Without fear or favour


I don’t really want to comment on things like this, but sometimes I just can’t bite my tongue.

Yesterday, there were two government press conferences. One was for about 15 minutes, the other for ninety. One is occasional, the other is daily, as it has been for months. In one, the government refuses to answer questions they don’t like and turn on the reporter; in the other, every question is answered, and the press conference doesn’t end until the items have finished. One was a federal press conference, Morrison accompanied by Dutton, and the other was the Victorian government, with Dan Andrews responding.

Yesterday afternoon, there was a storm across social media as punters turned on the reporters asking questions at the Victorian press conference. They were accused of being rude and disrespectful, of interrupting the premier’s response, of banging on about the same questions again and again, seeking the gotcha moment. Some abuse was personal, and doubtless, much of it was informed by partisan beliefs – but not all.

In response to this tirade of criticism, journos rose up to rebut the fairness of the opprobrium, and decry the instances of personal abuse. They pointed out that it’s their job to ask tough questions and to hold the government to account.

In principle, I couldn’t agree more. I don’t think there’s any place for personal abuse, whether you’re a journo or not. And certainly, it was welcome news to hear that they knew that their job was to keep the bastards honest. In reality, I felt disdainful and maybe a little bit disgusted. It seemed terribly precious as well as being tone-deaf. And not a little hypocritical.

This isn’t a golden age of journalism. It seems odd to write that in the week that Jonathan Swan has been lauded worldwide in his takedown of Trump in a personal interview. It was undoubtedly a masterclass, but perhaps it rings louder because that sort of performance is such an outlier these days? There are good journalists these days, but many fewer than there were even twenty years ago and, for the most part, the style is much different.

I doubt it’s escaped many how ironic it is journalists complaining about personal abuse when so many – and so many particularly the Murdoch media – takedown members of the public so routinely, and without compunction. Smears and innuendo are part and parcel of so much of modern journalism. I think this plays into the mentality of the time – quick grabs, controversial takes, tabloid headlines, clickbait and a general preference for the shallow over the deep.

For someone who’s been around long enough to know that it used to be different, it’s very sad. But many of these journalists parlay that as their business – to turn around and complain when it’s turned back on them verges on the absurd.

There is a deeper issue here, which so many of the critics yesterday attempted to make.

In Melbourne, you have a leader that answers every question posed to him respectfully, and who is subjected to journalistic bad manners and media intrigues and who is routinely criticised.

In Canberra, you have a PM who is selective in when he holds a press conference, and who has a history of being rude and obstructive and refusing to engage with the question or the reporter – and he gets away with it!

Andrews answered hard questions yesterday and took responsibility. Compare it to Morrison at the time of the bushfires when he was questioned, responding with the excuse “I don’t hold a hose, mate”. Witness how often he refuses outright to answer a question with an “I reject the premise of the question.” End of story – and he gets away with that as well. Yesterday he refused to answer questions from one journo, while Dutton turned on a journo asking a question he didn’t like.

This is the problem. We can all see how these leaders are held to a different standard of response. Andrews might be better served if he adopted the same tactics as the PM. The PM bullies the press gallery, and they’re too cowed to speak out. Andrews is reasonable, and so they show their claws. It’s pathetic.

There’s no argument in journo’s asking tough questions – but don’t pick and choose when you do it, and to who. Don’t wave that as your excuse when so often you fail to live up to that standard. Wake up! We see it!

The underlying issue here is media bias. Almost every media outlet these days is to the right of centre, even The Age. It’s particularly political when it comes to the News Corp newspapers – the Herald Sun here in Melbourne, and The Australian nationally, as well as the various regional issues. News value is weak, it’s all about creating clicks, controversy, and relentlessly driving an anti-Labor agenda. What that means is that they’ll amplify issues on the left and suppress the same problems on the right – so they go hammer and tongs against someone like Andrews, and play nice with Morrison.

In service of this, the government will brief their mates in the media against the Labor parties – such as yesterday, for example, when a false story was fed to The Australian about projected infections in Victoria. It’s rubbish, but it has the desired effect.

This is what we’re dealing with in Australia – and in the UK too, and to a degree in the US also. It’s insidious and undermines democracy. Abusing journalists is small time in comparison to this, and might actually be a wake-up call.

More need to wake-up.

NB. It’s telling also that journalists rose one and all yesterday in outrage against their accusers, but failed to fire a shot when one of their own – Emma Albericie – was treated so deplorably during the week by the ABC and The Australian. But, that’s right, she’s accused of being a lefty.

 

I’ll stand by Dan


I’m generally of the view that there’s no point in arguing with idiots. That eliminates a lot of social interaction for me, though I note that many diverge from that policy. Each to their own. One of the defining features of our times is that every moron has a platform now and – in my observation – the more moronic the intelligence, the more likely they are to shout it from the rooftops. Very democratic and not in the least enlightening. Like I said, I try and give them a wide berth.

