Left Right Left…

“In a murderous time the heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking.

It is necessary to go through dark and deeper dark, and not to turn.

I am looking for the trail. Where is my testing-tree? Give me back my stones!”

Stanley Kunitz

*****

Sargent Cunningham stands motionless on the edge of the parade ground and berates us relentlessly with practiced nonchalance, though with a particular brand of venom that comes from a place well beyond his training. Any fool can see at a glance that he aims to make us suffer. Not professionally – no, he is tasked with the noble duty of crafting these kids into soldiers – but personally. Less than a year from now he will be posted to another unit after drunkenly riding his Harley through the staff mess, but right now, in this moment, he is our God. He owns us. And He knows it and revels in it.

We can do little more than respond like the minions we signed our lives away to be…

Over coming weeks and months he will become the father we never had. The father we never wanted. He will yell at us – at me – shove, push, provoke and punch, until the data is entered. The point is made. He will push us – me – to the point I overcome a fear of heights. To the point I come to know that a fist to the jaw doesn’t hurt as much as a look of disappointment. Years from now, I will thank him for his service to me, for his aloofness, his ability to wound without force.

I’ve come to learn that superhero’s wear different costumes. His was green, head to toe...though less Green Lantern and more so Corporal Punishment. He made us into men, short and simple. He made boys into soldiers, though the path he chose was odd at first glance. We began by learning to march and iron clothing. We learnt to be fastidious in our attention to detail. As fastidious in the way we polished and adorned the brass on our uniforms as we were in stripping, cleaning and reassembling our rifles. And before long, we’re applying this very same mindset to more dire pursuits.

The moment we learnt how little effort it takes to reduce a man to a floundering mess with a well-aimed strike to the thorax, groin or sternum, was unsettling, whilst also being somewhat empowering.

You wonder, what if?

How could I use this?

When, will I use this?

Then, mere moments later we learn how easy it is to break a neck. This, this sad, horrible and very real reality, is deeply unsettling to say the least…

There’s a part of our species that worships strength. That willingly – disappointingly, all too willingly – kowtows before power and blindly accepts its rule over us. But there’s also a part of us that says no.

No, I won’t succumb; no I won’t become a lesser version of myself. As soldiers we learn to bear burdens that would break normal backs. To lay motionless in silence for hours when normal men would cry out in pain. We learn to subdue a part of us that questions the way we act, to subvert the part that questions what we once knew. But in the middle of all this you still remain you. And it takes a special kind of strength to hold true to this.

To say no when no needs to be said. That, my friend, is the strength of character that Sgt C taught us as he yelled at us from the edge of the parade ground. Wherever he is, whatever he’s doing, I hope he knows he did a great thing.

He made boys into men.

To Sgt C, and to Warrant Officer Ross Mills, I owe the life I have now. So this is me, saying to you both, at a point in my life where I have finally found my voice: thank you!

An open letter to everyone and anyone who can read…

Nobody writes letters anymore and the world is poorer for it. So, I’m breaking with tradition and writing this open letter to…well…everyone.

Dear you,

We haven’t met – unless of course you’re that ridiculously attractive girl with the hazel eyes I met recently, or you’re my mum, or the guy at my dry cleaners who calls me Gary for some reason – but I wanted to take this opportunity to write to you so you have that rare pleasure of receiving a handwritten letter that was personally addressed to you.

It’s a gift of words, of sorts…

Wherever you are right now I hope this letter finds you well, happy, loved up and at peace. It seems like a fairly personal thing to say to a stranger, but it has to be said. You notice I didn’t say ‘I hope this letter finds you cashed up, with a great job title, large genitals and a shiny car’. There’s a good reason for that – none of that shit matters one bit. Sorry for swearing the first time we meet, but it has to be said. I know from personal experience that shit ain’t real. Yes, it’s good to have, but nowhere near as satisfying to the soul as being well, happy, loved up and at peace.

If I’m to be honest, I think happiness has become somewhat ephemeral and elusive, so I genuinely hope you are happy for whatever particular reason makes you happy. If you’re not yet happy, notice I said yet – because happiness comes to those who want it – I hope it finds you soon. If you’d like a happiness tip, here’s one: find something you love and let it kill you. Seriously, let it consume you and own you. We need passion as fuel to live.

I know that I’m talking about here.

I worked for years in jobs that paid me ridiculous amounts of money just to talk to people, and whilst it was mostly fun having an endless bar tab, it was chipping away at my soul to the point it almost pulled me under. Nowadays I mostly bounce out of bed, so I hope you do too. And I hope you have someone that gives you butterflies. That’s the passion thing, how much higher do we soar when we’re on fire inside and being held tightly on the outside? You know what I mean, you’ve been there. If you haven’t, if you’ve yet to fall and be giddy and ineloquent when you see the object of your affection, then be patient, they’re out there.

My final wish for you is that you find peace, wherever you are. The moment we outgrew those imaginary friends we had as kids we start hearing voices. It’s so true. Bet you’re doing it right now, subvocalizing, thinking about your thinking, hearing some internal dialogue critiquing and commenting on everything you do, think and say. So I hope you’re inner voice is a peaceful one. If it’s not, lend it no sway. Let its nasty little jibes wisp away without taking it personally. When you hear it, thank it for its council and then think about fluffy bunnies or go to Google and find hours of videos of cats riding vacuum cleaners. Watch those cats work their magic and smile outwardly and inwardly.

Trust me, if you’re inner coach ain’t on your team, then I say drown that f@cker out.

OK, well it’s been a pleasure talking at you. I hope you write back as I would like to hear if you’re in a good place too. If you need help I’d be happy to send you links to cat videos. Please, stay safe, stay cool, kiss a stranger when you’re ready – they’re all strangers at first – and don’t take life too seriously.

Then again, don’t take it for granted. That would be even worse.

The world’s your canvas, my friend, so go paint!

And write me back, don’t be a stranger:)

With love,
Chris

What I think about when I think about running…(and life)

A little over 30 years ago, Haruki Murakami, famed Japanese author of Kafka on the Shore, Norwegian Wood and the enigmatic trilogy 1Q84, decided to quit smoking and start running. He based his decision upon the idea that he could all too easily get out of shape and gain weight as a writer sitting at a desk for hours a day.

