Wandering Thoughts

November 15, 2020

What I know I don’t know (aka why I’m Agnostic)

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 2:55 pm

The Problem of Evil is compelling enough evidence, I think, to dispel a literal belief in Christianity. As I understand it, it presents similarly severe issues for the other Abrahamic faiths. The argument that suffering is a necessary by-product of God giving us free will is not an effective rejoinder. God clearly hasn’t given us free will: our actions are, shaped by human nature, which God — if he existed — chose to impose on us.

I’m not as familiar with other faiths. Some — no doubt — don’t have to deal with the problem of evil, or deal with it in plausible ways (like Gnosticism?) but none, as far as I’m aware, has produced any evidence they have reliably tapped into something bigger than the here and now.

And yet, I’m not an atheist. I’m not sure that no god exists. I’m keen on evidence, and there’s no evidence that a god of some sort didn’t create the universe and maybe doesn’t pay some sort of interest in how it is playing out. As a result, all I’m certain of is that I’m uncertain. I’m an Agnostic.

Atheists sometimes contend that agnosticism is untenable, because anyone who wants evidence for everything would also need to be a professed Agnositic about everything we don’t know for certain, including apparently crazy things like whether there are fairies at the end of the garden. But the case of god isn’t that simple. The reason it’s not, is that there are some profound problems — things we cannot explain — that would be easier to explain if god was factored into the equation.

There’s the question of existence, foremost. Why is there something not nothing?

There’s also the question of design. Why did the universe end up with physical laws conducive to life.

There’s the puzzle of why a material universe that is decidedly un-alive, manage to generate life.

There’s the problem of consciousness.

There’s even the issue of free-will.

All of these questions and problems can, and indeed have been, discussed in meaningful ways that don’t inevitably lead to god. But they are very big questions, and the existence of god plays quite a plausible role in some good answers to them. None of this proves god exists. But it does at least suggest that the question of whether god exists or not is considerably more important than the question of whether there are fairies at the end of my garden.

So I’m agnostic.

I’m agnostic in another way too: I don’t think anyone should be religious or needs to be religious. But years ago I was debating religion with a religious Jewish friend of mine. When I asked her whether she really thought the Old Testament and Torah were literally true her response was, (to paraphrase a bit), “No, but I feel that there is some larger purpose or meaning, and it’s much easier for me to access this in a tangible way through the cultural traditions of my family and ancestors.”

And that, to me, seems to be a perfectly good justification for being religious. I occasionally ponder whether it would work for me and Anglicanism, but I never get far. I get much further again still with Pantheism, but that’s a whole other story. The main point is that it works for my friend, and I have no reason to be sure she’s mistaken. I’m an agnostic in that way too.

Agnostic doesn’t mean fully tolerant of other religious beliefs though. If we’re to accept that religion is personal and that literal justifications of religious texts really don’t hold, then we also need to accept that you cannot impose your beliefs on others, including — obviously — through the laws of the state. The religion I think is defensible is defensible in the private domain, not as a source of law.

That is, why, and what it means to me to be an agnostic.

July 26, 2020

Reflected light

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 11:18 am

All winter the sun sets at 2. That’s when its arc, which had nudged it over the trees, pulls it into roofs of the houses behind our flat. 2pm isn’t bad by Wellington standards. Many houses don’t get sun at all. But on the ridge on other side of the bay, houses bathe in light until the real sunset arrives.

It’s an affluent ridge over there. Odd shaped mansions. Some with giant front windows to snare sea views. Who knows what the windows are like in gales. Do they thump with the gusts in that awful Wellington way? Do they steadily acquire salt?

All I know is that on dusk, when the light has left the sea, when the air is starting to feel icy, the ridge over that side of the bay has a moment to shine. Three of the mansions catch the light and their giant windows reflect it like mirrors. It’s dazzling. So strong it’s hard to look straight at, but pretty: a sunset-tinged shine. A glowing goodbye to the day.

Entirely unintended. The owners won’t have cared what their houses looked like from the other side of the bay. But it’s not all. For a moment the light is strong enough it casts shadows where we live. Not everywhere, just the odd wall right in its path. Those walls change colour — from cold-dusk to the slight hues of a second hand sunset. Wave your hand in front of them and you can watch your shadow softly follow.

I wonder if anyone else has noticed. The mansions are pretty new. It’s not an obvious effect. But I’m glad they decided to share.

May 23, 2020

Waiting again

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 10:16 am

Like I said at the end of the bike crash tale, sometimes remarkable things happen. I vaulted the fence that might. New Zealand slammed its borders shut, locked down, and reduced known coronavirus cases to just about zero.

Globally, our government — particularly our prime minister — is being feted for a brilliant response.

This morning my wife and I went out to get coffee. The sea like a mirror. The sky defying forecasts: just a few endangered clouds fading into blue, and sun chasing away the morning chill. Like weather from a happy ending in a book. People are out: smiling, cycling, sitting in cafes, hugging each other.

Our prime minister is a marvel to watch. She’s adroit, clear, frank. She does it so well almost everyone’s willing to forget the times she’s not adroit, clear or frank.

In reality, our government’s handling of the crisis hasn’t been perfect. Many minor mistakes have been made. At times, it’s only been the corrective chatter of a well-functioning democracy that’s steered the government in the right direction. In other ways, we simply got lucky. But many minor mistakes is as about good as humans get. And at a time when many of the world’s countries are ruled by major mistakes we should be thanking lucky stars.

I vaulted the fence that night. New Zealand swerved around the first wave of the epidemic. But now? There’s the economic crash that everyone knows is coming. Then what else? How many more waves? Everyone — me included — is racing to return life to normal. But there’s no normal to be found until there’s a vaccine or good treatment. Even a good government can make big blunders in difficult times. And the corrective chatter of a democracy can easily become dominated by the loud voices of fools.

It feels like a very happy ending out there this morning. If you squint though, you can see more fences lurking in the gloom. What are the odds of us clearing them all?

May 17, 2020

The crossing

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 12:31 pm

It looked simple on paper. So simple I didn’t think about it.

Two flights from Arizona to Long Island. A stop-over in Chicago. Saying goodbye to my girlfriend in Arizona would be hard, but the journey would be easy.

In the end, it was the goodbye that was easy. We got to the airport late, had a hurried kiss at the gate. I told her I loved her, and that we’d make it work somehow. Then air-hostesses, smiling sympathetically — thinking no doubt about the deceptively simple paths of young romance — hurried me onto the plane.

The first flight was fine. But in Chicago we taxied to the end of the runway only for the pilots to discover the plane wouldn’t turn. It took an hour to be towed back to the terminal. Then half a day in the terminal waiting for a solution, which in the end was a different plane with a different destination: New Jersey. Problem solved. Actually, problem created for me. I’d been planning to take the train from JFK airport to the suburb where I was staying, then walk the final half mile home. No drama mid-afternoon for a young guy with a backpack. No choice if, like me, you couldn’t afford a taxi.

Now it all changed.

The new flight meant arriving in New Jersey about 10pm. Then I’d have to get from Newark airport in New Jersey to Penn Station in central New York, wait about an hour, then take a late train along the spine of Long Island into its suburban heart. There was a bus to Penn station I was told, there were trains all night. Logistically it was possible.

But crossing New York in the middle of the night? I wasn’t a nervous traveler. I’d hurtled here and there in Indonesia in swerving bimos. I’d bused down bandit-plagued coasts in Mexico. I was used to rusty third-world ferrys. I’d been blown between lonely islands in barely seaworthy fishing boats. But New York at night?