Not everyone’s an idiot. There’s a lot of smart people around, and even online. They have views worth listening to, even when you disagree – that’s another area where I diverge from the rank and file. I like differing perspectives because they make me think and question. I may adjust my own opinion as a result, or respond with a considered and polite rebuttal. I’m happy to engage with them because it’s an exercise in free speech and I may learn something. I realise I’m very old school in this regard when for so many these days disagreement signifies stupidity and very often evil. There’s no grey area.

I’ve been engaging in civilised debate for the last month or so with someone I know and think is a smart fella. Moreover, he debates because he has a genuine concern about the subject at hand. In the past, we’ve found each other in accord on most things, and it’s only recently that we’ve come to opposing views about Dan Andrews and the virus gripping Melbourne.

This has become a very contentious talking point these days. He’s blamed by many for the emergence of the second wave. That anger is stoked by the news corp press, who take every opportunity to beat up anything negative of Labor and suppress anything negative of the LNP. Equally, there are many passionate Victorians, and even those outside the state, who are supportive of Andrews.

Now, he recognises that the media is bias, but has become very hostile towards Andrews. I take a different perspective, but, in any case, I ask him what does he want to happen? And who is there to step in? I urge calm, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, it’ll all come out of the wash, right now let’s concentrate on getting things right now. It’s a civil debate, and we admitted what a pity it was we couldn’t do it over a bottle of red.

But then, someone else joins in, one of those dickheads not worth responding to, who called Andrews an arsewipe and anyone – such as me – who supports him. That killed the debate there and then.

I think my friend has become a little fixated, possibly because he can’t understand why so many people are in favour of Andrews. I think he’s misread the situation and is missing the subtleties, which can happen when you get so het up. I started to tell him why so many people were supportive – but then I thought, why bother? But here it is, for posterity.

Why does Andrews maintain such support?

  1. For many Victorians, and even Australians – he has vocal support Australia-wide – he embodies many of the qualities we want in a leader but have been deprived of for so long. He’s a smart, demonstratively decent human being to start with. He’s a great communicator, calm and very patient. As premier of the state, he’s driven a bold and successful agenda, and become known as someone who gets things done. He’s of a progressive bent, and of strong character. And not even his most bitter enemies could decry his work ethic. Through the bushfire crisis and this he’s seemingly turned up every day to do his bit. He’s the leader we want to believe in, and that earns him a lot of Brownie points.
  2. While the media has been responsible for inflaming tensions and demonising him, the more discerning members of the community recognise it for what it is: a political hatchet job driven by Murdoch and his minions. On top of that, in Victoria, the Liberal opposition is pretty feral. Whereas in the rest of the country the opposition parties have been generally supportive in a time of crisis, the Libs here have sought to disrupt, and have been very destructive of the status quo. For a lot of us, we’re over all that. There may come a reckoning one day, but today’s not the day – there are more important things to get done. I think that’s a general feeling the community (the Libs have shot themselves in the foot). Andrews gets some sympathy in the face of that.
  3. Many of the same people wonder why treatment isn’t partial. When the Ruby Princess docked in Sydney and let off dozens of infected passengers then anti-government rhetoric was subdued because it was a Liberal government responsible – depending who you talk to, either Dutton or the NSW government. Sad as it is, the media drives much of the narrative and it infects the community – no news that. Up there they buried it; down here they amplified it. This is about fairness.
  4. I think there’s general admiration for his stoic refusal to keep going. I think many believe he has a genuine concern for their welfare – he’s on their side. That’s a rare feeling these days. While some hate him, he engenders trust in many others. And the question becomes pertinent: if not him leading us, then who? There is no-one.
  5. Most of the drama is related to returned travellers and mishandled quarantine, for which they blame Andrews. A lot of the reports are sensationalist, and I don’t there’s a clear idea of what happened except, it seems, the security guards misbehaved. There’s a lot of complexity about this, and there’s an inquiry in progress to get to the bottom of it. Many say that Andrews should’ve resigned over this – my response is per point 3 &4, and to suggest that we wait until the inquiry is concluded before we rush to judgement.
  6. Much of the criticism Andrews draws about this is why he engaged security firms rather than the ADF. This is a nonsense complaint that only makes any sense after the fact. Victoria was not the only state to use security guards, but the only state that suffered from it. Surely, the security firms were engaged in good faith to perform duties that they’re specialist at and which they’re being paid to do? Only later does it become evident that the firms had marginal competence and breached the terms of their contract. That was not something any reasonable person would anticipate – bearing in mind that the Federal government uses private security firms to manage refugees – so there’s a strong precedent.
  7. I think everyone accepts that there will be missteps and misjudgements in an emerging calamity such as this. They’re inclined to forgive to a degree, though we’re now looking at 100+ deaths and climbing out of the second wave. That may be re-evaluated in the fullness of time.

