Thursday, February 16, 2012

The commute

I've never fancied myself as a commuter. I don't even like the sound of the word let alone what it actually means. Like an automaton heading out in the early morning through the sea of peak hour traffic and jostling crowds, onward to the production line of city humanity. Spending an hour and a half travelling purposefully to get to the land of generic workstations and artificial light. Somehow thousands of people doing exactly the same type of thing simultaneously lubricates the wheels of industry that our city lives are built on. Even though I only have a few weeks or months of this to contemplate, after a year of remote working from outback Australia, it feels daunting and more than a little depressing. I'm trying to remind myself it's only a couple of short term consultancy gigs in the Melbourne CBD. And I do need the loot. At least I think I do. I'm almost finished up now with the American company I've been involved with for the better part of a decade. Contracts have been terminated and the notice period is now almost within its last fortnight. Most of the journey with them has been filled with good times, exotic travel, friends and laughter. But changing circumstances have soured things. And even with an uncertain future of unknown income, I'm looking forward to it all being over and moving on to the next chapter of my working life. Whatever that may be. There seem to be a number of possibilities, but at times I feel a little like the guy who has just split up with his girlfriend and finds that the several alternate girls who seemed available at the time have somehow disappeared, or not been quite what they seemed. One thing I know for sure is that I won't be looking for a permanent open ended position within a large enterprise housed high in a city tower block.

