Musings on Spike Jonze’s Her and how technology can set us free

The credits rolled at the end of Spike Jonze’s latest film ‘Her’, a film I had been waiting to see forever (I saw it the day it came out).

I swiftly felt the ramifications of the film ending, as though someone had punched me in the stomach repeatedly and only paused to see my reaction. It seemed like my head was trailing metres behind my body as I exited the cinema.

‘What the hell just happened?’ I said to my cousin as we walked out.

‘I don’t know…I’m confused and not sure if I liked it’ she replied.

But it wasn’t a question of liking it or not. It was a matter of picking my heart up from the floor, peering inside to see if it was broken and then placing it back in its socket, so it could resume pumping blood to the rest of my body. Only I couldn’t articulate that in so many words.

Torn between not knowing how to feel about the main character who, in the trailer appears to be lonely, forlorn and a bit of a loser, thereby eliciting my sympathy, to suddenly seeing him in the feature length film in a whole new way. He’s just another messed up person — your average, emotionally disconnected male. No sympathy really, just empathy.

He’s a real life human. And so seems she, her, the operating system named Samantha.

***

The setting for Spike Jonze’s film is quite out of this world, but so palpable at the same time. Like you could reach out and grab it by the face. The technology was tangible, possible. You could relate to it but you also couldn’t relate to it. You felt on the cusp of something bigger, brighter, more daring.

I wanted to be there in that place.

The tones were warm, full of rich reds. The colour blue was notably absent from the film, to further accentuate that warmth, a real antidote to Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (Sofia is Jonze’s ex-wife).

I know a lot of women who found the whole film slightly jarring. Like my cousin who found the sex scenes weird. And yet most of my male friends seemed to love the film unconditionally, citing it as one of the best they’d ever seen.

My director friend Jeremy Brull wrote:

‘So I think ‘Her’ may be the greatest cinematic love story of all time.’

It’s a weird sort of thing. Does Spike Jonze just get the male concept of a love story. Or does it transcend gender?

At one point Rooney Mara’s character in the film, Theodore’s ex-wife, blurts out sarcastically,

‘You’re dating your computer?’

And later Theodore would say to the voice called Samantha;

‘You’re not a real person’.

I know what it’s like to hear that level of skepticism in someone’s voice. I know what it’s like to love someone who isn’t real, someone who mostly lives within your head. I know what it’s like to become addicted to that fictitious notion, even if it’s in the conventional sense of that person definitely existing in real life, just differently to how you imagined them, and so far removed from you, that the only way you can experience them is through their voice.

It’s a special kind of madness. But I know how powerful that voice can be.

I believe we are capable of understanding and translating these complex human emotions from a distance, from a voice, through words on a screen. And I fear that there are still those who are unable to understand it, or who are afraid of it and how much it makes them feel and it holds us back.

I can’t vouch for the more formalised online dating because I’ve never tried it, but I can tell you that I spent my early teens meeting all kinds of ridiculous crazy characters via the Internet. Most of those resulted in friendships but for many, there was something that transcended friendship. It was a confusing time to be a teenager. We were literally on the cusp of that technological shift.

We knew both worlds. We still do.

A girl I had literally met through the comments on a band’s MySpace page and who I developed a kind of online pen pal friendship with, once flew halfway across the world for me based on that friendship alone. She had no idea if I was even real. She was my modern day internet pen pal. I’ve known her for 8 years and we’re still good friends who hang out (IRL) to this day.

I have other stories too. The photographer we met in New York through Tumblr (still good friends to this day). That guy I met through Twitter who I ended up casually dating for a stint. My most recent boyfriend who I met through Facebook mutual friends. The list goes on.

And of course, my favourite of all the stories — that time my heart leaped into my mouth almost instantaneously for a person who would go on to become one of my closest friends, someone I really did love in the end and all from an accidental, case of mistaken identity on Microsoft’s Messenger. He is like another version of me, my other person, a kind of soul friend, anam cara. Someone I look at and recognise almost instantaneously. That’s a kind of connection that transcends the every day, a kind of lasting rarity you don’t just find or stumble upon in the middle of the street, but one you trip over in a late night chat room.

He was the first person I ran to when I saw the trailer for Her.

‘You’ve gotta see this! It’s like us’.

***

‘But in Her, he’s meant to be all by himself, responding only to a voice, and so the performance is a floating, free form solipsistic dance. It’s not pure solipsism because Samantha exists, but you might be watching a four-year-old talking to an imaginary friend — it’s that inward.’

