Am I good enough for this grief?

The rescue helicopter circles overhead, lapping the North-West Coast of Tasmania in search of a missing vessel and its three occupants. The helicopter is instantly recognisable, a bird of red and yellow framed against the bright blue eastern sky, reflecting the sun in the west. I have seen that helicopter and written about its movements dozens of times in the last three years while reporting for The Advocate.

This is the first time I’ve known the person it searched for.

By 9.30 Tuesday morning I had known for about two hours there was a marine search and rescue operation underway off Wynyard, but I knew no one with a boat in which to get lost. And perhaps I hadn’t yet really woken up after my long weekend. And then Tasmania Police named Bree in a media release I received via email during our office’s morning news conference and I yelped and ran out of the office to call her.

The call went straight to voicemail, and the Facebook messages I have sent to her remain on ‘sent’. Not delivered, not received and certainly, sadly, surreally not read. As I wrote that I went back and looked at my phone and was again saddened to see the indicator was a small circle with a tick inside. That message has gone out into the ether and is yet to find its intended recipient.

How many of those little undelivered ticks and texts there must be floating around in cyberspace right now for Bree and her two mates? How many times has her name been said today? How many people now know her name and what she looks like? How many now have hopes and expectations for this woman they had never before considered?

And how do I temper my grief and confusion against the many people who knew her better? And the many more who did not know her at all? I did not know her well, but a decade ago I knew her a little.

A few months ago her name popped up on the local North-West Tasmania Buy and Sell Facebook page, which was odd because that’s where I live and not where she lived. Or so I thought. Turns out she had recently moved to Burnie with her Mum, and she was just as amused and surprised to see me commenting on her post as I was to see her posting it. It had probably been ten years since we had last seen each other, likely partying and drinking together at a university bar on the Sunshine Coast.

And it had been a little over a year since I posted a birthday message on her wall for the year 2020.

“Oh man. Australia closed the bars on your birthday. That is brutal,” I wrote.
“Yah & I lost my job at one of said bars on the same day,” she responded, with a laughing emoji.

So for her name to appear on a Burnie buy and sell page of all places was, to put it mildly, a bit of a shock.

So we caught up over Messenger and made plans to grab a beer one night soon when our schedules lined up. And then we did the same thing again a few weeks later. And then I went back to Queensland. And we made the same plans again when I returned. And then she moved to Wynyard for a new job at a pub and I said I would stick my head in when I had the chance, when I was in Wynyard. And then in August she said let’s make a plan for September and actually stick to it, hey?

And now it is months later and I haven’t seen my friend in ten years and she is lost at sea and I fear I may never see her again.

Do I deserve this grief? And by that I mean, am I good enough for it? Were we close enough for me to have been so dazed and confused by seeing her name on that police press release? Should I leave the real grief to those who have more immediate memories of her and more tangible reasons to be unreservedly emotional? Should I be more stoic? I was never good at that. And I doubt I am going to start now.

But still I wrestle with this feeling of inadequacy and guilt. Guilt because I should have tried harder to see my old friend, although I know logically that would not have prevented her going out on a boat on Monday. And inadequacy because maybe I can’t offer anything more useful. Even my work as a journalist, which I often defend as an essential service during an emergency or tragedy of this magnitude, feels wholly inadequate in the context.

I labour under no delusion that I am writing this because I think it may help find her, but only in service to myself. I write for catharsis and perspective. To arrange my thoughts and, ideally, to understand them. I can’t remember exactly when but if you go back in my blog far enough I am sure you will find me saying the same thing in some other combination of words.

Recently I have been poorly managing a number of things which I may have understood and handled better had I written them down in this blog. But I did not, and I have regrets. And today has already been awash with regret. I do not want to add another layer of poor emotional wellbeing to that particular onion.

As I finish writing this it approaches 30 hours since the last confirmed contact with someone on board the missing boat. I do not know whether that contact was with Bree or one of her two mates. But the sun is still up on day two of the search and the rescue helicopter continues to circle above the Bass Strait, in view from the pub Bree should be working at tonight. Her colleagues embrace at the start of a shift and put on a brave face, ready to greet the patrons of what will apparently be an unusually busy Tuesday night.

Down at the wharf across the road from the pub Bree’s mum and the families of the two blokes continue to watch the Bass Strait, waiting for anything they may recognise to appear on the horizon.

I’ve not spoken to them and I won’t, not for personal nor professional reasons. Because I have sat here watching the water with them for the last few hours. Because I have now used over 1000 words attempting to understand these feelings and I could spend thousands more. Because I have spent the day hoping for a police media release to deliver us good news, and I have relived memories with Bree going back more than a decade.

Because they deserve to observe their optimism in peace and I still feel I am not good enough for this grief.


An uncucumbered mind

Do you sleep well?
Or do you wrestle with restlessness?
Do you lie there alone, thrashing in your sheets and wallowing in a depressing caresslessness?
Do your thoughts wander so far you find yourself rhyming with some absurd Dr Zeuss-like obsessiveness?
I don’t.
Not often at least. Tonight notwithstanding.
I eat well and exercise and I’m at peace with the world. Or at least I feel some form of peace as my head hits the pillow.
I drink tea and read interesting books like Dark Emu and Vilnius Poker and work hard to earn my seven or eight hours each night.
But I also drink whisky, masturbate and binge watch entire seasons of Archer on Netflix and it works equally well.
Fairly often, at least. Tonight notwithstanding.
Tonight it seems I have things to think about and my head won’t let me rest until I have thought them all out.
I lay down for an hour and racked up so many flips from stomach to back I began to wonder how I ever find comfort in my bed with so many ungainly limbs.
What do I usually do with my arms when I sleep?
They are just so uncomfortably there tonight. An oppressive weight on my chest while I lay on my back and an aggressively boney protuberance on top of or beneath my pillow when I flip to my front.
And are these absurd thoughts which just must be thunk always present in my head?
Do I really need to now dwell on just how many of the beautiful leaves of my yucca plant I managed to let wilt and die in recent weeks?
And are they even called leaves when they are so spiky and stiff or is there some word between leaf and branch I am yet to come across?
I should write more about the horticulture of Tasmania and interview all the horticulturalists and then surely I would know all the names for the various foliage appendages.
I should write more about growing things in general. After all the father of permaculture was from here and I should be so inspired to plant wonderful vegetables which I can grow and tend to and also eat and gloat about. I could feed my body and my ego.
But the father of permaculture died.
And I live in an apartment.
An apartment without a vegetable garden.
An apartment in which I currently cannot sleep because although I do not have a vegetable garden what I do have is a mind which is too busy thinking of all the interesting conversations I could be having about those ideas found within Dark Emu and Vilnius Poker to let me sleep.
But that is, really, not all that bad.
Because it has been a long time since I have written anything here and when I write things here I tend not to get too hung up on them again.
Unless I particularly enjoy them, which I often do.
But there is a catharsis to be found in writing the absurdities which I find in my mind on nights when I cannot sleep.
And I am really not all that worried about wrestling with my restlessness or obsessing over the depressing caresslessness.
Because these thoughts reminded me of a conversation I had once with a friend, also about busy brains and vegetables. 