As a kid in New Zealand, the main thing I’d learnt about US cities was they were dangerous. My travels in the States had taught me more about the country. But the perils of night travel were still a great big spooky terra incognita. My New Yorker friends didn’t travel routinely on public transport at night, let alone undertake nocturnal urban journeys by bus and train, or wait in train stations for hours at midnight.

Still, I wasn’t going to waste money I needed for surf travel on a taxi. So I came up with a plan. At Newark airport I changed out of the tidy clothes I saved for flying into my ramshackle budget backpackers’ castoff jeans and jacket. These, combined with my old pack, left me looking far too shabby to be worth mugging, I hoped. Then I headed out into the unknown, onto the bus, and began the crossing.

Like most unknowns, it wasn’t what I imagined. The bus was part full; just a few tired airport staff. I can barely remember now, but we must have rode up and down freeway ramps like waves, and through suburbs I’d never know. Headlights instead of stars, streetlights like lighthouses. Safer than the sea.

Then there was Penn Station. That’s a clearer memory, because it was this island in the middle of the crossing that had been scaring me the most. When I got there though, it was bright-lit, and there were bored cops with big guns everywhere. I stopped feeling frightened and started feeling shabby.

The train was familiar territory. I’d ridden it often enough. And it wasn’t so different at night from day. It felt fairly safe. I think by then I was relaxed enough at times to start wondering where I was really going — proper young worries. Suburbs sped past. Lights, houses, homes, lives gliding by on the tailwinds of travel.

The last hurdle was Islip station. Central Long Island literally had a right and a wrong side of the tracks. I was staying on the right side, in placid suburbia. I just had to get to get away from the station, which was borderlands, dubious by day, definitely bad at night. So I hopped off the train and started walking fast, hoping the purpose in my stride would put people off.

I needn’t have worried, no one hassled me. Not because of my determined trajectory, but simply because there was no one. At 1AM, the wrong side of the tracks didn’t really matter. Everywhere, wrong or right, was just people sleeping.

By the time I was two blocks from the railroad I was safe. A familiar shore. I slowed down, and walked in peace. The gentle wash of the suburbs. Trikes in drive-ways, tidy lawns, white fences, the occasional clatter as raccoons toppled trashcans.

There are other, more troubled, stories I could tell you about my time in the suburb. But that night it was just a destination. A happy ending. I walked up the drive and quietly opened the door. Crossing complete.

 

 

 

Hips

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 10:18 am

One of the tiring things that comes with a complex chronic illness is the endless swarm of questions that circle you every day. Intruding, asking, arriving oversized and misshapen in your dreams.

At the front of the line today, is a painful left hip.

Nothing much, except when it’s not.

Is it the autoimmune arthritis coming back, finally overwhelming the medication that’s kept it at bay so well for the last 7 years? If it was, what would that mean? An easy change in meds? An insurmountable problem? More damage around my heart?

Is it osteoarthritis – damage to the fragile joint caused by the autoimmune disease – catching up with me? What would that mean? A hip replacement? How would one of those work out for a surfer?

Is it nothing more than a tweaked hip from too much walking?

These are the questions of illness. They don’t displace the questions of daily life either. They simply join the chorus.

The cure’s easy enough: ignore them. Except in those moments when you can’t.

Illness.

April 13, 2020

Crises, crises

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 5:58 pm

Like everyone, I’ve been walking. Eyes on the crisis. Keeping my distance. Navigating other walkers. Weaving around the bay.

Recently, my trips have coincided with the tide. King tides. The sea has been swollen, pregnant. Flooding slipways, lapping on peers. Sloshing up rocks by the the path. Climbing, ebbing, climbing.

In one alcove, the sheds — home to boats, and people these days — usually safe, up on gangly legs, are foundering: water slapping on their floorboards.

Eyes on the crisis. Eyes on the current crisis.

Maybe it’s just the moon.

Maybe.

Maybe the poised flood is melting ice. The next crisis creeping at us. Rising like the tide.

pregnant sea2

 

April 12, 2020

Panic!!! (No, not you, me!)

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 5:32 pm

On Tuesday two and a bit weeks ago Corona lockdown was announced for Wellington, scheduled to start on Thursday. I drove to my parents that afternoon, crawling in traffic. Surrounded by Wellingtonians who were driving like New Yorkers. Even in the anonymity the car in a queue, you could feel the rising panic in others.

A strange type of panic, it has to be said. Part of the time New Zealanders are exuding anxiety. Other times they’re being determinedly relaxed. Abandoning social distancing, bursting their bubbles. It you look at it closely it feels a lot like a textbook collective action problem. Everyone’s worried others aren’t following the rules, while at the same time, cutting corners themselves.

That’s what it looks like, and yet, while the tension between self-interest and the interest of others is there, there’s an awful lot of irrational behaviour too. It doesn’t really look like an excerpt from a game theory textbook. Indeed, the waxing and waning of tension more generally doesn’t seem that rational. It’s not crazy: this is a pandemic and the economic travails that will follow ought to be keeping you awake at night. Yet in a very human way we seem to be quite capable of being neurotic and cavalier at the same time.

Strange times.

The end of the Rec

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 4:58 pm

It ended with an Earthquake, long before it began.

During the giant shake of 1855, gravel tumbled off mountains into the Orongorongo River, and was carried to the sea. From there it began its relentless march along the coast and into Wellington harbour.

We, of course, were oblivious to all this when we started surfing in Eastbourne in the 1980s. Back then, there was no sign of gravel. Indeed, the problem, as far as residents were concerned, was erosion. A seawall was built, then groins, all for the sake of stopping waves from consuming houses.

One of the best things about being a learner is you’re oblivious in general. Growing up as surfers in Eastbourne, miles inside Wellington harbour, we could have been bitter. Our lot in life was a short thumping wave that closed-out a lot: the Rec. But we knew no better. As far as we were aware, it was a proper surf spot. It was a little inconsistent, needing freezing cold southerly storms to force enough swell into the harbour to make it break. But there were older guys who surfed it – a sure sign it was legit.

I caught my first real wave there, on a 3ft long polystyrene board. I can still remember the elevator drop, me skipping over the shallows, the white water to the beach. I ran up the sand, and round and round in circles hooting. I caught most of my first waves at the Rec, learned to get to my feet quick, and got my first barrel.

I don’t know how many generations surfed it before us. Eastbourne’s first surfers started in the 1960s, but limited themselves to soft longboard points. I guess surfing at the Rec began in the 1970s with shorter boards. By the time me and my friends arrived, there was a fully fledged crew of older surfers. In those days, you could tell how good it was from the bend in Karamu Street, simply by seeing how many cars were in the carpark.

You also knew how good the waves were from who was out. On the truly pitiful days, we grommets would have it to ourselves. A bit better, and more competent teenagers – Millsy, the Marshalls, Von Minden – would be out there. Bigger still, and some of my mates’ older brothers would hit it. If it was a real storm, almost-adults – already legends in our minds – would arrive: Bellams, Hales, Phil, Bede.

As we got older and a bit better, our obliviousness waned. It was a short wave, often simply a closeout. It usually needed a shrieking storm to break. In winter, this meant hail stones and sweeping squalls. We froze in our old wetsuits. Many of my friends found other interests. And yet, if you got a good day, it was a wave: there was a pretty clear take off spot, an optimal tide (mid-outgoing), a knack to it (up fast then race down the line for one move on the inside section). Sets were signalled in advance by swells cresting on outside sandbars. The waves would then thump though, peaking up, twisted by sand. If you got really lucky, a storm would abate, the swell would hang in enough, and there would be an evening glass-off. Still not Hossegor. But glassy, and with the chance of a barrel.

