Of Loops and Spoons

I have talked about this phenomenon before, but I think it’s quite relevant for the present day. Let’s talk a bit about loops and spoons.

A loop is an unfinished commitment. It might be something you promised someone else you would do, or it might be something you promised yourself. In psychology there’s a theory called the Zeignarnik Effect which suggests we think more about unfinished tasks than we think about finished ones. Even if this is not true (and some of the research is inconclusive) we do know that we all seek “closure” of these loops. We like things to be done. We think about things that are not done.

Some examples of longer term open loops in my life:

I bought that book when I graduated high school in 1998. I thought it was something smart kids would read, I still haven’t even read the first page. I borrowed those balls off my friend Viren to learn juggling in about 2001. He told me he wanted them back at the time. I haven’t forgotten, V, I kept them for almost 2 decades, but I will give them back to you eventually! That colourful binder is photos that I promised my church I would scan about 8 years ago. I’ll get around to it, I just don’t have a scanner. Oh, and that big box is a control project for my friend’s distillery project which I haven’t done anything on since I moved to Australia 4 years ago. Sorry John.

Loops don’t have to be long-lived though. They could be something as simple as items on a shopping list or an email you meant to write. Closing a loop brings you closure. An “open loop” or an incomplete thing will weigh on your mind no matter how good you are at distracting yourself.

They also don’t have to be chores or bad things. I have open loops about things I am looking forward to, such as seeing friends or celebrating things, food or drink. Everything, even fun things, require energy.

This brings me to spoons. Spoon theory offers a neat metaphor for how much capacity we have for activities during the day. It’s usually used by people with disabilities or chronic fatigue talking about their experience, but I believe we all have spoons to varying .degrees A spoon is a metaphor for a unit of effort we can apply to something. It includes physical, intellectual as well as emotional effort.

I have a further thought for you: open loops use up spoons.

It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to remain aware of but not address your closed loops is non-zero. It takes effort. Think of it this way: every unclosed loop has a spoon in it. Just keeping the loop open as it were. This happens in real life. I am constantly leaving spoons in containers of things I use regularly because it’s more convenient to keep the spoon there than clean it and use a fresh spoon next time.

But emotional spoons keeping open loops is not a convenience. You can’t just will those loops away. I have books I remember half-reading in my childhood that still weigh on me: we never finished “My Side of the Mountain” in English class and the lack of closure still weighs on me just a little.

Why am I writing about this? Well, over the last little while I have closed some loops and recovered some spoons I had forgotten in their containers. It was such an amazing feeling I thought I would share this with you in the hopes you could go collect some of your spoons as well.

Now, I should start by saying I have a very high capacity of spoons. I am privelaged to be able to cope with a lot of stuff. So much so that I think I often seek complexity out. My calendar at work looks like some kind of abstract art with all the meetings I am scheduled in, and those moments where I don’t have meetings I get phone calls – sometimes I get phone calls during meetings too.

So, when I say that sometimes I have so few spoons I struggle to get dressed in the morning, I am not asking for some kind of sympathy. I am just reinforcing our shared experience: we all run out of spoons eventually, if too much stuff is going on. We all have our capacity, and it’s dangerous to overtax ourselves.

For me at the moment, I am working on about half a dozen projects at work, but three are quite significant. There’s a huge data-oriented project for a very difficult client underway and I have been worried for months now about the performance of a particular part of the system. It just wasn’t right. I have been chipping away at it mentally for weeks now and despite the fact that I have been trying not to work on the weekends, it’s always hard to enjoy weekends because there’s something hanging over you like the sword of Damocles. That thing you know you should be doing, that’s just not done. It’s unfinished, it gnaws at you like an open bottle of milk, expiring slowly on the counter.

Well, Friday morning I sorted it. I implemented a solution I was finally confident in. The sense of relief and closure that gave me provided me with enough spoons to tackle another issue that had been bugging me on a different project. I solved a problem that I have been thinking about for well over a year. It only took me 4 hours, but I could never have done it without enough mental capacity.

I believe closing loops can have a domino effect. You close a loop (use up the sugar in the bag) and reclaim a spoon. You can now re-purpose that spoon for addressing the next loop, and so on. This can be a virtuous cycle if you can game the system.

So, here then, dear reader, is my advice:

If you’re feeling low on spoons, do your best to close some loops.

OK, I know what you’re thinking: the whole point is you don’t have the spoons, how can you do anything without the spoons in the first place?

Well, the funny thing is, you can get a little bit of quarter teaspoon back by creating and closing little loops. When I am low on energy I tell myself “OK, you’re going to get up and have some breakfast, then you’re going to have a coffee”. Turning mundane things you were going to to anyway into a loop allows you to chalk them up as a “win”. Sometimes, for me, winning is putting socks on.

Another lesson is breaking loops down into constituent parts. Rather than have a task of “clean the apartment” which frankly may as well be “conquer Everest” I have tasks that are much more modest “put that piece of paper away” is a small achievable goal you can work on and feel good about, even if everything else is on fire.

Just be careful not to start too many of these little things. I am concious that while I was writing this post I was also:

  • doing laundry
  • making kombucha
  • thawing food for dinner
  • looking for a CD for a friend
  • making coffee
  • making chai tea
  • finding a place for chai tea
  • looking for the cable for the PlayStation so I can play the CD
  • working on a blog post for my game

It’s so easy to spin up a dozen loops, only close half of them and get stuck back where we started or worse. I think this is what my ADHD friends experience: you get a burst of energy and so this spins up a bunch of loops, but it’s hard to focus and you lose interest in the task but… the task itself remains there, eating away at your soul, consuming your precious spoons.

