Counting the days


A month from today is Christmas. This year, I commence Christmas leave on the 21st and return to work on January 11. I don’t know yet what I’m doing Christmas day, but that’s not unusual.

I have tentative plans to head down the coast to Wye River for a few days after Christmas. I’ll be pitching camp with the Cheeses and associates, and even bought a tent for the occasion. Rigby will be minded by X for that period, and I expect I’ll mellow out completely while I spend my time drinking and eating and laughing and reading and body-surfing and going to the pub, all in the bright coastal sunshine.

I need the break, but it’s close enough now that I can count it down.

I’ve been so busy, but the good news is that two of my projects should be launched within a week, which takes the pressure off. The other one – the big one – I’ve had to pause as UAT failed.

That’s a major annoyance, but not surprising. I feel pretty relaxed about it really because I know I’ve done the right thing in not trying to push it through. I’ve asked the vendor to come up with some satisfactory answers and an assurance I can trust that every contingency is managed. The formal pause allows me to draw some breath as well, and take a break from the headlong rush.

I’m still hoping to get it deployed before Christmas.

And that’s my working life – flat-out, but currently under control. The sun is shining, the bars and restaurants are opening up, and Christmas beckons.

Do it all next year, but worry about it then.

Mask free


For the first time in months, I went outside yesterday without wearing a mask. I’ve heard others comment that it felt as if they went about naked. I didn’t feel that, but it was odd and quite liberating.

The routine of wearing a mask became ingrained quickly. There were missteps along the way – everyone has a story about how they’ve gone out forgetting to wear their mask – but generally, it became habitual before leaving the house – wallet, keys, phone and yes, the mask.

Dogs are very observant beasts and slaves to ritual. It got so that every time I put on my mask, Rigby would get excited because it meant I was going outside. Now that’s changed/

The requirement to wear a mask out in the open was eased at 12.01 am on Sunday night. You have to carry your mask with you and must still wear it when in an enclosed place, or where the crowd makes physical distancing difficult. But walking the dog, I no longer need it, nor walking to the shops.

Things have opened up more generally since the weekend. It’s not back to normal, but you wouldn’t really notice the difference through the course of a typical day. The restrictions are at the margins now, and by degree, rather than front and centre as they were for so long.

I’ll say it again: that we have made it to this point is a testament to the good sense of people of this state and the leadership that held firm to scientific principles.

While the pandemic ravages much of Europe and the states, peaking further each day; and while it re-asserts itself in places where it had become dormant, such as Japan, we in Australia can look forward to a safe and relatively healthy Christmas, touch wood. We have been lucky on many counts, but we have also worked hard – and here, in Victoria, we fought it back.

The war is not won, but there are now several promising vaccines being tested. By the first quarter next year some, at least, should be released for use.

We need to survive till then. I’m confident we can do it in Oz. But in other places, I wonder how many more must die until that salvation comes?

The shocking truth


Last week the shocking news broke that 19 SAS soldiers were being charged in relation to 39 murders committed during their tours of Afghanistan. Some of the details were horrific. The cold-blooded nature of the killings struck at you. This was more than murder, it was perversity.

There were the usual platitudes amid the outrage. Many, probably quite rightly, pointed out that these were bad eggs, and that the majority of Australian troops served honourably. Some, very predictably, call it un-Australian, as if that absolves the rest of us of any responsibility.

I’d like to think it un-Australian much in the same way as I thought ball-tampering was un-Australian, but I think there was more justification before.

Going all the way back to the Boer War, Australian soldiers have had a reputation for being ruthless. In the WW1 particularly, they were often guilty of not taking prisoners. It was the flip-side of the dash and aggression they showed in attack. But then, it was in the heat of battle mostly, and they were not the only troops to do it. Not to excuse it, but it’s been happening since ancient times.

