Saturday 30 November 2013

How to leave a bad relationship: My story

I'm reminded of this version of me - office employee, two young children, two-bedroom apartment rented in northern Yokohama, stay-at-home wife - when I see the stories about Lisa Harnum, the young woman who, it turns out, was thrown in a jealous rage off a Sydney city apartment balcony by her then-boyfriend Simon Gittany. Harnum had wanted out, it seems, and had "been planning to go[,] leaving bags of clothes with her personal trainer and a counsellor so that Gittany's suspicions would not be aroused, and discussing one-way flights back to Canada with her mother."

This is what strikes a chord in recollecting my own life back then, in 1999, when things had started to go sour. I had been moved around at work to different groups but the main source of anxiety was domestic, in which sphere there was a chill as my then-wife and I had become estranged to such a degree that not only did we sleep in separate rooms but conjugal intimacy had long ceased. If you can see a half-smile in this photo, if there's a shadow of unease infecting the features of this chap, if he looks a bit care-worn and tired, then these are the reasons. This guy is just making it through each day. Domestic violence may be physical and controlling - as in the case of Harnum, who lived under the gaze of surveillance cameras installed in her home by Gittany - but it can also be psychological, with anxiety fed by attacks in verbal form. This man is on edge despite the fact that the photo is cropped to remove the faces of his two children.

You'll notice that I'm wearing a sweater. It's a style of sweater that was once fashionable, and it was warm. In Japan in the winter it gets very cold and it often snows over the New Year, a time of celebration for all of its people. The cold is important here because it was in the context of freezing weather that my then-wife told me to leave one night that year. That night she sat on the floor in front of the couch where I was perched and, for six straight hours, screamed out her frustrations at me. Leave, she said, or I'll cut up your work clothes. She headed to my bedroom, where my closet stood, brandishing scissors. The crisis had arrived, but I had for some time suspected that this was how it would work out and so for months I had put away part of my weekly allowance - forgoing my much-needed lunch on many occasions - so that I would have funds available if things came to a head.

The car, a green 7-seater Toyota, was loaded with my belongings. The December night was freezing cold and I camped out in a room in the apartment of my parents-in-law for that night and the next because I still had to go to work. I drove south deeper into Yokohama after work on one of those days to secure a letter of recommendation from an old friend (a man who died, I learned recently, in September just past) so that the real estate agent would accept my application to rent a small unit located above a small factory about 15 minutes, by bus, from the train station I had always used to go to work. Japanese landlords do not like renting to foreigners, and my friend's letter was a kind of passport. So within several days I had moved into a new home. I had managed the transition without taking too much time off work - just a couple of days' leave; I remember calling the department chief to explain the need for time - and had done so on my own coin. Those 10,000-yen notes I had put away had served their purpose. I was free of the accusations, the shouting, the complaints. My life would never be the same again.

Friday 29 November 2013

Recollections of the manager from hell

I started working on a short-term contract at the university in mid-2003 and one of my first jobs was designing a website to deliver technical documents to staff, which went so well that a couple of years later I was hired on a continuing basis by the organisation. Things were looking promising and in 2006 I started a part-time degree in media, a long-time interest of mine. But cracks started to appear. Some people in the university did not like the website, it seemed, although noone came directly to me to talk about their concerns. Then my manager was let go midway through that year. I was not asked to step into his role and spent the following year completing my degree, performing my normal technical writing duties, and also writing stories for internal communications vehicles. I was told I was going to be promoted.

At the end of the year, I was asked if I'd like to join a new team focusing specifically on training, an area my work as a technical writer qualified me for; my work to that point had been writing training documents and other materials for users of the university's student administration system. I was told, "you’re heading for bigger and better things" than doing internal communications. I was also told that I would approve of the choice of the new manager, and soon another person moved down to where I worked and we began to set up shop. In early 2008 we moved our location to another building and eventually the new manager did turn up: a woman I'd worked with previously in my training role. But things started to sour.

I felt that she did not like me. If I had occasion to go to her desk, to explain something on the computer screen, for example, she would back away as if proximity to me were repulsive. The words she used also caused stress. "I suppose I'll have to find something for you to do today." "Whatever." “I want to make it perfectly clear once and for all that when I ask you to do something, you must do as I say.” “My impression is that there are too many words.” Other factors in my life at the time these things took place (March to June 2008) led to a psychotic episode, which was part of an illness that I had, but the toxic atmosphere produced by my manager exacerbated my condition. There was no allowance made for the illness and the only mention of it centred around my performing reduced duties, which made me even more anxious. Now, reading my chronicle of those dark times, I feel my heart rate increase, I feel my throat constrict as if I might cry, and I feel a tightness in my chest. It was so unfair, and although these things happened five years ago the memory of the constant humiliation resists dislocation; it can be, sometimes, as if I am still there, in the little room on top of the old brick building with the frogs sounding loudly outside the windows.

