Disengagement


For the last couple of days, I was at an offsite session with work. It was a very instructive period.

On both days, I got there about mid-morning as I was coming from my hyperbaric treatment. It was held at a plush venue in one of the office towers in the city. The last time we did this was about March in 2019, and then Covid struck.

It was the usual mix of activities – strategy sessions, games, presentations, guest speakers, team exercises, and reviews. Back when we had it last time, it made for a change from the daily humdrum, but these days it’s quite novel. We hardly see each other anymore, and any gathering is unusual. On top of that, so much has changed, the department has grown, and there are many new faces.

Typically, these events are upbeat and self-congratulatory, and even a tad gung-ho. I’ve never been a great fit for this kind of event because I’m of a different nature. Bear in mind I’m an IT person working in Marketing, and we’re pretty much oil and water. I can tolerate the happy-clapping, but I will never be passionate about making money for other people. That’s the subversive in me coming out.

That was true again this time, though more pronounced than previously because of my recent experiences. Where before, I might have shrugged my shoulders at it, I saw it more cynically yesterday. I was there, slightly damaged, feeling a bit of an outsider, looking at it all as if through a pane of glass.

I actually do well at some of the activities because, by nature, I’m more direct. I feel too cool for school sometimes, but then I get impatient and intervene. Sometimes – previously – I’m coercive, working with people to draw out the essence of their idea and gently coordinating until a solution is achieved. Yesterday, I was more strident.

Later I wondered if my cynicism was unfair. People take meaning from their work, and they’re lucky. It’s not for me to judge that. I may have loftier notions, but who am I kidding? To each their own. I was always out of step – happily so – but I feel foreign to it now. My own is different.

This was only the second time I’ve been with the extended team since I got sick. I’m healthier than before and, in many ways, seem roughly normal. I don’t think about it a lot, but it becomes awkward at times.

To start with, I don’t know what people know of my recent trials. When they ask how I’ve been, what do I say? It’s a real downer to tell them I’m recovering from cancer, but I don’t want to lie either, and if they know and I say nothing, aren’t I being disingenuous?

It pisses me off there was no official notification back when it all started. They said they would but never did. Had they done so, the sting would have gone out of the tail long before. People would be curious, but they may just as likely be happy to see me up and about.

I have no problem with people knowing. It’s the truth, after all, and I’m alive still, so it’s a better story than it might have been (I wonder sometimes what story work would have come up with if I had perished from this?). And, I’d rather be open about it than hiding it away. It actually does me some good to talk about it.

It turns out that some people knew, and others had no clue. Many had noticed my absence and thought something was amiss but didn’t know what. For me, nothing could be worse than rumours and innuendo, but in the absence of hard information, that’s what happens. I can’t tell you how pissed off I am about how it was handled. All the pressure was put onto me.

And so, it came up yesterday, and I faced the dilemma several times, not knowing exactly how to respond. In every instance, I was honest – but you don’t know how much to say, and you’re conscious of what the other person is feeling and how awkward it is for them to respond, which becomes difficult.

What’s ironic is that we had sessions about exclusivity and accessibility on Thursday, some of which felt personally relevant and was a reminder of how none of that happened with me.

We had drinks last night, and it was another interesting and instructive experience. I found it hard because with my diminished hearing, I had to lean in hard to make out what people were saying amid the background noise.

The other side of that is that I found myself having to try extra hard to make myself understood. One guy had earlier told me how much my speech had improved since the last time he spoke to me a few months ago, which was gratifying. I’m probably overly self-conscious about my ability to speak clearly, but in the noisy environs of a busy bar that becomes very relevant. I could see people struggling to understand what I was saying, and a little bit of me died each time.

What happens? You begin to disengage. You don’t put yourself in that position of embarrassment. It runs counter to the articulate and social person I’ve always been. I feel diminished.

Shortly before I left, I got talking to one of the women there, someone I’ve always liked, a thoughtful, sensitive person with great depths. She knew I’d been away, but not why. I told her. The bar had emptied a little by then so I didn’t have to strain so hard. I sensed that she wanted to talk to me, but in the end, I walked away.

As I walked to the train afterwards, I regretted that. You know how sometimes you think of things you should have said after the moment has passed? Generally, I say those things at the time, but they’re in the way of wit. Last night I regretted not being more open with her.

I have this great idea of being more transparent and authentic with others. It appears one of the great lessons from this experience – and yet, with a sympathetic audience, I failed.

At the time, you feel awkward. I’ve experienced the hardship, but I don’t want to make it about me. I know how tricky it is to respond to something like that, and I don’t want to burden others with my story. Yet, I feel there are some people happy to learn.

I had the chance to be quite honest last night with someone I respect and who has the sensitivity to accept and understand, and I walked away. When it comes down to it, I feel embarrassed, which is not something I deserve.

Doing time


There’s no hyperbaric treatment today because of maintenance, so I get a welcome opportunity to sleep in. I’ve been awake since early, nonetheless, and am sitting here now wondering what comes next.

