Escape to the Country

It’s been a while since my last blog. My computer crashed and had to go to computer hospital. Thankfully, my friend is a doctor and though my faithful Dell showed no evidence of a virus, the poor PC had to undergo radical reconstruction surgery. Like me, it’s getting on a bit and needs these regular updates to keep it going, but thanks to Doctor Whizz, my ageing Dell is now running like a spritely newborn and performing its duties with ease.

Photo by Annca

Speaking of viruses, I for one have had enough already. So far this year we’ve had devastating fires and pestilence; thankfully we live on a hill because it’s been raining nonstop for two days and floods are now imminent. I’m waiting for a plague of locusts to descend on the Southern Highlands and eat all our veggies from the garden plot. It’s a year of biblical events and I need to escape!  If only we could just fly away to some paradise, far from the Covid crowd and just chill. “You’re a writer,” I hear you say. “Just use your imagination and you’re on an exotic isle somewhere.” True, but I’m after the real thing, a warm breeze tickling the hairs on my skin, the fragrance of frangipani wafting in the night air, the rhythmic crash of waves against the rocks as a full moon rises. I want to sip on a tequila sunrise and watch the stars twinkle above the ocean, a steel band playing Kokomo at the beach bar in the background. D’oh! You’ve got me doing it, haven’t you; that imagination thing?

Photo by Rick Lee

Imagination is a powerful mode of transport. With travel options at a premium right now, I like to look back on times when we were able to venture far afield and to savour the precious memories I’ve accumulated. It’s a good time to take out the old photos and videos and relive the adventures of years gone by, and to dream of journeys to come when better times return. They will return.

Photo by Rick Lee

For now, we have to make the most of what we’ve got and memories can serve up a vivid escape from the day-to-day reality of this awful pandemic. I’m looking through my thousands of photos, one and a half terabytes of priceless moments, thankful once again to Doctor Whizz for making sure I had backups before Dell went down.

Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee

A snap of local children takes me back to a village in Vanuatu, a stark moonscape image brings me to the rim of a volcano on Tanna. When I see the sky reflected in rice paddies, I’m transported back to Bali or the world heritage village of Shirakawago in remote Japan. A short video of a cigar maker takes me back to a steamy night in New Orleans, listening to live Jazz until dawn in the French Quarter. I can smell the cigar smoke in the humid night air as I enjoy it over again and pledge to return one day.

Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee

Red sands glow in the United Arab Emirates, while the sight of rolling hills in Tuscany brings back the smell of pecorino cheese in the village of Pienza, pizza and red wine at a trattoria in Florence. These captured moments can be as real now as they were at the time. It’s that imagination thing again.

Photo by Rick Lee

There are other ways to escape confinement. Think local. There’s more than we imagine right on our doorstep. Unless you’re unfortunate enough to be confined to quarantine, in lock-down or isolation, a walk in the park can be just as therapeutic, a walk in the country even better. There’s something about nature that automatically provides an escape. It’s hard not to live in the moment when surrounded by such beauty. Even a garden can provide a myriad of distractions, there in every detail observed at close quarters. The veins on a leaf, the petals of a flower. The iridescence of an insect’s wing.

Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee

It’s deep into winter here in the highlands. I’m watching trees thrashing in the wind and raindrops hanging like tears from empty branches; not the best time to go for a walk. But, from the window of my cosy office, I can see the first daffodils are splashing their brilliance on a miserable grey day, a show of hope, a sign of brighter times to come. A Crimson Rosella is fighting the wind to cling on to a branch and a Kookaburra, fluffed up in a ball of feathers, is waiting for a worm or a lizard to stir in the leaf litter. Spring is a month away but there’s a promise of better times in the air, times when we can emerge from isolation and travel this wonderful earth once again. Until then, I’ll open up the album and use my imagination to escape to the country. Any country will do.

Photo by Rick Lee

    

Any country will do

Blood, Sweat and Tears

There’s something about great construction works that stir the blood. Magnificent cathedrals, bridges that span vast rivers, castles and skyscrapers, they all stand as monuments to human achievement.  I remember watching the tragedy of the Notre Dame cathedral fire unfold and thinking how devastating the loss of such an iconic piece of history. Every time I see that great church I think of Charles Laughton swinging down from the bell tower to rescue his fair maiden, declaring sanctuary as the hunchback took refuge in the tower with his beautiful prize.

Notre Dame Cathedral fire

More recently, I watched Queen Elizabeth arriving at Windsor Castle for her own piece of sanctuary during the COVID-19 lockdown and marvelled at the resilient structure that has stood for 900 years and has protected kings and queens through the ages. Castles and palaces abound in Britain and having been born and raised in England, I still have a great sense of pride in these truly wonderful structures and the pageantry and history that surrounds them. I’m certain that most Brits feel the same way, just as the French must revere their cathedrals and chateaus, the Louvre and grand palaces like Versailles. Yet, as I got to thinking about this, I started to wonder how it is that such symbols of elite power could inspire pride in the hearts of the masses. Like most great monuments, they are built on the backs of the underprivileged and impoverished.

Photo by Dean Moriarty

Throughout history, people of wealth and power have exploited society’s weakest and used them to build ever more wealth and power, symbolised by great edifices and grand architecture. Absolute monarchies and military dictatorships had long ruled the world before modern democracies evolved to give some measure of control to the people. I say “some measure of control” because we are still largely at the mercy of the rich and powerful, and in many countries, just as oppressed as those who struggled through the middle ages. It took a revolution in France to place their palaces in the hands of the masses. A civil war in Britain eventually ended in a compromise, handing power to an elected parliament while leaving wealth with the aristocrats and the crown.

Photo by Mike’s photos

It wasn’t just kings, queens and emperors that manipulated the vulnerable to build their riches, churches acquired vast amounts of wealth and power and took a leading role in controlling the population. While the poor underclass lived without basic needs, they were taxed and stripped of meagre assets to fund grand churches, monasteries and temples of every faith throughout the world. It’s a story repeated; the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Even today, churches are some of the world’s wealthiest organisations while parts of their flocks suffer great hardship.

