Met a woman along a track one day

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I know what you’re thinking, it sounds like the first line of a poem or something right? Sorry to disappoint you. On day three of my recent five-day trek, we were at a little public camping ground and had just finished stringing up our little nylon covers between two sticks when up the track came a woman walking by herself clearly weighed down by her backpack, almost shuffling her way to the other end of the clearing. By this stage of our trek I was struggling to stand up straight myself so I could empathise immediately with her lethargy.
Day three for me had been another day of trekking uphill and down, including a bit of abseiling and some canyoning so my body was aching in places I had long forgotten I owned. It had been three days since my last shower, my armpits were noticeably closer to my nose than I cared to consider and I had been reminded about my age relative to some others on this trek a few times over the course of the day, so I was feeling every day of my 57 years.
The woman dutifully set up her little dome tent as the evening chill took hold, and came over to the group to have a chat. It was late in the day, perhaps too late to call it dusk so it was tough to get a handle on her age, but perhaps she was in her late fifties. Her hair was messed up, her face heavily lined and in her trekking gear, age is a difficult commodity to gauge.

When we asked her where she was walking to, we were impressed to hear she was heading to the same place we were headed. A thirteen km uphill trek to the top of a mountain. She was going to start out a fair bit later than we intended, but there was some sense of camaraderie in all of us heading in the same direction. It was the answer to the next two questions that I am still shaking my head at.

Question. And where have you walked from?
Answer. This walk started in Moe, so its 630 kms in total, tomorrow is the second last day.
Question. What is your motivation for doing a walk like that?
Answer. I love to travel and I have no money so this is a great way to see things. When I get to Canberra I’m going to ride my bike to Brisbane, I think I will fly back to Port Douglas from there.

Okay folks, who among you is feeling a little lazy right now?

Five days that nearly killed me

 

I have just returned from a five-day, charity mentoring trek in the mountains south of Canberra with Outward Bound for the Sir David Martin Foundation. Backpacks, nights under a nylon tarp, sleeping on the hard ground in bags, up mountains and down the other side and my aches and pains bear witness to the struggle. My body is so sore it’s actually funny, blistered feet and bruises on my arms, shoulders, back, hips, thighs, shins and ankles and muscle soreness everywhere in between. My nose and fingertips are still tingling with the effects of sleeping outside in subzero temps on the last night and my cranky right knee is a reminder of every long step downhill on the last day as we came down from the mountain. For all of that it was an amazing thing to be a part of.

I got to witness personal development, growth and struggle, first hand, and even play a part in it. I was reminded almost every minute how successful I have been in making my life more comfortable. Telling myself that I was indeed, the old man on this journey, was useful from time to time, as springy young legs bounded up hills that simply took my breath away. It has been forty years since I wore a backpack and oh my goodness, what a challenge it is to trek up mountain trails wearing one, and negotiating low hanging trees that occasionally hung over the path, preferring to look like some sort of struggling praying mantis, than stop and remove the pack and put it on again on the other side.

The opportunity to abseil has presented itself several times before this trip, but I have declined it or dodged it every time, citing my fear of heights, or an upset stomach, or any excuse frankly. To be able to abseil in a gale, down a granite rock face in zero temps was thrilling. Then to do a little canyoning, crawling through tight gaps in and under rocks that looked impossible to get through, was special though tough too.

The three mentors on this trip raised more than 17k between us which is an amazing effort. I was so impressed by the other two guys and felt so special to be counted as one of them. I can’t help feeling how incredibly proud my late father-in-law Sir David Martin would be, of the event. Not that he was much of a hard-nosed outdoorsy guy himself, but he would have been very proud of the journey, the effort and the resolve of all the trekkers. He was a huge fan of solid teamwork, and this group had that worked out very early on.

Perhaps one of the elements that was most enjoyable was spending five days without my phone. I wasn’t as sad about Shiraz as I thought I might be. Though I did talk about it a bit, one small glass on my return home was all it took to send me straight to bed.

