Sunday, August 31, 2008

Life's landscapes

This evening we hung out with a bunch of friends and had a conversation around the concept of life as a landscape.

It's an interesting way to think about your life, where you've been, what you've walked through, and who you've walked with.

Some people think in this space very easily, and find it easy to put words and pictures on it. Others struggle. I think I'm somewhere in between.

It's always good to get windows into the lives of others, and to see how they make sense of what they see around them. If there is a sense of trust that exists between those who share, then the world of pictures can open up all kinds of deep and fascinating and bewildering vistas.

As always, the conversation was topped with a solid round of eating and drinking and more conversing. It's nice to live in a landscape that allows for picnics.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Spot-on transformation

Carpet. Love it? Hate it? Either way, our planet is stuck with it.

So is our loungeroom. And my car.

A few grubby spots on a light-coloured carpet can make quite a difference. Our loungeroom carpet has been getting pretty feral over the last seven months, largely thanks to a two-year-old who insists on using the floor as a play gym, dining room and change mat. (Okay, we've pulled the pin on some of these activities recently.)

There were a number of black-grey spots in the carpet, and the general effect on the whole room was incredible. Made it feel pretty gross.

As mentioned in a previous post, my boss just upgraded my car. The person who had it before me had a dog in there. A lot. Plenty of dirt, hair, and doggy stink.

So two lots of carpet looking not so nice - despite the car being cleaned and detailed. Wandering through Big W the other night and looking for a solution, I stumbled across this stuff. (I also bought several lots of deodoriser for the car - seems to be working.)

This morning I gave it a go on some of the car upholstery. Worked a treat. So we took it inside, and tonight Cara hit the loungeroom carpet with it.

Wow! An awesome result. Not perfect, but so much better. She really sweated over this one, working it into the carpet - and the effort shows. The whole room looks better because the spots are gone. One hour's work has changed the whole feel of the place.

Which just goes to show - sometimes a transformation doesn't have to be big; you just have to pick the right battles.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Calf Path

I was recently reading a book which featured this poem by Sam Walter Foss (1858-1911).

Why has it taken me so long to happen across this piece? It captures so well the things that hold back brilliance and giftedness for the sake of preserving institutions. Without going into specifics, this typifies so much of what our business is constantly combatting.

Of course, there are many different contexts where the poem's point might be recognised. I wonder which one it will be for you, thoughtful (or unthoughtful - whatever) reader?

The Calf Path (Sam Walter Foss)

One day, through the primeval wood,
A calf walked home, as good calves should;
But made a trail all bent askew,
A crooked trail, as all calves do.

Since then three hundred years have fled,
And, I infer, the calf is dead.
But still he left behind his trail,
And thereby hangs my moral tale.

The trail was taken up next day
By a lone dog that passed that way;
And then a wise bellwether sheep
Pursued the trail o’er vale and steep,
And drew the flock behind him, too,
As good bellwethers always do.

And from that day, o’er hill and glade,
Through those old woods a path was made,
And many men wound in and out,
And dodged and turned and bent about,
And uttered words of righteous wrath
Because ’twas such a crooked path;
But still they followed — do not laugh —
The first migrations of that calf,
And through this winding wood-way stalked
Because he wobbled when he walked.

This forest path became a lane,
That bent, and turned, and turned again.
This crooked lane became a road,
Where many a poor horse with his load
Toiled on beneath the burning sun,
And traveled some three miles in one.
And thus a century and a half
They trod the footsteps of that calf.

The years passed on in swiftness fleet.
The road became a village street,
And this, before men were aware,
A city’s crowded thoroughfare,
And soon the central street was this
Of a renowned metropolis;
And men two centuries and a half
Trod in the footsteps of that calf.

Each day a hundred thousand rout
Followed that zigzag calf about,
And o’er his crooked journey went
The traffic of a continent.
A hundred thousand men were led
By one calf near three centuries dead.
They follow still his crooked way,
And lose one hundred years a day,
For thus such reverence is lent
To well-established precedent.

A moral lesson this might teach
Were I ordained and called to preach;
For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf-paths of the mind,
And work away from sun to sun
To do what other men have done.
They follow in the beaten track,
And out and in, and forth and back,
And still their devious course pursue,
To keep the path that others do.

They keep the path a sacred groove,
Along which all their lives they move;
But how the wise old wood-gods laugh,
Who saw the first primeval calf!
Ah, many things this tale might teach —
But I am not ordained to preach.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

All the trimmings and then some

Babies don't know the meaning of 'travelling light'.

Okay, maybe it's the parents of the babies who don't get it. Or the designers. Or someone.

Why is kids' stuff - especially baby stuff - so clunky in design, so bulky, so excessive? It doesn't seem to matter what it is: high chairs, prams, nappy bags - even slings (a simple string bag won't do anymore)! "More is more!" appears to be the slogan.

When you pack to go away, the ratio seems to be around 2:1 (baby luggage: parents' luggage). You can't even go for a short walk down the street with your baby without heading out the front door loaded down like a Pakistani bus.

Look at poor Elisha here - nearly stranded, lost in his high chair. The object here is simple: food in the mouth. And the means? A massive contraption that takes up half the dining room complete with what looks like rescue harness equipment.

How is it possible that the smaller the person, the more space their stuff will occupy?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Small familiarities

My boss has just upgraded my work car.

While the Subaru badge remains the same, the model change has been from an Outback to a Forester.

There are plenty of 'family similarities' - if you drive a Subie, you'll know what I mean. There's a quality of handling and fit-and-finish to these cars that seems to hold across the range.

Yet it's the small differences that you notice. Like the first time I turned on the headlights, and discovered that the dashboard was still blacked out - where is the dimmer? Like the first time I hauled out the GPS and went looking for the cigarette lighter port - it's moved!

