Yay for a day off

This is near enough my favourite time of year. After a long winter the weather suddenly – mostly – takes a turn for the better. The sun shines longer, and with more heat. Far from being locked into a succession of drab days (as we had especially this year), there is the promise of much more to come, and the remembrance of all that includes. It’s AFL finals too, the best footy played by the best teams in front of big crowds. There’s a buzz in the air even if your team isn’t involved. This week is the pinnacle of all that, grand final week. Saturday is the big day, the opening of the barbecue season coinciding with the biggest game of the year.

This year it’s all of that, and more. It’s maxed out. Not only have we hit a patch of great weather – high 20’s, low 30’s – we also have an extra day off to enjoy it. Tomorrow, Friday, is now a public holiday, explicitly created to maximise the celebration.

It’s been a controversial call. Like most I’m up for an extra public holiday, but initially I was preferring the Monday after, rather than the Friday before. Part of my reasoning went back to my personal experience of the Friday before the Grand Final. Over the last 30 years I’ve probably been working in the city for about 22 of them. The place is always jumping with people coming in from interstate, and from the ‘burbs to witness the Grand Final parade. The night before the Grand Final has long been one of the best drinking nights of the year. The place is festive and chock-full of people, many of them marvelling tourists. Did I want to lose that? No.

I’ve changed my thinking on that. For a start a Monday holiday – after the event – doesn’t really make much sense. And I’ve been convinced that the Friday, though different, will be no less. Rather than workers there will be families flocking into the city to soak up the vibe. Because it’s now a public holiday the AFL has been able to schedule further activities to make the most of it. The proof will be in the pudding, but I think it’ll work. And, for the record, there’ll still be drinking – I’m out with the boys tomorrow night.

The other complaint about the day off has been from business predictably, complaining about lost productivity and penalty rates and the usual wowser-ish complaints. I don’t have a lot of time for those arguments. For a start I think this will re-direct business. There’ll still be plenty of activity and money spent, but in different areas perhaps.

More importantly life’s pretty sad when worker productivity is at the top of the agenda. It’s important and all that, but in general I’m an advocate of working smarter, and seizing the different opportunities when they come along. There’s been a general trend that the average Joe has been losing benefits and working longer, and it seems pretty well accepted. It’s nice to see for a change something being given back to the working man – and no better occasion for it than this.

A good day for mad dogs

Summer in Melbourne. The tennis is on, the cricket tours the country, bushfires erupt, the hot sun beats down. According to the forecast we’re part way through a stretch of four days around or over 40 degrees (43 right now), and five days over 30.

Summer heat generally comes two ways in Melbourne: with the wind, or without it. Sometimes it is just still and hot. Everything is baked in place. The heat is dry, crisp, the sun burns the exposed flesh, and the air itself is warm to touch. It sits on the city like a heavy hand, oppressive, and somewhat dumb. There is a prehistoric feel to the heat.

That’s without the wind. With the wind it is far worse.

The prevailing wind in the summer is the north wind. It comes in from the parched, red centre of the country. It blows  hot and dry and ugly. Imagine all I described before and then add in the wind which brings no relief, just the opposite. The sun bears down on you, everything is hot, and on top of that a warm wind notches up the temperature still further. There is no relief from it, not in the summer sun or in the shade. This  is the classic Melbourne summers day.

I asked my sister before the hottest she has experienced. She mentioned Africa, but finally settled on Black Saturday from a few years back, the north wind blowing in the classic way and the temperature near 46 degrees. Days like that it’s like the world has stopped, nothing moves, no-one ventures out, a day to be endured.

For me the hottest I’ve been was probably that day, and another in Hoi An, Vietnam, when the temperature must have topped 40 and the humidity must have been near 300%. Like a mad Englishman I was out in the midday sun, but zig-zagging down the street from one piece of shade to the next. It was sapping. My clothes were soaked with sweat. I’m sure I left a trail of everywhere I’d been.

That’s different to this. There is spice in weather like that. Not this though, not this dumb, unthinking heat. Days like these have a deadening effect I find. People, quite sensibly, choose not to go out into this unless they must. In air-conditioned comfort there is a strange relief. Here though, at my sisters, with air-con in some rooms but not all, there is little incentive to do much. Keep cool if you can, do little. I’m sure  this is typical of most homes in Melbourne – what was it like before air-conditioning?

Weather like this is always a waste I think unless you have a  pool or are at the beach. I pity the people at the tennis on a day like today sitting out in the sun, the heat refracted from the court and the shiny surfaces, the temperature climbing well beyond the forecast. What pleasure in that?

