Saturday, January 30, 2010

Wedding crasher

I'm writing this from the other end of the country; I'm down here for my cousin's wedding which, unusually, is on a Sunday. I can't say I'm overly excited about it. Big social occasions are tricky for me at the best of times, but I find weddings especially hard to relate to; getting married is something other people do.

I've just seen my aunt and uncle; I get on well with them. I thought they'd be going to the wedding tomorrow, but due to some family politics I don't understand, they weren't invited. Come to think of it I don't remember getting an invite either. Perhaps my name was tacked on the end of my parents' invitation, or else I've come all this way to gatecrash a wedding I don't particularly want to go to. I guess I'll find out.

I thoroughly enjoyed last week's Italian course. I was surprised by the sheer number of people on it; there must have been forty, the vast majority of them women. It was interesting hearing people's reasons for learning the language. A lot of people had trips planned, some had an Italian speaker in the family or were even married to one, while a few were doing it for the sheer hell of it. Most interesting were a vulcanologist who is about to spend three years on the foothills of Etna, and another woman of about my age who owns a house over there (that got me thinking). On the last day we had to make up a short sketch in groups of about six and perform it in front of the class. I was an Aussie bloke buying lingerie from a boutique in Rome. This was good for me because it took me out of my comfort zone. My knowledge of Italian improved considerably over the five days, though confidence is always an issue for me, and I have an unfortunate knack of forgetting languages as fast as I learn them.

On Wednesday night I played pétanque with Phil; he wondered what I was still doing in Auckland now that I'm not working. The simple answer is that I don't want to have to start from scratch again. Not yet anyway. As flimsy as my social network is, it's a lot better than nothing. I did win the pétanque, not that it mattered, but one of our games ended in the most dramatic of fashions. With the scores locked at 12-all I was sitting pretty, just inches from the jack, when Phil supplanted my boule with his last throw. Then, with my final attempt, I did the same to him. If they ever make a Hollywood movie based on pétanque, they won't be able to top that. Boules Up. I can see it now.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


On Saturday I met up for dinner with that woman from the autism group. I got to meet her husband (I wasn't sure what to make of him) and her daughter Charmaine who has Asperger's. I found Charmaine fascinating but realised she must be quite a handful. She quickly introduced me to Bakugan. "Battlegun?" "No, back-oo-gaan." Was it a game? A toy? A Japanese cartoon? I couldn't quite tell. Bakugan involved small plastic balls that, when dropped on the ground, opened up to reveal characters representing elements like fire and water. The balls were magnetised and would attract themselves to a series of Top Trumps-style cards. The purpose of the magnets was lost on me (in fact the purpose of the whole game, or whatever it was, was as clear as mud) but I played along, trying to impress Charmaine by juggling the balls or reading the French version of the instructions. To her amazement, some "players" had got their characters' power levels up to 1500 G's. "Fifteen hundred?" I said, "geez!" I was struggling to figure out how a piece of plastic could have a power level; the accompanying DVD, and Charmaine's enthusiastic commentary, failed to clear things up for me. It appeared some people even played high-stakes Bakugan, where you put your own plastic balls on the line; for some reason I found this amusing.

Charmaine also loved sci-fi and fantasy books. I suggested that she write a book of her own. She told me proudly that she'd already written six. Were her interests and obsessions typical of a twelve-year-old girl? Probably not. Her stepfather described her as being "like a nine-year-old girl" but I didn't see her that way. I felt she was age-neutral as well as gender-neutral (I can now see where Jen Birch was coming from in her book when she talked of her feelings of androgyny). Charmaine is a Kiwi born and bred, but you wouldn't know it from her accent. Instead she talks like a Pom who's spent a couple of years in the States. This underlined for me that Charmaine is very much her own person.

Autism in all its forms is intriguing and at times can even be entertaining. I find it easy to warm to people with the condition, but it's also easy to forget that it can actually make life very difficult, both for the people themselves and for those they live with. This was certainly the case for Charmaine. I think her mother (who homeschools her) and stepfather do a remarkable job.

On Monday I played interclub tennis for the first time this year. For some reason tennis is a flashpoint for me; it exposes my mental frailties. I used to love the game but in the last two years it's become a struggle. I wasn't at my best mentally when I stepped on the court yesterday, and playing the doubles match with Superman certainly felt like hard work. My mind was never in the present moment; instead I was thinking, my partner's playing so well, I'm an embarrassment, God I hate this, I wish I could just get off the court. A typical service game from my partner went like this: service winner, ace, botched volley by me (I'm so hopeless at the net), crunching forehand winner, second serve ace. Looking back now though, for all his flamboyance, my partner probably made as many mistakes as me. In the end we were a tad unfortunate to lose in two tie-breaks, 9-7 and 7-4.