His logic is sound, yet the ends he went to are extreme to say the least.

On average, he runs 60kms a week, typically running 10kms a day 6 days a week. To date, he has completed 25 marathons, one ultra-marathon (100kms) whilst filling the time between penning 11 novels, most of which have won awards &/or critical acclaim. The man is both a hero to me and the reason I wake up wondering at 45yrs of age ‘what the f@ck have I done with my life?’

As a writer, Murakami has a wonderful way of transporting a reader to worlds that are same-same different. I love reading his work because it’s wonderfully written, elegantly paced prose, with well-formed characters interspersed with a smattering of slightly left of center elements that sit somewhere between ‘uncanny valley’ territory and ideas that are ‘odd but not too odd to be jarring’.

Spending a day lounging on a couch or in bed with his work is like spending a day between the sheets with someone you love. As reading experiences go it’s akin in sentiment to the line Michael Fassbender serenades Penelope Cruz with in the movie adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The CounselorLife is being in bed with you…”.

Murakami is however less famous for a non-fiction novel he penned on his experiences as a runner, titled What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. The title itself is a play on Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which is fitting indeed because Murakami conveys his twin loves – writing and running – in this uncharacteristically light 180 page read.

Having recently finished this agile tome, I have been inspired to commit to completing the New York marathon this year. At first glance this may sound extreme to my non-runner friends, but as someone with 30+ years of running under his feet it’s more a goal than a guillotine for me. It also turns out to be fairly simple to achieve, I found a suitable charity to join, I raise some money for them, and voila, I’m off to New York in November.

From a runner’s perspective, the New York marathon is the Holy Grail. It’s a goal, nay, a raison d’être, that’s lingered in my mind longer than any other idea I have every managed to concoct. Last November I had the good fortune to be in New York City the day after the marathon, and I had the joy of being able to run through Central Park through the marathon finishing line gates without having to have spent almost four hours of my life earning the right.

But, this year I intend to earn that right. The reason ‘why now’ can best be encapsulated in three quotes that I often see or hear from running friends;

“Because we can, we must.” Bono

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Haruki Murakami

“The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.” John Bingham

So, to all my running friends out there, and to those who know they should, but who are teetering on the edge of starting, I wish you many happy hours on the roads, trails and tracks. Every step taken on the road is a step taken towards a healthier life. Every run a building block towards even greater goals.

All it takes is one step, and then another, so go on, take it and see what happens…

Redefining Masculinity

Answering the question What is a man? has never been a more difficult or pressing pursuit than at this time in mankind’s history when traditional masculine traits – such as chivalry, overt physicality and dominance – are under increasing attack as social expectations continue to shift.

To some extent this shift has been beneficial, especially when it’s the well-intentioned result of politically corrective motives (gender equality), recognition of shifting social structures (men are no longer the sole breadwinner) and market realities (men are less required to earn a living through physical effort alone). However, the once subversive – now oftentimes overt – attack on some of the tenets of masculinity has led to a situation where, if left unchecked, the baby could be thrown out with the bathwater.

An unintentional cost of this attack on some of the seemingly outdated notions of masculinity has been to rob men of some of the most steadfastly indoctrinated elements of what it means to be a man. In a world where physical prowess and pride can be viewed as Neanderthalic or a hindrance, what’s the option? If you risk being chastised for opening a door for a woman, what, instead, should you do? The confusion that can result from this backlash robs men of the fervor they should rightly feel for some of the other biologically imperative and socially relevant tenets of masculinity. In a world in constant flux there will always be a place for competitiveness, for men of honor, pride and duty, men with a lust for adventure, for these are timeliness qualities. To ignore or lose these qualities would come at cost that society may not be able to bear.

Broadly speaking, none of the above-mentioned traits are factually outdated; rather, they remain relevant aspects of the male personality that have simply been in need of contemporizing to suit modern realities. Old school chivalry still exists, however it’s tempered with a respect for the fairer sex and knowledge that women can fend for themselves. Likewise, men should take pleasure in their physical prowess, but also be aware that now, more than ever before, we live in a world where the strength of our minds, hearts and spirits is equally as important as the strength of our bodies.

This shift to viewing masculinity as a combination of strength of mind, body and soul has never been more evident that on the big screen. Fact is, in our media saturated age, the silver screen is by far the most influential means of reinforcing customary social values, as well as communicating emerging ones. Generations of men have turned to the silver screen (and its diminutive cousin) for guidance on what’s in and what’s out in the endless pursuit of the Holy Grail of masculinity – earning the title of being ‘a good man’.

Over the preceding decades the ‘ideal’ male portrayed and celebrated on the silver screen has evolved. During the 50’s the debonair Carey Grant and the wild at heart James Dean ruled the screen. A decade later the overtly masculine John Wayne and Charlton Heston took the mantle. The big screen of the 70’s oozed the tempered emotion and magnetism of Al Pacino and Robert Redford. The excessive 80’s celebrated the dyadic duos of the clean shaven and good humored Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise, as well as the sweat-soaked and famously taciturn Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Closing out the last millennium we were held captive by the likes of Mel Gibson, Sean Penn and Bruce Willis, and today we celebrate and venerate the likes of Matt Damon, Mark Walberg and Leonardo Di Caprio.

So, whilst Carey Grant to Leonardo Di Caprio may not sound like such a big masculine leap, Schwarzenegger to Sean Penn certainly is.

What is interesting is that during this span of more than half a century what has been seen as masculine in one era has, for the most part, remained into the following one. The above-mentioned men have been confident and charismatic, have carried themselves with a measure of pride, have been articulate (with the steroid induced exception of the 80’s), and in various ways and means, genuine. What has changed, however, during this span of time has been the way leading men have increasingly surfaced ‘softer’ sides of themselves, which, over time, has been accepted, broadening our idea of masculinity.

