Depression and thoughts

I try to write something for ruok day every year, because I believe that mental health is still really not understood by our society, or accepted as a valid concern. This is slowly changing, but I think most of us still grow up with the feeling that we should put on a brave face and keep our feelings to ourselves.


For me, depression is a kind of baseline sadness, that has been with me all my life, underneath everything else I’ve felt or experienced. It hasn’t prevented me from having very happy times, or enjoying my life, or appreciating the positive things. It’s just been there, as a background, an undercurrent, something I can never quiet forget, something that is always waiting for me to slip back, fall down into its embrace.


Everyone’s experience is different, so I don’t pretend to speak for anybody else. My own experience of depression is a feeling of futility, of tiredness, hopelessness, and a sense of sadness. Sadness has always felt the truest emotion, to me. Some people might be energised by mental issues, but for me it’s always come with a sense of tiredness, of weariness.


When I look back, I recognise that a lot of the baseline assumptions or groundings that my thoughts and feelings emerged from, growing up, were symptomatic of depression. I was always oversensitive, prone to being hurt by the actions of other people, and being upset by any kind of conflict. I think at least a part of this was the result of depression, in particular a sense of negativity and hopelessness that meant I had a low tolerance for the difficulties that beset anyone. Where other people might get upset for a day and then move on, I would fall into a depression that would last weeks. Where other people would push on through difficulties, I would quit, withdraw and not try anymore. I didn’t attribute that to depression; at the time I thought I was reacting in a reasonable manner. I thought I was discerning patterns that other people couldn’t. I thought I recognised an essential, almost mystical flaw in my own design. Even though I’ve always been pretty cynical and not drawn to magical or supernatural explanations of the world, looking back now I realise that I always grew up with a very superstitious sense of my own failings, a sense that no matter what I said or did, I wasn’t meant for success or love the way that other people were. Like a lot of teenagers, I thought there was something intrinsically wrong with me. That in itself isn’t depression, but depression makes it seem like a natural law, and saps your confidence to change it.


Even when I recognised the depression and started to work to overcome it, a lot of those patterns remained, and to an extent still remain. I am happy most of the time these days, after a lot of work at it. But it’s still easy for me to slip backward, into mystical thinking, when things start to go wrong. I give up on things way too easily, because I still can’t picture myself successful at anything. When people leave my life, there’s still a part of me that thinks “I knew it, it was inevitable”, although I try not to listen to it. When I’m faced with the kind of organisational administrative tasks that other people do as a matter of course, I sometimes feel like I’m crushed under a mountain, and I can’t move.


But awareness is the greatest weapon against depression; awareness and familiarity. The inevitable result of being alive means you can’t help but go through the same feelings, the same experiences, over and over, and eventually, if we’re lucky, we learn from them. It doesn’t work every time; sometimes I’m still caught off guard and carried away by the current. But sometimes, more and more, I feel the tide turning, and I am aware enough to start paddling against it, while it’s weak, or to pull my legs out of the water.


Part of overcoming depression, for me, is about recognising that what we think of as a “natural” state isn’t, in fact, natural. It’s a lens we place over the camera. Our natural reactions are the repeated patterns we’ve learned, over time.


Depression wants us to believe that when we’re looking through a depressive lens, we’re seeing “reality”, unadorned and inarguable.


Experience teaches that there’s no such thing as a simple objective reality. We all see the world differently, and our view is always coloured by our own baseline. I still have days where I feel everything is hopeless, but I have other days when those thoughts arise, when I’m conscious and quick enough to recognise them, to think “oh here comes negativity again, my old friend.” I don’t ignore them, I just don’t take them quite so seriously.


There are things I can do to help stave off the depression; get enough sleep, make sure I take time out, to be still and quiet, watch my caffeine and alcohol intake. Meditation helps. Changing the way I look at the world has helped. But the undercurrent is still there, and probably always will be.


I don’t think it’s a struggle that can ever be won, but we can grow better at loosening our grip, at relaxing with it. We can accept the down-times and give ourselves comfort, love and compassion. We can share that love with other people when they are going through similar experiences.


I am still prone to depression, I am still overcome, some days, by despair or hopelessness. But I’m stronger, I’m happier than I’ve ever been before. And that counts for a lot, on a day to day experiential level. I don’t look for “victory” over depression anymore. It would be nice, but it’s unlikely. What I hope for, what I aim for, is an increase in my openness to small, happy moments. A greater availability to joy and to love. And that’s something.


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Thirty Reasons *YOUR* story was rejected

As the editor of a small press zine ten years ago, I naturally often get stopped in the street by people who ask me “Dear Ben, (people often inexplicably address me as though they’re writing letters), such-and-such editor has rejected my work. Why, Ben? Why???” Then they cry and run frantically from side to side.

I don’t have all the answers, of course. No, you’re too kind, really, I don’t have more than seventy-six percent. But I have spent a lot of time around well-known editors, eating their unfinished meals, going through their garbage, and so I thought I would share with you all some of my “tips” on what the common reasons for an editor to reject a story might be.