I’m going to have to spend some more time thinking about journeys like this. It is not just the hardship and struggle, but the cathartic opportunity they seem to magically provide to so many of us, to stop and ponder. One of the wonderful guys on the trip was reflecting on just how tough the last 18 months of his life had been since the passing of his father, and how much his dad would have enjoyed the trip. It was very emotional hearing him recount his sadness. Beautiful though that he got the opportunity to do that.

I have enjoyed my first night back at home, in my warm and very comfortable bed with my bride at close quarters. The showers, the toilets and all the other comforts of home like a roof and walls all evoke a gentle smile. I wont pretend that the trek was easy, because for me it was physically demanding. It was though, incredibly rewarding, bruises and all. Many of us don’t ever get the opportunity to work in our own ‘discomfort zone’ and many people never get the opportunity to be a part of someone else’s development and struggle. What an honour. Thanks to my new friends for slowing down when I needed it.

I’m certain, are you?

I have recently finished a book by the wonderful writer, the late Michael Crichton, (probably most famous for Jurassic Park). State of fear is a book big enough to scare off all but the most avid of readers. It’s a great read and so timely, as it is all about climate theory. I rarely read fiction, as I am so often frustrated by the standard of writing, so when I say it is worth reading, I don’t make that recommendation lightly. In the author’s notes at the end of the book is a quote I thought was worth talking about. “I am certain there is too much certainty in the world”.

The geo-political events of the last twelve months have clearly shown that few of us really knows or understands what is really going on in the world. Both at scale and in microcosm. The hearts and minds of people across the globe are won and lost by events and circumstance that leaves us all floundering for answers and explanations. But these people are certain. They are not questioning, they are certain.

I see the same certainty echoed across our Australian political landscape from all quarters. In opposition it is easy to be certain. You can be certain and vocal about your heart-felt views because there is no accountability. Even if you don’t offer a credible alternative, you can be certain that whatever the government is doing is wrong.

If you are a minor party, a teeny-weeny little factional thing, you can be certain about everything because you will never ever have to back that up with real action. You can also be certain that somewhere in our country there is a bunch of other people who are certain too. Not questioning, but fair dinkum certifiably certain.

There is no doubt that it is easier in our crazy political system to be in opposition because it allows for certainty. It is much easier to look credible, and be certain, if you don’t have to back up your absolute certainty with action. The same can be said for both sides of politics, I’m not picking on one side over the other here. What I’m saying is, is that smart? Is that actually in the best interests of the country to have a system that allows those in opposition to make the most noise. How many times do we have to vote in an opposition party only to find out they are better at being an opposition than they are at being in power?

The real long-term danger of course comes from the people in power as their easiest recourse is to generate fear. By saying to the public you should stick with the people in power because anything else is terrifying, is a horrible way forward for our community but completely understandable in the circumstances. I for one, think that living in fear is a terrible blight, and potentially very damaging for individuals and community building.

In all of my thinking, I can’t think of a better way to do it. It is far from ideal, because it seems to breed a cycle of certainty at the cost of questioning. So many people take a line or a position on something and then spend all of their energy defending that line rather than spending some time thinking about it. When you are driven by fear, taking a stand is often the easiest way to go, rather than trying to find some balance on the subject.

I have forgotten which author said, “as soon as I find myself agreeing with the majority, its time to question my stance”. Or something like that. Those that know me, know I have an opinion or a thought on most things, on most topics. However they also know that most of that is a work in progress as I search for information to back those ideas up. I’m still searching, I hope you are too.

Thirty years ago today

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When I look at this photo of my bride and me, a raft of memories come flooding back. I am reminded how incredibly exciting it was to have a child with the woman you love, wow that was incredible. How little control I had over the entire situation. Anna had studied mothercraft nursing so had a real handle on what was going on. I had no idea at all, and less than that hope of controlling the outcomes. In the photo I am laughing, no doubt at something Anna has said because she is very funny and loves to make people laugh, but I was actually scared stiff most of the time while my children were growing up.

