On the other side


There’s nothing like visiting a hospital to make you grateful for your good health. Sure, we grizzle occasionally about the inconveniences of aching bones or a dodgy back or even a persistent sniffle or a stomach bug. Still, they’re small beer, you realise once you walk the antiseptic corridors of a general hospital, and you see the old and frail, the bent and failing, the patients in walking chairs or with tubes in their nose or coming from their body. To see people made feeble by illness is a levelling experience, and no more so than when you realise for many that this is the terminal stage, and it’s never going to get any better than that.

It’s at once both very humbling but also very scary. There but for the grace of God, you think, not knowing whether this might be in your future also. And you leave the hospital gasping in the fresh air, grateful to be healthy, no matter those inconveniences, grateful to be able to walk in the sunshine unaided and to see friends and live life unfettered by ill health. For a while, you remember, and then it slips from your mind.

I think it’s similar when it comes to mental health, though it’s normally not so clear.

I have complained in recent times, and in recent times have felt myself withdrawn and put upon occasionally and enshrouded in gloom I didn’t want to believe in. I battled at it as if caught in a net and tried in characteristic fashion to think my way out of it – as if the spirit could be healed by the intellect. When you’re in the middle of these episodes, it feels quite difficult, but I understand with perspective that these are inconveniences of the spirit. I am waylaid, but I am healthy. Others are not so lucky.

All this comes to mind because a friend of mine is struggling, and I fear for his future. He’s always been prone to these things. He’s as smart as they come and can be totally charming when he’s up and about and occasionally a total boor. He’s sensitive by nature, which I always think of as a gift bestowed upon us, but it’s a gift with inherent risk. It opens up a door in us through which heightened experience and insight may enter, but on the far side of those is the shadow that can be debilitating – doubt and despair and withering disappointment.

My friend is one of those who can be up and buoyant and occasionally manic, but also almost immobilised by melancholy. When he’s like that, I worry that he won’t look after himself as he should. He becomes apathetic and listless. His thoughts are morose and pessimistic.

He’s got health issues now, which require discipline from him, but I doubt he cares enough to make the necessary effort. When I last spoke to him – he’s interstate – he basically shrugged his shoulders, and he had cancelled on something we discussed he needed to do.

I feel some responsibility for him, maybe because I think I know him better than anyone. And because I know I can help.

My issues seem trivial alongside his, and my perspective is shifted.

I realise that while there are things I need to overcome, they don’t threaten my existence – far from it. I realise how resilient I am and remember the storms I have weathered. I know that no matter how bad things appear, there’s a part of me that will remain true and strong. I’m not made for that terminal failure because I have a bedrock of self-discipline mixed in with self-belief and a perverse pig-headedness.

I might indulge in lairy risk from time to time because it’s fun, but there’s something measured at the heart of me. I’ll do the right thing because it’s my nature, and it seems something that others have recognised in me for many years. I’m seen as reliable, steadfast, trustworthy

And strong. I can be strong for me, but I want to be strong for him now also. Right now, all that constitutes is touching base with him regularly and remaining bright and positive. Nothing negative, no judgement, everything encouraging. And it means opening up and engaging with my true self. He needs to know that he’s loved and that life is a gift that needs to be embraced. I’ll be there when he comes around and knows it for himself.

The official version


Referring back to yesterday’s post, back at the time I started on a piece I never finished describing the event of my uncle’s death.

It’s been sitting on my computer’s hard drive all these years, and I thought maybe now is opportune to bring it out of the dark. I wrote it while it was still fresh in me – I have the feeling I actually wrote some of it on the plane, as is described, and that I may have made notes along the way. Here it is. It’s a bit rough around the edges because I abandoned it before giving it a polish, and there are gaps in it for the same reason. And I was not the writer then that I am now, though it surprising how the themes that recure to me haven’t changed: we all have our themes. Read it, or not.

A Death in the Family (2003)

The plane headed to the Sunshine Coast. As we took off, I looked at my fellow travellers. Few were under fifty. Most were grey-haired, retirees heading for the sun, or executives looking for a break. Nearby sat a couple in their sixties, he in suit and tie, his wife dressed up in her Sunday best, reminders of another era when people dressed up to travel. Across the aisle, sat a man about 60 in stylishly casual Lacoste gear. He read the Financial Review, and later, he opened a satchel and made notes: an executive not yet in holiday mood. Besides me, there sat a couple in their fifties, silver-haired and handsome, speaking in low tones and reading their magazines.

And then there was me. I was not off on an escapade to the sun. I knew that. I had felt rushed, cramming my travel arrangements into a few short hours until I was here, on my way. On the plane, I relaxed, my work was done for the moment, but I felt out of sync. I looked around in between reading my own magazine. I could not fail to notice the difference between myself and everyone else that travelled. I was younger by 10 years at least. Unlike the generation of people around me who had dressed for the holiday in a variety of fashionable and conservative clothes, I was in jeans. I wore red shoes. I was different, though. I was not on holiday. I was going to bury someone.

As we travelled through the air, I read. Later I too got out a pad and a pencil and began to make notes. I should have been at work. As we travelled through the air, the meeting I had organised should have been sitting. Like the man across from me, I had yet to divorce my life at home from the place I was heading for. In an hour or so, the plane would land, and a different reality take hold. Now though, high above the land, I was in a kind of limbo, a no mans land. I put my pencil down – I had been doodling. I closed my eyes, feeling tired, thinking about these things and wondering what would come.

Then we landed. We descended, low over the ocean, it seemed, the clouds low and all around us like fog. Then the plane bumped down on the wet tarmac. Outside, the rain fell. What I could see as I waited to alight was distant hills, green and shrouded in mist. Then I walked from the plane and into the terminal. There waiting for me was my father and my aunt. I felt like smiling.