  • Your story is too long for the magazine.
  • Your story is too short for the magazine.
  • Your story is too much the right length for the magazine.
  • Your story begins with a consonant (this seemingly obvious one trips a lot of people up).
  • The editor is looking for more diversity
  • That’s too much diversity
  • Your story is great, but the editor has eleven stories on exactly that theme already, and twelve would be gauche.
  • You spelt your own name wrong
  • The magazine’s guidelines specify email-subs only, but you delivered your story as a thirty-seven-minute diatribe in an elevator at a convention.
  • Your story has no ending.
  • Your story has no beginning.
  • Your story has no ending, no beginning, and is filled with custard.
  • The editor has a sore foot and cannot concentrate.
  • The editor ate too much and is a little gassy and cannot concentrate.
  • The editor printed your manuscript out, but spilled honey on it and then a bear ate it and the editor is too embarrassed to tell you that they fed your manuscript to a bear.
  • Your story is exactly identical to a story the editor published last month, including font size, kerning, and magazine masthead.
  • You wrote an ill-advised blog post slagging off the editor’s mother.
  • You engaged in a lengthy debate in the comments about the editor’s mother.
  • You submitted your story in wingdings, because nobody puts baby in a corner.
  • The science in your story is implausible.
  • The science in your story is plausible, but the editor does not understand it.
  • The science in your story is plausible, the editor understands it, but they believe with scornful disdain that Joe Meat-Tray will not understand it and so advise you to write about lusty warlocks instead.
  • The warlocks in your story are implausible.
  • Your protagonist is unlikeable.
  • Really, the story was autobiographical? That’s unfortunate. 
  • No really, they’re so unlikeable. 
  • Maybe don’t write any more autobiographical stories.
  • Your story does not read the same forward as backward.
  • Your story was submitted as an attachment in a format the editor cannot open, such a link to a bizarre set of clues leading to a trapdoor and a boulder which chases the editor down a narrow tunnel to a set of poisoned darts and a monster with six arms and a pipe that blows smoke in their eyes.
  • Instead of sending your story to the magazine, you put it in a bag of rotting fish heads.

I trust this information has been of value.

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The Gendrification of the Inner Suburbs

I’ve been talking to a couple of people and it’s made me think about posting something about my reaction to my own gender. It’s been such a topic of conversation (gender, not me), and something I haven’t really unpacked to many people.

It’s tricky to know where to start. In some ways it’s a chronological thought process but in other ways it’s only something I have become aware of backward. 

I don’t think I thought a lot about gender roles, growing up. I never really saw myself as a boy, I just saw myself as me. I think in early high school I started to feel like I didn’t fit, I started to absorb the fact that I wasn’t really an ideal male, but I never really thought of it in terms of gender norms or anything. I just thought it was me not fitting in because of who I was. Looking back I can see that I didn’t enjoy boys’ games that much; I would often not want to play sport at lunchtime, I hated a lot of contact sports especially. I was bullied a little bit, at times. 

I thought I was just a shit boy. I gravitated toward other alternate kids. I was happiest talking to girls. I was closer to girls, and I felt like I could be more open around them. Like I didn’t have to put on a front. But at the same time, teenagers are teenagers and I recognised pretty quickly that I wasn’t what girls looked for in somebody to love. It’s a pretty common nerd-boy story I guess. Again, I never really looked at it in gendered terms, but looking back I think high school was very highly gendered, and non-conformity made you fairly quickly on the outer. But I didn’t see it that way, then. I just thought there was something wrong with me.

I never really identified with my own gender. I didn’t identify with another gender, either. I just felt like something alien, maybe.

I guess a lot of those themes carried into adult life. To be honest, I rarely if ever felt comfortable around other men. I had male friends, even some good ones, despite that. But it was hard work. It is still hard work for me to socialise or converse with men. I don’t know why. If you really want to torture me, take me to one of those parties where the men go into one room and women in the other, and force me to hang with the men. I don’t mean for it to sound like I hate men, or aren’t interested in their thoughts. I just find it really really hard work to relate or communicate with them. If that sounds lacking in insight it’s because I still don’t fully understand why I feel it so strongly.

My relationships with women were a lot more complicated because I was kind of both identifying with them and attracted to (some of) them. I formed some really strong friendships but sometimes found it hard to separate love from friendship. I think I was really seeking some kind of closeness, more than anything else. I was so often told “You’re not a boy, you’re one of the girls”. Which was both wonderful and heartbreaking. Because I wanted to belong with someone, somewhere, but I also recognised that it was a sign of failure, too. Failure at being a man, failing to play the role I was supposed to be able to do innately.

I don’t think a lot of those things are uncommon. I think a lot of non-conforming men probably feel that way.

I learned to be quite afraid of other men. I learned that not conforming to masculinity isn’t a good thing. That it gets you punished. It was especially hard for me when I was younger, because I didn’t really recognise my own physicality that much. I wasn’t aware of what the signs were, the signals that told other men that I wasn’t male enough. I just know that other men would hassle me, would tell me I was gay. I became pretty anxious and developed a degree of social phobia and agoraphobia. I was pretty scared to leave the house, I wouldn’t go anywhere at night, ever. At one point I was afraid to take the bin to the curb. I know other people have had much more frightening and horrific experiences; mine were pretty mild I guess. I learned to drink mostly because of that fear. Alcohol was the main thing that got me through those years. It was the only time I could be around other guys and not be scared and could talk to them. (That fear has decreased a bit over the years, largely after moving to a bigger city where gender is slightly less rigidly policed. I still feel it around strongly masculine guys.)

Again, it’s not an all-encompassing thing; I had a few exceptions, some good guy friends. And eventually I learned the things about me that I needed to change to pass more successfully among men. I learned to talk deeper. I learned to restrain my feelings. I learned I could have long hair, but only if I grew a beard. Oh and the most important one; I learned never, ever, to sit with my legs crossed. When I see all those memes or comments about man-spreading, I have to laugh, a little, because it always makes me think of how hard I had to work to learn how to do that. How unnatural it felt, how stupid and boyish. I wonder how many guys that sit with their legs apart do it for the same reason I did, because someone made them afraid, made them learn to change the way their body moved and sat so they wouldn’t look so “wrong”. (for the record I have since “taken back” cross-leggedness. It’s comfier)

I felt like I was trapped in this world of non-belonging. I could never be a guy. And while I had some great female friends, there was always a barrier there too. Because so often they identified so strongly with their girl-ness that it excluded me. No matter how much I was one of the girls, I wouldn’t be invited on girls nights. At weddings, I would stand with the groom, not the bride. When me and my then-girlfriends went out to dinner with other couples, no matter how much I wanted to chat to the girl, I would always somehow get squeezed into an awkward uncomfortable conversation with the guy. And feminism, I had a weird mixed relationship with. Because I wanted so badly to improve the world, to make life better for women. And I recognised the importance of challenging masculinity, obviously. But I hated the way it divided me from women. I hated when my feminist friends would cast me as a man, I felt like I was being pushed into some horrible caricature role-play that I didn’t even know how to do. It was like a reminder, a reinforcement of those binaries that I hated so much. You belong over here, this is what men are, what men do. And it was a reminder of you-don’t-belong-with-us. For obvious reasons, I was really fond of deconstructive feminisms.

