Independent spirits

On a cold, wintry day last week I headed out for lunch with a friend at Hawkr. I went by it at first, conditioned to go to the market when I head off in that direction. I backtracked and soon enough was enjoying a very nice lunch.

Nothing remarkable in this at all, except in the overcast, cool surrounds of that Melbourne winter’s day my mind was unaccountably cast back about 30 years to a time and place very different.

It’s fascinating to wonder what triggers such unlikely memories. Here I was in the middle of winter in Melbourne and my memory was of a summer’s day in Sydney. Specifically I recalled a time when I trained to become a cocktail bar-tender. I must have been about 21 at the time. There were a bunch of us in the class, maybe about eight, and I was one of the eldest there.

This was in the heart of King’s Cross, and I can remember still the name of the course – Alex Beaumont something, something, but not the name of the instructor.

I was living with my aunt at the time in Watson’s Bay, and as it turned out the instructor lived in Watson’s Bay also. He was one of those very cool characters who you imagined had lived an interesting, if not exotic life. He was in his mid-forties I guess, fit and with a handsome, well lived in face with – in retrospect – a Humphrey Bogart vibe. He was a professional cocktail bartender who had plied his trade all over the world and doubtless had a great time doing it. He was a level-headed character studious in teaching us the tricks of his trade. I remember him telling off a couple in the class who were goofing off, and in spite of the difference in our age he seemed to connect with me. Perhaps I seemed the closest in spirit to him.

One night after the class had ended we went back to his place together. I was flattered to be asked. I remember he lived further along towards South Head, past Doyles, in one of the cute cottages that overlooked the beach. He had a wife or girlfriend who wasn’t there, but who he had spoken of often. She seemed his long-time partner in crime, a fellow traveller close in spirit. He called her always by a nickname, Flea, or something like that.

Though she wasn’t there I felt her spirit. I was young and adventurous and my imagination was vivid and I was curious about such a woman thinking that she was probably the sort I would like to know. But then he was of a type I would happily emulate as well, the free-spirited individual who lived for experience.

We sat on his leafy patio in the sunshine sipping on gin and tonics while he told me his stories (now forgotten), and I attempted to shape into words my expectations of the world ahead of me.

And that was it, that was the memory that came to me that day, and has every day since. Why is that?

Lot of water under the bridge since and much I might have hoped for that day will have come to pass. I’m a long way on from that young man, though he is still recognisably within me. I wonder if the appeal of the independent spirit has come to resonate in me and trigger this memory – it’s always been there, sometimes nearer, sometimes more distant, but never absent.


Here I am

Sometimes when I tell my story I’m actually surprised how many things seemed to happen at once, and I wonder occasionally how I survived it. The thing is you don’t know the next thing is coming otherwise you might start shittin’ your pants again. When it does come there’s no time for that and you just deal with it. And so it goes – you keep going doing your best to survive and riding the blows and thinking to yourself it’ll turn one day – and it did.

In any case I compiled a list of things, comparing basically where I am now to where I was six years ago, before it all started.

Six years ago, give or take, my mum was still alive and healthy. I had a full and loving family about me. I had an investment property, a share portfolio, multiple tens of thousands in the bank, and a job earning me around $7,000 a week. I’d travelled abroad for holidays in each of the previous ten odd years, and some years twice. I had an excellent lifestyle, ambitions, aspirations, and hopes to settle down into a prosperous and happy future. Then it all came tumbling down:

  • Mum would be diagnosed with cancer, which would turn out to be terminal.
  • I was defrauded of about $100K.
  • The lucrative job I had would abruptly end as another, unrelated, project crashed. We’d been in discussions for a 12 month extension.
  • My shares crashed leading to margin calls and eventual significant loss.
  • Unable to find work and having used my savings I had to sell my property.
  • Unable to continue living independently I moved into mums.
  • Mum died two weeks later without ever coming home from hospital.
  • Her will led to dispute and a legal impasse. Eventually resolved, it left the family fractured and I’ve not seen or heard of half of them since.
  • Unemployed, near bankruptcy, battling the legal process and living in mums home under threat I became depressed and miserable. Dark times.
  • Will finally resolved I was able to move out, find a home of my own, and pay off the majority of my substantial debt. Time for hope.
  • Still unable to find work, invested in a massage shop hoping for passive income.
  • As the business struggled, still unable to find other income, was finally forced out of my home. Officially homeless.
  • Moved in with my sister initially sleeping on the couch, but not permitted to join in family meals.
  • My father let slip that he blamed me for the divorce from my mum about 30 years before. Relationship – never close – fractured.
  • Finally offloaded the massage shop at a significant loss.
  • ATO continues chasing debt of around $40K. Ends up in court, unresolved. Battle continues.
  • Creditors ringing daily chasing debt.
  • Having patched up with dad it comes crashing down again as he again tries to tell me what to do. Without ever a word of praise or encouragement from him I call it quits. That remains the situation.
  • Forced out of my sister’s home I shift between friend’s couches, house minding at different outskirts of the city, and making it up as I go along living out of the boot of the car with the dog.
  • More court action. More rearguard actions.
  • Just when I thought all my options had ended, including housing, received an email out of the blue which led to my first job in about 3 years.

That was about 3 years ago, and though there’s been much more since then, that basically marked the turning point. Still more court actions, still creditors chasing me throughout, I was at least able to find my first home in 15 months. Slow road since, but things are better, debts are being paid off and I have some life again.

Against that I have no real family any longer – my sister broke from me over a married man she was having an affair with. She believed I wasn’t sufficiently supporting her (having endured weekly updates in the 12 months prior). My sister is no loss – she’s a nasty piece of work – but she disconnects me from the remaining family. I now have but just tenuous connections with my nephews and niece. In basic terms I am without family, but I’m fortunate to have friends who are loyal, decent and caring. I can’t complain.

It sounds like a litany of unfortunate events, but there’s no enduring sorrow, and despite everything, few real regrets. In fact I feel buoyant more often than not and hopeful and confident. I’ve been stripped of all the material possessions I had accrued, and the security that went with it, but I understand that I’ve lost nothing of myself. I’m still just as capable as I ever was, still just as determined, and if anything stronger than ever before. On top of all that I’ve released myself from the burden of my pride and feel freer than I can ever remember, no matter what happens. I’m tied to nothing but my own beliefs and I take care to nurture them.

The only real loss is family, but the relationships I really care about I’m certain I can redeem. The rest I couldn’t care less.

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.

Banging heads

The kerfuffle between David Warner and Quentin de Kock in South Africa reminds me of a story when I was just a kid. It’s basically been alleged that de Kock said some pretty unsavoury things about Warner’s wife, to which he reacted. The story I’m about to relate is different to that, but the outcomes where not dissimilar.

When I was growing up mum and dad were regular entertainers, with something on most weekends either at our house, or at one of our friends. There were about 3-4 families who would get together regularly, with others added to it as desired.

For us kids it was great. We knew the families well and were good friends with the kids of them. While the parents cavorted and carried on we did much the same at the end of the house. I was the eldest of us all, but the next two eldest were girls, and both attractive. It’s hard to say how long it went on for in retrospect, but I reckon over the space of about 5-6 years there would have been dozens of get togethers, sometimes formal, but often informal.

In the style of the day they were pretty loose affairs with lots of drinking, a bit of flirting, and a lot of entertaining comment. Looking back I remember the loud voices and the laughter, and on the stereo (or quadraphonic, as we had) Barry White and Neil Diamond were on high rotation. At some point we kids would be tucked away in bed while they partied on, and if it was at another house I still remember being carried to and from the car by my dad, and into the house and bed, full of sleep, but fondly enjoying the feeling of being sheltered in my father’s arms.

Anyway, it was on one of these occasions at our house that we kids heard a sudden, violent uproar. It was a few hours in and suddenly the night seemed to have turned nasty. There were raised voices of men outbidding each other, and the hushed, indistinct tones of the women trying to calm them down. Our ears pricked. We listened, trying to follow the mystery with our ears. A few more voices and the front door slammed shut, after which a low murmur reached us.

