Friday, January 04, 2008

Religion at the movies …

Having not seen “The Golden Compass”, I am not in a position to offer informed comment on whether the movie serves to denigrate the Catholic Church. However, I happened to be an avid reader of the Narnia Chronicles in my youth and did not once construe the story as having any underlying religious bent, especially one seeking the subliminal conversion of non-believers to Christianity (i.e. neo-evangelism). In brief, I simply saw the texts as being imaginative and well-crafted stories of fiction.

With respect to Hollywood, I am in partial agreement with the assertion that the industry reflects reality, albeit an exceptionally warped version of the same. Examples would include the countless action blockbusters depicting Muslims, Middle Easterners and African Americans as stereotyped caricatures, perhaps with a view to allaying the inherent bigotry of an insular audience that derives comfort from having gross generalisations of minority groups re-enforced in the popular media. In the aftermath of 9/11, for example, I vividly recall having watched numerous American and UK programs in which the Islamic call to prayer was used to the same effect as the John Williams Jaws theme, namely to generate a sense of fear and menace.

Whilst I believe the statement “Hollywood needs Christianity” - as asserted by various Christian spokespersons - to be nothing short of preposterous, a lesson in morality, cultural sensitivity and social responsibility is long overdue. For example, consider the movie 'Black Hawk Down', directed by Ridley Scott which is gripping, intense and beautifully shot. It is also replete with historical inaccuracy and, at best, is a stunning misrepresentation of what happened in Somalia. Although the US entered Somalia in 1992 with the best of intentions, the overall military operations were characterised by intelligence failures, partisan deployments and the belief, held to this day, that you can bomb a nation into peace and prosperity. Instead of lessening the conflict between competing warlords, the US actually enhanced it by backing clan chiefs Mohamed Farah Aideed and Ali Mahdi against others of their kind.

Americans generally hold a black and white view of the world, such that movies addressing ‘grey’ or contentious topics serve to confuse and are hence regarded as morally ambiguous (e.g. Syriana, Munich and Brokeback Mountain). Indeed, the American movie producer Michael Class even saw it fit to launch the “American Values Award for Music and Television” some years back. In doing so, Class misses an indescribably important point, that just because a movie deals with a confronting, difficult and provocative subject, it is not automatically rendered immoral.

Further, the fact remains that the history of the Catholic Church will invariably prove a ample reservoir of inspiration for any person seeking to pen a story on the dehumanising effects of being force-fed dogma by an authoritarian and oppressive regime. Rather unsurprisingly, it is precisely this type of story with which a great many children relate and/or identify, albeit under the proviso that the under-age protagonists use intelligence, imagination and, above all else, free will to overcome the odds stacked against their favour. At day’s end, children, moreso than any other demographic, are expected to categorically accept the teachings of supposedly well-meaning guardians and elders. Should they then be taught through various mediums, entertainment included, to exercise critical thought before accepting blanket assertions, I fail to see the supposed harm caused as a result.
NYE 2008 …

Having completed work at approximately 4pm on the afternoon of 31 December 2007, I found myself perilously close to catching a train home immediately thereafter. Had I done so, this would have marked a clear departure from a promise made to various friends to attend a private function at a Kent St apartment.

Only two (2) months ago, I successfully completed the administration over my late friend’s estate with the assistance of the family’s solicitor. Few could’ve wished for a better result, as his apartment was purchased by a small consortium of friends under the proviso that a portion of rental proceeds would bequeath to a charity of his family’s preference. Nonetheless, I continued to feel as if something in me had changed irrevocably … and not necessarily for the better.

As with most men, I happen to hold a slight aversion to doctors and generally shy away from ‘professional’ assistance absent a major medical catastrophe. In remarking on symptoms, it’s likely that I was in acute depression as activities ordinarily deemed pleasurable no longer interested me. In the quiet moments preceding sleep, I could still smell the traces of disinfectant that greeted me upon having first walked into my late friend’s apartment following his suicide. It’s not merely him that I mourned for, but also his late wife and the children that would’ve inevitably followed in due course had not providence dealt them both an unplayable hand.

Although I continued with life’s ‘routine motions’ in much the same vein as before, precious little time was afforded to friends, family or even myself. It’s as if my conscience had been purged of all emotion, whereby I could logically ‘deduct’ the love and affection held for others but was rendered impotent in demonstrating the same through either words or action. In having lived the life of a societal hermit for some six (6) months, absent the customary log cabin in the mountains and surplus military garb that one finds in a disposal store, I came disturbingly close to losing several friends owing to my seeming apathy.

For me, NYE 2008 proved a saving grace of sorts. Upon having made my way to the Kent St apartment, I was immediately greeted by several dozen friends – some I’ve known for over 15 years, others less than 6 months. In each instance, the welcome was warm, heartfelt and bristling with the good natured cheer and playful jostling that only true friends can deliver. As the night progressed, I found myself mixing drinks, temporarily manning the all important BBQ, and listening to an instrumental duet played on two steel-string acoustic guitars.