The world changed today. That’s how I was going to begin this piece. It’s too grandiose, though, too pompous even, too impersonal. Still, it’s true. Each person is a world unto themselves. A unique world like no other. All these millions, billions, of worlds combine to create the great world we are all part of. It changes every day. It is added to, subtracted from, it never remains still. Such is life.

So it is, but for all those infinite changes, it becomes much more to us when one of those small worlds subtracted belongs to us. In the big scheme, it matters little perhaps, in our world though it is great.

Such thoughts flow through me in the days following. We – my father, Aunt, and I – attend to the necessary preparations, from the funeral to the wake. Speeches are written, ministers spoken to, beer and wine bought by the dozen. In between, we have lunch on rainy days at great hotels by the water. One night we meet with more family for a meal at a good restaurant where my father and I clash, as we ever have. In the evenings, we sit in my Aunt’s small courtyard with a cool beer and chat. Throughout it all and in the midst of this unreal time before the funeral, we remember.

There’s no telling what you will remember. Memories are unpredictable, random. Small things are sometimes recalled while great things overlooked. It’s different 

Among the memories recalled, I have my own. I remember once years before, when I was in my early twenties, how he described a pub in Cremorne as a ‘cunt farm’. It had taken me aback at the time and later led to some ribald smiles with a friend. This was his recommendation to us, the place we should go to, coming as it was from the harsh persona he occasionally adopted. There was a smile in his words, despite his crudity; they were not evidence of a crass mind, but rather, I think, an effort to connect with the nephew a generation younger than him, the nephew he loved. And perhaps in his words, there was a desire for the world he imagined I lived in – beer, women, good times. 

As if to counter-balance that memory, I recalled other moments. There is a photo of him asleep on the floor beside his infant son also asleep. He always loved children, and of all the things he wished for in life, they were always uppermost. That explained his love for me initially. I remember how I was the bartender on the night of his 21st birthday party at his parents home. I’m about eight, I think. I felt so chuffed to be given the responsibility and proud as all his long-haired friends were all so good to me, laughing and joking treating me, I thought, like almost an adult. Later my uncle married, and then once more before finally he had the children he dreamed of. 

From there, the story changes, a few years of stable suburban life, a shift from Sydney to Brisbane, and then separation and divorce. Far away in Melbourne, I heard all of this distantly, rarely seeing or speaking to him but for family events. I had known somehow that the divorce had been acrimonious, that, according to some, his ex-wife had turned the children against him. Living with my aunt, he was finally diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him, no surprise after years of smoking and drinking. The end had come as it almost always does with cancer, ugly and undignified. 

Though I had my memories, I was at one remove. He was my uncle, not my brother. I had grown up with him distantly in my life rather than as a member of the household. I sat silently then as my father and my aunt spoke of their memories. I listened curiously to what I heard, watching as closely as I listened. This was something I rarely experienced. 

My father is not an ordinary person. I suppose many sons might say the same thing about their own dad with as much certainty. Perhaps that is how we all view our fathers. Still, I believe it to be true.

There has always been something intimidating about my father. I saw it myself but experienced it differently from how other people did. It was not some effect of physical being – he was of average height only, though always accounted as being handsome. It did not come by way of great charm or wit – he could get by but was no more accomplished than most intelligent people. In his presence, there was some hint of that mind that went deep, that intelligence that had allowed him to exploit his fundamental gifts. If anything, his presence was the product of all that and the unerring sense of self that left him with.

Travelling in with him from the airport, I had come to silently articulate the essence of his person: his will. More than any other person I had ever met, he was defined by his sheer will to win, succeed, and persist. It had defined much of my relationship with him. Our conversations over the years peppered with his exhortations of will and intent. As much as anything, I had come to know him by these things and had absorbed many of his lessons – though with a sceptical eye. The man the world saw, the monolith, was built upon this unwavering will. I had lived close to it and known it as a son does, with both love and a sense of rebellion. As he had climbed the corporate ladder year after year, others had received it differently. 

In the car with him and in the days after, while we waited to bury his brother, I had sensed something different in my father. Had that famous will wavered a little? Is that what I had sensed? No, not really – the will remained, it was not so easily dismissed. What I had sensed, though, was doubt. Grief and doubt. The natural grief of a man who has come to bury his baby brother; and doubt, as if for the first time he had questioned his actions, his feelings and attitude to the same brother now departed. 

Doubtless, it was natural, but it was new to me. I don’t think I had ever seen my father doubt anything. I don’t know if he ever considered the possibility – he was different from other fathers, other men. In those days, he seemed morose and quiet, his emotions checked, but barely at times. 

In many ways, he was as he ever was, industrious and active, making sure all the preparations for the funeral went to plan. His eyes had the same intelligence, his movements the same direct expression of his will. It was when he stopped, he changed. In those moments, he appeared weathered. The hard outer shell had been breached, and exposed was the softer stone beneath, unprotected now, raw to the elements, visible to the eye. Somewhere deeper inside him was that hardcore that drove him forward, the essential him, that part of him that would forever lead him on – but for now, it came second.

We piled into separate cars and started the short drive to the funeral parlour. It had been intended that we drive in convoy so that the out of towners amongst us not get lost. The inevitable occurred, though, when the car in front of us got the green light we missed. We sat in the car, and as the light changed back from red to green, we edged forward, unsure of the way and in our collective mind trying to piece together the fragmentary directions we had received. Too late, we realised, just as we passed it, that the turn off we needed was on our left. We drove on, unable to turn around on the motorway until we reached the next exit. Returning to the motorway we turned right and, after a few turns, found ourselves at the funeral parlour. We were late. Outside, a crowd gathered, murmuring to each other and waiting to be called in. My father and my aunt stood amongst them, their eyes to the road. At our arrival, the word was given: we could enter.