“Do you sleep well, soundly?” she asked.
“Like, peacefully, every night?” I responded.
“Yeah. Do you have an uncucumbered mind?” 

And we laughed and laughed, and then slept well. 


For you, for Jen, forever

When I was eight-years-old, I had my first white Christmas. 

My parents, my ten-year-old brother Will and I were in Cincinatti, Ohio with Dad’s sister’s family. We were hosted by Ros, her American husband Norv and their three daughters, Jen, Katie and Meg. 

The three girls, my cousins, were older, in high school and at university, had American accents and their lives looked to my eight-year-old brain like what I had seen in the movies; they were the coolest women I had ever been around. They were creative and confident and their house had a basement! I was in awe.

They got a Nintendo 64 for Christmas that year we were there and Jen, the oldest – about 20 at the time – proceeded to kick my arse in 007 Goldeneye and her cool rankings continued to grow. Based on her influence I think it is still the only video game I have ever really enjoyed. 

I went back home to Australia in 1998 and begged my parents to buy me a Nintendo so I could practise Goldeneye and eventually challenge Jen on what might be an even footing. I can’t remember if I ever got the chance to verse Jen again in Goldeneye.  She was more than a decade older than me and her life was truly beginning at the end of the 90s. 

I wish I had a better memory, or had known to pay better attention to the woman Jen had grown to be before our entire family’s attention was focused suddenly on her in early 2012. 

I knew she was a teacher, fiercely intelligent and with a passion for history. I knew she, like her mother and sisters, had some of the most vibrant red hair I had ever seen and she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. I knew she had found the love of her life in a man named Brad, and together they were raising two absurdly cute daughters. 

But beyond that, it would be dishonest of me and disrespectful to say I knew enough about my cousin, this woman who lived on the other side of the world, to say I really knew her before she was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly eight years ago. 

I had a visceral reaction to the news, crying out in the kitchen of the home I shared in Manjimup, Western Australia with my brother and his partner Nic. There was little to do in that town for a bloke in his early 20s, so I was swimming a lot for exercise. Shortly after hearing of her diagnosis I went straight to Manjimup’s local pool to clear my head, to make room for the processing of potential grief to come. I have been a strong swimmer with little training for most of my life, but I have never swam as fast and hard for as long as I did that evening. Though my grief for Jen, Brad and their daughters was – at the time – misplaced.

She fought, and fought, and fought. For eight years Jen fought, although the cancer spread viciously, taking pieces of her body with it as it went. And for so long it seemed, in my irrelevant opinion, that with each surgery, chemo treatment and radiation therapy she endured she would raise her head, now often beautifully bald, stronger and more enthusiastic about life than ever before.

She began writing about her treatment, her life, and her family in a blog called Do Today Well. That phrase has become a memento of optimism and solidarity within our family. 

She wrote openly, honestly and without fear. She wrote in a way that was often shocking, heartbreaking and just emotionally hard to read. But she also wrote in a way that was often hilarious; she found humour in everything from the monotony of extended stays in hospital to stories of her youngest daughter’s enormous personality. She drew strength and love from her family, friends and her unshakeable Christian faith.

I am often a critic of religion, and knew I was an atheist from a young age, but Jen’s faith always reminded me my opinion of another’s belief is, at best, irrelevant. Her writing of her life, including her faith, became a daily source of inspiration for my own writing and how I approach each day of my life. 

A few years ago she had small metal tags made, designed to be fitted over shoelaces and inscribed with the words ‘DO TODAY WELL’, and below ‘inspire & be inspired’. I was living in Canada when they were made and my parents brought me one during a Christmas visit. I attached the tag to a simple string necklace alongside a piece of pounamu, a New Zealand gemstone, a friend had given me a few years earlier. For three years the simple message of Do Today Well; inspire & be inspired hung around my neck and was the first thing I saw when I looked in the mirror each morning.

Last Friday nightI took the necklace off before bed, something I seldom do, and the string snapped. Jen had been hospitalised in the days prior, was in palliative care over the weekend and on Monday morning I woke to the heartbreaking news that she had died.

Sometimes it is hard to know if I am writing something worth reading, or if I am just adding to the noise. Mostly it is the latter, and this week I am having a hard enough time cutting through the noise to properly process anything let alone understand how to situate it within this world.

I am in Europe, on holiday with a dear and beloved friend. My family is in Australia and the USA and we are joined in this tragedy. We are dealing with grief, though dealing is probably not the right word.

We are experiencing grief. We are being subjected to grief; we are defenceless and at its mercy. We are being thrown around in the waves of grief, held under by its power and pressed against the sands of the time we have had to process. My ability to process her death has so far been to cry, collapse in my friend’s arms and mutter some variation of ‘fuck cancer’.

But Jen, the genuine inspiration that she was, had continued to write in her blog in the days leading up to her death. Even in her final post, from her hospital bed on November 8, she was able to direct her fatigue and failing body into a darkly funny commentary: 

“Hospital life, yo. It’s a thing.”

And then a few lines later, after writing about the sunset her husband Brad described to her, some peace: 

“My life is beautiful.”

