Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Out of nappies and driving

When did you know what you wanted to do vocationally?

Were your childhood dreams to become a firefighter realised?

When did someone else first notice the patterns, and dare to identify where it seemed you were headed?

Can you see any correspondences between your loves and interests as a child, and where you've ended up now?

Monday, September 29, 2008

A lifetime in fifteen minutes

The compression of a human life into a eulogy is an odd phenomenon.

75 or 80 years of life are packaged into an hour-long service with a fifteen-minute eulogy. It's hard to imagine it being done any differently, and yet it just seems like an impossible task to do well - how do you do justice to decades of life, of breathing in and out, of raising children, making dinners, wiping grandkids' noses, building houses, running marathons, knitting jumpers, growing roses, playing the organ?

The memories are always in the stories; never in mere 'attributes'. So in a sense the real 'eulogy' happens in the days, weeks, months, years that follow when friends come together and stories are shared. Or even when you're alone, and replay an episode from the person's life just in your own mind.

What does it teach me? That no eulogy will ever do justice to the person who has just died, and that the best thing I can do while I relate to any other living person is learn to be as fully present as possible.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Stop and smell the roses

What do you like about the geography / weather of the area you live in?

Yesterday, we were back down in the St George region catching up with some friends for a birthday brunch (Happy Birthday, M.H.!).

It's been nine months since we lived in these parts, and one of the loveliest things about the area is the seabreeze. Just when you think you're about to boil away on a summer day, the breeze rolls through in the afternoon.

We used to open up both doors of the house (front and back), and let the breeze roll down through the hallway. Amazing.

We miss that in the west. It gets that bit hotter out here, and the air seems to sit pretty still. Besides that, we don't have many mature trees out here - and nothing cools an area like trees.

Nevertheless, we're super-close to the edge of Sydney here. Literally five minutes in the car, and you would think you were in country NSW (if you don't believe me, take a drive along Richmond / Blacktown Rd past Rooty Hill Rd North). I think that's pretty cool.

What do you like about the geography / weather of the area you live in?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Design / execution meets Friday afternoon

People who design and build houses should be forced to live in the houses they create (adding (of course) the caveat of the client who insists on things being designed within a certain brief).

I'd be fascinated to learn who was responsible for the placement of the outside tap on our house in relation to the meterbox, but it was clearly someone with a very hard head. I'm not sure whether it was a Friday afternoon for the plumber / sparkie or for the architect, but it clearly was for someone.

Can you spot the problem?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Parallel lines and a road to somewhere

Avenues of trees, Corinthian columns, monoliths. We love 'em.

But why? What is it about the engineering of the human mind that loves not only the concept of straight lines, but parallel lines, and preferably with a path down the middle?

This one leads to the Governor General's residence, and is especially impressive. But why? Why does it feel so impressive?

And - come to think of it - why am I so obsessed with photographing trees?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

What's your favourite time of day?

Morning - at least for the scenery, and the sense of capturing the wholeness of a day.

Back when I was studying, I used to get up around 4.30am on a college day, cycle about 30-40kms, and then head off to Sydney.

There was nothing exhilarating about getting out of bed at that hour, but it was a great time to be on the bike, knowing that you were going to squeeze every drop out of that day - and crash at bed time.

Some of my trips, especially to the ACT, have taken me through some stunning morning scenery. You drive back through later in the day, and think 'Ho-hum' - it's not half as captivating as it is in the early morning light and fog.

Early morning is also the time for coffee - first one of the day (I guess I know how the smokers feel). Downside: it's also the time for screaming children who don't want to eat breakfast.

What's your favourite time of the day? Why?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Piping in the wisdom

Life leads us into some fascinating conversations.

This afternoon, a client and I ended up in an interesting discussion about life experience and wisdom.

He said to me that he often imagines taking the wisdom from a whole person’s life, and seeking to download it all in about 2 minutes into the brain of some hapless young person.

I agreed with him that there is so much wisdom to be gained from spending time with older people. Most of our wisest friends are on the older end of the spectrum.

But as good as it might be to download the megabytes of wisdom from an old brain into a young one, perhaps what is more necessary is the need to read our situation well. There is no point having a brain full of ‘wisdom’ if there is no capacity to learn to read our own story with an eye to the patterns and the pitfalls.

