Reflections on a month of sobriety

No-vember is over. After 4.5 weeks of not drinking, I’m back on the booze train bound for Christmas parties, New Year’s Eve and, horrifyingly, my 25th birthday. Before the drinking begins in earnest, the time has come to reflect on the month that was. It was the longest I’ve gone without booze since I was in high school. I’ve never done a Febfast or an Ocsober, or a liver cleanse, or a well-intentioned booze-free New Year’s resolution. Hence I expected to be challenged by No-vember. I was, but not in the way I thought I would be.

I never realised how much I relied on alcohol as a social crutch. Beer usually does a wonderful job of quieting my inner dialogue but this month I found myself distracted from polite conversation by thoughts like “your laugh sounds so weird, tone it down” and “god, you’re so boring, say something funny”. I ran out of things to say quickly, I chastised myself for being boring and pathetic, and generally did not have a good time at large social functions. Disconcerted, I began analysing my use of alcohol in social situations. I didn’t really like what I was observing.

No-vember involved an unexpected trip back home to Australia. I expected that to be a challenge, particularly considering all the looming social commitments, but it really wasn’t. Admittedly, a beer would have been a delightful accompaniment to our surf club lunch overlooking the beach, but a Coke was fine. It turned out that friends and family were far more interested in the catching up part rather than how it was to take place. So there were meals and coffees instead of beers and pubs, and that was perfectly fine. No-vember was pushed to the back of my mind during my time in Oz, somewhat surprising for a country whose citizens spend four years of their lives with a hangover.

My social crutch theory took a slight battering following that trip. Maybe I wasn’t as socially inept and reliant on alcohol as I thought. That trip involved old friends though, new friends could potential tell a different story. So we attended a spectacular Thanksgiving dinner hosted by a couple we met not long after we arrived in Singapore. This would be more of a challenge, with new friends there are still the odd awkward silences, not to mention the other guests we were yet to meet. But it was lovely. I ate my weight in dinner and dessert, and everyone chatted away until after midnight. Alcohol didn’t cross my mind.

The final example was my highly anticipated (by me) return to drinking. Partner 2’s work Christmas party. It had all the makings of my nightmare: hundreds of people I didn’t know yet had to make polite and engaging conversation with for the good (or at least not to the detriment) of Partner 2’s career. That may be overdramatised but it gives you an idea about my stream of consciousness prior to these sort of events. But alcohol was by my side, and together we had a lovely time. I was reminded painfully though of the time we spent apart the next morning. Despite a relatively restrained night (especially considering the extravagant bar tab), I suffered through a throbbing headache until the following evening. A reminder of one of the many upsides to not drinking.

So this is the part where, I suppose, I talk about what I ‘learned’ and how I’ve ‘grown’. Unfortunately, I don’t think it was all that much. I already knew what was reinforced by No-vember. I don’t like big social situations, I don’t like meeting new people who I will most likely only see once or twice, I don’t like small talk and having the same conversation over and over again with different people. At the risk of sounding like a huge loser, I’d much prefer a small dinner with close friends than some raging party. Large social functions are, unfortunately in my case, an inevitable part of life. Perhaps I rely too heavily on alcohol to get through these situations but, until I find an alternative, it’s what works for me. No-vember has, though, made me more aware of incidental drinking. Beer won’t be a staple of our weekly grocery shop anymore and a movie and pizza night won’t always be accompanied by a drink. I’ll reinstate my ‘not during the week’ policy and try and be more considered when it comes to how much I’m drinking.

That said. We are headed into the festive season, and I’ve got a liver to fatten up.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

We love Africa but it hurts

Some thoughts for my South African friends and (adopted/stolen) family.

The Swedish African

A South African woman came by my brother- and sister-in-law’s bakery in Billeberga, Sweden the other day and mentioned that she’d heard of another South African (me) who was flitting about town.

And as the story goes with most South African expats – she proceeded to make a case for why her and her husband had left their disastrous, God-forsaken country and immigrated to 1,100-strong Billeberga, where it’s safe and clean and where life couldn’t be more perfect. A place where people live equally, work hard and leave their front doors open at night.

“We love Africa but it hurts,” she said

The final straw — she told my brother-in-law — came when their young family fell victim to crime – for a second time.

