Archive for February 10th, 2011

The Odyssey

The Odyssean Lifestyle

I recently came across an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, entitled “Odyssean lifestyle makes a comeback”. I liked the title and was immediately curious, partly because, being a Sydney newspaper, my first thought was that its author was in fact the very David Brooks who had been one of my profs at The University of Sydney. It was not so – the article, which had first appeared in the New York Times, was written by an altogether different David Brooks.

Brooks writes:

There used to be four common life phases: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Now, there are at least six: childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement and old age. Of the additions, the least understood is odyssey, the decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood.”

The odyssean lifestyle is aided by new workplace flexibility, social media, easier and broader access to tertiary education, vastly changed perceptions of roles and status according to sex, gender, race and cultural background, ease and affordability of travel, more flexible social mores, online dating, the list goes on. The world has never been so full of choice and possibility, or, for that matter, such a variety of role-models. Personal development now includes a far richer range of experiences and opportunities, and the naturally curious human species is exploiting this to the full where possible.

Brooks is likely correct in suggesting the odyssean stage of ones life typically spans a single decade, yet there is, arguably, no limit to how long this may run. I myself have been on an odyssey since I left high school twenty years ago and, let’s face it, I still don’t know exactly what I’m doing with myself. It’s fair to say, however, that despite having three degrees, including a PhD in history from the University of Cambridge and a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Technology, Sydney, I haven’t exactly been successful.

It has also become increasingly difficult as I age to justify my lack of assets and financial security. Most would consider the odyssean phase to be one in which one tried ones hand at various things, ultimately with the aim of finding a suitable situation, career, partner and place to settle down at the end of the odyssey. Rather than merely accepting the old paradigm of finding a career either immediately after high school or university, many now prefer to try a variety of options until their tastes mature sufficiently to make a more satisfying choice of lifestyle. My problem, however, is that the paths I have chosen have so far proven to be dead-ends or have not been satisfying. I also suffer from a rather short attention span, or, conversely, an almost pathologically intense period of focus which, after some years, leaves me totally and utterly sick of whatever it was I was doing. Just like Zorba the Greek, who, as a child, loved cherries so much that he ate them until he was sick, I too tend to overdo things until they no longer give me pleasure. The law of diminishing returns is one of the few laws to which I subscribe without hesitation.

I have already experienced this sudden, plummeting loss of interest in the study of history and writing novels, though I’m still hitting the keys, as is here evident. Perhaps it is merely lack of success in these fields that has left a bitter taste in my mouth, but also a quite incurable restlessness finds me dreaming of further career possibilities at the age of 38 – architecture, photography, archaeology, biology, environmental management and planning… the list goes on.

The job for which I yearn most of all, however, is that of a holiday package tester. Yes, people do do this for a living – going on a package tour and rating the quality of the holiday experience. Many people I know do not like flying, become frustrated upon entering an airport, and are unhappy to have a schedule that is regularly disrupted by travel and jetlag. I, however, love these things dearly and feel most comfortable when constantly confronted by new stimuli – be it a crappy hotel room or second-rate buffet breakfast. Anything novel is, well, novel, for better or for worse, which is, I suppose, part of the reason for my clinging to the odyssean phase of my life for as long as possible.

One interesting upshot of the Odyssey is a loss of any coherent understanding of how or where I am supposed to be at any given stage of my life. There are clear signs all about; many of my friends are breeding, married and have successful careers, yet this process has had almost no impact on me whatsoever, other than to confirm my worst suspicions that it looks more complicated than desirable. Having always disregarded social convention, initially for the sake of rebellion and later through a philosophical rejection of materialism, careerism and acquisitiveness, I still believed that eventually I would, to some degree, fall into line.

This future point in my life, possibly involving marriage, the production of children and permanent, professional employment, combined with an attempt to latch onto the lower rungs of the property ladder, was always, from the age of around twenty-eight onwards, five years away. Nothing has changed, it is still five years away, and I believe I have at last begun to understand just why this is so. It is not so much a question of the necessary elements being in place, but rather one of the absence of any desire to set this process in motion. I quite simply don’t want to own anything or anyone, nor have to make life-decisions that depend on someone else’s say-so.

The unsettled, curiosity-driven, admittedly aimless, wandering lifestyle has become so integral for me as to be the only lifestyle I am capable of imagining. I have been through several mental exercises, imagining myself in the role of father and husband, or father and partner, or as permanently co-habiting childless, home-owner, or even, simply, home owner, but it all seems so farfetched. I have begun to wonder, does the old adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, come into play so far as lifestyle is concerned? Is it possible that I have become so detached from and spent so long avoiding exposure to these more settled lifestyles, that I am not actually capable of living such a life? Am I too set in my ways to adapt to it without suffering from crippling wanderlust and eternal, dispiriting restlessness?

The unwillingness to commit is often derided as a flaw; yet, I feel this attitude is out of touch with modern reality. Certainly there can be advantages to commitment, but without a sufficient level of in-built flexibility, anyone already well-used to freedom of movement is inevitably going to feel significantly restricted. Ultimately it comes down to a question of what is more important and what compromises we are willing to make, yet an unwillingness to compromise and a failure to rate permanence as highly as impermanence, should by no means be derided.