I had imaginary friends as a child. I was lonely and severely shy to the point of being a mute. I refused to speak to another person I didn’t already know (and even when I knew them I struggled). I couldn’t understand others. I shut myself off from the world and created my own in the forms of characters, stories, scenarios. As an adult, we call this being a ‘writer’, lol.

***

Every now and again a boyfriend will look at me with concern and ask,

‘What’s wrong?’

And I usually respond with a curt ‘nothing’.

‘I can hear it in your voice’ (what can you hear?)

And then they’d ask:

‘Why don’t you love me as much as I love you?’

I’d argue back, somehow trying to make the emotions more apparent. But you can only reproduce so much before you have to admit to yourself that maybe you’re not as capable of showing as much raw, unfiltered emotion as you once believed yourself to be. Or maybe the emotions you used to feel were different, stronger and more powerful.

I wonder if my story is the reverse of Her — if I started off knowing technology’s powerful hold over my emotional landscape and have since struggled with the translation of that to the real world.

I remember as kids how my brother and I used to have profound, existential conversations late at night in our bunk beds. He had wanted so much to teach me. And he used to have these grandiose predictions about future technology that would both scare me and leave me in a state of perpetual awe-filled wonder (some of those predictions have come true but not as fast as he thought they would).

‘When you go to Loreto…’ (I was enrolled from a young age) — ‘…you’ll all have your own computers!’

‘Nooo’ I’d cry out. ‘I want to have typewriters’.

‘Nah Ree, computers are the future! Everyone will have their own laptop one day too! Fuck typewriters’, he’d say.

(We were both right, the hipster version of me eventually got my way with two typewriters that I never use, while the practical, realistic me is typing this on a Mac).

A few people and critics have remarked that Her is a chilling warning about the dangers of technology. That the film is a cautionary tale to put the smartphones down and step away from the computers and connect with people.

And I have to ask – did we watch the same film? And Spike Jonze himself asks that question for real with an irritating interviewer.

Because what if technology quite simply helps us connect with people in a more profound way? Why is that so impossible a thing to believe?

‘The relationship is real enough to make us ask what a relationship is and whether the coming so-called singularity — when artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence while humans’ minds will be broadened by machines — will change the way we relate (or don’t) to one another.’

I don’t see the film as a critique of our dependency on technology. I think our boy Spike used film and technology as the medium through which he has chosen to tell a love story that transcends the human experience. It’s as simple and as powerful as that.

Our fear of technology is a paralytic one. It hinders progress, it shames those who look inward and struggle to interact on a day-to-day basis. Sure, it can have a negative impact when used to the excess or when people become addicted. But truthfully, how often is that the case?

Recently at a family gathering, most of the kids were on their phones or iPads. We staged an intervention, forcing everyone to put their devices on a table in the middle of the room and we each took turns going around the room and answering questions about our interests. The Beatles movie was on in the background and we started singing along to the song. Later on my way home, I used Shazam to tag that song and then I listened to it on Youtube, Instagrammed a photo of our hijacked devices and tweeted about the song on Twitter, humming the song all the way home.

And the outcome? I felt more connected to everyone than ever before, and that one moment of indescribable beauty had a kind of prolonged longevity, recorded for the ages, there for us to look back on. It became permanent.

I’ve had at least four previous boyfriends comment that I was addicted to my phone (so pretty much all of them). I’m one of those rare senior social media managers who has been in this industry for too long. So apart from the fact that I’m paid a lot of money to monitor and be responsible for many high profile online communities (sometimes having a second phone to do just that) that close minded attitude always irritated me and still elicits a very frustrated reaction when those concerns are voiced in a condescending manner.

What are they afraid of? That I would pay less attention to them? That something was more important to me for a nanosecond? That this was what my life had become and they’d just have to accept it? That I had made a choice to step away from the old world and catapult myself directly to the new one, with or without them?

And with every dissent from this old, tired, echoed voice, it sort of cemented my own independence and how much I didn’t want to be dragged down by the closed off archaic world. Maybe the definitions and parameters of love have changed and have already evolved into something more, something you can’t back down from or shut out as easily. Perhaps it’s a very real and tangible thing in our lives, existing in a myriad of ways.

And I can assure you that if you haven’t yet experienced it, technology will help you get there.

