It’s here again …

Yes, folks, my most un-favourite time of year has rolled around again. (Is un-favourite a word? It is now.) I went with my beloved to Chadstone last Saturday. Ay caramba! That was it for me for shopping centres this year. With every bit of Christmas muzak at the supermarket, every lame decoration around signposts down the street — those shiny ones which form a kind of skirt around the pole are new to me — and every inescapable catalogue and promotional email, ghosts of Christmases past are crowding around. I thank Old Harry I no longer have to run the gauntlet of the Salvation Army brass bands at Melbourne Central Station, honking out carols to the bleary commuters, the shaken money tins providing an ad libitum percussion obligato.  

Family Christmases in years gone by were mostly pretty OK. We all got along well enough to avoid it becoming the kind of ordeal, thick with recriminations and the airing of ancient grievances, as portrayed in Absurd person singular by Alan Ayckbourn. (In one act of this play, Eva decides to end it all one Christmas Eve. She is repeatedly interrupted in carrying out this project — when she removes the bulb from its socket in order to electrocute herself, a guest thinks she is trying to change the bulb and insists on doing it himself . Eva then tries to gas herself, at which another guest imagines the former is trying to clean the oven, and shoves her aside to do it herself. You get the picture.)

Christmas as an adult is another matter. To give might be more blessed than to receive,  or however the saying goes, but the giving involves a fair amount of getting. What I really detest, apart from the relentless commercialisation, is the way everyone becomes so tense and aggressive in shops and markets, as they hunt down all the extra stuff they somehow just to have. Boxing Day seems a lot more relaxed. The main event is finished with for another year, and one can start in on the leftovers and thinking about how to regift the unwanted stuff. Christmases these days, however, are pretty cruisy. We take a Kris Kringle and dips and nibbly stuff to one or another of the ever-obliging sisters-in-law. They do all the hard work, and it is just an excuse for a family catch-up. Everyone gets on, just as they did in my family of origin.

Okay, so Christmas is a big soft target, affording many easy laughs and satiric scenarios. How about this for a plan? (I am recycling a suggestion made ages ago by a family member, so props to them. They know who they are.) It would be rather hard lines for the kids not to get presents. But what if the adults skip the presents for one year, pool what they would have spent, and make a big donation to a bushfire appeal? Among our lot, I am happy to do the donating. (I am thinking of the Christmas Drought Appeal, via the Commonwealth Bank. But I am happy to donate to other good causes, as requested.) Family members can reimburse me as and when convenient.

Whatever doesn’t kill you …

I went to see Dr Parente for my six weekly checkup on Monday, and all was as last time; PSA undetectable, everything as it should be. Following this I went to the Epworth Eastern oncology unit for another Zolodex implant; this was delivered with their usual aplomb.

Apologies to my faithful readership for the belated notice! I have, it’s true, become a tad more casual about these appointments: which is not to say that I assume that the good Dr will always deliver this message. Another reason for the radio silence has been that, after a week away, I started as a participant in an ACU study. (Apos also to those to whom this is old news.) The study is looking at the effect of exercise on the mental well-being of advanced prostate cancer patients. To this end, subjects do three exercise classes a week for 12 weeks, a mixture of resistance exercises and cardio. Classes are held on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; I am almost at the end of week two. The study should conclude around early February. (While this is going on, I have wound down my museum days to one each week.)  

It is too early to say what the effect of this participation is. I was doing a similar exercise class each week for about the last twelve months. Once a week, though, is a different ball game from three times! I have been feeling pretty tired on the off days. There’s no doubt, though, that exercise is a great tranquilizer.  Each class is supervised by an ACU PhD student, all very agreeable young folk, and I often meet the other participant for a coffee beforehand. So the social aspect is a  bonus. I need to watch, though, that I don’t overdo either the exercise or the interaction. As an extraverted introvert, I need to allow myself enough solitary time. Otherwise, I suffer from what I saw aptly described as the introvert hangover: feeling a bit overdrawn at the bank. A little bit of what you fancy does you good, as the saying goes, but more is not always better, and one can have too much of a good thing. Still, it is a good problem to have.

