Exploring your comfort zone: a thing of Beauty

I stared in to the night sky, allowing deep breaths to enter my lungs, fill me with energy and leave my body as clouds of steam. I stood still and strong in front of my family, my friends, my community. I felt their gaze on me, I enjoyed their attention, their focus. The lights slowly became brighter and our names became distorted. This night was the final night of The Beauty Index, a project I joined to get out of my comfort zone. What shocked me, as I watched another breath of steam rise above me, was how comfortable I felt.

Way back in December I attended a workshop that was a taster to becoming more involved in a men’s dance project. As I’d previously overcommitted in a car park (follow the link to my SeeSawMag interview) as an enthusiastic spouse at Annette Carmichael’s Creation of Now; I felt I had to rock up and see what this whole thing was about. I was terrified walking in to the Civic Centre. Some of the men here could already dance, already move well. I felt awkward and uncoordinated. Self-conscious and stiff. It isn’t like I never danced or moved – I loved mucking around at concerts and festivals, I was fit from running and football – but keeping in time and having awareness of my body? I was lost.

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I enjoyed the day, and felt like I should commit to the project – but this was not coming from a place of confidence. I was desperate to push my boundaries and get myself out of my comfort zone. I really wanted a new challenge, and the way I had felt on that first day – this whole “becoming a dancer” thing was going to be that challenge. When the call came out in April to put up or shut up – I dove in to the main group of the project. A group of men with varying physical abilities, fitness, age and experience.

What followed was months of rehearsals. There were times I questioned how wise this whole thing was. There were times we couldn’t walk in a straight line, or keep basic three pattern movements in time – how the hell were we going to be part of a big performance. We ground away, getting better every few weeks – before putting in some utter shit-show of a rehearsal that would have everyone, including Annette, second guessing us. Then, things would click, timing would improve. We developed a sense of ownership over the project and the process. We could do the rehearsals – now, could we perform it?

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Rehearsals – Photo courtesy of Nic Duncan

I had no performance experience – dance or otherwise before this project. In fact, my first time on a real stage was the Wednesday before the start of the Country Arts WA Regional Arts Summit when we had the chance to wander about ManPAC as part of our “bump-in”. We were in Mandurah to be the living, breathing proof of effective community engagement and were there to work alongside delegates to put on a show on the final day of the conference. It was invaluable experience – the bunkered in rehearsing for hours; the joy of sharing a house with five other men; the late night partying and frivolity of a world far from responsibility; the hangovers; and on the final day – getting on-stage in front of an audience to perform. It was unifying. It was exhilarating. It was the chrysalis of the ManPack.

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The ManPack performing at ManPAC – Photo Country Arts WA

Suddenly, we were back in Denmark and back with the wider group. Hard in to rehearsals. On site. Dealing with dancing on slippery clay in the rain when we’d spent months rehearsing on floorboards, in doors. I slipped and fell hard moving in a way I had previously had no second thoughts doing. I wasn’t hurt but I was rattled. We were in hoods for our costume. Another adjustment. The floor of the shed was high pressure hosed to get rid of the slippery clay. We were rehearsing under lights. Suddenly it was dress rehearsals. Suddenly – there was no more time. Suddenly, I was going to find out a lot more about my comfort zone.

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Our youngest member – shredding his solo on rehearsal

Our Tech Rehearsal night, from my own perspective, had been a debacle. I was late, or early, or just out of time. My body was not right. My back felt sore and I felt heavy and unstable. I went home in what at best could be described as a funk. At worst – abject terror. Had I not been driving a couple of fellow community dancers home that night – I would’ve burst in to tears. Had my windscreen not been so difficult to see out of, I would’ve still done in in front of them. Dress rehearsal came about and I was stressed. We had a handful of VIPs in to watch and this was a full run through. The stakes were much higher than ever before, even higher than Mandurah.

Dress rehearsal went ok. We weren’t great. We weren’t bad. I was ok. I felt the nerves that had rocked me the day before became slightly placated. Things were going to be different on opening night in front of 140 people – but at least I wasn’t about to burst in to tears. Hopefully. As a group we were happy with how it had gone – the mistakes that are inevitable in a performance weren’t big enough to cause trouble in the run – and the manner in which we either recovered from them, or covered them was a tribute to our preparation. I went home ready to take on the real thing the next night and ready to let the world see what we’d been playing around with for months.