This is different. Some of those they murdered may well have been Taliban sympathisers, but all were civilians. In the cases I’m aware of, the murders were all committed coldly, the battle done and dusted. There are stories of Afghan civilians murdered by the newbies in the squad to blood them. More often, it was a cavalier after-thought – it was easier to put a bullet in someone than take them in as a prisoner. And then there were the teenage boys who had their throats casually cut on the off-chance that they might report to the Taliban.

To read of these things is to observe a deep disconnect between the world they inhabited, and ours. These are the very elite of troops, superbly trained and highly proficient in the arts of war. They’re different from you and me because their job is perilous, but I don’t think that excuses a different morality.

Some, in muted defence of the accused, said the problem was that they are sent on tour after tour of duty. They’re exposed to the harrowing and raw nature of the battle zone for years on end. I can imagine how the nature of their mission makes the effects more insidious – dealing with shadowy, unseen, fleeting opponents, rather than an enemy army in the field. They become cynical, they become jaded, they become burnt-out, and the values they grew up with supplanted with a kill or be killed mentality.

There is no excuse for what they have done, but perhaps there are reasons we can begin to understand. The blame for this is much greater than the men accused.

It’s strange to think that all of this could’ve gone on without anyone in authority knowing about. I find that hard to believe, and in either case, it represents a failure. They should know and be accountable. And if they knew and did nothing, then they are equally at fault. Military command, who have expressed dismay at these happenings, have also been very careful to draw the line and decline responsibility.

The fault goes all the way to our politicians. This was a political war from the start, and much of it conducted for the optics. It’s a cynical and ugly battle that has gone on for over 15 years. Our government sent them off again and again so as to be seen as a good ally, and for the privilege of claiming to the electorate that we stood for good.

All the while, they were bleeding our combatants dry. And, very cynically, betraying the principals they sought to espouse.

I understand there’s much bitterness in the military community about how our government has treated the Afghan allies our troops have served beside. Promised the opportunity to immigrate to Australia, they’ve been denied instead and left to the mercies of the Taliban and punished because of it.

This whole story reads like a moral inversion. Terrible things have been done. In some cases, it may be as simple as that. I can’t help but feel though that this is a manifestation of a deeper and more complex betrayal.

The murdered civilians were betrayed by the men who were sent to protect them. But those men, perhaps, were betrayed by their commanders, and by a political leadership that cared not one whit for their welfare. This is the result.

Remain vital


I wonder if I’ve reached the age now where thoughts of the last third of my life become more prevalent? It makes sense that they should as I advance into that stage – but there feels something unsatisfying in it.

Its been a gradual realisation, almost unconscious. There I was yesterday, imagining my life in comfortable retirement, without giving it a second thought. And yesterday morning, on my weekly walk with Cheeseboy, we touched upon the life to come – where we’d live, how we’d live, and the simple pleasures we look forward to as part of that.

It’s not the first time we’ve done that, though both of us are probably a dozen years from retirement. At one point yesterday, we imagined the same scene – a house overlooking the ocean, a sunny day, and the simple pleasure of having a cool drink sitting on a deck overlooking it all.

It seems for quite a while now that I’ve had a settled view of the life to come. If not the house overlooking the sea – I doubt I can afford that – then a comfortable cottage in the bush somewhere. Room to move and an open sky. There would be the sprawling veggie garden I referred to yesterday, which I’d tend to every morning.

I remember as a boy I grew vegetables in our suburban back yard, and the sheer delight of discovering the budding fruit of the young tomato appearing overnight; or the unexpected find of zucchini or a pumpkin hidden in the foliage. The bonus now is that I could turn these things into food for my table.

And that’s the life, as I touched upon yesterday — a life of growing veggies and indulgently cooking. Afternoons reading by the fire or an open window and perhaps engaging in conversation over a glass of wine or a gin and tonic. In between, as I went about my daily business, my music would play, and all of this the pillars of my simple life – good food, nourishing literature, and the music of my life. And writing, which I would set to every day at the appointed time.