That’s another one which I am trying to learn: don’t take on loops you don’t want. It sounds simple right? But most of the loops that weigh most heavily on my mind are those obligations where someone asked me to do something… I didn’t really want to, but I agreed to anyway. This could be as elaborate as helping a friend or colleague solve a tricky technical problem or as simple as a friend who wants to catch up for a coffee. Sometimes you need to say “no” to things like that, so you can dig yourself out of the other loops.

Oh, and above all be kind to yourself. If you’re low on spoons because they’re all stuck taking care of unclosed loops, it might be all you can do to just sit quietly on the couch and not cry… or maybe go ahead and cry, I won’t tell anyone.

Because the thing is. When you have no spoons you have no spoons, and the only thing you can do is wait until your capacity grows. Usually sleep helps with that (though if you’re an insomniac, sleep itself can seem like a daunting and impossible task). I guess my thought here is just do whatever gives you the most energy until you have worked up enough spoons to go tackle the next open loop. And make it a small one.

Oh, and there’s another thing I am not good at. Some loops remain open because you’re a perfectionist… you know who you are. You know you can’t call it – won’t call it – till you have perfected it. But sometimes, dear reader. Done enough is good enough and you can simply close the task off.

Like this post – in the past I might have written a first draft and re-worked it over a week or so, but I am trying to be braver than that. So I’m publishing this now and I hope some of these thoughts help you. I know they have helped me.

Don’t “have” a relationship

OK, so with that provocative title out the way, I have a rather useful thought that occurred to me recently I wanted to share. I’ve been doing well lately – very well in fact. I have been improving my work/life balance, I have been doing a lot of home cooking, I’ve been losing weight and thriving during a global pandemic. I even have lovely bird visitors to cheer me up.

Visit from a lovely bird friend.

I’m also getting a lot of attention from potential suitors, despite the lock down – or maybe because of it. So the natural next question for me is at what point do I entertain the idea I might have a relationship again.

My conclusion for now is “no”. Life’s pretty good, and for now I’m very content to live my life and do my own thing without being accountable to anyone else. I’ve been making home made red sauce, home made brownies, home made Kombutcha.

Kombutcha is not as gross as it looks, I promise.

But then a strange thing happened: someone talked to me about their partner and I instantly felt a twinge of jealousy, it went something like

  • that person has a relationship
  • relationships are nice
  • I should have nice things
  • I should have a relationship

And just as quickly I realised that’s completely the wrong way to think about it. You see, that’s the same thought process I have when I see someone who has a nice car

  • that person has a car
  • cars are nice
  • I should have nice things
  • I should have a car

But that thought process is silly. I don’t actually want a car, I don’t need a car either, they’re expensive and inconvenient to store, they cause pollution. Nah, I don’t want one. At least, not right now anyway.

And if I’m honest with myself that’s how I feel about relationships. I don’t want one right now anyway, but this all got me thinking.

A relationship isn’t like a car

Stephen’s thought of the day

Ok, ok, bear with me. What I mean to say is: you can’t possess a relationship. Or at least I don’t think it’s good to try “have” a relationship. I think that for most of my life I saw a relationship as something one could “have” like a car or a house or a TV. Something nice that most people have that I should probably have too because… well… well, why shouldn’t I have nice things? Things are nice. I’m nice!

But I’m coming around to the idea that this is the wrong way to think about relationships. It turns a relationship into a commodity. It makes hunting for a partner an exercise in trying to find the “best deal” or “the best you can afford”. It makes dating a marketplace and heaven knows we see enough of that stuff on all those dating websites. Tinder even originally created an algorithm that attempted to match you more with people at the same level of “hotness” as you have (I am not kidding, look it up).

But that’s not what a relationship is all about is it? A relationship is not something you have, it’s something you do. Who you do it with is up to you and is not really governed by market forces. It’s not a calculation in getting the best you can get or settling for what you think you deserve. It’s falling in love, which is a complex experience which is unique to each pair of people.

So, what I meant by my provocative title is merely this: don’t “have” a relationship, because a relationship is something you “do”.

I think this change of perspective is important. It’s certainly changed how I view potential partners. I no longer think “so and so would be an amazing catch” because… well, no, that’s not the point. The point is not to “have”, the point is to “do”.

So am I set on bachelorhood for the rest of my life? I don’t think so. Remember that bird who visits me? Well that’s not the whole story. You see, Mynah birds mate for life, so I am always visited by two.

Mynah birds mate for life, so I am happy to report I am always visited by two.

For Good

Today is the 28th of April and marks the 8th anniversary I would have been celebrating, though if you’ve been following along, you will be aware I don’t have a reason to be celebrating anniversaries anymore.

I’ve been working hard not to wallow, but I hope you will agree, dear reader, that this first non-anniversary after the fact is a reasonable time for reflection.

A few weeks ago. I was listening to show tunes (as one does). Particularly Wicked and the song “For Good” got me crying. At first I didn’t really know why. Like most songs I enjoy, I normally just listen to them enjoying the music and the surface emotion. I don’t normally consciously think about the meanings behind the words.

My rendition of “for good” self-indulgent I know, but this is my blog so there.

My subconscious though.. that’s another story. Music has certainly been a strong outlet to understand complex and sometimes conflicting feelings.