Please direct all mail to the sky

Taken from a thing I wrote about my last days in Barcelona.

 ***

Dare to be one of us, girl / facing the android’s conundrum / you don’t know how long I’ve been / watching the lantern dim / starved of oxygen / So give me your hand / And let’s jump out the window…

 ***

They took me under their wing and into their home to seek solace. I was in my very own sanctuary. I realised this while standing on Marc’s miniscule balcony which looked out over the tiniest street in all of Barcelona.

But this is not a street’, I remarked. ‘It’s a sliver of space so small, you can barely even see it!’

‘It has a street name and everything’ Marc protested.

‘This makes no sense!’ I decried, rather unnecessarily.

‘Sheree, not everything has to have a reason’ Marc offered seriously.

‘Everything has a place’.

***

Before finding sanctuary in the old city, I was lost and didn’t know where to go. I only knew I couldn’t stay where I was.

I was told to meet friends in the square who may have been able to offer a spare room for a few months. Plagued by the idea of going to meet them on my own, I asked my ex at the time if he would come with me. He shook his head and said he had no place there anymore, and that even though they started off as his friends, they ended up as mostly mine.

I cycled over to the plaza. Standing there in the middle of the plaza stood my future, my drunk future, huddled together and hollering out my name, searching for me through the crowd.

‘Shereeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee donde estaaaaaaaaaas’.

I called out and ran over to them. They predictably made a scene. I met everyone from the house that night and they half-heartedly interviewed me about taking the room, in between doing shots.

Rodrigo leans in and whispers in Spanish.

‘The German girl in the room now? Crazy. Depression. Not good. You the same?’

I feel dejected already. They can see it on my face.

‘Don’t worry. Only crazy survive here. You’ll be with you’re own. But don’t drain us of our energy, okay? Be crazy for a little while but then be good’.

Be crazy good. Got it.

They will eventually pass their energy over to me through a drip like system, because there’s enough to go around.

Bienvenida a tu nueva casa

Welcome to your new home.

 ***

Photography by Sophie Roberts

Photography by Sophie Roberts

Each night I find my way home by following the path around the most beautiful church I have ever seen, the Santa Maria del Mar. I use the giant old rusty key to open the magnificent door to the old apartment and walk up the many flight of stairs to our place. It was once an artist’s house and you can still see old film reels and paint scratchings on the wall.

The ceiling in my room is so high, it looks like it goes on forever. Nobody needs that much space, I think. Only giants. My bed is elevated on a stage in the middle of the room, but there is no show to see here. The room is devoid of windows. There are two big glass doors covered with blinds for privacy. There is always darkness here, and in the throes of Barcelona’s mild winter, no one really minds. The only reprieve comes in the form of light from the main balcony window. I will sit for many hours slumped on that tiny balcony, bare legs leaning against the railings, searching for sunlight and holding a glass of sparkling wine that cost two euros in my hand.

This becomes my favourite place to cry.

‘Do you ever think about all the things you did wrong in that relationship?’ Rodrigo calls out to me, while I balcony brood.

‘No, I hadn’t thought about it’.

‘I’m sure you were a problem’, he says seriously without a shred of hesitation.

I laugh for the first time in a long time. This is the start of me always thinking that exact, painful truth in future heartbreaking situations.

Photography by Sophie Roberts

Stolen glasses. Photography by Sophie Roberts

For some reason everyone likes to congregate on my stage bed. At some point they all pass out there and there’s no space for me, the owner of the bed. I wander in to someone else’s bed – any will do – and sleep there. No one cares or notices until the morning, when they wake up in a flurry of exchanges, pushing each other out.

‘I have the smallest room and bed’, Marc would shout out in frustration. ‘Why does she always end up here!’

‘You were in Alba’s bed!’

‘SHE WAS IN ALICIA’S BED’

‘No, you were all in my bed for some reason’.

‘Tonight I’m going to sleep in the biggest room and I don’t even care’.

They slump with careless abandon all over the place.

Photography by Sophie Roberts

Photography by Sophie Roberts

They’d often lecture me on my attitude to life, telling me to loosen up. Who cares if he was flirting with other women, meeting with ex-girlfriends and setting himself up to be a massive player while still being with you? Just do the same back, they’d say.

‘What’s the big deal?!’

You can live life however you want, they’d explain. If a guy wants to kiss you, you can kiss him. It doesn’t have to mean anything!