And I didn’t know, didn’t think that it was okay to *not be* one of those two things. I knew I wasn’t gay; I was only attracted to women, and if anything I wanted to get away from men totally. I identified more with women, but I never felt like I was trans. I never felt like I was a woman in a man’s body or anything like that (which is lucky, because I am too much of a coward to ever be as brave as trans people). I remember reading stories, though, of trans people, and I found myself crying. I cried because I didn’t know, until then, how alone I felt. How I felt like I was the only one that didn’t feel like my own gender. But like I said, I didn’t want to become another gender. To me that entailed a kind of amazing certainty, a different kind of identification. I couldn’t imagine feeling anything so strongly. I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like, even, to feel like a gender. How does gender feel? I just felt nothing, just a void, just a lack, a wrongness, a not-belongingness.

I guess that brings us up to date, more or less. I guess now I have a bit more idea of other senses of identity that exist. As I have read more about non-traditional gender positions, I realise you don’t need to necessarily see yourself as male or female, that you can not be a man and not be a woman, that you can be made up of aspects of both. That really, it all exists on a spectrum, not like a light switch. I discovered concepts like gender-fluidity and non-binary identities make a kind of sense to me. Even though most people in the world don’t talk about them, or think about them at all. But it makes me feel a bit less lonely, to think there are a few other people who feel like they exist in that void, that there might be other kinds of belonging. And if I read someone’s story, who identifies as non-binary, it overwhelms me a little, to have those experiences of non-belonging portrayed. Even though the story might not be the same as mine, it’s nice to feel that identification. And it makes me realise just how rare those stories are in our popular culture. Maybe that’s why I wanted to talk about it.

I wouldn’t have been able to write this post without the unconditional love of two or three people who accept me for who I am, be it manly man, unmanly man, or non-binary. If you’ve managed to wade through all this without hitting the tl;dr button, thank you. And if there are things I’ve written that you don’t agree with, that’s okay. This is just one person’s experience. It’s not meant to speak for anyone else.

I hope maybe it’s okay, sometimes, not to be either gender. To just be you.

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Refugee! Part 3

The protesters crowded the deck of the S.S. Navy Rescue.

“Get off the deck, protesters!” one of the navy said. “Geez!”

“No!” the protesters yelled. “We’re going to stop you doing your job!”

“Yeah!” said more of them. “It’s time this country was more like Russia! We love communism!”

“Let’s go, Steve,” Sarah said worriedly. “We don’t belong here. I thought it would be fun before, but I suddenly learned that it’s not fun. It’s very very wrong.”

“Chill out Sarah,” Steve said. He lit up a joint and took his shoes off. “You’re too uptight. You don’t always have to do what the man tells you.”

“Yeah, Sarah,” Hibiscus said, walking past. “We’re just having some fun and smashing the patriarchy. What are you, some kind of a nerd?”

“Maybe I am!” Sarah said, angrily. “Maybe I finally realised I don’t have to pretend to be someone I’m not, just to impress you! Even if I am in love with you! Steve, that is. And maybe I was wrong about that. Maybe you’re not who I thought you were. Steve, that is. Although that bit could also apply to Hibiscus. Maybe doing what’s right is more important than going along with other people just to be popular. Did you ever realise that? Because I just did.”

“That’s a very pretty speech, Sarah,” Hibiscus said. “But I’m not listening to it. I don’t care about what’s right or wrong. All I care about is causing a scene. And you know why? Because I’m a student. I don’t want to work, I’m too lazy. But if I can bring down capitalism, maybe other people will just give me money, and I’m entitled to it!”

“That’s a very pretty speech, Hibiscus,” Sarah said. “But you’re wrong. Both of you are wrong. You too, Steve. You’re both wrong.”

“That’s a very pretty speech, Sarah,” Steve said. “But I’m sick of you. To tell you the truth, I was just using you.”

“W…what?” Sarah exclaimed.

“That’s right,” Steve said. “I was still in love with Hibiscus, and now we’re going to be together. I’m sorry, I didn’t want you to find out this way.”

Sarah cried.

“Geez,” Steve said. “I hate feelings. Come on Hibiscus, let’s go push some of these naval officers into the water. That’ll be a laugh.”

“Land ho!” someone somewhere cried.

“Wait a minute!” someone else cried. “Hold on a minute! That’s not land! That’s a people smuggler’s vessel!”


“Oh my god!” the captain yelled. “This is terrible! The navy has found us!” He rubbed his hands together worriedly.

“What does that mean?” Emric said. “We’re not doing anything wrong, are we? Surely we don’t have to be worried?”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Emric,” the other passengers said. “We’re not refugees! We’re illegals! And if someone catches us, they might send us back home, to our lives that actually weren’t that bad, and which we didn’t have any true cause to leave!”

“What?” Emric said. “No, that might be true of you all. But it’s not true of me. I was fleeing persecution in my homeland. The political situation, whatever it was, was awful and persecutory. I was coming here to try to make a better life for myself and for my family. I’m not like the rest of you!”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Emric,” the fat captain said, laughing and rubbing his hands together like they had butter in them. “You’re EXACTLY like the others! Did you know you can’t just get on the boat and come here? You have to go through the official queue!”

“But… I didn’t know…” Emric said.

“And you didn’t bother to find out!” the captain said, chewing on his cigar. “You just jumped the queue like a queue jumper.”

Emric fell onto his knees. “No.” he said. “No. No. Nooooooooooo!”

The other passengers put their hand on his shoulder. “No, Emric,” they said. “Yes.”