The chapel was modern, though, in truth, I have little experience of these places. It had a high vaulted ceiling, like a modernist church, bland brown brick walls and a pew and benches constructed from a polished honey-coloured wood. Behind the pew, there was the coffin resting on a metal stand.

The crowd filtered in. Feet scuffed the hard floor. The soft murmur reverberated off the brick walls and beneath the high ceiling. We, the family, sat in the first row. And the service began.

It began conventionally, with a man who had never met my uncle standing before us extolling his many virtues. He had been well briefed. I listened, interested but unmoved. They were words unconnected at that moment with the man I had known. They described a life in its bare facts, interspersed with the odd anecdote. Behind him, as he spoke, a video screen displayed slides from my uncle’s life, one after the other. My eyes were drawn to this and stayed there. I heard the words, but the stories I felt were in the photos and memories inspired by them. With a jolt, I saw myself in several of them. In one, I was young, tall and gangly, innocent in another more knowing. Some of the words spoken registered to me then: he had loved his family. Yes, that was true. It was more than conventional words, but the truth. He had loved me, truly, had been proud of me, I had heard, and that struck me. I felt emotion swell in me until I felt I would choke with it. For all I had thought of him, I knew he had been pure in this: he had loved without qualification.

My father stood then to give the eulogy. He stood for a moment without speaking. This was characteristic of him: he was a man who chose his words carefully. It was more than that, though. As I watched, I saw as he tried to marshall his emotions. He looked down at his notes and then up at us. His eyes were wide open. He began to speak.

He spoke of growing up, of how Paul, his brother, had come late into the family. He described Paul as a child – one of the pictures had shown him them, a smiling, good looking boy with dark curly hair. Though my father didn’t mention it my uncle had idolised my father. Coming late into the family he had been a boy still when my father had become a man. He had seen perhaps the charisma and talent in my father that others had spoken off. He grew up wanting to be like my Dad, of using him as the measuring stick he could never reach. He was a different person, soft and gentle, pliant and hopeful.

As my father spoke, he paused a couple of times. Each time it was to compose himself, to stave off the tears that welled in him. Here he stood, eulogising his baby brother, dead before his time. It was when my father came to speak of my uncle’s family that he faltered and then failed. His red-rimmed eyes bled tears. He shook his head, tried to go on, but could not. I’m sorry he muttered and stood down. Silence engulfed the chapel. And as I watched my father, bent under his grief, I felt something break in me.

It is hard to explain exactly what was happening at that moment. I cried for my uncle, but I cried for my father also. I had never seen him like that. Never. Like my uncle, I had always looked up to my father. I admired his strength and control. As a man, I believed in it and tried to emulate it myself. Now, as I watched my father split in two and all inside revealed, I felt as if I was witnessing something fantastic and unknown. And in his breakdown, I felt my own undoing. I cried at his grief. On the one hand, I saw in his tears permission to shed my own; and I cried for him and his sorrow.

The service ended. We stood, and outside the chapel spoke to the visitors like hosts and invited them back to my aunts if they so desired. My tears had dried, but I felt my eyes swollen by them. I was embarrassed, but people were gentle with me and understanding. I was grateful to them.

The mourners piled into the small rear courtyard of my Aunt’s home. Tropical foliage ringed the space, and overhead the sky brooded forebodingly. That was distant though, here and now in that small space the family, the friends, the odd acquaintance gathered all in their best funeral clothes, they talked until the air was full of it, a social babble; occasionally amid it a laugh could be heard: the deed was done. Like most funerals, people who had not seen each other since the last funeral met and exclaimed at the time past. More than once, I was pulled up. Is that really, H? Haven’t you grown? Then with a laugh: the last time I saw you, you were so high, indicating somewhere around my shoulder. I smile and laugh along; for a few moments, I linger agreeably before moving on. I do this throughout the crowd, the unofficial family representative doing the necessary glad-handing. 

My father has recovered, is his familiar self, but even on his best days, this is not his thing. Today with his brother buried, he responds as he meets with the distant family he can remember from his childhood, he recalls shared memories and moments for decades ago, and every so often, he joins in the laughter; occasionally, there is a twinkle in his eye, but there is something still in him. My Aunt is different. She hustles around to make sure everything is ticking over as it should, a drink in her hand. Soon enough, she finds herself recalling old times also. Happily, that leaves me to flit through the crowd filling drinks and sharing their memories. For me, it is easy, but it also a distraction.

As the evening closes in, the crowd thins. Left are about a dozen, family mostly, some of whom have flown up for the occasion. By now, most are seated, a glass of wine in their hand, a gin and tonic, a beer. The conversation is quieter, the reminiscing continues, but now it is mostly about my uncle. I sit watching, silent mostly, listening in to memories I had heard before and others new to me; I have my own memories. Mostly the conversation is fond, though tinged with sadness. Occasionally it becomes more.

It is my father who seems at the centre of this with my Aunt butting in. My fathers’ syntax is familiar to me. I had forgotten, but I remember as he speaks, thinking this is a part of him. This is what I might remember when he is gone. “No, no, no…” he says even if agreeing with you, wresting the conversation back within his control. Looking on, I observe the respect with which he seems to be accorded within the family, and not just for his loss. I think back to the stories I have been told, of how he was the golden-haired boy, even if a bit wild, the prodigy who was always going to go far. It seemed an accepted truth, a destiny foretold and fulfilled, the man in the family who has gone the furthest of anyone.

