Finding another horse


I’m home today. Generally being run down means I get a bunch of small ailments. The last couple of days it’s been a chest cold that has flared up. I’m very tired too, and actually visited the Doc the other night where I discovered my blood pressure had shot through the roof. I think it’s time to take care of myself better. Foremost is the need for a decent break, both mental and physical. I just need to properly detox and I’ll think I’ll be right. The good news is that I’ve had a three-week break in April approved, so not long to go.

What would be very useful to my good health is a decline in job-related stress. One way or another I can see a change coming.

I set myself last Friday to make a call on my future at work. On Friday I met with the GM to get some clarity about my role going forward and to make a claim for more money. I wasn’t going to make demands or engage in a debate. I simply know where I stood so I could make an informed decision.

Nothing too surprising came out of that except, perhaps, that the justification for the work I’ve done over the last 12 months had become shaky. There was no clear path forward for me and certainly no extra dollars. He understood my frustration and vocalised my options for me – stick around and hope things get better or leave for something else. It was pretty clear he was open to that option.

The issue is that the chatbot I’ve been working on is now being seriously challenged by another option being championed by the IT manager – the brother-in-law of a woman working at the company looking to get the business. The rival option is quite different – cost is in the millions, but is a managed service. It seems to me that the GM – a canny political operator – has his money on that horse. It would mean everything I’ve done is pretty well scrapped and – naturally – my role under serious threat.

Let me put this in context. For the last ten months, I’ve been jockeying this horse around the course. It’s been a willful, uncooperative horse for much of that time but gradually I’ve come to tame it – to the point that it’s now running smoothly and getting some very good results. Big wins are close. There are some in the crowd cheering it on and appreciative of the work I’ve done on the horse’s back. There are others who give a cursory clap, but don’t really care – and some actively barracking against it. Their money is another horse. What that they threaten is replacing the horse beneath me, and choosing another (set) of jockeys.

This is indicative of the rival factions at work who do battle over every scrap. The faction backing the application I’m working on now have the support of the Sales department, which has all the clout. They make the money and they dictate much of the policy. After being disinterested ten months ago they’re now gung-ho. I raised this with the GM and he was pretty well dismissive of the possibility.

None of this helps me understand where I stand, except that it’s in a volatile position.

Rather than opting to hand in my notice, which was my initial thought, I made the decision to hang around until the end of the month before going on leave. Things are shifting and potentially the picture would become clearer as April came near, or so I figured. At the same time, I can begin the search for another role with the plan to properly get into it when my leave comes along. Ideally, I’d go on holiday and not come back.

I’m actually feeling reasonably secure despite the circumstances. I met with a representative of Sales on Monday who floated the notion of coming to work for them. There were plenty of opportunities she said, and you’re well looked after. I hate Sales, but I can appreciate that their harder edge means things get done and that I would be empowered as I’m not in Ops. And, naturally, I’d walk in the door with $20K extra in my pocket regardless of job, and likely more. So, that’s a stand-by.

Preferably I would leave the company altogether. The prime opportunity is with the chatbot vendor. They like me, and they need me too, whether they know it or not. The GM made comments that reflected on the engagement model used by the existing vendor and the slow cycle times – which basically comes down to being without consultants to guide and assist.

I’ve got someone else sussing out recruiters for me, and I’ll be making calls today.

Best case scenario come my break I’ll have time to properly relax on a real holiday knowing I’ve got something far better to go to.

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Lost voices


In the last week two giant names in Australian journalism have passed away.

The first of these was Mike Willesee, possibly the finest interviewer of the last fifty years. Back in a time when political interviewing was an artform (a time, sadly, long past) Willesee was king. He would appear every night on our TV screens, mostly on A Current Affair (when it wasn’t a tabloid program), probing and interrogating a range of politicians and hucksters and very often bringing them undone. He was highly intelligent and very well researched and had a composed, patient, insistent manner. When he was on your tail you knew it you were in trouble – most famously John Hewson, caught out ahead of the ’93 election when questioned about the GST on a cake.

Growing up dad would watch the program every night, and over time so did I. Truth mattered then and our officials were held to account daily. I don’t think that’s been the case in Australia since Willesee’s successor, Jana Wendt. I think there’s a distinct connection between the decline in journalistic rigour and the knowledge and active engagement of the electorate, and democracy is the loser.

