Reconciling the self


Every weekend, I catch up with Cheeseboy to take our dogs for a long walk down to the beach and back again. We start off with a coffee, and by the time we get back to where we started, it’s about 90 minutes later. Rigby loves it, and for me, it’s a good bit of exercise as well as the social highlight of the week.

Mostly we catch-up on a Saturday, but it was wet and windy last weekend, and so we deferred it until Sunday. As usual, we talked about all manner of things. There’s little ‘news’ to report these days as all of us are doing fuck-all, but there’s never any shortage of conversation.

On our way back, we passed a family coming the other way up towards Hampton street. The parents were out front, with their young daughter – maybe 6-7 – on a scooter coming up behind them. As we passed, we heard the daughter cry out: “I hope you never die, mummy.”

We both smiled at. It was sweet and familiar, too. We remembered how it was when you’re that age and get your first understanding of mortality. It grips you suddenly with the possibility that what you love most might be taken from you. It’s a cold, despairing thought, enough to bring you to tears, particularly when it comes to your mother. There’s no-one more precious to you at that age than your mum, and you can hardly conceive of a world where she exists no longer. It strikes at your heart full of devotion, and fear not knowing how you could possibly cope without her to shelter and support you. It’s like the moon disappearing from the sky.

Those memories are strong for me still, though it’s been many years, and though it’s coming up towards ten years since my mum died.

I bring this up now because it was a nice moment, and because lately, I’ve noticed that I’m starting to reference things to how they were before.

This is new to me. It never occurred as a thing before, but now it seems perfectly understandable – not that I like it.

I first noticed when I was clearing things out. There seems a subconscious acceptance of the situation I’m in, and it takes me by surprise when I cotton onto it. It’s probably an honest appraisal, but I wonder where it’s come from – before I’d be kicking and screaming before admitting that I might not end up with what I hoped for. That’s how it is though, I’m letting go of things I never thought of before.

A practical example of that relates to some Le Creuset cast-iron cookware I’d owned for about fifteen years. They’re lovely pieces, and great to cook with, but I probably didn’t use them more than half a dozen times in that period. They were two big for my needs, designed for big family meals, and not a willing single guy. That’s okay, or it was because I always figured the time would come when I’d have that family, except it never did. And this time, finally, I seemed to have acknowledged that when I put them up for sale. It was a turning point.

I began to see other things in a different way. I’d see old movies and remember when I’d first seen them, recalling my life at my time and what was happening and all that has changed since. It was like hopping into a mental time machine. I found myself becoming nostalgic about TV series from another era. As part of my regular clean-out these days, I was going through the drawers of my home entertainment unit. I sorted all the Cds into alphabetical order (by theme), then started in on the DVDs. I’d bought a few over the years, and there were others I’d ripped and burnt, or someone else had done it for me. We did a lot of that once, before there was any Netflix.

So, I’m going through the stuff and sorting into piles to keep or throw-out and, as I’m doing it, a lot more memories come back. Then there’s this series of thirtysomething from the late eighties into nineties. It may seem an unlikely program for a bloke like me to like, but I was right into it. The appeal, I think, is that I expected that was pretty much the road I’d be taking. I wasn’t thirty yet but looked upon these programs as being instructive in a way while being very engaging. I could – in the heart of me – sympathise with much going on. I’d recently fallen in love for the first time. Otherwise, I was pretty busy enjoying myself and meeting people. I was a romantic at heart, but hard at it too.

Fine, I thought, I’ll enjoy myself, and soon enough that’ll be my life too. Except that didn’t happen either. And all these years later I’m remembering that, remembering what I felt and thought, what I hoped for – and what I was so certain of. The sense of then and now was insistent.

I’ve probably wondered similar things over the years, and a few times it might happen after all. Never has it been like this though – as if I nod my head to it, yep, you got me. I don’t know if I’ve got to a certain age, but it feels as if I’ve crossed a boundary. I’m not sure what to make of it, but a part of me feels sad.

Though this feels new, I think it’s a part of something that has been growing more evident over time. I’ve alluded to it in the past.

I think it’s most clearly seen when it comes to working and expectations of myself. As you know, I’ve thought of myself as the man – as juvenile as that sounds. I always wanted to be on the pointy end. Always wanted to wrestle whatever challenge there was to the ground. There was a lot of ego in that and maybe even a sense of status, but I enjoyed it too, and the rewards were pretty good at times.

I’ve had to get used being back in the pack in recent years. Even now, that takes some wrangling occasionally. It’s not real, though. It’s instinct that pushes me forward, plus some remnants of ego seeking to reclaim some of my mantle and show the world what I’m capable of. So there. In a way, it’s a way of staying young. It feels so imposing sometimes, but it’s the form of it I’m really interested in – except when piqued, I want nothing to do with the reality of it. I’ve crossed a boundary there, too.

I’ve been pushing for a while for a promotion and a pay rise. Much of that is practical – I need more money – but it’s true also that I deserve more. I’m after my just reward. I’ve felt pretty grieved thinking it wouldn’t happen.