By itself, it sounds fine, but to what end? I would need other things — friends of course, and hopefully, someone to love and be loved by, but even so. I would need to travel still, to enlarge my mind and experience – that mustn’t stop. And human interactions.

This, more or less, is how I’ve unconsciously imagined it for years. It seems a good life in many ways. Why complain? Because it seems to me that to live well is not enough, one must live deeply. And to experience that truly, there must be some risk, some danger, some leap of faith and courage involved. To immerse yourself in the merely pleasurable comes at the cost of vitality.

For some time now, my relationship to books and reading has changed from what it was. It is less satisfying, though I read just as much as I ever did and take as much pleasure from it. As I think about, it feels as if books have become entertainment to me, though I’m still provoked and stirred by them.

The difference is that in all the many years I browsed bookstores and collected books up till recently literature was a part of who I was. I read as if I would learn something as if in the pages of the classics I pored over there was enlightenment to be found and meaning for the path I was on. I read as if there were secrets I could unlock that would make sense of what I did and felt, what I yearned and strived for. Literature pumped through me like life’s blood.

What’s different now? I’m older now. Perhaps I’m more cynical; certainly, I’m more bruised. The life I imagined as I read those books has now passed me: I have been and gone, and here I am.

I thought of this again this morning as I added about 20 books to a wishlist, mostly NYRB publications. There was excitement thinking I will likely read them one day. And fascination wondering what I would find. That hasn’t changed. And probably over the next 18 months, I’ll buy each and every one of those books, and others, and more to come, many more, in the years ahead.

But to what point? That’s the critical question. I feel such a dilettante reading for its own sake, as has been true for the last 10 years. There must be more to it. And the difference, ultimately, is that once I could see myself in those books as I if I too could live that life and take on those adventures. I imagined myself loving as the characters did, being swept up in romance and volatile times. That’s how I would live. That’s what I would do.

And I did, for a long time. Books taught me experience, and I went out and found it for myself. I travelled, I loved, I caroused and journeyed, I looked deeply into things and found myself provoked and stimulated. I learned. It was good, and I’m grateful for it, but it’s like all memory, once it’s done you can’t go back. They’re photos in an album.

I went deliberately searching for vivid experience and being unsafe for so long has probably cost me the comforts of a settled domestic life. There are times I miss that, and I regret there are things I missed out on.

Now that I’m coming into the last third, what remains true? Is it that settled and domestic existence I can come at belatedly? Or is some return to the vitality of creating new experiences, over and again?

What we’re talking about here is possibility – the possibility of new and challenging things in your life. It’s been in short supply the last few years as I’ve scrambled to get out of the hole I was in. I want to think that I will feel it again – the sense that anything can change, that there surprises still in store, and mountains to climb.

I’ve come to the stage of my life where I realise that it’s the poignant and the sublime that fill me up. That’s what I searched for in books once upon a time, and then in life. The times I have experienced it have felt almost holy to me as if I was on the cusp of an understanding that always eluded me. It was enough to know it was there, and to feel that – and to quest to find it again.

I don’t want to fade away. To live well is fine, but I need the vitality of life to make it meaningful for me. It’s been a while since I’ve felt that – and I think that accounts for my general state of mind in recent years. I really don’t know if I was ever made to play it safe. Tempting as it is, I want to feel alive – no matter how old I get.

Recipes of my life


Had things gone just a little differently, I might well have become a chef. I can remember a night at my grandparents home when I was about 18, and they had invited over a relative who was a cooking instructor at William Angliss. He was there because there was talk at the time that I might train to become a chef.

I was a good cook even then and had an interest in food in general. I didn’t understand it until later, but I’d been spoilt. My mum was an adventurous cook. At a time when many families stuck to the standard meat and three veg mum was making curries and stir-fries and ambitious French casseroles, and so on. Most nights we had dessert. I only clue I had of this was when my friends would make a point of telling strangers of my mother’s cooking.