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Our pros – Scott Elstermann and Sam le Breton Photo by Nic Duncan

Our first two nights of the season were fantastic. There was a buzz amongst us and a buzz in the crowd. People had come with a forgiving mindset and a careful curiosity – I mean, seriously, how well could a bunch of blokes from the community really dance? It was good of us for having a go. What no one had counted on was our desire to be more than a curiosity. We went for it both nights and put on solid performances. The buzz around town was fantastic. People were clamouring for extra tickets to the sold out Saturday night show. People willing to stand. People who had heard that we were actually pretty good. Even some of the art snobs who didn’t want to watch men plod around stage.

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Photo courtesy of Nic Duncan

Suddenly the final night was here. The night were this post began. We’d had our now traditional warm up to the Game of Thrones intro. We’d a brief sing-along of the Lion Sleeps Tonight. We mucked around in the dressing room together. We’d told a few more dodgy jokes, done our warm up games and had our hugs. There was a feeling that tonight was going to be a big one. I was feeling good. The aches and pains weren’t too bad. The energy in the group was great. Our unity was forged.

We hit that final night with another level of focus and intensity. Standing in front of my family, my friends and my community. Some of my family had travelled from Perth to come and watch. As I gazed out towards the moon, peaking out from behind the trees; just over the heads of the audience; I readied myself to go as hard as I could one last night for them. You have to meet commitment with commitment. I stood and enjoyed sensation, audited my body in my mind and relaxed.

That was the most amazing thing about this process – that moment of relaxation, of enjoyment, of comfort. At key moments in the show I had the chance to take in the audience, enjoy their gaze and attention. Make myself to take up more space and feel larger than I truly was. We were performing in an old saw mill – a huge industrial space, a place of masculinity, blood and sweat; where trees came to die. There was no fear of overwhelming the stage with presence. We had to fight for the audience’s attention over our setting – it challenged us to be bigger and demand more respect as our confidence grew in each show.

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The hinge – Photo courtesy of Nic Duncan

After the second show, Annette asked me what I was going to do on the final night – what was going to come out in my performance. I think the both of us had been pretty shocked how far I’d come along in the process. I’d trusted her fully in preparing us to perform; and had unlocked part of myself along the way. That final night, as I challenged myself to go harder and harder through the show to take up more space, stretch further, embody the work more than the night before. I wanted to move with more air, more grace, more intensity, more purpose. I felt fantastic. I felt alive. I felt comfortable.

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Photo courtesy of Nic Duncan

Sure, my dancing still has its moments; I’m very much untrained – but this project was about getting out of my comfort zone and trying something new. About putting my trust in others and seeing where it would lead. About giving part of myself to the creative process. About forcing myself to take in the gaze of an audience and enjoy it. I’d talked about taking a running leap from my comfort zone, away from running and football and taking the piss out of myself.

I had never expected to so comfortable on-stage (well, on-concrete). To feel so comfortable performing, especially in front of my community. To find a new comfort zone. One I never new existed. One I am so grateful to Annette, the crew and the ManPack for unearthing. One that I’m not keen to lose track of again. Now, I’m not packing my bags for WAAPA – but what I have done, is added dancer to my identity.

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Photo courtesy of Nic Duncan

The Manpack:

Leader, mentor and force of nature: Annette Carmichael http://annettecarmichael.com.au/Home/Home.html

Our Incredible Community Performers: Don Anderson, Adrian Baer, Brad  Black, Dennis Buffart, Alexander Grace, Carl Heslop, Alex  Pyke, Todd Anderson, Rick  Bentink, Emil Davey, The Mountain Nigel Levinson, Phillip G Light, Martin Sulkowski
Professional Performers: The incredibly gracious and supportive Scott Elstermann, the capoeira king Zak Launay, the quiet intensity of Sam Le Breton, and Peter Fares (research phase)

Epic sound designer: James Gentle

Design gurus: Kevin Draper and Indra Geidans

Costume designer, stage manager and general support legend: Symantha Parr

Lighting designer: Kevin Blyth http://www.allevents.net.au/AllEvents.html

Photographic genius: Nic Duncan www.nicduncan.com

Tear inducing filmographer: Rob Castiglione http://www.robcastiglione.com/

Producer and Jingle-jangle lookout: Sandi Woo https://sandiwoo.com.au/

Co-ordinator of everything: Anna Boaden

The Beauty Index is supported by Denmark Arts; the WA Government through Departments of Cultural Industries and Regional Development; Country Arts WA; the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts and the Regional Arts Fund; Lotterywest.

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Monochromatic trees by Kevin Draper and Indra Geidens – photo Carl

Some thoughts on Father’s Day

It was a day I hated and would often intentionally avoid, as it was a strong reminder of the fact I didn’t have a father (well, an alive one) any more. I tried to transfer my focus to my Grandfather and other father-figures, but it still rung out to me that my Dad was dead. School projects to make a card, reminders, adverts – all of them stung. Until the day I became a Father.