There is much blessing to come from ‘hanging out’ with those who have a few more greys than ourselves – even better when they patiently spend time with us, helping us to make sense of what we see and experience.

A brainful of wisdom sounds good, but the ability to read life wisely holds more appeal to me – complete with many blunders and ‘learning experiences’. I don’t know that you get wisdom outside of making some of those painful mistakes yourself!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

What makes your office a great place to work?

Probably a few of you out there have worked / do work in a really great office environment that seems to stir you towards productivity.

What is it about your office that does this? Is it the highly motivated people you work with? It is the coffee shop just over the road? Is it the fabulous layout of the space? Is there something airy and fresh about your office - perhaps that window which you open that lets in the afternoon breeze? Is it the sensational lunch that gets laid before you on Friday afternoons?

I would love to know what it is for you. Put my tick in the box 'Good coffee shop over the road'.

By all means - if you don't work in an office, we would still appreciate your thoughts. One of the highlights of working on a farm (which I did in another previous life) was jumping in the dam at lunchtime on a hot day.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Giddy up

If you've ever made use of the 'public facilities' located just outside the council chambers at Bellingen, then you've probably noticed this oversized coffee grinder out the front.

It really wasn't all that long ago that horses were doing basically what they'd done for thousands of years. And now electricity and petrol engines have changed everything - forever.

It all happened so quickly. Although there are still many places in the world where this would be considered 'grinding edge technology', it's not so in Australia anymore. Goodness, even Bellingen has running water and phone lines!

I've gotta say, though, basic machinery like this, for all its inefficiencies, would have been very unlikely to go on strike. I don't even imagine a total township blackout would have slowed it down, nor the increase in the price of petrol.

Good old horse power! Maybe if the price of petrol continues to rise this ancient beauty might one day be brought back to life ...

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Leading well - dealing with complexity

As we gathered with our friends today, a few of us began discussing Dan Allender's book which I spoke about in yesterday's blog. Little did we know a parable of leading was about to play out before our eyes.

Caelan walked into the house asking for something that sounded like 'boker weer'. He kept repeating it, and obviously wanted one of us to get up and go with him to find 'boker weer'.

The occasionally dutiful parent that I am, I got up. I couldn't work out what he was saying, but figured the first word sounded close enough to 'book'. I knew we had some of his books in the car, so I took his hand and we walked outside.

I got to the car and let go of his hand, opened the car door, grabbed his books, and gave them to him. There: a quick, easy fix. He looked less than impressed. I walked back inside the house and sat down, duty fulfilled.

But no. Caelan came back in and started up with the 'boker weer' business again.

This time Jim went with him, and they were gone for quite a while. When they came back inside, I got my lesson in leadership for the day, and no one even had to draw the conclusion for me: it was plain enough.

Caelan had taken Jim's hand and they had gone outside. When they got to the car, Caelan didn't let Jim's hand go, but kept on leading him up into the backyard. There, after looking around at a pile of rocks and a campervan, Caelan located 'boker weer' - a 'broken wheel' lying on the ground - he had seen it a number of weeks ago on a backyard expedition, and was obviously keen to renew the acquaintance.

His curiousity sated, both came back inside and relaxed.

Though I'm not too far into Allender's book, he talks about the reality of complexity and how many of those who lead try to overcome complexity with 'rigid' fix-alls - because it's easy and it confirms the leader's authority and wisdom.

Complexity is seen as a threat to many who lead. Rather than listen attentively, and risk reiterating what you think you've heard (and probably mishear it the first two or three times), it's easier to just come out up-front with an easy fix that implies you've identified the issue and the shotgun solution.

With a copy of The Wiggles colouring book thrust into the hands of those who are asking for 'boker weer', you can then safely (?) assume that they will learn to shut up and recognise that though they thought they were asking about a broken wheel, what they were instead asking for was what you gave them (at least, that's what they really needed, right?).

Or they will keep calling 'boker weer', 'boker weer' for a while until they discover you're not listening and are still only offering them the colouring book. And, if they have the persistence and someone else has the patience, they will eventually find that someone who's willing to be led by them in search of 'boker weer', whichever way that particular white rabbit happens to track (it's part of learning to lead wisely and maturely - being willing to follow the hunches of others, even when they lead down a different road to our own).