Photo by Andrea Spallanzani

While the vast majority of the world’s population have at some time lived in poverty and ill health, the privileged classes have taken advantage, building extravagant constructions to immortalise themselves in time. Many of the most vulnerable paid the ultimate price. It has been estimated that the Great Wall of China was built at the expense of at least 500,000 lives, not to mention the cost in pain and misery. The great pyramids of Egypt would tell a similar story as would most of the world’s great wonders.

Photo by Pete Linforth

Great projects at the expense of lives are not confined to ancient history. Modern feats of extraordinary endeavour have continued to place a heavy toll on those tasked with their construction. Over 120,000 workers lost their lives building the Suez Canal. America’s Trans-Continental railway cost 1,200 lives, and while everyone knows of the death toll when the twin towers came down, building the World Trade Centre took 60 lives from the ranks of construction workers. Qatar’s 2022 world cup construction projects have so far claimed 34 lives, but independent estimates put the number at well over 1000 when cardiovascular deaths due to heat exhaustion are taken into account. Whichever way you want to put it, it’s too high a price for poor migrant workers to pay so the rich can play games.

So, why is it that we can look at a grand tomb or a palace built by a king and experience wonder and awe, pride in a heritage that surely left our ancestors begging on the streets and burying their dead? Surely we could be forgiven for tearing them down and leaving them in ruins.

Photo by Rick Lee

Surely we could be forgiven for tearing them down and leaving them in ruins!

Perhaps we recognise the human cost and want to let them stand as reminders. Or, maybe it’s simply our admiration for what human beings can achieve in the very worst of conditions, recognition of the blood, sweat and tears, the sacrifices made by ordinary men and women that stirs our love for such monuments.

Photo by Rashed Rana

What those in power sought to have built were tributes to themselves, legacies to immortalise them as great men and women. But, what they got instead are lasting memorials to the ingenuity, graft and sacrifice of those whose names are not written in stone. They are the men women and children who suffered to achieve their immortality, and it’s to them we pay tribute when we look on with awe and admire these extraordinary national treasures. 

The exploitation of the common man is far from ended; the rich and powerful still rule the world and those less fortunate continue to pay the price.

Photo by Rick Lee

We are still building monuments, modern monoliths of glass and steel that soar skyward to the heavens. The exploitation of the common man is far from ended; the rich and powerful still rule the world and those less fortunate continue to pay the price. The world’s richest 1% owns 44% of the world’s wealth. In 2018, 26 people owned as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the world’s population. But, that’s a story for another time.

 

Boy in a Bubble

There’s an old one-liner in which a man says to his wife, “How can I miss you if you won’t leave?” But in these times of forced separation and isolation, missing people is an all too familiar effect of the current situation and it’s really no joke. It’s said that absence makes the heart grow fonder, you don’t realise what you’ve got until it’s gone. I think we all know by now just what we’ve lost and can’t wait for things to return to normal. Along with the coronavirus itself, these feelings of separation anxiety are in pandemic proportions right now. There are not many of us who’ve escaped such personal trauma. Life has been turned on its head and it’s like we’ve all been consigned to the confines of our own little bubbles.

Photo by Lars Nissen

I watched the viral video clip of the Italian suitor who arrived at his girl’s house inside a large plastic bubble to ask her out on a date. It was all good fun and a bit of light-hearted entertainment during desperate times in Italy, yet it triggered a memory in me and brought a tinge of fear, causing my heart to beat faster and the hairs to stand on the back of my neck. The reason? When I was a small boy, I had a bad case of croup, a respiratory disease caused by a virus that causes swelling and narrowing of the airways. I well remember the terrifying struggle to breathe, the ambulance bells and the emergency dash to hospital where I spent days in a plastic oxygen tent in the intensive care unit. (Perhaps it was this experience that led to my extreme claustrophobia later in life.) As the days passed and I started to recover, it was the separation from my family that caused even more anxiety. Seeing the blurry faces of Mum and Dad outside my plastic bubble and not being able to touch them was not an easy thing for a sick child to deal with. Just as now, the hospital staff were brilliant and I was able to recover and leave in good health, but the trauma has stayed with me, and the thought of struggling to breathe while trapped inside a bubble is quite real.

Oxygen tent circa 1960

For a hugger like myself, social distancing is a real bummer and separation from family is for me, like most of us, the worst of this pandemic.

Photo by Alexandra Koch

Our kids practiced social distancing long before the term was coined. I recall the road trips for holidays across America, three boys in the back seat of our car who demanded their own personal space. “He’s touching me!” “Am not!” “Yes you are.” “Am not!” They would test each other to the limit by seeing how close they could place a hand while the other would cry foul. “He’s doing it on purpose!” “I’m not. He’s the one who’s touching me.” And so the battle would go for one weary mile after the other while we would threaten to turn right around and go home if they couldn’t just get along. Those were the good old days.

Don’t touch! Photo by Gerd Altmann

There have been times in my life when separation has been a consequence of the decisions I made. Like living away from home while training to build boats in Norfolk. Thankfully it was not too long before the family reunited and we moved to the Broads to be near the work. Then there was the big one, the move to Canada from England. In the words of Frank Sinatra: Regrets, I’ve had a few. Though I’ve never regretted our moves around the world, I do regret leaving family and friends behind, especially when we first moved from England. It’s one of those things that comes back to me when I watch our children live their lives and see our grandchildren grow, and I think of what it would be like if they left for the other side of the world. We were young and desperate for a better life for our children when we left England’s shores. I can’t imagine the terrible loss our parents must have felt when we left them behind. Of course, we too felt the loss of family.

“I do regret leaving family and friends behind when we moved to Canada.”