On Friday I found out two things. Firstly, there’s a wage freeze. Not surprising perhaps, but they might have told us sooner. And, unless I can wangle a change in role, there goes any chance of a pay rise.

By chance, I also had my performance review on Friday. You know how it goes. I hate it, as a lot of people do. I get embarrassed rating myself – I don’t want to be a wanker, but you have to promote what you’ve done also. There were about five categories, and I rated myself as either meeting or exceeding expectations across the lot of them.

As it turned out, I was hard on myself. When it came to the review, my manager rated me as exceeding expectations across the board, and I didn’t stop him. It was the easiest and most pleasurable performance review I’ve ever had.

Here’s the irony, though. Any other year I’d be recognised as a high achiever and rewarded with a decent pay rise. But not this year. This year it’s nice, but no dice.

I had a bad morning Monday. Felt a little off then my wi-fi was playing up and then an email came through about new appointees and I knew they were walking in and earning more than me. One thing leads to another, and it all snowballs. I didn’t want to have a bar of anything.

Later I calmed down. I’d read something, and my mind went off on a tangent ranging far and wide and, I thought, that’s who I am. I’m not the narrow person defined by my role because, among other things, it’s just a job. I am who I am in my mind, and it’s my mind that defines and ideas that interest me. That’s always been the case, but now I’ve crossed that invisible boundary it feels an easier thing to accept. That was who I was before – this is who I’m happy to be now. It’s not something I want to deny any longer. I’ve stepped beyond that conventional image of self.

Part of that means stepping away from the status and identity that a job provides. It means accepting that I’m not the man anymore and probably never will be again – and realising that I’m not really interested in it really. It’s just habit, and not a habit I need anymore.

As for being aggrieved by the injustice of the situation? That’s harder because it triggers some primal sense of right and wrong – but hell, the world is full of injustice, and if I’m not kidding anyone, a lot of that comes down to ego, too – “how dare you treat me this way!” There’s fun in that, and no glory either. Being aggrieved is just an angry version of self-pity, and that I don’t want.

How long this relative acceptance will last, I can’t say, but I hope to remember this. It’s a process of internal reconciliation I’m coming to.

I still want my just reward though, if only out of fairness 😉

Becoming Barry


I touched upon therapy in the post I’ve just written. I’m a believer in the concept of treatment if it means we gain an understanding of ourselves and the forces that play upon us. I think most people would benefit from that, even those with ‘good’ mental health. I’ve tried it a few times. I’ve found it interesting each time and rewarding to talk it out, but I don’t think I’ve ever learned anything I didn’t know before. Each time I’ve done it, the therapist has pretty much said wow, you’re awfully self-aware. Some of them have been very impressed, which is nice, but does nothing for me – because each time I offer an interpretation, they nod their head and say, that’s right. I’m looking for the magic thing I don’t know, but it turns out I know everything I should – and maybe more.

I know some streams of psychology seek to adjust how you think and interpret the world and events around you. I’m sure there’s great worth in that for many individuals, and I’m sure I could probably learn something from it myself.

That’s never been my motivation in seeking therapy. Above all, it’s understanding I seek, and so I go to a specialist hoping that they can help me discover it. As I said before, ‘understanding’ is a variegated thing, and so I’ve never expected to walk out of a session and think, right, the meaning of life is 42.

More often, it’s a psychological basis to work with and parameters to think within that I’ve been after. Though there have been times I’ve been down, I don’t recall seeking a quick pick me up. It’s not survival I’m after, but enlightenment.

I’m of the tribe that would rather face reality square on and deal with it with all the tools I can muster. I’ve always refused anti-depressants because I knew I could deal with it and because I wanted to see it as it is and feel it to its depth. That was a choice for me because I could handle it, but I know it’s less easy for others, and I know there are things (I’ve been spared) that can’t be handled without medication.

Of the times I visited a therapist, it’s a session 25 years ago that sticks in my mind most. He was a cognitive psychologist, and I liked and trusted him. I don’t remember why I visited him, but I remember how the day he asked me to bring in photos of my family, including myself when I was younger. He examined the photos and gave his assessment of what he saw. He was surprisingly accurate. When he got to my picture, he said what a lovely smile I had, and an open face.

We spoke then, or after, or before – I can’t remember – of an alter ego for me. He wanted me to imagine myself as another person – the person free of the traits I had imposed upon myself since maturing into a man. When mum was pregnant with me, they would call me Barry in conversation, thinking that’s what they would call me. As it happened, they named me something else, but I chose Barry as my alter ego’s name.

Barry was my innocent, natural self – the kid with a lovely smile and the open face. H, the man who sat in front of him, the man who writes here, was the grizzled, tough-minded character the world had moulded of me. The idea was, I think, to embrace Barry as a true part of myself, and to return to him. There was joy in him and naive delight. He was the authentic, unfiltered self.

In the years since I remember him occasionally. There’ve been many occasions I’ve felt him close. There have probably been times when he’s been to the fore. These days he’s very private. He’s still in me, but it’s rare the world gets to see him.

