Exalting in experience


As I don’t really have a close family, I don’t get gifts for my birthday, and there are no family get-together’s as there were in the old days. The only birthday present I reliably get is from Donna because she’s a birthday head. At my age, I’m not over-fussed about getting presents, and experiences mean much more to me – they’re the things that stay with you long after conventional gifts wear out or fade away.

This year the gift I got from was an experience.

We met in North Melbourne Thursday night, just around the corner from where I lived about 13 years ago. She was caught in traffic, and so I sat in the restaurant chatting to the middle-aged waiter while I waited.

It was an Italian restaurant I’d been to before, but my memory tantalised – I couldn’t remember when it was or who I ate with. How long have you been here? I asked him. Fourteen years, he said. I figured I was there last about 10 years ago, though perhaps it was before that. It annoyed me that I couldn’t remember. Almost certainly, I was there with a woman.

I was drinking a Vermouth Spritz when Donna arrived. It’s her birthday next week, and so we exchanged cards. Both of us write more than the conventional birthday wish, and so we each took the time to read the birthday prognostications of the other. We had a share plate for entree then pasta for main. We got out of there about 8.20, later than we should have – dessert came late.

Guided by the GPS, we made our way to the next stage of our journey, a mystery location in West Melbourne. We were due at 8.30, but the GPS played silly buggers and took us somewhere different. By the time we made it, we were about 6-7 minutes late.

We were ushered into a nondescript building in the industrial backstreets off Dynon Road. We were led upstairs by an usher who urged us to remain quiet. We could hear the music coming closer, the graceful strings of violin and cello.

We were made to pause at the top of the stairs, pending a break in the performance. We looked across the crowd to a dais lit by electronic candles on which a string quartet was playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. This was Donna’s gift to me.

As a movement ended, the crowd applauded, and we were led to our seats just off to the side of the stage. The music began again. Autumn. There was something exalted about it as if it came from a different plane. We were in a broad space – a reception centre normally – with the rustic feel of a country barn. Exposed wooden beams crisscrossed the ceiling, lit by the shimmering light of the candles. The quartet – all of them young, elegantly dressed Asian women played the evocative music of Vivaldi.

Everyone knows the Four Seasons, even if they don’t know they know it. It has become a part of popular culture, heard everywhere from commercials to soundtracks. All of it is memorable.

In the breaks between movements, the cello player would describe the scene to us, whether it be Autumn, Winter, Spring or Summer. A picture was sketched for you, which was then painted in by the music. You see it and feel it.

I fell to wondering about Vivaldi as I listened. I imagined him in his long-ago time composing the piece, a time before anyone had yet heard it. I wondered how he conjured the notes out of thin air and then imagined him playing on his violin, experimenting with it, wondering where it should go next. Then, one day, it as done – and into the world, it went, and somewhere, some time, the first performance of it – lauded, I imagine, and acclaimed. The beginning of it, and here we were, in the upstairs of a remote building in faraway Melbourne in a time much distant and Vivaldi long gone.

So much of the piece is vibrant and familiar, and in a setting like that, it etches itself across your memory. My favourite part is Winter, perhaps the moodiest movement of the concerto. It insinuates itself into your mind. I was sitting there on a hard dining chair, surrounded by people from all walks of life silently beholding in the most unlikely of venues, the candles flickering and the musicians bent to their instruments.

It felt like life, tenderness and beauty and unfettered mystery and infinite possibility. This has been true always. It’s what inspired Vivaldi and draws us an audience to him and to others. It’s there now, but we only come to sense it occasionally, the sublime.

It was a great gift and a memory that will abide – even, in years to come, when we laugh about getting lost. These are the things you live for.

The man of my dreams


I had this dream not last night, but the night before, that left me mildly disturbed when I woke.

The details of the dream mean little. Basically, I was on my way to a wedding, somehow got dunked in the surf, and then met an attractive blonde woman in a bikini I utterly charmed. What seemed meaningful was the man I appeared to be in the dream.

He was me; I was him…but he was an optimised version of me. He was handsome and witty and very charming. He was fit and tanned and well-groomed, even after taking a dunk. He was supremely confident and in control, and people clamoured to him. He had a great presence, and everyone loved him for being a fun guy and a good man.

He had all the attributes I possess, but dialled up to the max, as if I had spent a month being prepared to become this person – primped and preened, tailored and groomed, made fit and healthy, and all my worries disposed of.

If I was ever that man, then we parted company about 20 years ago. I still have many of those qualities, but the years have diluted them. I was a 10 on every measure in the dream, but in life now, most have been dialled back to about 6, and my pre-eminent quality – self-possession – is now a fragile thing.

Still, I could see myself in him, especially in his wit. After he got bowled over in the surf, he absolutely wowed the woman who came to his assistance – witty and smart and very alluring. It was my style of wit, words I could easily have spoken – but without the force or confidence of the man in the dream. It was no wonder the woman fell for him – I thought him a rum fellow myself.

What disturbed me is that the dream seemed to taunt me: this is what you could have been. It felt as if it was rubbing my face into my middling existence. It was a pointed finger – how did you manage to lose this possibility?

I choose to believe that man is in me now – not lost, but dormant. That’s how I turned it in my mind. Not as something that might have been, but something that still could be. That was my challenge. Be the man in your own dreams.

It’s my birthday today, and it seems an apt occasion to set myself. If not now, then when?

Tawdry times, shameful acts


It’s been a tawdry few weeks in Federal politics, which is not new, except that it’s now reached a new low.

It all started a few weeks ago when an ex-Lib staffer came forward to reveal that a few years back, she’d been raped in a minister’s office after hours by a senior adviser. At the time, it was effectively hushed up, with few of the proper protocols followed, and the victim basically told they had a choice between keeping their job and making a police report. The alleged perpetrator was fired (with references!) – not because he had raped a colleague, but because he had contravened security protocols.

In the days after, as the PM and various ministers tried to obfuscate and deflect, more women came forward to report that they also had been raped or sexually harassed in parliamentary offices, all of them on the Lib side of the chamber. To make it worse, the alleged perpetrator in several cases was the same man as in the original report. Basically, he got away with it scot-free because various ministers failed to take responsibility and do the right thing.