The weather was exceptionally weird last week — much colder than it had been in Hobart — but that seemed to lend itself to doing some more work on my memoir. This is something on which I have been working very intermittently for about a year. As a kind of preview, I am pasting in below the section I wrote last week. It grew out of a memory I had of getting my hair cut in my early teens. I have been trying to capture these little episodic memories to put in italics at the head of a chapter. This one, however, turned into a chapter in its own right.

***********************************************************

Haircuts

I am in Sydney, aged somewhere in my early teens, and having a haircut. The place is opposite my first secondary school, North Sydney Technical High School. The hairdresser is maybe in his twenties, and has a British accent. I must have been there before, because he asks “Just the usual today, sir”? I agree; just the usual. We make some banal conversation. I try to act casually, but I feel as though I have suddenly been admitted to some secret society. Is this because someone older than me is calling me sir? Or is it because my preferences have been remembered, as though they matter? Maybe this is what being grown up will be like.

Haircuts signified a lot in the 1960s and 70s. Those with long hair were poofters or troublemakers. Those with crewcuts or shaven heads were army cadets or skinheads. I lined up with the longhairs at North Sydney Tech. There was a fair amount of pushback from the short-haired establishment. In the 1969 film Easy Rider, the redneck who shot Billy asked rhetorically “Why don’t you get your hair cut?”. Fortunately the major hostilities at school were verbal. One of the science teachers used to refer to us as “long-haired louts”. My English teacher used to provide a running commentary on my hair, with remarks such as “It’s getting a bit long, Guy”. A friend of mine was roughed up by older kids at lunchtime for having long hair. (He and I occasionally used to play up to this general hostility by engaging in mock-effeminate dialogues.) Long hair was also associated with being opposed to Australia’s participation in the Vietnam war. A boy with long hair was therefore also a commo. 

As a child, haircuts had required the presence of your father or (humiliatingly) mother. When the high chair was no longer needed, you became qualified to undertake the mission solo. At that time, people who cut your hair were barbers. They were inevitably male, to the extent that this seemed an unspoken requirement for entry into their ranks. When ordered off to get a haircut, a visit to the barber therefore plunged you into an unconsciously masculine world. The chrome and vinyl chairs around the walls were stacked with tatty soft porn magazines like Pix and People. An assistant swept up the loose hair from the vinyl or linoleum floor. Talkback was yet to come, so the radio was tuned to a pop station. Mysterious preparations such as brilliantine and Brylcreem were stacked on the shelves. Scissors were stored in tall jars of some whitish solution. Clippers were suspended from cup hooks screwed into shelves, allowing them to remain plugged in until required. Everything was as functional as a garage. In an industry devoted to maintaining appearances, there was something faintly paradoxical about this.

Communication was by way of signals; a glance from the barber called you to be seated when your turn came. With its padded arms and built-in footrest, the barber’s chair was obviously built for a specific purpose. It only required arm straps and a head clamp to closely resemble those used in American prisons to deliver millions of volts to bad guys. (Electric chairs were a humorous trope in popular culture; Luna Park had a mock-up of one allowing someone to pose as the prisoner and their companion as executioner. A black and white photograph captured my brother and me in these respective roles, both grinning maniacally for the camera.) As a signal that the haircut was imminent, a sort of cloak was flourished around your shoulders, and fastened behind the neck with a press stud. A piece of paper torn from a roll, always with ragged ends, was tucked inside the neck of this garment. (This never prevented a few hairs falling scratchily inside your shirt.) The barber gave a few pumps on a foot pedal to elevate the seat to a convenient height. Then the negotiation began as to how much he should take off. Comb and scissors were wielded on the top and sides, electric clippers on the back of the neck. (At the latter point, the practitioner would push gently on the back of your head to signal that you were to hold it at this angle.) A hand mirror was held up for you to inspect the rear treatment, first on one side, then the other. At the conclusion of the business, a soft brush was used to remove most of the clipped hairs. You had to close your eyes when this implement was whisked across the hairline, eyebrows and nose. Finally the cloak was theatrically whipped off, the corners pinched together to avoid getting the hairs on your trousers or bare legs. The payment was always made in cash. 