In 1995, prior to having any kids to think about, Tori and I spent ten months travelling around Europe and through the Middle East in a VW Transporter pop top campervan. I'd finished up a contract at British Telecom and Tori quit her London city job that she commuted to everyday, two hours from our apartment in Brighton. Unlike this recent Australian trip where (despite people's continued disbelief) I actually worked, on that trip there was no work at all for ten months. Gloriously none at all. The closest I came to any sort of work on the voyage was when we were on our way across Europe back towards England and I decided I should try and find an IT contract somewhere. The possibilities seemed at that stage to be working in either Stockholm or London. The times were good, the economies strong and corporations were throwing buckets full of money at IT people who could help them with the computer industry's own version of the Emperor's New Clothes; the dreaded Y2k bug. Halcyon days! Going to Sweden excited us both greatly and I hoped that that opportunity would come through. That we could drive straight ahead through Germany rather than having to turn left. But the project got canned and so London it was. Tori really didn't want to go back to England. While she wasn't quite dragged along kicking and screaming, she could quite happily have left and not set foot back there again for a long long time. And so it came to be that from a camping ground on the outskirts of Rome, fuelled by a couple of bottles of lunchtime chianti, I got to brazenly negotiate my rate for a job that I didn't really want to do in a place that I didn't particularly want to go to. Financially the result was excellent. On a day to day basis it involved commuting from our very nice rented home in Camden Town to the financial district in London, taking my place in the IT department of a large bureaucratic European bank. That's where we, the system support people, had to do daily battles with our apparently sworn arch enemy, the application support people. I couldn't quite get it as it seemed quite apparent to me that really we were all on the same side. On my first day there after my extended layoff of lunchtime wines and afternoon siestas, I watched people standing around and arguing about a report that should have been automatically delivered but wasn't. It reminded me immediately of how in such working environments the suspension of disbelief needs to be greater than for the most farfetched of fantasy films. The ability to believe that the most ridiculously trivial tasks and events are actually in someway important. The job never really got any better than that and essentially served the purpose  of reminding me what it was like to have a job that I hated going to every day. It wasn't a difficult job in any way. Or oppressive. Or too physical. Or any kind of hardship that I know exists significantly more in most other types of jobs. So I'm not seeking any sympathy. But what it was was mind-numbingly boring. Watching the clock edge agonisingly slowly towards 5.30 at which time I could escape with relief out the door. It felt like torture. Trying to find something during the day to work on that was in any way interesting seemed totally elusive to me. In London terms I lived relatively close to where I worked, but it still took me 45 minutes to get there if I travelled by public transport. It only took me 20 minutes however to ride my bike. I bought myself a London cycle map that had all the bike paths marked in. The ones considered scenic were highlighted in green. I thought this was a great chance to explore some nice parts of London that I didn't know and decided one day to take the route marked as scenic that headed along the canal out of Camden and through the back of Islington. As I rode further along the waterway the surrounds became increasingly bleak. I'd left the bustle of Camden Lock and only several hundred metres away I was in a place that seemed devoid of any movement. And considering that essentially I was in the middle of one of the world's most densely populated cities, it seemed isolated and somehow remote. The feeling came over me that bodies had probably been fished out of the water in this "scenic" part of London over the years and that maybe the bike map cartographer had a particularly twisted sense of humour. I sensed rather than saw a couple of people sitting on the bench seat a little off the track. And just as I passed them I felt a thump as a rock crashed into my helmet adorned head. Stunned, I turned to see a fist waving woman with a can of Tenants Special Brew in the other hand shrieking "you were fucken' lucky to be wearing a helmet". I was so shocked I couldn't react in any way other than to ride on. It seems that the fact that I was wearing city office clothes was enough to offend some people. My bike commute reverted to the more conventional weaving in and out of stationery London traffic after that. Or indeed the longer journey of public transport. Jammed against fellow commuters on the Northern Line. In fact the tube service is very good in London. Especially compared with transport services in Melbourne. The trains are in fact so frequent that when arriving on the platform to see that the next train is as far away as eight minutes, it seems like a personal affront. What am I possibly going to do to occupy myself for a whole eight minutes? I'm not sure what my hurry was when the place I was going to was considerably more boring than waiting for a train and had many more hours to fill with some inane activity or another. One day while I was surfing the net, I decided to fill in some time by checking out life insurance options on an online insurance company's instant quote website. Tori was pregnant with our first child and it seemed that life insurance was something you were supposed to have. I filled in the online form with all my details and got my quote. I wondered what the quote would be if I took the policy out for 35 years instead of 25, trying to work out how long I might actually live for if I had to do this job for the rest of my life. And then what would be the cost if I said I was a smoker. After all, does a casual partaker of spliffs count as a smoker? Probably only if there's some way that smoking can be linked to the death I guess. "He was run over on the way back from the shop where he bought a pack of rizlas"? Anyway, the damn online form kept on resetting itself completely when you went back to fill it in for a subsequent quote. All the details had to be reentered every time. Name. Address. Phone. Date of birth. Partner details. Do you smoke. List all medical history etc. etc. I couldn't be bothered with all that and just wanted the numbers, so I pasted the word "bollocks" into every field of the form. It could have been any word at all, but strangely that was the one that came to mind when I was confronted once again with a completely reset form. The quotes were all delivered fine so it all seemed the same to me. But that is not quite how the machinations of industry in the world of fabricated importance actually work. It seems that somebody received an email from the form and it appeared that I was saying "bollocks" to them. They were quite offended by this and so with a little forensic investigation, discovered that the IP address from which I had entered their website, belonged to the large bank I was stationed at. And more precisely, could be accurately traced down to the very desk that I sat at within that organisation. I was summonsed to my contract agency's office and told that this trail of indignation had led all the way up to the desk of the IT Director who, on discovering the troublemaker was a contractor, passed the information on to the agency. It was agreed that it was best if I finished up then and there some two weeks prior to the full term of my six month contract. I couldn't believe the petty circumstances with which this had occurred but also couldn't believe my luck. Hooray! It was over. I pretty much danced and sang my way down from Finsbury Square to Leadenhall Street to collect my things and to let my colleagues know that I was finishing right now and leaving them behind. I already was scheduled to start a new contract back down in Brighton as soon as this one finished, so now had a two week holiday before my new job commenced. I immediately went home, got on to the net and found two cheap flights leaving the next day to the beautiful tropical island paradise of Tobago, down in the Caribbean. I think my postcard back to the folk in the office started with "I'm lying here in the February sun sipping on an ice cold beer and contemplating whether to have the lobster or the crab for dinner".

Having not done the commute or city job for so long, it is always a shock to step back into that fabricated world. A friend in New York once told me that there were people there who commuted two and a half hours each way every day to get to Manhattan. I find that incredible. How do you have any sort of life outside of work? I just don't have the energy for it. Leaving home around 7.30 and getting home after 7 in the evening sucks. I'm so knackered when I get back that all I can do is eat dinner and fall on the couch. I have a few more months of this to fill up the coffers and then that's it. I might have to get the veggies growing out the back and cut down eating meat to only once a month, but at least I'll be able to spend more time around the house and with my family. Even if they are all a bit hungry.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