So, I was exposed to a wide variety of food, and my palate had well adapted to spicy and adventurous flavour couplings. I enjoyed it from the purely sensual perspective – it was fucking delicious! But it piqued my curiosity as well because food has history and heritage. It belongs to cultures. If you’ve got an open mind at all, then you can’t help but be fascinated.

I was fascinated. I wanted to know more. And I was curious about how flavour was created and how things went well together, like a chemist mixing a concoction. Naturally, I tried it myself, and the more adventurous and interesting the better – and that remains as true now as then.

Somewhere along the line my interest and aptitude for cooking were noticed, though I don’t remember ever having a particular conversation about it. Apparently it was obvious that it might become a career choice, and so the meeting was set-up with some distant cousin.

I can remember the night and quizzing him extensively as he spoke the industry. We sat in the front – formal – loungeroom of the house in Strathmore. He was surprised at the range of my questions, and commented to my grandmother how much more advanced I was than the kids he normally dealt with. It stuck in my mind because I was of the age when the sense of self is developing. He was a decent man doing a favour, but clearly, he had a passion for the business.

In the end – obviously – I chose not to take up cooking as a career. It seems very mature in retrospect. I reasoned that I enjoyed cooking and I didn’t want to spoil the pleasure of it by making a profession of it. I think also, I saw myself, and my future, in a different way.

I didn’t stop cooking, though. It’s remained a great pleasure, and I’m still a bold and adventurous cook. It’s clearly a passion, though I love the eating too. I’m urged occasionally to go on MasterChef, though I’m not at that standard. A few years back, there was an idea that Cheeseboy should team up and go on My Kitchen Rules. I wasn’t keen on that either.

One of the funny things is that I have a vision of myself in years to come, comfortably retired, and taking my cooking to another level. With time on my hands and a decent veggie garden, I figure, I take it up a notch and make it one of my things.

There’s a part of my nature very diligent and driven and, like many men, I’m a listmaker – even if it’s only in my head. I’ve been collecting recipes for years, much as my mum did before me, and thousands of others.

I’ve just spent the last 45 minutes looking through old recipe magazines while listening to Spotify. I have a thing if there’s a recipe I like I’ll fold down the corner of the age to return to. Today I went through the recipes and tore out the pages to set aside.

I have hundreds and hundreds of these pages around the house. I’ll be lucky if I make 10% of them. On top of that, I save recipes online. I have an app with 1200 recipes I’ve added to it, and which I methodically work through making a couple of new things a week, adding my notes and a rating to each recipe. I have a dream one day of having a hundred magic recipes that a lifetime of cooking has distilled into the very best.

It sounds domestic. It is, but it has a history. It has meaning outside of food because memory is in there too, and culture, and maybe a little sentiment – a recipe in its own way.

To break the cycle


It’s about the time of year I start counting down to Christmas. I don’t remember it always being this way, but it’s been true for the last few years.

It’s probably natural to look forward to occasions like Christmas, and to those milestones and way-points that chart our course through life. I sometimes wonder how it would feel if there were no markers and no boundaries: if years and months were never created, if seasons didn’t happen, and anniversaries – almost by definition – ceased to exist? It would be a life of white noise I suspect, and very satisfactory.

If nothing else, milestones and the like help us to chart our progress and measure where we’re at. They’re symbolic of hopes and plans and indicative of order and discipline we need to feel present.

So, it’s natural to look forward to Christmas for many reasons – for the break it entails, for the family gatherings and sharing of occasions, for the definition soon after between one season of our life to the next.

Not all of that applies to me anymore, but it used to, and it would fill me with expectation. Nowadays, it’s the break I look forward to most as the occasion of Christmas is just about a non-event for me.

This is what is different from before. Before I would anticipate pleasures to come; these days, I look towards a finish line, I feel myself staggering towards. I need solace.

So it is again this year. I’ve been struggling for a while and soldiering on. I feel as if I lose a bit more momentum with each week that passes. I’m tired, physically and emotionally, and weary of work, which appears both tedious and without value at this time of year.

