Not fade away


I’ve got a heavy cold right now that makes me feel as if my head might pop at any moment. My nose is blocked, and I can feel the pressure behind my eyes and in my ears. I took the day off yesterday because I was sneezing all over the place, and because I had a new oven being installed. I spent the day quietly on the couch or in bed and in between working at the novel. Being crook is a nuisance, but I’m back at work today.

At the end of the night yesterday I was lying on the couch contemplating bed when instead I clicked on a movie to watch I’d recorded last week. Travelling North seems to me one of those forgotten movies. A zillion movies get made every year across the world and some will be remembered for decades to come, for the right reasons, or wrong, and most will fade into the past. A few, for reasons I can’t understand, get lost in the past. Travelling North is a worthy movie, but one of those lost movies. Who here has ever heard of it, let alone seen it?

It’s an Australian movie starring Leo McKern and Julia Blake and based on a David Williamson play. It has a solid cast and is well made and is clever. It’s not a movie that should be forgotten, which is one reason I recorded it. It came at me as a novelty. Oh yes, I thought, I remember that movie. I wonder how it plays now.

I probably wouldn’t have cared, except that I saw this movie at the cinema when it came out. I remember it very well. I went with a mate to see it at the Roseville Cinema in Sydney. For dinner before we went to a Black Stump restaurant. In retrospect it seems an unusual movie for us to have elected to watch, but we both enjoyed its modest pleasures. That was a while ago, I knew, but when I saw it was from 1987 I felt a mild flutter of wonder. I knew it was from about then, but I realised that was 30 fucking years ago. 30 years! How does that happen?

Back then when I saw it first the actual storyline would have had no direct relevance for me. It’s the story of a couple of retirement age driving up from Melbourne to a new home in the north of Queensland. They go from the hustle and bustle of the city to a laid-back lifestyle in a tropical setting. It’s a well-worn trail, with thousands of retirees making the trek from the southern states to the tropical climes to warm their bones with their working life done. I was not much more than a kid then and all of that was many years distant, if at all – and I doubt it ever crossed my mind.

That time is 30 years closer now. I’m still a way off and very much doubt that I would go north – it might be pretty, but I’d miss the conversation and the culture. Regardless, there will come a time in the next 20 years when I will need to consider what I’ll do. If not travelling north, then what?

Who can say? A lot can happen in 20 years, and I hope it does. I’ve changed in the 30 years since I saw the film. Back then everything was ahead of me. Right now a lot of it is behind me. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve lived an interesting life, and occasionally a big life. My desire is for that to continue, though it’s harder now. I still want to feel that vibrant urgency, still want to be relevant – I don’t think I can live without that.

That’s my problem with retirement. I accept that I’ve a harsh perspective on it, but that’s because I’ve observed it so much. I’ve watched retired husbands – long careers behind them, but past – trail after their wives in the supermarket. Just recently there’s been a bunch of press on retirement and aged care homes, and none of it good. But I’ve also listened in as retired couples have lauded the facilities and activities of their retirement villages. They make it sound like landlocked cruise ships with lawn bowls and cards and group activities, and so on. Perhaps that’s as it should be – but it’s not for me, and I can’t imagine a time when it will be.

If you ask me I’ll tell you I want to stay independent to the end. I want my own home and space, want to make my own decisions and live life as I choose too. The Leo McKern character in the movie is a retired civil engineer and ex-communist. He’s done things and has become a curmudgeonly old man. Well, excuse me, I think that’s exactly as it should be. Live on your terms, and fuck convention.

There will be plenty who object to my suppositions and to each his own. What it feels like to me is that to settle into a retirement home of any sort is to accept the fact of eventual death and to wait for it in comfort. I don’t accept it, and I won’t wait for it.

For me, right now, it’s simple. I’m happy to live simply. Have my home, a vegie garden, a dog, and hopefully a partner to share it with. That’s to start with. But you need more than that if you are not to become one of those lost husbands dogging their spouses heels in the supermarket because they have nothing better to do. You need something for yourself.