Hair was something about which many of my contemporaries were highly conscious. Pocket combs were widely carried; one boy even had a mirror in his inside blazer pocket. Having the wrong haircut attracted ridicule. In fact, having had a recent haircut was a sure fire way of standing out. This was not a good thing in a boy’s school, where the ridicule could well take the form of a few cuffs or punches. Any retaliation in like manner was greeted with shouts of “Fight! Fight!”; everyone nearby would form a circle to encourage the combatants. There were more wrong haircuts than right ones. This was particularly so for members of the army cadets. Warnings were published about sideburns that reached below the top of the ear; these were to be removed on the parade ground with a razor and cold water. (The shame!) The headmaster of the Tech, Mr Hornibrook, was a forbidding character with a crewcut. He was particularly inclined to ask boys with hair any longer than his own whether they needed bobby pins or ribbons. The character forming effects of education thus relied on verbal and occasionally physical abuse. 

As the sixties gave way to the age of Aquarius, hair salons joined the ranks of barber shops. There was much discussion among my contemporaries of the virtues of the former establishments. One favourite was in the Menzies hotel in the city. A surprisingly good one was in the Town Hall station; this was notable for playing the ABC radio. Cuts started to involve initial spritzing of the hair or even a shampoo, finishing with blow drying. Females began to be involved in the administration of these treatments, and even the cutting. (Reflecting on a haircut in my early twenties, I kicked myself to realise that the attractive young lady hairdresser had been attempting to chat me up.) Requests to leave a bit more length, and generally adopt a flattering style, were indulged. Razor cuts started to come in, and sideburns were sported more generally by public figures such as Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam. The porn star moustache began to adorn the faces of sportsmen. Colours and perms were just around the corner.A brand of hairpiece was marketed under the name of the Sir’s Undetectable; this became known in our family as the Sir’s Detectable. The premiere of the musical Hair seemed to signal the end of the macho, uptight, short back and sides era.   

My hair started thinning in my twenties, particularly at the front. What remained mostly fell out during chemotherapy in the later half of 2018. It grew back at the end of that treatment, but the colour became iron grey. Now, when I get up in the morning, and my hair is sticking up at the back like a cocky’s crest, I know it is time for a cut. 

Barber shops have come back in. These recreations seek to revive the untroubled masculinity of simpler times, while offering contemporary styles and treatments such as hair waxes and beard oil. My modest requirements are easily met at an original three chair joint in Camberwell Junction, next to a shoe repair shop in an arcade. My beloved looks quite peeved when I tell her, in mock outrage, that I was charged $22 for a haircut! Her much more elaborate ‘dos cost several multiples of that sum, and take several hours. I can be in and out in twenty minutes; I am now officially low maintenance. All I need to request is a 2 and 3. (The numbers refer to the grade of clipper attachment; 2 all over is a bit severe, so I have a 3 on top.) This has become my new usual. Reassuringly, no-one calls me sir.

 

Radio

Music is one of the biggest things in my life. I need it as much as love. If I don’t listen to about an hour of music each day I get twitchy, and float loose of my mooring somehow. That listening has to be proper listening — not just having it on in the background while I am reading. (Listening while I am cooking or gardening somehow lets more of the music through.)

After nearly fifty years of listening to classical music, I have about seven hundred CDs, and maybe a dozen DVDs and Blu-rays. At a rough calculation, this equates to about 1,000 hours of listening. As if this were not enough, I have also resumed buying vinyl, mostly from op shops. (I bought some from a record fair recently — I drove most of the way, then walked, to limit what I bought to what I could carry back.) I only have a few dozen LPs, and am trying not to buy too many more. When am I going to get to listen to it all? This is particularly the case, considering that what I switch my amplifier to most often is the FM tuner: ABC Classic or 3MBS.