It turns out that the husband or boyfriend of one of mum’s new friends – freshly invited to the occasion – had turned to dad and, indicating mum, said “what’s a cunt like you married to a woman like that?”

In other circumstances, or coming from someone different, it might have been considered a joke in poor case. It wasn’t a joke though. My father was a hard man, and clearly this newcomer had not taken to him – I have vague memories of him as being a more bohemian type, counter to my father’s ruthless corporate edge. Not known for his sense of humour, dad reacted, but most of the reaction came from another of his friends who objected to this insult and bailed up the newcomer. Harsh words were exchanged, and there may even have been some minor physical contact.

The women were shocked. Mum, who this guy had obviously taken a shine to (many did), was aghast something so ugly could erupt. From what I was told the wife or girlfriend of the man was terribly embarrassed by her man’s outburst, but was comforted by the other women. In the end they were ushered out and, if I remember right, were never seen at another of our functions again.

There was another, happier occasion, were the men – including my dad – flung their undies on the roof of a friend’s house and raced naked in the inground. The women were disgusted, but as kids we thought it hilarious.

But that’s another story…

Better yes, than no?

I’m on my Facebook account yesterday and randomly I click on the Followers link as I see the number has increased. I scroll down, noting that they’re either people I don’t know, or people who have submitted friend requests I haven’t approved. All, that is, except one.

I give a start as I read the name of my stepsister, someone I haven’t been in contact with since about a month after my mum’s death.

We used to be very close. I was easily much closer to her than I was to my own sister, and she was a favourite of mum to. She was the daughter of the man mum married, and I met her first when she was 17, a very attractive girl still carrying some puppy fat. In the early days she had a bit of a crush on me, which is almost clichéd – the son of the woman your dad is in love with, older, more worldly, a little bit dashing, and giving you the time of day. To be clear I was very fond of her too, but our relationship shifted from borderline inappropriate to fond and affectionate, which is how it remained up until the day mum died.

It changed after that. It’s ancient history now, but when mum’s will was promulgated all bets were off. Any bond between us was set aside in favour for the family ties – she had an older step-brother she’d never been close to, but now found it convenient to ally herself with. Things turned nasty and at some point she unfriended me. The whole thing still leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

About two years ago there was an attempted contact by her via Facebook messenger. It was post-midnight, and after she’d had a few wines I’d figured, and I didn’t get it until the next day. I pondered it for a while. I was torn, angry still, but with a residue of affection remaining. In the end I did respond, but not till a few weeks later, enquiring if she was okay. She never answered.

That’s where it remained until yesterday. I don’t know how long she has been following me, but probably not more than 6 months. I note that she is still friends with a cousin of mine on Facebook, which means she has probably had access to my newsfeed.

I felt very strange on seeing her name. I clicked on it and was taken to her profile. The first thing I noticed is that she’s reverted to her maiden name. Her marriage had always been fraught, and it would be no surprise to hear that they had split. There were photos of her children, now nearly grown up, and pictures of her too, just as I remember her – a handsome, engaging woman.

I was curious, but I also felt stalked. I was surprised it was so easy. And though I’d felt initial surprise on seeing her name, on reflection the surprise lessened. I’m sure she reflects on that time with regret and sorrow, and may even feel remorse at some of the more extreme things done. I’m sure she feels just as affectionate for me – I did nothing wrong except abide by mum’s wishes. And, as the bond was deep, it becomes unsurprising that her thoughts might return to me, years later, her life moved on, and her husband gone.

The question is, what do I do about it?

It’s funny, I was explaining the circumstances of what happened back then to someone about a month ago? She suggested that perhaps it was time to patch it up. I heard, but didn’t think it was time – or perhaps I felt embarrassed by the notion, my pride sticking, thinking that it was not for me to do the patching.

One thing I’ll say about myself is that I can’t bear a grudge. Passion runs hot sometimes and I’d happily kneecap someone who does me wrong, but give it time and it seems pointless. That ability to move on and keep moving on is one of the things that allowed me to survive my travails. Now, faced with this situation, I have to ask myself do I still want to stick to a point five years old?

