Walking West

Friday, June 08, 2001

[start or continue] I hate writing job applications. While they may indicate whether you have the basic skills required to do the job, they're usually no indication of whether you'll be happy doing it or will fit into a particular workplace. All they show is that you're capable of writing more job applications when required, which you'd think is the last thing an employer would want you to be doing.

And while I may come across as a raging egomaniac in this log (I, I, I, me, me, me), I hate having to sell myself to people who don't know me. I particularly hate writing academic job applications, which require way more work and potentially wasted time than most. One job in April had three pages of selection criteria, many simply repeating each other in different words; they were clearly written by committee, and hence, weren't clearly written.

They can offer some moments of amusement, though. UK universities all seem to require an Equal Employment Opportunities form these days. You send it with your application to their personnel department, who then check that the relevant department or school isn't discriminating against you. In one such form, the 'Ethnicity' section asked whether I was:

which certainly helps explain five hundred years of 'the Irish Problem'.

On the whole, though, the application process is a monumental pain. It could be worse, though: it could be the waiting process.

May was the darkest month. Jane and I had learned that we were in no position to buy a house, not even a rat-infested one; and we knew that we couldn't afford a decent rental without getting back to a double income. So we were stuck on the floor until something came through.

Most of my applications were out there in somebody's in-box (at least you can send them by email these days), awaiting a decision. Typically, most had failed even to provoke a response. I wonder at times if some personnel departments even open applications, or whether they simply find them annoying. It's a wonder I didn't get any return emails with a subject-line of 'PLEASE REMOVE'.

Most of the jobs I'd applied for had been simply okay; I knew I could do them if I had to, but they didn't look all that exciting. There had been only a few suitable positions in Melbourne, one of which looked better than the others. There were more in the UK, but they were scattered all over the country, worsening the very sense of uncertainty and instability we were seeking to end.

That sense of uncertainty, of having too many wild cards in our hand, finally proved too much. We resolved that if nothing came of this round of UK applications we would stay in Melbourne and eke out an existence whatever way we could. It was depressing to contemplate the possibility of an extended period of unemployment, which we've already had before, but at least we would know where we would be living next month. Surely we would both get long-term work eventually. If we didn't... well, there was always Geeveston.

But there was one light on the horizon. Two jobs at a new research centre in the UK involved exactly what I had been hoping for—research into online learning, its effects and implications, and related university and government policies. Applying for them was one of those rare moments when I felt that not only would I have to be shortlisted, I surely had a good chance of getting offered one of them. In the past such instincts have almost always been right, and more often than not I've been offered the job. So I was feeling hopeful now.

Within two weeks of applying, I heard that I had indeed been shortlisted—but that the video-conference interview wouldn't be held for three weeks. Well, I thought, what's three weeks after all these months, ha ha?

All I can say is, thank goodness for old Russian photographs, Midnight Oil, shipping containers, Jonathan Carroll's The Panic Hand, a few good movies, Spaced, Scott of the Antarctic and the World Wide Web. Among other diversions.

As the interview drew near, I heard that I had also been shortlisted for the best of the Melbourne jobs that I'd applied for—and that they wanted to interview me on the same day. That was fine; I was happy to get both interviews over as quickly as possible. And in the days leading up to (and surrounding) the interviews, I was happily immersed in Kaycee mania.

The Melbourne-based interview was first. The position involved liaising with academics and translating their educational goals into effective sites; in many ways it was a reprise of my first web job. The panel were hard to read, but I thought I had a better-than-average chance of being offered it. It was only a one-year contract, but it would be a start, even if it would feel like starting back where I was two years ago.

Later in the day I went to another local university for a video-conference with my potential bosses in the UK research centre. Either of their advertised positions would be a chance to get in on the ground floor of a collaborative and inter-disciplinary research effort involving three universities: one was focussed on the teaching issues involved in online learning, and the other on IT policy. I would be in an academic position—at last—researching the very subjects I've been interested in these past few years.

Despite being distracted by the sound of my own echo bouncing off the other side of the world, I came out feeling sure that my excitement for the potential of both roles had come through. Even better, the others had seemed to genuinely enjoy the conversation. I was feeling hopeful. I suspected that they would probably offer me the policy-related job out of the two I applied for, and if I had a choice I would choose that one, simply because it would leave the political science door ajar. But either of them would be a great opportunity.

Unfortunately, they couldn't give the final word until they had held all their other interviews the following week—I was first cab off the rank. I'd also been told that I would hear back about the Melbourne job at the same time. So by the end of that next week—which was last week—Jane and I would know (a) that we would be moving to the other side of the world, (b) that we would be staying in Melbourne, but at least I'd have a job too, or (c) that we would be moving out into whatever dingy rental accommodation we could find, and taking it from there.