I feel a bit lost without the structure of having to organise myself. I should be up soon, showered, and sitting at my desk for work, but it’s not so much that I can’t be bothered as I’m not interested.

I will do it because I must. I’ll go through the motions and perhaps get the whiff of something that interests me. Others look to me for leadership, which places some obligation on me. I don’t want to let anyone down.

I wish I could explain what it’s like. It changes, or my perspective of it does, but I still feel pretty isolated – emotionally isolated, if nothing else. I feel a distant hope mixed in with a weariness that’s physical but also emotional. Washed out describes it well.

Part of that is simply because I feel I’ve been at this so long and because every time I think I might be approaching an endpoint, it proves to be an illusion.

I’ve kept myself up for so long, pushing through physical limitations and keeping myself positive. None of that will change, but in this moment of repose, I long for a break.

It’s one of the moments I miss the company of Rigby, not to mention the close family I once had. One who would divert me and give unadorned affection. The other the tacit support and love that would allow me some respite knowing I was in safe hands.

I’ve always been independent and am good at it. I’m organised and determined and will go it alone without flagging (well, only a little). But I know if there were someone I could lean on through this trial and open myself up to, how much easier it would be. I feel like a tree on a bare, windswept plain, bent by the wind and stripped to the austere essentials, firmly rooted but alone.

I’m pretty sure I’ll be in for more surgery before the end of the year. I expect I’ll continue to improve in other facets and return to some aspects of everyday life. I’m heading in the right direction, but some things may never come good, and others that need more work. That’s the story. No matter how I spin it, I have to do the time and keep going.

Clearing the boundaries


I woke up early this morning to get to the hospital for my hyperbaric treatment. I wasn’t conscious of being in any particular mood.

I drove to the hospital through middling traffic and walked into the hospital 5 minutes early. I had a RAT, which was clear, and then had to change out of all my clothes – including undies and removing my watch – to put on a pair of hospital scrubs. Ten minutes later, they slid me into the hyperbaric tube.

They reckon when it’s fully pressurised, the pressure is like being 14 metres underwater, which is about twice as much as when you fly. You’re all familiar with your ears popping when flying; that’s absolutely necessary in the hyperbaric chamber to equalise pressure and ease any pain or risk of damage.

Normally you might do that by swallowing or holding your nostrils closed and blowing. Because of my surgery and the loss of feeling, I couldn’t do the second, so all I could do was keep swallowing as the oxygen pumped in and the pressure increased. It took a while for it to work. Along the way, they had to slow or even back off on the pressure because my left ear was troubling me.

The treatment after that was uneventful, even boring. I just lay there for over an hour. I couldn’t even read a book. When the attendants released the pressure again, I felt a crackling and gurgling in my left ear. The doctor on duty inspected it and reported it was bruised from the pressure. Long story short, I can’t continue treatment until they do a minor procedure to allow for the pressure to equalise more efficiently between the inner and outer ear – similar to the grommet in my right ear, just more temporary.

I left, frustrated and weary thinking I had to have yet more surgery.

I drove to my old stamping ground, Hampton. I went to a cafe I used to frequent and, waiting to be seated, had a couple of old ladies barge in and take the table meant for me. They were a couple of Brighton types and very rude. I was shown to another table. I waited ten minutes to be served and then walked out.

I went to another cafe, relatively new and much less busy. I was served by a sweet-natured teenage girl who got my order wrong. It was no big deal, and I made nothing of it, but as I left 20 minutes later, I realised I was in a cranky mood.

I get gruff when I’m cranky, which wasn’t helped by the fact that my speech had gone off sooner than usual – maybe due to the treatment. I stalked back to the car, feeling a cold agitation and a sense of impatience for something I couldn’t define.

Today, I think, is one of the few occasions that I feel sorry for myself. It’s okay; I’ll allow it this time. I was conscious of all I had lost, which I felt ever keener knowing there was no one I could talk to about it. I’ve never really complained, but I was unlucky to lose my close family prematurely. Losing my mum, particularly, was very hard, and her death set in train a series of calamitous events that left me with no family to comfort me in hard times.

I felt the loss of Rigby too, my boon companion. I think of him a lot and am still vacuuming up remnants of his fur! It feels pretty sad. The other day, returning home, I made a wish that I would open the door and he would be there. I felt quite good about it, much like when you feel your numbers might come up in lotto this week. He wasn’t there, though. Nor have I won lotto.

I miss him. I wonder how I would have coped last year with the cancer breaking if he hadn’t been there for me. I have vivid memories of that torrid time that recur to me regularly, yet in all of them, I return home to the eager affection of Rigby. I’ll probably get another dog soon and will be grateful for it, but it won’t bring back Rigby.

I’m a bit sad currently about friendship in general. No recriminations. Everything has a lifespan. Not great timing is all.

I feel I have lost a lot and possibly suffered more than my fair share of obstacles. I’ve always been conscious of not wanting to make that an excuse. You’ve got to deal with what comes your way, no ifs, buts or maybes. I’ve done that, but I’m aware of the cost.