There was a short time after arriving in Canada when we seriously thought about turning right around and heading back to those we loved. But we didn’t and the rest is history. Our separation anxiety was increased in those days by the lack of communication options. Unlike today, we had few ways to stay in touch and it was usually by letter. We couldn’t afford a phone for a long time, and when we did eventually get one installed, the cost of calls to England were then quite prohibitive and a phone call became a big event. Each time we called home, we had to go through the operator who told us that all lines to England were busy. Sometimes we would try for hours to get through, and then the call lasted only minutes. At least now during lockdown we can see our family on FaceTime, What’s App and programs like Zoom and House Party. How I wish my parents had had that when we went away all those years ago.

Photo by Engin_Akyurt

I know I’m not alone in thinking that this terrible pandemic has made me re-think how we go about our lives. It’s highlighted just how important our contact with family and friends is to us. Life can sometimes get so busy that we find ourselves drifting through the days in isolated bubbles of self-imposed exile. Then when that isolation is suddenly forced on us, we realise too late that we’ve been taking our freedom to be together for granted. When this awful thing is over, and it will be over, I’ll be doing some serious hugging and popping some bubbles. They won’t be plastic either.

Photo by Digeman

Virus? Don’t make me laugh!

I need a laugh. I mean, really, really need a laugh. Not just a laugh but a belly laugh, a big old tummy shaker. Why? Well, it’s not even two months since the world looked on with sympathy as the bushfires ravaged Australia, and in particular, our villages of the Southern Highlands. Exhausted, we came out of it feeling thankful that we came through it, and grateful for such moral support from around the planet. Now there’s a new calamity to challenge us, but this time, all the world shares the same boat. Actually, we shouldn’t mention boats because our wonderful authorities have just let 3000 cruise ship passengers go their own way untested after disembarking in Sydney. Now they are chasing them down across the country and have so far confirmed 133 cases of the disease. It would be funny if it wasn’t so catastrophic. Nothing to laugh about, right? So what about that laugh?

Toilet paper humour

The current situation has got me to thinking about humour. There’s something about the worst of times that brings out the humour in us. Perhaps it’s a need to relieve the pressure and it’s released by having a good old laugh. Who could forget Monty Python singing, ‘Always look on the bright side of life’? Having a joke is something we need to do during a crisis, and the current one is no exception. There’s been loads of funny memes and one-liners about the virus, a great deal of which have focused on toilet paper, and that really gives me the shits. Sometimes it seems as if the jokes get funnier as the situation grows more serious. What would they have done during the great wars without a sense of humour? Sorry! Don’t mention the war. I think it’s probably essential for our sanity to find laughter in dark times.

Photo by Pexels

There’s plenty to make us giggle these days, but am I the only one who wonders what happened to the belly laugh? We grew up roaring with laughter. As a child, I remember sitting down to watch the Sunday feature film, which was often a comedy. The whole family would settle down to the matinee after a big Sunday roast lunch, and once the dishes had been washed, Mum, Dad and the family would be able to relax and enjoy our favourite comedy stars in glorious black and white. Favourites like Gerry Lewis, Bob Hope and George Formby. Tears would roll, and so would a belly full of lunch. Sometimes we would laugh more at Mum and Dad laughing than we would be watching the movie, just like the virus, laughs are infectious. What a satisfying way it was to relax before the Monday morning blues and the return of the workweek. Wind the clock forward a few years and we had the likes of Peter Sellers and Lucile Ball, hilarious fools to make us weep with joy. In those days, comedy was full of visual content and slapstick seemed essential for a good laugh. We didn’t have to think about it to get the joke, it was there in all its silly simplicity.

Classic John Cleese

As the years rolled by, new stars emerged who could still make us roar. Who could forget classic comedies like John Cleese’s Faulty Towers, or the Airplane movies with the late Leslie Nielson, both finding humour in disasters and chaos and both almost too much to bear they were so funny. I can’t recall how many times I’ve watched the re-runs, but it’s a lot, and still, they make me laugh. There are also segments of movies or television shows that stick in the memory as classic moments of comedy. The zipper scene in Something About Mary, the bear scene in the Great Outdoors, Clark Griswold’s sandwich scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation, all spring to mind.

Can’t help a chuckle when some poor male gets clobbered in the goolies

To be honest, some of yesterday’s humour would not go down well today. What was acceptable then and what is acceptable now are often worlds apart. In the past, comedy was very often generated by poking fun at someone’s expense or someone’s misfortunes. That’s ok when the clowns are mocking themselves but I’m not a huge fan of the numerous videos that show people coming a cropper and hurting themselves. Having said that, I think everyone would have to admit that they can’t help a chuckle when some poor male gets clobbered in the goolies. You feel the pain but just can’t help but smile. The German word is schadenfreude. Schaden-harm, freude-joy; it means taking pleasure from someone else’s distress. It’s in our nature apparently. Some scientists say it’s a throw-back to early man, that we, as prey, are happy to stand by and watch in safety when someone else gets caught and eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger, just grateful that it wasn’t us. Go save him? Must be joking!

How about a fit of the giggles? Now that makes me laugh. I remember being invited to a neighbourhood pot-luck supper not long after migrating to Canada. The idea was that everyone would take a main dish and a dessert dish to the gathering. Being English, my dear wife thought it would be nice to make an English trifle for dessert. On arriving at the venue, we introduced ourselves, handed our dishes to a lovely lady at the door and took our seats at a long banquet table, new faces all round, so we were a bit shy and self-conscious. The call went out to help ourselves and everyone got up and formed an orderly line, taking a little of everything from the varied dishes spread out on the buffet. On returning to our seats, we looked down the table with horror, everyone had taken a scoop of trifle and dolloped it onto their roasts, cabbage rolls and potatoes. Being newcomers and a little wary, we didn’t speak up to say that our dessert had ended up on the wrong table, but watched in silent embarrassment as our new friends tucked into roast beef, gravy and custard with strawberries and cream. That’s when the giggles started. And, of course, the more we tried to stifle the chuckles, the more they increased, until we were crying, choking on our food and dribbling gravy through our nostrils while trying to suppress the laughter. Undoubtedly, our new neighbours thought we were idiots and we were never invited back again, but the story lives on and makes us smile all these years later. Sorry, lovely neighbours.

