on rock bands and puppy dogs and phd’s…

I didn’t see this coming. At 50 years of age I find myself suddenly hanging out in pubs and clubs and live music venues around Brisbane. I’ve even been seen in the Valley after midnight. Truth is I didn’t even do these things when I was 18, so to be there at 50…it’s all a bit strange.

The reason, of course, is one of my children. He’s in a band and as a dutiful dad, I’m there to transport him and encourage him and his band-mates.Yes, at times, to be a roadie-dad. We hang out up the back with the other parents, shoot a little video, enjoy watching the band perform and the 20-somethings in the crowd dance and sing and love life like there is no tomorrow.

The band, well, they’re something else. A bunch of 18 and 19 year olds that combine genuine musical talent, ambition, unbridled joy with a huge dose of irony and irreverence. They’ve named their five-piece band the Rutherford Jazz Trio. There are five of them, none are named Rutherford, and they don’t (usually) play jazz. Go figure.

Forming at high school a couple of years ago, their initial experiences involved things like private parties, open-stage street festivals and a season of 6-hour busking sessions on Saturday mornings at the Rocklea Markets. Now that they’re all 18+ they’re playing pubs and live music venues across Brisbane and entering the live-music scene, earning their chops.

Of course we, the parents, are following along. Ridiculously proud. Busting out embarrassing dance moves. Wondering where it will all end up.

The privilege of my viewpoint from up the back has been to see the astonishing improvement that has been (and still is) occurring. I’m sworn to not ever revealing video from those early days, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

They’ve gone from a band of talented school-age musicians tentatively sharing their gifts, with a lead singer (my lad) who at times used to have the song lyrics on his phone so he could remember them, to a group that can rock the house down with energy, passion and a performance style that is irresistible (recognising, of course, my obvious bias). Everything is improving – musicianship, performance, songwriting. Everything. Such has been their improvement that they most recently won an 80-entrant Battle of the Bands competition (here’s their performance).

The music is fun, engaging, funk-rock. The lyrics are at times completely irreverent (like the delightful “Fish Hat” or my current favourite “One Dollar”). Somehow they’re treading a line that hovers between honouring and skewering different parts of the society we have built for ourselves over this last 50 years. Consumerism, fashion, tourism, music – everything is fair game.

Watching them grow and learn has been an absolute delight.

And then…this week our family has just been joined by a 10-week old puppy. It’s a tiny, impossibly cute ball of energy and fury. In the style of puppies everywhere, it goes 100 miles an hour until it just can’t stay awake any longer and collapses. Even as I type he’s madly (and successfully) trying to climb all the way up my legs to get in a good bout of face-licking.

The thing about a new puppy, somewhat like a new human baby, or a fledgling band, is the astonishing speed at which they learn. Every day Harley the wonder-pup learns or does something new. Sometimes it’s something we don’t want, like learning to climb and jump, but other times it’s useful skills like sleeping and toileting and responding to his new human family. He’s incredible.

And then (there’s almost always an “and then”) my beloved is about to graduate from a 4-year PhD journey. Next Tuesday she’ll walk across the stage, hat and gown and all, accept a certificate and officially become “Dr”. The journey has been difficult, combining full-time study with nearly full-time work with being a mum to a house-hold full of teenagers. But she’s smashed it, disciplined when I wouldn’t have been, committed to the countless hours of reading and writing and researching and making it all make sense. Committed to learning.

Learning is a wonderful, extraordinary thing.

That’s true whether it comes from the unavoidable learning that’s part of new life, or the rapid, dedicated improvement that comes with serious practice and exposure to new experiences, or the slow, gradual improvement the comes as a result of discipline, hard work, and the accumulation of life’s experiences.

I find myself, as I delight in the journey of Rutherford Jazz Trio, and as I am equally smitten and frustrated by a new puppy, as I watch in amazement at my wife’s studies (again, ridiculously proud) wondering what is my own commitment to learning? Is it in my professional world, or my hobbies, or in my family and friendship roles? What can I improve? How can I grow? What new experiences can I open myself up to?

Because thing thing is, I’m pretty sure that learning is something that should be lifelong. It doesn’t belong to babies and children and puppies and new employees and PhD students and rock bands on the first step of a journey to change the world. Learning is for all of us, all the time. Would it be going too far, I wonder, to say that to stop learning is to lose something precious about what it is to be human?

