Today is my 42nd birthday. I don’t think anyone knows this about me but 42 has been a big secret milestone in my head ever since I was about 13 years old… Three decades ago. That sounds weird to say out loud.
Why 42? Apart for it being the answer to the question about life, the universe and everything? Well, you see, that was the age at which I remember my father re-marrying. I remember distinctly, she was 21, he was 42, and I promised myself then and there at the tender age of 13 that I would go a different path to my father somehow. I wasn’t really sure how, but one of my goals was “marry someone more than half your age”.
You see, I’ve always quite similar to my father. In fact, when I was a child I used to think that he could read my thoughts. I would play a game where I would think of a word and see if he would say that same word later on. The words matched up enough that I decided to stop playing that game.
Looking at my father’s trajectory in life, the decisions he made and the situation he was in at 42, I promised myself I would do whatever I could do be different to him, to choose a different path.
That’s not to say that I think my father was a bad person. More the contrary: he was a very helping and giving person. He was the kind of person who would run towards danger. On many an occasion I saw him run towards where someone was screaming, or put himself in harms way to help others. He was always giving: giving, giving, giving. He developed strong Christian values and he tried hard to hold himself to those throughout his life.
So what was it about Dad that I wanted to avoid? Well when I was younger I wanted to avoid the kinds of relationship mistakes I saw him making. He got himself involved with very troubled people. Jumped in to look after them. The most dramatic of which was marrying someone half his age who happened to need a lot of support. I guess part of me felt like the imbalance of power was a “Bad Thing”. By taking on a partner who needed a lot of support, it was kind of like taking on another child. He controlled most aspects of her life for reasons he felt were for her own good.
As I got older, I started to sympathise more. He got into his relationship to help people after all. I got into relationships to help people too and I realised how being a helper can actually be really bad for me. For many years I pitied my father for the mistakes he had made and the people who had taken advantage of his sweet and giving nature. I promised myself I wouldn’t be anyone else’s crutch. I wouldn’t light myself on fire to keep the world warm…. but I did, of course I did, I am my father’s son after all.
I can point to past relationships where I found myself in that position. In fact, when I was 26, my second boyfriend turned out to be quite troubled. I had to make a decision: do I stick with this person for the rest of my life and be their live-in crutch or let them go? Learning the lesson from my father I let him go.. and I am glad to say he landed on his feet, stronger than ever (it took years though). Dad chose not to let go, and he effectively looked after someone 24/7 for over 25 years. I felt sorry for him. But I don’t feel sorry for the brother and sister that I am blessed with as a result.
More recently, though, I have learnt that “victim” and “rescuer” are two roles in a game played by many people all the time. You could point to the “victim” and blame them, or the “persecutor” who hurt the victim, or you could indeed blame the “rescuer” themselves. You can read more about it in the Karpman Drama Triangle.
Take this song “drive” for instance:
In this song, the singer is singing to someone who needs help, someone who can’t look after themselves. The singer is saying “who’s gonna drive you home?” the implication is that the person they are singing to (a) needs help of some sort, needs to be rescued and (b) cannot drive / rescue themselves.
I used to think of this song as a rather caring and sweet love song. Of a lover who just cares so much for their partner who they just can’t get through to. Someone stubborn who just won’t accept help, who keeps getting into difficult situations again and again, and needs to be helped, needs to be rescued.
But I suggest to you a different reading.
What if this was entirely one-sided. What if the singer (the rescuer) is trying to help this person who doesn’t want or need to be helped? What if this person is, in fact, perfectly capable of driving themselves and if the singer would just leave them alone, they would be OK?
You see, it takes two to play a game. If “victims” draw people in to help fic their problems, then “rescuers” impose themselves upon others to fix those problems.
You see, it’s all about boundaries.