There's little things I'd gotten used to in the Outback which are a bit different here. I think in some ways a car you've driven for a while, and customised to suit your needs / habits, is a bit like an old pair of shoes.

The time comes to part, and sometimes it's the little things you miss the most. But then, like every new pair of shoes, eventually the relationship settles in, and new, small familiarities creep in and take up lodging.

(I already love the snazzy dashboard-top glovebox - a great place to store my shaver.)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Love the crunch of a Falcon in the morning

Flu's still hanging on. Caelan's got it, and now Cara too.

I'm still feeling pretty lousy, and next to blogging about paracetamol (and what a wonderful thing it is), the next most appropriate thing seemed a rundown of the old car crusher - from these guys.

So enjoy.


An early night for me, I think.

Monday, August 25, 2008

What price pampered buttocks?

Sometimes things in the office get personal, okay?

Like when someone ‘borrows’ your favourite Rexel stapler, and then adopts it as a member of their own family. Or that day when someone borrows your mechanical pencil halfway through a meeting, gives it a few loving clicks and then glances at you with that sly ‘I’m not giving it back’ look.

Neither of these things has happened in my office, I’m pleased to report.

What does go on a bit around our office is chair swapping. One day you’re sitting in relative luxury on your chair of choice, and then 24 hours later you’re perched on something about as comfortable and forgiving as a stack of roof tiles.

Occasionally, things get even worse, and someone cracks a tile but still insists that the end result is ‘bum-worthy’.

Recently, I succeeded in snapping the arm off one of our chairs during a meeting (I subsequently brought in some tools, and made it worse).

During the same meeting, a … solid … member of our team sat down heavily on one of our gaslift office chairs. There was a loud, sickening ‘crunch’ (like someone jumping on a giant stapler) and the team member concerned sank about 2 inches. The centre spindle of the chair had pushed through the leg assembly and was pressing into the floor.

Believe it or not, this chair is still in circulation in our office.

I don’t think Herman Miller’s Aeron chair would do this. The average price of this chair seems to be around $1400 in Sydney – depending on what upgrades you choose to include with it (there’s even some variations on the wheels you can fit to it!).

It’s kind of the Rolls Royce of office chairs blended with the styling of a Subaru Impreza – and very comfortable apparently (it would want to be). It seems to combine minimalism yet every luxury option all in the one package.

Clever design always interests me, but I do wonder when it spills over into excess – not that I can ever see this becoming a problem in our office.

Sunday, August 24, 2008


Cara is ironing (and watching the last night of the Olympics).

As she was ironing one of my work shirts for this week, she noticed a missing button.

You know, it's hard to imagine clothing without fasteners. (Okay, elastic covers some bases.)

Buttons are kind of the archetypal fastener - they were even around before this stuff. The first buttons emerged over 4500 years ago - although it took another 3700 years before the Germans worked out that they could be used for more than just ornamentation.

For a long while buttons were made of bone, ivory, wood and shell. These materials are now reserved for more premium garments, with plastic being the standard that most of us know, love, and catch in car doors.

So simple, yet such a darned clever invention - pity The New Inventors wasn't around when the first button hit the ancient catwalk.

It's certainly an enduring technology. And I imagine it's got a few years left in it yet. Now all I need to do is work out how to sew it back on.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The knowledge of others

I wonder if it took you as long as it took me to appreciate the knowledge of other people.

When we are children, we inherently seem to soak in knowledge wherever we find it. Watch the way that young kids soak up the knowledge of others when it comes to their hobbies, for example.

They are not afraid to learn, and not afraid to show that they don't know something (except when it's in the classroom, of course, where lack of competence can be lambasted).

As we move into adolescence, we begin to realise that not everything someone else tells is true, actually is. We become sceptical, maybe even cynical.

We become protective of our own knowledge and how we gain it, and sometimes (often?) reluctant to show others that we don't know.

Many adults become fossilised in this place, and insist on keeping the appearance of having it all together. There's only one problem with this: it keeps you from being a lifelong learner. This is a form of impoverishment.

I've only been in my new field of work for seven and a half months. And almost every day brings with it new learning. Whenever I meet with a new client, I typically open with one or two questions, and then I sit back and learn.

Sure, I'm getting some sense of where our business might overlap with theirs. But there's more to it than that; there's a real exchange of knowledge that takes place. I've got my 'L' plates on, and I want to learn.

I recently sat with a client who graciously gave me a copy of the two volumes that make up his street tree master plan. I hope he realises how much I appreciate that gift.

It is full of rich insights, not only into his particular municipality, but into the nature of trees and the social and environmental role they play.

I've picked over it here-and-there since I got it, but being bed-ridden with the flu seemed the perfect opportunity to begin a more systematic approach to reading his work. And I am the richer for it.

When other people share their knowledge, I want to be an open ear - and a discerning mind. There is much to be gained from choosing to say, "I don't know - please teach me."

I hope I never forget the advice that a friend told me her mother once shared with her: never be afraid to put up your hand and ask questions. It's okay to learn from other people.

We might feel stupid asking, but I'd rather appear stupid and curious than deliberately ignorant because of pride.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Being sick and working ...

... doesn't work.

It's no fun to try and use your head (for thinking or speaking) when it feels like it's stuffed with sawdust, newspaper and mucus. Yum.

Of course, these things always happen at the worst times. This is the busiest time of year for us, and I'm really loathe to slow down for some insidious virus (which kills several hundred thousand people each year).

Of course, Cara is supposed to play the role of 'commonsense monger' at this point and tell me that a day of rest now will save me two or three days off work later.