A new gang of grommets entered the line-up in our wake: Michael, Quentin, Murph, Wilkie.

Then something strange happened. The Rec stopped breaking in longer period swells. And it totally choked on lower tides.

That was the Earthquake’s shingle. Swept all the way from the river, around the coast, and up the harbour, looking for somewhere to rest. When I was away in my early 20s travelling the world a giant gravel point emerged between the Rec and Lions Rock.

Residents were no longer worrying about houses being consumed by the sea: some started talking of building on the extra land. As a surf spot, the Rec got fussier still. Then it ended.

I can remember my last real wave there, a respectable right peak. I dropped in on someone, raced the wall for a moment, then pulled off to let them have the ride. After that, the surf choked on the tide; I must have caught a weak closeout in.

I haven’t surfed the Rec since. The gravel found its final resting place. It won’t go any further into the harbour because there’s not enough swell to carry it beyond the Rec. Because of the gravel, the beach is too steep for swells to break. Also, the outer sandbars have gone, and so swell doesn’t refract in anymore. There’s a hint of a wave in a huge swell, but it never really breaks. Surf spot gone. Forever.

Forever – I guess. I have to admit, I keep hoping, and keep checking when I’m in town, in giant swells. Maybe the gravel will whittle away. Maybe something else will come. Maybe.

[I wrote this article for my friend Dave Laking’s Wellington Surf History website, you can read it, and much more there. Check it out: https://www.wellingtonsurfhistory.com/]

March 8, 2020

Waiting

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 7:39 pm

I had plans. Friday. The weekend ahead. I was going to escape the city to the always-blue sea. The thought propelled me, pedaling as fast as I could, out of campus in the late-evening dark. I was on the same path I always cycled, past the courtyard, across the alley, speeding by the bushes, around the corner and then… overlapping fences straight across the path!

A safety feature, they must have gone up during the day, designed to slow cyclists. The only way through was weaving at a crawl. I wasn’t crawling. I had no way of knowing. The bushes obscured them. The warning signs would go up a week later. I pulled on both breaks, my wheels locking on the gravel. Futile.

There was no time to do anything. No time for anything, except the fastest flash of thought: ‘What’s going to happen? How will it end?’

Fence, me, path, bike, speed. Obviously not good, but how bad? In what way? I still remember the flash, part thought, part feeling.

Years later now. I live in New Zealand. I’m feeling something like I did in that moment, except stretched over weeks… months.

The first cases of Corona virus are here.

How will it end? How will it unravel? I’ve got all the time I need to do the calculations, but there are too many variables, and only one future. Will our government and people coordinate to control the spread? Can they do it for this wave of the disease? The next wave? Every wave until there’s a vaccine? Will the health system cope? What about the second-order effects? Does China come chugging back to industrial life? Does that save global supply chains? Does that save our exports? Can the state prop up the economy if needed?

It’s easy to imagine a perfect storm: the economy on the rocks, services struggling, community struggling as the government tries to use quarantines to quell the spread of illness. More modest scenarios are also very possible. Disease stopped fairly easily through infection tracing. China’s economy bouncing back. Most other countries also holding the virus in check. A bad year in it’s way, awful in places, but soon, elsewhere, it’s only a memory as life trundles on.

And that’s the strange thing, I thought, this morning as my wife and I went to a typically busy cafe, got a coffee and went for a swim in the sea. We’re waiting on the edge of something, but what? Nothing to do for now but wait and wonder. The edge of something. But what? The edge of something. What?

Who knows how, but I cleared the fence that night. I vaulted it with one arm. A twist mid air. An almost landing as my bike clattered into the posts and wire. An impossible move for a middle-aged guy, but I did it.

“Jeeze mate. Are you alright. That was a real stack mate.”

“Yeah. I am. I think. Just my wrist a bit sore.”

I collected my bike. It was in one piece too. I got shakily onto it and rode home. Just as planned, I surfed the next day.

I’m hoping for that ending this time round. Of course. I can’t tell if that’s already impossible though. Fanciful thinking. So — instead of flying through the evening air — like everyone else, I wait.

February 1, 2020

Rigging

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 8:40 pm

The whistle, the hum and the rattle, of the wind in the stays and the spars.

January 26, 2020

Shelter

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 11:32 am

It’s just part of life in Wellington. Sometimes the Roaring Forties reach north, sometimes isobars pile up, sometimes Cook Strait is a funnel, sometimes gales blow with a fury.

Just after I moved home that happened. In the morning there was little more than a light offshore on the dying swell at Lyall Bay. By the afternoon the harbour was too windy to sail on. In the evening, giant white squalls bowlled down Evans Bay. Water torn into the air by the wind, billowing, racing like fleeing ghosts. The gusts so strong you could barely walk. “Almost 60 knots”, a friend emailed the next day.

It wasn’t exactly a normal day, but it wasn’t unusual either. Other than people involved in water sports, or cricketers, no one changed their plans. It’s just Wellington.

The marina below our flat is tucked into an almost sheltered corner of Evans Bay. Even so it gets enough wind for the yacht’s stays to start their undulating whistles when the wind rises. This day, the whistles had been replaced by the out and out roar of wind over spars.

Even so, behind boulder walls, the boats were safe. From our flat up in the trees, I could watch all this. How unstoppable the gusts felt. How safe the yachts looked. It’s calming in its way. The calm within the storm.

Tucked even further in, there’s a car park in the marina, where tourists park their camper-vans. It’s more peaceful still – a park at the end of the day. No more driving. No more rain on the windscreen. No more Google Maps. People huddled out of the storm amidst it all. Eating travel food. Waiting for their journeys to continue the next day, or as soon as the weather passes.

December 31, 2019

The wall at the end of the world

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 3:44 pm

The day we arrived in Canberra it was drizzling. I grumbled, but I was alone in this. On the news people were celebrating. Most rain in two months. Most rain in six months. Most rain in ten years.

We arrived as the old drought broke. Ancient lakes filled up with muddy water. Dams were replenished. Grass grew scruffy green.

The drought broke but, as it turned out, it never really went away.

When Jo left a decade later, I inherited the garden. And with that, the clouds started to ebb. Rain was promised. Promises were broken. A shower of 5mls became a notable event. I watched in horror as the party that pledged to burn the most coal won the election.

I jury-rigged hoses to timers. I scuttled round after the heat of the day. I joked anxiously with the neighbours.

“I feel responsible for the flowers now. It’s like a social contract.”

“It’ll help sell the place”

“I hope the new people like watering”.

The world didn’t end. Currawongs still soared on the west wind off Mount Ainslee. They still sang to each other as they roosted. The gums stayed a shade of green, somehow. But there were other signs. The thirsty, hungry kangaroos snuck into the suburbs in search of food. They mowed down playing fields and ate people’s front lawns. The grass became so dry it crumbled like sand when I walked on it.

Our house sold at an auction on a spring day when the daytime high reached 40 degrees. Removalists shoveled our stuff into boxes. I bought tickets. I gave away the car. I got a rental for my last few days.

One evening I drove up Mount Ainslee to watch the Sunset, and watched instead as a wall of smoke crept in on Canberra, carried by a wind change from endless fires to the east. Not the fire itself. Just smoke. The wall of smoke at the end of the world. It swallowed Queanbeyan. Then Fyshwick vanished. Then the airport.  Then came to us. First just the hint of a smell. Then stronger. Then a palpable grey. Then the air turned into a thick smog and swallowed the last of the evening light.

And that’s how it was, my final few days in Canberra. Newspaper headlines spoke of air pollution worse than Delhi. The horizon was lost in haze. Murky red sunlight in the middle of the day. Our friends almost lost their house in another giant firestorm on the coast. They told me afterwards they found parrots, dropped dead on their street, cooked as they flew.