I love the play on the idea “for good” (meaning in this context: permanently). We are made of our experiences and most of all, we are made of the strongly emotional ones such as the ones that we have in relationships. Our relationships change us permanently (for good) but we can’t always be sure we end up “better”.

In the 7 years of our relationship I was changed. Perhaps I didn’t change as much as Chloe, but I certainly did change. Did I change for better or worse? The song is ambivalent on that point and this is why I like it.

We can acknowledge and celebrate a huge impact someone has had on our lives without really having to judge whether that impact was good or bad. All experience is experience, all experience is enriching. All experience (like life) just is.

It may not have been for the better, but I know my love has changed me for good.

Uluru – Part 1 of 2

Ever since I learned there was a middle of Australia, I have wanted to go there. With my life in something of an upheaval due to recently being single, it seemed like a good time to plan that trip. It has been a long time in the making so I was excited.

Wish me luck

Day 1: Melbourne to Adelaide

I didn’t really have all that much of a plan, the night before, I had booked accommodation at a bistro in Adelaide and at a place called Coober Pedy on the way up. I figured I’d sleep in my tent a fair bit, maybe lodge at Alice Springs which looks pretty close to Uluru on a map.

I left for Adelaide far later than I would have liked. Mostly because I hadn’t cleared my go pro of images. I wanted to take some time lapse videos of the trip down and so expected I’d be using a lot of space, I set out at about 11 am and made a brisk pace out of the city in the general direction of Adelaide.

Melbourne to Adelaide time lapse

The music in the video above is from an iconic Australian singer called Paul Kelly. As it happens, my good friend Jimmy had given me a Paul Kelly DVD for my birthday and had sat me down to listen to the music just before I left, so I had a lot of Paul Kelly on the brain. If you’ve ever traveled with me you will know I love to sing in the car. This journey was equal parts Paul Kelly and Billy Joel.

Me singing Miami 2017 in the car

As I journeyed on, I stopped occasionally taking pictures of the Australian countryside, Australia is so vast, if you travel long enough you will come across a very diverse pallet of colours.

Blue and yellow – field of wheat

The trip was uneventful apart from a pyre of smoke in the distance. The parade of fire trucks in the opposite direction completed the story: yet another fire. Folks back in Melbourne were complaining of smoke in the city which is apparently only getting worse.

Smoke in the distance near Adelaide

The usually beautiful Australian sunset was even more striking though, given the smoke and dust in the air.

Sunset Boulevard – On the way to Adelaide

I blew in to the bistro at about 8pm. When my local friends heard where I had settled for the night they were a little taken aback “not the best part of Adelaide” they complained. But I wanted an authentic experience. I took my Akubra off and inquired about my booking. “I’ll take you to your room, luv”. It’s funny, back in Uni days, I was apparently oblivious to many people who had expressed an interest in me. Nowadays, likely due to increased confidence, I just assume everyone is flirting with me. I affected a smile and trued to hold my hat in a way that suggested I respected and enjoyed the Australian experience without taking the piss. I think it helps that the hat is from 2003.

The room turned out to smell of cigarettes. Had I been travelling with anyone else, I would have complained, instead I chalked it up to authenticity. Moments later though, she changed my room of her own accord. I think that as a smoker she was embarrassed to let me stay in a place that smelt that way.

Being nearly 9pm, there were few places available for dinner, apart from a delightful Italian place.

Pasta and… pancakes?

“Spaghetti bolognaise and a house red please”.
“Pardon?”
“I mean, just a glass of any red wine”.
“Oh, we don’t serve wine, only soft drinks.”

As I drank my non-alcoholic beverage, “Sounds of Silence” began to play. Seemed kind of fitting at the time.

Sounds of silence

As I left the restaurant I came across a shirtless gentleman on his way to somewhere and was struck again with a sense of “sonder”. Other people’s lives, so different yet as complex as our own. I try to remind myself that for some of the people you meet, this may well be their very worst day.

The bistro I was staying at had no such issues serving me a wine. In fact they went so far as to give it to me for free. “Oh, it was a mistake pour, and you’re saving me from drinking it myself.”

Day 2: Adelaide to Coober Pedy

The next morning I was up early enough but got back to the road by about 10 after breakfast and fiddling with my cameras. The go pro sat next to me like a passenger, in the hopes I could share the experience of the drive with those back home. I thoroughly enjoyed this leg of the journey, once I was free of the city’s embrace the roads opened up and I could have been in South Africa or Texas again. You assume the desert is empty, but it’s full of like and scrub plants, clinging desperately to the red earth. The road is fully paved all the way to my destination and not a pot hole in sight. I grinned at the thought of dodging pot holes at 120 km/h in the Free State in South Africa.

The roads out here have a certain rhythm to them. Kangaroo sign, livestock sign, Grid, a moment’s pause and the familiar buzz as your tires zip over the grates used to keep cattle from crossing property lines. Other signs of human habitation are the many vehicles strewn left and right along the way. I was taken with the desolate beauty of it, the stories of the people who decided it was far better to leave once treasured possession in the red dust than to recover it at all.

My phone declared connectivity to the outside world lost about 505 Km from my destination. Good thing I had offline maps, and besides, there would be no need to turn off Stuart Highway till I reached my goal.

I drove resolutely on with nothing but the confidence that there were no turns required to get to where I needed to go: the Opal mining town ot Coober Pedy. On the way, however, I came across a rather fun sign:

The road itself is the infamous Stuart Highway. I was delighted to find myself at this half-way point on such a beautiful day. I love the contrasting colours in the Australian black: turquoise and orange.

