Monday, February 3, 2014

Three Little Nerds


Once upon a time, there were three little nerds. They were given an assignment to build a model house to somehow represent the evolution of domestic architecture.

The first little nerd decided to build his house out of drinking straws. They were light and easy to bend and it took him the best part of one period to build his ├╝ber modern geodesic dome. He went back to playing Minecraft, smug in his efficiency and nerdy expertise.

The second nerd built his house out of popsicle sticks. It took longer than he’d hoped because the glue took ages to dry but, two periods in, he'd finished his weatherboard villa and had permission to hang out at the back of the library reading factual accounts of the attack on Pearl Harbour, content with his model-building skill and with the added bonus of dried glue to peel off his fingers while he read.

The third little nerd built his house out of Lego. Brick by brick, his medieval castle came together with turrets, a functional drawbridge and portcullis. The dining hall had a fireplace illuminated by a LED and a small motion sensor that triggered an mp3 fanfare when anyone entered the model. It took him four whole periods to complete the task and he had no free time by the end.

At then end of the exercise, their teacher, Mr Wolfenstein gathered the class to assess each of the nerd’s houses.
Of the geodesic house of straws, he said; ‘Nice colour coordination, Gordon, but I reckon I could blow it down.’ With the barest huff, Mr Wolfenstein levelled Gordon’s dome of drinking straws.
‘Actually, sir,’ Gordon said. ‘I was working with Peabody.’
‘Is this true, Peabody?’
‘Um, yes, sir.’
‘Substantial timber structure, Peabody, but you haven’t used any cross-bracing. I reckon a half-hearted sneeze will level it.’

Mr Wolfenstein pulled a hair from his right nostril and looked briefly at the sun in order to make himself sneeze. The resulting mini-tornado of spit and snot splintered the popsicle stick shack.
‘To be honest, sir,’ Peabody said. ‘We were both helping Higgenbottom.’
‘Is this true, Higgenbottom?’
‘I guess so, sir.’
‘Impressive, Higenbottom. I like the ramparts and the cellophane moat, but I think I can see a weak point just …’
With that, Wolfenstein pressed his finger on the exposed wire that powered the fireplace LED and doubled as an electrical snail barrier. The shock booted the teacher across the room and into the bookshelves. A volume of The Pictorial Guide to the Birds of the World tumbled from the shelf and cracked Wolfenstein in the head. 

Higgenbottom eventually got an A.


Monday, August 12, 2013

Old Mate

I'd been ripping through the countryside at 110kph for about six hours when I spotted Old Mate striding, eyes down, along the verge. Like the hundred cars before me, I noticed his steady gate, his hessian bags and the personality evident in his hat and rolled right by. I'd travelled five k's before the feeling took hold - Old Mate had a story to tell.

I hacked a U-turn, rode a kilometre past and parked the bike in a siding. I shed my helmet and jacket and picked my way back along the verge towards him. Road trains rattled the scrawny gums with their air wash. I could hear the drivers hesitate on the accelerator as Old Mate came into view around the sweeping bend ahead. A Land Cruiser tooted a wave.

On the ground at my feet, I spotted a bearded dragon. The lizard was frozen and almost invisible on the leaf litter. I took a photo and crouched a little closer, resting my hand on the grey bark and leaves in front of it. The lizard didn't move so I inched closer and tickled it under the chin. It climbed on my fingers and I stood cautiously. The lizard hung there and let me take a few more pictures, unblinking and cool. I wondered if it was injured or 'special needs', but when I'd marvelled and had my photographic fill, I lowered it to the ground and it shot off into the undergrowth like I'd thrown it.

Old Mate regarded me from the shadow of his battered hat. 'G'day.'
'I spotted you as I rode past,' I said. 'You look like you have a story to tell.'
He jutted his chin and I slid into step beside him. We shook hands and he told me his name was John. John had been walking for thirty-five years - Victoria to Queensland and back again, every year. His wife walked with him for the first couple of years. He'd been a banker back then, but realised the job wasn't for him. The first time he walked, it was an action to clear his head and give him the chance to think about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He didn't have any revelations that year, so he just kept walking, Forest Gump style. He's still walking.

He makes enough money for the food he needs selling and trading the things he finds on the roadside. In the eighties it was spanners, now he finds a little change and collects aluminium cans when he's approaching a town. Never takes a lift and has never been on the dole. He doesn't think he'd qualify. Doesn't have an address. Doesn't have a plastic card. Was once a banker now doesn't have a bank account.

