Just simple

I was invited to the Rising Sun Hotel on Sunday to catch up with some friends. I accepted, mainly from a sense of duty. I’d rather be home on a Sunday evening, and I set myself to write through the afternoon. They were people I was overdue to meet up with though, so I agreed.
As it turned out I managed to produce some meaningful stuff before I headed out at about 3. I got there a little after 20 minutes later and walked in to a crowded bar with a three piece band playing the corner. It was loud and festive. The band was excellent and played a good selection of music, and I joined my friends at a long table.

For the next three hours or so I shared a bottle of red with the husband in between chatting about the footy and the state of our polity, as well as a recent trip he made to study in Oxford. Between us we would often look away from the band to the screen in the corner showing the big match between the Demons and GWS. Often I would find myself singing along to the tunes or keeping time to them, recalling times before when the songs were fresh and new and the performers themselves – names back in the eighties – were contemporary.

I felt near enough the youngest there. It was a crowd of 50-60-70 year olds, locals mainly I figured, come down for their regular Sunday afternoon fix. As the afternoon went on the small open space in front of the band filled with dancers, mostly women, well-preserved, energetic and joyous. I watched, imagining the journey that had brought them to this place. Later in the afternoon more husbands and fathers joined in, clumsier in their movements, less attuned and more structured.

I veered between a subtle melancholy and a pleasant reverie as I looked on. On the one hand I feared becoming as they were. It seemed to me, unfairly perhaps, that life had become less urgent and in its stead was something more narrowly defined and easily managed. It may be when I get to that stage of my life I feel the same, but this far out it spooked me. Fun as it was, and even though I seek to live smaller, I never want to lose that striving edge. I don’t ever want to be complacent, though I understand it very well. I don’t judge them, but I don’t want to wind down, no matter how pleasant.

But then on the other hand I found myself smiling at their joie de vivre, the sheer sensual pleasure they took from joining with friends and dancing. I admired it and felt warmed by it. My perspective was overturned. Here they are making the most of life and enjoying it – what can be wrong with that? Besides, haven’t I done just this a thousand times before? It seemed ridiculous to me then that I should ascribe a deeper meaning to something so simple, but it says a lot about me.

I was there nearly four hours and drove home afterwards in the failing light. It seemed so long since I had done this that I took pleasure from being on the open road and free to drive in any direction. As it turned out I only drove home, though I did contemplate stopping on the way back to pick up dinner.

That was Sunday, and in a way this is why I write – nothing is simple to me.


A winter weekend

Friday night was the annual wine tasting event down at Docklands, and as I have for the last ten years odd went along with JV.
It was as these events go, pretty standard. We sampled the wine, nibbled on cheese, and speculated on what we would purchase. Last year JV was wiped out by 9pm. This year he paced himself better, though come the end of the night he was ready to tumble into a warm bed.

For whatever reason I’m a much better drinker than JV, and indeed most people, as good as the very best. By that I mean I’m relatively immune from the effects of alcohol. That’s not to say I don’t get pissed, but it takes me a lot longer, and at a blood alcohol level that leaves many people tottering I’m as steady as a die. There are people who claim to have never seen me drunk. They’re wrong, but it’s an easy mistake to make.

I was in a good mood, which made me flirtatious. There weren’t a lot to flirt with and, other than with the wine director, those energies were directed into the fascinating conversations I had with the winemakers about their craft. You go from one wine to the next and one is as simple as the day, and the next full of complexity and mystery. It’s an act of alchemy which with my scientific bent I’m endlessly curious about. Why is it so? How does it work? What’s the secret? Is it the soil? What’s the difference between picking early and later? And so on. I reckon I’d love to be a winemaker for the fascination alone.

Afterwards we went to a Turkish restaurant nearby wgere we had the usual combination of grilled meats and break, hearty stuff every bit of it. It was a bit after ten by the time I got home, just after the final siren of the footy.

I stayed up to watch the replay and hit the sack some time after midnight and slept like a log.

It was a wintry weekend best spent indoors with rain and hail and piercing winds and even snow in parts. I didn’t even get to walk Rigby, and had the heater cranked to eleven.

The brief period I made it out early Saturday morning it was sunny and blue skied. I shared a Danish and coffee with Cheeseboy and did my shopping. It had started to spit with rain by the time I got home and thereafter it was the classic weekend, reading and cooking and writing and watching the footy and thinking about women. Can’t complain.

Soaking it up

The week before last I don’t think I lifted an alcoholic drink to my lips. I don’t mind the odd solo tipple but I’m pretty much a social drinker, and very accomplished at it I am, too.

Last week I reckon I had about a half share in about a dozen bottles of wine, and had a few beers on top of that.

