Archive for June, 2008

In her book A History of the Wife, Marilyn Yalom examines the history of marriage and its cultural evolution. “How,” she asks, “did the notion of romantic love, a novelty in the Middle Ages, become a prerequisite for marriage today?” Not having read the whole book, I’m not in a position to comment on its conclusions, but when I saw this article on corporate dating services, her query was the first thing that sprang to mind.

No matter your point of view, modern marriage is in a state of flux. Is it broadening to include homosexual couples? Might polygamy, as was recently asked, evetually become legal? Should our definition of the term remain purely religious? Is marriage on the out, as indicated by rising divorce rates and the attraction of remaning in a de facto relationship? Or is the union overdue for a revival? These are all relevant questions, but even accounting for wide gulfs of disagreement, most people would still acknowledge that marriage, more than anything else, should be about love. Socially, we disdain the notion of marrying for convenience, to the point where that phrase – a marriage of convenience – now carries negative connotations.

So how, then, does the Simply Drinks Exclusive Dating Agency fit with our perceptions?

In keeping with current social norms, the accepted schedule is to fall in love first and maybe get married later. But we baulk at the reverse: the idea of getting married for whatever reason, and only then falling in love. For reasons that might trouble us to articulate, it smacks of wrongheadedness. Why would we want to risk unhappiness? Isn’t it, well, cold to get married without any thought beyond pragmatism? And this, here, is the nub of it: pragmatism. For thousands of years, marriage was, for various socio-cultural, moral and religious reasons, a largely pragmatic institution. It was the done thing; and, more, a thing to be done by a certain age, or before any illegitimate children could enter the picture. It was how families made alliances, gained lands, played politics, ended feuds, claimed kingdoms and produced heirs, because these were the lynchpins on which society was founded. Love was all very well, as the troubadors sang, but in popular mythology and literature, it was frequently tragic.

Nowadays, our belief is that, what with women in the workforce, single and unwed parenthood being destigmatised and no societal pressure to get married at all, any idea of pragmatism in wedlock should be outdated. All you need is love, as the singer sang. But despite our deepest hopes, this isn’t the case. As a species, we aren’t that great at distinguishing love from lust, and psychologically, we seem troubled by the idea that fiery passion is, as a matter of course, transmuted over time. We want to believe that love will be enough, that any deliberate thought of pragmatism need not sully our hands: that we need no stronger foundation for wedded bliss than what we feel in the moment. Love conquers all, as the poet wrote.

But there have always been multiple considerations. What makes Simply Drinks different from other dating services is the level of screening that takes place: the idea that someone, somewhere is carefully vetting potential applicants in accordance with a list of desired attributes – not love, not lust, but basic physical acceptability, financial status, and a certain level of intellectual interest. And from a distance, the process resembles nothing so much as the marriage brokering of past centuries: entering into a relationship, not because of how you feel together, but because of what, potentially, that union brings. The fact that the service is tailored to the rich and, dare we assume, powerful only helps the comparison, as it was noble families who traditionally kept a closer eye on what (or who) a marriage would bring the clan.

Recently, Sam de Brito blogged about a phenomenon which is, in various permutations, becoming more and more common: perfect man syndrome, or the idea that today’s singles seem to be getting pickier about the qualities they look for in a potential mate. Previously, I’ve been content to shrug the issue off, but in light of Simply Drinks, I’m wondering if such high standards actually reflect a desire, however unconscious, to make pragmatic – and not purely romantic – matches.

If this is the case, then it’s easy to see where things fall down: society tells us that we must marry, first and foremost, for love, thus throwing a not-inconsiderable barrier in the path of would-be marital pragmatists. Just as older cautionary tales involve disobedience and recklessly marrying for love, their modern equivalents warn of the other extreme: marrying lovelessly, and the dangers thereof. To be trapped in a loveless marriage is one of our great social fears, and while I’m enough a child of my time to share the sentiment, it’s worth noting that on one level, the very phraseology suggests that the whole of marriage should concern love, and that if it dies, then only a shell remains.