Comedy has changed since the days of my youth. It’s supposed to be more sophisticated, subtle and clever, but it never really gets my juices flowing to the point where I lose all self-composure. It makes me titter rather than break out in hysterics. Don’t get me wrong, I like modern humour, but as far as therapeutic release is concerned, there’s no substitute for the slapstick of old. Maybe our capacity to laugh hard has diminished as life has become more stressful. Too much on our minds to let go and have a good laugh, we run from here to there and don’t stop to have a good giggle. But it seems to me that it’s in times of stress that we need laughter most. Having a good laugh promotes hormones and triggers the release of endorphins. Similarly, tears will do the same. They release hormones that make us feel better. So it makes complete sense to laugh until we cry. Double the benefits, right? I’m going to do my best to find a belly laugh and share it. Let’s all take some time to find some, after all, time is something we’re going to have a lot of for a while. Pick out a funny video, a movie or television classic and give ourselves permission to let the belly roll and with it the tears. Play a game of nude Twister; get one of the kids to pull your finger and fart; there has to be a good chuckle somewhere. God knows we could do with a laugh. Just make sure to laugh into your elbow.

Photo by Caroline Hernandez

God knows we could do with a laugh

Great reviews for Black Bones, Red Earth

I’m delighted to see some great reviews for Black Bones, Red Earth from various sources. It’s always good to get some feedback from readers. I’m told there’s been a massive discrepency in delivery times. Some readers have the book within days of order, others it seems they had to wait weeks. I’m sorry for any delays. I assume it’s due to the current situation and working conditions for the printers and delivery couriers. Please be patient if you haven’t received your copy yet.

Out of the ashes

I’d like to wish everyone a Happy New Year, but I’m a bit late and January is almost behind us. Nevertheless, I hope 2020 is a safe and healthy one for us all and the year brings great happiness. I can’t say I’m sorry to see December and January go, it’s been a horrific time for Australians this bushfire season, and quite traumatic for us here in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. We’re grateful for the rain that brought some respite to parts of the country, including our own backyard. We received good falls of the wonderful stuff. The fires here are mostly under control as a result, but there are still many burning and we have a lot of hot weather still to come. We can only pray for more rain.

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Photo by Geetanjal Khanna

The memory of our local fires is still raw and I have to admit that I get quite emotional when I see others going through the same drama in other parts of the country. Our family was lucky. We didn’t lose property or suffer any injuries or loss of life like some of our neighbours, but the weeks of mental strain have taken its toll, and we are dealing with the aftermath. We get very twitchy and nervous every time there’s talk of a new flare-up or see news from others who are still in the thick of it.

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Photo by Dion Georgopoulos

Part of the emotional response we now feel comes from having witnessed the selfless efforts of volunteers who battled to keep our community safe. So when we hear of more tragedies involving these heroes, it’s hard not to choke up and grieve. Day after day we watched the brave aircrews passing over our house with water and fire retardant, keeping the fire front at bay. DC10, C-130 and gigantic air-cranes flew so low over the rooftops you could almost see the pilots faces. The American C-130 air-tanker that crashed, killing all three of the American crew, was amongst them. We watched in awe as it flew above the treetops and over our villages. Sadly, they were not the first casualties. Two local firefighters gave their lives just a few kilometres from here; they came to Hill Top to protect our lives and property, instead, they lost their own lives. These losses feel very personal.

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The American air-tanker over Hill Top                                                              Photo by Rick Lee

There have been 33 lost lives so far. Whether they were protecting their properties or helping others protect theirs, every loss is deeply felt. But out of catastrophe come stories that give hope, that make one proud. People come together in the face of adversity, differences are put aside while attention is focused on the common goal, the common enemy. Community comes to the forefront and true colours are evident everywhere in the fighting spirit. The groundswell of support for those in need only goes to prove that we quickly open our arms and hearts to each other when our backs are against the wall.

Every loss is deeply felt

Australians are famous for coming together when needed, but in truth, I believe it’s true of all people. There is inbuilt compassion in all of us, empathy for those in need of help and an urge to run to their aid. This was evident in the many who came from all over Australia to lend a hand, all those who gave up their holidays and came from across the world, Canada, America, New Zealand to stand and fight. Donations have poured in from around the globe, offers of assistance and disaster relief have been overwhelming.

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Photo by Rick Lee

Devastatingly, our wildlife has suffered incredible loss, and if anything can break our hearts it’s the sight of these helpless creatures caught up in the tragedy. It’s estimated that 1.25 billion native animals have perished. Yes, that’s billion with a ‘B’. Some will be pushed to the edge of extinction. Once again, offers of assistance have flooded into organisations that can help. The sad truth is, there’s nothing can be done about the massive losses, but the sight of volunteers coming forward to care for injured wildlife is one to warm the heart. Now we must help regenerate and protect habitat so that our remaining wildlife can survive.

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Photo by Pexels

We’ll get over this crisis and settle back into the routines of life, people always do, but for those who were caught up in the disaster, nothing will ever be quite the same. When I get emotional about what’s happened, I also give thanks, after all, we were some of the lucky ones. When I look around with time to reflect, I recognise that part of my emotional response is not just about the trauma, not just about emerging from a battleground unscathed, but is a sense of pride from seeing the community spirit that emerged, the feeling that we were, are, not alone. Cause enough to choke up and shed tears.

Black Bones, Red Earth set for release February 24th

Life does go on and I’m delighted to say that everything is on track for the release of my new novel, Black Bones, Red Earth. It should already be available for Pre-Order through bookstores in some parts of the world, though it can be slow getting into some catalogues. Look out for it!