Bitter choices

For the most part these last few days in Melbourne have been filled with wild weather. Gale force winds that batter the house and uproot trees have seemed an incessant force. They blow, pushing at the house so forcefully that if it were less insubstantial you think it must topple over; then the wind pulling back for a moment, as if it to gather it’s breath, as if to have another go. You sit inside, you lay in bed, you listen to it with wonder, take in the contant noise, not just of the wind but of the sounds it causes – the rattle of loose things outside, the heave of the satellite dish straining at the bolts fixing it to the house, the trees bending, leaves shaking, a loose object careening down the driveway and a bin being overturned. Then comes the rain, thick and constant, and the storm, the sky lit up by lightning, or grey with gathered clouds. It’s been like this for days.

This morning is more peaceful. After another wild night the storm for the moment appears to have abated. It seems apt timing, and an apt metaphor for the events of the last few days.

The last few days have been a struggle in the H household. I got news of a pending catastrophe. I could do something, perhaps, to ward it off. But what?

Much of the last two days has been frantic in trying to find a way. At about 4.30 last night, almost at the last minute, the catastrophe was somehow averted. I subsided into a kind of exhausted relief: I could live again. Later though as the storm brewed outside and as I watched TV I felt myself tumble down the far side of what had happened.

The day was saved, but at what cost? Last night I felt a deep and bitter remorse for something I had little choice but to do. That’s the pity of it all, this was pretty much my sole remaining option, but I feel as if something pretty basic to me has been compromised in the process. Intellectually I know it had to be – the end demanded it; but the means sit badly with me.

This will be one of those ambiguous posts because I can’t bring myself to relate the full story. I am embarassed, even ashamed. I wonder if in my actions yesterday I finally broke the thing inside of me that has held me true, has kept me together. I have done things I never thought I would, never thought I’d have to, things well below the level of what I think personally acceptable. I feel diminished and unreliable. I know there will be people I will avoid seeing now because in my weakness I don’t know that I can look them in the eye with the same sense of self as before.

The wretched thing is that I don’t know that I could have done any differently. It’s a terrible thing when all your choices are bitter.

They say it will storm again this afternoon, that the wild weather will return. That seems apt too.

Bake a picture

Winter officially begins in Melbourne tomorrow. Notwithstanding the lovely sunny weather today it’s a tad moot. The last few weeks there’s been a pretty convincing preview of winter to come, including the coldest day in how many years? A few anyway.

In honour of the season, and in tribute to it, here are a few activities Leunig suggests getting stuck into. Sounds good to me.

At home in KL

So I’m in KL now, arrived first thing this morning. It seemed an easy and uneventful trip. One evening I’m in Melbourne, the next morning in Kuala Lumpur, and ahead of schedule.

I’m at Whisky’s now. I arrived so early that I was able to catch him before going to work. Then, feeling pretty spruce still, I changed into my togs and went for a swim.

I lay there reading my book on the banana lounge while about me workers plucked weeds and tidied the garden, or else gave the pool a good clean. The sky was the hazy blue I’m familiar with here, and framed by the elegant condo’s expats live in and a shroud of tropical green. I thought about how things can be tough, but not so tough that this doesn’t exist and I don’t experience. I’m one of the lucky.

Earlier I had done a few leisurely laps of the pool, mostly underwater. I felt my lungs expand, my muscles lengthen. I thought back to when I was a kid and how for years I had swimming lessons every Saturday morning, as well as at school. Swimming seemed to be a big thing then, more so than it seems now, and every kid I knew swam. I did a bit more than most, though my memories are hazy. I tend to think I had 3-4 years of solid swimming lessons, enough that I was one certification away from being a qualified instructor eventually, though I was only a kid. It probably only was a couple of years really, though I never stopped swimming throughout my childhood. I remember I gave away swimming when I was invited to join a club to swim competitively. I understand why I declined it – swimming by then was a drag – but I regret a little that I never did. I was a pretty good freestle sprinter then – today I’m like a brick with arms  and legs.

In the normal way of these things it occurred to me that I should have asked mum what she remembered of my serious swimming days, when I was about 7-10. Naturally I never will now, but the realisation was easily accepted. Earlier I’d been traveling in on the KLIA express train and thinking how mum would expect me to check-in with her, “arrived safely”. It used to drive me crackers sometimes, she was so protective and paranoid. There were times I’d leave her home after a visit and stop off somewhere on the way home and she would call. When I didn’t answer she would begin to worry that I’d been in an accident or something equally silly. She was like that, and though it used to put unreasonable pressure on me I came to accept that of her.