I was reminded of him this morning when I woke from a long series of dreams in which I featured as Barry. These weren’t imaginative fantasies, but rather they recalled actual times going back about a dozen years. The people in the dreams were real people I knew and worked with, and I was the person I was then – highly respected, very popular, witty and whole-hearted and capable of outrageous, often tongue in cheek, flirtation. Everyone loved me in the dream. I loved myself. I was my best self. And he existed once, if not quite as stylised as in my dreams.

I remembered that when I woke up. I lost him, and the reasons for that are well documented and hardly surprising – but sad, nonetheless. I wonder sometimes if I’m still capable of being that person, or if I’ve sustained too much damage. There are a lot of elements in this, a lot of deficiencies and areas to address – but what I miss most is the light-hearted charmer I used to be. I feel a million miles away from him these days, and if I had a magic wand, then it’s that I would change first.

Hoping with intent


There’s a rough correlation between how often I post here and where I’m at. I’ve got the week off from work, but even with that free time, I haven’t posted until today. I haven’t wanted to. More specifically, I had no appetite for sharing myself online like this.

It feels easier today, but equally valid, I’m writing because I feel an obligation to explain the silence. I can’t let it go on.

I’ve had the week off, and I’ve done nothing. There’s nothing to do these days, no place you can go, no activity you can try. If you go out of doors at all you have to be in a mask, so, all in all, it’s a lot easier to stay indoors. That’s what I’ve done.

Monday was probably the toughest. I’ve been crook in a minor way for a while, then I took the bomb last week, and it seemed to work. There were some side effects. For a couple of days, I felt nauseous. You shrug your shoulders at that. But then, I felt as if the medication had wiped me out. That was general across the weekend, but come Monday I could barely rouse myself. I lay in bed until 9.30. When I got up, I lay on the couch for another hour, then throughout the day. I had neither the energy nor the urge to do any more than that.

You try and explain it to yourself. It was the bomb that did it. Then you consider how poorly you’ve been sleeping and think you’re just now catching up. They’re probably true in their own way, but I think much of it was mental.

When you’re working or needing to remain disciplined and attentive, you force it from yourself when it doesn’t come naturally. You rely on routines and patterns and lift yourself to attend them. It’s a kind of structure that holds you together.

Waking up Monday I had none of those routines I must attend, and I think in their absence there was a mental collapse. Without the workday pattern, there was nothing for me to cling to and I was forced back upon myself – and what did I have to offer?

It’s probably quite a common thing at the moment. I’ve grown impatient with being locked down. I feel hemmed in. As I’ve spoken of before, situations like this strip the social veneer from life, exposing the raw bones beneath it. But what if there’s nothing there? I’m a great believer in the meaningful life, but I understand the necessity of social distraction. It salves the soul to go out into the world and mingle in society. Lifestyle – cafes, restaurants, pubs, gigs, etc. – might be superficial in a way, but they’re the glue that holds us together. As for close friends? Well, try living without them.

These are things we are pretty much living without for now. We try and paper over the gaping cracks – I attended a zoom dinner party Saturday night, and had my weekly walk on the beach with Cheeseboy Saturday morning – but it’s a pale and obvious substitute for the real thing. As for society? The closest we get to it is on our TV screens.

Most people are lucky enough to have something to fall back on at home. Mostly it’s family, but I can only imagine the solace that brings. I have nonesuch, but it’s not so much the lack of a family around me I find hard, it’s the lack of intimacy.

You see, in the absence of all the other stuff, it becomes more important. You can deceive yourself the rest of the time caught up in the distractions of social life – look at the life I’m leading, after all: bars and restaurants, flirtation and excess. Look how vivid it is! It’s colour and movement – but restrict movement and strip the colour back to a monotone, what do you have? Only what’s close to you, and inside you.

I felt a bit better Tuesday, but hardly enterprising. Yesterday, the same, though I did manage to do some writing on both days, and a few household tasks.

I sometimes feel as if I should use this time to figure things out – but I’m not even sure what difference it would make if I did. And I’m not sure things are figurable, because there’s not one thing but a multitude of them, complementary and contradictory. Just like human life.

This is a very existential time, but not anything that therapy, or anything similar, can do much about. It’s not as if I can just accept it, though. Half the struggle is the struggle. There is meaning in striving. There’s even meaning in believing the striving will pay-off. Ultimately, that’s one of the things inside you: the belief that you can drive change. Maybe that’s just hope, but it’s hope with intent.

Dreams in isolation


I’ve always dreamt a lot, but it seems to me that I’m dreaming more now than ever before. I’ve begun to wonder if this is a symptom of extended isolation. In past times life would contain enough distraction and colour that dreams were no more than an adjunct to that. I’d go out, have a beer, chat to people at work, have a laugh with friends, go the footy, and so on. I had a life outside of these four walls, and external to the internal world I largely reside in since lockdown. Is it too much to believe that in the absence of the normal stimuli that our unconscious will step into the void? Will not our mind conjure up the colour and movement missing from our everyday lives?

It’s an interesting question. Do prisoners dream differently to the man on the street? What about the man marooned on a desert island? Or is this just me?

