Friday, March 20, 2009

Terror in Lewes

The small mediaeval village of Lewes in Sussex is renowned as the last place in England that burned witches. Grim things have happened in this village. The Guy Fawkes night bonfires are famously dark with effigies of the Pope burned each year along with other figures of hate or derision. But these pale into insignificance when compared with the terror that unfolded before me this morning.

Having consumed a reasonable amount of beer and wine throughout yesterday, I headed up to my allotted sleeping chamber at Steve Guthrie’s house. This turned out to be an open loft space up a ladder in Steve’s guitar room. It was only on reaching the top of the old ladder that I realised that it just barely reached the landing and that there was nothing at all for me to hold on to so that I could complete my journey in to the loft. After a few slightly drunken moments of confusion, followed by a large rush of fear, I nervously slid on my stomach across the floor to safety. Lying on my back in relief, I realised the horrible truth that at some stage tomorrow I was going to have to come down.

And so through the night’s slumber I would wake periodically with the first thing in my mind being the 15 foot drop to the floor below. My first waking thought on every occasion involved me being perched high above the earth’s surface and facing a sheer drop to pain. The real drama began around 6am when I woke up with a dire need for a piss. How long could I put it off for? How was I going to get down? I peered over the edge with major trepidation bordering on sheer terror. The desire to piss vs the fear of falling. I could picture the ladder toppling backwards with me somewhere around the top rung plummeting downwards on to the pointy bit of the desk, my head slamming into the wall, my legs shattered by the fall. Not a pretty picture. I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t really that high but the shaking in my legs indicated I wasn’t really convinced of that. I spent perhaps half an hour contemplating how I was going to get down. What if I was too scared and was still there that evening when Steve got home from work. Just me and a puddle of piss because surely I couldn’t hold it in that long. Even another 10 minutes was looking unlikely. I was busting.

I’ve always had a major fear of heights. A totally irrational sensation of overwhelming fear that can make my stomach churn and my legs go to jelly. Up on a cliff I can’t go too close to the edge for a ridiculous fear that somehow my body will forget what it’s meant to do and I’ll just stumble over the side. Or perhaps a gust of wind will pick me up and blow me over like a leaf. Like I’ve ever been blown anywhere by a gust of wind. Even getting on to the roof of our house is problematic. Some days there’s no way I’m going up that ladder. One day down at Black Rock, while climbing up a steep grass bank I just froze. Some 80 feet up with about 40 to go, I just freaked out and became like a complete invalid. Unable to control my limbs or my will. Somehow I crawled agonisingly to the top but not without aid from Tori and a complete sense of powerlessness. Even watching Jazzy and Finn clambering over the peaks at Hanging Rock was enough to get my fear going. I couldn’t stand for them to be too close to the edge. What if a gust of wind picked them up and wafted them over the precipice? There’s no doubt that heights are my kryptonite. It could only be worse up in that loft if there were also large furry spiders crawling around.

So I sat contemplating how I was going to get down to safety and ultimately to the relief of the toilet. I toyed with the idea of calling Steve to get him to hold the ladder. Perhaps that would make the whole process easier. I knew that I would seem like a complete wuss but I was prepared to deal with that and maybe some jeering and coaxing was what I needed. But Steve wasn’t around. I edged to the side of the loft and peered over the edge, images of poor Leonard in Full Metal Jacket on the top of the obstacle course wall. “Just throw your leg over Greg” I could hear ringing in my head. Surely it must be simple. And how did Steve get all this stuff up here anyway. A mattress, bedding and guitar cases. Obviously not a man with my phobia. Perhaps I could phone him and get him to come in and help me. I knew I sounded like a pathetic fool but this is what heights will do to me. I took some comfort from the fact that a very small rock could render Superman completely powerless, but then realised that actually that was only a cartoon and felt even more pathetic. And I really needed a piss. And Steve’s mobile phone was still turned off. Suddenly, overcome by a sense of “come on, get your act together you wuss” I stuck a leg over the side and reached around with my foot to find the ladder. Don’t panic. Don’t panic. Stay calm. Deep breaths. Where the fuck is it and how come this first step on to a ladder is the most difficult. How does that coordination work where you spin your body around to be facing the right way with your legs comfortably on the rungs. Eventually I found that rung and had one shaky sweaty foot placed on it. If only I can get the other one on then I’m in business. This too was finally achieved, my hands clinging to the edge of the loft ledge for all they were worth. My terror only just held in check I edged down gingerly, pulling my t-shirt away from the ladder frantically because surely that was about to get stuck on the top and pull it and me down in a crashing heap. When I finally got to the bottom, I felt as if I had been through a major ordeal. My heart was pumping. I felt completely spent. And it was only 6:45am. I shook my head and breathed deep as I flushed a strong and steady stream into the bowl. At least I’d managed to actually get down and the immediate reward was bladder relief.