I headed home to New Zealand, promising I’d never complain about drizzle again.

 

 

May 30, 2019

Pantheism

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 10:51 am

The waves were minuscule. Tiny swells steepening, then spiralling as they tripped on sandbars, held-up by the offshore wind. There was no chance of surfing. There was no rushing to the car to hurriedly pull on a wetsuit. Instead I stood almost motionless at my vantage point on the viewing platform where the scrubby bush gave way to dunes.

I wasn’t disappointed though. The sun rose just as I got there. The sky above me was lined with thick grey cloud, sculpted into valleys and ridges by the storm above. On the horizon the cloud was just high enough to leave a gap between itself and the sea. Just enough space for the sun to bring the world to light as it passed up from the horizon. Not a red sunrise, but a soft melted-yellow light. The low green peninsular to the north caught it, as did the long sweeping point to the south. Rocks and headlands that had been grey moments before took on life and looked almost warm, inviting. The beach began to glow, swirls of sand twisting and moving, caught by gusts of wind. In the water, the shallows shone, the sun turning the waves a see-through green. Further out, the light turned whitecaps into constellations, each splash a soft-yellow star, part of patterns that stretched to the end of the earth.

Pantheism is the idea that one way or another god and the universe are the same. Or perhaps, that because all we can know is the universe, and because it is suitably awesome, we might as well think of it as god. It’s not much of a religion. It offers no guiding rules, no cures, no promises of a better place to come. I’m not much of a practitioner really either. Usually I tell people I’m agnostic – meaning agnostic about the idea of God the creator, or God with plans. And that’s true. Much of the time I’m not an active Pantheist. How could you be? There’s no rules. No practices. No way of weaving it through your life.

I’m what I call a hiker’s pantheist. Someone who sometimes stumbles round a curve on a track walking somewhere and sees a sight so awfully beautiful they can’t escape the feeling it must mean something. That everything must mean something. It’s a momentary faith. But they’re impressive moments.

And there is a lesson in hiker’s pantheism, I realised last weekend, as I stood watching an impossibly kind light bring everything to life for a few fleeting seconds before the sun was muted by clouds. When you get to witness it, there’s solace in the sublime, even if it offers no explanations, or cures, or promises. None of that, but there are moments. When you get them, make as much of it as possible.

It’s not a profound idea. Barely a consolation. Except when it is.

Surrounded by cloudy grey light, I turned tail, back down the track, hurrying, so I wouldn’t be late to meet my friends.

May 2, 2019

A simple trip

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 9:37 pm

As the plane flew south the lush green ebbed out of the land. Dryer, paler. Thirsty Australia returning. I’m usually irritated in flight or busy thinking through the job ahead, or heading home, imagining a comfortable bed. Occasionally I’m excited, imagining some place new. But this time I was on the edge of sad. An ache, not fighting tears, but a presence, a pressure, the need to swallow.

No good reason. It was a short simple trip. A visit to an old friend. Us speeding along narrow roads cut into sugar cane, checking beach after beach, talking about hopes and mistakes. A short simple trip, which let the past press forwards as I sat in that uncomfortable seat, and remind me of might-have-beens and missed chances. That was reason enough. A sort of sorrow, even as the falling sun started to catch that water left in the land. Farmers’ ponds, twisting rivers and ebbing lakes all getting their chance to shine, then fade, from gold to white, before flashing for a blinding moment, before they were left behind.

March 17, 2019

Processing terror…

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 1:01 pm

The last time I felt like this was in the wake of 9/11. My partner at the time was from the US. We were living in Sydney. For several days we walked around like confused ghosts, trying to work out what it meant, where it came from, what was to come. We compulsively bought newspapers, even when we knew they wouldn’t tell us anything new.

Now it’s Twitter. More diverse than newspapers, but rapid fire, clippings, half thoughts, short sharp shouting matches, confusing. This is me trying to get my head around it.

Sorry

Thread through everything, attempts at understanding, bursts of anger, is sorrow. Sorrow — even though I didn’t know anyone directly affected. Sorrow — even though I know the fact the crime happening in my home country makes it no different from terrorism on the other side of the earth. I hurt for the people affected. I’m sorry.

Anger

The alleged terrorist is Australian. A rightwing member of Australia’s senate tried to blame the crime on immigration. Australian media broadcast the beginning of the footage the perpetrator filmed from his head-cam. The footage stopped before the killing started. But even so. This was done despite requests from the New Zealand police not to publicise the footage. It would be easy to be angry at Australia. Just as some people blame all Muslims for 9/11. But New Zealand has its own stock of far right loons. Most Australians are appalled by the crime. And a 16 year old Australian teen bravely egged the aforementioned senator. If my twitter feed is anything to go by, the broadcasting of the head-cam footage is offensive to a lot of Australians too.

Causes

In my Twitter feed plenty of attention is also been paid to the politicians and media organisations (particularly in Australia, but also in NZ) who have been dog-whistling Islamophobia for years. I’m not so sure they’re the cause of this crime. My guess is that their main effect is on frightened elderly voters. And that Neo-Nazis would exist and commit crimes regardless of the squawking in parliaments and newspapers. I’m not completely certain, but don’t think Andrew Bolt, or Rob Hosking, or Don Brash are gateway drugs. That doesn’t mean they aren’t utterly vile though. Nor does it mean that they don’t cause harm. The fear and suspicion they foster might not cause people to pick up guns, but it undermines democracy and civil society nonetheless. If they truly care about their countries they could do one thing to show this — they could shut up.

Solutions

I’ve read tweeted allegations that New Zealand and Australia’s secret services have been so fixated on the left and on the risk of Islamist terrorists that they’ve ignored the far right. The evidential base for these claims is fairly weak. But that’s always going to be the case — secret service work by its nature doesn’t leave much evidence. What we need from now is clear reassurances that the threat of far right terror is being taken seriously. Actually, we need more than reassurances: we need evidence. We need action and then evidence from our governments.

The government also needs make it illegal to own semi-automatic weapons in New Zealand. (The conservative prime minister) John Howard bravely did this in Australia despite concerted opposition from the gun lobby in the 1990s. Jacinda Adern has promised similar changes for New Zealand. All power to her. And if the gun lobby resists we need to stand up to them.

Solving things

If there’s one silver lining to this very dark cloud, it has been the way New Zealand has come together. Prime Minister Adern has been a real leader. Indeed, it seems from my confused perch here in Canberra that most New Zealanders have been real leaders. Kindness, flowers, donations. Tears. Unity. It feels like a country pulling together.

Terrorists want division. Hate grows amidst divides. There’s no undoing the tragedy. But for now, at least, New Zealand seems to be doing its best to stop hate spreading.

[Update – my views on the above are changing a bit. Specifically: I’m now inclined to think that dog-whistling politicians and media commentators did contribute in their own indirect way, even if they were far from the central cause. All the more reason for them to give it a rest. Also, NZ politicians have basically come out and said intelligence services were under-prepared re the alt right etc. All the more cause for a major attitude shift.]

December 20, 2018

In the dark

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 10:23 am

Nothing in Canberra is fully illuminated. The streetlights are small, dim, swallowed by gum trees.

In the suburbs, once you’ve learnt to watch for kangaroos, the effect is pleasant enough, but I don’t know why Garema Place, the heart of the city, has to be so dull.

The lack of light didn’t help me that evening as I cycled around looking for the vigil for the asylum seeker who’d died in an offshore prison. Killed for the crime of fleeing a war, and trying to start a safer life in Australia.

I ended up late. And in a better-lit place I would have chosen a different part of the crowd to stand at the back of.

