Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 24

I was not a sporty child. Or, to put it another way, I never understood why someone would sit back and watch a game when the latest Harry Potter book had just come out. Why put yourself through the tedium of a ball being kicked back and forth when you could lose yourself in Ron, Hermione, and Harry’s magical exploits? This perspective did not win me as many friends as you might think.

But I was raised right and when it came to AFL (the Australian Football League for any non-Australians reading), I knew I supported the Hawthorn Hawks. When the attributes of my team were questioned, I knew to parrot back lines I had learned to defend the honour of my team.

“No, [insert opposition team here] are worse at playing the game.” Got him.

Hawthorn Hawks

My father and older brother were passionate supporters and observing their excitement made me want to get into the sport in the same way. From the outside, watching them watching a match was like seeing someone riding a rollercoaster, pulled along on the exhilarating highs and gut-wrenching lows. But every time I settled into the beanbag on our living room floor, determined to enjoy the game in the same fashion, I would watch the kick and catch of the ball, hear the referee’s whistle and then wait for game play to resume, and after ten minutes would find my interest wandering and, invariably, I’d be asleep by the second quarter. 

In my defence, you couldn’t really find a better source of white noise. The muted roar of the crowd, the drone of the commentators, mutterings of “You bloody goose” from my father and the odd screech of “Kick it! Kick it!” from my nerve-wracked mother all wove together to hypnotise me into sedation. Maybe that was the origin of my need for rain sounds in order to fall asleep? I’m sure if I could go back in time and make a recording of our living room of a Saturday night, I would never have a problem getting a good night’s sleep again.

My parents reasoned that perhaps what was missing was the immediacy of the sport, the smell of the crowd, the dazzle of the flood lights, and the slap of skin as two players collided, and so we regularly drove down to Waverley Park to watch the mighty Hawthorn Hawks in action. I would proudly adorn a beanie and scarf bearing my team’s colours (brown and gold, definitely not yellow, and definitely not the colours of the human digestive and urinary systems as many of my classmates not-so subtly insinuated), and would take my place amongst the sea of supporters also decked out in our noble colours. 

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01

And, to be fair, I loved the experience. The hot pies with sauce, the cans of soft drink, bags of chips, and sitting with Damo and making each other laugh all combined to make these matches incredibly memorable. The game I mostly ignored, but sitting in that grandstand, I got some of the best reading done of my life. When driving home, Dad would ask if we’d enjoyed ourselves and we’d all chorus “Yes!” and he’d look satisfied until I’d elaborate by telling him what a great book I’d read during the match, and then I’d see a disappointment come into his gaze that I never quite understood. Maybe he was wishing he’d taken the opportunity to read a good book too?

But having grown up, I now see the value in sport. It’s not just a game of kicking a leather ball between sticks (again, for any non-Australians, that is the primary objective of AFL), it’s about the competition, the community that grows around that competition, and the chance for a community to get a win now and then. Sport can be a distraction in the best way as it allows a person to switch off from their intimate worries and care about something bigger than them and yet something that doesn’t ask a lot from them. 

Right now, for the first time in my lifetime, there is no sport to watch, no victories to tally, no team for a community to get behind. At a time when we could all use the distraction of sport more than ever, we have been deprived of it, and I know for those people who used it to vent and switch off, they are feeling its absence. 

There is no easy fix for this. The sacrifice of sport is done to ensure the safety of the very community that supports it. My only suggestion would be to transfer that passion and that pride to those who are still out there, working hard and playing the game until our world can return to normal. Instead of your sports club, cheer on the teachers, and the supermarket workers, and the delivery men and women, and the healthcare workers. Applause when you see the number of cases drop and cheer when the recovered return home. These are the wins we can get behind and celebrate, and we can do so knowing that each victory brings us closer to the day when we can return to our sports where the stakes aren’t so high. 

Tomorrow: Transportation.