What is it about radio that I find so addictive? For one thing, I love the unexpectedness of it. ABC Classic, in particular, seems determined to keep listeners in the dark about what is to be broadcast. I have had extensive correspondence with them about this, in which I have also bitched about the shortcomings of their web site. The latter comments were acknowledged, and things improved after a lengthy and no doubt hideously expensive redesign. (This was in progress when I began bothering them. There are still, however, plenty of links that lead nowhere.) From this correspondence I learned that their research indicated — I am paraphrasing — publishing music listings on the web site was not a priority for listeners, at least for breakfast or afternoon programs. ABC Classic conceded that there was interest in having advance access to listings for concerts, which are mostly broadcast around midday. The entire programs of a week’s worth of selected midday concerts can therefore, now, be read on the ABC Classic web site.  3MBS-FM, by contrast, publishes a monthly guide for subscribers, available in hard copy or as a .pdf, for $85 a year — including postage for those who select the hard copy. This guide lists almost everything they broadcast in their daytime programming. (Students, concession card holders, musos, and other impecunious folk can subscribe for about $55 a year.)

Both stations, ABC Classic in particular, post programs on their web sites. These can, for a time, be played back on demand. Being the owner of a vintage stereo, this is not a lot of use to me. (I have tried various Rube Goldberg-type arrangements, which work, but the results sound unpleasantly processed.) However, I have progressed from battling ABC Classic about their inscrutability, to embracing this new and austere universe. I have learned to keep an ear out for hints from the more humane presenters, who actually tell the scattered and huddled listening hordes what is coming up. Audiences Australia wide must be keeping an ear out for a hint of a complete symphony or concerto. Quick — put on a coffee and warm up those valves!

But there is also something about radio broadcasting that I have become really attached to. It is the aural equivalent of seeing a film at the cinema. If you watch the movie at home on the DVD player, you see and hear the same program, but the experience is different. Having everyone who is tuned to a particular station listening to the same program at the same time is similarly different. A radio audience is a kind-of community; a special thing in our fragmented times. Being able to send in SMS comments is a great enhancement to this sense of togetherness. Listening to these comments makes you realise that other people like classical music too, and they tune in while doing their gardening, driving tractors and trucks, walking the dog, or just to listen. 

I also love how radio broadcasts can remind you of music that you know, but has gone off your playlist somehow. ABC Classic has copped some stick in this post, but props to them for playing big chunks of Mahler, Bruckner, Schubert, and even Wagner, amidst the everlasting Mozart. (Just not the Clarinet Concerto again, please! For about six months! And enough of the Mannheim School already.) Further kudos are deserved for giving Australian composers past and present, and local ensembles and performers, a platform. There is more music out there than one can ever hear, just as there is sitting on my study shelves. But the familiar galaxies and constellations are not dimmed by new stars.

Librarian chic

The Nine Publishing Good Weekend papers that came out last Saturday featured a story about libraries. It was a good read, with a number of personal interest stories. Any librarian, past or present, who objects to that story must be a curmudgeon, right? Well, count me in — to a point.

There was a lot to like about the story. Props to Jane Cadzow for wanting to write something positive about the institution which is a synonym for dowdy and boring. It was only recently that I saw an outfit of (I think) skirt and jumper described as “librarian chic”. Actually, I have just had a through-the-looking-glass moment when Googling this phrase. There was an entire session devoted to exploring “librarian chic” at the IFLA conference last year in Kuala Lumpur. I’m not making it up, you know! Here is the session abstract: 

“Have you ever made a quick judgement about someone because of what they’re wearing? Sure, we have all done it. Does this mean that the way we dress at work influences how we are perceived and categorized in society?
The topic of Librarian Fashion opens a myriad of questions: Should librarians wear a uniform? Can we wear tattoos? Should we dress with dignity – and what does dignity mean? What about piercings? Jewels? Religious or political symbols? Does it depend on a personal choice, on the country we live in, or on the position we hold in the library? Should a library director dress like a librarian or like a director? Do you believe in enclothed cognition?”