The problem where I stood, it turned out, was that it was just a few meters away from a bench in the shadows, home to a group of drunks.

Not just any drunks either. They weren’t quietly getting pissed. They were loud, and from time to time they’d take to shouting, heckling the speakers at the vigil.

Like everyone else I stared away from them, intently ignoring, trying to focus on the stage. But then one of the drunks, a tall guy, with a barrel chest that gave into a beer gut strode over and stood next to me. He looked at me for a moment, his pissed blue eyes both purposeful and purposeless at the same time. He had a big flat face. I smiled politely and then looked at my shoes, hoping, I guess, that he’d vanish if I just ignored him hard enough.

Not to be.

He started shouting at the speaker. He was big, with one of those voices that are made to carry. Make to heckle. His sentences didn’t make sense. Although, on their own, some of the clauses did.

Where are you from? Cause I’m from fucken here mate.

I’m from fucken here. Who invited you?

I wasn’t the only person in the crowd trying to ignore him. Everyone was. But he wasn’t going away.

Thoughts were chasing themselves round my head: I’m going to have to do something, but what, what.

He was too drunk to reason with. Too big to manhandle.

Then the old guy came out of the crowd. He had pale skin, silver hair and glasses. He was tidily dressed, in the careful way of someone who never buys new clothes but keeps his old ones neat, mending them for decades.

He was tall. He wasn’t stocky, but he had a presence. He moved gently. Easily ignored. But impossible for the drunk guy to ignore by the time he’d stood straight in front of him, meeting his gaze.

Hey mate. Don’t shout. Listen.

He sounded calm. Certain. Quietly forceful. He looked like a Christian socialist. He looked like he had stared down cops on hundreds of picket lines.

Most days he would have won. Being right, and being sure, would have been enough.

But this wasn’t your ordinary drunk. He looked back. Held the gaze.

Who are you? Where are you from mate? Who invited you? I didn’t invite you. I’m from fucken here.

Then the nonsense made sense. I looked at the drunk, the shape of his face. His eyes were blue, he was too pissed to be anything really, but he was also an Aboriginal person.

Robbed of righteousness. The Christian Socialist stumbled, struggling now to be calm and forceful.

Well um, you can speak in a moment. But, um, let’s just let this guy finish first.

The drunk started shouting again. The Christian Socialist’s words grew quieter, kept stumbling, and couldn’t shut him up.

Some point during this stumbling a young, gangly guy, shorter than the drunk and the Christian Socialist, but taller than me, strode up. My reeling and racing mind placed him as having Indian or Latin American heritage. He had mop of black hair, held out of his eyes by lime green sunglasses, that looked like they might have been bought in a service station in the 1980s.

He slid between me and the Christian Socialist and got right in the drunk guy’s face.

Shit. That’s not the right approach, my thoughts raced to themselves.

He seemed certain though. Angry too.

Stop! Let the speaker finish!

Naturally, the drunk was having none of that. More belligerent than ever.

I’m from fucken here. Where are you from? He stuck with his winning line.

The thing is. The slender guy knew exactly where he was from.

I’m from the Tent Embassy. I’m a law keeper, he went on to name a tribe or language group from central Australia. Let the speaker finish.

Shit. My stumbling thoughts tripped over themselves. He’s not from Latin America. He’s an Indigenous Australian leader. And he looked so strong, so certain. He new his place.

One any other night he would have won the day just like that. But the drunk guy wasn’t just too drunk to reason. He was too drunk too listen. It took about five more exchanges before he even began to register that the other guy wasn’t an immigrant like the rest of us. Even then it only sunk so far in. Not quite far enough to make him care.

Still the bravery of the slender guy distracted the drunk. He was no longer shouting. Rather, the slender guy, the Christian Socialist and I ended up in a confused three way conversation.

I’m not Australian. I never really feel at home anywhere for that matter. But there have been a few drunks in my life. If they’re not out and out violent, you can wear them out with banal comments that go nowhere. That became my role.

You’re from here. Oh cool. Whereabouts? I’m from New Zealand. That’s not really here. Except when you’re there, I um guess.

And so it went until it ended. We wore the drunk out, and ultimately ran down the clock on him. The scheduled talks stopped. The crowd dispersed. The vigil was over. Even the drunk was too sensible to waste time heckling no one. So we dispersed too. I rode up to the slender guy, thanked him. Tried to find the Christian Socialist, but couldn’t. And then cycled home through the dimly lit streets of Australia’s capital.

 

November 4, 2018

Upwards

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 11:23 am

I don’t know what made them sprout. But they tore up the earth, shooting up. Imagine bamboo shoots taking hold in your garden. They grew around craters. Holes in land that had once been home to something else. Something so non-descript it was easier to remember the crater than the thing it had replaced.

It can’t have been the rain. There’d been a drought for most of the year. Economic geography, I wondered. Agglomeration. I asked around. No one seemed interested. One of my friends said, ‘I think they’ve changed a by-law, or something’.

No one can tell me why, but Canberra’s garden of frumpy, mercifully-short buildings, has become infested with cranes. As if one wandered in on the west wind, liked what it found, and radioed back to its relatives.

I really can’t remember what the cranes replaced. Which says something. There’s nothing beautiful about Canberra’s buildings – except they are easy to overlook. It would be a prettier city if it was sprinkled with towering spires. But it could be worse. The buildings don’t tower at all, which makes the sky, hills and trees easy to find.

The cranes are pretty in their way. Flags fly off them in the weekend. When they move on weekdays, gliding round their arcs, they have a soft grace. But there are so many. What’s coming in their wake? Maybe similarly low unobtrusive buildings, sculpted in contemporary styles? I doubt it. Canberra’s becoming a city, with suburbs that sprawl further and further to the North and South West. And so up it grows too.

Years ago I complained about how quiet Canberra was. People talk of bad old days when it was a hardship posting for civil servants. But can you imagine it choking on traffic jams? Or cut off from the hills by towering apartment complexes?

For now, there’s just cranes, all over the skyline, having sprouted in a sudden, looking pretty in their way, as Sunday’s west wind sets their flags fluttering like leaves.

October 21, 2018

Drought rain

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 4:33 pm

Even the gum trees on Mount Majura are brown. Autumn, winter, spring…almost no rain. Gardens are kept green by hoses, and hoses filled by a giant dam to the west of town. The fate of the farmers is fodder for politicians. People talk anxiously about bushfires in the summer if the dry doesn’t end soon.

It would be possible to ignore all this from the safety of the suburbs. No one’s turning off the taps. I don’t have stock to keep alive. But the thought, the threat, the impossibility of the dry spell that drags on unending catches you. You imagine yourself surrounded by thirsty nature. You become a rain watcher. I scan forecasts. I watch hopefully as dark clouds peak over the Brindabella Ranges. I tell people how much I love the smell of tarmac with the first drops of rain on it. I curse false alarms. I marvel at how towering thunder clouds can lumber over town, how you can hear the rumbling, how you can even smell the rain, and how it can all still come to nothing.

Yesterday the forecast was a 95% chance of rain. I watched the blue sky all morning, as impotent as a soccer fan who can do nothing as their team gets thrashed. I felt a thrill as a serious band of black came marching in from the west at midday.

I packed my camera and drove to find vantage points. I nodded cynically as I parked up amidst giant widely-spaced drops of rain that fell then stopped even as the sky boiled above me.

rain1

Then it finally came, riding in on the nor’wester, turning the town into a blur.