The fireworks were of no interest, nor the crowds lining the streets. However, the sight of friends wishing one another well, enquiring about one another’s lives, loves and dreams, mock threatening one another with crude glow-stick nunchukas, and contemplating whether a middle-class man could ever be Batman proved captivating beyond words. Within the space of a few short hours, I came to realise that the camaraderie, good spirits and affectionate disposition of those before me was not confined to the moment, being the few hours preceding and following the advent of 2008. Rather, it happened to be a staple feature of a dozen or so close-knit friends who, through the vagaries of chance and coincidence, have come to know, appreciate and love one another over time.

Whilst no single friend can ever be replaced, the fact remains that those we love often hold the same or similar characteristics that makes each so exceptional. Armed with this knowledge, I can perhaps draw some comfort from the observation that the memory of those that have passed can live on in those that remain.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

An inability to grieve ...

Earlier this year, a close family friend decided to re-create a scene from Leaving Las Vegas in the sanctity of his apartment, a dwelling that he occupied alone. According to the autopsy report, he died from alcohol poisoning some 10-12 hours thereafter.

The above person lost his wife to cancer some three years prior, and only a select few were aware of his intense personal struggle in seeking to cope in the days, weeks, months and years thereafter. Much like myself, he hailed from a family where tears were not tolerated if shed by boys, where overt displays of emotion – save ‘competitive aggression’ – frowned upon and ridiculed if publicly exhibited. Instead of taking an extended sabbatical from work in order to ‘grieve’, he instead chose to immerse himself in work.

There is no describing the sheer breadth of emotions which runs through a person’s mind upon hearing of the tragic death of a loved one. Truth be told, I sincerely believe that some of the blame resides squarely on my shoulders. In particular, I vividly remember the nights spent on his balcony, sipping single malt scotch into the early hours of the morning and staring out onto the endless blackness of the Tasman Ocean. Scarcely a word was exchanged between us and I naively assumed this silence to be illustrative of the close bond between us, as if ‘words left unspoken’ said more for our friendship than conversation.

In the months following my friend’s passing, I sought frantically to use my mind as if a camera, seeking to recall cherished moments spent in one another’s company. Particularly poignant is the one evening where I asked that he indulge me with anecdotes of his wife during the brief years they spent together. His response, proffered amidst a haze of alcohol induced fatigue, was that he had long ‘discarded the film and kicked in the lens’.

Even then, I knew that he hadn’t. The ‘lens’ may well have been broken given that his eyes had long ceased to recognise beauty or hope, but no amount of alcohol could serve to displace his wife’s memory in its entirety. The black and white wedding photographs, the chalkboard above the kitchen counter where they would write loving notes to one another, a wardrobe full of female attire, the dressing table bearing cosmetics and women’s accessories … all these items had remained untouched for some three years.

At this point, I find myself having said more than what may be appropriate in the circumstances. Suffice it to say that I am here now, absent a close and cherished friend. To my own amusement, I am highly cognisant of my own inability to grieve. On occasion, I feel a hollowness in my chest which equates to a noticeable presence, yet somehow I have continued to go through the routine motions of life in much the same vein as before.

Following my friend’s funeral, his parents kindly asked that I take a keepsake from their son’s apartment, as a means of keeping his memory alive. His mother, fighting back tears, noted that their own home was replete with wedding photographs and other memorabilia celebrating their son’s life, alongside that of their daughter-in-law. After having been offered the keys, I spent close to an hour holding a framed picture of my friend and his wife, taken shortly after their courtship commenced.

As an atheist, I am incapable of drawing hope from any underlying belief in a supposed omnipotent deity. Instead, my sense of ‘faith’ is distilled from the comfort and companionship afforded by close friends and family. In having lost two exceptional friends to the nuances of providence, I wondered what salvation, if any, could be drawn from the mere memory of a person. The grief I felt was beyond description, but I could not shed so much as a single tear even though a part of me pleaded for the release that is afforded by weeping.

My parents, and those of my now deceased friend, taught their boys that crying was inappropriate, unacceptable, undignified. So hard have these lessons been, that we were both rendered incapable of mourning for loved ones.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Just do the best you can ....

Much of the previous evening was spent in silent contemplation, staring up through darkness towards three softly glowing stars on my bedroom ceiling. A male adolescent who had just barely reached his teens had placed them there some fifteen years prior. In all frankness, I recall very little of this fellow, aside from his fondness for the night sky which had constantly proved an unparalleled source of mystery. Were the two of us to meet in the present day, it is unlikely that either person would hold the other in high regard.