In my singles I expected to be blown off the court by an opponent with a far bigger game than mine. In the first game I didn't get a return into play and I felt sure I'd be on the end of a severe hiding. However my own serve had improved markedly from the doubles, and I clung on until the tenth game when he broke me for the set. I'd played a very good set, but once I'd lost it to an opponent who hadn't got out of second gear, I was almost resigned to defeat. But instead of moving through the gears in the second set, he slammed into reverse, and I shot out to a 5-0 lead simply by targeting his backhand and chasing down every ball. Then he started to play again, and I really had to dig deep to close out the set 6-2. At 4-3 and 30-all in the third set, I was half a dozen points (but in reality a million miles) from winning when my opponent twisted his ankle, collapsed in a heap on the ground, and couldn't continue. I've never won a match that way before. We iced his ankle (the bar fridge came in handy) and he went home seemingly OK, while I went home feeling a lot better; exercise always helps me.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Plumbings and goings

The plumbing in the kitchen has been playing up for some time. I did tell my landlords but they never did anything, so I've just muddled along. Until this morning that is, when all hell broke loose. I couldn't turn the tap off (neither could I really turn the water main off with three other flats being affected) and water gushed out, accompanied by a deafening high-pitched screech. I had no luck with any of the plumbers in the Yellow Pages so in desperation I rang 0800 PLUMBER and that did the trick. He replaced the tap and some of the dodgy piping under the sink, and handed me a $330 bill which I'll pass on to my landlords.

It's now been a month since I left work. I don't miss it. I did my best to fit in there, but even though I started out in the actuarial department where I at least had something in common with my colleagues, it would always be a struggle for me. I realised this three weeks into my job, when I happened to have a birthday. Apparently it was tradition to bring in a cake on your birthday, but as nobody in the team had had a birthday in the short time I'd been there, I was unaware of official cake protocol. Anyway, I dashed down to Foodtown and bought a cake for something like $3.85, to be shared among the ten of us. I was told I needed to send an email, which I did, but things started getting serious when I was informed I'd sent the wrong kind of email. "You need to send a meeting request." "A what?" "A meeting request in Outlook, so that everyone knows what time cake is, then they can accept or decline the meeting or say they're not sure." "But I don't really mind what time. People can help themselves if they want." "I'm sorry, you'll have to pick a time." By that stage I'd had enough. "Man, are you serious? There are only ten of us here. I could just shout 'cake' and it would be a hell of a lot easier. Look everybody, cake! CAKE!" In the end I did send a meeting request, when someone had shown me how, as did all my colleagues, unquestioningly, when their birthdays came around.

My actual work was tedious and as far as I could see, meaningless. I'd been very determined to get that job, and the two-week wait to find out whether I'd got it was agonising. Now I wondered why I'd bothered. I quickly became depressed and went back on the citalopram I'd only just come off. I'd shifted my life from East Anglia to South Canterbury four months earlier and I'd just moved again to Auckland where I knew nobody. My living arrangements were far from ideal; I was boarding in Bayswater with a couple in their thirties and forties. I found the bloke - all eighteen stone of him - easy to get on with but I could never relax around his wife. At night they would argue; I could hear everything through the paper-thin wall between my room and theirs. They did however have Sky; I'd become a virtual insomniac so I used to stay up and watch Roland-Garros or Euro 2004, or sometimes Super 12 rugby even though I couldn't have given a rat's razoo about the score between the Stormers and the Waratahs. It was hardly surprising I was depressed given that I was in a soul-destroying job in what seemed virtually a foreign country.

Eventually I figured out how to complete my various tasks at work, but I never figured out why I was doing them. Unfortunately my superiors in my team were beyond why, and I soon gave up asking the question. I learnt little about how the business operated; my job was simply to follow the process, to press the right buttons in vaguely the right order. I felt a real loss of identity. When I'd finished checking our 400-odd-page report, I would file it away and consciously label the file in my handwriting instead of in block capitals, as a way of getting a shred of that identity back.

