One of the toughest questions anyone can ask you is "what will you be doing in ten year's time?" . At fifty-nine (in 2005) I'm not even game to ask that question any more. Life is too terrifyingly short. Sometimes it is nearly as scary to ask "what were you doing ten years ago?". As it happens, by a fluke of fancy, I did keep a record of what I was doing (or rather, thinking) ten years ago. It seems to have been a tale of wry observation and faint regrets. At least I'm over the regrets, mostly. Maybe that is progress..
|TUESDAY FEB 8,1994 A CAREER??|
|FRIDAY FEBRUARY 18,1994 AN EXAMINER FOR THE GREENWICH MASTERS DEGREE||FRIDAY APRIL 22,1994 DHARMIKA|
|SATURDAY APRIL 23,1994 GREENWICH: TRANSCRIPTS|
|FRIDAY APRIL 29,1994 SCHOOLDAYS IN VIETNAM||SATURDAY APRIL 30,1994 AUTUMN SUNSHINE|
|THURSDAY MAY 5,1994 KARMA||FRIDAY MAY 6,1994 KICKING THE FARRIER TO DEATH|
|SUNDAY MAY 8,1994 MOTHERS AND FATHERS||TUESDAY MAY 17,1994 LINGUISTICS POSTGRADUATE CONFERENCE|
|FRIDAY MAY 27,1994 SNAIL'S TRAIL||SATURDAY JUNE 4,1994 WAVERING|
|SATURDAY JUNE 11,1994 WORKING DAYS||MONDAY JUNE 13,1994 SELF-INDULGENT IDEAS|
|SATURDAY JUNE 25,1994 SETTLING DOWN||MONDAY JUNE 27,1994 CLACKETY-CLACK|
|SATURDAY AUGUST 13,1994 A SMALL KISS, AN ODD DREAM||SUNDAY AUGUST 28,1994 ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF A CITIZEN|
|SUNDAY NOVEMBER 13,1994 LUCK|
|FRIDAY NOVEMBER 18,1994 LOST LUGGAGE||TUESDAY NOVEMBER 22,1994 DON'T WALK AWAY|
|SATURDAY JANUARY 7,1995 COUNTRY LIFE||SUNDAY JANUARY 8,1995 LETTER TO AN IMAGINARY LADY|
|FRIDAY JANUARY 20,1995 SHENG4 LI4 IS VICTORY||FRIDAY FEBUARY 10,1995 PUTTING IT TOGETHER|
SATURDAY NOV 6,1993 FOCUSED PEOPLE
Have wasted Saturday in the usual way, reading newspapers. Included a story about some terrifyingly focused woman who edits the New Yorker. Mine is the perennial story of intelligence that has never stayed focused long enough to achieve worldly success, or even other-worldly success. I should be envying the focused lady. I should emulate her to finish off an everlasting PhD in double quick time. Trouble is, the world is far too interesting to stay focused on one thing for very long. Besides, fiercely focused people are often so damn boring.
TUESDAY FEB 8,1994 A CAREER??
Last night I dreamed of walking into a room and announcing "Well, I've just treated my first patient as a dentist. Attended a couple of medical lectures while I was doing my B.A.. Amazing what you can do, isn't it." Good grief. Where do these ideas come from? But the point is, I guess, that there is no real money in English teaching - the product has no scarcity value, while the demand just isn't there for linguistics. I really do need a steady income from some other source to indulge my gentleman's tastes. So what should I do? At 48 dentistry is a bit over the odds. I'm not sure either that I would be much cop at quasi-con jobs like psychiatry, acupuncture or fortune telling. Financial advisors steal money off little old ladies while travel consultants have to be 25, blonde and called Angela. Should have kept on with a law degree in 1965, but 60% of students are studying law nowadays, which is bad news for the society. Damn it. This is the same problem I had at 17. What does a fellow like me do when he grows up?
FRIDAY FEBRUARY 18,1994 AN EXAMINER FOR THE GREENWICH MASTERS DEGREE
Hallelujah! An e-mail from Peter Peterson agreeing to act as "mentor" for the Greenwich University Masters degree. That means it will actually be a saleable product. Peter is a cautious individual; it took him three weeks to respond, and like the good bridge player that he is, he will have turned over every card a few times. No matter, the outcome is what counts. Within a couple of months I should have a Masters degree of sorts. The next step is to actually start making money, and that mightn't happen until September. A bit of work has dribbled in this week: I'll be making something under $200 before tax, which must be something like 1/3 the average national wage. Now it's a toss-up between Hong Kong and U.A.E., with Saudi Arabia as an outside chance.
FRIDAY APRIL 22,1994 DHARMIKA
We have a new home on the fourth floor at Western Met. People are scattered across seemingly great spaces, after living in each others lap in the old place. There is a lunch room, with a real sink and windows that need cleaning. People come there almost self-consciously, when before they turned from their swivel chairs at a desk and tripped over the coffee table. Today Dharmika came to lunch. Just Dharmika and I. She has also chosen a desk in the room where I have a desk for the first time. Above her desk is a rich crimson tassel, almost defiant, a vibrant reminder of other worlds. A Buddhist, Sri Lankan world. It is remarkable, the Sri Lankan people who have crossed my path. The power engineer in Lae who shared my house. A miserable young man, cooking a mess of frozen peas and rice in a pot every night, as if it were dishonourable for a man to learn how to cook. He could not marry until his sister married, and at thirty she was almost past marrying. I remember him most for being at a loss how to use a washing machine, and his plaintive cries from the toilet one evening when the lock on the door proved beyond his wit to undo.
Then there was my colleague, Kanapathipillai Theivanantham, with his PhD from Harvard, Reader in Linguistics, and living proof that qualifications never made an intellectual out of any one. In my arrogance I believed that Anantham knew less about linguistics than almost any man living, and I was almost right. Twenty years in Fiji without learning either major language, and determined that Pacific Islanders should leave the university with Christian souls and Oxonian accents. Yet he hung in there while the likes of Australian academic buccaneers came and went.
There is Lionel, my neighbour, his wife Nirmala and the two little girls. Lionel, an auto electrician who doesn't know an ohm from an ampere, but scratches a living in odd factories, buys and sells old cars, and has a simple, direct morality. I help Lionel in small ways, and he is a good friend in return, doing small favours. From time to time Nirmala sends him to my door with a gift of food wrapped in tissues. Once I was asked to visit when three Buddhist monks came to bless the house.
Dharmika knew the monks. They had discussed me. We agreed that Lionel was a simple man, for whom the strict procedure of the ceremonies was important. Dharmika is solid, but not fat, maybe about forty, although it is impossible to be sure. Married, she told me today, to a wind-power engineer. She is an absolutely measured person, with perfect diction, a controlled humanity, and intelligence. I think great intelligence. There is nothing counterfeit about this woman, and I would value her as a friend.
"You can't know," I said, thinking about Lae, but not thinking at all, "what it is like to live with presence of random violence, the unthinking attack that can come any time upon any bystander." Dharmika looked at me evenly. "Oh I know," she said, "that feeling when a knock can come at the door at any time, and your cousin or your sister goes to answer it, and never comes back. And I know the feeling of being able to do nothing about it. Absolutely nothing." Dharmika knows Sri Lanka better than I ever knew Papua New Guinea.
SATURDAY APRIL 23,1994 GREENWICH: TRANSCRIPTS
A telephone message was waiting after the morning run today: please call Hawaii. This is Greenwich University's way of getting me to turn on my computer to receive a fax. Peter Peterson has finally organized his CV and become a "faculty member" of Greenwich. Now they want transcripts from New Zealand for christ's sake, and it is clear that the Masters won't be awarded until I type everything up to go into the format of a formal dissertation, another 140 pages of it on top of the 100 or so already on disk. This blasted thing is taking as long as a regular campus degree. Peter is glacial in his responses. At present there are EAP-type lecturing jobs at Unitech, in Hong Kong, and today one at the ANU. Forget PNG. No amount of money is worth the random violence, racist paranoia and constant threat of malaria. I'll apply for the other ones, but with no great expectations. Today there has been lots to do, and none of it has gotten done. About the only practical achievement has been to set up this Cumberland Diary, after a lot of fiddling about. It seems to be quite useable, with a capacity to import ASCII. The automatic encryption has its uses, but makes me a little uneasy about retrieving things if the file becomes corrupted.
WEDNESDAY APR 27,1994 GREEN CARDS, & MY CHINESE NAME
A long list of things that had to be done, as usual, and as usual most of them weren't. My problem is that I really need to have been born one of the landed gentry in London's leisured age, or a noble in Heian Kyoto, or one of history's other parasites. Not that Melbourne in the 1990s, after the hot & cold running wars of the century, and before the carnage of the next, is such a bad place to be. In the long autumn evenings you can walk the streets without fear, the air is mild, the water is safe to drink, and a bagman with a humorous eye for the passing parade can get by on good second-hand shoes at $8 a pair. But there is this obligation to look for some kind of official employment, and it eats into quality time.
First set out for the American consulate in St Kilda Road. Some quick lawyer in California has been offering to fill out Green Card Lottery forms for US$50 a throw. Reckon I can sign my own name though. All the advertising will have woken the mug punters up, but apparently in earlier years Australians haven't even filled their quota for a free bet on American citizenship. Who wants to get mugged, shot at and join the 13 million without health cover? Yeah, well I have my doubts too, but there is a not a whole lot of work for cognitive linguists in Oz, and if I have to do postgrad' work at Stanford or something like it, it would be a damn sight cheaper with a yankee passport. Besides, life's a novel and that would be an interesting chapter to write.
So I walked St Kilda boulevard on a perfect Autumn morning, scrunching the sheaves of fallen brown leaves from the plain trees underfoot, and rubbernecking the For Sale signs on monopoly glass blocks of Melbourne's nouveau poor millionaires. I had put on my one expensive shirt and my dead father's one expensive pair of trousers for the occasion. He would have savored the irony. Can't say the hearth dwellers of the idyll looked excited by their paradise, but I was walking a free man across the tarmac of fate, maybe making a first step on one of those long roads that take us years to understand the destination.
