The observer effect

One of the most fascinating findings of quantum physics is that the act of observation affects the outcome of reality. Basically, it means that – particles and waves in their experiments – will act differently when they’re watched than when they’re not. It makes no great sense to a rational mind, but perhaps that’s because our rationality has yet fully mature. Regardless, this is what happens.

Something like that happens in life also, I reckon. It’s not physics, but it seems to me that when we apply our mind to consider something, the outcome is so often at odds to when we blithely accept it. I think this will become a theme of isolation. When people are given more time and space to think and consider the outcomes will be so often different from what we expected. This is not a bad thing. It’s an unreflective age. We don’t think much beyond immediate choices, and that’s been a part of our problem. Now we have the opportunity to stop and think, and potentially to reset. I feel as if there are many who have come to realise that.

That’s never been a problem for me – I’m an overthinker. Reflection comes naturally, as does enquiry. I could probably get by well by thinking less, but I enjoy figuring at things. In the end, it’s your nature. All the same, I get caught up in the pace of life too, and things slip by me.

A few weeks back, I expressed delight at the chance to show my wares, come the crisis. I’m one of those people who thrive when the odds mount because I come alive. And because I’m a stubborn, contrary bastard. I need the challenge to bring out the best in me.

So, I stepped up to the plate and ultimately we – the team – hit it out of the park. We did great things, gratefully received, and it was satisfying. But only satisfying. It passes soon because the moment passes, but the game’s still going. If it achieved one thing, it was that it reminded me of what I could do and, I suppose, proved it to others.

I anticipated there might be a bit of a crash afterwards. You run so hard for so long, and you hit the finish line out in front, and suddenly it catches up to you. All the pent up stuff collapses in on itself. And when you put your head up, you wonder, what’s next?

There was a crash, but it wasn’t as dramatic as that. I’m worn out, and fair enough, I’ve worked hard. Mentally I’m still hard at it, but it’s in my stomach it sits less well. That’s unfortunate because it makes it harder for me – and if I had never have observed it then maybe I’d never now. But here I am.

How can I put this? In a purely professional, even technical, sense, there’s much to be happy about. It was an amazing achievement, given the timeframe and constraints and mounting obstacles. And it worked! We didn’t just make it happen, it happened successfully. And you can’t really argue the value of it. This was a project integral to the organisation’s immediate future, and I was the only one there capable of doing it. Once in place, a crucial capability gap was bridged. Etc.

I’m dissatisfied though, and part of that is pure ego. I can’t get away from that. I’m the one doing, but I’m inside a machine, and I don’t get to proclaim it. It’s my manager who shares it with the world and attends the crisis meetings. When he speaks of the plans he has in mind next they’re my plans he’s repeating. I’m not having a go at him. He’s doing his job and doing it well. I guess it’s a measure of my lost status that for now, no matter how highly esteemed I am, I’m just a skilled mechanic.

That’s a minor irritation in the scheme of things. Assuming the world recovers and I get back to my job, then I expect my rewards will come, as they were promised even before all this. I may regain my own voice, and in time may end up reclaiming a lot of what I lost before.

I won’t turn my nose up at that, I can’t afford to. And it’s better than nothing. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned through this is that I need to be doing something worthwhile. It’s no good doing a job well, what’s the worth of it? And sure, this was pretty big in this here and now, but not so big really. We managed to get done in a couple of weeks what might get done in a couple of months, or more, otherwise. Well done, next. And while the context is greater now, the value of it is much less back in the real world.

You might think I’m hard on myself. Maybe I’m just never pleased. It’s in my gut, though. Maybe it’s because I’m older now and my perspective has shifted, or maybe it’s because I’ve done so many things similar to this in the past, but it feels a shallow achievement in the end. What would change that?

If I’ve been gifted anything in my life, it’s a good brain. This was the trump card I was given. I’ve used it extensively and often used it well, but the question I find myself asking is whether given what I’m capable of, have I used it in the right way?

If I could dial back the clock I might have chosen a more elevated career as a physicist or astrophysicist – the subject fascinates Maybe I’d have been a historian. Or a doctor perhaps – not a GP, but a surgeon or a specialist of some sort, or in clinical research.

