Monday, June 21, 2010


I was recently invited to attend my 30th anniversary high school reunion (yeah, I'm that old). I wanted to go, but I wouldn't justify the expense of flying to the other side of the planet for an evening's partying, so I missed it. It was a one-off, once in a lifetime opportunity that I passed up. I have since been pondering the question: Why did I really want to go?

These were a group of people that I was forced into a shared experience with, some for up to 12 years. It was a relationship I had no choice in. As an adult, I can pick and choose the people I spend time with (outside of work), as a child/student, I didn't have that choice.

Are these people special to me? They aren't really now, as I really don't have any contact with any of them. In fact, prior to this week, I had only infrequently communicated with less than 10 people from my school days in the last 25 years (with the exception of the 10th reunion, which I attended). But something in the back of my mind sees them as special.

I wouldn't say that school was a tragic period for me, but it wasn't exactly happy either. Over the years in school, I experienced quite a bit of bullying and teasing (mostly with regards to my appearance, which I had little control over). Also there were those that vicariously enjoyed all the teasing and bullying from the sidelines. Even at the 10th reunion, there were some that wanted to persist in that old style of interacting with me. I recognize that they were just children at the time, and had little idea of the impact of their actions, and I am not bitter. I have forgiven all those people now, although I really am not interested in reconnecting with the perpetrators again.

I didn't have the emotional tools to deal with all that effectively at the time. I do now, but some minor emotional scars remain.

I didn't have many close friends at school. In fact, I used to seek out friends from other schools, hoping that they would see me for who I was, not the teased, bullied kid. I wasn't in any of the cliques: I wasn't a jock, or a rich kid, or a druggie/burnout, or a fashionista, or a cool kid, or even in the nerd group. I had/have very different political/social views from most of my classmates. I guess I fit into the outsider nerd mold, although I did socialize & participate in school life, and I went to some parties.

It wasn't all bad, there were successes, some fun times, and a few laughs. There were quite a few people I got on well with, and many that I admired and respected. These were all people I wanted to reconnect with. But why?

There are also the people who seemed to have disappeared. I feel incomplete not knowing their story. I was also saddened to hear that some had passed away. I wanted closure on their lives, but I doubt this will be forthcoming.

Why go?
Some people think reunions are about finding ways to dominate old classmates. This could be through shadenfreude, or some other attempted domination. I consider myself successful in life, but not in a financial or political way. My successes revolve around my relationships, and my accomplishments (most of which would be of no interest to, nor would they impress, anyone else). I haven't won any significant awards, I am happy with how/who I am, have no need to dominate others, and can't see why I would want to. I am more of a supporter of 'mudita'. Besides, I have spent too much of my life watching TV.

I have heard that some others go to re-live or complete old romantic agendas. Or they go to prey on lonely souls. This was of no interest to me.

Some may go to re-live the joys of the past. Not a lot of juice there for me.

Years ago I lived and worked in Europe one summer. One of my close friends was a Dutch fellow. At the end of the summer I went to visit him in Eindhoven, and we reminisced about the great time we had. I suggested we organize a reunion sometime of all the people we had spent the summer with, but he said: "No, you can never go back". He meant that we could never recreate the best of the past, but should live for the now and for the future. This was an valued lesson for me. I lost contact with him, and if we were to cross paths again in the future, I think I know what he would say.

I had mixed feelings about the results of the 10th reunion. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the stories of the folks I reconnected with, but noticed that I was still annoyed with the others whose irritating personality traits hadn't changed.

After 30 years I don't remember much from that period, and I don't even recognize some of the names or faces. What difference would it make to my life to reconnect with these people? What is the power of this nostalgia?

Over the years I have become close to, and lost contact with, many wonderful people. I would love to reconnect with them too, but why? Perhaps there is a function of humanity that increases your nostalgic need for connection with the increase in shared experience.

There is also something about living so far away. Modern telecommunications, cheap travel and the internet have lessened the distance, but I still am separated from a lot of what happens around my family and friends. Perhaps if I still lived in the Twin Cities it would be no different, but distance seems a good excuse. I am not lonely, as I have a warm, loving family and great social network around me, yet there seems to be a certain loneliness living so far away from my place of origin.

The organizers of the event used Facebook as one of the communication tools. I found it worked quite well for me, even though I didn't go, as I could still connect with some people, in some ways even better than face to face.

I posted a video message, with some minor comedy. From this I received quite a bit of positive feedback.

I also received quite a few 'wish you were here' messages, which were quite touching and welcome.

Photos of the event have been posted online. As I browse the photos, I notice that I feel quite nostalgic. I don't recognize many of the faces, they all look like real adults now, some wider than others. 30 years has softened my outlook, and I long to ask "What have you been up to all these years?" (in a good way).

A Guess at the Answer
I don't think that my experience in this is unique.

