Saturday, February 26, 2011

Our darkest day

I was in Devonport library just after 2pm on Tuesday when I heard someone say "six point three". That's pretty big I thought, but even when I saw pictures of the half-destroyed cathedral I had no idea of the scale of the disaster. Then I got home and switched on the TV and could hardly believe my eyes. It can't be New Zealand. This doesn't happen here.

Shortly before 4pm the phone rang. Suddenly I had work again, at the same insurance brokers that gave me a job following the September quake. I was very grateful to be back at work, even if I seem unable to get work without a major natural disaster occurring. It was only when I turned up for work the next morning that I knew the company had suffered in the worst possible way from the quake. Their Christchurch offices were based on the top floor of the Pyne Gould Guinness Building; they lost three people.

I'm in an internet café and have to go.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Heading downhill

After my last blog post, which followed my last ever actuarial interview, I slid rapidly downhill. In the last few days I've had this real end-of-the-world feeling. I might have a big decision to make in the next 48 hours, and I don't like any of my options. The phone went on Thursday (I let it ring six times before daring to pick it up); it was someone from the Wellington company wanting to touch bloody base with me. They have had difficulties contacting one of my references and now want me to contact this person. That's a decidedly awkward prospect. Possibly having to move out of my flat when the new owners move in is an extra complication.

If I'm offered the job, my parents want me to take it. Mum said, "everyone I've spoken to has said it's easy to make friends in Wellington." You've known me for nearly 31 years and you still have no bloody idea. It isn't easy for me to make friends anywhere. Of course she does realise that; I think she was just encouraging me to take the job. She worries a lot about me and if I take the job everything will be sorted and she'll have nothing to worry about any more.

My cousin in Wellington thinks I should seriously think about going full-time with my puzzles instead of taking the job down there or applying for any other jobs. On Friday I spent some time trying to come up with an algorithm for making and solving a certain type of puzzle. I might as well have been in Bletchley Park trying to decipher the Enigma machine. If I do make my puzzles a full-time job, how will I move into a flat? I'm reminded of Danny Bhoy's attempts to find a flat. "So what do you do for a living?" I'm a comedian. "You must be joking."

On Saturday I attended the monthly Asperger's group. More than thirty turned up. On the whole they are such a good bunch of people. I have definitely made some connections with a few of them - losing them would be a big deal. Dad said I'd be earning good money in that job so I could just fly to Auckland whenever I felt like it. There was one bloke I'd never met before who had many of the traits of Asperger's. He was clever but could appear quite arrogant at times: "I like to play chess but can't find anyone good enough to play against." He was a mathematician who worked at home as a computer programmer. He was also interested in puzzles and games; we spoke at length about my puzzle and he could be a useful guy to have on board. People like him must struggle in relationships, or so I thought - I was surprised to learn that he's got five kids from two marriages.

My depressive symptoms have returned with a vengeance. Everything has slowed down and become a chore, I've been unable to concentrate on anything, and I've felt tired a lot. I slept for nearly nine hours on Saturday night but yesterday I couldn't stop yawning.

Last night I went with Julie to see The King's Speech, with Colin Firth playing the part of the king. I thought it was very good. Speech defects are common but they don't get a lot of media coverage. My grandmother, if she was still with it, would have enjoyed it immensely I'm sure.

My computer died on Thursday - it will need a new motherboard which won't be cheap. It's been a hassle not having a computer, but at least I can't play poker. What a distraction that can be.

Emma – one year on

One year ago today, Emma passed away. She was a special person and an inspiration to us all. We must never forget.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A line in the sand

Yesterday I had my last ever actuarial interview. That's a promise. On the ferry into the city, I thought about all kinds of stuff, but mostly I thought about why I wasn't thinking about the interview. I felt a real sense of déjà vu; I'd been there before, several times. For no apparent reason the Pet Shop Boys song Let's Make Lots of Money was going round and round in my head. Outside the tower block was a 15-foot-tall snake-like sculpture made out of hollow metal. I got this sudden urge to want to climb it. If I had climbed it, what would anyone have done? I don't remember much about the interview, except that it couldn't end fast enough. Thankfully it was all over in forty minutes. I ran down Queen Street and caught the ferry with a minute to spare - normally I'd have happily waited half an hour for the next one, but I was desperate to get the hell out of the city. It felt good to have drawn a line in the sand.