Go to the conference web page, scroll down to session 142 — it’s near the top — and click on it. Six papers are supposedly in English (I haven’t checked this out — no pun intended).

Dragging myself back to the Good Weekend article, the author set a few hares running, but failed to follow them to their burrows. Take the quote from Michael Moore about librarians being dangerous revolutionaries. This was just plonked out there with no explanation, for shock value. (Those nice librarians, dangerous! Ooh!) But what makes librarians dangerous? Providing books and other materials that are communally owned, for people to take home in an orderly way, is actually quite an anarchistic thing to do. It would be much more profitable for publishers if all of us had to buy our own copy. This arrangement would probably be better for authors too. (The Australian Lending Right schemes are intended to compensate authors for sale income that they have lost because libraries have been lending out their books. But that’s a story for another time.)

The article stressed the egalitarian nature of public libraries, which of course is all well and good. The same applies to university libraries — everyone is supposedly equal at the enquiries desk, whether they are an undergraduate or the vice chancellor. Partners in a law firm, however, definitely get preferential treatment over the paralegals and other lesser breeds. I remember hearing a law librarian, at a conference explaining how she had learned the art of the “elevator pitch”, in case she came to share the lift with a partner. Hold the boring memos requesting funding — just front them directly! Requests from those who make funding decisions tend to get priority.

Egalitarianism is a fellow traveller with co-operation, and libraries are intrinsically co-operative institutions. If your local library doesn’t hold a book (or whatever) in its collection, staff will get hold of it from another library via the inter-library loan system. (There may be a charge to the end-user for this service.) In Australia, this is facilitated by Libraries Australia, which is a kind of national union catalogue. The co-operative ethos of all this obviously runs contrary to that of free market capitalism.

This kumbaya stuff has its limits, though. It’s stretching the point, as the article does, to say that borrowing books from a library is something that “runs on trust”. There is no covenant without the sword, and libraries have fines for late return. (Some librarians, as the article pointed out, think these should be done away with.) Library fines these days are fairly nuanced in their application. It is a well kept secret that in many cases, if books are returned one or two days overdue, a fine will mostly not be levied. This is based on research that found that most delinquent loans are returned soon after an overdue notice is issued. Lose a book, though, and you have to pay the purchase cost, plus a processing fee. (This happened to me, after I left a library book that I took on holidays, and left in the pouch in front of my airplane seat. After calls to the airline lost property didn’t get it back, I just went to my local branch and ‘fessed up. Oh yes, I’ve done that, said the librarian who processed my payment.) Don’t just hope the library will forget about it, though: you might have to pay the accrued overdue fines as well!

The article, as the author acknowledged, only looked at municipal or public libraries. It is encouraging to read that these are doing well, in Australia at least. Of course, libraries come in many other flavours. Universities and higher education institutions largely still have them. Ditto for schools, law firms, museums, government departments, and research institutes — the last four coming under the umbrella term of special libraries. I suspect newspaper libraries are a thing of the past, along with many other special libraries. Survivors are under threat from managerial types who think that everything is now freely available, in full text, on the web, so what do we need libraries and librarians for? (This ignores the question as to why publishers have suddenly become philanthropists, happy to give content away online that they charge for in hard copy.)

Special library work allows staff to acquire expertise in the topics featured  in the collection. This expertise is a bit like topsoil — slow to form, easily lost. Its loss is one of the worst aspects of the closure of special libraries. Collections that have been painstakingly built up are also scattered to the four winds. With luck, a library somewhere else in the world will have these titles. If it is a back run of a really specialised journal, however, it is probably only available in hard copy. Articles and conference papers can be tough to get hold of; most libraries don’t lend these materials out. If it is available in a database, libraries which have a subscription are often forbidden by their user licences from using the database to fulfil interlibrary loan requests. The more specialized the request, the harder it is to fulfil, and the really out-of-the-way stuff can only be delivered by a librarian who knows the nooks and crannies of that topic area. Just hope that one of those is on your case!