Ja, ja, it’s the same spiel we hear from South African expats the world over but heck! I don’t want to judge her when…

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SWF: “Against a Tide of Evil”

The past few days I’ve been swanning around the Singapore Writers Festival. I say swanning because that feels like what you should do while amongst the creative community. Quite so, quite so.

An aspect of SWF that I’ve really enjoyed so far is variety of events that are on. There are the usual wanky “What is a writer?” type shindigs, workshops on how to write realistic fantasy dragon characters or whatever, and the ubiquitous authors plugging their books. There are, thankfully, meatier aspects of the programme, like explorations of the changing face of journalism, to Asian feminism, to realistic insights into the publishing industry, and even explorations of terrorism.

My preference for these parts of the programme took me to The Arts House last night, a beautiful old building backing on to Parliament House. I was there for a Meet the Author event with Professor Mukesh Kapila. He has written a book called “Against a Tide of Evil” that has been critically acclaimed and awarded the 2013 Best Non-fiction Title by the Crime Writers’ Association. Professor Kapila was also the head of the UN in Sudan during the genocide in Darfur. “Against a Tide of Evil” is his account of the events in Sudan, the UN’s shocking failure to act, and the desperate measures he was forced to take to get the international community to take notice.

It was an intimate event, probably only 10 or 15 people in the audience, in quite a small space. We were introduced to Professor Kapila and he told us about his childhood in Bihar, one of the poorest states of India, his education at Oxford in the UK, his transition from clinical medicine to public health and eventually humanitarianism.

It was pretty clear early on that, even before his work with the UN, Professor Kapila was an exceptional human being. Then we got on to his time in Bosnia and Serbia, then Rwanda in the 90s, and how he came to be Head of the UN in Sudan in the early 2000s. His predecessor only lasted 100 days.

He spoke of the bureaucracy, the UN’s lack of intelligence capacity, walking the tightrope between working with the Government and condemning their actions, and how a pattern emerged of systematic violence against non-Arabs in Darfur emerged.

The warning signs were there and were alarmingly similar to those noted, and subsequently ignored, in Rwanda. He was told to do nothing, to stay out of it. Professor Kapila painted a very different picture of the revered former Secretary General of the UN Kofi Annan, going so far as to say he should be held accountable for his failure to act. He spoke of his frustration and decision to go to the media when the official channels were unfruitful. He flew to Nairobi and broke the story to anyone and everyone. At midnight, New York time, while the rest of the UN were sleeping. Suddenly the world took notice.

In his closing comments, he made it clear he wasn’t aiming to be a role model or a hero or looking for validation in any way. He told us, suddenly looking very small in his chair, that on nights when he can’t sleep he thinks about what he could have done. The torture of the what-ifs and what-could-have-beens were all over his face and his voice was strangled. “I failed,” he said simply, before taking a moment to compose himself.

That was it for me. The problem with intimate Meet the Author events with 10 or so audience members is, if you have to lose your shit and start to bawl, chances are people, including the revered doctor/academic/UN head/author, will notice. Needless to say, when I got home I almost stripped a layer of plastic off my laptop’s keyboard in my haste to order the book, which has sold out in Singapore.

As inspiring and wonderful as all was, the experience has left me feeling a bit hollowed out. Here we have an exception person who has risen from poverty in India to attend one of the world’s best universities and then, rather than living the comfortable life he was and is so entitled to, opted to take huge risks for humanitarian causes. This inherently good man was strangled by bureaucracy and the suffocating etiquettes of diplomacy to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of people. There’s more bad people in world than good people. In my mind, those that do nothing are as bad as, if not worse than, the bad ones. I suppose that just makes the good ones more important.

Hepatic steatosis

That was the diagnosis, in all its Latin, fear-inducing glory. “Heretic what now?” we asked Google.

“Fatty liver”, Google sighed and suggested some further reading. My throat caught. Fatty liver was something to do with cirrhosis and with alcoholism and with dying in a gutter, choking on your own vomit. Partner 2 ignored me and referred instead to Wikipedia, in this case a more credible source.

“Huh, that’d be all the beer then,” he summarised and closed the tab.