Well, the consulate was visible only by its street number. Not even a flag, but the building was for sale like all its neighbours. I walked into a large atrium, a goldfish in a smoked-glass tank, tons of plate glass, glass-walled rooms all empty. Looked like the movers had called. Not a soul to be seen. Several kilometers of marble flooring, footsteps are the sounds of gunshot, and round a corner a small, open door - glass of course - with one of those tasseled maroon velvet ropes they have to guide crowds in banks, set up as an obstacle course. Crowding his two metres of lean muscle behind a small desk, the guard looked at me without seeing, and called me Sir. "The place is deserted," I offered by way of chat. He looked at me evenly, focused this time. "Where could I get the documentation for the Green Card lottery?" Ah, this was familiar territory. Clearly the mug punters had called before. "Sydney," he offered, and then with due solemnity, "the consulate is closed today in mourning.." Oh yes, "Nixon", I cut in, trying not to be too ungracious. Jesus, if Nixon hadn't jumped he would have been tried for felony, and now the United States has a day of mourning. But maybe the young guard with his cool blue respectful eyes was better than a brush off from the painted lips of an upright receptionist. And as for the rest? Well, hours manually typing in miniscule squares, an application form in duplicate from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. What is my Chinese name, they want to know. What is my alias, they demand.
FRIDAY APRIL 29,1994 SCHOOLDAYS IN VIETNAM
Dau Phuc Hinh and Tien Huu Tran are the total of my Friday afternoon "concurrent assistance" class. This is where I look wise and pretend to understand whatever they have been studying about electronics, or as we seem to spend most time on, assembly language programming and similar exotica. After poking around the edges of such things for years without actually being able to do anything useful, I can put up a reasonable front for a while. Week after week though, my cover is in danger of being blown.
After exploring substitutable parameters in batch files today we ran out of reasonable pretensions, and the conversation turned to education in Vietnam. Dau is a big chap with heavy features, perpetually creased in an apologetic smile. He has absolutely mastered a disarming technique of innocent confusion, and can circle forever in a rather high pitched puzzled voice around and around the present topic of confusion. On schools though he had some felt experience. Dau's antecedents are Chinese, so he went to a Chinese school, while Tien went to a Vietnamese school.
The Chinese school was surrounded by a high wall, penetrated only by towering wrought iron gates. Five minutes after 8 a.m. each day the gates were locked. You were in, or you were out. The gates were not unlocked until 5 p.m., six days a week. When you were in, you had all the usual things that kids learn, plus Chinese, Vietnamese, French and English to learn. No wonder poor Dau can't remember too many Chinese characters.
Tien's young life was rather different. Tien is a slim, ingratiating young man with aquiline features. He is bright, and a semester ahead of Dau in the courses. For a Vietnamese, there was morning school, or there was afternoon school, in big classes. The teachers taught two shifts, and there were never enough to go around for the shoals of postwar baby boom children. There it was a matter of learning formal Vietnamese plus either French or English. Some high school students also studied the language of the communist's great and powerful friend, the U.S.S.R.. So while Vietnamese brats were out on the street learning what life was all about, their Chinese cousins were locked behind those forbidding cast iron gates. No wonder there is a cleavage of cultures.
SATURDAY APRIL 30,1994 AUTUMN SUNSHINE
Another day of perfect Autumn sunshine. I skimmed The Age and The Australian, determined not to waste 2/3 of Saturday on them as usual, but wasted it in other ways instead. Called into the hot bread shop at the back of Union Square for my weekly fix of a 55 cent coffee scroll. The special taste is because they cost at least 80 cents everywhere else. It seemed about time again to call into the Brotherhood of St Laurence charity store. This place keeps me in shoes, usually at about $8 a pair, and various bits of clothing which are irresistible at the price. A couple of months ago I scored a $300 leather jacket for $35, which was perfect after mum sewed up a cuff (what are mothers for?). With a gross income this year of $10,000 or so, I think I can claim to be one of the authentic poor. Well, it seems like that until you queue up behind a woman in the Brotherhood who is asking to put second hand garments at $5 a throw on lay-bye.
You enter the store down a narrow fibro corridor next to the loading bay for furniture. The furniture section has a cavernous ceiling, and bare concrete cluttered with rows of old wardrobes, arm chairs frayed at the edges, and always one or two strange concoctions of homemade furniture papered over with stick-on vinyl. The place is run by a scrawny little Australian in a grey dust coat, whose antecedents certainly came from Petticoat Lane, and an ambling young Maori giant who seems to find this a congenial home in Brunswick's gritty urban-industrial culture. What caught my eye today was a brief case, seemingly worth about $150 in those flash leather shops. I am the original vinyl shoulder-bag man, cursed with the kind of temperament that takes along something for every eventuality. No, that is unkind self-criticism. Rather, I am burdened with sure knowledge, branded on my forehead by perilous experience, that whatever I omit will surely come to punish me. It is uncanny, the original Murphy's Law.
Anyway, I trudge down to TAFE or wherever each time with a mighty load slung over the shoulder in a black vinyl day pack of bottomless capacity. Books, papers, a jacket rolled up, a lunch box .. something else always seems to squeeze in. But stylish it is not, at least not in the salaryman mould. Not that I care really. But new students in their Asian innocence sometimes mistake me for the janitor, which is probably tempting karma. The briefcase is capacious as briefcases go, brown leather with a solid fat grip and green baize lining. It needs metal brackets on a couple of corners, but could pass for something classy if executives still carried briefcases (nowadays it is a mobile phone on the hip and a snappy square case with a combination lock for the laptop computer: may they all forget their combinations and passwords on a wet night). "Ten dollars", said the man from Petticoat Lane. Well, the label at a quick glance said something about a leathergoods company. It wasn't until later, on close inspection, that I saw that it also said "vinyl covered cloth". Oh well, another typical TM occasion.
In the afternoon I went to the State Library newspaper room. This is a new discovery which threatens to become an addiction. It is another one of those places down an unlabelled corridor. A bucolic guard sits at a desk in the hall to make sure nobody smuggles in Mars Bars or bags. None of those newfangled magnetic detectors here. Inside, whatever day of the week or hour of the day, the place hums with activity. I've never seen anything quite like it. They have all the regional Australian papers, but the big attractions are the international subscriptions, which seem to cover most continents in an eclectic sort of way except for South America. Papers are stacked in green plastic boxes like labeled sarcophagi, so usually you slide out a whole box with a month's editions and take it to one of the big vinyl-topped tables. Other papers, such as the New York Times, are kept on microfilm, and banks of reader-copy machines whir and brake like electric sewing machines. They are always fully occupied, and the readers seem to spend most of their time with cricked necks, trying to read the smoky black screens at 90 degrees to vertical. The paper which interests me mostly is the Saturday edition of Hong Kong's South China Morning Post. It arrives within about a week of publication. You can learn more about a country from the classified advertising sections than a truckload of correspondent's reports. How to avoid noticing, for example, the page of display ads' in the Singapore Straits Times which trades Philippina maids like cattle. Here you have the real morality of a nouveau rich society with its public wowserism and private selfishness, corrupted already by that most ancient and most corrosive of societal vices, the slave market. At another pole, the South African Argus, in the interregnum before black majority government, is almost innocent of positions vacant advertisements, but big on security companies.
But back to the Post. Here is a commercial culture that is jumping. I have never seen such a range of job advertisements anywhere. Maybe the advertising rates are cheaper, or a splash is de rigueur, but almost all positions are in display ads' rather than the tiny, indecipherable abbreviations beloved of the Anglo-Saxon press. Anyway, there are plenty of jobs, a sort of wild exuberance of jobs before the clammy hand of Chinese Communist bureaucracy sucks the vigour out of the place in 1997.
The academic/teaching jobs which interest me pay well, probably better than anywhere else in the world at the moment. I can't understand why they need to advertise at all with rates up to A$120,000 for common or garden lecturing (though I would probably start on half of that). The catch is accommodation. A mangy two bedroom flat seems to sell for around A$2.5 million and rent for about $500 per week minimum. That is the stuff of madness. Surely it can't last. There were no jobs today.
The local China news section said that the urban inflation rate in China was now 40%. Thirty percent of state enterprises -- still the main employers -- are bankrupt even with state subsidies, and losing far more money than they earn. Another forty-seven percent of enterprises would be bankrupt without the artificial state subsidies. They have no cash to pay millions of workers, let alone pay for raw materials. The central bank is printing money as fast as the presses will run, to prop up the whole crazy machine. A rather different picture from the Chinese economic miracle which Australian correspondents forever propagandize about. It looks far more like the Russian reality, and the end result may well be the same. Historically what comes out of situations like this are war, chauvinism, nationalist fervour, repression and military dictatorship. I would not be too surprised to see an effective military takeover in China, perhaps along the lines of the Indonesian model.
I went by by bicycle power in the balmy sunshine. In a city lane way an agitated man approached clutching twenty cents and some car keys. "It has blown up", he said, with phlegmatic Australian hyperbole that would have my migrant refugee students diving for a doorway. "Got to get home to Frankston; got a bob mate?" I gave him $3 for the train fare. So much for saving on petrol. Ah well, that's life.
THURSDAY MAY 5,1994 KARMA
There's no doubt about it. Whoever runs the karma machine in my sector is a perverse bugger, or maybe my batch number has just been set aside for provocation. Yeah well, sometimes it works out okay. Damned lucky to be born in Australia. Could have been dead a few times over, and would have been if I'd stayed in Fiji or PNG. Might even have been lucky to stay out of a bad marriage or two. But when it comes to daily niggles, my karma is plain warped.
Found out today the real reason no contract has been offered at Western Metropolitan TAFE. Last Christmas six people didn't have their contracts renewed. One of them, Simon, was so pissed off he sold his house to pay for legal fees and has taken the College to the Supreme Court. That's heavy stuff. Supposedly to protect its position the College is not offering a contract to anyone who was hired after Simon. Now my rights are being violated: more than ten hours a week and the award says they have to offer a contract, but if I insist I'll be out the door instead. The salary difference is my present pro-rata maximum of $15600 (about $10000 in reality) as against $40000 for the same hours on a contract, plus superannuation, holidays, and all the rest. It has been a continuing pattern. Since I left school my income has been above the poverty line for maybe three or four intermittent years. Yet I am neither feckless or lazy.
Last year, out of 500 local AMES teachers, I alone pointed to the fraudulent nature of a new curriculum practice, and effectively got sacked for my professionalism. Then Social Security refused to pay benefits, because some money in trust units had showed a capital gain (and has been losing all this year...). The money was there because on a ten week contract I couldn't possibly use it for something like a deposit on a flat. Yet the comfortably employed with their mortgages are permitted to claim benefits.
Then a month ago there was that phone call from Cyprus. Come to Sydney said the man, and I'll pay your airfare. I've been burnt too often. Caught the train. Yeah, the bastard didn't turn up, so I'm down the drain for $125 and three lost days... Meet me on Sunday morning at the office, said my thesis supervisor a couple of weekends ago. A locked building, no Nick. Oh, sorry, forgot to tell you. Come in the afternoon. Second trip, bang on the door, no response. Another twenty minute trip home. Where were you, said the phone message. A third trip ... Big things, little things.
