The Awesome Machine

Small children do not understand time.  They do not feel themselves to be a small wheel clicking forward within the mechanism of a clock, obeying its laws.

Twice a week I take Eleanor to creche.  When I go in at 7.30am she is sometimes the first there, and the teachers are setting out the low tables with paints, or play dough, or puzzles, or whatever will begin the day.  Eleanor often takes a toy or a book or something with her, and the teachers ask her about it and slowly other children come in with their parents, and slowly Eleanor is drawn into the world of the creche, and all its people, and rituals.  I kneel down beside her before I leave and I give her a kiss.  Sometimes she is already so engrossed in something that she has forgotten about me before I am gone.

***

On Monday morning I went out to my car to drive to work to find that I had a $200 ticket under my windscreen wiper because I had forgotten to get a new WOF.  Officer 184 had come down my dead end street on a Sunday at around lunchtime and given me this ticket while I was sitting at home doing marking.  When I saw this ticket I flew into a rage.  Having never been given a ticket for anything, and having always been conscientious about such things as reigistration and WOFs something particularly smarted about this arbitrary fine.  How about a reminder?  Just one?  It took me the whole day to settle down.  When I woke up the next morning I was over it.

Two things struck me about this fine.  Firstly, it made me  feel impotent, like a little man being struck a blow by a vindicative, anonymous universe.  I would have very much liked, at the instant I discovered what had happened,  to have wrung the neck of officer 184 and I railed against the cowardice of hiding behind a number.  Of course the desire of people to wring parking wardens’ necks is precisely the reason they have anonymous numbers.  Secondly, it made me reflect for about the millionth time about how mankind likes to create a rod for its own back.  We create rules in order that we may make the crooked places straight, forgetting that a little part of everyone is crooked, and doesn’t want to be made straight.

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On the way to work I listened to Fela Kuti.  He is my favourite musician.  Fela Kuti was a Nigerian making incredible music through the 1970s and 80s in his own country.  His large band played fifteen to twenty minutes songs built up from a steady, pulsing bass, drum and percussion section with, what has best been described as “flatulant horns” honking, and blasting over the top.  It is heady stuff raised up to another level by the lead singer’s call and response lyrics that are half the time funny, half the time withering satirical attacks on the Nigerian government of his era.  It was a government that didn’t appreciate satirical attacks.  Fela spent a lot of time in prison, a lot of time in plaster casts.  In the most severe attack on his compound government troops assaulted the men, raped the women, and threw Fela’s mother out of a second storey window (she later died of these injuries).  The end for Fela was AIDS.

I am reading about Fela at the moment.  Obviously he was a very creative man, and we tend to think of creative people, especially ones involved in protest, as being rule breakers, people who live in permanent rebellion.  But this can’t be true, and it wasn’t true of Fela.   It is surprising and unsurprising to learn that he was very hard on his band, very demanding on stage, shouting at missed cues, and keeping the pressure on.  Very occasionally chaos produces something worthwhile, but generally creativity demands rules.

As does society.  Society, unfortunately demands that parking officers hand out tickets.  What can I really say in my defence?  Do I believe people should be allowed to drive around in cars that haven’t been regularly checked over?  No, but it was a simple mistake… and I’m betting that’s what they all say.  That’s certainly what they all say when I am their teacher and they are students.  I  accept that rules must be arbitrary but I also resist it, after all being human means being a little crooked even when it comes to rules.  “I’ll let you off this time,” I hear myself saying.  Again.  And I suppose that’s what irked me the most about the $200 ticket, that it was the mechanism of a rule applied without any cushioning humanity.  It was a $200 fine for being forgetful.

***

When I came back at 4.30pm to pick up Eleanor she was playing with two other children and did not notice me watching her.  The three of them were pretending to make some food, and sharing it or not sharing it around amongst themselves.  After a few minutes Eleanor happened to look up and saw me.  She smiled and called out, and went back to her play almost as though I had never left that morning, as if I had always been standing there, quietly watching her, and the music of Fela Kuti did not exist nor all of that man’s troubles and joys, and my day at school had never occured, and my rage at a parking fine was an imaginary thing.  As if the fine mechanism of the clock obeying its relentless logic was simply an idea among many other ideas like the existence of monsters, or the possibility of jumping up into the sky: possibly true, but possibly not.

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6 thoughts on “The Awesome Machine

  1. John-Paul,
    Your daughter continues to become more beautiful. Remember that I have a vested interested in her future because I once let her fart on my leg. I had an ‘interesting’ day with my son today and I’m feeling a little delecate. Give Eleanor a cuddle for me.

  2. Sorry, I was feeling a bit tender last night. Back to full strength this morning. No more Mr Nice Guy!

  3. Teacher of the week?
    “And this week it goes to a guy who’s into social studies… please put your hands together for John-Paul Powley!”
    Teacher of the week!
    Teacher of the week!
    Teacher of the week!
    Teacher of the week!
    Teacher of the week!
    Teacher of the week!
    Teacher of the week!
    Teacher of the week!
    Teacher of the week!

  4. Can Robbie ask Ringo if he can be teacher of the week?
    No, he could just say,
    “I want to be teacher of the week for the next three weeks.”
    Ringo would have to say,
    “Merino wool staff. This week’s professional is someone who calls most of the shots around here. If he (sighs of disappointment from the ladies as they realise that they won’t be this week’s teacher of the week) had to use learning intentions and success criteria, they would be perfect every time. He’s always professional and gets to talk first at staff briefing every day, except for Thursday when we don’t have a briefing – obviously. This week’s top professional is Robbie.”
    (Sound of slightly surprised clapping.)

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