“Oh my god,” Emric said, aghast. “You’re right. I thought I was different than all these other passengers, but I wasn’t! I was just like all of them! We’re exactly the same! I never bothered to find out how to join the orderly queue to come to Flatland. And that makes me a queue jumper, just like everybody else! Yes, I finally realise that now.”

“You’ve changed, Emric,” the fat man said. “You’ve learned a lot during this story, and I’m pretty confident you’re not the same man you once were. I’d go so far as to say you’re a different man altogether.”

“You’re right,” Emric said, “I’ve learned a lot about what being a refugee really means.” He sank to his knees and fell in a heap. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Oh Flatland, I’m so so sorry.”


Sarah was crying on her knees.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Oh Flatland, my homeland. How could I have betrayed you like this? I don’t want to be popular, or ‘cool’. All I want to do is to do what’s right! But how, that’s the question. If only I knew the answer to that question.”

Suddenly one of the border protection naval officers yelled out. “Hey, there are refugees on that boat! Let’s try to help them and get them to our boat so we can process them and if they are genuine refugees we can give them assistance!”

“Shut up pigs!” yelled Hibiscus, throwing a piece of shale at them. “WE think you should just let everybody in, no matter how unrealistic or unreasonable that is!”

“Er,” the navy officers said. “Can we talk about this sensibly?”

“No way!” Hibiscus yelled. She was shouting now. “We’re gonna stop you from doing your job! Everyone, let’s cause a scene and protest in an unsafe manner and cause them problems!”

“Yay!” yelled all the protesters.

Sarah looked overboard. The boat was getting closer She could see the naval officers were trying to get to the edge of the deck to help the boat. But the protesters were getting in the way.

“I want to do something to help,” Sarah said to herself. “But what? I don’t know. I really wish I knew how to wrap things up.”

Suddenly thunder crashed.


“It’s the navy, still!” someone shouted. “They’ll catch us and send us home.”

The captain looked thoughtful. Then he laughed and rubbed his hands together, like they were covered in grease. “I’ve got it!” he shouted at everyone. “I’ve got it! Quick, throw some babies into the water!”

Emric looked up from his wailing. “What the…?” he said.

“Let me explain,” the captain said, smoking a cigar. “The navy will try to make me turn the boat around because I’m a people smuggler. But if we throw some babies into the water, they’ll have to rescue us! They won’t ever let babies sink!”

“Great idea, captain!” the other passengers expulsed. “Let’s do that!” They went and grabbed their babies.

“Great Scott!” Emric said. “No, no, you can’t! Noooooooooooo!”

“Oh yes!” the passengers disagreed. They started throwing their babies into the sea.


“Stoooop!” Sarah cried. Everyone froze as one.

“What is it?” they said.

“Don’t you all see?” Sarah said. “I was wrong. I thought it would be fun to get in the way of the naval officers. Maybe I thought it would give me a ‘thrill’, I don’t know. Maybe I just wanted to fit in. Do you know what I mean?”

“Yeah,” the protesters admitted. “I try to fit in sometimes too.”

“And that’s great,” Sarah said. “Fitting in is wonderful. But sometimes, we try to fit in with things that aren’t right. And that’s wrong. Maybe you think stopping the border protection police from policing our nation’s borders is ‘cool’. But it’s not. Would it really be so ‘cool’ to have a country with no borders? Where anyone who wants to can come in and take our jobs? Or worse, just sit on the dole collecting our money, because they think it’s an easy ride? You tell me, is that really so cool?”

The protesters were silent now. Sarah guessed they were thinking.

“You’re right, Sarah,” Hibiscus said. “I guess you’re right after all. I never really thought about the implications of my actions. I guess I never thought about it at all.”

“We’re real sorry,” the protesters said. They got out of the navy’s way. “Here, you guys. You can do your job.”

“Thanks,” the navy said. “We’re grateful for you for thinking about it and coming to your senses.”

“Sarah, wait,” Steve said. “I’m sorry. I should never have dumped you like that. I guess I was wrong.”

Sarah felt a little tug at her heartstrings. She supposed a part of her was still in love with Steve. But it was too late. “It’s too late now, Steve,” she said. “You had your chance, but you blew it. I’m going to fall in love with someone who does the right thing, next time.”

Steve looked down sadly at the ground.

Just then there was a splash and a shout. Sarah looked into the sea.

“Oh my God!” she yelled. “They’re throwing babies in the sea!”


“Stoooop!” Emric cried.

“What is it, Emric?” the passengers said.

“Don’t you see how wrong you all are?” Emric said. “Don’t you get it? I thought I would take the easy road. I thought I could just get on a boat and sail my problems away. I took the easy way out. I could have done my research and found out there was a queue, wherever it is, and gotten into it. But I didn’t. I thought I was doing the right thing, but when it comes down to it, it wasn’t right. It wasn’t right at all.”

“Emric, what are you saying?” everyone said.

“Don’t you get it?” Emric said. “It was wrong of us to try to come here illegally. It might have been easier for us. Sure, we all want an easy life, living in a country with the dole so we can lie around and not have to do what’s right. But we do have to do what’s right. Not because it’s easy. But because it’s right.”

“You’re right Emric,” the passengers said.

“Oh my God,” said the Captain. “What have I done? I’ve wasted my life!” He wrung his hands together like they were full of eels. “Why didn’t I realise before now? Being a people smuggler is wrong!”

Emric put a hand on the captain’s hair. “It’s all right,” Emric said. “We’ve all learned a lot in this climax. Every one of us.”

“That’s true,” the passengers agreed. “Let’s go get our babies out of the sea.”


Sarah watched as the illegals climbed on the boat and surrendered to the navy. They seemed like changed people. She didn’t know how she knew that but she knew.

“I should help,” she said. She went over to one man who looked noble and sad.

“I’m Emric,” the man said. “I thought I could jump the queue but now I realise I never can.”

“I’m Sarah,” she said, smiling kindly. “Let me take you to the back of the queue, Emric.”

“I’d like that,” the man said, smiling kindly. “I’d like that a lot.”