I can’t dial back the clock, and I’m not pining over what might have been. I just want to apply my mind to something that will make a real difference – not a feat of project management, but something of value to us as a people. I don’t want to waste it, and I’m getting old.

I figure we’ve got about 4-6 months in isolation like this. That’s the time I need to figure out what it is and how to do it. I figure many more will set themselves similar challenges in the months ahead.


For some reason I find myself thinking of mum now we’re in lockdown and of her husband Fred, and the family life we had. We had a happy life. e had fun and good times and much affection. I was a part of something and had it good. I never thought it could change, because you don’t think that way. This is your life, these are the people around you, this is where you belong. But then the people around you go until one day life is very different and you realise you don’t belong anywhere anymore.

The 23rd was the anniversary of her death, but I was so busy on the day that I didn’t really realise until the evening.

I’m isolated from everyone, more or less, and it doesn’t worry me in the usual sense except that it reminds me of the separation that was forced upon me, and for which there’s no comeback. I can still remember mum’s phone number, eight years after, and how every day or so we’d talk on the phone. She was always there when I needed her, though I affected that I never had the need, or any need at all, really.

It would be comforting in this time of lockdown if I could pick up the phone and speak to her again. The nearest person I have to that is Donna, but that’s very different. Mum gave me unconditional love (mostly!). I’m not in need of it, but I miss it.

I think this is one of the things I might find most challenging at this time. Everything has slowed. Some things have stopped like you could never have imagined. Life becomes more basic and simple, and what emerges I expect are the essential needs of life. We remember what is important, and perhaps we learn to cherish it more. That’s a good thing, but in my life there are gaps were some of those things should be.

I was sorting through the stuff in my filing cabinet today. I came across a card in a red envelope. I opened it and took the card out. Across the front of it was the image of some painted flowers, simply done, and the text: Come grow old with me, the best is yet to be…

What is this, I wondered, not remembering it. Then I opened the card, and it all came back to me. It was a card I’d bought to give to another. Inside my words were tightly spaced across both sides of the card. I couldn’t read it. I never gave the card. That woman went away, though not for want of trying. But there was a time I thought I wanted her to grow old with me. Now, in a time of isolation, I grow old alone.

What does it all mean, this stuff, life? What is the point of it? I wondered. Surely one purpose, at least, is to learn by your experiences and to become a better version of yourself – but what then is the point if of achieving that kind of enlightenment if it comes at the end of your life, when it counts for so little?

I’m just thinking aloud. These are the things I need to figure out for myself. Where do I stand?

I must read the card tomorrow. Perhaps I’ll know then.

The thinning veneer

I got invited to a Zoom party last night. It’s scheduled for next Friday night when a bunch of us in our homes spread around Melbourne will join online through the application to share drinks remotely, and banter and conversation and all the rest of it. It’s a thing now.

I think most people expect to be in this situation for a while, depending on how successfully we manage to control the coronavirus. I think most people have been sensible, but there’s still enough playing up that it remains a risk for all of us. The best-case scenario, I would think, is 4-6 weeks. The worst is months. And those numbers take no account of if you or I get sick with this thing – a fair chance – in which case numbers don’t matter.

Earlier I was wondering what we learn from this, but then it seemed premature. What can we learn until the lesson has been delivered in full?

So, then, what happens from here? What if we become virtual prisoners of our home for months to come?

Right now it’s new, and there’s a touch of unwelcome novelty about it. Zoom parties tap into that. I read how families are returning to simple pleasures like reading and playing board games. I myself took a couple of hours off yesterday to watch an old movie from the seventies, Heaven Can Wait.

As this continues, I figure the general sense and experience will develop and change. I imagine a lot of people will endure cabin fever, especially if a lockdown becomes official. And I imagine those of us participating in this will experience something like the seven stages of grief as it goes on.

Not all of this is a bad thing. Not in my eyes, anyway. Lifestyle and habit obscure reality and most are happy for that. There’s barely any interruption to it and so rarely cause to question it. Our lives are made up of routine and ritual. We catch the train to work each day and return on the same train at the end of it. We buy our coffee from the same cafe at the same time every morning and exchange the same meaningless banter with the barista. Our work, more or less progresses, down predictable lines. We go to the same meetings, nod to the same people, lunch at the same place. At night we return home to the ritual of family time. We eat together and share our stories and perhaps this is the time it becomes most real – though even then, mostly, it hardly varies from the program. We do it in the same ways.