Much of that aligns with my thinking. The only caveat I have is that if the inquiry finds that government ministers were culpable (most likely because they failed to react appropriately or oversee the operation effectively), then heads should roll.

I don’t think it is the time to be changing much and in fact, I think much of the commentary has been destructive to public confidence and unity. It’s led to confusion and empowered malcontents to do as they please. I think there are a lot of others who should be in the sights. However, down the track, when the facts are known, justice – whatever it is – must be seen to be done.

Soldiering on


I’ve held off on commenting on more recent developments with the virus in Melbourne because, well, I was over it – as most people are. But now, as of last night, we’re in stage 4 lockdown, and it’s clear things have gone in the wrong direction.

Setting aside the personal inconvenience, I’m pretty philosophical about the whole thing. I still believe that we’ll get by this setback – I remain optimistic – but I understand equally that if that’s to happen, then draconian steps are required. And that’s where we’re at.

Things might not have been so draconian but for the sort of people who complain about draconian measures. One of the significant issues and major frustrations over the last month has been the numbers of people flouting the rules. Some of the call-outs have been staggering. Infectees are now visited at their home by the ADF to ensure they remain in isolation, but fully 25% of people have been missing when the army has called. They’re sick and infected people out and about infecting more people.

A fair amount of them is the utter ratbags we see on the news and posting libertarian and conspiracy nonsense to social media. They either refuse to believe that COVID is a real thing, or they refuse to comply with lockdown and mask-wearing because it impinges their civil rights – which they’ll read to you chapter and verse (and manage to miss the legal basis of it nonetheless). Victorians are heartily sick of these people. They’re selfish and entitled, and the fact they can so gleefully celebrate their dissent demonstrates how little they care for anyone else.

As we were told at that start of this, we’re all in this together. None of us enjoys it. Many are climbing the walls. We do it because we must: because we recognise it’s for the good of all. And because, if we don’t, then it’ll only get worse.

That’s unfortunately relevant to the other group who aren’t complying. These are the low-paid and casual workers, most of whom live in the less well off suburbs of Melbourne where the virus is most rampant. I have some sympathy for these people because they’re faced with the tough decision between isolating without income or going to work sick so they can get a wage. These are people with minimal resources and who need an income to put food on the table, pay the rent, and provide for their family.

This is the huge flaw in the government’s relief policy that was made clear to them on day one when they exempt casual workers from any support packages. Had they been provided with paid pandemic leave and able to isolate at home then I reckon 80% of the cases we now see would have been avoided. The state government has since stepped in to provide some support, but – incredibly – the federal government is still dragging its feet. This situation was wholly avoidable and for relatively little expense. It’s an example of things not being thought through clearly, which is excusable when you do it in a rush, but less so when they’ve had months to rectify it and had every economist in the land tell them they ought to.

Those suffering most from the second wave are in aged care facilities. Most of the deaths have come from residents tended by casual workers spreading the infection, and ultimately left to fend for themselves. I don’t know if it’s much of a surprise to anyone really as the deplorable state of our aged care system has been an open secret for years. This has exposed it to the hot media spotlight, and the government can no longer sweep it under the carpet. It really needs a post of its own. Suffice to say that so much of this is because of the mania for privatisation and flexible work conditions. Standards slip, and the authorities have little control. And people suffer.

I shouldn’t be complacent, but I live in an area where there’ve been few cases and far from the hotspots. I’m tempted to think that most of the neighbourhood here are good citizens and well aware of their responsibilities – but I also note that there’s no meat or veggies left in the supermarket when I visited this morning.

Like everyone – well, almost everyone – I’ve been wearing a mask for the last couple of weeks. Can’t say I enjoy it much. I never realised how much it would impede my breathing. And, naturally, it fogs up my glasses. Initially, I found it a strange experience. I felt enclosed and separate to the environment around me. My environment was in my mask, as if I was contained in a bubble. I’ve got used to it since and made other adjustments to manage it better. It’s like most things, eventually, you adapt – though I’m looking forward to a time when I can take the mask off, go out for a beer and travel beyond the border.

For now, we’re stuck. There’s a 5km travel limit and a curfew at 8pm. These are strange times, and you only have to look around you to see that with everyone in a mask. Who’d have ever imagined this? This is a surreal moment in history we won’t soon forget. I’m fascinated to see the art that comes out of it.

Becoming Barry


I touched upon therapy in the post I’ve just written. I’m a believer in the concept of treatment if it means we gain an understanding of ourselves and the forces that play upon us. I think most people would benefit from that, even those with ‘good’ mental health. I’ve tried it a few times. I’ve found it interesting each time and rewarding to talk it out, but I don’t think I’ve ever learned anything I didn’t know before. Each time I’ve done it, the therapist has pretty much said wow, you’re awfully self-aware. Some of them have been very impressed, which is nice, but does nothing for me – because each time I offer an interpretation, they nod their head and say, that’s right. I’m looking for the magic thing I don’t know, but it turns out I know everything I should – and maybe more.