It’s obvious, and hardly a surprise, that their first priority was the political – containing and managing any potential fall-out. Any consideration of the victim’s welfare came a distant second.

Then, over the weekend, another allegation came to light – the most serious and shocking of all.

It was alleged that a current federal minister had anally raped a 16-year-old girl back in 1988. The alleged victim had gone to the NSW police more recently to report it after harbouring the pain for many years since. All of it was scrupulously documented, including contemporaneous diaries, much of which has now been shared with police, the prime minister, and selected politicians from all sides.

By all reports, the victim was a precociously talented girl with great things ahead of her. Her friends say that she was an extraordinary woman, but she couldn’t get over the trauma of her rape. She tried to fight back by bringing these allegations to the police’s attention, but it seemed too much for her in the end. Last year she took her own life. This is the awful outcome of a heinous act – a life blighted by the cruelty of another, her days haunted by what had occurred on that day in 1988. Ultimately, her promise never blossomed, and her life cut short. If these allegations are to be believed, then really what we’re looking at is a charge of rape and, effectively, long-delayed manslaughter.

In a bitter twist, her death means that the police can no longer investigate it. It seems a curious outcome – surely, criminal acts should be fully investigated whether the victim is alive or dead? The justification is that cases of this type rely almost entirely on the testimony of the victim. Without her, the investigation fails.

That’s what the government is counting on. Everyone knows, or think they know, which of the cabinet ministers allegedly committed this crime. He has not been named publicly, though it seems inevitable that he will be. In the meantime, the government and the PM do as they always do – they deflect and deny, and they obfuscate. Once more, political expediency comes first.

It’s a shocking situation and a shocking story. It’s been a shocking few weeks of ugly revelations that have brought politics in general, and the government, and – it has to be said – men in general, into disrepute.

We now have a situation where a federal minister is sitting in parliament, representing us, who is an alleged rapist. How that can be allowed to continue is beyond my understanding. Until he’s named, every male minister is impugned. I would think it represents a security risk, at least, never mind the moral impropriety. Even if completely innocent of these charges, he should stand aside, or made to stand aside, until these allegations are investigated.

I think it must come to that, but the government is doing everything it can to forestall such a reckoning. When asked about it, they say it’s a matter for the police, knowing full well the police can do nothing. In their corrupted mentality, that’s the end of it – though perhaps we should be reassured when the PM tells us the suspect has denied it all?

Many are calling for a coronial inquiry, and that seems the fitting step. As they say, justice must be seen to be done. This can’t be brushed under the carpet. We can’t have an elected official in high office guilty of such a terrible crime – the very thought that we can exposes the moral bankruptcy of this government. Guilty or innocent, it can’t be left unresolved.

I don’t know if the government understand the damage they do by refusing to acknowledge and act. It’s no surprise to me, though it may be too many others, that this government doesn’t really care about you and me. It certainly doesn’t care about women, regardless of the occasional motherhood statement they come out with. It’s all about power, and I think that’s being exposed.

Power is at the heart of these crimes themselves. Domination is much a part of rape as sex is. The stories we hear of now are just the tip of the iceberg. By all reports, it appears there’s a particularly toxic culture in parliament that has allowed for these crimes to secure and go unpunished for so long. It’s also clear that what we read and hear of now is common in the world outside of parliament. It seems that many, if not most women, had a story of sexual abuse or harassment to tell.

This is an appalling situation, but something positive must come out of this if we do it right. We know the Libs don’t want a bar of it because they’re being burnt. I suspect Labor are wary, fearing the fire might catch. I don’t think this will go away, though, not this time.

I sense a fury and resolve in the people I speak to, particularly women. Publicly, it’s the women who are taking this fight up to the government – the female journalists of the gallery (who are a great lot and much more talented than their male counterparts), and women across the parliament – Wong, Plibersek, and Hanson-Young.

I’m ashamed, as so often I am these days. These are wicked, poisonous crimes and should never happen, but when they do, we have to be better than this.

The official version


Referring back to yesterday’s post, back at the time I started on a piece I never finished describing the event of my uncle’s death.

It’s been sitting on my computer’s hard drive all these years, and I thought maybe now is opportune to bring it out of the dark. I wrote it while it was still fresh in me – I have the feeling I actually wrote some of it on the plane, as is described, and that I may have made notes along the way. Here it is. It’s a bit rough around the edges because I abandoned it before giving it a polish, and there are gaps in it for the same reason. And I was not the writer then that I am now, though it surprising how the themes that recure to me haven’t changed: we all have our themes. Read it, or not.

A Death in the Family (2003)

The plane headed to the Sunshine Coast. As we took off, I looked at my fellow travellers. Few were under fifty. Most were grey-haired, retirees heading for the sun, or executives looking for a break. Nearby sat a couple in their sixties, he in suit and tie, his wife dressed up in her Sunday best, reminders of another era when people dressed up to travel. Across the aisle, sat a man about 60 in stylishly casual Lacoste gear. He read the Financial Review, and later, he opened a satchel and made notes: an executive not yet in holiday mood. Besides me, there sat a couple in their fifties, silver-haired and handsome, speaking in low tones and reading their magazines.

And then there was me. I was not off on an escapade to the sun. I knew that. I had felt rushed, cramming my travel arrangements into a few short hours until I was here, on my way. On the plane, I relaxed, my work was done for the moment, but I felt out of sync. I looked around in between reading my own magazine. I could not fail to notice the difference between myself and everyone else that travelled. I was younger by 10 years at least. Unlike the generation of people around me who had dressed for the holiday in a variety of fashionable and conservative clothes, I was in jeans. I wore red shoes. I was different, though. I was not on holiday. I was going to bury someone.

As we travelled through the air, I read. Later I too got out a pad and a pencil and began to make notes. I should have been at work. As we travelled through the air, the meeting I had organised should have been sitting. Like the man across from me, I had yet to divorce my life at home from the place I was heading for. In an hour or so, the plane would land, and a different reality take hold. Now though, high above the land, I was in a kind of limbo, a no mans land. I put my pencil down – I had been doodling. I closed my eyes, feeling tired, thinking about these things and wondering what would come.

