Who the Hell are You?

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Photo by Jonathan Farber

I’ve been working on our family history and got to thinking about inherited traits. What characteristics of those long forgotten ancestors are still evident in me? Our family line can be traced accurately back three hundred years, at which point the evidence gets harder to find, and three hundred years is not long in the scheme of things. That’s where DNA comes in. For a few hundred dollars, a simple test returns the makeup of your ancestry, and while interesting, for most, it’s usually not going to reveal any earth-shattering information about your past; at least, that’s what people think.

Too much Spanish wine

I’d guess that like most Anglo-Saxons, I’ve got a bit of Viking in me somewhere, probably Celt; a little German or French perhaps. My optometrist reckons I’ve got Iberian genes; he can tell from looking in my eyes, he says. Perhaps I just eat too much paella and drink too much Spanish wine, or maybe I have some Spanish explorer’s blood, and that’s where I get the need to travel. With the popularity of DNA testing and the cheap costs that go along with it, it’s inevitable that some surprises are going to come along, and some real shocks too.

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Photo by Liam Welch

 

Who you think you are and where you come from is not always as clear as you may think. A close friend of mine– let’s call her Dot for the sake of anonymity– had her world shattered in the most bizarre circumstances when her father died. She had not been getting along with her mother for some years at the time, but with her father’s passing, she put her feelings aside and came to her ageing mother’s support. As is so often the case with elderly people needing care, it was a thankless task for Dot. As her mother’s health declined, she became abusive towards her carer. One day, to spite Dot, she revealed that Dot’s deceased father was not her real dad. Of course, this news was devastating, and Dot’s mother refused to reveal who the real father was. A few years later, Dot’s mother passed away. Dot went to her house to clean it out and found her (Dot’s) birth certificate, which stated clearly that Dot’s father was, in fact, her real father after all, but in an extraordinary twist, her mother was not her real mother. Dot’s father had brought a child of his own to the marriage and never revealed the truth to Dot. Subsequently, Dot tracked down her real mother, who was still alive, and Dot found she was one of twelve children. She thought she was an only child but now has eleven brothers and sisters. Wow! All those Christmas presents.

Buyer beware!

With DNA tests, it’s a case of buyer beware. Are you sure you want to know? Had Dot had her DNA tested, it would certainly have revealed the truth, and it seems that this kind of revelation is becoming quite common, given the availability of tests. Secret liaisons and casual affairs can lead to some interesting lines of ancestry. Who would guess before taking that swab of saliva, that they came from a long line of milkmen? What isn’t always known is that after taking the test, results are compared to anyone else on the database. So suddenly finding you have sisters and brother, fathers and mothers, that you didn’t know about, can be a very real consequence.

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Photo by Louis Reed

There are other serious implications concerning these tests; some offer medical information on a genetic level. While some would rather not know the results, there is potentially lifesaving repercussions in knowing that you carry certain genes.

So does having this knowledge get us any nearer to discovering where we got that artistic streak, or that athletic prowess, why some are good with numbers or have a head for science? Maybe, and as the development of DNA analysis continues, who knows what may be revealed in the future with a simple spit. Didn’t witches do that once, look in your spittle and tell your fortune? I’m not sure if I want mine tested; I’m fairly confident about my own ancestry, although I do have a hankering for a bottle of milk now and again.

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Photo by Monika Grabkowska

Beyond the Razor Wire

It’s a daunting prospect when the steel doors clang shut behind you, and you look up to the high prison walls that separate you from freedom. Razor wire, armed guards in watchtowers, CCTV cameras watching your every move, it’s enough to make one appreciate life on the outside and the liberty we take for granted. Once inside Goulburn’s infamous maximum security prison, getting out is top of my priorities. I’m confident that any of the five hundred inmates feel the same way. Home to some of Australia’s most notorious criminals, Goulburn is a formidable prison fortress.

