Conversation and affection


I was watching TV last night when on-screen a conversation about William Blake took place, and immediately I felt a yearning. I want to talk about William Blake. And Goethe too, and Beethoven and Kierkegaard and Kandinsky and Einstein and David Lean and about expressionism and the civil rights movement and forms of government and great moments in history and thought and ever fucking so on.

At that moment, there was a sudden realisation of how everything is so small. It’s hardly a new thought, but it’s fresher now because without the distractions and white noise of so-called normal life what is exposed in lockdown are the skeletal forms of everyday life. And the truth of it is, so much of it is repetitive and mindless ritual, time served until it runs out.

That’s a bleak take on things, and it’s not all that bad, especially not when you plug in the lifestyle elements – the distractions and white noise – that otherwise obscure the bare realities. That’s not all bad stuff, but not a lot of it has substance.

You could argue that I’ve been wrestling with these concepts most of my adult life. I felt it inside, but for much of that time, I was removed from it in a personal sense, because I found the distractions necessary to keep me going. Some remain – reading and good food and provocative cinema. Others have gone by the wayside, the obvious, and possibly most critical, being international travel. Once it fueled, perhaps erroneously, my sense of identity. I would travel every year and go deep – but now I haven’t travelled anywhere for about seven years.

For others, it’s family, and that’s something of true substance and value. I imagine it fills up most of the empty spaces and as for identity, then you assume traditional and well-defined roles as partner and parent. All that is ritual too, but it has meaning.

Then there’s work. For the healthy of us, work is a subset of who we are, rather than a definition of it. It’s rare, however, that work doesn’t play some part in how we see ourselves. Given we spend so much time in the job, it would be surprising if it wasn’t a factor, but it also is one of the great distractors.

This has played on my mind for the last few years, and last night it was the first thing that came to me when I considered how small things have become. It wasn’t always the case. I took a lot from work and career in general, and I worked through that in my mind as I sat on the couch last night.

I like to define and categorise things. I like things to have their place, though I know full well that life is not nearly as neat and tidy as that, and that nonsense and absurdity – as well as chance and caprice – play a big part in how our lives play out. Nonetheless…

I was always very ambitious, very driven. I’ve noted all this before so you can take it as read. I wanted to move forward, if for no other reason that I wanted to test myself and to feel the rush of wind in my hair. That’s not the case anymore.

I sat there and defined it, separating out the strands in terms of ego, which plays a huge part in all of this. It’s the fire that burns in us, but if we don’t ply it with fuel it dies down. This is what has happened to me.

I separated ego into two strands, the structural and the tactical, though they might be better understood as the professional and the personal.

The structural/professional is how you see yourself in relation to others within a work environment. It’s a broader, longer journey. There’s a ladder and you want to climb it. You plot and strive, imagining yourself achieving higher professional goals and attaining ever-greater rewards. It’s competitive in the sense of how driven you are to surpass your professional rivals. It’s about recognition and your place in the world. Sense of self and sheer prestige are wrapped up in this also.

The tactical/personal is more everyday, moment to moment. It’s how you react and respond to challenges and stimuli on a personal level. It’s how ego interplays in your direct relationships with others, strangers, as well as friends and loved ones. How much we are prepared to set aside, and how much we feel the need to assert.

I was always ‘strong’ – if that’s the term – in both of these. Now, it seems, I have little real interest in the structural/professional. It’s no more than habit and knee jerk reaction. I think in my mind that this is what I should be or do, but it’s the residue of former times when it throbbed of its own accord.

I was so directed then, though to be fair, while I was competitive, I never really saw others as my rivals. I always thought I was better. I applied myself to surpassing the job itself. My interest in that now is no more than theoretical – I’ve done it before, I know I can do it again, I feel no need to prove it because, when it comes down to it, I have no real interest in it anymore.

I think the tactical/personal ego is just as strong as ever, and it plays a part in how people see me. I guess much of it becomes your persona. It’s problematic in some ways. I think most people see me as very capable. They believe I’m confident, and I’m certainly more assertive than average. I speak and act with a level of authority, and so the natural assumption is that I’m made for bigger things, and that’s what I want. I wonder, though. In myself, the private me, I have grave doubts about much of this. I’m coming to the point where I think I should just let go.

Without the professional ego raging in me I have no burning desire to achieve outside of the very practical need to set myself up for retirement, if possible. There’s none of me in it anymore and it leaves a big gap.

My sole motivations these days, outside the practical, are to do the best I can because there’s meaning in effort and competence; and, related really, to provide fair value for reward.

