Monday, June 20, 2011

Perth - A Chronology of Learnings

In Round 12 of the AFL (10-13 June) a three-day trip to Perth, primarily to see Essendon v. Fremantle, became a six-day adventure of mishap, mistake, luck and lessons.

Homelessness, ash clouds, anxiety, sleep depravation, medication withdrawal, chainsaw juggling, footy, beers and mates. It was memorable.

So I’m writing a recap, through a chronology of learnings.

Lesson 1: Melbourne's airport bus service (probably) isn't so bad
Buses have an enduring perception of being the inferior mode of public transport. I think it’s the absence of tracks – a reassuring visual cue that something will come be eventually to pick you up, and you can see exactly where its going (on Google Maps anyway).

I’ve bussed between many cities and airports yet, despite living in Richmond, using the SkyBus service to Melbourne airport had never even occurred to me before my English backpacker housemate did so.

Before I could get too far along that train (err, bus…) of thought though, my parents were offering – by which I mean ‘insisting’ – to drop me at the airport for my 10pm flight.

It was unnecessary, would actually be no quicker for me and a hassle for them, but I couldn’t refuse their needy generosity.

Before we’d even left tensions arose over my casual, ‘I’ll figure it out’ attitude to landing in Perth at 1am and getting to the hostel against their anxiety around a young man alone in dark streets.

I didn’t even know why they both needed to come to the airport to drop me off but tension was in the air, though Dad did attempt light conversation. But when the ride to the airport feels longer than the flight to Perth, you realise you probably made a bad choice. The SkyBus would have been so easy and peaceful.

Lesson 2: Sometimes your parent’s anxieties have some validity

Yet – and this is tough – their overbearing concerns weren’t entirely misplaced.

The taxi pulled up in Stirling Street, Northbridge, which I’d been led to believe was essentially Perth’s Richmond, and I wondered if he’d come to the wrong place. There was absolutely no sign of life, most disturbingly across the road within my hostel. For twenty minutes I sat on a milk crate at the front door, calling their phone number, ringing the doorbell and considering my options.

At 1.30am I walked towards the CBD, homeless.

Lesson 3: Don’t bet the house on the casino
Other than a few cars rolling by, the city was just as empty. To my mind, this left one option: somewhere that’s always open and welcomes all sorts – in fact the more desperate you are, the better. A place where everybody knows you’re lame – the casino. My iPhone told me the walk was less than 5km, which I know I can do in about 50 minutes. Decision made.

I walked briskly through dimly lit back streets – some illuminated by red lights shimmering off discarded goon bags – and along eerie pedestrian paths, finally arriving in Burswood after a more than an hour and a few wrong turns.

My dorm - night one
Inside the Burswood Entertainment Complex, exhausted but completely sober, dressed neatly and looking as pleasant as always, I walked 30 metres towards the casino entrance. It was an uneasy walk as my eyes darted around, unsure whether to look the two security guys in the eye and risk coming across as ‘hard-arse’ or avoiding eye-contact and looking dodgy. They let me in, but barely two steps on a third guy informed me I couldn’t come in wearing ‘work boots’. WTF?! My blundstones? I wear them nearly everywhere, but they’re not good enough for a casino? Being durable, comfortable and downright awesome, they were the only shoes I’d brought across. A little scuffed and worn, sure, but by no means dirty and certainly cleaner than the pants worn by many of those already shoving coins into machines just metres away.

My bed - night one
But arguing with security is like arguing with an umpire – you never change their mind, just steel their resolve – so, as it was no longer fun, I walked away.

The pleasant gentleman at the cloakroom where I’d left my bag was curious as to why I was collecting it so soon. I briefly explained my predicament.

‘Where are you from?’ he asked.
Nice. Thanks. Fuck off (this was my general attitude to Perth at this point).

Anyway he did kindly advise that my only, and unlikely, chance of finding somewhere open would be in Northbridge, but I certainly should not walk there.

So I stood at the top of the escalators leading out of the Burswood Entertainment Complex pondering where to spend the rest of the night. Nearby I spotted a little café, closed until 8am, with a bench and stools tucked discreetly around a corner. It offered the perfect spot to at least sit unnoticed by all passersby, visible only to those who looked closely in the reflection of the café’s glass shutters, which also offered me a reflective view of anyone walking past.

My third, and best bed - 'night' one
Eventually I fell asleep, waking a couple of hours later to the suspicious stare of a cleaner standing a couple of metres away. I stood and left my post, heading for my last option – the toilets. Toilet seat cover down, I sat and slumped against the tiled wall. The fived walled cubicle actually seemed relatively ergonomic with comfortable corners that facilitated a gentle snooze. I should have tried that first.