Then his eyes glisten again. His words come slowly, precisely, but hard as if going by an obstacle. Someone tries to ease his way, but he continues, hastening: this too is familiar. 

The scandal of the day is that none of his children has attended the funeral despite calls and coercion. They are young still and in the grip of their mother, generally agreed to be an ‘evil cow’. She claims they don’t want to come. I doubt that, but even so, I think it’s wrong. They should be there. Their mother should insist. 

Though my father does not say it, it was the thought that his brother had been abandoned and betrayed by his family that had broken him. In a way, it had been an act lower than he could comprehend. I think he saw it as the ultimate insult as if my uncle could see and know how lowly he was regarded. What he looked upon bitterly and sorrowfully I was more sanguine and cynical about. It was disgusting that his children were not there, but I believed that they would come to regret it in years to come.

No-one adds anything. No-one can disagree, but nor do they want to speak of it. Then everyone is gone, shaking hands, kissing cheeks, exchanging consoling words and fond memories. In the dark, the cicadas ring loudly. We sit exhausted in the yard, a bottle open before us, and the conversation goes on into the night. Tomorrow we return to our lives, we go on; for now, it is all about my uncle.

So it is


I caught up for a long night of drinking on Friday with Cheeseboy and JV.

One of the first things discussed with JV is what was happening with the role I’d applied for at his work. They’d sent me an email midweek saying they’d be in touch by the end of the week, but I’d heard nothing. If you remember, I was one of the final two contenders. JV told me he’d spoken to the hiring manager during the week and been told they were going with the other candidate. They liked me plenty, but they thought I might get bored in the role – another case of being perceived as overqualified for the role.

There’s a possibility that another, more senior role, may become vacant which they’ll consider me for.

None of this is official and anything could happen still, but I’ll take this at face value.

Earlier in the day, I’d pulled the pin on a long-running project we couldn’t get over the line. The project had been on the books for 6 months, but progress had been marred by the vendor’s incompetence, issues with Facebook, and now, a looming black-out period. Underpinning all this was a general lack of faith or trust that the vendor could deliver and support a viable application.

I’ve had qualms for months but pressed on knowing that this was a priority for the business. It’s been an uncomfortable position. There was never a strong buy-in by those who would use the application, who were often unhelpful, and shared a lack of confidence in the vendor. For the last couple of months, I’ve had to push through that, but I had to make a call on Friday.

It’s not easy to terminate a project you’ve invested so much time and effort into, even if it’s unpopular. Often it’s the wisest thing you can do, however, because to deploy something you don’t believe in is asking for trouble.

I had to call up the big manager and explain the situation. I presented the facts to him, and he agreed we couldn’t go on. He sounded very disappointed, and I felt full of regret. I hung up the phone thinking it was the right call but wondering if there was anything I could have done to save it. It felt like a failure – this is the first time I’ve ever done this.

While I was on the phone with him, he asked how I was and reported that they were proceeding with what he called ‘option two’. He’d spoken to HR and the upshot – I believe – is that my role will be re-classified, and extra dollars will come my way as a result. That will be welcome, though I doubt it’ll be the full whack I’m hoping for come the next financial year.

Throughout all of this, I began to wonder if I had the wrong end of things. I don’t know why or how, but despite my disappointment at the failed project, or because of it, perhaps, I felt energised. I wanted to do more. Above all, I wanted to extend my brain cells. One of the things I miss is the opportunity to be creative. It’s something that comes easily to me and has been very beneficial in my career for many years.

These days, my role seems more to manage than to create things. I think it’s that lack of creative opportunity that has left me feeling a bit useless. Creativity is really my strong point – the ability to imagine how things connect and to put together the framework by which a little is leveraged into a lot. I felt as if the time was right for me to pitch those ideas again.

Work has little idea of this aspect of me because they’ve barely bothered to look. I can die far more than what they ask of me, and perhaps that’s the answer – to do more rather than less.

This impulse coincided with a return of my writing. I’ve barely been able to write for months. I’ve felt uninspired and unmotivated. Generally, I’ve been too flat to make an effort, and when I did, it was a grind. Then, in a hurry, it came back to me Thursday night as I lay in bed. I’d turned the light off to sleep, but as I lay there, fragments of the story I’m working on came to mind, where I embellished it lying the dark.

This is not the first time this has happened, and I know now that the trick is to put it on paper while you have it, for by morning, it will be gone. Three times then, I switched on the lamp beside my bed and scribbled down the words in my head. I felt illuminated and ultimately grateful.

By now, I know this is how it works for me. I go through writing seasons. It’s hard, and then it becomes easy, without any real understanding of why. I’m barren of ideas, even belief, and then I become fertile again without warning. So it is. So everything is.

As the sun sets


I drove across town yesterday to have lunch with my dad. He’s about an hour’s drive away from me but living in the general area where I grew up. It was a bright, warm day and I wasn’t convinced I wanted to travel all that way to see him – especially as I was so busy with work. But then, I hadn’t seen him since before Covid struck.

I made it to his place and met his dog and was shown around the comfortable home he’d made for himself. We set out for lunch, and I asked if it was okay if he could drive us. I had messages I had to attend to from work because it never goes away.

Originally we were going to have lunch at the Lower Plenty Hotel. I grew up in Lower Plenty and remember the hotel just off the golf course, though apparently it was torn down and something new built in its place. In the end, we went somewhere closer – a cafe in Were St, Montmorency.