I know this because I have always needed that. I’ve been strident because I wanted to feel life and engage with it. It has become my nature and it won’t change just because I might retire one day. You need to do, or at least attempt to do. All your life you have contributed to society, if only modestly – why should that change now? So okay you tell me, because you’ve retired, because those days are gone, because now it’s time to rest and enjoy. Enjoy what though? The ethereal pleasures of playing bridge and going to the theatre?

I believe that you must put in as much – if not more – than what you take out. A life living as a valued member of the community builds that balance up, from which you withdraw as necessary. At retirement the deposits cease unless you make an effort otherwise. You begin to draw from that account and what fun it is to start with – but then it pales, doesn’t it? For the active mind I’m sure, it would. To take without putting back becomes a superficial existence. What meaning acquired over lifetime of rich experience evaporates in the artificial sunshine of retirement.

I want to keep putting in until the day I die. For me it means in that little house with the vegie garden I must do something more. For me that will be writing, but probably something else to. And if I could I would live like that starting tomorrow.

I can’t disengage. I can’t put things at arm’s length. This is what you have to remember. When you die you don’t come back. This is it. Why waste it? Why become irrelevant? Live all the way through I reckon.

To resist, or not to resist


A couple of nights ago, on his way home from work, one of the guys here was set upon by two muggers. There was no physical violence, it was all threat, but the threat was real and confronting. Both of the muggers wielded axes.

Their victim is a pleasant, gentle soul, much more a lover than a fighter and so he handed over his wallet and hurried home. With a young family he packed up and spent the night at his in-laws. Understandably shaken he didn’t come into work yesterday. I caught up with him this morning to venture my concern. He’s okay, though the encounter is undeniably disturbing, and has the potential to be disturbing for quite some town.

Crimes like this seem to be more common, though it may be we are more aware of them, or they are reported on more often. The general view is that these are the times we live in. Law and order, always a hot potato, is a big ticket item right now. I don’t agree with everything being said, or even much of it, but I understand the rhetoric.

On hearing of this encounter I was initially shocked. You know these things happen, but there is a distant between you and these events. Then it happens to someone you know and it becomes far more real.

After the initial shock I wondered how I would react if faced with the same situation. I know the sensible thing is to do what he did and be compliant and passive, handing over my valuables and walking away. That is, if you like, the rational, sensible approach. I pride myself on being rational at least, and in conversations around law and order would rather take a calm and unemotional approach to it. It’s easy to be outraged, but it only distorts the truth. The solution comes not from emotion, but reason.

I suspect that if I was in a similar situation all of that would be forgotten. I’m well known, even notorious, for being stubborn (surprisingly so). Much of that comes from a rational place. If something is true and worthy then I will stand up for it, but undeniably there is an aspect of ego to it.

I fear if faced by a couple of axe wielding muggers that I would dig my heels in. As soon as someone tries to compel me to anything is the moment I resist. On top of that I can taste the disdain I would feel for these men. They feel the need to threaten me with axes? How weak. I would find it hard to hide my utter contempt for then. I could not stomach the possibility of them prevailing. Quite irrationally I would fancy my chances with them. Even considering the distortions of an inflamed ego I would reckon I could outsmart them. I would like to think of myself as a lover, but I’m very certainly a fighter.

What then? Who knows.

This guy was mugged in Lalor; it’s very unlikely I would ever get approached in the civilised streets of Bayside, let alone threatened. I suspect also that they wouldn’t try it on with me. I have a bit of size and confidence on my side, not to mention attitude. I don’t swagger, but people pick their mark and I reckon they would assess me as too problematic. Even so.

I don’t want to be mugged, and I seriously don’t know how I would react. Part of me is glad of my obstinacy. I believe in it as something just when faced with injustice. You can’t give way to these things. But I’m smarter than that too. Sitting here at my desk while it’s still but a hypothetical I hope I would be humble enough to give way. Quite aside from the danger of resisting there’s the peril – and ultimate weakness – of letting my ego prevail. To be a true man I need to let that go. The ego is not about being rational, and is entirely selfish. I need to be better than what my ego demands, and that’s true in all aspects of life – but much easier saying than doing.