Perhaps it was my father’s work as a foreign and war correspondent that made me so attached to the idea of travel. Of course I was never actually doing any of the travelling, but remained transfixed by his tales of adventure. This no doubt helped to fuel my early and ongoing obsession with fantasy role-playing games. I had an intrinsic idolisation of characters who went off adventuring by themselves or with others. I spent my childhood pretending to be an “adventurer” and of all the literature I encountered, it was more often than not quest narratives that held the greatest attraction.

These particular influences and preferences are personal rather than broadly social or generational. Yet, finding myself in a global society marked by  the rise of flexibility and mobility in all things from work, education, relationships and gender and with rapidly rising narcissistic individualism, I have been perfectly primed to embark upon and sustain an Odyssean lifestyle. Quicker than I could decide what my own chosen norms were, the norms have changed.

There has only been a slight shift in self perception. A growing awareness that I am ageing – greying hair, lower back pain, longer warm up times when running – yet I still consider myself to be young. In fact, I rarely consider myself to be an adult, but a young man. My latest theory is that so long as I have hair, I am young. And, yes, I still have plenty of hair still on my head!

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This short story was a third and final chapter in the life of Oliver, a semi-autobiographical character whose misfortunes I greatly enjoyed charting in a variety of circumstances. Indecisive, snobbish and self-important, Oliver also has the more positive qualities of being intelligent and romantic, if in an all-too autistic fashion. The story needs to be fleshed out more and is more of a sketch than anything else. It is also dependent, to some degree, on being united with its predecessors. I have, however, other plans for the fate of this character, thus making this installment redundant.


The Benefits of a Broad Education

Oliver’s thoughts were on Wordsworth as he sat in the box office, for he had just finished reading Lyrical Ballads. The poems had left him with a feeling both beautiful and sad, and he was pleased in the late afternoon that business was quiet. It was a perfect prelude to the busy evening to come, when customers would arrive in droves to collect their tickets for the night’s performance.

At around seven two young couples, whom Oliver guessed to be just out of school, approached the counter. While taking an order from one of the girls, he could not help overhearing the loud and slightly inebriated conversation of the other three.

“So what’s Greg doing at university?” asked the other girl.

“He’s doing history,” said one of the young men.

“Like, why?” said the girl, with such astonishment that Oliver felt a stab in the breast.

“Hell knows,” said the young man. “He’s always been into that sort of stuff.”

“Yeah, but like why?” said the girl. “What’s the point of doing history? What’s he supposed to do with that?”

“I don’t know,” replied the young man. “It’s like Arts full stop, what’s that going to get you? It’s a total waste of time.”

Oliver kept his cool. He was sorely tempted to speak in defence of the arts, yet was tired now and did not feel sufficiently articulate. In fact he was sorely tempted to bash them all over the head and drag them off somewhere to be quietly gassed. So often in his life he had come across people with the same attitude and he had wanted to murder every single one of them. They were clearly beyond redemption as human beings, if indeed, they were human to begin with. His ire was rising and his neck was reddening, but he caught himself just in time. No, no, he cautioned internally, heart pumping fast, he was being unfair. They were ignorant and naïve, they had been brainwashed by materialism and acquisitiveness. It was re-education that they required, not extermination.

Following on from this caveat to himself, and in spite of the burning hostility in his breast, Oliver’s thoughts took on a more charitable aspect. He longed to tell them of the benefits, both to the individual and society, of a broad and specific education in the arts. Yet, as such words hovered, not so much on the tip of his tongue as at the back of his throat, it struck him that were he to mention having a PhD in history from the University of Cambridge, and add to that the observation that he found the study of history both fulfilling and worthwhile, they would have immediately pointed out to him that he was working in the box office of a theatre. Perhaps they had a point after all.

When the young customers had departed and the strange mix of rage and shame had settled down in him, Oliver was left soul searching. What was he doing with his life? What was his story? He wasn’t by any means useless; indeed, he regarded himself as rather versatile, having majored in Literature as well. But still, what was his story? What was he doing? If there was one thing the study of literature had taught him, it was that from start to finish a story must demonstrate a process of transformation in the main character; bringing them to a new understanding of themselves or their circumstances. There had to be a trajectory of sorts – the character arc – for surely that is the nature of a story; to start one place and finish somewhere else.

Yet what, Oliver asked himself, was his own character arc? He had been through many emotional ups and downs and seen significant changes to his circumstances, yet had he changed at all or was he more than ever himself? If the latter, could that be considered change? He had resigned himself to a fate of diminishing returns, yet was that progress or change of emphasis? He had to grab at things faster and faster, his relationships grew shorter and shorter and he had less time for making amends when things were not working. Yet was that change or acceleration?

Oliver had always been a man of phases and, in reflection, it seemed to him that for the last few years he had merely switched between old and understood phases with varying degrees of intensity; work, play, obsession, mission, lust and asexuality. His life was not an arc, but a dial. It was a turntable. Nothing really changed him, but the disc kept spinning. It wasn’t a lack of experience, but rather a consequence of having experience. Indeed, Oliver felt so saturated by experience that he did not see how anything could change him without being extremely traumatic.