About 6.30am, I stepped out into the icy pre-dawn as glimmers of sunshine peeked over the horizon, and caught an early train back to Perth, where I trekked out to Kings Park, found a sunny patch of lush grass overlooking the city and slept some more.

Lesson 4: Get your accommodation booking confirmed.
Of course, a few weeks earlier I did speak to the hostel manager about the logistics of my arrival. It wasn’t until I eventually checked in – 12 hours late – that I found out they hadn’t forgotten me the night before, rather some poor sod had actually stayed up waiting for me the week before. But why, when in our conversation I had explicitly mentioned the long weekend?!

‘Yes, that was last weekend,’ replied the hostel manager.

Call it Melbourne arrogance to assume Western Australia would acknowledge the Queen’s Birthday public holiday on the same day as Victoria (and every other state), or West Australian detachment that – just because they are half the bloody country – the rest of us mightn’t be aware of their Foundation Day holiday the week before, but either way … whatever, now I had an actual bed.

Lesson 5: Realise why you’re really staying in a hostel
Not staying with the friends who had also travelled across to Perth, I imagined a hostel would provide a good mix of personal time to read and write, and opportunities to socialise and meet friendly new people.

I quickly realised this was a misguided fantasy. Or should that be ‘remembered’? I’ve stayed in enough hostels to know the reality. Usually there’s a strong clique among the long-term stayers, a group that is difficult to break into over a short couple of days without a lightning personality, and finding space to yourself is often impossible.

So it was away from the hostel that I sought both my socialising and solitude.

The other four guys in my five-bed dorm seemed to be members of the alpha clique. This could have been beneficial, but I never really met them, given our differing sleeping patterns. If I was going to make friends, I probably needed to do so before being too embarrassed by the possibility I’d snored kept them awake snoring like Chewbacca swallowed a chainsaw – even though they woke me up at 4am, stumbling into the room drunk, and again a couple of hours later as activity in the bunk below me shook my bed.

At least I got confirmation of my snoring on night two when I was woken by a football thrown at my head. Nope, friendships were not likely here.

So why book a bed in a hostel?

I did genuinely want to meet new and interesting people. Maybe it wasn't the ideal setting for me with just a couple of days and friends in town. Generally, I don’t like the isolation of ordinary hotels.

And, essentially, I am a tight-arse.

Lesson 6: Messed up plans create new opportunities
Saturday rolls round, this nomad is finally rested and eager to explore. Misfortune, or stupidity, struck again though, keeping me away from my planned visit to Rottnest Island. I paid $60 for the ferry and was instructed to board the bus at the bus stop just outside front in 20 minutes, which would take me to the ferry. I sat eating a muffin 30 metres away, closely watching the bus stop. A shuttle bus sat there marked with a tour company’s branding. That couldn’t be it, but the time had almost passed and I was starting to feel uneasy. Ten minutes past the scheduled leaving time I asked at the desk if I’d missed the bus. Yes I had, as the kind lady behind the desk explained, because the bus didn’t leave from its usual spot as there was a shuttle bus taking up the space.
Crazy Canadian juggling in Fremantle

My plans were ruined, but my money returned, so I decided to make the best of it and take the opportunity to explore Fremantle.

I loved Freo’s active, welcoming streets far more than the typical city streets of Perth full of retail and office blocks. I don’t want to shop; I want to see things like street performers juggle a grenade, machete and running chainsaw.

Lesson 7: Franchise restaurants take their food preparation quality consistency seriously
When one friend orders lasagne and it is served, sent back for being cold in the middle and re-served looking exactly as it did (cut open in the middle) upon being sent back, all well before the other two of us get our pizzas, you must question the integrity of the kitchen.

I’ve heard dodgy things about outlets of this particular franchise in Melbourne, so it offers further reason to avoid ‘La Salmonella’ (not real name).

Lesson 8: Do not travel to watch Essendon play

I should have learnt this after travelling to see Essendon lose to Adelaide by 96 points last year. But having been fortunately surrounded by sympathetic sufferers, we found ways to enjoy ourselves.

Anyway, it was match day – the reason we’d travelled all this way – and we were quietly confident of Essendon’s chances. I was anyway.

Late in the morning I got talking to a Canadian from the hostel who was going to try and get a couple of cheap tickets. Given that when I bought mine all that was available were $60 premium seats, I suspected his chances of getting a ticket at all, let alone cheap seats, were somewhere between buckley’s and none. But I didn’t have the heart to tell him.

