Saturday, 30 June 2018

Oh Clarence, is this really goodbye?

The most enjoyable steak I ever had was 10 years ago at a C grade restaurant (Country Comfort Motor Inn) in Coffs Harbour. The Scotch Fillet itself was surprisingly good, but what made it so savoured was what had happened in the two hours preceding.

It was the first time we had towed our old caravan north. And in those days it was the trusty GQ Patrol so it was real towing; not the namby pamby stuff I do these days. Having made it to Port Macquarie we decided to push on to Coffs to make the next day's travel to Brunswick Heads a bit easier. It wasn't a great decision. It drizzled making the visibility in the dark pretty bad. And the Pacific Highway was a disgraceful approximation to a national highway with pot holes, undulating surfaces and rough shoulders. On one memorable stretch I ended up off the side of the road to save the life of a fool who overtook us into the path of an on coming truck. My heart didn't slow down from then until we turned off the engine in Coffs Harbour. I can still taste that steak and the cold ale that went with it. Ever since that night, Coffs has always represented the point at which the hard work of the drive north was over.

The drama is no more. As of this year the double lanes are now complete from (the Geelong bypass via) Port Macquarie all the way the Woolgoola, just shy of Grafton. The treachery of the Port Macquarie - Coffs leg is a thing of the past. And so I wondered, as I cruised up the concrete highway; I wonder what happens after Grafton??

I have never in my life, until today, reacted emotionally to a road upgrade sign. But there it was: "Woolgoolga to Ballina Road Upgrade". If you've never driven north to Queensland up the coast that won't mean much to you, but if you have you will have the same reaction as me; Nooooooo! Please. Nooooo!

So you've done the hard yards. You've crawled up the Hume, navigated Sydney, and stopped at the few Service Centres on offer all the way to the Big Banana, and you're starting to feel like you're getting to the warmer, more lush hinterlands and beaches that compelled you to leave Mexico behind. But nothing prepares you for Ulmarra. Just a few minutes out of Grafton you get smacked in the senses by the majesty of the Clarence River and the iconic sugar canes both at once. And from there, the drive toward the border is like the country embracing you and kissing you on the cheek as you meander along with the river and hobby farms on your left, and the canes on the right. 

The towns are jewels scattered along the river. They are slow towns, with no fast food, so when the tourists stop they are 'forced' to get a drink at historic hotels or local bakeries. But as I made the drive today the countryside was scarred by massive tracks of dirt in preparation for the bypass. Behind us, Kempsey is already gone, Macksville - gone. Fredrickton and their pies - gone. Well, not gone. Bypassed. And as much as slowing down to take in Bulahdelah et al was good, when you're on a mission to get north asap, a bypass is a wonderful thing.

The great hurdle to getting the road done was of course the rivers. And now a casualty of the tourist drive will be the charmed old northern rivers bridges. So, on my drive today I stopped and pondered (and took some photos). The drive north without these towns will not be the same, so maybe, just maybe, this is one bypass that I'll bypass.

And, can I just say, today was probably the best days driving ever ...

I woke early and got ahead of Sydney just as the sun rose. The motorway through the Karingai National Park has got to be one of the iconic Aussie drives, but when the sun is rising into a clear sky and there is fog and mist around the hills, it is gob-smackingly beautiful. It was a joy to witness. The Hawksbury and the Hunter are grand hosts. 

And so I get to Coffs and the sun is warm and I've been sitting still for nearly two days so I drop into a little off-the-beaten-track beach (which happens to be where I rode my first wave on a longboard - thanks Scotty) and had a dip. The feel of not so cold salt water on my skin in the middle of winter was worth the drive.


Figuring that this might be the last time I do this drive before the bypass, these for the record:

Ulmarra: you are a beauty. You and your old buildings and river front ...






And so I drive along the road a bit wondering how easy it will be for people to swing around to Yamba ... and instead of the charm of the old bridge I am greeted by cranes and this enormous half made bridge which bullies the 'used-to-be-impressive' frame of the old bridge. Hmmm. 


And then there's you and your charm Woodburn, with your rows of cars and caravans along the river (no today so much).



And Broadwater, you are ugly, but we need you if we are going to turn that cane into sugar!!


Burning season. As I drive along the river there is ash in the air ... and so I pull over to watch the flames and smoke and hear the crackle of the fire in the cane fields. This is Aus ... tralia.