It’s got to the point that I feel it’s affecting my sleep. For the last month particularly, I’ve been sleeping poorly and as a result, I’ve felt more lethargic than usual, and sometimes just ‘off’. The other day I felt particularly unrested after a night I dreamed away. My sleep stats showed that my REM sleep was four and a half hours – surely that’s excessive? But it made sense because that’s what I felt.

Then there are the things you dream about. The prisoner probably dreams of his liberty. The man on the island probably dreams of crowds. My dreams are no more than fragments to me now, but what I recall is, yes, of being out and about, but then there’s another strong thread. There appears a strong aspirational theme in many of my dreams – of situations in which I achieve what I don’t have now. That may seem positive, but there’s a melancholy angle to it because they play like movies of things I might have – or might have had – but do not. There’s almost a taunt in it.

Dreams like that are probably common in days like these when we’re set back to basics. All the trimmings and flummery have been removed. Exposed are the bare bones of our existence. Much is revealed at ultimately hollow. Where do we find meaning then? What does ‘meaning’ mean to us? When everything is cut back to the bone, what brings us solace?

I dream of the things others have but I don’t, such as a family about me, and regular intimacy. The other recurring element has less substance, but when you don’t have a family to fall back on then you must find purpose elsewhere. In my case, it returns to work, though more accurately it might be termed, ‘calling’.

In this, there’s a comparison between what I do and opportunities to do something nobler. I’ve commented on that enough that I don’t need to again. There’s meaning in doing something close to your heart, whatever that might be. In my case, while that’s true, there is something more superficial in it, too. I long to be the hero again, as I felt so often before in my work – it’s why I did challenging, independent work, and it says a lot about my psychology. I guess everyone wants to be their own hero, though some more than others. In the absence of anything else to fall back on, and for someone like me, it becomes purpose.

It’s probably more true now that I’m closer to the end of my career than the start of it. No matter what I’ve done before, it’s the past. I don’t want to go quietly. I want to believe there are great things in me still, but I feel more of the old stager these days. Not the virile matchwinner I used to be, more the clever and reliable stalwart of the team. And, before I’m trotted out to pasture, I want to prove that I’ve still got it.

I’m too old to change that and the instinct too deeply ingrained, even if ultimately it’s an empty thing. I know that. I need to get past that, and the best way to do that is by substitution – find something else that will satisfy that innate need. I know what it is, I just don’t know how to get it.

 

Sweet and sour


Some weeks ago, I referred to the google home device that sits on my bedside table and which scrolls through my photo albums as a screensaver. I catch it from the corner of my eye as I lay in bed reading, and sometimes I’ll turn to it and gaze at pics that by now have become very familiar, though never stale.

The album it’s currently showing is mostly of old family pics I scanned over Christmas. Till then, I hadn’t seen them for years, maybe decades. You know how it is with old photos, they’re stuck in a box somewhere inaccessible and out of the way. You’ve forgotten about them, or if you remember it’s just the odd photo that comes to mind, and the pictures in between – the glue that hold those times together – are forgotten. That’s one of the great things about digital photos – they’re always close, and rarely a day goes by when you don’t catch a glimpse of some old memory.

Scanning these photos was one of the best things I’ve done in recent memory, but there were surprises that came with it. I saw things again I’d forgotten about completely. Other moments remain a mystery. There are faces there I’ve not seen for years, and a surprising number are now among the dead. I was initially surprised to see myself in a different way to what I remembered, which caused me to reflect on what identity is. More than anything, perhaps, it brought back to life a time which seems so foreign to current times. I was there, I’ve lived through then and now, but still I find it hard to reconcile.

By and large, the photos are of family and friends. There are the usual occasions recorded – Christmas, birthdays, a christening, many family meals. There are photos of us heading off to the Melbourne cup one year, all smiling faces; and other photos showing us working on renovations or in the garden at Yarck. We’re taking a break, leaning on a shovel, a beer in hand and another grin. And there are scenes from hunting trips and skiing and holidays in general and the date range covers from when I was about seven years old until I was a little past thirty.

Over time, I’ve grown used to the photos scrolling by and enjoy the moment of nostalgia I often feel. It’s not always nostalgia I feel, though. Sometimes, it’s wonder. I’ll turn and watch as if unsure it’s true and wanting to return to that moment to understand. Over time my gaze has shifted from the oddity of seeing myself in a different way, to look upon my wider family, and more than anyone, my mum and her second husband, my stepfather.

It’s a measure of my affection for them that among the photos I chose to scan are those with little to do with me. I wasn’t there, I don’t even know how I came to possess the pictures. But maybe it is that I wanted to capture a memory, or a perspective, of my mother particularly. There are some from a time before she met Fred. She’s out, socialising, with friends and doing things. She’s younger in those pics, and I try to remember that because my lasting memory of her is from the end. I look at her in the photos, at her smile and the way she looks in the camera. I knew her then, I think, which is an absurd thought, but somehow natural, too. I wonder what conversations we had then.