In the ocean, a porpoise jumped up and smiled.

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Refugee! Part Two

Well after the first part of Refugee! went viral (what? a virus that one person has is still a virus), I received numerous requests for part 2. And so, without any more ado, behold!

Part two:

“Hey, Sarah.” It was Steve.

Gosh, Sarah thought. I really like Steve. He’s so dreamy. She thought for a few more minutes about whatever the sort of things girls think about boys. Then she said “Hello Steve.” She looked nervous.

“Hi Sarah,” Steve said. “Hey, I’m gonna go down the wharf and join in the protests! You wanna come?”

“Oh Steve,” she said. “I just said in the last scene that I couldn’t. But maybe I can.” She had a moral dilemma for a minute.

“Come on,” Steve said. “You don’t want people to think you’re a loser do you?”

Sarah frowned. She hated peer pressure. It was really hard to resist it.

“Okay, I’ll come,” she said. “But can we not get too close? I’m a bit scared of all those radicals. I always watch the news and see them punching policemen for no reason.”

Steve took her hand and Sarah felt a little excited thrill.

“Don’t worry Sarah,” he said. “I’ll look after you. Probably.”

Sarah thought her heart would melt, and then it did.

“All right,” she said, throwing her books onto the ground, and then picking them up and putting them into her bag. It was all very well to make gestures, but she still needed her books. “Let’s go!”

And they did!


Emric sat up on the deck and watched his homeland, wherever it was, recede into the distance. “I guess I’m on my way,” he said out loud to himself.

Just then the other guests came up on deck.

“Hi Emric!” they said. “Welcome to the boat. Are you coming with us all the way to Flatland?”

“Oh I don’t know,” Emric said. “I was just going to the nearest safe harbour. It’s only my safety that’s important. I’m not picky.”

The other passengers laughed. “Oh Emric!” they said. “You’re so sweet and naïve and stupid and naïve and dum!” They pounded him on the back and Emric’s pipe fell out of his mouth overboard.

“Why are you laughing?” Emric said.

“Once you’re on the boat you should keep going!” the others said. “We could have gotten off of the boat at a hundred different ports by now, but we’re shopping for the best country!”

Emric shook his head, shocked. “I don’t know if I think that’s right,” he said. Then he said to himself, “All these people are picking and choosing their destinations. All I want is to get my family somewhere safe. I’m not trying to manipulate the system.”

The other passengers laughed some more and then they went and sat on the deck on some chairs.

Emric went over to the captain. “I don’t think everyone on this boat is really doing the right thing,” Emric said.

The fat man laughed his jowls and then rubbed his hands together, like there was oil in them. “Oh Emric!” he said. “You’re the funniest man I know, have I ever told you that?” Then he put a cigar in his mouth and smoked it.

Emric scowled, confused. “Being a refugee isn’t exactly what I thought it was at first,” he said. “I’m only just learning that.”


Sarah and Steve arrived at the wharf. Sarah felt like she was falling in love with Steve. She just hoped he didn’t lead her down the wrong path. But how could he? He was so handsome. And he had his own car.

“Well, we’re here, at the protest,” Steve said. “Let’s see what happens next.”

“I really don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Sarah said. “The suspense is killing me! Not literally.”

“Me too Sarah!” Steve said. “Anything could happen.”

Suddenly there was a shout. Police had arrived at the protest.

“It’s the pigs!” someone shouted. “Let’s start punching them!”

“Okay!” someone else shouted. “It’s better than getting a job!”

“Let’s get out of here!” Sarah said. She clutched Steve on the arm and got a little thrill of electricity in her.

“Just chill, babygirl,” Steve said. “There ain’t no cause to be worrying your pretty little head.”

“You really think my little head is pretty?” Sarah said. “Gosh, I think he really likes me. I better stay for a while to try to impress him. I know it’s against my morals. But just this once it couldn’t hurt, right?”

“Okay,” she said, “we can stay.”

Steve smiled and lit a smoke. Sarah knew it was bad but she found that she thought he was attractive anyway. Who knows why!

“All right,” he grinned. “Now let’s see if we can get closer and see what’s going on!”

They went down near the wharf. All around there were people pushing and shoving and trying to punch policemen. Sarah felt a little bit scared but a little bit excited too. But also scared. “I’m scared,” she said.

“Don’t worry Dollface,” Steve said. “I’ll protect you!” He gave her his jacket.

“Sarah!” It was Hibiscus.

“Hi Hibiscus,” Sarah said. “What’s happening?” She looked mousy and nervous. Hibiscus gave her a big smile.

“Oh the stupid fuzz are trying to bust up our protest,” she said. “But let’s not talk about that, it’s boring! Me and some of my friends are gonna go jump on the border control boat and try to mess with the men who protect our land from invasion!”

“What?!” Sarah exploded. “Why would you do that?!”

“I know!” Hibiscus said. “Isn’t it awesome! Oh hi Steven” she said.

Steve nodded. “Hibie,” he said.

Sarah felt a little jealous explosion in her bowels. “You two know each other!” she said.

“Er, yeah,” Steve said, looking a bit nervous and chewing his nails and staring at the floor.

“Stevie and I used to date!” Hibiscus said. “We still get along great! Sometimes it seems like we could quite easily get back together.”

“I don’t like the sound of that!” Sarah said to herself.

“Hey, I know!” Hibiscus said. “Why don’t you guys come with us?”

“We can’t,” Sarah said, but before she said that, Steve said “Okay” and so she didn’t say it in the end.

“Let’s do it!” Steve said. “This will be great!”

Sarah didn’t know what to do. Should she go, even though she knew it was wrong, just because she was falling in love with Steve? She knew what was the right thing, but somehow her hormones told her to do something else. “Okay!” she said.

“Why did I say that?” she said.

And they were off!


“Hey Emric,” the fat man yelled out. “Come up here on to the deck for a minute.”

Emric pulled himself up out of his hammock, where he’d been having a lovely dream about his homeland, its customs and some of the foods that people eat there.