But it's sometimes hard to see that. A long view is hard to adopt when you feel pressure and urgency. Plus, I like my work. I don't need to stop - right?

Okay, well we're on the edge of the weekend, and maybe that's a good thing; a bit of enforced rest. After ignoring the doctor's certificate I was given this morning, I feel pretty awful tonight.

I guess it's the old 'marathon vs sprint' thing. Guess I want the best of both worlds at the moment. But the flu won't let me have it that way. Dang.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Behind the wheel of nostalgia

You are probably aware from a previous post that my boss is a Packard junkie.

Today he came with me to Canberra for some business. After we'd finished work, we stopped in on a friend of his to collect some Packard parts.

Did I think we would walk away from this exchange in 20 minutes? No chance. I think it was about 3 1/2 hours later we got away. When you've got a wife and children waiting at home, and you're beginning to come down with the flu, this is not ideal.

But there was a consolation prize: this guy has a seriously cool collection of old Packards and ancient motorcycles (at least 35 motorbikes - I lost count), and is generous with his knowledge and helpfulness.

It was very kind of him to offer me a drive of his 1953 Packard Clipper. Though I know very little about Packards, this was a bit of a special moment for me. You see, my dad and mum used to own one of these cars - a four-door like this one. The first time my boss interviewed me for the job, this Packard connection came up, and he knew already that I came from honourable stock.

The annals of family history will always record the day my mother cooked the head of its straight-8 motor while driving up the hill from Gosford to Kariong. From there, the Packard was relegated to a shed before being snapped up by 'The Golden Tonsils' who is notorious for his love of vintage cars.

To sit behind the wheel and cruise along in this vintage beauty was a special thing - like reaching back in time and touching a piece of family history.

I know a few years ago that Lawsie sold off a lot of his vintage cars, including the Packard which he bought from my dad. I wonder where it is now? It would be nice to see this car again in the flesh sometime, restored to its former glory.

Have you had any of these experiences as well, where connecting with an object or a place connects you with your past?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Bustin' them silos

Wherever you get organisations, you get silos. You get banks of information, skills, knowledge, relationships, which sit in their own discrete 'not-talking-to-anyone-else' categories. Under the same roof.

You may have run across this from time-to-time in your own workplace / organisation. I see it all the time in my industry, and almost daily when I'm with clients.

Why do silos exist? A couple of reasons come quickly to mind (I'm tired and it's late, so this is gonna be brief and will miss things, I'm sure):

*Perhaps the evolution of an organisation to its present state has been from a background of discrete units (sometimes completely separate entities) that were designed to stand alone without each other.

*People perceive that communication with other departments will complicate their procedures, and lead to delays in productivity. Perhaps allied to this is the old adage, 'Do it yourself, do it properly.' Don't make it more complicated than it needs to be. Be streamlined.

*Not wanting to appear that we need other people's skills and ideas (we 'save face' by not admitting that they have something we might all benefit from).

*Just plain snobbery and people not wanting to work together - why work cooperatively with other departments when it's much more fun to snipe and bitch?

*Any other reasons you care to suggest ...

It's so easy to complain about these things and never do anything about them. So easy to play 'victim' to siloing. "I can't do anything because so-and-so never listens." "They think they're better than us." "That department gets preferential treatment with funding, and no one looks out for us."

So who's going to change this? Who's going to 'bust the silos'? Did you really think the organisation was going to do that for you?

With my limited experience in this field, I can only make the following observation: organisations will never break silos for you. It comes down to people with good ideas finding other people with good ideas, and getting together around those good ideas.

It will likely never happen through the organisation. It will happen around the water cooler, the coffee shop, the lunch table, the hallway.

There is so much brilliance yearning to be released if we can learn to hold our nerve, keep our vision straight, and work with people who are willing to learn, stuff-up, and grow with us.

If we believe the end vision is noble enough, we need to be ready to bust some silos. And it won't likely be a quick exercise.

What is the diagram above? My brief attempt to demarcate silos, the (debarred) potential for communication between them, people with like ideas inside them, and ways of connecting people and ideas.

(Thanks to Nick and Garry for such an encouraging discussion this morning which has prompted this post. Keep up the good work, fellas!)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Welcome intrusions

When it comes to the meeting of natural forms with hard infrastructure, the manmade stuff almost always seems to win the day.

Trees get uprooted and replaced with concrete slabs. Sloping blocks are tamed through cut-and-fill. Rock ledges are blasted and hammered and chiselled into submission.

Not in this office. I've visited this client before, but I don't think I noticed it back then - even though it's pretty obvious! If I did notice it, I certainly didn't remember it.

Throughout this two-storey office / boathouse you find the welcome intrusion of the original resident - a massive sandstone ledge. It's there when you walk in the front door, it's there poking into the staircase, it's there when you go downstairs to the bathroom.

Instead of being treated as a nuisance, it's been made a feature. And it's truly stunning. The timber boards have been neatly cut to fit right into every nook-and-cranny of the rock they surround.

The workmanship is amazing, and apparently he has no problems with moisture whatsoever.

Apologies for the poor photos - unfortunately, I only had my camera phone. It was too good not to get some sort of image.

The client was running late for our meeting, so he told me to set myself up in there and do some of my own work.

What a hard office to work in - features like these behind you, and the lapping of water beneath you as you (literally) work above the Parramatta River overlooking Cockatoo Island.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Pump up the juice!

This is a little different to topping up your car at the servo.

To start with, your car probably doesn't have wings. And it probably doesn't hold 30,000 litres of fuel.

I was intrigued sitting and watching this process of underwing refuelling take place, but was unable to find much information about it.