I know some streams of psychology seek to adjust how you think and interpret the world and events around you. I’m sure there’s great worth in that for many individuals, and I’m sure I could probably learn something from it myself.

That’s never been my motivation in seeking therapy. Above all, it’s understanding I seek, and so I go to a specialist hoping that they can help me discover it. As I said before, ‘understanding’ is a variegated thing, and so I’ve never expected to walk out of a session and think, right, the meaning of life is 42.

More often, it’s a psychological basis to work with and parameters to think within that I’ve been after. Though there have been times I’ve been down, I don’t recall seeking a quick pick me up. It’s not survival I’m after, but enlightenment.

I’m of the tribe that would rather face reality square on and deal with it with all the tools I can muster. I’ve always refused anti-depressants because I knew I could deal with it and because I wanted to see it as it is and feel it to its depth. That was a choice for me because I could handle it, but I know it’s less easy for others, and I know there are things (I’ve been spared) that can’t be handled without medication.

Of the times I visited a therapist, it’s a session 25 years ago that sticks in my mind most. He was a cognitive psychologist, and I liked and trusted him. I don’t remember why I visited him, but I remember how the day he asked me to bring in photos of my family, including myself when I was younger. He examined the photos and gave his assessment of what he saw. He was surprisingly accurate. When he got to my picture, he said what a lovely smile I had, and an open face.

We spoke then, or after, or before – I can’t remember – of an alter ego for me. He wanted me to imagine myself as another person – the person free of the traits I had imposed upon myself since maturing into a man. When mum was pregnant with me, they would call me Barry in conversation, thinking that’s what they would call me. As it happened, they named me something else, but I chose Barry as my alter ego’s name.

Barry was my innocent, natural self – the kid with a lovely smile and the open face. H, the man who sat in front of him, the man who writes here, was the grizzled, tough-minded character the world had moulded of me. The idea was, I think, to embrace Barry as a true part of myself, and to return to him. There was joy in him and naive delight. He was the authentic, unfiltered self.

In the years since I remember him occasionally. There’ve been many occasions I’ve felt him close. There have probably been times when he’s been to the fore. These days he’s very private. He’s still in me, but it’s rare the world gets to see him.

I was reminded of him this morning when I woke from a long series of dreams in which I featured as Barry. These weren’t imaginative fantasies, but rather they recalled actual times going back about a dozen years. The people in the dreams were real people I knew and worked with, and I was the person I was then – highly respected, very popular, witty and whole-hearted and capable of outrageous, often tongue in cheek, flirtation. Everyone loved me in the dream. I loved myself. I was my best self. And he existed once, if not quite as stylised as in my dreams.

I remembered that when I woke up. I lost him, and the reasons for that are well documented and hardly surprising – but sad, nonetheless. I wonder sometimes if I’m still capable of being that person, or if I’ve sustained too much damage. There are a lot of elements in this, a lot of deficiencies and areas to address – but what I miss most is the light-hearted charmer I used to be. I feel a million miles away from him these days, and if I had a magic wand, then it’s that I would change first.

Hoping with intent


There’s a rough correlation between how often I post here and where I’m at. I’ve got the week off from work, but even with that free time, I haven’t posted until today. I haven’t wanted to. More specifically, I had no appetite for sharing myself online like this.

It feels easier today, but equally valid, I’m writing because I feel an obligation to explain the silence. I can’t let it go on.

I’ve had the week off, and I’ve done nothing. There’s nothing to do these days, no place you can go, no activity you can try. If you go out of doors at all you have to be in a mask, so, all in all, it’s a lot easier to stay indoors. That’s what I’ve done.

Monday was probably the toughest. I’ve been crook in a minor way for a while, then I took the bomb last week, and it seemed to work. There were some side effects. For a couple of days, I felt nauseous. You shrug your shoulders at that. But then, I felt as if the medication had wiped me out. That was general across the weekend, but come Monday I could barely rouse myself. I lay in bed until 9.30. When I got up, I lay on the couch for another hour, then throughout the day. I had neither the energy nor the urge to do any more than that.

You try and explain it to yourself. It was the bomb that did it. Then you consider how poorly you’ve been sleeping and think you’re just now catching up. They’re probably true in their own way, but I think much of it was mental.

When you’re working or needing to remain disciplined and attentive, you force it from yourself when it doesn’t come naturally. You rely on routines and patterns and lift yourself to attend them. It’s a kind of structure that holds you together.

Waking up Monday I had none of those routines I must attend, and I think in their absence there was a mental collapse. Without the workday pattern, there was nothing for me to cling to and I was forced back upon myself – and what did I have to offer?

It’s probably quite a common thing at the moment. I’ve grown impatient with being locked down. I feel hemmed in. As I’ve spoken of before, situations like this strip the social veneer from life, exposing the raw bones beneath it. But what if there’s nothing there? I’m a great believer in the meaningful life, but I understand the necessity of social distraction. It salves the soul to go out into the world and mingle in society. Lifestyle – cafes, restaurants, pubs, gigs, etc. – might be superficial in a way, but they’re the glue that holds us together. As for close friends? Well, try living without them.