I came upon my second destination at about 7pm. This is the opal mining town of Coober Pedy. I chose it because it was about equidistant from my origin and destination, but I might well have chosen it for its charm. I stayed in a lovely hotel which has rooms dug out of the rock, in the fashion of the original settlers who dug holes as shelter from the unbearable heat. As it happened, it wasn’t all that hot at all. It rained as I arrived and I felt a familiar pang of regret having not packed any winter clothes.

I welcome you to my cave-room, yes, I am humming “may it be” by Enya

That night, I took the opportunity to get out the tablet and jot down some thoughts. I have been looking forward to this journey for decades now. Ever since I knew Australia had a middle part which was far away from the rest of it. I had wanted to go there. The fact there was some fossilized sand dune there too simply provided a landmark.

The hotel I was staying at sported an “underground” bar.

Dinner was excellent, although the poor chap at the front of house seemed to be the only person on staff.

A lovely meal and some port under my belt and it as time to head back to my relatively warm cave.

Detail shot of the cave wall

What with the recent breakup, this trip has turned into a bit of a soul-searching mission for me too: what are my goals for the future?

I made a table of potential partners with a list of pros and cons. No, that’s a waste of time. Let’s think about goals:

Thinking at Coober Pedy
  • Live forever
    • No that’s not practical yet
  • Have an impact
    • Sure how?
  • Maybe you should teach people something?
    • OK, go on
  • How about you finish one of those books?
    • I don’t know, non-fiction is kind of boring
  • How can I teach people something about life?

I went to bed in my cave, my mind buzzing with questions, but suffering from a lack of answers.

Day 3: Coober Pedy to Uluru via Alice Springs

The next morning and more of the same. Cattle, kangaroo, rest stop Grid. Just as I was feeling puckish and wondering where I’d be able to find breakfast in all this, but I came upon what is apparently the first and last pub in the Northern Territories. For me it didn’t start as a pub though. I drove in to fill up with petrol, something I do at every opportunity because despite the fact that I had a full 10L Jerry can I was loathe to find myself walking however long it would take to find me a petrol station. The chap at the counter had on a pair of overalls as well as an Akubra and sunglasses. I internally first-pumped. I’d been worried wearing this hat might have been interpreted as insincere.

The entrance to the bar was via the service station.

“Is the pub open?” I asked hopefully. I had seen the sign for the pub as I walked in, it adjoined the petrol station like another room.

“Yup”

“OK, great, I moved the car and attempted to get into the pub, the shoeless lady out the front drew deeply on her cigarette and regarded me dispassionately.

“You sure it’s open?” I asked the chap in the store. “door seems locked”.
“Oh, it’s open all right, I work there.”
“Oh, right, well, are you doing food?”

The menu appeared out of nowhere and soon enough I was sitting at the bar with a cider in my hand, a burger with chips on the side, country music playing softly.

It’s a strange sensation, having lived in Texas and been to many an actual Texas pub, to get a Texas vibe so far down the other end of the world. But I suppose it’s fair to say that country is country. I consider myself a city boy, but with family in a farm in Nongoma and enjoying long-distance driving, it’s unsurprising to me that I have a bit of country in my heart.

The meal was over much too soon. I bought some memorabilia in the form of little tin cups declaring to C U Next Time. My grandfather, born in Yalarbon Australia, would have loved the sentiment of the cups, if not the vulgar expression.

Musical Interlude

Now would be a good time to point out a bit of a transformation that happened to me on my journey. You see, I have always known that it’s the journey, not the destination, and I have always known that having time to think and reflect is important, but I had no idea this journey would have such an impact on me.

Sometime after Kulgera I started writing music in the car.

It makes a lot of sense if you think of the progression: some weeks ago, my psychologist had recommended I write a letter to Chloe to help process my feelings. I did that but the letter came out as a poem. More that that, every poem I have written has a rhythm and a tune. This poem was no exception.

The particular place I was at physically in the car meant that Spotify was not going to work, and my cached music had long since worn out. So I started singing my own song, as I often do.

The result of that exercise in the car is the song: From High Up.

From high up
(Content warning: reference to suicidal ideation)

As I drove, I wrote songs about friends, about myself, about my family, about my past and aspiration for the future.

Via Alice Springs

It was then that I made the first mistake of the journey and decided to continue North towards Alice Springs. On a map of Australia it doesn’t look like all that much a diversion from Uluru. I had planned to stay at a camp site in Alice Springs and take day trips down to see the Rock. As I journeyed further and further towards my destination, I realized it would be quite a trek and take away from the enjoyment of the rock. I resolved to stay only one night in Alice Springs and find a way to stay at Uluru proper for the other 4 nights.

This ground would not have accepted a tent peg

My resolve dissolved when I arrived at my destination to find that the Gap View Hotel’s camp ground was simply a patch of dry dirt. Not even nice dirt. It was hard and would have been difficult to put a peg through. I briefly considered sleeping in the car but given that I could sleep in my car just about anywhere, I decided I would sleep closer to my destination. I managed to book the one and only camp ground near the Rock, but only for the next night. It was about 5pm when I set out from Alice Springs to make the 490 km journey to Yulara.

Alice Springs to Uluru

One of the fortunate things about Northern Territory roads is the speed limit is 130 km/h. This is great for getting places quickly, and I made the 490 km journey in about 4.5 hours, the only problem is travelling those speeds really consumes petrol pretty fast.