We ignore complexity to our own peril, and to the demise of the wonder, creativity and curiousity we find around us in other people.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Leading with a bung leg and a dicky heart

Writing a book on leadership must be scary - yet so many attempt it. How you speak well into that space when scores of others have gone before you (some plunging headlong into wrack-and-ruin) would make it an intimidating task.

It must be almost as intimidating as having to read books on leadership, realising that (yet again) as one who leads you fall inevitably short. So many of the titles appear to doom the reader from the outset: 'The Extraordinary Leader', 'Leading at a Higher Level', 'Leadership 101', 'Mastering Leadership'.

The intentions of these books are noble: the authors long to see people leading more effectively. But so often the high ideals the reader aspires to fails to find any lasting translation in the home, the church, the marketplace, the university, the synagogue or the factory floor.

Perhaps this has something to do with the way we have come to define leaders (or at least what we expect to find in them): their unflappable nature, their ease and composure, their ability to communicate with rocket scientists and small children, their financial savvy, their absolute certainty, their unshakable morality, their model lives.

What we find instead is often much more disturbing: we find anger where we expected calm, uncertainty where we expected resoluteness, questionable motives where we expected others-centredness, doubt where we expected faith, failure where we expected triumph.

In other words, what we find in our leaders is people like ourselves. For all the anecdotes and stories of 'great leaders past', what we actually find when we meet these people who have accepted (willingly or unwillingly) the mantle of 'leader' is something / someone far more fragile, damaged, uncertain, and compromised than we were looking for.

Dan Allender knows this. This is a bold title for a book, and it dares to push into places that few in the 'leadership world' want to go. Allender's subversive subtitle sums up his direction: "Take Full Advantage of Your Most Powerful Weakness." I'm not sure too many leadership gurus would have put the word 'weakness' on the end of that sentence.

Allender's contention is that the best thing any leader can do is admit and work with her many weaknesses and shortcomings. The capacity to lead well won't come through 'saving face' and protecting an image of what leadership 'should' look like. We lead best not through inviolability, but through recognition that whatever our gifts and abilities might be, we are wholly inadequate for the task.

I'm only about 40 pages into this book so far, but loving it. It reads well, and best of all, it actually makes a heck of a lot of sense. It gets real about leadership, and moves away from the hype and the rah-rah to the real, the awkward, the true. We begin to see that leaders are not Rocks-of-Gibraltar.

It surprises me that some of our deficient ways of defining leadership (and defining leaders) have held fast for so long. I can't think how many times in my life I've heard sentences beginning with 'A leader should be [insert list of adjectives and qualifications].' After all the 'shoulding' has finished, the truth is I haven't met a single leader I respect who was not deeply flawed.

And those who weren't deeply flawed were simply experts in maintaining the veneer of the unflappable, all-certain leader; hang around with anyone like that long enough, and you'll see through the cracks (which normally reveal a deeply insecure, very damaged person).

As Mark Strom has carefully documented in his work, Reframing Paul, we owe more to Plato and Aristotle than to anyone else when we elect to place our leaders on pedestals as models of the ideal human life; unaffected, unshaken, secure.

Both Allender and Strom serve to remind us what we've known (but feared) all along: that leaders are flawed people (because, after all, they're actually not a separate classification of human life to the rest of us). Or in Allender's words, "Prepare now to admit to your staff that you are the organization's chief sinner."

If you're interested, there's also an interview here with Dan Allender about 'leading with a limp'.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Out with caution!

Some things in life are to be attacked with absolute abandon.

Caelan knows that peas, potatoes and beans are to be respected and treated with caution. Not so ice cream. It invites not only ingestion but absorption.

Sometimes we hold back from rich experiences in life because of over-caution (see my jumping in puddles post from a few months back). Kids are a good reminder to us that occasionally it pays to throw caution and reserve to the wind.

There’s nothing like the pleasant indignity of having to deal with a running ice cream on a super hot day. There’s something fun about sharing dripping ice creams with a bunch of friends, something that reminds us that caution isn’t always everything it’s cracked up to be.

So if you’ve become the ‘over-cautious’ type with the passage of time, this might be just the time to grab yourself a chocolate ice cream and sit in the sun.

After the fire

As I was cruising back along the Putty Rd today out the back of Woop-Woop, I was struck by the large number of trees affected by a recent bushfire.

Whenever you see a parcel of bush that has been hit by a bushfire perhaps some 6 months to 2 years previous, it’s the contrast to the blackness that you notice: the bright green epicormic shoots exploding from the eucalypts, and the vibrant new under-storey growth.