I fled off Red Hill as a lightning bolt hit black mountain, just getting into the car as a soaking sheet of water fell around me. Rain!

rain3

Or not. Within minutes it had stopped. Drought rain. No real change in the weather. Just a cloudburst followed by rain free sky again. This happened once more later in the afternoon. I took most of my photos of the trails of squalls as they moved away.

rain5

I ended my day drinking beer in the sun on our porch. A lovely evening for it. And the garden smelled beautiful – fresh and alive. But I made the mistake of looking at my phone. A chance of light showers. Then dry all week.

rain4

September 12, 2018

The shepard’s hut – 5 minute review

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 9:32 pm

Somewhere, days to the west of here, on the other edge of a continent, there’s farm country, poised between the sea, and the salt lakes and sand.

This is the country that’s home to Tim Winton’s novel ‘the shepard’s hut’. Home to the characters that pull you across the pages, home to the narrative has you hoping for a happy ending although, in the end, a hopeful ending’s all you get.

Yet for all the force of the narrative, it’s the land that makes this book — a landscape, not a portrait. Maybe it’s just me, taken as I am with the Australia that isn’t its people, but days after I reached the final page, with the characters beginning to fade, the abiding memory of the book has become the scenery it’s set within. Arid, yet alive, although governed by the harshest of laws.

Winton doesn’t just use description to conjure the land. Much is added by the messy business of hunting, and the knowledge the characters need to stay alive. This is all part of the story too, but the book could lose the bush-lore and still keep its central tale in tact. Much of the purpose of the art of survival seems to be to add to the picture. To help you the reader feel as much as possible of the colours and contours of the country between the last of the farms, and the beginning of the desert proper.

In the end it’s pretty easy to care for the characters, but even if you didn’t you could happily read this story just for the land alone.

September 5, 2018

On the other side of the curtain

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 2:39 pm

I’ve never been so close to Australia, even though I’ve lived here for years.

The thing is, in that time the people I’ve lived amongst come from a place you could call Planet Development. Educated, urbane, cosmopolitan. Internationalists. Outward looking. Prone to pronouncing h’s. Not prone to ending sentences with ‘but’.

No better or worse than anyone else, but familiar. Similar to the people from Planet Development back home in New Zealand.

Here in hospital (two and a half weeks and counting) Planet Development is a long way away. Plenty of people — nurses, doctors, other staff — come from overseas. And the Australian born staff are diverse too. But the staff don’t have time to talk. On the other hand, I share my room. Me and one other patient, separated by a thin plastic curtain. In the same room, day and night.

First, there was the old woman, who snored like an opossum trapped in a roof. Who was friendly. Who confided that her husband had died two months ago. At night she’d wake from dreams crying ‘no, no, I don’t want to visit the grave.’ When my drip started beeping in the night, which it did on a whim, she would shout, words breaking over the bow of her Australian accent: ‘Shart up. Shart up!’. She’d always apologise the next morning. “I wasn’t swearin’ at you. Just that machine.”

Then, there was the guy who had the television as loud as it would go 20 hours a day. During the night I wanted to scream: ‘shart up, shart up!’ But I put my headphones on instead. He was friendly, pale and in his sixties. Keen for a chat any time after 5am.

“I’ve been a tradie. And a sparkie.”

When I told him I was  a political scientist, he told me he had friends who were rich, paused for a bit, then started talking again. He talked about hunting roos just above the escarpment. How it seemed a cruel thing to do, but there were too many of them. How he loved the peaceful mornings in the country. How a few years ago the doctors had seared away bone cancer with radiation, and how he needed a hip replacement as a result. His kidneys were buggered. One of his brothers wanted to give him one of theirs. But it, “wasn’t worth it for an old bloke like me.”

The Liberal Party were busy dispatching Malcolm Turnbull while we were room mates. When his family came round they huffed about in collective disgruntlement with politics. Not that the Liberals mess seemed to be helping Labor much. Pollys were the same he grumped when Bill Shorten intruded on the TV.

He was friendly. He was disgruntled. He watched politics on the TV until the news melted into infomercials, then until the promises of the infomercials were replaced by the sure footed male certainty of the footie commentators. Cancer in the bones, buggered joints, quiet country mornings. Grumpy at the pollies. Friendly to me. Melancholy.

He was replaced by a woman from a small country town not so far from Canberra. She was terrified by what had happened to her. Telling the exact same tale in tears to anyone she could reach on the phone the first day she was admitted. The pain, the misdiagnosis, the internal bleed, the screaming at the medical staff, the doctor who finally got it right. Slowly the tears and fear ebbed away as a long line of friends came to visit her. She worked in a club, in her sixties maybe. She had a queue of health problems. With her friends she exchanged tales of woe in Australian so perfect I wished I had a book so I could write down the idioms. There were violent boyfriends. Drunks. Husbands addicted to pokies. People asking for money who had no right. Women encumbered with good for nothing men. But also friends, and families, and her family, which had fractured then reformed. They all came to her bedside.

When one or other of our drips started beeping at night we’d check in on each other. When I lept out of bed embarrassed and swearing after I tipped over my pee bottle she scolded me in a caring way for putting weight on my leg. “Get back in bed, you’ll hurt yerself. The nurse ill take care of it.”

We saw each other all of two times. Other than that it was conversations through the curtain. But when it came time for her to be discharged it was hard not to feel a pang of loneliness all of a sudden. And easy to wish her well.

It’s not as if the immigrants Australia of many of the hospital staff isn’t the real thing. And Australians from Planet Development are Australians none the less. But anthropologists ignore capital cities and traipse into jungles or out to remote villages because that’s where they think they’ll find yesterday’s native, still alive today, impervious as globalisation flows around them. Here in hospital, I’ve found yesterday’s Australian, just there, on the other side of the curtain, battling away as the informercials flow around them.

September 1, 2018

A tangle

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 9:51 pm

It’s amazing what you can take for granted. The long sweeping bay. The kangaroos on the beach. The clear water, bending the morning sun into twisting patterns, tangles of light  on the sandy sea floor.

I’m too smart to take surfing for granted. So — even though the bar was a bit short, ending in a snapping close out in inch-deep water; and even though there were two other guys out, meaning I couldn’t have every wave I wanted — I was revelling in the little lefts on my longboard. Arcing along the outside section, fading when the wave backed off, and threading the odd one through the shallow closeout at the end.

I can’t remember the rest of the wave now, so I’m guessing it was nothing special. All I remember is a painful clunk at the end of the ride as my board hit my leg after I’d decided at the last minute to leap over the closeout, rather than surf across the shallow sand.

It hurt. Worse than any other collision I’ve ever had with my board. But the pain backed off and, although I was a little slow to my feet on the next wave, I didn’t think any more of it. I knew the warfarin I take because of my artificial valve would mean my blood would take longer to clot. But the injury was to my leg — not my head — and I decided it couldn’t end up as anything worse than an oversized bruise.

I caught a bunch more waves unaware how wrong I was.

By the time Jo and I got back to Canberra that afternoon I could barely walk, and my thigh was so swollen it had lost its curves. Off to hospital.

It’s amazing how strange other people are. Or, if you pause to think about it, it’s easy to take for granted how strange you are. The first night in accident and emergency was a good reminder. My swollen leg hurt too much for me to sleep.

Most of the people in the beds around me weren’t so different — the man slumped over his knees, his hand resting on his daughter’s knee; the old guy in the bed next to me, with a cough that was so full of phlegm it threatened to overwhelm his dogged lungs at any point. They weren’t so far away from an imaginable future. Or a slightly different life.

But then there was the family. You could tell from the way they strode up and down the corridor, and from the unmoderated crack of their Aussie accents that they were normal as fuck.

“I got it on me phone”

“The fight?”

“Look”

Loud grunt.