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 19

These days I happily identify as an introvert. Anyone who read my post where I described in intricate detail how I chose books over making new friends is probably thinking “Well, yeah”. But it wasn’t always so obvious for me (looking back, the book thing really should have tipped me off).

There were times growing up when I knew that I was operating on a slightly different wavelength from some of the other kids. In primary school, we used to go to the library once a week. We would sling our library bags over our shoulders and march off to the dimly lit, slightly musty aisles of the library, and I would do so with a spring in my step and excitement fluttering in my chest. Being given the time and space to hunt through the racks of books for my next read, my next exploration into new worlds and new ideas was as good as it got. When I heard other kids groaning about being bored, about wanting to go play, I was perplexed. All I could think was “What are you talking about, this is the best part of the week! We play outside every day. You want to play? Go play with some Roald Dahl, he’s the most playful author I know!”

This feedback was not appreciated by the other children.

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01

Moving into highschool and university, this difference was acutely accentuated when it came to going out. As a young teen, I had heard about the nirvana that was the nightclub and couldn’t wait to get to that holy land of booze, music, and sexual opportunity. When the time finally came and I walked into that darkness broken by pulsing lights and strobing music, I was…utterly dismayed. It was so chaotic and drunk strangers were everywhere and all there was to do was drink and dance. Where’s the appeal in that? I would complain ceaselessly that the music was so loud that I couldn’t hear anyone talking. Friends would suggest I go try my luck getting a girl to kiss me and all I could think was, “How am I meant to do that, they won’t be able to hear me?” 

I failed to realise that the whole environment was designed so that talking wasn’t necessary, it was all down to being brash, letting go of inhibitions, and gyration. But as a happy little introvert, brashness, letting down my defences, and gyration were not in my wheelhouse. Words were my wheelhouse, sitting down to a one-on-one conversation where I could connect and be funny was my play, and that thumping, sweaty setup had robbed me of my weapons. Nightclubs were an extrovert’s arena.

MVC-895F

(Clearly I was not equipped with the tools for that environment)

I think my lack of self-identification came from early definitions used to describe introverts and extroverts. It boiled down to: introverts are shy and extroverts are confident. While I was quiet, I wasn’t shy. And I never felt that I was particularly lacking in confidence. Granted, I wasn’t thrusting my hand up and volunteering to sing and dance in front of people, but that had nothing to do with confidence and everything to do with that just sounding like a terrible idea.

It finally clicked into place when I heard an alternate way to outline what makes someone introverted or extroverted. It went like this: an extrovert is a person who recharges their batteries through social interaction and an introvert is someone who recharges their battery through quiet and solitude. And, inversely, an extrovert’s batteries are depleted when forced into silence and solitude for too long and an introvert’s batteries are depleted when forced into social interaction for too long. This is not to say that introverts don’t like a good party or that extroverts don’t like alone time, just that these things take energy from these people rather than giving it.

Suddenly, so much made sense. Choosing intimate drinks with friends over all-night raves or the peace and quiet of a library over the never-ending game of tag in the playground didn’t make me weird and anti-social; I was introverted.

And those kids huffing and puffing in the library about being bored, or happily spending their weekends squished between strangers, ears ringing from house music, weren’t confusing and obnoxious; they were extroverted (although, that anyone in their right mind would choose a nightclub over a library still mystifies me. And those haters out there who claim that there is nothing erotic about a library have clearly never experienced the sexual tension that radiates off librarians).

I am telling this long and boring story because normally the world is skewed in the favour of extroverts. Those that thrive by being brash and letting down their defences, and, yes, sometimes even gyrating, often come across more opportunities than the quiet achievers. It can be hard sometimes out there for an introvert.

But we are not in normal times and the restrictions brought on by the coronavirus have suddenly made this an introvert’s world. Stay at home all day in your bubble: Check! Work from home wearing cosy clothes: Check! Conduct all work communication via emails and skype chats: Check! Social interaction limited to intimate conversations with one or two people: Check! Feel no obligation of a weekend to go paint the town red: Check! Hang out with books rather than crowds of people: Check! And, to be honest, while so much of this situation is challenging and hard, it is a relief to be able to lean into an introvert’s strengths for a bit.