Whereas today’s leading man is expected to be, for the most part, physically fit and relatively clean cut, it’s the added depth and sensitivity he brings to the big screen that is amplifying his masculinity through modern eyes. The depth of the characters they bring to life on the big screen – which we choose to believe is fueled by the depth of their own characters – is what defines them as arguably more masculine than previous actors (or at the least more masculine through modern eyes). Leonardo Di Caprio captivates us on the big screen, not because of bulging biceps, rather through his overt vulnerability and sincerity, as does Mark Walberg, both on and off-screen, the renowned family man. It’s this dualism, this core manliness built upon confidence and charisma, balanced by an overt sensitivity that softens them without lessening them, that is the key definer of why this generation of screen icons stands apart from their predecessors.

Whilst it’s safe to say that modern men are increasingly comfortable – or at very least, able – to open up more than previous generations, to convey emotions when appropriate, it could also be argued that modern men, even with the advantage of being more emotionally intelligent, are less bold, adventurous and ‘old-school’ masculine. A man who is wary of opening a car door for a woman, who avoids proudly celebrating a well-earned victory for fear of being viewed as a Neanderthal, or who avoids turning on the charm for fear of being labeled a player, is being less manly than he has every right to be. Society has, and will always, benefit from an ongoing contemporizing of the concept of masculinity, but society is also poorer when the foundation tenets of masculinity – such as confidence and courage – are eschewed for fear of repercussions. The world needs men to have the paradoxical elements of gentlemen AND cavemen within them.

A possible solution to the dilemma of ‘how to reclaim more of the caveman’ can be found on the big screen by carefully scrutinizing a screen icon that has persisted for half a century. Only one benchmark of masculinity has successfully weathered the test of time, for the most part staying true to his creators’ vision of what a real man is; Bond, James Bond. And whilst at first glance Bond may not seem like the most appropriate poster boy for those seeking a contemporary archetype of masculinity, when viewed with half a century’s hindsight, Bond becomes a pertinent standard of masculinity in trying times.

Since 1962, when Sean Connery launched the Bond character in Dr. No, the various actors who have played Bond over the years have changed in response to societies shifting understanding of masculinity. Sean Connery’s overt ‘man-ness’ evolved into Roger Moore’s more lighthearted Lothario, which in turn evolved into a more gentlemanly, handsome and overly coiffed Pierce Brosnan. Then, we have today’s Bond – a very different beast. He is a quantum leap more manly – at least in the realms of physicality, confidence and dominance – than his predecessors. Loved and loathed by audiences worldwide, today’s Bond is more aggressive, darker and more brooding than ever before. And this is no accident; today’s Bond is a product – the product of a movie studio and an age on ennui. This raw, uncensored and cavemanish Bond is the film studio’s recognition of a cultural zeitgeist that has modern men partially neutered by a society that values feelings over form, substance over sweat. Modern man is, in part, the oftentimes conflicted output of a society that wants men to cry, just not whilst watching a sports match or over an injury on the field of play. But thankfully, 007 can save the day.

Today’s Bond is the natural progression of previous Bonds, and a solid archetype for any man looking for a little guidance in the masculinity department. He’s a man’s man, confident in himself and with the ladies, loyal to his friends and graceful in dealing with all that life throws at him. He’s bold, courageous and duty bound, whilst remaining a gentleman who is well mannered and well kept. All of these characteristics are core tenets of our accepted notion of masculinity, equating to an archetype of a man that is confident, courageous and committed, qualities that most men would be happy to posses.

More importantly, as with today’s other male screen icons, emotion has finally become a part of the Bond character. Whilst for the most part he keeps his emotions in check, for the first time audiences bear witness to the emotions churning just below the surface of the oftentimes bruised and beleaguered sword of the Empire. He suffers on screen, physically and emotionally, and we finally get to see it because this Bond isn’t concerned about what other people think of him. Why? Because he’s living ‘on purpose’. He’s a man with a mission and he aims to see it through, whatever the cost. Bond ‘asks forgiveness not permission’ because that’s just the way we need to be sometimes.

All the above named aspects are common traits of masculinity, traits that by and large reside within most men, whether we choose to acknowledge and surface them or not. Bonds’ confidence, boldness and purposefulness are worthy traits for men to emulate, as is his mastery of his emotions. Much like today’s Bond, today’s man needs to balance his commitment to the good of others with a tacit respect for himself and a commitment to living the life he desires to live. Bond’s commitment to Queen and country, to himself, to living purposefully and acting confidently – despite the cost – is a way of being in the world that would dramatically change most men’s lives. It’s confidence that emboldens us to hold the door for the lady in line without fear of censure, confidence that enables us to cross the room to offer a drink to the object of our affection, confidence that aids us in finding the courage to expose our emotions and frame them into words when needed.

Harvey C. Mansfield, author of Manliness, has argued that the concept of manliness is outdated, suggesting that this is why it is being willfully dismantled by society. But this is a mean view of masculinity, for, just like society itself, the concept of masculinity is evolving. Each generation will certainly have a more expansive view of what masculinity means to them, but the tenets will, for the most part, remain unchanged. What needs to change, however, is the way society understands the idea of masculinity.

Today, the word masculinity is oftentimes used in a pejorative manner by people who have a limited view of this venerable concept; yet this can easily be changed. When more men have the courage to demonstrate through word and deed that our capacity for overt vulnerability emanates from the very same part of us that chooses to bear arms in defense of a nation, only then will people understand. It is this dualism that lies at the heart of man, our capacity for being gentleman and caveman, which drives us to protect and compete, love and wage war, guided by a common idea of what a real man is. In an era where the tenets of masculinity are under fire, it takes courageous men to prove that there’s still a place for manliness. Courageous men act in alignment with their beliefs, values and goals because they know that, irrespective of what the world thinks of a man, it’s what a man thinks of himself that counts most.

That’s the essence of masculinity.

F#CK – For want of a better word…

Sigmund Freud suggested we became civilized the first time a man hurled an insult instead of a stone, implying that we ascended our Neanderthal roots the day we recognised the benefits of wielding words as weapons, rather than the weapons themselves.

The age of verbal warfare had begun, and one of the most persistent weapons in the war is a four letter word that appears with increasing regularity on television, in music and in print, and on the lips of everyday people throughout the world.