I arrived at the “Ayres Rock Camp Ground” after closing time in pitch black. I decided that there would be nothing better than to sleep for the night in my car, and so I did.

Asleep in the car

Tune in for part 2, coming soon!

From High Up

A song I wrote about how I felt soon after my partner broke up with me.

Content warning: suicidal ideation.

Don’t worry Internet, this is only how I felt at a certain point in time, though I am not over her, I am doing well and wouldn’t take her back.

I wrote the song while on the 26th floor of my apartment. Elevation does give some perspective.

Me singing “From High up”

Verse 1
 
D 
From high  
G/D 
up, I  
D 
know just why you  
G 
left me  
Em 
 
You  
G/D 
never loved me  
D 
half as much as him  
A 
him 
 
 
D 
 
From high  
G/D 
up a  
D 
kind of calmness  
G 
beckons, 
 
 
Em 
 
And  
A 
painful self  
B 
reflection can  
G 
begin
Verse 2
 
From high  
G/D 
up, I  
D 
wake beside the  
G 
window, 
 
 
Em 
 
G/D 
I turn towards my  
D 
right and you’re not  
A 
there 
 
 
D 
 
Well my  
G/D 
love, this  
D 
isn’t so sur
G 
prising 
 
 
Em 
 
Must  
A 
soldier on, a  
B 
life no longer  
G 
shared
Bridge
 
And  
A 
so I rise, for  
B 
I must go
 
My  
G 
purpose is un
Em 
certain 
 
though
 
To  
A 
live a whole life  
B 
without 
 
you
 
To  
G 
feel so hollow  
Em 
and just do
 
C 
Instead of getting  
A 
just to be
 
Bm 
Won’t you come back and  
C 
be with  
D 
me?
Verse 3
 
From  
G/D 
high up, I  
D 
know just how I’d  
G 
end it  
Em 
 
It’s  
G/D 
hard to think I’ll  
D 
find another  
A 
way 
 
 
D 
 
From high  
G/D 
up the  
D 
question’s barely  
G 
answered 
 
 
Em 
 
When  
A 
Grace returns and  
B 
tells me: not  
G 
today.

Merry Christmas Mr. Grinch

I don’t like Christmas, one might say I’m a bit of a Grinch. Ironically, I happened to watch the 2018 rendition of “The Grinch” on the plane over to celebrate Christmas with family this year. I cried.

You see, my enjoyment of Christmas has steadily decreased over the years. My distaste for it started as a child, back when I was about 10 years old. My parents divorced when I was 9 and the settlement mandated that us kids were shunted back and forth between two families every alternating weekend.

For me, this caused a lot of stress during “handover” periods. I couldn’t really put a finger on it as a kid. Thinking back, I think it boils down to three things:

  • The sense of “divided loyalty”, needing to intentionally sever feelings of affection for one whole group of people and re-imprint on another group of people, entirely based on some arbitrary schedule
  • The social effort required to engage with my father’s social circle, his extended family and suchlike
  • As the peacekeeper in the family, I personally felt a strong need to always intercede and make everything OK, especially when there was tension between the two camps.
I used to be a bass but now I’m more of a baritone, so my rendition of “Mr. Grinch” isn’t as deep as I’d like, but I think I got the camp parts right.

This stress as a child manifest in a lot of “avoiding” behaviours. My sister and I would hide out in the kitchen from strangers, or spend extra time in bed to avoid engaging with the day. Preferring quite moments to big social events.

This “alternating” visitation thing happened for Christmases as well. Every second year we would celebrate Christmas with my father and his family. We weren’t really allowed to avid socialising in these situations. Understandably, my father wanted us to enjoy our time with him and his family, to engage, especially over the festive season. The big social events were unavoidable.

I don’t want to make it sound as though I had a horrible childhood, far from it. It’s just that Christmas in particular I associate with:

  • a deep sense of social obligation to people I don’t know very well
  • the requirement to perform a sense of happiness and togetherness in the context of being actually separated and uncomfortable
  • a sense (as the peacemaker in the family) that I could never possibly make everyone happy even though I wanted to

This general sense of Christmas being an uncomfortable time only became more intense when I grew up, came out and met a number of other queer people who didn’t have any kind of family to rely on. So many people I know in my life now are depressed over Christmas because for various reasons they can’t engage with their birth family and members of their family of choice are busy with their own Christmas things.

Chloe, my ex, would endure Christmas like a soldier hunkering down in the trenches of the first world war, and I think that feeling of being embattled kind of rubbed off. In the past I have hosted “orphan’s Christmas” for my social group of people who have nothing, but it’s always a mixed bag.

I wasn’t an orphan but I certainly empathise with the Grinch’s feelings about Christmas.

I brought these complaints up with my psychologist, Chris. I didn’t want to go to Christmas with my family, but they expected it. In the spirit of me being more assertive, shouldn’t I just eschew this time period and go do something else?

Chris’ advice was, “well, if you’re just going to be at home being grumpy, you may as well spend Christmas with your family”. I relented and so here I am, and I’m sure I will enjoy it. I am sure it will be a good time with good memories. It’s just this is not my time, this is not for me, this is for someone else, and having lived a life in service to other people for so long, it especially grates this year.

The other part of Christmas that irritates me is the forced consumerism. The news here in New Zealand reports how busy the shops are and how much money has been spent in retail as if these are metrics of interest to everyone other than shop owners. The commodification of every kind of cultural or interpersonal experience into something that can be turned into cash makes me kind of sick. I pride myself in being able to find the most ideal gift for people, but like most people I genuinely dislike how cheap, tacky and performative Christmas is.