I have not yet come to terms with the symbolism or coincidence of my necklace snapping in the same week Jen died, and I am sure others will ascribe their own meaning to those events. But I do know that Jen’s death does not mean I will not continue to try, each and every day, to Do Today Well. On Tuesday I took the broken string and re-tied it around my wrist, so now I see her message even more frequently. 

I implore you to do the same: Do Today Well. 

For you, for Jen, forever.


The Council of Cousins: My cousins and I, including Jen, listen to a story from the youngest among us – Jake, at cousin Ben’s wedding in October 2018.



It was a nice piece of history, that planet earth

Notre Dame Fire, Paris, France - 13 Apr 2019

When I was very young, my parents’ business flooded.
Queensland’s 1992 summer rains swelled the banks of the Noosa River to breaking point and beyond at Hilton Terrace where they owned the Noosa Veterinary Surgery.
Dad was the veterinarian and Mum was practice manager, and it was our livelihood as they raised my brother and I, five and two-and-a-half-years-old at the time.

It was devastating for the young parents and first time business owners who had invested so much financially, physically and emotionally into the practice. But, they were able to rescue the animals convalescing in the cages and from the mess salvage the remains of the business, and rebuild.

Of course it was not the damage to the building itself that wrought the devastation, but the building itself was a symbol of what they had built and were building together. It contained memories and mementos of their aspirations and dreams and the faith they had in themselves and each other, and in the span of a few hours it was all but destroyed.

On a larger scale, the fire at Notre Dame represents many of the same things to a great many people.
As a lover of history, architecture and Disney films I can see the Notre Dame is an objectively important cultural icon.
And as a curious observer of Christianity (and religion in general) the symbolism of not only the building, but the relics and artefacts contained within those hallowed walls is wholly apparent. Watching that spire collapse as an atheist was as much an indication that the end of days are nigh as I could possibly invent, so I can only imagine how it looked to the devout.

I am not going to try and say the grief is misplaced, or that there are things of greater concern to concentrate our collective energies upon. We are a capable lot, humans.
We have been known to multitask and we can gather to grieve the destruction of a cultural icon, while also despairing a great many global injustices.

Whether or not you feel a part of the culture it represents does not make it any less significant.
But, by the same token we cannot be fooled into thinking this is a unifying cause for greater humanity – this is very much a white, Christian grief.
That does nothing to minimise the grief, aside from make me personally a little less sympathetic.

But I am cynical as to whether there would be such an outpouring of support and sympathy if something of significance to a less mainstream culture were to be destroyed. Would it continue to be Australian front page news days after the fact if part of Mecca was destroyed?
Would we be so concerned if companies wanted to put a pipeline through sacred native American land?
Would a billionaire offer a great fortune to protect 800 year old trees which are held sacred by the oldest continually surviving culture in the world?

We would not, and we are not.

There are things to which we should ascribe a similar level of concern.
Climate change is destroying our ability, and the ability of many other species, to exist on earth.
To an extent I can appreciate the ability to mourn the Notre Dame, to gather and sing Ave Maria, to share photos of visits to Paris in years gone by and feel somewhat connected.
Climate change is still an abstract concept to many; too nebulous in its presentation for its impacts to be felt.
But that is not to say the earth has not had its burning spire moment over, and over again in recent years.

Maybe if hymns had been written to the breathtaking beauty of the Great Barrier Reef, we would have been more inclined to protect it from bleaching.
If the polar ice caps had been a reference point for gothic architecture we may have tried to stop them from melting.
If we took the story of the Garden of Eden literally, we may have wanted to save this world from ourselves.

But I do not believe the believers of those stories anymore, and I have not for a long time. Because we do not act upon their lessons.
That is why we grieve harder for the destruction of a building than we do for our natural environment.
Because the world is not man made.
We can’t take credit for it, so we will not mourn it.
We aren’t actually mourning the Notre Dame, but the vestiges of our vanity.
We’re mourning a monument we built to ourselves but claimed was for the glory of a god. And as we do, we’re ignoring the ravages we wreak upon the world and failing to see the irony in our belief that a god created this world for us.
But we know how that story ends; we have eaten the apple, and our tenancy in this wondrous Eden has been revoked.


I keep falling in love with smokers

When I first moved to Hobart, I worked for a few weeks at a bar in Salamanca. The bar was advertised as a craft beer bar, though it often tapped kegs of domestic lager anyone worth their malt would know as commercial attempts to cash in on the trend. It was also one of the least busy bars on the busiest strip in the city. I would often be stood behind the empty bar, watching people walking from the Irish pub on our left to the nautically themed joint on our right, unsurprised when they walked on by as if our pub was located at 12, Grimmauld Place.
The bar was staffed entirely by girls in their late teens and early 20s who always looked as though they would rather be anywhere else, and managed by a married couple.
She was in her early 30s, blonde, bubbly, and in the time I worked there, pregnant. He was closer to 40, disinterested in knowing who I was or what I was doing in his bar, with a vicious coke habit and a presence which caused his wife to shrink into the shadows, becoming a shadow herself. His son seemed to be the only human presence which brought out a relatable human warmth; everything else was anger.
Anger that festered at the core of constant failure, anger that invaded a soul too weak to recognise itself as the sole constant in a string of regrettable decisions. Anger that manifested as distrust and arrogance. An anger that developed a fractious coke habit and with it a hatred for every pleasure he had once loved. And the last time I saw him, an anger that caused his voice to shake as he accused me of stealing, insulted me and called me arrogant.
It was 10am on a Friday morning and we were outside his bar in the middle of Hobart and people were beginning to stare.
His jaw was clenched and he ground his teeth as he wiped his nose and damn near popped a vessel in his eye as he threatened to knock me out. I stood my ground and stared. I wasn’t strung out like he was, and I was owed money. I had a little recklessness left in me; I would take a punch from this coked-out termite of a human just to see how far he would fall when I hit the ground. Not that I had any malevolence; just a little sense of karma and curiosity as to how far anger will go to protect pride. He was squaring up, a head taller than me and beginning to splutter, flecks of spit flying as he swore incredulously. I realised this wasn’t going to end well for either of us, but he was still seething as I turned and walked back to where my bike was locked up, and he followed me off the patio.
“Yeah, go on. Take your little fucking bike and get the fuck off my property!” he barked, choking on the sheer emotion of insulting someone for riding a bike around a city.

