Ewin – An Introduction

February 26, 2007

OK. Enough is enough. Two tales on my blog of dead friends. Writing up what they meant to you after they are gone is all well and good but there is a perspective on those notes which is self absorbing. So I am going to try and put my heart on my sleeve a bit (an unnatural act!) and write a series of short blogs which highlight what a living friend means to me. And perhaps examine the meaning of friendship. My “case study” occasionally reads Pickled Eel so this will be a test of my honesty, and his stamina. Meet Ewin. Here working on a church working bee and taking his health and safety pretty seriously. For the last fifteen years it seems that we end up on each other’s working bees. We have always lived in separate cities apart from the eighteen months in Ipswich when we first met. So a visit to him, or to me can always run the risk of finding yourself laying cement, lopping trees, erecting sheds or mowing lawns. In this case he was working and I was helping with the painting. He got the short straw and was prepping the toilets. But the gleam in his eye is pretty typical and regardless of the job he is always ready to muck in. There are lots of qualities about Ewin I love and his ready hand to help is one of them. With no strings attached. No expectations of anything in return. Just because he can, and because he enjoys himself immensely in the giving.

Countries Visited

February 26, 2007

The blog started as a travel log and remains so in intent – so I have allowed myself to be distracted by this gimic. Shame it does not quite fit. NZ and the Pacific have slid off the map.

Create your own visited countries map

Vale JD

February 25, 2007

John called today to tell me that JD was killed in a plane accident on Friday evening. At about the time I was to head off to Youth Group. How blithely we continue on while something erupts unseen and unheard over the horizon, but which will impact us in due course. How blithely we continue on, assuming every day will be the same and we all be in our appointed places to do business with each other, to answer the phone, share a joke, reminisce about good old times. How blithely we take each other for granted. How rudely our comfort is disrupted.
JD was one of the co founding team of entrepreneurs who got our company off the ground and in 1998 was one of three who went to extraordinary lengths to help us secure the technology on which we built our business. It was the beginning of an infection in him that saw him leave a very successful career in government and establish himself in various small businesses, with some of them turning into modestly successful enterprises.
There are lots of things I remember about JD and this is a good place to record them. One incident stands out. He had a final interview, by phone, for a job in a government agency. He borrowed an office and wallpapered A3 sheets across the walls and ceiling with information he might be expected to know about. From his high back swivel seat he was able to check his answers on every wall and even on the ceiling while carrying out the conversation by phone. The interview went for more than three hours. He walked out and said he had missed the job but had been offered another. It was an SES position, far in excess of the sergeant rank that he wore at the time. He went on to that appointment where he was most successful and was promoted beyond that in the end, to the position he originally sought. He had no sense that there was anything out there that limited him. I loved that about him.

He loved toys and boys games. Hand guns. Bikes. Scuba diving. Rock climbing. In the end his love of extreme toys and behaviour appears to have been his undoing and a small plane in which he was travelling broke up and crashed on Friday evening.

His friendship was unconditional. He gave with no expectation in return. He weighed in with enthusiasm, for the sheer pleasure of a new experience and the ability to help. Whether that was unloading ten tonnes of ceramics from Mexico (he came down with heat stroke in the oven of a 40 foot steel container) or negotiating how best to secure a software license from a US company. To hear from a mutual friend today how it was that he turned up in a NBC suit to the hospital bed of an ill colleague not only made me laugh at the absurdity of that gesture but it delighted me as well. For it rang true to the sort of character he was – free and ready to lift someone’s spirits, even at his own expense.

JD was an atypical Army sergeant – part of the Sydney latte set, dating a girl from the Australian Ballet, wearing cufflinks, expensive cotton shirts, and able to give sound advice on red wines – and I loved that about him too. In many ways he was his own man and own character. And there was always something about the little boy in him that never grew up. An effervescence and naiveté that in our heart of hearts we all envied. Well, part of me envied that part of him at times.

The news is so new that it is only online. Nothing in the printed press yet. But already I resent the detachment of the press reporting so hollowly the facts when I know the person behind them. Yet that is how it is. How often we read that someone has died in a car accident then move on to the next piece of news without considering the person behind the event. We don’t connect with it – unless we are forced to.