 

Strive mightily


An aphorism popped up on my phone before. Two things prevent us from happiness, it read; living in the past and observing others.

Things like this pop up quite regularly, and for the most part I glance at them and promptly forget. This one held my interest though. Was it true? I wondered. Did I believe it?

It probably is true, objectively speaking. We’re always being urged to live in the moment, and this is but a more specific variation of it. What gain is there to dwell in the past? And isn’t close observation an invitation to unwelcome thoughts?

If life is but to experienced then I would consider it sage advice. That’s not how I see life though, and is antithetical to my home-wrought beliefs.

Firstly, there is some common sense regarding the first part of the comment. You can’t live in the past. It’s done and dusted, and whatever happened then can’t be changed now. You have to live in the here and now, because that’s all you’ve got.

Still, you would hope to learn from history. What happened before informs who you are now and to disregard that is to be no different from an instinctual beast. In an ideal world there is wisdom to be found in experience and new learnings. It may be ‘done’, but it remains true.

The past for me has always been significant. The very fact I keep a journal like this attests to a need to record and preserve. My life may not amount to much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s all I have. One day I’ll be dust too, and whether there remains a record of me or not I do not know – but at least I am putting down a trail.

You live a rich life that is full of things, romance and drama, controversy and contemplation, adventure and struggle. That’s if you’re lucky. Once it has happened it’s gone, it’s true, but that’s no reason to disown it. For me to describe and consider the events of my life is an attempt in two – to make some broader sense of it, and to keep it close to me. If I don’t I fear it will be drift off and be lost.

That’s why every so often I’ll put down some long forgotten memory that has come back to me. It’s a missing piece of the puzzle I put into its rightful place by recording it. There is great wonder in that also. How am I that person? How am I this one? This past is my identity, even if I can’t make sense of it.

There are other things I record too, a contextual history if you like. In more recent times there are recurring themes such as my mother. Once more wonder plays a part. She was there so long, and now she is gone: how can that be so? There is sentimentality, but also inquiry. I play with the edges of these things, like scars that have not quite healed. I look at myself, what I feel and think, how I react, in all of it seeking an oblique view of the familiar.

I don’t want to lose that either. It’s mine.

And what about observing? Well, I can understand how life might be simpler with your eyes and ears shut, but what’s the point? That would be hell for me. There was a book, I can’t remember which, where the protagonist declared he was an eye. I can understand that. To see, to hear, to query and wonder at are to me the elements of an intelligent life. Life enters through dumb receptacles, but if we’re lucky we can filter and analyse and truly feel what those dumb receptacles experience. For me that is life.

Finally, there is the false premise at the heart of the aphorism. Am I wrong in thinking that most people believe the ultimate aim of life is happiness? I’m not one of those people. I’m not against happiness. If it’s going around I’ll greedily accept it. It’s a secondary consideration though. It’s not the aim in itself, but hopefully the outcome of more important things.

What are those things? There are words that describe the sense of what I’m talking about – curiosity, knowledge, romance, wonder, and so on – but they are not the thing. What is it then? It’s to strive mightily, I think. For what? Knowledge, feeling, understanding…

My aphorism then is almost the opposite of that which led to this entry. Live beyond this moment. Life may be linear, but our experience is not limited to that plane. My advice is to never cease to wonder. Ask why and how, and don’t be afraid of asking for more. And if you can, choose to feel deeply, the sorrow as well as the joy.

Power and beauty


I had an invitation to visit a racing stables yesterday in Glenhuntly. I have a friend who has had an interest in racehorses for 10-12 years (including Caulfield Cup winner Elvstrom), and he’s been trying to drag me in for most of that time too. I’m not in a position to do anything like that, but I took up the invitation to attend yesterday to catch up with him and his family, and out of curiosity. It was an unexpectedly satisfying experience.

It was a lovely day and a brunch of sorts was put on, before the trainer stood to talk up the racehorses in his stable as they were paraded by for us. Later we had a full tour of the stables, which was interesting enough in itself, but the bonus was that we could get up close and personal with the horses. They seemed just as curious to see us as we were to see them. They watched on with interest as we gathered, offering there head for a nuzzle or gently nibbling at my jacket sleeve.