An older couple gasped and stumbled as they walked by.
I felt pity and confusion as to how someone became so broken and angry, but it probably looked to him like fear, as I glanced at him one last time and left without a word.
I let my frustration out on my old Malvern Star, and my thighs began to burn as I forced the single speed road bike up the steep hill of Montpelier Retreat.
Up past the fast food chicken store I had seen so many people drunkenly loving each other (and fried food) in those first few weekends I worked the bar scene in Hobart, and on by the cocktail bar I stopped in at on my way to my first shift at the job I had just left, and where the bartender, now a good friend, had warned me about my new boss. I should have just heeded his warning, cut a little deeper into my savings, and looked elsewhere for work.

Once I reached the crest of the hill anger began to take me over, and my elbows shook as I gripped the bars of my bike, freewheeling back down Sandy Bay Road and into Queen Street.

I have had one panic attack in my life before and this felt similar. My breath began to grow short and my palms were sweaty. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say my knees were weak, and my arms were heavy. I got home, dropped my bike in the yard and collapsed in a chair in the sun on the back deck. I tried to breathe deeply while the hammers of a nearby construction site became a rhythm to which I could align myself. My eyes closed and my mind drifted, and as I so often do, I found myself thinking about nothing but visualising a scene from my memory.
In my mind I was back in Canada in mid 2017, watching my housemate roll a spliff to share before breakfast. Maybe this was my happy place, somewhere similar to that of Fight Club’s Narrator, but with fewer anthropomorphised penguins and a more positive view of humanity.
Mikey’s hands are steady and his chat entertaining as he crushes a nugget of weed into the grinder; he’s giggling about a girl from work who won’t stop texting him. Although I don’t smoke much, I’ve often admired the methodical nature of rolling joints and cigarettes, and I’ve watched him and countless others do it through all states of inebriation. On hikes, at parties or, like now, simply as a ritual before a meal. There’s a sociability and a generosity to it; an act of kindness for those around who will share in it, and though it is not expected, likely return the favour for it.
The dangers of smoking were always rammed down my throat throughout my childhood; at home and at school. But Harold the Giraffe never taught us that smokers could be such decent people.The earliest memory I have of questioning whether smokers were terrible people was when I was 17, working for a mining company in Western Australia. The head geologist for the nickel exploration project I was working on was a young guy named Rupert, and he rolled his own cigarettes. I had never seen anyone roll their own cigarettes, and didn’t really know anyone who smoked more than socially.
He told me the repetitive motion of rolling and smoking the cigarette allowed him time to think; to mull over issues with the drilling site or simply as a brief reprieve from the harsh Western Australian desert sun.He didn’t give a shit about anyone’s opinion of his smoking; he smoked because he enjoyed it. He wasn’t a teenager trying to impress anyone, and he reasoned that it’s an innately human trait to do things that will harm and probably kill us. He wasn’t hurting anyone else.Despite his influence, as one of the supervisors of my first full time job, I still despised the smell of cigarettes and swore to never smoke myself. And therefore could certainly never be attracted to anyone who smoked.
Well, the following year I started university and that resolution didn’t last long. An 18-year-old kid living on campus has to make a few sacrifices for his education, you know. I even bought a pack of smokes for a girl in one of my first year classes because she hadn’t turned 18 yet. I’d like to say I’m better at sticking to my virtues now than I used to be, but I’d probably be lying.
Still, I was outspoken in my criticism of the smokers around me – it wasn’t just the smell, it was so bloody expensive!
How could the people around me afford to smoke?
We were students; we always had plenty of week left at the end of our money. Though I was making sure to afford at least a case of beer per Centrelink cycle, and the irony of that was definitely lost on me. I told them they shouldn’t smoke, I criticised the music they listened to, I wondered out loud how they could live on the Sunshine Coast and not want to surf every morning.
I made all these grand declarations of who I was and how I would live my life and I promptly forgot them all within the next year. But I’m sure I thought I was on the right track at the time. Maybe that’s the only thing I’ve really learnt in the intervening decade since I watched Rupert roll his cigarettes on the tray of the LandCruiser: I’m not as idealistic as I’d like to be. But I also feel I’ve learnt tolerance for what’s worth fighting for. And, maybe more importantly, what isn’t.

At the same time as I was trying to figure out how I could rationalise working for the kind of person whose anger could be fuelled by the presence of a bicycle, and who more than likely beat his wife, I spent a couple of nights with a girl I’m going to call Molly.
The first conversation I had with Molly was punctuated with apologies for rolling cigarettes, and for accidentally blowing smoke in my face.
I didn’t mind at all because Molly, with her fringe and leather jacket, was cute as hell and seemed to enjoy my shit jokes.
The week after we met she took off interstate for a music festival, and then a camping trip on Tasmania’s East Coast when she returned. I wanted her in my life.
It took another week or so, but we found a night that suited both of us (mostly her, I would have made any night work) and decided on a bar to meet at. Neither of us knew Hobart particularly well so we ended up at a shitty bar near my place, and then went off to a worse one for a game of pool she didn’t expect to lose as badly as she did. We shared a guilty pleasure of early 2000s punk, drank dark beer and whisky and kissed in the rain at the end of the night because we thought it would be cute. She tasted of smoke and lipgloss, and I never saw her again.
In the bad 90s movie version of my life, I could have conversations with 15-year-old me and he would tell me that the girl who smokes and won’t return my texts for days at a time is bad news.
And each time, 28-year-old me would laugh off his advice, and let him know that his idealistic nature is admirable, but if I attribute my pain to other people’s decisions, I will find myself in more pain more often, having learnt nothing along the way.
Some of the happiest people I know are vessels of consistently poor choices, and some of the smartest haven’t known peace in years. I have made choices based purely in pleasure which lead only to sorrow, and I have stumbled upon happiness in the darkest of times. I have fallen in love with smokers and I have grown to detest people whose values I could hold up as a mirror against my own.
Four years ago I left Australia to travel and wrote on this blog and on Facebook that if I returned and began writing for newspapers again that somebody should take my credit card and put me on another flight overseas.
November 5, 2018 was the start date for a job at a newspaper with the same company I swore then that I would not return to. And that’s not a cry for sympathy; it’s just a statement of fact and perhaps an illumination of my point.
You can’t know who you will be in the future. Or where, or why.
For three years I prioritised my happiness in-the-moment over career progression or white-picket-fence type aspiration, and I learnt that many of the things I once thought intolerable are actually simulacra of pleasure. And now I have no trouble saying I am fragile and flawed and prone to poor choices, because these are traits I can recognise in some of the greatest people I have met, and who I aspire to be.
Hopefully, not so flawed as to find myself in my 40s, divesting my anger at the world on to an employee out the front of my bar on a Friday morning.
Though if I do open my own bar it will be called ‘Pour Decisions’, and I still won’t smoke much, unless, you know, I can watch you roll one for me.