Which brings us, in a very roundabout way, to Jane Austen. Beyond the fact of narrative quality, Pride and Prejudice is romantically timeless for one simple reason: by the end of the story, Elizabeth and Jane have married, not just for love, but with undeniable pragmatism. In Mansfield Park, Fanny is confronted with the prospect of opting, as her mother did, to marry poor for love, and the picure painted is a stark one: yes, there was love, but when it comes to feeding, clothing and caring for multiple children in Cheapside, money has something to recommend itself. The balance of each story, one feels, is a struggle to be both loving and pragmatic: fortunate for Austen’s heroines, in that they inevitably find what they’re looking for, but the dichotomy is real.

At the end of nine paragraphs, it feels like base commonsense to say that the best marriages should be founded on equal parts love and pragmatism. Day to day, there will always be practical considerations, and as most people have an idea of what they want from life, it makes sense to find someone who’s heading in the same direction. Personalities are all-important: just as some will inevitably find happiness in marrying purely for love, others are better off taking the path of Jeff Bridges in The Mirror Has Two Faces (only without Barbra Streisand). But unless we stop and look at the history of marriage in all our talk of renovating it, we’re in danger of moving from one extreme concept to another: privileging love above what it brings to the relationship, confusing balance with lovelessness and compromise with failure. Me, I’m happily married to a loving husband, but when we chose to tie the knot, it wasn’t just for love. We each have goals the other can help fulfill, and, more importantly, wants to help fulfill: we have plans beyond being in love. And if that degree of pragmatism makes me wrong, then baby – I don’t wanna be right.

Yes, oh yes – it’s Friday and the Brisbane Times, that paragon of journalistic flair, is at it again. Behold today’s top stories:

1. Mother injects baby with faeces water

2. ‘Disrespectful son’ locked in room for 12 years

3. Glamour girl cops a serve

4. Marriage ‘won’t last six months’

5. Pregnant 11yo seeks abortion

Personally, I feel the devotion of multiple news articles to Maria Sharapova’s shirt marks a new low in reporting standards. To quote Xander of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame: and on the day the words ‘flimsy excuse’ were redefined, we sat and watched in awe.

Well, sat and read, anyway. You get the idea.

Architects of the world, I have two words for you: Revolving. Skyscraper.

I honestly don’t know whether to be awed or frightened. The whole thing spins around a central pivot, and by whole thing, I mean that each individual apartment rotates independantly of the others. Presumably, there’s some very good, rooted-in-physics reason why it won’t come tumbling down in a fiery wall of doom, but still, my brain keeps screaming: centrifugal force!

So I guess we have moving houses now, although the concept of flying cars has, presumably, been sublimated by the need to build any car, flying or otherwise, that viably runs on something other than petrol, because despite what Reuters says, there can physically be no such thing as a car that runs on water. If there was, it would rewrite the laws of thermodynamics. Just FYI. (For those interested in a musical explanation of the laws of thermodynamics, Messrs Flanders and Swan are happy to oblige.)

Still, if asked to choose, I’d prefer Howl’s Moving Castle to a glass Jenga statue any day. At least it comes with Christian Bale.


As computer games go, it’s a simple premise: collect a menagerie of different animals, level them up and fight a series of identically-staged, increasingly-difficult battles with your favourites. Every instalment boasts the same story arc: young protagonist befriends helpful professor, sets out on cross-island journey, fights villains and ultimately becomes League Champion. The stuff dreams are made of, if yours happen to particularly one-dimensional. There is no great dialouge, plot, characterisation or underlying moral. The battle options are limited to decision trees, two functional buttons and a D-pad – exactly the same setup as the original black-and-white Gameboy of eighties fame.

So why is Pokemon still so fucking addictive?

The best explanation is digital sorcery: a devious balance of intangible, acquisitive elements. You collect rare, interesting animals – animals with special powers, animals that can evolve into other, equally interesting animals. Data is revealed with each new find, and the ultimate, possible goal of a Full Set is, I believe, something which calls to our inner obsessive.