Then we landed. We descended, low over the ocean, it seemed, the clouds low and all around us like fog. Then the plane bumped down on the wet tarmac. Outside, the rain fell. What I could see as I waited to alight was distant hills, green and shrouded in mist. Then I walked from the plane and into the terminal. There waiting for me was my father and my aunt. I felt like smiling.

The world changed today. That’s how I was going to begin this piece. It’s too grandiose, though, too pompous even, too impersonal. Still, it’s true. Each person is a world unto themselves. A unique world like no other. All these millions, billions, of worlds combine to create the great world we are all part of. It changes every day. It is added to, subtracted from, it never remains still. Such is life.

So it is, but for all those infinite changes, it becomes much more to us when one of those small worlds subtracted belongs to us. In the big scheme, it matters little perhaps, in our world though it is great.

Such thoughts flow through me in the days following. We – my father, Aunt, and I – attend to the necessary preparations, from the funeral to the wake. Speeches are written, ministers spoken to, beer and wine bought by the dozen. In between, we have lunch on rainy days at great hotels by the water. One night we meet with more family for a meal at a good restaurant where my father and I clash, as we ever have. In the evenings, we sit in my Aunt’s small courtyard with a cool beer and chat. Throughout it all and in the midst of this unreal time before the funeral, we remember.

There’s no telling what you will remember. Memories are unpredictable, random. Small things are sometimes recalled while great things overlooked. It’s different 

Among the memories recalled, I have my own. I remember once years before, when I was in my early twenties, how he described a pub in Cremorne as a ‘cunt farm’. It had taken me aback at the time and later led to some ribald smiles with a friend. This was his recommendation to us, the place we should go to, coming as it was from the harsh persona he occasionally adopted. There was a smile in his words, despite his crudity; they were not evidence of a crass mind, but rather, I think, an effort to connect with the nephew a generation younger than him, the nephew he loved. And perhaps in his words, there was a desire for the world he imagined I lived in – beer, women, good times. 

As if to counter-balance that memory, I recalled other moments. There is a photo of him asleep on the floor beside his infant son also asleep. He always loved children, and of all the things he wished for in life, they were always uppermost. That explained his love for me initially. I remember how I was the bartender on the night of his 21st birthday party at his parents home. I’m about eight, I think. I felt so chuffed to be given the responsibility and proud as all his long-haired friends were all so good to me, laughing and joking treating me, I thought, like almost an adult. Later my uncle married, and then once more before finally he had the children he dreamed of. 

From there, the story changes, a few years of stable suburban life, a shift from Sydney to Brisbane, and then separation and divorce. Far away in Melbourne, I heard all of this distantly, rarely seeing or speaking to him but for family events. I had known somehow that the divorce had been acrimonious, that, according to some, his ex-wife had turned the children against him. Living with my aunt, he was finally diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him, no surprise after years of smoking and drinking. The end had come as it almost always does with cancer, ugly and undignified. 

Though I had my memories, I was at one remove. He was my uncle, not my brother. I had grown up with him distantly in my life rather than as a member of the household. I sat silently then as my father and my aunt spoke of their memories. I listened curiously to what I heard, watching as closely as I listened. This was something I rarely experienced. 

My father is not an ordinary person. I suppose many sons might say the same thing about their own dad with as much certainty. Perhaps that is how we all view our fathers. Still, I believe it to be true.

There has always been something intimidating about my father. I saw it myself but experienced it differently from how other people did. It was not some effect of physical being – he was of average height only, though always accounted as being handsome. It did not come by way of great charm or wit – he could get by but was no more accomplished than most intelligent people. In his presence, there was some hint of that mind that went deep, that intelligence that had allowed him to exploit his fundamental gifts. If anything, his presence was the product of all that and the unerring sense of self that left him with.

Travelling in with him from the airport, I had come to silently articulate the essence of his person: his will. More than any other person I had ever met, he was defined by his sheer will to win, succeed, and persist. It had defined much of my relationship with him. Our conversations over the years peppered with his exhortations of will and intent. As much as anything, I had come to know him by these things and had absorbed many of his lessons – though with a sceptical eye. The man the world saw, the monolith, was built upon this unwavering will. I had lived close to it and known it as a son does, with both love and a sense of rebellion. As he had climbed the corporate ladder year after year, others had received it differently. 

In the car with him and in the days after, while we waited to bury his brother, I had sensed something different in my father. Had that famous will wavered a little? Is that what I had sensed? No, not really – the will remained, it was not so easily dismissed. What I had sensed, though, was doubt. Grief and doubt. The natural grief of a man who has come to bury his baby brother; and doubt, as if for the first time he had questioned his actions, his feelings and attitude to the same brother now departed. 

Doubtless, it was natural, but it was new to me. I don’t think I had ever seen my father doubt anything. I don’t know if he ever considered the possibility – he was different from other fathers, other men. In those days, he seemed morose and quiet, his emotions checked, but barely at times. 

In many ways, he was as he ever was, industrious and active, making sure all the preparations for the funeral went to plan. His eyes had the same intelligence, his movements the same direct expression of his will. It was when he stopped, he changed. In those moments, he appeared weathered. The hard outer shell had been breached, and exposed was the softer stone beneath, unprotected now, raw to the elements, visible to the eye. Somewhere deeper inside him was that hardcore that drove him forward, the essential him, that part of him that would forever lead him on – but for now, it came second.

We piled into separate cars and started the short drive to the funeral parlour. It had been intended that we drive in convoy so that the out of towners amongst us not get lost. The inevitable occurred, though, when the car in front of us got the green light we missed. We sat in the car, and as the light changed back from red to green, we edged forward, unsure of the way and in our collective mind trying to piece together the fragmentary directions we had received. Too late, we realised, just as we passed it, that the turn off we needed was on our left. We drove on, unable to turn around on the motorway until we reached the next exit. Returning to the motorway we turned right and, after a few turns, found ourselves at the funeral parlour. We were late. Outside, a crowd gathered, murmuring to each other and waiting to be called in. My father and my aunt stood amongst them, their eyes to the road. At our arrival, the word was given: we could enter.