While we navigate these previously untrodden paths and redesign the world to fit the current handicaps, it’s worth a bit of self-reflection and deciding where you fit on this scale and identifying what recharges your batteries. Introverts, you can relax and enjoy society matching your pace for a change. Extroverts, you can acknowledge the hardship you’re facing and make plans to keep your source of fuel coming through upping the volume of video chats and phone calls.

And for those introverts out there like me, languishing in a surplus of home time, books, and soft conversation over cups of tea, take pity on your extroverted friends and give them a call. Their batteries will thank you.

Have a great weekend, everyone, and happy isolating this Easter.

On Tuesday: Easter. (I’m taking the long weekend off. Jesus would have wanted it that way.)

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 14

I’m going to tell you something about myself: I like books. 

No, no, that’s not right, come one, Jonathan, no need to be coy about this. The truth is I love books, I am in love with books, at any given time I am having an affair with books, often with multiple books at once. There, I said it. 

My love affair with books started at an early age, fostered by my parents’ own love of literature, and by the time I hit highschool I had a full-blown book addiction. When I entered Year 9 (for any international readers, Australians in Year 9 are aged between 14 and 15 years old), I found myself in a homeroom without a single member of my circle of friends. To begin with, I was crushed, I felt hard done by, I felt alone. And then I remember I could borrow a friend any time I liked. 

To be clear, I am not referring to some strange and sad friend-loaning service set up at our school where for a certain price you could rent a friend, I am referring to the library and the many excellent books on its shelves that I could borrow as I pleased. 

Rather than do the thing normal kids would do when finding themselves in a classroom devoid of friends, which is to make new friends, I chose instead to invest any additional time during class outside of my scholarly pursuits to books. I kept whichever paperback I was reading at the time in my pencil case and as soon as I had finished the worksheet/equation/essay we were instructed to work on, I would collect my friend from its secret storage space and get reading. While the other kids were wasting their time with superficial things like talking and laughing and socially bonding, I would be exploring Narnia, and Midkemia, and the Drenai Empire.

For anyone who may be inclined to pity lonely little Jon, please don’t feel too bad. I did eventually lift my head out of the pages long enough to commune with my colleagues, and apparently the bookworm image was working for me as my first girlfriend was in that very class. Take that, jocks.

As a reader, I generally favour genre books. These genres have many different names — fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, speculative fiction — but I just like to think of them as books where one small facet of the impossible is made possible and then we see where the story goes from there. These stories, while removed from reality, help me make sense of reality, help me see things from a different perspective, and, when necessary, help me avoid social interaction. Triple threat. 

Given that the whole world is currently hibernating, it makes sense that a resurgence of reading will follow. Now that the coronavirus has taken away our restaurants, our movie cinemas, our pubs, and our table-tennis tournaments (I don’t know, maybe, I don’t know what you do in your spare time), all of us suddenly have a lot more time on our hands. 

If pubescent-Jon can teach us anything, it’s that the social interaction we are all currently lacking can be substituted with reading, and so with that in mind I would like to recommend some titles that have brought me joy, have made me think, have kept me turning the pages long into the night, and have kept me company through the lonely times.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman
The author himself has said that, when writing this book, he set out to tell a long and rambling story, and in one sense he accomplished this. The book is long and covers a lot of ground, but it is intriguing, interesting, weird, and always enchanting every step of the way. It combines a wealth of folklore and presents the gods discussed in its pages in a way that feels human and real. Neil Gaiman is one of my favourite authors and this is one of my favourite books. Beyond being a great writer, he also seems to be a rather great human, which makes reading his work all the more enjoyable.