In reflecting upon the BlueCollarLawyer of years past, the image brought to light is that of a young man with a penchant for contemporary English literature, short fiction and amateur astronomy. This person knew very little of law the law, aside from a few relatively mundane regulations relating to traffic infringements. Though ambitious, he was imbued with a humility that led him to learn patiently from those perceived as being possessed of greater wisdom, or life experience if you will.

Fifteen years on, it is remarkable how much has changed. Though the night sky continues to be source of mystery, it appears to hold little in the sense of inspiration. Questions remain as to the source of the universe and man’s purpose in life, but there is no real desire to see them answered. To some extent, a part of me has been afflicted with a horrendous condition – apathy. Despite this grave concern, I remain thankful for still retaining sufficient curiosity and zeal to ask one very simple question:

“What is the damned point of it all?”

Out with the old ….

A few short weeks ago, I happened to chance across the post of a fellow blogger, a witty penultimate year law student with the University of New South Wales. In reading the article in question, I was led back to a rather tumultuous period in my life. Somewhat predictably, I am referring to the short months immediately preceding graduation from law school. Like most of my peers, I found myself afflicted with a disease that riddled the mind with ‘conviction’, as defined in the concept of ‘absolutes’. Put simply, I was ‘absolutely’ certain that a clerkship and/or graduate position with a top-tier law firm would prove the be-all and end-all of my career; I was ‘absolutely’ certain that failure would lead to a mundane existence in the suburbs, as exemplified in the image of a poorly dressed Legal Aid lawyer eating lunch out of a sardine can in front of the Family Law Court prior to making an appearance for a wife beater; I was ‘absolutely’ certain that a rejection letter would eventuate in mockery, derision, ridicule and humiliation from peers.

In drafting my numerous job applications, I slogged, slaved and sweated to put together beautifully worded resumes and cover letters. Preparation took place months in advance, with countless hours spent pouring over firm websites. Glossy brochures from big city law firms littered my desk, each graced with the heavenly image of an aspiring female lawyer in a skin-tight Armani skirt. A few happened to smile mysteriously from behind steel-rimmed spectacles, as if protecting coveted treasures that lay hidden behind the faded covers of the Commonwealth Law Review volumes clutched to their bosoms.

In the late evenings, I would hear them whispering in my dreams. “Come here and bill with us”, they would murmur seductively, “and together we’ll achieve 100% chargeability. If you show us your realisation rate, we’ll show you our utilisation figures”.

Following both the clerkship and graduate round for top-tier law firms, I was left desolate and dejected. Rejection letters from every conceivable firm littered my desk. The word spread ferociously, a quiet and conservative student assumed by all to possess “significant intelligence” had been left in the dirt. In contemplating the thoughts of our then Law Student Society (“LSS”) President, I knew that this perfectly proportioned Pymble princess of my penultimate year would forever remain outside my grasp. Never would the two of us inadvertently end up in a marble clad lift, plummeting upwards towards the heavens in the express lane for the sole purpose of finding a private meeting room in which to admire one another’s briefs.

Yes, it wasn’t to be. The realisation was swift and unforgiving, as is to be expected when reading the words “We regret to inform you ..”. Not “I”, but “We”. In my mind’s eye, I pictured several esteemed members of the legal profession huddled together around my resume, their beady eyes glittering with contempt as they tossed my hopes and dreams into a wastepaper basket. “Public school trash”, one would sneer … with several stunningly beautiful female HR managers nodding ferociously in unison.

In with the new …

Some five years after having completed my undergraduate studies in law, I look back upon the BlueCollarLawyer of years past and consider him to be quite the ‘tool’. It beggars belief that a person of even remote intelligence would allow law students, of ALL people, to dictate the measure of a person’s worth. Let’s simply say that the answer does not reside in employment with a top-tier law firm. Although your document shredding skills may improve substantially, your general ability to think ‘outside the square’ will arguably drop down several notches.

Having hailed from a family of over-achievers, my mindset during those final months of law school may be understandable. However, it is by no means forgivable. It upsets me tremendously that I was once so narrow-minded as to make the collective ambitions of a homogenous mob (i.e. the broader law student community) my own. If asked about my life’s aspirations, I no longer parrot the phrases “mergers and acquisitions”, “intellectual property” or “commercial transactions”. No longer am I na├»ve enough to believe that a particular discipline is automatically rendered “sexy” on account of being lucrative. If in doubt, ask an actuary or, better yet, a well-heeled plumber.

Most importantly, I have developed a sense of confidence and accomplishment which was sorely missing in my university persona. In answering the question of whether I am successful, I would be loathe to look towards my peers for the purpose of seeking a benchmark. Money is important in providing financial security and well-being, but little else. The targets which I consider worthwhile are of my own making, and not that of an equity partner whose personal wealth is dictated by the level of blood, sweat and tears discharged by underlings. This is not to say that I do not approach my work seriously. Rather, I do not consider it to be a means to and end. In the words of one wise friend, no intelligent person judges another on the basis of their chargeability, realisation rate, area of commercial discipline, income, ability to earn large bonuses etc. My most cherished possessions are trusted friends and family, not ‘letters of promotion’ marking my rise up the corporate ladder.