The chapel was modern, though, in truth, I have little experience of these places. It had a high vaulted ceiling, like a modernist church, bland brown brick walls and a pew and benches constructed from a polished honey-coloured wood. Behind the pew, there was the coffin resting on a metal stand.

The crowd filtered in. Feet scuffed the hard floor. The soft murmur reverberated off the brick walls and beneath the high ceiling. We, the family, sat in the first row. And the service began.

It began conventionally, with a man who had never met my uncle standing before us extolling his many virtues. He had been well briefed. I listened, interested but unmoved. They were words unconnected at that moment with the man I had known. They described a life in its bare facts, interspersed with the odd anecdote. Behind him, as he spoke, a video screen displayed slides from my uncle’s life, one after the other. My eyes were drawn to this and stayed there. I heard the words, but the stories I felt were in the photos and memories inspired by them. With a jolt, I saw myself in several of them. In one, I was young, tall and gangly, innocent in another more knowing. Some of the words spoken registered to me then: he had loved his family. Yes, that was true. It was more than conventional words, but the truth. He had loved me, truly, had been proud of me, I had heard, and that struck me. I felt emotion swell in me until I felt I would choke with it. For all I had thought of him, I knew he had been pure in this: he had loved without qualification.

My father stood then to give the eulogy. He stood for a moment without speaking. This was characteristic of him: he was a man who chose his words carefully. It was more than that, though. As I watched, I saw as he tried to marshall his emotions. He looked down at his notes and then up at us. His eyes were wide open. He began to speak.

He spoke of growing up, of how Paul, his brother, had come late into the family. He described Paul as a child – one of the pictures had shown him them, a smiling, good looking boy with dark curly hair. Though my father didn’t mention it my uncle had idolised my father. Coming late into the family he had been a boy still when my father had become a man. He had seen perhaps the charisma and talent in my father that others had spoken off. He grew up wanting to be like my Dad, of using him as the measuring stick he could never reach. He was a different person, soft and gentle, pliant and hopeful.

As my father spoke, he paused a couple of times. Each time it was to compose himself, to stave off the tears that welled in him. Here he stood, eulogising his baby brother, dead before his time. It was when my father came to speak of my uncle’s family that he faltered and then failed. His red-rimmed eyes bled tears. He shook his head, tried to go on, but could not. I’m sorry he muttered and stood down. Silence engulfed the chapel. And as I watched my father, bent under his grief, I felt something break in me.

It is hard to explain exactly what was happening at that moment. I cried for my uncle, but I cried for my father also. I had never seen him like that. Never. Like my uncle, I had always looked up to my father. I admired his strength and control. As a man, I believed in it and tried to emulate it myself. Now, as I watched my father split in two and all inside revealed, I felt as if I was witnessing something fantastic and unknown. And in his breakdown, I felt my own undoing. I cried at his grief. On the one hand, I saw in his tears permission to shed my own; and I cried for him and his sorrow.

The service ended. We stood, and outside the chapel spoke to the visitors like hosts and invited them back to my aunts if they so desired. My tears had dried, but I felt my eyes swollen by them. I was embarrassed, but people were gentle with me and understanding. I was grateful to them.

The mourners piled into the small rear courtyard of my Aunt’s home. Tropical foliage ringed the space, and overhead the sky brooded forebodingly. That was distant though, here and now in that small space the family, the friends, the odd acquaintance gathered all in their best funeral clothes, they talked until the air was full of it, a social babble; occasionally amid it a laugh could be heard: the deed was done. Like most funerals, people who had not seen each other since the last funeral met and exclaimed at the time past. More than once, I was pulled up. Is that really, H? Haven’t you grown? Then with a laugh: the last time I saw you, you were so high, indicating somewhere around my shoulder. I smile and laugh along; for a few moments, I linger agreeably before moving on. I do this throughout the crowd, the unofficial family representative doing the necessary glad-handing. 

My father has recovered, is his familiar self, but even on his best days, this is not his thing. Today with his brother buried, he responds as he meets with the distant family he can remember from his childhood, he recalls shared memories and moments for decades ago, and every so often, he joins in the laughter; occasionally, there is a twinkle in his eye, but there is something still in him. My Aunt is different. She hustles around to make sure everything is ticking over as it should, a drink in her hand. Soon enough, she finds herself recalling old times also. Happily, that leaves me to flit through the crowd filling drinks and sharing their memories. For me, it is easy, but it also a distraction.

As the evening closes in, the crowd thins. Left are about a dozen, family mostly, some of whom have flown up for the occasion. By now, most are seated, a glass of wine in their hand, a gin and tonic, a beer. The conversation is quieter, the reminiscing continues, but now it is mostly about my uncle. I sit watching, silent mostly, listening in to memories I had heard before and others new to me; I have my own memories. Mostly the conversation is fond, though tinged with sadness. Occasionally it becomes more.

It is my father who seems at the centre of this with my Aunt butting in. My fathers’ syntax is familiar to me. I had forgotten, but I remember as he speaks, thinking this is a part of him. This is what I might remember when he is gone. “No, no, no…” he says even if agreeing with you, wresting the conversation back within his control. Looking on, I observe the respect with which he seems to be accorded within the family, and not just for his loss. I think back to the stories I have been told, of how he was the golden-haired boy, even if a bit wild, the prodigy who was always going to go far. It seemed an accepted truth, a destiny foretold and fulfilled, the man in the family who has gone the furthest of anyone.

Then his eyes glisten again. His words come slowly, precisely, but hard as if going by an obstacle. Someone tries to ease his way, but he continues, hastening: this too is familiar. 

The scandal of the day is that none of his children has attended the funeral despite calls and coercion. They are young still and in the grip of their mother, generally agreed to be an ‘evil cow’. She claims they don’t want to come. I doubt that, but even so, I think it’s wrong. They should be there. Their mother should insist. 