Most of the time I didn't have enough work. But my first pair of actuarial exams were looming, so my strategy was to concentrate on those, even though my depression made concentration of any sort difficult. Still, it had been two years since I finished university and I quite enjoyed the study. As the exams got closer I was allowed one day a week to study at home. Some people use their study days to lie in, or play golf, but I got considerably more work done on that day that on any other day of the week. To my surprise I passed both my exams and received a welcome boost to my pay.

In August 2004 I joined the tennis club at Belmont; this was hugely beneficial for me - I got to meet new people playing the game I loved. In November I moved from my Bayswater flat to one in Milford, this time sharing with people my own age. Again this was a good move for me. I was no longer depressed, and in 2005 I passed another three exams. Work still hadn't improved but I was past caring; I left the office on the dot of five and by 5:05 I'd completely switched off. It was perhaps fortunate that the chap I sat next to at work was even less engaged than me. At least I showed up on time. He would roll in hours late and fall asleep at his desk; sometimes he didn't even wake up when his phone rang. His record in the exams was shocking and he left halfway through 2005.

In mid-2006 I took on a new role in the marketing department, which was a great improvement. However in August I suffered another bout of depression which forced me to pull out of an exam. The following month I made a trip to the UK, which perked me up a bit. I'd hoped to catch up with my brother but he was sent to Afghanistan two days after I arrived (he's a Commando in the British Army). In early 2007 I fell out with my Japanese flatmate - I wasn't tidy enough for her - and in May I moved from Milford to my own flat in the delightfully named Pluto Place in Birkdale. The flat itself was far from delightful: it was in the bush, in a cold, damp, dark hole. Despite my best efforts with an eight-litre dehumidifier, everything got mouldy. In spite of the conditions I wasn't depressed - well not until March 2008, just before I moved out. I passed some more exams and managed to set up my own website. In May 2008, before winter set in again, I shifted to my current flat in Devonport, thinking for some bizarre reason that the great location might set me free from depression for ever. Hmmm. Shortly after, my role at work changed once more, and suddenly I had no idea what I was doing again.

Last week I bought some font creation software for US$79, and I've spent some time designing some letterforms. To my surprise I've found myself using sin, cos and tan, beasts I haven't encountered for a decade.

Realising I have no real edge in hold 'em, not above the lowest couple of levels at any rate, I've switched my attention to badugi. I haven't got the bankroll to play cash badugi so I've had a go at the $2.20 tournaments. In my three attempts at the limit version I've finished 33rd twice and a card-dead 22nd, all from eighty entrants. The structure of the limit tournaments is poor; brick out on your three-card 32A and have your pat nine cracked by someone drawing two all the way and you're pretty much toast. The pot-limit structure is much better; it can be because people eliminate themselves by playing all-in kamikaze badugi or just by getting unlucky when they hit a monster and run into a slightly bigger monster. Early in my first crack at the pot-limit version this morning I was lucky enough to be on the right side of that equation with a 6432 against a 6543. A few hands later I made the stone-cold nuts and I led the tournament. It was a disappointment, therefore, when my pat 10-4 ran into a pat 9-8 and I finished 11th out of 66, only just inside the money.

This evening I'll be having dinner with a woman I met at last Saturday's autism group, and presumably her family. It should be good.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Flights and frights

There never seems to be any news at this time of year. I'd almost given up watching the so-called news on TV (of which very little was news at all) but on Wednesday I tuned in just in case. Oh boy. It was hell on earth. The reported death toll from the Haiti Earthquake varies widely, but it looks like being somewhere between the population of Cambridge (the one I was born in, not the one in the Waikato) and the population of Wellington. An enormous number. And most of those who survived have a very bleak future ahead of them.

The better news from my end is that I've booked a holiday. I'll be flying to the UK in early May and will spend twelve days in Thailand when I come back. I get back into Auckland towards the end of June. I was very pleased with my fare which came to $2400. I've got definite plans to go to Italy (I'm going on an intensive Italian course next week) and I'll maybe even spend some time in France if I can fit it in. I'll also want to see my grandmother, who isn't getting any younger, and my brother who I've only seen once, briefly, in the last six years.

With those six or seven weeks blacked out in my calendar, I can now set about finding some temporary or contract work. I phoned four recruitment agencies this morning. No luck yet but I'll keep trying. My best bet might still be Andy's place of work; the last time we spoke he seemed reasonably optimistic about a temporary assignment there.