Just think about that for a minute, because I had to. Doesn't. Have. A. Bank. Account. That's probably against the law somewhere. In a first world country like Australia, it's like cashing out before the game begins and from at least one angle, a profoundly liberating idea.

You don't need a mortgage or credit card if your home is a sheet of plastic and a tarp, pitched in the shade of a new coolabah every night. If your existence is supremely minimal in a rich nation, you can live off the the side of the road.

'People were worse in the eighties, shouting at me as they drove past. Now, some of the truck drivers who are doing this stretch of road two or three times a week stop and have a chat, give me food and drink. They know I won't take a lift, but they ask anyway.'

 For a minute, I wondered if he'd been injured or was 'special needs', but when I shook his hand again and he bade me happy riding, I realised he'd found something precious on the side of the road - a simple life that pleases him to the core.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Living Wild II




 If I lived in the burbs I could regale you with stories of our neighbour’s parties and the bloke in flat number four who’s learning the bagpipes but I live in the sticks so our closest neighbours are non-human.

It was unseasonably warm last Wednesday and walking home (five hundred metres) from my office, I stopped in the glade to watch a pair of eastern whip birds mucking about. They’re normally fairly timid and a fleeting glimpse is a rare treat, though you can hear their whip-crack call from a kilometre or so away. They have a white throat and a little crest that gives them a kind of startled appearance. The pair in the glade were playing a robust game of follow the leader and when they vanished into the undergrowth, I stepped off towards the barn. My foot rolled on something and I looked down to see a tiger snake pinned under my boot. In the second or so it took to realise what had happened, the snake recoiled and butted my jeans with a closed mouth. I leapt into the air and almost landed on it again before completing the second movement in the ballet known locally as Reptillus Shittus Brickus. There’s a simple song that goes with it: ‘Faaaaaaaaarrrrrkkkk’. Sing along if you know the words …

Once I’d regained my composure, I held my heart and followed the snake into the bush—it was a beautiful glossy sub-adult I hadn’t seen before and an un-striped slaty grey colour. It didn’t escape at speed, giving me time to apologise for standing on its neck. Or its back. Or its tail. Whatever. I said sorry, but I know they’re deaf. Make as much noise as you like in the bush—they can’t hear you. Those sonic snake repellants are as useful as water-based raincoats. They don’t sense the vibrations, either: they’re aware of movement and hypersensitive to the smell/taste of their prey.


Owls, on the other hand, have awesome hearing and even better sight, which had me puzzling the following evening when I found a boobook owl trapped in the old chicken coop. The chickens are long gone (they have their own mobile pen, now), but the rats and mice that used to live off the food scraps and pellets are still camping out in there. Maybe the owl was hunting those? I turned my phone into a torch and could get quite close to the wide-eyed pretty, but it may have been freaking out for a while before I got there. I spoke calmly and offered my forearm as a roost, which it obligingly perched on. With my heart beating in my mouth, I snapped a dodgy picture with my phone before carrying the wildest of wild things into the open. I felt the air from its wings as it powered off into the darkness, but I didn’t hear a thing. Not even a thank you. Ungrateful beast … oh how I love thee …

Living Wild

I’ve lived in the bush for the majority of my life and the thing that appeals to me most about the lifestyle is the surprises. Case in point: I had a training partner this morning, of the avian variety.

I run and sweat a few times a week, normally before dawn when the country is still rolling and farting. The magpies haven’t left their roosts and their chortling is pillow talk. The log trucks are on the move in the valley. I can’t see their lights exactly, just the illuminated trees and fog preceding them. Their rumbling is the only evidence that there wasn’t a zombie apocalypse while we were sleeping.

There was a touch of frost in the valley this morning and the waning quarter of moon did nothing except make the shadows deeper. I stumbled my normal route up the drive then up the hill—a gradually increasing slope, steep enough to be inimitable on a treadmill, but not insurmountable for an amateur like me. I disturbed an animal on the road verge just beyond the spotted gums. I’ve set wild sheep and goats to flight in the same spot and, about a year ago, a small family of fallow deer—a rare and timid sight in this part of the country. There are wallabies and wombats there, too, but the creature I disturbed had mass—a bipedal bulk that, when it stepped from the shadow into the moonlight, was taller than me.