I’m not sure if I will have the same epiphany the Grinch had and suddenly have a love of Christmas, but I do know how important it is to others, especially my mum.

So Merry Christmas, Mum, I’ll keep my humbugs for later.

Fix you

“Well, the good news is it appears your grief is not pathological” my psychologist, Chris, said in that unassuming manner he has.

It’s been well over 5 months since Chloe dropped the bombshell on me. Her plan to move out slipped from August, to September, till finally on the 4th of October (2 days after my birthday) she moved out. “I’m going to miss this place” she intoned before she gave me a hug and was out of my life for good.

I’ve been learning the piano and this song’s relevance will become clear as we go.

“Not pathological.. that sounds good, I think I’ll write that down”.

It has been a bumpy ride to get here. I remember quite clearly sitting in a hotel room in Wellington on the 23rd of September. I had an appointment with Chris but had to do it via Skype because I was in Wellington for an important client meeting.

“I turn 40 soon” I lamented, “I’m going bald, my left hip hurts and the love of my life moves out forever next month.”

I turned 40 on the 2nd of October and flew to Cambridge to be with my family for my “surprise” party. My sister-in-law, Kim, even made me a fox cake!

“So, what’s going well in your life then?”

“…my job” I barely managed before sobbing uncontrollably into the microphone.

It certainly felt pretty bleak and existential at the time, but really the only thing that was missing was a sense of purpose, or a sense of what I wanted out of life, my own goals, independent of anyone else.

My five overarching values: love, adventure, ideas, teaching and achievement

Chris helped me come up with a set of values to drive towards, and I turned that into a Kanban board of tasks and priorities.

I didn’t really have much time to feel sorry for myself, because in true me fashion, I picked up a few dependents at about the same time as I lost Chloe.

My Kanban board sits opposite my bed in my room and keeps me honest about things and people that are important to me.

About 3 months before Chloe moved out, I met Lilith (right). She had been having difficulties which culminated in her being homeless about a month before Chloe moved out, and on pretty much the same day she moved out, Vincent (left) also moved in because he needed a place to stay.

Vincent (left) and Lilith (right) join me for dinner in the city.

Now I know what you’re going to say, slipping into a “helper” mode is so very classically me.

Don’t set yourself on fire to keep others warm

And yes, you’re right. Still, it’s a lesson I have to keep learning for myself over and over till I learn how to set healthy boundaries. I think I am getting better. I have this trait strongly in common with my father: I tend to be drawn towards broken things.

Without getting into too much detail, October and November were rocky months for all three of us. I remember distinctly a moment when Lilith’s computer was broken and possibly lost forever by the courier company taking it in for repairs. It was just one more thing on top of everything else and she was beside herself.

“Everything can be fixed” I said as I hugged her tightly, and I really mean that. In fact, “fixing” things has become a theme for me these past few months, and not in a bad way.

For example, take my beloved Nikon camera. I turned it on optimistically with the hopes of taking some photos. Nothing, not even a friendly little light or an error message. Nothing, and that was after charging the battery overnight. I took it in to the repair shop and the young gentleman from behind the counter declared that a camera more than a decade old is not worth trying to fix. “Just buy a new one”. I suppose you could try get a new battery, but we don’t sell those anymore.”

A new aftermarket battery means the camera works just fine. The next challenge was the lens which could no longer focus. I sent it in for a repair quote. The quote came back at $1000, so I declined the repair and thought I might take it apart and fiddle as I had with my other lens.

A different lens which I confidently took apart but was unable to fix myself.

Simply sending it in to get a quote was enough to get the lens working again. No grand investment required.

The camera has become a bit of a metaphor for me: so often in life, we despair that things are irreparably damaged.

So this then brings me to the title of this post and the subject of the song I have been practising. At first I was practising it so I could use it as a foil to discuss my need to be needed, how I tend to be drawn to people who are in trouble, just like my father was. I was even going to talk a bit more about his own personal situation. But you know what, my perspective has changed.

I don’t think the “you” in the song is about “you” after all. I think it’s about “me”. I think the song is about “me” or the person singing it. At least, over the last few months it has become about me: everything in life can be fixed.

Heartease (wild pansy) – I bought these seeds not even thinking about the significance of the name “heartease”

I say everything in life and that does deserve some small caveat. You see on Saturday 14th December, someone in my local community passed away from pneumonia. He was young (34) and it happened so quickly. He is survived by family, friends and his partner who is beside herself with grief. Everything in life can be fixed. Death, however, is something we have no fix for as yet.

And so it goes

I was in a barbershop quintet in high school, a little over two decades ago. One of the songs we sang was Billy Joel’s beautiful ballad “And so it goes”. Like all of the songs we sang, it became an important part of my psyche, and is probably why I have had a life long love of Billy Joel’s music. The song itself is about someone whose lover has left them, or is leaving them. It’s beautiful, tragic and pure.

I remember distinctly, all of 18 years old, standing there in front of the audience full of adults, belting out this song and it struck me mid-song that I had never been in love, never known heartache of the romantic kind before and although I did my best to channel real emotion into the song, it would always be a little inauthentic. I wondered how fresh young pop stars of any generation were able to sing authentically about such strong emotions without much life experience, or was this just me?