They are magnificent beasts, but up close you really appreciate the grace and beauty of these animals. I doubt there’s any such thing as an ugly horse, but these are the true thoroughbreds. There was a dignity to their bearing, as if they understood their privileged status. Their coats were shiny, like satin, and every one of them powerfully muscled. To be in their presence was to understand their coiled potential. At rest they were like athletes between events, with an edgy languor. Trackside you get but a general impression of their athleticism, but to be there stroking their flanks, to observe their powerful hindquarters and the definition of their muscles is to understand that they are made to gallop, built for speed. To run fast is their raison d’etre, and to anything else would be a betrayal of their purpose.

I was profoundly moved. I felt a kind of Nietzschean sense of order and reason. But then as they were paraded around I was moved by their pure grace. I’ve always loved animals, but as I get older that feeling becomes deeper, and feels more meaningful. I know that animals are not as innocent as we make them out to be. I spoke to the trainer earlier and he had mentioned how someone had said if only horses could talk, but, shaking his head, he said they were enough trouble with talking too. They were like people, he said, they had their own characters and personalities.

Still, I am drawn to something unspoilt in them. Uncorrupted. We use and exploit them; we use and exploit each other. Animals are true to their souls. That is different things for different beasts. I am regularly moved by the unashamed devotion of Rigby, and it is true of most dogs. They give without expectation of receiving. They give because it is their nature, because they take pleasure from it.

For these horses it seemed to me they well understood the whimsical possibilities of the power and grace god has granted them with. They remained individual, and equally capable of returning devotion. Like all of us perhaps, they yearn for affection. Unlike many of us, they yearn for it without shame. More and more I think, animals are the best of us.

Which is not to say there is not much good in us too, and more admirable in its way because so often it comes in spite of resistance. I met with my friend and his wife, met his kids, all of them good people. Then towards the end one of the stable staff came up to me, “remember me,” she said.

I had watched her without recognition as she had paraded one of the horses. Now as she spoke to me I knew her. There was a café on the corner from my massage shop where I would get a coffee every morning, and often every afternoon. They got to know me and I grew friendly with a couple particularly. One was this woman – barely a girl then, bright, attractive, and generous natured. We shared a joke most days and a bit of gossip. She followed me on Instagram. I sensed she came from a privileged background, but was very down to earth. Now she was working at a stables.

We spoke for about 10 minutes. I was glad to see her again. She told me how this was her dream, about how she was out of bed by 3.15am 6, and sometimes 7 days a week. For me it capped off a fascinating morning, and it felt as if I had closed a loop. It’s good to meet with good people again, especially as I’d never the chance to say goodbye before.

Unsafe


Wary of the rut. When the days turn cold and the nights dark the world seems to close in upon you and the simple routines cut deeper. You catch the same train every morning and sit amongst the same people, their silent faces become familiar with repetition. You turn up to work and make the same greetings, get the same coffee, start in on the same kind of work. Often it appears urgent, activities vary, as do the conversations, but step away and the difference is little. One day you have steak for dinner, the next day it’s a stir-fry, but it’s still dinner.

On the way home, you catch the same train, or near enough, and settle into the same routines as outside the darkness deepens – dinner, the regular TV programs (which lead to the same conversations), bed at the same time, ready to repeat it all.

It sounds awfully depressing when put like that, and of course, there are moments interspersed of surprise and delight. When you’re set-up as I am though that’s what it boils down to.

This explains a lot about me – my restlessness, my need for challenge and new experiences, my love of travel, the inability to ever really settle down, or even settle. There’s always something nagging at me – there’s more than this. You get one go, get off the beaten path. Go for it. It accounts for much of my foolishness and some impetuosity, but also for some great moments and notable achievements.

There is no easy way to manage this. By and large, life is set-up for the quotidian. The safe way is the regular way. The gears of society mesh because of such predictable and ordered behaviour. It’s been ever so. What happens now has happened forever before, and chances are will continue forever into the future.