That went through my head as I looked out the window at the passing scenery. I couldn’t call her, and I felt a twinge at that lack, and understanding that it would be some time before I grew accustomed to that. I decided then that I would not disregard it. Instead, for now, I’ll make those gestures to her in my mind as if she could here: I’m ok mum, home safe, arrived safe, don’t worry.

For some reason I don’t like travelling at night, though it’s pretty well normal when going to Asia. Given the choice I’d head off at about 4pm wherever I’m going; to travel at midnight or thereabouts seems somehow depressing. Still the airport was busy last night. Lining to check-in I looked about me and for the umpteenth time was surprised at how few Aussies, or indeed Caucasians, were on a flight departing Oz. I should be over that by now. I watched idly as the queue slowly snaked forward, roused briefly by the sight of long legs in tight pants and all the possibilities  that presented to my bored mind.

I changed my currency, went through customs, bought my duty free – a memory stick for my camera, and some lollies for the trip. Then we boarded. I had my exit row by the window and watched with jaded eyes as the plane filled. Soon the vacant seat beside me was snapped up, and then we were taxiing down the runway and taking off on time to the minute – very rare in my experience.

The night went. I watched The Artist, a very clever movie and entertaining in its own way but a strange viewing experience for those unused to silent films. Whatever his name is, the French guy who won the best actor Oscar, gave an irresistible and very likeable performance.

The plane droned on. I slept. Fitfully. The lights came on, breakfast arrived, and I passed up the Nasi Lemak I couldn’t face at 5am and instead had the soggy scrambled eggs. It was dark outside still when we touched down, 30 minutes early, yippee – that’s a good flight in my book. I bought a bottle in duty free, had no dramas in immigration, collected my bag and strolled out to discover that here I was really, in KL finally.

Plum memories

When I was a kid – say between the age of 7 and 16 – I lived in a cul de sac in one of the prettier of Melbourne’s outer suburbs. I had a lot of fun. It was a developing area where families had settled to build their own home and live the life they had always dreamt of. In our small street alone there must have been nearly 30 kids between about 18 homes. Most of those kids could be accounted by – as we would say at the time – the catholic families to either side of us. On one side there was a child making industry where they averaged one child a year for over a decade. Last count I heard, a few years after I had moved away, was about 16 I think. The other side was 5. We were the proddies in the middle, but had the same dream as everyone else.

I remember going to the local primary school before we even moved into the area. My father, who worked in Eltham at the time, would pick me up from school every night and together we would drive by the house that was being built for us, a stylish and modern tri-split-level. We would check on the progress of the construction, my dad with excitement while I felt the fascination normal every boyhas for construction sites. When finished it was the best house in the street.3 blood plums on tree

In time we moved there. I have many great memories of that period. These were the formative years of my development, and purely as a boy looking to experience the world they were abundant, rich and enjoyable. I could tell a hundred stories or more. Once, when years later I met with my best friend of that time he asked if I had written anything of our childhood there. He had the same memories as me: he said that I should.

In the last week one very small memory – or is it a motif? – has recurred to me. Near the top of our street there was a house that had a purple leaved plum tree growing on the fence line. The property was bounded by a wooden fence painted mission brown to around head height I guess, but the branches of the tree over-arched the fence and hung over the pavement. It was a blood plum tree, which in my opinion are the tastiest and juiciest plums there are, though it seems many years since I’ve tasted one. In season I remember the splotches of purple on the pavement where plums had fallen and burst. Being kids we would often raid the tree and pluck the ripest looking plums which we would eat with the juices running down our chin. Often we would turn on each other in a sort of Huck Finn-ish sort of glee and begin to fling blood plums at each other. The battle would rage as we ducked and weaved and dodged and laughed and celebrated when our shots rang home. We all played sport, and in the way of boys very accustomed to picking up things, mainly rocks and stones (or ‘yonnies’ as we called them then) and throwing them for the fun of it, and sometimes at somebody else. Plums were easy, and blood plums especially satisfying as with each bulls-eye a purple stain would erupt on the victims clothes.

That’s what I remember. It’s a simple memory, but very pleasing. Gotta get me some of them blood plums methinks.

Sweet Melbourne nights

This morning seems pleasant somehow. Opening the blinds this morning the muted sunshine seemed welcome. The world seemed quiet, even serene. I’ve gone about my business since, productively as it turns out, in one of those treasured grooves when the mind is clear and the things to be done are ticked off with little fuss and a modulated precision.