We had the the first men's group of the year on Tuesday. As is often the case, Brendan dominated the first part of the session with his obsessive anger over a job he had more than ten years ago. He has a problem here and somebody really needs to talk to him (maybe me); it disrupts the meeting and doesn't do him any good either. We then watched the first two-thirds of Shirley Valentine which has so far (in my opinion) been a bloody good movie.

Talking of movies, I went with Julie on Wednesday to see an Italian film called Mid-August Lunch, a translation from its italian title Pranzo di Ferragosto. It was a bit like some of those French films I've seen, where not a lot happens but not a lot needs to. It did make me want to go to Italy, and I was able to pick out a surprising amount of Italian without looking at the subtitles.
On Saturday we had the monthly Autism NZ meeting which was fascinating as always. I had a long chat to a woman of around forty whose daughter had Asperger's and we'll be meeting up for dinner next weekend. I'm still toying with the idea of getting a diagnosis myself. When I was small my parents didn't want me officially diagnosed, even though the doctor said I was perhaps mildly autistic, mainly due to the stigma and lack of knowledge of the condition back then.

Yesterday I felt down and don't exactly know why. I put on my relaxation CD and did 750 pulls on Bazza's exercise machine, and that helped a bit. Maybe I was worried about finding work, or perhaps it was because of my poker bankroll which has been heading due south since that royal flush. I've also had two panic attacks in the past week. I still find them frightening, though now that I know what they are, they seem to subside after a couple of minutes.

Somebody commented on my last blog post. This was exciting for me because I average something like 0.0274 of a comment per post. There was one snag however - it was written in Chinese. Luckily you can go into Babel Fish and get a deadly accurate translation, even for languages that don't use the Roman alphabet. The message, in English, is "The semblance with the fact itself symbol, the common people actually easily is often not deceived by the incrustation." It's always been a major concern of mine that ordinary people aren't fooled by incrustations, so on reading that message I breathed one heck of a sigh of relief.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Jumping in

Yesterday I had an enjoyable day at the Heineken Open tennis. The big names weren't there - the top four seeds, who all hail from Spain, get a bye through to round two and don't play until Wednesday. But that didn't matter. I decided not to watch the first match on Centre Court, instead seeing my fellow Pom Daniel Evans play his final qualifying round match against someone called Wang from Taipei. I made the right decision too; it was a very good match which Evans won in three tight sets. I felt sorry for the players who had to contend with Centre Court's ridiculously loud PA system, the announcer mispronouncing the players' names and getting all the countries wrong at full volume. "Turn it up a bit," Evans said as he faced a big point in the third set. It would have driven me potty too. I then moved to the main court see the two wild-card Kiwis who happened to draw each other in round one. Rubin Statham ran out a well-deserved winner against his higher-ranked opponent Dan King-Turner, playing like a man possessed to reel off the last four games. The rest of the day's play didn't quite live up to the earlier action but I stayed till the end regardless.

After six years of living close to the sea I've finally figured out how to get in it. In the past I'd gradually ease my way in on tiptoes with my arms outstretched above me. This works fine until the water reaches my nuts and I start to wince. Once I'm over that hurdle I'm OK again until it reaches my chest. Finally, after all that agony, I'm in. At the weekend I changed my strategy completely, deciding to run in making as big a splash as possible. It turns out that's a far less painful method.

On Saturday I popped round to see Brendan. He's reorganised his living area again; he now has two TV rooms, labelled Cinema One and Cinema Two, complete with viewing schedules neatly set out using the 24-hour clock. Talking of clocks, he has dozens of them. And that's not all. He has precisely nine telephones, a calendar for every month of the year (all with pictures of naked men - he is gay after all) and every kind of calculator known to man including a novelty foot-high one and a retro one that prints out receipts. Hanging on his wall is a seemingly innocuous photo of a rugby team, but it turns out it's a Where's Wally-type picture, except the object isn't to find Wally but willy. I could go on, but I won't. I'm sure you'd only need to spend five minutes in my flat to have a jolly good laugh.

I've finished all my Joe Bennett. He has a remarkable knack with words; he even managed to get the words "rootling" and "fossicking" in the same short story. I'll have to get hold more of his fine work soon.

After 7000 hands of limit hold 'em at the lowest stakes, over two months, I plucked up the courage on Sunday to move up to the nosebleed nickel-and-dime level. Though I was well ahead, in big bet terms at least, I bemoaned my lack of monster hands. My best hand had been four fives, until Sunday evening when this happened:

Of course thousands of players catch royal flushes every day, and they make little difference to your overall win rate, but it's still nice to have hit the poker equivalent of a hole-in-one. After being stuck in a holding pattern around the $30 mark, my bankroll has now nudged over $40.

