Monday, December 15, 2014

Life After Work

About 7 months ago  I left the organisation I had worked with for 25 years. I turned 60 two months later. Until late last year (2013) I had assumed I would continue working in that job until around 65. But things moved rapidly and 6 months later I was unemployed. I chose to leave. I did not retire. Between jobs as they say. And I learnt a great deal very quickly about myself and life.

Initially, for a brief time, the freedom of being unattached was intoxicating. The intoxication was slowly replaced with a far more sober reality that took me a few months to work through. What follows is in no sense of regret. I'm glad I left my job. But realisation #1 was I MISSED THAT JOB! In truth this was no great surprise. I had often told people I had one of the best jobs of anyone I knew. But it had reached a point where I could no longer work for my employer with a clear conscience.

Realisation #2 - my world shrunk. I had a reasonably high profile job that meant that I was in contact with a lot of people in the average week - via email, phone, or face to face conversations or meetings. I'd guess around 50-80 people each week. When I stopped working I had contact with less than 10 people a week. My job was also quite mobile. I would routinely visit several locations a week across the whole city. In the weeks after I quit my job this often was reduced to 'the shops' , and nothing else. Many many fewer people and many fewer locations. My world had shrunk quite drastically.

Realisation #3 - hobbies were no longer hobbies! I have never had a problem filling in my time. Throughout my working life I had to squeeze in music, gardening, travelling, sport, theatre, writing, walking, photography, technology. ....Mostly I did manage to fit these extra-curricular activities into a busy and full life. Now subtract the job. You'd think I'd be rapt to have all this extra time to enjoy these other pastimes. And initially I did. But you see, like I said, I hadn't  retired. I wanted to keep working - I just wasn't sure what it was I wanted to do. So something unexpected happened to my hobbies. They stopped being something I did in my spare time, and became the things I did! And, consequently I began to see each one of them as a potential job, or at least a money earning activity. So... I should practice this guitar piece more, or I should take this more seriously, or I spend so much time doing this I need to work out how to turn it into a part time job, etc. Nothing was purely for pleasure anymore. Things I had enjoyed doing for decades whenever I could fit them in had become weighed down with a sense of responsibility. Quite sad, and all in my own head I realise, but that's what happened.

Realisation #4 (and perhaps the most important of them all) - I had become a creature governed by the recurring rhythms of terms and semesters and holidays - all with their own annual reliability. Always a few weeks holidays at the same times each year. But one always worked in May. I worked in education, and really had no idea how much I had become a creature of its annual cycles. I have always worked hard. But there was always a break just 10 weeks away even if you didn't take it. But psychologically it was there and you could take it if you wanted or needed it. Go  away for a couple of weeks at the end of September if you wanted. And you knew when these breaks were years ahead so you could plan to travel at a set time. Or again, if you felt like making a snap last minute decision to go somewhere there was no stressing about when you might go - that was already decided for you by the pre-ordained holiday dates. But now you're between jobs. What if you decided to take a week off or  book a flight to somewhere and someone offers you work at that time?

The longest break you get in the education world is 5, maybe 6 weeks. (Yes I know much longer than most get but that's another story...). So about  6-8 weeks after I left my job I was ready to work again. 25 years of conditioning had unknowingly  turned  me into this creature who needed to work because I'd had a 6 week break.

Realisation #5 - my identity was intimately connected with my job. I began to feel like I didn't matter so much; that I was less significant than before. I wanted to work and couldn't. I looked longingly at people who had jobs - any job - and thought how lucky they were! I wasn't as important to myself anymore either because I was getting no validation from others that I was doing something worthwhile for them. No pats on the back; no requests to help out with various tasks; to address a meeting; to join a team for a temporary project. Very few people were asking me to do anything. There was no expectation that I would do anything. So all  the  motivation to keep abreast of current practice, look for work, maintain contacts with your persona l learning network had to come from within. Only intrinsic motivation was left to keep you moving. All those people you saw in the average week of your working life had moved on and no longer required your assistance.