Several years ago, I jokingly asked a neighbour’s child - a toddler no less - whether she could explain, in her words, what she believed to be man’s purpose in life. After regarding me with a look of curiosity and suspicion in equal measure, she responded with “I dunno. Maybe you just do the best you can. Umm .. make sure you have good friends too.”.

I know for a fact that I’ll go my grave without anyone else having put it better.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Something serious for once ...

Despite having made a substantial number of lengthy posts under this blog, it’s quite rare that I write about something personal. Having been raised in something of an authoritarian household, where discipline reigned supreme, I may have become a little too accustomed to keeping my emotions at bay. Well, this particular post will invariably change all that ….

Some days back, I went for a short stroll in the Rocks, a rustic area to the north of the Sydney CBD that is regarded as being amongst the more popular of Australian tourist destinations. Deciding to avoid the humdrum of the main street, I instead weaved my way through various back alleys until, at long last, I arrived at Observatory Hill – a spectacular city park overlooking the harbour.

Given the rain and cold weather, virtually no-one was around. Standing under an umbrella that wavered perilously in the high winds, I spent several minutes staring out towards the Sydney Harbour Bridge, at that time coated in a fine mist of rain and fog. There was something immensely beautiful and timeless about the image, as if I had been transported into a black and white photograph seeking to capture ‘still life’. Although numerous vehicles were no doubt passing over the bridge during those moments, all were rendered close to invisible owing to a heavy sheet of rain falling from the west.

For quite some time, I wished silently that someone was there to witness this immensely beautiful sight, specifically a young woman named Anissa whom I had proposed to several years prior. It is not she who said no, but rather her parents who threatened to ostracise Anissa should she make the ill-considered decision to marry someone not of their choosing. At day’s end, she was essentially stonewalled into doing her parents’ biddings, despite my best efforts to persuade her to do otherwise.

I can still recall with the utmost clarity the moment Anissa advised me of her final decision. My emotions that day were mixed at best, an intense mix of anger, confusion, frustration and, above all else, sorrow and regret. It beggared belief that an intelligent and independent person, apparently possessed of both rationale and logic, would choose to sacrifice her own happiness for that of two backward-minded bigots. Even more upsetting was my renewed perception of Anissa. A woman once admired was reduced to farce, little more than a confused child held hostage to the alleged ‘best intentions’ of those that raised her.

At the time in question, I honestly felt that no sacrifice would be too burdensome were it capable of securing Anissa’s presence in my life. Given my feelings, I could neither understand nor respect her actions in giving in to the objections of two exceptionally small-minded individuals. Slowly but surely, doubt began to seep into my every thought. Had she ever really loved me? Was there sanity in revoking the heartfelt promise to marry someone at the behest of those whose words defied all logic? Did she realise just how much pain she’d put me in?

At first I thought only of myself, perhaps rather selfishly given the immensely difficult position Anissa had found herself in. I remember her weeping pitifully, whispering ‘I am sorry’ between every heartfelt sob but being too dumbstruck to respond owing to my disbelief. I remember walking away, prying her hands loose from mine and screaming that she not dare follow me. In the month that followed, I regained some composure and tried my utmost to dissuade her from making a decision that would invariably come to be regretted. At first, she listened, but later appeared to have ‘deceived’ herself into believing that the right decision was made.

For now, there’s no need to delve into the specifics of what transpired between Anissa and I in the coming months in terms of seeking to understand one another. It may well be that certain things are better left unsaid.

In wishing that Anissa was by my side, I came to think back to ‘that day’ and the sheer pain of the ensuing emotions is beyond description. Every single breath became laboured, as if a chore, and the world around appeared to have sunk into the earth. Put simply, I felt as if I were standing utterly alone with nothing to hold on to. No sense of belonging, of feeling loved or needed, of even having a home.

A few short seconds later my mobile phone rings.

“Mate, I know it’s the weekend but we both agreed to get some sh*t moving along today. There’s no f*cking way I’m pulling an all nighter on this job so how about you haul ar*e and make your way to the office?”
Difficult as it may be to believe, the above words lent more comfort than I would care to admit. They actually provided a harness out of my moment of misery, for no other reason than conveying the impression that I was ‘needed’ for something.

Later that evening, after my colleague had effectively 'packed it in' after several hours of brain-storming, I spent close to 3 hours sitting alone in a dimly lit boardroom - watching the rain in the distance. I contemplated the numerous transitions I had experienced in my life: living in over 20 countries, attending 14 different schools, successfully completing four degrees, being admitted as a solicitor. One milestone after another, and none had been easy. Despite this breadth of 'life experience', it dawned on me that I had absolutely no comprehension of where my life was headed. The more I thought of Anissa and her absence from my life, the more I felt as if I had no ground on which to walk upon. Worse yet, I was afraid to leave the office due to serious concerns over my judgment and state of mind at that point.