These are things we are pretty much living without for now. We try and paper over the gaping cracks – I attended a zoom dinner party Saturday night, and had my weekly walk on the beach with Cheeseboy Saturday morning – but it’s a pale and obvious substitute for the real thing. As for society? The closest we get to it is on our TV screens.

Most people are lucky enough to have something to fall back on at home. Mostly it’s family, but I can only imagine the solace that brings. I have nonesuch, but it’s not so much the lack of a family around me I find hard, it’s the lack of intimacy.

You see, in the absence of all the other stuff, it becomes more important. You can deceive yourself the rest of the time caught up in the distractions of social life – look at the life I’m leading, after all: bars and restaurants, flirtation and excess. Look how vivid it is! It’s colour and movement – but restrict movement and strip the colour back to a monotone, what do you have? Only what’s close to you, and inside you.

I felt a bit better Tuesday, but hardly enterprising. Yesterday, the same, though I did manage to do some writing on both days, and a few household tasks.

I sometimes feel as if I should use this time to figure things out – but I’m not even sure what difference it would make if I did. And I’m not sure things are figurable, because there’s not one thing but a multitude of them, complementary and contradictory. Just like human life.

This is a very existential time, but not anything that therapy, or anything similar, can do much about. It’s not as if I can just accept it, though. Half the struggle is the struggle. There is meaning in striving. There’s even meaning in believing the striving will pay-off. Ultimately, that’s one of the things inside you: the belief that you can drive change. Maybe that’s just hope, but it’s hope with intent.

Squirliness


About 13 years ago I returned from India with a case of Giardia which, for people who don’t know, is basically a stomach parasite That’s not uncommon for visitors to the sub-continent. Visiting I knew the popular dos and don’ts. I only drank bottled water, and generally, I was careful about what I put in my mouth. I chafed that against that. For me, there’s an inherent risk whenever you travel, and the greater part of the experience is to do it authentically. I was happy to drink bottled water because that made no difference, but I remember a day going out for lunch and coming across a street stall selling chapattis and the like to about a dozen eager customers.

Now, when I say street stall, I mean a youthful-looking bloke cooking on a grate placed over the top of a 44-gallon drum. I was curious and enticed by the aroma and look of the food, and I stopped. The crowd there opened for me, as it does in India when you’re western and attending something close to them. They began to ask questions of me and fought to get my attention, ultimately urging me on to eat with them. It didn’t take much. It was the sort of experience I crave when I’m travelling, and I was hungry. I knew it was risky, but what the…

I figure that’s when I got Giardia. The youthful-looking bloke served me with some delight, pleased to have my custom as a form of endorsement for his place.

I got diagnosed once I returned and was put on a month-long treatment – a ‘bomb’ – during which I wasn’t allowed to drink. It was tough work.

So anyway, 13 years on, I began to feel similar symptoms as I did back then – a squirly gut and general discomfort. I didn’t feel it al the time, nor was it as severe as what I suffered then – and so I endured it for a while, expecting it to go away. The irony is that I’ve been nowhere for ages, near enough, let alone somewhere like India. The opportunities to catch any kind of stomach parasite are very limited.

But, six weeks later, it still hadn’t gone away. On Monday, I had one of the new-fangled tele-health sessions with my doc to have it checked out. He prescribed me something similar to what I had 13 years ago, only this time only for three days. This is my third day, and while there’s been no squirliness, the side-effects from the tablets are getting to me: general nausea and a shocking taste in my mouth. From what I know, it basically kills every bacteria in your gut, which is why it’s called a bomb.

Let’s assume it does the trick. The question now is, how did I get this? I guess I’ll not worry too much if it’s properly cured, but it’s unusual, I reckon.

Dreams in isolation


I’ve always dreamt a lot, but it seems to me that I’m dreaming more now than ever before. I’ve begun to wonder if this is a symptom of extended isolation. In past times life would contain enough distraction and colour that dreams were no more than an adjunct to that. I’d go out, have a beer, chat to people at work, have a laugh with friends, go the footy, and so on. I had a life outside of these four walls, and external to the internal world I largely reside in since lockdown. Is it too much to believe that in the absence of the normal stimuli that our unconscious will step into the void? Will not our mind conjure up the colour and movement missing from our everyday lives?

It’s an interesting question. Do prisoners dream differently to the man on the street? What about the man marooned on a desert island? Or is this just me?

It’s got to the point that I feel it’s affecting my sleep. For the last month particularly, I’ve been sleeping poorly and as a result, I’ve felt more lethargic than usual, and sometimes just ‘off’. The other day I felt particularly unrested after a night I dreamed away. My sleep stats showed that my REM sleep was four and a half hours – surely that’s excessive? But it made sense because that’s what I felt.