Politicians are happy to bang on about the knowledge economy. The special library, however, continues on the endangered list. This is particularly the case in a place like Australia, where managers are rewarded for closing down expensive and outwardly unproductive things like libraries. So, yes, celebrate your local library! Use it or lose it! Would you rather have that, or Amazon?

New normal

Well, we saw Dr Parente this morning, and the news continues to be good. Everything is looking fine on the blood test; the PSA continues to be undetectable. Dr P was saying that everything was totally normal, then corrected himself. An undetectable PSA score is not normal. However, I’m happy to be an outlier — some might say, a freak — in this context!

So, how high should PSA be? According to Medline Plus, a score of 2.5 is considered normal for males 50 or younger. This will rise gradually from that age onwards. But in the context of prostate cancer, it is not so much the quantum of the score as its trajectory that counts. If your PSA takes a sudden jump, that is what gets everyone suddenly very concerned. As the Medline article says, prostate cancer can’t be diagnosed from a PSA test alone — that needs a biopsy. The test just raises a red flag.

The reliability or otherwise of the PSA test for mass screening test is extremely controversial, as it should be. But for individuals, there doesn’t seem to be another test that is as good. My impression is that males are under-tested, insofar as we tend to be at the GP’s office less often than females. So when a man in his fifties or older finally gets around to going to the doctor, the GP may order PSA to be tested as a just-in-case.

My message to male readers? It ain’t rocket science — get it checked out! Early detection still gives the best prospects. Men may feel reluctant to open that door; I certainly did. But just because you need to pee more often, it could just be benign prostatic hyperplasia. Treatments for this condition cover a spectrum of “let’s just keep an eye on it” to something more elaborate. That is a judgement that obviously needs to be made by a specialist. On the other hand, and not wanting to be alarmist, but you could have no symptoms and have something going on that needs to be nipped in the bud. (This was my experience.)

If you see a specialist, and want to get some more information before you commit yourself, get along to a prostate cancer survivor’s group, or join one of the discussion lists. You don’t need to have had an operation to join a group or a web site. But if you want to talk to those who have had surgery, radiation, chemo, or whatever else, this is a great opportunity. The Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia is a good place to start.

The presence of an absence

I have been somewhat absent from the airwaves lately. The last couple of months have been rather busy, which has mostly been great. But the busy-ness has one downside — of which more later.

In the last couple of months I have had a lot of objectives to work towards and interesting things to do. Principal among these is becoming a volunteer at the Melbourne Museum’s Biodiversity Heritage Library project. To get to the Museum, I catch a train to Parliament station, whence it is a lovely walk along Spring Street to Victoria Street, through the Carlton Gardens, past the Exhibition Building. This route takes me through what I think is one of the best parts of Melbourne, with its wonderful Victorian buildings, wide boulevards, and formal gardens with mature trees and herbaceous borders. The trams go dinging past along Nicholson Street; one couldn’t be anywhere else.

Volunteers at the Museum are well supported; there are about 500 of us (of whom only a handful works on BHL). The induction was very thorough, and I now have my entry tag on a lanyard, like one of the cast of Utopia. I am also enjoying the feeling of being part of an enterprise again, the opportunity to learn new things, and the sense of being valued for my skills and experience. So BHL is an all-round winner, combining exercise, mental stimulation, and social interaction.