I feel, in a way, that so many years have been lost, and remind myself there’s still time to find the comfort I need and yearn for. But, after tarrying for so long, I’m impatient to get that started, not knowing how.

There’s a feeling now different from before, which I’m unsure if it’s just a part of getting old or, more likely, it’s a part of coming close to death. There were always things I did and wanted to do, and they seemed a part of the continuum. If not this year, then next, or five years from now. There was no perceived limit or boundary. You know it exists, but distantly, and life feels boundless.

Now I feel the truth that more is behind me than ahead, and the times when I may have done the things I truly wanted were wasted. That’s an extreme perception that the urgent sense of loss exacerbates. The truth is, I did other things instead. While great fun and valuable in many ways, the things I did were transient. They were a moment that passed. I missed the opportunity to build something lasting.

It’s a classic tale. As they say, it’s later than you think.

Now, I can see the boundaries ahead. I can hear the clock ticking. Nothing feels boundless anymore. I try to recapture that sense, and it’s a key reason I strive to enhance my physical health – if I can feel and look younger, then maybe I can get some of that sense again. The sense of limitless possibilities. Maybe that can be, but then maybe it’s a delusional attempt to reclaim time lost to me.

Having got to this point, having survived cancer and experienced a form of enlightenment, I’m impatient to get back to the main game, knowing my opportunities to perform and score are dwindling. I feel it urgently: I have to make it count.

So, that’s the definition I was looking for, perhaps. It will remain true, but tomorrow is a different day and may bring a different view.

Overcoming


I begin my hyperbaric treatment on Monday. There are two options. I could either sit in a chamber with others with a transparent hood is placed on my shoulders in which I breathe oxygen while the pressure in the chamber is increased. Or I could lay in a bed within a transparent tube. Again, oxygen is delivered while the pressure is increased.

I preferred the first. Laying in a bed wearing hospital scrubs is not for me unless absolutely necessary. That’s what I will be doing now. The choice came down to start that on Monday or the other sometime in July. I’m keen to get it done and feel the effects, so Monday it is.

I’m not sure what to expect. I hear good things but don’t know what benefits I’ll feel, if any, and how much my health will improve.

I’ve no doubt it will be positive; I’m wary of expecting too much of it. At the very least, I hope to experience some general health benefits. The combination of pure oxygen and high pressure accelerates natural healing. In my case, the focus is mending the bones in my face and aiding the regrowth of skin in my mouth over the exposed bone.

I hope it also reduces swelling and returns greater mobility to my mouth and face. It would be nice if it improved my sinus also, if it repairs my nerve damage, and if it frees up my hip. These things are less likely.

What I do know is at the end of it, I should be in a better place – how good, I don’t know. If it fails to meet primary objectives, I’m looking at surgery again.

I can’t worry too much about how things may turn out. Every day is a mission to get more exercise and become stronger while managing symptoms. I have become accustomed to many of the symptoms. I’m far from full health, but now I’m dealing with a collection of lesser issues rather than one big issue. It can be annoying, and it certainly inhibits my lifestyle, but you accept it for now and keep going.

Overall, within these constraints, I think I’m doing pretty well. There was a time I couldn’t walk to the front door without feeling I would collapse. Many a time, I would cling to the doorknob for dear life until the wave passed. Later, when I was more capable, I would still need to rest every 50-60 metres walking. All my fitness was gone, every skerrick of stamina a distant memory, and I felt as weak as a child.

I’m much stronger now, in fact, and appearance. I lost most of my muscle after surgery, and it took a long time before I felt any strength return to me. I’m lucky, though, in that I muscle up quite easily, and much has now returned – my chest is deep, my shoulders broad. I’m not what I was. I can’t run as far as I could before, nor as straight, thanks to my hip, but I can walk for hours if my hip allows it, and I’m taking stairs two at a time again, in defiance of the pain.

I even feel a bit of (crooked) swagger return to me.

I was in the city yesterday for a rare occasion in the office. At lunchtime, I walked through the streets, checking out the places I knew so well before. I ended up in a bookshop where I bought a few books. I felt my old self, in spirit, at least.

It’s curious how important it is that I return to some semblance of physical capability as before. In ways, it makes perfect sense, but though I was always physically robust, I’m more the cerebral type. It’s clear, however, that much of my sense of self is concentrated in my physical being.

I liked being tall and strong. Year’s roaming streets on my travels had made me physically enduring. There’s no doubt there were occasions I enjoyed imposing my frame into situations. And, for the most part, I felt attractive, even in contradiction to reality at times.

I guess it’s not enough for me to be a mind; I want to be a mind in a body. And when I consider my inclination to the sensual, it begins to make more sense.

It’s very true also that when you have something taken from you, you yearn for its return. I am made aware of this capacity more keenly because it has been lost to me.

