So Farewell To All That

I once had a job at Harvard fixing computers.

6 June 2013

It’s difficult to explain.

I once had a job at Harvard fixing computers. That’s not the part that is difficult to explain - well, yes, alright, it’s difficult to explain how, with all things considered, I got to be there of all places, but that’s another matter - the difficulty lies with telling you what I’m doing now.

First, I should mention that fixing computers at Harvard was easy. The workload was heavy, but it was always the same sort of thing day-in day-out. I had a nice office, though; I was responsible for a lot of fun infrastructure and my colleagues were cool, intelligent people who were nice to me because I was the guy who would fix their computers when things went awry. (Be nice to your IT guy, or he’ll put you down last on his list every damn time, trust me.)

“My computer is broken,” they’d say to me, these colleagues of mine.

I’d look at it for a while and shriek, “God’s teeth! What have you done?! I’m going to have them dock your pay until you pay this off!”

And they’d twist about anxiously and gnaw on the furniture a little until I reached over and re-attached the monitor cable to their ‘puter and voila! Magically fixed. Sometimes they brought in muffins for me.

I’d get bored sometimes and ring up my long-suffering boss over in Vanderbilt Hall and claim something crazy, like that I’d accidentally started a small fire in my office and was interested in hearing his views on which department I should call. Or I’d answer my phone: “Australian Counter-Intelligence, Boston Office. This is Kev speaking…” Which amused me because my name isn’t Kev.

I’d pretend to arrange cage-fighting events on the ground floor (“Two may enter, one may leave…”) and my colleagues learned to never let me near the microphone attached to the PA system. It was a good gig and I enjoyed myself, because why wouldn’t you?

Then in 2007 I was recruited into a laboratory at Harvard and I suddenly became a biological software engineer. (Look, I’m a complicated man.) Soon I was coding online tools and doing a lot of technical jiggery-pokery, and that’s all difficult to explain as well so I’ll come back to that another time.

I fell into the practice of working long hours, of course. I’d get home from work and I’d sit at my computer and learn more things. I read genetics textbooks, and papers published in Nature that were always over my head (I like to think they’re always over everybody’s head). I listened carefully to my mates in the lab. And it seemed miraculous to me but I managed to scrape by.

I believe a person can do just about anything if they set their mind to it. I hold myself to that expectation. And if there was an even more effective maxim than that, then I would have no choice but to adopt it.

Weekends? I’d work through those in an oblivious sort of way. Nights? They were for study, of course. Study, and for walking my dog, whom I was also allowed to take into work fairly often. Well, perhaps allowed isn’t the best word - you might say that I wore them down. I’m good at wearing people down. People pretend it drives them crazy but secretly I think they love looking at me through tears of frustration and knowing that I’ve won. And I might as well be perfectly honest with you, I think I find those moments emotionally enriching and rewarding somehow - I don’t know even know why, I just do.

God I love Harvard.

Anyway, back in 2009 I decided to take a hiatus from working life because I’d been going hard at it for years and wanted to go back to Australia and take a good look at everything again. I wanted to walk along leafy streets drinking cartons of iced-coffee and eating sausage rolls. I wanted to hear the currawongs singing in the morning, and to stand on a real beach, and not one of these freezing Atlantic beaches that you should only visit wearing a scarf.

I was homesick, but I’d been an itinerant most of my life: how can I explain such a homesickness? I’d never had any sense of home anywhere, just a creeping nostalgia for some Australian life. I wanted to see the trees again mostly. The jacarandas in late October. The blue sky over eucalypts. The mangos rotting in the gutters of Toowong through summer. The screech of trams in St. Kilda. The nasty glares of Brisbane bus drivers. The humid nights in North Queensland, the well-dressed evenings in South Yarra.

When you travel you are moving through both space and time, of course, which means that after a certain period you can actually feel your past expiring. It falls away from you suddenly and can never be reclaimed. People in the places you left behind become strangers to you, and once-familiar streets seem suddenly lonely. It’s a simple forlorn truth: you step outside and see another world, and then you’re different too, and after a time you can’t even return to who you were. You’ve gone on, inside of yourself. The music has changed, the people have vanished into the unknown, and those who linger there cannot fathom where you have been, what you have endured, or what new, fresh consciousness now looks back at them.

For a dozen or more reasons I didn’t really belong at Harvard, but I figured I might as well go back. If a man spends enough time not belonging … well, he can not belong just about anywhere. So back to Boston I went, and there, again, I was fortunate enough to land a job at Harvard - this time as a creative director. So I did that, and I ran a consultancy and I ran wrongcards. I also often ran five miles a day because it sucked, but when you’re done you can remember that despite all the stupidity and unfairness in the world, at least you’re not weak.

You could call all this a work-ethic if you like. It sounds more wholesome if you do.

But the guilty truth is that important things weren’t getting done, notably the books I’ve been writing. In my meagre portions of spare time I write books because above all else I like to tell stories. No, above everything else I like to sit in a chair and tell wonderful stories about the things I’ve seen and the people I’ve known. No, that’s not right: even more than those things I love to sit down and write ridiculous lies that are so absurd that you can’t help but know they’re true.

And I suppose that somehow a creeping dread came over me. It crept up on me in 2011 and lingered about through the winter, like a ghost with dangerous eyes, leaned itself up against its own cold wall in every single room I entered and insinuated a leer at me. I kept glancing at calendars, hoping the ghost would make a polite excuse and vanish from my mind for a while. In the spring of last year it followed me around everywhere I went and woke me up in the middle of the night to laugh at me in the darkness.

It was time to attend to the needs of those cheerful little demons who wanted to come out into the world. The books needed doing.

So at long last I committed either the insane or heroic act; I resigned from a job that I enjoyed a great deal in the middle of a recession. The truth is that Wrongcards is more than sufficiently difficult anyway. And besides, what is the right thing to do? Well, I don’t know about you but whenever I tally up matters in my mind, rarely do these ‘right things’ like to make themselves known in advance. There are no emails from gods, filled with careful instruction, that address the specifics and schedules of our lives. People with unwavering faith in their own decisions only inspire in me an unwavering uncertainty about them, and the hope that some benevolent organisation will prevent them from getting their hands on weapons. In short, there is nothing wrong with doubt provided you never let it own you.

You simply never know all that much about what you have to do until later, and usually after you haven’t done it. It all becomes clear when you are sifting through the memories of it all and trying to organize matters into columns of momentary cleverness alongside the dense notations that scrawl around ghastly mistakes.

So on pure instinct I bought a plane ticket to Spain and arrived here in Andalusia three days ago. I’m secluded in a friend’s house writing a book. And when it’s finished I hope you’ll think it’s a funny book. For my part, I’ll worry about money the very moment it runs out, but I’m too preoccupied to think about abstract things like the future. The important thing is, well, that ghost I mentioned? He’s not here.

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