And this is the lesson I have learnt from my father, this is the thing I am now hoping I get right over the next period of my life. I hope I have learnt to see and understand someone who is suffering, to have empathy and compassion for them but to resist the urge to step in and fix things. Not because doing so puts me in harms way (because it does) but because by stepping in and interfering with someone else’s life is overstepping a boundary and taking some of their agency away from them. Rescuing is not always helping and some people need to learn to drive for themselves.
Enter Tim. Tim is unlike most of my past partners in that he is a helper like me. Like me and my father he has also found himself in relationships where he’s “helping” more than he should. Tim and I have been together for a little over a year now and it’s been interesting to see how his “helper” behaviours line up with mine. I am optimistic that meeting my big dorky boyfriend Tim is in part my secret to finding a path different from my father’s.
We’re both helpers, neither of us need help, and both of us say “sorry” more than we should. I have a good feeling about this and I am very happy.
He also lets me drive whenever I want to, which lets be honest is all of the time.
“You just like this song because it doesn’t make any sense” the accusation was leveled at me by my Zoomer friend over Discord as I tried to inexpertly play the tune for him on the guitar. It’s a little rich for a Zoomer, whose meme’s are intentionally uninteligible, complain about things not making sense, so I chuckled.
But it’s honestly hard to explain what a big impact this song has made on me and why. It manages to capture a whole moment in time. This time, our time. But also a feeling.
The song itself is “That funny feeling” from Bo Burnham’s new comedy special entitled “inside”. I encourage all of you to watch it, like and subscribe. Please please go watch that show before you continue reading this. It’s on Netflix… ironically.
Last weekend I was feeling a little down about lockdown here in Melbourne (lockdown 6 going on 7 at time of writing) and so idly picked up the guitar for another attempt. This song had been on my mind, so I started trying the chords and singing along…
Now, every break I get whether it be after a long meeting or before dinner, I am drawn to the guitar to play this and other songs.
Above is my best attempt at the song so far. I’d like to spend some time going through the lyrics and analysing them. As you listen to the song, imagine someone scrolling through Twitter on their phone.
One thing you don’t see in my rendition above is Bo’s visuals, which are important because this song sits itself in a context. It comes right after the super surreal “smile” gag and the stand up comedy where he says some pretty unhinged things about the “inside” digital life being more important than the outside one. All while sitting down on a bar stool in his undies.
The immediate next scene is a close up of a stage light, with the sound of a crackling fire, all meant to capture a campfire moment, a very distinctly “outside” experience. But it’s fake. It’s all obviously fake. So fake in fact that many people I have watched with this have laughed at this juxtaposition.
But this juxtaposition is (in my view) precisely what this song is all about. Throughout the lyrics we’re going to hear things that are incongruous, things that don’t fit. A general feeling of “fakeness” or insincerity. This fakeness is something Bo talks about a lot, he often comments on the “unreal” nature of para-social relationships (the relationship, for example between YouTube content creators such as himself and his audience). He often comments on the insincere way in which we are create a representation of ourselves on social media (see his other wonderful song, White Woman’s Instagram. But that’s not the kind of fakeness he means in this instance. In this instance, he means the world itself is fake.
He starts the song with an uncharacteristic preamble:
“I can’t really, uh, play the guitar very well, um, or sing, so, uh, a-apologies.”
This is, on the face of it, a lie. We have just heard him singing for almost an hour. He’s an accomplished musician who has curated every moment of this experience for us. The fact we saw a few beats of his lighting (the first time we have seen it) and the fact that he makes this claim that he can’t sing means something. These are both fake on face of them, we know they re fake, yet we’re invited to play along and to suspend our disbelief. To listen to an accomplished musician play and sing for us – something they say they can’t do very well.
This sets the tone for the whole song. It’s a song about this kind of creeping fakeness or unreality that we find ourselves in. Not necessarily caused by the Internet but pervasive in our culture in general. I argue that every single stanza in this song is about this uneasy juxtaposition, this unreal reality we find ourselves in. Every stanza is also something you might easily find on Twitter.