And so while the land embraced me today, my lasting image will be of the towering concrete structures of progress running counter to the meandering single lane river road. The massive swathes of dirt that are bidding progress bypass these towns. I don't know how I feel about it.


As I drove closer to New Italy my apprehension grew. The best rest stop on the east coast ... would it be saved? Would the freeway be far away. The land is cleared before and after ... I fear it will not survive ... was this my last ever rest stop at New Italy?








Friday, 29 June 2018

Fabulous miserableness



I rekindled my love affair with the north bound lanes of the Hume Freeway today. I awoke earlier than I wanted with childlike excitement for what has become one of my favourite days of the year - July in Byron Bay departure day.

In the years we lived and worked for three months of the year in our caravan on the northern NSW coast, the excursion from Brunswick northbound held such deep joy. I developed an irrational love of roadhouses and monotonous bitumen because of what they they symbolised. Today I was on my own and apart from the pain of navigating peak hour traffic up the Princes Freeway and around the Western Ring Round, the trip up as far as Holbrook was defined by frigid outside temperatures (at Oliver's coffee stop at Wallan my weather app confirmed 'feels like 0') and heavy drizzle. 

But in my warm drivers seat with Spotify's Aussie Rock Classics on loud - I was laughin'.  Then later in the day as the roads dried, I sought out the old travel, beach and surf- themed playlist I created back when we spent all those hours heading beach-ward ... a happy day indeed.

900+ kilometres today. Had to do a couple of hours work but now its time to stack some Zs and contemplate the NSW trek tomorrow. 


Friday, 8 June 2018

#8 outdoor recreation

This post the last in a series where I'm recording the appreciative thoughts and emotions associated with various spaces in our house. For context, read my post Thinking about houses.


Salt water soaked skin, dust on our shoes, dirt under our fingernails, sand between our toes, sun warmed bodies. This space is the magic door that transforms us from urban life to the well cliched 'great outdoors'.

In a past life I had an insatiable appetite for philosophy; keen to understand how we make sense of the world. In that season I read some French philosophy that described the difference between idols and icons in religious practice. Idols, as the argument goes, are essentially mirrors; they act as reflections of our own desires and pathological longings. Icons, on the other hand are 'doors'; they open us up to realities beyond themselves. I found that very helpful, and even though I hadn't thought about it for decades, I recalled it just now when I considered the objects in my shed.


If you thought that Woollies bag was simply a receptacle for Maria's gardening paraphernalia you'd only be partly right. As an icon, it it a doorway to mindfulness, regeneration and friendship. Most weeks, she carries that simple bag and walks a few minutes along the street to the best little community garden you could imagine. Every other item on that stand has its own iconic meaning, including the different hats I hang on the top ... different hats for different purposes.


The Bianchi is a hand-me-across from (my brother-in-law) Gregg. I'm no cyclist but I ride a bike (ask me about that distinction one day!). It is an iconic doorway to friendship and fitness. That bike means I get to wander down the street and feel part of a community to which we have only belonged for a short period of time. Immediately behind the Bianchi is Rachel's tourer, her companion of her solo rides in Australia and New Zealand and her preferred mode of transport when she's in Melbourne - which she's not at he moment. Instead we are looking after her ride while she guides walking tours in Kakadu and along the Larapinta during the southern winter. The blue bike was the cheapest hybrid I could buy circa 25 years ago from the Melbourne Bicycle Centre. Zac and I shared it when we lived in Brunswick. It has lived outside for most of its life, but it's as solid as a rock and still serves me well as my IGA and cafe ride.



Hiking boots and camping gear pepper the nooks and crannies. Our extended family has developed a love for bushwalking in recent times, and while some gear has its spot upstairs, the chunky stuff belongs in the garage! Oh what joy; the simplicity and purity of walking in the natural environment. The scents and silence invite reflection or conversation, both worth so much in our normal contemporary lives.



But of course sheds also accumulate 'stuff'. I'm no handyman, but what garage would be complete without tools, hardware, ladders and tubs of useful things (and some not-so-useful). And where else can you store those mattresses that mean on special occasions every available bit of floor space is commandeered for friends and family. Those aren't just bits of foam and springs: them there are icons of hospitality.


As with everything else hanging on the wall in our place, this mirror is a treasured possession. It was a farewell gift from my Japanese mates after doing our year 12 together more than 35 years ago. There is Japanese scribble from them on the back which reminds me of their love of life ... I love being able to hang this on the wall in my shed.  