Back in less politically correct times words were the weapon of choice in enlightened circles. Insults became an art form, rather than a form of invective. Within the upper classes of society, the ability to publicly wield insults when engaging in verbal warfare with one  you oppose was celebrated, so much so that our history books are littered with the accounts of politicians, philosophers and royalty using words as weapons.

As far back as the late 1400’s, Martin Luther chose to publicly describe Henry VIII as “a pig, an ass, a dunghill and a lying buffoon.” A century later Peter Wentworth, a Member of Parliament, referred to Mary, Queen of Scots as “the most notorious whore in all the world.” Even the less bold, those who didn’t dare decry a fellow statesman’s hygiene or sexual promiscuity for fear of being branded a heretic, had weapons to employ, choosing to use less punishable pejorative labels like blockhead and numbskull.

But history has proven the maxim that what was once heresy becomes commonplace. Words that were once offensive soon lost their venom after entering the wider lexicon, to be replaced with more contemporary words. Yet, one word predates the once popular insults of blockhead (circa. 1549) and numbskull (circa. 1697); the famous f word.

It first appeared in a poem titled “Flen flyys” (circa. 1475) as a verb to describe sexual intercourse, but it wasn’t long before the word began to be used less literally and started being used as an insult.

The f word was absent from Robert Cawdrey’s 2,500 word dictionary Table Alphabeticall when it was published in 1604, an absence caused by the word being deemed too vulgar for inclusion. But when it became more widely used within society – even Shakespeare used it, wittily including the euphemism firk in Henry V – it was acknowledged and formalised, appearing in John Ash’s A New and Complete Dictionary along with the c word when it was published in 1775.

Yet it’s only in the past century that society has witnessed the growing popularity of the f word – for whereas the c word is still taboo – the f word is now become paradoxically recognised as offensive in social contexts, but also ‘palatable’ in informal and domestic situations. Just how this has occurred is open to debate.

Has the f word gained acceptance through the influence of public personalities, its ability to be used as a noun, verb, adverb, adjective, and interjection, or for more esoteric reasons? Filmmaker Steve Anderson tried to answer the question of the words popularity in his 2005 documentary F*CK.

His documentary provides some relevant history and etymology of the f word, revealing facts like the word probably originated from the Germanic word flicken, and that popular urban-legends suggesting the f word is a backronym for phrases like “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” are false. There’s even some reference to how the word is currently at the center of the debate on Free Speech in the U.S. which is interesting food for thought.

Politically and legally speaking, the f word has been recognised as a part of today’s world since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1970’s that it was protected under the First Amendment. Additionally, the word was further legitimised in the 1980’s by the FCC when they instituted federally recognised policy to regulate it. This institutionalisation of the word by the federal government may be the closest thing to an answer as to why the word is so popular today.

Could it be that the government is in some way responsible for its success?

Very few books or movies, including F*CK, are available to answer why the word has become a permanent part of our global lexicon, and even though we may not be able to answer how it became so popular, there’s no denying the popularity of the word in all walks of life. It’s a word that transcends cultures, education, languages and even wealth.

The one thing we know about the f word is that the word that once caused people to blush now barely makes us blink. It’s the paradoxical word of the century; it’s lost its power in some circles – where it has been reduced to life as a general expletive or intensifier – whilst remaining a taboo word in others. So, irrespective of whether you like it, love it or loathe it, unlike some cultural memes that pass through the mainstream vocabulary very swiftly, there’s no doubt the longest running, most persistent vulgarity in the English language is here to stay.

Osama Bin Laden dies of natural causes* age 54

Osama Bin Laden dies of natural causes* age 54

The world’s best known terrorist and top man on the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives List, Osama bin Laden, has died overnight in Pakistan of what has been described by U.S. troops as a fortuitous lead overdose.

The long time al-Qaeda leader and architect of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was inadvertently exposed to dangerously high volumes of lead after his kidney dialysis machine was noticed on a battlefield in Pakistan, making him an easy target for U.S. troops.

President Obama announced the news of Osama’s death to a grateful nation, leading to thousands of people taking to the streets to show their support for the U.S. governments’ astute decision to allocate trillions of dollars of their tax monies to find and assassinate one man.

54yr old Bin Laden rose to fame during the early nineties when he turned his back on his wealthy Saudi family and Scientology beliefs to pursue his lifelong dream of winning a major prize on Americas Funniest Home Videos. Over the past decade Osama appeared in over a dozen poorly shot home videos that terrorised the western world with their atrocious storylines and poor production values.

However Osama’s hopes of being crowned a grand prize winner on Americas Funniest Home Videos were dashed after his long time table tennis partner Al Zarqawi died in 2006 after several thousand pounds of TNT accidentally fell on him.

As Osama’s second in charge, Al Zarqawi had won fame within al-Qaeda for producing Osama’s short films, but was believed to have been losing respect within the terrorist community prior to his death after he consistently failed to get even a single one of Osama’s video’s to go viral on YouTube.

At a White House press conference earlier this evening President Obama had the honour of bringing to a close the decade long chase to find and kill Osama. Former US President Bill Clinton started the ball rolling to assassinate Bin Laden back in 1998, and George W prematurely ejaculated ‘Mission Accomplished’ eight years ago to the day, but it was President Obama who had the last laugh.

Obama told the nation “Tonight we are once again reminded that America can do whatever it is we set our mind to. That is the story of our history,” however his comment has raised questions within the game show community as to whether the U.S. governments targeting of Bin Laden was simply their way of ensuring Osama never stole an Americas Funniest Home Videos prize off a more worthy American.

The news of Osama’s death has met with mixed reactions across the nation. Fox News correspondent Mike Hunt was booed out of the room at the White House press conference after questioning the validity of the report of Osama’s death, and New Zealand correspondent Helen Clarke was ridiculed after suggesting that Jack Bauer would have been a far cheaper and faster option for removing Osama.

Several of President Obama’s dyslexic militant opponents had their hopes dashed after joining the protests only to find out that it was Osama that had actually died, leading them to hang their heads in shame and return to their trailer homes to no doubt have sex with their sisters whilst cleaning and oiling their firearms as their nine-toed children ironed their sheets for the weekends next Klan meeting.