At the end of the year my position was made redundant. Conditional on completing a training course I was invited to apply for one of the new training roles that were to be created. After the shock of losing my job had passed I decided that I wanted nothing more to do with the woman who had become my manager from hell. I wanted to be a journalist. I left the university in March 2009.

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Google Glass: Have people really thought this through?

Thinking about the socmedisation of meatspace I'm not sure that your average person has really thought about the consequences. Online, we tailor our messages for a specific public in certain controlled ways, knowing that all we are is a stream of text and images, set pristinely at a distance from those who consume what we post. So we can be quite revelatory, showing aspects of ourselves that we would never introduce into conversation in meatspace. With Google Glasses, of course, we're talking about a level of engagement that occurs well in advance of that required for a conversation; we're talking about ourselves being tagged so that others walking down the street have access to information about us.

How much control will we want to exercise in such a situation? Would we really be happy if Google Glass showed passersby what we had recently posted on Facebook? I sincerely doubt it. But the tendency once the technology has been adequately realised will be toward more revelation, rather than less. It's hard enough now in Facebook to stop the application using the scraps of information it possesses about me to serve up targeted ads designed to pique my interest. (Let alone how successful or otherwise that activity actually is.) And socmed platforms like Google itself are going around the virtual online walls and harvesting related information from many places, where it can positively identify who I am. In meatspace once there is the likelihood of a company - which may not even exist yet - using information about me to sell products to other companies (say, through advertising) then the gloves are going to be off. In such an environment, you may want to be careful what information you show to the people walking past you down the city street.

I wonder just how it's going to work, anyway. Will we see barcodes attached to everything from storefronts to individuals to cars to bicycles? If someone's Google Glass catches sight of a barcode, just what information is going to be visible to the wearer? Are we going to see tattoo parlours offering to affix those barcodes permanently to some highly-prominent part of our anatomies? Will criminals have barcodes affixed as part of their punishment? Would public servants like emergency personnel have barcodes affixed that would be impervious to counterfeiting, to prevent crimes from occurring? What about police?

Live tagging in meatspace offers so many new ramifications that we are still in the grey-fuzz phase of imagining how it can turn out, and how we want to be portrayed in this strange world of revealed truth. For myself, I like to think that I can walk down the street in complete anonymity, with nothing visible to others apart from the clothes that I wear; am I being selfish? Am I being just blithely optimistic?

Monday 25 November 2013

Nasty, secretive Abbott government implodes

It can be no surprise to many who wake up today to see the Herald story focusing on a Fairfax-Nielsen poll that has the Labor Party running 52 to 48 2PP against a depleted Coalition. As the story points out, this bodes ill for Tony Abbott's attempt to repeal the carbon price laws, which are set soon to be taken to the Senate, a Senate where Labor and the Greens predominate. It looks like the laws will stay and that Abbott's promised double dissolution will not eventuate. Slow golf clap for Tones.

Elected at the start of September, the Abbott government has been grinding along like a steak mincer on mute, with ministerial instructions telling party members to vet all media appearances via the PM's office. As asylum seekers continue to arrive off the coast of Western Australia, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison routinely rolls out his military spokesperson to tell the electorate to shut up and make do with the meager snippets of information on "operational matters" the department sees fit to dole out to a carefully-listening public. Abbott has also become deeply embroiled in a couple of mini scandals: travel rorts for the first month or so of government, followed by a rift with the perennial elephant in the room, Indonesia.

Now the poll, which shows that it's crystal clear the electorate has gotten sick of the born-to-rule bully-boy Tony Abbott unquestionably is, and the message is that since he's so tight-lipped with information they're apt to be equally tight with their approval. Abbott's nasty, secretive government is rapidly imploding; it's almost unheard-of to see such low approval rates for a government so soon after an election. No wonder Tones is looking puzzled.

Sunday 24 November 2013

Dreams of dead fathers

This is a photo of Peter da Silva, my father, not long before he was admitted to a care facility due to Alzheimer's disease, which was a stage of his life that I, personally, found relaxing in his company. He became spontaneously affectionate, instead of stiff and cold, and he stopped saying the hurtful words that usually comprised his remarks to me. He died almost two years ago, in March 2011, and I was relieved that he did.

Strangely, I am not ashamed to say this. This is partly because he has not completely left me and I still submit to dad-comes-back-to-life dreams on a regular basis. They are not pleasant. I even thought he was walking silently in my room one night when I had had a few too many glasses of wine. Silent and reproachful he stalked past the foot of my bed in the penumbra. I do not think all sons have dreams like this of their fathers.