Though my father does not say it, it was the thought that his brother had been abandoned and betrayed by his family that had broken him. In a way, it had been an act lower than he could comprehend. I think he saw it as the ultimate insult as if my uncle could see and know how lowly he was regarded. What he looked upon bitterly and sorrowfully I was more sanguine and cynical about. It was disgusting that his children were not there, but I believed that they would come to regret it in years to come.

No-one adds anything. No-one can disagree, but nor do they want to speak of it. Then everyone is gone, shaking hands, kissing cheeks, exchanging consoling words and fond memories. In the dark, the cicadas ring loudly. We sit exhausted in the yard, a bottle open before us, and the conversation goes on into the night. Tomorrow we return to our lives, we go on; for now, it is all about my uncle.

Layers and layers


I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older, or if it’s a condition of my circumstances, or simply the fact that I’ve been around a while now and there’s a lot behind me, but more and more frequently I find myself pausing to recall things from long ago. On occasion, it seems the memories come to me randomly, without seeming cause.

I was reading a book in bed one night recently, and the memory came to me sitting in a bus in Turkey listening to Nick Drake on my iPod as the bus curled between woody hills on the way to Bodrum or Marmaris, one or the other, and it was like I was there again. You can see it, though it’s gone, and remember what you felt at such a time – anticipation, curiosity, a content tinged with melancholy. Surely all this means something?

A few weeks back, I wrote about my uncle. In the lead-up to that, I’d been reminiscing with a friend on the phone. We went to school together, and our journeys since have intertwined, though he lives in Sydney. We share many memories and often prod each other with recollections “hey, do you remember when…”

In that conversation, he recalled my aunties 50th birthday in the early nineties. She lived in Sydney, and the party was held at the plush home of a lifelong friend somewhere in the eastern suburbs. It’s funny the things you remember. I recalled getting my hair cut the afternoon before the party at a barber in Gordon. And I remember wearing an orange Country Road shirt to the party. I had forgotten, but my friend remembered how I gifted my aunt a walking stick for her birthday, as a joke – the jokes on me, these days. I have dim memories of the party itself, though I remember I was drawn to the host’s daughters, one dark and mysterious and vaguely provocative, and the other more conservative and shy.

After I hung up the phone to him, the residue of that memory remained with me and set-off others. There was a particular memory that teased at me, so that I returned to the very early days of this blog, even though the memory pre-dated the start of this by a year. I think I just wanted to go back. It explains why I bother to write these things down. I want them recorded, aware that it’s self-indulgent and that it will mean very little once I’m gone. I’m still here, though, and I want these things captured, and so this blog becomes more than just a record of things happening – the stray thoughts and happenings, the hapless conjectures and ruminations. It becomes an aide-memoire.

It was my uncle I was thinking of. He died not long after his 50th birthday from lung cancer in the early 2000s. He was living with my aunt then, his elder sister, who had moved to the Sunshine Coast when she retired. He was a lovely man, my uncle, and I can still recall his gruff voice on the phone and his oddly emphatic ways. His life, or so it seemed to me, always hoping for more but ending up with very little, living in the shadows.

My father called when my uncle died and demanded that I go up and join them for the funeral. I thought nothing of it as I wanted to be there – I believed that I should be – but it stands out now as odd that he never made the same demand of my sister.

In the days before the funeral, the family gathered. There was a balmy night we all went out for dinner, sitting in the fading light as it became dark. My dad and I clashed. It was not unusual, and not unusually others had to step in. We were like the old bull and the young bull, always. I think he resented that I wouldn’t do what he said, let alone agree with him, thought I was irresponsible and headstrong and probably disrespectful. I resented the fact he thought he could – or should – control me.

The funeral was a sad thing. No more than 20 people turned up, and my uncle’s children weren’t among them. My dad gave a eulogy for his baby brother and, for me, it was a startling moment. Partway through, he broke down. He tried to continue through the tears and then waved it off, unable to go on. I had never seen my father like that – never in tears, never even vulnerable. He was always a man so much in control and hard with it. It was the first time I’d ever seen him unable to complete something, and it came as a revelation.

The wake was back at my aunt’s small unit, in the courtyard behind. Back there, my dad reverted to type, stiff and with something withheld, while I, much more socially adept (thanks to my mum), flitted between the family I didn’t know as if I was the host. The wine flowed, stories were told.

I think it was the next year that my aunt got sick with cancer also. This time I travelled up alone. I was her executor and had power of attorney. I don’t remember much of that visit, but what I remember is driving her tiny car into the car park of the regional hospital she’d been admitted to. It was a warm day, and I delayed a moment sitting in the car to listen to Makybe Diva win the Melbourne Cup (I’d backed it) before entering the hospital to visit my dying aunt.

She died about two months later. By then, she was in Melbourne, in a hospice, close to family. My memories of that are vague – my friend remembered much more. I remember I was in Fiji when we heard she had become critical. By the time I returned, she had passed away. I remember nothing at all about the funeral, nor afterwards. I remember visiting a doctor a few days later and being told I had contracted malaria, and I remember the fevered dreams that had led me to his office.

It’s funny the things you remember, and the things you forget. Is there any rhyme or reason for it? Is there a meaning?

These are scattered memories, but many of these moments are vivid to me. Some might well have been in the last year they’re so fresh. But you look back, and regardless of how vivid, you see them in a different light. These things happened. You were there, and it unfolded, but now you look back, and it’s done, and from these moments, other moments, unimagined at the time, sprung forth. And they too are history, as is everything leading up to this moment, now, as I type these words.

You see it all, the people who have gone, remember what you thought and felt and how you reflect on it now, like refracting mirrors. It must mean something? All this must count for something? How can it not? But then, you know it doesn’t. These are random moments and episodes in a universe of random moments and episodes. They just happen. You know there is no meaning, only that which you give to it all these years after. And when I’m gone…

What is the weight of living life? Each of us carries forward a lifetime of moments. They’re rich and diverse and magical in their variety. We share them, even with people who have gone – how vividly I recall living with my aunt in her Watsons Bay apartment when I was just out of my teens – the sunshine and the harbour and the cold drinks at night and the croissants on a Sunday morning. But it is long since gone, and she dead near 20 years.