Father’s day. There are lots of theories and ideas on its origins and its worth. Its origins as a Christian feast day have been around long before socks and ties were the preferred gift – but it was the actions of the New York Associated Men’s Wear Retailers, the Father’s Day Council and Sonora Smart Dodd that got it really off the ground. With that sort of pedigree, it is no wonder that you can’t ignore the solid commercialism of the day today and the focus on the giving of gifts. I particularly enjoyed reading this article on “upscale” gifts to consider. Why not gift dad a $500 steak? Or a massive bbq?

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I don’t really remember the first Father’s day after my Dad died. I was 14 when he died, and the following years do become a little blurry when I try and remember them. I do know, however, that each milestone following his death was painful. His birthday; Mum’s birthday; my birthday; Father’s day; Christmas; his death anniversary. Each milestone a fresh reminder of what was gone. I would often look to downplay things, avoiding things like birthdays or Christmas.

I also made a conscious decision to forget the date my Dad died. He died suddenly and it was and is one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. I didn’t want to remember that date, or the days that preceded it – sitting in hospital with my Dad – laying in a hospital bed, unable to talk to me; the afternoon helping the ambulance officers carry him from our yard. Dad had a stroke in my grandparent’s chook pen and was found by my mum. I was next on the scene. I didn’t set foot near that chook pen for nearly a decade afterwards.

What hurt, and still does in some ways, is that my Dad was pretty great. I’m biased, but he taught me a huge amount of things, gave me a massive amount of time and listened to me prattle on as a young teenager. He was older when he had me, and his health wasn’t as great as it could’ve been – so he went about parenting me (and life in general) a lot differently than when he was a young man, parenting my three brothers. I laugh when people tell me “what my dad was like”, as if I hadn’t met the “real” version of him. I feel sorry for them, as they can only remember the original cut – what I had the privilege of living with was the more refined, remastered version. Sure, the fashion was still terrible, but the man he became was fantastic.

Dad was devoted to his family and his community and would help anyone, and everyone – often to his own detriment. He was dedicated, generous and incredibly loving. Dad could talk to anyone, anywhere, any time about anything (and often did). He was a man that took time out of his life to help. He helped settle Vietnamese refugees at a time the world didn’t want them (not dissimilar to now); took Aboriginal borders to the beach during the school holidays during the 70’s (which was not popular); helped kids struggling with literacy and numeracy by tutoring them in his woodwork classes, and later in life returned to do it again as a school-based volunteer. He stood up for what was right, not what was popular and had conviction to not back down. This earnt him the reputation of a temper. It is this that I respect the most. When he left my life, he left a massive void.

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With Dad, the Valley of the Giants

Some wonderful humans tried their hardest to help me through my teenage and young adult years by being wonderful friends and mentors to me. People who seeped in to the void that my father left – never covering the outline but helping to fill the space. My grandfather, so gentle and quiet; my football coach, so straightforward and structured; my year twelve maths teacher – a man plucked from retirement for one year of teaching, who seemed to come at the perfect time, to chat, take me sailing and introduce me to Nick Cave and Paul Coelho; my brothers, all grieving themselves but desperate to help in their own ways – be it advice, concerts, time, arguments; friend’s fathers – one in particular, who like granddad – didn’t announce he was doing anything, but was just present.

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My wonderful Grandad at my wedding

There were many others – uncles, other teachers, other coaches, older friends. All of them pulled their weight – but unfortunately, none of them were my father. They helped mould me and shape me, but I was not facing the thing I really needed to – my grief.

One of the most influential people in my life, particularly after my Dad died; put it so clearly and succinctly for me one drunken evening. I was three sheets to the wind on her husband’s home made claret and she told me;

“Grief is not compartmentalised, you don’t have separate buckets of grief for each person.

What grief you don’t deal with stays in the bucket until you return back to it for another person – you get another chance to empty what is left.”

Still, to this day, those words mean so much to me. Now this lady is pretty special – a little crazy, but very special; and has helped me along my journey in more ways than she knows. Of everything she has said and done, those words helped me the most.

I had run from my grief. I avoided it. There were years of anger – and a generalised failure to cope. I didn’t cry about my Dad’s death (properly anyway) until over a year later. I remember exactly where I was and when it was. It was great in many ways, but then; I didn’t go back to that bucket of grief for years. When Dad died I was in shock. I was numb. I didn’t know what to do or how to do it. I was a kid. When it happened, I actually found myself comforting other family members as they cried in to my hugs.