What was to be done? What might shake him from his torpor?

Oliver sat at his desk, furiously tapping his leg up and down. He felt a great, energetic, vigorous disappointment. Soon, however, the stream of customers had him on his feet again; twirling, stretching, fetching their tickets from the bench upon which they were arranged. He smiled and exuded good cheer, yet behind the helpful eyes his displeasure was paramount.

How angry that girl’s comments had made him! If she and her friends lacked the foresight to see just what one might do with a mind geared for lateral thinking, for query and inquisition, then it was time someone got up and showed them.


In Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth he makes the point that ten to fifteen years from now there will be no more snows of Kilimanjaro. How is it possible that things could have come to such a pass? Will nature one day be merely a subject for nostalgia?

William Wordsworth had just an inkling of what we were doing. He knew the way things were going when he walked through the smog and stink of industrial London. He’d seen the hellish fires across France as well, seen the towers of smoke and plume. It was clear to him that industry had entered a phase of expansion and intensification that was liable to be ongoing and, if left unchecked, potentially devastating.

In itself, industry on a large scale was nothing new. The Romans had built factories too; huge industrial workshops for beating out thousands upon thousands of swords and shields; great mints for smelting metals and clinking out coins; foundries, tanners, whole hillsides of waterwheels for the mass production of flour. Yet, the scale of Roman industry was hampered by the comparatively primitive nature of their mining and exploration. Most don’t realise that the curious pocks hacked into the masonry of ancient buildings were caused by thieves seeking scrap; the lead-coated braces of iron that secured the stone blocks. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, and tin, though plentiful in China, was extremely rare in the west. By the sixth century, the classical world had run significantly short of metal.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, new sources of raw materials sprang up like mushrooms after imperial rain and Wordsworth found himself choking. He saw what monstrous tumours were growing in the hearts of the towns and called upon his contemporaries to return to the earth. He saw just how greatly the conditions and consequences of industry were degrading the human condition and he exhorted people to fill their lives with natural beauty.

His poems, therefore, as much as they were a genuinely heartfelt celebration of the wonders of nature, were a reaction against the industrial revolution. For many years his contemporaries laughed him off as childish and unrealistic; coy and “namby pamby”. His poetry was roundly dismissed as so much dreamy claptrap, just as, until very recently, the greens were so often dismissed as a bunch of unrealistic lunatics.

Yet, whilst Wordsworth rebelled against the destruction of the human soul and the turning of people into termites; while he recoiled from the blight of the towns and the smog and the slurry, unlike the green movement he could never have imagined that whole natural vistas could actually turn to deserts; that once snow-capped mountains, whose thaws fed vital rivers, might be snow-capped no more and the rivers vanish. Nature was surely too great, too powerful, to be affected this way. Could mankind truly create a wasteland? For Wordsworth the more obvious and immediate concern was the wasteland of the soul. We might have divorced ourselves from nature, but surely we could not destroy it altogether.

“Oh, Nature,” thought Oliver, channelling Wordsworth as he sat out the end of his shift staring at the cover of Lyrical Ballads with its watercolour of the Lakes District, “how often have our spirits turned from thee!”



It was to prove a fateful evening for Oliver. As they were about to close the doors of the box office, a tall, tanned, middle-aged man walked in, wishing to purchase tickets for a concert the following week. While Oliver took care of the transaction, the customer stood examining the large, colour photograph of the interior of the venue, displayed beside the counter.

“So, for a standing show,” asked the man, “all the seating comes out downstairs, is that correct?”

“Spot on,” said Oliver, looking up from his monitor.

“And the only seating for this show is on the balcony?”

“That’s right.”

“So, how does it work? Do you mean that every time you have a standing show, someone has to take all of those seats out and put them back in the next day?”

“Pretty much. They often go from standing to seating and back again on consecutive nights. It can go on like that for weeks, until we get a longer running show.”

“My god,” said the man, “that’s gotta be a hell of a job, to have to do that every day.”

“Yeah,” said Oliver. “Strange, but I never really thought of it like that.”

He leaned back in his chair.

“It’s a hell of a job,” the man said again.

“It does seem like a hell of a job,” said Oliver, “but then, the world is full of awful jobs, isn’t it? I mean, some people cut the heads off fish for a living, others shovel manure, some have to patrol war zones; in the scale of things, it’s not so bad.”

“I suppose not. Though that all depends on how much you get paid for it.”

“Not a lot, I imagine,” said Oliver. “And anyway, that’s not necessarily any consolation. I think it was Aristotle who said that all paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.”

“Well, you wouldn’t catch me doing it.”

“No,” said Oliver, “I guess not.”



Cycling through the streets of Cambridge on the way home that evening, Oliver pondered the spiritual penury of his circumstances. He was a nobody who was doing nothing to save a dying world; a nobody whose education ought to cut him out for greater things; a person whose wisdom should find a more practical application. He saw himself as a wasted resource, an untapped vein, and if it wasn’t his wisdom or education they needed, then hell, surely someone, somewhere, working for a good cause must need a spare pair of hands?