American Gods

Paddle Your Own Canoe by Nick Offerman
Nick Offerman is famed for his portrayal of Ron Swanson in the television show Parks and Recreation, and while there is a lot of Ron in Nick, there is also a lot more. This book, which is part autobiography and part ruminations on life and how to live a good one, is overflowing with humour and wisdom and a collection of very entertaining anecdotes. It also pairs very well with a good whiskey.

Paddle Your Own Canoe

Sourdough by Robin Sloan
This book is warmth all the way through, from the characters and their passions, to the bread that is baked, and to the ultimate conclusion. Robin Sloan writes about our world but from a perspective that is a delight to share. He finds mythic in the mundane and passion in the pedestrian. Reading his books is like having a long conversation with a good friend over a cup of tea.

Sourdough

14 by Peter Clines
This was a book that made me lie. I would lie to my employer about being sick, I would lie to my friends about being busy, and I would lie in bed (see what I did there) not sleeping, only reading. I did all this because I absolutely had to find out what was happening and what would happen next. For me, this is the ultimate page-turner and, while it made me knowingly deceive friends and family, I regret none of it.

14

Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman
Did you catch that it’s Neil Gaiman again? I warned you that he was one of my favourite authors. Fragile Things is a collection of his short stories and so is the perfect book if committing to a huge novel isn’t your thing. Each of the stories is seeded with an idea so unique, so interesting, and so cool that I am swamped with jealousy that I didn’t come up with it. Even in the introduction to the collection, he tells a story that is gripping and thought-provoking. In the introduction! He’s really just showing off, and damn him if it doesn’t work.

Fragile Things

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
Often considered a modern masterpiece, this novel encapsulates…no, I can’t do it. I was trying to be funny, but even as a joke, I can’t endorse this book. It is trash. It is a trash book. Go read something else.

Whether you read my recommendations or not, that’s okay, but I do recommend that you at least read. While we can’t currently go out and explore our world as we would like to, books can allow us to instead go in and explore a multitude of other worlds, and by doing so, forget about our isolation for a while.

Lastly, I would like to ask a favour. If anyone has a book they love, one that has stuck in their brain and won’t get out, I would deeply appreciate it if you could recommend it to me in the comments. As a book addict, I am always on the lookout for my next hit.

And really lastly, I swear this time, if anyone would like to read a short novella that I wrote that is, hopefully, as silly and as fun as these posts, then I invite you to download a copy from the following links. I wanted to give it away for free but Amazon wouldn’t let me, so instead it is yours for only 99 cents.

Australia: https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B086L2W7D7 

Austria: https://www.amazon.de/dp/B086L2W7D7

United Kingdom: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B086L2W7D7

United States: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B086L2W7D7

 

On Monday: The new normal.

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 4

I first learnt of the spread of the coronavirus through the media, which is of course the logical place that the majority of us go to discover what is taking place in our world. Except of course when it isn’t and is instead a putrid quagmire of self-serving fear-mongers, inflating issues to pump us full of anxiety and squeeze us for our attention and money. 

Which, in case you’ve been a bit preoccupied, is the current order of the day. On some of the cheaper and dirtier rags *coughdailymailcoughcoughheraldsun*, the most common headline screams “KILLER VIRUS!”. Now, I will not argue that this virus has taken many lives and therefore in a literal context fits the label killer virus, but I will argue that beating people over the head with this terminology doesn’t aid in creating an atmosphere of rational and informed awareness, but instead induces an environment of all-out panic wherein morons end up squabbling over rolls of toilet paper. 

And context is vital here. For the majority of us, contracting COVID is not a death sentence. It’s more of a hibernate-in-your-bed-and-get-your-partner-to-bring-you-food sentence. For the vulnerable in our communities, those with pre-existing conditions and the elderly, it is a very real threat, which is why I’m currently shacked up with my wife instead of cuddling up to her Oma. This context allows us to treat this situation with the seriousness it deserves without succumbing to the savagery and insanity of what has been the equivalent of Mad Max set in supermarket aisles with shopping trolleys and the last of the good pasta. 