‘But I don’t care about any of that’.

‘One day you will want to, even when you don’t care about it’.

Whatever, I think, hating how right they’re going to be.

***

sky photo 1

They stop and stare at me when I come home from the markets, exhausted from carrying bags of overflowing vegetables, herbs and meats.

‘How do you keep getting free food Sheree?’

‘I don’t know. I smile at them, ask how much it costs and they say nada!’

‘It’s a gift and a curse!’

I soon become the designated acquirer of food for the house.

We jump around in the kitchen and say ‘family reunion’ just after coming home from a normal day. We sit and hang out in each other’s rooms, in the living room, in the kitchen or wherever but we’re always together. We get excited when someone returns after going away for the weekend.

We drink copious amounts of tea and coffee. I have my favourite cup at all times, the one I acquired from my mother who abandoned everything when they left their expat home in England. That tea cup would remind everyone of me, including my ex boyfriend, who would move in after I’ve already returned home and would later go on to smash the cup to a million pieces out of frustration, unable to erase me from his mind, oblivious to how much I suffered in that house in much the same way.

***

One day we run out of gas in the kitchen and nobody rushes to replace it. Instead Alicia grabs her guitar, Alba orders pizza, Marc buys some booze and I sit in the living room with my notebook, which helps absolutely no one. We all congregate together on the couches, which have moved to the stage in the corner (there were so many weird, elevated stages in that house). Lit candles sit in wine bottles in random places, fairy lights snake across the wall and a Spongebob doll sits on the TV we never use (‘WE HATE THE TV!’) and stares at us (Bob Esponja is his Spanish name). Alicia is lazily playing music, trying to recreate the song she once improvised about me during a gig- Bird Girl, and failing to remember it.

We have no gas for a whole week, maybe longer.

The other three housemates crawl out to the space and we’re laughing, drinking, lazing about, joke-telling and critiquing something or other. Within minutes, the place is full of people and a party is beginning somewhere, a single domino being pushed at the start.

Photography by Sophie Roberts

Photography by Sophie Roberts

sky photo 3

We all love cameras funnily enough. The filmmaker, the photographers, the amateurs. We sit for hours, comparing our cameras, like proud parents. One of the housemates, I can’t remember his name (or I’ve deliberately chosen to forget for various reasons) parades his new Canon 7D around, filming us as a way of testing it as the rain hammered down outside. Everyone in the house was keeping me company, as my friends had gone to my farewell party without me. He films my reaction. I am wearing a black tulle dress, my hair in a braid. I’m sitting on the couch in silence.

‘Why are you sad?’ he asks, the camera trained on my face.

I stare long and hard at him and say nothing because that’s exactly what I feel in that moment.

Nada.

***

They come home and find me on the couch watching re-runs of Gossip Girl even though I’ve never watched an episode before in my life.

‘What is this mierda?’

‘I don’t know’ I reply, ‘I’m watching it because I can’.

‘Get up. We’re going out’.

They, quite literally, drag me out of the house. We dance manically at a night club called Nasty Mondays to music they’ve never heard of before but which is second nature to me. They sing the wrong lyrics and flounder about without a care in the world. We keep singing and dancing all the way home, bouncing down the promenade near the beach.

‘We can’t go this way, I got attacked around here probably!’ I cry out woozily, not really sure where I am, just needing to say it in case it happens again and I can say I told you so.

‘You’re with us now! Nothing can get to you!’ and they form a hilarious, albeit entirely useless, protective wall around me, falling over themselves.

We have such a good time, maybe too good a time, that we barely remember how we got home or why there were toasted sandwiches waiting for us when we got there. It’s morning and I crawl in to Alicia’s room and sit on her beanbag, reading a book about broken hearts because I can’t sleep and I’m hurting.

‘I don’t feel well’ I say to her.

‘I know’ she replies.

One night when I’m walking home alone, I stop to feel the stone cold wall beside me. My hand delicately brushes over it as I walk all the way home and I’m afraid to remove it. It’s then that I know this is home. The labyrinth streets you get lost in and the dark but illuminating old quarter, the old familiar paths, the quiet plaza with the candles sitting in the bullet holes from Franco’s civil war. And then there’s the fire in the people that’s so close and contagious to me, I almost catch it.

On one particularly maddening night, I run through the old city in tears, screaming in Spanish at that infuriating ex behind me, throwing things at him.