Oliver was a man who had played a lot of role-playing games in his thirty-two years on the planet and, almost invariably, he played a bard or minstrel character. The ultimate jack of all trades and master of none, bards were the show-ponies of the adventuring world; all lyrics and no action, they added more colour than punch. It was no great leap of the imagination for Oliver to see the parallel between himself and his avatars, and though this occasionally made him feel effete and useless, he did at times remind himself of the true greatness of bards: not only did they significantly boost morale, they were famed for their knowledge of lore and could try their hand at anything.

Perhaps, he wondered, it was really his context that was at fault. For the last two years he had been unable to find any work in his field, and outside of it, nothing that was morally, ethically, or intellectually stimulating. This had, admittedly, a good deal to do with his over-qualification, his lack of practical experience, and a certain unwillingness to compromise by committing himself to anything distastefully serious. Yet he found himself increasingly blaming not merely the particular city in which he dwelt, but the entire country.

Perhaps, he reasoned, in some troubled land, the absence of properly qualified people might allow for their substitution with intelligent, lateral thinkers. Must he now go in search of such a land? Must he join a team of adventurers who were off on some vital quest to save a people, a nation, or indeed, the entire planet? The planet was dying, people were dying. He had heard and ignored the call of the trumpet all his life and now the trumpet was blowing louder than ever! Yes, thought Oliver, pushing his way through the cool, thin evening, balancing the ideas and emotions that had assailed him that day, it was time to take up the reins of adventure.

He stopped a moment to chide himself. Was it right to make vital decisions such as this whilst examining his life through the prism of fantasy role-playing? Wasn’t he the first person to criticise misguided, foolhardy, romantic adventurism? Had he not just recently argued that the real reason Tony Blair went to war in Iraq was because his favourite novel is Ivanhoe?

“The imperial romance,” said Oliver aloud, “the fairytale of the damsel in distress. Huh! But these people run the world. Well, the hell with them,” he muttered, wheeling his bike across the footbridge over the lock, “if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me. Why can’t I have a crack at rescuing the world as well?”

His voice went unheard; lost in the winds that swept the empty dark of Jesus Green.



When the ice-shelf gave way, Oliver knew instantly that it was all over. Curiosity had caught him out, trying to take a photograph he should never have attempted. Still, how was he to know when his luck would run out?

Tumbling head-first into the crevasse, he emitted a piercing cry. This time, his voice did not go unheard, though his colleagues from the Scott Polar Research Institute were in no position to help him. They had told him not to go, told him that it was risky, and still he went, though he was not a reckless person; not normally anyway. Perhaps, given time, he might have become one. The mission would have to end now, and soon his colleagues would all leave Greenland. Had he survived the fall, he might have wondered at how, in the end, he had come only to hamper the efforts of the true. So much for volunteering to make a difference! So much for the dabblers of this world! How often fate can be cruel to them; how often it turns out that they are, after all, just in the way of everyone else.

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This is a chapter from Volume I of my autobiography entitled Sex with a Sunburnt Penis. The chapter was in fact removed from the second draft as part of a lengthy culling process and re-organisation of the material. Sex with a Suburnt Penis (hereafter, SWASP) was written between July and November of 1997 after a particularly bad break-up of a relationship that had lasted four and a half years. It goes without saying that I brought it all upon myself through repeated misdemeanours, but still was genuinely devastated when the shit hit the fan. It set me off on a particularly introspective  period of binge-drinking and autobiographical writing, inspired by Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell and Ernest Hemingway to name a few. My habit of diary-keeping – still have not missed a day since 1986 – made this process considerably easier as I had a wealth of material to mine, alongside my then more vivid recollections of the events.  Whilst not in evidence here, I still consider some of the the stronger passages of SWASP to be my most visceral and honest writing to date.



One afternoon when I was sixteen years old, whilst helping my dad to paint the lounge-room, he asked me a question out of the blue.

“Mate, do you smoke marijuana?”

“Ummm, no,” I replied.

“Look,” he said, “I used to smoke it a bit myself, and I’m not against it. But I still think you’re a bit young to be getting into it.”

I nodded and said, without making eye contact, “Well, I haven’t tried it.”

“Well, look, mate,” said my dad, squaring up, “if you ever take anything, for whatever reason, and you get into any trouble, I want you to know that you can always call your dad. Just get straight on the phone and I’ll come and get you, wherever you are. Don’t be afraid of being in trouble – the first priority is to make sure you’re alright.”

He was looking at me so intently that I felt embarrassed. I was glad to have the roller in my hand.

“You’re my son,” he said, “and I don’t want you to do anything stupid, obviously. But we all make mistakes. Don’t be afraid of calling your dad if you need any help.”

“Umm, I won’t. Thanks.”

He turned back to the wall and smiled to himself.

“I tell you what,” he said, “smoking dope used to make me as hungry as buggery.”