Life has truly reached a new low, in seeking comfort behind office walls.
One, two, three, four, five ....

As some readers may have noticed, quite some time has passed since I last contributed anything of substance to BlueCollarLawyer. Having only recently re-visited my blog after a lengthy sabbatical from writing, it amused me to no small end to discover that one of my last posts was a satirical discourse on etiquette – namely whether it socially acceptable to clear your lungs and sinuses of mucous in public.

One would therefore hope that this current posting provides more in terms of intellectual stimulus. Don’t hold your breath though. Earlier this year I took up a position as a Transfer Pricing associate with a top-tier professional services firm and it has robbed me of all passion, creativity and insight with respect to matters of writing. Indeed, my last foray into literature was actually an in-house Continuing Professional Development (CPD) course titled ‘Effective Business Writing’. Despite my numerous requests, the course presenter had little to say on the subject of utilising humour in client correspondence. Put simply, it would appear that clients of top-tier accounting firms do not respond well to ‘comic relief’ forming part of their advisory work.

After having worked as a junior tax adviser for several months now, it has come to my attention that lacking a sense of humour is an essential pre-requisite to being a tax professional. To gain credibility as a tax adviser, one must dress like an FBI agent from the mid 80s. Drab grey suits, closely cropped haircuts, steel-rimmed spectacles and shirts whose colour is limited to white, grey or pale blue. Step outside of these barriers and you’re likely to be regarded as a radical, as someone who does not take their profession seriously.

Consider the following real-life altercation between a candidate for a tax position and the prospective employer:

* * * *

HR Manager: According to your academic transcript and professional qualifications, you’re more than suitably qualified for the position of in-house Tax Adviser to XYZ Corporation. However, we need to know that you’ll fit in with the existing culture. So, how do you spend time outside of work? Would you mind telling us about your extracurricular activities?

Candidate: Umm .. let me see. Well, I quite enjoy collecting stamps.

HR Manager: How interesting. Do you trade these stamps as well?

Candidate: No, not really. I simply like building up the collection, and then undertaking a periodic audit of my stamp filing system, alongside a detailed valuation of their current worth taking into account depreciation where applicable.

HR Manager: I see ….

Candidate: Sometimes, just to amuse myself, I conduct a hypothetical forecast of the capital gains tax (CGT) liability that would arise were I to dispose of the entire collection to an un-related third party. And then, to make things even more interesting, I calculate the tax penalty that would eventuate if I were to dispose of the asset to a family member at below market value. It makes me feel like I’m living life on the edge.

HR Manager: Uh Huh … would you mind excusing me for just a moment? I need to confer with my colleague over your suitability for the advertised position.

(Candidate exits room)

HR Manager: So, what do you think of him?

HR Executive: The man is pathetic. He clearly has no life outside of work, no loved ones, no family friends, definitely no girlfriend to speak of. His entire life revolves around facts, figures, records and statistics. He dresses poorly, with little or no fashion sense and has a face that conveys about as much emotion as a toaster. He’s perfect ….

* * * *

OK, so the above discourse is rather exaggerated. However, it does give some indication of the erosion of one’s personality that comes with being either a tax adviser or an accountant or, God forbid, a combination of the two. As the situation presently stands, my entire ‘professional existence’ revolves around numbers. Although report writing is essential to my job description, the numbers drive the words and never vice versa. I sometimes dream of numbers, of being at work without a calculator, frantically undertaking mathematical calculations with only my fingers and toes providing support. I think back to my days as a young child, watching Sesame Street and wishing for all the world that I could be more like the Count.

One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven, Twelve ….

Oh sweet Jesus, beloved Mother of Christ ….. what the hell comes after twelve? Why didn’t the Sesame Street Count ever talk about the use of transfer pricing methodologies in proving the arm’s length nature of cross-border transactions between related entities? Did he ever mention the Berry ratio, what about the profit-split methodology? What the flying fornication is the comparable uncontrolled price method? How do I come about selecting third party comparable corporations for the purpose of undertaking a benchmarking analysis? What in the name of buggery is IFRS? Are Bert and Ernie gay or simply two struggling New York professionals sharing a one bedroom flat?

Some days I wish I could transport myself to simpler times, when the Sesame Street character did in fact possess all the answers to life.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

And this one time, at Tax Camp …

No, I did not put a whole financial calculator up my backside.

As some of you may be aware, I recently joined the ranks of a top-tier accountancy firm as an associate in tax. On my very first day, I received a ticket to Victoria for the purpose of: (a) being inducted into the firm’s culture, values and worth ethic; and (b) attending a week long retreat to study a variety of introductory tax topics.

