Friday 25 February 2011

Antiques - Me and my bike

Oh my aching back. Is the pain worth the prestige?

I have a bike circa 1970. It's red and a little rusty. It has handlebars like the aptly named moustaches sported by English gentlemen in the era when bikes were invented. No gears, no handbrakes. Just me, two pedals and a bell. 'How do you stop' I'm often asked by curious young riders. They've never seen a single gear bike with hub brakes.

My father was a postman and somehow, I can't remember how, I bought this bike when he retired in 1981. I like to think it was his but it probably wasn't. I paid $5 for it. It was already old.

I've used it occasionally to go to the local shop for a litre of milk but generally my embarrassment at being seen in public on it has meant it's spent years languishing under the house, tyres flat and paintwork deteriorating. As further evidence of my uncoolness I don't own any lycra pants and my helmet has been an oversize yellow discard from my daughter in the early nineties. You get the picture. This is a story about humility and humiliation.

I am having a year off from work. My 'Senior's Gap Year' some of my friends call it. As an adult emerging towards maturity I have decided that I am resilient enough to brave the footpaths and local bikeways and 'come out'. It's a time to take risks.

I have a new second hand helmet, bequeathed to my by my son. I still don't wear lycra but times have changed. My bike and I are no longer old fashioned. We're now retro. In fact the latest trend in the bike world is a move to bikes with no gears or brakes - any brakes. Fixed wheel single gear bikes the same ones the professionals race in the Olympics. Its the new frontier, The bike that 'real' bike riders ride. They're banned from street use in the USA and some European countries. Makes them even more cool.

So I'm cruising along Russell Street past Musgrave Park and at the traffic lights these two blokes pull up alongside me. It's 10:30 on a Friday morning. I glance at their bikes and notice two things. First everything is silver, not the gaudy chrome silver but a soft burnished hue, and as my gaze tracks down the beautiful frame my eyes arrive at the back wheel. There I spy a single sprocket. No gears.

The lights change. We all pedal off. Slowly. No other option whan you have only one gear. 'Hey' I call out as they begin to outstrip me. 'Same bike' I yell, One of them turns and looks at me confused as to why I'd be talking to him, 'Twins' I say pointing to his bike and mine. He slows his rotation and eases back to have a look. 'Josh' he calls to his mate 'that's a posties bike.' He's impressed by the PMG sticker gracing the frame. 'Is that original?' he wants to know. I'm feeling pretty chuffed by this exchange. I tell him a 30 metre, ten wheel revolutions version of my story. 'Those bikes go for good money on EBay.' he says. I'm riding a valuable antique. 'I won't be selling it'' I say wondering exactly how much it might be worth.'

'Why do you ride those?' 'Makes you work harder. Don't like the lycra scene' he says. I laugh conspiratorially, proudly. Me in my daggy blue bermuda length shorts and home brand t-shirt. 'We call them mammals' I hear him say. Middle Aged Men in Lycra. Oh MAMIL I get it.

They go left and I go right at the next corner. I am riding high in my saddle, hiding my aching lower back caused by a serious case of over exertion on too many hills in the last few days. I must find the flat routes around my suburb.

Monday 21 February 2011

Backyard Beauty

Enough of rain and water and the pain and the thrill and chaos of it all. Today the sun is shining and it’s hot and humid. Sticky.

I’ve just come home from a Sunday afternoon drink with my son at Archive, the new beer café.bar in West End to find this woman asleep in my backyard.

She’s like some beached goddess. Pale skin, blonde hair, body poured over a blue mattress on deep green grass. It’s my wife. She’s in touch with the elements. She’s followed the cat and camped beside him in the coolest spot in the yard – in the shade cast by the house as the afternoon sun scorches its way across the sky towards sunset.

I grab my camera. As I do I’m having this strange conversation in my head asking me what is it about this scene that is so compelling. Why have I raced for my Panasonic? What is it about certain scenes, moments, experiences that demand that they be captured.

Can a frozen image ever capture what I see – the light, the surroundings, my relationship with the moment. The things that are invisible to the camera – the warmth of the timber house behind me, my son’s presence, the fact that this is an unusual choice for Andrea, my personal sense of beauty. All these things, all my senses are engaged and everything tells me that it will not be possible to do justice to this moment. And yet I cannot resist the urge to try to capture all this with one hasty click.
Backyard Beauty

I remember a young blonde

girl in a short skirt came

visit me in my alone life among

friends in a far away city.

amazing that on a blonde

day in the 70s

she arrived like an angel, kissed

me and changed my life

she's there again in

my blonde backyard on

another blonde day

escaping the heat of

the day burning with

the heat of my gaze.