“What is it?” he said, going onto the deck.

“It’s your new home,” the fat man said. He laughed a big belly laugh and rubbed his hands together. “I love being a people smuggler!” he chortled.

“Flatland,” Emric said. “I never dreamed I would actually make it. Now maybe I can start working really hard and one day I’ll be able to afford to bring my family out here to stay with me.” He smiled dreamily into the air.

The fat man laughed so loud his cigar flew out of his mouth and into the sea, where a dolphin ate it. “Oh Emric,” he guffawed. “You’re the funniest refugee I ever knew!”

“What’s so funny?” Emric questioned.

Some of the other passengers were walking past, and they answered Emric’s question. “Oh Emric,” they said, “we’re not going to work hard. Don’t you know this new country has generous welfare laws that allow us to spunge of the government and do nothing all day long!”

“Wait a minute,” Emric said, raising a finger. “That doesn’t sound like the right thing to do, to me!”

The fat man pointed at Emric and let out a booming chuckle.

“You see what I’m saying now?” he said to the others.

“Oh Emric,” the other passengers said. “You’re a nice man, but very very naïve. Don’t you know how easy it is to rort a country that is trying to do the right thing? Just stick with us, my friend, and you will be on easy street!”

Emric shook his head. “This is further evidence to add to my earlier perception that being a refugee doesn’t always mean that a person is doing the right thing,” he said. “Sadly, some of us are doing the wrong thing. And we really don’t deserve the hospitality we’re generously offered. I’ve finally learned that.”

The fat man shook his head loudly. “Oh Emric,” he pontificated, “you’ve sure been through some character development in this section!”

“I sure have,” Emric said. “And I’ll never be the same again.”

“That’s for sure,” agreed the other passengers.

Just then a boat suddenly appeared on the horizon.

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Week of No Reading Readux (see what I did there?)

Well today marks the end of my Week of No Reading. Thank fuck for that!

Turns out I really miss reading! Who knew!

The week was a mixture of success and failure. On the one hand, it was good to have a bit more time to focus on creative pursuits rather than just consuming. I found that without other stuff to do my mind was more likely to think “oh we should do some writing!” or to play around on garageband or even blog. So that’s something I’ll try to take back to “normal” life.

On the flip side, it turns out that having more free time doesn’t *automatically* mean you’ll spend it doing productive things! Who knew! My visions of doing lots of cooking and cleaning and writing a thousand pages never really eventuated. It turns out that on nights when you’re tired after work, you still don’t feel like doing that stuff, even without books to distract you! So when I was super-tired I just found other stuff to do, like wasting time on Facebook or watching Netflix, instead. 

Also, I discovered that choosing a week when you’re already feeling a little emotionally fragile to decide to kick one of your crutches for a while isn’t necessarily the best thing for one’s sanity. I think not reading just gave me more time to ruminate on my thoughts and probably made me feel more depressed. And made me question all my creative endeavours and whether it’s all a waste of time.

So I guess I’m saying that it’s a mixed result. Which is to be expected, I guess. I’ll be reading again, as of today! I’ll be trying to bring a bit more balance to my life in terms of mixing consuming with creative endeavours. But I also appreciate books (and comics!) more for having a week without them.

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Refugee! Part One…

The topic of refugees has been in the news quite a lot the last couple of weeks. As such, I thought it might be topical to post an excerpt from a short story I’ve been working on which deals with this issue in, I think you will agree, a sensitive and nevertheless thrilling manner. And so I present:


Part One.

Emric set out at midnight.

The night was mysterious. There was mist on the ocean and the twinge of something sinister in the air, or it could have been jasmine. Emric moved under cover. He wore a cowl over his head, and a long black cloak that flapped around him when there was a strong breeze, which there wasn’t.

“This is a dangerous night to be about,” Emric said out loud to nobody. “I had better be quiet.”

Just then shots rang out.

“Great Scott!” Emric said. “I had better get moving. Those shots sounded a lot like they came from the guns that other ethnic groups use.”

Suddenly a search light fell on Emric. “Stay where you are, Emric!” called the voice of a guard. “Where do you think you’re going anyway? It’s after dinner time.”

“I think he’s seen me,” Emric muttered. “I better run for it, with no delay!”

Emric turned and ran for the waterfront.

“Hey, stop Emric!” the guard called. “Come back here.”

“I don’t think I will, actually,” Emric called back as he ran. He laughed at his comment. Zing!

“Now’s not the time for levity, Emric,” he said to himself. “I’ve still got a long way to go to get to the sea and to possible escape from this horrible horrible country.”

Just then he saw the sea.


Sarah was a student at Flatland Tertiary Ivory College, the pre-eminent University in Greater Flatland. She was only in first year, and so was still pretty naïve. She had just moved out of her parents’ house, in fact. She had nondescript mousy features and generic hair. People often overlooked her and ignored her because she was so normal. “It sucks being so naïve and young,” she said out loud to herself, sitting in the quad, eating some kind of sandwich, whatever sandwich students eat. “Some days I wish I would have an adventure. But I guess I’m too ordinary for things like that to happen to.”

“Hey, Sarah!” It was Hibiscus, one of the artsy girls who there always are at universities, probably. She wore her long red hair down to her ankles, and she had a long flowery dress on which looked like it was made out of some kind of natural fabric. Sarah thought Hibiscus would probably be quite pretty if she made some effort.

“Come to the protest with us!” Hibiscus said. “We’re going down to the wharf to protest the government’s treatment of workers.”

“I dunno,” Sarah said, eating her sandwich nervously. “I reckon workers have a pretty good deal already. Do we really want to tip the scales away from struggling small businesses in favour of greedy unions?”

“Hahaha yeah,” Hibiscus said. “You can say that again. But I forget what you said. I have short term memory loss from smoking too much pot! Hey do you want to come to a protest?”

“I can’t,” Sarah said. She nibbled at her sandwich much like a mouse, which as previously mentioned, she resembled. “I really need to study. I want to do well at my course, whatever it is I’m studying.”