That second gives me some leeway because for a long time now they’ve been getting more out of me than I get from them. The solution has always been to match the rewards to effort, but perhaps what’s now more consistent with what I feel is that I reduce my effort to match reward.

I’m not sure if I can dial down so easily. It’s not as if I set my effort to a value – I just give everything I have. By giving everything I have though leaves little left for me. And in a time when I’m conscious of a lack, I probably need to set myself to gain/regain what I don’t have – which means making space for it.

I have a meeting with my manager this afternoon where I intend on following up on the discussions we had weeks ago about my future. If he tells me that yes, here it is, I’ll probably accept it. But if that’s not the case, as I expect, I’m mulling over telling him that I’m going to dial things back. Basically, expect less of me.

Given the mental health challenges of recent times, this might be the most sensible thing I could do: I need to take a break from the job for myself. And, if I can, need to find those things that warm me inside and give meaning to what I do. Conversation and affection are much of it, and a place in the world.

Professor Deano


At about 8.50 last night a notification came through on my phone saying that Dean Jones had died from a cardiac arrest. I looked at it and thought it can’t be true. Fake news, I told myself, more from hope than expectation. Dean Jones – Deano – was not someone I could imagine being dead.

Of course, it transpired that it was true. Deano was in India to commentate on the IPL when he had a heart attack. One of his fellow commentators, and another ex-Australian cricketer, Brett Lee, attempted to revive him, but without success. Deano was dead.

People die all the time, even famous people. Some are shocking, many seem surprising at the time, but mostly we come to accept within a short space of time. That’s the deal, after all, it comes to an end for everyone one day. It’s the next day, and I’m a long way short of accepting – understanding – that Dean Jones has passed away.

I think that’s the same for many people. In the hour or so after the news was announced it was treated with disbelief and shock. Then the tributes started rolling in from around the world, from ex-teammates and opponents, from colleagues in the commentary box and players he’d coached, as well as from the likes of you and me. Tributes can be formulaic, but every one of these seemed heartfelt as if drawn up from deep inside. And some of the names – Sachin Tendulkar, Viv Richards, Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting, and so on – huge names in world cricket. Then to read this morning the reaction from Allan Border, his great mate and former captain, how he loved Deano. This is a big moment.

Sitting on my couch last night, I read the news and reaction as it came through. I sent messages to friends I knew it would resonate with, Donna and VJ. VJ couldn’t believe it – Deano? The cricketer? – Yes. Deano was just 59, and that’s something else that gave pause to us.

I’m a few years younger than Deano was, but I grew up watching him play cricket for Australia through the eighties and into the nineties. The early to mid-eighties was a bleak time in Australian cricket. It marked the changing of the guard from the great names of the seventies – Lillee, Marsh, Chappell – to a bunch of relative unknowns who struggled to make an impression initially. I was there, I watched it, I went to the games, and though there were hard times there were also some great moments, and Deano was in the middle of a few of them. When I look back on Australian cricket in the eighties, there are few names that really stand-out. AB was one, and he was immense. Possibly Steve Waugh, but more into the nineties. But definitely Deano. He was impossible to miss.

There were great onfield moments. He was part of the 1987 World Cup-winning side, which came out of the blue. And there is the epic tale of how he made a double century in India when he was almost delirious. It’s an oft-told story, and none more often than by the man himself. He spent that night in hospital on a drip, and the match ended in only the second-ever tied test.

Deano was a talented cricketer whose international career ended prematurely for reasons never adequately explained – I suspect he probably rubbed up the wrong way with the administration. I think he always thought that too and was aggrieved by it. He was charismatic, but was always forthright and could be abrasive. He was one of those dashing characters popular with fans but less so with administrations. Thought it ended too soon, he had a fine test career and was a revolutionary ODI player, which is how most people remember him, I think.

I have such vivid memories of this myself. He was such a busy, aggressive cricketer, in every facet of the game. I can picture him in his canary yellow Australian outfit, a lean figure stepping down the pitch to loft over the on-side, then haring down the pitch and back again (and he was just as quick in the field). He took the game on at a time when most teams sought to build an innings. He exploded that and was remarkably successful – to the point that I would place him in the top 15 ODI players for Australia.

It was his style that made him vivid. He played the game with a swashbuckling, almost pugnacious intent. In a lot of ways, he epitomises how many people came to see Australian cricket, but when he started we were on the slide, and confidence was low. I think his style was important to the team and to the ethos of being an Australian cricketer. In time, we rose to the top again and he was big part of that. The 1989 Ashes probably marks the real turning point, the team captained by his great mate, AB, and he played a big part in its success.