The other to have died, just yesterday, was Les Carlyon. Off the top of my head I can’t think of another Australian journalist anywhere near as good a pure writer than him. Everything he wrote was evocative. I read a lot of his stuff over the years – his books on WW1, both wonderful, plus his general journalism, particularly his heartfelt appreciation of great horses – and often times I would pause reading to truly appreciate his prose, and to reflect on the insights he shared with us.

He was a grand writer, but he had a way of seeing that told of his journalistic background. He was editor of The Age at 33, so he had more than just a way with words. That’s what made him so memorable – a wonderful writer paired with insight and sensitivity. I reckon he saw beneath the surfaces and touched upon the human truths which really are the basis of every good story. You read his stuff on the big race days or our abiding affection for the racehorses of folklore and what he understands is the essential meaning of these things, a meaning held deep inside which is something close to love. We want to believe. We want to belong. We want to love and share and celebrate.

His histories have that, too. He was a humane, incisive commentator who valued the uniqueness of experience.

He was 76. Sadly this means there’s no more of his writing to look for, but grateful for what we have.

Remembering my birthday


I woke up this morning and it took me ten minutes to remember it was my birthday. It’s not that I’ve overlooked it. I shared in a birthday celebration Saturday night and there’s been plenty of other reminders along the way. These days though my birthday seems purely a social thing, an excuse to get together and have a drink. The deeper remembrance of what it actually means has passed into history.

I had passing thoughts over the weekend related to that very idea. I recalled a time when my birthday would come along and my mum, ever exuberant, would call me at the first opportunity and sing happy birthday to me. I would raise my eyebrows at it at the time, but it was heart-warming to be reminded I was so loved. I have no kids to wake me with breakfast in bed, and not even a family these days to share a quiet celebratory meal with, either out or a nice home cooked meal by mum. And presents, of course. I don’t even consider presents anymore, though once I would be curious with anticipation of what goodies the day would bring me.*

This is a difference. Birthdays now are single events when once they were part of a continuum that took in years of history and remembrance and family memory.

With all that said, it didn’t take long this morning to be reminded that it was my birthday. I was waiting for the train to arrive when I got my first message. I’ve had about another dozen since wishing me a happy birthday. My offsider, returned from holiday, came in with a bag full of pastries to celebrate; and the women I work with have very kindly cooked up a storm over the weekend for a birthday lunch together today. I’m grateful for that and more touched than I thought I would be. And I’ve just listened to a voicemail in which Donna sings happy birthday to me.

I’m not doing anything tonight but there’s another birthday celebration on Friday night – Donna’s – so it’s a busy and festive time all round.

*To be fair, I got a lovely bottle of Mamre Brook shiraz on Saturday night, and Donna doubtless will have a gift for me. And the combination of cocktails, Mexican food and friends Saturday night was great fun.

Treasures of memory


When I was a kid, still in primary school, I was diagnosed with pneumonia and taken out of school for a lengthy time – my memory tells me three months, though that seems a lot. My left lung collapsed and my mu would give me daily physio, and I was on antibiotics. I’ve had chest problems ever since, but that’s where it started.

That was in grade 6. I was about 10 years old with freckles and floppy, chestnut coloured hair. I remember once we thought I might be cured and I was allowed to go back to school, only to discover that I was still crook and should be home. Someone must have called the school to take me out of it, but we were on the verge of a small excursion to Eltham Lower Park where we were to try orienteering. I was given the choice: go home, or go with the PE teacher and help him set it up.

I think there was probably a part of me that refused to chicken out and go home at the first invitation, so I went with the PE teacher. I had a small, childish idolisation of the PE teacher, who represented much that a young boy would aspire to. As you would expect, he was tall and fit and exuded good health. He was good-looking too and had an easy, friendly nature. What I remember from that day was his kindness. I think he was sympathetic to me and wanted to make sure I had a good time. I wasn’t just some token tag-along. It was his decision to ask me in the first place and he made sure I was included in the fun of the day.

I remember it as a strangely intimate experience the two of us going through the park setting up points for the activities to come, him explaining things to me and asking me to help. At other times there was a companionable silence. I’m still grateful to him today for his good heart. I spent another month at home after that.

I remember that before I got sick that every day in class we would listen to an audiobook. There was a book we started which really captured me, but I never heard the end of it because I was taken out of school halfway through it.

