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.

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.

growing older

IMG_0019So the evidence is mounting….I’m getting older.

Recently I was in the market for a car, and thought long and hard about what kind of car I could fit into my budget, what the family needs where, and what I “really” wanted. For a while at the top of my list was a Subaru WRX.  It’s been a car I’ve hankered after for years really, and though I couldn’t afford anything too recent, I could just about have worked my way into a ten year old model. As a firmly committed motoring enthusiast (to use a polite phrase!) the temptation was real. I could imagine myself dropping the kids to school, then heading for the mountains to unleash.  Serious fun lay ahead.

The choice in the end? A three year old Hyundai i30 hatch. Practical, nice, good condition, reliable, comfortable. Hyundai have come a long way and the i30 is a genuinely good small car……and I’m just about over the shame of driving a car I swore I’d never drive….but what happened to my WRX?

The thing is, much as I still love speed, and the idea of a truly capable car appeals, I’ve also started to figure out that just maybe there is more to life than going flat out everywhere.

Now in my early 40’s I find myself cruising in traffic, and laughing as a 19 year old races past, weaving in and out and gaining a few metres here and there. And as I laugh I think…sure, you’ll beat me to the destination by a few minutes, but does it really matter?

I’m definitely getting old……or maybe it’s five years in Tasmania that has relaxed me.

There are other signs too, reflexes that aren’t what they once were, a few wrinkles and a lot less hair (and disturbingly hair starting to grow in strange places…what’s with hairy ears?). Of course there are also some positives , I’ve started coping a little better with early morning starts after years of being sure and certain there was no such thing as 6.00 AM, and maybe (just maybe) there’s a little wisdom that comes from mounting levels of life experience – from all that has gone before, both good and bad.

Older, I tell you. Continue reading

the challenge of team

For the last few months I’ve been working with a group on a joint project.  The project is starting to get towards the sharp end of our deadline, with just a few weeks to go before delivery date on a joint report.

Today we met to mull over the current draft version of our report.

It’s a document that I wrote on behalf of the group, trying to listen well to what was being said (and left unsaid) and say what needs to be said, in a way that can be received.

Today was about sharpening the draft, about picking out the parts that needed fine tuning (or removing), about putting some more flesh on the bones in a couple of spots.

The group I’m working with bring to the table a lot of experience, and a wide collection of wisdom.  And they were gentle with me (really), encouraging of the work that had been done, and offering valuable insights into how to make the report even better.

It was a positive and healthy discussion that will result in a better document.  A good example of how a team can produce good work.

So why then,  did I face such an internal struggle with the whole discussion today? Continue reading

workshop description: re-imagining worship in a traditional space

The Uniting Church in Tasmania is blessed with many fine old church buildings.  They’re traditionally shaped, and often furnished accordingly. Long fixed pews, pipe organs, even old-school box pews are common. Heritage listing prohibits re-shaping many of the buildings to a form more appropriate for a modern faith community.

Those buildings are both a blessing, and a profound challenge to the church – in ways that we’ll continue to explore.

Last week we had the opportunity to run the latest in our regular “Hobart 2020 Forums” for those interested in exploring the themes of “How then shall we live?”, the interim report of the Uniting Alive: Hobart 2020 process.

Continue reading