I Want To Ride My Bicycle

It was one of those rare mornings where the sound of the alarm hits you like a defibrillator.
A morning where the first rays of light sneaking through the curtains are as welcome a lover’s waking and wandering hands.
You’re gripped by an enthusiasm you haven’t felt in weeks.
At least, not since Tasmania’s notorious winter began to bed down with a severity you expected to be able to weather.

You were misguided. Goddamn, you were so misguided.
You’ve been sleeping in until 10 far too often, and only riding your bike when the mercury climbs above 10 degrees celsius – cursing yourself throughout for how soft you’ve become.
But this morning was different – this morning your body yearned for the innumerable pedal strokes; for the freezing Hobartian air to constrict your airways and for the climb up the Kunanyi road which would seize your thighs for days to come.
You bounded out of bed, dreaming of a morning in the saddle which would deliver a 1200 metre adjustment in altitude and a glimpse into the mind of the masochist.

The feeling is familiar to any keen cyclist – I just wanted to ride my bike somewhere I had not yet ridden it.
Not groundbreaking in terms of things worth writing about, or places ridden.
And, to be honest, the route is probably one of southern Australia’s most traversed cycling routes.
Starting before the sun in Sandy Bay, I planned to ride up Huon Road to where it meets Pinnacle Road and then follow that up to the Springs parking lot.
From there, I would decide whether to carry on toward the Kunanyi summit, or try and find a trail in Hobart’s downhill oeuvre I hadn’t yet exhausted.
At the intersection of Huon and Pinnacle, at around 8am, the sign indicating road closures told me there was no vehicle access beyond the Springs due to ice and your average punter’s inability to operate a vehicle – especially when the road is icy.
This was made clear to everyone involved when a motorcyclist attempted a u-turn at the closure, at less than five km per hour, and ditched his bike under the front bumper of a car parked adjacent.
Fortunately only his ego was damaged, and it served as a cogent demonstration to all those looking on as to why they should be allowed to drive no further.
I was standing there, with a bucket of excellent Lost Freight flat white, laughing at both the motorcyclist who couldn’t turn on ice, and my own plans to continue onwards and upwards.
When surrounded by idiots, it turns out it surprisingly comforting to go with the flow and act like an idiot.

So I checked with the traffic controllers, who confirmed the road wasn’t closed to bicycles, and made like Icarus and continued upward and east – directly into the sun.
Gods, I was rewarded! A road which is normally congested with a cavalcade of incompetent drivers and professional tourists was deserted, save for a few hikers and one National Parks vehicle.
I continued the pedal up in the sunshine and the silence, which was broken only by the crunch of ice and snow under my (surprisingly grippy) tyres.
I’m riding a 2017 Specialized Enduro (whatever they call the bottom of the range alloy model), with a 2.6 inch Specialized Butcher on the front and a 2.5 inch Maxxis on the back; neither of which have seen snow since a very light dusting on Mt Mackenzie in Revelstoke, Canada, around October last year.
Although I wouldn’t even test the (frozen) waters of trying to send them downhill on the Mt Wellington road, uphill they were remarkably capable of holding me in line as I granny gear’d it toward the summit.
Despite the recent inspiration of the Tour de France, I’ll never claim to be fast up a hill.
Especially not on a bike.
I’ll be bitching and grunting and muttering “I think I can, I know I can” just like Mum taught me when I was a fat eight-year-old trying to run three kilometres around the neighbourhood because I’d been promised a Nintendo 64 if I could do so without stopping.
But I’ll get there, and usually, I’d be smiling because I knew I could start going downhill again soon. Not today though; today I came to what I expected to be the start of the descent and was greeted with a four kilometre hike-a-bike mission through ankle to knee-deep snow.
Not that I wasn’t smiling – it was over a year since I had played in the snow at that point and even a poxy Tasmanian iteration of coverage was enough to get me grinning like an idiot.
But I was alone, and I was leading the bootpack, and there was no one racing to get first tracks on this wintry ski run.
There was no rush.

Back-to-back winters in recent years have instilled in me a desire to always be the first to destroy a beautifully pristine snowpack – shralp and destroy, regardless of what I rode in on. So although I had the opportunity to do this on a bluebird day on one of the southernmost peaks in Australia, there was no rush.

I approached my own personal summit with all the pace and grace of a curious wombat – which, truthfully, I was looking out for.
But to no avail, as hose furry bastards had only appeared to me as meaty boulders crushed on the roads of Australia’s south-east during my road trip from the Sunshine Coast to Tasmania earlier in the year.

But a mountain bike in the snow is not a stealthy vehicle, and any wildlife had had the sense to move on by the time I passed by – if it had been there at all.
By mountain biking standards, the fire trail which traverses the north-eastern face of Kunanyi is not exciting. Maybe a little more so when covered in snow, but it is wide and only occasionally steep.
Like many of Kunanyi’s official mountain biking trails, it is simply a four-wheel-drive track which has been repurposed to keep the hikers and bikers separate. Anyone that has been on either side of high speed collision or near-collision while biking or hiking knows there is no winner in that fight.
But for reasons purely adventurous in nature, the trail was everything I needed from a Saturday morning in July.
I set out with only a vague idea of where I was going, how I would get there and what I would find along the way.
And I think this is the point I’d normally turn a story into an allegory about my life; but I think I’ve just about exhausted my desire to turn my poor choices into morality lessons.
There may be a greater existential reasoning for the things I do, but for the moment I’m done trying to make that stone bleed.


