“What’s the big deal?”

This week I sat on my couch watching TV. Nothing unusual about that, it’s one of my favourite places.

What was slightly unusual was that I watched live, in high definition, while four astronauts launched aboard the latest Space X Crew Dragon space vehicle, a commercial partnership between NASA and Space X.

I watched live, in high definition while the launch rocket returned safely to earth, landing on a drone ship in the north Atlantic Ocean after depositing its cargo in space.

I watched live as the Crew Dragon orbited the earth a couple hundred miles above the surface, and at thousands of miles per hour.

27 hours later I was back on the courch and watched live, in high definition while the ship approached the international space station, a football-field sized mechano set similarly orbiting the earth, docked and the four went aboard to greet three other astronauts already on the ISS.

As an aside, there are only 6 sleeping cabins on ISS, so one of the new arrivals has to sleep on the Crew Dragon which will remained docked at the ISS until next March. I guess it’s like a visitor sleeping in their caravan parked out on the driveway!

All this happened less than 60 years after the first manned space flight, 12 years after Space X flew its first rocket into orbit, five years after they first successfully landed a launch stage rocket, and six months after the first crewed Space X test flight.

By any measure, the pace of development since Yuri Gargarin did a lap of the earth in his Vostock spacecraft back in 1961 is astonishing. It’s a testament to human ingenuity, determination, technology, ability to learn and problem solve, ambition, creativity, collaboration, desire to explore and a thousand other things.

Honestly, as I sat there I was gobsmacked as I processed what I was watching. Sure none of what I saw was the first time you could live-stream a rocket launch or watch video from the ISS, but I guess there are moments when you realise the significance of what’s happening.

As I watched, enthralled, my 13 year old wandered past. I called her over, told her what I was watching, how amazing had been the technological growth and how astonishing it was to be able to sit on the couch in Brisbane, watching all this unfold in real time hundreds of miles overhead.

She said “What’s the big deal dad? It’s just some people going to space.” and went back to reading her book. She barely feigned interest for 10 seconds.

This is the same kid who will never know life without the internet, or mobile phones, or streaming video. Youtube started two years before she was born. She beat the iphone into existence by a handful of days.

It’s no insult to her of course, she only knows what she knows. She’s only lived the life she has. She has never known any different.

To me though, it was an extraordinary thing to watch. And I was left pondering the meaning of it all.

Just how much further will human ingenuity, ambition, creativity (and yes, greed) take us over the next 60 years? I’ll be approaching my 110th birthday by then, so I’m not sure I’ll see the answer, but can you imagine what we’ll be up to if the rate of change continues?

I put that experience alongside the global scientific community’s response to the COVID19 pandemic and the phenomenal rate of development of treatements, medications and vaccines for a disease essentially unknown 12 months ago.

When we collectively put our mind to something, there’s almost no limit to what can be achieved.

My last thought was to wonder what other things could be figured out if only we could genuinely turn our collective will and wisdom to it. World peace. Global food security. Clean energy. Heading off the looming environmental catastrophe. Calorie free chocolate that tastes amazing.

So many possibilities.

And in 60 years time, some 13 year old will say to their dad “What’s the big deal?”

who’s in the band?

Just about every job I can think of has elements of repetition in it.

unsplash.com

Whether you’re a tax accountant, a bus driver, a school teacher, a professional athlete or a nurse…some days must feel like groundhog day. The same tasks, over and over again.

Recently I got to thinking about bands and musicians in this light.  How, I wondered, does a band play the same song over, and over, and over. Every night in front of a new audience, in a new city, but the same song.  And if it’s a big hit song, they might play it hundreds, or thousands of times over decades. Over and over and over.

Somehow the challenge must be to find a way for it to be fresh every night. Every audience wants to feel like the band are loving the song. Every night there has to be passion, excitement, enthusiasm for that same song.

How do they sing the same song night after night, after night?

I was pondering this in light of a work project that I’m involved in. We’ve been at it for a couple of years, with a couple more to go – and part of my job is the storytelling. So I often find myself sharing the same story, or giving the same presentation. How, I wondered, will I stay motivated and fresh for the years to come?

