Between us and our god

Every organisation right now is trying to survive the trials of lockdown and working from home. Internal comms have been turbocharged, meetings scheduled to catch up online, and various initiatives to maintain contact and drive engagement. Fair enough.

One of the initiatives of my workplace has been to encourage random acts of kindness in the neighbourhood and community. In the current environment that’s certainly worthy, though you would hope it doesn’t need a pandemic to be kind. But credit where it’s due, and if it makes one skerrick of difference then it’s worthwhile.

But then last night a message came through on one of the team channels. It was from the head of marketing urging us to post online our efforts in helping others, and all the better if there was a pic attached. I don’t know if she thought this through completely, though I reckon also the corporate honchos would be suggesting this.

I think she’s genuine. I reckon she’s got a good heart and means well, but this sat poorly with me. It could be that I’m just a bit old school and particular about things like this, but I reckon the essence of kindness is that you do them because they’re the right thing to do – without thought of recognition or reward. In fact, I think any consideration in publicising it cheapens it. In my worldview, a kind gesture is a private thing, between you and the recipient of it, and maybe with your own god.

I felt like responding along those lines, and making the point that there are people who make a habit of being kind and generous, and long before now.

My team leader is a good man, as I’ve mentioned previously. I admire him greatly. We get on really well, though in many ways we’re pretty different. He’s a part of a church group and he’s active every weekend either teaching English to new migrants or taking them on day trips around the state for them to learn and to engage with others. He does it because he has a social conscience.

He does this every week, year in, year out. I think for him now to have this publicised would diminish it – not that he ever would. I’m hopeful that the situation we’re in has brought out the kind and generous side of people – it seems to have in many. And, I think it’s good my workplace encourages that.  I hope it’s something that will continue long after we’re back in the office. But please, don’t make us brag about it!

I never responded. I’ll say nothing, but nor will I post anything. I note that nobody else has yet.

None better

The final two episodes of The Last Dance played yesterday, culminating in the 1998 NBA championship win by the Bulls over the Jazz, and the end of an era. I hate to join the chorus, but I have to agree that this is one of the best things I’ve seen. I’ll go further than that. I feel so grateful for the opportunity to re-live so many great moments. It’s almost heartwarming to go back and recall such a vivid era. And I’m grateful that this is on the record now. It’s not lost, here it is again.

Watching the program, there were many things recalled to me that had passed from front of mind, further questions posed and, of course, so many insights and secrets exposed.

I found myself watching fascinated by the suits the NBA stars wore, and no less MJ. Almost without exception they were awful – oversized, boxy three-button suits, often in garish colours. I love, you man, but really…

Remembering MJ over the years, I recognised him for his playing prowess, and why wouldn’t you? There’s never been a better player. He was a competitive beast, and probably close to the best clutch player of any sport at any time. I was also fascinated by the petty rivalries he conjured up to motivate himself, and how successful that was. It was a great insight into the man.

What I had forgotten was what an immense personality he was. It’s not uncommon for the best of the sporting stars to have personalities to match. That greatness gives them permission to be whoever they want to be, say whatever they want to say. He was a dominant personality, in the media, in the locker room, on the court. He was a man of supreme confidence and seemingly disdainful of what anyone thought about him. That he was quick-witted and smart, as well as being super-cool, which helped a shitload.

It was great seeing some of the other players of the era in action, too. Reggie Miller was one of my favourite players of the time, and I had a soft spot for the Pacers, largely on the back of his heroics. Then, watching John Stockton again, who was almost the antithesis of what an NBA player was – the weedy, white guy who had game smarts and skills as good as anyone who’s played the game – generally underrated. And I had forgotten what a great player Karl Malone was.

Watching Steve Kerr throughout the series, and particularly last night, it was clear to see why he’s become such a great coach. Intelligent and humble, with great EQ, he’s the rare character who can put his ego aside and seem almost self-effacing – while forging a great career. He’s a lesson many could heed – but that’s a rare kind of intelligence that few possess.