‘We’re not even together anymore, why do you still care!’ he pleads with me, but I’m not listening.

‘She has the face of a horse!’ I scream back irrationally. ‘It’s insulting to the memory of us!’

I hear him laughing at that. He follows me all the way to my house, pleading for me not to be mad at him.

I slam the door in his face, exhilaration pumping through my blood. Where did this Spanish heat come from? It makes no sense.

Everything has a place.

I turn back down the stairs and open the door calmly. I look in to his teary, pleading eyes, shake my head with a mixture of sadness and pity and mouth out a sorry. I close the door gently this time, the old, quiet girl in me coming back for a moment.

I don’t remember where I ended up sleeping that night, but one of the house members kissed me on the forehead and whispered something in Spanish.

‘You are alive’.

For my last night in Barcelona, I arrived home from a Christmas in Malaga to find a smoky, hazy fog throughout the house. It’s empty except for one. In our absence, Azdrubal, the extremely lovely Mexican drug lord hermit who occupies one of the rooms has taken over the house, smoking pot incessantly for about a week. .

He balked at my presence, apologising for all the smoke. He didn’t realise I was coming home so soon. He tries to fan the smoke away uselessly. I can’t help but think that he is the sweetest drug lord I’ve ever known.

I tell him I’m leaving the next day.

‘Where to next?’ he asks cheerfully.

‘I’m going home’.

He looks confused, because my home is there with them.

‘My other home. Sydney’.

He hits the wall in protest.

‘But we don’t even know each other that well and Sydney is ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD, MAN!’

He chooses to deal with this news by continuing to get plastered.

I am surprised to find I still have 50 euros left in my bank account. I spend it all on pizza and booze for my last night with the last person I expected to spend it with. Azdrubal mentions something about all his dreams coming true when I come home with the pizza and I wonder if he has eaten at all in the last week.

‘Why don’t you just stay in Barcelona?’ he says, as if it’s the easiest thing in the world, his eyes trained on the six pizza boxes in front of him, knowing all too well I could feed him for at least another week.

‘I have to go back I guess,’

‘Do you want to?’

‘I don’t know anymore’.

He smiles, nodding absently, possibly stoned. He looks over at me and says words I’ll likely never forget, mainly because he wrote them in my little red book for safe keeping.

Vuela mariposa vuela vuela vuela vuela.

 Fly little butterfly fly fly fly fly.

barcelona copy

‘Apply Within’ by Alice

The following tiny thought is penned by the ever talented Alice Wild Williams. You can read more of her delightful musings here. Everything she does is wonderful and you are welcome.

My grandmother used words the way some people use rusty old bathtubs to grow vegetables: not really for their intended purpose, but with a useful kind of beauty. If she thought my dad was being cheeky she’d say he “got away with words.”  To her, “first thing to hand” was something important, treasured. Something she’d save in a fire. “That picture of you on the boat when you were little, watching the whales? It’s my first thing to hand.” Most people thought it was an impediment from learning English last, after Spanish and Japanese, but it wasn’t.

Language lived in the cumulonimbus of cigarette smoke that hung above her head. She could shape or disappear behind either whenever she wanted.

“Apply within,” is how she would command us to summon courage. When we fell over and skin peeled bloody from our knees,or when the raincloud settled in her chest for good, and we stood by her bed and took turns holding her hands that felt like kindling.

Years later these mangled turns of phrase show up when I least expect them. For my birthday, a well intentioned boyfriend woke me in the freezing pre-dawn for a balloon ride. I am completely terrified of untrustworthy flight. Planes, sure. Planes have maths and magnets and science and lots of people in uniforms. Wicker baskets suspended by fire and silk do not.

Two sounds can be so far removed from each other but sound exactly the same. Rain that begins like a slow applause, a heart that volleys like a game of tennis. The balloon breathed out just like a whale, the silence between exhalations as quiet as the space between the stars. We rose with the sun. I clung to a basket that felt like kindling, and all I could think was Apply Within.

Moments from a Monkey Mind

I  interviewed Jack Heath in 2008 for a creative non-fiction biography project. Jack wrote to me after reading the finished product remarking that he had done a lot of interviews before but was not sure anyone had quite got it as close to the mark as I had. It’s one of my favourite things to read over because it reminds me of how ridiculously astounding it was to hear and recount his jaw-dropping life story…

***

‘Warm Heart, Cool Head, Open Ears’ – Jack Heath

‘Are those jeans skinny leg jeans?’