On the ground (not me)
Sitting in the premium section, with the sun in my eyes and surrounded by Fremantle members I sat silently throughout the game, uncomfortable even giving gentle applause on the few appropriate occasions for Essendon, lest I break the deadly silence. 

Rubbing salt in the wound of a bad, totally unenjoyable loss was bumping into the Canadian back at the hostel who proudly produced a $27 ticket that had placed him in great seats on the opposite wing.

But we did get onto the ground after the game - half the reason I wanted to go to Subiaco.

Lesson 9: Shit happens – make the best of it, but be prepared
Talk had been growing about an ash cloud that was threatening flights in and out of Melbourne. Through the evening I checked various websites on my phone to find out if I should bother going to the airport for my 1.20am flight or organise accommodation for the night. I was almost at the airport when I found out it had been cancelled.

Again walking the dark streets, I found a nearby hotel and must say I was grateful to have my own room with TV!

I now wouldn’t be leaving for another two days – 1.20am Wednesday morning. Frustrating, but nothing anyone could do, and it’s not like I was in a desperate rush to return to work. Again, make the best of it.

Unfortunately I had packed for three days, not five, both in terms of clothes and anti-depressants. Silly boy.

I caught up on rest, again, and spent a little more time exploring Perth.

Tuesday night I sat in a pub with a pint, constantly checking the flight status through various websites. Déjà vu. Tiger issued a statement about 9.30pm Perth time confident that all flights would go ahead. Relief! Assurance! I finally knew where I’d be sleeping that night – even if it would be on a plane and minimally.

An hour and a half later, as I stepped into the terminal my heart sunk as I looked at the screen above the check-in desk and saw that horrible ‘C’ word. Word quickly spread through the line that there were no flights out available until Friday or Saturday. Half the people in line pulled out their iPhones and booked flights with other airlines. Myself included.

By the time I was at the check-in desk where they offered me a rescheduled flight or refund I had already booked a flight 10 hours later on Qantas.

Making the best of it at this point meant finding somewhere to lie down and see if I could get some sleep. Bodies lay scattered around the terminal, as if a massacre had taken place. It was bloody cold, I guess they don’t worry too much about heating the terminal when there were no flights coming or going and all the desks were closed.

Having been mistakenly, cruelly, told 20 minutes before boarding that all flights for the day were cancelled, mine did in fact leave – one of the last flights out before all flights in and out of Perth were cancelled.

Lesson 10: Appreciate the benefits of your parents anxieties
In a final twist to the weekend that brought things frustratingly full circle, the intrusion of my parents into my life came in handy in no small measure.

Boarding the SkyBus at Melbourne airport, my over-exhausted body collapsed as soon as I sat down. I have no idea how long I was asleep before waking up to strangers standing around, asking if I was ok and applying an oxygen mask. In a dream-like fashion, I had no idea what was going on but didn’t find it particularly unusual. I was so exhausted that I just said ‘yeah, I’m fine,’ accepted whatever was happening and went back to sleep. The next time I woke I was asked if I could stand and walk – ‘why wouldn’t I be able to?’ I wondered – and bundled into an ambulance.

Seems I started shaking in my sleep and someone called an ambulance. Luckily for me, my mum paid my ambulance membership years ago and, as the bills have been arriving at their house, she has been renewing it each year. As the paramedics asked if I was a member, I produced the card, admitting I had no idea if it was still valid. It’s something I’d be likely to overlook, for cost, procrastination or sheer laziness. THANK YOU MUM!

And so, after a few hours of tests in St Vincent’s hospital, my adventure was finally over and I was home; even if it wasn’t my actual home, but my parents’. I know exactly how Mum would feel about that sentiment though.

Perth was not just memorable, but fun. When I go back, and I will, maybe even for an Essendon game, I’ll stay in Fremantle, I’ll book flights with Virgin, I’ll be more organised while still leaving plenty of scope for unforseen adventure and I will not return to Burswood.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Reading Ulysses - Yobbo or Wanker?

"You're a yob, or you're wanker, make your fuckin' choice
So who is your favourite genius: James Hird or James Joyce?"

- 'What Are Ya?', TISM'

This song was my first exposure to the giant name of literature that is James Joyce. I am a lifelong Essendon fan so clearly my favourite genius was James Hird. Making me a yobbo. But, really I always thought I fit better in the wanker category (only if choosing between the two!).

I'd probably heard of Ulysses, but I knew little about it - or Joyce - until a few months ago. This was my blessing (naivety) and my curse (as someone who studied Literature briefly in University, somewhat of a blight on my cred).