It’s a parable of human existence too. That sometimes we have to go through the fire for new things to be birthed. That sometimes all those ideas we held at no cost are subjected to a blast of scrutiny, and we come out the other side of that ‘humbling’ more vitalised though chastened, more certain of that which has weathered the heat, and perhaps more hopeful.

Sometimes we have no choice but to stay in the kitchen and wear the heat – and yet live to see what newness emerges out the other side of it.

In other news, yes, you will probably have noticed that my blogging has now officially missed a day. Ahhhhh!!!!

Although I wrote the above post (and this frustrated comment that follows it) on the 18 September, there’s not much you can do about a Virgin Broadband wireless connection that absolutely refuses to work no matter how many resets it goes through (this network has been trouble for us from day one). I generally like Richard Branson’s planes, but his internet pretty much sucks.

I guess this has forced me to realise the inevitable anyway: that sooner or later I was going to be forced to miss a day – was expecting it would probably happen during our trip to Tassie in November. Oh well, happened a little sooner than expected; that’s life.

If our internet’s not up-and-running by the morning (which I doubt it will be), then I guess I’ll be blogging at work over lunch. Hope you can all hold out until then. If you need support, I’d recommend you call LifeLine (I’d give you their number if I had access to the internet). So probably ‘000’ will do the trick for now.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Closing the door for the last time

This place, just outside Bellingen, was once someone's home.

I don't know how long it's been since someone lived here, but there was a time when the residents of this house closed the door for the last time and said 'Goodbye'.

I wonder what feelings they experienced as they did that. What drove them to walk away? Age or infirmity? A death? The state of the house? A family move?

Why did they leave? And what did it do to them?

I've moved house a couple of times in the last few years, and my sense is that every time I move, I leave a piece of myself behind.

Perhaps you've experienced it - that when you drive past a house you used to live in, there's something inside you that yearns (or that churns!), or that just remembers. You stop and look at the house. Yes, that old tree is still there. Oh, they've painted the window frames. Ah, the letterbox has been kicked in again.

When you close the door for the last time, your heart seems to leave a window open somewhere. Funny how the familiarity of a particular 'pile' of bricks and mortar gets inside us.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Design or chance?

If you've had your radio switched on any time in the last few months, you've probably heard Sam Sparro's hit, Black and Gold.

It's an interesting song which makes a plain enough point: uncaused action cannot bespeak meaning to our lives.

Here's a chunk of the lyrics:

'Cause if you're not really here
then the stars don't even matter.
Now I'm filled to the top with fear
but it's all just a bunch of matter.

'Cause if you're not really here
then I don't want to be either
I wanna be next to you -
black and gold, black and gold, black and gold.

Design? Or chance? It does make a difference to our sense of purpose.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Are you rare?

Or well done?

A number of years ago a friend and I were fooling around with the concept that someone's personality could give you enough information to work out how they liked their steak done.

We were both studying at the same institution at the time, and so a fair place to begin seemed to be the faculty. Probably most lecturers were deemed to be medium or medium rare, there were a few 'rares' in there, and one or two 'well dones' (to the point where a steak becomes a slab of smouldering charcoal).

There were also a few debatables in there ... those people who at first glance might have appeared to be medium to well done, but who, as you got to know them, were real surprise packets ... sometimes a 'rare' can be mistaken for a 'well done' if you don't stick a fork in and look beyond the surface.

Try your hand at the following, and post your answers:

*Kevin Rudd (A - Well done; B - Medium; C - Medium rare; D - Niu rou (Mandarin for 'beef'))

*Bono (A - Well done; B - Medium; C - Medium rare; D - Sunday, Bloody Sunday)

*Paris (A - Like, cooked; B - Ummm; C - Same colour as my handbag; D - Meat! Oohhh, yucky.)

*Barack Obama (A - Well done; B - Medium; C - Medium rare; D - Easy on the lipstick, pig)

*Jeannie Little (A - Well done; B - Medium; C - Medium rare; D - As it comes, darrrrllling!)

*John Howard (A - Well done; B - Well done; C - Well done; D - Same as Peter - pie & chips, please)

*Horatio Caine (A - Well done; B - Medium; C - Medium rare; D - No, it's my turn to ask the questions around here.)