Realisation #6 - I was not as self-contained as I thought I was. I needed the company and recognition of others to keep me performing. I'd had it for so long I had ceased to recognise its importance in my life. I thought I was driving myself along kind of under my own steam and that was far from the whole story!

Realisation #7 -no matter what you say people will consider you  'retired.' And assume you are loving all the extra spare time and having a ball. But (back to realisation #5) I only enjoy spare time if I've worked really hard and feel like I've earned it. But it won't a matter a toss to others - they will consider you retired.

Realisation #8. Actually this is more of an assumption than a realisation, and it may not be entirely accurate. I assume that people who plan to retire, and who have known for some time when they will stop working, would not go through all the angst that I have experienced  these last 7 months. They would be planning what they  were going to do and anticipating with great pleasure a time when they can realise their post work dreams. When post work life is upon you suddenly it is an entirely different ball game. I now have a greater appreciation for what those who are suddenly made unemployed must feel.


I have found bits and pieces of part time work that I am enjoying and this has helped me establish a new rhythm of life. I accept that I have to make things happen on my own, and that I can't rely on the inbuilt supports (people, activities, projects) that a long term job provides. And I am now feeling like I'm ready to take on something new - whatever it may be.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Joan Armatrading in Adelaide

Apologies for the blur. I was interrupted by 'security' as I was taking
the shot (no pix allowed) and was not allowed to reshoot.

Joan Armatrading
The Gov, Sun Dec 7

Joan Armatrading burst on to the music scene in the mid seventies as a black woman who didn't sound like a typical black singer. She had a unique sense of melody and phrasing that was all her own. Born in the West Indies, she moved to Birmingham in the UK at the age of 7. I, like millions of others, was smitten by her self-titled breakthrough album in 1976, and after her performance at The Gov here in Adelaide, I'm still smitten.

Her music crosses an extraordinary range of styles - folk, pop, rock, blues, jazz - and while she is equally at home in all of them, she doesn't actually belong in any of them. Joan Armatrading is one of those rare artists who simply sounds like herself. Whatever style she is experimenting with, she dances on the edges of it. So you get her interpretation of blues; her interpretation of jazz. Except perhaps for rock. When she veers down the rock path she, surprisingly, is a classic rocker. A couple of guitar solos sounded quite Hendrix-esque. And then she's just as likely to follow that up with a soft melodic ballad on piano.

Armatrading took us through a representative sample of a musical canon that spans four decades. There were plenty of her best known numbers - Me Myself I, Drop the Pilot, Love and Affection, All the Way from America - and a selection of songs from her more recent forays into jazz and blues influenced offerings.

From the outset she was gracious and witty. I loved the way she paused at the conclusion of each song long enough to allow us to show our appreciation, and for us to see her smile warmly in enjoyment of the moment. Quite endearing.

Midway through her performance we were treated to a slide show of her career highlights - musical and personal. It felt like we were in her lounge room at home sharing precious memories. It was a nice touch.

Several songs featured pre-recorded parts to fill out the sound. At times this worked really well. It allowed her to play nifty jazz lead parts on songs like Stepping Out, and have us enjoy the brass embellishment on the classic Love and Affection. She told us she's played this song in every concert she's ever played, and you can see why. It is indeed a classic. ("Sing me another love song but this time with a little dedication.") On other songs like the reggae influenced Rosie I found the extra overlay intrusive.

Drop the Pilot was very funky, and Me Myself I once again revealed Joan the rocker. She finished with the gentle Willow, and invited the audience to join in. We all sent ourselves home singing in unison as Joan sat, smiling again, at the keyboard.

It was a privilege to finally see Joan Armatrading in person. She's still pushing boundaries and her voice still sounds as rich and mellifluous as it ever did. Like 'massage for the brain' someone commented. Swapping seamlessly between electric guitar, piano and her trademark 12 string Ovation, she generously shared forty years of original music and few were disappointed. Most in fact were rapt.

