Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Wheels on the Bus....

After forty three trips up and down the Midland Highway over the last five years for the express purpose of getting a jab in my arm to protect me from those lethal jack jumper ants chock full of toxic poison, the scenery has become more than familiar. Travelling down from my perch partway up the Great Western Tiers, I pick up the bus twenty minutes into its journey from Launceston to Hobart.

Bus etiquette is a funny thing. Not having the luxury of boarding the bus at the outset, I quickly scan over the heads for that prized possession, a seat to myself. With precious little leg room, the opportunity to have a modicum of comfort is tantamount to essential for the two and a half hour trip. The only ones who choose to sit together are those that get on together. Most heads are bowed, engaged in their electronic device of choice. Thumbs pick up speed as messages fly around the ether, ears are plugged into music, podcasts or movies. Some are reading, real books and e-books. Very few take in the passing scenery. For me, the luxury of someone else ferrying me from A to B frees me to observe, take photos, not an easy thing when you’re being jolted, shaken and stirred, and wonder about the lives of those who constantly battle the elements to eke out a living on the land.

Opposite the Perth bus stop where I wait to start the journey, old wares spill on to the footpath, appropriate contents for the Robur House Antiques store which once sported its original Robur Tea logo on the northern wall. It’s become one of those iconic colonial landmarks along the route, along with St Andrews Inn, The Foxhunters Return, The Gables, and the Campbelltown and Ross bridges just to name a few.

It’s not a particularly warm morning, but a number of sheep have accommodated themselves in the only shady spot in a vast paddock, reminding their owner there’s more to farming than simply maximizing every square inch of land for grazing. They might be destined for the dinner table, but surely a few more trees and windbreaks to protect them from the punishing sun and biting winds can’t be that difficult. Further on another mob of sheep stand in a perfectly formed large circle, their attention focused on the one lone soul bang in the middle. Is it their monthly union meeting? Are they hatching a plan well away from the farmer’s attention? Maybe someone got out of line and discipline is being meted out, or the motivational speaker that had been baaaed about has arrived. Then again, they might just be playing some ovine version of piggy in the middle.

At one level, there’s not a great deal to grab the attention at this time of the year. No Swiss Alps or Grand Canyon to take your breath away, just a highway winding through gently rolling hills and scrubby landscape, leaning telegraph poles and skeletal trees throwing their limbs up in despair in their death throes.

The ground is leached of colour, a dull beige far into the distance, the mountain ranges to the east and west the only contrast against the inevitable result of the ravages of summer. Sun bleached paddocks wait expectantly for rain, even the thistles have shrivelled, but the hawthorn berries are bursting with colour, heralding a long cold winter so say many old timers. Give it another month or so and it will be a different sight. The colourless ground will be green again, everything softened, reminding us that what looked dead can still bring forth life.

Autumn has been a late starter, but the evidence of the cycle of the seasons is starting to appear. The poplars are always the first to herald the change. Despite the warm weather of late, their inbuilt calendar starts the shutdown process from feeding their outermost parts to looking inward, leaving the leaves to their fate while they store up reserves for the long cold winter in preparation for the production line to go into full swing come next spring.

As we travel, old and new stand side by side, often the old weathering their age much more nobly than their more frequent counterparts. Stone cottages, barns, inns and mansions in all their hues dot the landscape. Their stateliness and solidity make the sprawl of brick veneer ordinary, ugly. They have no more right to be here than everything else that’s come since, but somehow their presence, for man-made structures anyway, seem to fit better.

Yet another coat of paint and signage announces the arrival of a new business and an attempt to once more breathe new life into shops that have seen many lives. From butcher to baker, hardware to dressware, premises change hands again and again in small country towns where dreams are born and often die. Besides the essential supermarket or general store, newsagent, post office, hardware and pub, a proliferation of cafes, galleries and gift shops reflect changing interests and sources of income as travellers start to outnumber the local population.

We pass the Oatlands Mill, once abandoned but now restored and reclaimed for its original purpose, grinding out flour by the sackful. The advent of plastic wrapped sliced white bread we all thought was so progressive at one time maybe led to the demise of many a mill, so to see an original be reborn is a delight. Such businesses and trades take on a dual purpose, not only selling their produce but satisfying the curiosity of tourists and travellers.

Roadworks abound, widening the two hundred kilometre highway bit by bit, slowing down the traffic flow, bringing it to a halt at times while graders, diggers, rollers and monster machines fulfil their part of the task. At this rate, I’ll be in a nursing home by the time the highway is complete.

Signposts invite me down roads I have yet to explore, but there’s no getting off a bus hellbent on meeting its schedule. My ticket has only one destination. We bypass Pontville, courtesy of previous roadworks, a sad omission in my opinion, and instead run past the now empty Pontville detention centre, or relocation centre, or whatever its current label is. Either way it looks like a prison isolated in a barren wasteland.

Civilisation becomes more prevalent. Timber yards, car wrecking yards, rural supplies stores, Maccas at Bridgewater, then the first glimpse of the Derwent against the backdrop of Mount Wellington in the distance. Ker-lunk ker-lunk ker-lunk go the wheels across the joins of the bridge. Black swans gather near the shore, peacefully drifting, graceful, while others look somewhat undignified with their tails up, heads down, scanning the depths for their lunch.