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Goulburn Maximum Security Prison

I came to Goulburn prison, to conduct interviews, and to research prisoner work programs for a magazine assignment. I wanted to know what role employment within the prison system had in the rehabilitation of criminals once released, and their employability within specific industries. After passing through metal detectors, body scans– thankfully no strip searches– and identity checks, I am accompanied to the workshops, deep within the prison. Visitors are issued with duress alarms before entry. If needed, the push of a button brings everyone running, but I’m not worried. A door locks securely behind me, another is unlocked ahead, and I make my way even further into the facility. I’m immediately struck by the normality of the scene when I reach the work area. It could be any of the thousands of woodworking shops I have seen over my years in the business. Except that the guy operating the router could be serving life for murder, the one on the saw dealing drugs and weapons. They’re all normal, everyday guys of course, or could be if life had led them on different paths. Prisoner Joe gives me a nod and a smile. He’s either friendly or marking me down for his girlfriend. Joking aside, everyone seems relaxed and cooperative with my questions.

Thankfully, no strip search

On the face of it, life inside seems to follow the typical pattern of working hours. I visit the furniture workshop, the textile plant and extensive kitchens. It seems bizarre that I’m standing next to prisoners carrying butcher’s knives and power tools. “It’s a trust thing,” says the prison officer. “but we account for everything before they go back to their cells.” He goes on to admit there are incidents; people do get hurt when things go awry. Work programs are partially designed to keep prisoners occupied. Goulburn’s prison Governor tells me that idle hands do the devil’s work; it’s his priority to keep everyone safe and compliant, and keeping them busy is a huge part of that task, though he acknowledges the importance of preparing prisoners for life on the outside. Prisoners will push the limits and try to get away with as much as they can. Contraband is a big problem, and inmates are subjected to random strip searches on a regular basis. Cells are searched routinely, but still, the illegal items find their way inside. Phones and drugs are high on the wanted list, and they will find any means to brew alcohol. “They’re quite ingenious,” the guard tells me.

It’s a trust thing

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Prisoners share small cells. My guide says they try for two to a cell, but growing numbers mean three is not uncommon. Self-harm is another risk that officers have to deal with. Cells are moulded with no hanging points, “but where there’s a will there’s a way,” he says. Clothes are tear proof, and there are no belts or shoelaces, but the guard goes on to describe how a prisoner used his underpants to kill himself. “They all have to wear paper undies now,” he tells me, a little too casually.

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Cells are modular and carefully designed

I’m told by those in charge, that socio-economic conditions are by far the most significant factor when it comes to why people offend, and why they inevitably return to prison. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to understand that fact. Many of the inmates I saw have never had a job. They come from broken homes and families; their parents never had jobs. Often abused as children, they learn to follow in the same steps and become clones of their parents. They turn to crime because it offers the easiest path. Work and training programs while inside are essential opportunities for prisoners to learn an alternative way, and can help turn lives around. Finding employment is vital if those freed are to contribute and integrate back into society, without returning to crime.

 

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There are no easy answers when it comes to reducing prisoner numbers and addressing the causes behind their incarceration. I look back on my life and feel lucky to have had parents with values, values that prevailed during those crossroad moments when life could have taken me down a very different road. I stand within the prison walls and wonder if that could be me over there, with the ponytail and the gang tattoos serving life? If I’d had the same upbringing as him, quite possibly. “I came from a large, low-income family, but that didn’t make me turn to crime.” It’s a line we’ve all used at some time or other, and it definitely applies to me, but then again, I was never abused as a child; I didn’t have parents who stole or committed acts of violence. They weren’t drunks and didn’t hang out with drug addicts and violent criminals. I had an education, unlike many who are left to roam the streets looking for mischief, those first steps to a life of crime. I had prospects of work, they have almost none. I’m not excusing anyone for their sins; I’m just stating the facts.