Then there are the pics of her with Fred, both of them smiling and happy. This was a golden age, for all of us – if only we knew it. There’s one photo, they’re overseas somewhere I think, and in my mind, I imagine it’s Paris. They were often travelling. They’re sitting at a restaurant table smiling up at the camera and it’s a lovely photo. Then I realise the sports jacket that Fred is wearing – a black and white houndstooth – I now have. I wear it sometimes. I have it because it’s been a long time since he’s needed it. There’s a sour tang that goes with the sweetness of the memory. And that’s how it is, sweet and sour.

I am of a particular type that reflects deeply on such things. I try and find understanding as if it was a thing. What I’m really searching for is a kind of balance. What is there to understand, after all, but that all is ephemeral? People come, people go, the river of life continues. The balance you seek is acceptance of that, the sweetness of memory in one scale, the sourness of loss in the other. And, being human beings, it’s only rare that they’re in true balance.

Today is my mum’s birthday. Had she still been alive she’d have turned 79 today. Both she and Fred were sprightly, active types, but both went before their allotted span. If it were not for cancer you’d expect that mum would still be around, and Fred perhaps as well. But, cancer.

Perhaps what I seek to understand is how this becomes that – how happy photos become sad memories; how a full life becomes abrupt death. You know the answer – there are no guarantees, and its ever been this way. There is no understanding to be had unless you seek to understand life itself. And if there is an understanding of that to be had, then it’s not in a single answer but in multitudes of possibility. So, it’s balance and acceptance that you seek, the memory of happy times, and the wistful knowledge that nothing is forever.

And in the meantime, I just miss my mum.

To live is not enough


A few days ago, I searched out the obituary of a man I’d never heard of until the day previous. I’d read a piece he wrote that stirred and resonated with me – not a story, but a piece of nature writing that was familiar to me because I’d experienced similar in my own past. It was beautifully written, and by itself, that was enough to mark it out, but what really hit home was a point of view that I could share with all my heart. I believed as he did and, as he wrote, felt as he did, too. The piece of writing was called The Gift, by Richard K. Nelson. It contained pure grace.

As so often, when I come across something that takes my attention, I want to know more. Probably half a dozen times a day I’m tapping at a device or in my browser searching for more information on this or that. I discovered that Nelson was an eminent anthropologist and writer who had passed away just a couple of years before. I read about his life and recalling the piece I had read formed an impression of him – confirmed by the picture shown of him, a pleasant-looking guy with longish blonde hair, a red-tinged moustache, and a look in his eye as if to say, okay, take my photo then.

He was a man who had an evident passion for his work and believed in an almost metaphysical version of nature if the piece I read was any guide. He’d written about heading out in a canoe to an island with his dog. His family was back on the mainland in a secluded home. He was on the island to hunt for deer, which was their sustenance when winter came. The descriptive writing is rich, but it’s the mind and attitude that hooked me. I don’t want to simplify it, but it was the perspective of a man who felt himself a part of nature, and not above it. Too many are oblivious to it, or view nature and all its bounty as a right to be exploited (an attitude that is ruining our planet, and our mentality). He saw it as a gift and was careful to pay it the respect due to it – as he learnt from the Inuit.

Yes, he gets a deer. Then on the following day has an encounter that is lovely, and he’s sensitive enough to know how lovely and rare it was. I could feel it, too.

There’s a couple of things in this that I unpacked in my mind in the days that followed. I had a visceral reaction to it, to begin with. I could feel it in my stomach, like something that was meant to remind me. When I thought of it, I felt in a heightened state of grace. I could understand it. I could believe it. I was sure that his take on the nature around us was as true as a thing as I could conceive of. We are a part of nature, and it has wonders in it, if only we open ourselves to it. The other side of this, unfortunately, is that the rapacious way of the world as it is leaves me increasingly bruised. Maybe things should be a certain way, but they’re not, and I doubt they ever will be. In the meantime, what we have taken for granted slides away from us…

The other thing I felt was raw envy. That was how to live: to be in life, to feel it trembling around you like a gift, and to be passionately involved in what you believe in. His work had substance. It meant something. He’s gone now, but reading his obituary, it was clear his life was well-lived. That’s what you aim for.

But once more, I found myself examining the life I’m in now. I’ve always been restless and curious, and always keen to see what was around the corner. I had a lot of fun because of that and learned much, but I’m at a stage of my life that what I’ve done before feels inadequate to what I need now. What I need is to feel engaged and my work worthwhile. I want substance, I want meaning, I want to feel as if I’m achieving something worth doing. To live is not enough.

This is not new, and it’s far from the first time I’ve written about it. I feel as if that if I do nothing, the conveyor belt will carry me forward through dull comfort until one day it comes to an end. It may well be pleasant enough in its way, but that’s never been enough for me.

I had a project go-live last night. Most of it went fine, but I was on my computer last night and this morning and sending emails and messages because a few things were off. I was frustrated that it should be left to me to discover these things when the vendor should be doing QA before ticking it off. It occupied about 5% of my mind. It will get sorted. I’ve given directions, set deadlines, and etc. It’s what my life is now though, even when it all adds up to some supposedly great thing for business. Mayhap, but there’s no grace in it.