What started as a cliched ridden learn-to-surf lesson in Noosa in my early forties opened up a world of stoke. That rack is a stack of stories. Those boards are icons to an engagement with nature, a lifestyle and friendships that have shaped my world significantly in the last 10 years. I am still laughably poor at riding waves, but oh what deep enjoyment I feel in my being when I paddle out and immerse myself in the ripples of the ocean and manage to ride one towards land. 

Our garage door is out of sight from the street, which means I can leave the door open and potter around in private. The ritual post surf routine leaves this frequent happy scene.

The centrepiece of the garage is the icon to rule them all. The camper trailer. In a past season it was the caravan. That was when we lived and worked for long periods of time on the NSW north coast. That was when the kids could join us for weeks at a time. Now is when Maria and I want to be away for weekends, to walk and just be; a simple hiatus, to plug into and feel part of the natural world. It is pregnant wth possibility. It promises and delivers with relentless consistency - regeneration and joy.


I was inspired to write this series in a large part by my love of good design. So far, not much of that in this post! But one thing I have learned is what makes a well designed transition from the street to the entrance of a home. It includes elements like:
  • a change in surface
  • a turn
  • access to a vista not immediately clear from either the front door or the street
Our driveway is classic Barwon Heads, pebbled concrete. It's kind of smooth, but not sanitised. Our back door (family entrance) is through a gate, and the front door involves a small step onto a front porch, beautiful. And a bit further down the drive, this wonderful icon-box called a garage beckons. (Funny that there is no room in our garage for our (too) many cars, which of course can also be either idol or icon!)

I don't have a favourite space in our house; it is the mix that makes it special for us. But without this ordinary but special shed, my experience of the world would be substantially impoverished.

Friday, 11 May 2018

#7 lounging

This post is part of a series where I'm recording the appreciative thoughts and emotions associated with various spaces in our house. For context, read my post Thinking about houses.




And just like that, winter comes and Friday night means you light the fire. 

In A Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander explains and illustrates how there are two things that cry out to be 'resolved' by good design in living spaces. Firstly, people are drawn to the light. Secondly, we want to be comfortable in whatever position gives as best access to that light. Think bay windows. In the house we rented around the corner, the main bedroom was a classic example of poor design. The only natural light was a high narrow window. In that room we experienced what Alexander describes as unresolved tension between our natural inclinations and what the design facilitates.

In contract, this room draws us to the light and offers comfort. In Alexander's world, such a place gives us peace. Our lounge room is a great space, but I would change one thing if I could. I'm not sure how it would be architecturally possible, but I'd switch the positions of the TV and the fireplace. Unfortunately, that would require the fire to be internal ... hmmm. But why?


Because there is only one practical way to arrange the seating. One seat faces the fireplace, the other the TV. In the apartment we rented in the CBD we intentionally chose not to have a TV. I never missed it. Apart from the evening news, we watch the TV infrequently, but it would be awkward to have a seat facing away from it. That means the most natural orientation (towards the double doors) is 'unresolved'. But, notwithstanding that little imperfection, we love being in this space.



It gets used for afternoon naps, for post-dinner conversations, for lazy weekend afternoons reading and drinking tea, and for playing with Winnie. The space in front of the fireplace is also the spot where our little pup (when home alone) reduces kindling from the wood basket to a floor covering of splinters. 



The wall hanging above the mantle piece is a Leunig print entitled "Mr Curly Comes Home". Apart from us being partial to Michael Leunig's poetic and prophetic take on the world, it seemed appropriate to hang in this house that signalled the end of my peripatetic vocational life. In anticipation of our long planned family excursion to Italy, I bought the Lodestars Anthology for Maria, and it still sits propped near the digital music player as a happy reminder.


I haven't 'curated' the coffee table books, but what is there today is not atypical of our lounge room reading faire. The latest edition of Maria's Dumbo Feather arrived earlier today; Paul Hawken's Drawdown; the April, May edition of Great Walks; the current edition of Talking Heads (the local community newspaper full of community news and views); I am Coyote, a gift from Rachel which is a collection of readings on being outdoors; Nassim Taleb's the Bed of Procrustes (essentially a book of proverbs) and the latest Give Where You Live Foundation magazine (of which I am a director). And the latest Monocle Magazine which arrived the other day and whose spine I am yet to crack ....


Along with the dining nook and the kitchen, this inviting space forms our communal area. It's where we gather, either as a family or with friends. Soft seats mean relaxation. It means slowing down. Sometimes the music gets turned up ... but when it is, we tend not to sit. Sitting is for soft music. Perhaps more than any other place in our little house, it is not for doing, but for being.