(Also published on The Clothesline)

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Susan Greenfield Rings The Alarm Bells Again

Baroness Susan Greenfield has been giving talks on the dangers associated with Internet technology for some years now. I have worked in the field of educational technology for the last 15 years and often read her reports on her research and subsequent disparaging grand conclusions about technology so I admit that I probably went to hear her recent address at the University of South Australia with a degree of bias. Nevertheless I wanted to hear her for myself and make up my own mind.

In broad sweep I actually agree with much of what she had to day. Like her, I am concerned about how mobile and Internet technologies may be rewiring our brains, and redefining us as a species. I get no joy, and a degree of angst, when I see a 20 something person buried in the screen of their phone and not once look up to see what might be happening outside the train window during a 45 minute journey through superb scenery.

My problem is how she reaches her conclusions. There was fleeting reference to articles and research whose titles contain words like 'brain', 'technology', 'growth', etc but zero discussion about these works. Instead, in the talk I attended, she was openly dismissive about whatever gains new technology may have brought us. Pandering to the prejudice of the crowd, she went for cheap shots: Twitter - "why would anyone want to know about what your cat is doing?" I have never seen that kind of trite message on my Twitter feed because my feed is cultivated. I carefully select who I follow. She would know that thousands use Twitter as an intelligent means of exchange but she chose to ignore that fact for the sake of her sensationalist and simplistic argument. Another chestnut - how could anyone think that social media connections could be as rich as face to face contact in the same room? Here she is being ignorant or devious, and I suspect it's the latter. I suspect she, like me and countless others, has enjoyed a degree of freedom as a result of being a disembodied entity on the Net. Very early in my days on the Net I became aware of a liberation I felt to express ideas when no one knew if I was young or old, academic or truck driver, physically disabled or deliciously attractive. I was a brain without all the clutter that physical presence brings and my ideas were judged as just that - ideas. Not a product of the casing they came in.

Yes Internet and mobile technology is changing us - no one disputes this. It does rewire our brains. But by the same token, as Greenfield would agree, the moment we decide for example to go off the Net and learn a new language or play a new instrument our brain changes again. Brain changes are not permanent. Our brain will happily accommodate whatever we choose to pursue - right though to old age.

Another writer who has bridged this same territory is Nicholas Carr in his book, The Shallows - What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. Carr also came in for plenty of flack from the technology community  for his provocative questioning of the value of technology, but at least Carr was not sensationalising his case, or demeaning those who lived by the Internet. All Carr was suggesting is that we need to debate this issue of what's happening to us as a result of our (near) addiction to the new technologies. No argument from me there, and I think really that is all Greenfield ultimately wants to see happen as well. But her pandering to ignorant prejudice is unhelpful and merely reinforces the opinions of those who don't understand the advantages of new technology.

To be fair though Greenfield in the main was talking about children. Baby Boomers like myself can delve deeply into the new world of technology, then stand back and compare the process with other previous means of processing and distributing knowledge - books, writing on paper, face to face discussions. We can evaluate the benefit of the new against the old. Children don't have this affordance. Very young children only know the world of screens and multiple distraction. And older children may not have known a time when reflection, time alone, thinking absent-mindedly, daydreaming, and reading silently for long periods were normal occurrences, and crucial determinants of our mental and emotional health.

I keep thinking that educators need to have these discussions with their students - children and adults -  as part of a digital literacy program. Have them compare reading print text with screen text and evaluate the difference. Have them multitask as they research a topic and then try reading one or two books or articles on the same topic and compare the two experiences. (I have referred to this elsewhere as horizontal versus vertical learning.) We are the first generation in human history that can actually observe the changes that are happening to us as we adopt new technology. Neuroscience has advanced to the point that we can almost measure these changes in real time. So rather than sound the clarion calls of alarm as Susan Greenfield likes to do, let's collectively engage in an exploration of how we're changing, and be aware and mindful about it.

Greenfield's style earned her a near thunderous ovation from the non-believers, but she was preaching to the choir. And it isn't very helpful in encouraging dialogue between opposing factions of this new technology dilemma. She seems more interested in polarising opinion and selling books. If you want to read a book asking intelligent questions about how technology may be changing us, read Nicholas Carr's The Shallows instead.