The afternoon is a little hollow for the news. Hollow too for the introspection that has me wonder if I could not have been a better friend, confidant or mate. Best to see how that feeling might fuel my relationships with those still alive. In the meantime I think of JD and remember a roguish glint in the eye of a mid 30s boy and understand he was one of those whose passing in a violent way is somehow appropriate. He would have been chewed up by a Great White, or crushed to death by an anaconda, fallen off K2 or frozen to death in a submarine lost under Arctic ice if he had not been destroyed in a plane crash.

Later in the afternoon The Age Melbourne newspaper shows the first image of the crash site. I am stirred by the two plastic sheets slightly out of focus in the background – as if the most important, or least offensive thing is the wreckage – under one of which will be JD. Vital, energetic, adventurous. Now a lump of charred meat lying in a paddock and, for the rest of the world at least, with no name. I want to tell every reader that I know one of those mounds, that he has a name, an identity, a personality, character. That he is my friend. My friend so blithely lost.

Nuclear Subs in New London

February 19, 2007

Last night was spent in a musty naval quarter that was bit of a surprise. For its filthy state that is. The mould and damp caught in the orange carpet still pushed through the disinfectant that had been used very lightly in the bathroom. Not having much luck with military accommodation over the last couple of nights. But the apartment block was empty and I did not have to contend with noisy rutting neighbours as I did at West Point. I drove on up towards Boston but the highlight of the day was the submarine museum which is here at New London.

Tied up alongside, in the Thames River, is the SSN Nautilus. The first nuclear powered submarine, now open to the public. After crawling around in our O-Boats the Nautilus, tiny compared to the newer submarines in the USN ORBAT, is still remarkably large and spacious. I could walk everywhere standing up and ascended and descended through three decks. Stainless steel everywhere, roomy bunks and the ubiquitous ice cream machine. The US military is fuelled by ice cream in the same way their police are fuelled by Twinkies.

Apart from the Nautilus I was struck by the sheer scale of the newer submarines. At the entrance to the museum is the rib of an Ohio class submarine. For a couple of hours this morning I was the only visitor here. Eventually, just before lunch some people arrived and wandered into the centre. They usefully scaled the size of the rib for me and I managed to grab a photo of them walking through the rib “o-ring”. I reckon an Ohio would have to be eight or nine stories deep. Imagine the expansiveness of engineering mind that envisages then designs and builds a submarine that size. There is nothing small minded about this industry or weapons platform at all.

It took a while but I eventually tore myself away from New London this morning and brought away with me a mixed bag of memories. A rather bizarre streak dinner with a difference, finished by a family meal with people I don’t know, a quarter you might only impose on recruits (and in which I worried about my health) and an unexpected tour of a nuclear submarine – by myself. I think I am coming to expect such from this country – everything in your face but such a range of extremes.

October 1989

Some Memories are Best Left Alone

February 17, 2007

My grandfather’s place on the outskirts of Christchurch was an exotic locale in the mind of an eight year old boy. The house was always immaculate. The yard was pristine, the lawn mown smoother than a bowling green. The goldfish under the wire in a pond wrapped around a fountain was about the most outlandish thing I could imagine. Around the pond smooth flagstones warmed in the sun were carefully matched and aligned in a path that went around the side of the house. I can still smell and feel the heat coming off those stones. The house was located well back from a quiet road. Push through a hedge at the back of the house and be taken into a collection of sheds among trees and explore to your hearts content.

So it would have stayed if I had not fancied that somehow thirty years later it would all still be just so, in reality as it is in my minds eye. Now a gas station hides the old house from the road. The bowling green lawns are a jungle. The house is a mess with peeling paint and awkward handyman extensions of shade cloth. The sheds behind the house and the forever fields are now being turned into a housing estate. In fact the kindest thing I could do to honour the memory of that place and of the people who lived there was to not take a photo at all. Rather, to take a view from the back fence from where I used to gaze in anticipation of wild roaming, “cops and robbers” or “cowboys and Indians”. What used to be a blank sheet for the imagination of a boy and his brothers is now housing estate. Here is the view, looking towards the foothills of Banks Peninsular. Of all the things I have seen and done in my travels this visit is one thing I now regret doing. I regretted it then and I regret it now.

October 2001

Jazz – Emanuel Schmidt

February 15, 2007

Warmdaddys in Philadelphia is one hot place to get a good old fashioned dose of jazz. Last time I was there I was fortunate to land on an evening when members of the audience were invited to sing whatever they wanted and the backing band would cover them – after a quick conference on stage with the singer to work out what they would all be performing. Even without the lashings of white rum those who got up to sing were brilliant. And that place is a cosy and welcoming den that makes you think you are in your own club.