With respect to Point (a), I walked into the induction with more than a hint of trepidation. Although this may sound exaggerated, I held grave concerns about being frog-marched down a dimly lit hallway, only to end up in a senior partner’s office to have my buttocks paddled with an oversized financial calculator. Rather thankfully, such activity was quite thoughtfully left out of the three-day induction program. Instead, the whole affair proved to be nothing short of delightful with the firm having expended an inordinate amount of money on travel expenses, accommodation, food, drinks and entertainment. If asked to detail the key highlight, it would have to be the ample opportunity provided to .. err .. fraternise with fellow colleagues in an informal setting.

Following the above induction, I was placed on a bus to a country town in Victoria for the purpose of attending Tax Camp. Yes, you read correctly … Tax Camp.

Upon hearing of Tax Camp, I immediately pictured a bland and claustrophobic office setting characterised by dorky men and women with pocket protectors, calculators aplenty and a laboratory dedicated to allergy medication. However, the reality was much, much different. Suffice it to say that the firm’s ‘responsible social drinking’ policy was done away with almost in its entirety.

There were plenty of characters at tax camp, but I became something of an office legend owing to one episode alone. It started with drinking, and then with me ending up in a ditch. Oh yes, some of you are undoubtedly expressing surprise and maybe some disgust. However, what do you expect? It’s one of life’s most natural progressions, comparable to an infant taking its first steps. However, excessive drinking leads to something of a reverse chronology of events. Get pissed, end up on all fours in a ditch. What’s the surprise?

I’m not normally one associated with excesses in behaviour. Indeed, I look like a tax lawyer. Sharp pinstriped suits, cleanly pressed shirts, immaculately polished shoes, colour coded tie, wristwatch with advanced timing functions to measure billable hours etc. How could I, of all people, end up in a ditch in the midst of a corporate event?

Hmm, not sure whether you lot were paying attention but did I mention that I was at TAX CAMP? Imagine spending several hours a day learning about assessable income, deductions, treatment of losses for tax purposes, capital gains tax, goods and services tax, fringe benefits tax, corporate tax etc. Following these particular sessions, each of which excel in tormenting both the soul and mind, how could you not resort to drinking as a means of easing your misery?

The morning following my rendezvous with a ditch, I struggled into the bathroom to find a small pile of dirt, pebbles, twigs and leaves accompanying both my shoes and trousers. I had no real recollection of the events of the previous evening, although I could vaguely recall having clawed my way through shrubs, bushes and trees in a valiant effort to reach the sanctity of my bedroom. The sudden onset of embarrassment, upon having realised that someone might actually have seen me, was further compounded by the sight of my dirt-stained trousers the next morning. Apologies for being crass, but it appeared as if King Kong had used them as toilet paper following a rather volatile bowel movement. And just to make things crystal clear, I did not defecate in my pants whilst in a drunken stupor, the stains in question were nothing else aside from dried mud.

My entry into class that morning was accompanied by a light smattering of applause, a thinly veiled celebration of a man whose apparent ‘partying ability’ had taken everyone by surprise, and would provide much fodder for mid-afternoon discussions at the water cooler or kitchenette area. Speaking candidly now, I seriously believed that the previous night’s events would see me either disciplined or fired. After all, had I not violated the firm’s policy on ‘social drinking’ explicitly prohibiting intoxication to the point of self-harm? Apparently not, a dark shirt can work wonders in keeping hidden the telltale sign of potentially fractured ribs.

Tax Camp, although representative of a very brief period in my life, will always remain a much-cherished memory. Over the course of several days, I was boozed and fed to my heart’s content. Oh yes, I did some work too of course … but my academic achievements are secondary to the pleasures of drinking with friends, drinking alone, drinking at lunch between classes, drinking in bed, drinking in the midst of a hotel garden area at 3am, falling into a ditch due to excessive drinking at approximately 3:15am, drinking in bed at 3:30am to try and relieve physical pain associated with falling into a ditch, drinking the following day to forget the ditch episode etc.

Difficult as this may be to believe, I would give just about anything to spend a week in Tax Camp once more ….

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Hhhwwerrrkkkkk ...

One thing I cannot stand in others is a lack of etiquette. Although I was not brought up a member of the British aristocracy, I believe quite strongly in the preservation of certain social graces. Although minor issues such as the surgical use of cutlery do not concern me, I do find myself quite bereaved when certain persons decide to make known their various bodily functions in public.

Having spent a significant portion of my life in the Middle East, the sight of both men and camels hawking their lungs out in public was commonplace. Of course, the frequency of such sights does not mean that I grew accustomed to them over time. These scenes were consistently repugnant, especially where the culprit was a bearded Arab male who had vigorously chewed on tobacco in the minutes preceding the act. Some men drew more attention that others, hunching back their shoulders and breathing in deeply before unleashing a dark brown stream of filth onto the pavement. Not satisfied by the result, some would snort repeatedly in the hope of sending thick mucous careening from their sinuses into their mouth in preparation of an even more grotesque feat of repugnance.