The truth, of course, was that I had started smoking dope the year previous, though I never seemed to get properly stoned. I rather wondered what all the fuss was about, for none of my friends seemed to get stoned either. My closest friend, Jason, tried his best to prove otherwise one truant afternoon by hiding in the cupboard and pretending to be linen, but it didn’t exactly wash. I felt sure he was faking it, and so did everyone else, yet our doubts were mixed with the envious fear that he was actually stoned. It seemed churlish to challenge him so I just pretended I was stoned as well. We all did.

Such pretending certainly had its precedents, for, earlier that year, Jason and I had spent many hours practising with tea-leaves. One terribly immature evening we donned some paisley head-scarves, ordered a pizza and rolled up a savage, nine-skin, Earl Grey and Russian Caravan Tea joint. After a heavy dose of bergamot we upped the ante with a few lines of sherbet, put on The Tracks of my Tears and re-enacted the scene from Platoon in which Charlie Sheen smokes through a gun-barrel, albeit with Irish Breakfast and a plastic tube. It was a farcical charade of retro cool, but at fifteen we longed for a taste of counter culture so badly that even mere pretence had the tang of rebellion.

Well versed as I was on the subject of tea, when it came to marijuana I was entirely ignorant of the varieties and in all likelihood we were only smoking leaf. No wonder we never got stoned, but then, getting hold of any stuff, let alone good stuff, was a serious obstacle. In my third year of high school Jason and I had tried to buy our first “foil” from a classmate called Duke. A few days later in maths he handed our twenty dollars back. No luck. It was to become a familiar story and our hopes were regularly dashed in this fashion.

By the time we were sixteen, marijuana began to show up at parties. I puffed away on the rare and holy joints of empty leaf, but so little effect did it have beyond inducing an overexcited and ultimately frustrated musing on its workings, that I entrusted my evenings to the siege engines of tequila. Not having been properly stoned made it difficult to know what to recognise when it finally happened. Yet, when I did find out, the contrast was immediately apparent and set a benchmark I was unlikely ever to forget.

Like so many pivotal moments in life, fortune smiled from the unmapped realm of the random. One Friday night, a mere week after my father’s enquiry, I walked into the Paddington Green hotel to see if anyone was about. This pub was notorious for turning a blind eye to underage drinkers and was a favourite haunt of the more game amongst my high school peers. “Game” was a tag to which I keenly aspired.

In the front room I spotted two friends, James and Rowena, who were playing the card machines. They seemed happy to see me, so I bought a beer and pulled up a stool.

“I’m having shit luck,” said James. “Why don’t you have a crack?”

“Okey dokes, though I haven’t the faintest…”

They showed me what to do and I doubled up a few hands; a fifty-fifty choice between red or black cards. I can only assume that it was a brilliant spate of beginner’s luck, but within five minutes I had won them forty dollars. It was no piddling amount for a teenager back then.

“Fucking excellent,” said James. “What a champion. We should go and get smashed!”

Both he and Rowena were keen as mustard to get hammered and it was plain they knew how to make it happen. I was scared of their capability; James and Rowena were united in rebellion against school and convention and were known to indulge in harder things than booze and pot. Despite being curious and adventurous, I retained much childhood timidity.

“Maybe we could get some speed as well,” said James, confirming all of my worst fears.

“Oh, no,” I protested nervously, “I don’t want to get involved with anything like that.”

“Nah, well, don’t worry, man,” said James, “we wouldn’t want to do make you do anything you don’t want to do.”

I was pleased with how quickly they ruled it out. I felt completely reassured and my spirits rose again. They were going to look after me! I was excited by the prospect of heading into a world with a harder edge; nothing too dramatic, and hardly a patch on what was to come only a year later, yet it had all the gravity of anticipated significance.

Before long we were on the ever-reliable 380 bus to Bondi. The long bus swung and dipped its winding way to the Royal Hotel, where James said a quick score was certain. “We’ll get some hash, man. Have you ever smoked hash?”

“Nah,” I said, swallowing my resurrected uncertainty.

“It’s just like dope, man. It’s the same stuff. But different. Better.”

Rowena smiled. She was beautiful, Italian, wearing a little too much foundation.

“I love hash,” she said.

It sure seemed sexy now.

The pub terrified me. I’d never seen a place with so many rough blokes in it and there was none bigger and rougher than the bloke whom James approached and disappeared with into the toilets. I waited outside on the street with my nerves crippling my conversation. I liked Rowena, but she was so grown up for a girl her age that I felt like a child beside her. I stood dumb, expecting something awful to happen; that somehow we would all be the victims of violence. The real world could be frightening, exposing the thinness of my bravado. It was vast and I felt small. It struck me that out on the edge there was less room to run.

When James emerged a couple of minutes later I couldn’t wait to get moving. “It’s sweet, man,” he said, “I got a hell-good deal.”

The humid air was full of spring blossom and the sea. We hurried off into the night, all of us with an extra spring in our step.