The good news (potentially) is that an agency rang me this morning about a possible temp job with Auckland Council where I'd be working with large spreadsheets and databases. I'd be delighted if they gave me the job. If last year's earthquake work is anything to go by, getting the Council job would benefit me enormously. My mental health (which as I write is some way short of perfect) would likely improve, and a lot of other doors would open up for me. For one it'll make moving out of this flat easier (and now that it's been sold, I might have to).

Last week I read Simon Baron-Cohen's Autism and Asperger Syndrome - the Facts. There's a lot to take in; the brain is one hell of a complicated piece of kit. The link between Asperger's and depression is hardly a surprise. A recurring thought whenever I'm depressed is I don't fit in. People with Asperger's face a daily struggle to fit in. I answered the Autism Quotient (AQ) questionnaire at the back of the book, scoring 28 out of a possible 50 (the average bloke scores 17 while 80% of people on the autism spectrum score 32 or above). A high but not autistically high score is just about what I expected. I dislike (and am very bad at) planning and organising; that took a few points off my total. But maybe because I was never diagnosed as a kid, I came into contact with mainly neurotypical people so some of their traits might have rubbed off on me.

On Monday I spoke to Gran in her home, although she no longer knows where she is. She lives in a dreamworld. Since she went to hospital at the end of last year she's been in rapid decline. It's sad for someone who had such a brilliant mind to deteriorate like this, but that's old age I guess. I'm so glad I was able to see her last year; she might not have known whether it was New York or New Year, but she was still very much Gran as I remembered her. My dad flies out to the UK next Monday - I don't envy him one bit.

I've felt things get on top of me today. I really just need a good sleep.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Bazza aftershave saga

Following on from that tennis match: there were creepy-crawlies of various kinds all over the court, totally oblivious to the fact that their lives depended on the duration of our match. I struggle to sleep after a long match; I must have finally dropped off at around one o'clock. I played this afternoon too - nothing remotely serious which was just as well; it was baking out there.

On a not totally unrelated topic, Bazza has been in the news again. Alison (a member of the tennis club who has been very good to Bazza over the years) had bought him some aftershave for Christmas. The real reason for the present was Bazza's tendency to pong; unpleasant odours emanating from him had been a talking point at the club. I'm not sure he's used aftershave before, but since Christmas he's been lathering the stuff on. Alison rang me on Friday - evidently Bazza had got the wrong end of the stick about the present. He sensed a whiff of romance in the air (my initial reaction when she told me this was to burst out laughing) and invited her to spend the weekend at his place in Papakura. When she said no, followed by "sorry mate, I think you've got the wrong idea," he completely lost the plot, subjecting her to a barrage of shouting and swearing. Alison was quite upset when she spoke to me. This morning I called Bazza (I'd given him time to cool off) and he surprised me a little by admitting he was totally out of line. Tomorrow he'll be coming over to Belmont to give Alison a bottle of wine and a letter of apology (the round-trip will take him roughly half a day). Hopefully he won't lose a friend over this.

Talking of friends, Bazza doesn't have many, not that it seems to bother him. People have said he's got Asperger's - he certainly has a lot of its traits - but how could I discuss this with him? I think he could really benefit by going to the Auckland Asperger group.

When Alison phoned on Friday I thought it would be the people from Wellington. I imagine they aren't going to offer me the job now, but stranger things have happened. If they do still offer me the position, I've pretty much decided not to take it. It took me a long time to make that decision - I'm an indecisive person. I remember a couple of years ago having to fill in a form about how depression affects me. One of the statements on the form was "I have difficulty making decisions". It gave me about seven options along the lines of "strongly agree" and "slightly disagree". I remember thinking, am I very indecisive? Moderately indecisive? Just a little indecisive? There were so many options that I just couldn't decide.