I was a pall bearer for my Dad, in what I still to this day think was one of the worst moments of my life. It was important, and necessary and galling and horrific. Since that day; I’ve hated funerals and the sight of coffins – and if there’s a funeral; it takes a bloody big effort for me to be there. Don’t be surprised or offended if I don’t rock up, or disappear half-way through. Its not just that I don’t want to be there, I just can’t. If I’m there, it is most certainly for a damn good reason. And under duress.

What I have been able to do though, is face my Dad’s death and funeral and the associated grief when I’ve been forced to go back in to a world of grief.

My Nanna’s funeral was my first real attempt; the shaking tears and blisters as I dug a grave for my beloved dog Elu was as much embracing the tears I failed to shed in the past as it was my beautiful furry friend.

When my Grandad died – a man who was so, so special to me – I was determined not to hold anything back. This man was a rock to me, the one who filled the biggest space inside the void my father left – and I was not going to hold back anything that might add to the bucket of grief left over from Dad.

There was tears, and snot, and poems, and tributes and talking and tears and a trip to Kokoda (full of tears for Grandad and Dad) and tears and whisky and tears and tears. I’ve not emptied that bucket of grief fully – but I’ve made a big dent.

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Half way up some muddy prick of a hill

Going back and facing that was important. What has also helped has been new focus and new life, that has forced me to reassess and realign my thoughts on a few things that come along.

While I was able to scrub the day of Dad’s death from my memory, I couldn’t hide from Father’s Day. It would loom over me, announcing itself through junk mail and television adverts for weeks before hand; reminding me I had no-one to buy a chuck-less drill for. I think back to that time as a time that I was so angry and confused. There was a lot of bad punk music and violent outbursts. I was not ok. I was not happy. Things were not going to be all right. Then, new life came in to my life. I became a Father. Suddenly, this day that meant loss and pain and anger meant love and love and hugs. And socks. I had to change my focus. I had to become something else.

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Photo copyright of Lata Photography http://www.lataphotography.com/

This wasn’t simple, it wasn’t like a switch – it has taken time to get in to it and in many ways, I feel like this Father’s day has been my best one yet. This one didn’t have an undercurrent of anger. I didn’t want to avoid it. I embraced it. I sat in bed, looking at my home-made cards, munching on my breakfast and felt happy. I joined in a group Father’s day activity, because I was happy to celebrate the day. I made the most of my day and my time with my boys and even though I was sad my Dad was not around; I wasn’t angry. Like everyone – I’m growing as I go. My Dad lost his Father as a young man. I’m sure that impacted on how he went about things and how he grew as a man. He became a better man as life went on, as he reflected, as he grew. It is all I’m trying to do achieve.

Now, I know this doesn’t mean I’m cured. That my bucket of grief is empty and I’m right to go – but what it does mean is that I’m getting to a better place.

I hate the word journey, the bastards on reality talent shows have ruined it – but it is what life is. There are moments where it is great and wonderful and perfect and moments where it really sucks.

I’ve had a few of those moments, and they are challenging and they take a time to get through. It has taken a bloody long time. It does. My Dad died 17 years ago. I still miss him. It doesn’t get easier to have him gone, it just gets different.

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A new focus

 

 

 

 

Macho Macho Men

Macho, macho man; I wanna be, a macho man; Macho, macho man (yeah, yeah); I wanna be a macho! You’ve gotta be a certain type of man in our world – particularly in the rural area. Welcome to this rambling thought piece that wanders through some ideas on how railing against a stereotype can be challenging – and at times, you have to think, why bother?

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Apologies for the Village People reference. I mean, who doesn’t absolutely love them –  but it is more than dated, and the link to my macho man post is a little tenuous. The Village People song was more about getting as fit possible and being ready to get down with, anyone you can – while this is more about being a certain type of man and acting in a certain way. A macho way all the same.

Now, as a man who chose nursing as a profession – I’ve experienced questioning on my sexuality based on that choice. From the start of my university studies, some of the men that I played football alongside would regularly call me gay. Or a faggot. For studying nursing. Some of it was “harmless” (see homophobic) joshing that was more about having some fun than actually thinking I was a homosexual, but sometimes I actually wondered if they thought I was.

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I was quite comfortable with my sexuality, so didn’t pay much attention to this borderline homophobic abuse; but looking back, I really feel for anyone who was in my presence that may have been gay, or bisexual, or questioning; and hit by any of the ricochet. I wish, having my time again – that instead of laughing this abuse off or even playing along to cope – that I was a stronger ally and called out the language that was being sent my way for what it was. It wasn’t until years later, at the WA launch of the Safe Schools Coalition, an amazing two day workshop; that it really dawned on me that I should have been stronger.