So I’ll keep doing the dad-shuffle up the back at pubs and clubs, enjoying the band, delighting in their improvement. I’ll keep marveling at the puppy (while quietly raging as it chews everything in sight), and I’ll sit in the audience at next week’s graduation ceremony and probably shed a tear of pride and joy.

And I’ll keep quietly asking….what can I learn? Where can I grow? What new thing can I experience? Or at least…I’ll try.

bending to the breath of God

Before we dive in, a word of explanation: what follows is a brief reflection on the Christian season of pentecost. If this word or idea is new to you, read first the biblical account in Acts 2 and/or watch this quick explainer from Chuck Knows Church

I lay in bed on Monday night. It had been a busy few days. I was tired. I always feel tired. Still, sleep eluded me.

As I lay there I heard a sound that’s become so familiar to us in Brisbane this year that I have to say I’m sick of it: the sound of rain drops falling on the tree outside my bedroom window.  At first a gentle patter, then growing louder as the drops themselves became heavier. That oh-too-familiar sound.

There was something different this time though. It wasn’t only the sound of rain I could hear, but a new sound. An insistent sound. A sound coming from the distance, but getting closer and closer.

Continue reading

music, memories and midnight oil

Memories are a funny thing, particularly as you get a little older. Sometimes you have to dig around to find that lost one just out of reach somewhere in the dim dark recesses of the extraordinary thing we call the human brain. Other times though, they come flooding out, unbidden, unexpected and impossible to resist. And music has a way of drawing out memories more than just about anything else, transporting us in an instant to another time and place.

Last night I had just such an experience.

I was standing in a crowd of 8000 at Brisbane’s Riverstage, singing and dancing (yes, true, I did dance) along with the incomparable Midnight Oil. They’re in the middle of what is billed as their final tour after thrilling crowds for more than 40 years. As a lifelong fan, I had to be there, there was no option.

And as we stood, sang, danced (ok, I confess, it was what might be charitably described as “dad-dancing”), the memories came pouring forth.

Memories of sneaking an under-aged brother into a licenced venue gig in the early 90s. Of Boondall Entertainment Centre absolutely packed to the rafters for Crowded House and Hunters and Collectors…but clearly most of the punters there mainly for Midnight Oil. Of gig, after gig, after gig.

Perhaps most memorable, an insane Saturday night at the Alexandra Headlands Hotel, the room heaving with sweaty, singing, dancing bodies, the atmosphere so intense the room practically had its own weather system (and eventually it did as Peter Garrett threw jugs of water over the crowd from the stage, and the lads up the back started doing the same with jugs of beer).

At most of those shows I shared the joy with Sheri, and in recent years had the opportunity to take my then 14 year old son, and last night my now 14 year old daughter for not only their first big rock concert, but their first (and probably last) Oils gig.

These memories and more came flooding back as we rocked away the night. I wasn’t exactly sad, though I’ll definitely miss seeing this band live. More that the band and the music took me on a tour through some of the key moments of my own life as they played through a phenomenal back-catalogue interspersed some belters from their latest (trust me, it’s worth a few listens to the new album Resist).

I sometimes wonder what it is about Midnight Oil that I find inescapable. Why I have a full set of their albums; why I still send spotify playing an Oils playlist; why my most prized possession is a signed postcard from the band on the occasion of my 30th birthday (thanks Tracey…still don’t know how you organised it!).

Perhaps it’s that the band and the music has been something of a soundtrack for my life. With each album they’ve grown and matured and changed, as my own life has done likewise. There are songs from the band that line up with some of the big moments of my own story.

Perhaps it’s the message within the music, a powerful call to justice, to indigenous reconciliation, to an environmental consciousness – my own political views and interests do echo those of the band after all. And a band that has done its best to live out the protest that infuses the lyrics, not just sing about it.