Sunday, 6 May 2018

#6 cooking

This post is part of a series where I'm recording the appreciative thoughts and emotions associated with various spaces in our house. For context, read my post Thinking about houses.

In Myers Briggs Type theory, healthy psychological development means a natural tendency in middle age to take up activity that 'balances' our primary strengths. My dominant vocational contribution has been people oriented and conceptual in nature. So in hindsight, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that around 40 years old I became really interested in making stuff in the kitchen.

For me it started with ginger beer. It became a Saturday morning ritual to concoct and bottle the family's weekly supply in a collection of Grolsch swing top stubbies. Then it was bread. And soon ginger beer gave way to my own home brew, with experiments in multiple varieties until Maria became tired of the constant yeasty smell that permeated the house. But all that was preparatory.

On one memorable day when we were expecting guests for dinner, the oven door came off in Maria's hands, and our long dreamed-of kitchen renovation became a necessity. I had fantasised about what it would be like to stock a new kitchen with functional and well designed equipment, replacing the ad hoc collection of cheap stuff we had accumulated over the years. When that fantasy became a lived experience, I found myself completely drawn to working in this gorgeous new workshop.

Chopping stuff with sharp new knives and cooking in hardy heavy base pots filled my soul with joy more than I could have imagined. I began gravitating to the cooking section in bookshops and discovered stuff that my inclined path to the business, philosophy and sports sections normally bypassed. I started to teach myself about textures and flavours. And I began to learn the patterns and formulae that unlocked the secrets to well balanced flavoursome dishes.

But cooking for me has always been a family thing. It is not so much technical as communal. Music filled rooms, people coming and going and then gathering around a table to share home cooked wholesome food is what it has always been about.



And so when we set out to buy a home on the coast, the kitchen was always going to be a key consideration. Can you imagine my joy when I walked into this place to find the closest to a commercial kitchen I've ever seen in a normal house. Quite simply a little slice of architectural heaven.




Our pot collection has been refined over the years. The soup pot at the rear was from 10+ years ago when we were all living at home. These days we use it to brew big pots of our favourite soups to stock the chest freezer. The two in the front were acquired by Maria and Johanna when we lived in Launceston and I love them a lot!



The wide clay-orange spine book by Allan Campion and Michelle Curtis was my kitchen bible for many years. In language I love, they taught me the basics of the kitchen craft. The thin red spine is a compilation of hand written recipes that were our family staples and favourites from the years we lived in Brunswick. I wrote a narrative that explained why the dish was important, what it meant for us alongside the ingredients and methods. The Soup Bible to the right is as used as any on the shelf which also includes a good number of vegan and wholefood collections.


fruit including figs and tomatoes from the community garden
Johanna's lunch prep while I was writing this blog
more of Johanna's lunch
... and sourdough rye from Starfish, where we spent a good bit of the morning today along with many other locals; drinking coffee, eating breakfast and watching the kids and dogs play together.



Not long after we moved in, I spent a joyous day creating this spice drawer; labelling and filling jars with wonderful smelling ingredients. Sometimes when I'm feeling a little low, I open this drawer and ponder the rainbow of flavours and somehow feel a bit better. Sad I know.

There are few weekend activities I enjoy more than putting on some music and cooking up a big pot of soup or curry. Yesterday the colours where deep orange and the spices were cumin and smoked paprika.



But whatever happens at the bench, on the stove or in the oven, at the end of the day this room is about people. It connects important things like sustenance, sensual pleasure, love and friendship. A kitchen does not stand alone. It is a connecting hub.

This one works because of many design factors, some of which are:
1. The golden triangle: in kitchens that work well, the stove, fridge and sink form a triangle - kitchen design 101.
2. It has two entrances, which facilitates ease of movement.
3. It has line of sight to the two other key communal areas; the dining table and the lounge.
4. It has natural light in abundance.
5. Design elements such as ceiling steps, light shades and indents create a connected yet distinct feeling.
6. Seats at the bench. Sitting and talking with whoever is in the kitchen is a 'family building' basic in our book.
7. Functionality; Stainless steel bench-tops. I wasn't sure when I first saw them. I'm a convert now. Plenty of space for consumables and equipment. Big drawers. Tall (hidden) cupboards.
8. Beauty; Woodgrain, clean lines of steel. Sunlight and shadows.