Most of this is lost, ultimately. All the stories, all the memories, every poignant moment, each seminal decision, all the hope and fear, all the dreams and possibilities, terminated.

It sounds bleak, but it’s just a statement of fact – or fact as I know it. It feels such a foreign reality, though I suspect we all know it. What I remember is probably quite different from what my father remembers, for example, and I know that I remember different parts to what my friend does. All of it, abruptly, recalls Slaughterhouse-Five in my memory – yes, that is how the synapse zing – but specifically, the wisdom that “All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is.”

I made an oblique reference to that yesterday, but all it proves, really, is that I overthink everything – but it’s true, when you’re like that, you can hardly imagine being any other way, and wanting to. I’m the type to wonder at the fantastic nature of life, of which this is a part. Whether it means anything or not, surely it’s incredible? And that may explain my need to explain it, futile as it is, and record it because I was here.

But then, there is another quote from Slaughterhouse-Five that is more comforting and gives a different perspective:
“…when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist.”

I sit here writing about people who have gone, fully conscious of the weight of it all, and knowing – most likely – that one day I will be gone too, and someone else may write of me in the same way. I’ll be past caring, but at least, I expect, some of my words will live on, and perhaps these words, always exist.

The old school days


By chance, I discovered today that one of my secondary school teachers had died late last year. I’m sure other teachers have passed on since, and the law of averages suggests that one or two of my school mates will also have. The thing is, a lot of them I could hardly remember now, but this teacher – whose name I won’t give – is easily remembered because she was passionate and slightly eccentric and very caring beneath a gruff exterior. She was always Ms to us, and I think school and teaching was her life.

I talked to a friend the other day who told me he’d been to a performance of The Merry Widow over the weekend. We did that at school, I said. Are you sure he responded sceptically? I wasn’t – in fact, I think it was HMS Pinafore I was thinking of – but it brought back memories of the progressive school I had attended, where we would put on musicals and stage ambitious dramas. Seems odd to think now, but I became involved in that.

Like so many things, it’s hard to believe it’s so long ago. It was a private school in the leafy outer suburbs of Melbourne. We lived in Lower Plenty at the time, and I would catch a bus to Eltham every morning, sharing it with the CLC girls, before catching another bus from Eltham to school. It was a modern, progressive school with cool teachers and a mod attitude. It had a broad curriculum, but the focus, it seems to me, was on the arts and physical development, including but not limited to sports.

A lot of that time remains very clear to me. I can close my eyes and see so much and recall so many moments that it feels almost true that time as we suppose it doesn’t exist – everything is always happening, and always will.

In Form 1, as it was called then, there was a competition across the school to create an artistic representation of the new sports and community centre being built on-site. Every class would submit an entry, but first, the class submission had to be selected. I can remember being set the task and sitting there drawing up my entry – a face-on view of a couple of swimmers with the lane rope between them, stylistically represented. I can recall the teacher looking over my shoulder and commenting, pointing at something I’d drawn.

I had a close relationship with that teacher. She strong-willed and smart, and even as a 12-year old I thought her pretty sexy (though, fair to say, I cottoned onto women a couple of years quicker than my contemporaries). I guess I was her favourite too, for reasons I don’t know. I could draw okay, but I wasn’t a great artist. Perhaps it was that I was imaginative and sensitive. And I was a cute kid.

We were given class time to formally prepare the submission. I had a couple of kids assist me. We painted it onto a board about 4-foot square, and, with every other class submission, it was put on display afterwards. Looking back, I can say the execution lacked something, but it was one of the more interesting designs. Come the end of the year, the whole school gathered and sitting on the lawns, the principal announced the winners. To my great shock, my entry came third, and I can still remember the light-headed feeling I had as I stood and marched across to collect the prize. As if I was an automaton. My mum was so proud!

I had my first kiss at that school and my first lust, if not love. I can recall being kicked out of a rehearsal for some drama production because I was mucking up. I recall moments on the sporting field kicking the winning goal or crunching someone (though I was undersized back then). And the teachers, some of who I was very fond of, and others I did battle with. I look so innocent when you look at photos of me then, but there was something stubborn in me.

Yes, this was me, age about 12 – school photo

A science teacher saw me as his nemesis somehow – I was smart and would blitz tests and then do poorly with my homework because I couldn’t be arsed. One day I finished a test early, and from my back pocket, took out a fold-out comb and began combing my hair. He hated that.

Then there was the famous encounter with my English teacher when I was about 14. I’m sure I’ve told the story before. We’re studying the Greek plays and having a class discussion. I don’t remember exactly how it plays out, but once I recall the feeling, almost as if my body is taken over by something else – a will of its own. I must have said something he disagreed with, or perhaps it was someone else, and I can feel it in me, let it go, let it go, but even as I’m thinking it, I open my mouth and suggest that there are no wrong answers, surely? Are we supposed to leave here knowing Sophocles backwards – or is the point of this to learn how to think and analyse for ourselves?

It seems a precocious answer, but it’s true, though I may not have put it as succinctly as that. He objected, in any case. Perhaps I put him to shame. Backwards and forwards, we went until he suggested that perhaps if I was so sure of myself, I could take my English classes alone. Of course, that’s what I then did until my attendance was demanded…

An economics teacher I quite liked made a statement one day about how there was a student in his class who had never asked a question, and I knew it was me. I didn’t care, and I made up my mind then that I’d finish the year without asking a question. One on one, we would talk, and I remember him lending me E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful to read.

And the maths in his own world of formulas and equations. I hated maths. One day, bored with it all, I packed up my stuff while he was writing on the blackboard and climbed out the window next to me, and walked home.

If there was any pattern then, I was rebellious and refused to be constrained or told what to do or how to think. I was a good kid, polite and well mannered and kind, but I had this thing. I was one of the smart kids, but I was also a poor student. I would wag school occasionally and skip classes and was more likely to be found kicking a football around somewhere than studying in our study periods.

Lot’s of other stories.