I was a remarkably obedient young child. Because my brother - two years older than me - was the family tear-away, I sought peace at all costs and raised voices alarmed and upset me. I was oil on the family's troubled waters. I did what I was asked to do, and more: I tried to anticipate what others wanted and catered for their requirements before they could even be voiced. I was the family's philosopher, seeking common accord while ignoring my own needs and desires. I was cautious, fretful, not bold. When it came time to choosing subjects in the final years of school, I followed my father's guidance. I dropped art and continued with French when class times clashed. Upon entering university I continued in the same form and studied Italian to please him. I did not take a year off before first year. I studied hard and completed the degree.

Oddly, it was years before I stopped caring what my father thought of me. I wasn't so much the philosopher as the one suffering from Stockholm syndrome. Out of university I moved listlessly from job to job. I even dropped out of the workforce voluntarily for a time, and got my kicks in a share house in Newtown. I made friends who were also seekers of truth. I was not the family philosopher, I was the suppressed radical. That arts degree started to make more and more sense but even so around the age of 30 I married and had my first child.

I never settled into routine work. I was always impatient, too creative, unhappy and it showed. It wasn't until I had a breakdown due to mental illness, and recovered from that, that I realised something important about myself: I was different from others and I had better get used to it. The obedient child was a sham. I was creative, headstrong, enamoured of my own opinions. My father, who did nothing to help me in the dark years following the mortal crash, fell away more and more in terms of relevance. His own mental illness - the Alzheimer's - was nothing more than a suitable coda for a life spent in overbearing dominance relative to those who he professed to love. The love was nothing more than a figleaf covering his need to manipulate and use others to his own ends. His success - he began life in utter penury and ended it in material comfort - was nothing more than a product of the attention those close to him devoted to his convenience; he converted domestic affection into worldly gain, like an alchemist. Having lost my own family, I knew how critical domestic fulfillment is to a busy man like dad.

In the end he had a few mourners at his funeral and a son whose bad dreams have now morphed into a desecration of an alarming kind. I do not think I will ever be entirely rid of the man, though he long ago lost me.

Saturday 23 November 2013

Snapshot of Quito Old Town

In Quito's Old Town religion is everywhere, including this strange neo-Gothic cathedral that was conceived in the final decades of the 19th century. It sits on top of a hill and commands the heights beneath which people lived -and still do live. But to see the real treasures go down the hill to the narrow streets where you can see an extraordinary counter-Reformation church that is absolutely covered in arabesques and curliqueues, saints and other decoration relevant to the 17th century, which was when a lot of the then-centre of town was built.

There is a gigantic central square bordered along one side by the huge 16th century church and monastery of St Francis, which began to be constructed in 1550, less than a generation after the city of Quito was founded by the Spanish.

The Old Town is still occupied and it is still used for routine commerce, although business signs all use the same size font so as to mute their appearance to suit the architectural environment. The streets are narrow, making transport a bit difficult. But they are all rectilinear, revealing the need for order imposed by the people who originally laid them out. And they are integrated with the routes of the larger city of 2.2 million people: you can get on a trolley car in the Old Town if you want to travel back up the city to the newer centres around the Mariscal or Parque La Carollina.

Sunday 10 November 2013

Getting around in Quito: watch your step

There's a sign up the front of the bus telling you where it will go but if you're a traveller you just ask someone which one to get on. Once on-board I went to the front of the bus and told the spruiker where I wanted to go - about two kilometres down one of the city's main avenues - and paid my 25 cents (in Ecuador they use US currency) then found a place to stand and hung on. You need to hang on because the driver accelerates at a furious pace all the time: it's a binary situation, either full bore or stopping dead.

A young woman tells me where to get off the bus and I descend to the pavement then walk back to the street crossing. It's another main thoroughfare and as usual the pedestrian signals aren't working. There's a traffic cop there directing the cars and I go to the middle of the road to wait. Finally I get across and walk down the cracked pavement to where I'm heading. Side streets are packed with cars that inch up to the main road and rev their engines as they wait for a chance to enter the flow; watch your step when you cross these small streets, they have no signals.

Quito is challenging at these times. There are other things too. You wonder what ghosts live in the mountains surrounding Quito. Are they like the little boy who came into the Dunkin Donuts today as I bought my cappuccino and chattered incomrehensibly and seemingly by rote some incantation aimed at soliciting a few cents from me, or a dollar? Or the little boy who walked up to me square-legged as a toreador outside the restaurant as I smoked a cigarette after lunch and asked me for food, a shoe-shine boy? Was it because the police seemed to disappear as soon as it started raining? In any case, there seem to be ghosts in Quito come down out of the mountains to scavenge among the mortal souls who populate its cracked streets.