I put a pin in that thought for my future self to come back to and it just so happens the pin poked through space and time and popped into my thoughts recently. Because, you see, I have since known love, I have since known heartache and now I believe I am finally ready to sing this song anew.

I sing all the parts to one of my favourite Billy Joel songs. All of these words have taken on a special new meaning for me.

For the past 7 years, every love song has (to me) been about my partner Chloe. Every time I heard something about love, it has always been about her for me. “And so it goes” is no exception because as of Friday 12th July, Chloe broke up with me.

It’s hard to put in words how I feel, because the feelings are complex and all over the place. Unsurprisingly, Billy’s words resonate quite strongly. Right down to the bit about the rose, because I gave Chloe a copper rose for our 7 year anniversary this year. The metaphor of sharing a room, thus sharing your heart and opening yourself up to heartbreak is such a beautiful and painful notion which I keep coming back to over the last few days. We’re no longer sharing a room, but she remains in my heart, and watching her slowly disentangle her life from my own is painful.

You might ask why I am being so candid here and sharing so much intimate information online. Those of you who read my old blog starting in 2002 might well ask the opposite: why did I ever stop? I mean, I haven’t written anything in this blog for over 4 years, and before that, my original blog stalled in 2012. The closest I can come to an explanation is to describe as an awakening.

“You’re… not taking a breakup selfie, are you?” – This pic taken moments after we broke up at the relationship counsellor.

Some time after my father died (a topic which deserves its own attention) I dreamt about him. It wasn’t a pleasant dream and so I wondered why, when I woke up, I didn’t feel relieved to realise it was a dream. Then it dawned on me, as it would again and again over the coming weeks: “that’s right, he’s dead and he’s never coming back.”

The same slow realisation has been creeping into my consciousness over the last 2-3 weeks. It’s like waking up from a dream, only to find that the real world is a nightmare, but at least it is the real world now, and at least I can do something in it, can make the most of what I have. I suppose this is why I am writing now and not before. Before I was in a dream. A wonderful dream full of love, happiness and aspiration. With its share of difficulty, but secure in the knowledge that I was a member of a team which could not be defeated.

Even the day after the breakup, our hands and hearts hadn’t caught up to the new reality.

Because that’s how we saw each other, Chloe and I: a team. We overcame her crippling family difficulties, embraced her gender identity, moved countries, fought depression, and above all loved and cared for each other unconditionally with a broad confidence which could overcome any obstacle. Our friends looked up to us, admired and in many cases envied us our strong relationship which we always declared was based on mutual respect, hard work and communication.

Her psychologist warned us about what I call the “queer meta-game”. “People are going to see you as a happy confident couple which is rare in the community and they are going to want it, or want to be part of it”. And try they did, there were at least four people before the current one who expressed an interest in encroaching into our relationship, one of whom after the first couple weeks.

I don’t think it’s really as simple as “she found someone else” but there is someone else who she fancies, and she’s decided to move out in August to gain some independence and perspective. Of course I am hopeful she will decide to get back together with me, but as the days and weeks march on, I am starting to come to terms with the notion that this may never happen.

I have committed to self-improvement. Almost instinctively, my natural reaction was to move into the spare room, get the piano out and start practising. I hope to post more soon.

Milestone

So, I finally did it. I got rid of my beloved Prius.

The saga starts in about November 2013 when my car started refusing to start more often than not. I suspected the 12 volt battery which I replaced. So pleased I was with my self-diagnosis that I decided to also top up the oil.

So, I tipped the contents of the bottle I had prudently stored in the boot for just such the occasion. Unfortunately, what I thought to be oil at the time turned out to be antifreeze. Now, anyone who has anything more than a passing acquaintance with cars will know that mixing antifreeze in with your oil is a big no-no, the antifreeze, when it cools, can form little crystals that could damage the engine.

So, I tried to drain the sump (three words I hoped to never use in my life though I am somewhat proud I know them at all) and subsequently stripped the bolt’s head!

The 24 hour mechanic charged me a small fortune to drain the oil and replace it but they returned it to me in a non-working state.

I walked all the way to the nearest mechanic to buy another 12 volt battery, only to find that replacing it did not fix the problem. The local Toyota dealership declared it was the battery and offered me a discount to sell me a battery for $4,000, which they thought was the problem.

My father’s friend George graciously agreed to fix it. Turned out that the overnight mechanic had overfilled the oil which means the car could not turn over at all.

The car ran well for about 4 months and then refused to start again. I didn’t have the heart to do anything about it for over a year, so the poor thing literally gathered dust in my garage for over a year.

It wasn”t too bad, because my partner Freddy has a car.

Until a few weeks ago when Freddy was rear-ended on the Auckland Harbour Bridge. The image below doesn’t look that bad until you notice the rear wheel is sitting at a rather unnatural angle. 
IMG_2614

The insurer declared it a write-off, paid the few thousand dollars it was worth and we were left 100% car-less.

So, we recently embarked on a number of public-transport supported missions to dealerships around the Auckland region. We wanted something new enough that it would retain some value, but not new. We managed to get a second hand 2014 Holden Commodore in Freddy’s favourite colour: blue. I think Freddy may love that car more than me!

We need money to find the new car and paying registration, insuranc e and parking for my non-working car doesn’t make any sense. So, today, at about 3pm, I called a car removal company and got them to remove my poor sad Prius.

