It was 2pm when I finally decided to leave my hotel room and venture outside. The morning had slipped away from me, like the way a credit card balance adds up to something frightening even though none of the individual charges were particularly significant. My over-zealous internal alarm clock has fully adjusted to Sydney time, waking me up at 7 every morning now matter how tightly I roll down the window shade, so that even today – Monday, a federal holiday in Australia – I couldn’t seem to soak up any more than the minimum number of horizontal hours.
My intention Saturday had been to catch a bus to Bondi Beach, one of those typically-Aussie places on my must-see list, and something I figured would make a cheap date for myself and my Canon traveling companion. Saturday was dreadfully rainy, though, and despite reminding myself multiple times of my adopted Seattle mantra: “if you didn’t do something just because it was raining, you’d never do anything”, I just couldn’t talk myself into a dreary day at the beach. All the visions of sunbaked blondes lounging gracefully on the white sands of Bondi were washed out of my mind by the torrential downpour, and instead I went on an urban walkabout, enjoying my photog trip through the Chinese Gardens and finding some cool souvenir presents for people I wished I could call in the middle of their night. The shopping I did for myself I regret now; a misguided attempt to give purpose to a day without any. Spending money I didn’t have on things I didn’t need was only a momentary distraction, and left me feeling no more fulfilled and instead frustrated with my lack of self-restraint.
Sunday I planned to visit the zoo and Sarah from the local office had offered to join me, but again the weather interfered. It really wasn’t about the animals or taking photos; more than anything I was looking forward to spending a day with someone else besides the voices in my head. Sarah indulged me with breakfast in the city and a brief neighborhood walking tour, but when she departed I found myself again walking briskly through the city wearing my best purposeful look, attempting to mask my complete lack of purpose and sense of total uselessness. I explored some great things that afternoon but in the back of my mind was the nagging feeling that it was all only a means to an end, the purposeful spending of time like one spends the last few dollars of their local currency on the last day in a country. “I have all this time that I need to spend. I can spend a bit here, and a bit more there. That still leaves quite a bit. What else can I spend some on?” In my normal life my time is so precious and it’s agonizing to so intentionally disregard its value.
Maybe it was the exercise of walking the length of the city – I chose not to take the ferry as walking would spend more time – or maybe stopping in a Starbucks at St James Park for something that felt a little like home, but the bloody stub of my adventuresome self-reliance had regrown just slightly as I neared my hotel. I wandered awkwardly into a waterfront restaurant and requested something that, while increasingly familiar, I can never utter without a trepidatious quiver in my voice: “table for one.” Either oblivious to my malaise or else preying on it like a wild dingo nips at the heels of the slowest wallaby, the icy hostess guided me to a table in the near-empty dining room less than arms-length from a chatty, affectionate couple, and unceremoniously removed the second place setting. Before departing she abruptly notified me that she’d “need this table back in an hour and 45 minutes.” I wasn’t sure if that was meant to sideline the several-hour binge drinking session of a wayward traveler at a lonely table in a stuffy steakhouse, or merely a statement to the poor service she expected her colleagues to be providing me that evening. Feeling unwelcome before I’d even unzipped my jacket, I ate my kangaroo steak and departed as soon as the check arrived. I was home in my hotel room in time to watch both the James Bond movies playing on Fox Classics in their entirety.
Although Monday is a federal holiday here and all my Aussie mates enjoyed the day off, I felt compelled to start the morning working through email, adding tasks to my todo list, and crossing off any small items I could complete without actually needing to talk to anyone in person. In retrospect I think my sub-par emotional mood was more to blame than the work itself, but I came away from several hours of productivity feeling drained and depressed. Like so many things that I ambitiously start with only the best of intentions, actually doing the job that I’ve been working so hard to build for myself is much less fulfilling than was the road I traveled to get here, and the “great opportunity” had begun this morning to feel more like a cage I’d built around myself, confining my influence, authority and creativity into a 9×9 square pen. I’m trying to chalk it up now to needing more sleep, which is most certainly true, but I can’t shake the self-doubt; maybe I don’t really know what I want as much as my standard job-interview-answer belies.