A couple of years after mum left dad, and after I left school, she bought a unit in Rattray Road in Monty. I’m not sure now how long we lived there, but there was many a day I would walk down the road to the Were Street shops, and dozens of times I caught a train from the station. (When I was younger, and when my parents were still together, I remember creeping out of the house in the middle of the night and walking to Were st. Together, Peter Woody and I broke into the Reece plumbing store there, just for the fun of it – we took nothing – not knowing that there was a security guard on duty patrolling the premises. We eluded him by the skin of our teeth. I was about 15 then. There was also a cinema in the street early days, and we saw the original Rocky there when it came out.)

Yesterday we sat in the sun and had a light lunch catching up on things. His poodle, Henry, had come along, too.

I mentioned not long ago how disturbing I found my father aging. It seems odd that it’s not something I ever thought about much before, but it comes to mind regularly now. He walks with a cane, has various ailments that need managing, and is not nearly the energetic man he once was. As we were sitting there at one stage, he actually said: “getting old is hard”.

Besides everything else, he spoke of balance issues, which seem to be a common talking point in his group of elderly friends. He made reference at one stage at how he had fallen down and how it was a regular occurrence.

I find it depressing and not a little daunting. As we drove back to his place, I even thought: he drives like an old man now. He still has all his faculties and retains a certain sharpness, but he drives slowly and deliberately.

This is not uncommon in elderly people, as I’m sure we all know. I’ve always thought it was a sign of conservatism and perhaps a certain fear, but I had never thought about it in any depth until yesterday. I would never have believed that my aggressive father would become this, but I wondered if it was because he was now aware of his vulnerability.

When you’re young, you feel strong and certain, or a lot of us do – and never more true than for my father. But he is frail. He has proof of his decline, and clearly, it’s in his mind. The realisation that he will die one day, and sooner than before, is probably in his mind. He’s vulnerable. Anything could happen at any time. Why risk it on the roads? And at least that’s something controllable – so he takes it slow, just to be sure.

This is my speculation – we didn’t discuss it. I left him feeling uneasy, for him, and for me too. If this is his journey, then as his son, I’m probably on the same path. It’s a powerful motivator to remain healthy.

I know that if I ever reach a stage of physical decrepitude or mental incompetence, then I’d rather exit the stage.

A grateful moment


I had the best sort of chance encounter today.

I had a physio appointment this morning. The physiological is located within the main building of a retirement village. I’ve been three times now, and each time it’s been a hive of activity, as well as being vaguely depressing. I guess lively is good, considering the alternative, but I come away each time thinking I never want to end up in such a place.

As I was sitting in the car preparing to leave afterwards, a tap came at my window. There was an old man there. He’d have been over eighty, short – about 5’5″ – and bent over clutching a walking stick. I wound the window down. “If I give you $10,” he said, “will you take me to Centre Road?”

I couldn’t knock him back and, declining his money, told him to hop in.

As we drove, we talked. I asked him polite questions and, like a lot of elderly people, he was pleased to answer at length. It was only a short drive, 7-8 minutes, and I was happy to listen.

In the way of things he told me he’d been at the home for 18 years. He’d moved into a villa unit with his wife, before shifting into main accommodation because of a disagreeable neighbour. I gathered his wife was dead.

He was Jewish he told me and had settled in Ivanhoe after coming to Australia, until all the kids grew up and the neighbourhood changed. He had two sons, one in Melbourne, and the other living in Israel.

I asked him what his home country was. He told me he came here from France in 1949, though he was from Poland originally. He’s survived the Nazis (his word), but it had been very hard. France had been difficult, too. He needed a permit for everything, and he’d been told he should go back to where he’d come from. Instead, he came to Australia.

The main thing for him is that he wanted to get away from Europe. Initially, he was going to go to Canada, but that changed, and he ended up in Sydney before coming to Melbourne. It was the best thing he’d ever done.

And on that, we parted. I pulled up by the side of the road near Bentleigh station, we shook hands, and slowly he unbent himself getting out of the car.

As I had said to him when he thanked me, it was my good deed for the day. I actually got a great deal of satisfaction from meeting him, and being able to help him. It’s moments like this that open your heart and – without knowing exactly why – you come to understand the meaning of being grateful.

Holding back the tide


I’ve just returned from the cafe, where I had two flat whites as I contemplated the world. It’s a lovely morning. It looks like being a lovely day. I headed to the cafe on restless impulse, wanting to break the workday routine. It’s surprising I don’t do it more often now that I’m working from home. I might grab a take-away coffee a couple of times a month, but much less often do I sit down to enjoy one.

I followed on a few work conversations on my mobile while I was there, and otherwise took the time to touch base with people I hadn’t spoken to for a while, sending them messages. Mostly though, I just sat there watching the comings and goings in quiet thought.

It’s something I’m quite adept at. I know many people need to be doing something to feel occupied, but I’m happy to just sit there. There’s always a lot going on in my head, and I’m happy – perhaps too happy – to indulge it.

As I walked in the sunshine towards the cafe, I reflected on how I was still fit and relatively healthy, and to the eye presented a robust figure. For some reason, I thought of a time, 20 years into the future perhaps, when I’m not quite so robust, and when the clothes I wear today would hang off a reduced frame. Though, perhaps not.

It doesn’t seem a happy thought, but there wasn’t much emotion in it. It was more a reflection on the nature of time, of how things change, about transition. It’s in-line with a lot of similar reflections lately, though from a different angle. It seems random, but I think this came to mind today because of my dad, who I spoke to yesterday.

I don’t know how true it is that you grow into your parents. In theory that would mean in 20 odd years, I’ll be the man my dad is today. I’m not sure how true that is in reality. We look alike, more or less, but otherwise, I’ve always been a bigger, more muscular version of him, and though there are other similarities in character, our personalities diverge.