I’ve been involved in male-dominated sporting groups for most of my life and they have times that they are wonderfully supportive – provided you fit the mould and do and say the right things. As a young nurse who doesn’t drink beer, there were times that I felt like my club mates thought I was really quite odd. Again, I was pretty comfortable being me, but there were times that, in that hyper-masculine setting, that I felt pressured into conforming with behaviour I wasn’t proud of or comfortable with; or letting things slide when I should have stood up stronger.

For instance, it has taken me a long time to feel comfortable enough to challenge people’s blatant racism or sexism within this setting – particularly when I know I am in the absolute minority. My wife comes from a Muslim family, I have Muslim friends, and have travelled mainly in Muslim-majority countries – so when some life-expert who hasn’t left the state wants to give a lecture on what “they” are all like, I can’t help but introduce the fact that, in my experience, the Muslim’s I know personally, haven’t waged jihad on me. Well, I don’t think my mother-in-law has….

I’ve also tried to model better behaviour and language in my own conduct – particularly know that I am coaching young men, particularly around attitudes to women. I’ve tried to change the language we use as a team – no homophobic or transphobic slurs; no one is a pussy; we do modified push-ups, not girl push-ups; the world girl is not to be used as a slur; I try to casually bring up female sporting achievements, the AFLW has helped with relevance, as casually bringing up Elaine Thompson was a challenge. I’m not a feminist – I don’t feel worthy of using that label to describe myself when I feel that there are many more people, women in particular, who are doing much more to be advocates, leaders and revolutionaries. All I’m doing is not being a douche canoe. I don’t deserve a medal.

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I also try to model this behaviour, language and attitudes for my sons. I’ve also, always, been physically affectionate with them. I was wary of the concept of “handling” them like boys from the beginning, and while you can’t break from everything that is engrained, you can try. I am determined to continue to show them that kisses, cuddles and touch are normal between men. I’ve tried to model it with their uncles and our male friends. Reading this excellent piece by Clementine Ford (and being lucky for her to tell me about it discuss it before it was published) has made me even more certain that we have to challenge the social norms around male touch. We just need to chip away to normalise it. My father was wonderfully affectionate to me up until the time he died. As a young teenager, I felt really embarrassed when he would hug me or give me a kiss goodbye. Mortified. Now, I look back thankful he did, and miss it greatly.

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My father was forced, through ill-health, to be the “stay-at-home” parent for me in my first years of life. He eventually went back to work and resumed his cultural norms, but for a while there, he was on the other side. Since my eldest son was born, I haven’t worked full-time. I’ve taken time away from formal work; to work within our home, raising our children.

I currently study from home and work part-time while my wife is the major breadwinner in our family. Working as a teacher in a primary school as well as running her own tutoring business is seriously hard work – hard work that few actually recognise or acknowledge. I find her dedication to both roles both tiring and inspiring. A perfectionist, incredibly intelligent and highly-qualified – my wife does not do things by halves and does not phone in a session in either role.

Part of taking on this role, of majority breadwinner, as a mother, is fraught with judgement (both external and internal), guilt and and fear of letting others down. Society views working mothers as choosing work over their children. Of letting down their kids. This isn’t my thought bubble, a really intelligent women called Dr Judy Rose, did her PhD on the phenomena. Working fathers do exactly what my wife does – in fact typically greater hours away from the home, with arguably less engagement with it when home – but men are just doing what they are supposed to do. It is bollocks.

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By taking on this high level of work and earning capacity, my wife has enabled me to focus on my study. I would not be able to do this without her. By taking on this role, my wife has also enabled me to be the main worker in our home. Something I am comfortable undertaking, and feel grateful for the challenge – it’s bloody hard work. I have many peers that don’t understand this, wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it, or are in professions that wouldn’t allow them to do it. It’s a shame. Until more men understand the division of home-based labour that currently exists is entirely unfair, particularly around the mental load of organising the home – the less likely we are to see more women re-enter the workforce and bring their talent and expertise with them. We are poorer for it.

The other attempt to challenge norms in behaviour that I’ve recently embarked on is a men’s dance project. I’ve never done any form of structured dance. I’ve been an active participant in large-scale dance events that involve no structure, but lots of fun (concerts, festivals, gigs), but real dancing – as in choreography, timing, and visualisation, is a whole new thing. I’m well beyond my comfort zone. I’m working with an amazing group of community dancers – other men with no experience. We are physiotherapists, tradesmen, a mussel farmer, teachers, vineyard workers, and farmers. We are being led by an amazing director and dancer in Annette Carmichael.