I blame Cheeseboy, though it actually JV started it. Last Sunday week he came around to watch the footy and we went through a couple of bottles of red. On Monday Cheeseboy turned up unexpectedly and we shared three bottles. On Tuesday I went to his place and we had another bottle of red. On Wednesday JV came over to watch the State of Origin and another two bottles. Thursday was a night off, thankfully, but I was into it again on Friday.

I had a quick beer after work then headed back home to Hampton. I caught up with Cheeseboy at a local tapas bar where I had a beer, a couple of glasses of albarino, then half a bottle of a French red.

Saturday night Cheeseboy came over for dinner. We had a couple of glasses of German beer, a bottle of red between us, when JV came over and we went through another couple bottles of red plus a bottle of Chateau Tanunda sticky.

Yesterday – nothing! That’s the plan today also, though I have a sneaky idea that I’ll get a call from Cheeseboy late in the day. Tomorrow night I’m seeing Donna, so doubtless more wine, if not cocktails as well.

I have to say it’s not a healthy lifestyle. I reckon I’ve stacked on a couple of kilos, which is sad as I was looking good. Should be easy to shift off if I’m good and I promise, I’ll be good.

The lover, the diplomat and the warrior

These days mostly my weekends are pretty standard affairs, and often I’m fine with that. I don’t need to be on the go all the time painting the town red, as once I did, and besides, I’m committed every weekend to doing a certain amount of writing, and I need a certain amount of space and time set aside to do that.

This weekend just gone I managed to do my scheduled creative writing (and fine it was, too), while managing to get out and about and having a fine old time of it.

It’s funny, our Friday night had been organised a week or so ago, but come the evening I’d have been happy stopping at home and having a quiet night of it. I felt weary and lazy. Just goes to show. Not only was it a grand ol’ night, I fired up as well.

We went to a new tapas bar in Hampton street, JV, Cheeseboy and me. I was first there. It was a chilly night and the restaurant was lit up brightly and full of people. It was a welcoming environment, loud with conversation and the lingering aroma of wood smoke. I was approached by the waitress who enquired if we had a booking. We didn’t. She was sceptical until the owner, a Frenchman, stepped in. I knew him from another bar he used to have, an industrious, passionate guy full of Gallic enthusiasm. He smiled at me and hooked finger at me, leading towards the back and a long communal table at which there were people sitting at either end. He winked at me. “The boss,” he said, ushering his wife and her friend from one end of the table to make room for us. And that’s where we sat all night, the last to leave.

I had a cocktail and then Cheeseboy arrived in a fine old mood, then 20 minutes later JV who had a cocktail too, before we set about the menu. We ate well through the night, and drank well too consuming a few good bottles of good Spanish rioja between us, plus a glass of PX compliments of the owner. The conversation was often raucous, occasionally puerile (in the best way), and sometimes profound. Bate in the mood he was suffered from a case of playful tourettes, which just happened to kick-in whenever the waitress walked by, purely coincidental. That, of course, led to much hilarity.

Towards the end of the night the conversation returned to JV’s experiences with the forum. After some to and fro we had categorised each other in broad terms – Cheeseboy was the self-proclaimed Lover, JV the Diplomat, and I was the Warrior.

For some reason the focus had shifted to me, perhaps because of the extremities of my recent experience – certainly I’m the outlier when matched with a couple of suburban husband and fathers. It returned to the winning formula concept, and JV was keen to consider what mine had been.

Setting aside ‘warrior’ mentality, and even the self-belief that Donna had espoused in me, JV was eager to back to a time before anything extreme had happened, when I was much like them. He postulated that I got ahead thanks to a cosmopolitan sophistication – someone who could speak confidently on a range of subjects and who embodied a way of life in which food and literature and travel and politics where beacons.

I was surprised. I could recognise myself in his description, but did it amount to a ‘winning formula’? I thought not. I considered for a moment, casting my mind back to those halcyon times. I was dependable I said. You could trust me to take on anything and do it well. I inspired trust. I was very capable and willing and determined and ultimately confident enough to have a go at anything, and it was that mentality that drove me forward. As I said it it seemed true. And I wondered, did it remain true?

The next day I caught up with an old friend visiting from Mullumbimby. He was staying at his mum’s in Safety Beach. If not for my car we would have missed each other, but with some reluctance I set out for the drive down to the peninsula (65km). Aside from some car issues, and a wrong address, it was fine. Caught up for a beer with him at his mums before we ended up at the Dromana pub where we caught up on all the news.

I was home by 7.30, just I time to see the Bombers take on GWS, and beat them.

All round, a good weekend.