All I know is that the fuel is pumped in under pressure (up to 50 PSI), and in this application it's being pumped from the reservoir beneath the tarmac. Considering the amount of fuel going in, the process was pretty quick.

If anyone knows how this actually works, or has an animation of it, shoot it my way; I'd love to know! A very cool design - I wonder who came up with it?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Where do I hang my coat?

This one comes courtesy of Cafedave.

Here's the perfect design solution to deal with all those guests who wander aimlessly around your house, jackets slung over their arms, looking for the hanging hook. (A common experience for all, I can tell by your nodding head. Okay, maybe not.)

Anyways, it is a cool idea. Where do I hang my coat? Here.

(This blog proudly sponsored by Tiredness and Laziness.)

Saturday, August 16, 2008

What's your poison - design or craftsmanship?

I almost always find Chris Schwarz' blog fun to read. He writes well, and even if you're not really into woodworking, he's an entertaining and thought-provoking writer.

An entry last week, 'When Design and Craftsmanship Don't Meet', epitomises everything about Schwarz' writing that I love.

I'm not even going to try and look clever by paraphrasing his article; that would only serve to make me look foolish. Take a few minutes for yourself and read it. You might also scan the comments that follow as they also add value to Schwarz' piece.

And as you read, think: which do I prefer: good design, or precise craftsmanship?

While I marvel at John Economaki's handtools, I find myself compelled to agree with Schwarz over against Economaki's students. If push came to shove and I couldn't have both, I'd rather good design over precise craftsmanship (actually, if I could pull off either that would be nice!).

Friday, August 15, 2008

The infamous King's Park crocodile

Maybe as a kid you loved nothing better than lying on your back on the lawn, and seeing shapes in the clouds. Boats, whales, elephants - that sort of thing.

I'm convinced that this ability to assimilate the unknown with the known follows us into adulthood. How often do we see things and think to ourselves, 'Gosh, that looks like ...'?

(You might also recall the episode of The Simpsons which featured the programme, "People who look like things".)

The human brain can use this image assimilation ability to make you do a double-take when you see something like this on the water's edge of a suburban park.

Never mind that the air temperature has been down below zero in recent times. Never mind that this ravenous reptile is in King's Park, Launceston.

It was in October last year that we as a family discovered what is possibly (even probably) Launceston's only saltwater crocodile.

It was nice to see the croc again today, still looking as aggressive and glorious as he did last spring. The winter doesn't seem to have affected him at all. Though everyone else is rugged up in their woollies, he just continues basking in the [occasional] sunlight that happens his way.

Maybe when I come back in three months, he'll have grown some legs. I guess it's also possible (likely even) that on some future trip we'll discover that his jaw has hit the ground due to dry rot.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

All a matter of perspective

It's so easy to get mired down in the fine details of a situation, and forget the bigger picture which knits it all together.

As I flew out for Tasmania this afternoon, I was struck again by how all the things that make life so intense on the ground seem so insignificant from the air.

The cars appear like matchboxes; surely, it couldn't ever be stressful driving something so small, all the way down there.

The houses are all bunched together in some sort of order, and all appears well; could there really be families down there who will have to leave their homes this weekend because of the recent rise in rental prices?

Some of those buildings down there are hospitals, prisons, homes with domestic violence, where terrible sadness pulls at the hearts of those under their roofs. But they are hidden, and all I can see from up here is the tiles.

People walking are miniscule dots; could many of them really find themselves overwhelmed with things as big as fear, hatred, love?

All I have up here is the clouds, the quiet hum of the engines, and the glorious vista laid bare. The city - silent, sunny, peaceful.

Yes, there is a sense of seeing 'the whole' with this shift in perspective.

And, as I reflect on the 'on the ground' struggles, there is also a real awareness that contexts are made up of many parts, which cannot be ignored. It's good to see things from up here. And it's not a bad thing to view them from the runway either.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A really good day

I had a really good day today. A 'good' day generally only requires a few positive ingredients; a 'really good' day requires a few more.

Today brought:

-My birthday! (Okay, bittersweet. Now 33 and pushing out the greys.)

-A new woollen jumper! Yay!

-The continuation of what's been a good month of business for me

-A chocolate Freddo

-Philippians chapter 2

-A brief catch-up with some friends

-Some appointments for my trip to Launceston tomorrow and Friday

-A big 'welcome home' from Caelan, who ran to greet me (and then tripped over, smacking his forehead on a concrete step)

-A delightful dinner with my wife (prawns and tagliotelle with a lovely 'Meeting Place' champagne)

-Coffee and cheesecake for dessert

-Garbage collection night! Yay!

-A warm bed to sleep in

-My nightly blog

I'm off to Tassie tomorrow for some business and the funeral of a friend. While I love going to Tassie, I miss my family, and I will certainly miss this friend who has been a part of almost all our visits to Tassie.

So today is a day I have relished. I was hoping to share a couple of beers with my neighbour this evening (which would have topped it off), but he was a busy. Nevertheless, he was kind enough to come around and leave me with some Gaymers Original Cider. Good neighbour, this one. And no, I'm not sharing him - get your own beer-giving neighbour!

What does a 'good day' look like to you? And how much does it involve a certain quality of engagement with other people?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Last Thursday evening when I came home from my business trip out west, I noticed a lot of yellow recycling bins sitting out on the kerbside in our street.

This was unusual. Normally the rubbish is collected on Thursday morning (with recycling taken every second week), and people pull their bins in by the afternoon. So it was a little unusual to see them out.

What was even more unusual was to notice this afternoon that pretty much every second house still had its yellow recycling bin sitting out the front from last week - and still full of rubbish.

I asked Cara what the heck was going on; I was beginning to wonder if we'd missed some sort of council notice - a strike, perhaps?