I think what I want is the stories. I prefer the happy stories, but the sad stories are real and provide connection with humanity. I want the people who have touched my life to have success, and they are fine however they are.

Without the stories, there is just an incomplete past. I am whole and complete, and the stories provide me with the past's future that I missed. They are like dessert after a multi-course dinner. I like dessert.

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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Monday, June 7, 2010

Contrail 2010, with Additional Wildlife

Some things are better left unsaid, but this isn't one of them. It was a weekend of games, games, and some more games, a bit of food, some wildlife visitors, and then more games to fill.

I've only got some wildlife photos, but soon there should be some gaming photos and descriptions on the Mind Shaft Gap blog site (our group's official blog site).

Contrail is my board-gaming group's annual weekend away, dedicated to spending as much time gaming as possible. Originally it was part of Paul's birthday celebrations, but has moved beyond that. You would have to ask Paul where the name come from (something about a gaming convention on the bush trail, and seeing a aircraft contrail at the same time). Paul schedules the weekend, and books the venue. Everyone brings lots of games. It is a highlight on the group's calendar, and eagerly awaited.

The focus seems to be on longer games that can't normally come out on Sunday nights, and other games that don't often get a regular playing. Newer games also get a look in, as well as old favourites, but really any game is welcome (even the relatively frequently played Power Grid and Brass were opened up).

The Venue
We stayed at the Equestrian Lodge in Del Rio Resort, Wiseman's Ferry, NSW. This was my 3rd Contrail, and I think the venue has hosted 5 so far. It is about 2 hours (2.5 hours in rainy peak hour traffic) north of my place, on the Hawkesbury River. The lodge itself is on one end of the resort, about 950 meters from most of the other accommodation, so we weren't subject to other people's noise, and more importantly, they weren't subject to our raucous commotion at all hours of the day and night. It is situated about 250 meters from the river, overlooking a large field where wallabies and kangaroos graze during the day.

The lodge has 10 bedrooms, 5 on each side, with 2 cots and a cupboard in each, 2 sets of toilets, showers and basins, a well-kitted out kitchen, a wood heater stove, an outdoor barbecue & balcony, parking, and a large open space in the center with plenty of chairs and big tables. It also costs only about $500 a night, so is quite economical with 10 or more people. It is slightly rustic, and more or less well maintained.

We have analysed other venues, but the lodge has proved to be a nearly optimal venue for a weekend of gaming, it is:
  1. Sufficiently remote, but not too remote;
  2. Economical;
  3. Well kitted out for gaming;
  4. Well layed out for gaming;
  5. Accommodates 10 to 20 relatively comfortably.
Because there were only 6 of us arriving on Friday night, I booked a smaller cabin. After booking, I contacted Del Rio and offered them the option of allowing the six of us to stay in the lodge instead at the small cabin price, which would be beneficial for both parties, as we wouldn't have to move in the morning, and they wouldn't have to clean the cabin after we left. They accepted my offer, which was very generous for them, and economical for us.

I volunteered to cater food for the weekend, for the 3rd year running. 2 identical lunches, and 2 identical breakfasts. Most of the guys took up the offer. I make the offer for a couple of reasons:
  1. It frees the other guys from having to plan for any meals, so they can focus on the enjoyment of the weekend;
  2. It allows for more game time for everybody else (they don't have to cook, or drive off to the club for a meal and wait for them to prepare it);
  3. It is very economical for everybody (it works out to about $5 per meal each);
  4. It saves on contention for the limited kitchen resource at mealtimes;
  5. I can make nutritious, fulfilling and hopefully tasty meals;
  6. I enjoy the cooking, and challenge of catering (i.e. I get to play 'Masterchef: The Home Game', and fortunately no tall fat guy in a kravatte made disparaging comments);
For the breakfasts each day I made fresh Bearnaise sauce and eggs Benedict (poached eggs & thin-sliced ham on a toasted English muffin), along with Bircher muesli (boxed toasted muesli, some dried fruit, soaked in fruit yogurt overnight), with coffee, juice, milk. The leftover Bearnaise sauce was kept for lunch to put on the steaks. I have these nifty microwave egg poachers which work reasonably well. I like the eggs Benedict because they can be quickly made individually, so everybody can get up at whatever time they feel like.

For the lunches, to save time & effort (and to ensure I had the right tools and a clean preparation area) I pre-prepared most of the components at home. In the food processor, I shredded some different cabbages finely, and some carrots & red onion finely, then packed them up. I similarly shredded some brown onions for the barbecue. I made & bottled a coleslaw sauce, which was mixed with the cabbage/carrot/onion mixture on-site. I bought some cheap porterhouse steaks in bulk, cut them in half, and marinated/packed them in my homemade barbecue sauce (last year I had full steaks, but they proved to be too much to eat for lunch). I packed mushrooms (which I cleaned and sliced on-site, for sanitary reasons, for the barbecued onions). I also packed some basic condiments (ketchup, mustard, salt, pepper, butter, sugar, etc).