As it happens, there’s a school reunion this year. I’ve never been to one. Never been much interested and will likely skip this one, too. I’m curious also to see some of my old friends from school. I would bump into the odd one or two once upon a time, but I reckon it’s been 15 years since I last saw anyone from those days.

The jab


Been a busy week, though nothing special has happened. Just constant work and things to deal with. Next week will be busier, though for different reasons – it’s my birthday, but also Cheeseboy’s and Donna not long after. Few things scheduled already. And work.

The expected good news is that come Saturday, we’ll be back to what they call Covid normal conditions. Got to do all the sensible things still, but with an easing of some restrictions, including wearing masks. It’s not definite yet, but I’d put my money on it. I look forward to it.

This week, the vaccination program finally commenced in Australia, though in a small way. It’s a relief that it’s happening at last. Frontline workers and the elderly are being vaccinated first, as it should be, and some political leaders. It’ll take a while until it gets any real momentum and begins to make a real difference, but we can look forward to a time in the next few months when we can feel a bit safer about our health.

I fall into the 2A vaccination category. I think that means, roughly, that I’ll be due for my jab in May – though I’m tipping June is more likely given the pace of the roll-out. I can wait until then and have no qualms about taking it. Anti-vaxxers, in general, sort of confuse me as I think the case for vaccines generally is so obvious. Or, put another way, scientific.

That’s been one of the features throughout the pandemic – the battle between science and paranoia, leadership and populism, rationality and stupidity, not to mention the difference between the majority of us who have a sense of community – that is, look out for and sacrifice for each other – and those purely selfish.

I was surprised on Friday to find that JV, an intelligent, educated, thoroughly decent human being, was a sceptic about the vaccine and was considering opting out on the basis that he would be safe regardless once herd immunity was achieved.

He doesn’t doubt the efficacy of the vaccine, but he’s worried about the side effects. You can vaguely understand that, but of course, there are over 200 million people who have taken the vaccine now dating back to December. On top of that, the delay in getting the vaccine released here was because it was being tested before being approved for use by the TGA. They’re the medical professionals and scientists I choose to trust – though I guess JV will be vindicated if every vaccinated person turns into a zombie in six months.

I think it’s selfish to let everyone else carry the risk – minimal as it is. It’s a part of my make-up that I take my responsibility as a citizen, and member of the community, seriously. The effectiveness of this is directly correlated to how much of the community is vaccinated. It can be virtually eradicated here if we all pull together – but that’s weakened with every person who chooses to opt-out.

I’ve felt safe throughout the pandemic. I’m confident that I would remain safe regardless, but that’s not the point. And a practical level, I feel sure that vaccination certificates or passports will come into play at some point, and fair enough. I think JV will have to deal with that.

So it is


I caught up for a long night of drinking on Friday with Cheeseboy and JV.

One of the first things discussed with JV is what was happening with the role I’d applied for at his work. They’d sent me an email midweek saying they’d be in touch by the end of the week, but I’d heard nothing. If you remember, I was one of the final two contenders. JV told me he’d spoken to the hiring manager during the week and been told they were going with the other candidate. They liked me plenty, but they thought I might get bored in the role – another case of being perceived as overqualified for the role.

There’s a possibility that another, more senior role, may become vacant which they’ll consider me for.

None of this is official and anything could happen still, but I’ll take this at face value.

Earlier in the day, I’d pulled the pin on a long-running project we couldn’t get over the line. The project had been on the books for 6 months, but progress had been marred by the vendor’s incompetence, issues with Facebook, and now, a looming black-out period. Underpinning all this was a general lack of faith or trust that the vendor could deliver and support a viable application.

I’ve had qualms for months but pressed on knowing that this was a priority for the business. It’s been an uncomfortable position. There was never a strong buy-in by those who would use the application, who were often unhelpful, and shared a lack of confidence in the vendor. For the last couple of months, I’ve had to push through that, but I had to make a call on Friday.

It’s not easy to terminate a project you’ve invested so much time and effort into, even if it’s unpopular. Often it’s the wisest thing you can do, however, because to deploy something you don’t believe in is asking for trouble.

I had to call up the big manager and explain the situation. I presented the facts to him, and he agreed we couldn’t go on. He sounded very disappointed, and I felt full of regret. I hung up the phone thinking it was the right call but wondering if there was anything I could have done to save it. It felt like a failure – this is the first time I’ve ever done this.

While I was on the phone with him, he asked how I was and reported that they were proceeding with what he called ‘option two’. He’d spoken to HR and the upshot – I believe – is that my role will be re-classified, and extra dollars will come my way as a result. That will be welcome, though I doubt it’ll be the full whack I’m hoping for come the next financial year.

Throughout all of this, I began to wonder if I had the wrong end of things. I don’t know why or how, but despite my disappointment at the failed project, or because of it, perhaps, I felt energised. I wanted to do more. Above all, I wanted to extend my brain cells. One of the things I miss is the opportunity to be creative. It’s something that comes easily to me and has been very beneficial in my career for many years.

These days, my role seems more to manage than to create things. I think it’s that lack of creative opportunity that has left me feeling a bit useless. Creativity is really my strong point – the ability to imagine how things connect and to put together the framework by which a little is leveraged into a lot. I felt as if the time was right for me to pitch those ideas again.

Work has little idea of this aspect of me because they’ve barely bothered to look. I can die far more than what they ask of me, and perhaps that’s the answer – to do more rather than less.

This impulse coincided with a return of my writing. I’ve barely been able to write for months. I’ve felt uninspired and unmotivated. Generally, I’ve been too flat to make an effort, and when I did, it was a grind. Then, in a hurry, it came back to me Thursday night as I lay in bed. I’d turned the light off to sleep, but as I lay there, fragments of the story I’m working on came to mind, where I embellished it lying the dark.

This is not the first time this has happened, and I know now that the trick is to put it on paper while you have it, for by morning, it will be gone. Three times then, I switched on the lamp beside my bed and scribbled down the words in my head. I felt illuminated and ultimately grateful.

By now, I know this is how it works for me. I go through writing seasons. It’s hard, and then it becomes easy, without any real understanding of why. I’m barren of ideas, even belief, and then I become fertile again without warning. So it is. So everything is.