But no. Cara was talking with one of our neighbours today, who made some sense of the phenomenon.

Last Wednesday evening, someone in the street decided to put their yellow recycling bin out.

Two problems with this: first of all, it wasn't recycling week. Secondly, almost every one else in the street unquestioningly took their cue from this, and put out their recycling bins as well.

By the weekend, I think most people had probably worked out what happened. But of course, it was only a few days till the yellow bins needed to go out anyway, so they decided to leave them out.

It's the sort of behaviour we expect from sheep. But human beings can do it too (in grand style), as we unquestioningly lean on the habits (or opinions) of others, and don't even think twice as we follow in their footsteps.

Of course, this particular example is fairly innocuous and humorous. But it's not always so, is it?

Can you think of times when you've seen this behaviour with much more serious consequences?

Monday, August 11, 2008

What you can't buy from HomeWorld

"Is not house - is home." - Farouk, The Castle

Yesterday, our little bloke Elisha was baptised.

We did this in the house of some dear friends of ours. It's a big house, full of lots of interesting nooks and crannies. This is a place we often gather in as a church family.

I love this place. From the first time I walked in the door back in February, it felt right. It felt like a place where a lot of love and warm meals had been served out. It felt lived in, laughed in, and loved in.

As we celebrated together yesterday, the tables were covered in steaming soups and dhal, fresh bread rolls, coffee cake, wine, brie and crackers, plunger coffee and muffins. The fire crackled away happily in the loungeroom, while after lunch we retired to pockets of conversation, laughter and general silliness, toying with the piano and organ, and the contemplation of photographs and board games.

The kids, meantime, ranged all over the house, up and down the staircase, and all around the yard and giant verandah. I imagine they all slept well last night.

As I caught up with some friends through the afternoon, a few mentioned how comfortable they felt here, how much it felt 'like a home' (and I don't think they meant a nursing home!).

Was it the worn carpet? The country-style kitchen with its old Metters wood-fired stove? Was it the warmth of the smiles that greeted each guest? The eclectic loungeroom furniture? The lavish use of aged timbers? The ancient double brick? Was it the screen door that banged all day as kids ran in and out?

'Home' is definitely centred around the people we find in a house.

But there are some houses that have that extra bit of charm about them, that say to the sojourner, 'Come in, pull up a chair near the fire, and rest your weary heels.'

Do you live in a house like that? What is it about your house that makes it feel 'like home'?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Brrr ... hot casseroles for the despondent?

As I mentioned in some posts recently, I spent a few days in the central west of the state last week.

The weather, on the whole, was F-R-E-E-Z-I-N-G. At an 8am meeting at Lithgow on the Tuesday, the puddles were still frozen and the temperature was reading -2°C.

My client asked where I was off to next, and when I said, 'Blayney', he came back, 'Blayney's [insert adjective] cold!' (My contact in Blayney said they see the mercury plummet as low as -11°C, and I guess that's cold.)

Snow began to fall as I left Orange on Thursday in the mid-morning, and the threatening sky in the photo above urged me homewards as I left Mudgee later that afternoon.

Today, back in western Sydney, the weather ranged from almost springtime to super-chilly with wind-driven rain. Bottom line: the chill of winter has really hit. No more shorts and tee-shirts.

So much of our human existence is dictated to by the weather.

Warm weather welcomes us out of our houses, calling us to the beaches and parks. Super hot weather and humidity sends us under the air conditioner, and sends some people mad (ask anyone who's lived in Darwin). Cold, wet weather drives us indoors to gather around hot chocolate, hot casseroles and board games.

We often refer to ourselves as 'summer people' or 'winter people'. It's amazing that even with all the advances of technology, we still can't defy the weather. Even if we manage to find ways of playing with the temperature (through clothing, heating etc.) we still can't deny the way weather affects our outlook, even our mood.

If you're a summer person, how are you coping with the weather we're having? How do you keep your chin up during the chilly months?

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Saying goodbye

Human beings form attachments of the strangest nature. To outsiders they seem irrational, but from the inside they make perfect sense.

It must be almost two years since one of my closest friends was ruthlessly dispatched in a tussle between loving nostalgia and the crushing wheels of ‘progress’.

As a youngster my mother bought me a pillow which surpassed all others for comfort, personality and, ultimately, faithfulness. The secret lay in its incomparable, unadulterated filling: thousands of tiny sponge fragments ripped to perfection, and lovingly sewn inside a sturdy cotton skin.

This pillow became my constant companion. While other pillows were unyielding and rubbery, or spineless and flab, my constant companion was both malleable and sinewy – like the velvet-and-steel man so many women long to find.

This was a pillow that could be bent and moulded without being broken, a pillow that could be taken on camps, conferences, overseas trips – with a sense of pride.

But all good things must come to an end. Eventually, through many years of head-banging, bending, sweating, drooling and snoring, my constant companion became threadbare and then incontinent: its precious contents began to leak out of the once-impervious cotton skin.

They say with trees that when they are young their amenity is low, and their maintenance cost high. Slowly, their amenity increases, while their maintenance cost decreases, and they become a decided asset. Eventually, the lines cross again, and a once-glorious tree turns from an asset into a liability, never to return to the right side of the ledger again.

My wife saw my pillow as a tree in decline, ripe for the executioner’s chainsaw. I saw it differently; this was like the old tree that has become home to the owl, the possum and the orchid. Is it really a liability? Or is it simply longing to be appreciated on new terms?

Cara had always been on uneasy terms with my faithful pillow. To me, it was ‘Old Trusty’; to Cara ‘Old Trusty’ without the ‘T’ – a feral, unremitting source of bedtime aggravation.