He was a bit of a lair – flash, confident, insolent, he did things his way on-field and off. He ran into authority throughout his career and after, because of that, and I suspect he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder because he felt he hadn’t been given his due recognition. He could be think-skinned, but I think that’s a fair call, too. He was a better international player than people remember, and he’s the second-highest run-scorer ever for Victoria. He was also a coach and commentator, but while he made it big in the sub-continent he wasn’t given the same respe,ct here. He was not one of the boys.

I followed him on Twitter. He was there as he was in life, vibrant and larger than life, but also very generous. He gave time to everyone, and though he was proud of his achievements, his humour could be self-deprecating. Because I followed him there, he remained very real to me. I could hear his voice in my ears. Just a few days ago there was a tweet of his with a photo showing the commentating team he was part of. It feels strange knowing his days were marked, and that he would never make it back from there.

For cricket lovers of my generation, this is a big moment, and especially if they’re a Victorian like Deano, like me. Deano was a proud Australian and a very vocal Victorian also. He was part of the furniture right from the time he stepped onto the international stage nearly 40 years ago.

I’ve just spent half an hour talking to Donna about this. She knew him personally. They had a relationship of sorts years ago. In reality, he was a lair off the field as well as on it. She’s told me stories over the years that made me smile, and recounted some of them today. I wish I’d known him. It seems hardly conceivable that he’s gone, and I’m very sorry.

Cracking the inner shell


Over the weekend, I watched an old movie. Old is relative – there was a time I’d consider an old movie being something from the forties or fifties. In this case – The Accidental Tourist – I reckon ‘old’ is around the late eighties. I guess that makes me old, too.

I remember watching the movie soon after it came out. For the most part, I liked it. It was an intelligent, well-made film, and it starred one of my preferred actors from the time – William Hurt (a very underrated actor). The character of Muriel (Geena Davis) grated on me a bit, much in the same way it grated on Macon (Hurt) initially. However, it was her personality that was instrumental in drawing Macon out of himself and in beginning the healing process – and, ultimately, to live again.

This is another movie I probably haven’t seen for 20 years, and it’s always interesting to compare the viewing perspective so many years apart. I’m sure last time I saw it it would have been an entertainment for me. These years later, locked in, the experience was very different.

I could see something of myself in Macon, certainly in terms in how I’ve been since being homeless, and for similar reasons – dealing with, and recovering from, grief. I used to be much more carefree, though there were many more reasons for it then than there are now. I want terribly to get back to that but seem incapable of it. I feel locked into myself with a boundary between me and the people around me.

There were other elements of the movie that tugged at me. Macon, at least, has a family to fall back on, however eccentric. I yearn to be enfolded in a family like that. I was, for many years, and accepted it without a second thought. You have a place in the family, and you know where you belong, and you know that if you reach out, there’ll be someone there for you. Love feels like a birthright and affection a given.

To watch the movie and to be moved by it in different ways was more of a reminder than a revelation. I know this stuff. I meander along dealing with it. I hope to change it.

Last week, I created for myself an internet dating profile on a site I had a lot of luck on once. I did it because I need an outlet in lockdown and a way of expressing myself. Love would look after itself, all I was after was a connection. I was very candid in my profile and the very act of writing it was good for me.

Before I published it, I shared it with some friends looking for feedback. This is not something I would ever have done before, but I do it now in the conscious effort to be more open, less guarded. I got great feedback. I was told it was honest and that any woman – any person, in fact – would be drawn to it. The reaction came as no surprise to me I found. As was commented, I write well and, even so, I felt as if the sentiments expressed were common.

It’s a funny thing, at that moment I felt a kind of revelation – though it was not something I haven’t felt before. I can be relied upon to express things well. I can be relied upon in so many ways because that’s who I am. I’m conscientious and alert and smart and methodical when it counts. All good things, you would think, but sometimes I feel as if the boundary I speak of is inside me.

Just by habit, I’m ahead of the game so often because I’m always calculating contingencies and plotting probabilities. God knows, I don’t always say the right thing – but I can be relied upon to say it with poise and style (or else, occasionally, deliberate and pithy bluntness). Generally, I know the right thing to do when nothing’s on the line – how to act, how to be, when to speak and when to stay silent. These are behavioural patterns if you like I probably inherited from my mum, who was always socially aware. I’m lucky in that I read people well, sometimes to their great shock. And I can write just the right thing in the controlled environment of an internet dating profile.