Stunning 8K-resolution meditation app
There’s that juxtaposition. Meditation is a very human, personal spiritual thing which has existed since people have existed. Apps exist too, but but 8k? stunning? Why? These are just adjectives we ascribe to technology products to make them sound cool. The number of pixels in your meditation app is not going to improve your meditation experience. Here we’re contrasting the very human and private thing this insincere technophile sales language.
In honor of the revolution, it’s half-off at the Gap
This could be referring to the app itself being on sale, or some other thing that honours the “revolution”. But nonetheless once again, the idea that anything in honour of a “revolution” be sold at a store is speaking to the idea of “manufactured consent”, the idea that even something that intends to fight against the system (such as a revolution) can itself be commodified into something to be sold.
Deadpool is a comic book character who continuously breaks the fourth wall. Deadpool often creates that uneasy feeling for the viewer, he breaks the spell of the suspension of disbelief and has us questioning the unreality of what we’re experiencing. Our own self-awareness is itself a contradiction because as Bo mentioned in another sketch, we sometimes use that self-awareness as a means of deflecting criticism.
So, what the heck is this doing here in this rather morose song? I think this could be talking about the appearance of loving parents. The term “loving parents” sometimes used sarcastically to refer to people who have actually done harm to their kids.
Here, I think Bo invites us to consider that the term “harmless fun” can itself be a contradiction or an oxymoron. Usually when people use the term “harmless fun” it’s in the context of “just a joke bro”.
The backlash to the backlash to the thing that’s just begun
This is a common experience on Twitter. People like to be outraged by something they see or hear, and the outrage itself produces more outrage. I think Bo is suggesting that the negative vitriolic commentary in response to the negative vitriolic commentary to some thing can nowadays happen at the same time as the thing. And in this case, it’s the backlash, or the backlash to the backlash that is more harmful (and faster to spread) than the thing in the first place.
[Chorus] There it is again That funny feeling That funny feeling There it is again That funny feeling That funny feeling
I think that funny feeling is that uneasy sensation that the world around you is somehow wrong, without really being able to put your finger on it. The chorus kicks in as soon as he describes something unsettling, which every stanza is.
[Verse 2] The surgeon general’s pop-up shop,
This seems to be referring to the testing clinics (vaccines hadn’t been invented yet) that “popped up” during the pandemic. “pop-up shop” however cheapens this idea somewhat from being something that’s for the public good to something that’s now a commodity, just like everything else.
Robert Iger’s face
Robert Iger was the head of Disney for quite some time. Perhaps this is referring to the incongruity of a man in charge of entertainment targeting children behaving the way Robert Iger does. Robert Iger’s face is also something you would likely see randomly pop up on Twitter.
Discount Etsy agitprop,
I adore this line. Etsy is a website where people can sell handcrafted things. Agitprop is specifically communist propaganda. So we have communist propaganda being sold at a discount through the capitalist system represented by Etsy. Even the propaganda has been commodified.
Bugles’ take on race
Bugles are chips, and their social media account on Twitter probably has made some takes on twitter. But that juxtaposition of a brand making social commentary about race is once again unsettling. Bo comments on this in another one of his sketches in the show.
Female Colonel Sanders,
Another brand comment. Reba McIntire was cast as Colonel Sanders in 2018 so it’s about the right time for Burnham to be singing about it. Taken along with the Bugles line, it’s likely that Bo is referring here to a bit of an insincere habit of companies to create representation for its own sake. Just like Bugles commenting on race to appeal to a market, so too might KFC switch the Colonel to be female in order to cynically appeal to that demographic for a purely marketing reason.
This kind of fake representation: chips commenting on race and gender swapping a company mascot in an insincere way are all easy answers to a real and growing problem of inequality. Easy answers are often the wrong ones, representation doesn’t necessary fix the underlying problems,
I think this refers to both the “culture war” underway in America but also the juxtaposition of these ideas. This war is a natural consequence of failure to address problems and using easy answers. Also, how can a war be civil anyway?