There’s something innate in it, however. I remember reading ancient Greek history. I was drawn to the Spartans more than the Athenians. I have more in common culturally with an Athenian, I think – the love of art and discourse, good living and philosophy. Not to mention, democracy. But it was the Spartans I loved for their fierce virility and stoic sense of civic duty. I admire them for their hardness and willingness to put their beliefs into battle. And, in action, their ruthless ability.

I love the arts. I love thinking and wondering. I could read all day long, and I never want to stop learning. These are comforts. They’re what makes life a pleasure, among other things. But I’m aware also that comfort must be earned, or so I believe. They’re the pay-off from living with a rigorous outlook and understanding they’re a luxury and a privilege. It’s a perspective, I guess, which echoes stoicism and even an unexpected WASPish attitude.

For me, it means I need to feel physically capable as well as everything else. I take pride in being independent, and physical health is necessary to maintain that – which is another reason becoming critically ill is so difficult. Add the usual mix of male ego and vanity, and the picture completes itself.

I want to be out in the world, and I want to be capable and robust and putting myself forward as if nothing ever happened to me.

Buttoning up


I had lunch in the city today with one of our vendors. We met at a top-end Chinese restaurant, and I had a lovely meal, though my pleasure is tempered a little these days by a feeling of self-consciousness as I eat. I was brought up well-mannered and with an understanding of dining etiquette. I always felt at home at even the most elegant of tables, but that was before I got cancer.

Because I can only open my mouth so far – perhaps 60% of what I could previously – I have to be very aware taking every mouthful; every portion has to be assessed as to whether it will fit in my mouth and, if I figure it will, what the best angle of approach is. Eating with chopsticks reduces your options. I can’t cut the portions in half, so I have to be particularly clever – or just cram it in. I feel somewhat inadequate.

I realised another thing over lunch which may have longer term ramifications.

I’m already wondering what my working future will be. I smell of roses at the moment, partly by virtue of others publicly stuffing up and partly because I’m the one fixing them up. I think I’ve reminded others of how smart I am and reminded myself at the same time. Not that I ever doubted exactly, but sometimes it slips from your mind. Plus, returning from illness, I guess you’re never really quite sure how sharp you’ll be.

I’m in a better position now than I was six months, not just because I’m a lot healthier, but because I’ve reminded the powers to be of the value I bring.

It looks relatively positive then, and I can’t help but get deeply involved when the heat is on. I’m reluctant to admit it, but in the heat of battle, I enjoy it. I like being challenged, and I like having the answers and using my mind. And I like it when it all works as it should.

It’s when the heat is off that I wonder what the point of it is. I know, I know…but no matter how good a job I do, it doesn’t amount to much. A year from now, one person’s stuff-ups and another person’s successes won’t matter and will hardly be remembered.

Getting cancer and contemplating the prospect of becoming non-existent stirs things up. It prompts you to act on the things sitting dormant in the back of your mind. Now is the time because you don’t know if there will be another time.

For me, I’ve idly wondered about doing something more in tune with my outlook and philosophy. I don’t know what that is. What makes it hard is that I’m quite good at what I do, even if it doesn’t align with my values altogether. And, I’m at the stage of my life – and health – when I have to squirrel away as much dough as I possibly can.

The other thing is that I figured that all these years, I’ve been wasting what is basically a top-shelf brain doing things of no lasting import, and it was about time I started to use it for myself. I want to do things worthy of my intelligence.

Then, today, at lunch, I found myself labouring as I tried to speak clearly. The more I tried, the harder it got because I was wearing myself out. I’m sure I’m intelligible when there’s no background noise, but in a restaurant, with a hum of conversation, it becomes more difficult. I became aware of that and felt a bitter embarrassment.

I don’t know how much my speech will improve with time or if it will at all. I’ve always been a man of reasonably clipped conversation – direct and without extravagance. But there have also been regular occasions when I’d get on a roll and talk fluently and with pleasure. For someone who has an opinion on everything, who takes an interest in art and history, politics and culture, it was always a joy to expound and interact in the right company.

The bonus was that I was articulate, even charming occasionally. I considered myself a good conversationalist when I was in the mood, both erudite and witty.

There’s none of that now. I’m just not capable of it in my present condition. I hate it, obviously, but perhaps I have to learn to accept it.

So, that’s another thing I know after today. If there isn’t any improvement in my speech, it’s likely to be career-limiting anyway, but I know I won’t want to put myself through that day after day regardless. I’ll need to find another role where I can get away without speaking so much.

State of body


A couple of months ago, I started doing a set of daily crunches. Not a lot because I’d lost a lot of strength in the time between, but it was a start, and the bonus was that I felt virtuous doing them.

In the last few weeks, I’ve added further exercises to my routine – pushups and squats and some dumb-bell sessions. I’m coming from a low-base because I’m not up to doing more at the moment. Yesterday, for example, I struggled to do 17 push-ups. A year ago I’d have managed over 30 with some ease, and used to be able to do 50 at a time. (In fact, I won a push-up contest with a much younger colleague about 2 years ago).