Now that I am approaching old age, I am thinking that this is really the first time in my life, I can have some element of control over the outcome. (health scares and surprises aside of course) For the first time in my life I am able to say with some certainty how the rest is going to pan out. Maybe I am finally a grown-up, I’m not sure. For the first time in my 57 years on the planet I am confident that I can pick my way through the challenges ahead without collecting many scars.

The photo also reminds me of people who have come and gone in our lives over the last thirty years since this photo was taken. The vanishing of some, fills me with sadness, some others give me the sense of dodging a bullet. Nonetheless they all contributed in some way to the fun that we have had since getting married. One of the most amazing things about the photo is just how little my bride has changed in thirty years. She is still one of the most beautiful women on the planet. I am virtually unrecognisable except to those that knew me back then. It’s not just age, I think my entire face has changed, not for the better by the way. But I’m comfortable with that.

Looking at this photo fills me with excitement for the years ahead. I have so much to do and learn. I can’t just be sitting here writing, see ya.

Unremarkable but fascinating

I often think of life as a set of “T-shirt” moments. For instance my bride has often thought that the perfect t-shirt for me is “often wrong, seldom in doubt”. I can live with that. For the Life Log Project I think the T-shirt that best sums up the process for many people is “Unremarkable, but fascinating” and I say that hoping not to offend anyone.

Most of the people I have met in the course of recording stories do not think of themselves as remarkable in any way. Nor do they think of themselves as fascinating, but I do. Most of them go out of their way to tell me they are not very interesting and it might not be worth my time to record their story.

Regardless of whether you invented fire or not, everyone’s life can be made fascinating by asking the right questions. The world is changing so fast I can barely keep up. Things that I thought were just plain bad manners only a few short years ago, are now accepted as reasonable behaviour. (please note anyone that walks down the street while texting). So things that were plainly a ‘matter of course’, or ‘just what we did’ or ‘thats how everyone did it back then’ are absolutely fascinating to me now, and to those of my generation and those younger than me.

Think back for a moment if you can about our old telephones. I’m talking about the home phone before mobiles. They were pretty special items in any house. When we were young children, we were taught how to answer them in a specific way. We were taught to run and answer them whenever they rang because there was no message bank. We were taught to keep conversations short because someone else may be trying to call us. There was no such thing as call-waiting back then. When the phone rang, the race was on to get there first and repeat the phone answering mantra before listening.

Then there was the local phone box if you were lucky enough to have one. In Canberra one of these phone boxes would regularly give up free STD calls and you would recognise that phone box separate from the hundreds of others by the long queue outside it. In those days calling interstate or overseas was simply prohibitive so it was a real score to find a free telephone box.

These were the same days when you would make decisions about where to fill up your car with petrol based on how good or speedy the service was, not so much on price. If they kept you waiting too long before jogging out to fill your car, or were keener on leering at your friends than filling your car, it was time to change petrol stations. Hasn’t that changed!

Supermarkets didn’t have pre packaged meals of any type. You purchased groceries and cooked them. It doesn’t matter that you may think your life is not worth retelling or capturing, it does not need to be remarkable to be fascinating, particularly to those generations of people who have and will come after you. Wouldnt it be lovely to be able to just sit and listen to your great-grandmother talk about her day-to-day life and the things she thought were important. The T-shirt reads “unremarkable maybe, fascinating for sure.”

My father was pretty amazing

 

Though its fair to say my father and I had a disjointed relationship which was mainly my fault, I am none the less very proud of his achievements. Perhaps chief among them was to overcome a pretty shitty childhood to become an Admiral in the Navy and the Chief of the Defence Force in Australia. He was also the first person to have received all three Australia Medals the AM, AO and the AC. By any measure he was a very successful Naval Officer.