Emu. Well, Fred, to be precise. Jack and Emma, who live at the top of the hill, have been mates with Fred for some time and Liz (their landlord) has peck scars on the top of her head. Emma reckons they were love bites. Liz now wears a bike helmet and carries a broom in Fred’s company.

Fred boomed a greeting and I upped the pace and headed for the opposite verge, giving her as much room as possible but I could hear her nails on the tarmac and turned to see her shadow bobbing towards me up the middle of the road. I remembered that little kid from The Gods Must Be Crazy II, holding a lump of bark above his head to appear bigger to the pack of hunting dogs who were stalking him and I clapped my hands in the air above my head. This seemed to excite Fred and soon she was trotting beside me and booming joyously. I stepped on the gas and a gap opened between me and Fred, but her legs were still pumping and it seemed like no effort at all for her to close that gap. The hill got steeper and steeper and my breathing became ragged and desperate. Finally, I realised Fred could probably run the pants off a kangaroo, and I surrendered to my fate.

‘Morning Fred,’ I said, gently.
Boom boom.
She took a step closer, her head now a looming silhouette with the moon at her back. She surveyed me for what felt like a full minute, and then turned and wandered towards Jack and Emma’s place.
I dragged myself home thinking emus could make a decent wage for themselves as personal trainers, but what would an emu do with cash? Just eat it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Tigers

I’m a committed story trader. I’m always on the lookout for investment opportunities and everybody has a story to tell. From the six-year-old who told me he didn’t have a favourite mum, to the octogenarian who confessed to having never known love, the world is a pulsating matrix of stories. As a trader, I listen for the sparkle of potential in every conversation—not to steal a fragment from another person’s life and call it my own, but to load up my life with the iron ore of humanity. This stuff gets smelted in stillness and hopefully cast into something meaningful with a pen. There is little mystery to this; it’s the writer’s life, but there are moments when I have to shield my eyes from the heat, times when the humanity is too raw for fiction.

Welcome to the edge.

I went to a youth justice facility recently – not as an inmate (that would be way too Hunter S Thomson for my lily-white bum), but as a presenter. It wasn’t my first time behind bars, but this was high security. I had to leave my life and my digital security blanket (phone, laptop and tamagotchi) snug in a locker outside. I had my retinas scanned and my shoes x-rayed. No latex gloves, thankfully. Perhaps the retinal scanner could see the fearful volume of white in my eyes.

‘They’re cheeky bastards,’ my guide explained. ‘Half the time they want to shake your hand and thank you for being there; the other half of the time they want to shake your hand with the fingers they’ve just scratched their balls or their arse with. We’ve all been caught, but you’ve got to shake hands.’ He squirted hand sanitiser on my palm and then did his own.

The ‘boys’ filed in: some were monstrous, tattooed men, some were pasty-skinned junkies. They all wore fleecy blue tracksuits and velcro-bound runners. The biggest of the islander boys came and shook my hand, half a smile on his lips. His grip was warm and genuine, if a little moist. ‘I’m Kenny,’ he said. ‘What you in for?’

The edge is gloriously raw in jail and as soon as we realised we were safe with each other (which took three minutes and a couple of belly-laughs), the stories came thick and fast. Some of the boys were loud and proud about their lives of violence and crime; some were more discreet and rendered their shame and regret about their life choices using pens and paper.

Some of the stories made me laugh.

When they were living in the western suburbs of Melbourne, Nathan’s brother had been involved in a serious fight. Nathan could hear him talking with his mates about it in the next room as he drifted off to sleep. One of his brother’s mates shook him awake the following morning. ‘Cops!’ he hissed. ‘Everywhere!’ Nathan was twelve-years-old at the time and he strode out the front door and asked one of the police what was going on. ‘We’re filming an episode of Rush next door.’

Tom and his cousin were on the run from the police and had holed up in the bush. In the middle of the night, Tom heard the hoof-falls of the mounted division and they ran into the darkness—straight into an electric fence. Tom’s cousin got tangled in the wire and he could see her sparking. He kicked her clear and as she recovered, they heard the hooves again, only now they could see the shadows of the cows in the paddock on the other side of the electric fence.

Some of the stories made me ache.