I was pondering this question with a wise friend who responded like this:

“Scott”, he said, “I think it’s not always about the song.”

“It’s not even about the audience, not always”.

“Mostly, it’s about the band.  The band that are committed to each other, that love making music together, that draw their energy from one another, that believe in something together.”

“If you want to stay fresh, and keep your energy for this project, then it’s about the band. Who is in your band? Who are you making music with? What do you believe in together?”

It struck me as a profound insight, and a really good question.

Later that same night, Australian television presenter Waleed Ali interviewed Dave Grohl of the band Foo Fighters. At one point in the interview, the conversation turned to what it’s like for a band to play in front of small audiences in a post-COVID environment, rather than the stadiums full of raving fans that Foo Fighters are more used to.

While acknowledging they love playing in front of people, Grohl’s response struck me. He said:

“When the six of us get together with instruments in our laps, I don’t really care how many people are there, it just feels good to be with my guys, making music.”

And there it is. The audience does matter, and the music matters, but in a profound and important way, it’s about the band.

So when I think about my work project, I’m left with this question…who’s in the band with me? What’s the music we are driven to play together? I think perhaps the band is where my motivation might come from.

And I suspect that might be true for many of us, no matter the job. So…how about you? Who’s in your band?

on eyebrows and gravel rash

We all grow older. It’s science. I understand this.

Sometimes the signs marking the passing of the years, or the ‘gathering of experience’ (to be more charitable) are obvious.

A few more wrinkles in the mirror.

A little less hair on the noggin.

L-platers appear to be younger and younger (surely it’s not just me that thinks this?).

Sometimes the signs are more internal, more about the way we feel, how long it takes to recover from a series of late nights, health challenges that are connected with advancing age and so on.

I’ve been confronted with three signs in recent times, telling me that I’m no longer 23 despite my firm belief that this is still the case.

One comes with my mid-life crisis hobby of mountain biking (it’s been going strong for a good 5 years now).  I’ve noticed that when I fall off, which all average mountain bikers do, it takes longer for the gravel rash to heal.  Remember when you were 12, and were constantly taking skin off your knees, but it would heal in 48 hours? That doesn’t seem to be the case in my late 40’s. 

I’m taking it as a sign of growing older that I just have to deal with, rather than a sign I should stop riding my mountain bike.

The second occurred in a team meeting this week. We were online, as is the way of 2020, and my new work team mostly consists of young (or younger) people. I can’t remember the topic, but somewhere along the way one of the guys said to me “I don’t mean to be rude, but how old are you?”  Nobody asks that question of a 23 year old…so it must be a sign right?

The third sign I was confronted with just this afternoon.  I was minding my own business, sitting in the barber’s chair, having my increasingly sparse hair coverage tidied up, when the barber looked at my face, took out his scissors and comb and asked “would you like your eyebrows trimmed sir?”

What? Why? When did this become a thing?

Why didn’t I get a warning that when hair stopped growing on top of my head that it would sprout in other places?  And who gave the barber permission to assault me with such a personal question?

I guess some signs of advancing years we expect, and others catch us by surprise.

This week a photo of a bunch of friends and I at age 19 was shared on social media by a mutual friend. It’s a lovely photo and I really enjoyed the memories it raised, and the trip down memory lane it brought with it. Good times, good friends, so obviously young and carefree in the photo – you can see it in our eyes.

For all that though, there really was nothing in me that wished to be back there.  I like what life has brought in the last 30 years since that photo was taken.  Grand adventures, a long and healthy marriage (yes, the beautiful bride was in the 30 year old photo too), three amazing kids I have had the privilege to watch grow and mature, and perspectives on the world shaped by time to think, experience and wonder.

That sense of satisfaction, of contentment with where life has lead and is leading….I’m taking that as a sign of aging as well. To be honest, I hadn’t even realised it until I got to this point in writing this story.

That’s sometimes how life goes, I guess. We muddle along, pursuing ideas, reflecting on possibilities, slowly gathering experience, and just occasionally with a flash of insight it all makes sense.

If this is getting older, I don’t mind it.

I’m still not happy about the eyebrows though.

my new favourite word for 2020…

Yesterday I was reflecting on a word, and an idea: steadfast.