Sadly, this last, most glorious phase of my pillow’s life was to be short-lived. Piece-by-piece, the decline was inevitable. Eventually, I was left with half a pillow; the other half dispersed through our bedsheets, under the mattress, in the washing machine.

It was my wife who finally took ‘Old Trusty’ out the back, hung it over the garbage bin, and compelled it to perform seppuku. After more than 20 years' of trust and commitment, it was over. Auf wiedersehen, mein Freund.

These memories were reinvigorated last night as I was cruising through McSweeney’s ‘Open letters to people or entities who are unlikely to respond’. My heartstrings were tugged and then snapped by the callousness of this piece.

Such disrespect cannot go unanswered.

So I raise my glass and, with a teary eye, share

An ode to ‘Old Trusty’: faithfulness despite disembowelment

From antiquity you have been
Faithful, constant, resilient, lumpy
Your rusty exterior I loved
Undying until your undignified interment

Through the joyous years of childhood
The troubled, lean years of adolescence
You rolled with the punches, absorbed the drool
And always came back for more

Yours was a rare glory
The coffee colour of an ancient treasure map
You were yang to my ying,
And pong to my ping

You aged with dignity, declined with honour
But some would not see
Your inner beauty
Emancipated the more by your threadbare state

Now and again I find peace
A piece of your once-glorious interior
Swept into a corner, jammed in the spine of a bedtime book –
A diamond in the [domestic] rough

Know you are not forgotten, that you are missed
That my packed suitcase still mourns your spongy absence
Know that what we had was special
And that my arranged marriage to your replacement leaves me cold

Do you have a friend like this? Perhaps an old teddy, a blanket, a dented tobacco tin? How is it that a relational being can get so attached to something inanimate, and monetarily worthless?

Friday, August 8, 2008

Reading from the great book

The year was 1985. Our family went on a six-week journey to the USA, Holland and England.

On one of our flights with TWA, I was given the tour of the cockpit, and met the crew on the flight deck. It left a massive impression on this nine-year-old.

As we were disembarking from the flight, the captain came to me, and gave me a copy of the flight plan from the journey. He had drawn all over it in colourful textas, marking wind direction and speed, and cloud movement.

He had also penned these words, paraphrasing Augustine of Hippo: 'The world is a great book of which those who never leave home read only a page.' I have never forgotten that quote.

I've had the privilege of a fair amount of travel during my life. Some of it has been tiring, scary, unfamiliar. But this has been a small price to pay for the sounds, sights, smells, tastes and textures of travel.

I did a lot of travel this week, but only as far as central NSW. Nevertheless, the experience brought with it fresh learning, and an appreciation for a place that many people call 'home'.

Travelling is a bitter-sweet experience for me; I miss my home (especially my family), and yet I cherish the experience of being in another place that holds open new possibilities for how I see the world.

Though I am not as well-travelled as some, I've certainly been blessed to open the 'world book' and turn a few extra pages after the flyleaf.

What analogy would you use to describe what vistas travel opens to you?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

50 1/2 topics you could blog on

Whenever I sit down to blog, I pick a topic or an experience that has some integration (however broad) with the theme of 'design'. Sometimes the link may appear obvious to you, at other times not.

But in my mind, every post is themed this way.

Following the fanfare and hooplah over my hundredth posting, it was inevitable that post one hundred and one had to follow.

101 is a number you see and hear everywhere. Welcome to first year at uni. This is the number of tasks you have to complete today at work. This is how many ways there are to skin a cat. 101. Heck, my sister-in-law even has a blog called '101 UFO's'!

I was tempted to sit down this evening and supply you with a list of 101 things you could blog about, in keeping with tonight's theme. But I'm not going to, because (a) I've just come back from a very intense business trip and (b) I'm on my second glass of wine for the evening.

So 50 1/2 will have to do.

Here goes ...

1) Your maternal grandmother's family tree
2) The US presidential elections
3) Why a tired person shouldn't drink two glasses of wine before blogging
4) Who invented shoelaces?
5) What function goats serve in a natural ecosystem
6) Why, week-after-week, you're drawn to watching All Saints
7) Why you should / shouldn't wear red to a job interview
8) What type of car you drive and why it is the coolest thing on smokin' rubber
9) Is it just me or does Kevan Gosper (I.O.C.) look like Lt. Stillman from Cold Case?
10) Why politics has a way of getting into just about every aspect of human existence
11) How the Irish saved civilisation
12) Why the Lord detests dishonest scales (I swear the bathroom scales in our house are wrongly calibrated!)
13) Why you should never work with children and animals
14) Ugg boots
15) Making a billy cart
16) What rites of passage exist among retirement village residents
17) Why the Atkins diet makes you the thinnest man in the cemetery
18) Why the men in the Flintstones communicated more effectively with their wives than most men today
19) How long do you tolerate a keyboard withaspacebarthatdoesn'twork
20) SLR cameras: digital or film?
21) A short history of the 'Dummies Guides'
22) Ziplock bags and why they totally rock (except when they don't)
23) Whether or not your burial casket will be environmentally friendly in design
24) Why cats with three legs should be called 'Tripod'
25) Whether or not candles can be manufactured from elephant earwax
26) Who decided that it was good for us to lick envelopes?
27) Why pedestal fans collect so much grungy dust
28) Who was the first person to say, "I believe this carpet needs underlay"?
29) Whether or not Napoleon really did shoot the nostrils off The Sphinx
30) When did it become acceptable to 'wrap' gifts in a glittery bag?
31) Which translation of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov you should read
32) Exactly which woman in Paddington Square did not know Noel Coward was a homosexual?
33) How many people believe Stallone speaks in his own dialect?
34) The Christian fish and its presence on the back of a speeding Volvo
35) Why the person who designed Venetian blinds never had to clean them
36) How the owners of HD-DVD feel now that Blu-Ray is the way of the future
37) Why the powercords are always missing off electrical appliances left on the roadside for council collection
38) Paisley curtains will return to haunt us. Discuss.
39) What to do about neighbours who insist on making every evening a rock concert
40) How often you should cut your grass
41) Which strategies should be employed when a conversation stalls
42) Whether or not you could watch Memento played backwards
42) The delicate social phenomenon of pointing out to an honoured guest that their fly is undone
43) What you do with the old corks from your wine bottles
44) Why nothing is the same as your old pillow from home
45) What will it take to drive someone towards the invention of a cyclone-proof umbrella?
46) Why Australian power plugs make the most sense
47) Which criteria a cat uses when it decides to sharpen its claws on your favourite deck chair
48) Why women continue to go mad for Tom Jones
49) So long, and thanks for all the fish
50) Your deliberations on when Gough Whitlam will cease to be a cult hero, and lastly ...
50 1/2) Why Times New Roman?