This was an epic series charting a turbulent, eventful, and often, spectacular era. That it centred on Jordan is obvious – he was the man who made the era and made the Bulls to a large extent. They were a good team without him, but he made them great. I loved seeing him again, hearing his voice, listening to his take on the events of those years.

It’s still utterly bewildering that the team was broken up after 1998. Who in his right mind would do that? This was a team for the ages who probably had at least another championship in them. But then, blame the egos for that. Sad, it deprived us of MJ at the top of his game.

Seasons passing

We’ve had some wintry blasts and the rainfall so far this year is at near-record levels (more than all of last year), but right now the weather is near perfect. The nights are clear and cold, and the chill persists into mid-morning. By then the sun is brightly shining in a sky almost bereft of cloud. It warms up slowly but becomes very pleasant. It’s a pleasure to go out in such serene weather. I’d happily settle for this 300 days of the year.

It’s funny to think that winter is less than two weeks away – though the weekend before last was cold and wet and I was so uninspired, so lethargic, that all I did was lay on the couch and watch Netflix.

I was more productive the weekend just gone. Friday was my designated day off, and its quickly becoming my favourite day of the week. Come Thursday night I feel released, though work is hardly a trial at the moment. I sleep in Friday morning and read. When I get up finally I set myself to do things – cook, clean, do some sorting out. Basically, achieve something. Every Friday I’ve ticked something more off the list, generally listening to Spotify or one of my audiobooks.

Though weekends are theoretically different now, they feel pretty much the same for me, and I’m generally doing the same as I would if I was in the office Monday to Friday. The only difference is that most Saturday’s I go for a long walk with Cheeseboy and the dogs down by the beach. Otherwise, I do the normal stuff – a bit of grocery shopping, a kitchen clean, maybe some cooking, and in the afternoon I’ll write. On Sunday I’ll cook myself breakfast, though avoiding the programs I used to watch about politics and sport. Once more, I’ll end up writing. Late afternoon I’ll put my virtual pen down and run a hot bath and shampoo my hair.

Like many others, I’ve left my hair go in lockdown. My last hair cut was in February. My hair is undoubtedly thick now, and growing to a bohemian length. I’m just passing through the awkward, in-between stage, and it should soon look a lot better. I don’t plan to get it cut until I have to, and then maybe not even then. I like having long hair, and I’m figuring I might adopt a summer-short hair/winter-long hair cycle.

I’ve been shaving every 8-10 days throughout this period, but am considering letting that grow out too. What counts against it is the itchy stage, and the fact it looks so fucking grey. Maybe I’ll get it coloured?

Regardless, I have time to make my mind up. Though restrictions are easing, it was confirmed this morning that we won’t be going back to work until July at the soonest. Even then, it won’t be all back.

I’m in no hurry to get back into the office, but I’m hanging out for a social beer.


Old sport

One of the features of life in lockdown has been all the old sport they’re playing on TV. In the absence of live sport, it’s the next best thing, even if you know the result. As an exercise in nostalgia, it’s pretty good too.

I’ve been getting into it, more or less, watching footy matches from the nineties and old cricket highlights and bits and pieces of the NBA from days gone by. There’s been the Bulls doco obviously, which is compelling, and this week we’ve been treated to a ‘week with Warnie’, where he’s interviewed in the studio telling his stories amid highlights and the many great moments sprinkled through his career.

I have strong memories of most of this stuff. Much of the stuff I’m watching now I’d have watched when it was live the first time around. Many of the footy matches I was actually sitting in the crowd somewhere cheering the team along and saying my piece, not knowing how the game would end up. Same for some of the cricket matches. There are no surprises, but you find yourself recalling moments that had slipped your mind. And sometimes, in the years since, the events are still fresh, but the sequence has become muddled. Watching it all again puts it right.