*Condelleeza Rice (A - Well done; B - Medium; C - Medium rare; D - Lightly sizzled on the bonnet of a Humvee)

Sunday, September 14, 2008

When form is inherent in creation

This was an interesting little piece from Eugene Peterson's Run with the horses, p.77:

"The practical impact of the invention of pottery is immense. But there is something else that is just as important. No one has ever been able to make a clay pot that is just a clay pot. Every pot is also an art form. Pottery is always changing its shape as potters find new proportions, different ways to shape the pots in pleasing combinations of curves. There is no pottery that besides being useful does not also show evidence of beauty.

(Note: Peterson has obviously never seen any of my high school clay forms.)

Pottery is artistically shaped, designed, painted, glazed, fired. It is one of the most functional items in life; it is also one of the most beautiful."

Can't really say this about Tupperware, can you?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

There is a season, turn, turn, turn ...

Was today February or what?

Out in our part of the world - the 'wild west' - the mercury was clocking up to 32°C in the heat of the day. At 6pm it was still sitting on 27°C.

It's been months since our air conditioner has been fired up. Today it was time to push the little green button again, and send the electricity meter spinning.

The callery pears on our street have come into a burst of white flowers after months of bare, leafless twigs. It was shorts, t-shirts and sandals for everyone, and time to change over to cotton linen.

With this turning of the seasons, we know more will come. The jumpers will get packed away, the kikuyu will have a stretch and a yawn after its dormancy, and fire back into life again. The shadecloth will go back up over the concrete slab near the back door.

Winter is officially over (I think). Despite today's mini-heatwave, I love this first flush of warmer weather.

What do you notice most about the changing of the seasons? What signals to you that winter is over?

Friday, September 12, 2008

Say 'Hello', wave 'Goodbye'

Have you ever parted company with something only to regret it later on?

Occasionally, our company gets involved with sportsfield renovations. When you're doing your research for a renovation, one thing you will do is go out to the existing ground, have a dig around and remove some soil for testing.

At the start of the year, I bought myself a small trowel for this job. But a small trowel won't get you down to 200mm, which is the sort of the depth we want. Nevertheless, I don't feel like carrying a full-size shovel in my car all the time when it only comes in useful once every few months.

What's needed is a handy mid-size shovel that stores easily but digs well.

And we used to have one. That is, we used to have one before we got all motivated last year and gave away a whole lot of junk that never got used.

I can still see it - it would have been perfect for my car. But where is it now? Rusting away in someone else's garage until it gets thrown away after their demise.

Right now, I miss it. A lot. Would have been perfect.

But hang on! I think dad and mum had a similar one in their garden shed! Better get on the phone before they go to bed ...

What have you parted company with that you really miss now?

Thursday, September 11, 2008


What forces you to be economical?

I guess it depends on what you're spending.

My dad was always very economical with chocolate. Most of what he got given at Easter was still in circulation on his bedside table at Christmas. Was it because he didn't like chocolate? No. It had more to do with four years spent in a concentration camp: there was no guarantee that what you had today was going to be available tomorrow. So use it sparingly.

For some people it's time. If you get an audience with the prime minister for half an hour, you probably won't spend 25 minutes talking about how he preserves those boyish looks of his - and you can guarantee he won't stick around if you do.

Perhaps it's fuel. If you're paying $1.70 per litre, you want to maximise the value you get out of each tank. Walk when you can. Fix as many things into one trip as possible. Sell your V8.

Maybe it's that last skerrick of butter that sits around the edges of the carton. You'd normally do one slice with it, but tonight it's too late to go to the shops, and you have two pieces of steaming, browned raisin toast in front of you.

Was it seeing the ridiculous excess of others? Did this confront your own sense of wastage, and call you to economise? Was it seeing the poverty of others that did the same?

Holidays: do you see how many people you (sort of) know within a particular geographical range, and then decide to holiday there, camping in the garages and rumpus rooms of others?

Is your sense of economy driven by genetics? Do you come from a family of tightwads - sorry, thrifty individuals?

What is it that drives you to economise?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Teasing blood from the stone

The scene is set: chairs, tables, refreshments, focal point, facilitator (you), and other beings. Now all you have to do is get a result.

How do you do it? How do you work with a raw bunch of people who've sat through a brainstorming / save-the-planet session so many times before?

At this late hour, three things seem to be essential to walk away with something of worth.