The whole experience had shaken me up. It affected my whole morning. I hadn’t slept properly through the night due to fear of the impending task and then spent almost an hour contemplating how to get down a ladder that in all reality wasn’t actually that high. Though it’s funny how heights look much greater from above than below. The emotion of it all replayed itself continually in my mind for a good hour or two after. What a shit way to start the day. One thing’s for sure. I won’t be going back up there tonight. Or ever. I think I’ll just sneak off and secretly sleep in Libby’s bed. Anything to avoid another morning like that. The horror. The horror.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Flight QF94 from LA to Melbourne

What a week of turmoil. A rollercoaster of loss, fear of impending potential loss, a recognition of what I have and what is important, and then a modicum of optimism, excitement and hope. Sometimes changing from one to another within moments. In a matter of days I had lost my financially comforting BT contract, my major contract of sale and implementation with Telstra, and it also looked like all could be swept away from the Xypro side thanks to an impending development or acquisition of all related software by HP. A potential of all income disappearing within months. And the realisation that I may have to get a “real” job. Significantly less income, but the greatest loss of all being that of complete freedom that I have experienced for the last decade and a half. It dawned on me in all it’s light that the money is completely secondary to the ability to work for myself. Not beholden to anyone in a work sense on a day by day basis. And that could all be gone. Having to trudge into the city every day to go and work in a large organisation such as the ANZ. And in all reality, given the current financial climate, having to almost plead for a job somewhere. The thought gives me a sickening churn in my stomach. Owning our own house and having a good quantity of money in the bank provided me finally with somewhat of a calming effect. We’d be alright. I’d have time to work out what to do and hope that an opportunity would present itself. But when everything seems to be spiralling out of control, how quickly and easily one can feel that everything could keep on sliding down that slippery slope and it can all be taken away. This all against the backdrop of an impending 38 degree day with hot north wind and bushfire panic in the air. I had already been on an emotional knife edge for this reason alone. So with all now piling on top, I responded by getting as drunk as I possibly could. The Judge Roy Bean bar in Simi was providing some solace with the opportunity to drink and monoplise an internet based jukebox with seemingly unlimited choice of songs. That is until the karaoke started up and my selections were gone. Replaced by a din of badly executed mediocre songs, or worse, a rare good song being butchered badly by some egotistical local who insisted on sharing their lack of talent with us all. I went from subdued melancholy drunk to one who was becoming abusive and aggressive. Steve and Morne dragged me out of the bar. While it had become an offensive place to be, it represented the only bar in Simi that I could keep drinking. And that was what I wanted. So I left on the assurance that we would stop at a liquor store, where I then picked up a bottle of Wild Turkey and half a dozen beers. The guys came to my room with me where we all continued drinking. I played some clumsy guitar and wallowed in my mood. After they left, I got another beer and got on the phone to Tori. Having already ranted god knows what down the phone from the men’s room at Judge Roy Bean’s, I then proceeded to half plead and half order her and the kids out of the house for Friday’s impending bushfire day. My fear was overtaking me that with all of my income being taken away, the next thing to go could easily be my family courtesy of a fire. I began to understand how those guys sleeping in the gutter find themselves in that position. They were once a child, And a student. And a family man. Who had obviously experienced a series of major events that their minds could not deal with. They have given up. Felt that all had been taken away from them and they had nothing left that mattered. I could see how it could happen. I fell into drunken slumber some time around 3 knowing that I had to be in the office for a 9am meeting. It was not one of my finest days.

