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.

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.

 

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.

The underground river


I go round and round in circles searching for explanations and analysing the ‘facts’ because I’m someone who can’t ever desist from trying to know. It’s like an engine in me that drives me this need to understand and, once followed, to categorise and file away. The problem in recent times is that understanding is fleeting, or conflicting versions of it exist.

The confusing thing is, as I reflect that I don’t think any of the conflicting versions are wrong as such. They are true as long as they are current, then another perspective opens up, more ‘facts’ come to light. I never stop in this search, as these pages very well attest, and perhaps this today is yet another version of that – except this time I propose that the many conjectures I posit, the analysis I embark on, are actually addressing the symptoms, not the cause.

For example, I say that I don’t have the burning desire that I had once, though often times my behaviour contradicts that. The explanation I have for that is that having experienced hard times that my perspective has shifted. I just don’t have the hunger, and my justification (for I find it hard to swallow that I might not go as hard as it as I used to) is that I am older, I’ve done that, and I have other priorities.

The real reason is that it isn’t in me anymore. And why? Because I’m sad all the way through.

I made reference the other day to an underground river of sorrow, and it feels a bit like that – hidden away from view. In the last week or so – and I don’t know why – it feels as if I’ve broken into a subterranean cavern and caught sight of the river flowing there.

This is the crux of everything. I’m sad all the time even when I’m happy, and sometimes the sorrow is so deep that I can find it difficult to manage. At it’s worse, I feel as if all energy, even will, has been leached from me. It’s like I’m trying to run with an elastic band dragging me back.

I was a stoic long before any of the shit engulfed me, but in the time since it was that which allowed me to keep going. That became a mantra of sorts – plough through, keep applying yourself. And even when it feels crippling, I rouse myself to get up because I don’t want to succumb to it. It makes for hard work sometimes, like heading into the face of a gale. It was the standard I set, though, reinforced by habit. I was afraid that if I gave way, I might never be able to get up again, but if I appear grim sometimes, that’s why.

I’m not stupid. I know I have issues. It was about two years ago I figured I wasn’t going to survive without opening up about my experiences. I began to share the dark secrets – the shame – of being helpless and homeless. It was a liberating experience and good for me and, though I don’t speak of it a lot, something I continue to do. I’ve owned it.

All I’ve owned though is what happened, not how it left me. Very typically when people ask me about it, I shrug my shoulders and say it’s just something that happened to me. And it’s true. It was like a bad accident that left me debilitated, but – I thought – I had survived and got over it. It was not something that defined me. It was not something I sought sympathy for. I was strong enough to have survived it, and that was that. It was very much in line with the stoical philosophy.

But sometimes stoicism doesn’t cut it. It keeps you from going where you need to go – in this case, into the depths of my sorrow. I sometimes wondered if I was suffering from some sort of PTSD, but I never considered – or was willing to consider – that I might be just fucking sad.

But everything comes from that, I think. I survived, battered and bruised, have lived on to fight and try and reclaim some part of the life I had. And I have focused on that, the scrap to make a better life for myself. But there are things I can never get back, and that’s the source of my great sorrow.

I don’t care I had it tough. I’m still here. The challenges ahead just make me grit my teeth. What I can’t get over is the hole in the middle me knowing what I have lost forever.

I lost all I had materially, but that’s the least of it. It means what would have been easy will now likely be hard, but I’ll get on with it. What I can’t get over is the loss of my mother, and with her, basically my whole family unit. I miss that love and affection and feeling a part of something good. The circumstances break my heart, even now.

People die, and I accept that. I miss mum, but we all suffer such loss. It’s the acrimony that followed her death I find hard to swallow, and the fallout of it that fractured a once-close family into fragments.

It seems so tragic and unnecessary to me, and even now, I feel lost. It hurts, and for the first time, I can admit that. It’s Christmastime, and it’s this time of year I feel it worst because it was this time of year that was generally happiest.

This year, like in recent years, I’ll be alone. I have invitations for Christmas day, but I’ll decline them. It’ll be pleasant enough. It’s not what I’ll do that makes it hard. What grieves me is what I’ll miss out on again – love and laughter and trust and affection and a sense of being part of something bigger than me. A family. It’s terrible what happened and one day I’ll get over it, but I guess the first part of that is accepting it.

So here I am. I’m sad, and I want to cry. I’m not the grim, stoical figure you see. That’s just on the inside. On the inside, I’m tender and want to be loved just like everybody else. I’m not as tough as you think, and it’s time you knew that. I’m sad, but now I know it.

I can’t claim back what has been lost. I think I just have to find it again for myself.