1) Keep it real. If it's not relevant, if it has no translation, people will become disintereted (rapidly) and will scarce be engaged enough to offer their best. Their brains will go into cruise control - some sort of default 'boring seminar' mode - and the feedback will be trite and possibly tainted with annoyance.

2) Be focused and adaptable. There is some sort of agenda at work here, something you need to walk away with. So there's a purpose. But you're not going to beat it out of people, are you? You're not going to get at it by constantly tut-tutting, pulling people back into line, cutting people off because they're not behaving how you want them to behave. If your focus is sharp enough, perhaps you'll dare to chase a few white rabbits with people. It might not tick every box on your programme, but it might land you in a richer place instead.

3) Dare to be different. Have your own angle / quirky / cute way of putting the question out there. People learn to identify formulas, and are programmed to respond formulaically. So walk around the question and view it from a few different angles, then dare to give people new windows on old questions. Angles that personalise and that have some grounding in the concrete rather than pure abstraction are probably your friends. If you can find a new way of opening up a question without losing half the room, well done, you!

That's the extent of my reflection (tonight) on the process of getting something meaningful out of a roomful of people.

I sat in a session this evening over at my alma mater where the facilitator showed some grounded wisdom in getting useable information out of a bunch of people at the end of their working day. The lolly bowl was also well-stocked with some interesting and zesty things (point 4?).

(John, if you're reading, you chose well, and it worked. Hope the college enjoys some benefit from the exercise.)

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Feral, gross, grotty, yuck.


This used to be one of my baby sister's favourite words.

It was a word that could be applied to any rabbit the cat had partially digested in the confines of the outside shower, or to any pimple-faced teenager attempting to grow a beard.

It's also about the only word I can apply to the inside of our garbage bin lid.

Even though at least twice a week I attack the bin with mountains of paper towel and Sugar Soap and Glen 20, I still can't seem to win this war of defestification (enjoy using that word before I take out copyright on it).

Why can't anyone design a bin that doesn't end up grossing out the general populace? Doesn't seem to matter whether it's got a swinging lid, or a pedal lid or if it's just a plastic bag hanging on the inside of a cupboard door; they all end up gross - especially when prawn juice gets involved (you cringing yet?).

Why can't anyone seem to build a bin without lots of nooks and crannies for grot to hide in? How hard would it be to make a bin that doesn't take ages to clean properly?

Someone, anyone, please, please do something. Anything. Anything to defestify the world's bins.

Monday, September 8, 2008

[Not] blinded by the light

Gotta love that little flippy switch on your rear-view mirror.

I've often wondered how it works, and finally my lifelong quest comes to an end.

Really simple, really effective. One flick, and sight is restored.

Elmer Berger has been credited with inventing the rear-view mirror - without the day-night switch. I have no idea who came up with the day-night switch, but that guy can have a free beer on me anytime.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Cars: their personalities, their quirks ... and the memories

It's been a relaxing Father's day, and the new t-shirt is really nice - thanks for asking.

I'm just plumped (plomped? slumped?) on the lounge, listening to Sons of Korah, and doing what I do each night: this.

I don't feel lost for a topic tonight, but I gotta say, I ain't especially motivated. So I'll talk about cars, and the little things you love and hate about them, and how they leave their mark.

Growing up we had a VW Kombi. To any surfer or pothead, this car is a god. Not when you're a fifteen-year-old geek with people to impress. It was a source of constant embarrassment.

Nevertheless, there were some cool things about it.

Vinyl everything. Never a spill you couldn't deal with. Probably the only car you could clean inside and out with a high pressure hose. Downsides: hot sunny days (steaming vinyl is ouchy on bare legs), and handling like a shopping trolley. Another positive: lots of space - oh, and a sliding door. Very cool. Summary: a lot like riding in economy class with additional legroom, and without the oxygen masks. Or the trolleys with hot food.

Eventually, my parents went over to Commodores. I remember our first: a VR. Hello, engine. After blobbing along in that fat tin can with a 1.6lt motor, we gained 2.2 additional litres. So much more comfortable than Kombi, and a real driver's car. Downside: personality, where are you? And carpet.