It’s not just that I pick some random word to think about, fun though that may sound, but that the word came up in a bible reading I was reflecting on for a work meeting (to put that in context…I work for a church).  The reading was from Psalm 107, and the critical line goes something like this:

                O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever

Ps 107:1

It’s probably not a word that we use all that often in modern English – steadfast.  I don’t reckon I’ve ever used it in conversation.  As I thought about it, I started by just wondering what comes to mind when I hear the word.  Steadfast. Safety in a storm. Holding ground in the face of a challenging time. Trustworthiness. Reliability.

They’re not super exciting concepts. They’re not the words of the day like pivot and innovate and lean-in, and “you’re on mute”.

But the more I thought about this notion of ‘steadfastness’, and particularly ‘steadfast love’ the more I felt like perhaps it should be the word for 2020.

In a year when everything seems messed up, when our whole world changes on what feels like a daily basis, when bad news seems like it’s just a press conference away, there’s something important about steadfast.

Steadfast is one of those words that almost means something like what it sounds (I looked it up – words like that are called ‘onomatopoeia’).  Solid. Trustworthy. Reliable.  Dependable. Unwavering.

The Psalm of course is about God’s steadfast love, and the notion that God stands ready whenever we are lost and turn toward God.  And to me that matters. Maybe also to you if faith is your thing.

But even if faith is not your thing, I wonder if the idea, the notion, the challenge of being steadfast is still worth thinking about. 

Who can you or I be steadfast for?  Who can we be reliable for? Trustworthy? Dependable?  In a year like 2020…who are the family members, friends or neighbours who just need a little bit of steadfast love?

I’m still not sure I’ll use it in conversation, but steadfast is my new word for 2020.

ideas

A little while back I was in a workshop. It’s an occupational hazard.

On this particular day the facilitator invited us to peruse a collection of prayers from Australian writer Michael Leunig. Perhaps better known for his cartoons (and those are not without controversy), Leunig also writes a series of whimsical, fascinating prayers (or reflections…by another name) ideal for the purposes of the workshop I was in.

I wandered along the table, reading prayers, smiling to myself, enjoying Leunig’s way with words and interesting take on the world – but really just skimming the surface of each of them. And then this:

God help us with ideas, those thoughts which inform the way we live and the things we do. Let us not seize upon ideas, neither shall we hunt them down nor steal them away. Rather let us wait faithfully for them to approach, slowly and gently like creatures from the wild. And let them enter willingly into our hearts and come and go freely within the sanctuary of our contemplation, informing our souls as they arrive and being enlivened by the inspiration of our hearts as they leave.

These shall be our truest thoughts. Our willing and effective ideas. Let us treasure their humble originality. Let us follow them gently back into the world with faith that they shall lead us to lives of harmony and integrity.

Amen

Michael Leunig

There’s so much about this prayer that captured me, that I was honestly not quite sure where to start. As I sat with it, read it, prayed it, I gradually fixed on the line “Let us not seize upon ideas, neither shall we hunt them down nor steal them away. Rather let us wait faithfully for them to approach, slowly and gently like creatures from the wild…”

There’s so much going on in our world, and in our own individual lives, that it’s easy to feel rushed, overwhelmed, overloaded with stimulus. At least in my own life it’s mostly self-inflicted. I’m not prepared to confess the number (for the sheer shame of it), but each week when my phone tells me how many hours a day I’m averaging addicted to just that one device….well….it’s not pretty. Where could an idea approach slowly, and gently like a creature from the wild when I’m constantly cramming my own mind full of data, input, other people’s ideas?

Leunig isn’t necessarily writing about devices, or attention, or busyness and their impact on space for ideas to surface…but those are the things that come to mind for me from this prayer.

Make space. Sit quietly. Walk gently. Meander aimlessly. Allow room to breathe, and think, and simply be. And when that idea approaches like a creature from the wild, look at it with curiosity, with wonder. And see what happens next.

That’s what I’m thinking about today.

there’s a drawer in my study

There’s a drawer in my study.

From the outside it looks like any ordinary drawer. It has a wood facia, and a simple aluminium handle. It’s like any other drawer in the cabinet.