For me, though, there’s a funny thing going on in the background. I can remember watching when it was fresh and unfolding. There were some snippets from a 1994 test match against England being shown last night, and I had the abrupt recollection of standing in front of the TV watching it with my brother-in-law (dead six years now) on a sunny summer’s day in Melbourne while we were being called away from it by our family to have lunch. I remember the conversation we had about Glenn McGrath.

And what I’m watching is from nearly 30 years ago and in the old square TV format before widescreen broadcasting started. Looking at it it feels dated, like the sort of highlights I would watch growing up of sport played before I was even born. I was there, sort of, but now it’s of the deep past, and it doesn’t reconcile. Really? Really? And yet it was, it is, those days are long gone even if the memories linger.

It’s the same when I watch old footy and listen to the commentators I grew up listening to, now all gone. I was there for a lot of it, and it never felt old or dated then, but it is now. And that’s the realisation, I guess, obvious as it is, nothing stays as it was.

If I go back to my brother-in-law, he was there beside me, there he was and he commented, and I responded and it was all authentic in those moments – except now it’s all these years ago now, and he’s not even around anymore and what was true in those moments was only true then – it no longer is.

When reading is a pleasure

I read a lot of books, and by definition, most of them are average. The genuinely memorable books have a great story well told, but it’s a rare combo. By my reckoning a good 70% of books fit in the middle of the bell-curve – competently written and more or less a worthy diversion, but not something you’ll necessarily recommend to others or remember too long. There’s about 20% of books on the wrong edge of the bell-curve – poorly written and edited, formulaic, sloppy, etc. I’m lucky if I finish one of the books, and if I do it’s generally because some small skerrick of interest has been pricked and I’m curious how it ends. Mostly, when that happens, I’ll scan the last hundred or so pages very quickly, or skip outright to the last chapter.

Then there are the very few – 10% if I’m lucky – which I deem to be a pleasure to read. Often times, it’s the sheer quality of writing that draws me in. I’m a sucker for that. Depth and insight and a mean way of stringing words together make for a delightful reading experience. Add that to a ripsnorting story, and I’m a slave to it.

As someone who writes on the side, and who’s passionate about it, that’s the standard I’m aiming for. You want a cracking story, obviously, but what makes for that is mostly subjective. As they say, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. I accept that. I can only measure up to the standards I set myself in that regard, which are my own, so I’ve got that pretty well ticked off from the get-go.

It’s different when it comes to the quality of the writing. It’s harder to get right too, I reckon. Sure, you can turn in something competent without breaking into a sweat, but where’s the fun in running a five-minute mile? It’s not the point, either.

The point is to write something people want to read, and keep reading, and take pleasure – and perhaps even wonder – out of the reading experience. That comes in two parts, I reckon.

The first part is simpler, I think – to put words in a sequence and with a cadence that bewitches the reader into reading more. It sounds nice in your head and has a quality that stays in mind. I guess you’d call this style. There have been some great writing stylists. The best of them make a simple shopping list a thing of pleasure. They resonate. Their words linger. Think of Hemingway and Salter, writers like that, and many other writers just enjoyable to read. I say it’s simpler, but it’s still very hard.

Style is great, but most of us aren’t going to splash out for a well-written shopping list. What I’m talking about is human insight and understanding. I’m talking about the rare writer who exposes through their prose human nature and vulnerability. Somehow, they see with more precision than the rest of us and have an understanding of how we act and interact, the why’s and wherefores and even the hows of it. They tug the curtain aside to give us a view of things otherwise hidden to us, but which so often feel ineffably true when we come across them. They’re the writers you find yourself looking up from the page in contemplation. Something dawns on you. You feel enriched. You wonder why you never knew this before. Then you bend your head and read some more. Think of Roth and Updike, Mann or Remarque. These are writers who have lived. This is a rare gift.

Naturally, I hope to put together style with insight. Time will tell.

I started a new book last night, which is what prompted this discourse. The book is Commonwealth, by Anne Patchett. She’s an author I knew of but never read previously. I’ve only read the first chapter, but it’s a winner.

