If ever you get a spare moment, Robert Dessaix advises you to look up traffic jams in Java. If you find the right footage, he says, it's soothing to just sit back and marvel at how they handle it.
"There is no honking, there is no anger. People simply, bit by bit, thread themselves in and out of the jam at the crossroads," he says.
"It's amazing. And then you come back to Australia, or when you go to Rome say, there are all these angry men, beeping their horns and going too fast and swerving around each other, and giving each other the finger. Extraordinary! Why are we so angry?"
The Javanese, he points out, have a lot more to be angry about than we do.
"But they have an acceptance, somehow, of who they basically are and how they fit in, and what is good in their lives."
It's instructive to spend time in places like Java, places where daily life is defined by ritual and routine, where history informs how people move around, where time is more than a constant forward trajectory.
Dessaix spends a large part of his new book there, ruminating on time, religion, art, family and, above all, the state of growing older. In The Time of Our Lives, he, along with a diverse parade of friends and acquaintances, explores the challenges and possibilities of old age, with the central question of how to cultivate an inner life.
But more than that, it's about how to create an inner life that allows for equilibrium and excitement, passion and peace, friendship and happy solitude.
"I suppose what I'm trying to get across is that it's not just an inner life that you need, an inner sort of landscape that you might inhabit, but that it needs to be choreographed in a life to really work properly," he says.
This, he says, is why the book both opens and closes with a dance sequence, albeit of two very different kinds - hotel guests working out to "Lady Marmalade" at the outset, and closing on a spellbinding sequence of classical Javanese dancing.
"But I don't care what sort of dance you create, for inside yourself," he says.
"I think the dance needs some kind of roots in history, like Javanese dance, to be truly satisfying. I think you have to have a sense of history - in other words, of how you fit in, and then the dance makes sense."
In many ways, this book brings together many of the strands of Dessaix's considerable body of work - his novels, his own memoirs, most famously his autobiographical A Mother's Disgrace, and his travel essays. His writing has often explored his own origins and experiences, as well as the lives of others. While he has lived in Tasmania for the past two decades with his partner, the writer Peter Timms, he travels widely, speaks and writes in several languages, and loves to chat - to the reader, to friends, to Timms, to people he's just met - about anything and everything. Andre Gide. Prokofiev. Buddhist stupas, gay ballroom dancing (one of his great pleasures in life), pop music, food, and all the different words for friendship in other languages.
The book's blurb describes The Time of Our Lives as a work that addresses "these increasingly urgent questions", referring, presumably, to a growing body of writing and discourse around ageing and negotiating end-of-life care.
It's something, we are told, that needs to be talked about, and soon. But Dessaix doesn't see it that way, necessarily. Certainly, after a certain age, he says, the sense of urgency around many things diminishes, and many things cease to be important. But some things do become more essential.
"The important thing is friendship," he says.
"But it does take practice, that's the problem. And that's where the news of my book is not so good in the sense that if you haven't been practising, you're going to find it difficult to start at the age of 83."
Dessaix is not yet 83, but a sprightly 76 ("I look 24, of course!") however he is increasingly struck by what he sees as an affliction, particularly among older people.
"What you get is loneliness. And it's terrible. I saw a program on the ABC some time ago about centenarians, if that's the right word - people who were over 100 - and the most common thing that they spoke of with dread was not death, but loneliness.
"I think people just think that word doesn't mean very much, they think it means you haven't got anyone to visit this afternoon. No, it's much more existential in that. It's realising that no one knows you, and no one cares, and no one ever will.
"And so you have to start early, to draw close to people, to love them as yourself ... love a handful of people with intensity, because they are what they are, and you are what you are, not just because they're useful to you. Not just because they also belong to the chess club, or whatever it might be. But because it's an exact match.
"You must start early. It's a talent, it's an art and you have to practice.
"Also, as I say in the book, you have to be friends with yourself first. No one wants to be friends with somebody who has not befriended herself or himself ... when they see that you are your own friend, you become attractive to them. And this is one of life's great lessons, I think, it takes quite a while to see."
And so, from cosy chats over coffee to long, meditative walks and stifling hospital visits, Dessaix is working to cultivate his own inner life - the garden in his mind. It's his way, he says, of avoiding talking about the soul (a meaningless concept for an atheist).
But even with his essentially wry and mischievous outlook - he spends several paragraphs wondering at the fact that two separate people have accused him of not having really grown up yet - death and despair are hard to avoid.
Nestled in among the meandering conversation on which the reader is invited to eavesdrop are the frequent visits he pays to Rita, his partner's mother, in her last days in a Hobart nursing home. It's not pretty. The home is soulless, thick with inertia and boredom - a quiet suburban nightmare.
He doesn't mean to be cruel, or disdainful. It's just that Rita did not have an inner life.
"I don't know if you thought I was cruel to her. I mean, she came to stay with us every weekend for 30 years - 30 years!" he says.
"I am not cruel to Rita, but I don't think that there was what you and I would call an inner life, not really.
"She simply opened her eyes and saw what was in front of her. And so she became bored to an extent that it's difficult to find the words for, bored in a deeply existential way, that is that combination of endlessness and being trapped, which makes for true boredom, and which half the population it seems to me is locked inside."
He meets people all the time, he says, who seem angry, or unhappy, at what their life has become. What these people need is an inner landscape, and a way of tending to it.
"It's the flowering that you want. It's the sense of fulfilment that you want, you don't want success. You don't want fame, you don't want a lot of money, you want to be allowed to flower, please," he says.
"I think that I am tremendously fortunate, in that I have in many ways been allowed to flower.
"I've been allowed to water the things that were good in me, and that were strong in me, and see them grow and flower. My ability to speak languages, my love of travel, I've been able to do it. It's a great life force in me - although I can't do it this week, of course.
"But in general, I've been able to do it. I do feel fulfilled, and so I don't feel angry at all. And I notice when I come back to Australia, from other cultures, how angry Australians appear to me, starting right at the airport quite often."
Understandable, really. Unlike his mother-in-law, the only time he has ever felt true boredom is at an airport, waiting for a plane that has been delayed indefinitely.
"And I'm not allowed to leave the terminal, so that's a deeply existential position to be in," he says.
- Robert Dessaix will discuss The Times of Our Lives with Caroline Baum in a virtual ANU/Canberra Times Meet the Author event at 6pm on October 29. www.anu.edu.au/events/in-conversation-with-robert-dessaix.
- The Time of Our Lives, by Robert Dessaix. Brio. $32.99.