Tonight I'll be seeing my counsellor/psychologist and going to the men's group shortly after.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Joe Bennett - one clever bloke

Yesterday I started reading Barking, a collection of Joe Bennett's columns. I've already finished it and am about to start on a more recent selection, entitled Eyes Right (and They's Wrong). Boy do I wish I could write like Joe Bennett. Sometimes I even wish I could be him; I certainly envy his lifestyle. As it happens we share the same birthday. Joe Bennett, Adolf Hitler and myself: an unlikely trio.

My favourite column in Barking (there were plenty to choose from) was on the subject of apples: pick up any apple from a supermarket and it'll be a beautifully polished but utterly tasteless eight-ounce water bomb. As a kid we had four apple trees in our back garden: a Bramley (for making yummy apple crumbles), a Worcester and best of all, two of the delicious (and wonderfully named) Bohemian Blenheims. We sometimes had more than we could eat so when I was ten I started selling them, or trying to at least, outside the front gate.

His column on Singapore was interesting. I visited recently; my experience was very similar to his. We even stayed in the same hotel, the Excelsior. He was on the 21st floor while my room was on the 13th, a floor that most hotels superstitiously skip over. I tried to fit as much as possible into my four days: Sentosa Island, the zoo, the amphibious boat, the Singapore Flyer (their version of the London Eye), the river cruise, Chinatown, Little India, you name it. Like Bennett I got very sweaty in the process. He said Singapore was a very ordered place - mainly I agree, though a couple of exceptions that spring to mind are the seven-storey shopping malls with names like Lucky Dragon Plaza, and a rabbit warren of eateries in Little India called Lau Pa Sat Market, which serves appetising food so long as you can get past the signs:

I watched one of the women's tennis semi-finals today. At the change of ends before what turned out to be the last game of the match, Shahar Peer called on her coach. She said she was struggling to pick up Wickmayer's second serve. While this was interesting, which muppet decided to allow on-court coaching? I realise tennis players now have coaches, agents, physios, psychologists, the whole nine yards, but while you're on the court it has always been one-on-one, mano a mano, and should remain so. In Agassi's book he likened tennis to boxing, and there are definite parallels. While they're at it, could the WTA also eliminate those tactical momentum-upsetting loo breaks? And that supposedly high-octane doubles scoring system, which is in fact anything but, is also a farce.

I've been back in Auckland for four days and until this afternoon I had yet to make human contact. Lack of human contact is the biggest danger I face in being out of work - hell, it was bad enough in work - so I gave Brendan a ring. We chatted, or mostly he did, and we agreed to meet up tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The first week of the rest of my life

I’m back in Auckland now and it’s a lovely day up here – too nice to be stuck in an office, which of course I no longer am. In fact I plan to have lunch soon and finish my latest book at the beach. I’m most of the way through Vroom with a View, the Vespa book. It doesn’t lack humour, and gives a flavour of Italy useful for anyone planning to go there, but I feel it could have been much better written. Over Christmas I finished Jen Birch’s account of life with Asperger’s, Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open (an excellent read, thoroughly recommended to anyone with a passing interest in tennis) and Joe, a fascinating book about one boy’s severe autism which raises some interesting questions about what makes us human. I’ve often wondered whether my humanity is compromised by my limited social life.

New Year’s Eve was as uneventful as I’d hoped. The concert didn’t reach the heights of the one earlier in the week; at 11pm I tried my hand once more at the darts game, this time breaking even (which was better than I managed on the chocolate wheel). At midnight we watched the fireworks display which was impressive even if it lacked a rousing finale (or rather there seemed to be so many false finales that by the time the real end came I was still expecting more).

On Saturday Dad and I saw the new half-billion-dollar blockbuster Avatar. Only nine cinemas in New Zealand are showing it in 3D and of course Timaru isn’t one of them. But even without the fancy glasses (which by all accounts can give you a headache after watching a 2¾-hour epic) I didn’t need any more visual stimulation. I enjoyed it from beginning to end. It seemed there was no special effect that they couldn’t pull off. Dad and I agreed that the film carried a political message, but while Dad thought it was “save the planet”, I thought it was more of an anti-war message, i.e. don’t go into Iraq just because they’ve got all that oil, or in this case, “unobtainium”. Whatever, it was refreshing to see America painted in a not-so-flattering light.