The whole world at your fingertips, the ocean at your door
The whole world at your fingertips referring of course to our mobile phones. In the context of “inside” this is presented as a good thing but also potentially harmful. The ocean at your door refers to the climate crisis, spurred on by our insatiable need for energy to run things like our phones and the Internet. We have traded convenience for potential existential threat. This is a theme throughout this song.
The live-action Lion King,
This movie has been criticised heavily for giving up the beauty of animation for “realistic” 3D. On the one hand, the characters look “more real” because the animation is more like real animals, but the characters are also “less real” because they are less expressive. This is a Disney movie, so relates to Robert Iger.
the Pepsi Halftime Show
I don’t really have any thought about this one, it’s a pretty American phenomenon.
Twenty-thousand years of this; seven more to go
This one bites for me. This is an obvious commentary on how we have been around as a species for a very long time, but if we’re not careful, we might not be around very much longer.
A reference to the TV series by James Cordon. It’s set up to seem like a spontaneous unscripted show but it’s of course heavily scripted.
Steve Aoki, Logan Paul
Steve Aoki is a popular DJ and Logan Paul is a popular YouTube personality. I don’t know much about them but I assume this is a commentary on the nature of parasocial relationships and the insincerity we end up projecting into the world through social media.
A gift shop at the gun range, a mass shooting at the mall
These are both real things of course. I have been to a gift shop at a gun range. The juxtaposition here is that these things are obviously the wrong way around. You should be shooting at the range and buying gifts at the mall. We all intuitively understand, of course, the devastating impact of a “shooting at a mall”.
Reading Pornhub’s terms of service,
No one ever does this, no one reads the terms of service, but one might do if one was stuck home for months on end in a pandemic. Perhaps the juxtaposition here is the expectation that we might read the terms of service for something like Porn Hub.
going for a drive And obeying all the traffic laws in Grand Theft Auto V
GTA 5 is a game where you literally get paid when you run people over. Obeying the traffic laws is something you would do if you were extremely bored (similarly to reading the terms of service). It’s a weird thing to do, it feels weird and out of place.
Full agoraphobic, losing focus, cover blown
This could be referring to the experience within the game or in real life. Agoraphobes are afraid of “open spaces” and so tend to stay indoors. Given his history I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham was agoraphobic. “Cover blown” makes sense in the context of GTA 5 (your cover can be blown by the cops) but also could refer to an agoraphobe having a panic attack in a public space.
A book on getting better hand-delivered by a drone
Sweet sweet irony. A book on getting better so you can go outside delivered by a drone (so you don’t have to go outside). Also “hand-delivered by a drone” itself is a nice juxtaposition of a human hand with the action of a drone.
Total disassociation, fully out your mind
Dissociation is where you disconnect from your thoughts or feelings. It’s a very scary thing to have happen or to watch happen. This could be a developing panic attack from having your “cover blown” as an agoraphobe outside.
Googling derealization, hating what you find
Derealisation is that feeling that the world around you is “unreal”. I think this “unrealness” is that funny feeling Bo is singing about. All of the lines in the song refer to a fakeness or unrealness in the world.
That unapparent Summer air in early Fall
That funny feeling of summer during autumn, the forshadowing of climate change.
The quiet comprehending of the ending of it all
That funny feeling of dawning understanding of what everything will end like (through climate change), but also the ending of our own personal existence (suicidal ideation).
[Chorus] There it is again That funny feeling That funny feeling There it is again That funny feeling That funny feeling
[Outro] Hey, what can you say? We were overdue
This was actually a commentary that we made to ourselves during the pandemic. “Oh yeah, we were overdue a global pandemic, about time for it”, but this could also refer to us being overdue the end of our civilisation.
But it’ll be over soon You wait
It will be over soon, we have been telling ourselves this pandemic will be over soon. But it could refer to our civilisation being over soon.
