May the Second

On May the Second 2000, Jane and I drove home from work talking about our plans to visit Madagascar in July, a trip we'd wanted to do for years. We had cleared the leave with our employers—not a foregone conclusion for me, since I'd only been with mine six months—and were a few days away from booking the flights. We reached our Canberra home, picked up the mail, and walked in the front door with it. I noticed one of the letters was from our estate agents, and figured they must be about to do another inspection.

Wrong. The owner had decided to sell, and we had eight weeks to get out.

Which was exactly the length of notice my employer had written into my contract. I was contracted for two years, but we had figured that we'd leave Canberra to try and find work in San Francisco in early 2001, before Jane's contract ended; the tech boom surely had a couple more years in it yet. (The first stock-market hiccup had occurred only weeks before, and the implications hadn't sunk in yet.)

We couldn't face looking for yet another place to rent in Canberra, only to move again six months later. We couldn't bear the thought of giving up our trip to Madagascar for another year and perhaps forever. We didn't want to buy the house, although we had first option, because it was in Canberra, where we didn't want to be. And because of the timing we effectively had only a few days to decide what to do.

As we talked over the options and mapped them out on a sheet of paper spread across our dining table, one became increasingly attractive. We called it the 'Thermonuclear Option'. I would quit. We would go to Madagascar. Jane would come back here, stay with a friend (who had conveniently been saying she was thinking of getting a flatmate) and keep working. I would fly on to America and look for work. If that failed, we would try London or Melbourne; either way, we would be moving on. Turning adversity to our advantage.

We've been living under the mushroom cloud ever since. For one year our life has been one long period of uncertainty. On 2 May 2000 we had no idea where we'd be in a year's time; on 2 May 2001, staying at a friend's place in Melbourne and applying for jobs all over the place, we still don't.

But, looking back, we—and I—haven't had that certainty for a long time.

On 2 May 1999 we were gearing up for a trip to North America. I was going to a conference and Jane was coming for a holiday. We both hoped that I might make some contacts that would be useful when I looked for work there at the end of the year, as we were planning. My job as a webmaster was good and so was Jane's at the CSIRO, but we hadn't wanted to be in Canberra more than 18 months. Our escape was delayed, as it turned out, when an offer too good to refuse came along—a chance to work on IT policy and grapple with the big issues.

On 2 May 1998 we were staying with my parents in Tasmania while we looked for work around the country after returning from six months overseas. We were hoping for something in Melbourne, but had no idea where we would end up. A few weeks later an opportunity arose for me to get into web design. It looked promising—a year or two of that, and I could find tech work in San Francisco, which we had visited six months earlier and loved. The downside? The job was in Canberra. Again.

On 2 May 1997 we were living in a small flat in Canberra. I was in a one-year contract working on a review of research in the humanities and social sciences; Jane was working in a lab at ANU; we had been married six months. In August we were due to fly to New Zealand, where I had a three-month fellowship to turn my PhD thesis into a book; after that we would travel in NZ, North America and Europe, and perhaps with any luck find a job opening somewhere overseas. Either way, we would be out of Canberra for good.

On 2 May 1996 we were living in the same flat in Canberra; Jane was near the end of an honours degree; I was unemployed (apart from some casual tutoring at ANU), with a pile of applications for academic jobs several inches thick. I had officially become Dr Rory a couple of weeks earlier. I'd also finished writing my first novel, which I was sending around to various publishers. Who knows, in a year's time I might be a published author; or I might finally find a lecturing job somewhere. In a year's time we could be anywhere.

On 2 May 1995 Jane and I were living in a small university flat in Canberra, and I was nearly finished writing my PhD; scholarship extensions had allowed me to stretch out the process a few months. I had been applying for academic jobs around the world for over six months, hoping to line something up for June or July, after I was due to submit. Jane would have finished her last couple of subjects for her degree by then, so we would both be free to move anywhere. We were ready to leave Canberra; I had only ever planned to be there for as long as my PhD, and she had lived there since she was ten. It wasn't where we wanted to spend our twenties, and mine were two-thirds over.

On 2 May 1994 Jane and I had been in our uni flat for four months. I was in the middle of writing my PhD. My scholarship was due to run out in February 1995, so anytime after that we could be leaving for work anywhere in the world; perhaps even America, where there were several centres of Pacific studies, my field.

On 2 May 1993 I was visiting Tasmania for my brother's wedding, and afterwards was due to fly to Fiji to start my PhD fieldwork (two months there, two months in Tonga). I had no idea how it would go; if it went badly, my PhD plans would have to change drastically, and perhaps even be abandoned. I was living alone in a student room in Canberra—I'd met Jane only weeks before—and wasn't really sure whether I'd still be there in 1994.

On 2 May 1992 I was in Cambridge, England, nearing the end of a one year Master's degree. It was going well, and I was hopeful that I might win a scholarship to stay on and turn it into a PhD. That would also give me a chance to keep developing a budding comic career with Footlights and some good friends, and who knows, could lead to greater things. But it wasn't to be, and a few months later I was back in Canberra.

On 2 May 1991 I was in Canberra, three months into a PhD at the Australian National University. A good honours result had indicated that I was capable of doing a PhD, and I thought a career in academia would suit me; my fields of political science and Pacific studies had the potential to take me anywhere. I'd initially planned to study at Sydney University, but a late scholarship offer from ANU and a quick visit to compare their facilities convinced me that it really was the place to study Pacific politics in Australia. Canberra was getting me down, though—I had few friends there, was sharing a flat with strangers, and the city has limited charms after you've visited Parliament House, the National Gallery and the War Memorial a few times, as I already had. But now I had an offer to study political theory at Cambridge, and was planning to suspend my PhD for a year to take it up; perhaps I wouldn't have to come back.

On 2 May 1990 I was in Tasmania, living in the same house I'd lived in since I was five, doing an honours degree in Political Science at the University of Tasmania in Hobart. The first semester had been so intense that I was convinced that further study wasn't for me; after this I figured I would look for work that made use of my arts qualifications and perhaps my computer science major. It would probably be outside Tasmania; most work is. The Bulletin published one of my cartoons for the first time around this time, after only four years of trying; perhaps I could be a cartoonist after all.

On 2 May 1989 I was in the last year of my first degree, commuting from Huonville to Hobart as usual. I wasn't sure if I would do an honours year, given the ups and downs of the previous few years; perhaps I would look for work instead. But working in the state public service, which was my best bet at this stage, held little appeal. I still wanted something else. Later in the year I started writing a novel, but soon abandoned it.

On 2 May 1988 I was twenty years old, in third year part-time, and working most of the time on Tas Uni's student magazine, writing and drawing cartoons. I knew where I would be and what I would be doing on 2 May 1989: living in Huonville and finishing my degree. After that, who knows.

It's over a decade since I knew what I would be doing in a year's time on May the Second. A decade of hopes and dreams and procrastinations and decisions and compromises and changes, all pointing towards something else, somewhere else. A decade where I couldn't just be—and know I would be—in this place, for this long, doing this.

And in between, the highs and lows of life. Those were my twenties: a string of May the Seconds, one long chain of not knowing what comes next and things not going according to plan.

That's fine; there have been plenty of highs. But next May the Second I'd like to know—really know—where I am. So I can tell myself that all of this uncertainty got me there.

(First posted, in part, at Walking West)


©2001 Rory Ewins