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Words are not enough…

Thank-you. Thanks. Thanks a lot. Thank you very much. Words are funny things. There’s estimated to be between 175,000 and 500,000 words in the English language, not including slang and jargon, yet when it comes to expressing our thanks to the people who’ve put their lives at risk to protect us and our property, a simple thank-you hardly seems adequate.

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Photo by Skeeze

The Australian bushfire season has arrived in catastrophic fashion. Catastrophic! Now that’s a word that demands attention. Last weekend, the warning went out to our little community of Hill Top, and surrounding NSW villages, for catastrophic conditions. Temperatures, they predicted, would be in the mid 40c range, and winds would be gusting up to 70kph. The Wattle Creek fire near us had been burning on several fronts for almost a month, and now gathered on our doorstep like the terrifying horsemen of the apocalypse. Apocalypse. Another powerful word, conveying what was to come for the neighbouring village of Balmoral, a village struck only days before, as a fire moved in from the surrounding valleys. The loss of firefighters: Geoffrey Keaton and Andrew O’Dwyer, later that day, was a body blow to those left to defend the village and one that would shatter our close-knit communities.

Like the Horsemen of the Apocolypse

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Photo by Erkut2

Planning was everything, they told us, as the weekend approached. We must plan to stay and defend our properties, or plan to leave. There could be no change of mind once the fire front was upon us and the roads in and out of our villages would be closed. The narrow cutting through which the road passes out of town would be a death trap if the fire engulfed it. Each had to assess their situation and make the decision early.

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Hill Top village                      Photo by Rick Lee

A critical morning came at the weekend, and with it, an eerie stillness, as firefighters gathered in the village to receive their instructions. Smoke filled the air like a London fog. Had we made the right decision to stay and defend? Perhaps we were stupid not to go, only time would tell. But I couldn’t help feeling, watching these volunteers disperse, that it was the least we could do for ourselves when others were about to risk everything to protect our community.

As the day progressed, we monitored the situation live, receiving updates on scanner radio, watching those in the air make their sweeps across the skyline, helicopters and planes in a bid to control the blaze. Plumes of smoke rose into the stratosphere, bubbling and boiling on the thermal columns of air. Sparks and embers travelled kilometres on the hot winds, causing spot fires to burst out and flare. We waited in trepidation. Trepidation: a word lacking the power to describe our anxiety as the front moved in closer. Then the text message came on our phones: NSWRFS EMERGENCY WARNING – Hill Top – Immediate danger. Seek shelter now as the fire approaches. It is too late to leave.

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Photo by Patricio Hurtado

As it eventuated, we Hill Topians stayed safe, thanks to the efforts of those who came to our aid. The fire front was halted, for then at least, at the village border. Our neighbours were not so lucky. All in all, the village of Balmoral took several massive hits as the fire came at the community from different directions, the winds swirling in across the hills, devastating the small village. The efforts of those fighting the inferno are nothing short of heroic. Heroic; that’s another word that hardly seems to encapsulate the courage of these selfless people. Volunteers, these courageous men and women have come from near and far to help. Having foregone wages, while away from their work and businesses, their families will struggle to get by as a result. Some will take out loans to get over the loss of income.

I have a couple of other words to consider. How about: ironic. Isn’t it bloody ironic that as these heroes go without while protecting us from fire, our government sends millions of dollars’ worth of fireworks up in smoke during a few minutes of New Year’s Eve opulence? How cruel the irony that they can’t find it in their hearts to compensate our wonderful services, but can find multi-millions of dollars for the firey exhibition. They will spend $6.5 million on Sydney’s fireworks alone.

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Photo by Tom Hill

Here’s another word to consider: Arseholes. A perfect description for the Prime Minister who says that the firefighters actually want to be there fighting fires, as if it’s like a weekend getaway to Hawaii, and the politicians who spend their days in parliament like children. No, I take that back. Children don’t spend their entire workday trading catcalls and insults, sneering and belittling each other, finding fault and blame. No, children spend their time learning and being creative, finding solutions to problems instead of causing them. Our politicians have seen this catastrophe coming; they’ve known what to expect for years. So why does so much of our country rely on community volunteers to deal with this annual crisis? Where are the funds for such critical services, and why haven’t they given our incredible heroes the resources they need to do the job of mitigating these fires before they can reach a critical condition?

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Photo by Skeeze

Perhaps someone can create a new word to express our appreciation for the heroes that serve. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious comes to mind. But no, it wouldn’t be right to cheapen our feelings of gratitude with something so glib. Maybe a humble, thank-you, in all its simplicity, is all we can say that truly comes from the heart. Thank-you, each and every one.

Thank-you

Tempus Fugit

What is it about the passing of time that makes it so variable? Yes, I know there are instruments that measure time quite accurately– they’re called clocks– and that every minute that passes is the same duration as the last. Same with weeks, months and years, right? Then why the hell do the years pass so quickly now compared to the days of my youth?

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Photo by Gerd Altmann

When I was a boy, I went on a school trip to Chester where we visited the cathedral among other places of interest. I don’t think I was more than nine or ten years old at the time. On touring the historic church, I was intrigued by the words on a plate affixed to a clock-case in the transept. It read:

When as a child I laughed and wept,
Time crept.
When as a youth I waxed more bold,
Time strolled.
When I became a full-grown man,
Time RAN.
When older still I daily grew,
Time FLEW.
Soon I shall find, in passing on,
Time gone.
O Christ! wilt Thou have saved me then?

Amen.

The poem was called Time’s Paces, by Henry Twells, and I felt oddly affected by the words, as though the message was meant for me personally. It gave me goosebumps and I didn’t know why. The words have stayed with me all these years and the older I get, the more they resonate with me. I’m not sure why the rhyme had such an impact on one so young– a nine-year-old doesn’t normally take in such profound sentiments– and why I’d think of it now all these years later and remember each line. Perhaps through time I’ve found a psychic link with myself, a wormhole through the ages, and it’s actually me, now, that’s sending a chill up the younger me’s spine as I stand before the clock in Chester. Oooo… I’ll have to think about that one; it could be a whole other blog.