As I began to read, I felt a sense of pleasure. This lady knows how to write, I thought. With that came a subtle pang. For one of the rare occasion reading, I felt self-conscious about my own writing. I knew wasn’t this good, and I felt both sad and inspired knowing it.

I don’t know about other people, but writing is one of the few areas I don’t feel particularly competitive about. Mostly I’m content to do my own thing while others do theirs. On the occasions when I come across writers like Patchett, I feel much more humble than aggrieved. I’m glad of the opportunity to read such quality. I drink it up, and at the back of my mind, I figure I can learn something – and maybe that’s my get out clause. I’m not the finished product, I figure, I’m still learning, still improving. One day I might be as good.

What’s the quality that seduced me reading last night? It felt so real, and so rich at the same time, like a story passed down through the family, you know backwards and forwards. You know it in yourself and can see and feel it too. And though she’s not a stylist like some of the big names her prose is of the top shelf, easily read, easily absorbed, and totally engaging.

Let’s see what chapter two is like.

Unforgotten years

Lockdown has eased slightly from midnight last night, and I can look forward shortly to visiting some of my friends in their own home. Here and now nothing is different for me. You go out, you see things from afar, you return home, and at home, you dwell. You live inside yourself much more because what’s outside is much less. I suppose that’s hard for some people, unused to turning inward, and those for which there is little inside. That’s not a problem I have.

You know how it is, the tiniest of things can set off a series of memories. That happened to me last night when I found myself recollecting the life I had early in the century.

For some reason, I think the last couple of years of last century forgotten in terms of my life. I don’t know why that is, except for maybe because there’s a 19 in front of it instead of a 20. Nothing remarkable happened at that time, but it was hardly uneventful. I travelled to Europe for the first time. I had my usual love affairs. Work was going well, and my social life was healthy. I remember the NYE party I went to to see in the new Millenium, down Frankston way at a house on the beach, everyone wondering if Y2K would strike, and in the meantime, partying hard.

That was not what I recalled last night. What I remembered was a time in 2001 when I’d just returned to Australia from travelling through Asia and Europe. It was a rambling, confronting holiday if I dare call it that. I’d left a few months before to go to Singapore to meet a girl.

We’d been lovers in Melbourne, and I thought she was marvellous. But then she got a posting to Singapore as corporate counsel with her work, just as she’d dreamt of. Go, I told her, selfless as always in matters such as this. At her farewell party, her mother came to me and told me to follow her. I hadn’t thought of it until then, but suddenly I thought, why not? And so about 8 weeks later I caught a plane having resigned my job, sold my car, and let out my apartment. All very H.

It didn’t turn out as I hoped. It never does. We’d left it too long, she had a new life, and I always had the feeling there might be someone new in the background. I stayed with her a while and then left. It’d been a memorable fortnight for several reasons, but I left feeling distraught.

I couldn’t go home, so I did the next best thing – I went to Paris. I moped around there a few days feeling sorry for myself, before spending a few more days in Deauville and taking day trips around. Fortunately, Cheeseboy was in Europe at the same time visiting his parents. I caught a train to Brussels, then onto Amsterdam, and after a few days, met up with him. We had a great time, and it was just what I needed. We met up with a couple of his girlfriends of his from uni and went to Haarlem and Boomendahl, riding bikes everywhere, drinking big steins of beer, and smoking ‘super’ joints. Then back to his hometown of Rijssen.

I parted from him eventually and went back to Paris, and from there flew back to Singapore, and then onto Vietnam. Eventually, I made it home a few days before 9/11.

I had no place to live and no job, so I stayed with my mum in Canterbury. I remember watching TV at about 10pm and a newsflash reporting a plane had flown into the WTC. At that stage, it seemed a terrible accident. Then another flew into it.

They were momentous days. There was a sense that the world had changed forever with this monstrous act. Everyone was in shock. Everything else paled.