I've got another actuarial interview on Tuesday. So far I've hardly given it a moment's thought. I'll do some research tomorrow but I know my heart won't really be in it.

Last weekend I met up with a few of the Asperger's guys at Cornwall Park. I should invite them over to Devonport in a couple of weeks.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Don't give up

On Monday I got a last-minute call-up to play tennis that evening. We played the doubles first - we were well beaten, 6-3 6-2, by a pairing who (unlike us) were competent at the net. I don't know what we could have done differently. While the doubles was a straightforward match, my singles was anything but. The very first game had nine deuces and pretty much set the scene for the rest of the match. I led 3-0 in the first set but really it was a much harder contest than that and it wasn't going to get any easier. The frame of my racket, which had a hairline fracture after coming into contact with various non-ball objects in the last two years, suddenly went "CRACK!" and I had no choice but to bring out the spare.

Changing rackets threw me a bit and I lost four games on the spin. I recovered to move within two points of the set at 5-4, 30-15 on my serve but my opponent played some excellent points to break me and I surrendered the set in a tight 12th game after nearly an hour. In the second set we carried on where we left off: long rallies, long games, my opponent hitting most of the winners while I tried desperately to hang in there. The winners I hit were generally on the run when he'd earlier dominated the rally. I won most of the big points in that set to win it 6-2, but it took a much greater physical toll on me than that score might suggest.

In the third set I was struggling. "Come on legs, move," but they wouldn't. From 1-1 I lost the next four games in ten minutes and it was surely all over. I then seemed to get a second wind, hit a couple of winners, and suddenly the match took on a different complexion. I still had a mountain to climb though and I had to rely on luck to some extent. He possessed most of the big shots and I sensed that if he really wanted to go for the jugular there was little I could have done to stop him. My legs were moving now, a lot, mostly a few feet behind the baseline, as I tried to chase down every ball. At least I was giving myself a chance. By 10:45 I was the winner, 7-5 in the final set. I never faced a match point although I was two points from defeat. I'm still not sure quite how I did it (I'm sure it involved a healthy portion of luck) but it goes to show that you should never give up.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Oh no (continued)

So on Tuesday I flew down to Wellington for my interview. I'd done some preparation, but not much. The interview, near the top of one of Wellington's swankiest high-rise buildings, lasted almost an hour and a half. I was interrogated by a panel of three, so they were certainly taking the process seriously. It wasn't easy - in an interview that long, it's hard to disguise the fact that in nearly six years I did very little work of any substance. It's also hard to pretend that I want to do that line of work as a career, above anything else (in fact I didn't even try to pretend that). Most of my answers were pretty woolly. On balance I didn't perform badly, but I put my chances of being offered a job at about 10%. It would all depend on how desperate they were - if they were really desperate and the other applicants were really bad, I might have a chance. That's where the 10% came from.

I like Wellington. The city centre has a nice feel about it, in contrast to central Auckland which has very little feel at all, nice or otherwise. Tuesday was a lovely sunny day; that of course enhanced my impression of the place. After the interview I caught the bus to my cousin's house. It was good to see her - I've always got on pretty well with her. She and her husband have three boys, eight, six and two - they're all such good kids. During the night a storm sprung up. The house shook; sleep was decidedly difficult. The gale continued the next morning and it became very apparent why people joke about Wellington's inclement weather. About 300,000 people live there and they must all be nuts. In all seriousness, coming from the UK, the weather would be the least of my troubles. My biggest challenge would be lack of familiarity. I said Auckland doesn't have much "feel", but I've been here for seven years, know my way around (kind of!) and most importantly I've made some good friends in the last year or two. A couple of years ago moving would have been easier, but now could I possibly face having to start all over again?

I visited Te Papa on Wednesday morning - mostly the natural history section - and spent some time on Cuba Street, one of Wellington's more colourful areas. My cousin (who works from home as a patent attorney and earns roughly 5.4 squillion dollars a year) kindly took me to the airport and I arrived home around five.