The next day was a physical struggle. I somehow made it in for 9am, feeling emotionally hollow and physically just hanging in there. I mostly stared blankly in the afternoon while listening to Sheila explain the predicament of the RFP and HP’s plans to take over security offerings for their customers. It just kept on going though I felt a relief that Tori had responded to my pleas and had plans to leave the house on Friday. At least my family would be ok.

And so the week went, until Friday when thanks to Sheila and Lisa a glimmer of optimism was pointed out on the horizon. In fact there were opportunities to be had. Perhaps it could be the dawn of something bigger and better. A new focus. A different way of doing things. I started to make the climb from the bottom of the emotional pit. It’s going to be a tough period. My fight will be to maintain my independence. I have a new canvas to fill with whatever I want. New work challenges that could be more fruitful than those of the past and in new locations. More of a focus on my core business which was sometimes suffering due to heavy demands from the BT job. More time for guitar, writing, qigong, family, listening to music, headspace, fitness. Koyaanisqatsi is the Hopi Indian word meaning “crazy life” or “life out of balance”. I guess that’s been me for a good chunk of the last 5 years. Now I have an opportunity to tilt the scales back. There will still be travel. And busyness verging on chaos. I can’t help myself. But there will now be proper room for the things that are the real reasons for living.

Despite my over reactive feelings of melancholy doom in the past week, I am at least happy with my external responses. An embracing of an opportunity to have a holiday with Tori in England and France. And on hearing of the loss of a major piece of revenue from Telstra I immediately booked return flights for all the family for a three week trip to the US. When I was a child and Dad travelled internationally for business a couple of years in a row, he promised that the next year he would take Nat and I with he and Mum and we would go to Disneyland. Before that could happen, his company was bought, he was laid off and the trip never happened. I don’t blame him for that. Circumstances arose beyond his control. But I don’t want to be part of some generational déjà-vu. Do it while you can. Because you never know what the future, or the present, may bring.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Flight QF93 to LA

Qantas flight 93 from Melbourne to LA. My second James Squire golden ale has arrived and the Birthday Party are screaming from my MP3 player. The plane’s entertainment system isn’t working. And it’s a 15 hour flight.


Last night I discovered that my contract with BT won’t be renewed. So my disposition is a strange mixture of angst, fear, doubt and relief. Angst seems to be winning at the moment. I’m not at all bitter with BT. It’s been a good run. In fact it was October 1995 when I walked for the first time into Spitfire House in Hove for the start of my 3 month contract. I’d never seen so many office workers cramped into an area in such high density. And since then, two stints totalling around 11 years. I did a good job. And they loved me. The one’s that counted anyway. I’m sure I shat off a few people but they never seemed to make it known to me. The “Mustn’t grumble” attitude perhaps. I have no complaints about not being renewed. I’ve had a very good run thanks to BT. And the last 5 years, working remotely, from home in Australia. It’s helped me set up a business that now actually has a chance of survival. Though in this world financial climate, maybe not, who knows…that’s where the doubt comes in. I won’t miss the late night working so that I could be in the UK timezone. That was shit. It’ll be great to finish up at 6pm or earlier and know that there need be no work at all until the next day. There’s now more time for leisure. Perhaps my guitar can get a proper run at it now. Hopefully I won’t just be staring vacantly into the extremely large and seductive tele every night to fill the time void.

I’ve been working pretty hard lately. Last week in New Zealand I’d finish a day of 9 to 5:30 comprised of teaching and implementing and then return to my hotel room to call up Tim for serious BT work until around midnight. Same as my trip to Japan a few weeks ago. Get a life, for fuck’s sake! Well, now it’s enforced. I would probably never have walked away from the job myself even though I’ll be glad to be rid of those long night work vigils.