Sentiment and Snapped Strings

Over the years, I’ve given and received my share of broken hearts.

But in 2017 I broke my dick for the first time so that made the year one to remember.

(A few other things happened too, but they’ve all been fairly well documented on my Instagram so feel free to go there if you want to keep a wholesome image of me intact.)

It took a few minutes of swearing and agony but I managed to stem the flow of blood, destroying bed sheets and a bath towel in the process, long enough to placate the girl I was with.

After all, she was at least partly to blame for the ordeal.

She was a ghostly shade of pale, in shock from having so violently learnt that the penis was something that could be broken in such a fashion.

Fortunately for me, a couple friends had been through the same experience in recent years and had been more than happy to relive the story for anyone in the bar who would listen.

I wasn’t sure of the mechanics of how they had done it, but when I did it myself a few missing pieces quickly snapped into place. Or out.

So I had snapped my banjo string; which is a hilarious euphemism for a horrible experience.

After a bit of googling, I found out that in medical circles the banjo string is known as a frenulum, and armed with that information I hobbled into the doctor’s office with an icepack on my crotch.

What I didn’t find out is that ‘frenulum’ is a common term for various pieces of tissue in the human body, such as the one that holds your tongue to the floor of your mouth.

This led to a considerable amount of confusion as I told the doctor I had broken my frenulum, he asked to see it, I took off my pants and he just stared at me for a moment.  

“Oh! That frenulum? Shit. I thought you meant the one in your mouth!” Dr Deliverance said.

“I told you I broke it during sex?” I laughed, standing there half naked.

“Yeah I thought you meant during oral sex,” he responded, leaving me to question whether he thought I was gay or if I have been performing oral sex on girls very wrong for a long time.

And so I learnt there is a quiet affirmation in going through an experience which is not at all life threatening, but which can still be uniquely tragic.

Out of the woodwork came a host of blokes who would nod and grimace in a knowing fashion when I told the story, laughing at all the right moments both in solidarity and sympathy.

Not unlike a broken rib, to heal the banjo string little can be done save to rest a few weeks and try your best to not become aroused.

Oh, how cruel the games of fate.

But, as the last three years of my life had essentially dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure, it was somewhat fitting that towards the end of my time living in Canada my ability to indulge in such earthly delights would be so violently denied.

And maybe it was fitting, as a fear of sex allowed me to focus on properly saying farewell to the excellent town of Revelstoke and its population of kind hearted thrill seekers.

Oh, I reached a level of piety Christians can only dream of. Praise be.

Theology aside, leaving Revelstoke to return to Noosa is a continuation of unintentional three year cycles I have been following since I started at the University of the Sunshine Coast in 2008.

I left there for Western Australia with a bachelor’s degree in hand in 2011 to conquer the illustrious world of regional newspapers, and I left there in 2014 to travel the Americas and find myself a home in the mountains.

Now my three years in North America has passed and my wanderlust has, curiously, led me home.

Home to family and old friends.

Home to the setting of my childhood, of where I began to form a worldview.

Home to where I learned to ride a bike and, more importantly, fall off a bike.

Home to a tourist town I have had people the world over congratulate me on being from like I had a choice.

Home to afternoon thunderstorms and humidity that sticks your skin to timber and leather furniture and your ideas of how good you’re going to look today.

Home to all that Aussie sentiment John Williamson sung about and which I don’t want to try to replicate.

Ah, sentiment.

How many shitty pensive social media posts you’ve been responsible for.  

With its lingering sides of regret served up as tantalising amuse bouches from which to ignite my memories and inhabit my soul.

Oh, for fuck’s sake, just give me a bottle of Margaret River cab sauv I need something to wash this down with.

Sentiment is to regret as a trigger is to a bullet; one inevitably leads to the other.

Unless you’re firing blanks.

Which I could be since, you know, I broke my dick.

Here’s cheers to you, 2018!