Monday, November 24, 2014

A Dramatic Look at China-Australia Relations

State Theatre Company - Kryptonite
Space Theatre, Fri Oct 24

In the space of my lifetime China has changed from a being pariah state to one that Australia relies on heavily for its economic well-being. The recent death of Gough Whitlam reminded us all that the change began in the seventies when he had the wisdom to open relations with China. China itself has changed a great deal and Beijing has become a modern metropolis. Outwardly it has become much like any other modern city. But as Kryptonite reveals, what goes on behind the scenes or under the surface of the apparent changes in China can still leave the rest of the world mystified about what really drives this vast nation.

Lian, played by Ursula Mills, was one of the very first Chinese students to grace our shores in the 1980s. She meets Dylan (Tim Walter), a fellow student on campus and they are immediately intrigued by each other. What follows is a series of meetings over the years as their lives change radically and they attempt to reconcile the feelings they have for each other. These meetings are set against a backdrop of changing relations between China and Australia.

The infamous events of Tiananmen Square are a watershed for their own relationship and that of their respective countries, and is the first in a series of hiccups that both draws them together and pushes them apart. This tension is central to the play. No matter how much they are attracted to each other cultural differences always manage to render an ongoing relationship difficult.

The scenes early in the play where the young students make fun of each other as they explore their different backgrounds are quite endearing, and more importantly, this mutual fascination is authentic and believable. We  want them to be together.  Mills' accent is cute and fetching and contributes to an air of naivete about her new land, and Walter is appropriately awkward as the young student. Lian makes fun of Dylan's lack of ideals and he tries to get her to lighten up. But try as she might her ties with family back in China work against that. Dylan however, inspired by Lian's search for meaning and blessed with the freedom of being Australian plunges into a life where he strives to realise his ideals about the environment and he  enters politics.

In time he finds that politics is a grubby world of self-interest and muck-raking that drags up innocent details of your past to make you look unfit for office. Did Lian (China) engineer the sharing of confidential information for her own gain? Has Dylan (Australia) been caught in a honey trap? Kryptonite is a complex work, and it feels important. It could easily be used as a text book for an entire course on intercultural relations or international politics. It is rich with cultural nuance and political intrigue.

Both  Mills' and Walters' performances are quite wonderful. They quickly had the audience on side, feeling their pain, and caring about what happens to them. By the time we reach the present day Dylan's future is squarely in Lian's hands. Her destiny however is constrained by loyalty to a set of traditional values that conflict with those that might bring them and their two countries closer together. Sadly, after decades of close contact they and their countries are still dancing around the cultural chasm that yawns between them, and are no closer to knowing what values really drive their respective cultures.

Well written, great set, and clever direction. Instructive, enlightening, entertaining, important, and also quite funny in parts.

(also published at The Clothesline)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Sleeping at Dubai Airport

On a recent return trip from Australia to Europe via Dubai I discovered quite a bit about sleeping options in Dubai airport. On the way over I decided to try a Snoozecube. It was a reasonably long trek to gate C22 in terminal 1 but I found the Snoozecube people friendly and efficient. The room and bed were clean and within minutes I was out like a light. I got 4 hours solid sleep (@$36/hr), then made my way back to the lounge feeling quite refreshed and ready for my next flight.

The return journey was not quite so smooth sailing.  If you're flying with Qantas or Emirates and your wait time in Dubai between flights is more than 8 hours you are eligible for what is called 'Dubai Connect' on the Qantas site. This may depend on your frequent flyer status - I'm not sure - but as a Gold member this meant was I eligible for free accommodation in a hotel at the airport 'subject to availability.' No one at Qantas or Emirates seemed to know exactly what this 'subject to availability' meant in practice. On boarding the Dubai flight in Amsterdam I was given an accommodation voucher for a hotel outside the airport.