I’d estimate my exercise capacity is just nudging 50% of what it was not so long ago, but that’s okay. It gives me something to aim at, and considering my capacity had dropped to about 10% after my surgery, I can’t complain.

In time, much of the missing capacity will return to me, if not all of it. Getting stronger and fitter is a big focus for my general well-being because it feeds into a healthier state of mind. It’s an attempt to reclaim some of the physical capability I lost and the sense of self that was part of that, as well as perhaps trying to claw back – or, at least, hold back – the years.

I don’t know how normal it is, but clearly, a large part of my self-identification was tied up in my physical capability and appearance. Objectively, it seems odd given that I’m a rational man whose most prominent feature is intelligence.

It goes to show that there are limits to rationality, and that’s no bad thing. We’re human beings, after all, not robots.

Speaking of my appearance, I’m surprised at how much it has improved from late last year. I was grey-haired and puffy then. While not disfigured, I was misshapen in some aspects. I had aged drastically and looked probably 5-6 years older than my age.

I expected to improve some – such a low base, how could I not – but didn’t expect I would to this extent.

My hair has regrown and is a darker colour now than it was even before all these cancer shenanigans. Much of the swelling and puffiness have diminished. I’ve returned to looking about ten years younger than my objective age. And though my features are marred in places by the treatment, I have a face now that is alert and masculine. It’s more attractive in concept than fact – a good look subtly spoilt, but with the outlines of a handsome face that might have been.

With all that said, I still feel some self-consciousness. A lot of that is triggered by my speech, which is perfectly understandable but thicker than it was. I have hopes that it will improve also. It gets worse as I tire, and it sometimes takes great effort to speak clearly. There are words I avoid altogether now, and it requires thought when I construct my sentences. I feel sub-optimal, and I am.

It’s problematic in a work sense also. I’ve been very busy, and I’m in a role that sets the agenda and requires leadership. I have to do more than my fair share of speaking, and I fear that I’m not clear in what I say, and what amounts to a speech impediment means I’m taken less seriously. That hasn’t been the case, but it’s on my mind.

All of this is particularly frustrating for a man formerly known for his articulate speech and wit. You’re lucky you get the written version. It would be very different if I had to speak it.

It’s probably true that I’m more aware of and see things as worse than what others do. I’m constantly told how well I look, though I always hear it with an asterisk. And it appears that my speech is perfectly intelligible if a little awkward. I’m told it’s improving.

Fair enough. But I know I’m less than I was before, and it’s hard to let go of it, especially when you’re a proud man.

I’m keen to get back to a more normal life. I’m making an effort to get out more and be social. I started writing creatively again yesterday, and it felt like meaning and value had been returned to my life. And, though I feared my virility had been lost in the months post-surgery, it has returned, and I yearn to be back in the mix.

In the meantime, I still have the hyperbaric treatment ahead of me, for which I have high hopes. The idea is that it speeds up natural healing and kills off any lingering infections. In my case, it repairs the damaged bone, reduces swelling and returns some of the natural function to me. I hope that my speech will improve and I can eat properly again. I expect some cosmetic benefits and even some improvement to my hip.

I met with the doctors at the Alfred about two weeks ago. It was fascinating. The plan is for daily treatment, Monday to Friday, for six weeks – 30 days. All going well; they may well tack another ten days on top of that.

I’m impatient for it to start, but nothing has been scheduled yet. I hope, once completed, I’ll have a different tale to tell about my state of body.

Natural and assumed selves


One night last week while I lay in bed reading I had classical music playing in the background. The first piece was by Ravel – his Piano Trio in A Minor. Tinkling piano is overlaid with sinuous violin – very Ravel. It’s a thoughtful, quiet piece that draws you in with the sense that there’s something going on beyond the music.

I would pause occasionally in my reading to listen more closely and the thought occurred naturally in me: this how I want to live. But what did that mean? I think that I wanted to live with music like this playing a more central place in my life – slowing me down, encouraging me to be thoughtful and to peer into the depths that the hustle of everyday life keep us too busy to look into. I wanted to be present, in the moment, as I was as I listened to the music.

I probably could have said the same thing at multiple stages of my life, though mostly there were other things that drew me away. This time, it feels as if the time is right. I’ve reached the end of the path and, if I chose, that’s the direction I could turn to.

The next day I had an early appointment at the hospital, after which I went into the office, where my team had gathered.

That afternoon I had a meeting with a vendor we have an vital relationship with. Also there was the head of digital, and my direct boss, B.

I used to have a great relationship with B. He’s a very decent human being, affable, intelligent, mostly authentic. The relationship soured a little bit when I was sick. As I’ve written, I felt neglected and sometimes forgotten. When we spoke it often felt as if he wasn’t listening completely. I felt he was a stooge for the company, more inclined to their interests than mine. He was certainly very clumsy with some of his language and behaviour.