It’s a funny thing, for years I’ve searched for that book, out of curiosity more than anything else, and perhaps from a sense of completeness. I didn’t know the name of the book or who wrote it or even how it ended, and for years I came up empty-handed.

This morning I happened by chance upon a book we read at school which had long lingered in my memory, The Owl Service, by Alan Garner. It’s quite a famous book and a great book for children. It made me remember the other book, and so once more I searched for the book I had never finished.

It was a children’s book set in the Swiss Alps. I remembered there was a character I quite identified with for some reason and was sympathetic towards. He was the unpopular kid who couldn’t help himself from being cruel, but he had a sensitive heart. I think that’s what drew me to him, not that I was anything like him except I was sensitive too, and perhaps deeper than I believed.

Even as the young boy I was capable of understanding that this kid was more complex than he first seemed. I could see his pain and how it made him act. He regretted his actions and was burdened by the unfriendly opinions of others that – no matter what he did – he couldn’t change. He retreated into himself, discovered a talent for wood carving, and what promised was a story of reconciliation and redemption – but I left before that played out.

Everyone’s a sucker for a good redemption tale, but me more than most for reasons I don’t understand. It’s the arc of my own fiction, though it’s more complex than that.

Long story short, I found it today. To the usual search terms, I added ‘tragedy’ and there it was: Treasures of the Snow, by Patricia St John.

As it turns out this is quite a famous book too, and the character I looked to was Lucien. I think I knew even as a boy that he would end up with the girl – Annette – if he did it right. Being fiction, you reckoned he would.

I now know how it ends and it’s roughly how I would have predicted, though even more rich and sentimental than I might have thought – perfect for a child’s imagination.

I’m very glad to have re-discovered this and am tempted to read it myself from the first word to last, even if it is a children’s book (as I might also The Owl Service).

Memories link and this connects a loop if not completely closing it. How nice it is to recall days of such innocence and love, simple and good. You need that sometimes.

Do the right thing


I was in a conversation yesterday with a couple of women at work regarding the decline in good manners pretty much across the board. We spoke specifically about the conduct on board public transport, how people hog seats or play their music loudly, and how rare it is for someone to give up their seat to someone elderly, infirm or pregnant. I shared a story about something I witnessed a couple of months ago – a pregnant woman getting onto a crowded train and everyone ignoring until a good Samaritan – himself standing – walked across to two middle-aged men and tapped them on the shoulder, effectively shaming one into giving up his seat for the woman. I felt like cheering at the time, but was shocked that two such respectable looking men on the Sandringham line train wouldn’t act of their own accord – but then, so few do.

Then, as it happens, there was today. As I get on at the second stop for the train at Hampton I always get a seat. The train is usually pretty full within a few stops and from Gardenvale on people are standing, if not before.

Today, at Gardenvale, a pregnant woman got on. I watched thinking and hoping that one of the men nearer to her would get up and offer their seat. I was sitting by the window, wedged in, with probably a half a dozen men ahead in a better position to give up their seat. When that didn’t happen I signalled to her as I stood up, climbing past those in between so she could take my seat by the window. It was the work of the moment, but I wondered what the other men around me thought.

I know for myself that I couldn’t not act like that. I would stew on it, would feel ashamed and my gut in knots if I didn’t do the right thing. Does shame not like that exist anymore? What standards do we live by, if any?

I accept that I belong to a generation when such behaviour meant more. It was instilled in me from a child to be polite and well mannered. I have some reputation for being direct, even blunt, but if you were to poll strangers and shop assistants and servers across the world then the feedback would be that I am respectful and courteous. I always say please and give thanks. I open doors for others and let them go ahead of me. Unless invited otherwise, I’ll address my elders by Mr or Mrs. I am gracious because I know no different, and because it is a fine thing to be.

It’s a matter of great regret that such standards of behaviour no longer seem to be valued, and seemingly too many children now grow up without being taught this. I sound like a damn old fogey I know, but fundamentally this is about respect for others. Everyone deserves that, regardless of rank or position, until such a time as they lose it.

I hate kids are like that, but sometimes think they’ll grow out of it. There’s a lot happening when you’re a teenager, and a lot of it is expressing yourself as an individual and occasionally in rebellion. It’s no excuse but I understand it.