Seventy job applications in the last year and one job interview. The fatal combination of being overqualified, underqualified, understanding formal linguistics so ipso facto being unable to teach, being able to teach but having real opinions, being male and 48, being just too difficult to think about, being Thor May. Yet the sun comes up every morning. Most days feel pretty good in the beginning, even if most things don't get done by the end. I've kept a good body with a good diet, and there is no freedom like the sheer power of running ten kilometers, breathing the sharp air before breakfast, watching the clouds scatter and the leaves along Moonee Ponds Creek change with the seasons.
FRIDAY MAY 6,1994 KICKING THE FARRIER TO DEATH
It began last night with a computer-driven telephone call. "Listen to Fox FM between 7am and 8am tomorrow",the taped voice intoned, "and you are likely to win $1000". Well, that seemed like a reversal of fortune. I went down to the 7-11 store late in the evening to buy a Green Guide. Fox FM? Never heard of it. Found the frequency listing and hunted around the dial. Blah. What god-awful music. Had to skip my run in the morning. What's your threshold of tolerance? Listened to the blah for an hour, suffering. No, they wanted Norm from Footscray. He finally rang in at three minutes to eight. "What are ya gunna do with $1000 Norm?". "Aw, dunno really. Blow it tonight in the town, yo." "Good on ya Norm". Next time I'll call myself Bert and lay on a nasal drawl.
Fox FM has redefined the republican debate. The queen called in, poor thing, to say that Anne was dead. "Gawd, what happened to her, Queenie?" "Well, we tried to put a bra on her, you know, but she went berserk. Kicked the farrier to death. Had to put her down of course." "You won't understand this", I told a class of twenty-eight fresh-faced ESL students later in the morning. Somehow the idea of a woman like a horse kicking an imaginary farrier to death didn't seem funny at all in a cross-cultural translation.
SUNDAY MAY 8,1994 MOTHERS AND FATHERS
It was Mother's Day, the newspapers said, so it seemed important to ring her up. A strange relationship this. She is a relentlessly good mother, always there, and there will be an awful hole when she goes, as she must one day. The family information exchange, the one person who cares, in her own way, if I fall off the edge of the planet. And yet she is the most potent negative influence in my life. Her legion inhibitions became my inhibitions, and can only be disturbed by the most violent effort of will.
The things which have greatest meaning for me: the sheer wonder of how things work, from clocks to universes, the passion for understanding and enquiry, do not touch her, have no hold on her mind. The idea that I might contribute to human knowledge makes no sense to her. Now I no longer even try to explain, settling for small anecdotes of daily life. She thinks I am a failure, without a family, selfish, rootless and directionless. The absence of material security, or even a respected job is an absolute confirmation of all her fears, and after all, in that she has almost everyone else for company.
Marriage and family, for my father (and for his father too), was ultimately an unrewarding experience. He clawed from job to thankless building job, earning just enough to keep a thankless family afloat. None of them, myself included, shared his tastes, and we only shared his never ending work activity under the duress of his driving dream, which in the end had no core. There was no rest, for if we had rested, the emptiness would have damned us to flee. His gift to me was a respect for nous, and the Australian working class contempt for bullshit, tin-pot gods and the promises of civic nirvana.
My mother reflected this patina palely, submerging her origins as the daughter of a country schoolmaster, yet in the sixteen years since his death has reverted to a sort of petit bourgeois primness, and dislikes to be reminded that her husband was poor, working class, desperately vulnerable, and as rough as bags.
No doubt I have been selfish in a way. Even lacking the instant lures of being kissable, loveable or bankable, a slow but steady trickle of women have shown some interest in feeding and breeding with my body. One or two I regret losing, most of all perhaps Julie with her luminous intelligence and ironic smile about the eyes. But that is nineteen years gone now. In too many of them I saw my mother, that feigned empathy of a woman pretending interest in "boy's things" yet privately, utterly unable to share the boy's agenda.
I comprehend the typical female agenda all too well. No doubt the species has to reproduce, but surely it can do without my clone. I like children, but do they have to be my own? Isn't it a contribution to human welfare at this moment in history to have fewer babies on the planet? I could even live with a couple of little clones if Mrs were marching to a tune we both believed in. I see too clearly behind the counterfeit masks of men and women, the strained empathy, and wonder how many of them in the end find it all worth while.
Perhaps, even now, there is a woman who could share life's passion as an equal. Perhaps there is someone whose karma melded with my karma would make a greater being than either of us. But to share with someone like my mother would make a lesser being than either of us. In the meantime it is enough to wake up on each brand new day as a free spirit full of hope.
TUESDAY MAY 17,1994 LINGUISTICS POSTGRADUATE CONFERENCE
So this was the big day. There are times when the flux lines of human lives come together, and are reset on a scale out of all proportion to the moment. The first intimate move with a new lover must be like that, though I know it only by report. Too often it is the counterfeit minuet of a job interview. In the world of academia it is the seminar/conference paper presentation.
The postgraduate linguistics conference at Melbourne University is now it its third year. Staff, visitors, peers sit and listen to Melbourne postgraduates try to explain their work. A few postgrads' from Monash and Latrobe also give papers. The calibre and content of papers is a bit of a gamble, reflecting the uneven nature of postgraduate enrolments from year to year. There wasn't much to set the world alight in 1994, and the derivative intellectual timidity of overseas postgraduates is a rather depressing constant. So often they get their PhDs, half-written and wholly inspired by an exasperated supervisor, go home feted and feeling clever, never guessing that their minds are still in chains. May Australia at least continue to nurture its own free spirits.
For want of competition this free spirit seems to have been the star turn of the day. Whatever they thought about its practicality or linguistic correctness, I seem to have sold the mob on my new concepts of emergent language, postsupposition and pastiche talk. There is every likelihood that these words will now enter the lexicon of linguistics and philosophy. Just how I can hunker them into a credible PhD is another matter. I dressed this stuff in the risque cachet of Chaos and Complexity Theories: I'm pretty sure myself that the relationship is intimate, but lack a respectable academic antecedent to give it gravitas.
Nick Evans, who by now has some idea of the larger pattern (or larger confusion) behind what I was able to say, was a study of diplomacy and even defence. Leslie was quick to guess that emergent language is probably characteristic of schizophrenics and some kinds of aphasia. John Hajek drew an immediate parallel between Connie Hume's incoherence and a relative suffering senile dementia. Nick picked up the drift, and was anxious that I show that pastiche talk was not just a freak domain, but a mainstream property of all speech. As presuppositions go, that was a nice one to have accepted.
The only person who showed no open sign of being engaged was Mark Durie. Mark is an immensely complex character. He has more native intelligence, and probably a greater knowledge of linguistics than anyone else at Melbourne. No linguistic argument in a seminar is too obscure for him to contribute to, reorganize, gently chastise, explain. He is the rock against whom all others strive, the challenge to which they must rise to prove their own credentials. Like all people of great ability he excites not only respect, but envy and resentment. Mark is not loved by the other staff members, I sense, and in particular the rivalry with Nick Evans is intense. Both are too intelligent to let it get out of hand, but it doesn't take much to spark a sharp comment.
Mark spoke to me spontaneously, a sudden shift from the avoidance behaviour that has defined our relationship since I audited one of his courses 18 months ago, and got up his nose with my constant skepticism. His message this time was to forget Chaos and all the rest of it, forget all these fancy ideas and treat the PhD business as an institutional exercise, to do the minuet in the prescribed manner before it was too late. Otherwise I would "sink beneath the waves". "You are perfectly capable of writing the required 200 pages", he said. "I know", I replied dryly, failing to register to proper self-doubt and modesty.
Rationally he is right of course. My head tells me as much every second day; every other day my heart tells me that a ritual doctorate a la our overseas postgraduate friends is a sorry use of a life. My empty wallet tells me that I am a bloody fool. Like anybody who knows best, Mark was not thrilled by my passive resistance. It is a pique I have known myself with students who defeat their own best interests. But with Mark there is something more, something unspoken but potent. For the one thing his spirit cannot really live with is that there are paths other than his own, that there are free spirits who will not be ruled, even wisely, and who will insist on going to hell in their own way.
Pretty well by accident I fell into the role of being co-convenor for this conference. In practice that amounted to ringing up a lot of people I had never met before, and raiding a supermarket with a wild surmise about what and how much nosh to spend their snack money on. Also had to chair a few papers. Altogether it generated a profile out of character with my past relationships at Melbourne, but not unwelcome. I finally seem to be becoming part of the furniture. Nick Evans has even asked me to "mark some semantics papers". Where that act of charity will lead is probably nowhere special, but it can't do any harm to add a University of Melbourne payslip or two to my motley collection.
FRIDAY MAY 27,1994 SNAIL'S TRAIL
My world has turned a little more this week. Like the hands of a clock perhaps. Probably more like the trail of a snail, randomly unpredictable within limits that are best known to those sisters of Fate, weaving at the foot of Ydgrasil. There are so many open lines to possible futures -- the Middle East, Hong Kong, Singapore .. So many of those polite acknowledgement letters that really say "forget it brother, surrender all hope". Then, just sometimes a forgotten tendril will suddenly come to life. That is how the Fiji contract came to life, six months after the cause was lost. Now two probes have come out of the mist.
The first was a call from Batman TAFE, where I dropped an application a year ago. The job description which came back at the time so tortured the language that I forwarded it with wry humour to a competition for the murder of plain English. Now, on Wednesday, I was offered a three month contract by a harassed woman who originally thought me "dangerous", but is now desperate for someone competent enough to pull a course together. The catch is that it is a mixture of ESL and so-called communication skills, the latter being a sentence to humour sulky Australian youths who have long ago learned to hate anything that looks like a school English lesson. So, come Monday morning I am in the business of talking about oxy welding...
The other path came in a letter this evening. After my abortive trip to Sydney for a non-existent interview last month, I thought I had heard the last from ECS, Cyprus. Now, the letter says, the U.A.E. military have approved my application subject to a telephone interview. Good grief. For 8,000 dharanis a month (A$3065) tax free, I can have the privilege or working 30 contact hours (40 hours on premises). The real killer though is that it is on a restricted military base an hours drive out in the desert: 6.30am bus pickup, 4.30 pm return. In other words, with a couple of evening hours for preparation and marking, you work an effective 12 hour day, five days a week, with the kind of mindless precision that only a military bureaucracy is capable of. No doubt they will get the zombies they deserve. My social needs aren't great; I live mostly in my head. But the only reasonable payback in a locale like the U.A.E. would be the opportunity to master Arabic and absorb the ambience of another culture. The treadmill they have in mind would leave no room for anything like that.