It’s coming up on 10am as I write this, and despite having completed a nice pile of work I’m not yet properly dressed. There are days like that when you seem to glide past that stage and straight into it. You don’t mean it necessarily – you think, I’ll just look at that before I get myself sorted out. And then you look at ‘that’ and make a call and act on that and without thinking move on to the next thing wearing nothing more than an old and very untidy pair of tracksuit pants. Even that’s ok, it’s a pleasant temperature and, as they say, when you’re on a good thing stick to it.

This morning comes after a pleasant evening in Melbourne on a balmy night. I met the girl I wrote of some time ago, the girl I thought I might like only to hear that she had an ex crowding in on the scene. I’ll call her the editor. In any case after some consideration I managed to inveigle my way back in with her and we’ve seen movies together, and last night dinner.

We went to the new Argentinean restaurant in town, San Telmo. It’s a hip, groovy place to be, a great fit-out in Meyers Place (a top address) in what used to be a book storage (I believe). Being Argentinean the food is meat based, and good meat at that. I love my meat and I don’t mind being groovy, and I certainly enjoy the company of attractive, intelligent women, so I was very glad to be there.

I was early. I had a beer at the back bar while I scribbled some notes in the black book I carry around with me. I jotted down some ideas for e-books, and a few notes on some proposed websites while I sipped on a very good Galician lager. Then she was there by my side, petite and smiling, a quick kiss and then how about a drink?

The meal was terrific. I had the best empanadas I’ve ever had, and humita, and some ceviche for starters. Then it was the main course – I had the hanger steak, she had the short ribs, with a selection of sides. Both were excellently flavoured. As you do we drank a lovely Malbec (Broquel 2008) to go along with it. Then dessert

I have a fierce sweet tooth. I love my sweets. And I’d read and knew anyway that you can’t really walk out of a place like this without trying the flan de dulce de leche. Fucking shits all over a creme caramel.

The intensity of flavour in this was almost sexual. If I wasn’t going to get laid last night then this was the next best thing. On top of the flan was the thick, gooey caramel toffee that tasted a little ever so deliciously of burnt butter. Around the flan were beautifully crunchy peanuts ground into a sticky toffee. We shared it between us making all the noises we might have made otherwise.

It was still reasonably early when we left and we simultaneously agreed that a stcky wine would go down well now. We made our way to Siglo again. We found a seat on the terrace and sat down facing the spotlit facade of the Victorian parliament, and more distant the spires of St Patrick’s cathedral. It was cooler than previous nights, but the sky clear even in the darkness. Around us sat a selection of civilised Melbourne enjoying a glass of good wine with friends beneath the open sky. The waitress came to us, a tall, blonde French woman who recommended a new Muscadelle from France to try. We agreed to that, and the night continued.

We had one sticky, then another. Our conversation ranged from the intellectual to the intimate. We briefly found ourselves in conversation with the arty types opposite who turned out to be former recipients of the Rome artistic fellowship.

I looked at her: I thought she was very cute. She’s small: petite is the right word, and very feminine with it. She has big eyes, a delicately boned, pretty face, and her hair – some variant on blonde – was pulled back into a tight pony-tail. She’s also a smart, interesting woman, a book editor who is doing her PhD in psychology, which is what she’ll end up doing she thinks. She has opinions, which I was very happy to engage with. For most of the night the discussion was strong, the conversation never flagged. Often times our talk was of things outside of us, current affairs, economics, culture; many times we found ourselves laughing at the same silly things; and occasionally the conversation became intimate as we veered into the more personal. I was surprised at how candid she was, but then I think she trusted me, and enjoyed where our conversation led. It’s always nice to meet someone who can talk as well as you do.

We parted at about 11. At home it occurred to me that maybe 5 years ago I’d have looked at her thinking she is the kind I would be married to – attractive, smart, sexy, engaged in life, and with a pleasantly sensual streak. Why not now then, I thought? I puzzled at that. I realised eventually that that married life was presumed upon us sharing a happy and comfortable groove together, a groove, I think, that I have sometime in the last 5 years removed myself from. As if I have moved into a different stage of life unknowingly, leaving such things behind.

In any case it was all just empty thought. Officially the ex is still on the scene, though clearly she enjoys my company. I wonder at it, but, though tempted, I don’t ask. Let her tell you H, I think, when the time is right – if ever. What it means though is that while I remain great company I think there is an element missing from me. I’m scurrilous and teasing sometimes, but also the polite and urbane gentleman. I would love to be more expressive, to introduce to our encounters that side of me more sensual, hungry. For now though that dog has to stay on the chain.

Wikipedia: El Siglo is a Chilean weekly that is the official organ of the Chilean Communist Party’s Central Committee.