I force myself to the line, but I don’t have the go-ahead I used to have, and even the raw, stubborn will to continue has leaked from me week by week. It’s habit and discipline and perhaps a few tricks up my sleeve that keeps me productive – though much less than what can be.

That’s how it is. I need the break over Christmas to replenish my reserves, most of which are spiritual. Then, the theory goes, I’m ready for another year of it.

So, what’s the flaw in that plan? It’s boom and bust. It’s spiritually pointless. It’s a cycle of depletion and recovery, depleted by something that I have little interest in and recovering to do it again.

I need the break, but I need to break the cycle, too.

The reverse Samson


Probably the second biggest news over the weekend (maybe the third if you factor in the Wallabies beating the All-Blacks) was my haircut on Saturday morning.

Man, did I need it! Cheeseboy, always blunt, said I looked like a paedo. My hairdresser, at the sight of me, said I looked homeless. And even I had become reluctant to go out in public. My hair had become so thick and unruly – and dry – that there was no styling of it and no chance of controlling it.

I did a bit of market research ahead of my cut about what I should do. The women in my life all said I should try and keep some length and look to have it styled more. The blokes were indifferent.

I checked my hairdresser, and we agreed that he had a fair canvas to work with and that let’s try and retain some length while taking it in at the sides. And that’s what we did, though it’s a bit different to anything I’ve had before.

The result is that I look about 15 years younger and no longer a menace to society. I was starting to feel pretty ugly, but now I’m back to being pretty presentable.

As I left the hairdresser, I could see my shorn locks on the floor. There was a fair amount there – about 7 months worth of growth, leaving a couple of months of it on my scone.

I’ve been wistful in the past about losing so much hair, but I felt liberated by it this time. Donate it to charity, I suggested to them, or perhaps to Advance Hair Studios for some poor, balding chump to make use of.

Me, I’m back!

First things, first


I feel like I know all I need to know about the US election now, and US elections in general, after following the coverage very keenly over the last few days.

As it stands, there’s no winner declared, but it looks very likely that Biden will win. Yippee. There were a lot of nervous commentators on Wednesday as early results favoured Trump, but I have to say, I wasn’t nearly as nervous as last time. It could be that that disaster conditioned me, but there seemed a clear difference between last time and this.

Last time there felt a wave of early results that became insurmountable pretty early, never mind that some states weren’t called until days later. The vibe was all Trump.

This time it felt a bit like the last hurrah. A few nervous titters and then back on track knowing – unlike last time – that the great bulk of postal votes would favour Biden. And that’s been the case.

I expect within a few hours the election will be called for the Democrats, not that that’s the end of it.

Not surprisingly, Trump has already spread discord and dissent at the course of the election. He cast doubt on the process the very first night while claiming a false victory. He made accusations of corruption and threatened legal action. His numbnut supporters, der, then followed suit.

There’s almost a comical element to watching these vapid bogans protest at the injustice of the election, alternately demanding that the counting is stopped, or started, according to the state and whatever suits them.

In fact, it’s very ugly. In effect, they’re protesting against democracy, which is what it’s come down to. They rally and cry; they threaten and demand. They lay siege to the counting stations, some of them wearing automatic weapons. These are people who have lost the thread on civilised democracy.

That’s the danger in the weeks and months ahead that they’ll continue to rally and protest and refuse to accept the result, and ultimately, that it might lead to acts of civil disobedience and violence. I think everyone is concerned with that, but that’s the America that Trump has made manifest.

There’s much I find shocking. I don’t know a single Australian who doesn’t think that Trump is a ratbag at the very least, and a menace to the world society. There are Trump supporters in Australia, no doubt, but they’re way at the extremes. And yet, I look at polls and see that most White Americans favour him, and that white males predominantly support him.

If this true, then there’s a significant divide between minstream Australia and America, and maybe that’s the difference between living there and not, but maybe it goes deeper. (I suspect the Australian government, in comparison, is in Trump’s camp).