Unsatisfied with his response, I sent my Mum a message. “partner 2 has fatty liver!!!”.

“What??”

Thank you, that’s much better. Reaction justified, I continued indulging in a bit of panic and existentialism. Maybe we’re not invincible? Maybe we won’t live forever? Unthinkable.

Fortunately, some obsessive-compulsive reading was enough to dispel me of these ridiculous notions. As it would happen, my initial reaction had granules of truth to it. Fatty liver can progress into cirrhosis… in one or two percent of patient over 20 years. Admittedly, we’ve made some safe assumptions about our resident fatty liver being alcohol-related, seeing as diabetes, weight, diet and pregnancy can all be pretty much ruled out.

From my Google-acquired understand, Hepatic Steatosis, or fatty liver, is the first stage of an unhappy liver: there’s no inflammation just a bit of fat build-up. The next stage is steatohepatitis which is when there’s inflammation resulting from the toxin build-up. There’s various grades of steatohepatitis and a much higher chance of progressing to cirrhosis, which is scarring of the liver: irreparable damage.

The liver though, bless its squishy, brown cotton socks, has a remarkable ability to heal and repair itself. It rebuilds new cells when the old ones are damaged, clever organ, if only the brain was that smart. Apparently, the fat can disappear within six weeks of not drinking, or not damaging your liver any further.

This prompted the inaugural “No-vember”, as in no beer, no whisky, no drinking etc… No-vember commences on November 2 (Halloween party! Come on!) and runs through until December 5 (Christmas party!). This gives fatty the liver a chance to get in shape and get swimsuit-ready for the festive season, when he will no doubt get fatty once again. But won’t we all!

So as No-vember draws frighteningly close, I am made aware of the fact that we’re not 18 anymore and that maybe sinking a six-pack of beer on a Friday is not necessarily the best way to spend calories/time. Who’d have thought?

In the interest of perpetuating the over-dramatic tone of this post, I’ll end with a thought about drinking from, who else, but Charles Bukowski in an interview in 1974.

“Drinking is an emotional thing. It joggles you out of the standardism of everyday life, out of everything being the same. It yanks you out of your body and your mind and throws you against the wall. I have the feeling that drinking is a form of suicide where you’re allowed to return to life and begin all over the next day. It’s like killing yourself, and then you’re reborn. I guess I’ve lived about ten or fifteen thousand lives now.”

This is about living ten or fifteen thousand more. Happy No-vember.

Christmas cake

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The cake!

I made my first Christmas cake last year. It was a bit of a production. I foraged far and wide for the ingredients: dried fruit, slivered almonds, brandy, gluten-free flour. The fruit soaked in the brandy for a week and gave out head spins to those foolish enough to open the container. For some reason or another, the baking itself was to take place at my parents’ house. It went without a hitch. A beautiful, gluten-free Christmas cake, heaving with fruit and glazed to shining perfection. My work was done. The cake was left with my parents and I went home. I hate Christmas cake.

A week or so later, stopping by for coffee, I asked for a review.

“How was it?”

It was good, they assured me. Lovely with a cup of coffee for morning tea.

“The taxi driver really enjoyed it too.”

“What?”

An unexpected review. They invited a taxi driver inside for a cup of tea and a piece of cake. Rolling my eyes at this old-fashioned behaviour, I chastised them. Inviting a stranger into your house? After you’ve come from a Christmas function where alcohol was most likely consumed with vigour? And a taxi driver? Collectively they’re not known as the most trustworthy bunch of people, at least in Brisbane anyway. My long-suffering parents let me finish and then exchanged a look. A look with a long history and, most likely, a long future of making me feel like a child who’s been told they’ll understand when they’re older. But I want to know now!

“We had a chat with him…” my mother explained. He was a young man, probably no older than my younger brother. He spoke with an accent and came from Afghanistan. They asked him how long he had been here, if he liked it, if his family and friends were here too. The young man started to get upset, though he tried to hide it. He was a refugee, his family, his parents, were still in Afghanistan. They had turned into my parents’ street by this stage and the young man had fallen into a stoic silence, his voice raspy when he asked for the house number. I can just picture my parents exchanging another one of their looks, and my mother leaning forward in her seat, straining against her seat belt:

“Why don’t you come in for a cup of tea and some Christmas cake?”