But inside this one hides something that fascinates me every time I open it.

It’s full of superseded electronic equipment. Maybe you have one too.

There are about four different old model iPhones and an old-school iPod. There’s a very early Samsung phone or two and a stand-alone digital camera. A fairly original iPad whose battery died and rendered it dysfunctional. There’s a couple of cheap mp3 players and a small stack of USB memory sticks with enormous capacities (one holds all of 64mb!). There’s even a genuine 1980’s Sony Walkman, and it’s cousin – the ’90s era Discman (if you don’t know what those do don’t be ashamed, just ask your parents).

Just opening the drawer is a walk down memory lane. I remember when each of those devices arrived, heralding new possibilities, new technology, new connectivity, mult-functionality. Each seemed to promise a whole new world…and for a time each delivered.

Portability, storage, connection, communication. Even coolness (let’s be honest, I’m not now nor ever have been cool, and even an iPhone wouldn’t have changed that, but dreams are dreams). Each device tells a story to me, and I often find myself spending a few minutes reminiscing about an earlier stage of life in which that device played some part, or about an earlier, simpler time (that Walkman…and a 1982 mix-tape!).

They remind me of just how much more capable 2019 era devices are. My phone can perform every function that I find in my drawer, but faster, more effectively and more intuitively.

But they tell other stories too, stories that I’m finding myself much less comfortable sitting with.

Stories of waste.

Stories of consumption.

Stories of chasing fashion for its own sake.

Stories of designed obsolescence and rabid consumerism (my own, just to be clear).

Stories of the relentless pace of change.

The drawer is a reminder to me that I (and lets be honest, we) have been writing cheques that our planet just cannot continue to cash. We continue to pursue more and more and more, faster and faster, fancier and fancier. And the cost to our planet, our environment, and maybe even our selves seems to be getting higher and higher and higher.

What cost to produce this drawer full of now useless, superseded electronic items that are mostly less than 20 years old? Or the companion pile of outdated laptops that sit on a nearby bookshelf (maybe I’m a low-level hoarder)? What cost for all of this designed obsolescence and now superseded technology?

I don’t know the answers, I just now I sit less comfortably with the story of this drawer every time I open it.

in the beginning…

Over the last couple of years I’ve been entering into that most terrifying realm for all parents: teaching a child to drive.

My #1 child is all the things you’d hope for in a learner driver. She’s cautious, obedient, patient (mostly), understands road rules, knows enough about how the car works to understand what’s happening when she pushes that pedal or pulls that lever.

We’ve taken our time, working up from what we came to know as “industrial estate Sunday” (you know…where the industrial estates are all filled with learner drivers on Sunday afternoons) to quiet back roads, to suburban streets before finally graduating to freeways and busy arterial roads.

We’ve used professional instructors at a few critical times (I’d far rather pay someone to teach freeway merging than sit in the passenger seat myself for a couple hours of white-knuckle on and off-ramp experiences), built in some road trips to get bulk hours, and had her drive all the local kid-taxi shuttles for her siblings.

We’re now past the critical 100 hour mark which under the Queensland system enables #1 child to go and take the driving test. Our time as teacher/learner is coming to an end.

It’s been largely pain and tear free, and despite a few near misses (which I assume all learners suffer) and a few stalling-in-the-middle-of-an-intersection moments (ditto), everything has gone pretty well.

I’ve worked hard to be outwardly the least anxious person in the car, to not raise my voice, to not provoke nerves or (unhealthy) fear in my learner.

And yet…

Every time I’m in the passenger seat, I’m all eyes on stalks, and hand hovering over the handbrake lever kind of nervous. I’m sure I’ve left dents in the passenger footwell from the number of times I’ve tried hard to apply the brake pedal from my side of the car. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve repeated my mantras (“the secrets of good driving are smooth, deliberate use of the controls”, “remember to look ahead and anticipate” and so on) desperately hoping she’ll finally listen. As we approach the finish line (at least for this first one, #2 is lining up in in just a few weeks for his learner’s permit), it frustrates me that I can’t fully relax despite the evidence that she’ll (probably, maybe, possibly) be fine.