At night we settle down to watch our favourite programs, the lifestyle and reality shows, the blockbuster series. These will inform conversation we share with others, a common ground of shared experience. Come the weekend there’s shopping and kids sports and leisure. Maybe dinner out, or catch up with friends to blow off steam, but how often does the conversation become intimate? That great regulator of time, sport, comes up on TV, as regular as clockwork. We know that if we turn on the TV at any time, we’ll see a variety of contests available as we flick through the channels. In the winter it’s footy, a great and well-embraced opiate of time and sensation. Tick, tick, tick, there it is, and next week too, and the week after, and all the industry about it, and the conversation it leads to Monday morning, fodder for interaction.

What we have now is a situation where hardly any of that continues. All routines have been disrupted. Rituals are called into question. Habits no longer apply. Real-life has hit us full in the face.

What does it mean now then with those great life patterns in the rubbish? Separated from our routines, who do we become? Not yet, but soon, the real texture of living will become apparent as the veneer we’ve applied to it wears off. We’ve been spoilt. We’ve had it good and easy and who would turn it down given the choice? We have a life that has taken us away from the basic meaning of existence. We live in a buffer zone where miracles are taken for granted. Now the buffer is being stripped bare. For many, that will mean abject hardship. For the rest of us, the sense of entitlement we’ve felt our birthright very likely will be proved a sham.

Maybe I’m getting too far ahead. Maybe it’ll blow over. Maybe I’m getting too philosophical, or perhaps too negative.

Time will tell, and the rest is perspective. What seems negative to others to me looks like a necessary correction. I hope we’re better and more authentic after this, and closer to life. A crucial part of that is humility. We’ve lost that as a society.

I’m in a different situation to most. I have no family to concern me. I live in a small home with a small yard with a big dog. It’s never felt so stark as it does now. I have friends within walking distance I may not see again for months.I’m fortunate by temperament. I’m an introvert with the skills of an extrovert. I can self-sustain, though I’ll miss people. Self-sufficient by inclination and independent by nature, I’ll find ways to keep going. I’ve been through the mill before.

I’m safe in the short term with work because – for now – I have a critical role. I have some seniority now too, as well as about eight weeks of leave up my sleeve. None of that guarantees tenure. Should this go on more than six weeks I’m sure my role will be subject to review also. Before that, I’m sure many others will already have been stood down – and I don’t know if enough, understand the full gravity of the situation. I work with people who blithely expect to continue working regardless, forgetting that if there’s no money in the door then nothing to pay their wage.

In times like these, I expect us, over time, to revert to something of our essential self. That won’t be pretty in many instances. Inhibitions will dissolve. Peer group pressures won’t exist.

For many, it will be good to get back to the person they believed in when they were young and expectant. For me, I expect, I’ll go back to my books, and will find in them meaning, as well as diversion. For others, it may be as simple as re-connecting with the family – though I think in times like this we need to find something for ourself, as well.

I prognosticate. Perhaps I am getting too far ahead of myself. I can do that. It’s only been a few weeks, after all. I have no crystal ball. I think things will be different after this, and I hope what we have experienced is a form of enlightenment.

At the newsagents

I was early for an appointment this morning to get my hair cut and killed some time by popping into the local newsagent.

I used to love newsagents. I could spend a half-hour browsing very easily. It’s the magazines that draw me. I remember being a kid and away at some seaside village over the summer holidays and I’d pedal up to the local shops for a bit of diversion. I’d end up at the newsagents where I’d check out the magazines and might walk out with a cheap paperback as well.

I’d buy a magazine occasionally, though it was constrained by how much pocket money I had. I’d get the latest edition of Inside Footy in the winter months, or maybe it’s cricket equivalent come the summer. Or else I’d buy one of the automotive magazines, which were always popular with teenage boys.

