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Happy as Garry

Date: 20/05/2001
Words: 1334
          Publication: Sun Herald
Section: Metro
Page: 3
His demons (almost) defeated, the Australian comedy legend is the sad clown no more.

GARRY McDonald suddenly becomes distracted. He's just spied a small brown mark on the blindingly white ottoman crouched in front of the blindingly white sofa where he's sitting in the blindingly white house that his friend, costume designer Roger Kirk, lends him whenever he's in Sydney. His eyes wander over to it, again and again.

Finally, he just can't help himself. He darts towards the Japanese tray sitting on the ottoman and moves it to cover the smudge. He meets my eyes guiltily, apologetically.

``It was a stain," he explains. ``I just hope Roger doesn't think I left it there."

These days, Garry McDonald legendary comic, actor, director and official Living National Treasure feels almost a lifetime away from the anxiety disorder breakdown that brought his world to a crashing halt eight years ago, just as he'd revived his beloved Norman Gunston in one of the most hyped TV series of all time.

Yet sometimes, just sometimes, there's a glimpse of the fretfulness for which he was always known. The difference is that now it doesn't rule his life. It's in check. Under control.

``I've calmed down a hell of a lot," he says, seriously, the blot reassuringly out of sight.

``I've taken off the pressures that I put on myself. You come to a point that unless you're really honest about yourself, you'll come unstuck. I know I'm preaching now, but I've been there. You've got to be comfortable about yourself and know yourself. You're dragging yourself around for all your life you might as well enjoy it."

It's been a long journey, but McDonald's now thoroughly relishing the destination. Sitting back on that white couch, in a casual green shirt and jeans, with the car packed outside ready for a three-day fishing trip, he's relaxed, he's happy, and his self-esteem is back almost to where it should, quite rightly, be.

I mention a John Callahan postcard I have on my wall of a positive self-image seminar, where the lecturer is pointing to the back of the class, and yelling, ``Let's hear it from that dumpy man with the thick glasses". He grins appreciatively.

``I went to a self-esteem seminar that [panic attack consultant] Bronwyn Fox was holding," he says. ``She kept saying you've got to respect yourself, nurture yourself, look after yourself. I thought, `What a fantastic motto! I'm going to put that up on the wall'.

``Then I realised that I'd already been saying that to myself every time I meditated. The mantra meant, `Honour thyself'. I'd been saying it for so many years without knowing what I was saying. Isn't that ludicrous!"

Meditation has been one of McDonald's lifelines over the difficult years.

Every day, for 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the late afternoon, he sits down, listens to his mantra echoing in his mind and relaxes. He reckons it's helped him enormously. And now, he says, it's payback time.

Next Saturday, he's starring in a production of a completely different kind. He's appearing with Swami Shankaranda, the director of Melbourne's Shiva School of Meditation, on stage at Sydney's Masonic Centre in the city to talk about meditation, how it's helped him and how to do it. After that he'll go to Canberra to do exactly the same thing.

``It's such a useful tool and enriches your life so much," says McDonald, 52, who's currently starring in the over-the-top David Williamson satire Up For Grabs, after finishing his Sydney Theatre Company debut directorial run with Stones In His Pockets and a role as the doctor in Moulin Rouge.

``I don't want to proselytise too much but one great thing about it is that there are no rules and no vows," he says.

``It's a pure laboratory and you are the scientist. I do it because I enjoy it and it helps me. It burns up a lot of stress. We used to talk about navel-gazing but that's what it is, it's time for healthy introspection. Now I spend a lot of my down time repeating my mantra. Before, I was very negative and I'd spend it putting myself down, in self-denigration."

McDonald's friends can certainly testify to that. Close mate Geoffrey Atherden, who wrote possibly Australia's greatest TV sitcom, Mother And Son, for McDonald and Ruth Cracknell, remembers the old days.

``After a performance, whether on television or in the theatre, he would fret about things he didn't do properly. He would never say `Gee! I was good!' or `That went well!' He would always say `I missed that moment' or `I should have pushed that laugh a bit harder'."

Sadly, he'd do it even when he'd been quite brilliant. An enduring image in Atherden's mind was the time McDonald had been performing the play Hotspur, in which he had to pull down his pants and moon Cracknell, in front of a bunch of school kids. At a Q & A afterwards, one of them asked if that was really his bottom. ``No," he replied, quick as a flash. ``That was a fake one."

His self-criticism, however, often prevented him from enjoying such moments. Many thought that obsessive perfectionism was simply the downside of his tortured genius; instead it nearly killed him.

Now McDonald, usually based in Berry with his wife, actor Diane Craig, can see that, and he doesn't beat up on himself nearly as much. ``You realise you're okay and realise that if other people have expectations about you, that's not your problem," he says.

``But I'm still as much a pain in the arse. I ask the most inane things. I don't take responsibility. When I'm cooking, and there's some leftover, I'll ask, `Do you think I should put this in this?' Diane will say to me, `What do you think?"'

Nevertheless, anxiety expert Fox is delighted with his progress.

``The change in Garry is extraordinary," she says. ``There's an enormous negativity that goes on with an anxiety disorder, but now he's not nearly so self-critical. He's so much calmer, there's no doubt about that.

``I think he is comfortable being himself now, being where he is. He's totally relaxed with himself. Meditation helped facilitate that whole process."

Looking back on it, McDonald can see the genetic clues, too. Whenever there was a knock on the front door, his grandfather would immediately go into anxiety overdrive.

``He'd say, `Who the hell is that? What do you think they want?'," laughs McDonald. ``Everyone would be worried about what he'd be like, but then they'd come in and he'd be the life of the party.

``My mum is a great worrier, too. I told her when she wakes in the middle of the night to repeat a mantra, too."

Yet with all this enthusiasm for meditation, isn't MacDonald simply substituting one obsession for another? He grins.

``No," he says. Then he pauses, and shrugs. ``I suppose I'm a bit obsessed about it, but not that I want to rush off to India or sit in a cave for three years. I don't seem to have any real obsessions any more. Although I am a bit obsessed about fishing."

On the way out, he peers anxiously at the sky. The three days staying in a caravan to fish somewhere outside Goulburn won't be half as much fun if those dark clouds deliver on their promise.

He catches me looking at him and smiles self-consciously. ``You see, meditation can't solve everything," he says. ``You still worry about the weather."

Garry McDonald will be appearing with teacher Swami Shankaranda at the seminar on Saturday from 8pm to 10pm at The Masonic Centre, 279 Castlereagh Street, Sydney. Tickets $15/$10 concession at the door or through Ticketek.

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