It is still unclear as to whether today’s news will bring an end to major combat operations in Iraq and speed up the return of coalition troops, but what is certain is that the world is down one more bad man and that’s great news for freedom.

*NATURAL CAUSES: – adjective

  • 1. Death by coalition troops after starting a war on terror
  • 2. A good way for a bad man to die

Sappho of Lesbos

The sun is almost at its peak as she pushes herself away from the warmth of the fig tree against her back, the bark now shiny from many such days spent in silent reverie, penning letters to a family she hopes one day to see again, left behind in the homeland she has been exiled from. Sicily is beautiful, she thinks, as she casts her gaze across the undulating fields that spread out before her, but it feels a world away from Greece.

The shrieks of a little girl cut through the serenity of the barren landscape like a knife, and she turns and cranes her neck out of fear. At first all she sees are farmers, toiling away on this unforgiving land in their Hessian clothing, but then a patch of grass rustles and a child explodes into the clearing, chasing a flying bug calmly on its way about life. It is her laugh that is the next sound to break the day’s silence. Cleis, her beloved daughter, has all her mothers’ inquisitive spirit, but it is her boundless supply of her father’s energy that saps her mother like this county’s sun.

The harsh sun is a rude shock after the safety of the fig tree, so she calls for Cleis to join her; knowing its almost time to head home to begin preparations for the evening’s celebration. But Cleis is too enraptured with life, and darts back into the tangle of grass, disappearing from view. She watches with a smile on her tanned face as the grass ebbs and flows, moving like the ocean, marking the child’s passing. It may be too soon to head home, she considers, better the child burn off her energy here than at this evenings dinner with her uncle.

Home. To her the word is at best a coarse label for the village on the nearby shoreline, sparsely populated with a few crude structures; just another cruel reminder of how far she is from her beloved Lesbos.

So, Sappho returns to the safety of the fig tree to vent, happy to reunite with her newest friend. The fig tree has become an old friend, a good one too, for many parchments have been filled with words inspired by her silent enjoyment of their moments together. She unrolls the small bundle by the tree, pulling out parchment, a stained clay pot and a worn quill, which she lays out on the flattened grass beside her. After casting a cursory look towards the grass ocean that has swallowed her daughter, she picks up the quill and begins to spill the mêlée of thoughts that have consumed her soul since her arrival in this foreign land…

Scamandronymus, my beloved father,

I hope these words penned from alien lands find you well. What news of home? My Cleis grows bolder every hour and grows more into her grandmothers’ name and beauty every day. She is become a jewel upon this desolate landscape, my sole joy in this place where words and conversation are so often as barren as the landscape that inspires them.

The Sicilian people are as gracious as I had been lead to believe, they welcome us into their homes and love Cleis like their own, however their absence of appetite for intellectual succour leaves me distressed. Cleis is such a beautiful child, the most perfect creation of my life, yet I fear that one day my love for her may sour if I am unable to return home, for she is a constant reminder of what is lost and left behind.

A constant and unwelcome companion has become the thought that these tales of Cleis’s adventures should not be told from foreign lands, though the scant news I can gather from home suggests the turbulent political epoch continues, so it seems we must make do for some time yet to come.

Larichus will dine with us tonite! Such desperately needed joyful news which brings me warm respite from my exile, so dearly needed to refill the spent urn that is my soul, so near to drained o’er these years apart. Of all my brothers he has always brought me the most joy, so I should not have been surprised to hear of his journey here. Though our time together is brief, I am sure the moments we share will last a lifetime and keep me strong until once more I place foot on welcome shores.

Please stay well and pass my warmest greetings to my mother. Reassure her that Cleis asks for her every day and that it is my wish that she accept that this enforced time apart is but an intermission, that our family will once again be whole when calmer minds prevail back home.

Your daughter in exile, Sapphos

Once the venom has been spent and the ink had dried, Sappho carefully rolled up the parchment and re-corked the ink pot, placing her second most valuable possession into the satchel by her side. The sound of a child’s giggle makes her look up, and she smiles when she discovers Cleis lying on the grass, her head propped up in her tiny, filthy hands, quietly watching her mother at work.

“Cleis, my dear, how long have you been there?”

“Only moment’s mother,” she pauses then asks “why do you frown when you write? Are you still sad?”

“How could I be sad child when I have you all to myself in this place?” she laughs as she spins around with her arms out.

Cleis doesn’t say a word; she just lays there staring at her mother.

“Shall we head home and start preparing for your uncles arrival?”

Cleis frowns and wrinkles her nose, causing her mother to consider whether her daughter is also uncomfortable with the idea of labelling the shabby domicile they are forced to live in as a home. But in an instant her frown is gone and she’s on her feet by her mothers’ side, pulling at her hand.

“Do you think uncle Larichus will remember me?” she asks.

“Of course he will,” she laughs, “you are his favourite. I fear he has actually come all this way to see you instead of me.”

Her daughter squeals with delight at the thought, tugging even harder at her mothers’ hand. “Come on, we have to hurry or we wont be ready.”

Sappho lets her daughter drag her down the hill, through the dry grass fields. She smiles occasionally to the farmers who look up briefly from their toil; she knows her presence here is disruptive for these people. They are simple folk, the progeny of generations who have known no other life than working the land for whatever meagre existence they can wrench from it. But she appreciates the effort they make to welcome her.

The dry fields soon give way to a dilapidated dirt road, a path at best, and the first of the many decaying structures of their village. As they emerge from the fields on to the track, and the sound of the swishing grass fades, Sappho becomes aware of the faint sound of a tune that has no place floating above Sicilian soil. She straightens her dress and hair as she walks a little more quickly and braces herself for what is to come.

“Sister, Cleis, my loves” yells Larichus joyously as they round the corner to their home. He jumps up from his hasty seat fashioned from a crate and broken urn, “And about time too, I was becoming parched sitting out here in this unforgiving sun.”