The young man refused, out of politeness and embarrassment, plus he was working.

“Take a break,” my Dad offered.

The poor man didn’t stand a chance. To say no to my parents you need to weave a delicate web of distractions, alternative suggestions, procrastination and, finally, shifting the blame on to external factors like boyfriends, work or the alignment of the stars.

So he parked at the end of the driveway and came in for a much-needed cup of tea, piece of cake and two pairs of sympathetic ears. He didn’t stay long, but I’m sure Mum tried to convince him to stay longer. And that’s how my Christmas cake got its review.

“There’s only one slice left, just enough for Dad’s morning tea tomorrow.”

I was taken aback by the whole story, and vaguely responded with something about making another cake and charging per slice.

It’s strange how something simple, like a cake, in the hands of the right people can be something so much more. I’m sure it was to the taxi driver and it certainly is to me. But, in what also is a testament to my parents, they have probably forgotten about it entirely. It was a small and habitual encounter, something they’d do for anyone at any time. It’s probably sad that a simple act like this sticks in my mind so firmly, and that my initial reaction was one of cynicism. It’s just kindness. Something we definitely need more of. I hope my parents don’t mind me sharing this but there needs to be a place in this hard, suspicious world for tea and cake with someone who needs it.

Rant: ISIS/ISIL/Daesh and the Australian public

Image from the wonderful MDA: http://www.mdaltd.org.au
Image from the wonderful MDA: http://www.mdaltd.org.au

The only thing to truly fear is ignorance. Ignorance breeds misunderstanding which breeds fear, fear that corrodes logic and common decency and manifests as hate.

I’m talking of course about the recent terror raids in Australia, about ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, and the toxic smog of fear clouding judgement and suffocating tolerance and understanding.

If it were a question of religion, I wouldn’t comment. I’m an atheist and I think you’re all equally insane, but you have every right to be. The thing that gets me the most is that this shouldn’t be about religion. Because it’s not. It’s about extremists and terrorists. This should be a dead giveaway for those who point the blame at Islam. Extremists and terrorists. Not Muslims. Just because those terrorists use Islam as an excuse for their behaviour doesn’t mean it has anything to do with the religion itself. Similarly, Catholic priests under investigation for interfering with children have used their religion as a way of justifying and hiding their actions. There have been no questions around Catholicism following these revelations, about the leadership absolutely, but not about the religion itself and the majority of those who follow it.

Terrorism is about fear. And you know what? They’re winning. Fear is everywhere. Yes, it’s in the news, it’s on the faces of the paranoid among us, and it’s gotten to me too. You know what I’m scared of? I’m not scared for my family and friends back in Australia. I think they’re more likely to be attacked by a drop bear than be exposed to a terrorist attack. No, I’m scared for the Islamic community of Australia. A community that are already subjected to so much suspicion and abuse. A community of normal people being vilified for the religion’s non-existent links to a terrorist organisation.

Why this group of people though? When Anders Breivik slaughtered innocent people in Norway in 2011, we didn’t go around saying, “You can never trust those Christians, bunch of white-skinned, no-hat lunatic”. No. It was a tragedy committed by a mentally ill extremist. A terrorist. His religion barely came into is, his extreme views did certainly, but never once was it ever implied that his behaviour was representative of all Christians everywhere.

The whole issue is completely bizarre. It is a non-religious group of people taking a non-religious issue, terrorism, using it as ammunition against a religious group, Muslims. Because the arguments are never, “I’m a Christian and I believe in Jesus and the Bible as the one true gospel/word/religion” or “Dude, I’m a Buddhist and you’ve got this whole religion thing wrong.” It’s “I’m an Australian, my family’s lived her for generations”.  You know what, champ? Unless you identify as a First Nations Person, being Australian means being an immigrant. An immigrant from England or Scotland or Ireland, or from Greece or Italy, from China or Vietnam, from the Middle East, or even from New Zealand.