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Photo by Gerd Altmann

The way time passes is surely a matter of perception, and depends on all kinds of influences, both physical and mental. The same final two minutes of a football match can be perceived in extremely different ways, depending on your point of view. If your team’s winning (mine usually is these days) by a solitary goal and the opposition is pressing hard for an equaliser, two minutes is an agonisingly long time to hold out. I mean, how can two minutes be enough time to score not one but two goals after playing ninety minutes of football? It happens despite the improbability, and those two minutes expand to a ridiculous amount of time. And if you’re supporting the team that’s losing by a goal (I’ll resist a clever dig at my brothers here), well, it’s like trying to hold water in a sieve, the time goes so fast it may as well not have existed in the first place.

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Champions

When it comes to time passing quickly as we get older, they say it’s because we measure time against our experience, a percentage of the life we’ve already lived. That’s why when we look back at our childhood, summer days were so long and school just wouldn’t end. A year in the life of a two-year-old is half a lifetime. Imagine having to wait half a lifetime for next Christmas, or your next birthday. The time in between those events would seem an eternity. While for those of us who’ve been around awhile, birthdays come by far too often, and it always seems like we just had Christmas. If a year is 50% of a two-year-old’s life, and time accelerates as a percentage of time lived… Sorry, I’ll let you do the maths on that.

A year in the life of a two-year-old is half a lifetime

There is a less depressing theory on the passage of time, other than the one where time shortens as we’re hurtling at light speed to the end of the line. It’s said that our perception of time is shaped by our exposure to new experiences and changes of environment. In other words, time passes more slowly when we are learning new things, taking on new challenges, or going where we’ve never ventured before. Our brains perceive the passing of time according to stimulating activity. When it has new information to process, time goes by slowly. This also explains why time passes slowly for kids, and fast for adults. Kids are constantly learning, and almost every experience is new and exciting. Whereas the older one gets, the less we see and do that we’ve never done before. So, according to this theory, familiarity not only breeds contempt, but it speeds up time.

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Photo by Adina Voicu

As we get older, we generally feel the need to slow down and enjoy life. We’ve earned it after all. But if slowing down to relax means speeding up the later years, perhaps it’s time to rethink how we go about it. We need to fill the days with new stimulation, take up new hobbies, challenges, travel. And next time we slow down to smell the roses, let’s make sure it’s a new variety. Maybe include some freesias and frangipanis, or go visit a botanic garden and learn something new about nature’s gifts. How about a trip across continents to see the great gardens of the world? The point is, if challenging the brain is said to slow down time, then bring on the challenges, I say.

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Photo by Rick Lee

Whichever way you choose to look at it, our lives are short and we have to make the most of every minute. For me, I’ll take new and exciting any day of the week if it helps extend my time on earth. But then again, maybe I can find that wormhole and it will take me back full circle, a loop in time, and I’ll start all over again. I’ll find myself standing in front of the clock in Chester with its verse by Twells, and think: where have I seen that before, as the shivers stand the hairs on my neck, and my skin turns to gooseflesh. Oh, and by the way, it’s nearly Christmas again.

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Image courtesy of PIRO4D and Rick lee

Sweet Sorrow

I remember sitting with my young son once, watching a movie, a sad movie about a dog. I knew the scene was having an effect on him because it had a similar one on me. I watched him for a moment, feeling for him as the tears began to flow. When he realised I was watching, he turned and said he had an onion in his eye. It’s an excuse I’ve used myself since then.

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Photo by Steve Buissinne

Sometimes, emotions get the better of us, even when we try to control them. They set the tone for each of us in our daily lives. We wake in an emotional state, be it happy, sad, stressed, angry or relaxed, and head out into our day, reacting to the world and coping with our many moods. But these feelings can change in an instant. You awake to the sun shining through your window; the birds are singing; life is good. But then you glance at the alarm. Why didn’t it go off after you set it? You’ve overslept for crying out loud, and now you’ve missed the bus to work. Disaster has struck, and all because you lay there thinking happy thoughts. We’ve all been there. A letter in the mail to say you owe back-taxes just after getting a pay rise. A bump in your brand new car even though you never got a scratch on the old one. Emotions have a way of swinging with the breeze and with the events surrounding us. And, of course, they can play out in the opposite direction; you start off irritable but the day keeps getting better. By evening your floating on air. Bring on that bottle of wine before dinner; life is great. (might not be in the morning when you regret the second bottle of wine) Emotions play a significant part in our decision making; they affect everything from impulse buying to picking a partner, job decisions to which shoes you should wear. It’s impossible to go through life without experiencing an emotional response to everything in it.

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Photo by Gino Crescoli

There are generally recognised lists of emotions that include all the usual suspects. Anger, joy, sadness, fear, disgust, surprise. There are others like embarrassment, shame and pride. And what’s clear is that we can experience different, even opposing emotions simultaneously. The anxiety we feel on the first day of work, for instance, is usually accompanied by excitement, perhaps even pride, along with terror at the thought of failure. Scientists have all manner of explanations to tell us what, how and why emotions evolved in humans, and why they play such an essential role in daily life. Many of those explanations go back to basic survival instincts, like fight-or-flight, getting pleasure from eating certain foods, or the need to jealously protect your mate from intruders. Science can explain the physiological responses by talking about neurotransmitters and chemical stimulation. They’ll highlight the importance of hormones like cortisol, adrenalin, and melatonin. These all play a part in our emotional state. To most of us, however, it’s merely a question of how we feel at any one moment and how we interpret the emotions. We also need to react to the feelings of those around us.

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Photo by John Hain

Understanding body language is vital in our interactions with others. How we express our emotional state helps us communicate our state of mind. A smile can bring instant ease when confronted with a stranger. But subtle changes in that same smile can turn it from a greeting to a smirk, and in an instant to an aggressive warning of contempt or bravado. Tears are a display of pain, but also a way of saying to others that we may need help. We learn these cues from birth.