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The environment is a factor in a life of crime

Goulburn supermax prison holds Australia’s very worst offenders. Men like serial killer, Ivan Milat, mass murderer Malcolm Baker; there are convicted terrorist and gang leaders: there’s no hope of rehabilitating people like these and I’m not sure we want to. For some, the term, lock-em-up and throw away the key, seems appropriate. But with prison populations growing, we do need to find solutions that stop released prisoners reoffending and even better, from offending in the first case. Learning work skills and the disciplines of daily work is a small step in the right direction, but it’s akin to closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. We need to concentrate our efforts on children who are vulnerable to bad influences. We need measures to identify those at risk and catch them before they take the wrong path. Easier said than done, I know, and it takes money and resources.

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We need to concentrate our efforts on children

It’s with some relief that I gain my release. My belongings, phone, wallet, keys, belt, are returned, and I step through the doors to freedom, I hear the clang of steel behind me, and I’m kind of glad I managed to keep my life on the straight and narrow, and grateful for parents who cared. It’s a reminder that life is pretty good on the outside, and once again, the love of a family is everything.

 

Life is pretty good on the outside

Lord of the Ring – My Precious!

 

This is an amazing story about luck; it’s entirely true.

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Photo by Dylan Nolte

I watched one of those Facebook videos where they show near misses, the ones where people escape car crashes by milliseconds and millimetres, and it got me to thinking about luck. Some say we make our own luck, but this is only true to a point. We all need a bit of dumb luck in our lives. You see it all the time in sports. Take football for instance. You can have the best team in the world, multi-million dollar players who for the most part create their own luck by practising hard all their lives to be the best. Do they still need luck? Of course they do. We see it week in week out, the odd bounce of the ball, a deflection, a referee’s poor decision or an unfortunate injury, these are the sort of things they have no control over, no matter how hard they train. And life is like that for all of us; we all get the unlucky bounce from time to time.

Luck plays a part in our health, even down to which genes we inherit, the bugs we breathe and the unfortunate accidents in life. Then there are the sliding door moments, where luck plays a part in timing. A few seconds here or there and we either find or miss a partner for life. Most of us need a bit of luck. We buy lotto tickets and scratchies in the hope of the big win, against impossible odds, yet still we buy them in the hope we’ll be lucky. But where does luck end and divine intervention begin?

Where does luck end and divine intervention begin?

Sometimes in life, the odds against us seem impossible. We look at the mountain facing us and fold at the wayside before we even begin. If the mountain is Everest, we need a special kind of belief if we’re going to reach the summit. It takes a lot to have faith in the impossible because we see the odds stacked so heavily against us, we often don’t even try. One such moment occurred in my life.

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Photo by Jeremy Bishop

First, you have to imagine the scene. I’m with my better-half, Chris, two hours out to sea, anchored off a remote reef on the Great Barrier Reef. There’s nothing above water level– no islands, just ocean– and there’s a heavy chop on the surface with ocean currents. We are with a group of about twenty, snorkelling over an area the size of a football field. The reef below us is thick with colourful corals and exotic fish and varies in depth from ten to fifty feet, and in some places, we stare even further into the depths of the abyss.

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Photo by Alexandra Rose

So here we are, miles from land, our initial fear of open ocean has dissipated, and we are enjoying the magnificent view below the surface. The water is cold however, and while we spot some large turtles swimming, I know one little turtle that has disappeared almost entirely into its shell in the frigid water. My fingers also shrink, and I watch in horror as my wedding ring floats off my finger and dances to the depths of the reef like a puppet on a string, except there’s no string. I try to dive after it, but I’m not the strongest of swimmers, and the salt water keeps me quite buoyant. I can’t get down the twenty feet needed to recover the ring, even if I could see where it landed. A drop in the ocean, needle in a haystack comes to mind. Chris seems to think I’m showing off and starts to take photographs of my deep water aquatics with her waterproof camera, as I dive for the bottom.

The ring
My Precious!