The truth is that despite the everyday nature of driving, every time we get in a car we put our life on the line – trusting in our own abilities and attention span, and that of every other driver around us. It’s almost the very definition of a dangerous activity, even though we rarely think of it in those terms. And those dangers, the immediacy of them, never become quite so stark as when you put your precious 17 year old behind the wheel, conscious of their limited skills, non-existent experience, and the multi-tasking nature of driving a car as a beginner.

Life is like that isn’t it? The things we take for granted everyday were once new, and fresh and risky. The things we can do without thinking once took every ounce of concentration we could muster. Maybe teaching #1 to drive has just reminded me that we were all beginners somewhere along the line, and that learning (particularly a skill where there is danger) is a difficult and challenging road (pun 100% intended).

And maybe it’s a reminder to me that it’s been a while since I was genuinely a beginner at some new skill.

A few years back I started riding mountain bikes with mates. We would head out into the bush, desperate to recover our lost youth, struggle up hills and bomb down the other side over roots and rock and (in my case very small) jumps. I now ride a few times a week and these days rarely think about the dangers or difficulties of this pastime. But I do recall that it wasn’t always like that. It used to be that near misses, and actual crashes were part of every single ride. I recall the months I went with gravel-rashed knees and elbows that for some reason take much longer to heal now than they did when I was 13. I recall every descent was a cause for nervousness and anxiety. Most of that is gone…unless I take a wrong turn and head down a trail that’s beyond my capability.

Deep down of course, I know that when riding my mountain bike I’m always just one mistake away from a busted collarbone, or a battered, bruised 48 year old body. A bit like driving a car. And just like driving the car, I rarely think about that reality.

Maybe teaching Miss 17 to drive is reminding me of all these things: being a beginner, the challenges of learning new skills, my own fragilities, the ease with which I dismiss danger, the task of trusting my child to grow into her adult self.

Maybe it’s me who’s learning after all.

in plain sight

I ride bikes a bit, walk a bit, run a bit. And because I’m essentially a creature of habit, those attempts to fight off the middle-aged spread often see me following the same path week-in and week-out.

One of the mountain bike trails I ride I have now been down 242 times. On another the count is 172. That’s a lot of trips over the same bit of ground, past the same scenery. I almost feel like I know every tree, every branch, every rock.

For all that I reckon I know those trails inside out (what’s the phrase…I know them so well i could ride them blindfolded? I don’t think I’ll give that a whirl!) I also think that same familiarity means that I’ve stopped noticing. There’s the possibility that when I ride the same path often enough, I stop seeing my surrounds.

It might be the same where you walk, or along the roads you drive every single day. We can become immune to our surroundings, disconnected from them, oblivious to them.

Naturally if something big changes, we notice. If you sneak in and add a new jump to my favourite trail, I’ll notice it (right before I crash!), and if a new house goes up overnight on my afternoon walking route, I’ll likely notice that too. Yesterday I found a new roundabout on a road I’ve driven hundreds of times before…but not travelled for a while. I noticed it.

But that’s not usually how change happens is it. Change often happens slowly. Incrementally. Millimetre by millimetre. The trail slowly widens to make a corner easier, the dirt wears away revealing a little more rock each time to make it a little rougher, the soft-fall in the playground is scattered one bark-chip at a time until it’s not quite as safe anymore.

These things happen in plain sight. And unless we’re specifically looking for them, they’re not easy to spot. Unless we occasionally ride the trail intent on noticing what’s new…maybe we’ll never be aware.

I reckon life can be a little like that too. The way I treat my family members can change little by little, almost imperceptible, until I’ve done damage to the relationship. My work ethic can slip a fraction here, and a fraction there, until I’m not quite delivering. My spiritual life might slide – I skip some prayer time here and there and all of a sudden it’s a week, or a month, or a year since I prayed.

There’s a few things that I think have maybe happened this way in my own life. Maybe I need to take a ride down the trail intentionally looking to see where change has (unintentionally) occurred.

What about you?

the telling of stories

Photo by Antenna on Unsplash

Recently I was in a team building day.  It happens that the (work) team I’m part of has undergone some significant changes recently, so we decided to spend a day together as the ‘new’ team to mark this new beginning.