The second problem with the media is that it is not always concerned with a little thing commonly referred to as “facts”. Sensationalist media has resulted in widespread xenophobia to anyone of Asian ancestry, regardless of if the person subject to the abuse has even been to China, much less Wuhan, in their lives. The media has fuelled this with a series of outlandish tales that range from the virus being bred in Chinese labs to “reports” of the source of the virus being from a Chinese bat soup. Some papers have even had the gall to state that the rapid rise of cases in Italy was due to Chinese big pharma deliberately seeding infected people into Europe. Others believe the situation gives them the right to make racist puns, such as “Chinese Virus: PANDAmonium”. 

I wish I was kidding:

herald-sun-headline

As idiocy tends to breed idiocy, the eventual outcome has been a backlash at innocent Asian people and moronic moves such as parents refusing to let Asian doctors treat their children. The list goes on, but it gets more depressive as it does, so let’s call it there.

While we are drowning in this fetid sea of media, there is a life raft that I believe we can all cling onto: More media! I should be clearer: Different media!

I’m referring to the best kind of media, good media, which is of course books, movies, television, podcasts, and, technically a repetition on the theme of books, but I like them and am even a member of a club honouring them, and this is my blog not yours so I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway, audiobooks.

Using media to combat media: sometimes you have to fight fire with fire, baby. 

Here is a current list of the good media that is being digested in our home to help drown out all the bad media:

Each morning after completing yoga and while enjoying a bowl of overnight oats, I watch 15 minutes of an episode of HBO’s Watchmen. I then commute to work (two strides from the couch to the dining table) and launch into my work day. If the work I’m doing can be done with half an ear, I listen to podcasts. Currently, I oscillate between No Such Thing as a Fish, 99% Invisible, Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, Anthropocene Reviewed, and Comedy Bang Bang. And, as an always safe back up, relistening to The Ricky Gervais Show, which, beyond being hilariously funny, has the added benefit of having been recorded almost twenty years ago and so contains no mention of the coronavirus in case you’re in need of a palate cleanser.

Lunch sees me dropping back into another 15-20 minutes of Watchmen (in the bedroom or on the balcony to ensure the blood-curdling sounds of my mastication stays well away from the delicate ears of my wife). 

After our stroll, Alex and I sit down to a tasty dinner and an episode of BBC’s Sherlock, not to be confused with CBS’s Elementary, which is also very good. It’s hard to go wrong with a genius British consulting detective. This is approximately my fourth or fifth viewing of Sherlock and it only gets better with each watch. I would recommend it to anyone, up to and including Alex’s aforementioned Oma.

While drawing after dinner, I plug my headphones back in and get an audiobook rolling. At the moment, I am listening to Stephen King’s The Shining. I am enjoying it, but realised too late that it may not have been the most appropriate choice given my current voluntary incarceration and its themes of isolation and a man’s deterioration into madness (allworkandnoplaymakesjonnyadullboy). I swear not to go mad and chase Alex with an axe. Where would I even get an axe, all the stores are closed.

My wife spends this time also enjoying a book, but in the more traditional sense, with her eyes. I would tell you what she is currently reading, but she eats her way through books so fast that it’s impossible to say. If reading books were a sport, she’d be an olympic athlete. If she is a bookworm then she is one of those monstrous sand worms from Frank Herbert’s Dune (for those of you playing at home, Dune was one of The Audiobook Club’s most recent reads. Or, to be more accurate, listens).

While holed up indoors keeping clear of COVID, the vulnerable, and Omas, I whole-heartedly prescribe a healthy course of good media while steering mostly clear of bad media. And if you must wade into that bog of eternal stench, try to stick to official sources and journalists you can trust, who make it their business to monger truth and not fear.

On Monday: Shopping.

(And because today’s post was a bit of a heavy one, here’s a picture of some ducks I took the other day, because, you know, who doesn’t like ducks. Have a great weekend, everyone.)