With that said, I remember him as a man of constant motion, not busy but measured, as well as a man of constant motivation. There was a point to everything he did, and his activities directed to an outcome. He had a successful business career, but the abiding mental picture I have of him is bustling around bare-chested and in a pair of shorts busy in the garden, or with some piece of home maintenance.

I hardly see him these days, but the picture presented by his words – and on those few occasions I do see him – is starkly different. Objectively, and statistically, you’d think he has only a few more years in him.

I asked yesterday about his health, and he filled me in, though without complaint. He’s a practical man who doesn’t believe in self-indulgence. He’s getting by well enough, except that for a few years he’s been beset by a range of ailments. He has auto-immune complaints generally, which include chronic arthritis in his legs. He had kidney stones removed last year. He also has Sjogren’s disease, which sounds nasty. He’s not nearly as active or mobile as he used to be, though he remains mentally agile.

You listen to such things and can’t help but wonder if it’s a forerunner of what you, as his son, can expect. Maybe, but I tend to regard it as a warning. It pains me to see him like this, and it feels wrong, though I know that’s how life goes – how time takes us from one state to another. I’m making active efforts to become fitter and healthier lately, and it seems to be working, and it’s fear of that decline that drives it.

When the sun is shining, as it is today, when you feel fit and well, when you’re at your ease sipping on a second flat white, it all seems very distant – and somehow surreal. How does one thing become another? Gradually, is the answer, in ways you hardly notice at the time until one day you look in the mirror.

My ailments have settled down. I feel better, and look it too, and the physical signs are improving. I expect that will continue. From here on in it seems sensible to be more mindful of many things that once you accepted without a second thought. It seems that’s one thing you learn as you go along, though every day has something new.

But there is now. And in the next month I’ll be having lunch with dad, and tomorrow night I’m having cocktails in the city and on Saturday off to a steak restaurant. Things might change, but we always have the moment.

Girding for the real world


It’s a beautiful day in Melbourne. Near perfect really. I’ve not long returned from the first walk of the new year with Cheeseboy and the dogs along the beach. The sun is bright and warm, the sky an uninterrupted blue – the sort of weather that recalls seasons past of blazing sunshine, the beach, cool drinks and barbecues.

On our return leg, we stopped at the hole in the wall cafe we often do and ordered some smoothies. We got talking to a retired couple, who were the typically well educated and amiable types that inhabit the neighbourhood. They admired the dogs and spoke of their children and the world we live in today. They told of how their globe-trotting children had returned to Melbourne to live, knowing this was the best of worlds. We all agreed how lucky we were to live in such a place, safe from so much strife and with the glories of summer upon us.

So much of this is baked into our cultural memory. I sit here in a pair of shorts with the Sydney test match on TV in the background. Later, I’ll visit a friends place for a cool beer or two and a barbecue dinner. Tomorrow is back to work.

It’s work that gives me misgivings, though it should be easier now than in years past. I’ll stay in bed until I feel right to get up, I’ll throw on a pair of shorts (36 degrees tomorrow) and wander into my home office, where I’ll flick on my work laptop for the first time in over three weeks.

I expect to take it slowly. I have no great appetite for the job. I’ve been keeping tabs on things and clearing off my emails on my phone, and have been a silent witness to a few dramas in my absence. In a way, it’s good, as it demonstrates the sort of things we must contend with regularly. But I’m jaded by it, too. All of it is so familiar as to be stale in me now. I don’t want to return to the same things, like Groundhog Day. I seek something fresh.

This break has not had the desired effect of freshening up. I hoped that both physically and psychologically, a few weeks away from the job would act as a tonic for me.

Physically, I feel drained still. I’m not sleeping as well as I should, though I suspect there is more to that than simple relaxation. My health has been up and down though it may be settling down despite another episode last week. (In the absence of a decisive diagnosis from my GP I’ve self-diagnosed myself with dyspepsia, and self-medicated myself for it).

Psychologically? I have no interest in my work. Whether it’s just the job or a general condition, I don’t know. I feel a bit cynical about the place. In the past, I would push past it. That was the difference: for years and years, no matter how I felt, I would suit up for the challenge. Now I wonder why.

I finished reading The Island Inside yesterday. I had tears in my eyes as I closed the book. There seemed so much wisdom and grace within its pages, and I realised how much I missed those things. They’re in short order worldwide, and their absence makes for existential pangs.

So much in the book evoked memories, for I have experienced nature in the raw and breathed it in. I’ve felt the spiritual curiosity and sense of communion that nature inspires when we open ourselves to it. I count myself fortunate to have had the opportunities to experience that, and the sensitivity to be aware of it.

In the vastness of life, the problem is that returning to a job such as mine feels so small. It’s not irrelevant, but it feels it. If I do it, then it’s because I must – but I can’t take it seriously.

I feel sure this is what so many feel when they a mid-life crisis encroaches upon them. I may have encountered this sooner in the normal course of events, but was distracted clinging onto the wreckage trying to survive. I have survived, more or less, and now this.

It may be a phase, but it feels true – but perhaps that’s how it works, as it does for much of life: we reach an accommodation with the truth. Ultimately, life demands pragmatism. I teeter on the edge between them, yearning for the pure air of ideal knowledge and the pragmatic need to push forward, to overcome.

I have options, at least. Let’s see what unfolds over the next few weeks. In the meantime, work must be.

A matter of conviction


One of my character flaws is that I like to control things – or, at least, be in a situation where things are controlled. It’s not hard and fast, and it applies much less to social situations than professionally. And the truth of it is that some things are best enjoyed without control by letting go – but those are rare.

I’ll feel uncomfortable sometimes when situations are confused and unmanaged. It’ll frustrate me, and if no-one steps in to take control, I’ll often do so myself. Note, it doesn’t have to be me managing things – I’m very happy for someone else to take the lead, just as long as some order is restored. In my experience, most are unwilling or uninterested in taking that part – and into that vacuum, I’ll step.