I landed in Dubai 90 minutes late partly because there was an abnormal amount of air traffic around the airport. That it, it was busy! Immigration queues in Dubai can be exceedingly long at the best of times and I figured I would lose at least 30 minutes getting through customs and getting to my 'Dubai connect' hotel outside the airport. Ditto in reverse. So with the late arrival and exiting and re-entering the airport my 8 hours was now down to 5 and a half. I explained all this to the staff at the Emirates lounge and they thought I'd probably be better off just finding a quiet corner of the lounge and sleeping on their kind of recliner seats but they were too high and slippery so I made myself comfortable on the floor and enjoyed another sound 4 hours sleep.

So next time round I'll either make use of Snoozecube or sleep in the lounge. And now I know that the 'Dubai Connect' option involves exiting the airport and immigration, etc I'll only use this if I have a layover for 10 hours or more.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

In the fields of eastern Ukraine......

When I see images of the recent Malaysia Airlines disaster I cry. I felt even more moved today when I saw the cavalcade of hearses taking the bodies to somewhere in Holland to be identified. I didn't know anyone on this flight, nor am I connected or related to those who lost their lives in any way. So why am I feeling like this?
Is it because I've been to Holland many times, have lived there, have many friends there, my son lives there?
Is it because I'm a traveller and frequently use planes to get around?
Is it because there were so many Australians among the dead?
Is it because I have flown Malaysia Airlines many times and they fly into my home city of Adelaide?

It's probably all of these things on some sub-conscious level, but from the outset of this disaster I have been quite frankly gob-smacked at the stupidity and callousness of those who shot this plane down, and patrolled the fields of death in eastern Ukraine like cowboys. Keeping those with authority and expertise from properly investigating the site, picking through the ruins, standing on  the tail of the downed plane, removing parts of the plane from the scene, displaying souvenirs of the dead passengers, looting their belongings, and most offensively of all leaving bodies out in the elements and then dragging them around when it finally occurred to them that they should do something about it. 

I just find this whole litany of ignorant activity beyond the pale for the 'civilised world' of 2014. This is Europe for heaven's sake. Where is the respect for the dead? Where's the sorrow? Or an apology even? It doesn't matter who did it - Russian backed separatists or other Ukrainians - no one involved has expressed sorrow or regret for the death of 300 innocent people who had nothing to do with this conflict. But I guess I'm not surprised at that. What has amazed and shocked me is the fact that the guns weren't buried and disagreements put aside immediately to take proper care of the dead. Instead both sides maintained a stand-off, played the blame game, rifled through the possessions of those they'd killed, and left bodies to rot in the sun. The world watched (well I did anyway) in disbelief and tears.

But today we saw a different story. Each survivor was taken off a plane in Eindhoven by people in uniform in dignified and solemn fashion, and each of them rode alone in their own hearse through streets lined with people marking their passing in silence, shedding tears, and strewing flowers on the passing hearses. It didn't matter who they were or where they came from - they could have been Dutch or Australian or Malaysian.  What mattered is they were human; they were like us, and this is how the dead should be treated. 

Holland showed its class today. On behalf of the civil side of humanity they enacted a ceremony of great respect that showed that human lives are valued in a way they were not as they were left lying in the fields of eastern Ukraine. 

So, as I watched the cavalcade carrying the unknown dead through the streets of Holland, I cried for a different reason. I cried because at last someone had realised how important these last rites are for all of us, not just for the families involved, and acted on it with dignity and grace. Bedankt Nederland (thanks Holland) for restoring some dignity to the world today. 

A Stunning Night of Strings

Adelaide International Guitar Festival Gala - Australian String Quartet with Pepe Romero, Maximo Pujol Trio, and Slava Grigoryan plus special guests: The Aurora Guitar Ensemble

Festival Theatre, Sat Jul 19

This was a case of the support act nearly stealing the show. The curtain opened on the glorious sight of 26 guitarists in brightly coloured shirts seated and ready to play. Their composer and musical director, Paul Svoboda, raised his arms for quiet, waited a few appropriate seconds, then launched the Aurora Ensemble. What a beautiful sound. Svoboda himself is mesmerising as he choreographs his players with precision and grace. If I closed my eyes I could hear an orchestral string section. At times I heard wind instruments, and a piano. But I'd open my eyes again and there were just guitars. Beautifully played guitars and superb arrangements. Quite simply some of the most uplifting music I've heard in years.