Sometimes we cry for no reason at all

Of all the physiological responses to emotions, tears are perhaps the most telling, but once again, they can be the result of very different emotions that can run side-by-side. We cry for many reasons, and in recent years, we’ve been encouraged to use tears freely as a vent for our emotions, especially when it comes to men. There are still those alpha-males who think tears are for the girls, but more and more men feel free to express their feelings by letting the tears flow. It’s long been known to have a therapeutic effect, a powerful way to get past grief. Sometimes laughter brings us to tears, and again, this brings conflicting emotions into close relationships. We cry when we are overwhelmed by emotions at either end of the scale; joy vs pain, despair vs happiness. We cry at weddings and funerals, at winning and losing, and we sometimes cry for no reason at all. I recall a moment when driving alone one day. I switched on the radio just in time to hear a boy chorister singing a requiem at Westminster Abbey, the sound so pure, I felt suddenly overwhelmed and brought to tears. I’ve heard of such instances before, but to be affected to such extreme emotion, purely by the beauty of sound, was indeed something I’ll never forget. I’ve been reduced to blubbering many times in my life, times when nothing could hold back the need to weep, though I’ve often felt the need to hide it. Perhaps the younger generations will feel less inhibited, but I’ve a feeling they’ll have a lot more to cry about.

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Photo by Cheryl Holt

Loss is a common reason people tear up and bawl. Like most people, I’ve lost family, friends and loved ones who’ve passed away, and, my family and I have said goodbye many times when we’ve migrated around the world, leaving behind those we hold dear. But the loss of those close to us is when those darned emotions start playing tricks again. Our tears are full of mixed feelings, and sadness is tinged with the happy memories we’ve shared. In grieving a loss, we experience all manner of emotions, and they are often at odds with one another. This is because you can’t have grief without knowing the joy of love, and if you never had love, you can never know the real tragedy of grief. That’s why parting is such sweet sorrow.

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Photo courtesy of S. Hermann & F. Richter

 

That’s why parting is such sweet sorrow

Unconditional Love

I started to write a very different blog

I started to write a very different blog but was distracted by the tap of a paw on my knee. My ever-present writing buddies wanted my attention. Whenever I sit down at the computer and start writing, it’s usually a signal for Charlie and Ruby–our King Charles Cavaliers–to stretch out and sleep, only to stir at coffee time, when they know they’ll get their morning treat.

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Photo by Rick Lee                                                                        Charlie and Ruby

They don’t need to smell the coffee; they don’t even need to hear the coffee machine buzzing or the fridge door slapping shut; they have an impeccable built-in clock that says, it’s bikkie time. It’s incredible that they can tell to the second, just when they should be eating, sleeping, or going out for walks. Not only that, they are psychic, knowing long before I don my coat and grab the car keys that I’m planning to leave without them. Try sneaking out of the house; it’s impossible. Not only are they psychic, but my furry friends are mind-benders. They sit and stare for hours if necessary just so I’ll get up and clean the dinner dishes of potential food scraps. Look into my eye, my eyes. The movie can wait; you will get up and feed me. Look into my eyes; you are mine to command. And it works. I find myself drawn to those big baby browns and the sad, neglected expression. Who could resist? It’s like I’m sleepwalking to the kitchen.

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Photo by Paolo Nicolello

People like to own pets and they come in all shapes, sizes, species and breeds (people and pets). Some keep reptiles, snakes and spiders. I know people who love mice, ferrets and rats. There are even people who keep cockroaches, though I’ve got to say, that really bugs me. I’ve got four chickens, and they have a special kind of character, and I’d love to keep horses. I wouldn’t have pigs; they live like animals. I like cats. We’ve had plenty over the years. But dogs are different, aren’t they? Once you’ve had dogs in your life, there’s no going back. So what is it about dogs that makes them man’s–or woman’s–best friend?

I wouldn’t have pigs; they live like animals

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Photo by Rick Lee                                                                                      Charlie & Jay

 

Unconditional love; that’s what dogs give that other animals–or humans–don’t. They’re there when you call–even when you don’t. They’ll risk their lives for you, and you for them. I remember the time they pulled me from a burning building… Okay, maybe I dreamt that one, but they would if they could. Dogs never judge you, even when you feel judged by everyone else. And they make you smile, even when you don’t feel like smiling.

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Photo by _-Drz-_

Dogs will sit for hours, waiting at the window for your return. Give you cuddles when no one else understands how you feel. They do poop a lot, and I am their faithful pooper scooper. It’s like that Last Emperor movie where the loyal servant stands waiting for the poo to arrive, picking it up and inspecting it for irregularities. And talking about poop, they love to indulge. Total bliss for Charlie is a good roll in a pile of Wombat poo, just to get rid of that nasty rose shampoo smell. Ruby, on the other hand, enjoys nothing better than a good munch on chicken poop. It sweetens her breath before she showers me in licks and kisses. Sorry if you’re trying to enjoy breakfast while reading this post.

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Photo by Rick Lee                                                                                      Ruby

Total bliss is a good roll in a pile of Wombat poo

Like most who have dogs, I find myself talking to Ruby and Charlie like they’re humans and understand every word. But it’s always in a squeaky voice, like when you’re talking to a baby.

“I’ve had a bad day today,” I say sometimes.

“Ruff,” they answer sympathetically.

“Yes, it was,” I reply. “A dog of a day.”

They understand what I’m going through, and when I need to take a break. Which brings me to that tap on the knee. It’s Ruby, and she figures it’s a good time to shut down the computer and enjoy the day while the sun is shining and the sky is blue. Both she and Charlie will curl up contentedly at my side, with one eye on the world passing by, the other on that internal clock that says when it’s dinner time.

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Photo by Nathalie Spehner

Dogs; you’ve got to love em.