Having decided to read a lot more this year than last, when I read a LOT more than 2009, I've been keeping an eye out for good reads, and in my 'research', stumbled on this blog post from Grog's Gamut. I subsequently added a few to my list, and for some reason thought it a good idea to start with Ulysses.

Firstly, do not borrow this book from a library unless you have a stack of free days, being about 1000 pages long. It's a tough read - the last chapter, with four sentences in its 80 pages, almost suffocated me as I stood in front of the mirror reciting it aloud. I renewed it once, returned it late and was under constant pressure to keep to deadline. That had positive and negative affects.

Most importantly, it meant I actually kept at it - I was determined to finish, but could have easily given it a miss a couple of times and ended up never coming back. It also affected the way I read. Historically I have read very carefully, slowly and methodically. This stems from my OCD when I re-read sentences over and over to be sure of the content, and I'm trying to shake the remnants of these habits.

Reading a massive book like Ulysses forced me to keep moving at a steady pace and not stop too much to assure myself of any sentences or situations that I didn't feel I explicitly understood, because frankly, I didn't understand much of what was going on and I would have probably wasted time mulling over the things that I was able to figure out and probably already had subconsciously.

If I had have read at a pace where I made sure I understood everything that was going on I think it would have taken me 6 months, instead of 6 weeks, to read. That said, with a little more time I could have contemplated things a bit more as I went in a constructive way, when, in actual fact, I feel like I rushed it, especially towards the exhausting end.

Ulysses is 1000 pages of dense, sophisticated writing. There's no doubt Joyce is a clever, highly talented writer. But most of it went over my head. I'd need to have studied it at Uni in a class setting to have fully appreciated it. And I did read chapter notes on Wikipedia as I went, in order to keep up - two or three sentences that neatly summed up 80 or so pages.

At about page 900 I thought 'Hey, I'm following this! I know what's going on! I both get it and enjoy it!' Then, about 20 pages later, I lost it.

Is its complexity and potential pretentiousness what makes it great? That it is difficult to comprehend? That it can elevate those who understand and appreciate it (and those who pretend to) to a cultural elitism? (I should note, I'm not putting all Joyce lovers in the derogatory 'elite' category, especially not my dear friend who is studying Joyce for her thesis :o) )

Do you judge something on its complexity or its ability to connect with the audience, its timelessness and its strength of content? Simple writing can achieve these criteria just as well, but I'll admit that something layered and complex, when comprehended, can have more impact when you have the 'lightbulb moment' and you feel that you 'created' the message in a way through your achieved understanding. Or it can have less. I'm not sure it matters, use the simplicity/complexity tool as appropriate. If Joyce achieved the work he wanted then no, he shouldn't dumb it down to broaden its appeal. Formulaic and mass-produced is the enemy of art, not simplicity.

What does that mean for its stature? Not much really. All those questions do not intend to be as critical as they seem - of the book or those who love it. Given I didn't really understand the book, they are the kinds of questions I was left with, and I don't know the absolute answer to them. But that's what this - writing - is all about right?!
I can't say outright it's not the greatest novel ever written, but I've read many, and will no doubt read many more, that have had a greater impact on me. From a personal level that's really all that matters. And overall ranking of novels, as much as music, is a subjective, pointless exercise.

Maybe someday I'll read it again - when I'm feeling more capable.

Until then, I guess if my choice is Hird or Joyce, I'm a yobbo. But if we're discussing music, I'm probably, and proudly, a wanker. Most TISM fans probably are!

I trust the genius of Joyce is accessible to those with the right imagination, perception and energy ... and someday, when I've increased my verbal intelligence, have a little more time and patience, and James Hird has long-since been sacked (not before winning a couple of premierships for Essendon), I'll sit down and reconsider.

Happy Bloomsday :o)

PS. still taking book recommendations - mainly fiction, I can find my own non-fiction more easily.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

How OCD ruined my potential tennis career

I step up to the line, ball in hand, bounce it a few times – probably four – and make a conscious effort to push uncomfortable thoughts out of my head. My mind feels as though it is balanced finely on the edge of stable footing and anxious free-fall, torn in two equally destructive directions – to drive myself insane trying to maintain a sense of stability or let go and plummet into the black depths of my fears.

As I pour mental energy and focus into keeping intrusive, distracting, anxiety-inducing thoughts out, I simultaneously feel a strong urge to let go and have them flood into my head. The desire to give in is immense – and has a rational basis, but one I do not have time to explore at this moment to attain the certainty necessary to follow that path.