In the midst of my morning of melacholy, I also managed to:
- break my computer (my personal one, not my work one). My Powerbook G4 has been working so well, and despite being woefully slow has aged gracefully since 2002, with all parts still functioning, the screen as sharp as ever, and even a respectable on-battery awake time. Whenever I’ve been tempted by the new, shiny MacBooks that I most certainly cannot afford, it’s felt good to say “I don’t need to upgrade; mine works very well for what I need.” When I discovered the busted hinge today and silently accepted that each time I now open or close the lid I’m bending the frame, cracking the display and sending my dependable laptop of 6 years another step closer to the grave, it made me want to cry.
- make the mistake of calling American Express. I thought it would make me feel a little less concerned about my empty checking account to start tracking my out-of-pocket expenses so far on this trip and estimate what I’d be refunded. In comparing receipts and Amex transactions I discovered someone’s been buying 65-dollar tanks of gas with my corporate Amex card in Flushing, NY every day since 1-Oct. Stupidly, I called Amex to report this. For those of you who are ever in this situation, let me give you some advice: wait until you get home from the foreign country before you give Amex a reason to cancel your credit card. It would not have been any more difficult to dispute these charges after I was safely home in Seattle, but instead I made that call and then spent a couple hours arguing with Amex reps, pitting my best patient-yet-frustrated voice against their circular logic and horribly-broken english. Finally my 4th rep along the chain, Lisa in Georgia, made arrangements to issue me a temporary card at the Amex travel office in Sydney, tomorrow. While I can certainly live off my (personal) cash for one day, I will feel much better once I have that replacement card. The emotional difference between “alone in a foreign country” and “alone in a foreign country without any money” is tremendous.
So with those things plaguing my mind, I ventured from the hotel this afternoon – after eating lunch in the hotel bar, the only restaurant in town that wouldn’t ask me for any money – and made my way to St James park with a book. The sun had crept back into the day and was filtering through the trees occasionally, and other than exotic-sounding birds and the unfamiliar voices of occasional passersby, the park felt comforting and somehow normal. I spent the last coins in my pocket at that same Starbucks, hoping it would be a placebo for homesickness again, and it worked a little. I started the Wil Wheaton book John bought me for Christmas, hoping to dive into Wil’s life for a bit instead of wallowing in my own, but I couldn’t help picking my head up partway through every story where Wil realizes how important his family is to him (more important than his career), or what really makes him happy (not the jobs he thought he wanted) and letting the thoughts and emotions around my own struggles with these same things wash over me. Am I working hard for the wrong things, while neglecting that which will really matter to me when it’s gone? Am I making excuses for myself, for my obliviousness to others’ interest in or love for me, for my emotional unavailability, for judging others unfairly? Am I going to keep walking away from great women because I’m afraid I don’t know how not to be single anymore? Do I really believe that I can find my intellectual fulfillment entirely in my hobbies if my job ceases to interest and challenge me?
I gave up on trying to read right about the time the weather started to turn. As the clouds grew darker I marched bravely home – to a home with a splendid view of the city skyline and nothing familiar or comforting that doesn’t come through the internet connection – my eyes squinted tightly against the dirt being flung into them by the violent breeze. Resolutely I trod under the viciously-flapping flags decorating the waterfront, weaving around slow moving tourists clutching their hats and shopping bags against the gale and brushing stray raindrops from my face. Once again, my walk held all the purpose of a king’s messenger on a mission blessed by God, yet on the inside I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to reach my destination, defaulting to it only for lack of a better distraction. From the entrance to my hotel I turned back to snap this photo of the giant harbour flag being tortured by the wind, and then escaped the grasp of the impending storm through the revolving door.
For all my effort to dodge it no storm has really arrived, and my triumphant rush to shelter was just another hollow attempt to create purpose where none existed. I’m not sure I can explain how I feel any more concisely than with that as my metaphor. Yes, I’m a little homesick. Yes, I’m pretty burnt out on being in a different city every other week. Yes, I’m as confused as anyone else at work about what my job is supposed to be now and why I’m supposed to care about doing it. But more than that, I’m worried I’m spending a lot of time without proper consideration for it’s value and in more areas of my life than I’ve previously allowed.