And then we were back

And then we were back. And like a tan from a two week Queensland holiday, the feeling of travelling through remote Australia just seems to have washed right off. It all ended so abruptly and quickly. And what a crash-landing back into Melbourne it was. One minute we were on the outskirts of Sydney bound for Canberra, the next we were gunning it as fast as possible back to Melbourne. I'd received a call from my distraught mum, who was crying down the phone saying that she'd had a fall at the rehab place she'd been staying in since her sojourn in hospital some weeks back. Her legs had just given way from underneath her and now she was back in hospital unable to move her legs at all. I felt fearful and ill. All plans were off and we just had to get back as soon as possible. So after a day of driving followed by a night spent in a layaway on the Hume just south of Wangaratta, we arrived back in Melbourne. We couldn't stay in our house though as Lisa and the nefarious other folk who now occupied the place were still living there. Instead we pulled in to the Warrandyte local caravan park and set up as we'd been for the past year. I guess we started with a week camped at Dean and Melissa's in Warrandyte before heading further afield. So returning to Warrandyte and spending a week in camping mode seemed to bookend the trip in some kind of weird way due to the circumstances. There was no easing into it. I was met by the harsh reality of hours spent at the Royal Melbourne Hospital with Nat, trying to work out what was going on with our mum and comforting her. She had five fractures in her spine, one of which had more or less collapsed and started to impinge on her spinal column, hence the loss of movement in her legs. Whereas previously the doctors hadn't wanted to operate on her due to the high risk factor, now it seemed that an operation was the only possible chance of her not becoming a paraplegic. The surgeon indicated that this was almost inevitable unless she had the six hour spinal surgery to alleviate the situation. She had osteoporosis so there was an appreciable chance that the reinforcing structure that they were going to try and insert into her back, along with the cage to further reinforce and protect the spinal column, may not hold. If a screw didn't take or her spine just crumbled, she could be paralysed from the waste down. The anaesthetist was more concerned about an anomaly that had shown up on the ultrasound of her heart. He thought there was a high risk that she wouldn't come out of the general anaesthetic at all. Watching your mother sign a consent form for an operation that listed as possible outcomes paralysis or death is a sobering experience. I wondered if she would die. What would my world be like without her? Thoughts of my own life as a child flooded back. Growing up with her, Dad and Nat. Family experiences and emotions that had lain dormant in my memory for years unfolded in my mind like I was watching a long and continuous movie, much of it appearing to have been shot in seventies style Kodachrome. Conversations with Nat and spending close time with her invoked further memories, both old and recent. And thoughts of all of the practicalities that needed to be gone through if she didn't survive the operation. Along with the fear of loss and of grief. But the staff of the neurosurgery unit at the Royal Melbourne hospital were beyond amazing. Compassionate, supportive, encouraging, friendly, professional, optimistic. I met with the anaesthetist two days before the operation and the surgeon the night before. They spoke to us at length with patience and understanding. They expressed their concerns with the procedure and discussed the risks, but both gave me faith that mum was in the best hands that she could be in. It was very clear that both men knew what they were doing. Nat and I made mum promise that she'd fight hard and that she'd see us after the operation. That her heart was strong enough to pull through. And so was her will. That she had people who loved her waiting for her. We spent a long and tortuous day trying to occupy ourselves while knowing that our mother was unconscious and under the knife. After a feeble attempt at doing some work in the Baillieu Library at the uni, we thought maybe a film would be a good distraction and so headed over to the Nova. My mind raced between the plot on the screen and the greater drama that was going on just down the road. When the film finished I lost it. I could hardly speak and I felt like uncontrollably crying. It took me a good few minutes to pull myself together in the cinema toilets. The six hours of the operation would be close to complete by now, but I knew we wouldn't hear for at least a couple more hours. When I met back up with Nat who had been waiting for me outside the gents' I was feeling a little stronger and more prepared whatever the outcome. By the time we finally received the call from the surgeon around 7pm, we'd been joined by Nat's guy Paul and the three of us were lying on the Melbourne Uni lawns. And the news was good. Relievingly good. Everything had gone better than planned and expected. She was alive and she wasn't paralysed. Welcome back to Melbourne.