Cleis shrieks and runs to her uncle who scoops her up in his arms and spins her around as she cries out even louder. Several faces appear in the doorways of neighbouring abodes, drawn by the scream, though quickly calmed after discovering all is well. A few faces linger briefly to peruse Larichus, whose proud bearing and classic looks mark him as a man of worth, but he only had eyes for Cleis and his long lost sister.

“By the Gods, Cleis, you have grown into a woman,” he says as he places her on the ground and she stumbles around, fighting to regain her balance. “Sister, what have you been feeding her out here in the wilderness?”

Sappho ignores her brothers’ jibe and wraps her arms around the waist of her baby brother, one she clearly recalls carrying around on her hip and feeding figs to, but who now towers over her by good measure.

“You appear to have grown as well little brother,” she says, her comment accompanied by a good natured squeeze of his waist. “It would appear you’ve been pouring wine in the hall of Mytilene in equal measure for yourself and your guests.”

“Ha, too true,” he laughs, “I have always been a generous host.”

“Well come inside from this accursed sun and lets see if we can do something about remedying your parched condition.”

Cleis attaches herself to his left hand and drags him into their home, finally having the opportunity to ask the million questions that she has been saving for his visit.

“How long are you stying uncle?”

“How is grandmother? Does she get our letters?”

“Is it true that you and uncles Erigyius and Charaxus are attending the 46th Olympiad? Can I come? Will there be prizes?

And on she goes until Larichus escapes momentarily into a welcome seat.

“Slow down Cleis, there will be plenty of time for me to answer all your questions. I am here for a few days yet.”

Sappho smiles at her brother as she pours wine into goblets and gathers olives and bread, enjoying that almost forgotten feeling of having family close by, a welcome respite from the isolation that is her constant companion here. She hands her brother the wine and places a plate of olives on the table, relaxing in the moment well earned.

“Dare I ask what soppy prose my sister has been composing for the world during her exile?

She almost chokes on her wine, laughing at his impudent question.  Larichus is a man of many words, she knows, few of which would be regarded as prose. But whereas her brother has earned a reputation as a plain speaker with the ability to wield words as weapons when needed, she has also earned her own measure of fame. Word recently reached her ear that an eminent philosopher had compared her talents to those of the nine Muses, a compliment which brought joy to her heart as well as a certain measure of ridicule from her brothers who view her craft as trivial.

“Soppy prose?” she jokingly demands. “This from a man famed for using words that strike at the heart of men, though more regularly women, when it counts most. I ask you, how are your words that stir the soul any better, worse or different from the words I use?”

“It is not their soul’s I aim to stir,” he replies with a wink, “plus it is not your words that I question, but your choice of target,” another wink.

Sappho stops and stares at him.

“After this long apart the first thing you wish to know is if I write for the hearts of men or women? Have we so little in common that this is the place you choose to start our long overdue reunion?”

Cleis, who had wrested herself into her uncles lap during the debate, looks up from her plate of olives, alerted by the sudden silence.

“Tell uncle Larichus about your latest poem mother, I’m sure he will like it,” she turns to him, “I don’t understand it all but it sounds nice.”

Cleis’s innocent interruption breaks the tension of the moment, giving Sappho the opportunity to refill their glasses as she shares the details of her latest poem. It is a tribute to the tragic plight of Tithonus, a mortal man the goddess Eos fell in love with. Eos had requested Tithonus become immortal; however she had forgotten to ensure that he stay forever young.

The tragedy and theme of the piece was not lost on Larichus.

“So you are spending your days penning dark poems of lost lovers and the bad dealings of the Gods. Am I to understand that it’s the Gods you blame for your current locale and darkened mood?”

Sappho pauses before she replies . Her brother’s words have stung her yet again, this time as much for their brashness and clarity as for their accuracy.

“Who am I to know the will of the Gods?” she says rising from her seat to light a lamp and fend off the rapidly closing dark, “I simply write tales of their follies to amuse the masses.” Larichus just laughs.

By the time their evening meal is prepared it is completely dark, so Sappho moves about the Spartan structure lighting the meagre supply of candles, as Cleis continues her verbal assault on her uncle. Their evening meal is consumed in fleeting moments of silence, punctuated by Cleis’ seemingly endless torrent of questions for her ever patient uncle.

Soon the food and the excitement of the day take their toll, and Sappho and Larichus have the chance to relax and spend the remainder of the evening trading stories of their youth, as Larichus nurses the slumbering form of an exhausted Cleis on his lap. After many hours of conversation lull their energy, and the conversation has faded into the comfortable silence that only loved ones can bear, Sappho leans back in her chair and looks at her brother.

He looks so much like their father, she thinks, the tyke she raised not so long ago has indeed become a man. A thought creeps into her mind that makes her smile, a thought she dare not say out loud to Larichus for fear of offending him at her challenging the Gods. But she is proud of her brother, and surely pride cannot be a sin for moments like these?

Feeling his sister’s eyes upon him, Larichus tuns and smiles, a tired smile, though tinged with his endless sense of joy. He finishes the remainder of his wine with a large swig from his gourd, knowing that his sister is tired too.The day has come to an end, as it must, as it always has.

The calmness of the room is disturbed when they rise, and the lamp flickers as they pass, casting ghostly spectres onto the coarse walls, ghouls that seem dance and jump, mocking their passing as if the Gods have heard her most intimate thoughts.

A fateful chill from watching the eerie shadows suddenly sends icy fingers down her spine, so after Sappho pulls the heavy blanket over her fading sibling, she crosses the room and picks up the letter she penned earlier that day. Tucking the letter into her brother’s satchel, she reminds herself to have Larichus promise to pass the letter to their father on his return. She wonders why she is suddenly compelled to make sure her father receives the letter, perhaps it’s the dancing spectres that she can’t shake from her mind causing her unrest. Perhaps, she thinks, it’s a part of her that knows that she will never see her home again.

Thank God the Germans didnt get him…

The sun had barely fallen below the horizon when German soldiers stormed through the front door of the house, shattering the peace of the once quiet village on the picturesque Greek coastline. It was 1943 and German soldiers were conducting a village wide search for able bodied men to use as labour to power their war efforts in the Aegean.