As a game mechanism, levelling up has its own inexplicable power. It’s an end in itself which, for some people, borders on the addictive: you gain a level in order to improve, so that you can gain yet more levels. Why this formula holds such hypnotic sway over me and others is perhaps the deepest mystery of our times – just take a glance at the World of Warcraft community. In Pokemon, levelling up appears in a pure, uncluttered form, to the point of constituting the whole game – and therein, methinks, lies the reason for its success. 

Riddle me this: what do Barbie dolls, teddy bears, Leggo and cardboard boxes have in common? Answer: a simple interface. These are all favourite childrens’ playthings, not because of the number of add-on features, but exactly because their mode of use isn’t prescriptive. A Barbie doll will always be a Barbie doll, but within those limits, imagination makes any game possible. This principle of creative simplicity is, I believe, an active ingreedient in the best videogames, albeit present (due to the nature of the medium) in an altered form.

Thus: games like Pokemon are addictive because, within the simple parameters of the game system, endlessly imaginative combinations become possible. I can only take one path through the story, but the way I conduct my battles, what elements I preference, the creatures I choose and which attributes I value are infinitely customisable. There is a terrible attraction to minutiae in such instances: I’ve never liked maths, but will happily spend my free time calculating DND stats and arranging the best possible combination of weapons and armour in Final Fantasy. It’s not the same kind of free-play offered by a Leggo set, but they are cousins, and the former design elements have arguably gone on to inspire their digital equivalent.

Alternatively, I’m just a grown geek who enjoys Pokemon. There’s no particular justification, but damned if it isn’t fun.

Dear Telemarketing Corporations,


You suck. You suck so profoundly, so innately, that you’ve elevated it to a state of cyclic zen: you suck, therefore you telemarket. It’s not that your employees are inevitably based somewhere in South-East Asia, although the combination of frequently-impenetrable accents and appalling phone lines doesn’t help. No: it’s that your business practices are deeply sociopathic. Maybe your HR staff, middle-managers and policy-makers are all, by some social fluke, carriers of identically boorish, antagonistic genes; or maybe you just hate people. I don’t know. But should you ever exhibit any curiosity as to why cockroaches get better press than you do, here’s a few key considerations.



1.                  Opening Gambits


Don’t start with a lie, or near enough to one as makes no odds. No company forking out for cold-calls to my house is doing so for the privilege of giving me free anything. Whatever snake-oil you’ve been hired to peddle requires my time and participation to purchase: don’t try and claim otherwise. If it’s a service, you’ll want my details. If it’s a product, you’ll want my money. Actually, you’ll always want my money – some companies are just sneakier about asking for it. Bottom line: don’t rush in with a glib offer that will (you promise) only take a moment of my time. That’s not how things work, and we both know it.


2.                  Ceaseless Talking


In civilised conversation, people pause. There are few things more maddening than a cold-caller who won’t shut up, and who takes the least hesitation on my end as a go-ahead to rattle off a three-page product description. The logic of getting your spiel in before I can signal disinterest is non-existent: if I’m interested, you don’t need to rush, and if I’m not interested, giving me no recourse to say so is hardly going to convert me. More often than not, it forces rudeness in turn: if I can’t get a word in edgeways to politely decline, my only option is to hang up. Angrily.


3.                  Hard Sell


When I buy popcorn at the movies, it’s inevitable that I be offered an upsize. Whether I accept or decline, the server’s job is to smile politely and thank me for my custom. This is a courtesy known throughout the civilised business world, but not, it would seem, to you. If you call and offer me something I don’t want, do not try and change my mind. Accept my disinterest gracefully and let me end the call. Telling me how good an offer it is or expounding on product merits as though I’d asked to hear them is not only rude, but counter-productive. Because the next time you ring with a different offer, I’ll remember how unpleasant you were to deal with – and will, to quote Pirates of the Caribbean, be disinclined to acquiesce to your request.