El Salvador, The Saviour

The parking attendant was in his late 30s, heavyset, with a greying goatee.
Under his high visibility vest he wore an old Atlanta Braves Jersey and his cap bore the American flag.
“How you doin’ man?”
“Bien amigo, y tu?” I responded reflexively, barely realising he had spoken to me in English.
“I’m good man, I’m doin’ good,” he said as he waved a new Hilux into the dusty lot.
His position appeared wholly unnecessary, as the lot was half empty and the restaurant it serviced full.
“Where are you from, brother?” I said, subconsciously adopting his Latin American accent.
“Atlanta, Georgia man. Lived there for 25 years.”
“But you were born around here?” I asked, curious if an American citizen would choose to work as a parking attendant at a highway comedor in El Salvador.
“Yeah man, I was born here,” he said, looking at me as if no one had asked him anything personal in years. “Parents took me to the US when I was a kid.”
He attempted to conceal a grimace with a smile as he waved to the passenger of a taxi leaving the lot.
A stray dog lay in the shade under the tree in front of the comedor, and a collared dog leashed to its owner’s table lay a few metres away staring at the stray.
The restaurant served buffet style meals from a bain marie or made pupusas to order. $4US got me a glass bottle of coke, a pile of chicken, rice and vegetables and a couple of tortillas to wrap it all in.
It was the first thing I’d eaten since my post surf double latte and Nutella crepe in El Tunco seven hours earlier.
I should have known it wouldn’t be enough.
“Good food here eh?” I said to the attendant in a lame attempt to change the direction of the conversation.
“Yeah man. You liked it? I’m glad, man.”
“Good feed man. Real good feed. You think the coke is better down here man?”
He cocked an eyebrow at me.
I needed to clarify.
“The coca cola. It’s sweeter here than in the US I think.”
“Oh, yeah man. It’s made with real cane sugar down here. They use that high fructose corn syrup in the US.”
“Man I can taste that!” I laughed. I only drink the stuff in Latin America, I fucking hate it back home. Not just the taste, it’s just a trash drink.”
He laughed, too.
“I’ll take that high fructose trash and a home in America, amigo.”
His current life was apparently not one he had chosen.
“You didn’t leave because you wanted to, hey?”
“I was deported, man. They caught me selling coke and deported me for ten years.”
“They deported a citizen? How the fuck are they allowed to deport a citizen?”
“I’ve stopped asking those questions, man. End of the day I fucked up. I know that.”
“Did they offer you jail time in the US as an alternative?”
“Nah man. They didn’t give me any choices.”
I don’t doubt his story.
A parking attendant with an American accent in El Salvador has less cause to lie than the US Justice System has ability to not follow its own laws.
Or so my pessimism would lead me to believe.
“I’ve been here six years. It’s nice man, it’s quiet. It’s a beautiful country.”
“So you can go back in four years?”
“Maybe. If they want to let me back in. With the president we’ve got there at the moment it’s not looking so good, man.”
That Trump would be elected for a second term, let alone even completing his first, is a horrifying concept for most.
For the attendant it is more personal than political.
“Vamos amigos!” came the call from the bus driver, and I turned back to shake the attendant’s hand.
I get a low-five and a fist bump instead.
“My name’s Roberto, man.”
“Mucho gusto, Roberto.”
I fold myself back into the back of the Mercedes Sprinter van, as comfortable as you could ask to be for a $35, fifteen hour bus journey from El Salvador to Nicaragua.
The next morning, after getting home from his second job as a security guard at a local mall, Roberto might call his parents and lie to them about his life in El Salvador.
From his squalid one room concrete bungalow he would Facebook video call his parents and the cellular data charges would run him a full day’s wage.
When he speaks to his parents he would apologise again for squandering the opportunity they gave him by moving him to the USA as a kid, but he was now working towards owning his own restaurant in Santa Rosa De Lima.
He would console his mother through her tears and continue to speak in rounds over the deafening silence of his father.
He would go back to work at the restaurant after three hours sleep when it opened for the day’s lunch trade.
Another bus of gringos would be groggily unloaded for a cheap feed en-route to Nicaragua, and they would regard Roberto with as much interest as the stray dog lying in the shade.
In Atlanta, his state appointed attorney would compose an email to Roberto about federal legislation changes regarding felony drug charges and the negative consequences for him.
At LAX, a young Italian traveller would be caught with a trace amount of marijuana in her luggage, have her ESTA revoked and be put on a plane back to Mexico, where she flew in from.
And in a hostel in Leon, I would watch an american traveller use his credit card to crush legally acquired Xanax pills into lines on his phone, chasing the promise of an easy high.
Nothing changes, nothing stays the same.
But fortunately, none of it means anything you don’t want it to mean.


Hot Sand and Thin Salty Skin

The first coffee of Cafe Ole’s daily grind is my alarm clock this week.
At 7am each morning, about three metres from where I sleep, on the other side of a wood panel wall, the cafe comes to life.
For around $10AUD each night, that the accommodation comes with a luxury such as a personalised alarm clock is welcome.
My hotel room, cabana uno, is a single room with a double bed, an industrial strength fan, a few classic surfing festival posters on the walls and little else.
There’s no natural lighting aside from thin gaps in the walls and a couple of small holes in the thatched straw roofing.
I sleep naked under a thin cotton sheet, and as I stumble out of bed I pull on the pair of boardshorts I’ve lived in for the last three days.
I pull the fan’s cord from the wall and as it quiets the sound of the pacific ocean throwing itself at the shore catches my ears.
I’ve rented a nine foot longboard for a couple of days, and it stands against the wall outside my cabana completely accessible to any curious passerby.
This despite the fact that as collateral I’ve surrendered my passport to the surf shop which rented the board. Between yawns I wonder if I’m more naive than previously thought.
The board is faded purple, heavy as the sun and bearing the scars of a lifetime of use as a rental board in a tourist town; a poorly repaired fin cut near the nose; and a leash plug which has been ripped out and re-glassed at least once.
But, it’s the first board I’ve had my hands on in months and I savour the smell of the wax and the weight of it on my head as I walk toward the beach.
A beautiful Mexican girl smiles at me as I leave the hostel and in broken Spanish I tell her I will be back for breakfast when the ocean is done with me.
It is only 50 metres from the hostel to the beach, and though the sun hasn’t yet fully risen, there are ten people in the water at the southern end of Playa Zicatela.
The surf is small but the enthusiasm of a handful of locals is clearly strong.
Within an hour the break will be crowded with learn-to-surf tourists and an anger shared by angry old white dudes and Mexican teenagers alike.
I grew up in a town famed for surf tourism, so I understand the frustration of locals who might have had this break to themselves on a weekday morning in years past.
But it doesn’t stop me from smiling at the kid who splashes at me and yells “kook” as I paddle past him into a wave a few minutes into my session.
“Mas tranquilo mi amigo. La vida es buena,” I say as I paddle back past him in the line up.
He scowls and paddles further inside, no doubt now believing I am even more of a kook than first thought.
He’s right though, and that’s fine.
I get a few more fun sliders from a little wide of the break, making sure to leave a couple in each set for the locals on shortboards sitting closer to shore.
My mouth has a habit of getting me into fights my fists can’t handle, and in a foreign surf town I’ve already tested my luck.
But still, as I paddle back out after my fourth or fifth wave a girl looks at me and says loudly in english, “there he goes, the only one having any fun.”
I laugh and say I hope that’s not true.
But as the lineup is beginning to crowd with the rising sun, I tally that I’ve had more waves this morning than I have in the last year, and start paddling for one final ride.
I am closer to the pocket than I’ve been all morning; maybe two or three metres from the rocky point.
The other two longboarders are closer to the shore and don’t seem interested in the wave I’ve seen.
It’s not a set wave but it seems to be peaking wide of the point, so I’m optimistic it will break through to the shore.
It only takes two or three strokes before I’m able to stand up and run to the front the board to push it fully into the wave.
A moment later I need all my weight on my back foot at the tail for a bottom turn around the crest of the wave, and in front of a clearly terrified learn-to-surfer on a seven-foot foamy.
The rest of the short ride is uneventful, as I simply need to thread the board through the mass of bright blue and red surfschool sunshirts.
It ends without grace as I attempt to hang five into the closeout and just take the lip of the sharply breaking wave to the head, sending me shoulder first into the pebbled shore break.
I blow the saltwater out of my nose and the sand out of my mouth as I surface, smiling.
A few mutts circle me as I walk along the beach back to the hostel, taking the muzzle scratches I offer and then returning to chase their mates in the shallows.
Back at the hostel I lean the board against the wall of my cabana, and from the cafe order an americano and a plate of banana strawberry crepes.
I sit in the sun wearing my slowly drying boardshorts and a pair of broken sunnies I should probably replace.
In the dusty street dogs of all breeds wander between cars and through the legs of tourists.
At the surf shop across the streets where I hired the board, a boy teaches his younger brother to ride a quad bike.
It’s maybe 9am and the temperature is already in the high 20s, and will reach 35 before day’s end.
Nothing here is anything I’ve ever gone looking for. But at least for a few days, I am glad I found it.