In my heart, I think not. I was greatly disappointed in her at the time, and saw something in her ruthless and calculating I didn’t like. It was a very unsavoury episode. But we had more than twenty years of being as close as a brother and sister can be. We were sympatico throughout, chemically connected.

I think it was stronger on her side than mine – I think had it been allowed she’d have chosen to take up with me. Even when married, it felt as if we had an easier, more natural relationship than she did with her husband.

People get stuck on things as if they’re written in stone. It’s very common. I’ve never wanted to be so inflexible, and never understood it because it was foreign to me. I suspect ultimately I will send her a message. I think it’s probably the right thing. And given I’ve set myself the task of being more open and receptive then this is a good test of that, and aligns with those principles. Better yes than no, almost always.

Live true

I got a call about 8.30 yesterday morning from JV. He’s a man who likes his sleep, so I was surprised. He was in the car and on the way to his Landmark thing, which is why he was calling.

He told me about this a few weeks ago. He was a reluctant attendee, browbeaten by his wife and his brother and law to go along. He anticipated an intense weekend of little consequence.

We were having a beer at the time, and by inclination I was tempted to agree with him. Even now I’m an old school character who would prefer to deal with his problems personally. I know it’s an archaic attitude and pretty silly, and so I’m always ready to accept other points of view. They’re just not mine.

When it came to Landmark I imagined an intense, cultish bunch of enthusiasts indulging in groupthink and an innocuous brand of brainwashing – and I say that as someone who attended sessions many years ago, when it was called the Forum.

It’s funny what you remember. It’s 30 years ago for me, and by and large the impression is general, with a few memorable moments lodged in my mind.

Like JV I was a reluctant attendee. I was there because my relatively new girlfriend was gung-ho to try it. I was in love and tagged along to an information session, where I allowed myself to be persuaded to hand over my shekels and attend.

Of course by the time the course finally came around she and I had split. It made for an interesting weekend as studiously we avoided each other. Still, at one point she was one of the people waving their hand and asked to share her story. I was sufficiently roused by what she said that suddenly I felt the need to share too – though what I would share I didn’t know. Thankfully I wasn’t called upon.

That’s one of my memories of the weekend, the frequent strange and often disturbing life experiences people had to share. I was amazed to think that so many had experienced such tribulation in their life. It left me with an abiding consideration, that there are mysteries in all of us, and everyone has a story.

I felt like a minnow in comparison. I felt as if my story was of a relatively well-adjusted young man, but I was probably wrong. Certainly though, I’d not had my family killed in a murder suicide, I’d not had my kids die in a car accident, I’d not even been harassed and mistreated as a child.

There was one story particularly that lodged in my memory, but for all the wrong reasons. Amid the stories of tragedy and woe there was one young guy who stood up when called upon. He was olive skinned with dark curly hair and sensuous lips – I can still picture him. He related to us how as a teenager in Tel Aviv, where he came from, he would sneak into the zoo and – there’s no other way to put it – commit acts of bestiality with the animals there.

There had been many confronting stories told on that day, but this one was somehow different, and you could feel it in the room. I know I looked upon him with fascinated wonder. It’s not something you could imagine; and certainly not something you could imagine someone owning up to.

There were a lot of converts that weekend, and a lot that seemed to benefit from it. I wasn’t really one of them. By disposition I’m a non-joiner. For whatever reason I’d rather walk the other way, or at least be out of step, and it has ever been so. I don’t get carried away, and my first response to pretty well everything is rational. There’s a bunch of checkpoints things need to get through before I’ll even think about getting excited. My Achilles heel is perhaps when I tip over into infatuation, if not love, when nothing is rational any more.

And so back then I watched on like a scientist, rather than really getting involved. Sometimes it dragged for me, but at other times it was fascinating. I understood the point of it and didn’t disagree, but the fervour with which it was greeted with was entirely foreign to me. I did learn some things, but mostly by watching other people.