If waiting for the interviews was hard, that week was even harder. As I cryptically wrote, I was 'Schrödinger's Cheshire Cat, suspended between a smile and nothingness,' waiting for someone to open the box to see if I was dead or alive.

One week ago, someone did.

[To be continued.]


[The inner journey continues. Sorry to keep you in suspense, but this story has its own logic. Only another day or two to go.]

The web was once the preserve of jacks-of-all-trades: people who could play with words, images, code, and even a bit of hardware (if you were in charge of a server). It appealed to eclectic types like me, and certainly I had fun in the early stages developing new skills, and old ones that hadn't been used for a while.

But with the web's increasing complexity and importance each of its different aspects was soon demanding full-time attention, which was more than a single all-rounder could give them. People who can code a mean back-end and design an attractive front-end still exist—the weblogging world is full of them—but in the professional web world, specialisation has long been the norm. Who cares if you can pick colours that go well together? You're the one converting someone else's design to HTML. Who cares if you're a passionate believer in web standards? You're the one picking out a nice font for the banner.

The web business is split into separate camps: the ponytails, the propellerheads and the suits. Try and enter the camping ground and you'll be asked to pick a tent. I picked ponytail, but still wanted to keep my propeller.

It didn't work, and perhaps it never could have. In San Francisco I had to look for work with medium to large companies that might be willing to sponsor a visa. But nowadays, if a company wants a ponytail they'll look for an art school graduate, and if they want a propellerhead they'll look for a code-warrior. They aren't looking for someone who falls in the middle.

I am not a ponytail. I love the visual arts; my father is a printmaker, and I grew up with the smell of ink in my nostrils. I don't need a flash demo to tell me what a print is. When I visit new cities, I visit their galleries. I even considered going to art school, but the case for a science degree seemed stronger at the time. I love to draw, and imagine I'll always be a cartoonist (it's the only thing I've been making money at this year), but realistically can't see myself making a living at it. I love the visual side of the web, and think that it's far more important than some propellerheads allow. I'm at least 20 percent ponytail, but I am not a ponytail.

I am not a propellerhead. I loved playing with computers and code from the moment I got my hands on them at age 14 (in my school in the early '80s we weren't allowed to use the Vax, the Apple IIs and the Acorns until grade nine). I have a computer science degree. I love the net and the web. I love tinkering with lines of code and observing the effects. But I would go mad if that was all I ever did. I'm only 20 percent propellerhead.

I'm 20 percent performer. I get butterflies before going onstage the same as anyone, but somehow I manage it and can remember my lines, and there's nothing like hearing an audience laugh and applaud. But other forms of performance—like this one—I also find rewarding.

I'm at least 30 percent traveller, judging by how much of it I do. My parents got me hooked, and having found a partner who shares the addiction I doubt I'll ever stop. The world is vast, and there's only one short life in which to see it.

I'm 50 percent story-teller. My story, somebody else's story, real stories and made-up stories. You know that by now.

I'm 60 percent student. Not in the enrolled sense, though I was one of those until I was 27, but in the sense of someone who is always learning and wanting to learn.

I'm 70 percent writer. I write to perform. I write to tell stories. I write to learn. I write to think.

I'm 100 percent thinker. Everything else is context.


It's not the sales-pitch I put on my resumé, especially not in San Francisco. But Bay Area companies aren't the only ones with an interest in the web. After all, they didn't even create it. The web was created by and for researchers, most of whom work in universities.

If ever there was a profession for a student, a writer and a thinker, it's research. And if ever there was a place for researchers, it's university. That's why I was trying to work in and around them for so long: universities are fundamentally devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, and so am I.

It's been a hard road: a Ph.D. in a field in fashion one year and out of it the next; emerging into a contracting academic job-market; moving sideways into non-academic roles in the higher education sector just to stay in the loop. For a while there, I thought I would leave the loop completely, work in the commercial world just for the experience of it and of living overseas, and then try academia again one day (maybe). I thought that the web could sustain me not just creatively but financially. And maybe it could have, in the frenzy of 1999—but not in late 2000 and early 2001. Bad timing; bad luck.

So I stepped back. Focussed on the long term. Focussed on what I was about. Yes, I'm a writer, and I've always dreamed of having the time to write about anything and just for myself. Sometimes I've stolen moments of leisure and written in them; this weblog is one of the results. But pure creativity is unlikely to pay anyone's bills, and it isn't paying mine.