That’d be a random purchase, depending on the cover or if inside there was something on the latest Porsche or some extravagant sportscar I’d dream about owning once I got out of school. Generally, it’d be Wheels I bought, though sometimes Motor magazine. I don’t reckon I’ve bought either one of them since I left school.

Back in those days, and for many years to come, newsagents were treasure troves of magazines and information. There was something on every subject and from every corner of the earth. For a literate, curious young man I was, I couldn’t get enough. McGills, a newsagent in Elizabeth Street, was probably the pinnacle of that for many years and a Melbourne institution. It closed a few years back.

All grown and with money in my pocket I’d buy a magazine or two every week. I’d subscribe to a few, generally overseas publications – Esquire for a while, the Atlantic for a bit, and Rolling Stone for years.

I’d buy all sorts of magazines – Men’s Health, GQ, Outside, The New Yorker occasionally, cooking magazines of every stripe regularly, The Bulletin while it was still around and The Monthly more recently, as well as various PC and technology magazines, and even something like Commentary occasionally – a conservative magazine I’d read for contrast, and for some of their writers, like Robert Kagan (whose dad is a writer worth reading).

If there was something that interested me I’d pick up a copy of Harpers or Wired or Fast Company or Travel + Leisure, and so on. The point being, there was a shitload of choice and I was fully immersed in it. There was delight opening up the letterbox to find a new magazine nestling there, or settling down on the couch with a cup of coffee to spend an hour or two to read intelligent, well-written articles of interest.

Here’s the thing: I felt a part of it. You have your own personal culture, and this was unmistakably a part of mine. I liked being informed, but then I felt informed, too. I walked about with information in my head gleaned from the glossy magazines on my coffee table. It was important to me because I was a part of this world, and these were the things that made this world tick. I felt relevant.

McGills has been closed for over five years now. I still read magazines, but a fraction of what I did before. Like everyone else, I get much of my information from the internet – though often from the same sources as before. I’ll read an Atlantic article online rather than in print, or something from Mother Jones, or Esquire, or The New Yorker, though not nearly as much. And I’ll gather information from a multitude of other sources, many more so than before – and it’s possible I’m better informed now than I ever was before (though mindful of the fake news).

It’s different, though. Do others feel that? It feels more…disposable. I read, and then I click on another screen. Because raw information has become so saturated, the value of it has diminished, not to mention the quality.

I don’t get a sense of being inside the information as I had before, though maybe that’s the times, and where I am in my life. I’m probably better informed than 95% of people, but I don’t feel it – and it doesn’t feel like it matters, either. It’s like collecting stamps, nice but irrelevant. It’s not a part of my culture anymore because information these days is like white noise, everywhere and unfiltered. And none of it feels special anymore, or exclusive.

I spent 7-8 minutes in the newsagent today, and it was enough. The selection these days is much less than it was before, but it was an exercise in trivial nostalgia. Newsagents aren’t what they were, but nor are the times. Still, I nearly bought a magazine – the latest edition of Dish. But I didn’t.

Why I don’t write

Well, yes, I’m still here, but I haven’t written much lately, in case you haven’t noticed.

I’ve been pretty busy with work, dashing from here to there and my mind going at a million miles an hour most of the time. When you’re like that there’s not much room for anything else. It doesn’t even to occur to you until after the event, by which time you couldn’t be fucked, anyway.

That’s pretty accurate in general. I’m fine, but I’ve lost a bit of interest in keeping this up. In terms of fucks, I’ve got none to give with regard to this.

I find that curious. Nothing’s happened. It’s not as if I’ve suddenly realised I don’t want to do it anymore. I’ve hardly thought of it, but that’s the point, really – it’s just drifted away from me.

Now that I’m taking the time to actually add to it again (I haven’t given up on it altogether), I wonder why it’s got to this stage.

There have been times past when keeping a blog like this seems awfully self-indulgent. Sometimes I’m writing something, and I ask myself who really wants to read such navel-gazing and trivia? It’s a good question. The answer, in the past, is who cares? You read you don’t read, your call. I don’t write for an audience. Whether one person or a thousand read my words is a matter of indifference to me. I write for myself, though – I admit – there are times I feel a tad embarrassed thinking others might be reading this.