Does lightning strike twice

is the sunlight blinding me

can this still live on beyond

the first glance and

is that not transcendant

beauty when the light

never fades and the gaze

is constantly re-engaged.

(C) Steve Capelin 2011

Thursday 17 February 2011

Liquid Silver Magpie 53

Liquid silver, evil sight
Devil in my hands.
Spirit hostage to your light.

Further writing from Mapie Tales here.

Drizzling Beauty

Right now I'm sitting at a coffee shop at a footpath (pavement) table enjoying a 'flat white' (latte in a cup not a glass) and a pistachio and caramel slice.

I'm watching the rain drizzling down around me outside Alberto's Shot. I'm looking for beauty. I've found it on this corner.

I'm inspired by Jennifer's challenge on her blog 'Realia'. The rain is soft and comforting. Beauty!

Two weeks ago this street was four inches deep in mud. People with shovels and brooms and lengths of wood were forcing the cappucino coloured slime back towards the river. (Andrew Porfyri's blog has further amazing images from the flood)

In Ontario Jenn tells me it's 20 below. I can't even begin to imagine that, but in beauty terms I am quite besotted with squally, white flecked expanses of water in forgotten harbours under overcast skies. Strangely it's stories set in Newfoundland and other cold climes which entrance me. Perhaps it's a desire for the extreme opposite of Brisbane weather. An alternative to blue skies and scorching sun.

Water - its a wonderful element. There's beauty in harbours and wild oceans, and quiet streams and still lakes in remote places like Dove Lake in Tasmania. And that's just the beginning.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Mowers as Metaphors

I realised two days ago that my relationship with my motor mower parallels that with my wife.

I've written about my mower previously but have written very little about my wife.

I bought a new mower about three years ago after my previous mower and I had come to an impasse in our relationship. She (I shall give her the feminine gender for no particular reason) had reached the point where getting her started required a lot more coaxing than I was prepared to do. So, like any normal middle aged man with an identity crisis, I decided to trade her in for a new model. I did my research and compared performance, styling and cost and eventually drove across to the other side of the city to pick up my new 'Victa'. It didn't have a tried and true Briggs and Stratton motor but an Italian engine - a Takumsi. It was on special and I figured that a new motor mower is a new motor mower and hell, what could go wrong.

Well as it turned out my new mower had a personality - don't you hate that. I wanted a compliant workhorse who would do my bidding, no questions asked and with no hesitation. All went well for the first few months. It must have been a wet year and she got a regular outing. We were getting on fine. Then over winter she sat and, well, maybe she felt neglected because come spring her tone had changed. I did everything the same. Same petrol, same oil, same foreplay but no response. I swear I sometimes spent two maybe three days sweating and swearing until finally I would give up and rinse the air filter and replace it afresh. Every time I did this she started the first time. But every time it came to the nest mowing weekend I refused to accept that this was my fate. I wanted a mower that would start first pull of the start cord without me having to meet her need for a sweet and clean air filter. Now you would think I would learn, but three years later Iwas still saying to myself (and my wife) 'just one more pull on this cord and....' I was a slow learner.

Until last weekend. For the first timeI finally accepted who was in charge. I knew that if i changed the air filter before I pulled the start cord that it would start first time. I had been doing this for about the last three or four times but always reluctantly. This time I understood who was in charge. I relented. I bowed to the greater force. and it worked. we have reached an understanding.

And in my other life I have also accepted this. When my wife and I travel and whenever some fork in the road of decision making is upon us I simply say "yes boss" to her assertive suggestion that we do it her way. Of course the "yes boss" has a sting in the tail and it always pisses her off. She doesn't accept the implied "you always win" tone of my compliance, my henpecked husband routine. And so we begin another round of 'counting the times when you've/I've.............' Luckily we like each other and rather than end in tears and a new mower, it genreally ends in laughter. The laughter of the familiar. The game that never ends.

PS she does get her way more often than I do .... but don't tell her I said that.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Disaster is relative - Bill and Bu

A recent comment on national character questioned the idea that we are "better' at helping each other than other nationalities. I am instinctively inclined to agree. Surely this is a universl quality. On the other hand I do think nationalities develop certain evident characteristics over millenium - influenced by geography, weather, history, intercultural conflict, class structure etc etc. Perhaps as my correspondent points out: it's easier to be generous when there is greater capacity.