In my first years in the web (1998-99) I hatched a plan: to go beyond being a webmonkey, with its day-to-day frustrations about browser bugs and software upgrades and ever-changing fads and priorities, and to look at the bigger picture of how IT and the web are affecting education, how they can best be used in it, and what universities and governments can do to achieve that. To be neither ponytail nor propellerhead, but a researcher. Within a few years, I figured, universities around the world would be looking for such people. It seemed like a good target to aim at.

In late 1999, I found just such a job—but in Canberra, where we didn't want to be. I took the two-year contract in order to use it as a spring-board to something similar elsewhere. The job was more bureaucratic than I would have preferred—suddenly I'd become a suit—but I was heading in the right direction. Until the bomb hit.

By March this year I had given up on the commercial web, and just about on finding web work full-stop. At first it felt like I'd given up on myself, since that had been my focus for so long. But after reflecting on how I'd got there, I knew I had to try once again to find work in a university.

Trying to live in London on an academic salary would be harder than living there on a web salary; in Melbourne it would be easier, but harder to find an academic job. So I'd also look for web-related jobs in Melbourne and UK universities, just to get back into the right sort of environment.

I made the decision just in time. April was a good month for university job advertisements, but by mid-May the ads had dried up. For a few weeks I was writing applications ten hours a day.

[To be continued. Will it never end?]


Further evidence of our spectacular timing: Melbourne home price rises lead the nation.


Thursday, June 07, 2001

[continued] 'Under direction from the State Trustees,' read the ad in the Age; '$130,000+'. Which made this unrenovated 1930s two-bedroom house one of the only ones in Brunswick at the sort of price we could potentially afford.

It was a white L-shaped house, cement-rendered on the front and weatherboard on the back, with its front door positioned diagonally across the inner angle of the L. The odd shape was dictated by the block, a right-angled triangle on the corner of a long north/south-running street just where it kinked east and then north again. The position was good, a block or two from some shops and the end of a tram line.

We had missed the inspection time, but hopped over the low brick wall around the street side of the block and walked around the house, peering in its grimy windows. From the outside, it didn't look anything fancy; the wooden window-sills and the tiles on the roof were in need of repair; everything needed repainting. Trees stood right up next to walls, and would have to come down.

Around the back, a jerry-built covered walkway led from the kitchen door to the laundry, which was unlocked, so we looked inside. The sinks were concrete troughs; the walls had peeling painted paper sticky-taped over holes in the plaster. And through a rickety door was a festering green toilet teetering on the edge of rotting floorboards.

The kitchen looked dark and uninviting: set into a tiled alcove was a broken-fronted gas stove and an iron-doored wood-stove. We couldn't see much else from the window.

Two lead-lighted sliding doors led from the kitchen to the lounge room, which had pink walls, strange flourescent lights set ornately in the ceiling, and green carpet that resembled a landscape of gently rolling hills. One of the bedrooms on the other branch of the L had the same green carpet, and the other, the biggest, had been stripped back to floorboards.

We made a return visit the following Wednesday, Anzac Day, to have another look. (While we were there, we found something of its former owner's on the ground near the side gate.) We wanted to look underneath the house with a torch at a spot around the back (hidden from public view by a high wooden fence along an alley). Most old houses in Melbourne sit on wooden stumps, which have to be replaced every 20-30 years. This house looked like it hadn't been touched in any way since it was built, so they'd almost certainly have to be re-done, even though they looked dry enough by torchlight. That would be an extra ten grand. We were now estimating that renovating the house would cost over fifty.

Renovations. I've done plenty: I grew up in a big old weatherboard house that required endless painting, inside and out, which took care of my summers through my late teens and early twenties. Jane has done her share, too, at her Mum's place. We weren't itching to do more, but we could face it if we had to. But this place looked like it would stretch the patience of even the most devoted DIY enthusiast. We could at least be sure that we wouldn't be undoing someone's misguided 1970s ideas of home improvement, but there was no way we could do everything that needed to be done ourselves; this was going to cost a lot of money.

But if we could get it into a basic, barely-liveable state relatively quickly and cheaply, with a lot of scrubbing and painting and a few essential fixes, we could take a little longer on the major changes while still being able to live in it. If we secured the property cheaply enough, we could do it.

$130,000 plus twenty-five percent equals... about $160,000. Too much. We didn't want to spend more than $150K on a dump like this, location or no location. Would it be enough?

We went back the following Saturday for the open inspection. Inside, the house confirmed its deceased-estate origins: it smelled like the deceased was still present. The whole place stank of stale urine and mould. In the tiny kitchen cupboards, Jane found rat droppings.