My stated motivation for keeping a blog previously is that I wanted to keep a record. I’m alive, here’s the proof. These are the times I live in, these are my thoughts and observations, this is what I feel and think and wonder at. I’m conscious that one day I’ll likely to be gone, and while this might not outlive me and my time, perhaps mine will be one of the thousands of voices archived somewhere in time.

The other real benefit of writing here is the therapeutic value it gives me. They say it’s good to write things out, and that’s my experience too. It doesn’t apply to everything, but there are occasions that you’re so full of stuff that it’s a relief to get it out of you.
The act of translating it into words and to structure it in a meaningful way imposes a discipline on the experience. It forces you to think about it objectively and puts some space between what you feel and what you think.

Often I find understanding come to me as I write – and just as often after I’ve written it out and behold it. Often I find myself revealing and explaining things I didn’t realise I knew. I achieve a kind of retrospective wisdom, though it’s only ever temporary.
The one thing I truly value in a personal sense is being able to go back in my life and observe what was happening at a particular time. Quite regularly I’ll find myself clicking on a random date in the past and reading my thoughts of the day. Sometimes I’m surprised, but more often it comes back to me. There’s a richness in the recollection. I was there.

Now that I write that I think it’s hard to give up this blog – especially as I’ve committed so much to it. I feel for the majority of people who have no such record of their life. Life just flies by, but much of mine has been preserved in amber.

Maybe I’ll keep going. Life is all ebbs and flows. Doubtless, it will flow again sometime soon.

How do you fill the years?

During the week I bought a book of Robert Hughes essays at a much-reduced price.

I’ve been a fan of Robert Hughes since around the mid-eighties, first in print, then on screen. His voice in either medium was unchanged. Read his writings, and you can hear his voice in your ear. It’s the authoritative voice of a man confident in his, sometimes controversial, opinions. Educated, intelligent, bullish, and very literate, Hughes was about a muscular a critic as you’ll come across, and maybe that pushed him forward in the rank of critics. Read his stuff though, and it’s marked with insight and conjecture that makes you stop and wonder – the best sort of critic, in other words. Almost without question, he was the best communicator/writer of all of them. That voice, again, resonant, sometimes magisterial, occasionally abrasive, he wrote with lovely, rounded phraseology that stuck in the mind. It was clear to understand and memorable and sometimes almost biblical in its succinct description.

I met him once, in about 1998. It was around the time of the push to become a republic, and he was one expatriate Aussie who felt strongly about it. He gave a talk at the Arts Centre about why we should become a republic, and afterwards, I met him briefly for a shake of the hand and a brief conversation. I admired him. I may even have seen in him some sort of model.

He’s been dead a few years now. In my mind, I always associated him with another Aussie ex-pat, Clive James. They actually knew each other at uni in Sydney in the sixties. James is another gone, though much more recently. There’s a third I roughly lump into this group of celebrated Aussie ex-pats, and he’s still around – Barry Humphries.

The funny thing is, whenever I think of these guys I find myself thinking of my father. Doubtless, that’s because they’re all of around the same age – born around the beginning of WW2.

I had lunch again with dad this week. We’ve caught up about four times now after being absent from each other for years. Each time I see him I find myself surprised at how frail he’s become.

He’s still of active mind and will, but he moves slowly with the aid of a cane. On his forearm, there were two small medical-grade adhesives. When I asked what they were from – I was thinking skin cancers – he told me they were from biopsies, the purpose of which he professed not to know. He’s not someone likely to allow any treatment without knowing everything about it and so I concluded that he didn’t want to tell me.

I have a lifetime of memories to choose between when I think about dad, but the first memory that always comes to mind is prosaic. I picture him in a pair of shorts and bare-chested busy bustling around the yard and garden doing things. He’s tanned and healthy-looking with an unthinking physicality. It’s an old memory – specifically, it comes from the time he lived in Sydney, and no more than ten years ago. He was active then, he moved with an intent that his body no longer possesses (though, as ever, he has intent of mind).

I look at him now and I feel sad at how things change, though he appears to have accepted it. It spooks me a little too, wondering at how I’d cope at being slowed down so much – is this what I can expect, too?