One of the observations I made that was stuck with me since was the hierarchy of personalities. We were separated into groups at one point for exercises. There were ten of us, and what I came to understand is that if you take ten random people there will be one person who will try to assume leadership, another – the born lackey – who will support him, seven who are happy to go with the flow and take instruction, because it’s easier. And there will be one who questions, one who rebels, one who suggests other ways but makes no demands of others (“who made you boss Ted?”). That was me of course, in my now customary role, unconcerned if anyone bothered to follow me or not, but determined to go my own way. I learned that this person becomes very quickly unpopular with the self-proclaimed leader and his lackey, who see him as a trouble maker; and that often – because he makes no demands – the undecided seven begin to drift to him.

That was my experience 30 years ago, but I knew as soon as I heard JV’s voice that his experience was different. There was a lift in his voice, a little extra animation. He’s a lovely guy JV, but he’s a retiring type, even a little passive. Back in the day when he used to hang with me and Whisky he’d be often caught in the middle as we went at each other hammer and tongs. He’s managed a respectable career – he’s a smart dude – but the one thing he would benefit from is a bit more energy, a bit more intent. Though he’s in a senior role, he is one who has gone with the flow.

Just hearing a little extra life in his voice was enough to tell me that something was different. Against expectations he had found himself roused by the message of the day, so much so that he had rung his father the night before and for the first time thanked him for everything he had done for him. It was something he had wanted to do for years, but never committed to. The call was a great success, liberating for JV and heart-warming for his father.

Landmark is something that JV can benefit from because potentially it brings him outside of himself, after all these years. I don’t want to use such a term, but okay, it’s his chance to self-actualise.

He asked if it was something I would be interested in doing. I can’t afford it, but anyway the answer was no. I told him though that I had embarked on my own mini project since the beginning of the year. My memory of the Forum is that attempts to bring out the dark stories and memories that dictate our outlook and behaviour. It’s about bringing those things to the surface and authentically owning them. Ultimately, it’s about shedding the convenient narrative that makes life easier – though less authentic – to live.

That’s basically what I hope to achieve, I told him, and explained how I had set out to share my story as the year went on. I am, however, gratified to think that what I have set myself to do seems validated by experience. The aim is to live true.

Seasonal emotions

Today is the last day of work before Christmas – three sleeps to go.

I’m permeated by a strange mix of emotion. I’m looking forward to the break, and have a generally positive perspective on this time of year. I love the festivities, the good cheer, the general uprise in hope. There’s something about witnessing the anticipation and joy of others, particularly children, that is uplifting. I find myself with a cock-eyed smile often, and even sometimes feel a bit misty.

Christmas by itself hasn’t much relevance to me on a personal level, but that’s not something that troubles me. I’ve accepted this is the case, and in any case a lot of it is my choice – and I’m pretty confident things will change sooner rather than later. Things will be better, and that’s enough.

The last few days though I’ve felt this distant, but persistent sorrow. It’s a strange feeling taken with everything else. It pulls me up a little short. I can’t quite commit to being happy because there is a decent part of me that is sad.

It’s this time of year, and what I feel is repeated all over the world by millions of people. Christmas can be a hard time. Fortunately I don’t feel that. What I feel is what I remember – what I have lost, which is a very human. At this time of year I remember mum.

It’s not just that Christmas is traditionally a time for family. Mum was one of those people who took to Christmas like a kid. She was always the most enthusiastic of all of us. She was a Christmas specialist.

She was exuberant and often over the top. Even to the most cynical – as I was occasionally, almost professionally – her antics were infectious. There was an innocence to her joy, unaffected and untainted by years of life. This was her time, and by being close to her it became our time too.

That’s what I remember, and that’s what I miss. It seems so sad not to have that in my life anymore. If I’m purely selfish, I miss having someone like her to excite me to laughter and joy and affectionate remembrance. And of course it’s very evident that everything fell apart once she was gone. There’s no-one else like her, and probably never will be again. And that’s what I feel, a sorrow I can’t shake even as I go about things brightly. It is what it is.