In order to survive that it’s always important to me to feel different, to think myself an individual. It’s a conceit I recognise, but choose to overlook, though I strive always to be authentic. For me, it means saying what I think rather than what convention suggests. It predicates a certain bluntness, and perhaps some subtle eccentricity. And it manifests itself in a persistent yearning for something more, something different.

I used to alleviate a good part of that when I went travelling. Taking off for foreign cultures and different environments was great fun and absolutely essential to me. Typically it meant when I got there that I would try and immerse myself in the place, the culture, the people. It took me out of what I knew and put me in a place where I knew little. Travel made me feel a fuller, wiser person, but I don’t do it anymore.

At work I would and still do put myself into demanding situations. I always put my hand up. I want to do more. There’s life sometimes in taking on something so big that it is daunting and breaking it down into bite-sized pieces. There’s a sense sometimes of the wind in the hair. You are doing something. You’re overcoming a challenge. Often it feels very personal. This is the thing you measure yourself against. And of course, it creates a disruptive variety to otherwise predictable days. This is why I strive so hard, search so much. I’m happy to reap the rewards that come with it, but ultimately it’s about the challenge. It’s lucky then that I’m capable of doing it, lucky that I can be so fascinated by figuring out the detail and untying the tightest of knots and finding a way when everyone else is stumped. That’s my thing – and it’s my thing because it’s so extreme. I will overcome, and in overcoming I find purpose.

What happens then as I get these things done is that I’m recognised and lauded and marked for higher things. I’m happy for higher things. The higher you get generally the more interesting it is, and rewards are so much better. What I don’t like is the sense of transitioning from an outsider doing things for his own reasons to that of an insider working towards a common goal. I hate the smug cosiness of familiar behaviours. I don’t want to be so well known that I’m predictable. I always want to be myself, and not subsumed within a category or type. Strange as it may seem, I don’t want to be a member of the select – I want to go my own way. I recognise that’s uncommon, that in all probability it is the direct opposite of most. It reveals a lot about my essential self, and explains much.

These are recurring themes with me, and where they come from or how they started I can’t say. It’s interesting. Would I change it if I could? I don’t think so, though doubtless it would be easier if I did. What it means now though as the days grow cold and the nights dark is that I wonder why I do any of this, and am yearning, more than usual, for some meaning to make sense of it and look forward to. There has to be more.

If there was an afterlife…


If someone you could prove to you there was an afterlife what would you think? What would you do?

I watched a movie last week with that very premise. A scientist had proved that a form of existence goes on after the body is dead. It was a provocative, earth-shaking discovery which in the movie led to millions of people taking their own life, in a hurry, I guess, to check out the afterlife – presumably in the belief that it must be better than this life.

It was an interesting idea, but I wasn’t entirely convinced. I’m happy to believe there might be an afterlife – it makes for a richer, more mysterious world. Even so, I found it hard to believe that a revelation like that would lead directly to a huge spate of suicide – many millions in this case.

The rational side of me would accept the science, but in the absence of further information certainly would not presume that the afterlife was something better. That’s no more than wishful thinking. The afterlife doesn’t necessarily equate with heaven, and almost certainly not a slew of waiting virgins. If there is an afterlife then it’s life on another plane, and no guarantee it’s any better than this. Why risk what you know in favour of what you don’t know but simply hope for?

In any case, I’d like to see out this life. Why waste it? There’s a lot to do, much to achieve, fun to be had. Different story I guess if you’re mired in misery, but still – for me – much of life’s grandeur is a product of the struggle, the striving to get by and get ahead, and sometimes, to overcome. Life can be pretty superficial, and having an easy out makes it more so in my book. It’s the challenge that gives life its weight and purpose, but that’s just my view.

Anyway, in the movie, there was another revelation near the end of it. Life went on after this, but it wasn’t an afterlife as we think of it. Rather upon death people went back to the key moment of their life when they went A instead of B, when faced with a fork in the road took the high path instead of the low, and so on. They died and returned to those moments to re-live their life from that moment forward, with the opportunity to take the other path and correct the mistakes of yesteryear. Basically, people returned to redeem their choices and live the life they are meant to.