Okay, I'm done.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


Today, my blog is 100 posts old! Yay!

I'm sure someone out there will erect a statue to honour the occasion. Yeah.

As I was driving around the sticks - sorry, central New South Wales - today, I was struck by several monuments honouring past days.

They testify to blood, sweat and tears. To perseverence, to resilience, to adventure.

There's a sense of appreciation, of connection with the past, as you contemplate these monuments. There's a sense of gratitude for those who went before and weathered the storms believing their efforts were not in vain.

This part of the country is rich with such monuments - not just statues and busts and cenotaphs and cairns, but rusty old tractors, lonely stone chimneys, and massive yellow box trees.

There is no present, and no future, without a past. It's sobering and wise to stop, to reflect, and to honour. How grateful I am that these monuments exist.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


It's nice to know some individuals are easy to please.

This wasn't exactly my idea of 'Dreamland', but obviously these guys thought there was something worth queueing for (a strange word that - 'queueing').

I wonder what your picture of 'Dreamland' looks like. It's an interesting phenomenon that one what person calls 'Dreamland' another person calls [insert unpleasant name in this space].

What are the features of your 'Dreamland'? What makes it so idyllic to you?

And if you described it to a room of twenty people, I wonder how we'd respond.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Interview No.4: Not so systematic questions to a systematician

My friend John gets paid to help people think well about God.

Before he became a full-time lecturer in theology at the Presbyterian Theological Centre, Sydney, he was the pastor of a country church. He's married with kids, and has broad interests in theology, biblical exegesis, careful reading of culture, and train travel between the Blue Mountains and Sydney.

We caught up recently to discuss the interplay of faith and work, and John agreed to submit himself to the same gruelling interview process as Jordan, Dave and Erika before him.

With John wired up and strapped in, we embark on our journey ...

Celebrating Design: There is a lot of talk around which speaks of 'good theology' and 'bad theology'. What's the difference between the two?

John: That's a hard question. Maybe I can tell you what I think is good theology and simply say that bad theology fails to be good in some substantial way. Take a deep breath and here we go.

Good theology is about God and about the God who reveals and redeems through the Lord Jesus; so it is also grounded in scripture and not just with a few supporting texts but with a constant engagement with the big story of scripture with its focus in the work of Christ.

Scripture must be normative for good theology, and it must be read carefully. Good theology seeks to lay out the the conceptual coherence of the message of scripture and to deal with the challenges and questions of the past and the present.

So there is an important place for a humble use of reason. Good theology is aware of the thinking and confessions of the church of the past, and treats the doctrinal traditions of orthodox Christianity with great respect, without allowing them to supplant the norm of scripture.

Good theology is contextual. It does not pretend that theology happens in some abstract realm, rather it speaks to the church set in the world. Good theology is not afraid to disagree with people, but it seeks to understand people sympathetically before it is critical.

CD: There is a way of thinking which says theology is the enemy of creativity and original (or independent) thinking. As a theologian, how do you respond to that?

J: I happy to own the view in many ways! I think theology is properly constrained - primarily by scripture, but also by the creeds of the church and the demands of love, and by a proper humility about the secret things of God.

Unrestrained free thinking sounds like an Enlightenment virtue not a theological virtue. A true theologian is never independent but is consciously dependent on God and on the people of God.

Having said that, there is a place for doing our own thinking in theology. I am specially interested in 'constructive' theology, which is not simply a rehearsal of bible verses or past theological positions, nor is it polemical (pointing out why other people have it wrong); rather it tries to find ways of talking about God and his ways with us which are based in scripture and answer the questions and meet the challenges of our context.

As we do that we often find new ways of explaining scripture and reach new insights. For instance the last few centuries have challenged a traditional understanding of metaphysics (the philosophical description of 'reality'). Some theology has responded to that by capitulating and developing 'theology' which can not talk about miracles or God's speech (and sometime can't even speak of a personal transcendent God).

The theology that I think is interesting faces the challenge head on and is ready to see if there are things we've missed in scripture and if we can find better ways to think and talk about God.

CD: You spend a considerable amount of time helping students come to grips with 'systematic theology'. What actually is systematic theology? What is 'systematic' about it as opposed to other ways of exploring theology?

J: All theology is (should be) normed by Scripture. Systematic theology has two particular interests.

Its internal interest is conceptual coherence. That is it is concerned to say how Christian belief and teaching "makes sense". Making sense is not the same (at all) as imposing an alien logic.

The other interest is the systematic seeks to relate Christian belief and teaching to important questions which may not come from the Bible itself; some of these are questions of the past, others are from the present church and world. That is systematics concerned with context.