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My involvement in this project isn’t just about “having a go”. I am determined to show my sons that men can dance too. And my young footballers. And anyone else caught in the collateral. I tried to encourage some friends to join alongside me, but was met with a resounding chorus of NO! Like nursing – dancing is seen as a realm for women. Like nursing – dancing is seen as something gay men do. Like nursing – there are plenty of raging cisgender heteros who do dancing. Even if you are a gay man who dances, or nurses, or both – you should be free to do it without being reduced to some tacky stereotype. Just as if you are a homosexual man who likes playing football – you shouldn’t have to listen to homophobic slurs, even if they aren’t directed at you.

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My boys have already responded really positively to my dancing involvement. They are hanging out for our performance in November. They join in when I practise my routines at home. They ask me about things I have been doing in practise. They are even putting on dance performances for me at home, regularly exploring movement and expression in their own – and feeling comfortable doing it. It’s great.

Now, dancing for myself is fun. I’ll get congratulated for doing it and patted on the back. Similarly to not being a douche canoe above – there are many professional dancers who are men, who deserve amazing recognition and praise – just as there are thousands of talented community dancers (and professionals) who are women, who deserve it too. A former country footballer giving it a go is a cultural curio – the bar is set low for me as far as expectations go, so the urge is to pat my back for trying.

Which, if personal recognition, was what I was chasing, then it would be worth, as I will be recognised. and congratulated for being brave for doing something thousands of people do every day. Don’t get me wrong- it is terrifying and I’m proud of myself for taking the challenge, but I am doing it for my sons, not to be heralded. I want them to feel that that dancing is a bit more normal, and if they want to challenge the norms and take it up, they’ve seen a male role model do it.

In talking with my mother, after I signed up for this dance project – she told me a story about my father. It turns out he was a very active Irish dancer when he was younger, regularly performing and competing. He loved it. Now, he never encouraged me to dance – but never discouraged me either. I always remember him being able to dance at weddings during traditional dances, cutting a rug with my Mum. It explains, perhaps, my electrically fast feet (ha); or perhaps, more closely, explains why I felt it was ok to take on a men’s dancing project in the first place. Dancing had never been rubbished to me by my role model. And like home-based work, physical affection and the many other areas of influence my father had on me – if I can just build on each of them a little more – they’ll become more and more the norm for my sons. And hopefully their children.

 

Vale, Benno

Tragedy impacts on all of us in different ways. We are reminded of our own mortality. We have feelings of empathy to the closest family and friends. We have our own feelings of grief. This week has had me experiencing solid grief for the loss of a young friend who had much more adventure ahead of him. This post is partly what I supplied to our local football write-up, and a little bit more.

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Ben wasn’t a club champion at the Denmark-Walpole Football Club. He sprayed his kicks a bit and there were times, if his confidence dropped, he would look lost out there. There were times, when it did all click – and the kid who resembled the Chesty Bonds guy would lock down his opponent, lay some big tackles and hit his targets.

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Ben gave full effort and attention to his football – and his coaches; whether it was Colts, Reserves or League football. You knew he was going to have a crack. He trained hard, and rarely missed a session in his Gold Coast jumper. While I was playing and training, Ben and I would chat, jogging around the oval. He was a good kid that was interested in the world. He loved his footy and his footy club – and it loved him back.

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Ben put his hand up to do many things around the club. He joined our football club committee as one of our youngest members – and had to learn about internal club politics pretty quickly. He nit-picked my minutes relentlessly when I filled in for the club treasurer for a few months – correcting the fine details I’m not renowned for. He was always interested in trying things out and getting things moving. Some didn’t work (the fishing nets rotting behind the change-rooms), some did (chasing a grant to install new flooring for our change rooms). I still thank him each time I don’t ice skate around in the rooms in my football boots.

Ben was the assistant coach for the Colts (under 18’s) in his first year out of the grade – and took his role seriously. His old coach is devastated. Being a Colts coach now, I can empathise with how he must be feeling; you build bonds with your players, and as my amazing Grandfather always used to say, “age has nothing to do with friendship”.

Ben put himself forward to be part of a state-wide reference group for the Act-Belong-Commit Connectors program, after I suggested it. I swear he thought I was mad at first, but he put himself forward. He arm-wrestled our League ruckman shirtless to raise extra money at the Calcutta auction – an archaic football tradition where players are auctioned off and forced to perform acts of strength and humour. He had the guns to do it.