It took the gloss off our relationship but I excused most of it on the grounds that he was very busy covering my role as well, and that he was just one of those people poor at managing awkward situations.

I returned to work in February to find the project he had inherited in my absence had been mismanaged. Conscious of my part-time status and the fact that I was no more than an interested bystander now, I tried to influence and direct the best I could to plug the holes and get the project back on track. I even had to step up at one stage and managed to get a few things done.

Overall, it was too late to make much difference, and I felt at times as if my interventions were seen as unwanted interference. I understood that and was sympathetic – it was an awkward position for both of us. Sometimes I was ignored, at other times my suggestions were rejected (wrongly, as it transpired), and occasionally they would be followed up.

By the time we met with the vendors last week I felt uncomfortable to the point of being disenchanted. By that time the go-live date had been postponed twice, and issues had emerged threatening the next deadline. The issues were those I had warned of and raised months before but had been fobbed off or ignored.

I sat in the meeting and realised that I had lost faith in B. He sat there with a grin on his face making comments that were not quite correct. Beside him, I was more incisive and direct – I know the product backwards. Then there was the head of digital, who favours B.

I understood why. B is a nice guy. He’s reliable and he won’t rock the boat and there’s a little of the unconscious martyr in him – you can load him up with work and he’ll get it done without complaint. He’s smart too, though it’s of a particular type. He has a technical mind and that’s how he sees the world. He’s blind when it comes to the operational, and even the functional. His thinking runs in a straight line, which is great for some roles, but not for others. Above all, he’s biddable, and I think that’s why he’s in favour.

What’s strange is that I started in my role appointed by the previous head of digital. He was disdainful of B and planned for me to take his place. But then he left. I wasn’t unhappy. I liked B and I was pretty sure I didn’t want his job.

But now, sitting there, I felt a kind of disgust. Not for him, but for the situation generally. I had realised a little while before that I was tired of hiding my light under a bushel. No-one knows what my experience is or the range of what I’m capable of. For the most part, I’ve kept silent, unsure of what I wanted.

With my health slowly returning I realised that I no longer wanted to hide away. I had no ambitions. There was no scheming in it. I just wanted to be honest with myself and others. And I sat there listening to people who knew a fraction of what I did, while I had a fraction of their authority. Let me tell you, it’s frustrating to listen to uninformed nonsense when you’ve made a living off what they’re talking about.

Yesterday, the project went live. It was good enough, no more. I was embarrassed to be part of it. This morning, as I lay in bed, I had a delegation of key stakeholders contact me rather than B, reporting issues. I can only guess they came to me knowing I would do something about it.

I spoke to B and ended up telling him he had to do a better job. He’s my superior. He hung up. I dealt with the issues while he spoke in platitudes. He laughed with the vendor. He spoke of what a good job had been done and how we must celebrate. Pardon me if I’m churlish, but I want nothing to do with it. I can’t celebrate a project done badly with mediocre results.

So we return to where we started. I want to live differently. And I’ve lost faith in B, and quite possibly my job in general. These seem to be compatible notions. In theory, at least.

In the real world, I’m not so sure. In the real world practicalities apply. I have to make a living. I have to earn a wage. What’s especially important for me is to put aside as much as I can for when I retire. That’s an urgent requirement.

In the real world I have to put up with B, I think. I’ve lost some respect for him, which makes it hard, but I still like him as a person. The sensible thing would be to stick to the original plan – hang in there until I qualify for long-service leave – maybe a year? – then defongerate.

Maybe then I can begin to live differently. I’m still as smart as I ever was and no-one disputes that. There’s a lot I can do, though it’s much too late to change career. What I can do now is prepare myself for different things and perhaps begin the transition, mentally at least. I know some things I must do and there seems no good reason why I shouldn’t start now.

It means that I have to be patient though, as well. I’ll be honest, upfront, I’ll be myself, but there’s no value in rocking the boat too much at this stage. What feels strange is that I’m very good at what I do, which seems very different to how I want to be. My assumed self is accomplished and authoritative, but what I long for is to be my natural self – or so it seems to me – who is a very different man.

There is a new head of digital starting in July so who knows what changes that brings. I know right now that if anyone attempts to clap me on the shoulder for a job well done on this project, I’ll shrug them off. Unearned praise is no recommendation.

Final judgments


One night, lying in bed, not falling asleep, I was thinking about Shakespeare and about Macbeth specifically. I’d read some commentary on the eponymous character, which I thought too simplistic. Macbeth is a fascinating character, but to say he’s all about gaining power is to discount the complex psychology of the man.

It’s the sort of conversation I’d very happily conduct over a glass of red, but it’s not what I want to kept awake by.

As these things do in the murky depths of night, that passing thought morphed into a distant memory. The sort of obscure memory I probably haven’t been exposed to since the time it was created – over 40 years ago.

I find it strange it can be so long ago because so much of it remains fresh. I remember myself then very well, though I was still just a boy.

I was at school in Sydney. Turramurra High School. It was year 10, I think. We’d moved from Melbourne to Sydney after term one of school because dad, the managing director of a plastics company, was transferred up.