Enter the Australian String Quartet (ASQ) and Slava Grigoryan to play a piece by Australian composer Shaun Rigney. Modern and experimental, it took some getting used to. It seems a difficult piece to play, and I imagine it might be one of those pieces that is more fun to play than to listen to. ASQ were not so much playing together on this disjointed and occasionally discordant piece as keeping out of each other's way. As violin one swapped parts with violin two who handed over to cello who had its lines completed by viola it bounced around quite frenetically at times, and in the quieter moments or gaps there was the guitar holding it all together. Fascinating to watch and enjoyable to listen to, but more music for the head than the heart perhaps.

Spain's classical guitar superstar, Pepe Romero, joined ASQ next and treated us to Luigi Boccherini's 'Fandango' from the late 18th century. In contrast this was a much brighter and more harmonic interlude with the guitar parts more integrated into the composition. There were also fine moments that showcased the difference between bowed strings (violin, cello) and plucked (guitar), and how deliciously complementary they are.  

The Maximo Pujol Trio from Argentina were the final featured act and delivered sensuous moments of tango. The interplay here between Pujol on guitar and Eleonora Ferreyra on bandoneon, a type of concertina, was a joy to behold and listen to. It was just like the instruments were talking to each other. It also felt European, but it was actually music from the 'Paris of the south' - Buenos Aires.

A wonderful evening's entertainment.

(also published on The Clothesline)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Adelaide International Guitar Festival - Late Night Session

Cam Blokland, Marcel Yammouni, Simon Hosford
Space Theatre, Thursday July 17

Who would have thought that wild and untamed electric guitar from the rock gods of the seventies and eighties would still be with us in 2014 (my mother told me it would never last), and would even be featured at a high profile cultural event in the city's premiere theatre?  But so it was last night at the Late Night Session of the Adelaide International Guitar Festival.

Three guitar shredders took  the stage in turn to demonstrate the power of the electric form of guitar. Whether you like it or not, the electric guitar is a remarkable instrument. As  well as being able to weep (George Harrison) , talk (Bruce Springsteen, Thunder Road), Cam Blokland, Marcel Yammouni,  and Simon Hosford got their guitars to wail, scream, screech and soar in a powerhouse display of guitar wizardry.

Local lad, Cam Blokland was up first. Looking every bit the rock star with long hair and sunnies (he's  the guy in sunglasses on the festival's promo poster) he reeled off a number of original 'songs' with occasional glimpses of melody (I liked the one his Mum liked), that were mostly showcases for his incredibly nimble fingers. His self-deprecating send-ups of the body language of rock guitarists was a nice touch too. Marcel Yammouni followed with a slightly less frenetic  performance that involved less notes and more space, more moments of what might be called melody, and indeed some subtlety. He dedicated one of his songs to Johnny Winter, the legendary Albino Blues guitarist who had sadly died earlier in the day. But then Simon Hosford  blew all notions of melody and subtlety out of the water with an onslaught of speed and a percussive style that was not so much music as an exploration into the power of electricity.

Seeing guitar played by these three maestros of this genre was an assault on the senses, and one can't escape the fact that guitar played like this is an extension of ego - how can one person make so much noise/be so loud? But as Simon Hosford said, "this is about as much fun as you can have standing up!"  I really enjoyed the show, but it was strange to see and hear this kind of music where no one was dancing (there was barely even any discernible rocking of torsos as I looked around the room), there was no superstar hype surrounding the personas of the guitarists, and no screaming fans. It was all very serious and studied. It seems wild metal shredding guitar has come of age.

And kudos to the fantastic band members supporting the guitar tyros - they were a show in their own right. Keyboard and bass and drums all got to do solos, but it was the drum solo that took me back - vintage!

Now for a little classical baroque at the other end of the guitar spectrum.......

(also published at The Clothesline)