I was watching a program during the week set in Berlin in the fifties, and the thought occurred, why don’t you just take off to a place like that and make something happen? I like Berlin, but could equally be another place. Shake it up and see what comes of it. Maybe. I don’t know how practical it is – I have no money. And I don’t know in the end if a metaphysical problem can be resolved geographically. But at least it would be different.

I got told yesterday that I’m back FT starting next week, and that will make things easier financially. Stick around, and it will probably get better. I still have the issue of a two-speed perspective when it comes to working – not caring about it in the same way and ready to cut it some slack, until my ego intrudes and starts making demands, and that cycle again and again. But it’s just my ego – I can do that better, I should be doing that, why won’t you listen to me – while I don’t really care that much.

Like everyone who has a yen to look, I just need to find what’s right for me – what will fill and satisfy and give value to the days I have left. That’s all.

 

Edit: thinking about this, what I seem to be describing is a classic mid-life crisis. Because I’ve had so much shit go down I tend to ascribe so much that’s happened to that. It’s easy to blame irregularities on that, but maybe it’s time for me to let that go. Shit did happen. Residual shit exists. It’s legitimate to ask questions. There are things. But, maybe I should accept things for what they are rather than blame them on things I can’t change. I don’t resile from anything I wrote above – but maybe I should accept it for what it is and deal with it as it is, and not the shadow I imagine.

Vanity projections


I gave into vanity over the weekend. To be fair, that’s always an uneven contest. I’d love to dispute it, but I’m always mindful of how I look (despite indications to the contrary). Many to most things I couldn’t give a fuck about, but looking ugly, that’s a no-no.

And I was looking ugly, no two ways. I got sick of looking in the mirror every day and seeing an old man looking back at me. My hair was at that untidy, in-between length, and the iso-beard – well, I was starting to look like Ernest Hemingway. Not as silvery-white as his beard, but nearly as fluffy. I was prepared to endure a period of relative ugliness. I’d steeled myself for it – but then it got too much, and in one fell swoop I shaved the beard off.

The good news is that it made a big difference. The full beard made me look about my true age, which is getting fucking old. The problem (or the blessing) is without it, I look about ten years younger – and I’m accustomed to looking younger. In the raw looks department, you’d have been reaching to score me as a four before I shaved – now I’m about a seven if I squint hard.

I haven’t got rid of the beard altogether. I’ve got a mo and an artfully shaped small beard on my chin and running a little way along the edge of the jaw. I intend to shape the chin beard further into a blunt point. It’s greyish still, but in a noble sense, he said hopefully.

It may be that this improved appearance coincides with my hair looking better – though whether it looks better, or only appears to look better now that the beard has gone, is philosophical conjecture. It’s not where it needs to be yet, but getting there.

Anyway, my ego is happy now, for the time being. I feel a little dashing again. I know I shouldn’t 😦

The course of time


I wrote last week about how I’ve changed from what I used to be, how I don’t have the patience or will, the appetite, to go as hard as I once I would without a second thought. I wrote that on Friday, but it was in my mind all of Thursday. That night, as I went to bed, I found myself going back to my childhood and when a lot of this started.

It feels as if time and recent experience has given me a different perspective of when I was a kid. I would recall it in fragmentary bursts before. It would be colourful and lively in my memory, all golden, but. Thre was little connecting it into a narrative of development. Maybe because I’ve looked deeper into myself in recent years, I now look back differently.

Sometimes I see a photo of myself as a young teenager and struggle to understand how he and I can be the same person. I can close my eyes and picture any number of photos very similar in type. I’m a cute kid. I have floppy, chestnut coloured hair, an infectious, innocent smile, and clear blue eyes. I even have freckles! For the early part of my high school years, I was undersized for my age, and it was something I hated. I don’t know where or how I got it into my head, but I always wanted to be tall. Then one year, when I was about 16, I must have grown 4-5 inches, becoming a tall, lanky, paled skinned, and somewhat awkward kid. I wasn’t as pure cute as I used to be, but I went from being one of the shortest kids in the class to one of the tallest.

I always think my childhood was happy, but I think it’s more accurate to say that I was lucky that I had close friends and had many adventures – the sort of stuff that Spielberg puts in his movies. WeE lived in a deloping outer suburb where there was still a lot of bush and wild tracks. There was a heap of kids in the street I grew up in, but I was one of the eldest and so I, along with two others about the same age, became a leader. We went for long bike rides and built tree-houses and played street cricket and constructed makeshift rafts to sail the Plenty river and played games and kicked the footy, and so on. My best mate in those days was my next-door neighbour, Peter Woody, much taller than me – he topped out at about 6’8″. We did everything together, not all of it legal, but it was all in fun and from a sense of daring.

We had built our house, and I remember while it was being constructed how dad would pick me up from the local primary school and take me to the property to see how it was going. This was the early seventies. It was a good home, and even after a stint in Sydney for two years when I was about 15, we returned to it. I had a loving and close extended family, but looking back the family unit I was a part of was dysfunctional – and I wonder how much that impacted on me. My mum had had a nervous breakdown and was emotionally frail, though very devoted. Ultimately she would leave my dad and take me with her. My sister was a nasty brat who tyrannised my mum. My dad was the big businessman who worked long hours and travelled overseas and had an aura of impatient accomplishment. We had little relationship outside of the footy we would attend together most Saturday afternoons. In my final year of school, he actually stopped talking to me for a few months because of some slight (I cocked a fist at him in an argument).