The Germans had fought hard to win The Battle for Greece in 1941, forcing the outnumbered and out-gunned Greek and British forces to evacuate Athens after a battle lasting 24 days. History would remember that the Greeks fought with great tenacity during the battle, and whilst victory had eluded them in 1941, in 1943 they were keeping the Nazis on their toes by using the mountainous terrain of Greece to their advantage.

So the Germans began systematically raiding the townships with the goal of depleting the available talent pool for the guerrilla forces. That’s why on this night they smashed through the door of the antediluvian structure, with their machine guns and bright lights searching every corner, hoping to recruit one more ‘volunteer’ that the guerrilla forces wouldn’t get.

But the only thing their search revealed was a five year old boy.

The boy froze for a few moments when they came through the door, then screamed and ran from the room. His parents reacted to his shriek, running into the house, directly into the waiting arms of the Germans. And whilst the mother was simply pushed aside, the father was seized, shoved out the door and told to wait with the assembled men as the Germans continued their search.

Thankfully the father returned a few days later; some families weren’t so lucky.

The father immediately scrambled together a few meager belongings then led the boy high into the safety of the mountains, hoping to find respite from the German forces who now occupied most of the coastline towns. But luck was not with him it seemed, for he had simply fled one battle to stumble into another.

Moments after he and the boy arrived at the impromptu camp, little more than a few hastily assembled tents and cooking fires made by the other refugees, he was caught up in the burgeoning civil war. Bands of Greeks of opposing ideologies were moving throughout the camp challenging men on their allegiance, sharing wine with fellow ideologues, and roughing up men who were not deemed partisan.

The boy’s father did what he could to keep his son safe, he lied, no doubt hoping to avoid any further trouble. He was thankfully left in peace. He then set to work making some form of home for them with what little they had, a task made easier when the boys’ mother joined them a few days later, carrying a few precious items and leading the family’s pig that she’d carried, dragged and cajoled the entire way up the mountain.

A few weeks later they quietly snuck back into the village, only to discover what little remained of it, it had been alternately shelled by the Germans then torched out of spite by communist Greeks. When they finally reached their house they found it all but demolished, all their valuables, what few there were, were gone.

With their home in ruins, all their animals dead, not even a chicken left alive, the father dispatched the boy to his brothers’ home in Melbourne. To him, this selfless act of compassion was in the boys interests, but the boys mother saw it as an act of betrayal and never forgave him for it.

Fast forward more than half a century and the boy has become an old man, a proud father to two sons and beaming grandfather to a little girl. The younger son was Dux of his school, graduating top of his class with an Honours degree in science, though these days he’s finding the real world harder to deal with than expected. He’s yet to hit his stride.

The older son, however, once the cause of no end of concern, has flourished. Finding school a challenge, he dropped out and meandered through life for a while. Eventually he chose to join the military, spending over a decade in uniform. These days he’s a successful self-made man, a businessman with his own honours degree.

But how is it that I know this story?

Is this my father story?

A friends story perhaps?

I learned this story at 9AM this morning when I chose to listen to an old man who dearly wanted to chat. At a time when I could have opted to cocoon myself away from the world – iPod in, brain switched off – I chose to chat with the elderly stranger sitting beside me whilst we waited for our cars to be serviced

This was his-story.

The conversation began after his hemming and hawing became too much for me to ignore. I was watching him out of the corner of my eye, I could tell he was aching to talk to someone, so I looked up at him, smiled and he jumped at the chance.

“You read many plays?” he asked. I had a copy of Death of a Salesman in my hands.

No, this is just something I’ve chosen to read for university, I replied.

“Oh, what are you studying?

I’m completing a PostGrad writing course.

“Fantastic,” he said with a tad more enthusiasm that I would have expected, maybe I’d touched on a subject dear to him. “I’ve always been a believer in returning to study to keep the brain going.”

Then there was the briefest of pauses as he drew breath, but his expression politely warned me that this wasn’t a window of opportunity for me to step in.

“One of my sons recently graduated top of his class at RMIT,” he said, and then smiled proudly at my offered congratulations. “He received High Distinctions for all his classes and then took a role with a big company, though he found it hard to deal with.”

“The other one, he didn’t do so well at school. He was all over the place; we were really worried there for a while. He eventually went into the Army and now has quite a successful business of his own.”

Yeah, life’s funny like that, I offered. I was a bit of a mess at school but the military gave me the kick up the butt I needed. Now I’m on my third career. After almost a decade in the Army, and a decade in media and publishing, I’m finally studying to be a writer.

He smiled at this and I could see part way through my reply he had something to add.

“I always told my sons life is a buffet, if you’re not trying all the different flavours then what’s the point? I spent 30 years in politics where I’d see so many people trudging in to work that didn’t want to be there but they were too scared to change.”

The conversation rambled on for a few minutes, eventually moving from the story of his youth to the problems with the youth of today. Now I’m sure lambasting younger generations is a favourite pastime of retired folk, but I didn’t want to play his game. But at 39 I was trapped, which side to choose? I’m too old to be young, but too young to be him?

We talked about how Generation X through Z seem to bounce between jobs these days, parrying over whether we this was because they wanted to try new things, or because with all the available options before them, it was too hard to be passionate about, and to commit to, just one thing.

However, most unexpectedly, we agreed on one point; how much easier we’d found it in our lives to make choices when under pressure.

His pressure point was a recurring dream that haunted him about that night the Germans startled him with the flashlight. This propelled him to do everything in his power to arm his sons with knowledge so they didn’t become victims in a contemporary society where wars are more commonly fought with words.

My pressure point was also a recurring memory, though not of war. During my years as an office stiff I watched people around me begrudgingly showing up to work, only to spend hours harping on about what they’d rather be doing. I knew I felt the same way, but the money was either too good, or the job too easy, to change. Eventually the pressure within me built to a point I couldn’t ignore any longer; so I quit, returned to study, and I’m a happier man for it.

So if there’s to be a moral to this story, it’s this: in a society where we tend to value the, young, fast, fit and sexy, take a moment to acknowledge the old, spotted, and greying moving slowly around us. This morning’s revelatory chat reminded me of the value of unplugging from technology, even momentarily, and reconnecting with the people that we spend so much of our lives surrounded by but somehow cut off from.