“Have a look, man,” said James, offering me a stick of hash. I had no preconception of what hashish might look like and was surprised to find a slightly sticky, malleable brown lump in my hand. It was like the chocolate Spacefood bars I’d eaten in primary school and similarly moulded into a rectangle. I gave it a light squeeze and took a sniff. It was nutty, pungent and dusky. I smiled and handed it back to James.

Away from the main strip I was able to relax. Since being harassed by Nazi punks only a year before, I was wary of everyone and felt more at ease away from the main strip. In the side streets I could hide in the shadows, but Bondi Road swarmed with fired up, drunk young men and it was anyone’s guess as to who or what they might not like.

Before long we arrived at James’ house. It was a modern, red-brick semi which mirrored the one adjacent; set back from the road down a fragrant path.

“My mum’s home downstairs,” he said, “so we have to be real quiet.”

We tip-toed along a hall and into the front room; James held his finger to his lips. This was much more familiar territory; a game I knew only too well. I was adept at being stealthy and had a whisper so low it might be mistaken for the brush of silk.

We settled against bookshelves, sitting cross-legged. “I’ll be back,” said James, and snuck off into the hall. Rowena and I remained silent, smiling and raising eyebrows. I wondered what she saw in James. He might be cool and know a thing or two, but he was jug-eared and acned. It must have been his street cred, his dedication to the dark side that gave him the upper hand.

He returned just two minutes later with a bowl, a bong and a packet of biscuits.

“Are you mixing?” James asked, handing the bowl to Rowena to confirm this demarcation.

She took the hash from him and squeezed it into a ball. In the bowl was an unfolded, blackened paperclip. Using the paperclip as a prong, she stuck the round ball of hash on the spike, then placed it beside her. Without a word she removed a cigarette from the packet and began toasting it with the lighter; running flame up and down its length. The paper browned and blackened in spots and soon, satisfied, she put down the lighter and rubbed the cigarette between her fingers. The now drier and more brittle tobacco spilled out into the bowl. Next she took the paperclip in her fingers and held the lighter under the ball of hash. She turned this over and over in the flames, flicking it in and out and being careful not to set it alight. Sweet and heady smoke arose to mix with the toasted tobacco smell, and then, in a quick move, she pinched the hash from the end between thumb and forefinger, plunged it into the tobacco and began to work the mix with her fingers. In no time she had transformed the contents of the bowl into a dark, finely ground powder. I’d never seen anything like it and had watched the whole process in silent awe. Marijuana was marijuana, but this looked more like drugs. Perhaps it was really Rowena who had all the cred, and it was James who was along for the ride.

I still did not say a word; partly in honour of the request to remain silent, and partly out of a desire not to reveal my ignorance by asking naïve questions. James just sat smiling, saying nothing either. Rowena now packed this powder into the cone of the bong and handed it to me with a lighter.

“You go first,” she said, with a polite smile.

“Are you sure?” I whispered?

“Yeah, go on.”

I put the bong to my lips, put my thumb across the air hole and fired up the cone. The smoke tasted as rich as it smelled; it was a brown and heavy flavour, dusty and woody, and within seconds of tasting it I felt my head reeling. I leaned back against the bookshelf and didn’t move or say a word. I knew it was regarded as unmanly not to “punch” a cone, to finish it in one hit, but I took it slowly through several breaths. By the time I placed the bong on the floor and nodded silent thanks, I was well on my way to a new sensation.

James and Rowena smiled and turned their focus back to the business of packing and smoking their own cones. I sat silently, feeling myself accelerate and slow simultaneously. I guessed that this must be it, that I must be becoming stoned! Time slowed down further and my heart began pounding in my chest; the few words uttered by James and Rowena reverberated in my ears. The quiet, almost inaudible sounds of the room became echoes in what seemed a vast soundscape. I shuddered with the sounds; I shuddered in myself; I heard a sliding, throbbing noise and listened to the blood coursing through my veins. I pressed myself close against the bookshelf and watched the other two going through the motions of smoking. I had absolutely nothing to say. I was afraid of hearing my voice.

I felt both fearful and elated; and rose and dipped rapidly between the two. James and Rowena were smiling. “Excellent,” said James. “Excellent hash,” and I found myself laughing, having never heard anything so funny before in my life. It was the release I needed, but it was not enough. A moment later I felt the shelves against my spine and began to reason my way through this.

“Okay,” I thought, “this must be it. So, I’m stoned at last – tick – but what the hell do I do now? What happens next?” It was almost unbearable being forced to sit here so quietly, and then I realised that James was talking. He was talking to Rowena! Weren’t we supposed to be quiet? I couldn’t really understand what they were saying, for by the time he’d reached the end of a sentence, I’d forgotten how it started. I blinked and then closed my eyes, but things began to spin, so I opened them again and looked straight ahead. The packet of biscuits was being offered to me.

“Have one,” said James, “they’re fucking excellent.”

The biscuits were crisp and cheesy and I took two. I stuck one in my mouth and broke it in my teeth. It was dry and so was my mouth, yet in no time I chewed it into a salty, cheddary paste. They were superb biscuits! I felt the world had once again grounded itself. This was the key – sustenance! How could mankind live without food? I felt myself growing hysterically excited, tears welled in the corners of my eyes, my throat caught and thickened , but I said nothing. I was afraid of what might happen if I started to speak. What would come out? My words or someone else’s?