“I’m his mother, I can’t be seeing that.”

“We’ll use it when we sue ’em.”

Loud Grunt.

It took me a while to work out that Loud Grunt was one of the losers in a melee (the nurses’ word for it). His cousin, also a loser, was also in the bed next to him. Their team clearly hadn’t done well in the battle.

Loud Grunt was grunting because his jaw was broken in two places. He was loud because of the morphine I guess. Almost ebullient. Caught in the post-match analysis.

“We reckon it was one of those girls who ‘it ‘im with the pole”

Affirmative grunt. There was a woman with him — his wife? his sister? — who somehow understood what he was saying. She translated.

“Yeah definitely one of them.”

Grunt, grunt.

“E says he should have hit im before the others joined in. He won’t make that mistake next time.”

“We’ll sue em, now we got the video.”

His cousin also had a broken jaw. But he didn’t make any loud grunts. Maybe he hadn’t been given as much morphine. Maybe he simply wasn’t as resilient. Maybe he felt caught in the tangle of his messed-up family. He just let out quiet forlorn moans from time to time. I imagined him holding in tears.

It took me a day to make it up to the orthopaedics ward. By this time I was in agony. The pain killers didn’t do much. Or if they did, my leg was utterly wrecked. It wasn’t until they sent me for surgery to drain the fluid from my muscle — compartment syndrome was the diagnosis — that I started feeling any better.

And this is where I’m typing from now. In bed, recovering in between setbacks (I started bleeding again at one point), tangled up amidst a drip, an electric inflating sock for blood clots, and a drain from the wound. Tangled up and promising myself that I’ll never take my mobility for granted again.

Loud affirmative grunt.

June 3, 2018

Eschatology

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 1:12 pm

I was on a weekend break at the beach. I only started thinking about eschatology that evening because the word itself tastes funny and bizarre.

The early Christians thought they were living in end times. The turn of the first millennium brought prophecies of doom too. As the year 2000 approached, me and my backpacker buddies laughed — a little uneasily — at every new claim.

I’ve always wondered what doomsday cults do the morning after.

I understand the temptation though. In part, because nuclear weapons and an unravelling environment provide real reasons for worry. In part, because everyone’s ego wants their story to mean more than it does — wants it to be part of a climactic scene.

In part because all times are end times. Now is the end of the past. And the future is on its way, about to wipe out now forever too.

The next morning, a southerly storm washed up the coast, and I drove from bay to bay trying to find surfable waves. Finally, making the most of the moment off a headland with finicky frustrating surf, but just enough waves racing into the bay to leave me tired and happy when I finally limped up the beach.


May 11, 2018

High lands

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 10:30 pm

My seat number got changed at the gate and again as I got on the plane. It wasn’t exactly orderly flying. But I ended up by a window. And that’s where I got my first view of the Highlands from. Propellers whirring, the old plane straining. We arced away from the coast and up over mountains, only to find — instead of the other side — a world on top of the world. A giant plateau, cut by valleys and with more mountains piled up in the background. The incredible fertile green that everyone talks about.

There’s more than the story to that. The interviews. The energetic officials talking about kidnappings and death threats. The stories. The problems.

But for now settle on this: folded lands, small hamlets, afternoon light, smoke in the air from camp fires, and towers of clouds piled up against unknown ridges.

January 1, 2018

Into the harbour

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 2:43 pm

I can almost remember the first time I surfed the Pipes. Half a bay, halfway along the gravel road to the harbour mouth. Rock reefs at either end and a beach of greywacke pebbles. A valley stuffed with gorse, and concrete pipes, almost large enough to stand in, leftover from when the sewer was built, piled up on the inland side of the road. To get to the Pipes you had to cycle or walk, the road was closed except to the odd truck that rumbled by on its way to a distant quarry.

Surfing there was a rite of passage if you grew up in Eastbourne. Unlike the beach back in the harbour where I learnt to surf, the Pipes broke over rock and gravel. Unlike the smaller points further in, the Pipes got enough swell to produce real waves — sometimes.

That first surf wasn’t good. My almost-memory is green water, a waning southerly, and the frustration of small waves that went nowhere, breaking all at once. That was a rite of passage if you grew up where I did. I remember the frustration of the waves interwoven with the perennial cheated feeling felt by teenage surfers growing up in a harbour. Other people got to surf real waves, me and my mates lamented every day until we finally got our drivers’ licences.

Occasionally, the Pipes actually gets good – I have memories of that – once you’ve worked out the right swell, wind and tide. Even when we had our drivers’ licences, even when there were other options, we would still walk or ride to the Pipes if things looked right.

Last week wasn’t really right – the strange, sunny, summer southerly storm had too much west in it, so the hills did nothing to shelter the waves from the gale that made the swell. The water was a warm green, but torn up by squalls. Still, the surf was marching past the reefs at the harbour mouth, and big enough to make it to the Pipes. And living in Wellington you get used to the wind.

What is more, living in Canberra, the odds of being back home for a big southerly swell are low. I didn’t need a guarantee of good waves to get me walking down that gravel road, where trucks have been replaced by triathletes and mountain bikes. The wind wasn’t right but I was pretty confident there would be waves. I was less confident I’d be able to surf them. Living with arthritis I’ve become used to the risk of failing in the surf. Certain types of waves won’t forgive the slow, strange way my back and hips force me to get to my feet. My inflammation levels fluctuate day to day. Unless I’m too sick to surf, I never know in advance how a surf will work out. After all those years riding it I ought to be able to surf the Pipes. But after all those failures I was anxious and unsure as I stood, my board kicking under my arm, by a gap in the rocks, getting ready to leap onto the back of a white water and paddle as fast as I could away from the point before the next wind-driven wave rumbled by. With no idea when I’d get the chance to surf the Pipes again, I wanted the surf to work.

I did everything right – I paddled out fine. I waited in the right place. I chose the right wave, catching the corner of white water that forms after the swell hits boils of dry rocks on the outside reef. With my memory leading the way those parts were easy.

Then, then, then…I got to my feet. Fast enough, on a wave forgiving enough to allow for me. I cruised for a moment, following the last of the bend of the outside reef, before angling into the bay, my body, my board, the wave, all cooperating. There’s no frustration. No cheated feeling. No wave breaking all at once. Instead, amidst the gale, and the arthritis, there’s me, going faster and faster as the swell steepens, changing my line with the curve of the wave, flying past surfers paddling out, past illness, down the point, into the harbour.

August 15, 2017

The presenter

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 10:57 am

His speech would pause and then dash forwards. Pause and dash. Tension and release. His tone rose and fell. Words snapped shut for emphasis.

All of this brought the ideas to life, made them look crisp and respectable like he did in his expensive suit. But if you listened, if you tried to follow where each individual train of thought was going, all you found was ideas that wove about, flurried enticingly, and went nowhere in the end.

The audience waxed — caught in his energy — and then waned as the temperature and lack of oxygen in the large grubby lecture hall imposed an unavoidable drowsiness.

August 12, 2017

Ghost stories

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 6:51 pm

The town lay in the hook of a great grey bay. On a hill above a grubby port. Hemmed in by giant, forest-cloaked mountains. The clouds never cleared. It could rain for weeks on end. I had to work with a local team observing elections. I didn’t speak the language. I never really knew who was lying to me and who was telling the truth.

The hotel had thick metal gates. There was no question of going out at night. A waitress from the hotel’s restaurant told me how afraid she was walking to and from work. Even during the day, I was anxious whenever I walked out on the streets. The ute we rented some days was missing a front-passenger seatbelt. The first time I reached for it the driver told me it had been cut out and used to tie someone up in a car-jacking.