Garrulous old man, wherever you are, all my best for the remainder of your Halcyon years!

A flood is more than just a news story

For a large part of a population a flood is just a television or newspaper story, an abhorrent weather anomaly that holds headlines until the next story breaks. To an insurance assessor it’s an illustration of force majeure, and to a man of the cloth it’s simply an example of His work.

But for those of us who have been through one, and who recently witnessed our city’s rivers rise inevitably towards disaster, it became so much more. For whether we looked on, lost or laboured throughout the floods, our lives were changed forever.

For the people whose homes were inundated with flood waters and who lost everything in return for a home full of viscous mud and debris, it’s a disaster. And for those who lost their loved ones, friends or neighbours it’s a tragedy. But for the thousands of people who swarmed to volunteer centres to offer the most precious of human gifts, time, it was an opportunity to be part of a truly significant moment.

Like thousands of other Brisbanites I made my way to a designated volunteer centre where I was equipped with hat, gloves and sunscreen, then dispatched by bus to an area in need. I suspect like most of the other people on the bus I didn’t know many of my fellow passengers, but soon after we debussed and recognised the gargantuan task before us, trivial social conventions like names didn’t matter anymore.

As we moved sodden couches and clothing, wedding photos and toys, I never had the time to ask the names of the men and women working alongside me. At one point I thought I recognised a guy helping me heft flaccid mattresses and not so white goods into a dump truck. Up until today he was just another face that passed in the street without comment or consideration, but on this day he was a friend.

And when our backs began to ache and the carnage became too heavy to heave, it was the stout man I’d mentally labelled ‘Santa’ and his 10 year old son who came to our rescue. His ceaseless cheery chitchat as he toiled, whilst his not yet teenage son carried whatever his little arms could hold, where uplifting and gratefully welcome distractions for us all.

But loading trucks with the spoilt contents of people’s homes was only one part of the overall operation. The steady stream of women arriving on the scene with donated #bakedrelief goods and a never-ending supply of water were a God send. And the thankful banter with bus drivers on the way to and from the sites was a blessing.

But most significantly there was the property owner who we silently watched as he took a moment to pull himself together after a hoard of us literally crashed through what had once been his front door to help him and his family remove the remains of what had once been the spoils of a loving family home.

Cities have a nasty habit of cocooning and isolating its populace, so I’m grateful for these tragic events that remind us at the times when we may feel most alone, lost and lonely, that no matter how big the city, or how few people we may have as FaceBook friends, there are complete strangers out there who are willing to give up their time to prove that people care and that we are never truly alone.

 

*Photo courtesy of NEWS.com.au

Afghanistan: ‘Can we handle 16 more deaths?’

In late June, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel made the claim that “a half of al Qaeda has been eliminated in this last 18 months.” More recently CIA Director Leon Panetta appears to have validated this statement when he told ABC News that al Qaeda maintains only a small footprint in Afghanistan. He said that “at most, we’re looking at maybe 50 to 100, maybe less” al Qaeda left in the country.

But whereas at first glance this sounds like desperately needed good news for Australians still coping with last months deaths of three Australian commandos and two Engineers, a closer look at the facts shows that it may be way too soon to be getting our collective hopes up that our troops will be returning home safely anytime soon.

Back in 2004 President George W. Bush told radio host Rush Limbaugh that three-quarters of known al Qaeda leaders have been captured or killed in the war. And more recently outlets such as MSNBC suggested that the war must certainly be coming to a close following the death of Al Qaeda’s #3 man, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid.

Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, better known as Sheikh Said al-Masri (aka Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law) was the financial director for Al Qaeda, so his death was hailed by some media outlets and ‘official sources’ as a big victory in terms of counterterrorism.

But even this apparent loss of leadership and a reputedly diluted al Qaeda headcount on the ground appears to have done little to impede their ability to kill our countrymen at their convenience.

So whilst I’m a proud ex-serviceman who to date has been 100% supportive of Australian soldiers doing their part to, as Senator Faulkner stated “improve conditions in that country”, I have recently started questioning the governments claims that our men on the ground are vital for international stability and for the security of Australia.

The tally of Australian troop deaths has hit 16 in our close to decade long campaign on the ground in this troubled part of the world, but I wonder why we are keeping our boys there when all the data suggests we shouldn’t be and when public support for this campaign is at an all time low. Consider two key recent developments…

General Stanley McChrystal recently resigned as the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, citing that he no longer had faith in President Obama and the U.S. governments’ plans for the region. Then we have CNN host Fareed Zararia recently publicly criticized the war in explicit detail, asking “if Al Qaeda is down to a hundred men there at the most, why are we fighting a major war?”

Zararia also questioned the costs of the war in both human and financial terms, noting the 100+ deaths of NATO soldiers in the past month and the fact the war is estimated to cost the US more than $100 billion this year alone. So if the military leader in charge of the war doesn’t want to be there, and the mainstream media is starting to refuse to tow the party line, what chance is there that we’ll see local support soon for an end to this debacle?

This weeks government announcement that we could start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan within two years, at least a year earlier than previously forecast, may well be the olive branch we’ve been waiting for.

Whilst Senator Faulkner was quick to clarify that this announcement was not a reversal on the governments’ commitment to stay the course, saying that the timetable depended on “the conditions on the ground”, it is a welcome glimmer of hope that may reflect the long awaited change of heart by the people who govern this nation.

National opposition to our involvement in the protracted conflict has increased, fuelled more recently by our tragic troop loses, so the notion of a quicker withdrawal will be welcomed by many Australians. So to the 1,550 Australian soldiers and other personnel deployed in Afghanistan I offer you my heartfelt wishes that you stay safe from harm long enough for our government to do the right thing by you all.

In closing, I feel the need to repeat Senator Faulkner’s sound bite from earlier in the week, for I believe it reflects our national sentiment and it can never be said enough.

He said “our men and women in uniform continue to do outstanding work in this demanding and dangerous environment. They deserve our very highest praise. They deserve our gratitude.”

Well on behalf of those whose country you serve I’m happy to say: You have it!