The roughest mob were the guys on remand awaiting sentencing. They were unhealthy, restless things with wild eyes and plenty of the fire in their veins that had kept them alive on the outside. By contrast, the sentenced boys seemed like they’d been bred in captivity. In a candid moment, one of the sentenced boys told me that he was better off inside. Inside, he got clean and went to school, ate three meals a day and had a bed to sleep in every night. Outside was a lottery since his junkie mum had died. With my middle-class mores and judgments, I found myself thinking hard about how much better this kid might have been if he’d lived in foster care from the start and had a loving family who cared because caring was their reason-for-being. Was that the sort of judgment that spawned the Stolen Generation? My guide told me that most of the kids had been in foster homes, residential care and juvenile detention off and on all their lives. He said that the restorative practices in modern Victorian justice centres (with life-skills development, vocational courses and programs) were only marginally more effective than their punitive cousins in other states at keeping young offenders out of adult jail. He said that more than sixty percent of the kids in the room would do time as adults. Sometimes, however, the backstory makes a life of crime easier to understand.

Rikki, one of the Sudanese boys, saw a man beaten to death in front of his house. The mob doused his corpse and burnt it where it lay. Fleeing from the warzone his city had become, he rode in the back of a truck with one hundred other refugees. He told me the driver had done his best in treacherous conditions but lost control and rolled the truck. Six people died. The survivors righted the truck and drove on. He showed me the twenty-centimeter scar on his left calf that was his receipt of the accident. The desperation didn’t leave when he was resettled to Australia. Falling in with the wrong people and still fighting for survival had landed him in jail.

It was my job to count the pens at the end. It was unlikely that stolen pens would be used as weapons—the boys were universally handy with their fists and furniture—but every surface in the place that could be tagged had been tagged. I asked them about tagging and Kenny shrugged. ‘It’s how we let others know we’re alive. Like a dog pissing on a post, you know?’

Some of the purest deposits of human ore are found at the edge. My heart goes out to the miners and the people who keep them safe and give them choices. I want to shake your hands.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Satisfaction Guaranteed.

I did a lot of things this year, as I’m sure you did, too. There were lots of changes—some large and hulking, some tiny but significant in their own way. I did a lot of things and there were lots of changes but when I strip away all the action I’m left with a new understanding about the nature of contentment.

Maybe it’s my time of life—turning 42 (and discovering the meaning to Life, the Universe, and Everything – sorry, literary gag) means I’ve been around long enough for my head to go bald. I’ve had enough arguments (with myself and others) to get a sense of which battles are worth fighting. Taken enough risks to know where my edge is. Been loved enough to know where home is. Burnt myself enough to realise the stove is hot, and slept out under the stars enough to realise how bloody insignificant I really am. It could be my age, but I have mates I went to school with who live in constant hunger—for love, for material stuff, for the next big thing—so I doubt age or experience are the defining factors.

Maybe it’s the weather? We had the wettest September at our place since records began (I got my rain gauge for my birthday in August so September was when the records actually began, but it has been wet.). The tanks are full and most of the areas burnt in the bushfires near home have grown back greener than ever. The winter was kind and the spring splashed right through my memory of dust and ash. There’s contentment in the faces of the farmers I meet down the street. They’ve started telling me that it’s going to be another killer year for fires with all this growth but they do that every year, regardless of the weather. They complain, but their eyes are actually smiling. The weather may have something to do with it, but in this age we’ve learnt not to rely on the weather.

No, I think it’s about being able to surrender.

I ran into one of my old workmates in the mower shop the other day. Elaine was working behind the desk when I did my apprenticeship as a gardener (Scot Gardner, the gardener; nice one, Huey!) with the local council. Her hubby Craig was one of my mentors. That was twenty years ago. They still work there. Twenty years working for the local council probably doesn’t sound like a career you’d see on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and you’d be right, but Elaine and Craig have something better than the Condo and the bling and the cars and the poolboy. Contentment. Being able to surrender to where you find yourself and who you find yourself with, your income, your friends, your lifestyle, the size of your television, the age of your car and the contents of your refrigerator.

Sometime this year, I surrendered.

I’m not going to be the next Tim Winton or Chuck Bukowski. In the beginning, I had hopes of writing something that sold a hundred thousand copies and allowed me to live off royalties until I’d scrawled the next winner. That never happened. My books have sold tens of thousands, and in order to survive, like many authors of books for kids in Australia, I’ve supplemented my royalty income by touring the country and talking to kids in schools and at festivals about writing. I did talk in every state and territory most years. I did thirty thousand kilometres a year and I did stay in a lot of swanky apartments, quaint motels, crusty hotels, onsite vans and backpacker lodges. Oh, and that place near Hastings … eeew. I got tired of being away from home. I got tired of the sound of my own voice, talking about the same things over and over. I got tired and I surrendered.

