A young Bob Dylan once asked "How many years can a mountain exist before it is washed to the sea?"
Back in 1963 a lot of folks interpreted the metaphor in terms of racism and, like all good poetry, it has been reinterpreted ever since.
Like all grown-ups, I think a lot about the topography of modern life and how it compares to the landscape in which I grew up.
For example, a friend of mine took his first breaths in a Sydney labour ward filled with cigarette smoke.
Can you even imagine?
When we were kids, the cricket was sponsored by a cigarette company. There was a huge billboard outside our local milk bar showing people smoking happily on a beach. Inside that store we could buy lolly cigarettes with red tips on one end.
My older cousins used to pretend to be that horse-riding smoker from the TV ads. Their dad told us of a commercial where Fred Flintstone lit up. Our grandfather remembers a promo for "the cigarette that's kind to your health" and knew a guy whose doctor prescribed him cigarettes for his asthma.
The back cover of all Nana's favourite magazines was always a cigarette ad and I never could make the connection between the product and brand names like Longbeach, Holiday and Alpine.
At school, kids used twigs as smoke substitutes in their games of Mums and Dads. One kid used half a brown Texta, some paper and talcum powder to create the most realistic one we'd ever seen. It puffed when he exhaled and we all gasped.
We made bark rollies and coughed until we cried, wrapped lawn clippings in newspaper and burned our fingers. Eventually we scoured gutters for half-smoked butts. Once we found a whole one outside the deaf lady's flat.
When we did birthdays at Pizza Hut, the middle section of the restaurant was reserved for smokers. Their grey haze reached us anyway and left my throat dry the morning after.
You've got to agree. That's quite a mountain.
Nowadays smokers are like that boxing kid in the Simon and Garfunkel song:
In the company of strangers [...]
When a friend and I had a spontaneous post-work puff last week we had to hike away from civilisation until we eventually found ourselves in the pleasant company of what felt a bit like a secret society. If we'd had simultaneous strokes it would have been days before anyone found us.
Of course, none of this is about smoking. This is about mountains and the sea that washes them away.
How did we get from Giant That to Tiny This? How did normality become deviance? The once omnipotent Marlboro men can now only afford to roll their own. The once omnipresent Winfield women now huddle on gum-spotted footpaths behind Woollies.
How many years was it before that mountain was washed to the sea?
That old mountain of smoke is now a peacefully smouldering molehill and a lot of this transformation took place during my lifetime. Don't be telling me that nothing changes.
This change was not some inevitable outcome. It didn't just happen. The seas of time or justice or evolution or whatever may have been lapping away at the edge of that mountain, but seas tend to be more interested in the moon than the mountain.
Perhaps this mountain was not simply washed away by the sea.
Perhaps this was a mountain slowly taken apart, stone by stone.
I wonder where all those stones are now.
I wonder how long it takes to build a new mountain.
And, for what it's worth, Bob Dylan has been smoking for close to sixty years.
Something happened today that reminded me of an epiphany I had as a seventeen year-old pizza driver.
This afternoon I had been shopping with my six year-old daughter. I bought her a fluffy hair tie, which snapped before we had even got back into the car. She was distraught and back we went to swap the stupid thing.
We approached the teller, who was busy counting a bundle of fifty dollar notes, and she said "Someone will see you soon," without looking up.
Someone will see you soon? I don't think she was trying to be poetic.
She had counted two bundles and was starting on her third by the time I had grabbed another hair tie myself. And, other than the CCTV camera in aisle three, nobody saw us.
If my life comes down to having to choose between counting rolls of fifties for my employer or helping another human then my life is officially broken. Kick me in the face.
And all this goes back to my epiphany as a seventeen year-old.
I worked for a major pizza chain and we were trained to move quickly from the store to the car, from the car to the residence and back again. This was partly about safety (it's harder to rob a running pizza guy than a dawdling one), partly about the company getting the most work out of their employees and partly about employees appearing to be enthusiastic.
This accelerated workstyle was referred to as the "hustle". Employees were rewarded with a form of currency known as Hustle Bucks, which we could spend on pizza.
The word "hustle" can refer to a positive state of great activity, but it can also mean to push roughly and jostle. To hustle can be to obtain illicitly or by forceful action, or it can just be a plain ol' swindle.
Predominantly negative definitions, I would say.
Anywho, we were asked to hustle (pick the definition you like best) and paid in Swindle Bucks.
On one evening I was self-consciously hustling from my Datsun to the rear of the store, head down, when the manager spotted me.
"Good hustling, Dan!" he said Americanly, handing me a Forceful Action Buck. One of them. A single Rough-Pushing Dollar for my Momentary State of Great Activity.
With the pizza delivery satchel in one hand and a pretend dollar in the other, I saw that my hands were full of emptiness. I lifted my head and realised that to have one's hands full of emptiness was probably a normal feature of modern, grown-up life, that it would kill me and that there was no fucking way I could live like that.
I resolved never to run for money. I kept my head up and counted the steps to the store. Seventeen.
Empty your hands. Keep your head up. You will see someone soon.
The stars are always brighter when you get out of the city.
Staring up tonight, I realised something: People who live in big, bright cities tend to look down on people who live in smaller places. I have also noticed that people who live near the coast tend to make fun of inland places.
It may not be that city folk think less of the people in a small town, it's just that Sydney is better than Wagga Wagga, which in turn is better than West Wyalong.
And the coast is the most. This is why, in this way of thinking, Brisbane is cool but Longreach isn't and Darwin is hip but Katherine is less so. Canberra is a city in the only Australian state or territory without a coastline. (See what I mean?!)
Using this logic, coastal location plus large population equals Cool Place To Live. (Cool Place To Live is also synonymous for I Am A Cool Person.) For example, I live forty minutes drive from a coastal city. This means those city dwellers make fun of me and my allegedly inbred country hick ways. My friend lives four hours inland from me, so I make fun of him and the price of petrol in his town.
I'm not saying this is the way things oughtta be, I'm just saying this is something I'm noticing.
It is as if, within the un-evolved monkey part of our brain, we are mentally congregating ourselves into big monkey groups so as to provide ourselves with protection from other monkey groups. Perhaps the coastal thing is a throwback to our convict days when the beach meant "only twelve thousand miles til home" whereas the desert meant a sunburned monkey in isolation.
This week I was driving through the small town-filled predominantly non-coastal Northern Territory and passed by a tiny town which I later found out was the site of the Wave Hill Walk Off of 1966. From little things, you know?
It made me feel small, like staring up at the isolated speckles in the night sky.