It’s one reason I find myself taking the lead in things so often, or directing the conversation. It seems convenient, as oftentimes, others are happy to fall into line once a direction has been set. I admit, there are elements of a control freak in me.

It’s much less obvious in a social setting. When everyone’s talking at once trying to decide what we’re going to do or where we’re going to go, I’ll often jump in to hush their baying voices and break the deadlock. I’ll seek consensus by leading the discussion. Generally, I’m the one who’ll go and speak to an official or organise things formally. In actual fact, it pisses me off sometimes that it’s always me, and often I’ll encourage others to do that instead. But, people fall into roles, and mine is as the organiser, for want of a better word.

On Thursday night, at the restaurant, I became frustrated by JV because I thought he was being wishy-washy. It was such a trivial thing – waiting to be led to our table – but it was the lack of decisive action that riled me. It was unreasonable and unusual, and I knew it even as I urged him, repeatedly, to do something, but it didn’t stop me from doing it.

It was a small thing and soon forgotten, but afterwards, it seemed significant. This is the sort of thing that happens when I’m under stress – it’s behaviour that is symptomatic of something deeper. In this case, I was unwell and had been feeling it for a while. I was tired, and I had other issues I was dealing with, and continue to. Basically, I’d have preferred to be home, but that’s no excuse. It’s not how I want to be.

As I do, I seek patterns. In the time since I’ve paired this moment with our tour of the vineyards on Wednesday.

Wednesday was benign, but it was also indicative. I noticed throughout the day how every winemaker was mainly addressing themselves to me. I thought that was because I was the most curious: because my gaze didn’t shift from them as they spoke and I listened to them with intent. I asked questions of them, genuinely interested. I was a good audience.

But then I realised that this was happening even as we walked in the door. I was the one that they went to first as if my presence was greater than the others. I thought, intent communicates itself. If you have a purpose, people observe it, even if they don’t consciously understand it. I was the one that entered their space boldly, and so to me, they turned.

These are probably related attributes. It’s possible to be one without the other, but I’d suggest there’s generally a high correlation between the two, as they are different aspects of the same thing.

What did I make of this? I wondered how much of this was instinctive behaviour, and the answer must be ‘most of it’. That’s important to note because I’ve been feeling very vulnerable for a while, but it appears that it’s not evident to others. In my mind, I see myself as much frailer and uncertain than ever before. It embarrasses me sometimes. Occasionally I feel a kind of shame. I feel diminished, and as if I’m a lesser man.

It tells me that how I see myself and how the world sees me are two different things. It tells me that no matter how I see myself, many of my ‘old’ behaviours persist. What then, is the truth? Is there a truth? Is it one single thing? It comes back to the question that has dogged me for a while now: who am I?

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but it’s always been important that I’m strong and masculine. It’s as if that’s the persona I found suited me best as I was developing and adopted it as my own. What are the attributes of that? Calm, decisive, brave, resilient, honest, steadfast, generous, determined, perhaps a little stubborn, and with some fierceness thrown in there. They’re not a bad set of qualities to aspire to, but the point is – I needed to be that man, and any variation from it was a blow to my psyche.

That’s where I’ve found myself in recent times. For many years I think I embodied many of those virtues, though my perspective is biased. The important thing is, I believed I did. In more recent times, that belief has waned. And I guess that is at the core of my recent problems – the loss of belief, and with that, a sense of identity. I’ve lost conviction.

I guess one solution is that I could become that person again, or at least, convince myself that I was. I could go on my way blithely then, as I did for years before. I have no issue at all in becoming that person – I think he’s fundamentally a sound character, but it’s not as easy as wishing it. The important thing here is not how other people see me, but how I see myself.

The healthier solution is to remove the meaning from it. Be that man, by all means, but remove the soul-deep need to be him. In a way, this is what I’ve been trying to do for the last couple of years – to remove myself from moral need.

We’re talking about the ego, which places unreasonable expectations on us. As soon as we feel the need to be something, or be seen as something, then our ego has us in its sway. It’s human nature that we are subject to its claims. Such is vanity. But are we fully ourself if a tyrant within us demands all for itself? I see it in others sometimes, am embarrassed for them, and wonder what others see in me.

I don’t know how to do this – how to separate myself from my ego. I’m sure it can’t be done completely – the ego has a role – but I’m guessing that recognising the need for change is a good start.

This is an ongoing challenge, but if I’m to find peace, something that must be overcome. I won’t always be well behaved, but if I’m to find my way I feel sure humility is a key to it.

New year, but…


I guess the news here is that Covid is back in Victoria. Not a great surprise, even after 61 days being free from it. It came from Sydney, where the outbreak has been awfully mismanaged – though unmanaged might be a better descriptor. It was almost inevitable, especially at this time of year, that the virus would make it’s way over the border and infect us once again.

There’s a lot of cranky Victorians today. Most of their anger is directed at Gladys, who has failed to mandate mask-wearing in Sydney as the outbreak continued to spread. Her communication has been unclear and wishy-washy, and often at odds with itself. Watching from this side of the border, Melburnians have been wringing their hands and exhorting them to make mask-wearing compulsory, and tighten restrictions – even lockdown. (They haven’t because of brand management, I suspect, and because Gladys is too weak to stand up to the PM – I feel sure that NSW is following his directives.)

Too late for that now, though had the NSW government acted with more certitude sooner I suspect this would all be over by now. As it is, it’s out in the community and spreading across the nation. Borders are closing again, naturally, and restrictions tightening.