How does exercise come into it?  To get to the Museum, I catch a train to Parliament station, whence it is a lovely walk along Spring Street to Victoria Street, through the Carlton Gardens, past the Exhibition Building. This route takes me through what I think is one of the best parts of Melbourne, with its wonderful Victorian buildings, wide boulevards, and formal gardens with mature trees and herbaceous borders. The trams go dinging past along Nicholson Street; one couldn’t be anywhere else

I hadn’t heard of the Biodiversity Heritage Library before I stumbled across it at at talk for Rare Books Week. This page gives an idea of what the project is all about. Briefly, it is a worldwide consortium which scans historic biodiversity-related books and other documents and publishes them to the web. These documents are uploaded in full text, described with correct metadata, and publicised on Twitter and other social media. What sorts of things are in there? Charles Darwin’s library is an example; “over 500 of the 1,480 books in Darwin’s library … complemented with fully-indexed transcriptions of Darwin’s annotations”. What else might you find? Who doesn’t love polar bears (ursus maritimus to you)?

These materials are of interest to several communities. Climate change is putting ecosystems all over the world under pressure, with extinctions on the rise. Biologists studying these things need information about plant or animal species’ original discovery, extent, habitats, and appearance. This information is contained in books and scientific journals, but also in periodicals such as proceedings of natural science associations, and archival material like field notes. The latter sources, however, are “grey literature”; things that libraries tend either not to collect, or house in closed access stacks and rare book collections. Many of the documents also feature stunning biological illustration. So this is a site of endless interest to book and design as well as scientific nerds. Discoverability is an emphasis; everything is properly catalogued and described with scientific terminology. What a wonderful project this is — getting these documents out of stacks and rare book collections, into the public domain, for anyone with a web browser to enjoy and learn from.

What else have I been up to? I went to ANAM (another great Melbourne institution) for a number of concerts and master classes. These involve music students nearing graduation, and those visiting Australia to teach them. The standard is high and the ticket prices very low. There are often friends around to have lunch with. Last month there were a few trips to town involved with a couple of prostate cancer-related research studies. (One of these, involving three months of exercise classes, won’t start until November.) I am getting to grips again with Proust, albeit with a certain resistance — I managed to lose volume 1 of the Penguin “In search of lost time”, The way past Swann’s. (I just cursed and ordered another copy from Reading’s.) I spend a lot of time listening to music, either in the kitchen or in the study on my old valve stereo. Now that spring is springing, I will have no excuse but to get outside and beat our little garden into some kind of shape. For the rest of the time there is

  • book group (once a month)
  • the ex-RMIT coffee group (ditto)
  • exercise class followed by lunch (weekly)
  • hauling myself off to the gym (nominally twice a week)
  • going for walks (ditto)
  • food shopping (about three times a week), and
  • cooking (almost every day).

I am still feeling very well, and that is allowing me to keep up this level of activity. The exercise I am doing is a big part of that. I am becoming quite the evangelist (that is, a bore) about movement. My sleeping is better, doubtless partly due also to the exercise. Without this I would not have the energy to do a lot of these fun things. So I have gone from feeling a bit under-engaged to having (literally and metaphorically) lots of pots on the stove. Having many things to do also provides me with distractions. The shopping and cooking have always been my jobs, and I enjoy them both. Everything else I am doing voluntarily, I can schedule my Museum work at times when I can actually get a seat on the train. My book group, exercise, and coffee buddies are retirees; we can all do things when it suits us. Rush hour commutes are a thing of the past.

So what’s the downside? I find myself now a bit short of writing time. Of course, this is a pretty good problem to have! I just need to schedule in some “quality time” for writing. Doris Lessing called one of her books of essays A small, personal voice. Putting the words on a screen helps me focus on that voice, and make sense of things. I see Dr P on the 23rd, and will post the results of that appointment shortly after.

Of a retiring nature

It is now four years since I retired. I don’t remember the exact date of my last day at RMIT, but it was definitely around mid-August, 2015. All the events leading up to that — the appointments with superannuation consultants, haggling with the university over how much I would get in my payout, my farewell morning tea — all seem from another era.