On Thursday morning the company rang me. I fully expected (and, if I'm honest, hoped for) the big fat no. But no, it wasn't the big fat no. They wanted to check references and to see my degree certificate and exam results letters. Suddenly my chances had shot up to something like fifty-fifty. Could I really face actuarial work again, especially in a city I don't know? Later that morning I got another phone call, this time from a recruitment agency in Auckland who might have a temporary job for me, and then on Friday morning I got a call about another actuarial job that I'd basically forgotten I'd even applied for - I've got an interview (near the top of some big tower in Auckland I expect) scheduled for Tuesday week.

Applying for that job wasn't a pleasant experience. For a start they're a big company and they're Australian. I had to fill in this online application form but first I had to register with their site, or whatever, and pick a password. This was a reminder of everything I wanted to get away from when I left my last big job. The passwords for this site had to have three vowels, four consonants, two digits and a currency symbol, and at least two letters from each row of the keyboard. You couldn't use any letters from your name, your parents' names or your pets' names. Think these companies don't know your dog's name? Think again. They know everything about you. Worst of all, you had to change your password pretty much every time you logged in, and you couldn't use any of your last 48 passwords. Have I used dvu8a7$!Mkiq yet? Buggered if I know. Is it just me or are endless impossible-to-remember passwords a defining feature of the start of the third millennium?

Yesterday I played tennis. A lot of tennis. I turned up in time for a 1pm start but I had to wait nearly two hours to get on court: there were so many matches to finish, and they seemed destined never to finish. My partner in the men's match is getting on a bit (to put it mildly) but played at a very high standard back in the day. His name is on the honours board several times. He won his first club championship in (I think) 1961! The thing that really got me was how quick his thought processes were on the doubles court, especially at the net (where my thought processes are usually "oh shit"). It went without saying that I did most of the running. The very first game was an 18-point, one-ace, three-double-fault affair on my serve. We lost it from 40-love up and it seemed to confirm some of my feelings about tennis in recent times: that it's like pulling teeth, only not as quick, more painful and far less fun. That reminds me, I have to see the dentist on Tuesday. Bazza was watching our game from the sidelines. When we nosed in front for the first time, he said "if you stay ahead you'll be fine." Yes Bazza. If we never relinquish our lead at any stage, we'll probably win. But it wasn't to be. What made the difference in the end was the serve of one of our opponents. He was just warming up in the first set, but in the last two sets he was on fire. A dodgy line call at 3-all and deuce in the third set didn't help our cause, and at 5-4 we had to break Mr Impossible to stay in the match. They quickly moved to double match point, but he double-faulted, I got one of his big serves back and we somehow had a break point on his serve for the only time since the first set. We can still do this! Hmmm. Bam-bam-bam, we didn't get another return in, and it was all over, 4-6 6-4 6-4. A very good match though, I must say.

On to the mixed. Another match that could have gone either way. I'd never played with my partner before but she was a very consistent player. We just got there in the first set, 7-5 after falling behind early, but in the second set I got more and more frustrated with my inability to hold serve. "We go up 40-frigging-15 but every time I still lose my serve. What the *beep* am I supposed to do?!" At 4-5 down in the second it was my serve. I was still yet to win a service game; it was pretty remarkable that we still had a chance to win. Again we get to 40-frigging-15. Inevitably they get back to deuce. But, shock horror, we win the next two points for 5-5. We broke in the next game, and then my partner (who never lost a service game all match) staved off three break points and we won the match. It was a hot afternoon (and early evening - we finished at 6:45). The tennis was very attritional by doubles standards, but it felt quite satisfying when it was all over.

I'm about to meet up with some of the Asperger's group at Cornwall Park to celebrate Bob Marley's birthday, which is a national holiday here in New Zealand. Although this year it falls on a Sunday and people don't get a day off work for it. I'm sure there will still be that debate about whether the official Bob Marley flag (the name of which I can't pronounce) should fly on the Harbour Bridge. I'll be crossing that bridge very shortly so I'll find out whether that flag got the thumbs up.

Oh no

When I gave up actuarial work at the end of 2009 I really wanted to do something else with my life. Now it seems I'm being dragged back in that direction whether I like it or not. And I don't like it.