‘I don’t think so. They look more like straight leg to me.’

‘They’re pretty trendy though.’

‘Oh I’d say they are definitely trendy.’

‘Let’s take a look inside.’

In Balmain, the social and political hub of Sydney’s Inner-West, Jack Heath leads me into a trendy clothing store. The side trip isn’t planned for and yet, like a child in a candy store, Jack is amused and excited to come across jeans in a shop window that he is certain are the same jeans he wore for a photo shoot that day.

It’s Jack’s sporadic nature that leads him from one thought to the next, segueing from one moment where we are perusing the streets of Balmain, to finding ourselves sifting through a clothing store. I fall into step behind Jack and follow with excitement wherever his train of thought leads him.

The first time I saw Jack, the creator of the Inspire foundation, all those years ago, he openly revealed his life story to a group of strangers. We drank in his words then; it was impossible to do anything but. He was placid in his delivery and yet as powerful as though he had slammed a truck into the room, followed briefly by stunned silence, as he recounted horrific and inspiring life events in a tone as diplomatic and as natural as one would adopt when discussing the weather forecast.

Coming to meet Jack one on one, I was a little apprehensive, knowing that on some days, Jack will reveal very little, and on others, it was getting him to stop that proved to be difficult. Jack is stumped when asked, before anything else, to describe himself in one sentence. A hard task for anyone put on the spot, but particularly for someone as modest and altruistic as Jack. Talking about himself exclusively is not something this man is inclined to do. Before he answers, I notice he sits with his shoulders slightly slumped, looking down every so often as if lost in thought. His left hand is adorned with a simple, wooden beaded bracelet, resembling rosary beads.

    ‘I guess someone trying to make a difference in the world while being a good father and husband.’

I want to get to the core of what Jack Heath is about, but have difficulty unveiling the man behind the mission. With each attempt to uncover a layer, Jack diverts the attention to a topic praising others, divulging information on the work Inspire has achieved, and rallying off his hopes for the future. But who is Jack? The question persists and yet he continues to evade talking about himself exclusively.

I imagine myself knocking on a door that leads to his brain.

Hello is Jack in?

No sorry, he’s away, but would you like to meet his extended family and all the people he loves, admires and wishes to be more like?

***

Jack was born in Melbourne and raised on a farm just out of Mooroopna in North Eastern Victoria, attending a Catholic boarding school in his formative years. The first of a series of shocking life events occurred in 1992 when his 21-year-old cousin tried unsuccessfully to blow his face off with a gun, before finally ending his life on the tracks of an oncoming train. To escape the trauma this had on his family, Jack threw himself into his career. It was at university that Jack cultivated a passion for politics and wanted to work for the PM. So he ended up working for Paul Keating.

‘Just like that?’

Just like that.

Perhaps it was sheer luck that upon walking into the job on the first day, Geoff Walsh announced that Don Watson, the main speech writer, was unable to work due to family issues and that Jack would be taking his place. So he spent the first week travelling with Keating, despite being warned that he might not get to spend much time with him. ‘You look at politics today, and in some ways a lot of it seems so banal, but we really felt that we were doing noble work and it was exciting times’.

One thing he is particularly proud of is working on the Creative Nation statement in 1994. It was here that he learnt that things could be changed with a strong vision. There was a line they created for Keating in 1994 that was almost prophetic in its delivery – Everyone can become a journalist – referring to great technological advancements, back when the net was still something you used when you went fishing.  Jack was enraptured by the internet and what it had to offer. Images of a younger Jack looking at a giant internet screen in a shop window with the same excitement procured by the skinny leg jeans, flash somewhat instantaneously before my eyes.

‘I was adamant that if Christ was alive at the time, he would have had his own web page’.

Jack’s inclination for technology and strong desire to use these innovative tools would later characterise the creation of the Inspire Foundation and the process of reaching out to help young people through the internet medium. He admits that his cousin’s suicide was a turning point in his life and he began to look for ways to address issues of mental illness in Australia. It was around this time in 1995 that he developed his brain child, the Inspire Foundation.