The income disparities are striking. My hotel is in the CBD centre and there's a big mall across the road called Quicentro that is full of high-end shops like Tiffany's, the US jeweller's. Families and young couples - all holding hands - walk through the corridors in step with the piped music - all of which is from the West - and look at each other and into the shop windows. You see all kinds of faces: pure European and mestizo, Andean and black. Everyone is dressed well and the supermarket is doing a booming business, but on the other hand there are security guards in most stores and also men in hats and dark suits standing around in the corridor doing nothing but watching the throng pass by.

Outside my hotel there are street kiosks staffed by Andrean traders who look poor and on the pavement just outside the hotel is a woman in Andean dress sitting on the ground next to a small tray on legs that is filled with snacks and cigarettes. At a kiosk you can buy cigarettes individually and they keep a lighter on a string for the convenience of patrons. And everywhere outside there are police, some in black uniforms, others with uniforms that tell you they are traffic police, and others in brown uniforms; such a plethora of police out here on a sunny Saturday morning keeping the peace.

A man drives past the hotel in a gleaming Mercedes.

In a restaurant one night in the famous Mariscal district I saw a young man and a young woman sitting together at a table eating their food with one hand while, all the time, they held hands under the table. They ate burgers and chicken wings, as we did. On the street the procession of police cars and cops on off-road bikes is incessant. Sometimes they have their lights flashing, and the rhythm synchs strangely with the stereo in the restaurant playing Steely Dan.

Sunday 3 November 2013

War on Terror is a millennial task

It's becoming clear that it's not just the US administration that has confused political speech with terrorism, with the UK's police now using similar language to justify detaining the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the journalist responsible for the stories based on files released by whistleblower Edward Snowden. It's easy to find this kind of talk within the US administration, of course.

What a short-sighted society fails to see is that not only is religion a powerful force but that its close ties to individual identity make it a force for broader social change. In the past, governments like that of Elizabeth I, in England, resorted to espionage in times of climatic religious upheaval to try to control this force: the picture is of Elizabeth's premier spy, Francis Walsingham (1532 - 1590). The queen's problems with religious zeal stemming from the Lutheran heresy, (which began in 1517 when the German monk nailed a sheet of paper to a door) hardly abated even with her death in 1603 and continued, in Britain at least, even past the 1688 political settlement that had attempted to draw a line under the issue of the state religion by importing a Dutch king to sit on the English throne. Reforming enthusiasm predates Luther, of course, in England with the scholar John Wycliffe (1320 - 1384), but it was the intermingling of religious practice with national concerns, and with war, during the Renaissance - the era of the printed book - that caused monarchs such grief. On the other side of this window of time, it wasn't until the first decades of the 19th century when Catholics were once again allowed to hold certain offices, that the madness was finally put to rest. The madness continues in some places even today, of course, especially in Northern Ireland where sectarian violence remains a concern for British and Irish authorities.

So if you wanted to you could talk of a 660-year conflict in Europe. While it no longer threatens the stability of civilisation, and did not do so during Wycliffe's time - it would need the new technology of printing to do that - the matter of conscience and of the role of established religion was a thing of millennial import for several hundred years and for monarchs like Elizabeth I it meant the use of spies, secret courts, secret funds, torture of innocent people, the cutting off of ears (cropping) as punishment for speech, anonymous publications, and many other activities designed, on the one hand, to express solidarity with those who spoke against the state, and, on the other, to curtail the actions of those who threatened the cohesion of the state.

It all seems a little outre and odd now but in a few hundred years how will we view the responses of governments to whistleblowers in our own age of religious enthusiasm, an age when, again, we see individuals risk life and reputation in order to participate in a struggle for identity. The first time, the trouble was brought on by the effort to wrest away from the established church the right of access to the Bible in the vernacular. This time, it is due to the way that globalisation mixed with post-WWII liberation ideology has convinced some that their very selves are under threat by forces beyond their control, and they want to reassert control. Islam is a way of life, not just a set of amusing narrative precepts, but in fact a codified guide to living, and many things that are swirling in from the West threaten to alienate people from rigid adherence.

It is this rigidity of response to the issues arising from the clash of civilisations that causes the biggest problems on both sides of the fence, and that ropes innocent people into a conflict over which they have no control. In the case of whistleblowers and journalists we can see that it is not permissible even to talk about certain elements of the modern religious wars. Now, we don't crop ears, of course. What we do is engage in the media in a war of words designed to sway public opinion on favour of our position in the debate. We slur reputations. We might even throw someone in jail for 30 years. But the madness is the same, and we are all involved whether we like it or not.