Suburbia takes over, MONA announces itself boldly, occupying its place of prominence at the water’s edge. So often shrouded in cloud, Hobart’s iconic mountain is in full view, the sun gleaming off its transmission tower. Houses, warehouses and blocks of units make way for the city proper, an orderly patchwork of streets in which I easily become lost if I’m not paying attention. Every intersection looks the same to me, no matter what shops present themselves on each corner.

Just a few streets to go. A jogger heads uphill, passing a man in overalls plodding slowly towards the city centre, his wide girth slowing him down despite the fact he’s going downhill. Two red tee-shirted guys head into Room for a Pony for lunch, pedestrians fill the streets, my fellow passengers stir and ready themselves to leave our sardine tin, and the journey ends. Not a word has been exchanged.

Several hours later, the homeward journey is a similar affair, but with much less to see. It is light when we depart, but all too soon an orange glow diffuses into the horizon as a half moon replaces the sun, accompanied by isolated stars already dotted on the early night sky. The moon mysteriously scuds across the sky and disappears as the bus changes direction, then just as quickly reappears, telling me we’re heading north, heading home.

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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Much Ado about Nothing

There are times when my life feels like a string of Seinfeld episodes, you know, the show that’s really about nothing at all. Doesn’t sound like a particularly interesting prospect but the concept worked and was very popular, still is if the continuous reruns are anything to go by. The main characters drift along from day to day, going about their ordinary lives, not doing anything spectacular, but not necessarily falling in a heap either. Then there are the days when things come out of left field, life is turned upside down, and they reel from one crisis to the next in order for the situation to be resolved.

And of course, in amongst the drama and angst is the humour. Not necessarily the funny ha-ha type of humour, but we smile or laugh nonetheless as we recognise ourselves in the dilemmas the characters get themselves into and the the ways they react or respond to whatever’s going on around them. 

They support each other where they can, but are also dogged by apathy and self interest as the stresses of family, work and relationships ebb and flow, and we wonder along with them at the meaning of it all. But that’s what life is like for most of us. Our lives are ordinary. Very few of us get to live out the dreams or fantasies of our youth. 

I was a runner of sorts, sprinting mainly, but never quite good enough to progress any further than inter school sports, even if I did have dreams of Olympic grandeur. I sang a bit, can still sing in tune, but never dared to venture beyond a little folk trio. I even acted, and as a child had such a good memory I knew everyone’s lines. Last time I graced a stage was in 1968 at the school drama competition when I was in Year 12. It was the first time I’d actually had stage make-up, and I still remember sitting in front of the mirrors in the dressing room of the theatre, well, it was the Dandenong Town Hall but for all intents and purposes a theatre nonetheless, and as the greasepaint was applied it felt like I was in another world. A world of infinite possibilities. Why didn’t I pursue that? The very idea these days of being up front in any situation and opening my mouth fills me with something akin to dread. And of course there’s the writing, always the writing, something I play with, dabble with, mess around with, procrastinate from, wish for but never really get there.

At some point along the way we either make a decision to go down a particular career path, or we simply settle for less, believing that what we hoped would be, is simply never going to happen. I look back at the things I dreamed of becoming, actor, singer, writer, secret agent, vet, world traveller, explorer, activist and wonder how out of all those I ended up becoming a primary teacher. There’s that phrase “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.” Did I become a teacher simply because I wasn’t game enough to try any of those other things? I have memories of scenarios conjured up from my imagination where I acted out each role, but without the belief I was capable of achieving them, and the determination to actually follow them through, it was obvious my life wan’t heading down any of those paths.

And then another memory returns, one much older, born on my very first day of school. For some reason I feared being swallowed up by that monolithic red brick building looming like something out of the industrial revolution, well my powers of deduction weren’t quite that refined at five years old, but I was dragged kicking and screaming like a lamb to the slaughter awaiting its fate. By the end of the day however my whole world had changed. I don’t recall my teacher’s name or even what we did that day, but she must have been remarkable, for as I raced out to meet Mum at the end of the day I greeted her with “I want to be a teacher.” My mind was made up.

So despite all the other possibilities that emerged as I grew up, I followed the path that led to teaching. Practical, sensible, the world always needs teachers, and don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it. Loved nurturing these little people who were left in my care in their first year of school, some hesitant, others ready to soak up everything you offered them, and those with so much energy you wondered what on earth they had for breakfast every day. We put a lot of trust in those who teach our children. We expect them to not only do their job, but we also expect them to care for our children, to look out for them, to recognise when they’re not doing so well. It’s a big ask, but teaching has always been way more than just imparting facts and figures, and even straight out of teacher’s college it became quickly obvious that what I did in the classroom could have far reaching effects on how these young lives might perceive the world. 

I haven’t ended up where I thought I might have several paragraphs ago when I started this. For me, teaching only lasted a few years. Life continually changes, phases come and go and before you know it several decades have passed and you wonder yet again if what you’re doing with your life is what you chose to do, or what simply happened without you noticing.

Much of life is ordinary. We all have to get up every day, shower and dress and organise ourselves, head out the door or not, depending on what the day’s tasks demand. Whether it’s being a highly paid boss or a stay at home parent with little tackers to care for, the responsibilities are really very similar. There’s a myriad of decisions to make during the day, people to manage, and prioritising the ever growing to-do list and multi-tasking become the norm rather than the exception. 

We have to do and be the best we can to not only get the job done, but hopefully bring everyone else along with us in the process, and if we do it well, as ordinary as the task might be, there just might be those who value that effort and think you’re quite extraordinary.