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copyright Carl Heslop and southsidegrind.com.au

Beyond our football club, he was a part of the Denmark Surf-life Saving Club, patrolling Ocean Beach each summer and helping anywhere he could. I can’t remember many days over his last summer in town that I didn’t chat to him on the beach. He was always gracious about my (lack of) surfing ability and restrained all guffaws until I was well out of the way.

Ben’s parents didn’t miss many of his games – their spot on the grass almost has an indent – and as we all know, parents that stick around become low-hanging fruit when it comes to club jobs. They volunteered as team manager, running water, canteen duty. They were proud of their son – and by God they should have been – he was a beauty. They helped where they could because they loved the club that loved their son.

Ben was in Perth for Uni, playing footy and enjoying his time as a young man in the city. He was studying to be a teacher. Twists of fate; different decisions; a long line of “what-ifs” can come to mind at times like these and they aren’t always helpful. Whatever the future may have held, I’m pretty certain Ben would have ended up back in our town at some point and around our club in some form – and the town and club are all poorer now that won’t happen.

Its been a tough week, that won’t necessarily get easier. I called Ben a friend and enjoyed his company – its been a challenge some days this week just to get anything done. The mind wanders. It’s brought up a lot of emotions. There have been tears – tears for Ben; for his parents; for his friends; for my children, as I think of more “what-ifs”; for our community. The whole town is mourning and we are all facing challenges ahead. Getting through the next game of football will be a challenge. The funeral will be a challenge. Father’s day will be a challenge. The first day of summer. Milestones that will come and go. The space left behind by this young man will not be quickly filled. Nor should it.

Grief is like a tide

Ben wasn’t a club champion – Benno was a champion young bloke; one who I know we are all going to miss.

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Alone. Tortured. Afraid. What it is like to work from home?

Alone. Tortured. Afraid. Staring meekly into the abyss. Waves of self doubt and self pity. A strange stain on your tracksuit pants of an unknown origin. Occasional flourishes of activity. What are the challenges of working from home? Surely it’s just a productivity gold mine.

Firstly, you save time on your commute. The time it takes me to get from my breakfast (excluding the school run) to a position of potential productivity is the fraction of the time most people spend in traffic. Without the associated road rage. I’ve seen some wild road rage in my time – including one time a very upset young man punched me through the sun-roof of my mother-in-law’s car in a paroxysm of rage. A friend of mine told me he used to play recorder at the lights to calm his road rage. Once I stopped laughing, I admitted it could be calming. Maybe.

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Once I’m there, in the zone, wired in – sometimes, just sometimes, magic happens. The words flow from my fingers. Coding analysis flows forth like a stream. Ideas form and are expressed with ease. It feels glorious. I am a PhD student, so there are moments, working away that I really feel like I’m not a complete fraud and that my ideas might actually be worth putting forward in to the world.

These moments are precious – and now that both of my children at school three days a week – they are starting to come more and more regularly. However, there are times that despite your focus, someone or something breaks you from the zone, losing your thread. Disastrous. Sometimes it can be something really small or subtle that drags you away. 7c3aFIl.gif

Working from home means that I miss out on the collegiality and support that students or workers based at a university sometimes take for granted. That lack of being surrounded by individuals who are doing something similar to myself, can be really difficult to manage. You don’t all have to be sexual health PhD students to support each other – just the fact that you are working in research means over coffee or lunch you can have a supportive conversation.

Those idle moments that seem simple enough, are really quite galvanising in continuing your work. When you’re at home – those moments don’t happen. There is no idle chat over coffee about how it’s all going. There isn’t another researcher with a similar methodology to bounce ideas off. There is no-one there to reassure you that what you are doing is actually worth it, that you aren’t just wasting yours and everybody’s time. Those moments of success, when you’ve finally ground something out – after hours of toil, to produce a real, tangible piece of academic gold; are celebrated alone. Sometimes I tell my kids. They’re supportive and patient, but they’re under seven, so you really are out there alone.

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I try and get myself to as many conferences and seminars as possible to make up for those moments. I don’t have a scholarship, and don’t perform my research as part of my direct role with my employer – so unless I snare a conference bursary, I have to self-fund my attendance. This has been the way for many conferences I’ve attended in the past few years, excluding my School’s support to attend SexRurality, a Healthway grant to attend the AHPA national conference, and a bursary from Curtin to attend the SiREN symposium. Amazing support that I am truly thankful for receiving.

Part of working alone means you really have to connect more than that – so other conferences have been critical, but costly exercises in chasing collegiality and support. Even conferences based in Perth provide the challenge of travel – it’s a 400km drive one-way to get there. Its a drive I do every month, but it takes half a day of travel time each way – which means not being able to work an extra few days (whether paid or PhD) and missing time with family. That means a two day symposium is a four day proposition, with the need for three nights accommodation. Not doing this means further isolation, and really is part of the trade-off of living rural.