What I really don’t understand are those – such as the men today, and the men a couple of months ago – who by all appearances are respectable, and who should know better. I reckon they do know better, it’s just that instinct has now seemingly atrophied in them. Given the general decline in standards, I think they’ve taken that as an invitation to ignore their better instincts. If everyone is being ill-mannered, why can’t I be? That’s a profoundly disappointing attitude, but an attitude that accounts for a lot in society today – a society much more selfish and self-involved, a society much less generous and tolerant in nature. And this is why it’s important to hold out against that, to be an example of nobler instinct. Give it up and that will be the end of it.

I wonder what this says about our sense of self and identity? I live by the standards I’ve set myself and to go against any of them would be a betrayal of self. This is behaviour firmly rooted in my identity. That’s portable and immutable, unlike the shifting and capricious standards of society. When you take your lead from the mores of the day, rather than your self-identity, then behaviour will always be rooted in shifting sands. This comes back to education, to the ability to think and reason for yourself, to stand for your own beliefs and to have a strong sense of self. Why would you want to be any other way? But then, perhaps the opportunity isn’t known…

This story ends on a brighter note. After getting off the train I caught a tram up Elizabeth street. I was standing when a heavily pregnant woman got on a stop after me. Straight away a man stood up to offer his seat, just as it should be.

Another year older, nearly


It’s my birthday in a bit over a week and because of people coming and going and not being about I’m having an extended, though fragmentary, celebration of it.

Yesterday it started with a spirit tasting event at Cumulus, Inc with a couple of old friends. It was a beautiful, perfect day and spirits even before we touched one were pretty buoyant. We spent a few hours circulating in the crowd tasting this and that and chatting with the people behind these small brands and quietly getting intoxicated on the small sips of gin and whisky and rum afforded to us. It was all good. In the end, we topped it off with a cocktail and proceeded to our next stop.

We tried the rooftop at the Imperial but it was crowded and so ended up sitting at a table on Spring street drinking beer after beer and getting some bar snacks to help soak up a portion of it. The premiere of the new Harry Potter stage production was happening just up the road from us and we watched as a steady stream of people went by in either direction either coming from it or going to it. Some were dressed up like wizards or what not, and costumes that made no sense to me but would all the world to a Harry Potter aficionado.

Among the crowd were celebrities invited along to give the event a touch of glam, each one proclaimed by C as they wandered by, or sat at the restaurant nearby us. It was a stellar day for celebrity spotting, though no real A-listers unless you include the state premier.

We had all met working together at Shell more than twenty years ago, just down the road on the corner. We’ve been friends ever since, though in more recent times C has drifted away some – Cheeseboy still see each other every month, and often much more often. Still, it represented a reunion of sorts with many memories recalled and, as the beer settled in, deep and meaningful moments explored.

Somewhere along the line, the conversation turned to me. I’ve had a prickly relationship with C occasionally, though mostly on his side. He’s a man who imagines slights occasionally and in general, seems to often find my confidence – or whatever it is – as a challenge to him. Yesterday was free of that, perhaps because there was no audience, but he quizzed me once more.

We got talking about my writing and where that’s heading. I told him it was going well, but he was disappointed that I hadn’t written about my ‘experience’. Every time he sees me he commends me for having survived such a tough time. He emphasised yesterday what a compelling story that was if only I wrote about it – how, in his words, an intelligent, successful, private school boy ends up homeless and in despair, and recovers from it.

It’s a narrative to him, though his fascination seems genuine, as if he can’t really understand how such a thing can be – though he’s seen it with others. I think I represent some sort of mysterious cautionary tale. Of course, it’s not so simple for me having lived it.

I told him I would write the story one day, but only when I was ready for it. That wasn’t good enough for him. He leaned forward with insistence and it felt as if he was accusing of avoiding the subject, or skyving with it. I tried to explain. I’m too close to it still. Part of that it needs to properly ripen, when things are different, when there’s enough space between me and it that I can see it properly and not be affected by it. For now, it’s still a depressing thing and will remain so I reckon until I reach the next level – whenever that may be.

The discussion zinged hither and yon until someone at the end of the table felt the need to intervene with a comment, basically telling them to lay off me. We all smiled at that. It wasn’t serious, but in the conversation, I’d come clean. I’ve not been happy for eight or nine years I told them. I referred to how they go home to a family and comfort and security and all I have is a dog I love and small comfort and little security. I was complaining, I was just saying. I said your family is like a battery that replenishes you, except you don’t know it. You know it when you don’t have it anymore.