Or perhaps it’s just that as a live music act, there is nothing quite like Midnight Oil. The power and the passion is a much over-used and hackneyed phrase when describing them…but like so many cliches it works precisely because it is true. You couldn’t watch last night and not be blown away by the raw fury of classics like Stand in Line and Back on the Borderline, or the joy with which the crowd joined in the much-loved Beds are Burning, King of the Mountain and Read About It. Then there’s the song after which the cliche is named. There’s maybe nothing quite so incredible, quite so riotous, quite so oddly joyful as seeing drummer Rob Hirst cut loose in the epic drum solo in Power and the Passion. Everybody knows it’s coming, that he’s about to add some more dents and dings to the corrugated iron water tank that is the oh-so-Australian addition to his drum kit, and that he’s about to destroy yet another set of drumsticks in the process. It still never fails to live up to expectations.

Far from just phoning in some old-timey classics though, the band threw in a few of the latest. Resist is a powerful call to arms, At the Time of Writing might just have been the song of the night (for me at least), and then there was eight thousand voices belting out what may be destined to become one of the band’s most famed lyrics of all time…”who left the bag of idiots open?” in the three-part epic Barka-Darling River.

They’re an interesting band to watch too. Garrett is of course unmistakable. Even if the phrenetic fury of “those” dance moves has calmed down (just a little), the voice, face and physical presence dominate. Martin Rotsey wails away on guitar, while Jim Mogine brings a musical genius to the outfit that is astonishing. With the passing of long-term bassist Bones Hillman, newcomer Adam Ventoura steps in, accompanied on this tour by the extra (and welcome) vocal talents of Liz Stringer and Leah Flanagan (her duet with Garret on First Nation yet another highlight). For me though, it seems obvious that drummer and singer Rob Hirst is the heart and soul of the band. He writes a lot of the music along with Moginie, and is one of those people you just can’t look away from. And from the outside at least, it looks like he is having a flat-out blast from start to finish. I don’t reckon the smile left his face once all night. Fittingly, he is last to walk off stage, last to wave.

Before you know it, the show is done. Another memory locked away to emerge unexpectedly somewhere down the track

Of course by now you’ve realised I’m no independent music critic. And to be honest I don’t have the musical knowledge to really analyse the show, the band or the songs. I’m a fan. Always have been, and always will be. And I was delighted to have just one more chance to be taken on a trip by this band that has meant so much to so many for so long.

Music has a way of drawing memories, and so many of mine are connected to this exceptional band. If this is to be the last show I see, it’s a fitting end. Long live the memories.

the most unlikely place

Whitehaven Beach, on Whitsunday Island off Queensland’s central coastline, is an amazing place. It’s regularly named as one of the top 10 beaches in the world, and it’s no wonder. 7km of stunning sandy beachline, backed by pristine coastal forest on an island that is 100% National Park. Apart from a few picnic sheds up one end, and the steady stream of visiting tourist boats anchored off-shore, you could be forgiven for thinking that the beach hasn’t changed in centuries.

Whitehaven Beach on a moody day

On the day we visited it was overcast and moody….the brooding clouds dark on the horizon lending an amazing atmosphere to the beach and the surrounding islands. Swallowtail dart swam around us as we floated in the pristine waters (wearing our seasonally necessary stinger suits of course!). Even without a postcard blue sky and sunny day, it was astonishingly, achingly beautiful. The natural world at its very finest.

Except that only moments before diving into the waters we had wandered along the beach, beyond the designated tourist area. There on a 15 minute walk along these pearly white sands my eye kept being caught by things that didn’t belong. Bits of plastic, and rubber and rope. A face mask that had protected someone from COVID. A used bandaid. A piece of pipe. Some were fresh – likely bits of deck rubber from stand-up paddle boards that came in with tourist boats that dotted the waters off the beach – but others were weathered and windblown, clearly washed up on the tides from who-knows-where and who-knows-how-long ago. In 15 minutes we collected a couple of dozen bits of rubbish, from the fist-sized to the tiny.

Despite the beauty of the beach, and the apparent isolation of the place (it’s not a Gold Coast beach packed full of people after all), the signs of human habitation, and of disregard for our natural environment were obvious. I was the sadder for it.

And I was confronted by it too. It’s easy enough in moments like these to blame the careless who dump their rubbish wherever they please. I don’t do that…so it’s not my fault….right?