I finally surface and tell of my misfortune. When I put my face back in the water, we’ve already drifted from the spot, the corals are too thick, and the ring has disappeared forever. Chris swims back to the boat and asks one of the professional divers to see if he can help. It’s ridiculous I tell him when he arrives ten minutes later. Did I mention we are in the middle of the ocean? Let’s try, says Flipper (not his real name). I laugh at his enthusiasm and eventually give in and agree to swim back and forth across our football field size reef, in a grid pattern no less. This is how the cops do it when looking for clues, though I’ve never seen them do it in the ocean. Did I mention we’re in the middle of the ocean?

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Photo by Jan Traid

Twenty minutes later, feeling cold and stupid for even trying, I see a tiny glint of gold on the seabed. Flipper, (not his real name) does his best impression of Golem, and dives for the bottom. He returns minutes later with my wedding ring, my precious!  I guess, just like in Lord of the Rings, a power higher than I, decided my wedding ring and I should be reunited against all the odds.

I see a tiny glint of gold

There’s probably a moral here, though I’m not sure what it is. Don’t give up, maybe. Someone once said, ‘difficult always takes a while, impossible takes a little longer.’ Perhaps it’s a lesson in belief; anything is possible with a bit of dumb luck.

Too Poor To Buy Cheap

My dad used to say, ‘Buy once and buy the best, we’re too poor to buy cheap.’ It always sounded a bit contradictory, but I knew what he meant. If you buy rubbish you end up having to buy again, costing you more in the long run. Dad gave a lot of other advice that I didn’t always take, like, ‘don’t play leapfrog with a unicorn,’ I hurt more than his feelings by not taking that advice. Seriously though, his words of wisdom stayed with me when it came to buying stuff. It’s a curse, of course, every time I need to make a purchase, I find myself analyzing, comparing and thoroughly doing my homework until I invariably need to spend on the most expensive product in the range. The trouble is, I want stuff that lasts and it costs the most. The answer to that problem is in the other part of Dad’s advice, ‘If you can’t afford it, wait until you can, don’t buy for the sake of it and don’t get into debt.’

Don’t play leapfrog with a unicorn

This train of thought got me to thinking about the quality and longevity of the things we buy and the need to buy new stuff. It’s increasingly difficult to buy only once, as everything we get these days seems to have a built-in life expectancy, inbuilt obsolescence. Products are guaranteed, of course, it’s just that they’re guaranteed to fail just after the warranty has run out. Gone are the days when things could last a lifetime and you could fix them yourself if you were anywhere near handy. I fondly remember many years ago, buying myself a Haynes workshop manual for my Mini Clubman so that I could repair it without the need for a mechanic. Following the step-by-step instructions, I removed the motor completely from the car, stripped it down on the kitchen table, reground the valves, reset the tappets, rebuilt the carburettor and put it all back together with a new set of gaskets. Surprise! The car ran like a dream. Proud of myself? You bet. Now, this may sound an easy job to you car buffs who work on cars all the time, and it probably is, but to a mechanically illiterate dummy like me, this was a great accomplishment, made possible by the inherent simplicity of combustion motors at that point in time. Try looking under the hood of today’s modern motors and working from a book, I dare you!

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Photo by Fancycrave

I recently watched a documentary on Cuba, and the story of my home-style mechanics came back to me. For almost sixty years, the country has lived with an embargo imposed by the United States of America. As a result, the country is like a time capsule. A blockade has largely prevented the import of goods from the outside world, leaving the residents with no alternative but to use what they already have; this includes motorcars and just about everything else we take for granted in the modern world. Now you would think this would leave Cuba on its knees, after all, how can anyone live without new stuff, right? But low and behold, they actually do! Take a drive down the streets of Havana, and you’re likely driving a nineteen–fifties or sixties model something. Could it be that these vehicles actually get people from A to B? Yep, they sure do, and have done for over fifty years.