I ate the second biscuit. It was an historic moment. Here, still, after thousands of years, we were making things from wheat, as once they had in the fertile crescent. Where would we be without crops? Without agriculture? Where we would be without all these slow accumulations?

I was nodding to myself, nodding and chewing my way through that second biscuit. Damn the biscuit was good. I reached out and took another one. So this was what they called ‘the munchies.’ Now I could say I’d officially had the munchies, and yes, I was officially stoned!

James got up to leave the room again. Suddenly there were only two of us – how odd it all seemed. This room felt desultory. I hated overhead lights, yet, propped like some quarto volume leaned against the shelves – a book full of words and pictures – I felt small and inconspicuous. Safe enough to begin speaking.

I opened my mouth and nothing came out. I hadn’t prepared anything at all. Where should I start?

“I’m really stoned,” said Rowena.

“Yes, yes, me too!” I said, thrilled to have a contribution. So, it wasn’t just me, of course! We were both stoned. And what about James? He must be stoned as well. How was he faring out there, sneaking like a cat, like a hunching goblin, picking adventurers’ pockets, hiding the gems in his little chest…

I spoke on; unfocussed, confused inanities to Rowena. James returned and smiled at us. No toilet had flushed, no tap had run – where had he gone? I dived back into the crackers like a man possessed. I needed something to do; I needed to return to the Fertile Crescent. I ate three, four, five more biscuits; but still could not think of a way to start a conversation. I saw Rowena reaching for the bowl, saw her filling the cone. Was she mad? Was it time for another? How much time had gone by? Oh my god, what day was it? Where the hell was I? She was leaning forward with her almond eyes, her cunning smile, her lures and wiles all just for James. I took the proffered bong – it had come from a beautiful woman. Could I say no and still be a man? I smoked it, more quickly this time. By gosh my mouth was dry.

Time stretched out, accordion-like, and I tumbled backwards into the widening distance. It was slow in there, heart-pumpingly slow. I took a deep breath and fell further back into a new and juddering slowness, only this time I kept falling. I could feel the bookshelves against my back, but no longer did they anchor me to the world. I was turning over and over, in an ever-faster spin. I pushed myself more firmly against the shelves to discomfort myself back to reality. It didn’t change anything; I tumbled ever on into a ghastly image of an Icelandic maelstrom conjured from some children’s book.

Oh god, I thought, and suddenly felt very sick indeed.

“James,” I said, breathing carefully, trying to right myself, “I don’t feel so good. I think I need some fresh air.”

“Okay man,” he said.

“Are you alright?” asked Rowena.

“I dunno,” I said. The saliva rushing into my cheeks was sobering; enough to give me speech, but not enough to stop the spinning.

I stood up, climbing hand over hand behind my back, shelf by shelf. James steadied my elbow and guided me through the door. I was listing and reeling, but I stayed my course and we made it to the entrance.

“Are you alright, man?” asked James.

“I’ll just be a bit,” I said and left him standing in the doorway.

I stumbled into the night and made straight for the nature strip, feeling sure I was going to puke. I lay on the grass and welcomed the cool of the springy blades, stretching my neck to place my cheeks on the cold concrete gutter. I had learned from several overzealous tequila nights that cold floors were my salvation. Ideally I’d be lying on bathroom tiles, but at least the air was fresh out here.

I held off the first wave of nausea and tried to haul myself in. I wanted to close my eyes and go to sleep, but could only avoid the spins by keeping them open and focussed on the streetlights. What was wrong, I wondered? Was it the cheese biscuits? The earlier beers? Or could hash do this all by itself? What would my father think of all this?

I slowly managed to get myself together. I felt confused and disoriented, but my stomach had stopped its lurching. I couldn’t stay out here forever and decided, after some time that I was well enough to go in.

I stood up, turned around and found myself in serious trouble. The two houses in front of me were identical, and like a butterfly print, their doors faced the same central path. I remembered that the door had been on my left when I came outside, and therefore, I reasoned, it must be the door on the left. I walked towards it and tried the handle, but it was locked. I was afraid that I had been locked out accidentally and reached for the buzzer. It was only then that I realised my mistake. I stepped back, walked over to the door on the right, found it unlocked, and went back inside the house.

I made it through to the room where James and Rowena were sitting, gave a little wave and welcomed their smiles, but the moment I caught a whiff of the hash my stomach vaulted. My head reeled and saliva rushed again to flood my gums. I wobbled, flushed with panic and turned straight back around to head for the pavement once more.

I took up my previous position. The grass was waxy and sharp and pressed through my loose black shirt. The concrete smelled of stale sun. I could scent the cool rubber of a car tyre and the metallic grease of the brakes. I desperately wanted some water, but had not had the good sense to ask for it. I was still an amateur at looking after myself, still working out all the cures. I stared at the lights, hiding in the shadows. At first I had been too anxious to be ashamed, but now I was beginning to feel conspicuous.