For bread I got some bags of Lebanese bread at my local Lebanese bakery. This worked really well, because they were fresh, flat & very cheap (7 pieces for $1.30). I didn't need to worry about them getting squished either.

We had 2 vegetarian eaters, so for their lunches instead of the meat I purchased a couple of bags of frozen pastizzi, which were quite simple to just throw into the oven in a pan. Any extras were gobbled up by the meat eaters.

Everybody also brought lots of crisps and other snack food (I previously advised that I wouldn't cater snacks or fruit), along with moderate amounts of golden beverage.

For dinner on Saturday the tradition is to go to the Del Rio Club, so that's what we did.

The Timeline
On Friday afternoon Richard collected me at home, and we drove up together. We stopped at the pub at Wiseman's ferry before crossing the river. Don and Al joined us at the pub for dinner.

We inhabited the cabin, set up extra lighting from the rafters, claimed our rooms, loaded the fridge, arranged the tables and chairs, Don started a fire in the heating stove, and we started some games. Andrew soon arrived. We played a number of games (including Atlantis, Power Grid {the Korea board, which I led most of the game, and came last in one of our closest games ever}, Geshenkt/No Thanks {with a full deck}, and others) until about 2am. Andrew made some coffee around midnight, which must have been quite strong, as I had great difficulty getting to sleep (Richard later reported he also had trouble getting to sleep that night). Ed arrived from Canberra around 12:30am.

I woke early, cleaned up a bit and made breakfast. After breakfast the games started, and the other guys arrived in dribs & drabs. Lunch was had, and we played more games. It was quite a nice day outside, but I don't think anyone noticed that. I got in a nice game of Endeavor outside on the balcony just before sunset (Euhan made a bold strike against my network of colonies, but I managed to sneak in the win).

An hour before dinner we started a deduction game of Mystery Express, which Don brought still shrink wrapped. It ended in a 5 way tie for the win a couple hours after dinner. The others may have enjoyed it more, but I found it to be a slow game with limited scope for interaction or decisions, although it was very well produced. Because this game was so long, others had started some longish games (including what turned out to be an epic playing of Dune), we had a go at my $6 bargain purchase from the Salvation Army Store of an unused copy of Last Chance. The game was really very ordinary, a kind of Yahtzee with lots of betting. But this was an absolute scream, because we all just wanted to be silly and stupid, and made enthusiastic bets with lots of cheering and hollering at the die rolls. Probably didn't help the rather serious game of Dune next to us. We continued playing various games until around 1:30 I was exhausted, and turned in, this time quite able to fall asleep almost immediately. The others continued on til 2am or 3am. Somebody tidied up before retiring.

I woke early again (around 7:30). Andrew was up and preparing to leave. I made breakfast again, and almost everybody was up by 9. Pat was the last to emerge from his room. Another blur of games and lunch. After lunch Pat very generously indulged me in a 2-player game of 1960: The Making of the President, which I had requested he bring, as it was something I had wanted a first playing of for a long time. As everyone knows, Pat only plays blue in games, so he was Kennedy, and I had to be Nixon (although red is my gaming color, I have very different political views from that particular president, and once forgetting during the game that the donkeys were the opposition). I thoroughly enjoyed the game, and surprisingly managed to win (it isn't often I beat Pat at anything). After that a number of us played Betrayal at House on the Hill, which has never been one of my favourite games, and it didn't help that when I became the villain in the scenario played, the rules were somewhat unclear and incomplete. I tried to play with good spirits irregardless, so the others could enjoy the game.

Suddenly it was time to leave, so we packed up, tidied the place, and left. Neil joined Ricard and I on the drive back, as he lives quite close to us, and there was now plenty of space for him in the car since all the food was now eaten. We all chatted about our individual experiences of the weekend.


Here we have Steve not observing the vista from the front balcony (he isn't the wildlife). Most of the mobile phones didn't have coverage, but those on Telstra could get one bar of reception. Just before I took this photo there was a Kookaburra sitting on the rail across the path behind Steve.

During the day there were usually 3 or 4 wallabies browsing around the paddock.

While Steve and I were chatting, a large mob of around 100 kangaroos came hopping towards us into the paddock, chasing the wallabies away.
Here you can see a wallaby on the road, with some roos protecting their turf.
A moment later they turned around, and moved quickly towards the lodge. I don't often get the opportunity to get a photo of wildlife coming in my direction.

They split into 2 groups, and ran past the lodge on either side up into the bush.
Then some sat at the tree line observing us.
Later they dispersed, and a few stayed in the paddock. I think they may have wanted to get into our game of Ghost Stories, but it only takes 4, and our session was fully subscribed (I killed the most ghosts I think).