Old Budapest

I got home late last night full and weary and feeling generally worse for wear. Too much of everything pretty much had got to me, but fair to say it doesn’t take as much as it used to.

I sat on the couch and flicked on the TV. I made a call, switching between channels with mute on. I stopped when I found an old movie, Hello Dolly, being shown on one of the old time TV channels. I froze it while I chatted.

I was off the phone in half an hour and, tired as I was, proceeded to watch the last 30 minutes of Hello Dolly.

It’s one of those movies that holds a lot of memories for me. I must have seen it a half a dozen times by now, maybe more. It’s such a joyful movie that anyone who doesn’t like it can only be a bum. It has great music, a fantastic cast, tremendous set pieces. And Barbra Streisand.

She’s the other connective piece of memory. This movie, and others like it, were movies that I would watch with my mum. In later years we might call up to tell each other turn on the TV now, Funny Girl is on, or something like that. And mum loved Barbra Streisand. It’s impossible for me to see or hear Streisand without thinking of mum.

I love her too. What a fucking voice! And what a star she was! You watch Hello Dolly and the music and her singing is out of this world, but then even when she’s not singing she’s compelling in her characterisation. But it all comes back to her singing. I don’t know of anyone I’ve listened to who has a better voice, on top of which some of her vocal stylings are just fantastic. And the songs, the old standard, great stuff.

Weary as I was I watched and I couldn’t help but be happy and glad to be alive. I remembered mum but it was good stuff, and a joyous show reminds you what a marvellous world it is.

Earlier in the night I’d caught up with my very generous friend who had a free ticket for a preview screening at the Classic Cinema in Elsternwick. I had a cocktail first – yeah, I know – then watched the movie, which was okay. It was dark and cool when we came out of the cinema, and a wind blew in from the bay that was fresh and lively and promised rain.

For years I’ve passed by a Hungarian restaurant in Glen Huntly road – Budapest – and thought, I must try that someday. Last night I finally got around to it.

Fortunately they had a happy hour menu, and so I ordered a Winer Schnitzel they promised would overhang my plate – and they were right, it did.

I wasn’t hungry when I ordered, and when finally I managed to consume the whole bloody thing I was absolutely stuffed – but in a good way.

We parted ways at about 9.30 and I waited on the platform at Elsternwick for my train to arrive. The wind was fresh still, the night vibrant and I felt full of a dark energy. I’m alive, I thought, I’m fucking alive and here I am.

The meal at Budapest had reminded me of long ago days when I wasn’t much more than a kid and I would go to a friend’s house and share meals with his family. He’s Jewish, and his mother was a Hungarian Jew who had survived the concentration camps, the only member of her family other than her sister who did.

For me it was exotic to visit on their Sabbath, to break bread with them and give thanks. I was as white bread as you can get, open minded, but a 5th generation Aussie kid who’d gone to a private school, who followed the footy and cricket, born to a middle-class family and inheritor of their values. In my early childhood I’d lived in an area full of migrants, but later had re-located as the good times came to an area full of white professionals.

I was open minded though, and curious, and often fascinated. I remember visiting with my friend his Aunt, his mum’s sister, who lived in Bondi. She was a vivacious woman with strong opinions, with some of the sensuality I associate with Hungarian women. Stepping into her flat jammed packed with heavy furniture and mementoes of her childhood was to step into a Central European alternative reality.

I remember the coffee, thick and strong and with a syrupy residue left in the cup when you finished, and the pastries and poppy seed cake and so on. My mate was spoilt, and as his friend I was indulged too.

These were strong, good memories, long unconsidered. For me it epitomises what life is about, the variety of expression and culture, the different views, the rich experience of contrast and curiosity. There are those who frown upon such difference, who believe our experience should be constrained only to what we already know – what nonsense is that? Easy to pity such people, but easier still to despise them.

Heading home all of that was in me, and I guess it lended itself to my experience of Hello Dolly. In between though I called up that friend, told what I’d remembered and together we reminisced about days long gone, another age – his mother is dead now, as his aunt – and another time in our life. Both of us enjoyed that.

A hard earned thirst

Wednesday afternoon in the middle of what feels like a busy week. There’s a lot on my plate at work, and very typically I enjoy it. It’s invigorating to be challenged, to be well used, to juggle different options, different priorities, different expectations, without spilling one of them. I’m pedestrian when things are pedestrian, but I rocket when the heat’s on.

Of course the concept of heat is relative. I’ve been a lot busier than this in past incarnations, and worked on things much more demanding. For this place though it’s an uplift, and the work itself is sufficiently challenging to keep me diverted. I find I’m capable of keeping many different – occasionally competing – ideas in my head. Just to be able to do that, and know that I’m capable of it, is very satisfying. If it can be done I want to do it.