But I’m as much a consumer as anybody. My house is filled with plastic junk that features built-in obsolescence – products destined for land-waste from the moment I purchase them. I buy food and drink packaged for my convenience in single-use plastic, barely softening my conscience with the “I recycle” excuse. Each piece of plastic made up of materials dug from the earth, processed and squeezed and manufacturered to within an inch of its life. Used once. Discarded.

All of it at risk of ending up in ocean, breaking up and floating about into the great Pacific garbage patch, or washing up on a pristine beach on a remote island (if some unlucky and curious Swallowtail Dart or Loggerhead Turtle didn’t take a nibble first). My consumerist tendencies end up in the most unlikely places.

There’s no simple answer of course. It’s not that easy to opt out of the capitalist, consumerist society I live in (and if I’m honest…enjoy the benefits of). Taking care of my own wake and my own waste is a start. Reducing, re-using and re-cycling goes the mantra – and it’s a fair thing to ask and encourage.

So I come home from this holiday with a mind full of memories, with a phone full of photos, and with a renewed desire to do right by our planet and by the children and grandchildren who’ll inherit it. That’s probably three pretty good things to bring back from a holiday (just a shame I had to go so far to be reminded of that third one).

Take a walk some day in an unlikely location. See what you notice. See what it reminds you of. See how it challenges you.

on mr whippy and lip balm…

It was a balmy Sunday afternoon, the kind where you’ve finished the jobs that need doing, there’s sport on tv in the background and the outcome is an inevitable dozing off on the couch while the kids do who knows what. Perfect right?

Into this nirvana came the distant, but distinct sounds of the Mr Whippy van. I’m guessing Mr Whippy and its unmistakable melody is a thing in the rest of the world too, but in Australia it’s akin to the pied piper – an ice cream van serving soft serves cruising suburban streets and calling to anybody within earshot. Kids come running. Parents too…even if they’re being dragged.

Those tones echoed up the street, cut through my dazed state and immediately had me reminiscing about my childhood in the southern Townsville suburb of Wulguru. That same tinny Greensleeves tune some 40 years earlier was a well known calling card. The connection on this summer day was instant and even as I remembered Kelvin St, Wulguru, the song called me to my modern day footpath where I flagged down Mr Whippy and ordered a soft-serve (with embedded Kit Kat of course!). Bliss.

There’s something extraordinary about the human brain and it’s capacity to make those kinds of connections over a sound, a smell or a taste. Just a few bars blaring from the ice cream van’s over-worked speaker and I’m transported 40 years in time and 1500km in distance.

Many years ago I joined a bunch of friends hosting a ski trip to the Australian alps. We spent a few days skiing and loved it. Each day started with a bus ride from our nearby hotel to the ski resort and along the way we’d prepare for the day – donning gear, telling stories of what heroic stunts we had planned for the day, and applying sun screen and lip balm. To this day, the smell and taste of lip balm instantly transports me to that bus, the music we were playing, the stories we were telling and the friends we were making. I can be applying lip balm on a beach or a golf course in the middle of summer, but one whiff and I’m on a bus to the ski resort as a 28 year old listening to the Paul Colman Trio.

The much loved, and equally much abhorred Dagwood Dog is another. Just the sight of that tomato-sauce smothered abomination sends me to school fetes of the 1980s. And I can’t resist even though I know I’ll regret it from the first bite. Bliss?

Again, there’s something extraordinary about the human brain and its capacity to make those kinds of connections.

Therapists of course make the most of those connections. A music therapist might tap into long bound up memories in a dementia patient by finding the right songs that connect to a much loved past. Sometimes, of course, the connections aren’t joyful like the Mr Whippy van – sometimes they evoke painful or frightening memories that a therapist can help unpack and unlock. The human brain is powerful.

Advertisers know all this too. It’s no accident that nearly every ice cream van on the planet uses the same (or similar) tunes. Partly its tapping into those internalised connections. Partly its playing on the value of nostalgia as a marketing tool. And that’s a relatively benign, innocent example.

But for this story, on this day, there’s no greater purpose – just me marveling at the human brain. There are so many connections within the little grey mush inside my skull that lie dormant, just waiting for the right sound or taste or smell to awaken them. Sometimes (like the lip balm) I know it will come every time I encounter it, other times it will catch me entirely by surprise.

How about you…what sounds or tastes or smells send you into a reverie of past happy days?

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.

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.

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. 😉