It felt even smaller inside than it had looked from outside. At least it had high ceilings—except in the bathroom. That was barely twice the width of the bath, which was set into an alcove scaled to the height of a withered old gent. The pink paint was easily fixed, but I was wondering how (or if) we could squeeze a toilet in here—getting rid of the outside loo would be a priority.

But with some clever renovation and redecoration, it could work. The wall between kitchen and lounge could go, to gain some extra space; the second bedroom could become a study with some floor-to-ceiling shelves; and the master bedroom was fine. The location was noisy, with traffic constantly streaming past, but inside it wasn't too noticeable. It could be a cosy little place.

If we secured it now, then even if we ended up landing jobs overseas we would have time to get it into a liveable state before renting it out and leaving. Or we could have an ethical lobotomy and become slum landlords. And if we stayed in Melbourne, it could be okay for a few years before selling and moving on. This place would probably be worth $240K in renovated condition. We decided we may as well go for it.

Which left the little matter of a mortage. We had to move fast, because the auction was the following Saturday. With only one of us working, and on a short-term contract at that, we didn't have much leeway. We talked to a mortgage broker, who typed our financial details into a program on her laptop and brought up a list of possible lenders. It was a very short list: there was one lending institution (not a bank as such) that might lend us up to $186,000 over 25 years; she'd have to check whether they'd take us, because Jane hadn't been in her present job for very long.

Taking deposits, our savings, the first-home-buyers' grant, stamp duty and other establishment costs, and the cost of essential first-step renovations into account, this would be just enough, if we could get the place for $150K. Which was pushing it. I was guessing it would go for $170K, possibly to redevelopers wanting to put units on the block (though how they'd squeeze two or more onto one that size was hard to see). Jane guessed $195K.

We wondered whether it was worth risking the fees we would incur in shifting our money around on the off-chance of getting a bargain. But we didn't have to wonder long. The mortgage broker called back and said it wasn't going to work, and to try again in a couple of months.

So we went along to the auction with our hands in our pockets. It was an overcast day, but a couple of dozen people turned up: a mix of builders, elderly investors, and people our age.

I stood in front of the sign erected over the wall so that the auctioneer wouldn't see me sneeze and interpret it as a bid. The sign had been there long enough for the local kids to play with its sticky-backed letters and turn them into something else: 'bathroom' was now 'bat-room' and 'close to trams' had become 'close to Iran'.

'Blah blah tremendous potential blah opportunity to get into this growing area blah blah' went the auctioneer, and then finally commenced the bidding at $120,000.

The bidding went quickly from $120K to $150K and then sailed on up; we no longer had to worry that we'd missed a bargain. It stopped at $160K, and the agent went inside to consult with the owners (who, we knew from seeing the title deeds and related papers at the inspection, had tried to sell this house last year and failed). 'Not quite on the market yet,' he declared, and started the bidding again. It gradually made its way to $170K, and then limped up in increments of $1000 and $500. Finally, it stopped cold at $181,000. A vast amount for a rat-infested hovel, and for the block it was sitting on.

The agent consulted again with the owners... who wouldn't budge. Their reserve hadn't been met. Assuming that they would hardly pass up a close offer when they had already been to auction once before, this implied that their reserve was over $190K; Jane was right. In other words, fifty percent more than advertised.

The sign stayed up for a few more days, but we noticed a while ago that it had gone. Someone has bought themselves a fine hovel. And we, meanwhile, were out of the buyer's market for the time being. If we stayed in Melbourne we would have to rent for six months and look a bit longer and harder in that time.

[To be continued.]


Jane and I saw Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge the other night, and both enjoyed it. I think I went in with the right frame of mind having read a letter in the Age saying that the best way to understand it is as opera: not a classical-music opera, but a modern confection full of popular songs blended together in the service of the story (which is what many classical operas were in their day), with big visuals, big costumes, big singing. It helps if you know the songs and so get all of the musical jokes, but they're not exactly obscure.

I don't think it's quite as good as his Romeo+Juliet, partly because it doesn't have a Shakespeare plot underpinning it; the scenes between the big song-and-dance routines were a little flat. And Luhrmann missed an opportunity by not extending the Hindi dance scene and doing a full-on Bollywood spoof. But those are minor quibbles. He at least has a style distinctively his own, which is more than can be said of many directors.

It's fun. You come out feeling like you've seen a Movie with a capital M—it's definitely one to see on the big screen rather than the small. And personally, I'm happy to go along with any movie that advances the narrative with the lyrics of 'Like a Virgin' and sets half its scenes inside a giant elephant.