The Music of Life

Hey Google, play some 60s rock!

I don’t usually listen to music when I’m writing; I can’t concentrate because I’m either listening to the lyrics or sitting back to admire the funky melody. But I’d taken timeout the other day, just to chill. “Hey, Google!” I said. “Play some 60s rock.” Google duly obliged and within seconds I was tapping my fingers and singing the words to some obscure Manfred Mann number. How is it that after fifty-odd years I remember every word? It’s crazy that it’s been there, lying in wait for the right prompt to come along and set it free. Music can do that; it can stick in your head and resist all attempts to shake it free. And it’s often the worst of songs that linger, like… No, I won’t even go there in case I dislodge some annoying song like the Macarena and end up singing it all day. (D’oh!)

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Chilling to the groove                                                                               Photo by Holger Link

 

Anyway, it got me to thinking about how music shadows life. It’s always there somewhere, either up-front and centre or playing in the background. It’s like the backing track to your very existence. Think back through the years, even to childhood, and there’s usually a song or two that stand out as significant memories. Does your chewing gum lose its flavour on the bedpost overnight? Now, that was a classic for a young boy with a fossilised collection of gum stuck behind the bedhead. Mum didn’t like it. It’ll tangle round your tonsils, twist from left to right, does your chewing gum lose its flavour on the bedpost overnight?

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Photo by Matthew Brodeur

I have three older brothers who blazed the trail before me, so my appreciation of music was well and truly entrenched by the teenage years. Everything was groundbreaking through those years, and so many artists were going in new directions and making an impression on me. I remember watching Roy Orbison singing Pretty Woman. The performance had such an effect that for months after, I donned sunglasses and wore black, even when going to bed. I sang songs into a hairbrush using his baritone style while watching myself in the mirror looking cool as. That was where my musical ambitions finished. The endeavour was there but the rhythm wasn’t. Music evolved quickly during those years. It was such an exciting time for someone with eclectic tastes; I didn’t know where to turn or who to follow next.

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Photo by Paulette Wooten

As a Liverpool boy, The Beatles were naturally kings of the strings. They had so many truly great songs, it would be hard to pick out one in particular, but I definitely thought we were going to change the world when we grew our hair and sang along to Love, love, love.  It was the late sixties when I met the love of my life; like most teens of the era, we lived for music, booze and dance. I recall us crammed into the Victoriana Club in Liverpool, a tiny venue with wall to wall people, and live music every night. There was barely room to get the band inside. We grooved there to Marvin Gaye live, singing: I Heard It Through the Grapevine. It was like having him in our living room.

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Photo by Edward Cisneros

Like most teens, I didn’t yet know what I wanted to do with my life. So when The Graduate came out in cinemas, I identified with Dustin Hoffman’s restless and confused spirit. The songs of Simon and Garfunkel that accompanied the film echoed my own feelings of uncertainty, and still bring to mind the crossroad decisions I faced at the time. There are other important songs and artists that reflect my teen years and cause me to remember those days. Songs like Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up In Blues, Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog, and Cat Stevens’ Wild World.

With the days of youth fading fast, David Bowie’s Life On Mars marked the preparations for our wedding, (Perhaps it was an omen.) and life was never the same again. In the early years of married bliss, Elton John’s Yellow Brick Road hardly left the turntable, and I could only look back on the good old days of Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting with nostalgia. Every song on that album reminds me of our first steps at building a home together. And who could forget the house parties and everyone dancing in a line to Saturday Night Fever in the back yard?

Who could forget the house parties?

John Lennon released Starting Over as we prepared to leave for Canada. It seemed an appropriate song to mark a new life abroad. Not long after arriving in Canada, we bought a new turntable and our very first new album was Men at Work’s Business As Usual, not realising that one day we would live in the Land Downunder, and it would virtually become our theme tune.

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Photo by Ana Grave

There soon came a time when the music that marked important events were not always of our choosing, but those of our kids. Metallica, Iron Maiden and Slayer reverberated from the bedrooms, and though I do like the occasional heavy metal session, I have to admit we started looking for homes that would take the kids on a permanent basis. Heavy metal became the staple diet and I began to think that the devil had moved in-house. I recall waiting outside a theatre in Toronto for our son who had gone to a Metallica concert. The doors opened, spilling the exuberant, bare-chested crowd onto the street where they mobbed our car, jumping on the hood and banging on the roof, screaming Seek & Destroy, and, Kill Em All, with all the accompanying facial expressions of angry young men. (I knew we weren’t going to die, really I did.) Thankfully things mellowed at home as the kids discovered Pink Floyd, Guns & Roses and Bon Jovi, and other more moderate forms of music followed. Dark Side Of The Moon accompanied many a camping expedition, and Life Is A Highway played on every road trip across Canada and the States.

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Photo by Alessandro Porri

Life is a highway!

Life in Australia had a different rhythm and an Aussie flavour, as we embraced all things unique to the big Southern Land. We immersed ourselves in all the classics, like Sounds of Then, Flame Trees and Beds Are Burning. Once again, our kids had their own favourites at the time, from bands like Green Day, Tragically Hip and The Offspring, but soon it was their own songs and their own music we were listening to, songs written and performed by our own kids, like Six Degrees and Sandalwood by Paper View. Music is in their blood and will be as important to them later when they look back and put together their own compilations to mark their paths through life.

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Photo by Jernej Graj

So what’s in the background now, you may ask? What new gems are marking this phase of life for me? Well, the eclectic taste is still there, but there’s a leaning to mellow and melodic. You’re more likely to hear Sam Smith or Ed Sheeran than Five Finger Death Punch. I guess it’s an age thing. As for the tracks on my life album, I hope there’s plenty more to come before I reach the final tune. Maybe the needle will slip on the turntable and I’ll be forever waiting for the album to end, or maybe it will just skip to the beginning and start all over again. I could live with that.

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Photo by Jace Afsoon