Tissues must have been scarce on the streets of Saudi Arabia, as rarely did I see someone blowing their nose in the socially acceptable manner. Most chose instead to place a stained yellow finger (i.e. from smoking) onto one nostril, only to then bend over sharply and blow hard into the dirt. Results were mixed at best, with some succeeding in dislodging only a portion of their nasal content, the remainder clinging precariously to nostril, upper lip and finger. The subject would then swing his head from side to side, staring cross-eyed at the lengthening stream of snot that trailed from his nose. Passer-bys did not pay much attention, aside from casually crossing over to the other side of the street in the hope of avoiding a runaway booger.

Upon having finally succeeded in clearing his nasal passages, the subject would triumphantly wipe his hand on a nearby wall and then proceed on his business.

Rather thankfully, sights such as those described above are not particularly prevalent in Sydney. There’s a limit to human tolerance and mine was thoroughly tested when walking through the markets and bazaars of the Middle East. In recent years, I have not seen anything quite as grotesque as a man blowing his nose into the dirt. However, I have born witness to something infinitely more repulsive.

Some days back, I was waiting patiently for a train home at Sydney’s Central Station. Standing some 40 metres away from me was an immaculately dressed Asian woman. She appeared to be Japanese and was dressed in an expensive looking pinstriped suit that complimented her Bally briefcase. Although her features were not perfectly visible from a distance, she appeared quite striking in her understated elegance. Drawn by curiosity, I walked a little closer to her and noticed that she had her head bowed and was slowly turning on her heels. This behaviour struck me as being somewhat peculiar, and I was left utterly horrified upon learning its purpose.

The lady in question was standing in a perfect circle of phlegm. This she had chosen to deposit on the ground on her own accord, quietly hawking it up as she spun slowly on her heels. A businessman standing nearby caught me staring and glared back as if to admonish me for being a pervert. However, his chastising features soon changed when he caught a better look of what had left me frozen in horror. We both looked at one another in a quite moment of acknowledgment, knowing that from that point forth we could say ‘You don’t know the things I’ve seen’ if quizzed on a sudden mood swing by friends, family or co-workers.

What possible purpose is served by a man or woman who stands in a circle of phlegm? Perhaps it serves to ward of evil, I’ll never quite know. Whatever the truth of the matter may be, I hope that people know better than to engage in such behaviour in public.

Friday, November 18, 2005

One day, me write a novel ...

One of these days, I intend on writing a novel. Not just any novel, however, but a internationally acclaimed literary tour-de-force – the reading of which will be deemed compulsory at ivy league institutions such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Of course, a few of the finer details are yet to be worked out – plot, story line, characters, beginning, middle, end etc.

Writing a great novel is not just difficult, it is damn near impossible for the vast majority of those who pursue this formidable dream. Thousands try. Few succeed. There is a certain perversity in its pursuit, due in no small part to the uncertainty that comes with writing. Will readers appreciate and understand the written word in quite the same way as the writer?

On a more pressing note, a great novel should ideally come with a great title. This goes well beyond what most ordinary people dream of. Even a good novel, blessed with a great title, becomes immortal. A novel requires tens of thousands of words, but the title can only be allocated a few. It must be short, succinct, captivating and capable of arousing curiosity, interest and emotion. The talent to say much in a few words rivals the more-lauded talent to do so with many.

In thinking of great titles, a few come to mind. These are listed briefly as follows:

(i) Children of a Lesser God
(ii) The God of Small Things
(iii) The Buddha of Suburbia
(iv) My Beautiful Laundrette
(v) Crime and Punishment

There are, of course, numerous other titles deserving of inclusion in the above list. It goes without saying that a great novel should be able to stand on its own. However, a great novel title also has to embody the novel itself.

Before I so much as put pen to paper, I shall work diligently towards thinking up a great novel title. The title will be the most important aspect of my literary masterpiece, especially since I probably won’t have the backing of some televised Oprah Book Club segment on free-to-air TV.

Some preliminary ideas are as follows:

Antoinette’s Areola
- Erotic adventure featuring a fictional French woman with superb nipples

Passing Wind in Wyoming
- Diary of an American storm chaser with a penchant for souped up cars.

Arse of Darkness
- Horror novel about a demonic backside run rampant in modern day New York.

In the event that one of the above ideas ever reaches fruition, I will no doubt hire a competent visual artist or photographer to assist in designing the book cover. Hopefully, my first novel will not be ‘Arse of Darkness’, as cover photography in this case may well require the services of a miniature camera, a proctologist and a model with a dubious personal hygiene and a high threshold for physical discomfort.