Sunday, 22 April 2018

#5 transitions and nooks

This post is part of a series where I'm recording the appreciative thoughts and emotions associated with various spaces in our house. For context, read my post Thinking about houses.


In 2009, one of the first events held at donkey wheel house was an unconference called Trampoline organised and hosted by my mates Pat Allan, Melina Chan and Steve Hopkins. I attended a session by Dan Donahoo with whom I would also become friends. Dan's session was on the curious idea of 'edge theory'. In psychology, edge theory is about anxiety inducing situations, but at Trampoline, Dan talked about transitions.

I started to see 'edges' as points of transition. Where the sea meets the sand on a beach, a transition from one environment to a completely different one. The edge of a cliff, a transition from safety and stability to one of free-fall and either danger or adventure depending on your intentions. And it opened my eyes to the way architects design transitions within buildings or outdoor spaces. Staircases, hallways, entrances etc.

One of the design features I love about our house is the transitions. The use of little corridors, steps and changes of colour are masterful.



Immediately inside the front door, the open space ahead towards the kitchen is the dominating orientation, but to the right a single step up and change in floor colour invite an alternative. The first 'edge' we encounter is the gate at the bottom of the stairs delineating the environment where Winnie has free reign and the space into which she must be invited.

These days most staircases have a bend in them. Ours is a single straight climb to the privacy of the send level. The clean and direct lines feel unapologetic. At the top of the stairs is a little corner with a print and a pot plant. The plant sits on a little stool that we found in a gift store around the corner in Hitchcock Ave. The print is one of three elephant drawings which Rachel bought from a London market. We have two; this one and one that hangs at the bottom of the same stairs, and Rachel has the other. The prints are a subtle reminder of her every time I ascend or descend the stairs. Maria and I are good at some things, but growing indoor plants is not in the set. The single remaining leaf on this plant is a constant declaration of our lack of prowess. 



I'll spare you a picture of the washroom, except for this drawing of Heidi's that sits on the wall. It was a gift when she was in year 5 ... a little window into our family wanderings in a beat up kombi 15 years ago.




The only place in the house that feels a little awkward from a design perspective is this study nook. The proportions feel a bit out, but it ends up being the compromise associated with the long straight staircase. In the end, we don't use this as a study space and it actually works really well as a storage and utility nook for the modem and printer. The cork board has a collection of Maria's photos of Barwon Heads and some hand-drawn postcards from Vasto. (Italy) The wooden stool under the bench is a piano stool that was part of the furniture set my parents bought from a local Devonport manufacturer after they were married nearly 60 years ago. 


Back down the stairs to the front door. The prints on the wall are from a Tasmanian artist who's work we first came across in the emporium upstairs in the Stillwater Restaurant, just near where we lived in Launceston. At the time we were living a peripatetic lifestyle. Her images captured beautifully the themes of transience, relationships and changing environments. We hung them on the walls in Launceston and love their place along the welcoming hallway here in Barwon Heads.

The side table was the first piece of quality furniture we ever purchased. How useful is a small narrow table with a couple of draws as a place to put and keep items we need as we transition from being 'at home' to being 'out'. Even furniture can help us transition well. While a coat and hat stand might belong here as well, I am gald that it doesn't fit and instead sits around the corner in just inside the garage. That way this 'at home' / 'out' transition space remains uncluttered and simple.



There is nothing special about a laundry, but the designers have integrated a few things that make the space work fabulously. A single step down (contrast to the single step up inside the front door). A change in flooring and full length glass in the external door all add a quality to the space.



We don't really have a 'backyard', but the closest we come is this long deck that hosts outdoor shower, clothes line, water tanks and garden shed. Out of sight and out of the sun is Maria's worm farm :-). Doors conveniently lead to the laundry and the garage.

looking from the entrance hall passed Johanna's room, the downstairs bathroom and laundry to the garage.

... and back the other way.

Our town house is sufficiently small that we need to be careful about how much stuff we hold onto. I like that. Although I confess that the garage is filling up with bits and pieces stuffed into nooks and crannies with some creative storing options, overall we are committed to recycling things we are not using. Over the years Maria has taught me lots about simplicity when it comes to decorating; whether it be clothing (decorating our bodies), shelving (ie avoiding it), and certainly ornaments. I have thought a lot about (and occasionally written) about the differences between minimalism and essentialism; the differences between economical and quality consuming; and the sometimes inconsistencies within an anti-materialism ideology. Suffice to say in this context, we want to make wise choices about the things with which we surround ourselves in our home.