I think the risk goes beyond the immediate future for America. No matter that Biden looks like becoming president, it’s hardly been the resounding rejection of Trump that many hoped for. I will be a divided society for years to come, and it may take a generation to heal. Part of that is mending the damage done to the very concept of democracy, which will take education and leadership.

But, let’s be positive. The journey back has to start somewhere and is impossible while that corrupt clown is still in office.

Fingers crossed


How well I remember this day four years ago! I was at work in my old, shitty job, sitting across the way from an English traveller doing some temp work with us. Her name was Katie, she was an attractive and intelligent blonde from the south of England, and we’d become friendly in the month preceding.

Like the rest of the world, we were all fascinated by the American election, and like the rest of the world, we fully expect that the buffoon Donald Trump would be knocked off by Hilary.

That was all the conversation through the morning, though pretty much in a general way. Because I was working, I had my browser open to a page tracking the results as they came in. By early afternoon, results were coming in counter to expectation. I watched, I listened to the analysts and comforted myself that they were early numbers and they would swing the other way as the day went on.

But it kept happening, to the point that later results were shoring up the early results. I was consumed by it by now, and much of the floor had got wind of a potential shock, and it went through it like a charge of electricity – and I’m sure it was the same across hundreds of other workplaces.

By now, I was on tenterhooks. I was urging the results to switch-back before it was too late. I was giving constant updates to Katie through the afternoon and engaging in long, surprised, political discussions. Around 3 pm, I think it became clear that no matter what came next that Trump would become president.

There was a state of shock at that, as if the known world had upended – I don’t need to tell anyone what it felt like. There was a numbness, not knowing what would come next.

We now know what came next, and it wasn’t good. America, and the world, can’t afford another four years of this man. It would end America as we know it, and the flow-on effects to the world in general disastrous,

I expect Trump to lose, but I’m wary. There are just too many variables. Hilary Clinton won the popular vote clearly last time, but still lost because of the dodgy electoral college. Even so, had more people bothered to vote on the day she would have won.

It appears the American electorate has been energised since, and so they should be. There are predictions of record voter turn-outs, and that should favour Biden. But then there’s the electoral college, which is a diabolical construct. It’s ridiculous that the whole election might ride on a few key states because they’re disproportionately represented.

On balance, I think Biden should win easily – but I’ll guess we’ll find out. Today, four years on, I’m sitting at my desk at home, with CNN on in the background. Give it a few hours, and we should know if it’s to celebrate or commiserate.

The Bond of my youth


The news came yesterday that Sean Connery had died at 90. It was sad news for much of the world, and certainly for me.

Without having to think about it too much, I’d have to say that Sean Connery is my favourite actor of all time – as much for the man he was as the movies he made.

I grew up on the James Bond movies, and Sean Connery was always the best of them. He became a bit of a style icon for me because I wanted to be just like him. He even had the sort of handsomeness that appealed to me, a heterosexual male – hard-edged, rather than pretty.

Connery had an aura that went beyond his screen performances, though in some ways 007 epitomised a lot of that. He combined great masculinity with wit and charm. He was capable and confident and never flustered. It was the model of a man I aspired to be.

James Bond appeals to many men, especially when they’re at that impressionable age. I only ever felt that myself with Connery, though. It was the man that drew me. There seemed an edge of danger to him, even violence, cloaked within an ever-stylish and attractive exterior. It made him interesting and hinted at an inner-substance – the real man playing a part on the screen, but knowingly.

On-screen he was always charismatic, off-screen he could be gruff and gave the impression that he didn’t much care what anyone thought of him. He had his own mind and his own views and went his own way. In the old parlance, he was his own man, which is what every man (and woman!) should aspire too.

The funny thing is, the day before I downloaded one of his mid-career movies, Outland, which I think is pretty underrated. Then I heard that he had passed away and it felt poignant.

Year by year, a bit more of what I knew is chipped away.