Now if that became widely known I would expect many then to take their own life to get another shot at it. Regret is commonplace, remorse widespread, and there are few of us who haven’t made choices we now wish had been otherwise.

It’s a common daydream of mine to look back at particular moments and wonder what would have happened had I gone the other way. How would life be different? It’s a pointless conjecture, but hard to resist. If I knew then what I know now life would be very different – except I didn’t know and couldn’t know.

For me, it would change little. I would still go on. If one day I died naturally and went back again then I would be happy for it, but I wouldn’t force it. The uniqueness of life as I see it is that you get one shot at it in the here and now. Dies are cast, bridges are burned, and it’s what life is about. You learn, you feel, sometimes you suffer, and hopefully, you feel the full gravity of the gift bestowed upon you. To get another go at it by putting a gun to your head cheapens it. To stop, reset, and go again, feels like cheating. Like gambling without the risk (or thrill) of losing.

In this, as in many other things, I’ve an old school attitude. You make your decisions, good and bad, and stand by them. Life’s too short for regret, and a shallow thing without responsibility.

Corrective reflections


I haven’t heard back from my father, which isn’t a huge surprise but is a disappointing effort. Nothing ventured, nothing gained as they say, but there was a moment during the week I wondered how he would feel if he heard there was something wrong with me. I contacted him not from affection, but from the sense that it was the right thing to do. At the back of my mind, I had realised – I think in light of John Clarke’s unexpected death – that anything was possible and that I’d rather (and should) know, than not. Of course, something could happen to me too – what regrets might he have in not taking my hand when it was offered to him? Let’s hope none of us find out. Now it’s done.

It was my middle nephew’s birthday on Friday also. I keep in contact with him, as I do his older brother, and sometimes his younger sister. I sent him a card for his birthday. He sent me a message thanking me when he received it, then ended with a “love u”.

I was surprisingly moved. We’re as close as we can be under the circumstances, and he is a gentle-hearted, sensitive soul. He’s a very good-looking boy, but lacking in confidence which makes him rebellious sometimes. We’ve always been close and I think he treasures the support and belief I show in him. I am one of the few meaningful male figures in his life and as such he looks up to me.

It’s an uncommon feeling for me, but welcome. Still, I am of that generation who finds it hard to respond to displays of affection. I told him I loved him too, knowing that I would never have been as open as that in the first place. He’s got that all over me, and it’s an example I can learn from – one of many.

I touched on many of these things last week, and spoke to Donna about it during the week. I feel sometimes as if my battles have changed me in ways that I regret, which was the thrust of what I wrote last week. I am aggressive by nature, and the circumstances I’ve endured have brought that out and more, so I thought, to the point that I had become hard. I was almost phobic about it.

Not true, said Donna, not true at all. In fact, she said, I’m a gentler man than I ever was before because I’ve been rebuffed and had to reflect on that and re-build. She told me how sometimes she would be annoyed by me because I had it so good and thought little of it. It was my just entitlement. Now that’s been rubbed off, and I’m a better person for it.

She seemed to believe I was pretty much the same person as before, just my situation has changed, and so too then have some of my behaviours. She likened me to an “authentic letter in the tatty envelope” when once the envelope was brand new. Returned to sender too many times, I joked. What was important was inside the envelope she said, and that was just as true as ever.

In fact, she went on to elucidate al the things I have to offer when I could come up with nothing. Emotional intelligence she said, thoughtfulness, and self-awareness. I was unselfish and decent and honest too, reliable and trustworthy and generous. Above all I was authentic. She went on in very generous fashion herself, and I choose to note them down here for myself. I may doubt it, but the perspective of someone like Donna counts and bears remembering.

I was much reassured by her words. I felt as if she had pricked a notion I had begun to get carried away with, and it made me lower my eyes and consider how I am viewed more widely. I know at work that many of the floor staff see me as kind and friendly and considerate and that’s enough for me.

Later in the week, Donna sent me this link. I’m glad to think I might be most of those things, if not all of them.