After work at Western Met' today a few people came to the Station Hotel to farewell Paul Conroy, who is going to Poland for twelve weeks to have a good Catholic wedding with a girl named Eve. She comes from a place called Lodz (apparently pronounced like /woodj/, or maybe /sludge/..). He had just survived some kind of star chamber examination by the local priest who had to certify his good character ("have you ever been a member of the Communist Party..?" Paul, probably in his mid thirties, is what most girls would call a nice guy with good body and a decent, unspectacular job. He had a generous patience with the same tired noises about honeymoons and all that, and will repeat questions with disarming, wide-eyed innocence where I would probably respond with with a sardonic remark.
I haven't been for a drink with the girls and boys before. Two things were kind of revealing: I wound up buying both rounds of drinks, and once the marriage cliches had been exhausted the conversation was also exhausted. Paul, whom I had barely said g'day to before, decided that I was the nearest thing to a lifetime buddy around, so in the end we mostly left the others to their endless rhubarb and had something like a real talk.
SATURDAY JUNE 4,1994 WAVERING [modified 1/10/94]
Sex is a most curious thing, friendship even more so. At an earlier age a scarcity of both caused me plenty of anguish. Pride, inexperience, paralytic shyness, made it seem impossible to follow the cultural demand to pursue women (and my particular bent certainly includes no sexual response to men). Women expect you to slay dragons, or at least clobber other chaps. They want you to lie about their spotty complexions and respect the importance of horoscopes.
The game was so aversive and the rewards so meagre that I withdrew from the contest, and slowly decided that unhappiness came from unrequited expectations. The Buddhists are right. I live a passably interesting life, mostly inside my head, with a genial though slightly remote nod to the world now and again. It is true nonetheless that I think of sex and love every day. This seems to be a built-in biological program. There is nothing obsessive or urgent about it (my training is too complete), just a sort of background noise, fairly easily quieted for another 24 hours.
Then I think of all the real women I know and thank my lucky stars that I don't have to humour them at home as well as at work. I think with dread of the barren lives of men all over the world, condemned to thankless labour, and the spouses & children who live off them, secretly contemptuous, never comprehending their dreams or their pain. I think of my father.
I have often thought of standing into the gale holding the warm, brave hand of my lover, of planning and laughing and growing above every challenge with a synergy of two melded wills. A skeptical inner voice says nonsense. It is the universal human dream, stolen from my father by his own weakness, bad luck, and a woman with no badness in her, but a negativism potent enough to extinguish his rage to live. Maybe it is time to stop reliving my father's life.
My own life has known little emotional adventure, and little has been lost. But little has come to fruition either, in any arena. Study, career, languages, wherever I embark the journey zigzags like a perpetual quest for a Golden Fleece that never claims its prize. Three years ago, staring death in the face, I had to ask "is that all there is?" It is a self-indulgent question for a man born at the luckiest time in history in the luckiest of countries. But there it stands, looking back at me with reproach. A hopeful, maybe naive response is to suppose that with the fire and ice of some very unusual woman to love, such a question would not arise. Of course it would. And of course all the logic of sensation, cognition, memory, shouts that a brief, inexplicable life is factually "all there is" for this bit of protoplasm.
Okay, I've given the progression of years a slightly eccentric spin, tried to unbalance some of the trivial certainty. But I've also hung out with the idea that even if I don't know what the hell is going on, neither do the mystics, shamans and self-appointed experts. What might spice my own protoplasmic dance would be the will to venture a bit more on tides of emotion. Not the ersatz emotion of drug stupor and numb rhythm, but the rush of blood that comes with taking a chance, seizing an opportunity.
Experience has yielded so few likely women. I have to ask what form a real temptation could take. And now I realize something with a shock. She might need to be smarter than I am, as well as physically interesting. Only a bright woman could demand that I grow, not diminish, and have the insight to tolerate my intellectual whimsy. Intelligence is a many splendoured thing, but in crude terms you would have to say that 95% of the population was out of the game. That is kind of stacking the odds against the magical encounter, isn't it. Why would a very clever, attractive woman fall for a 49 year old contrarian with glasses and crooked teeth?
BRUNSWICK : Contrarian, ever-skeptical, happily independent, fine sense of the ridiculous, would enjoy the close friendship of a free-spirited woman with the verve and intellect to challenge/be challenged. Your personal space will be respected. Biodata: 49 y.o., 163cm, 64kg, fit (run 10km daily), wear specs., Australian (Anglo-Saxon origins, but eclectic tastes). Social: an occasional social drink, non-smoker, lean diet; no religion but figure it takes all kinds of people to make the world go around; zero interest in spectator sport or TV (film OK); never married (& probably too old to raise a tribe now); non-ideological language/ideas person who can also strip down an engine; good knowledge of international affairs; computer literate; never enough hours in the day. Career: M.A.(Linguistics), Dip. Teaching, publications; 40 jobs from labourer to university lecturer in Oz, NZ & Pacific; may work later in Asia; now have secure TAFE teaching to fund a half-finished PhD. Extensive intercultural experience; learning Chinese. Valued qualities in a woman: intelligence (i.e. smarter than me and most other folk), energy, compassion, humour, high literacy, a curiosity about how people, nature & machines work, competence, grit, adaptability. Attracted to slim, nice complexion, any nationality. Please reply with a letter and photo. Smile, if you have time.
Postscript: Just going to bed after 11pm when a the phone rang. "Is that [inaudible]?" I think you have the wrong number I suggested. "Thanks very much." Heavy, dripping with sarcasm. A drunk woman, I decided. Five minutes later, another call. If this was the same woman, she had managed a remarkable scene change. The voice was gasping, sobbing. "Talk to me", she begged. "My husband bashes me, I've been raped. My two daughters are in the house. I've got to talk to someone.." Name of Suzie, calling from a telephone booth in St Kilda.
Good grief. I tried to sound reassuring but slightly remote, grabbed for the phone book and gave her the number of a women's refuge. Why me? My number, she explained, was written on the wall of the phone booth. Who will call next? God? What spirit has been looking over my shoulder as I sat writing this diary tonight? This avatar's sardonic style seems ominously familiar. And what pixie is writing my number in St Kilda phone booths? Ming Chen lives thereabouts, but its not his style. Katerina Kouzmina is a somewhat mysterious woman, but surely she is out of my orbit by now, and it wasn't her voice (no accent). Perhaps some leftover scrawl from an 1993 Meyer House ESL student who wanted to ring in sick? Or was the whole vignette a warped pickup routine by a St Kilda prostitute?
SATURDAY JUNE 11,1994 WORKING DAYS
Monday is a public holiday, my first paid vacation in four years. So how does it feel to be a salaried person again, at least for three months? Ambivalent. So nice to receive a proper pay cheque. So damned wasteful to be locked into an eight hour on-site routine. There has been not a second to think about my research, or dream about other futures. Instead I've had to think endlessly, and rather futilely about how to keep classes of rebellious young Australian males in one room for fours hours at a time doing so-called communication studies.
They know and I know that this is not what they are good at. They also mostly believe that they are not good at anything, except possibly snatching pussy. They are mostly right, and no brief few weeks back in school is going to change that. By way of revenge they consider dudes like me to be a pestilence between them and having a good time. What seems to be required is some kind of conspiracy of rehearsed schoolroom tasks that preserve an illusion of "self-esteem". They seem to expect a script that I have yet to find. The bigger script is an exercise to keep a bunch of grown up slum kids off the streets and out of jail.
Somewhere there should be a warm inner political glow, but the more acute of these guys can smell betrayal in the wind. So can I. As one snarled, "it's all a game." Frankly I'd rather be teaching English as a second language. There people figure I'm a key to something valuable, which is good for my self-esteem. About half the present classes are ESL, but that future at Batman looks bleak. The college is just not competing successfully for DEET's ESL contracts.
MONDAY JUNE 13,1994 SELF-INDULGENT IDEAS
A very few people know what they are living, working and creating for. These are people with a controlling ambition, an ideology or talent which absorbs them. They are the powerhouses of human advancement and destruction. The vast majority of people have no such defining passion. As a matter of convenience, they adopt a career because the culture demands it (men more so than women). They will perform their daily work, start no revolutions, and expect some sort of promotion over time in the prescribed manner. Women, on average, are attracted almost automatically to men who seem to "know what they want", which generally means men who express culturally appropriate ambitions (for the ultimate purpose of nurturing a family) rather than the true what-for person, driven by a fire in his belly.
This majority however know quite clearly who they are living, working and creating for. In the first instance it is self, but also a bonded circle of gender-partner, children, relatives and friends. The lemming rush of teenagers, this way and that with peer groups, is a transition to bonding in such a manner. Once set, the person is embedded in a life role which will see him or her to the grave, and once the species is reproduced, the passing will carry some sense of fulfillment.
I have always had the outward identity of a what-for person, without being able to put my finger on the golden chalice itself. It has been as if that thing which I was destined to master, to succeed at beyond all others, remained hidden by a veil. The presence has been almost tangible, but forever out of reach. So life has been an endless quest up shallow estuaries of interest whose outlines are barely remembered. The talents which seemed so potent, so promising, dissipate in a hundred directions.
Fearing my own indirection, I have clung to causes like linguistics and writing a PhD, which provide the husk of a career outline. Clung far beyond reason, and returned to them with the cunning of the homeless. With willpower and desperation, from time to time I wrest an article from imagination and reluctantly scanned literature. But in my heart of hearts I have known that my own special excellence lay in some other, veiled direction. If only it were plain I could step down that path with power and decision. Ah, the allotted span is so short. A half century has almost fled.
Just sometimes I say to myself that the true quest would reveal itself if only I also knew whom I was living, working and creating for. At such moments I try to forget the yawning chasm childhood fell into, between a who-for person mother and a what-for person father. No wonder religions were invented; how barren the soul of a skeptic. But ethereal prayers will not be my potage. Subconsciously I maneuver from job to job, hoping somewhere, sometime to strike that magical partner or mentor who can give it all meaning and direction. Artfully I flirt with countries and cultures hoping to hit upon a spiritual home. But this is a timeless cycle of self-delusion, visited on hapless beings from Caliban to the Hunchback of Notre Dame, to the self-indulgent day-trippers who visit meditation centres.