To me then, that last lyric takes on a sinister and ominous tone “you wait”… for the end of our civilisation.
So, if I were to come to any kind of conclusion it’s that the song “that funny feeling” captures what it was like doomscrolling on Twitter in 2019.
I have started dating again, which has been quite a fun and novel experience. Novel in part because Tim (the guy I am seeing) is a fair bit taller and bigger than I am.
Because I’m about 6 foot myself, most of the people I have dated in the past have been shorter than me. This relatively minor change has led to some fun differences to explore.
I see masculinity and femininity as socially constructed and things that we take on consciously or unconsciously based on social expectations. A simple example might be leading and following when dancing. A dance is a socially constructed activity. We made the rules up. The idea that it’s masculine to lead and feminine to follow is socially constructed, entirely made up. For gay men, since we don’t neatly fit into boy/girl, we kind of have to consciously decide when dancing: who is going to be the girl? My first time ever at a gay bar (the Round Up in Texas) I had to “follow” for the first time, which was a bewildering and fun experience.
Another such example is linking arms. Who puts their hand into who’s arm? Sounds simple doesn’t it? I know from personal experience, however, that it’s a nice feeling to have someone you care about hanging off your arm. It might be simple, but it’s quite an important social gesture.
So this is how I often find myself making my way around town: hand firmly embedded in Tim’s elbow, definitely the feminine option, definitely something I have never done before, and definitely something that I like.
And so now we get to the subject of this post: Pride. Specifically: Gay Pride.
I know that some people think being “proud” of one’s sexuality is a bit silly. No more meaningful than being proud of, say, being right-handed or having red hair. But this perspective somewhat misses the point. When people talk about “gay pride” they don’t mean pride in the sense of being egotistical, they more accurately mean “not-shame”. It’s so easy to be shamed into silence, to hide who we are. Pride is a reminder to us all to abandon that shame for something else.
You see, linking arms like this is quite a statement, quite an unambiguous statement for two men to make anyway. When you take on this more feminine role and make this social gesture, you’re exposing a truth out to the world which the world may come back and respond to… and respond they do.
We were walking back from dinner in Brunswick, which happens to be a lovely progressive hipster part of Melbourne: one of the most hipster cities in the world. As we were walking, a group of rowdy young men approached. The kind of boisterous hooligans that I might have been scared of when I was back in high school a quarter century ago.
The thought crossed my mind: do I keep my hand where it is or let go? If I expose us as a gay couple I invite any number of responses depending on what’s going on for those boys. It’s unfortunately a calculation we have to make often with every interaction and every chance encounter: who knows what and how might they react? Am I in danger?
For example, Tim is reluctant to travel with me to Fiji or Singapore because he wants to be able to hold hands without the fear of being put in jail, but I am far more optimistic.
For me it in this moment was an easy decision: I’m not going to change how I behave. They could deal with it, and I could deal with them.
Sure enough, as they passed by one of them remarked incredulously “he’s a faggot?”. I squeezed Tim’s arm “don’t mind them” I said quietly.
“Oh, I don’t” he responded breezily. “You’ll notice they waited till they were well past us to say that, and besides, it wasn’t a challenge, more of a question. Anyway, for all we know, one of them is secretly gay himself and it would be good for him to see a positive role model after all.”
And in some ways I hope it does. I hope that maybe seeing two happy confident grown men just being themselves will maybe change some hearts and minds and help others feel more comfortable with themselves. That’s what pride is all about after all.
We still have a long way to go. That’s not the only time I have been called a faggot in Brunswick. The other time a gentleman took the time to lean out of his car window to declare us faggots as he drove by. To which I responded by flipping him the bird as all good Christian boys do.
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:
thawing food for dinner
looking for a CD for a friend
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The usually beautiful Australian sunset was even more striking though, given the smoke and dust in the air.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
No that’s not practical yet
Have an impact
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.