The same fear-mongering has happened with each new wave of immigration. First we feared the Greeks and Italians, then the Chinese and Vietnamese, now it’s the Middle East’s turn. I’m sure once Australia is over this, it’s only a matter of time until we turn against the Americans or the Kiwis. The only reason it’s worse now is the unrelenting exposure to a media that is treating this issue with all the sensitivity and tact of a rabid dog. We are constantly exposed, bombarded, with reasons to be afraid, reasons to be outraged. Overblown headlines, misleading causation and consequence links and interview after interview with suburban housewives saying, “They kept to themselves, I always thought they were a bit funny”. Once the media has made us uncertain about what we thought we knew about our suburbs, at the click of a button we can be in touch with people who can feed our fears and help them grow from insecurities into bitter, violent monsters.

It is a vicious, caustic cycle of misunderstanding and misinformation breeding fear and hatred, and it needs to stop. Because when I read those articles, when I read the comments, when I see posts on Facebook and Twitter, I feel ashamed to be Australian. But I shouldn’t because those ignorant, hateful people are not representative of Australia exactly the same as Daesh do not represent the people of Syria or Iran or Afghanistan or Iraq, or the whole Islamic faith.

<rant over>

What I learned from Anna Karenina

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I have been lacking in my posts once again. My only excuse is that my thesis is in its death throes and I’m trying to deliver the final blow. Die! Die! Nearly there.

When I haven’t been contemplating my life choices and cursing word counts, I finished reading Tolstoy’s classic Anna Karenina.

It’s a nice, impressive one at add to the bookshelf; nothing like a bit of classic Russian literature to impress visitors. It was a surprisingly easy read though, particularly compared to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. While Anna is still sitting on my bedside table, Crime and Punishment is gathering dust very impressively in the corner of the bookshelf.

Anna taught me a lot about writing. The subject matter was dense and foreign to me, the language was littered with French and Russian phrases which required translation, and all the characters are pretty unlikeable, yet I had to keep reading.

Levin was an insecure, overly intellectual snob, Vronksy was vain, Anna was her own worst enemy (spoiler alert: other than the train), and Oblonsky was an irresponsible philanderer. But I wanted to know more. I wanted Anna to get her divorce and go to the country. I wanted Oblonsky to go home to Dolly and look after his thousand kids, and Levin… Levin, smile you miserable bastard! How did Tolstoy make me care so much about these flawed, desperate characters?

They say a writer must write what they know. It is so much more than that though, everyone knows something but not everyone is a writer. My theory is that it comes down to observation and words. The minute details of every scene, every conversation and every description in Anna Karenina make it easy to picture and imagine that you too are sitting in a box at the Petersburg opera, or sipping vodka with peasants after a tough day’s harvesting. Tolstoy must have been a perceptive observer of the world around him. But he also must have been a great sculptor of words. I think sculptor is the most appropriate word because crafting meaningful sentences is about more than stringing words together. It’s foraging for the perfect word, the right medium to convey your message, and melding it with others to create something bigger than the words along. Finished sculptures seldom resemble the clay they started as. You could be the best observer but if you can’t find the words to describe what you see, you may as well not have seen anything.

I think that’s probably my take-away from Anna Karenina. Along with some other stuff about cheating on your husband, wheat prices, and train platform safety. It’s probably a little lofty to aspire to write like Tolstoy but his descriptions are something I’d like to incorporate more into my own writing. Elaborate descriptions are a bit of a weak point for me. A background in journalism has left me equipped with short sentences and scenes heavy in dialogue. But as soon as this thesis is laid to rest, I’ll turn my attention back to basics and back to describing.

As for reading, War and Peace is up there on the list, but everything in moderation. I’m cleansing my palate of Russian Society with a biography of Hunter S. Thompson.

Job hunting once again

I’m job hunting again. I’ve come full circle: degree, job hunting, degree, job hunting, degree, job hunting. Maybe I should stop studying…

I realise this is a topic I’ve written about in the past, reading through a few of those old posts I’ve noticed how my attitude has changed.

In the past, as a fresh-faced graduate, my approach was to sidle up politely, apologise profusely and generally sing happy songs in my head until the process was over.

It went like this:

“Excuse me… Ahem.. Um excuse me, sorry to be such a burden and to take up any of your precious, precious time but I have a job application I’d like to submit to you if you have time in your busy schedule to possible even accept it. Thank you so much, please accept this pint of my blood as a down-payment for my soul, collectible upon employment with your fine upstanding organisations.”