Tailors on Central on the other hand is a garden variety semi modern pub in Sydney that is not sure what it wants to be. Ordinarily it would not be my choice of watering hole. But every now and then it does us all a favour and hosts the Emanuel Schmidt Trio who, led by good friend Emanuel, give us some outstanding jazz. Emanuel is a genius on guitar and passionate about his jazz (how many out there have a PhD in jazz after all?). His various musical colleagues are also passionate about their instruments and the music and we always have an evening in which the music uplifts, inspires, and makes us laugh.

It is always a bit tricky pulling various clips of music together in a short video and make them sound coherent. That has not really happened in this video but nonetheless here is a restricted sampling of what Emanuel plays. It concludes with about 40 seconds of “Shenandoah” – a very lyrical piece that Emanuel dedicated to Salem, good friend and who has just departed this week for the US after being part of our community and fraternity for the last two years.

Self Diagnosis in Bangladesh

February 13, 2007

I arrived in Chittagong late in the afternoon in a BAC-111, an aircraft even our air force has retired. The aircraft touched down and immediately the passengers felt the main undercarriage touch the asphalt they were on their feet, opening lockers and surging to the front of the plane. The nose wheel had yet to touch the ground so we were moving along quite quickly. Would have been interesting if we had stopped suddenly or had to rotate and go around. Everyone on the subcontinent wants to the first in every line. It seems to be wired into their genes.

Zia met me in Dhaka and travelled down to Chittagong with me. His brother was waiting to meet us so there was no problem clearing that little airport and getting into town. Given my day had started before sun up in Hyderabad Zia was pretty sympathetic to getting me to the hotel and leaving me alone until the next day. He agreed we would not start until 1000 the next morning. That sounded like an ideal plan. I have been on the road for 4 weeks now. To the US, England, Germany, Israel and India. Now to Bangladesh and then to Thailand and other points before getting home.

I retired early for the night and was sleeping soundly when at three in the morning I was violently woken by an excruciating stomach pain that in the first instance had me thinking my appendix must have ruptured. One of the kids had a ruptured appendix and their stomach was as tight as a drum. So with the pain and the tight stomach I had now acquired in my sleep that was my first thought. I was unable to unfold and so lay in a foetus position for about ten minutes before I realised I was going to have to get to the toilet immediately if I was not to soil the bed. I crawled to the bathroom and figured after half an hour contemplation in there that I was not dealing with an unruly appendix.

Over the next seven hours I tried to work out what the problem was. I managed to crawl to my backpack and retrieve a Lonely Planet Guide but that made things worse. Everything in the medical section became my ailment. I had rabies for a while. Then malaria. Cholera. Dysentery. Giardia. I had moved from the toilet to the bath and lay there with the guide that was so unhelpful.

Soon it was 1000 and Zia was waiting for me. I had cleaned up but could not get off the floor I was so cramped up and managed to get around only by moving like a crab. After about ten minutes Zia knocked on the door. When he saw me on the floor he simply laughed and said “You have Giardia. I can fix that.” Helping me up we went down the stairs and out onto the street where he organised for me to drink coconut milk from a freshly lopped coconut. The street vendor picked up a straw from off the street and placed it in the drink – we insisted he cut a new coconut and he could not understand our objection to the “clean” straw from off the road. After a quick coconut re-hydration we walked across to a small street pharmacy where Zia asked for a tablet which proved to be the size of a dime. Large and pink. Zia seemed to know the drug so I took the tablet and hoped for the best.

October 1997

(Later in Thailand a government pharmacy confirmed they were tablets intended to treat Giardia but noted there was probably enough in the tablet to dose a small village. But I left Bangladesh three days later with a stomach that still cramped and was very tender. Knowing that it was Giardia I can only guess that I picked it up at a Russian café in Tel Aviv, which in hindsight was an entertaining but thoroughly unhygienic place. It was ironic that the incubation period had me come down with the illness in Bangladesh. But helpful that Zia’s father was the Chittagong “Surgeon general” and that Zia recognised the symptoms of Giardia from long experience.

My enduring lesson of the experience was that I should avoid any attempts at self diagnosis in the future. I was of no help to myself whatsoever).