I bounce the ball four more times in a ritualistic attempt to clean the slate, start the mental process again and approach this with a clear, focused mind.

I throw the ball in the air, lose my mental grip and have a troubling thought about wanting the devil to help me win this point (at various stages of my life a terrifying thought). Anxiety shoots out in all directions from my stomach and I’m still in the process of serving the ball. My mind is jerked away from the process of delivering it cleanly and precisely to my opponent and the ball flies horribly off-target.

This is what playing tennis has been like for me for much of my life, with the subject of the anxiety shifting in accordance with whatever was my main obsession at the time. I played regular competition tennis from the age of around ten until about 18 months ago. It wasn’t always that bad – and I did actually win plenty of points too – but that’s an example of the things that would be going through my mind while my teammates and opponents had the (frankly, unfair) advantage of focusing on the game. Efforts to avoid such situations and keep my mind on track were just as distracting as when I succumbed to troubling thoughts.

On the whole, I like tennis. But I found it terribly difficult mentally, and entirely unenjoyable, at times when I didn’t have my obsessive thinking under control – whether it was thoughts based around religion, health or any of the various other issues of recurring concern.

Tennis has been unique in this way. Let me chase a basketball or football around – in organised competition or leisurely play – and I generally found it pretty easy to focus. Those activities offer great distractions, even circuit-breakers to get my mind out of a negative cycle of thoughts, and provide fresh perspective once I’m finished, untainted by whatever anxiety may have been eating at me beforehand. Even golf, which tests my patience and ability to clear my mind, still doesn’t demand the continual focus that tennis does in a way that doesn’t come naturally to me. Precision and measured restraint haven’t tended to be my thing, I’d rather go hell-for-leather chasing a ball! Maybe why my ability to chase down shots is my best, and only reliable, strength in tennis!

However, my more-social-than-competitive tennis team has been on potentially permanent hiatus for the past 18 months.

I remember dreading the Wednesday night matches most weeks. – checking the Bureau of Meteorology website repeatedly throughout the day in the hope of a washout, and spending the couple of hours between work the match trying desperately to get my head into a rational, clear, free-flowing state. There were few places I felt more vulnerable to my thoughts than on the tennis court. Sometimes I saw this as an opportunity to push along my recovery, sometimes it scared me.

Three main factors were at play: the self-fulfilling fear of unwanted thoughts causing anxiety, the constant breaks in play that allow time to ponder, and the feeling of entrapment that I couldn’t get away and find the space to think through and rationalise my fear as I could in many other situations. So if I had a thought that caused concern, I had to keep it in the back of my mind to address at the end of the night.

On nights where I was particularly anxious and affected by these thoughts it completely consumed my thinking. For sports like tennis and golf that require a particularly high degree of precision, I’m know I’m not alone in my performance being inextricably tied to my headspace and ability to clear it. So when it did consume me I played particularly badly, struggled to keep score, and was distant.

Ironically, I could have a good game of basketball if my precision in terms of shooting was off by contributing in other ways (endeavour and hussle!!), but again, I find it much easier to focus my mind purely within the boundary of the court for the entire 40 minutes when I play. That still doesn’t mean my shooting is much good.

I spent a weekend in Warrnambool a few years ago with a few friends, where we played in the annual club championships. It was here I suffered my most embarrassing bout of nerve-related anxiety. When my doubles partner and I were informed that our low-grade, first round doubles match would be played on the second most prominent court, in view of hundreds of people, I may as well have given up on the spot. We lost 6-1 I think (I think Warren and I were able to put together a game where he hit a few winners and I avoided the ball enough to win it). I barely hit two shots into play for the whole set. I also hit multiple serves not just outside the service box, but over the fence and onto adjacent courts. That is, I did so multiple times in one service game.

I hurried off court and back to our hotel, drank a bottle of whiskey and drafted my a media release announcing my retirement. We were all able to laugh about it later on – almost immediately actually – some more than others.

Last week in my first competitive match since taking big steps forward with my OCD over the past 6-12 months, I played one of the best games I’ve played in years. Being placed back in an environment that I associate closely with that anxiety did affect me a little, and would have previously set me on a slippery slope down into mental chaos. However, I accepted the mild anxiety and dealt with it pretty well.

I was pretty pleased with myself, and it was another marker of the progress I’ve made.

So, yeah… the point of this post is pretty much ‘Yay me!’ :o)

ps. The result of last week's match is unimportant.

pps. No I never really wanted a tennis career. How tedious.