I felt in a fugue. I was unemployed and my life was doing nothing but watching the news reports. I was a frail state before any of this had happened. I was broken-hearted but yearning still, and the horror of 9/11 spiralled me into a deeper state of depression. I was distressed at what had happened, but when I cried – which was pretty regular – the sorrow was equally shared between what had happened to me, and what had happened to the world.

I remember one day mum and my sister took me out to lunch in a pub near North Richmond station. They were concerned I was depressed and spoke to me about it. They were right, but I didn’t realise till then that it was so obvious, or that my pain had transferred to others. I remember I broke down and wept at their kindness.

They were strange times. For a while, I was convinced I had to go back to Europe. My destiny, I felt, was following the art trail there, starting in Italy. It resonated with my inner self, the creative side of me that could look at a piece of artwork and feel immersed in it. Perhaps I wanted to submerge myself in a deeper meaning in a time that my heart was broken and terrorists had changed the world. For weeks, it seemed, it felt as if that was the answer if only I could get there. Maybe I just wanted to get away. None of that happened, and I felt surprisingly aggrieved.

Looking back it seems an unlikely and possibly preposterous notion, yet life is like that sometimes, and sometimes it’s meant to be like that. The straight and narrow leads us to places we already know. There’s not much fun in that, and no adventure. Thankfully, though I didn’t do this, I’ve spent a lifetime straying from the path and feel better for it, despite the tribulations along the way. I wonder though, what might have happened had I followed my desire then?

Instead of that, I got a job, and eventually a lot of my swagger back. I hooked up with a woman from New York and went with her for a while. She had high hopes for me, but though she was smart and attractive – and we had great sex – she had no sense of humour. I can recall, many times, I’d say something and she’d look at me blankly before asking, was that a joke? Of course, it was, but it kills the moment when you have to explain it. Like many Americans, she seemed to struggle with the subtleties of dry wit. It was never going to work.

Next was a consultant I met at work. She was sweet and lovely and thought I was wicked – she got my sense of humour. She was from Taipei originally, and for weeks there was this build-up of expectation. It was steamier for her than for me. All my frailty had passed, and I was very much at ease. Eventually, one night, the inevitable happened – but it ruined everything else. We fucked, and that was that.

There was another woman. I was a consultant brought in to look at something or another. My desk was in a pod with four women whose work had nothing to do with mine. Still, we’d banter all day.

One of them was the sort of cool beauty that other women look at with envy. Others gravitated to her for that reason, much as they do all over the world. She knew it too, though I think had become jaded by it. We’d look at each other and slip each other one-liners – she was very good like that. I remember one day all of them were wondering aloud why I was single and what they could do about it. There was a lot of teasing going on. The cool beauty piped up asking if I’d tried online dating, then, upon my prompting, proceeded to give a verbal profile for me to use. I remember her calling me handsome and witty, and I knew then that she liked me.

I should have done more with her. We circled each other for a while. I knew the secret with women who have men clamouring after them was to remain nonchalant. That was easy for me. Being cool was my default setting. And, predictably, it intrigued her. One night we all went out to a bar, and she had too much to drink and got a bit emotional. There was a mini-scene when it got too much for her.

I’d known for a while that things weren’t great for her. I won’t say she was tormented, but she was unhappy. I remember her family had issues. From what she’d told me they’d seemed dysfunctional and incapable of leading a sensible life. She alone, the beautiful product of it, seemed to have any self-awareness.

Something of all this came out that night in an outpouring of grief and anger. One after another of the men there went to comfort her. Roughly, she rejected them. I want H to tell me she proclaimed and came to me. I can’t remember what the question was now. I can’t remember what I told her, though I would’ve comforted her. I was good at that.

After that, we felt bound together somehow, but though I saw her a few times, I allowed it to fade away eventually. That was very H also.

Get cracking

I spent the last hour of Tuesday and the first hour yesterday organizing rent relief. I had to do most of this because the real estate agent had no idea. I wonder how her other tenants, looking for this, will go.