After a few days of listening to Amnesiac, I'm a little disappointed. Despite the inclusion of some stand-out tracks ('The Pyramid Song', 'Like Spinning Plates') and a few other good ones ('Knives Out', 'Dollars and Cents'), it doesn't have the impact of Kid A. I read an interview the other day where one of the band said they hadn't wanted to do a double album or a 70-minute CD, but this is one case where this listener would have preferred such an approach. The best half or two thirds of Amnesiac and the best three quarters of Kid A would have made an unassailable peak towering above the popular music of the past decade. As it is, this feels like an afterthought to Kid A's eureka.


Wednesday, June 06, 2001

[continued] With it looking increasingly likely that we would be staying in Melbourne, Jane and I started addressing the next priority: getting off the floor and into our own place again.

Inevitably, this meant looking at properties. But for the first time in our lives we weren't looking only at rental properties. If we were staying here, we wanted to put down some roots, and that meant buying a place of our own. We've hit the rental market again and again in the past decade, and both of us are getting sick of it: sick of not being able to hammer a nail into the wall; sick of having to chase estate agents to get things fixed; sick of sweating on our bond when power-tripping property managers quibble over cobwebs.

In Canberra, we contemplated making an offer on our last house when the owner wanted to sell, but were too committed to making our future elsewhere to want to tie ourselves to the city, even as absentee landlords. (A shame. We recently read that our suburb was one of the fastest-appreciating areas there in the past twelve months. We always knew it would take off someday.)

This time around, then, we had already done the hard part of deciding whether we could imagine ourselves with a mortgage; we could. How quickly the logic of respectable middle-class suburbia worms its way into one's soul...

Sadly, we were two or three years too late for the days when Melbourne housing was relatively cheap. The boom is on, and inner-city suburbs like Carlton and Fitzroy are already out of our reach. We focussed on Brunswick, sprawling either side of Sydney Road in the inner north. As we soon learned, so does just about every other prospective home-buyer in Melbourne.

Over successive weekends in April and May we scoured the Age and zipped around the streets of Brunswick in the few hours mid-Saturday when inspections and auctions occur here, getting a sense of what goes for how much. Pretty soon we knew what everyone else knows: real estate advertisements should be bound into fat paperbacks and sold at airports with the author's name embossed on the cover in gold underneath a tagline that reads 'The hottest name in horror since Stephen King—The Telegraph'.

Unlike in Canberra, most houses here are sold at auction, so buying one is not a case of making an offer somewhere below the advertised price and haggling with the owner before meeting them halfway. Here, you add twenty or thirty percent at least; more if you're unlucky. A new apartment in a converted warehouse that was advertised at $250,000+ sold for $313,000. A 1930s house supposedly $190,000+ went for $255,000. A narrow flat in an old Edwardian home split down the middle advertised at $150,000+ was passed in at $178,000. And so on.

If we were both working in decent jobs with a long-term future, none of those prices would be out of reach, even though the thought of spending a quarter of a million dollars on anything requires a curious detachment from one's normal sense of financial reality. But only one of us was working, and although we hoped that would change it obviously put limits on what we could spend, at least in order to secure a property in the first place.

Which is what drew us to the rat-infested hovel.

[To be continued.]


Here's what I love about Melbourne:


and countless other cafés, cake shops and restaurants in Lygon Street, Brunswick Street, Smith Street, Acland Street, and around the city and suburbs. (My God, I've eaten out a lot these past six months.)

And that's just scratching the surface. It's the first big city I've lived in for longer than a few weeks, and I like it more and more.


Tuesday, June 05, 2001

[continued] By February I had stopped displaying my inner turmoil for the world to read, but life went on, online and off. The Week Link was a way of stepping back while still keeping in touch with an audience, and its more ideas-focussed, think-piece tone would, I hoped, encourage me to work out where I was going intellectually and with the web. A tall order, and never really achieved, but the exercise of trying to think and write that way probably did help to some extent.

Those two months were, in fact, a period of increasing disenchantment with the very idea of working for the commercial web, partly prompted by my attempt, at last, to get temp work. Some of the IT/web agencies in Melbourne didn't want to know—the tech wreck was reaching here as well—but one called me in to do their test. I was a hand-coder, I told them; that's okay, they said, use whatever tool you like. This turned out to effectively mean 'as long as it's Dreamweaver', and they suggested coming back when I could slap together some splashy pages without a care about valid code or cross-browser compatibility.