It was an English class I remembered. Miss Betts was the teacher, quite young, not yet 30, I would have thought.

I’m trying to remember the books we did that year. Was A Catcher in the Rye one of them? I had the habit then of reading these books in my own time, which was quite often after we were examined on them. I was a great reader and had no problem with the task; it was just that I didn’t like to be forced.

I got by mainly on the strength of classroom discussions and picking up the key details. It rarely had a significant impact on my exam results. Later that year I would read catcher and love it, but there were other books I liked less well – The Chosen, I remember, by Chaim Potok and The Inheritors by William Golding. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember the other books, though there would have been many. We did the Greek plays by Sophocles in my final year, back in Melbourne, and Richard III in Miss Betts’s class.

We performed the play in class. By that, I don’t mean we got up on stage and acted. We sat at our desk and read the role assigned to us when our part came up.

I can imagine it probably made for some motley performances. I doubt I was any better – I was no thespian. Nonetheless, I was given the central role, that of Richard.

I wondered why I was made Richard. I had the sense at the time that Ms Betts favoured me. Was it because I was new to the class and from Melbourne? Or was it because she saw something different in me? I’m sure she would have approved less of me had she known about my habit of not reading prescribed texts until after I should have (I was actually quite proud of this).

Before entering the NSW education system I had to complete some pretty extensive testing to assess where I was up to and how intelligent I was. I’m sure I’ve written of this before. Until that point I had no real awareness of my intelligence, or lack of it. I’d occasionally blitz tests with near-perfect scores, but it was erratic, and I didn’t wonder at it one way or another. I was a kid and had other priorities.

Something changed after I took those tests. I remember my parents being taken aside and being told that I was of “well above average intelligence”. Of course, they shared it with me, no doubt wondering why I hadn’t shown it on a more consistent basis. I can only say I was a rebellious kid.

For me, suddenly I was aware of something I hadn’t thought twice about previously. In a way it felt like a burden, like something I had to live up to. But in another way I was chuffed. I certainly didn’t want to be average, and the thought that I was smarter than the rest of the kids appealed.

When I look back, it was one of two seminal moments of discovery in my school days. I lost my innocence a bit. From that day forward I’ve been aware of the advantage gifted to me.

I think Miss Betts saw that in me. For all I knew, maybe there was a report on me that she’d seen. Perhaps I stood out in the class I’d been allocated. I seem to think that English classes were graded, and, despite my results, I’d been put in one of the lower graded classes. THS were one of the best schools in the state, and perhaps they thought they knew better.

Lying in bed unable to sleep, I remembered all that. I remembered the play. It was the first time I’d been exposed to Shakespeare, and it sparked a lifelong love for his genius. I was proud to play Richard, but I was also fascinated by the dark convolutions of the play.

I was 15. There’s a lot going on at that age. I was the newcomer and relative stranger. I remember copping some low-level grief at being a ‘Mexican’and about ‘aerial ping-pong’, as they liked to describe Aussie rules footy. I made friends soon enough, though, one of whom is still very close. I’d had my lusts before – I was precocious in that regard – but look back with special fondness at some of the ripe attractions I felt in that year.

Here I am now. I realised the other day that I’m at the page, possibly exacerbated by recent events, when you look back and wish you could ‘redo’ some moments. More keenly, you wish you understood better back before, and appreciated the wonderful moments more keenly rather than brushing them off. When you’re young, there’s always more. Whatever you’ve had, there’ll be more to come. And for a long time, it’s true, just as it’s true now – just that the more is less than what it was before. And the decisions you’ve made before now dictate what is to come. Or maybe not.

I know that probably sounds a bit grim. Consider it no more than a fair appraisal. I can’t redo things. There’s so much that I wish had been different. But not to be and no point dwelling on it. I’m alive now, awake and alert. I have more time to come now and an awareness I didn’t have before. I can make a difference still.

And there, in a nutshell, is the sort of stuff that flows through my mind unimpeded as I try to sleep. It’s all there – the memory, the conjectures, the revisions, the leaping sense of wonder and flights of logic, and the final judgment.

Unbowed


I visited the office on Friday for an all-team meeting. It was to be the first time meeting everyone since well before my cancer, and so I’d targeted it as something I had to attend.

I didn’t know what everyone knew of me, and figured there might be a bit of innuendo and mystery about my health status. I wanted to clear that up. I attended, not so much for myself, but so everyone could set eyes on me and see for themselves. I wanted to get it out of the way and move on.

I’ve been asked if I was nervous: not at all. It’s strange in a way as I have moments of self-consciousness now when strangers set eyes upon my imperfect visage. I’m much better looking than I was, and much better than I expected, but I still look a bit beaten up, and there’s a permanent blood stain at the corner of my nostril. One look at me and you know I’ve been through travails, and may be still. I dislike the attention.