Here's a story which touches on that point. It's mostly true though I have since interviewed Bu and the story needs some adjusting. The essence remains true.

Bill Diacos' Gents Hairdressing Salon is not flash. When you walk in the door there’s a row of four ordinary metal chairs on the right hand wall of the narrow space. Opposite this is a counter where Bill takes the money. It is old style. The front, lined with diagonal slats of varnished pine, mark it as from the seventies. It looks like some of the furniture I’ve seen discarded in the Council’s annual kerbside cleanup program. But this one is not salvaged. It’s original.

On the other side of the room is a stainless steel, cream-upholstered leather chair facing a large mirror. The leather is severely cracked and if not for it being an essential element of the seventies era décor probably could have joined the counter in the discard pile.

On the wall are some of Bill’s paintings. Bill’s not just a barber. He’s also a portrait artist and a long time resident of West End. He’s one of the Greeks who stayed.

More often than not when I turn up there’s a ‘back in ten minutes’ sign on the sliding door. I see it today and glance over the road to the coffee shop and spy Bill having his morning coffee on the footpath with his local mates. His Greek mates. I decide to fill in the ten minutes with a walk down to Avid Reader, the local bookshop, for some browsing. Bill’s still not there when I wander back so I duck around the corner to Bent Books and Shaun. I place an order for an out of print copy of Helen Gregory’s History of the Brisbane River.

It’s third time lucky when I return but others have also seen the ten minute sign and timed it better than I have. I’m third in line. This week all the talk is of the recent flood. Everyone’s a local so everyone has a story. I watch Bill put the final touches on number one and I shuffle to the next chair as number two takes his place in the leather barber’s chair.

Bill knows most of his customers by name. I’m fairly new to Bill’s having spent fifteen years working at remote suburbs in the north and west of the city. I’m on long service leave for 6 months so I’m making a point of building my credibility on the streets of my suburb. I’m in it for the long haul. Give me another eighteen months and Bill might look on me more kindly, recognize me as 'local'.

Bill’s efficient. I don’t even get time to read the Courier Mail – the local tabloid with no saving graces bar listing the screening times for films. Now I’m on that cracked throne and Bill is doing what he does best. We chat and laugh. Bill’s got a relaxed style and seems content with his lot despite having spent the best part of thirty years working from this rectangular box. We get to sharing stories of the flood and he tells me a few tales of Greek relations coming to the rescue of each other and then he shares a story about his aunt’s neighbour.

This bloke’s house went under - up to the eaves. His home sat at the lowest point in Gray Road. It’s a road you wouldn’t expect to flood. It’s three blocks from the river but it happens to be part of a gully that runs across the street, through a series of backyards and links up with the flooded river four hundred metres away. The scene is devastating. The footpaths are piled high with ruined furniture, household goods, toys – whole lives sit forlornly and sodden waiting to be carted away. The piles are so high they almost block the view of the houses behind them. Bill had been helping with the cleanup and offered his help to the Aunt’s neighbor who has no relatives and few friends in Brisbane.

He’s moved to this city from Indonesia with his Australian wife. Bill asks him how he’s going and is shocked by the answer. Bu says “This has been the best day of my life”. “What do you mean?’ Bill asks, “You’ve just been wiped out. You’ve lost everything.” “No no. It’s been fantastic. People just came and helped me without asking. This has never happened before. I have so many new friends.” Bu is from Aceh in Indonesia where the 2004 tsunami launched itself on the coastal plains. Tens of thousands of people died in that tragedy. The government infrastructure was poor, the devastation was total and the ‘event’ arrived almost without notice. Bu and his wife had survived but, as now, had lost everything.

“Didn’t people help you?” “No. Nothing. They were all too afraid to return to the coast. People stayed away. Because there were so many people and villages affected there were few people left to help. Everyone had their own disaster to deal with.” “That’s why I like it here in Australia, in Brisbane.” “It was the best decision I ever made to come here. I am very happy.” " I have a house and no one died"

Bill stands silently looking at the mirror. He’s seen a lot, heard a lot of stories but this one has really touched him.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Stories Leadership Resilience

There's been some interesting ways that stories have played out in the life of Queensland and the local community in recent times. Floods, cyclones, inland tsunamis, whole communities swept away (and in recent days bushfires taking huge tolls on the other side of the country). The response in my immediate community (and others across Brisbane and the state) was remarkable. People came out without hesitation to help their neighbours and to help total strangers. We were told by commentators that this was characteristic of Australians.