As has been made evident by now, my ideas are plentiful but commitment is clearly lacking. Writing involves a massive input of effort over a prolonged period, and is best achieved in a writer’s room. Ideally speaking, such a room should be housed in a rustic log cabin that is entirely cut off from the grid (i.e. no electricity and running water). My only company would be an antique typewriter, candles, an endless supply of strong black coffee and nature (e.g. several inquisitive squirrels).

One day, I hope to achieve my dream of writing a literary masterpiece of the highest calibre. Chances are that it may not be a bestseller, and may in fact attract adverse reviews if not an internationally organised book-burning ceremony. However, royalties and public opinion are not so much my concern. What’s important is that I am satisfied with the book, that it reflects an accurate transliteration of my thoughts and feelings to the written word. If this is achieved, I shall be more than content.

And now, to retreat to my bedroom and write the opening chapter of Antoinette’s Areola.
Burn baby burn ...

Several years ago, I wrote an essay on racial profiling that commented at length on the often dire effects such practices have on various ethnic groups. What I neglected to mention, however, is that minorities tend to sometimes profile their own.

For example, if you are Chinese and walk into an Asian restaurant chances are that you won’t be allocated steel cutlery. Instead, it will be assumed that you’re competent in using chopsticks and do not require the service of a knife, fork or spoon in finishing your meal. Similarly speaking, a person from the subcontinent will automatically be assumed as having both a palate and stomach for spice if seated in an Indian restaurant.

A fine example of the above occurred some months ago when I attended an Indian restaurant in Glebe in the company of two friends. The three of us, being Indian in appearance, were presumably assumed to be such by the wait staff who served our food with more than a fair dose of chilli.

To call the dishes hot would be an understatement. Lucifer himself may well have been serving in that kitchen. If so, I assume that he would have either spit into the food or done something infinitely more repugnant. I’ll put speculation to rest for present purposes, in an effort to preserve my sanity and to maintain good taste.

Although I cannot say with any degree of certainty where the chillies in these dishes hailed from, I can take an educated guess. Chances are that they were grown by psychopathic inmates in the confines of some long forgotten jail in deepest darkest Africa. The soil would have been close to infertile, nourished only by the decaying corpses of those buried in shallow graves. These would be the bodies of evil men, mad dog killers whose very presence in the soil sullies the earth. Water would have been scarce, causing some inmates to urinate on these hellish chilli plants at various times of the day. A few may well have passed kidney stones.

Few, if any men, could comment on what it would feel like licking a lollipop composed almost entirely of battery acid. Although I am in the same boat, I can now boast of an experience that is comparable, if not worse in nature. After the very first bite, I began sweating profusely and my mouth felt as if it were on fire. It was as if someone had made a miniature Molotov cocktail using those cute 60ml liquor bottles one sees in hotels, only to throw it into my mouth. Under my breath, I cursed repeatedly at the mothers, grandmothers, wives, sisters, aunts of the chefs in question – wishing every female in their family dead so that further propagation of their kind would cease entirely.

Without the first morsel having even passed down my throat, I began wondering whether I would be defecating blood that evening. My mind was replete with images of internal organs being dissolved on account of whatever demonic ingredient the chef had seen it fit to put in my food. It beggared belief that I would so much as have a bowel left were that food to pass through my intestines. I wanted to ask for water, cold milk, ice cream but could not speak properly because of excessive panting. Although my two friends were similarly troubled, I cared only for my own salvation, knowing full and well that I would drink their blood was it sufficient to quench the heat that plagued me.

Without saying anything, I folded my napkin and walked out … making a beeline for the nearest 7/11. Once there, I purchased 3 iceblocks known as ‘Calyppos’. Even before my money went into the till, I was frantically unwrapping one and shoving it down my throat, frantically chewing on raspberry flavoured ice and not caring an iota for the impending ice cream headache that would eventuate as a result. Appeased somewhat, I walked back into the restaurant and handed the remaining two iceblocks to my friends, both of which accepted with a whispered ‘Thank you’.

Some of the wait staff watched the above events unfold with both amusement and derision. Our obvious discomfort was noted by several other patrons, some of whom asked us openly whether our food was too hot. It was tempting to respond with “WTF do you think?”, but we settled for a courteous “Yes, it is rather spicy for our liking”.

Upon hearing our response, some of the Anglo-Australian customers looked at us with utter disbelief, as if we were all African American men over 6’10 in height who did not play basketball and had no knowledge of the sport. Having born witness to the sight of three curries not enjoying their curries, they approached their own food with marked trepidation. Rather amusingly, one of the wait staff actually explained to onlooking patrons that our dishes had been prepared extra-hot because we looked to be Indian. Uh Huh … and how many Indians enjoy crapping out dissolved internal organs following an evening meal?