Most people sensibly settle for something less than an ideal friendship in an ideal world. They get on with the business of living, and express rebellion by smoking or dying their hair orange. My flaw, my power, is a refusal as an anointed ordinary-person to have an ordinary mind, and perhaps my terror of being made ordinary by an ordinary woman. Must that condemn me to tragedy or farce?
SATURDAY JUNE 25,1994 SETTLING DOWN
A call from Ming Chen "because he hasn't talked to me for a long time". Still studying, now "small business", and has started a business with a friend importing buttons from Hong Kong. Apparently buttons are high fashion items, and the Hong Kong distributor collects them from all over the world. Ming is about to open his first business office in Prahan, a room on a first floor in Chappel St, and seems to have signed up an exclusive distribution agreement with a large Melbourne outfit in the rag trade; (maybe I should introduce Katerina to Ming ..).
Now who would ever dream of becoming a button seller when they grew up, but I guess it is in such niche markets that livings are made. Out of sheer doggedness, Ming is in danger of becoming a long-term friend. It's all most curious from someone about whom I never had the feeling that he actually liked me. A cultural oddity, or maybe an object lesson from which I have something to learn.
Here I am earning passably good money in a place which I would never have suspected of being likeable either. Half of it is harmless enough: ESL largely to little old Italian ladies displaced from the cauterized textile, clothing and footwear factories of decaying inner Melbourne industry. They have been bought off with the political sop of these classes, as a pretence for retraining, though we all know that they will never work again. Intellectual tyros they might not be, but at least they have the grace of age and the contentment to enjoy small mercies.
The second half of my Batman TAFE encounter is with the flotsam of Australian youth, who are also going through a ritual of lets-pretend training before moving on to drug dependency, car stealing or the other pastimes of disaffected losers. These are walking wounded, largely unblessed by initiative, grit or even a serious understanding that ultimately nobody owes them a living. They are capable of learning only under the imposed discipline of a jail-like routine, which must be utterly predictable and supported by an enforced scale of punishments.
Taken individually, each of them might be nursed like an unlucky young animal. En masse they are caste-offs in a post industrial society, in danger of turning feral and invading the comfort zones of the pampered middle class, but now corralled briefly in my classroom. Frankly, they are hard to love and it is difficult to have a sense of teaching anything useful to people who (with some reason) see you more or less as a lackey of the enemy. The pleasure or dismay that a teacher lives by stems directly from the persona your students cast you into. Teaching these Australians is a kind of test for the moment, something that I can prove to myself that I can handle, but as a long term proposition there is little joy in it.
On the upside, I am gradually organizing a work environment. This weekend, for the first time in a month, I have felt enough control over what is happening in the next few lessons not to bring work home. Suddenly a week's paid holiday has become available to attend the Australian Institute of Linguistics, and a fax has arrived from Hawaii to confirm that the M.A. is at last being finalised. I've been on the roller coaster too long to have any faith in the durability of this interlude, but it is probably a good time to start living in the present.
MONDAY JUNE 27,1994 CLACKETY-CLACK
The day was fine, clear blue, cold; this evening sharp bright stars gave the black between an edge, like an astringent taste to savour before sugar, the pain of experience that we know must end, and the comfort of memory in a warm room afterwards. Monday, a winter evening, not too crowded, I strode up Collins Street a little late for the cinema, glancing at the electric islands of boutique windows, fish traps set to catch rich men's wives, and pretended to be anyone I wanted to be. It was easy to pretend tonight. The machine purred on all cylinders. I had run at 6am, before first light stained the rooftops; the teaching was good, responsive, not too demanding.
At midday in the staffroom they gave Diane a cream cake for her fortieth birthday; the receptionist, in a dark green sloppy joe and black tights with her hair drawn back into a bun. Slim, puffing nervously on a cigarette, prevented by some tangible veil of class sense from talking as an equal. I had thought her a stressed out twenty-eight. In the staffroom I sat around the corner from the common table, munching between bites of a business magazine, sensing first wisps of disapproval.
But premonition had to take a holiday. It was a day for feeling good. A small revision of some dissertation for the first time in weeks. A fax for a prospectus on the Little Toot film fund. A call to Melbourne University for part-time training/work in language assessing. An advertisement, just noticed, for an ESL lecturer at Melbourne U. Altogether a rich brew for fantasy. So I win 1000% dividend on a tugboat cartoon, and land a job lecturing again... and pigs can fly.
The pillar of warm air in the towering atrium of Collins Place seems suddenly intimate. I slip off my leather gloves, zip back my topcoat, and catch a rhythm from the muzak. Ho! Bend that knee; one back, one to the side and round about. Ladies and gentlemen take your partners. Clackety clack, I tap-dance on the Italian marble floor, just for the echoes. For a moment only it seems as if there could, somewhere out there, be a woman to share all this. It is a corrosive thought. Made real, I wouldn't know what to do with her. But a small voice, deep inside, speaks of happiness for more than a day at a time. How greedy can you get.
SATURDAY AUGUST 13,1994 A SMALL KISS, AN ODD DREAM
Dreams are tufts of cloud in the blue-black yonder. One second you almost have them, the next you have tumbled a thousand metres through space into another wooly concoction. Is the truth so insubstantial? She was small and grubby and freckled. If all little girls are meant to be cute, she was the one god forgot. She stood in my way with fierce determination, pulled me down, and said in a tiny voice "I love you." Then she kissed me lightly on the lips.
We seemed to be in the hallway of some kind of apartment building. There was a sense that her mother had drifted in with another lackadaisical one-night-stand, and that for no particular reason I was the only person around who looked like a reasonable human being. No I don't know what it all means. Only that a very few dreams have a long aftertaste.
There was a childhood dream, still vivid, of standing exposed in a field as huge gunships from an evil planet hovered overhead, and later being transmutated to a distant star of perpetual warfare where on the battlements at night I kept asking plaintively "how the hell did I wind up here?". There was the very odd dream of swallowing a large green frog who was somehow the linguist, Ray Cattell, and a kind of incarnation of indigestible reams of generative grammar which stood between me and professional `freedom'. And there was the ruffled grey bird sitting a sewerage outlet pipe of a windy isolated beach, and which also touched me on the lips with its beak ... just after I had applied for a position at the University of South Africa. Somewhere there was also a dream of an cool, unruffled woman, in grey too, who came at a critical moment, with an amazing bond of power and love between us. It was immediately clear that a piece of Fate's great plan had finally fallen into its proper place.
In an odd way, I'm doing all right at Batman College at the moment. The money is good, $41,000, plus $4000 from Collingwood night work. The natives have more or less accepted me against all my natural antisocial tendencies. One senses that it is a fleeting interlude, which spites the instincts of a querulous Lady Luck, who never tires of putting trip wires across the path. The contract is for three months at a time, which means forever walking on eggshells.
Listening to grown men giving class talks on "car detailing" -- how to wash a car -- does leaves me wondering about the games our civilization plays. Just to keep complacency at bay, my Greenwich U. Masters degree finally materialized after eight months of clerical to-ing and fro-ing, with a transcript containing so many errors that it is unusable; (let's hope it doesn't take another eight months to sort that out).
Suddenly, there is a plethora of possible job openings. A permanent tutorship in linguistics at the University of Auckland. The salary would represent a loss of $10,000, offset by the reality that the university working year is only about seven months. HCE in Abu Dhabi has asked if I'm interested in registering for an August 1995 appointment; there are even jobs in Kuwait. Victoria University has a couple of ESL lecturing positions in Spencer St, Melbourne. Finally, an Internet notice from Miyazaki, Kyushu, Japan is offering two year appointments in a small liberal arts college.
How much fidelity should one feel on a three month appointment? Was that small freckled girl the orphan child of Coburg? I have a weakness and a need. The weakness is a stubborn certainty that there is something that I can be good at, better than anyone else anywhere. Such vanity. It can't be coaxing profane, crushed young men towards literacy in an automotive college. Others can do that with more tenderness. It can't be inventing clever rules for phonological variation. Others of greater intelligence and more trivial judgement will always surpass me in the mechanics of linguistic analysis.
Once, briefly, I thought it might be on the wings of prose. Then I saw libraries and bookshops awash with literature, and realized that what had been the the most sublime achievement of human culture half a millennium ago was now, at best, grist for a half hour television special. Besides, my acquaintance with the human spirit has been too shallow to float a good story.
So I wash in and out with the tide, scarcely touching this vocation or that, learning one language or one skill for a week, and then another. Always searching, as life ebbs away. I thumb through the yellow pages, asking myself whether I could be a travel agent or a civil engineer or a computer programmer. That tale is a common one, written on so many faces one passes in the street.
The need is for a confidant, a peer or someone wiser. Man or woman, it doesn't matter. From the very beginnings of childhood there has never been another mind to whom I could seriously turn for a second opinion, let alone a mentor. Often enough I offer advice. That is a teacher's part. Yet no person has mastered my story, and few with the wit to grasp its whole have the compassion to explore its resolution. Sometimes ordinary kind, people make an ordinary, kind comment. But where it counts, any confidence ventured has too often been betrayed. The hand proffered is so often searching for advantage or power. Occasionally women have tried to reinvent me in terms of their own fantasy, sad funny little roles that I've had to kill off before they got out of hand. Blessed are those with the knack of friendship, and the luck to keep it.
SUNDAY AUGUST 28,1994 ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF A CITIZEN
One day in the life of a citizen. What could this possibly be about? Forget the world out there, that population of ghosts, known by the rumour of our senses. More likely a body, or a mind, or a life and death struggle between a body and a mind. Where does our true self lie?
I once knew a tradesman's wife who quietly boasted about her husband's contempt for social pretensions. To her children she would repeat his stories about the stupid rich. And on his death she burnt his clothes at once to spare brooding. Then, almost imperceptibly, she converted to a petit bourgeois obsession with appearances amongst her prosperous neighbours. It was a triumph of social need over sexual loss, evidently unconscious, yet she would live and die for these new social values as if they were an ancient covenant from childhood. Should we call her hypocrite to her husband's trust, or traitor to his memory? Where were her real values hidden all those years, or were they simply unmoulded?
Here is a common man's analogue of the wife who burns a scientist's life-research upon his death. What heir to this tale would finally trust the understanding of his own partner? Yet who can trust his own struggle with body and mind, wondering if he resides in either or both? Is he the iconoclast of imagination, skeptical, bold, kind and intelligent? Is he a nondescript middle-aged man of no special distinction, one of those pallid faces in the street who survive on the edge of anonymity and find virtue in the small daily acts of cowardice that pass for work?