What it all adds up to is a certain knowingness that I think is one of my defining characteristics. I don’t know of anyone who’s ever seen me flustered, though I’ve definitely done anger. I don’t remember a time I felt panic, and I’m sure no-one has ever seen it in me. Mostly I say the right thing at the right time. I carry through. I’ve never failed to do what I said I would do, and have a reputation staked upon it. In so many ways, I’m a very functional human being.

But sometimes it infuriates me. There’s a large measure of control in being that person. It’s not conscious – it comes natural – but rarely does anything irregular or spontaneous leak from it. Listen to how measured I am describing it! The boundary is between the roiling, unpredictable self, and the self that translates that into rational and measured thought. Perhaps that’s why I write – because only then do I tap into that much more creative self. But this how I need to be I think at times like this – make mistakes, be unpredictable, go for it.

There was more of that in me before, and the truth of it is the control I speak of is what enabled me to survive homelessness and the despair that goes with it. I contained the blast to below ground, and it was a mighty effort – but I’ve been left irradiated by the job.

I commonly think that I need someone to show me the way – to take me out of that, as Muriel does Macon. I don’t know how myself, because knowing the problem doesn’t fix it and, in the meantime, everything keeps coming out smoothly.

The counterpoint to this, as it occurred to me last night, was how much I miss intellectual conversation and engagement on matters of culture and art and meaning. That’s the other side of me, questing and curious and restless.

It sometimes feels as if everything is contradiction, but I know well enough that what appears paradoxical is quite often in human nature perfectly natural. That’s not worth fighting or even wondering at. What’s worth doing is bringing the inside out.

Father’s day for some


It’s Father’s Day today. Even in lockdown, a lot of families are doing their best to celebrate, even if it’s just breakfast in bed.

There’s no father’s day here, nor any commemoration of any type. I won’t call my dad, I haven’t sent him a card. We reconciled – if that’s the word – a little over 12 months ago. We caught up a few times for lunch in the city when I was still going into the office. I think we’ve exchanged SMS twice in the months since.

Though he’s my father, I don’t really think of him as my dad, and that’s because we’ve never really had that relationship. When I cast my mind back, the only real sense of sharing that traditional father-son relationship was when we would go to the footy together.

In fairness, we did that for many years. Every Saturday we’d pack up and head out to Waverley or the MCG or – most often – Windy Hill, and other venues now and then. I remember that quite well, and particularly the drive home afterwards listening to the footy review on the car radio.

I felt like I shared something with him then, but at no other time. More often as I grew up I was aware of a distance between us. Much later I discovered that he felt I was a rival to him when it came to mum. Eventually he came to blame me for their separation and divorce. I hadn’t the sophistication to understand that when I was a kid, but I was very aware that we weren’t friends, and there was no warmth between us.

No-one could describe my dad as a warm man. That wasn’t his thing. He was smart and fierce and determined and ambitious. He had his moments, but rarely could you say he was an easy personality. There was no whimsy in him or silliness, none of the things that lighten life up. He has no real patience for that kind of stuff, though occasionally he’ll be caught unawares and break into laughter.

There was a time I felt quite bitter at what I’d been deprived of. I’d look upon happy families and the affection shared between fathers and sons and feel a pang. Many of my friends are fathers and I observe the love and devotion they show to their children and it’s heartwarming, but poignant for me knowing I had experienced none of that. I knew no better when I was a boy, but as a grown man it seemed dreadfully sad that I’d missed out. Sometimes I would wonder what impact it had on my development as a man.

In more recent years, I’ve let the bitterness go. What happened – or didn’t happen – was unfortunate, but none of us could go back and change it. Sometimes I hoped that my father would come out and acknowledge his failures as a father, but that kind of self-knowledge is beyond him. Nor is he one to readily admit fault.

I don’t feel any particular acrimony towards him and would welcome a more intimate connection, even at this late stage. I don’t believe in it though because I don’t believe he has the humility to be that man. I haven’t contacted him for the occasion because it would feel hypocritical of me, and because I’ve given much more than he ever has.

Ultimately, that’s a big part of the issue. For years, before I knew anything of what he really felt, I made every effort to be closer to him. I believed in him as a concept, and even admired certain aspects of him – his smarts and a basic integrity. He never really reciprocated and, I think, pretty well accepted it as his due. I was a far better son to him than my sister was a daughter, but while she was showered with praise and affection, I got neither. Never have. To this day, I can’t recall an easy word.

These last few months have confirmed a general belief. When we got together again last year I was glad to put things behind us. It’s easier to let things go than to hold onto them. We got on reasonably well, but on a certain level we always did. Father and son never worked for us, and we were never friendly, but we could meet at a cerebral, intellectual level. And it appeared that he was less inclined to judge – nothing I did was ever good enough before. But having re-established contact, it’s been left to me to maintain it. He won’t pick up the phone, he won’t send a message, and I think that’s consistent with a general lack of humility that has ever been the case. It’s my job to make the effort, and I’m not buying that anymore.