First, we had to agree to reduce rent, which took about 10 days because – confusion. I had to spell it out what I was after and how it worked, despite initially explaining myself clearly and even sharing a link. So anyway, we agreed on that and got a document signed by all parties.

Well and good, except it had to be submitted to Consumer Affairs Victoria to sign-off and register it. I think that’s the agent’s responsibility, but they gave up on it as too hard, so I went and did it myself. I then had to apply for rent relief separately to a different department. Did that to. I believe it got sent to the agent to validate, and, as far as I know, we now just have to wait and see.

I expect I’ll get the requested support, though it may be a week or two. The jobkeeper subsidy is a different story. I know my employer has applied for and qualified for it. What difference that makes for me I don’t know yet. It’s a good concept, but very flawed, unfortunately.

When announced, it appeared very generous, but it became evident shortly after that there were a lot of holes in it. The government being a government were very prescriptive on who was entitled to it and how it works. Eligibility to start with was tied to revenue, and fair enough. If it was impacted by this much, then you’re were eligible to apply as an employer. It goes to the employer, but every employee, or worker, is entitled to it, which is the problem.

The most significant exclusion relates to casual workers with tenure of fewer than 12 months. It also excludes the gig economy in general, sub-contractors, etc. Workers on temporary work visas miss out as well, even though they live and work in the community. The government claimed that they had to draw the line somewhere, but it appears arbitrary when you consider the realities of modern working culture. Half of my workplace are contractors, and not all of them meet this criterion. For much of my working life, I’d have never qualified either because – though I was fully employed – I worked with different clients/employers in the qualifying period. It also counts out shitloads lt of people working in retail and service industries.

A very big loser out of this is the arts industry which, almost by definition, is made up of casual and freelance workers. There was a great noise drawing the government’s attention to this when the policy was announced, but the feds chose to ignore it. I think it’s fair to say that the LNP are not lovers of the arts, once more, almost by definition. The arts are an elitist pastime in the eyes of conservative governments, and its practitioners almost to a man, progressive.

The government has turned a blind eye to science in the past because of the inconvenient facts scientists publish. In the same way, artists hold inconvenient opinions for the government, and have both the platform and the skills to share them. It suits a government without any belief or passion in the arts industry to silence them, but Australia is much the poorer for that.

These exclusions penalise the employer as well as the employee, as well as culture and society. The whole idea is to maintain the business through the lockdown – if half your employees miss out then your business suffers. Just quietly, it’s also inhumane and discriminatory.

Speaking of discrimination, there are sections of society excluded from receiving any formal support or benefit. For example, we now have an underclass of foreign (and local) students who can’t go to school and have been forced out of work by the pandemic, but don’t qualify for assistance. Morrison, very unwisely given the scale of the industry, bluntly told international students to go home. Not diplomatic, a bit nasty, and foolish as these students are a big part of our economy, and belong to our major trade partners. It seems sensible to stay on good terms, but anyway.

It feels a bit cheap and counter-intuitive to be excluding them when you’re spending so many dollars generally. We need people to have money to spend to keep the economy running – that includes students and casual workers. We also need these groups, and their employers, to be able to pick-up and transition into work life once the restrictions ease and we get back to some kind of pseudo-normality. As an economy, we can’t afford to stumble at that point, which means that we have to get that work done now.

To compound these arbitrary conditions, the jobkeeper rate is set at $1500 fortnightly, without variation – even for those who earned more than that previously. There are people making money out of this. If that rate was more flexible to match actual earnings then the government could afford to offer it to more people.

For all of that, the jobkeeper uptake has reportedly been less than anticipated, and it seems the main reason for that is that it’s too complicated. But the bigger problem is that the jobkeeper payments have been slow in coming for those approved. People need the dosh now, if not next week, just to survive, and to keep a job open – and the economy needs the activity of dollars circulating.

It’s all been a rush job and there are always going to be issues that pop up and delays along the way. You have to expect that. It’s a bit untidy, but now’s the time it has to start cracking.