A few Commodores later, I got married. My wife brought a silver '89 Mitsubishi Lancer, known as Mr Binky, into our marriage. One year later I brought Mr Binky into the back of someone else's Hiace van. Mr Binky was cool: not as gutsy as the Commodores, but he had cow-patterned car-set covers (which Cara had dyed purple), and someone had unsuccessfully tried to incinerate him at one stage (battlescars rock). Downside: tight for space, especially rear legroom. And flaky paint. Only car I've ever driven whose engine could run on the mere smell of burned oil and still not seize.

Following Binky was our faithful white V6 Camry wagon. No personality whatsoever, but plenty of get-up and go, and just bullet-proof. Cheap to service, never misses a beat, handles well, great car. And ugly as all hell. I think we'll have this car for a looooong time. Hope so, anyway.

Present work car: Subie Forester. Not real pretty, and not real spacious either. But goes hard, great economy, and grabs the road with a pincerlike grip. Came with a lot of dog hair (which I've nearly eliminated). Standard features on Subies are great, fit-and-finish are awesome, and stereo system has serious 'doof-doof' factor to it. Could see this car growing some personality once I've spilled a few milkshakes in it.

The stand-out of the pack? Probably a tie between the old German tank of my youth, and our present Camry. My mother cried when we traded in the Kombi for a Commodore. This was the car we had holidayed in, fought in, smashed into a roadside drain, and wiped the leaking oil from for 21 years. And the Camry ... what more can I say? If only every car was this reliable and cheap to service.

What are the memorable cars of your life? What did you love? What drove you mad? And what is the 'X' factor that ingrains a particular car in your brain for life?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Mixing it up

We've just finished another wonderful evening with our Fijian-Indian neighbours. They're delightful people; we enjoy their company so much.

While the four boys (two of theirs, two of ours) were killing each other in the loungeroom under the supervision of the mums, us two blokes prepared dinner in the kitchen.

With some excellent guidance from my wife, we ended up doing an Indian dish (which was quite different to the Fijian-influenced food our friends make). This one was taken from the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet Book 1 (the lamb and spinach curry from p.166 if you're interested - a really nice dish, especially when served with our friends' spicy kiwifruit chutney).

So here I am reflecting back over this evening with a full stomach and a satisfied disposition. Once again I marvel that though our backgrounds are diverse, we seem to have just 'clicked'. Actually, I'm convinced it is the diversity that makes our friendship the richer.

Whether it's chopping vegies and talking with him, or putting up kitchen cabinets, or sharing a beer on the front lawn after work, or spraying his front verge with highly toxic herbicides, there's a real enjoyment in his company - and of our two families together.

We spend a lot of time discussing and quizzing each other about culture, about values, beliefs, convictions, raising kids, making delicious food, living in our street, doing business, making sense of life.

Nothing can replace getting to know people this way. There are no shortcuts to these friendships. How much richer life is when you get to spend time with friends from other cultures!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Some swords, but no blood on the conference floor

The Adelaide conference is finally over and I’m home.

All-in-all, it was an enjoyable time, but it’s really good to be back at home base with my family.

In my post yesterday, I mentioned the value of networking and learning. I want to say a little more about the quality of learning that goes on here.

There is a wider contextualisation of issues that occurs. Big ideas – really big ideas – get pulled to the surface and mulled over.

Much of our everyday experience is grounded in very localised issues and questions of specification. While it is possible (and, I believe, desirable) to engage a client at the level of values, it is still often very local in nature; necessarily so.

But at a conference level we get to consider all those locals issues and values against the backdrop of the macro issues and contexts – global warming, demographics, national and global geographical, geological and ecological challenges.

This gives fresh perspective to local issues, and the presence of so many practitioners seems to urge the incarnation of the principle ‘Think globally, act locally.’

The second major influence on the shape of learning at conferences is the presence of interlocutors: people who are willing to throw down the gauntlet when they hear an idea presented that they don’t agree with. This is where localised, specific knowledge comes into its own.

Of course anyone who wishes to volunteer their ideas in the presence of 300 experts needs to be prepared to be wrong. If no one is prepared to be wrong, nothing of substance will be shared or debated.

I’m grateful for those who are willing to engage in this marketplace of ideas. I find it easy to be wowed by a presentation, only to have someone put their hand up at the end, and ask a pertinent question that forces me to see another angle.

No one has a corner on all knowledge. We learn by being willing to be wrong, and by bringing together people who share something of our own direction and heart for the work.