Today doesn’t make me sad, but I wish things had been different.

Metaphysical desires


After having a grizzle the other week about how every opportunity seemed closed off to me, I had a chat last week with management. It all came about because my team lead, a truly decent human being, recognised that I deserved, and maybe needed, more. He spoke to one manager, and then in passing, mentioned it to the department head. When she spoke to me, she had ideas and suggested I speak to my manager.

A lot of things are on hold currently, which I understand. The view is that I’m getting antsy about being denied what was promised to me. It’s not as simple as that – yes, I want my just rewards and am generally set by default to seek more; but, likewise, in reality, I’m not as motivated or ambitious as I used to be. There’s a lot of push-pull in me these days and will be until I reconcile it entirely. Regardless of that, there’s the very practical consideration that – having been wiped out – I need more to stash away for when retirement comes. Even so, if someone could guarantee me a relatively modest $120k pa, CPI linked, over the next 10 years, then I’d probably take it – even though I can earn much more than that.

The discussion, when I had it, didn’t touch on the metaphysics of my situation. The metaphysical rarely gets a mention when it comes to career development, and maybe that’s a good thing. It’s confusing enough without it.

What was put to me was an opportunity for a new role in a different team that would give me increased responsibilities and a bigger pay packet. In theory, not bad. Then I was told there was no budget for the role – which is new – until next financial year. At that point, the whole discussion seemed a waste of time. Then he said, well, let me have a chat and see what I can do. The inference was that maybe he could swing it much sooner. He said he’d get back to me in a couple of weeks.

As anyone who’s been reading this blog will know, this left me with confused and conflicted feelings. There’s a lot happening in this mental space. There is paradox aplenty.

I’m getting over it generally, but a recurring issue is that no-one really seems to know what I’ve done or am capable of. They’re all very complimentary of the work I’ve done with them, but I don’t think one of them has set eyes on my CV. That’s a tad disappointing, even if only at a very basic level. I claim not to care much for what people think of me, and I think that’s mostly true, but don’t we all have a fundamental need to be recognised as what we are?

I don’t know how many times I’ve looked on and thought, I’ve done that before and I could do it better. It sounds a bit snooty but I end up shrugging my shoulders and moving along. Times are different now and there’s not nearly the rigour around getting things done as there used to be, and maybe that’s why experience is overlooked. I’m steeped in practices and methodologies, but the whole principle of them has gone out of fashion. I’m happy to adapt and have, but I’m not about to forget the things I know, and it seems a waste in general and a pity that no-one bothers to check if there might be someone more qualified.

At the same time, I’m subject to people that in an earlier phase of my working life would’ve been reporting to me. I can accept that pretty well most of the time because I know that I don’t want that anymore necessarily – but nor do I necessarily want to defer or take instruction from someone who knows less than I do. I can be a bit snappy then, and experience is that people soon recognise it and let me go.

All this is true, in my mind at least, but it’s also ego. It’s the ego that puts the sauce on the objective fact. I know that. It’s what I’m trying to get away from. Let it go is what I tell myself, and after a bit of wrangling generally, I do.

These are practical considerations overlaid by the part of me that strives for more and new.

Then there’s the soul-deep part that has no part of the conversation but looks on wistfully. I don’t know how much of this is me, and my circumstances, and how much of it is stage of life. It can be interpreted as a mid-life crisis, and a lot of it aligns with that. But then, I think some of it comes from having endured what I have, been deprived of nurture through that, and coming out the other end and viewing conventional aspirations as being pretty hollow. To be honest, there was always a bit of that in me, even when I was living the high-life. Having endured the low-life since, it got reinforced.

What it means is that in my soul I want something more than a good salary and a handy sounding job title. I want to be doing something worthwhile to me. Paradoxically, I think a part of that is being my best self.

There’s a comment a friend made a few years back that’s haunted me in the last few days. He said he admired me because, like Kobe Bryant – his hero – I could invent my own shot. When I think of that the urge is to let myself go. Twirl the dial to 11. Go for it.

I just don’t know how real that is. Is it legitimate to start with? And is worthwhile if it is? Is it pure ego again? Or is that the opportunity I turn my back on because I’ve become modest?

Very strange. I don’t think there’s ever been a time in my life when I’ve known myself less well. The broad strokes I get, the history, but I don’t know who I am really, nor who I’m supposed to be.

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.