All of this is familiar to me, so it made no difference saying it. It was new to them though and it surprised them I think.

At one stage C had leaned forward when he was proclaiming my story and said I was smarter than he and Cheeseboy combined and that was the story – how does something like this happen to someone like me? I tried to explain but at the back of my mind, I wondered why he thought I was so smart. What makes me smart?

It’s something I wonder about sometimes in general, like I do other things. It’s curious because I know I’m primo intelligent but it just is for me and I don’t understand it because I can’t see or understand or even conceive of being any different. It feels so common that even if I am smarter than everyone else I don’t feel any different. And so I get surprised when people say such things or act in such a way and I wonder, what do they see? How is this thing manifested? (I know at work I’m perceived as some kind of brainiac, even by those who dislike me.)

I sometimes wonder if people get taken in by the behaviours they take as markers of intelligence, but which aren’t in themselves anything more than quirks of personality. That’s not to say I doubt it – I don’t. I only really know it when I get things that others don’t, mostly to my surprise, and the speed of understanding things and the connections I make that are mysteries to others. I think maybe that’s why I write.

By now it is late afternoon and there’s an aroma wafting our way of what appears to be Tandoori chicken and eventually, we adjourn around the corner to an Indian restaurant where Cheeseboy and I have dinner sitting at a table outdoors, and C finally departs for another function, long after he planned.

It was a good, full day, carefree and fun and nostalgic. I guess that’s what birthdays should be.

I’m sharing a dinner with Cheeseboy next week – his birthday is the day before mine – and one other. Donna might attend that too. The week after it’s a night out with JV, who is otherwise away.

Opportunities, maybe


I’ve just about resolved in my mind I’ll be leaving this place, the main questions being how and when. I gave myself a fortnight to figure it out last weekend. I didn’t want to act impulsively and give myself time to consider the implications and options. If I was making the decision today it would be a done deal.

It’s a bit scary, but at the same time positively invigorating. I’ve never been afraid of taking a risk, and while it has led me into trouble a few times it’s also provided me with great opportunity and rewards on occasion. I’m very much a believer in having a go, in living boldly, in acting without regret. Just about the worst thing I can contemplate is getting to the point where I wonder what might have been if only I’d had a crack. For all my faults no-one can accuse me of being timid or afraid.

In this case, I am also feeling encouraged. Nothing is certain but I feel as if there is a strong chance of stepping into another role much more interesting and lucrative. I speak of the vendor I’m working with implementing the chatbot. They regard me highly and have suggested if I move on then there may be opportunities either with them or with one of their clients. I’m meeting with the CEO again next week.

Yesterday I met with their newly appointed relationship manager. When I first heard about his appointment I thought it less likely they would find a role for me. He’s only part-time but would be on decent coin. Potentially that means less to go around. I identified a couple of opportunities for them, with relationship management and business development being prime. That role is now covered, more or less. The other side of it is consulting, which is essentially non-existent in their business model, but a great opportunity.

I’m not crazy about consulting – or rather, I suspect I’m a bit over it. Still, I’m a prime candidate for it given my skill set, and it might be different in this scenario. I’ve been working on this project for about a year, the first six months of which was learning the ropes and basically reinventing the wheel. So much easier had there been a consultant by my side guiding and assisting and educating. That six months might have been concatenated into 6-8 weeks. I managed without and out of it have gained a lot of knowledge and have created a product which the RM yesterday was well ahead of the crowd.

It was an interesting meeting. He was smart and asked great questions and I was pretty candid with him. He told me how AI was a burgeoning market still well short of maturity, and I was in a great position to take advantage of that. He actively encouraged me to stick with it as a great vehicle to further my career. We discussed, in general terms, how advantageous it would be if there was a consulting arm of their business and agreed on how it would work.

I don’t know if the CEO has told him of my restlessness, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he had. Regardless, the meeting yesterday served to validate much of what we have done and encouraged me to believe that if I make the break that something more will be available.

It’s still not a done deal. I’ll size things up over the next week. I’ll meet with the CEO. I’ll see what happens here. Hoping though that I can leave with something good to go to. A holiday in between would make it perfect.