“Haha yeah,” Hibiscus said. “You’re right, studying is for squares! I can’t believe some people come to Uni to study. Not when there’s dope to be smoked and partaes to be had! Amiright?”

“Right,” Sarah said helplessly.

“Hahaha yeah,” Hibiscus said. “Anyway see ya!”

Sarah sighed. She felt like she had established her character, to Hibiscus, as a naïve and traditional good natured girl. She wondered what would happen next.


The boat was tumbledown and ramshackle. It looked like a small cottage on the deck of a boat, that had then fallen over a bit. Emric shook his head. “That doesn’t look that safe,” he said.

Just then he heard a voice in the distance. “Emmmmmriiiiiic,” it called out.

“The guard!” Emric said. “He’s still looking for me! I better get going without any more ado!”

He approached the boat. There was a faded sign on its mast. The People Smuggler, it said. “Hello?” Emric called out, hesitantly.

Just then a fat man emerged from the cabin. He was very large and he looked a bit oily, like he’d been rubbed in bacon. He was rubbing his hands together like they were covered in oil. He was laughing at something then he saw Emric and stopped.

“Oh hello there,” the man said, his jowls wobbling frighteningly. “Come for a passage out of here, have you?” He took out a large sack which was on his back. “Here,” he said, “Put your money in here.”

Emric looked in the sack. “Great Scott!” he said. The sack was full of dollar bills. There must have been millions!

The man laughed and shook his head. “I see you’re new to this,” he said. “Emric was it?”

Emric nodded.

“I was once like you, Emric,” the man said. “But then I bought a boat, and now I’m rich. I’m glad we had this talk. Now, that’ll be eight thousand pounds for you and all your family.”

“But I only have two thousand pounds!” Emric said. “I thought that would be heaps.”

The man laughed again. This time he looked a bit sinister.

“That’s all right, Emric,” the man said. “You can leave your family here. You can send the money back to them for them to come later, right?”

Emric nodded sadly. He didn’t want to leave behind his wife and two children, but he supposed it was for the best. That explained why he hadn’t brought them with him, he supposed.

Reluctantly, he dropped his money in the sack. The man whipped it shut with such ferocity that Emric had to whip his hand out, lest he lose it.

“Phew!” he said. “I thought I was going to lose it. My hand that is.”

“Ahhhhhaaahaaa,” said the man, laughing. “Emric, my friend, you make me laugh. Here, have a cigar.”

“I don’t smoke,” Emric explained. It was something other people often teased him about, but he believed in doing the right thing regardless of what others thought.

“Now get on board,” the fat man said. “We’d better get sailing before any of the authorities see me and ask for my boating license!”

“You don’t have a boating license?” Emric exclaimed. “What?”

“Hahahaaaa Emric,” the fat man said. “Just pretend you never heard that.” Then he gave Emric a wink that chilled Emric to his very soul!

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Every day I try to write something for ruok day. Partly because of my own experiences with depression and anxiety, and partly because I think ruok looks like the sound a crow makes.

We talk about mental illness or health like it’s an on/off button. Like there’s a clear line in the sand between mental health and mental illness or disorders. You either have depression or you don’t. And maybe there’s some diagnostic usefulness in saying yes or no to those questions. But I think to some extent it’s an illusory perception.

I think it’s more like a continuum. And not a continuum where we occupy a single spot, in relation to other people. More a continuum that we move up and down, from day to day, moment to moment, through our lives.

That’s not to deny that there are people with greater or lesser levels of suffering. But I think that all of us are at least a little bit mentally ill. By which I mean most of us will at times during our lives identify with thoughts which might be characterised as typical of mental disorders. And unless we are seriously affected, most of us move in and out of healthy and unhealthy mental states.

I think people are often reluctant to discuss mental illness or suffering because of that perception that there’s a kind of fixedness to it. “I have depression” implies a certain permanence, or self-definition. There’s a kind of reluctance to apply the tag to yourself. I feel the same way. I hate the sense that people might view me through some kind of “depressed person” lens. Whatever that even means.

I prefer the notion that we slip in and out of states of mind. That we’re visited by depressive states of mind, which then leave us. Or anxious states of mind. They’re never “us”. They’re just nesting on us, like birds, or clouds settled on mountains.

Some of us are visited more frequently. For some of us the fog descends regularly and stays for a while, or the tremors of anxiety earthquakes last longer. But they’re not us. They don’t become who we are. We’re the mountain.

Maybe other people prefer to think of it in other ways, but that’s how I like to think of it, this year at least. 

RUOK day, to me, is about encouraging people to reach out. But people don’t reach out because we tell them to. People reach out when they can see and feel that we’ve removed the stigma of mental illness from our perception, that we don’t judge them. And part of that is, I think, removing the sense of definitive, permanent labelling and allowing people to embrace the reality of their mental suffering without being afraid of having it forever define them.

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The Week of Not Reading

I’ve decided to make this week a week of Not Reading.

This may seem strange to non-readers, or to random or casual readers. Allow me to explain.

I’m not a random or casual reader. I’m what might, in the trade, be called an Obsessive Reader. I’m not sure when it began. I’ve always read a lot. I think during high school I found emotional solace in reading and music that I didn’t find in people. 

I suppose I began, like most people, reading one book at a time. I remember a time, maybe Grade 11 or Grade 12, when I was torn between reading new books and re-reading books that I loved. In particular, I was reading a lot of fat fantasy at the time, and so I had to decide between the latest Eddings, Feist, Donaldson etc, and re-reading their previous books. And I had to decide between the page-turning ephemerality of Eddings, and the more emotionally satisfying but more exhausting Donaldson. It was a quandary. So instead, I decided not to decide.

I piled up all the books I wanted to read, and started reading them all at once, chapter by chapter. It was kind of fun. I think I realised that something was lost by doing this; a cohesiveness, maybe, a momentum. But something else was gained; variety, multiplicity of voices, and a sense of comparison. I think I had about fourteen books in the stack, and I would progress through them in this way until they were done.