CD: How does a good understanding of systematic theology affect our views of design and aesthetics?

J: Probably not enough! I don't think that theology (especially reformed theology) has been associated with beauty. However there is an intimate connection between the true and the good and the beautiful. If systematics seeks to witness to the truth of the God, who is the Good, then it should teach us about beauty.

I know that theologians are thinking more about this currently, and I am very aware that I need to think about it more. Can you ask me again in a decade or so?

CD: Ethics is also a field of interest to you. What gives an ethical system consistency and the capacity to be acted upon confidently?

J: I wonder if 'consistency' is the most important virtue - at least it depends on what you mean by consistency. I'd say that I want an approach to ethics which: addresses 'living' not just difficult cases and the small list of 'standard' issues; is committed to the norm of scripture; is sensitive to the different ways in which the Bible shapes how we live specially the Biblical presentation of God and the history of salvation; deals with duties, virtues and consequences and is aware of the need to understand context in ethical reflection. Seems like a big list doesn't it!

CD: Among your students you seem to have a reputation for being a broad, interdisciplinary thinker. What are the influences that have made you the theologian you are (with the inherent strengths and weaknesses that go with that)?

J: Hard to say what has influenced me. I grew up in a Christian home in which education was valued and we talked about all sorts of things. Growing up I thought about being an architect (not sure how I got to that given my lack of dexterity with a pen), a journalist, a politician and a research scientist. I almost became a doctor heading for research, but finished with a science degree into which I put some philosophy.

During my uni years I benefitted from Phillip Jensen's preaching, and he is very much an expository preacher but with a good theological basis and wide range of applications.

My undergraduate theology at Moore gave me lots of depth in Biblical Studies, but I think I am naturally more of a conceptual thinker so gravitated to systematics.

I've been a pastor for seven years before I moved to PTC. I have been working on a PhD on Wolfhart Pannenberg who is committed to theology interacting with all areas of human study. I think all those influences probably make me want to be inter-disciplinary.

I do think that theology should be developed in interaction with its social and cultural context and that gives me permission to think about all sorts of things. It's a great job.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The wisdom that comes with grey hairs

Behold the glory of an old man who still has some 'sparky dignity' left.

What is it about older people that they are 'lauded' with adjectives we seldom (if ever) attach to the young? 'Respectable', 'dignified', 'proper', 'distinguished'?

These adjectives are meant to convey some sense of honour, but what they often (though not always) convey is captured in the word 'stuffy'.

Why is it that we expect old people to behave a certain way, and don't quite know what to do if they insist on expressing themselves differently? Behaviours that are quite usual for the young are regarded as extreme, odd, out-of-place for the old.

How might we celebrate better the fact that the old are still living, and not simply warmed-up dead? How might we encourage them to continue to enjoy life to the full even though the weariness of age and the grief of losses press in on them?

Perhaps some of it is in gently, graciously, allowing them space to live in. Daring to invite them to join us in our adventures. Involving them without thinking, "They're too 'proper / old / respectable' for this."

How do we honour the old? Not by urging them and labelling them towards stuffiness. Part of the wisdom that comes with grey hairs may have something to do with recognising that each day is a gift that comes this way but once.

I met with a client recently, probably a lady in her early 70s, with hair that was dyed. No, not the usual blue rinse; instead, bright blue, green, pink, yellow. In stripes! Wild! Totally out of control!

While there is life, there is time to let your hair down. It is a dignity the rest of us must allow those who are growing old. And yes, there is a time for mourning too.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Backyard of a former generation

Cara's grandfather is in the process of moving house.

It's no small deal to move when you're 82 years of age.

There's been a lot of work to get the house and yard ready for sale - most of it carried out by Cara's mum and other members of the family.

We were over there today, and at the end of the day I was looking around the yard at the trees. There were at least eight mature trees in this small suburban backyard.

What a stunning contrast this is to what we normally see in a modern backyard. What is the modern home in the outer suburbs of Sydney if it's not a quarter acre of buffalo grass and concrete?

There's simply no substitute for a yard with well-placed mature trees in it. Certainly, you can't imitate the effect in the short term. It involves a clear vision of what a small sapling might become. And a long wait.

In an age of impatience many of us, it seems, are more easily placated by a weekend garden makeover and an instant backyard. A previous generation saw it a little differently.

Of course, many of our parents also remember growing up with a chook pen, a vegetable garden and a lemon or olive tree in the yard as well.

In other news, I've started a new Wordpress blog which will focus around some different themes to this one. Don't worry, it won't be a daily blog; my family would like to socialise with me occasionally.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Flaming torches, balls and bowling pins

Juggling: that’s how I often experience my work.

I love my job. I love the multi-faceted nature of it. And I also struggle to work out which are the right balls to keep in the air at any one time.

The basic tasks could be broken down into a few categories: long-term regional planning, making client appointments, following up clients, troubleshooting and problem-solving (often around the issue of clients or organisations), and providing technical advice.

Administration is the thing I find it hardest to do well. I am working with a system where I observe the discipline of recording every phone call, email or meeting in a database. On a day where you’re ranging between technical advice, booking appointments, discussing training, and sending out quotes, the work can pile up very quickly.

I tend to have tasks that I regard as high priority, and others that sit quite a long way down the list. Prioritising takes care of some of the most urgent tasks, but it doesn’t always allow me to deal well with those in the ‘medium’ category.

There’s no question that sorting tasks will always be a challenge for me. Certainly, there’s no such thing as a dull day at work. But I continue to wonder how I might be even better at what I do. I’m pleased with the progress in many areas this year, but the juggling of tasks continues to be a lively challenge.

What method do you use to sort through the ‘medium’ importance stuff?