Bless.

And here I am again. This time though, I am an experienced media/comms/marketing/events professional with post-graduate qualifications. The only difference is I’m in a new country. Far from making me nervous and subservient in my applications, it’s made me a massive snob. Only applying for jobs that really interest me, rather than the blanket approach of my youth. Hell, I’ve got enough savings to sit on my couch for another few months, I’m deciding whether to do a PhD, I’ve got options, man! I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing, but it has kind of come out in my applications…

“Hey you. I am fantastic. I am the most experienced, qualified applicant you will ever hope to have the pleasure of meeting. If you choose not to hire me through some clerical error or organisational quirk, I brought tissues for when the enormity of your misguided decision hits you. There, there. I’d tell you there are others out there but that would be a lie. Only one me. Soz bro.”

Direct quote from my cover letter. Ok, it’s not. But I’ve found I’m far less modest about my achievements. Rather than subtly hinting at them in white font or through postal stamp choice or however I did it years ago, I’m much more upfront what I can and can’t do. Most about what I can do…

Back then, I imagine I inflicted a lot of suffering on recruiters: they must have got hand strains from time spent scrunching up my applications, and migraines from composing polite, yet crushing, rejection letters. Singapore is great though! At the end of each job ad, they state that “Only shortlisted applicants will be contacted”. How good is that? No defeat, no rejection, just a chance to forget about your application then think of it again in a few weeks: “Oh yeah! I guess I didn’t get it, ah well!” This truly is a more advanced society.

Anyway, I better stop procrastinating and get back to it. These applications aren’t going to write themselves. Ahem…. Also to any employers that may have stumbled on this site, this is a work of fiction and any resemblance to cover letters, living or dead, is purely coincidental…. Please visit my LinkedIn page for more samples of my work!

Home.

Anuradhapura butterflies
Anuradhapura butterflies

Sometime it takes going away to realise where your home is.

I haven’t felt homesick once since the move to Singapore. Of course, I miss friends and family, and I’m very much looking forward to going home for Christmas, but there hasn’t yet been that overwhelming sadness of the “What have I done? I want to go home!!” variety.

Naturally, I swirled my kopi and attributed this to my imagined status of “citizen of the world”. “The world is my home,” I said to Tippy, who did not even look up from licking her foot. This wankery delusion was further supported by a weekend trip to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. It felt very cosmopolitan and worldly to jet off to Vietnam for the weekend. Because when you’re cosmopolitan and worldly you don’t fly, you “jet”. Even if it’s in economy with screaming kids and snuffling Vietnamese men, it’s still “jetting”. Anyway, it was nice to come home after that, home as in Singapore. Nice to come back to our bed and our couch, to be able to drink tap water again.

Sri Lanka though, still only a short trip, changed that. As we puttered through the country side in a tuk-tuk, going from Anuradhapura, the fabled ancient capital, to Kalpitiya, the deserted windy beaches straight out of kitesurfing fantasies, I caught myself thinking about Australia. Specifically, though I loathe to admit it, Bundaberg. I thought about the smoke plumes from cane fires and catching ash as it fell from the sky. I thought about sitting behind the couch at my Grandma’s house with the cat, squinting at the street through the yellow frosted glass windows. I thought about Arnott’s Assorted Creams and the lolly jar on top of the fridge that became easier to reach as we all got older. How strange it was to be suddenly back in the home town I had joked off for years as “You know, where the rum comes from?”. In the middle of Sri Lanka, of all places. Maybe two months and two weeks is too soon to receive a “Citizen of the World” Passport?

I’ll go back at the end of the year though. There’s no more cane fires, the cat’s long gone. The lolly jar has likely been replaced by bottles of rum: my 21-year-old cousin lives there now. I’ll buy some Assorted Creams though, I’ll eat the Monte Carlos first. I’ll drive through the streets that are the same every time I’m there, a constant cause of outer derision and inner comfort. I suppose they calls them roots for a reason. As far as you go, as wide as you spread your branches, as many different creatures come and build nests on you (maybe not), your roots stay in the same place. You know, where the rum comes from.