All My Friends


I received a letter from a friend today.
She had just arrived in New York City after two weeks spent fulfilling her lifelong ambition of visiting Cuba.
She dreamed of a country stuck in a time warp; with decades-old taxis kept running to whisk her around to the bars where Ernest Hemingway visited and drank and wrote and loved.
The warmth and generosity of the locals amazed her, even as they catcalled her and undressed her with their eyes – such is the experience for a blonde eastern european girl in a latin american city.
She lamented the difficulty she had finding the Havana salsa bars she had romanticised for so many years.
She went out on her 26th birthday, wearing a lovely dress and observing the casual rhythm of the cuban people, learning to admire their happiness and kindness achieved despite abject poverty.
And she wrote to me, a sprawling letter of thousands of words, because she thought me deserving of reading about her experiences and her wonderful storytelling.
And a vast weight of emotion came over me. 

Aside from travel around North America and a summer spent in Tofino on Vancouver Island, for the past three years I have lived in Revelstoke.
One of my friends during this entire time is a girl who left town only this week, and who is returning home to Ontario before moving to Australia.
Even though I will likely see her in Perth around the New Year, it still feels like a significant part of our friendship is over, as this town has been an integral part of our relationship.
A year ago I went to see her in Ontario, and together with another friend we braved the near freezing conditions of the midnight Halloween Haunt at a Toronto theme park.
Turns out queuing for hours at night surrounded by screaming children and skulking teenagers for poorly haunted houses and roller coasters wasn’t as good as she remembered, and sure as shit wasn’t a good first experience for me.
But she had allowed me to join her in her visit home to meet her family and drink with her Dad and see her friends, and despite our friendship having faltered in the past year, I’m grateful to her for that.
Next year I will spend time with her and her boyfriend in Western Australia and we will drink scotch and fish and become sentimental.

I arrived in Revelstoke with very little idea of what I was getting myself into.
At 24 I had quit my job, sold my car and left my girlfriend to go travelling.
Not a quarter life crisis so much as a long-gestating dream I brought to fruition during a time when I had all the makings of a happy, traditional life.
One which I had never dreamed of.
I ended up in British Columbia after four months travelling the US and South America looking to spend a winter snowboarding, and had been encouraged to head for Revelstoke by a dude named Tom I had met at a music festival some years prior.
He had lived in town for around a year at this point, and met me at the Greyhound bus station on a grey and rainy October day.
I crashed on the couch in his home downtown for a few nights before I found my own place to live, and in that time he helped secure me a bartending job and introduced me to his local crew of friends.
Amongst them, to my absolute surprise, was a couple who I had also met at that same music festival back in Australia.
We had all heard about Revelstoke through different sources, and the likelihood that we would all move to such a small town on the other side of the world from home was, by my guess, infinitesimal.
It was an early sign that this town would go on to become somewhere I would call home forever, at least emotionally if not physically.
And I owe that largely to Tom, John and Lauren.

In two weeks I will travel from Revelstoke to Mexico City, and after ten days of travel south from Mexico into Guatemala I will meet with a friend from home.
If my memory is not too biased, we were inseparable throughout primary school and in the afternoons we would ride our BMX bikes around his neighbourhood and play video games.
He had an obsession with space and flight from a young age, and in the years we have lived apart he has become an aerospace engineer and now is involved with helicopter design.
He is flying from Australia to meet me, and it is the first time we will spend more than a day together in at least five years.
In fact the only time we have spent together in that time was about 24 hours earlier this year, during which the laughter and conversation flowed as freely as if we had never been apart.
His father died recently, and in May next year he will marry the woman he loves, so I feel incredibly lucky to be able to travel with him in such a critical time in his life.

But after our travel through Central America I will not return, at least not anytime soon, to Revelstoke.
And that is a bizarre concept to me; as I have made more of a life here in the last three years than I had made anywhere prior.
To not be within a five minute bike ride of the cafe my housemates have made an essential part of my daily routine in the past year.
To not be able to call Meg up to take her dog out for a hike to the alpine of some local hill.
To not be able to get on my mountain bike in my yard and within thirty minutes be biking world class trail.
To not be bartending at the Craft Bierhaus and watching friends and randoms struggle to stand up straight after three pints of 7 per cent IPA.
To not be able to swing by Simon’s workshop and borrow some tools as he builds his ambulance monster truck and espouses some wisdom.
To not live in a town that can host an art festival to which the whole town will turn out to dance and smile and support each other.
To not be able to go snowboarding solo on a powder day mid-winter and find a dozen friends to ride with by lunchtime purely by recognition of outerwear and riding style.
As Johnny said last night as he looked across the lounge at me through a wine-drunk and weed-smoke haze, where am I going to live?
What am I going to do?
Will I send him photos of the real world?
And although I don’t have answers to those questions just yet, I have no misgivings, just an appreciation that I have managed to surround myself with beautiful people in my life.

Though when we’re running out of the drugs
And the conversation’s winding away
I wouldn’t trade one stupid decision
For another five years of life

LCD Soundsystem – ‘All My Friends’