Then there are the things you dream about. The prisoner probably dreams of his liberty. The man on the island probably dreams of crowds. My dreams are no more than fragments to me now, but what I recall is, yes, of being out and about, but then there’s another strong thread. There appears a strong aspirational theme in many of my dreams – of situations in which I achieve what I don’t have now. That may seem positive, but there’s a melancholy angle to it because they play like movies of things I might have – or might have had – but do not. There’s almost a taunt in it.

Dreams like that are probably common in days like these when we’re set back to basics. All the trimmings and flummery have been removed. Exposed are the bare bones of our existence. Much is revealed at ultimately hollow. Where do we find meaning then? What does ‘meaning’ mean to us? When everything is cut back to the bone, what brings us solace?

I dream of the things others have but I don’t, such as a family about me, and regular intimacy. The other recurring element has less substance, but when you don’t have a family to fall back on then you must find purpose elsewhere. In my case, it returns to work, though more accurately it might be termed, ‘calling’.

In this, there’s a comparison between what I do and opportunities to do something nobler. I’ve commented on that enough that I don’t need to again. There’s meaning in doing something close to your heart, whatever that might be. In my case, while that’s true, there is something more superficial in it, too. I long to be the hero again, as I felt so often before in my work – it’s why I did challenging, independent work, and it says a lot about my psychology. I guess everyone wants to be their own hero, though some more than others. In the absence of anything else to fall back on, and for someone like me, it becomes purpose.

It’s probably more true now that I’m closer to the end of my career than the start of it. No matter what I’ve done before, it’s the past. I don’t want to go quietly. I want to believe there are great things in me still, but I feel more of the old stager these days. Not the virile matchwinner I used to be, more the clever and reliable stalwart of the team. And, before I’m trotted out to pasture, I want to prove that I’ve still got it.

I’m too old to change that and the instinct too deeply ingrained, even if ultimately it’s an empty thing. I know that. I need to get past that, and the best way to do that is by substitution – find something else that will satisfy that innate need. I know what it is, I just don’t know how to get it.

 

Sweet and sour


Some weeks ago, I referred to the google home device that sits on my bedside table and which scrolls through my photo albums as a screensaver. I catch it from the corner of my eye as I lay in bed reading, and sometimes I’ll turn to it and gaze at pics that by now have become very familiar, though never stale.

The album it’s currently showing is mostly of old family pics I scanned over Christmas. Till then, I hadn’t seen them for years, maybe decades. You know how it is with old photos, they’re stuck in a box somewhere inaccessible and out of the way. You’ve forgotten about them, or if you remember it’s just the odd photo that comes to mind, and the pictures in between – the glue that hold those times together – are forgotten. That’s one of the great things about digital photos – they’re always close, and rarely a day goes by when you don’t catch a glimpse of some old memory.

Scanning these photos was one of the best things I’ve done in recent memory, but there were surprises that came with it. I saw things again I’d forgotten about completely. Other moments remain a mystery. There are faces there I’ve not seen for years, and a surprising number are now among the dead. I was initially surprised to see myself in a different way to what I remembered, which caused me to reflect on what identity is. More than anything, perhaps, it brought back to life a time which seems so foreign to current times. I was there, I’ve lived through then and now, but still I find it hard to reconcile.

By and large, the photos are of family and friends. There are the usual occasions recorded – Christmas, birthdays, a christening, many family meals. There are photos of us heading off to the Melbourne cup one year, all smiling faces; and other photos showing us working on renovations or in the garden at Yarck. We’re taking a break, leaning on a shovel, a beer in hand and another grin. And there are scenes from hunting trips and skiing and holidays in general and the date range covers from when I was about seven years old until I was a little past thirty.

Over time, I’ve grown used to the photos scrolling by and enjoy the moment of nostalgia I often feel. It’s not always nostalgia I feel, though. Sometimes, it’s wonder. I’ll turn and watch as if unsure it’s true and wanting to return to that moment to understand. Over time my gaze has shifted from the oddity of seeing myself in a different way, to look upon my wider family, and more than anyone, my mum and her second husband, my stepfather.

It’s a measure of my affection for them that among the photos I chose to scan are those with little to do with me. I wasn’t there, I don’t even know how I came to possess the pictures. But maybe it is that I wanted to capture a memory, or a perspective, of my mother particularly. There are some from a time before she met Fred. She’s out, socialising, with friends and doing things. She’s younger in those pics, and I try to remember that because my lasting memory of her is from the end. I look at her in the photos, at her smile and the way she looks in the camera. I knew her then, I think, which is an absurd thought, but somehow natural, too. I wonder what conversations we had then.