I love that car, it’s been with me through some of the best and worst moments of my life. I have filled it with boxes to move from place to place, I have driven clear across Texas in all directions. Dallas to Galveston, across to central Arkansas. I have driven it to the top of New Zealand’s North Island via 90 mile beach, I have taken it on the ferry to the South Island. It was my safety, my independence, my first car, it nearly killed me twice and saved my life countless times. I have slept in it countless times and ferried countless others to safety in its arms.

As the truck took it away, I touched its rear bumper affectionately and whispered to it my thanks.

Click on the link below to join me in a nostalgic tribute to my little Prius on a Flickr album. DSC_0402

Ten Years On

This is a speech I made to mark my 10 years at Beca:

Ten years ago, last Saturday (18th April 2005 to be precise), I joined Beca as a software developer. I know this because the notes against my name in Active Directory clearly indicate that’s when Trudy set up my account. It’s probably a testament to my own poor memory that this is the most accurate record of this life event.

I pretend that it’s not a big milestone to me, but to be honest it actually really is. Huge in fact. I have been obsessively checking that comment in AD for quite some time, awaiting this day.

Ten years is longer than I have attended any academic institution, primary, secondary, or tertiary. It’s longer than I have ever lived at the same home. It’s longer, in fact, than I have lived in any country apart from South Africa. Ten years is longer than the duration of all of my romantic relationships combined. Given that my parents divorced when I was 9 and remarried when I was 13, 10 years is even longer than I have had the same legal guardians as a child.

It’s been a decade of change, both for me and for the company. We’ve gone from one CRT to two flat screen monitors, the Auckland office has been refurbished and we feel more global, even though we no longer have the UK office. BAT came into being then disappeared but its lingering effect is felt even at the executive level of our business.

My original desk at Beca 2005
My original desk at Beca 2005

I can vividly remember key moments in my career: my first interview was with Richard & Dean. Richard asked me a question about maintaining state in a web application and we talked about that for half the interview. My second interview was with none other than Thomas and Robin, where they carefully explained that the “Beca Connect” model was kind of like CMMI. I remember nearly loosing Llanwyn’s cat when I lived at his house in Texas for 2 weeks and the moment when Llanwyn suggested we turn my “palava” into a “pavlova” when I complained about only having 500 Mb of RAM in my PDP.

I remember every Christmas party, especially the first one (with the obligatory bus disaster), supported by the many photos I enthusiastically took at the time. I recall projects I was involved in, from the sublime to the trivial, with such clarity that it’s hard to believe that some of them happened over 9 years ago now. My first job was upgrading the DSR VB6 application from Access 97 to Access 2000 (Dean’s handiwork, I believe). Aah, those were heady days of wonder and idealism!

At the same time though, there are some events that entirely escaped my notice: when did I learn to play office politics? When did I learn how to encourage people? When did I learn to make speeches? When did I learn to give guidance, or direction? For that matter, when did the words “guidance” and “direction” even begin to feature in my language? At what point precisely, did I grow up?

Grow up. I think that’s the right term.

I remember, many years ago, looking at senior people in the business and wishing I got paid as much as I assumed they did whilst wondering what it was exactly that they did. I remember wishing I knew how to progress in my career properly and not knowing much about how to get to where I wanted to be, or even where it was I wanted to be at all.

I do things today that would have terrified me 10 years ago. It’s not that things have become more complex, they’ve just become more uncertain. My primary mode of work has moved from using tools like Excel to writing Word documents, to preparing PowerPoint slides to the present day where much of my job seems to be just talking to people until something good happens.

Looking back on all those memories and especially the pictures of the time, I am reminded of how many people make up “Beca” in my mind who are no longer here, and how what once was a tight little team of people in “BAT” has matured and spread itself around, completely out of character with the original shape. Beca the company has changed so much as to be unrecognisable from itself 10 years ago.

Here’s an excerpt from a diary entry from around October 2005: “I also changed jobs from one that had me so busy I was literally on the verge of a nervous breakdown to a really good one that leaves me with way too much free time to think about things on the weekends… So, it wasn’t too surprising when, in about July of this year, I suddenly awoke to the realisation that I may not, in fact, be as straight as I thought.”
Yes, it turns out that 10 years is also longer than I have been conscious of my own sexuality.

You see, for me, Beca has never just been a place to go to earn money. Beca is a choice I made for myself 10 years ago and a choice I continue to make on a daily basis.

I know that may sound a bit corny, a bit like I have drunk too much of the corporate Kool-aid after all these years, but the more I reflect on it, the more I realise that it’s true.

I often refer to my move to Beca as my “first selfish choice”. That’s not to say that I haven’t been selfish in my life. Rather, I feel that deciding to leave my previous job and choose a job more suited to me was the first time I made a conscious decision to go for something that I wanted rather than to just slip quietly into the next phase of my life, as had always been expected of me. This one selfish choice triggered a cascade of choices which left me happier, more robust, and more integrated as a person. I have a lot to thank Beca for.

I thought for week for an appropriate conclusion to this speech, but I really couldn’t figure out how to end it, so I thought I would just say this. Freddy accuses me of loving my work too much, but he’s only partly right.

In my previous job, working for Cecil, I came to the realisation that I had made an emotional investment into the organisation itself and that an organisation or a company could not possibly reciprocate such an emotional investment. The best place to invest one’s emotions is in a person.

So Freddy is partly right, but it’s you that I love, not my work. I love you guys.

As a cohort you have changed as much if not more than I have over the last 10 years, but you remain in essence and in character the same. Thank you for being part of my journey for the last 10 years, you all mean the world to me.