I had no fear of that returning to work. I probably looked forward to it, and not only because I could tick the moment off. I wanted them to see me and know that no matter how tough it had been, I remained strong.

That’s more or less how it worked out.

I was early and went for a coffee. At the cafe, I ran into some women from the office who gushed over me. They asked questions and proclaimed how well I looked, as if surprised. One was kind enough to be shocked when she heard my age – she thought I was at least ten years younger, or so she claimed, and that’s with the beard I have now and the misshapen bits. Now, that’s more like it.

I was bright and even a little provocative. A tad raffish, and even a little flirtatious. I enjoyed the attention.

Upstairs, once we all collected, I had people greet me or pat me on the back as they passed by. I didn’t seek attention, nor to make anything of what had happened to me. I was there in the same capacity as everyone else, and when I came to talk to some made sure it was as much about them as it was me.

For a while, I’ve wondered where I’ll end up at the end of all this. Lately, I feel as if I’ve got a better idea of that.

For want of a better word, I’ve felt more vibrant. Serious illness tends to make you more insular. If you’re like me, you gather all your strength and will to resist it, physically and mentally. It takes discipline, but in the act of it you withdraw further into yourself and become – unsurprisingly – self-absorbed.

I don’t know why it’s changed, but I feel myself looking outward more often lately. I have no doubt about my strength or capability. In ways, this experience has given me insight into the stuff I’m made of. At the same time, I feel as if it’s cleared out some of bad habits and ways of thinking that were holding me back before.

Looking back over the last 8-9 years, I feel as if I experienced a series of traumas that inhibited me. I hate to admit to that, but the evidence is pretty clear in my inability to properly settle or believe in good things. It affected my personality as well, something that seems clear now that I’m feeling differently.

There’s no doubt I was scarred, and for good reason. But there’s no bigger scar than when you survive stage four cancer, and it appears to have over-written the previous scars in my mind. And surviving – well, it’s the best sort of scar, no matter the fear that led up to it. I’m a survivor.

I felt that on Friday. I stood there feeling dignified and strong. I felt people checking me out and I wanted them to know that – but it felt true.

I still don’t know what course I’ll take once I’m free of this, but feel sure I’ll be direct and uninhibited in my manner. I’ve always been direct, but in recent years it’s been tinged with anger. That’s gone, I think. I’ll be true to myself, without any second-guessing. It’s just a moment in time, but I feel elevated in ways – just as smart and strong as I ever was, but with a calmness now that was missing before (people have always commented on how unflappable I seem, but in recent years I often seethed beneath the surface). With that comes an openness, and even warmth, absent since my mother died.

All this is talk and there’s a long way to go, and there will be setbacks. But, at least, I can see now how things can be.

Just quietly, when the cancer is behind me, I have a feeling I might do great things.

In limbo


I can remember two very simple dreams I had overnight.

In one, two puppies are crawling over my prone form. If you’ve ever experienced it, you know how delightful it can be. In memory it seems I always end up giggling this happens, unable to resist and at the mercy of their happy licks. I don’t know where the dream came from, but it was welcome.

The other dream was very simple – almost a still life. In it there is a naked woman, who appears to a light skinned aboriginal, looking at me. Studying me, almost. That’s the dream.

It’s a new day, but I don’t expect anything much different today. I wish I did.

I think it’s true to say that this cancer has left me without a fixed bearing. I keep thinking I’ll find that when I get better, but I wish I had it now. I feel between and outside things. As should be very clear from my writings here, my sense of self is frayed. I’m half working, half recuperating. There is still much I’m incapable of, and I’m impatient to reclaim what I’ve lost. But to what end? That seems the central, unanswerable question at the moment.

I suspect only people who have gone through something similar to what I have will know what I mean. I’m disorientated and I hate it.

Early on in my illness, I reflected that for years I had resisted the urge to make my own nest. Though I had recovered from dire circumstances, a part of me remained wary. I was cautious with how I spent my money and when I moved house didn’t even bother opening half the boxes.

I guess I never felt quite safe, but it was an unhealthy way to be. I resolved that as I got better I would try to make a proper home for myself, as I hadn’t for years. I’ve been doing a bit of that and it’s been satisfying.

Undercutting that is the true belief that a comfortable lifestyle isn’t the same as a well-lived life. There’s nothing wrong with a comfortable lifestyle units proper perspective. Living well isn’t life, it’s time served easy. I’ll take the easy when can, particularly after battling cancer, but it’s not nearly enough to satisfy my soul.

But what will satisfy my soul? That’s the $64 question. I wish I knew. For now, I alternate between these poles, just a little lost and impatient to fix a course. For now, I guess I have to be content that it’s a journey I’m on and that, one day, I’ll find the way forward I’m yearning for.

It’s an unsettling feeling though. I’ve lost my complacency – the complacency most have living a comfortable, unconsidered life. Cancer took that from me. I could use it now with my health as it is, but it’s perhaps it’s best I don’t have it. If I’m lost and in limbo, I’m also hungry. Hungry for what? All I know is: more.