I was a little sceptical at times, finding it a little jingoistic, but then heard one story (Bill and Bong - the next post) which seemed to support this and later spoke to an English friend who asserted that this huge public effort would not happen at the same level in the UK and other European countries. So are we self mythologising or is there something in the Australian character which is different or is it just academic?

Perhaps it's the telling of the stories that is significant. Do individuals, families, communities and nations have narratives which help shape them? The field of Narrative Therapy would argue that we all carry multiple narratives and it's in the choosing which ones to preference (or believe) that the shaping occurs. Narrative Therapists help people recognise the possibility of choosing a story of strength and optimism over one of the defeat and helplessness. We are the victims and the beneficiaries of our own narratives. Narrative Therapists have begun to explore the power of these stories at the community level using a process of listening, identifying issues, themeing, telling and retelling stories which offer honest pathways to recovery. This is being trialed in Aboriginal communities in particular.

In the days and weeks following the flood disasters I heard many stories told over drinks, dinners, in streets, on radio and in meetings, all of which spoke of the amazing experience of working together, of people taking the initiative, of resilience and the determination to survive. Almost all spoke of rebuilding, starting over, acceptance.

Even the Premier, Anna Bligh, not loved by many in this state (undeservedly in my opinion), received overwhelmingly positive response to her role. What did she do? She played the role of leader. She spoke of pain and of loss. She acknowledged the realities. Her constant theme was: "We are tough. We are Queenslanders. We will get back on our feet. We will get through this together." It was a bit twee at times but the community loved it. They trusted her. She tapped the narrative of hope and survival.

In stark contrast I have recently experienced a work environment where the leadership did not understand the importance of the survival narrative in challenging times. In that case the story of hope was not told and the result was an environment of despair and despondency. Leaders, as well as being good administrators need to be great storytellers. We can survive anything if we have hope. And stories can carry that hope.

Back to the local. I'm interested in what we do with these stories to help cement them within the collective psyche. Is that important or does the evidence of their existence indicate that all is well and we need do nothing? My gut feeling is that our personal narratives are powerful from the constant telling and retelling of the story, the narrative. Who can't relate to the family gathering where many of the same stories are told once again and the family storyteller reminds everyone of their family connections through story and tears and laughter. They slowly become normal, assumed as each generation takes them as truth. This is why the negative ones can also be so utterly debilitating.

Writing them down is powerful but in some ways the oral tradition is even more powerful as each member of the clan takes the story and makes it their own. Writing risks fixing the story and giving ownership of it to particular individuals. Perhaps the written accounts need to be even more powerful to justify their existence and be written in a form which invites reflection rather than passive acceptance.

I have volunteered to help write an account of the role played by the local community organisation in this recovery program. It is an opportunity to tell a story which acknowledges the importance of community strength and to bring to the surface some of the invisible networks which act as a binding agent within this community. I expect to find that a cool account of the week(s) will not be as effective as a series of simple stories which illustrate the range of ways the community worked together to overcome this challenge.

I am also searching for a way to embed a story component into the community development work I am involved in Vanuatu. The theme of that work is strengthening community ownership of decision making; strengthening the role of culture and tradition. At the same time there is a desire to gently challenge assumed norms in terms of the role of women and young people at the village level. Vanuatu is an oral culture. The challenge will be to work alongside the local leaders to find a narrative form which will carry the learnings from this work beyond the immediate project. What will the form need to be to ensure that the story is likely to be one which is told and retold? I suspect that it will need to be like the best of stories - dramatic, funny and grounded in the experience of local people.

Magpie 52 - Freezin'

Tree to house: let me in let me in.
Mumbles: I should never have shed my precious leaves and skin.
Feeling naked and excruciatingly thin
Fall's not the time to drop anythin'.

Naked limbs not even fit to be home to a bug
Hey House! Sittin there all nice and warm and smug
Open up your arms c'mon give me a hug
Ha! Is that the best you got to offer. A shiver, a shrug?

Your one eye winking, mocking my dilemma
I don't have options stupid I'm a tree remember.
Yeah! I know its been coming since late September.
I'm plotting my revenge, I'm wood, I'm thinking the word ember.

I've a good mind to stay unclothed forever.
No shade for you or your inmates, never
No bird-calls from my branches come spring
No comfort for you nuh! I'm not gonna do anything.

More writing from the Magpie network of writers. Click here or on the Magpie stamp.