So far, there are eight reported cases of community infection in Victoria. The source is a returned traveller from Sydney, and it caught hold in a Thai restaurant only a few kilometres from where I live – and about eighty metres from where I had dinner last night, in Black Rock.

All this had an impact on New Years eve plans. I wasn’t planning a big one anyway, but after the news yesterday there was no way I was going to attend a crowded bar or pub, as was the plan for later in the night. As it was, we had a good dinner, returned to someones home for a drink, and I left a little after 11 – I was in bed with the light off at 11.35. So much for the new year.

I’m hardly upset by that. I don’t feel obliged to celebrate just because of the date. Today will be an easy day.

It’s common to reflect at the start of a new year, and there’s more to reflect on now than most years. I have no resolutions but for general intentions. My biggest priority is to get myself healthy, physically and mentally.

Physically, it’s a worry. There are two issues. Firstly, sleep. I used to an Olympic standard sleeper, but it’s gone way off over the last 6-9 months. I hoped this break would help, but it hasn’t. I stay longer in bed, but I sleep no better, and oftentimes, my sleep is diabolical. It leaves me weary all the time and generally lethargic. I don’t know what to do.

More concerning is my digestion or metabolism or whatever it is. I reported a while back at how bloated I was feeling – well, nothing has improved. If anything, it’s got worse. It’s a very uncomfortable feeling, as most of you will know. It’s got so bad that every time I eat it ratchets up as if I’ve just consumed a big three course meal.

Imagine that – the feeling you have after a big Christmas dinner perhaps, unbuttoning your pants to ease the strain and finding a good seat to vegetate in undisturbed while your meal is digested. That’s okay, you’ve earned that, and it’s only a few days a year you get to feel it – except, for me, I feel it every time I eat now. It’s as if my stomach has reduced to the size of a walnut and everything fills me up.

I churn and brew. It makes sleep even more difficult, and everything else problematic. Basically, it means that I’m eating less – averaging one meal a day, with perhaps nibbles in between. It mitigates the frequency but doesn’t fix the problem. And, perversely, I’ve ballooned.

I’ve wondered if it was particular foods that did it, but there seems no pattern. I stuck to proteins, and had the problem, then went off them, and it continued. It might seem frivolous, but it takes the edge off every activity I do. I’m short of energy and the will to do anything much. Altogether, I feel worn down.

I’ll get on top of it, but I’m just not sure how. I made some poached eggs for breakfast, and my intention now is to fast until tomorrow. It’s a shot in the dark, but my doctor is away, so it’s all I’ve got right now.

In the meantime, it’s 2021. I’ll make other plans, whenever…

Cleaning things up


Yesterday, I applied for the job I referred to last week. For some reason, I’d felt a reluctance to do so. Some of that was general apathy – it’s such a pain in the arse, and you have to contrive a persona they want to employ – and I’m over any sort of contrivance these days. I did it though, letting it happen naturally, being open and honest and letting a little of the alpha self shine through, though without overt contrivance.

My gut feel is that I’m over-cooked for the role, which would be ironic.

In a lot of ways, it’s a strange time to apply for another job. Just last week, I submitted a proposal for what would be a huge piece of work which would, in many ways, be transformational for the business. Ultimately, I would expect the proposal to be accepted and that I would be running it, owning it too in the long run, and that my case for a promotion and pay rise would be unassailable. And if that’s not enough, I would find the work fascinating.

The problem is the now. There’s been a lot of talk, but not a lot of action and I’ve grown weary of it. It’s coming, they tell me, but then it’s been coming for months. It’s soured my relationship with the biz. Actions have consequences and, in this case, it’s inaction.

None of that is terminal. If they came to me tomorrow and said here’s a bag of well-earned cash for you, then I’d take it. And I’m pretty sure if I got myself right, I’d look upon things in a more positive light. But still – I feel the urge to start fresh.

There’s a lot to be sorted through. I hope in this break I can clear my head a little and maybe freshen up my perspective. I keep writing about how I’ve changed and have to adapt to the change – and then I wonder, if I healed the places that ache, might I not return at least partway to the man I was before?

I think it’s likely that permanent change has occurred in parts of me. On reflection, I’m not unhappy with that. I ask myself if I want to return to how I was, knowing that it was easier then because I had little doubt. And the answer is that I’m glad to feel doubt, or at least, to acknowledge it. And I’m happy for the insight it has provided me with. I have no real desire to become a hard-driving alpha again, though whether that’s symptom or cause I don’t know. But I miss the feeling of the wind in my hair. I miss being out in front. And I hate the doubt when it cripples me.

Maybe I should note that a lot of this appears internalised. I’m sure some of it leaks out and is visible, but then when people don’t know how I was before they don’t know any different. I feel it, though when I don’t want to engage.

To others, my friends, they see little difference. I think they hardly notice the differences, though I do – I’m not as happy as I was before, and so feel inhibited often, and much less free-flowing. And yet, for Christmas, Donna bought me a pair of personalised socks that claimed I was charismatic and strong because that was “so you” – when I feel neither these days.

It seems to me the important thing is to get that healing done, and sooner rather than later. Presumably, I’ll have a better idea of what I want and what I feel then. I’ll have a balanced perspective and perhaps – hopefully – will feel in control of my destiny.

I’ve done something about that now. I got a referral from my doctor to see a shrink. Because of Covid, I believe we can now get up to 20 subsidised sessions – though I surely hope I don’t need that many. I’ll make an appointment later today to see someone in the new year.

I’m the meantime I’ll continue to chill and unwind. Next week I have a few days away with no mobile reception. I’ll be with friends and will live simply. When I return, I hope to have flushed out many of the toxins collected in me over the year. Perhaps I’ll see things differently then. That’s my hope.