Why should the world care anyway? I cared of course. At least enough to avoid any career that branded me a salaryman, at least enough to play around the edges of intellect for half a lifetime, ... yet never enough to gather the baggage of commitment, or to savour the culmination of success. Never enough to assume the arrogance of a sure goal, and so never enough to attract friends or partners who could invest their trust with hope of a fair return. At forty-nine I stand naked of friends or family, bereft of recognized achievement, with little property or cash, and perilously employed.
In the early morning light a thin mist lifts from the bicycle track along Moonee Valley Creek. A silhouette of wings above the bridge, bird chatter from a hedge, around the bend a breeze that still has the sharp edge of winter. Already, long before the sun rises, I have worked my upper body for forty-minutes with push-ups, sit-ups, weights, arm-swings, insouciant of the usual radio news catastrophes. Free at last, I run easily on the balls of my feet, in a slow lope that eats up the kilometers. Years ago the physical challenge was humbling; now each morning it is a joy and a triumph. At forty-nine my body is strong and tensile. I treat it with respect, feed it on a lean diet, exercise its organs, celebrate its power. The body, revelling in its maturity, keeps my mind balanced, humorous, alert. Such fine health is a gift worth more than kingdoms.
Later in the day there is a submerged restlessness, a twinge of erotic memory, a hint of discontent. And there is much else to do. I make the usual pragmatic decision to eliminate distraction. Ten minutes in the bathroom, a well-rehearsed daydream of available women, an ejaculation, zip up, romance solved for another twenty-four hours. So this is all there is to life?, you say. Sad to dwell upon, so sad. Where is love, tender and bright? What of companionship in adversity? Yet in the cold light of day, I look at all the women I know, have known, married and still hopeful, and figure the chances of contentment to be miniscule. Maybe ten minutes in twenty-four hours is the best bargain going.
SUNDAY SEPTMBER 4,1994 COMMUNITIES OF INTELLIGENCE
George Horn used to say with disgust, "Just look at the people in the street here. They're stunted, twisted, like goblins." He was talking about Newcastle, and more of minds than bodies. It was cruel; it came from a man with his own special handicaps of the spirit; but there was a sort of terrible truth about it. His words came back to me this Saturday morning on the crowded pavements in Coburg.
I shouted myself a coffee scroll, and looked into the eyes of passers-bye. Looked in vain for that glint of intelligence which a searching glance betrays, the humour, malevolence or naked awareness, or sometimes the fathomless preoccupation of an active mind. In the moving mass of bodies, among the individuals buying this or that in shops, in the snatches of conversation, I could detect only a kind of surface glaze on the human potential. It was as if the whole area had been lightly infused with a narcotic gas, so that minds functioned mechanically, and serendipity were forever just beyond reach.
Most of these people love their children, are loyal to their friends, and not above kindness to strangers. I can serve them as a teacher, but I can never be one of them. Whatever ability that I have will ultimately be a barrier for them to recognize and enforce as an instrument of separation.
This evening for the first time on a Saturday I went to the South Street Cinema. Goblins again, a theatre full of them, girls with vacant stares under the mascara, and young toughs with stylized swaggers. Their fathers had that beaten stoop which comes from years of dull work and the betrayal of dreams. The cinema owner, who runs this place to make a quid on weekends, accidentally caught my glance, recoiled as if a stun gun had hit him, then smiled conspiratorially."Enjoy the show", he said.
The show was called "Speed", an emotional confectionary of non-stop bombs, guns, car chases, indestructible cardboard-cutout characters.. in short the ultimate Hollywood exploitation movie. This celluloid junk culture services the same kind of ritual needs that oral epics like the Iliad or the Ramayana once met; everyone knows the rules. The brave goodie won and got the girl; the baddie had his head knocked off. The goblins clapped and bought more popcorn.
SUNDAY NOVEMBER 13,1994 LUCK
This is being written two weeks after the event. Having given up attempting to do a PhD for the time being (?), I'm supposed to have lots of free time, but some version of Parkinson's Law seems to come relentlessly into play. How do people become Masters of the Universe, mass murderers and prime ministers, yet still manage to keep detailed diaries to write their memoirs from? Most of it must be pure invention.
Something special is definitely about to happen to make up for the long weekend at the very end of October. The idea, June Smith's idea, was that with the Melbourne Cup on a Tuesday and no work on a Friday, I should get five clear days by taking one day of annual holidays. My mistake was to figure that this was an excuse to have a look at Adelaide, where I've never really been except for a brief bus stopover years ago.
As usual it took the best part of a day to chuck the necessary things in the car, so that even the motorway rat race down to Geelong exhausted the light: I checked into a definitely basic dive, the Golf Course Motel/Hotel on the outskirts of town. A fat lady in the office relieved me of $30 and immediately locked up for the day. In the pale green box that was temporary home I dragged a huge, ancient TV set off the only place that looked like a writing desk, and sat down to figure out life two hours into the future.
An early flaw in that future was a recollection of things that somehow hadn't got chucked into the car, like a sleeping bag, thermos flask, smoothing iron, a towel.. In town a consumptive young man in a manchester department offered lubricious advice to the lady buying a $50 towel set. I rated a curt $3.50, mate. Must have been a good night for bargains because the slash & rob upmarket pawn shop had a steam iron for $8 too. Obviously a mistake amongst the obsolete computers and secondhand football boots, all at near-new prices. The blonde with plaster cast curls obviously thought so too, and her sniff became positively dismissive when I said something about a cheap substitute for a holiday trip. Obviously, I was an unemployed bum trying for pathetic respectability.
Next morning, Saturday, made a leisurely departure, with a pit stop at a supermarket to pick up the papers and some apricot sweets. Were the sweets the uppers and downers that did it? Far into the Victorian south-west, where the rolling fields batted like a monotonous pastoral film past my windscreen, I picked up the antiquated neighing of an old British comedy on the radio. That's all I could pick up, a remote, incongruous intrusion. Somewhere between the white cliffs of Dover and the ragged snake of Victorian highway, my consciousness drifted for a moment.
Another moment later I was looking at the white tooth of a guide post on the other side of the road. Shit! I wheeled off, my driver's side mirror vanishing with a sharp crack of sound. The vehicle swerved, losing traction, heading for the opposite verge. Somehow I remembered to back off the brake, eased the wheel around, swung back into control and bought the roadshow to a halt. Thank god a semi-trailer or a little old lady hadn't been coming in the other direction. Outside in the afternoon sunshine it all looked remarkably trivial. The mirror was gone, a bit of paint grazed off the door, but that was it.
With a sigh I got back into the vehicle, closed the door, and all hell broke loose. That is, the driver's door window, which had looked pristine, suddenly exploded into my lap. Finding a window for an old Mitsubishi Colt in rural Victoria seemed about as likely as finding an Osaka love hotel. Adelaide began to seem a very long way away. I crept into Port Fairy, hunted around for some tape and a plastic rubbish bag to stick up the window overnight. Port Fairy was definitely not made for emergency running repairs. Eventually, amongst the somnolent general stores I found a supermarket open, and breathlessly told the checkout girl about my near-death experience. She looked at me with a leaden eye. "You didn't get killed or anything?" she asked without asking.
Port Fairy looked a little too contrived, like a deserted movie set. The occasional denizen gazed through me with eyes that said "mug tourist". Maybe I was expecting to be congratulated on staying alive. Maybe the place itself was a fey spot where the wizard and witch, having missed a body for the pot, wanted to spit me out. I decided to go on to Portland, whose name sounded industrial like cement.
Portland tilts into its little harbour, which is built up for the no-nonsense business of loading freighters with alumina, cement and cattle. A line of old shops runs along the waterfront, and the main street backs up a hill behind the port. I liked it immediately, and wondered how I could lure Japanese language students into two empty shops on the boulevard, figuring to convert them into a private academy. Grey stone, turn-of-the-century Mac's hotel on the waterfront had some turn-of-the-century primitive rooms for $20. What's atmosphere without a hand basin, let alone a power point? I settled for $40 a night in the Siesta Motel up the hill.
A pasty young man at the desk showed macabre interest in my near death experience. Well, here at least was recognition. By the time I came to unload the car another man with handlebar moustaches paused to stare, sagging with the weight of a TV set in his arms. "What time did it happen?" he demanded. The gossip machine was at work around town already. On the boring drive home I was taking no chances of another mind trip. Invested in a cup of instant coffee, knowing the price. I never drink the stuff, so this kind of rare shot has a pretty potent effect. As I knew would happen, a day later there were small blisters on my instep. This chemical equation is one of life's minor mysteries and a social nuisance, but there is no way to beat it.
Whoever arranges luck wasn't done yet. There were still a couple of days to waste of an aborted holiday. First, find a window glass. Somebody in Keilor reckoned they had it, for $40. So it seemed, until I got it home, cleaned it, dismantled the door ... and found it didn't fit. No, they didn't have another one. I set out for Moorabin in the late afternoon traffic.
Down on Punt Road where shoals of tin chariots race for life in the suburbs, just before the motorway turn-off, my little tin chariot suddenly had no traction. The engine raced, the wheels crawled. *#@$#%. No fucking clutch. That's all we needed. Erratically I eased it across the lanes, turned the Colt for home and made the shuddering crawl back to the stable with a tail of irate traffic.
Next day the rain came in cool, icy gusts. My Sri Lankan neighbour, Lionel, looked at the engine sadly. "Not to worry, I get my friend. You give him a few dollars. What you think?" offered Lionel. I preferred not to think, but thinking about $400 in a garage was more painful. I began to dismantle the front end. Lionel's friend, Ranjit looks like a scarecrow on a diet. Like most Sri Lankan mechanics, his life experience has been on a bus fleet, but he valiantly kept undoing bolts to see what would happen. After a while, with the drive axle off and the bell housing hanging at a crazy angle, miraculously he eased out the clutch plate.
We hunted for a replacement clutch, and found a Chinese man in a Vietnamese parts shop who hadn't heard of the Melbourne Cup holiday. He produced a clutch kit for $85, and looked pained when I asked for a receipt. Ranjeet shook like a leaf in the cold, steady drizzle, and I dangled a useless umbrella over the engine bay. Late in the afternoon it was all done.
Lady Luck had frittered away the last precious hours. Inside, I turned on the computer and escaped into cyber space. There was a mighty bang on the window. Nothing in sight. Inquisitively, I looked out into the bleak, fading light. A large grey bird clung drunkenly to the paling fence. It had a little red comb under its chin, and a heavy, ferociously powerful beak. The bird glared at me with pure hate. I shrugged and went back to the screen. There was another mighty bang on the window, and the angry bird wheeled off. Talk about omens.