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Photo by Augustin de Montesquiou

Rather than scrap things in Cuba, they are fixed, re-invented or recycled. Nothing goes to waste. Yet the sky hasn’t fallen and life hasn’t ground to a halt. (Maybe slowed a little, but is that a bad thing?) We in “advanced western countries,” turn over cars like we do everything else, we are brainwashed into wanting more, bigger, faster, newer, we couldn’t even contemplate a world where we spend only what’s necessary; what would we do without the latest model? I’m one of them, I’m not preaching here. But it does make you question, why? Why it is we feel the need for motor cars that travel three hundred kilometres an hour, with souped-up this and that, when our roads are so clogged with traffic, we rarely get out of second gear and speed limits restrict us to a crawl? We’ve been conditioned to want the latest of everything, and it feeds our consumption based world of excess. We are driven by want instead of need and it’s causing us to strip our world of precious resources, while we pollute the planet for generations to come.

The automobile industry is just one example of the world big business and their marketing psychologists have created for us. Politicians have been brainwashed too; they believe in perpetual growth that can only be sustained by consumerism. How about we live within our means, build what we need and save for a rainy day? Now there’s a thought!

How about we live within our means, build what we need and save for a rainy day?

We Lived In’t Shoebox

In my last blog, I talked about moments that define our lives, turning points where decisions are made that impact us forever. One such moment came back to me while watching good old Monty Python, the episode where the old guys compete to see who had the toughest upbringing. You know the one, right? ‘When I were a lad, we lived in’t shoebox at side o’t road.’ Then the response. ‘Luxury, pure luxury!’ When I finished laughing, I thought about how every generation must compare their early lives to those of their children’s. We all like to think we had it tougher.

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Photo by Ida Kammerloch

After emigrating to Canada, three small children in tow, and just the clothes on our backs, we found that the only accommodation we could afford was a tiny room above a strip bar with live music in the venue below. Our ‘shoebox’ measured around three metres by two metres and we shared a bathroom down the hall with other seedy looking hotel patrons. We had a kettle in the room but that was the extent of our kitchen facilities. Music shook our room, literally, until one o’clock during the work week and three a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. We were blessed with a respite on Sunday when the bar closed at midnight. This was not what we had in mind when we gambled our lives on a new life in Canada.

Live rock & roll until 3a.m.

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Photo by Edward Cisneros

It would be an understatement to say that we thought we had made a huge mistake. With heavy hearts, we looked at our young family and wondered what in the world we had done. I felt like crying. It would have been easy then, to admit our error, pack up and return to England, where I have no doubt we would have stayed, lesson learned, for the rest of our lives. But we didn’t and fortune favours the brave. We endured the hardship and before long had managed to get enough money to rent a house. We furnished our new abode lavishly with three single mattresses and one double (no bases), an old sofa someone gave us for free, and a rusting Hibachi grill. We managed to buy a cooker and fridge, and with the addition of various second-hand kitchen items, our home began to take shape, the world suddenly seemed brighter, and we were on our way.

Looking back now, these were pivotal moments, when life could have taken us far from our destiny. Did we have it tough? A little maybe, but certainly not as tough as some, and these are the treasured memories our lives are built on, stories to pass down with pride to the next generation, who will no doubt think we’re full of it.

We lived in’t shoe box o’t top of a strip club, luxury, pure luxury!

My Life as an MP3

Life consists of moments; the rest is just fill. I look back on my own life and everything is distilled into the essential oils of my existence, fleeting glimpses of my time on earth. My memory is like an MP3 of favourite albums, all the essential stuff is there but the filler, the clutter, has been removed to produce compressed files. The tracks to my own albums are varied, sometimes extreme. Pivotal moments mark turning points, opportunities, some missed, moments of despair and moments of joy. It’s often said we have selective memory and this is true, our favourite tracks seem to outnumber the rest, life in reflection can have an unrealistic gloss as we push aside the stuff we don’t care to remember. But while I’d sometimes rather forget the low points, looking back on them gives me a sense of perspective, forming a baseline for the good times. Times of sadness, times of grief and hopelessness, they all come together and combine with the joyous moments to make us who we are, to make us whole.