With my head full of the browser upgrade campaign at the time, this rankled. What rankled was the attitude it implied: no care and no responsibility; here today, gone tomorrow. It reinforced the gripes I'd been reading from other web-workers for years, and (along, of course, with the tech wreck) made me wonder what I was doing trying to break into the commercial arena at all. It's not like I was ever that keen on the idea of building virtual junk-mail: I had been keen on the medium itself.

By March, I wasn't even sure of that. As I wrote of myself at the time,

Rory Ewins is slowly realising that there is no escaping his fate as a Writer first and foremost, a Cartoonist second and hindmost, and a Web Desig... Devel... Thing third and almost. Two of these pursuits pay atrociously. One paid very well until last Thursday. None offers any stability.

I was wondering if this had all been an enormous mistake, a mistake dating back to 1998 when I thought that the web would be a better bet in the long term than academia. I wondered where else I could turn. There might be academic opportunities overseas in the web/IT area, or even in my other field of political science (if things had improved since the mid-1990s), but universities wouldn't pay that well, and if we were aiming for London they might not pay enough for us to do much there apart from exist.

Perhaps we should stay in Melbourne, I thought; perhaps the risk of going to London to try my luck on the job-market there was too high. And with everything else that had happened, I was no longer sure that I wanted to go. Jane didn't mind either way, but was sick of the uncertainty.

In mid-March we visited my parents in Tasmania for a weekend, and I stayed on for a few days more. Time to talk and reflect (and get attacked by wasps). And time, finally, to send away my UK ancestry visa application. I'd decided that (a) I wasn't going to go to London on spec, alone or with Jane, even though we had friends we could stay with there, because it may well only drag everything out for longer and end with us back in Melbourne anyway, but (b) I would apply for jobs in the UK from here, even though my chances of getting a job from half the world away had to be less. Also, I would apply for work here. In all likelihood, this meant we would be staying in Melbourne, and there was a fair chance we would be starting again from scratch, just as we did in 1998.

I can't trace the backs and forths of that decision-making process, because it was too painful and I've half-repressed it all. The last three months have been some of the toughest of my life, the lingering glow of the adventures and high hopes of 2000 having long receded and taken with them their inoculating effect against depression. Worst of all was the feeling that I was dragging Jane down with me.

Even having made a decision, I was still torn in different directions. I still hadn't finished writing the Madagascar diary on which the whole book idea depended, so I forced myself to do so, falling—gasping—over the finish-line just before Easter, 30 days and 70,000 words from the start. I still hadn't done anything with the Big Idea, and could feel the clock ticking as I watched other people around the web toying with bits of it, getting closer. I foolishly tried to kick-start myself in that direction as well, when I knew I had more urgent priorities, by raising it again with some people who'd shown an interest in helping out. But I hadn't resolved some of the key questions about the project, and had to back away once more (sorry, Owen; sorry, Matt). Even then it took me a few weeks to give it up.

[I can't give it up. If I start something, I can't stop... I hate abandoning books and movies half-way through. I have stories I started writing ten years ago that I kid myself I'll finish one day. Good grief, I even finished renovating a chair 19 years after starting on it. I keep revisiting old skills and pleasures and bringing them back to centre stage for a while, like a jukebox cycling through a stack of records. These traits have been a strength—they've given me the persistence to finish degrees and write books, and the capacity to draw on old skills to adapt to new situations—but they can also be a curse, in that I can hardly ever sit still and enjoy being.]

Torn in different directions, I ripped myself apart and scattered the pieces on the floor. And then focussed on the most important: getting work.

The plan had never been to end up as a penniless artist sleeping on a floor. Artists need money: writers, web artists, whatever, need money. Maybe not a lot; but some, and in regular doses. For 95 percent of artists, that means getting a day job. And if you're going to spend eight hours a day working for somebody else, you preferably want to find one you believe in and enjoy.

That's partly why I had aimed for a job in straight web-design: among other things, it's a way of making money while being artistic. But almost a year after setting sail on that course, it was clearly time to try a different tack.

[To be continued.]


[After the break, part 147 of our compelling drama series, Rory Talks About Himself. But first...]

Most of you have probably seen the 'Proof that Girls are Evil' jpeg doing the rounds of email at the moment. I can't find its original home (thanks to its unhelpful name of c.jpg), but it's the one that says that because girls require money and time, i.e.

girls = money x time

and because, as we all know,

time = money


girls = money2

and that because 'money is the root of all evil', and squaring both sides of that equation gives:

money2 = evil

we can therefore conclude that

girls = evil

Very amusing. But it offends the mathematician in me. If girls require money and time, the relevant equation should be:

girls = money + time

not 'money x time'. Therefore, because time equals money, then

girls = 2money

Girls will thus only be evil when

2money = money2

and solving that equation gives us

money = 0 or 2

Since the units are unspecified, the '2' result isn't very helpful (2 dollars? 2 cents?), but the '0' can yield useful information if we recall that 'you get your money for nothing and your chicks for free'. We know that

girls = evil


money = 0

so obviously, girls are evil if they listen to Dire Straits.