The monotheists definitely screwed up. Even the Christians had to invent a devil. In another time and age my neighbourhood shaman would have had no trouble in singing a drama over my soul, a contest between good and evil spirits culminating when the bird-avatar was finally banished. Such projection has a satisfying logic to it. As an old skeptic, ignorant of nether worlds, I have to settle for a glass of ginger wine, and say tart farewell to a lousy weekend.
FRIDAY NOVEMBER 18,1994 LOST LUGGAGE
They don't rest easy in this re-education classroom for a new culture, this moment that threatens to become a forever. Hovering in their memory is a fateful throw of the dice. One day in another world, in a different language, where the smells and the smiles and the fear had a different meaning they made a wild choice. What would it be for me to decide one evening hour to henceforth become a Russian, or an Ethiopian or a Taiwanese? My mind ravages with the vertigo of that precipice. Was their imagination equal to the horror, or did they assume that Melbourne was just another shish kebab around the corner?
The terms of the new contract in their lives is now writ large. There is no escape. It comes with a large sign that says UNEMPLOYED. But that is almost the easy bit. It comes in a strange tongue, irrational and fey, whose words are no sooner learned than they slip between the cracks of old dreams and drop just out of reach. Nobody had thought to mention the mind games of language back in the bombed out apartments of Beirut, where Melbourne sounded like a garden by heaven's gate.
In our English for Mechanics class we have been writing resumes to titillate the dull brains of personnel clerks, or "human resources consultants" as the advertising blurbs have remade them. Earlier in the week, on a visit to an engine parts manufacturer, the human resources consultant had been a remanufactured CES officer, lean and grey and shallow, who demonstrated Equal Opportunity by eating in the worker's canteen without a tie. He showed us OHPs of shock-horror job applications where the hapless applicant had filled up the covering letter with writing. The paper must be at least 60% artistically blank before a busy personnel person would read the rest, he assured us. Later, back in class we studied an authentic fax from the heartland CES office itself. It was filled with writing, and abbreviations of obscure origin, but the drift seemed to be that the Toyota Company had fifty production line jobs.
Vladimir asked urgent permission to leave the class and ring through an application. Vladimir is not too tall or too short, or too clever or too absolutely stupid. He is a quintessentially average Belorussian person in the process of changing from a boyhood to middle age. Somehow the Russian army never managed to give him the iconoclastic hard edge of adulthood, and his questions always have a guiless bewilderment, like a child freshly awoken from sleep.
Several minutes later he returned to the room, close to tears. The yob at the other end had laughed at him, he said, and hung up the phone. After class Vladimir and I revisited the telephone. I rang the number he had scratched on a piece of newspaper, and got a hard nasal response. "Flinders Street Railway Lost Property Office", said the voice. Well; I suppressed my mirth. The guys in the class would never leave Vladimir alone if they heard about this. The CES when I reached it, passed me around the PABX for a while, until tiring of this game someone volunteered to listen to my enquiry. "Ha ha", said the voice, "you have been misinformed. There is no vacancy at Toyota". "What is your name?" I asked. "Kim", said the voice. "Kim what?" I grated with superheated formality. A pause. "Kim Leonard", it came back at last, slightly deflated. "Mr Leonard, I am going to read you a fax from your office ...". Mr Leonard recovered his memory and his manners. We retrieved the necessary information.
I shudder with pity for Vladimir and the lost legions of wandering emigrants. From country to country and rejection to rejection they are battered by the insouciant ignorance of Kim Leonard and his ilk. Even as the paper shufflers guard their comfort zones with muzak and lies, hapless millions become desperate and finally some of them become rat cunning. "They are breaking the rules", bleat the human relations persons, junking another stack of pathetic job applications in time for the morning coffee break.
TUESDAY NOVEMBER 22,1994 DON'T WALK AWAY
He was leaning awkwardly against a wall by the Otter St steps of Collingwood TAFE. "Can you please help me," he asked in level tones. I had already half turned away. Begging is a desperate resort to indignity, but I'm as much a moral coward as the next man. You can't solve the world's problems, and if the problem is financing some guy's next shot of acid, well the incentive is not all that wonderful.
I looked again at the fellow. He didn't seem like an acid freak. He was middle aged, wearing a dark blue suit that appeared to be rather expensive (though I'm no judge of clothing). At his feet was a distinctly unflash canvas bag with a long padded jacket draped over it. He diction was excessively careful, in the manner of someone three parts drunk, but the basilect was educated. A pair of wrap around sunglasses lay on top of the wall. It was all very incongruous, almost staged. Yet I made a split second decision to give him a hand. If he was pissed and needed a lift home, it would be a small cost to me and a boon to him. If it was some kind of racket I could walk away easily enough.
"Please don't walk away", he kept saying as I approached. "People keep walking away from me." The crux of the problem quickly emerged. He lived a couple of blocks away. He had a crippled leg and couldn't make it without help. I sat him down on some steps and told him to wait while I fetched my car. "I'm going to see you again, aren't I?" he asked with elliptical doubt. "Just wait here," I said. "You realize that there is rather more to this than taking me a few hundred metres.." I decided to let that one ride and fetch the car. It all sounded too much like the start of a murder mystery. He seemed almost surprised when I did come back. "I'm so grateful," he kept saying with a maudlin care that smelled heavily of alcohol. He gave me an Irish name which I immediately forgot, as I do with names, and then he took great care to memorize my label. After several requests and against my better judgement I passed over my card, so heaven knows what the end of this story will be.
Emerald St, down the hill and around the corner, turned out to be one of those reinvented corners of the inner city, a place for gentlemen and yuppies to feel safe in a close of designer town houses. Altogether a suitable place for an expensive blue suit to feel wanted. My guest maneuvered his gammy leg out of the little car, and waited on the pavement to wave goodbye.
Postscript, several weeks later: The gentleman with the gammy leg, stone sober in a smart blue suit, stumped by me in the business precinct of Collins St, Melbourne. There was not a flicker of recognition.
SATURDAY JANUARY 7,1995 COUNTRY LIFE
This Christmas business leaves a long time between voices. An old muscle tear in my back, awoken by a masseur, went into spasm, put me in the emergency ward of Hobart hospital a couple of weeks ago, and finally forced me to abandon plans to drive to Sydney. So no contact with a part-time family either. The three day Launceston-Hobart airfare package was supposed to put me in touch with an unknown part of Australia, like the aborted Adelaide trip in July. Instead I was confined to a few brief street forays from a cheap hotel room So much for holidays.
The ersatz human warmth of walking through crowds, the pseudo intimacy of caring for students ... is usually enough, a spare nourishment in the desert of years, but sufficient for a wind-blown tussock like me. My hands, my eyes are never bored, except in the mindless routines of other people's invented work. Yet there are times when an unsuspected dweller within struggles to be out. Like a virus that breaks through the skin when antibodies are suppressed, this romantic affliction escapes in a muscle tremor, or a wandering dream of requited love. Yesterday I found my eyes suddenly brimming over small things in a film called No Worries. Found myself leafing through a personal contact magazine, composing mock replies to sad women. Ridiculous.
So woke on this Saturday morning, felt a little blue. Though Batman has now given me a two year contract (rare in a TAFE nowadays), I still check the job ads' out of habit. Latrobe at Bendigo are advertising a 0.6 tenured position at Lecturer B level to massage the ESL needs of international students. Half tempted, especially with tenure. Not having been to Bendigo since about 1955, it seemed a good thing to do with a Saturday morning. It's a two hour drive, out past the new satellite towns of the city and across the flat brown-green horizons of inland Victoria. My back complained with the odd twinge, but stayed intact. Low, cool cloud to the Macedon Ranges, then suddenly a blue sky. The first thing you notice are the gum trees, which seem almost like a foreign species in inner Melbourne.
Bendigo was uncrowded in the afternoon, bathed in warm summer light, maybe 20*C, with a few people eating ice creams al fresco in newly fashionable street life. In frigid continental winters that might not be so appealing, but on holiday weekends the tourist facade takes over from rural business. The town is a mixture of slightly self-conscious Victorian period architecture and modern stores. All the names you see in the urban shopping malls of the capital seemed to have their counterpart. With good friends here, life could be more than tolerable; (it's a heavy proviso though). Houses can be had quite cheaply, if you are not too fussy, and there are a handful of restaurants. Only one or two cinemas.
The university, not signposted, took a bit of finding. It is set into the side of a hill, nestled amid the gum trees and native bush landscaping which is de rigueur on Oz campuses outside the capitals. The buildings of dark red-brown brick and concrete are compact, several stories, and blend nicely with the surroundings. It is not a large campus. It would be important, one suspects, to respect the sensitivities of the local academic culture, because there would be no hiding place.
A couple of early, bewildered Malaysian students wandering about, wondering where civilization was. A man in his fifties with one of those noisy obnoxious blowers that pretend to do what brooms and elbow grease once did with grace. "It's all locked up", he remarked, wondering if he should be a security officer too. "Yeah", I said, "just nosing around", and walked off.
Don't know whether to apply or not. Can I live on $25000 a year? Yes, easily, as a single party. The point 0.6 would be nice, if it means just that, but 0.6 of what? Can I do all those social, liaison sorts of things with the local squires that will make the lives of o/s students livable? Can I be a motherly shoulder for homesick 19 year old girls to cry on? The job title says ESL, but does that really mean rewriting student's bad essays for them? Can I devolve my own nebulous social needs in a place like this? We never know the answers to such questions in advance.
Nearing home, driving on empty, I wound off the motorway at the first of the new outer Melbourne housing estates. Suburban project homes, endless streets ending in nothing, like a medieval maze, not a shop or garage in sight. I hated it. Drove for miles until I finally found another traffic raceway, and a big petrol station on a roundabout. Filled up. A scrawny old fellow in a wheel chair was just inside the glass doors, for the place had some shelves of overpriced groceries. "Take me down the steps," he demanded. Managed that. "Take me home," was the next preemptory order. What? "Only a short way", he said. I pushed him to a house with white concrete swans in the front yard, and some metal gutters to guide the wheelchair up onto the porch."That's it" he said, wishing me away. Didn't look at me once. An Italian woman's voice came from somewhere out the back. The peroxide young thing in the petrol station looked disgusted. "Pathetic," she said; "his family dumps him here and don't come back."