I pulled myself together, stood up and brushed myself down. I was dizzy and confused, but my stomach felt sound. I made for the doorway but once again faced a dilemma. Which door was it? The left or the right? I struggled to remember. All I knew was that I had gotten it wrong last time. I recalled my previous mistake and tried to work through it – I had started confident but came to the wrong conclusion. Only where had I started from last time? What was the basis of my previously flawed logic? I could not remember, but the door on the left looked attractive. It looked familiar. Had I not perhaps gone through it before?

I tried the handle on the screen door. It was locked again! I couldn’t think at all. What had happened last time? Had I rung the buzzer? Had I knocked on the window? I couldn’t remember a thing. Was this what it was like to be stoned? I pressed the buzzer. What the hell, I needed water; I needed to get inside. I waited only a few seconds before being struck by the terrifying realisation that this was the wrong door. Of course! The other door had been open all along. I ran across the path, tried the other door and was through into the hall in a flash.

I needed water, but wasn’t going to try finding the bathroom by myself, so I walked through to where James and Rowena were sitting. It looked and smelled as though they’d just had another cone; the air was thick with smoke, coiling around the glaring, ugly light. The reek was dreadful, overpowering, and before I could say a thing I felt myself reeling again. “Oh, god,” I said, “get me some water!” Then I turned straight back, ran this time through the front door, lunged towards the gutter and vomited into the concrete.

“Oh, god, oh god,” I moaned, as the full scale of my cheese-cracker consumption became gaudily apparent.

I rose with the heaving retches, otherwise lying flat as a lizard. I don’t imagine anyone likes to vomit, yet I had lived with a phobia of it since suffering a terrible bout of gastro-enteritis at the age of eleven. I was old enough to know I would shrug it off, however, and did not feel overly concerned, but rather, humiliated, ashamed, longing for home. My father’s words now came back to me clearly. His offer of assistance would be more than welcome now, yet my troubles did not seem to be on the scale his words had suggested. Still I imagined him helping me up, grabbing me under the armpits and lifting me to my feet. “We’ll get you home, don’t worry, son. You’ll be alright.”

My home grew great and necessary in my heart. What was wrong within me to make me seek these alternatives, these frontiers? Could I not be happy at home, clean and fed, loved and looked after? Of course it came with a swathe of attendant woes, but the core things, beyond all the bickering, brought a simple, profound happiness. I wished these truths could be always predominant. What a pleasure it would be to go home now and feel them in my body and soul; to feel the safety, comfort and love.

One evening when I was twelve years old, walking home with my father along Oxford Street, we passed by a scene that shocked me to the core. On the bus-stop bench sat two young men with a girl lying across their lap. The girl was, to all intents and purposes, unconscious and had vomit trickling from her mouth, right into the lap of one of the blokes, who seemed so out of it as not to care.

“Jesus,” said my father, “who bloody-well sold them the booze?”

I felt at the time a mix of fear and shame, but worst of all, it made me feel very, very ill owing to my morbid, indeed, at the time, pathological phobia of vomiting. I could not comprehend how people could put themselves into such situations. And yet, look at me now! Perhaps it wasn’t always so obvious where the limits lay.

I retched and retched until I could retch no more, praying that no one would walk past, wanting neither their scorn, their charity or their pity. I was especially fearful that some young child might walk past with their father or mother and that I would become the fearful blueprint of how not to behave. I cursed my fate. So, being stoned could make you sick as well? I suppose I wasn’t to know.

After fifteen minutes I stood up and steadied myself. I was disappointed that neither James nor Rowena had come to check on me; yet perhaps things were more discrete without a pavement congregation. I faced my foe one last time: the two identical doors. Surely I could not make the same mistake a third time, and yet I did, trying the handle repeatedly on their tight screen door. I stood a while shaking my head. How could I be so useless? How I longed to be home, showered and changed, warm in my bed with a good book and the dogs snoring at my feet. How I looked forward to the happy normality of Sunday, killing time with my brother.

I soon realised my mistake and crossed to the right side of the path. I turned the handle and walked on in, back with the low, roiling scents of oily hash. I marched straight through to see James and Rowena and told them I was leaving.

“Can you call me a taxi?” I asked, and they were more than obliging. Perhaps they had just forgotten about me out there; perhaps they had simply not cared. I couldn’t be sure, but I was pleased to be leaving.

“Can I use the bathroom, man?”

“Sure thing.”

Rowena showed me through with a curious, sorrowful smile. I wondered if their hearts were hardening in this life they led, or were they harder to begin with.

I washed my face and hands, rinsed out my mouth, drank a small amount of water. When I emerged from the bathroom, James and Rowena were waiting to see me off.

“Taxi’s coming,” said James, “it won’t be long now.”

We all walked outside.

Later that night as I sat up in bed, freshly showered, book on my lap, nursing a hot cup of tea, I made a silent promise that my father need never come fetch me. Despite his willingness, was it really necessary for him to know of my shame?

So it was, that on the hard nights to come, on the speed and acid, coke and ecstasy nights of the reeling future, I didn’t muck around, but instead went straight to hospital.

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