Then there are the pics of her with Fred, both of them smiling and happy. This was a golden age, for all of us – if only we knew it. There’s one photo, they’re overseas somewhere I think, and in my mind, I imagine it’s Paris. They were often travelling. They’re sitting at a restaurant table smiling up at the camera and it’s a lovely photo. Then I realise the sports jacket that Fred is wearing – a black and white houndstooth – I now have. I wear it sometimes. I have it because it’s been a long time since he’s needed it. There’s a sour tang that goes with the sweetness of the memory. And that’s how it is, sweet and sour.

I am of a particular type that reflects deeply on such things. I try and find understanding as if it was a thing. What I’m really searching for is a kind of balance. What is there to understand, after all, but that all is ephemeral? People come, people go, the river of life continues. The balance you seek is acceptance of that, the sweetness of memory in one scale, the sourness of loss in the other. And, being human beings, it’s only rare that they’re in true balance.

Today is my mum’s birthday. Had she still been alive she’d have turned 79 today. Both she and Fred were sprightly, active types, but both went before their allotted span. If it were not for cancer you’d expect that mum would still be around, and Fred perhaps as well. But, cancer.

Perhaps what I seek to understand is how this becomes that – how happy photos become sad memories; how a full life becomes abrupt death. You know the answer – there are no guarantees, and its ever been this way. There is no understanding to be had unless you seek to understand life itself. And if there is an understanding of that to be had, then it’s not in a single answer but in multitudes of possibility. So, it’s balance and acceptance that you seek, the memory of happy times, and the wistful knowledge that nothing is forever.

And in the meantime, I just miss my mum.

Mysterious encounters in the supermarket aisle


I reckon about four weeks ago I was bemoaning how hard it is to meet anyone new since we’ve been in lockdown. By anyone, I meant predominantly women, but I’m always happy to meet interesting characters regardless of gender, but it just wasn’t happening. “It’s not as if I’m going to run into them in the supermarket,” I said.

Then, the week before last, on Thursday, I’m in the supermarket, naturally – in the fruit and veggie department, to be specific – when going one way I encounter a woman coming the other.

Most of the shoppers are women, and there’s barely a one in years I’ve given a second glance to. This time it was different, for any one of the umpteen indefinable reasons you find yourself drawn to one person, and not another. It was not as if she was beautiful, though she was attractive. At first glance, there was nothing particularly striking or different about her. But that’s not how it works, not in my experience anyway. I’m a believer in so-called chemistry, though I think of it more as a frequency thing – you resonate at the same level. And that’s how it feels to me. The rare occasion you meet someone and experience this it feels as if you know them. They’re familiar to you, even though five minutes ago you didn’t know they existed.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, and gilding the lily a bit much too.

So she’s coming towards me as I’m coming towards her. I glance at her. She has dark red hair and, though she is attractive at first glance, what I really think is how interesting she looks. She’s slightly taller than the norm, slender, wearing dark yoga pants. I feel something, nothing too big or dramatic, not much more than a stirring of curiosity. Without defining it, in that split second, I think she’s my kind of woman.

Then we’re past each other – and yet, I feel as if she has noticed me much as I noticed her. I go about my shopping idly wondering at her. I’ve never seen her in the supermarket to start with. And somehow I’m reminded of Katherine Hepburn, as if this unknown lady might just be as feisty as her.

The next day I’m at the supermarket at the same time – and she is there too. How strange, I think, two days in a row! We pass by without comment, but there’s the same sense of knowingness shared between us I think – though it could equally be my wishful imagination.

The next day is Saturday. Once more, I go to the supermarket – and once more she’s there. It seems so strange that we should both visit the supermarket at the same time three days in a row when prior we’d never set eyes on each other. And then something happens which I still don’t know the meaning of.

I turn into an aisle. She’s there, alone, looking at the shelves. From the far end of the aisle, a young couple enters. They’re talking animatedly to each other. I walk towards them, towards the mystery woman, watching as she peruses the supermarket shelf. As I draw near, my eyes shift from her towards the couple, but as I do, I sense her turning in my direction. There’s a knowing smile on her face as she looks towards me as if sharing a joke only the two us know. It all happens so quickly that I don’t know if it’s real or if what I saw was as it appeared, and I don’t react. Part of it is that I’m already turning away from her, but most of it is uncertainty, and I kick myself.

The couple goes by. I go by her. Nothing is said.

I return home pondering what just happened. By now something has woken in me. It feels as if encountering this woman has brought to the surface a yearning I had long buried. It’s more general than to be focussed on her alone. It feels like truth. This is who you are, H. This is what you want and need. It’s not an easy realisation because it exposes all that I have done without. I have endured but not lived. It felt as if this what I’ve been waiting for without knowing it – and without seeking to know. To be blunt, I had deceived myself because it was easier than to face the sad reality. How many of us do that?

I’m not so caught up as to think that this mystery woman had the answers for me, but I’m also afraid that I’ve blown my chance. Three days in a row, I encountered her, and did nothing! What are the chances that I won’t see her again? High. I’d been tempting fate, but I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I had all the usual things run through my head at times like this. What if I’ve got it wrong? Why would she be interested in me? Don’t be silly H, it’s all your imagination.