It was really good to spend the last few days with a bunch of people passionate about working well with trees – people who care enough to think big, and to engage each other thoughtfully.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Networking - and learning

As mentioned in a post two days ago, I'm in Adelaide at the moment.

Our company is a sponsor for a large national event for our industry. A couple of us are down here, manning a stall and rubbing shoulders with existing and potential clients.

This event gives us a lot of exposure to these guys, and so we get to meet with some great people.

But we also get the benefit of learning. When we're not manning the stall, we've got opportunities to sit in on the various seminars.

There's so much to learn. This morning a couple of experts in climate change addressed us. The focus then shifted from the global to the local, and the examination of national demographic trends and national water issues. Then finally down to the local.

I really appreciate this opportunity to learn. Even though a lot of these people will probably never work with our technology, they have so much excellent knowledge to impart. From my perspective, the value we get out of paying sponsorship dollars isn't only in terms of coming along to promote our technology; it's to get alongside people who know their disciplines well, and to learn from them.

'Networking' is a dirty word to many because it often smells of using people to get what you want from them. I'm not seeing networking that way; for me this is a golden opportunity to get alongside people who care about their work, know their disciplines well, and are willing to share.

Sure, some of the contacts will be business. But a lot of them will open up the sheer joy of learning something new, something useful. I'm looking forward to coming away armed with a few scraps of new knowledge that make me a bit more useful to the world I live in.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Where does an old tank go?

Answer: to Aniston, Alabama - as long as it's an M1 Abrams.

I've just finished watching a National Geographic doco on the life of an M1 Abrams tank. Incredibly, these tanks don't get sent to the scrapyard at the end of their working life; instead, they are completely disassembled, stripped down, repaired, upgraded, and rebuilt.

The tired old Abrams arrives at Aniston to begin the stripping down process. Over 12,000 parts (all barcoded) are removed from the tank, refurbished (including the tracks) and stored in a building with shelves 27 metres high and accessed by an automated robotic retrieval system.

Here at Aniston its massive jet-powered 1500h.p. engine is rebuilt (the plant that originally made the engines stopped doing so in 1992, so no new engines are being produced). An engine rebuild on this sucker takes about 4 weeks.

When the tank is completely disassembled, the bare 20-tonne shell (minus turret) is blasted with stainless steel shot for 90 minutes, removing all paint and rust.

The components are now shipped to Lima, Ohio, for the reassembly process. In a plant with over 500,000 square metres of manufacturing space, each tank is pieced back together over 6 months. Older tanks will require retrofitting of upgraded technology, which means plenty of drilling and chopping.

When the tank is complete, the guns calibrated, and the respray done, the tank is taken to an army base in Fort Bliss, Texas for test firing. It is then shipped overseas for use on the battlefield.

The Abrams has been around for over 25 years now. And the US Army has plans to keep it operational till 2040. Incredible.

And nice to know that 'Reduce, reuse, recycle' is more than just a jingle for the US Army.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Making your mark

As I flew across from Sydney to Adelaide this morning, I was struck by the variation of colour evident on the ground (reflecting different soil types and climactic conditions), and also the evidence of human activity nearly everywhere.

Having grown up on a farm, I guess I’ve always known it: human beings are incredibly adaptable and resilient.

My father came to Australia in 1950. They scratched an existence out of the bush, without a decent house to live in, with no tar roads, with no running water or electricity.

And they survived. They stuck at it. They believed that coming to Australia would work.

And in the end, it did – with lots of sweat, blood and tears.

Whenever I visit the bush I’m struck by people’s resourcefulness. It’s amazing how the drive to survive and succeed can cause people to ride out so many droughts, bushfires, floods – and still leave their mark.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Travelling light

Off on another work jaunt tomorrow - this time Adelaide. City of excitement. Yeah. Oh yeah.

For a few days, life packs down into a suitcase.

Kind of strange, isn't it?

We spend our lives living in a space that we fill with all kinds of stuff. Even just in terms of 'the basics' (as we know them) we seem to have so much.

But then we go away, and it all comes down to a few shirts and socks and undies in a suitcase.

For some people, the suitcase I'll take on the plane would more than contain their life belongings.

Funny how our western opulence makes us redefine what 'the basics' really are. I'm not even so sure that my trip to Adelaide has really helped me appreciate what 'travelling light' looks like.

Perhaps I need to go back through our photos from China to remind myself what travelling light / living light looks like.