something fundamental. That things aren’t made only of matter and energy but that consciousness itself is a basic constituent of everything there is. So to say consciousness ends when you die would be just as solipsistic as saying matter and energy end when you die. He’s not just making this stuff up you know. The idea places him within a long tradition of pantheistic, panentheistic and panpsychic beliefs held by many different people and cultures the world over. Some insist that consciousness is the underlying fact of existence. The basis. The first cause. The godhead. Several of the philosophical systems we put under the eclectic banner of ‘Hinduism’ teach that unmediated consciousness, free of subject or object, isn’t just self, but Self. Not just truth, but Truth.

There’s a Sanskrit pun that goes “Shiva (Pure Consciousness) without Shakti (Creative Energy) is shava (a corpse)”. Yeah, I know puns don’t translate very well. They’re usually kinda lame in their native language too. But one of the many things this one illustrates is that while pure consciousness may be eternal, unchanging and divine, without an object it’s also static and inert. Where’s the Lila in that? Life itself is a product of the interplay of opposing principles. Of dualism. The Buddha tells us that where there is life there is suffering, but the corollary to that is that where there is no suffering there is no life. Is that why happy pills kill?

But if Shiva without Shakti is death, Shakti without Shiva is chaos. Unbounded potential without realisation. It’s the tree falling in a forest that no-one hears. The sound of one hand clapping. The quantum wave-function without an observer to collapse it. It is everything yet nothing of consequence. The cat in the box, both alive and dead.

Perhaps you can’t understand either death or consciousness from the perspective of the other. Consciousness is irreducibly subjective. It only happens to me. Death is irreducibly objective. It only happens to others. One isn’t the missing piece of the other. They have no point of contact but are complete in and of themselves. And the interstices between them are … us. The delusion of the doer, the experiencer, the homunculus in your brain, the ghost in the machine. The frightened, fallen thing that believes itself to be separate from everything else. An unstable emanation of body and soul, matter and mind. Doomed to suffer. Doomed to die.

By now you probably agree with my Dad. I waste a lot of time thinking pointless, stupid things. It’s not as if I even have to worry about time and death and madness and stuff. I’ve got a Goddess who takes care of all that for me. I don’t reckon anyone’s gonna nail Her to a cross.

Those who recognised the title of this blogpost have been onto me all along, haven’t you? The point I’m trying to make has nothing to do with death or consciousness or the blood of the Lamb. It’s all just an excuse for the gratuitous promotion of one of my favourite bands, who rose from the dead last year after a long sojourn in the underworld. I may not know The Answer, but I know what I like. So here they are. The heaviest grannies in rock’n’roll.

Maybe I should buy my own grandmother an electric bass for her birthday. With a 200 watt amp. Some of her fellow aged care inmates are a bit hard of hearing.

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