Saturday, June 19, 2010

Why am I here?

If you are looking for existentialism, you've come to the wrong place. Perhaps Roger Nygard's new film would suit misguided souls:

On 17 July 2010, I will have been residing in Australia for 25 years. More than half my life.

I arrived in Sydney on the morning of Wednesday 17 July 1985. I came in on a Qantas flight, where I got to sit up in the top part (very lucky given I was on a student ticket). I remember the stewardess gave me a whole bottle of red wine, because I was the only person on the flight drinking it. It was a chilly morning, about 5 degrees out, but after being on a long, stuffy flight, that had gone via Honolulu, and experiencing the Australian Quarantine Service welcoming aerosol disinfectant spray, I thought the weather was really pleasant. Two students met me at the airport, Scott Donald, and Rob McKay. Rob drove us, with reckless abandon, to Sydney Uni, where they had to attend some lectures before I could be guided to my temporary accommodation with Scott's family. I thought the scenery along the drive from the airport to Camperdown abysmal. Fortunately that happened to be just a small ugly part of the city, most of the rest turned out to be very pleasant.

I stayed with Scott's family in Turramurra for about 10 days, just long enough for me to organise a flat with Dave Milligan in Neutral Bay. I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated staying with Scott's family, who were welcoming, warm and helpful. Scott's parents took me out on a drive to Bobbin Head.

I had come out on an AIESEC traineeship for 1 year working for Pioneer Concrete in St.Peters as a concrete plant manager. I was active in AIESEC for about 4 years throughout my university education at the University of Minnesota. We would go out to local companies, and try to get them to take on trainees. For every traineeship we organised, one of our local members could apply for an overseas traineeship. AIESEC took care of the visa, meeting the trainee at the airport, assisting the trainee to settle in, and other basic details, while the company only had to pay minimum wage. In 2003 I had a summer traineeship with a company in northern Finland, after which I backpacked around Europe for a few months.

Before I arrived, the wise management folks at Pioneer decided that I would be better placed in the Information Systems Department, given my skill set, and I was the cheapest qualified IT worker available in the country. The IT department management was not quite so happy to see me, as I was foisted upon them, and they wanted to hire someone of their own choosing. At my induction interview, I was told "we don't like clock watchers here".

Pioneer was not the most pleasant place to work. The office was located in St Peters (which a cab driver at the time described to me as the 'armpit' of Sydney). Cars were stolen from the street in front of the office during business hours, and the local sewer backed up into our office one weekend. My boss Roger was an OK guy, but he had this inferiority complex, due to his not having a university degree, though I thought him quite bright and competent. His boss was a pompous idiot, who spent his time writing memos, copying pointless newspaper articles into the email system, and promoting his Christian youth Nazi scout group. Once he called a full staff meeting so that the staff would be forced to listen to his description of his most recent holiday. The up-line managers often used language not usually considered appropriate for polite company.

I had youthful enthusiasm for my work, with lots of 'big ideas'. I also seemed to have a big mouth. Roger once told me I should consider the art of 'tact'. I thought it good advice at the time, although I have never quite got the hang of it.

I shared a furnished flat with Dave Milligan on Wycombe Road in Neutral Bay. Dave was a tall and gonzo guy from Long Beach, California. Our flat was only a couple of blocks from the Oaks Hotel, where the all the AIESEC trainees would meet for drinks. We lived there, in one of the coolest parts of Sydney (with little money) for six months. It was really cool to take the ferry across the harbour in the morning to catch the train. We bought a second hand TV out of the Trading Post. It had all of 7 colours, most of them green. We had a thanksgiving party. Our guests didn't appreciate the turkey neck in a condom.

Then I moved in with Grant Noble from Canada into a flat in Kirribilli. We were in a ground floor flat, a couple doors down from the Prime Minister. There were fireworks on the harbour every few weeks.

I met this girl at a party. We fell in luurve. Although, she wasn't as much in luurve with me as it turned out. My traineeship was coming to an end, so we decided to have my company sponsor me for a permanent residency. Pioneer agreed, and did all the paperwork. Then she dumped me. I had to leave the country to get the visa/residency processed. So I went back to the US, via Asia, and a bus tour around the US, then Europe on the way back to Sydney. I had a meeting with a friend of my stepmother's in Minnesota to discuss advanced software research opportunities there. He said I could stay, get the high paying job, the house, 2.5 cars, kids, wife, dog, etc, or continue for another year in Oz, which I would never get the opportunity in my life to do again. I chose Oz, as I had made a commitment to Pioneer, and more adventure sounded good.

I came straight back from the airport to work, e.g. I changed clothes at the airport. For 3 more years it seemed I never left that crappy office. I did other stuff, but never had much money for much fun. I was probably one of the lowest paid IT workers in the country.

Grant decided to get married, so he moved out. I got another guy in, who was British, but a complete jerk, and we never got on. When the lease expired, I left.