I don’t go to the supermarket the next day, but in the afternoon I take Rigby for a walk. On this occasion, I take him up to the main road where the shops are. It’s crowded with people, and on occasion, I must manhandle Rigby to steer him clear of other dogs. As we approach the doors of the supermarket, I notice two greyhounds tied outside of it. They’re standing there, one resting his chin on the other. I point them out to Rigby. Look, two greyhounds, I tell him.

I look up just as we come to the doors of the supermarket. The doors open, and suddenly I’m gazing into the face of the red-headed woman as she exits. There’s a smile on her face again, but looking towards the greyhounds – isn’t she? Then we are past. We walk, Rigby and I, and somehow I know she is following. I’m conscious of her there. I stop to let some people through a crowded section. I murmur something to Rigby. I turn as if to look into a shop window, and from the corner of my eye, I spot her.

The congestion clears and we go on. Thirty metres on we turn off into a laneway, while she continues on straight.

I haven’t seen her since. I still don’t know what to make of it. A part of me feels embarrassed. I think I’ve imagined it all. Then I wonder why I didn’t have the gumption to do anything about it. But, by now, I have no idea what’s right.

I have a strange and irrational sense that this was a gift to me I didn’t accept. I keep thinking of the old joke about the impoverished man who prays to God each night that he might win the lottery. Finally, exasperated, God booms from the heavens, “meet me halfway, willya, buy a ticket!”

That’s me. I didn’t go halfway.

I’ll probably never see her again. That doesn’t concern me. Life is full of moments that escape from you. Now, I’m more curious about what it means for me – and what it reveals?

Sign of the times


I’m currently reading a book called Breakout from Stalingrad, by Heinrich Gerlach. It’s a ‘lost manuscript’ that ultimately became the classic The Forsaken Army, which I read as a kid. It’s told from the German side about the battle of Stalingrad and the encirclement, and ultimate surrender, of the German Sixth army. It was a massive battle and pretty full-on. About 300,000 troops were in the pocket when it started. I think only ever about 5,000 made it home years after the war had ended.

I used to read a lot of war books when I was a kid, but not so many now. This is a bleak read, but sort of compelling, too, like watching a catastrophe unfold in slow motion. Sometimes I think I’m going to set it aside because – no matter which side you’re on – there’s something tragic about the story. It’s the futility that gets to me, the utter hopelessness of their destiny. It’s like watching an old movie you know the ending of and dread every time. But I keep on reading because the author was there, this is what he saw and experienced, and because it’s unexpectedly moving. I’m about 300 pages through of about 650.

As I lay in bed last night reading, it occurred to me that the situation we’re in right now has parallels to the story. Sure, no-one’s shooting at us, we’re not starving or freezing to death, and we’re not at war. There is a lot of differences. But, like the soldiers there, we’ve lost freedom of movement in lockdown. We’re not at complete liberty. And we’re doing battle with an implacable foe. The Germans were surrounded in Stalingrad and, if you look at it, that’s sort of an apt metaphor for life in lockdown. We’re fearful of leaving our homes because of the coronavirus lurking in wait. In our case, at least, we’ve got hope – one day, you’d expect, we’ll achieve the breakout the Sixth Army never managed.

Earlier in the night, I’d bought a face mask online, in what is very much a sign of the times. It’s not something I want to wear, for cosmetic reasons as much as anything else, but I recognise the time is nearing when I’ll probably be obliged to. Healthy outcomes might dictate it also.

I’ve actually got two face masks already. Back in January, when the bushfires were raging and smoke was heavy in the air, I bought a simple face mask on impulse when I visited the chemist. I never wore it. Then I got a freebie face mask included in a delivery I received the other week – one of the basic, medical-grade blue masks. Haven’t worn that either.

If I can manage it, I won’t get to wear either of them. No matter how you spin it, I don’t think wearing a face mask is a particularly good look – but then there are really bad fashion takes, and those that are acceptable. The mask I purchased last night is decorated in a Koori motif, and is something I could accept wearing. Basically, it appealed to my vanity because it had a bit of style, a bit of individuality. If I’m to be seen in public wearing one, that’s what I want.

When do I get to wear it, I wonder? In my part of town maybe 1 in 10 people are wearing a mask, but we’re far from the hotspots. If I lived there I reckon I’d be wearing one now. The next few days will tell the tale. If the rate of infection stabilises or even falls, then we’re a chance. But if it continues to rise then we have a problem. My expectation is that the actions the government put into place the week before last should be paying off soon. We might see a modest increase, but I hope it starts to trail away by next week. A lot rides on this, and not just whether I end up wearing a mask.

 

Edit: by wicked coincidence, I’m also reading The Plague, by Albert Camus, currently. I started it quite innocently, without consideration for the times we live in. Perhaps it was a sub-conscious choice made.