He lived with his grandparents in Boolaroo on the outskirts of Newcastle. He joined the Navy at 13 having won a place on academic merit. He didn’t take to the Navy straight away and on his first visit home, begged his grandparents to allow him to return to Newcastle. many hours of talk later, they agreed that if he went back to Naval College for just one more term and still hated it, they would allow him to come home. So with a heavy heart he boarded the train from Newcastle to Melbourne to attend another term. In the course of that term, both of his grandparents passed away, making the Navy his legal guardian.

There is a popular saying about burning all your bridges, which would be apt in this situation. He went back to college in 1948 and did what any boy with no options would do, worked his arse off. He graduated in 1951 topping every subject bar one. He was also the smallest graduate in his year not hitting puberty for another year and very late compared to his peers. So he was very short and a smart arse.

A few years after graduating from Naval College he was holidaying back in Newcastle when he met Noreen, a young teacher in training from Waratah. The story goes, that they met twice before Alan had to scoot away to do a training stint in England. They wrote to each other, and the next time they saw each other was at the church for their wedding. Crazy right? But it was a marriage that worked and stood the test of both time and the Navy, which meant a house move every two years or so for the next dozen years.

My big sister Megan was born in Melbourne, I in England, my sister Melissa in Scotland and my little brother Mitchell in Sydney. Girl, boy, girl, boy, all about two years apart and all with the same initials. MLB. How very military.

Somewhere in the middle of his career, something went wrong, I think it was when his ship reversed onto a buoy in Hong Kong Harbour, but I may have that wrong. I do know that he was told he would never be promoted and indeed watched his term mates all be promoted ahead of him and in one case promoted twice. But he hung in there, learnt some languages in his spare time and waited.

My mother died before she ever got to see him attain the rank of Admiral. As any son of a successful man will tell you, at some point there is some adjusting to do. I believe my father saw so many of his own personal attributes mirrored in me, which was naturally a source of great frustration for him. But we are people of different eras, of different circumstance. This got in the way of us having a strong bond unfortunately, but it doesn’t alter my appreciation for his amazing grit and determination and an incredible Naval career.

Admiral Alan Lee Beaumont AC RAN died of Lung Cancer September 21 2004.

The thing that scares me the most

 

I recently put my hand up to go on a mentoring trek. Its five days in the bush, walking, camping, abseilng, crossing rivers, carrying a backpack and I’m terrified. The aim of the program is to spend time with some young people in the role of mentor. Just talking about stuff that needs to be discussed. I’m fine with that part. People that have worked with me will back me up on that score I’m sure. Though it has been forty years since I have been really camping with backpacks and tents, that bit doesn’t hold too many fears either, though maybe it should. The fact that it snowed in the mountains above Canberra this week, which is where we are trekking doesn’t thrill me, but I reckon with the right clothing I will be fine, I think.

The bit that actually sends chills down my spine is raising the money to go. It’s fair to say I perhaps should have read the fine print before I agreed to do this, but in my own defence I will say I was sick as a dog in bed and my defences were lower that they should be. I meekly nodded my assent and pulled the doona back under my chin.

I don’t have a lazy 5K to throw at this, I’m guessing some people actually do, perhaps the other mentors going on this journey just flip open their chq books and scribble the numbers without a second thought, but not me. Not only do I not have a lazy 5K to throw at this exercise, but the thought of asking for help is terrifying. I have never asked anyone for money or financial assistance since my days of busking in the 1980’s. It does not come easy to me at all.

My bride helped put it into perspective for me by personalizing it. “Its not about you” she said, “this is about giving some young person a fair crack at starting over, it’s about giving some young person the opportunity to form a relationship based on mutual respect and shared struggle through the bush trek experience. You don’t need to think of this as people helping you” she said “They are helping some young person reshape their lives.”

She’s good isn’t she! So please help if you can. I’m more than half way to the target. I’m pretty determined to get to the target, what would my new friend think of someone who couldn’t reach their first target, it’s not a great example to set is it? Once I have raised the money required, then I can start to get scared about what the five days have in store for me.