I found a share flat advertised in Coogee, overlooking the beach. I did the interview, and loved the place. The guy called me back, and said I couldn't have the room, and hung up. I was stunned, then realized it was the place I really liked. I called him back, and insisted it was the place for me, and he agreed to give me a trial. Joe Montano taught artistic painting at TAFE, and the other flatmate was a seriously gay guy. Joe was divorced with 3 boys who mostly lived with their mother. The flat was magic. Richie Benauld lived in the same building. He drove a little convertible, but that has nothing to do with my story. I could see Coogee beach from my room.

Joe often mentioned this course he had done, and by coincidence, my mother had mentioned the same course. It was called "The Forum". I didn't make the connection, but asked him to take me to an introduction. It sounded pretty flaky, but I figured if I got 10% of what they were promising, it would be worthwhile. I figured I could get rich (although that never happened) from the course, so I did it. What I got was so much more. I got a new understanding of myself, and my relationship to others. I did quite a few more courses with the company, over the next 2 years.

My life for that time revolved around the courses. I have no regrets about that, and still have many friends from that period. I grew personally in many ways. Once I stopped with the courses, I decided to do no more.

The bicentenary passed, with associated functions and parties, and I had a pretty full social calendar.

One night, Joe and I went to a party. There I met a girl. I moved in to a share house in Northbridge with her subsequently, and we got engaged. I figured that given all my recent personal training I could overlook all her faults (which included drug use, obesity, crassness, and stupidity). I discovered I couldn't. We broke up, which was a good thing. I moved on to a share house in Darlinghurst, and a new job with Coopers and Lybrand as a consultant.

I didn't enjoy consulting as much as I thought I would. It certainly wasn't quite what I envisaged, and I never quite got the hang of the politics at C&L. I stayed there for two years, until I got an assignment doing some work for the Qantas Staff Credit Union, who offered me a job as their IT manager.

On one of the C&L staff development weekends at Leura in the Blue Mountains, I met Siew Fong, who was working for a different partner in the Parramatta office of the firm. We started dating, I soon moved in with her, and we married the week I left the firm.

Around 1994 I decided that I had been in Australia long enough to know that I was going to stay. I knew I could make a lot more money in the US, but money had become a very low priority for me. There was nothing calling for me to return to the US (other than my parents), I had a growing family, a good job/career, a nice little house, a strong social network, and a lot of psychological inertia. Having traveled around the world, I knew that where I was was pretty nice, and somewhere else wasn't going to be particularly better. I also found that I was increasingly being alienated from the US, with its growing conservatism, fundamentalism, commercialism, consumptionism and trite culture (sure, Australia is no less trite). Too many ism's over there, and the view from outside looking in wasn't so pleasant. I decided since I was going to stay, I should make a proper commitment to my new home, and become an Australian citizen.

I worked at Qantas Staff Credit Union for 13 years. I had a lot of professional successes there, and a couple of small blunders. My boss loved me, and my staff loved me. Then my boss retired, and was replaced by someone I have nothing good to say about. He decided to replace all the senior staff with cretins of his own choosing (and he went about this task in a particularly reprehensible manner), so I had to go.

I set up my own company, and started work on a product idea I had that I knew would be commercially viable. I developed a working prototype, and started to shop it around to companies that could market it effectively. The product was a unique gadget for the gaming/gambling industry. From the interest I received, it was clear it was going to make a lot of money. In experiencing that industry, and witnessing its participants, I began to become increasingly uncomfortable with my product. I saw that I was becoming a vector in promoting an industry that causes a great deal of harm. I called off my contract negotiations, and canned the product.

Knowing that this looked a bit odd after nearly a year of unpaid work, I wrote an email to everybody I knew describing what I had done, and why I had thrown it away. It didn't occur to me that some of the recipients would be impressed with my strength of character, so I was quite surprised that the email was forwarded to a much wider group than I intended, and quite a few people I didn't know read it. One of them was a parent at my kids' primary school, who was impressed with my integrity and technical skill, and offered me a job as a contractor to his 2 person software development company, Premier Street. I have been working with him since.

One of the benefits of having a home-based business is flexibility in time management. I can start work really early, or work really late. There is no commuting, or waiting in line for lunch. I can ferry the kids to and from school when needed. I probably work longer hours, but get more done with fewer interruptions and distractions. I rarely get sick now. I also can manage the household, with cooking and other home tasks, which relieves Siew Fong to focus on her career (she is a bit of a star at her firm). And I can work in my underwear. The main drawback is lack of social interaction (not a bad thing when working in my underwear).

So with time flexibility, I started to do volunteering around the kids' primary school Ferncourt. This provided a great social network, and allowed me to participate in my children's lives more directly. My involvment in my children's schools has turned out to be one of the most beneficial actions in my recent life. It has led to my recent hobby of board-gaming, professional benefits, significant social benefits, and great self-esteem. I personally know the principals, serve on staff selection panels, and know many of the teachers.

So that is some of my Australian story, briefly from a few angles, and ignoring a few dimensions.

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1 comment:

  1. Great story, Brian, I enjoyed reading it. But really, why are you here? :)