[continued] Last week I wrote to a friend, 'One year on from our bold plan, it feels as if we burnt down our house and are still sifting through the ashes.'

It all started so well. Our landlord sold our house and kicked us out. Jane and I quit perfectly good jobs and vowed to get away from Canberra. We travelled to one of the poorest countries in the world and risked malaria and, in my case, rabies, and then reluctantly parted and headed to separate ends of the earth for two months.

So far, so good.

But then I got to San Francisco and the first stage of the plan fell away like a shuttle booster rocket. For whatever reason, I couldn't find work. Why? Was my web experience already considered out-of-date? Surely not, in a seller's market... maybe it was the visa issue. That seemed more likely, given that H1-Bs take months to process; maybe most companies didn't want to hang around that long. Particularly not start-ups that might not be around for long themselves.

I later heard some confirmation of this from an ex-recruiter, and have since read that sending out blanket applications for tech jobs in the valley yields about a one percent response rate—and that includes 'we have received your application' and 'thanks but no thanks'. This pretty much accords with my experience.

After sending out hundreds of resumés, the only serious offer I got was to work as technical support to employees in the field who would be installing an e-commerce software package on Windows laptops. Since my qualifications for such work were marginal—it required Java and Windows NT skills, neither of which I have—this was on the one hand hopeful, in that it surely meant that I had a better chance of finding work for which I was qualified if I hung in there, and on the other hand hopeless, in that I didn't want to move to the most expensive place in America to work sixty hours a week doing something I had no particular affinity for.

But I ran out of time. So I returned to Australia and tried to figure out where I went wrong, while at the same time mentally preparing to try again in London.

Then came the tech wreck, and the 20-20 hindsight that came with it. Suddenly it was less surprising that I hadn't had any luck with small web companies that had 2-3 months left to live. And there was some reassurance in that: how much worse it would have been, emotionally and financially, to move overseas to take up a dream job only to have to turn around and move home two months later. (Mind you, the e-commerce company mentioned above is still around.)

But this was happening at the very time I was planning to try it all again in (another) one of the most expensive cities on earth. European web trends are behind those in the US, but not that far behind, and who's to say the same thing wouldn't happen in London a few months after we got there? By this stage we had no desire to move overseas for a brief stint: we wanted some stability.

That desire for stability, in fact, is what froze me. The commercial web workplace offers none at all: that much became clearer and clearer as December turned into January and February. Instability of employment would have scuppered us in San Francisco, because H1-Bs are tied to specific employers; as 50,000 Indians heading home in recent months have found, it's practically a form of indentured labour. In London I would be eligible for a four-year UK ancestry visa, so we wouldn't be facing that, but the cost of living there would kill us if I lost a job and couldn't find another one fast; UK salaries aren't nearly as high as in SF, but the rents are. In an unstable job market, those factors demand caution.

But I was in denial. If I just put it off another month and see what happens, maybe it'll turn around... I'll just brush up my portfolio (this site), teach myself some new web skills, hang in there... for another month, and another.

I was kidding myself, and it wasn't fair to Jane. She had been through upheavals enough of her own over the past year, and yet had been patient and supportive in seeing this through. She had her own desire to get back to some stability, just as I had, and we both knew that our current life of limbo wasn't it. We've been sleeping on two single mattresses pushed together on a friend's floor, for Christ's sake. For month after month. If we'd known how long we'd be here, we at least would have bought a double bed.

And all along, Jane was paying the bills. Her work in Melbourne has been interesting enough, but it too has been temporary, a rolling contract with no long-term future. She was carrying me, on the promise of future returns that seemed to be disappearing over the horizon.

I could have, should have, got some temp work too, but for the first couple of months my mind was thousands of miles away, in a red island of lemurs and chameleons and poverty. I hadn't allowed myself to reflect on that experience for most of my time in San Francisco, but our short trip to Thailand brought it all back, and in December and January my mind was full of it. Suddenly, I was writing a book, the same way I always write books: working it out ten percent on paper and ninety percent in my head. When I write something on that scale, and properly, the writing period is relatively short but the gestation is long. And I had entered the second trimester, when it was beginning to show.