Tori's mum had been having her own physical challenges during the previous year, having had a back operation herself some months previously. She was on the long road of recovery and so we had Christmas in Sydney instead of the customary Melbourne Christmas. Bringing her a new six month old grandson to view for the first time was a good tonic. We had a lovely time with Mike and Maggie. And caught up with a load of friends around Sydney. And saw The Church at the Enmore. And hung out in the beautiful surrounds of Lane Cove National Park where we were camped. And a trip up to Patonga where I managed to inflict the only damage on the van since we'd left Melbourne. After making it unscathed up the Gibb River Road, the Strzelecki track and across the rest of the 40 or 50,000km we drove during the year, I somehow managed to drive the van into a bridge that was not quite high enough. I had stopped in front of the sign that said that only vehicles of 2.5m or less could fit under the bridge and had a conversation with Tori about whether the clearance of the car was now 2.1m or 2.3m. Despite the very clear view of it in the rearview mirror I totally forgot that I had a van of around 3.5m height sitting right behind me. As we edged under, I felt and heard a crunching sound from behind. On stopping and rushing out to inspect the damage, I felt like nominating myself for the title of world's most stupid person. In the end the damage to the van was minimal, but it took me a while to get over the feeling of supreme incompetence.

New Year's was spent at the Peats Ridge music festival. A beautiful three day celebration of music with a magnificent backdrop of mountains and forest. After a hectic working period in the lead up to Christmas, I was finally on holiday and able to relax for a few days. Friends and music in idyllic surrounds with a carnival atmosphere is pretty much as good as it gets. We saw a load of new bands, lazed around on the grass or around our campsite, ate good festival food and consumed festival consumables, all culminating in being with Tori and my three kids as the clock struck midnight to ring in 2012. The five of us dancing around to Gotye at the back of the giant mob of people who made up the crowd in front of the main stage. It was a lovely way to see in the new year. And a new year always begins with so much hope. But it was only one day later, that we were on the highway back to Melbourne.

We've now been back in our house for nearly a month and most of the boxes have been unpacked, although it was the typical all consuming ordeal to make it happen. Mum has been in rehab for a few weeks and is slowly on the mend. The kids have started school back at Warrandyte primary and are happy because of it. Jaz has started doing gymnastics. Finn has had his first game back playing basketball. Both have been happy to be hanging out with friends again. They seem so much more aware and mature because of the trip. Finn has come out more self confident. Jazzy is physically stronger and more sporty. I'll be interested to see how their perceptions of the year we've just had change over time and which places or events seem to have had lasting impact. Kim is now seven months and is still to settle into a user friendly sleeping pattern. It means that whatever we are doing is still impaired by sleep deprivation. He is a lovely little boy though. So happy with a wide beaming smile to match.  And he's a strong little fella who's already crawling around and pulling himself up to standing on whatever he can. Tori has come through a period of being overwhelmed by how much there is to do. Whatever she chooses to do she always does well and now she's trying her hand at being a domestic goddess. All of us are reaping the rewards of the wares flowing from the kitchen and the house has never been so neat.

In general I'm feeling disconnected. I'm used to not being on the road now and instead being in our very large house. But I'm still having trouble with the crowds of people and traffic and the increased demands on my time that seem to have descended from out of the blue. Life is so much simpler on the road. Everything is pretty much stripped away, from possessions to responsibilities. It becomes very clear what is important and what is not. I miss being in such constant proximity with my family. Now Finn disappears into his room to play computer games, while Jazzy disappears into her room with the door closed to do god knows what. Now that I have a separate work area, I guess I'm locking myself away too. Living in the van had a physical lifestyle attached to it. Now I'm hardly leaving the house or doing any significant exercise. After a flurry of activity and a quick trip back up to Sydney, work has eased off for me in the last week. But I know it's the calm before the storm. I've changed my whole working circumstance and am back in to the uncertainty of not really knowing where the income will be coming from. The next six months seems chock full of projects, but after that I have no idea. Nevertheless, I'm glad. Time for a change and a fresh start with something new. I'm struggling really to get too excited about anything to do with work at the moment. Looking forward to the end of the old and hoping that something vibrant and exciting will take me away again some time soon. The Good Ship Utopia, resplendent with taped up, as yet unfixed, hole in the roof, is sitting in storage at the local caravan park. Plans are afoot for a two or three week journey away in a few months time, but the logistics of where Kim is going to sleep now that he no longer fits in a basket on the table may be a bit of a problem. Hopefully we'll hitch up and get away to somewhere nice. In the meantime there's a whole city out there in Melbourne waiting for me to come and re-explore. I've spent so many years of my life in this city and have loved living here in the past. Perhaps I should just be grateful for what I've done in the last year and move on in a more positive frame of mind. Embrace the teachings of Candide's teacher Dr. Pangloss that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Go out and dive back in to the excitement that can be city living. But I'm just not ready for that. Like Candide, I think I'll just hang out here for a while and work in the garden.