Anyway, that was kind of fun, but also kind of difficult, because it meant it took a lot longer to finish a book. And it made travel harder; I had to take fourteen books with me if I went away!

When I moved to Toowoomba for Uni, the book stack came with me, in a cardboard box that I kept under my bed, pulling the books out in order to read them.

Reading for fun fell away a bit during Uni, replaced by Course reading and socialising. For a few years the only real fiction I read were Doctor Who books, in between course reading.

Then as I finished my Undergrad I pulled out my book stacks and got back into them. They were a bit more massive now. My reading pile was two teetering towers of books in the study, and I would have to bring them out in groups of three or five, because otherwise they would have covered the lounge room. I started to realise this was impractical; there were times when by the time I got to the next chapter of a book I had completely forgotten what had happened the last time I was reading it, about two weeks previously.

After Uni finished I started Last Short Story with Alisa, Alex and Tansy, and set about trying to read every short story published in the calendar year. This ended up being about 3000 short stories and was pretty much physically and mentally exhausting. It was a great experience, in a lot of ways, and I don’t regret it, but it burned me out for a while, and although I continued with the LSS project for a while afterward, the burnout hit us all eventually.

When I left Last Short Story I was not in great mental shape; I think I was going through a period of bad depression, and I pretty much threw myself into reading in what, looking back, I can see was probably an unhealthy way. I was overwhelmed by how much there was to read. How many books I had collected. How many I *still* hadn’t finished. How many could I ever hope to finish? I was mad, I felt cheated, I had to read faster, dammit. I created a spreadsheet, I mapped out my current reading list, and I calculated how many pages each book contained, how much I’d read, how much remained, how many pages I needed to read per month, per week, per day, to finish them all.

Does that sound like taking all the fun out of reading? Well yes, it was. But this isn’t about fun, dammit! This was about finishing lots of books! And I did. I finished a whole bunch of books, and even enjoyed some of them. I read Les Mis that year, which I adored, so it wasn’t like reading became something horrible. But it was definitely becoming a bit of a monster.

I set up a spreadsheet for the year following before sitting myself down and having an honesty session with myself. Ben, I said, you are turning reading from something relaxing and enjoyable to something like a job. I listened; I really did. I knew I was right. And yet, and yet, and yet…. so much to read!

I tried to read just one book at a time and…. God, it was *hard*. All those other books, just sitting there. Some days I wouldn’t feel like reading the current book, and what then? Huh? What then?? Was I supposed to just read nothing? What a waste! When I could be multi-tasking! Of course, these days we know that multi-tasking isn’t that great a thing. But this was before, and it was still something admirable! 

So I would go through phases, of weighing myself down beneath endless reams of to-be-read piles, and trying to plough through them mercilessly, and then realising I was feeling claustrophobic, and taking a break, only to throw myself into other things; another round of Last Short Story, or obsessively reading back-catalogues of comic books, trying to “catch up”. And all the while still buying, more and more books, even though they were starting to become not something I loved being surrounded by, but something I feared, an endless, unfinishable task, set by some cruel purgatorial demigod. 

Reader, I’m not cured, although I have come so far. Every so often I slip back. I obsessively read short stories for a couple of months, and then realise that nobody cares whether I have read every last story in the May issue of (insert magazine name), and that I am leaving myself no space to think. I ration my comic book reading to strict weekly amounts, then binge in crazed midnight reading marathons. Every so often I even create a new spreadsheet of my TBR pile, and even get as far as tabulating my daily reading goal. Perhaps I even go along with it for a couple of days. And then, the voice of (relative) sanity kicks in, and asks: really, Ben? Do you want to do this? Is this really going to make you happy?

And these days I usually realise, no, it won’t. And so I go back to reading one book, just one book, though the itch to pick up another is like a junkie craving scratching at the back of my brain. I have become merciless in culling my TBR stack. I have reduced my stack from hundreds of books to 58, and then to 29. And still it feels like the weight of all the reading to be done is like a millstone around my neck, weighting me down. 

Recently, after emerging from a period of depression that lasted a little while, I sat down to reassess my life, to think about, as I do, from time to time, what really matters to me. Who do I want to be? What are the values I want to bring to my life? What are the standards by which I assess the happiness of my life? What makes a worthwhile life?

You will be as surprised as I was to learn that, actually, none of the answers to these questions was “To read as many books as I can”. When asking myself “how do I want to be remembered?” not once did I think “As somebody who finished reading a lot of novels.” And yet, that was where I was putting most of my life’s energies (aside from work, but that’s another issue).

I’m not knocking reading here. I *love* books. I think reading is exceptionally valuable as an activity and helps create empathy and understanding. But… *but*… for me, it needs to be kept in its place. Like anything. It’s about finding the right balance.

And I realised I don’t know who I am without reading. Maybe that’s a strange way of putting it. I want to explore the space of not having to be reading. I want to find the clarity of mind that comes from letting go of the obsessive need to *keep up*, for whatever value of keeping up we set.

So I’ve set myself a goal: To not read for one week.

That sounds ridiculously easy. One week! How hard can that be? Lots of people don’t read *at all*! Ever. How hard can one week be?

And I can still read the net, as long as I’m not looking up novels or short stories. I can still read social media. It’s not like I’m banned from words.

And yet… and yet…. already I find myself sitting, disoriented, at a loss, trying to work out how to spend my time. TV? That doesn’t sound very positive. Cleaning? Bwahahaa. Don’t be ridiculous! *twiddles thumbs*. *twitches*

So I thought writing this blog post would kill a half hour or so. Only… six days to go?


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Poetry: Day 31

Do you listen for you
In every word
Of mine
Like I listen for me
In every word
You say
Do you look for signs of you
In my eyes
Do you listen for the sound of you
Buried deep in my voice
When you touch my hand
Do you feel it stretching, yearning
For your touch
Or do you just feel
A hand
Just hear
a voice
Just see
Do these poems just sound like

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