And, the moment I surrendered, opportunities opened up.

I start a new job on Monday, training to be a teacher at a local school. It’ll occupy four days of my working week and leave me a day to play with words. It’ll pay the bills and give me the chance to find new ways to fire kids up about life. I’ll ride my bike to work sometimes. I’ll go home at night. Every night. It won’t all be easy, sure, but it will be good. I’ll keep writing; I have more stories to tell, and who knows, one day I might write a million-seller. Got to be in it to win it!

Until that day, I’ll just have to put up with contentment.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Trouble

I got in trouble today. The principal from one of the local primary schools phoned to say he’d been approached by a concerned parent saying her son had been videoed by me without her permission and that’s just wrong.

You know the worst part? It was all true.

My son and I had gone to the footy ground with the kite, kite buggy, bike and camera, as we often do. My son videoed me trying to bust some moves on the buggy but the wind was unpredictable and it totally fizzed out when the groundsman started mowing. I turned the camera on my boy and his new bike. I caught him doing a series of lame stunts – no hands (for a total of one second), mono (for less than a second) and a wild downhill ride (over freshly mown grass down a slope of approximately three degrees). We were cacking ourselves at the stupidity of it all and my boy decided freerunning around the clubrooms would be cool.

Freerunning or parkour is a kind of mad mix between gymnastics and foot racing where participants use the elements of the (usually urban) landscape – poles, walls, fences, buildings, roofs, bridges – to bounce off. The opening scenes of the recent James Bond Casino Royale are an awesome example of extreme freerunning.

Anyway, continuing with our theme of lame stunts, the boy’s freerunning was more freewalking, jumping over lumps of grass, getting stuck on the bars while climbing through and leaping wildly from the bottom step. It was a great laugh and we were having a ball. Three other boys arrived across the oval from the tennis courts – mid- to upper-primary school age. They were up to mischief in a minute, carting around a fold of felt or something gleaned from the front of the clubrooms.

Here’s where I made my biggest mistake of the day: I saw what was going on and followed them when they ran off.

‘Hey! You guys want to join in? We’re doing stupid videos, lame stunts and that.’

When they realised I wasn’t about to chew them out about their mischief, they were smiling and only too keen to play freewalking follow-the-leader with my son while I filmed. One of the boys asked what we do with the films and my son explained that we’ve got a collection of silly stuff on You Tube. The boy’s eyes lit up – he was going to be a star! Explaining that I wouldn’t be using any video footage of him without a media release signed by his parents would have ruined the moment.

They hammed it up – totally natural over-actors who got right into it. We recorded some funny stuff. We were packing up ready to go home when a car arrived. One of the kids swore and started running. His mum had the window down.

‘Get in the car! Right now!’

That was when my adult brain should have engaged. That was when I should have gone running to the car and explained to the boy’s mum what we’d been doing, shown her the video. Another car arrived. More shouting. I didn’t think about it again until the principal phoned a couple of days later. It was a kick in the guts to realise he’d had to deal with the ‘situation’. He’s a good man, and that’s where the issue is for me. I felt sorry for the principal and I felt sorry for the mum but they’re familiar feelings. Blokes who work with kids are prone to looking over their shoulder at how their actions are being perceived. I should have been more sensitive to what those games would have looked like from the outside.

How was the mum to know that I spend half my year playing with other people’s kids? Just over twenty five thousand of them this year. I often have a video in my hand, or one of the kids does. Easy enough to assume the worst – that I was a perverted predator plying my trade. Her kid later mentions the Internet and You Tube and I’m the scourge of the earth. I don’t blame her – that confusion is a cultural thing and I should have been sensitive to that.

I wonder if it would have made any difference if it was a woman with the camera? I wonder if it would have made a difference if we were strangers kicking the footy with her son? Yeah, I think it’s the ‘bloke with a video camera’ that complicates the scenario.

I think I’ll get a t-shirt made – one that says ‘Kid Safe’ with a copy of my police check on the back. I’m not going to stop being innocent. I’m not going to stop playing spontaneously with kids. Contrary to what you might see on the news, there are good men in the world and the world and the kids in it need us.