But then, it’s been a long time. More than a quarter of my life in elapsed time. And they’ve paid me every month. I’ll miss that. Badly I expect at some times. Payment will become a lot more spasmodic from the various other sources. No more trips to England. That’s a double edged sword. Fleet – boring as all fuck. A shithole little town that embodies blandness to the extreme. If I stay in Brighton, it’s an 80 minute commute. And London, 35 minutes away, holds nothing for me now. Mostly an impersonal, dirty, crowded mess of humanity. On it’s bad days anyway. There’s fun to be had there absolutely, but essentially, I don’t miss London in the slightest. Good riddance stink town. See you some time one day in the future years I expect when I’ll view you through nostalgia tinted glasses. Brighton is another story. A very cool little town with a dirty seaside disguise. But mostly it’s the people around that neck of the world that I’ll miss. Steves Boakes and Guthrie. Sally. Jack. Martin and Kate. And a periphery of others. And of course Andy floating around Europe. Jacky up in Scotland. So it’s no longer “see you soon”. Now it’s goodbye and maybe, hopefully, I’ll see you some time in the next decade.


I have one more trip to England. It commences several days after my BT contract has ended. When I booked it I always thought there was a possibility that my contract would not be renewed. And so it has turned out and the expected work trip will turn into a holiday. That is a big upside to the situation. No more Fleet, except for a farewell lunch and to pick up my trusty UK based Ovation guitar. With the plan for Tori to come and join me in England and then a week in Paris, I guess it’s fitting and was meant to be. It will certainly be a much more enjoyable trip than if I was sitting in Guidion fucking House every day. Jaunting around Sussex with Tori sounds a heap better. So where to go before Tori joins me? Hmmm…. I arrive on the Tuesday and am scheduled to head to Brighton on the Friday. Three or four days to gallivant off somewhere, albeit in a bit of a jetlagged state. Istanbul? Edinburgh? Somewhere I haven’t been before? Maybe, but not as much fun on my own.

The whole family will be happy that I’ll be away less. My immune system will probably be happier with a couple less bouts of getting over jetlag per year. So really, as long as the other side of work can kick on, it’s all good. Just a lament for distant friends. And so long BT, thanks for all the fish.


Monday, February 09, 2009

Bush Fire Disaster and I’m in New Zealand

I’m in Wellington for work at the ANZ Bank. Staying in a luxurious hotel in the vibrant downtown region. Spacious room. Comfy king size bed with feather down pillows. Balcony with an outlook towards the harbour. Mini bar stocked with tasty treats and Monteaths fine beer. TV with all the satellite channels including Sky News which is focussed permanently on the bushfires raging across Victoria. Horror. 105 people burned or asphyxiated with the number rising at every bulletin. Horror story upon horror story. The deafening roar. The speed at which the fire was upon them. The overwhelming heat. The darkness from all the smoke. The embers pouring down as if it were raining fire. Brian Naylor and his wife dead. Hundreds of homes and possessions now just a pile of ash.

It’s Monday now and I arrived here in Wellington yesterday. The day before was Saturday and it was 46 degrees plus in Melbourne town and surrounds. HOT!!! And windy. Trees bending and swaying under the strength of the hot north wind blowing like a blast from a furnace. What to do. It felt like fire in the air. The weather bureau predicted it. They said the conditions would be worse than on Ash Wednesday back in 1986. They were right. We have a bushfire plan. It involves getting into the house, attiring ourselves in garments of natural synthetics, closing all the windows, gathering the things from the bushfire survival box – radio for listening to the latest bulletins on ABC 774, walkie talkies for staying in constant communication with each other, masks for protection against smoke, lollies for helping to keep the kids calm – cranking up the petrol motor driven pump that runs the sprinkler system on the house in readiness for activating the sprays to the roof and walls when the fire front approaches. We had thought through the plan. Even practised it, albeit not enough. So with extreme heat and dangerous winds promising a fire of some ferocity, what did we do? We went to the mall. Air conditioned Doncaster Shoppingtown. Like an oasis from the heat. A complete world unto itself with no news from the outside world for the hours that we were there. And things to buy. And treats to eat. Teppanyaki chicken for lunch. Scones and tea in the afternoon. Tori thought we should be with the house. That was our plan. My instincts said go for the air conditioned safety offered by Mr. Westfield. After all, the fire plan we had spent time writing was written with a view to saving our lives. If it saved the house as well, even better. But ultimately it was about preservation of our lives. And here we were safe.