I’ve always thought that I was pretty much the most normal of us, but my view on that has shifted in recent years. On the outside, I think that probably appeared the case. While things bubbled along at home I continued to have my adventures. I had my struggles, though, I think. I feel as if I struggled for confidence back then, and for years to come. I would deny it, ashamed even to think it might be true as if it was unmanly. I was a smart kid at school, but a terrible student. I was the sort of kid who’d turn up to do a test one week and get near-perfect marks, and the next week do another and be mediocre. I never studied, and my homework was cursory. I wasn’t interested in that, but there was an element of unconscious rebellion in it.

What was I rebelling against? What did I want? I think I took for granted my ability. I’d always managed to pull a rabbit out of the hat when I needed to, and I gave it no thought until we moved to Sydney, and I was required to do an aptitude test before commencing school there. The result of that was that was declared to have ‘well above average’ intelligence. I can still remember the moment being told that and a sense of dawning realisation. Once it was in my head, I became conscious of it. It was like my get out of jail card – I was well above average intelligence, I’ll be right.

I think there was some striving for identity. I was neither popular or unpopular at school. I was good athletically, I was smart enough, and I played most of the school sports. I think I was a nice, decent kid. But I remember times when I’d act up. There was a famous occasion I debated with my teacher in English class and was banished from it. Another occasion I was told off by my science teacher in the middle of a test because I’d got out my comb – I had a fold-out comb, just like the Fonz – and began to comb my hair when I finished before anyone else. On another occasion, I opened a classroom window and climbed out of it while the teacher was writing on the blackboard, and walked home (that was maths, and I hated maths).

Then there was the moment that changed my life, and which I found my memories gravitating towards last Thursday night.

It was my final year of school. It would have been about August, a few months shy of the exams. We’d had an economics test as a trial for the exams and had our results read out in class. I did okay without doing great – about 75%. It was good enough, but I’d achieved it without putting any work into it. While everyone else slaved away over their books in study period, I’d be out on the oval kicking a footy around (earlier in the year I’d actually skipped an economics class to kick a footy on the oval the classroom overlooked, and I knew it). On this day I’ll never forget, we were walking out of the class after the results were released one of my classmates (Ian T), turned and said to me with some bitterness “if only you’d study, H”.

There was a moral judgement in his words. Where’s the justice if his best effort was just good enough to achieve a mediocre mark when someone like me – lazy and indifferent – could swan in and without apparent effort do better? The inference was clear – if I put in the effort I might be anything. I’d done nothing and even so, had got a few marks better than he had – he, who diligently spent every available hour studying. I probably shrugged my shoulders then, but when I crashed and burned a few months later at the real exams, they were words that came back to haunt me.

I’ve never forgotten. There was a great lesson in that and, to my credit, I heeded it. It took me a while, but I realised that being smart wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t unmake the mistakes I’d made, but in time I learned to put the effort in and to apply the intelligence I had to a work ethic I learned. It almost became a thing for me, for many years to come. I was still capable of being brilliant, but that was a cheap trick I couldn’t take credit for. The kid that turned to me in the corridor at school was much more worthy than I was, and I recognised that. Character means taking on the hard yards. It means staying the course and doing the right thing before doing the easy thing. And it recognises that every effort counts. I used to glory in all that. I used to think I was harder than anyone, would go further, stay stronger. It was a belief system that contained its own validation, and which became self-perpetuating. Until I came tumbling down.

Which brings me to today. My failures over the last twenty years or so are not from a lack of effort, or intelligence, but judgement and hubris. I accept that. It was that ethic that kept me strong when things were bad because I refused to submit to despair. This was a test that I needed to pass. And I did, more or less. But now I find that I don’t have the conviction I had before, and with it, the appetite for the effort required has waned. It’s not because I fear hard work – recent events have proved the opposite. It’s more a mental thing, as if I have lost belief in the point of it. I’m fudging it still and getting away with it, but more and more I’m reverting to those old ways when I’d rely on natural talent to get me through.

I can only believe there’ll be limits to that, as there were before. And I have to wonder, in light of all this, if I’m on the right path? And – if I’m not – which is?

And, just to be clear, I don’t think this necessarily a bad thing, just a true thing. And if it’s indeed true, then I need to adapt to it.

Without juice


On Monday I won an award for the work I did earlier this year. It was announced, and at an all of department team meeting and apparently met with a round of applause. I didn’t know about it until after the event as I was on another call and missed the meeting. I found out when I got back online when I asked – cheekily – if it came with a pay rise. No, it doesn’t, but I got a voucher and a nice certificate.

I’m glad I wasn’t in the meeting when they called out my name. I’m one of those people who get bashful when praised. In general, I’m happy to let those things wash over me. I’m glad of the recognition and grateful for the gesture, but it’s not something I need. I’m a little surprised too, as I didn’t think people – stuck in lockdown – had any real idea of what I did or what it involved, but as one person said when I demurred, “well, you worked bloody hard!”