I retired in a way that is probably the least recommended — going from 100% to 0%. I used to call it “jumping off the jetty”. My doing it this way was due to how my retirement came about. My former work group was being transferred to another campus, quite a distance from the city campus where they previously worked. Staff who would have been disadvantaged by that transfer were offered a separation payout; leaving the university was a condition of receiving the payout. At the time, I was happy to accept the conditions and avoid the extra travel. Stopping work overnight, however, did make it a more difficult transition than tapering down my hours gradually.

Of course, paid work involves a lot more than a salary. It is social interaction, the exercise of skills and talents, the feeling of being part of an enterprise. Paid work is a big part of how we define ourselves. When it stops it is easy to feel that you have become a bit peripheral, even useless. To put it another way, retirement can be a loss; dealing with it consequently involves a form of grieving. I did see a therapist with whom to talk the process over. For anyone who hasn’t received any counselling or advice from their employer, super fund, or elsewhere, I recommend it.

Like grief, I found retirement to come in stages. (After I wrote this, I stumbled across a ‘proper’ Six Stages of Retirement article on Investopedia.) Stage One was terrific at first: like being on holiday, but not having to go back to work. In Stage Two, the reality began to sink in that in most days there were a lot of hours to fill. This was quite a setback; I was not having nearly so good a time. In Stage Three, I gradually began to investigate options for taking up those hours. Many of these are not obvious at all — for example, volunteering at the Museum. The reality is that, unless you start a big project like enrolling in a course, restoring a vintage car, or sailing around the world, one new interest won’t be enough. You will need to find a number of things that fit what you have to offer: interests, income, energy levels, and location. It is not just having enough to do; you need enough of the right things to do.

It has taken me quite a while to find a way of being retired that suits me. It has been a matter of trial and error (which is really, as someone said, trial and learning). This has been complicated for me by ill health. As well as having to work out what to do with myself, I have also had to work out two medical diagnoses; first low iron, then prostate cancer. The investigations associated with the former, and the treatments with the latter, have been extensive and thus time-consuming. I have had as well to contend with the effects of chronic acute insomnia. This is something that continues to affect my memory, concentration and energy. (I feel these effects even when, as in recent months, my sleep has improved.) 

How I have dealt with these circumstances comes down to three strategies. (Yes, things do come in threes.) First, I have tried a range of things. Many of them I have liked, a few I haven’t. You never really know what learning a foreign language or volunteering at a community radio station — to name but two — will be like until you try them. Second, it is helpful to ask yourself occasionally how you would like your life to be different. Doing this revealed that I would like more interaction. Identifying this as a goal led me to do things like joining a book club. I also switched my exercise class to a day on which the participants get together for lunch afterwards. I enjoy both these things a lot. Third, I have been adding activities to my schedule gradually. After doing this for a little while, I feel I have enough to do, without being over-scheduled.

Most days involve one or more of the usual domestic suspects: washing, food shopping and cooking, writing and replying to emails, paying bills, and making appointments. Exercise is another priority, being one of the best things that I can do to maintain myself in a well state. Any holes are filled by listening to music, reading (I am having another go at In search of lost time, the Penguin edition), going for a walk, writing, gardening, digitising vinyl records, and handyman stuff. 

So what has my week looked like so far? 

  • Monday: neither of us can actually remember what we did, which is a bit of worry! I think this was a catch-up day after going to a concert on Sunday afternoon.
  • Tuesday: I walked around to the gym, then went into town to pick up my pass for the Museum, where I will soon begin volunteering. I did some food shopping on the way home.
  • Wednesday: had coffee with some former colleagues, then did some more shopping. Our niece was staying with us that night, so there was extra cooking to do.
  • Thursday: did some washing before my exercise class late in the morning, then had lunch with some of the guys.
  • Friday: more washing, then did a bit more food shopping in the morning. I had been volunteered to bake a cake for a family get-together over the weekend — this is baked and just needs frosting.

There was a good balance in all this of time at home and time out. Or as retired GP put it: you need something physical, something mental, and something social. I wish someone had told me this before I retired! Still, I can definitely say I never wanted to turn the clock back.