The room had a tiny TV and a giant fake leather couch. The air-conditioning made me cough. Every day as I typed away on my computer I would be interrupted mid-morning by the woman who cleaned the rooms. She was from Bougainville and had pitch black skin. She wanted to go home she told me, but she needed the work. Occasionally, my awkward comments and attempts at chatter would cause her to smile, or even laugh, but usually all I would get was curt, cold replies.

One night as I went to bed two men started talking in heated tones in the room next to mine. I was numb with bone ache and tired. I felt irritated, but went to sleep nonetheless.

I was a nervous child. I’ve never watched horror movies. I had an older cousin who relished them though. He also took great joy at retelling every detail, to me, alongside ghost stories of his own. So I grew up frightened of the dark, convinced there were beasts in the gully below our house, and fully aware what poltergeists were.

I woke about an hour later. Now the men were shouting in the room next to me. An argument was worth worrying about. There were lots of guns about. And elections could be particularly violent. Two voices, perhaps three. Shouting. Fervent. Furious. What were they saying? I put my ear to the wall, but couldn’t catch the rapid-fire pijin. There was so much anger and intensity in their words, but slowly, as I listened, I came to figure they weren’t arguing. There might be interruptions but arguments go back and forth. But they were all shouting simultaneously. Not coordinated. They weren’t chanting. There was no unity. Just rapid, individual angry, endless streams of words. Cautiously, I opened the door out to the courtyard the rooms were around. The shouting was harder to hear out there. But there was no one round, just florescent light. I closed the door again. What were they doing? On drugs? Worshipping something? These three voices going on and on. I stood for a bit in my room. There was nothing I could do. I could try and find a guard. But the rule of thumb, that everyone — especially the unarmed security guards — followed, for surviving, was don’t involve yourself in other people’s business. The nearest police officer who would have cared in the slightest was in Queensland.

Who were they? What were they doing? What were they…

With nothing better to do I stuffed my earplugs as hard as I could into my ears. Stomped on my irrational childhood fears and my sensible adult concerns. And I willed myself back to the weariness of a guy with a million things to get done in a place where it was hard to get anything done.

When I woke the next morning it was raining. The shouting was gone. Complete silence from the room. Just the sound of cars coming and going and food being prepared in the kitchen. I stopped worrying about ghosts, started thinking about breakfast, and started – as usual – worrying about work.

March 7, 2017

Moresby

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 9:06 pm

The plane smelt of farts. It was filled with well-muscled white men, and a gorgeous couple with diplomatic passports. Minerals and Australian diplomats. Welcome to Papua New Guinea. In my safety briefing I was told, “we’re going at one car-jacking a day”.

So I’m sitting in my room on the seventh floor of the hotel. Inside the fences. A personal GPS locator with a panic button blinking. Struggling with data. Avoiding writing presentations. Staring our the window as the sunset flushes colours across the mountains east of town. Looking down at the city, wishing it was Honiara, where I could walk about during the day. Wishing I knew the place better, so I could work out my odds. Wanting to say sorry to everyone for being on the comfortable side of those fences. Eager not to catch scabies from the bedsheets, like one of my colleagues. Awkwardly trying to be friendly and polite. Trying not to be an arrogant outsider. Stumbling because I’m self-concious, and because trying not to be something isn’t what we were designed for.

The soft smoke of every third world city is adding haze to dusk, and below the road is losing its Jeeps. The vendors have packed up their cardboard and beads, and headed home. Wishing I knew more. Lonely. And happy in the blurry view.

November 13, 2016

Run!

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 11:12 am

It happens quite often, but it’s particularly acute today, after flight, after flight, after flight. Jet lagged and tired. The sky outside Sydney airport is blue and billowing. The coast we flew over this morning had golden turns to the horizon. It looked so empty after London. I have no good reason. But there’s that feeling again. The desire to quit everything, especially the weeks ahead, buy a ticket on a plane, and go surfing…

October 3, 2016

Dodged a bullet

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 2:38 pm

People say that Windows 10 is much, much better than Windows 8. I never used Windows 8. The more I endure Windows 10, the more I feel I must of dodged one heck of a bullet with Windows 8.

July 13, 2016

Snow in Canberra

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 9:59 am

It snowed on me this morning. As I rode to work just before dawn. As the first cockatoos swirled out of the gum trees. White flakes drifting in the beam of my light. Snowing as I trundled past kangaroos chewing grass on playing fields. Snowing as I wove along the bike trail through the suburbs. Snowing as I passed cold joggers. Still snowing when I got to campus. Dark, blurry clouds racing the westerly gale.

The flurries never quite settled, but the hills to the east and west of town were white enough to look like somewhere else. All this in a land of deserts and droughts. In a city where it gets so hot in summer it barely feels safe to cross the campus in the middle of the day. In a country that advertises itself with beaches and snorkeling. Snow. Happy. Pretty. Flakes of snow.

May 3, 2016

A black and white sea

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 10:09 am

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April 30, 2016

An eagle!

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 5:29 pm

Something in the eagle’s flight put me in desperate need of a photograph. I scrambled to get my camera out. I fumbled round. I turned dials. I changed settings. I dropped my lens cap. I got a moderately bad picture.

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And the thing was, the thing that made its flight so enticing was nothing a photo would ever catch. It was its size, and the slow, efficient movement of its wings. Its glide.

I haven’t learnt my lesson though.

March 19, 2016

The sky above our street

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 2:59 pm

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Going places above the languid summer trees.

March 1, 2016

Birds

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 9:24 am

Even though — with their call, and soaring and surfing in the wind — currawongs are probably the most beautiful bird in Canberra, it would be pointless trying to photograph them. Their beauty doesn’t sit still. In photos they look like crows.

Corellas, on the other hand, are easy to miss. A small pale cockatoo. They don’t have the colours of galahs or the bright yellow crest of sulphur crested cockatoos. And yet in photos…

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February 26, 2016

Clouds

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 6:29 pm

Sailing, trailing, travelling, fading.

terence clouds and tree

February 15, 2016

Coming in to land…

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 8:31 am

…on a swaying wire. Nowhere near as easy, I imagine, as they make it look.

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February 10, 2016

A bird on a wire

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 8:29 am

Or, more technically, a Corella, gnawing at the insulation of a wire.

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February 9, 2016

Alone on the lake

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 11:39 am

The beauty of our Lake George car park is that we’re almost always alone. By ourselves in the space of the flat dry lake bed. Taking in the view of the wind turbines on our own.

On Sunday there was another car in the car park though. A rough looking Holden or Ford. Its fuel cap had been prized off. Its driver’s face was pudgy. His hair thinning and ginger. He had a paunch and was holding a large bottle of Coke. He was wearing a high viz top: tradesman’s uniform. He looked self-concious. Or maybe I felt self-concious.

He barely replied to Jo’s cheerful greeting. ‘What a bogan’, I muttered.

He got out of his car, got out of his high-viz top and pulled out an old cloth shopping bag. Beer, I figured. Then he reached into his car and got something I didn’t expect: a tripod.

He ignored us and walked out onto the lake bed. Maybe 100 metres out he set up the tripod and put a camera with a telephoto lens on it.

And that’s how he spent his evening. As we ate our dinner in the car, and went for a walk, he took photos of the eastern edge of the lake, and its windmills, with the light ebbing, and the sky filling up with colour.

And all of us, ‘bogans’ and suburban snobs, enjoyed the peace and that space–still big enough, it turns out, to leave us happily alone.

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February 8, 2016

Corellas

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 8:26 am

Corellas surfing the wire in a south wind.

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February 3, 2016

Boy racer blur

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 8:23 am

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