Facebook 1, Govt 0


It’s been a big news week in Oz. The big news yesterday came after Facebook disabled the posting of content from any Australian news sites and wiped clean media pages hosted on their platform. It was a belligerent act and indiscriminate at first glance, but I’m not nearly as surprised as the public appears to be. Folks, Facebook isn’t a public service – it’s a ruthless business. It’s not here for the common good – its motives are power and profit. Why should you expect better from it?

This action by Facebook was in response to proposed legislation that meant that Facebook would have to pay for every bit of content posted there belonging to a news provider. It’s a controversial and heavy-handed policy that seeks to compensate news providers for their IP shared online. It makes some sense when it comes to Google, who were the other organisation targeted. It makes less sense when it comes to Facebook.

As the fall-out from yesterday’s actions show, Facebook is an integral part of the Australian media landscape, like it or not. God knows how many take their primary news from social media – too many – but in removing this, many misinformed Australians will now also be ignorant. (Not me – I take my news from the source). More starkly, the news organisations that are meant to benefit from this legislation rely on Facebook to promote and publicise their content and drive traffic to their sites. Why else does every news site I’ve set eyes on have a post to Facebook button on their pages?

This is the hypocrisy of this legislation, which Facebook has rejected – they’re being asked to pay for something that these media organisations freely use to share their content. The government said you’ll have to pay for this content from here on in and Facebook has turned around and basically said fuck you, and pre-emptively blocked that content. For the government to then turn around and basically say hang on a sec is pretty stupid because Facebook is only reacting to the government’s threat.

You can hardly blame them. They don’t care about the average Aussie punter. By world standards, we’re a small market, and to agree to such legislation would be a damaging precedent. They can’t afford to agree to it.

There was predictable uproar yesterday and all sorts of hyperbole about how Facebook was a dictator, and this was a threat to democracy, and so on. Let me make it clear, I’m no supporter of Facebook. I think they’re a dangerous and arrogant organisation who seek to manipulate, all the while data mining from the people who use it for their own dastardly, greedy ends. They need to be regulated, but I suspect that’s a bigger job than little ol’ Australia can manage by itself.

This is dumb legislation and its backfired on the government. He deserves to as well because the whole purpose of it was to help out its media mates – News Corp particularly. It’s grubby work done by a grubby government and characteristically slapdash – but we’ll come to that.

The outrage yesterday would have been less but for the fact that many harmless, public service and charity oriented organisations were affected by this blocking. Facebook has admitted that some of that was in error and have reinstated some sites. But, let’s be fair, the legislation as drawn up by the government is so broad that what constitutes a ‘news’ site that it’s no wonder that Facebook took a cautious view of it: if in doubt, block it.

I don’t know what upsets me more about this government, the brazen corruption or the effortless incompetence. We know everything they do is political and as part of that they’ll look after their mates – but if you’re going to do it, do it with some finesses and intelligence. Not this government.

Unfortunately, most of the news sites affected in this imbroglio won’t hold the government to account – why would they? I can live without them, to be honest. Caught up in this, though, are the smaller, independent news services which are all that’s left investigating the government’s sharp practices. Many of them run on a shoestring and rely on every media channel to get their message across and support.

Interesting to see how this plays out. Initially, I thought the government would have to back down and modify its demands. But now, this threatens to become a test case, regardless of its merits. The world is watching as Australia takes on Facebook.

If the government was fair dinkum, they’d ditch this legislation and go at it the old-fashioned way, through taxation. I know it’s bloody tricky, yada, yada, yada, but so is this, and taxation, at least, would be fair and would benefit the broader Australian taxpayer, not the media moguls. And, Facebook is due to pay more tax – and Google too.

Won’t happen. What happens will be interesting to see, but I can’t see Zuckerberg backing down in any substantive way.

Old newspapers


I’m one of those people who, back in the day, would clip articles out of newspapers and magazines. Often they’d be no more than interesting sounding recipes, but equally, I’d cut out memorable articles about sport or politics, culture and general commentary.

The result of this was that over the years, I accumulated boxes of these clippings. As a rule, it’s not much good if they’re in a box where no-one can read them and, besides, they take up space. Over the last few years, I’ve periodically reviewed what’s in the box. If it’s interesting, I’ll digitise it and discard the original. If it’s no longer of interest – and sometimes the original intent seems quaint, or the content no longer relevant – then I’ll get rid of it.

Before starting work today, I plucked a plastic bag of these articles from under my desk and began to go through them on impulse. Mostly they were recipes, and if the recipe was a good one, I’d search for a digital version to copy. If I couldn’t, I kept the hard copy and added to the pile of recipes in the kitchen to work through.

I turned over a page of recipes to check what was on the other side at one stage. This was from The Age, when it was still a broadsheet – in other words, when it was still a decent newspaper (it was better than that for a long time, and was a great newspaper at one stage).

It was a reminder of how things have changed. This was from 1998, and what I saw was a detailed, in-depth coverage. As I continued through the clippings, that was the pattern I observed in the incidental pieces. I’m not sure how quite to explain it. I guess I would say it was an unhurried coverage.

Obviously, the purpose was to provide a well-rounded and informed description of the events and the facts attached to them. There was nothing sensationalist, as so often is the case today, and none of the breathless quality you get in most newspapers in contemporary Australia. The prose was much richer, also.

It got me thinking. It’s not as if I’d forgotten how good our newspapers once were. What I remembered is how it made me feel. You took it for granted to a large degree – why expect anything less? Reading back, there’s a sense of safety knowing that it’s completely credible. And at the time, there was security knowing that you would be well informed – and informed with style and intelligence.

It’s sad how things have changed, but it seems the case across much of the world. There are still great newspapers, but I suspect the best now is not as good as they were once. This applies to most media these days, which is good only for reporting on sport. In the case of The Age, it’s now hopeless. I subscribe to the NYT internationally and will read the odd article from The Saturday Paper locally.

One pleasant reminder was happening upon a couple of old columns by Mark Dapin – I used to love his stuff, but he doesn’t write for newspapers anymore. He’s graduated to books, and good on him.