It was on the drive to the shopping centre that we had thought of Pusskana. Not in the context of a fire but in that of a day of such extreme heat that without good shelter, any creature could perish from the sun alone. The guinea pigs had been testament to that a fortnight earlier. Left too long out in the hot sun, it was too late for them when they were brought inside the house for rescuing. They died a horrible death of over exposure to the extreme summer sun. Their poor little bodies unable to withstand the third day in a row of 43 degree temperatures. We were guilty by neglect. I always forgot that we even had guinea pigs, never paying them any heed. But the cruel way in which they died was a guilty day for us all. And now there was our cat Pusskana, who had recently slipped his collar and had no way of opening the magnet lock of his cat door to escape inside the house from the tortuous heat. I dropped Tori and the kids at Shoppingtown and raced back home to check out the cat. It’s impossible to explain to somebody not accustomed to pets the affection that it is possible to have for an animal, and even though my rational side knew he would be ok at this point, I felt a fear as I drove back of what could be. The mind always seems to go for the worst scenario, but Pusskana was ok. Hot, bedraggled, but ok under the nectarine tree in the shade. Meowing profusely when he saw me. Obviously not having a great time. I opened up the area under the house for him as a refuge. Nice and cool under there even in that weather. It seemed prudent while I was there to check the house, close the blinds, windows and doors and crank up the sprinkler system to give the house and immediate surrounds a drink. I knew it would evaporate and all be bone dry again within 10 minutes but still I felt compelled in my act of futility. Would this system really save our house and our lives if a fire struck. The stories that I am hearing from Kinglake make me wonder. The speed with which the fire hit seemed to have taken everybody by surprise. These are people who live in a region where there seem to be bushfires every other year and who are ready. Or as ready as you can be. Yet they were still taken unawares. What chance would we have? And those poor souls who lost their nerve and thought the best thing to do was flee in their cars. Burned to death while in a panic-driven escape attempt. Easy to judge from here over in New Zealand.

I went into the ANZ office today for my first morning of work. The local crew were ridiculing those misguided Australians who, knowing that there are bushfires every single year, still live in locations surrounded by eucalypt forests. Tragedies are always significantly less so when they happen away from home. Haven’t heard any good jokes yet but I guess they have to be coming soon.

So it's all happening at home but I’m in Wellington. Probably spoken to Tori and the kids half a dozen times in the last 24 hours. I know they are safe from the fires but I can’t help but feel hollow and a bit guilty about not being there with them in this time of crisis in Victoria. I’ve consumed a lot of beer in the time since I arrived. That kind of depressive drinking where you don’t feel that you are getting drunk but watch dispassionately as your faculties gradually start to become impeded. After a couple of after work pints with Steve, I went to the Belgian beer bar for dinner and more beer. Sitting on my own reading the paper over a Leffe Blonde and occasionally staring vacantly at the enticing rear view of the girl sitting up at the bar. The New Zealand daily papers screaming of bushfires in Victoria across the front pages. Graphic photos of flames leaping 50 feet high to the treetops. Such an emotional feeling of what has happened to these people’s lives coupled with the thought that in slightly different circumstances, that could have happened to me and my family. We need to sort out what we’ll do the next time such a day of extreme heat and wind hits town. Do we stay and fight and hope that our plans and our tools and our wits are enough to save us and the house, or do we run away early and let it all burn. Maybe Shoppingtown isn’t a bad option. Except that next time we need to cater better for Pusskana.

Feeling melancholy and weighted down by thoughts of it all, I went to pay my bill at the bar alongside the enticing girl of earlier thoughts and struck up a conversation. She has just returned home to Wellington from north Queensland. There it’s a different story. The whole area is flooded. I told her stories of an extremely hot Saturday in Melbourne and fires in the local bushland communities. I ordered another beer and chatted. With nobody here to really talk to about the state of affairs back home it was good to have somebody to pour out a bit of emotion to. And who better than a beautiful girl.