Chinese Hospitality in New London

February 10, 2007

A long day today which brought with it a range of experiences. Someone told me before I first came to the US that I would see and hear things that I could never imagine ever existed. He was referring to things seen in stores and I guess he was right after spending a few hours at Tysons Corner. More shops there in one place than I have seen in a single collection anywhere. But you could not buy anything – as the colonel found out. He is a keen fly fisherman and wanted a specific type of fly but was not even able to find a fishing store in that complex, let alone a fly. So Tysons was not as big as its promoters wanted us to believe. But it was enormous. No question.

Anyway, spent the day sticking to the back woods roads having survived the night at West Point. I got away early, just as it was getting light. Today is a public holiday so there was very little traffic on the roads to start with. But as I went further east and as the roads got narrower and tighter the traffic got heavier and heavier. Soon I was crawling through tiny wooden towns in remote hills in bumper to bumper traffic. Thinking something amiss I tuned into the local radio station to find out what was going on. Eventually I heard the DJ welcome to the woods all the out of town “leaf peepers”. Of which I was one I realised.

And I have to say that the leaves were colours I have never seen before. Reds and oranges and yellows that simply don’t exist in Australia. Postcard stuff. I am not sure how the photos will come out but hopefully they do justice to the scenery. I remember seeing pictures like these scenes in books at school and some local wisdom assuring us that the tones and hues were achieved with filters. The colours seemed so improbable we were sure he was right. But today I can attest he was completely wrong. So two new things today – colours to defy the imagination and a label applied to me which I have never heard before.

There is little more to write about as most of the day was spent driving and looking. Stopped in a few small towns to get out of the traffic. Arrived in New London after dark and booked into the naval quarters. Not quite as flash as the Army puts up but who is complaining when the rates are so good. Went down to the local steak house, about the only thing open and discovered that dinner was served with a stripper. After dinner was served up! A bit unorthodox so left there and asked at the laundromat a few doors up where I might find somewhere to eat. The Chinese lady there told me everything nearby was closed but if I liked I could join her family for dinner. So I sat around the family table, in a room opening off the laundromat, and enjoyed a large feed of fried rice. And something which included cabbage. I have to say that this country is full of surprises. The warning that I would see and hear things I would never imagine possible seems to be a sound truism.

October 1989

Jesus Loves Osama

February 9, 2007

Posters outside various churches in Sydney and Melbourne this last week have excited all sorts of commentary about the accuracy or otherwise of the statement “Jesus Loves Osama”. It is unquestionably a provocative and even emotional statement, prodding our community fears about terrorism and needling our other insecurities. Is it a true statement?

Much of the commentary has linked the love of Jesus with consequences. And there is plenty of commentary that links the love of Jesus with an approval of Osama’s actions. That is, the assumed reasoning is “if Jesus loves Osama then he must approve of what Osama has done”. We don’t feel that we could love Osama because of what he has (allegedly) done. Fair enough. Or perhaps our sense of justice is sharpened, and we want to see him stand trial for his (alleged) crimes. Fair enough too. There is nothing in the Bible that says those who break our civil laws should not be brought to justice.

But that is not what this sign is about. This sign is broadcasting the remarkable nature and personality of Jesus. What is remarkable about this guy is that he loves first, despite what we have done. He certainly does not approve of any law breaking we have committed. That goes for me, you or Osama. Or Hitler or Pol Pot. Or Saddam. Or the person who steals fruit from the neighbour’s tree in the middle of the night. What he does do is say he will overlook those misdeeds if we ask him to. Simple really. So if I ask him to forgive me he will. And Osama has the same deal offered to him. Jesus’ love, expressed in part in his willingness to forgive us, comes first. Not because of anything we have done, or not done. But simply because this is who he is. It is his nature to love. Would he approve of what Osama has done? Of course not. Would he demand justice? He does! But would he forgive Osama and show his love to him if Osama asked for that. Of course. Just as he does for anyone else on this planet. That being the case, the sign is right on the mark.

Zuigia Farewell Concert

February 4, 2007

Over the last couple of years we have been blessed by three unlikely guys from the US (Hawaii, Texas and the “Four Corners”) who make up the band “Zuigia”. They have had a remarkable music ministry to high school students and church youth. Australia has one of the highest teen male suicide rates in the world, if not he highest. So their ministry of love and acceptance, found in Jesus and lived out in their own lives, has had a real resonance with their young, and not so young audiences.

With the three guys going in different directions (though one will continue the Zuigia ministry) they played a farewell concert last night at Frenchs Forest Baptist Church. Here are some clips of the evening, put to a couple of their own songs – thanks Greg.

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