This hadn't been part of the plan. I'd had thoughts of doing some travel writing for years, and before going to Madagascar had thought it could be a fruitful subject, but until we'd done the trip I had no idea how fruitful. Would our journey have the right narrative shape? Would it be eventful enough to make a compelling story, or would I just be writing a series of observations? I couldn't assume that a book would ever materialise, so I'd never factored 'months of writing Mad book' into the long-term plans. But there it was, demanding my attention.

And then there was the Big Idea—the one that surfaced in SF in September and got put on hold until I could deal with it—resurfacing and raising its own questions and possibilities. I'll write more about it a little later. It too was demanding my attention, but I kept putting it off, thinking I couldn't do it justice under current circumstances.

And then there was Melbourne. And Melbourne surprised me. We had always figured that if all else failed, we'd move to Melbourne, which we had visited and enjoyed over the past few years. Now we were here, in Australia's second-biggest city, and it's a wonderful place. I've known Sydney all my life—my mother is from there, and I lived a few hours' drive away throughout the '90s and often visited friends there. But although Sydney has the better views and climate, I've felt at home here in Melbourne, and could see myself living here. I'll write more about this later, too, but I've already mentioned one of the main reasons: Melbourne is a child of Tasmania, and so am I. Victoria is like Tasmania in a way that New South Wales and the ACT aren't, and it took me by surprise, overwhelming me with an unexpected homesickness and reinforcing the urge for stability and the urge to stay.

The situation wasn't helped when I spent the first several weeks in Melbourne visiting old friends who have ended up living around its suburbs. Seeing them reminded me once again that leaving Australia would mean leaving friends and family all over the country, possibly for a long time. It also reminded me of what a rootless life we were leading: they all had mortgages and many of them had kids, and we don't.

All of this hit me at once at the end of last year and the beginning of this one, and by the end of January I was drowning in it all, in too many what-ifs and what-might-have-beens, dwelling too much on everything. I couldn't keep writing about those things for public consumption: it was turning me in on myself, and I couldn't make sense of it right away; I didn't have the words. So I stopped.

And then started sifting through the ashes, looking for bricks.

[To be continued.]


Monday, June 04, 2001

Over the past few months I've been reluctant to write much here about developments in my personal life, apart from a few oblique references now and then. After having such a strong journal-type narrative running through my logs of last year (Seven Weeks, WW1, WW2) this might have left some long-term readers wondering what happened, but there have been obvious reasons for it: I've been staying put for a while, rather than moving around; and I've been looking for work, which requires keeping things close to your chest—especially when you're directing potential employers to your website.

There have been other reasons. They're hard to write about. I've tried to start at times, and abandoned most such attempts; my Temp folder is littered with them:

I feel like I want to tell you everything and nothing. Everything, because there's so much stuff in my head wanting to get out; nothing, because I don't know where to begin. [6 April]

Apropos of nothing:

What do you do when you've spent years training yourself to have ideas and then have so many you don't know where to start? [10 April]

I've figured out some answers. Here they come.

[To be continued.]


(Ye gods, first Blogger gets as slow as a wet week and now my ISP's proxy server seizes up so that I can't even access it. I'll just have to post blind via FTP.)


Places where I have lived (paid rent, etc.):

Huonville, Tasmania, Australia18 years1972-91,'98
Canberra, ACT, Australia7.25 years1991-2000
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia5 years1968-72
The next place3 years (+?)2001-?
Cambridge, England, UK9 months1991-92
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia7 months2000-01
Kaneohe, Hawaii, USA4 months1980
Christchurch, New Zealand3 months1997
Suva, Fiji9 weeks1993
Nuku'alofa, Tonga7 weeks1993
San Francisco, California, USA6 weeks2000


And I thought 'The Pyramid Song' was glorious. 'Like Spinning Plates' is even better.


(This is not the big news.) Over the past couple of weeks I've attended a couple of production meetings for a short film being made by a friend of friend. The director, Bernard Meade, has made three shorts to date, a couple of which have screened at local festivals and one of which won some money last year in the Nescafé Short Film Awards. This one (still untitled) will be a six or seven minute piece in the vein of The Sixth Sense and other psychic dramas.

WestworldWe thought it'd be fun to see how it's done, so Jane and I have volunteered to join the crew for the shoot on 16-17 June. I'll be the one holding the big furry mike over the actors. That's right: I'll be the Sonic Boom Boy.

(Yes, this was all just an excuse to show off the cover of an old single. Rest assured that right now I'm actually listening to Amnesiac and not to 1980s one-hit wonders.)


There'll be no links-blogging here this week. There's too much else to write about. Life has just shifted into high gear, and over the next few days I want to go over the old roads before I head onto the new.


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