How we make the time count depends on how we grasp the moments.

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Photo by Ravi Pinisetti

Our time on earth is brief, in itself, only a moment in the grand scheme of things. How we make the time count depends on how we grasp the moments, cherishing them all, good and bad and growing from the experience. It’s not just the momentous occasions we remember, special memories can be as brief and delicate as the smell of a newborn baby, the sight of a carpet of clouds seen from the top of a mountain, rainy days by the fire with your mum when you were sick and she made you hot chocolate, a brother’s arms around your shoulder when you fell and bruised your knee. How about the moment you witnessed a good deed and it made you feel great for the whole day? Moments when your best furry friends curl up by your feet or look at you with the unreserved love and affection that only a pet can give.

Take time to smell the coffee.

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Photo by Etienne Boulanger

It’s all too easy to go through life thinking it’s all about getting somewhere, looking for an end product or a destination, striving for that promotion, that big house you dream of, the elusive pot of gold or retirement in the south of France. The cliché says it’s all about the journey, not the destination; how true that is and how important it is to remember each day. Lookout for the moments; watch for the sun, the sea, the breeze and the trees, smell the coffee, take time for family and friends and add these moments to your collection; don’t wait for those final moments to get here, only to realise your MP3 drive is empty.

In the eye of the beholder

 

A part of the process of writing a novel, like Alexander Bottom & The Dreamweaver’s Daughter, is in obtaining feedback and objective criticism from Beta Readers and Critique Partners. Writers spend so much time with their books and characters that they tend to lose the ability to look at their work with any objectivity. I am currently working on three books (I like to switch from one to the other as new ideas form in my head), one of which is a thriller at the second draft stage. Feedback from two wonderful Beta Readers came back with very different takes on the story and it got me to thinking about the whole idea of perspective.

The way we see and interpret the world around us is dictated by many different factors. As writers, we know what we are trying to say but very often the reader just doesn’t see it the same way. The main challenge of writing is to successfully plant a story, a vision or an idea in the reader’s mind, but even if we manage to get our message across, it is likely that there are different versions in each other’s minds as a result of the way we interpret. We all know the party game, Chinese Whispers, when a sentence is passed from person to person in a whisper until it changes completely, causing laughter all around. And we’ve all recalled childhood stories where everyone in the family has a slightly different version of events. We tend to choose information that’s important to us personally and leave out the rest.

Our tastes and preferences also play a part in how we view the world. Some people love seafood, others only meat. A spectacular opera can bring tears to the eyes of an opera lover and can make a heavy metal fan cry for a very different reason. Many of these likes and dislikes are a result of our learning and our experience, but they still provide us with a different view of the world around us. Our tastes and preferences influence the information we choose to retain.

Empathy is also a big factor when it comes to relating to stories, and in particular, the characters portrayed. The writer has achieved success when the reader feels for the character and story and has an emotional response because of it. So what about happiness; is that too a case of perspective? One person’s idea of happiness can be very different from another’s. The glass half full, springs to mind. It’s a trend in our affluent society to strive for possessions, but this usually proves to be a fleeting fix when it comes to making us happy. A comfortable lifestyle with ample food upon the table can certainly go a long way to making us happy, but as the bible says, ‘man cannot live on bread alone’. In the western world today, I see so much good fortune, and yet there still so many unhappy people. While in the world’s poorest economies, laughter and joy can be seen on so many faces. Is this a matter of how we see the world?

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Photo by Larm Rmah

I do believe that to be truly happy, we humans need to achieve a spiritual inner peace. We need to acknowledge the importance of family and friends, and the part they play in our mutual wellbeing. We have a basic need to believe that there is more to our existence than our brief appearance on this planet we call Earth. Without belief and spiritual peace, it is very hard to overcome the dark times in our lives, and impossible to be truly happy.

Like our tastes in literature, food and music, what makes us happy is a personal thing. I for one feel blessed to be alive. But happiness will always be in the eye of the beholder.