4.                  Thinking Time


In the unlikely event that your product does tempt me, I might still want to sleep on it. If so, I’ll want the number of the person I’ve just spoken to, and maybe a website with product or service details. For a company of your size, these shouldn’t be hard to provide – in fact, they should be standard. But if you can’t fork out the extra few grand it might take to set up a temporary web page on the offer and organise a reasonable means for me to locate a specific employee, then why the hell do you deserve my business? I don’t care what percentage of contracts are now agreed to over the phone, nor do I want your views on how easy a decision it should be. Particularly if you’re offering to switch my utilities provider, it’s reasonable that I talk things over first with my significant other, or check that yours is really the better deal. Any attempt to force my hand, now, is deeply unappreciated.


And, finally:


5.                   Repeat Calls


In the past week and a half, our house has received no fewer than five separate calls from Telstra, all offering to switch us over from Optus. Especially for a telco, it speaks volumes about their ineptitude that they can’t simply mark me on their database as disinterested. Based on this example, why on Earth would I trust them with my phone bill?


In short, you act like rude, demanding, selfish children. Everyone’s sick of it. Smarten up, or shut up. (Either is fine.)






Often, it surprises me how worried adults get about the idea of children reading or watching things they shouldn’t. Granted, there is cause for concern in the land of naughty programming, but from my own memories of being small, kids self-censor remarkably well. This is because, to the average six-year-old, adults are indescribably boring people interested in equally boring things. I remember sitting down to watch a movie my father had taped off air as a child and, not knowing how to fast forward, being incalculably uninterested in a volatile political debate between Kerry O’Brian and Bob Hawke (as my adult-memory suspects the participants were) which was tacked on at the start. My comprehension wasn’t that they were talking about Adult Things, and therefore I didn’t understand – rather, they were talking about Adult Things, and therefore I wasn’t interested.

Ultimately, the distinction hinges on curiosity. Kids don’t like the idea of not knowing things. Admittedly, it’s hard to conceive of an instance in which the six-year-old me might care about politics, but that’s the point of self-censorship: what kids don’t understand – or, more importantly, what kids don’t realise they don’t understand – they rationalise. Just like adults, really.

Thus, I used to think that avant gard meant the French police, and that song lyrics referencing coke meant fizzy-drink. I wasn’t quite sure why punks and urban gothics would want to ‘store’ coca-cola, but perhaps they thought they’d run out. (I was sixteen before I listened again, realised the proper word was ‘score’, and went: ohhhhhh.)

Among other things, I’m getting well and truly fed up with celebrities, politicians, organisations and newsworthy individuals blasting one another. The term is becoming so rabid with overuse that, were it Old Yeller, we’d already have taken it quietly out back and done the decent thing, only without remorse.

Just witness:

PETA has blasted Jessica Simpson for wearing a T-shirt.

Mel B has blasted Eddie Murphy in a new song.

The AMA has blasted the Rudd government.

U.N. blasts celebrity drug use.

Pope blasts Europeans.

Kevin Rudd blasts the Chaser.

Anthony Albanese blasts Brendon Nelson.

A quick Google reveals blasting headlines as far back as 2000, but in the past year or so, there seems to have been an explosion. From memory, it feels like blasting began as a common gossip-mag headline, the kind of sensationalist claim that implies a killing verbal tirade without actually necessitating one. For instance, a headline like Shirely Temple Black blasts Paris Hilton gives a cozy, familiar sense that the next story over will be something equally vacuous, like teen ‘pregnancy pact’ has 17 girls expecting. You know. Trash, of the morbidly curious, staring-at-a-trainwreck ouevre.

But when did blasting go mainstream? Did I miss the memo? Was there a memo? And can I slap whoever was responsible?

In other news, the sixth human foot to wash ashore in British Colombia has been found, on closer examination, to be an animal paw. Which is all very well, but I’m still none too happy wondering where the other five came from.

Who knows? Maybe they’ve been blasted.

Back in Ye Olde Shakespearean times, there was a fantastic word for what happened when one man shagged another man’s wife: cuckolding. Contrary to how it might sound, a ‘cuckold’ was the injured party, while the wife-snatcher was said to have ‘put horns on another man’s head’. Although I can’t vouch for the origins of this latter colloquialism, cuckold was aptly inspired by the French word for cuckoo – that is to say, a bird which lays its eggs in other birds’ nests.