Part of the day involved the invitation to take 7 minutes to tell a little of our life story in answering the question “how did you get to be here?”.

Even as I write, it sounds like a simple task, that would have been no big deal; just tell the stories and move on to the important parts of they day. Right?

That (of course) isn’t how it worked out. It turns out that the opportunity to listen carefully to a bunch of colleagues tell something of their life story (even if only for 7 minutes each) is a rich and rewarding one, revealing all sorts of connections with one another, finding out what really matters, or why the other is a certain way.  The opportunity to tell your own story too, to an intently listening group is a rare privilege – providing the opportunity to think about the core of who you are, and to organise your thoughts around your own life’s adventures.

We discovered all sorts of things about each other over those 63 minutes (do the maths and you’ll work out how many are in my team).  We laughed so hard the actual laughter was funny in itself. And we were on the very edge of tears at other time as genuinely moving or profound stories were shared. It was, for me, the highlight of our day together.

I walked away so much the richer for the time shared, and so glad for the opportunity to listen, and to speak.

And also a little nonplussed.

Maybe it’s just in my world (genuinely I mean that), but it seems opportunities like this – to listen to another speak of their deep story – are a bit too rare in our modern world. Social media is not the place where deep stories are shared.  Increasingly busy schedules means the time to stop and listen (really listen…when was the last time I did that? you?) seems harder to find. Minds filled with a thousand and one things are less able to slow down, focus, pay attention to the other.

It seems we (by which I mean I) might be missing out on something important here.

Later that week I dropped into the mechanic to pick up my car – usually a 2 minute interaction involving me transferring horrendous sums of money to his account, and a few inane pleasantries.  This day, for reasons I couldn’t articulate at the time, I went a little beyond the usual and asked a couple of more open questions – and we got into quite a valuable conversation.  It only lasted maybe 5 minutes, and for all I know he might have been thinking “c’mon mate, take your car and leave, I have work to do” – but it didn’t seem like that.  He seemed to be enjoying the conversation, and the storytelling as much as I was.  This encounter reminded me that it doesn’t need to be team building meetings, or campfires or counselling sessions where we share our stories…it’s possible even in the moments of our every day…provided we’re willing not to be rushed.

Now it’s quite possible that this is not news to you, and I’m just late to the realisation (or to be charitable, the reminder) about the value of listening to the story of another – but it felt like quite a big couple of moments for me in that week as I encountered the importance of telling and listening to stories from one another’s lives.

Of course we can hear the story of another through their actions too, as the famous quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us: “Who you are thunders so loudly I can’t hear a single word you say.”  But while that is without question true and valuable, it seems to me there’s also something precious about inviting someone to tell their own story using words – and listening carefully and interestedly (a new word I just invented) while they do so.

It’s a personal challenge for me, a life-long introvert fairly well down one end of the I-E scale of your average Myers-Briggs personality test – but it is a challenge I find myself interested in taking up.

So…hit me up for a chocolate milkshake…I’m ready to listen to your story. 😉

it’s just a trail

Recently I had the extraordinary opportunity to travel to Tasmania with a bunch of guys to ride mountain bikes for a week or so. Yes, indeed, I do realise how privileged I am to be able to do so. It was an amazing week.

We rode in two places, Blue Derby (which I’ve ridden before and know and love) and Maydena Bike Park. If you like riding bicycles on dirt trails among rocks and trees, you should put both these incredible places on your list.

Now before the rest of this will make sense (if indeed it has any chance of that) you should know that when it comes to mountain biking, I’m relatively average. I ride regularly at local trails around my city and suburb, I have a nice bike, and I enjoy it – but I’m not particularly special. I’m not the kind of guy you’ll see on those YouTube videos hurtling down some vertical descent, or starring in World Cup or Enduro World Championship races all over the globe. I also don’t really do jumps…I like it when my tyres are in contact with the ground. Really I’m just a guy who goes riding with his mates and has a good time. If I don’t crash, I’m generally happy. I even made my own hashtag to describe my level of competence: #veryaveragetrailrider

So when preparing for Tasmania, it was with a certain degree of trepidation. This is “proper” mountain biking country.

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