Today Inspire strives to promote international awareness of mental illness and improve the well being of young people through technology and youth involvement. ‘The idea is to attract young people to use and engage with content that improves their mental health and promote their well being’, according to recently appointed CEO Kerry Graham. Reach Out, Inspire’s main branch, has achieved outstanding success in raising awareness of mental illness and depression among young people in Australia with Jack citing cases where young people write to him saying that Reach Out stopped them from committing suicide. The slogan ‘Life sucks now has a website’ adorns billboards and radio slots everywhere. Jack’s achievement with Inspire saw him win the Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2007.

In contrast to the hip surroundings of Balmain, Jack was raised a farm boy. He recounts those days with an almost reverent respect for the land. You can see how the daily ritualistic slaughter of animals and the constant connection to the land has affected Jack. He is halfway through describing the current state of their farm property being compulsory acquired, when he suddenly falls into an almost trancelike state, describing the way it used to be. He recounts the smell of clover, being around animals, and the constant smell of raking hay. Being so close to the earth meant Jack felt quite grounded about, as he puts it in colloquial terms, ‘stuff’. He saw the transition of the seasons and experienced firsthand the cruelty of long periods of drought.

A powerful memory for him is that of a sick calf or lamb that was brought home and put in the shearing shed. ‘They’d be lying there almost dead and you’d have to try and put a tube down their throats to feed them. And you know sometimes they’d survive which is wonderful and sometimes they wouldn’t.’

Following this sombre tone, the monkey mind kicks in and Jack remembers how he used to love climbing trees, where he would climb as far as he could.  I can’t help but wonder if his restless mind is his way of staying on the positive side of life.

When talking to Jack, it’s easy to get the sense that you’re speaking with a big kid, someone who never really grew up. But the reality is that Jack was forced to grow up too quickly. He mentions briefly how he was sexually abused by a priest for six months at boarding school. It comes out rather quickly, almost unexpected, but still in the same tone of voice Jack has adopted throughout. He appears unaffected by this revelation despite the fact that it took almost 30 years before he could speak out about this traumatic part of his life. Jack later admits in another interview that he considers taking action and becoming a survivor rather than a victim of sexual abuse by a priest, as one of his greatest achievements.

Jack has always been religious but in different ways. When he was five or six he wanted to be the Pope, but he didn’t know how to pronounce it: ‘I wanted to be the Poke at the age of 5.’ Jack has come a long way since those early Catholic days and part of me wonders if the previous revelation had any impact on this departure from institutionalised religion to a more spiritual and meditative path. His strong affinity with Buddhism is evident in his mannerisms, his patience and his calm demeanor – but also from the continuous reference to past actions and previous lives.  It’s hard to imagine that he was once battling to control his anger. I ask him about the beads on his wrist. The Buddhist version of rosary beads, the mala has just 21 beads on it. You say mantras and repeat them 21 times.

‘So it also helps you focus the mind as well. There are times you can’t do without it.’

Even in his answers, I can tell that Jack is thinking about something else or is keen to take the conversation to a different level. When a Tibetan Buddhist teacher warned him against running away and becoming a monk in a cave on the premise that he had a monkey mind, it raised all sorts of questions about what a monkey mind actually is.

‘A monkey mind is just a mind that jumps around all the time from one thing to the other.’ In meditation you have to train the mind to be still and focused, just on one thing. ‘Whereas my mind is jumping around, so my teacher was basically saying, look it doesn’t really matter what your external circumstances are, if you haven’t trained your mind, it doesn’t matter if you’re in a cave or somewhere else.’

Can there be other states of mind?

‘There’s the Rainy Elephant who goes in full steam wherever, and the third one is the Sloth mind, it just sits there and doesn’t do anything.’

In between deciding if I have a Rainy Elephant or a Sloth Mind, Jack orders lunch.

‘Do you think you still have a monkey mind?’

‘Yeah yeah. Oh yeah. You know it’s interesting, when you start off with Tibetan Buddhism, you feel like you’re making lots of progress. Then after a while it’s sort of, I don’t know whether or not it’s the novelty that wears off or you just realise your mind is not anywhere near as controlled as you wanted or thought or whatever…  Hi, can I get the risotto? Are you sure you don’t want a cup of tea or something?’

‘I’m fine thanks really.’

‘Please I insist.’

‘Maybe a juice?’

‘Yeah.’

‘And can I get a piece of lemon or something like that? Or a grapefruit juice? Can I get a ginger beer? I like that. Actually what I’d like is lemon grass tea, that’d be better. Thanks a lot. Where were we? Oh right. Monkey mind’

Does Jack want to completely erase the monkey mind through meditation?