The speech I didn’t make

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My eldest son turns 30 this week. I have no idea where most of those years vanished to, to be honest. I remember the day he was born. I remember him being at schools of different uniforms and his first girlfriend. I have a firm memory of him going to England to live. I remember when he came back home to live for a while and I have a crystal clear recollection of the day he came home with the diagnosis of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.

He and his beautiful partner decided that turning 30 was worthy of a drinks party at a pub. No argument from me. They organised it all, inviting friends from the various corners of their worlds, arriving from interstate and across town, from his office and playgrounds, from years ago and ages ago. They all mixed with family and way too much alcohol in a quirky pub in the inner west of Sydney.

I asked him if he was going to get up and say a few words, or if he would like me to speak but he was keen for no speeches. I think it may have been because a lot of his work-mates were there and he didn’t want to undo all of the work he had put in building his work persona. Or perhaps he just felt it would not be necessary. Just before I asked him if he expected me to say anything, I did a quick brain scan for some appropriate words, just in case he gave me one of his looks and said yeah, thanks Dad, that would be a great idea.

These were my thoughts.

How incredibly proud I am of his fight. How proud I am of the composure he shows. Because he has zero tolerance for dickheads, I could say with some assurance that there was not a single one in the room that night. I wanted to express my thanks to his work-mates who rallied around him when he got sick, many of whom gave up holidays to offer them in a pool, to allow my son to take the extra time off to repair his damaged body. And to assure them that it was an investment in a young man who would never let them down.

I wanted to acknowledge the new relationship that my son and I have. We spent his childhood in firm roles of parent and child, and how that relationship had matured, not always smoothly, into a firm and heart-felt friendship. To thank all of his friends from all the different and disparate corners of my son’s life for making the effort to come along and show him how special he is. A young man who often decries close personal ties but craves them nonetheless. In a fast paced world there is always an excuse to not come out, to not attend a drinks invitation, so their attendance was noted and I was grateful.

My son is a very special fella. Strong willed, very funny, quirky and determined, loving and caring with no soft spot for anyone contemptuous of his time or affection. What an interesting life he has ahead of him. Bless him, happy thirtieth.

When Noreen died

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I’m not sure there is a great way or even a good way to die. I know there are some awful ways though. My mum died really quickly, when she was way too young of a cerebral haemorrhage. She was in the doctor’s surgery at the time, having not felt very well earlier that day, she was convinced by a friend to go. The doctor, having completed the check up, was walking back to his desk, about to tell her she was fine, when she fell off the table and died.

He tried to revive her, the ambulance took her to hospital and they hooked her up to machines, then operated on her head and re-hooked her up to machines. My father eventually gave the nod to have the machines turned off. None of the above was easy to write. Because even twenty-six years later I still get choked up about it. Maybe that’s a great way to die. It was certainly quick.

In her fifties, and about to retire, she was way too young and she didn’t ever get the opportunity to do so much stuff she wanted to do and I know there was a whole lot of stuff that went unsaid. So, is that a great way to die?

In my mind’s eye, I see her red lipstick smile and her brightly painted perfect finger nails and her beautiful dark skin. She took great joy in her grand children, though only knew them as babies. She missed out on seeing them become beautiful young men. She missed out on seeing me grow up too, which took some time, to be frank.

And what has this go to do with anything? It is the reason I record people’s stories now. You may never know when it’s too late. It will never be too early.

People are like wine, Shiraz in fact.

I was watching my son decant some Shiraz the other day and it got me thinking about the similarities between how we treat wine and people. Stay with me here, it will start to make sense soon enough.

An expensive bottle of wine gets the best treatment, carefully handled, carefully stored, carefully aired and carefully served. In contrast to a cheap bottle or a quaffer, that gets opened and splashed around as quickly as possible. I started to think about why we don’t decant the cheap wine. Maybe I am missing an opportunity to give the little wine its best chance of being the best it can be.

I reckon I might do that with some people I know. Maybe I don’t give them the air they need, or the care they need to be the very best they can be.