At some point in the next couple of hours I’ll pack up my desk feeling content with a good days work and roll out of here to catch up with friends for a drink at Collins Quarter. I’m meant to have reduced my alcohol intake over the last month, and while I’ve had good intentions a roll-call of social events has made it pretty challenging.

I’m now officially limiting myself to five drinks a week, which sounds fair enough. But when I go out like I did on Friday night and have five cocktails, as well as a beer and a few glasses of wine, it’s no more than good intentions.

The clock has reset and I’m back in credit for five drinks, but when I’m out tomorrow night and Friday as well then it requires significant willpower.

As they say in the classics, one night at a time.

I’m generally so disciplined. I’ve cut down my chocolate from a block a weekend to one block in the last two months, and reduced my overall sugar intake by about 50%. I’ve cut carbs, and virtually eliminated flour from my diet (I plan to make sensible exceptions). The drinks are harder because I share them in a social environment with friends. It’s natural and enjoyable, but I think I’ll need to find a satisfactory booze replacement that doesn’t contain sugar.

Until such a time I can reassure myself today at least that I’ve earned a drink or two working hard.

How the sums add up

Went after work on Friday for drinks with JV. Donna joined us later.

We started at Union Electric sipping cocktails in the upstairs extension. I was in a buoyant mood and the cocktails helped that along nicely. After an hour or so Donna joined us for another drink, before we headed out for dinner at Ombra.

Had a good meal and interesting conversation. Donna left us to visit a friend and JV and I went to Long Son for another cocktail. Then home, James.

Had a fun night, but there were a couple of notable things to come out of it.

First is just an observation – I’m in the middle of one of those patches where I’ve become very interesting to the opposite sex. I’m enjoying it. You notice it at first in the lingering glances and friendly smiles and eye contact, and the prickling knowledge that others are aware of you. Often there’s even a sense of deference. Everything seems to revolve around you, with others waiting to take their cue. Conversation follows, and the rest of it.

This I remembered from when I was a lot younger and better looking, but I’m getting it again. I look okay – better than I have – but I expect much of it is attitude and confidence – which brings us to the next thing.

JV attended the Forum/Landmark recently and we sat and discussed some of the things he got out of it. He explained the concept of the Winning Formula – the instinctive fall-back position we have to get what we want, or where we feel most comfortable.

For JV he said his winning formula was to please people to avoid confrontation. Donna said hers was her interactions with other people and her soft skills in that area. So what was mine?

You know, I couldn’t answer directly. I made a quip about having some losing formulas, then finally offered up my intelligence. It’s rare that I feel myself intellectually flummoxed, and I actually enjoy the challenge of surmounting complex ideas and systems. I tend to think of it as my ace – there’s nothing I can’t get my head around and master. I can see and think my way through things.

Donna had a different take, though it’s not unrelated. She said my winning formula was self-belief.

She has long lauded my confidence but I haven’t taken much notice of it – maybe because I’m aware of the moments of doubt and frailty. I can appear a certain way, but it’s far from being 100%, and even so there’s a good component of fake it till you make it.

Self-belief I think is slightly different. If confidence is the outward expression, then self-belief is the wellspring from which it flows.

I know that I could never have survived my troubles without a fundamental faith in myself – call it self-belief. In that context it us a defensive attribute. But as Donna offered that up, and JV has no cause to disagree, I stopped to wonder where this self-belief has come from.

I remember many years ago I struggled with my confidence. I was the type of kid who would try and overcome it by acting differently. I was never timid, though I could be shy. My habit then was to defy it, as it has been ever since with anything that challenges me.

Somewhere along the line it changed – from having little confidence I became someone with the confidence to take on anything. I agree, it has empowered me along the way to challenge myself to greater achievement, and even to greater risk.

You could argue that my self-belief was forged in the act of doing things and achieving them. I put myself out there, was recognised for my efforts, and over a period consistently rewarded with promotion and responsibility. I could see that others valued and trusted me. I also discovered that I was smarter than most people. Was that it?

Perhaps it was, but there’s a difference between quiet self-confidence and ringing self-belief. I achieved the latter, not all of which can be easily explained by keeping score. The answer is I don’t really know, unless there is something innate in me which was fed by my relative success.

So here I am today and as I reflect on that I think my travails lately have strengthened me having survived them. I am more tender, but I know also that I have the flexibility of mind to endure most things. Certainly that leads to self-belief, but I wonder if I am accorded this almost by exception? For me I’ve done the sums and they add up to good reason for self-belief; where in others, for their own reasons, they factor in elements that lessen the sum?