So on that note, let’s talk about Pete Doherty – or, more specifically, his none-too-subtle appearance in this article on bad boys. More specifically still: the fact that, in keeping with popular mythology, they apparently do get all the girls.

Short term, anyway. According to new extensive research, males who exhibit dark characteristics such as narcissism, deceitfulness and thrill-seeking do better in the mating stakes; or, to quote researcher David Schmitt, “They are more likely to try and poach other people’s partners for a brief affair.”

The success of cuckoo bird species is, biologically speaking, ingenious: have all the fun of mating with another cuckoo, find some poor devoted wren or smaller bird, replace their eggs with your own and fly off into the sunset. In times past, one suspects this tactic might have worked well for cuckolds of the human type, too, thus ensuring these traits were passed on – but that was before contraception.

Which raises the question: if treacherous, deadbeat cuckolds remain a genetic mainstay despite our ability to block their genes from the pool, is it because we’re stupid? Or are they all just sneakier than we thought?

At long last, behold! – the real Iguanagate.

Goddam media. Just couldn’t resist, could you?

Gay marriage is now legal in California.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a long overdue development. The claim that marriage is just for men and women has always rung hollow, not in the least because no religion or culture ‘owns’ the concept. Marriage wasn’t exported to the rest of the world by a particular group: rather, the idea has flourished with variety in almost every human culture. The Christian argument that gay marriage is invalid because God dislikes homosexuality is, ultimately, hypocritical: people are already married under the auspices of different, scripturally untenable traditions, religious or otherwise, but nobody is protesting those. Unless the dissenters start taking placards to Hindu ceremonies, they’ve already acknowledged that the state has a right to legalise marriage in a non-Christian context. Protesting homosexuality is, in this sense, mere semantics.


Whether the church must preside over gay weddings is a different issue – one, methinks, which is best left to a case-by-case basis. Or would be, if not for the uneasy truce between discrimination law and religious tradition. This, perhaps, is the legalistic nub of the problem: if the church were to be treated like any other organisation, then any refusal to ‘serve’ couples on the basis of sexual orientation would count as discrimination, with all the liabilities that entails. Going back a few decades, it’s the equivalent of hanging a ‘no blacks’ sign in a shop window. It’s a no-brainer to say that political uproar would follow any instance of the state trying to force a church to marry a gay couple against its will – and yet, a similar uproar would result if shari’a law were allowed to trump that of the state.


Socially, we’re at a turning point. Overseas as well as at home, western nations have begun the institution of universal human rights: protection from racial, religious or sexual discrimination, women’s rights, the rights of the child. In many cases, this has involved colliding head-on with previous religious or cultural mores: the idea of rape inside marriage, for instance, remains non-existent in many countries; in others, the marriage of girls as young as ten or thirteen is still common practice. But more and more, we are reaching a point at which, if we are to remain faithful to the idea of innate, universal rights, we must actively contradict religious doctrine – our own, as well as that of others.


Due to a combination of religious, historical and socio-cultural factors, many such rights are already part of western law, while still allowing for difference between individual nations. In many instances, Christian practice has already changed to accommodate these rights: the investiture of women bishops, the availability of contraception, the right of divorce and, in some cases, the legalisation of abortion are all examples of this. But with the exception of women in the church, the scriptural arguments against these things tend to be contextually extrapolated, rather than explicitly forbidden. Even divorce, while frowned upon, is ultimately permissible in a number of instances.


Homosexuality, however, is expressly called a sin. The most doctrinal leeway to be found is in forgiving it, as one might forgive theft or murder. With this in mind, it is almost miraculous to consider how much the gay rights movement has achieved. But still, the church has not been required to alter its own position. This is the wall foreign aid workers have run up against time and again: the idea that an injustice, if backed by religion, cannot be assailed in the usual fashion. At some level, total change is always circumscribed by – ironically – the universal right to freedom of religion, the worst incarnation of which, as with freedom of speech, is the freedom to be purposefully bigoted.


Sooner or later, the system needs must bend. There are three potential outcomes, only one of which seems even vagely palatable. But until that day comes, I’ll be content with such progress as comes my way. California now allows gay marriage – and I say, good on ’em.