IMG_20200319_173736

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 2

We are three days deep into the working week and I am happy to report that morale in this Vienna office remains good. There has been no passive-aggression between myself and my new co-worker, nor for that matter any non-passive aggression (my wife has on more than one occasion when discussing someone who has rubbed her the wrong way stated that she would like to “stab them with a fork”, so this is no idle concern. Why this particular piece of cutlery, I don’t know. I’m too afraid to ask). Perhaps the secret to our co-habitational bliss is the deep river of communication and understanding that my wife and I share. Perhaps it is my retreating to the balcony when eating my lunch today to avoid irritating her with the sounds of my mechanical digestion. We may never know.

I do believe that during this period of government-enforced agoraphobia, one of the devices that should be used to avoid being stabbed by your spouse with a piece of cutlery is the enjoyment of extra-curricular activities. When your office, your living room, your dining area, and your kitchen are all the same 6 metre x 4 metre space, it’s important to introduce some variety to keep the magic alive.

As mentioned in yesterday’s chapter, Alex and I now begin each day with a yoga session. The assortment of aches and pains in my muscles and joints lets me know this is working well and, by the time we are freed to resume normal life, I am confident that I will have the flexibility of a prima ballerina. For now, I would be satisfied with being able to tap the ground with my fingertips during stretches where the instructor is effortlessly resting her entire palm on the mat, but we must walk before we can run.

Alex has taken on a collection of rather useful hobbies. One is that each evening she prepares our breakfast for the next morning, two bowls of overnight oats, which, as the name suggests, are oats that are prepared one night in advance. But these are not your grandma’s oats, no, hers are an assortment of flavours that ensure the day is started with a grinning face and a full belly (I don’t know your grandma, maybe these are her oats, who am I to comment of the quality of your grandmother’s breakfast preparation).

Alex starts with some dried oats and then adds puffed spelt, chia seeds, a handful of fresh and frozen fruit, natural vanilla yogurt, and a dash of milk. After being given the necessary twelve hours to reach its full potential, this combination equals a bowl that is not only tasty, but healthy and aiding in digestion. And, going by the sounds heard through the shared wall of our office and toilet, I’d say it’s working.

I have taken a different approach to my free-time activities and, much like children all over Austria penned indoors, I went straight for the pencils and paper. Drawing is a discipline that feels akin to meditation. Through focus, I am able to empty my head and let go of whatever unwanted thoughts are plaguing my brain. The repetition of the pencil strokes occupies the stimulant-driven portion of my consciousness while the rest is free to sit back and take a load off. 

(click to see a larger version)

This activity also provides my wife with, much like parents all over Austria penned indoors with their children when they dig into the art supplies, a moment of peace and quiet to read a book.

Books are vital when living in the time of COVID. Of course, I would argue that books are always vital, but they become doubly so when used as compensation for social interaction. And I don’t want to brag, but I’ve been using books to replace social interaction since I was a teenager. 

Mostly I do my reading while simultaneously drawing. No, sadly, I am not some ambidextrous prodigy, rather I use the medium of audiobooks to get the narrative into my head. I could go on at length about the merits of audiobooks, like a rabid missionary desperate to snag his next convert, but I will try and restrain myself and say only that the act of listening to an audiobook has the ability to transform any domestic task, be it the washing up, vacuuming the house, or going for a run, into an experience wherein your mind enjoys the exploration of characters and story while your hands slave away at the dirty work.

My brother and I love audiobooks to the extent that we have created a club around this topic, and have even gone one step further in that Damian also created an emblem for our club, as pictured below.

Audiobook Club 2

Granted, our club presently only has two members, but that doesn’t get in the way of our overwhelming pride in it.

So far, this combination of routine and hobbies has kept Alex and I on the right side of sane during the COVID purgatory, and has ensured that my baby-soft skin remains fork free.

Tomorrow: Communication.