‘I think you can in time, if you practice hard enough, and that’s the goal. Part of it is to be able to train the mind so then you can have a bigger impact on the world. So it doesn’t mean you actually stop doing the work, you just train the mind to focus better, and then you’ll have a bigger impact.’

With this revelation I am peeling off the layers with my own hands and making real progress in getting to the bottom of the Jack Heath Monkey Mind Mystery.

One thing that I can pinpoint about Jack and Jack alone is his special affinity with celebrities and people in the public profile. He’s hung out with Cathy Freeman, made business deals with Rupert Murdoch, chatted with the Dalai Lama, drank gin and tonics with the first chief Justice of Burma, bonded with Paul Keating, and yet any special attention he receives from these people has no apparent effect on him. He even describes Murdoch as ‘warm and generous’ and Keating as a ‘nice, friendly, down to earth guy’.

It’s clear from the outset that Jack has a special friendship with Cathy Freeman, a friendship that is not befitted with mere words, but he gives it a go anyway. ‘We have a lot of laughs together which is really important. You know, I think she’s quite an extraordinary person. We took a road trip when she first became a Patron of Inspire, and just had conversations about life, the universe, love. I think there was just a really nice clicking together, a really strong and easy bond.’

With Jack’s Buddhist background, he can’t help but wonder what would have happened in previous lives, if he and Cathy were somehow connected. Jack often speaks about previous lives and karma with certainty, as though he is aware of something that the rest of us are oblivious to.

Jack’s friendships mean the world to him and so the loss of a dear friend in Thailand marked another turning point in his life. Although he describes the rape and murder of Ewa Czajor with the same calm tone of voice that he has adopted throughout, I notice the water in his eyes has shifted slightly at the mention of her. All prior discussion of karma and previous lives leads to an eerie realisation that Ewa was murdered in January 1988, the same year and month of my birth. Something in the air changes and there’s a brief silence before Jack attempts to recount these horrific events.

‘She was a good friend of ours, she was supposed to stay with us in Thailand, but two days before she arrived they told me her body had been found in Northern Thailand’. It happened in a cave and Jack believes she was murdered by monks, a shocking theory that he refrains from elaborating on but mumbles something about not wearing shoes before entering the cave.

Jack wanted to be there during the crisis so he flew up and before he knew what he was doing, he raised his hand and volunteered to view the body. At the time he believed he could handle it, having seen dead animals on the farm. He soon learnt that a human body, much less the body of someone close to him, was an entirely different story altogether. In Thailand it didn’t make the news. Back home it was all over Sixty Minutes.

After Ewa’s death, Jack began to drink a lot, party a lot. He was quite manic at times: ‘a wild, crazy guy’, he says as he calmly pours the boiling water over his lemon grass tea. ‘Until you find your path, you kinda just want to push up against things really hard’. Dancing was a way of ‘getting back into the ground’. Years later, Jack went back to the site where Ewa was murdered, where he found himself at a crossroads. Something inside his head told him to go back, to not continue down this one particular path, and that’s when he knew it was the place where she was murdered. When Jack tried to meditate after going back there, he always heard a women wailing somewhere in the distance.

Jack has an intensity about him when he speaks, but every so often he might laugh and his blue eyes follow suit with a trace of incandescence. It’s this laughter that reassures you of all the clichés about beating the odds and rising above the ashes. He truly is a source of hope and I realise that although Jack’s life has been characterised by as many lows as there were highs, I can’t help but smile in the end.

I click on Reach Out and discover Jack’s life motto to young people everywhere.

‘Walk, don’t run. Attain enlightenment for the benefit of others. Have a good shit at least once a day.’

The picture I seem to have painted in my head of this man is almost complete. Almost.
We have almost come full circle but I’m tempted to ask:

Who do you think you were in a past life? The man before me smiles coyly and I suspect that this little part of Jack Heath will remain a secret.

irrational dreams

Last night I dream that I was in Beirut. Little papers fluttered from the sky all of a sudden. They looked so sweet and tender. I went to the ones which had fallen and pulled out my camera. As I took photos of them sprawled across the pavement, I noticed they had some writing. In big letters it read:

‘Bombs are coming. Run’

I think we all know where my brain is at a month before I embark on the trip I’ve been waiting for my whole life. For the first time I’ll be visiting the place of my ancestry, the country of my grandparents.

I’m so excited, nervous and completely irrational all at once.