I don’t need this, but I’d have been unhappy if no-one realised the scale of what we achieved. It’s not the praise I desire, it’s the acknowledgement. I think that’s all anyone wants and what they deserve.

The reality is that the challenge appealed to me. I felt like an old mountain climber called out of retirement to lead the climb on one last, momentous, peak. I couldn’t resist it, and for the usual reasons – because it was there. I’ve been kept busy since and have hopes of leveraging it into something more, but the hopes are mostly practical. Much of my focus is on earning more because I need it leading into retirement – but my ego needs it a tad too, just to prove I’m still the man and don’t forget it.

What I’ve realised is that I’m more interested in the work than I am the result. The journey, rather than the destination. The reason for that, I figure, is that at the end of the day most of the things are pretty lame. I’ll put them on my CV and people may nod appreciatively but shoot, it aint a cure for cancer. And so, it’s the challenge of doing, of overcoming and pushing through, of finding answers and solving conundrums, and rising to all that, that counts. At this stage of my career, I’m more interested in doing a job well than the job itself.

This experience has reminded me that in terms of raw capability, I’m still top-notch, but in other regards, I’ve fallen away from the standards and patterns of my previous careers. I’m a maverick in a lot of ways, and always have been, and reckon it’s given me an edge – but I’m also process-driven and believe in doing things properly. I believe it, I preach it, but when it comes down to it, I’m totally disinterested in the minutiae and discipline that makes up so much of that. I know I should be doing this or that, but I can’t be bothered because I have no patience for it now. The result is I either put-off or take shortcuts or phone it in. I can get away with it because I’m good on my feet and because my work is good, and in the end, it’s the results that matter.

It’s no secret why this is the case. I’ve spoken before about how I feel I haven’t got the juice in me I had before. That’s not to say I’m diminished – I can still fire up pretty good and can be imposing when I turn it on. (And plenty still find me intimidating without me doing a thing – I think because they know I couldn’t care less what they think). It’s just that now I don’t have the juice – ambition if you like – to care about a lot of things that now seem hollow to me. It’s the juice that drives you forward, like fuel, that makes you push through such thoughts because there’s something at the end of it – reward, recognition, prestige, whatever. I don’t have that juice anymore, and I’m not interested in those things – and it makes me a more reserved character than I used to be. I suspect many find me an enigma.

I accept it, and I understand it. I don’t think it’s lost altogether, just biding something worthwhile to believe in and strive for. That’s what I need – a worthy goal.

Only dreams


Dreams again last night, starting with Rigby. This was a happy series of dreams as Rigby was as spirited and as affectionate in my dream life as he is in real life.

My cousins morphed into these dreams then, as is normal in the dark hours. This was happy too. Though I hardly see my cousins, I’m fond of all of them. They’re good people.

Finally, my step-sister made an appearance. In the dream it was happy. We always got on so well. I used to think that she loved me and mum more than she did her husband. For many years we had a special bond – that’s how people used to describe it. In the early days, when she was still a teen, she had a crush on me. I don’t think she ever lost that completely, though life moved on. We had similar tastes and outlooks, and a similar level of confidence and ambition. Each of us was curious. She was smart and sometimes sweet and sometimes tough. I had much more in common with her than I did my own natural born sister.

We lost each other when mum died. In the great disruption and acrimony that came after that, we found ourselves in opposition. Somehow, superficially at least, I think she came to blame me a little for the situation, though all I did was defend mum’s last wishes. When finally the dust settled on that my life was completely different. Not only had I lost my beloved mum, but all the family that joined with us when she married a second time was also lost, too, including my stepsister. I went from being in a large and loving family group to just me and my sister.

You move on, you accept it, but it’s been a source of sorrow whenever my mind happens across her. I could care less about the others, but I loved her – and when I need her most, she was gone.

There was a late-night call from her a few years later, missed on my end because it was past midnight. I figured she’d had maybe one too many chardy’s and called from remembrance and remorse. She followed up with a message though, wishing me well, ending it with an x. I had no doubt that she remained fond of me in her heart. She still follows me on Facebook.

It was last year, I think, that I reached out to her. Wasn’t it time, I suggested, that we became friends again? Hadn’t enough water gone under the bridge by now? She lives in Noosa, divorced with her kids. She didn’t respond.

And so I dream of her again, and though it was a delight to share her company in my sleep, I woke feeling sad because of what it meant.

Last week I wrote of a friend I’ve had a fraught relationship with in recent years. I’d dreamt of him. After I wrote, I sent him a message. In the course of that, I told him I loved him. I wanted him to do well, be well. He began to cry. We committed to our friendship again, and I suggested we set ourselves an exotic adventure together in the next couple of years.

I was glad I reached out. It doesn’t come easy to us blokes being that open, but it has its own reward.

I wish I could do the same for my stepsister, but I’ve tried that to no avail. She has her own life, she doesn’t need me pestering her. She’s made her decision. Sad, but that’s life. I still have my dreams, I guess.