It’s funny how your mind works. On the news the other week was a report about some notable who had died at the age of 78. I thought to myself, that’s a fair innings. But then I realised that dad is 78 – and my view on that was completely different: much too soon.

Dad may go on to live another dozen years or more, but it comes for everyone – Hughes, James, one day Humphries, and one day my own father – and millions more.

I wonder – how do you fill the years? Ideally, with passion and curiosity. I think that’s true of the men I refer too. They made their mark. They explored the things that fascinated them and shared the journey with us. That’s a good way to live and to leave behind when you’re gone.

Legacies are personal, I guess, and the important thing really is not what you leave behind, but how you lived. I wonder what dad thinks about that, if at all. He’s always been a man driven, a man of incisive opinion and dauntless ambition. He chose what was important to him and lived by that, but I wonder how it stacks up now in the waning years? Ultimately, we become our own judges, and that’s the most important judgement.

Hughes and James shared their discoveries with us, but the discoveries were their own. The sharing was a part of it, but it was the finding and knowing and understanding that filled them, I bet. They set their marks – this is what I’m interested in, this is what I want to follow, and they made it work.

For someone like me this has meaning, but I reckon for many it’s inconsequential. They live by other things, very different, and there’s no gainsaying that, except I know I’m not of that type. Nor is my father, I think.

What moves me is curiosity and wonder and the urge to create something meaningful from that. If there is to be an endpoint then the time to achieve that is running out, though it’s not about achieving. It’s about living. That’s how I want to live, with those things at the forefront.

Funny how I can never make anyone understand that.

The truth of things

It’s a popular pastime to put together a list of people you’d invite for dinner. I’ve been working at my list for years, adding names to it very carefully and only after long consideration. A lot of people reel off names quickly, commonly referencing movie or sporting stars. Not me. By and large my criteria – never stated till now – is for people I can imagine having long and interesting conversations with. They’re people who either by their experience or intellect have a story to tell or an insight to share. Marilyn Monroe isn’t on my list (but Mohammed Ali might be).

One of the names on my list will be unknown to most people, but is an easy pick for me: Victor Serge. (Here’s an interesting and descriptive article on his life and times):

For mine, Victor Serge is one of the most fascinating characters of the last century. He lived a vivid life in exciting times and was brave enough to take a position on the events he was caught up in.

I found him through his writing, though that’s only one aspect of him. His books, autobiographical in essence, deal with the Russian revolution and its aftermath, and with the tumultuous times, he witnessed and was a participant in. His writing is candid. He presents as someone committed to understanding the truth of things, and not just the form of them. He was an anti-Stalinist, and while there is a strong humanist element to his books, they’re marked by great insight and intellectual depth.

Reading his books, I liked him – or, felt great respect at least. He’s one of those writers who would make me occasionally stop to think about what he had written. For that reason alone, I could imagine having long, stirring conversations with him.

Of course, he’s long dead, and exercises like this are not much more than indulgent list-making – fun all the same. It highlights a gap in my life though – who do I have to speak about these things with? I don’t reckon any of my friends would have a clue who Victor Serge is. Those conversations happen only in my head, and sometimes make an appearance on these pages.

It’s a pity. I like to ask questions, but there’s no-one to ask them of. Instead, I think on them. I wonder, I examine, but the debate is internal. It seems an obvious thing to me that one should engage in the broader questions of existence – history, culture and thought. These are our times, this is our life, and even if you don’t find it fascinating, then at least you must see something vital in addressing these themes.

So I say. In the meantime it means my public life goes on with very little of my private life on display.

I sometimes think that being a person with these interests locked away and invisible sets you apart. Everyone has a secret life, but these things, outside of your self, give you a perspective that few others share. That may be indulgent twaddle, but I find personally that my take on things is more detached because I have a broader view. Perspective takes on a literal sense then because everything is to scale – what looms large to many you see as being small and fleeting. It’s all happened before, and it doesn’t really matter that much anyway, and it will be resolved. There’s no advantage to such a perspective, it seems. The opposite may be true when the prevailing view is to the contrary.

It dilutes the take, but when everyone is manic and fraught, you run the risk of being viewed as a dilettante.