SUNDAY JANUARY 8,1995 LETTER TO AN IMAGINARY LADY
Dear L, Hi. Pleased to meet you. Although you have no name, a little of your voice came through the advertisement, caught my ear. It seemed to have some clarity and character. A few months ago I wrote, but never posted, my own advertisement. Maybe that is the fairest kind of introduction, so here goes:
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA : Contrarian, ever-skeptical, happily independent, fine sense of the ridiculous, would enjoy the close friendship of a free-spirited woman with the verve and intellect to challenge/be challenged. Your personal space will be respected. Biodata: 49 y.o., 163cm, 64kg, fit (run 10km daily), wear specs., Australian (Anglo-Saxon origins, but eclectic tastes). Social: an occasional social drink, non-smoker, lean diet; no religion but figure it takes all kinds of people to make the world go around; zero interest in spectator sport or TV (film OK); never married (& probably too old to raise a tribe now); non-ideological language/ideas person who can also strip down an engine; good knowledge of international affairs; computer literate; never enough hours in the day. Career: M.A.(Linguistics), Dip. Teaching, publications; 40 jobs from labourer to university lecturer in Oz, NZ & Pacific; may work later in Asia; now have secure TAFE teaching to fund a half-finished PhD. Extensive intercultural experience; learning Chinese. Valued qualities in a woman: intelligence (i.e. smarter than me and most other folk), energy, compassion, humour, high literacy, a curiosity about how people, nature & machines work, competence, grit, adaptability. Attracted to slim, nice complexion, any nationality. Please reply with a letter and photo. Smile, if you have time.
Well, what a way to say hello! Self-description is an odd and risky business. Why do we play this game? Reading a magazine like Lavinia, you can see that some people want another passport, to anywhere but home. Some talk of romance, as if a boy or girl 10,000km away must be more wonderful than the boy or girl next door. Surely they are kidding themselves. Some are probably afraid of real people - letters don't look you in the eye. Some are seeking to replace a lost partner in a quick, matter-of-fact way. These are practical, uncomplicated folk, easily satisfied. A few get along with the daily world fine, but see themselves as a bit unusual, know from experience that someone who can genuinely share their outlook is rather hard to find. I suppose I am in that last group. Where do you fit? The trick is getting the body chemistry and the computer programs in our heads to come to some agreement!
A few practical things now. I'm on leave-of-absence from doctoral research at the University of Melbourne. Luckily they have forgotten to cancel my Internet account, so at least for now I can be e-mailed on firstname.lastname@example.org . As for the PhD thesis, I often wonder if it will ever be done. I keep coming up with ideas out of areas like Chaos Theory which scare the hell out of my supervisor. One secret hope, I guess, is that a fierce debating partner could help keep projects like this focused and attainable. Meanwhile, I have accepted a two year full-time day contract to teach English as a Second Language to adult immigrants in a TAFE College (same as a Polytechnic), as well as doing a couple of nights a week at another place. The money is excellent, the students are friendly, and with eighteen years teaching & lecturing experience I am pretty good at it. (Also, luckily, ESL teaching is one of the few things you can do anywhere in the world).
A wonderful part of my day is first light, when the city has scarcely woken. Each morning I run 10km along a cycle trail as the mist rises from an old creek bed which it follows. On Monday nights I try to learn Chinese (Mandarin), which is tough! At home on free evenings or weekends there are always a dozen new things to learn or read about, ideas to write about or analyze on my computers, chores to be done (for I live alone). There is never enough time! My students and colleagues like and respect me, yet when the last car door slams, when we all drive home, I am in the end without an intimate friend. I enjoy a certain solitude, but miss the special warmth of shared hopes.
In Melbourne it is mid-summer. Down in the bottom corner of this continent the sky changes four seasons in four hours, and today there is a sharp, cold wind off the Southern Ocean. Tomorrow, maybe a heat wave. I sit here trying to remember the fragrant, sticky heat of Jakarta, trying to picture your daily life and favourite moments. Of course, it is a fantasy. We are strangers.
FRIDAY JANUARY 20,1995 SHENG4 LI4 IS VICTORY
My name is Sheng Li. That means Victory, an optimistic assessment by ZHANG Lu4-Ye3 on her second day ever teaching. The first day was so catastrophic that I went home and wrote her six pages of instructions on how to teach. To her credit, she has learned the motions if not the psychology of pedagogy over two weeks of evening classes at the CAE. Now we have some useful Mandarin phrases on paper, though scarcely in our heads, and some semblance of the Middle Kingdom's common tongue echoing in our ears.
Lu-Ye is about my height, thin almost to the point of emaciation, yet not entirely unattractive. Her head seems slightly large for the body, a little like a photograph of a child famine victim, and though the connection may be accidental, one recalls that her Beijing childhood was indeed framed by the ghastly famines of Mao madness in the 1960s and 70s. Front on, her forehead has a somewhat startling squareness, accentuated by the hollow cheeks and large mouth which she has painted very red. Lu-Ye's English articulation is almost perfect, but any real conversation quickly falls into potholes of missing vocabulary and a trackless diffusion of lost meanings. The source of this vagueness escapes my classmates, but 18 years of teaching ESL has honed my alertness to the symptoms.
These classmates are not your usual CAE collection of bored housewives and New Age dropouts. Go to a Japanese class nowadays and you will find it full of the kinds of girls who used to round off their education with French lessons (and maybe still do). The Chinese game -- and this is my second class -- is for the bounty hunters. Mostly they are young men: lawyers, marketing types, industrial engineers, carpet baggers dreaming of megabucks. A couple of females of the corporate species may also turn up.
Our one middle aged lady this time, Jennifer, is a dame of enormous girth and small linguistic memory which she compensates with endless chatter. She has rotary club written all over her, tries to sell us $80 ball tickets in some Chinese-Australian businessmen's association, and lets slip that she is a "financial advisor", but that "the market is a bitch". In the end Jennifer's unsquashable sociability provides some kind of glue to our fragile vessel of shared experience.
Lu-Ye seems interested in me in a fitful, inarticulate sort of way. I gradually establish that she is a Monash U. marketing student, here 5 years, due to be chucked out next year but wants permanent residence. It is no great insight to divine that, ergo, she is part of that underground Chinese conspiracy to marry for a passport .. and perchance divorce (at 4 times the average Australian rate, as it is now). I'd do it myself in her shoes. But this unspoken possibility creates an opportunity and a barrier. Here you have a bright, determined young woman whom all logic says should have no visceral interest in a 49 year old Australian man. If she did sense a kindred spirit, her signals would be misread for opportunism, and if she were feigning the relationship would collapse once security was assured. As it is, with my ineptitude these mysteries will never be resolved.
On the last Friday evening our small class of eight walks uptown to Tattersall's Lane where, Lu-Ye says, the Little Shanghai Dumpling Shop makes the best and cheapest dumplings in Melbourne. The dumpling shop turns out to be a spacious, homely cavern with dark fretted wood panels, varnished tables, and an atmosphere that somehow has more than a touch of the nineteenth century. Jennifer, who grew up as a publican's daughter around here, tells us that these were opium dens and fan-tan gambling rooms, pointing to the metre thick walls where things were not always what they seemed. Lu-Ye has told us earnestly that the restaurant owner is a frustrated violinist who can't make a living with his great craft in Australia. As it happens, he plays to his captive audience on Friday evenings ... Daisy Daisy, Dr Zhivago ... scratchily as only a badly played violin can be scratchy. We try to conceal the pain behind our eyes from laoshi.
I shut my eyes and struggle to acquire a taste for the opalescent, gluey pastry of steamed dumplings. My first mouthful of a small dumpling is almost disastrous, for the trapped steam inside of it is still cooking and threatens to parboil my palate. We are sitting at a long wooden table. I am against the wall, and Lu-Ye is on my right. A be-tied and private school groomed young chap across the table talks about making megabucks. I should not smile. He is prettier than me, a better language student, and all the odds are that he will make megabucks. "The whole thing could go belly-up, slip into civil war for a decade," I suggest dryly, thinking of China. "That is a big chunk out of a career. But there is always Taiwan.." The tyro swallows hard and is silent. Lu-Ye doesn't seem to hear. She doesn't seem to hear the meanings between our words at all. I can't decide if it's diplomacy, language confusion, or something else. This is the last chance to discover if there is any personal meaning between Lu-Ye and me, but that radio channel is not tuned in either. We talk in brief formulas, without touching eyes. At the end we walk away with a brief goodbye. And I sigh an old, old sigh.
FRIDAY FEBUARY 10,1995 PUTTING IT TOGETHER
Made the effort to go to St Kilda for a film. Usually it seems a bit far: in a city like this you create your own cantonment, a sort of a time fence whose perimeter is not worth breaching except for special excursions. St Kilda has a slightly menacing air that says drugs and prostitutes and dudes who'll mug you on a dark night. But it is also awash with humanity, budget motels, tourist traps, a couple genuinely interesting bars etc. I'm more acquainted with its Sunday afternoon personality than the late night raging.
It was a mild summer evening and the wild-life was out in force. In a humming bar with scrubbed gay waiters I ordered a beer and something called blue eye with a salad. Relieved when it turned out to be grilled fish, and rather nice. They hustled me off to a table on a roped off part of the pavement outside, to become part of the zoo. I felt hopelessly overdressed in a waistcoat and sports jacket as pale youths with lanky hair and sweaty black jeans sidled by. The film, Naked in New York, managed to mix cinematic cliche with a very expressive second lead actress. But the thing which stuck was something ridiculous (for me), a soliloquy. "He was the only man I ever wanted to have children with," she sighed.
I caught my breath and suddenly thought of Julie. It's twenty years ago now. A kid would have been going to university. Damn it, we didn't even kiss before I walked away from it, but we both knew there was something fateful there. She before I did. Julie's wonderful, sharp, ironic intelligence, and I walked away, afraid of myself. Deeply unsure about the whole idea of feeding and breeding, career treadmills, a house and a mortgage and three plaster swans flying down the wall. But no one even remotely as fine has ever been there to replace Julie.
So here I am at 49, full of unrequited promises. It is as if self-esteem begged the support of an unbuilt three-legged stool. One leg is the creativity of writing, stories, research. One is the identity that comes from peer recognition, success in a chosen field, a degree of financial independence. The third leg is a friend and lover to share it all with. Each leg has seemed to require the other two ready-made, before it could be realized. I no longer know who my peers are. Men of my age and intelligence seem a different species, leading countries, companies, armies.. The creativity flounders in eddies of misdirected attention, and a fundamental lack of intimate human experience. Finally, as a sort of cultural eunuch, I neither attract nor have the gall to pursue highly intelligent and successful women. How to break the logjam?
A Year From A Life
copyright (c) Thor May 2005, all rights reserved