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Another significant challenge of working from home, is the massive pull of other home-based labour activities. This is sometimes known as procrastination. Or laziness – depending on the activity. Doing loads of washing; cooking dinner and baking muffins for lunches during the week; installing a new car stereo; and performing back-burning of your bush block are all noble activities that equal procrastination. They need to happen at sometime, but could probably have waited for you to finish your insider-research paper.

You could probably add writing a blog in here too – but I maintain it gets the creative writing juices flowing before the academic stuff has to happen. A bit like a nice entrée before you attack your main meal.

Watching Game of Thrones recaps; having a stress nap; or reading everything you can find in the house that in no way relates to your PhD, in my opinion, comes in under the lazy tag. Resisting the pull of either of these when there is no-one there to ask you why you are on the couch can be grueling.

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So – what do you do? You have to keep working away, head down, searching for gold. There are times that isolation, both physically and professionally can take its toll – so you need to explore ways to reconnect. I follow as many PhD students as I can on Twitter, and contribute to #phdchat as much as feasible (with being lazy or procrastinating). I use other forms of social media and my blog to get things out there in forums that they may not have – which has been great for clearing ideas from my brain, that perhaps a solid conversation over lunch with a colleague would have.

I search for opportunities to attend conferences and seminars. I rarely video conference into seminars, as VC options are more targeted to people attached to work places, using workplace platforms and services. If you are a floating entity such as myself, you may not be able to have access – or your internet connection at home may not be up to the challenge. That, and everyone ignores you when you VC in.

I try and keep my procrastination to a minimum – but when it happens, I embrace it with vigour. When you are working alone and isolated – self-loathing isn’t going to help anyone. Beating yourself up for not achieving as much as you could’ve won’t help you get more done tomorrow. I did trial a procrastination avoidance app, that blocks “time-wasting” websites, but it would sometimes over correct itself and block something I actually NEEDED. You could log in, plead your case to the algorithm, sacrifice a dove and get back on with what you were doing – but it really broke your flow. And those moments that it all clicks – then you run with it as far as you can, you can’t be searching for a dove or dipping in to the well of self pity. Those are the moments that the gold appears and it all seems worth it, you have to be ready.

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Being a Dad

I’m not a fathering expert. I’m not an expert in anything, really. I’m a general nurse. I have a Masters in THE MOST general health area you could think off. I am average, ordinary and general in many, many areas. I am a father, an average, ordinary one and my kids are challenging, but pretty ordinary and average really. This is just some thoughts – take it or leave it. No expert. Just a Dad.

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Doing cross country with my two boys

Being a Dad can be a tough gig. Now – mothers, I know yours is a special kind of hell. You carry a child; accepting numerous changes to your bodies; birth a child in a variety of different manners, none of them gentle; feed, or not feed a child with milk that your body produces, while having to cope with the judgement and shaming of doing it/not doing it/not doing it long enough/doing it too long. You have to do the bulk of the heavy lifting, are the one your child is predominantly attached to in the early years and more often than not give up a career for the privilege. Or put it on pause. Or go return to work with your kids in day-care, while being judged for your time away from work and doing it/not doing it/not doing it long enough/doing it too long. Or have a stay-at-home Dad help you in return to work, who will be held up as bastion of selflessness for doing what the majority of mothers do with zero praise or adulation. Its balls. I get it. I really do.

Being a Dad is different. It is confusing at times and there are challenges. You don’t have anything to do with the gestation of a child beyond the fun part at the beginning. Unless your child has been conceived through IVF, where your fun bit was in a dark room, alone. Come the birth, you’re really a spare wheel. No matter how doting, caring and empathetic you are – you’re never going to get it. The midwife knows this intrinsically and will pay you no attention, beyond scoffing at any minor complaint you may make, no matter how quietly you thought you were voicing your concern about being tired or stressed. Save it for later. There will be no sympathy here.

The baby is born and you are largely forgotten. Child health nurses will largely ignore you, regardless of how involved you are. Friends will ask how the baby and the mum are going. Workmates don’t care, but will ask. They don’t care. They’ll pretend they do, but really, they’re only asking to be polite. Stop explaining what is happening and go back to work so everyone else can move on. Seriously, no-one cares. If they’ve got kids, they’re just waiting for you to finish talking so they can share their story – if they don’t have kids they are purely waiting for you to finish talking. Its not new to everyone else man. You are not the first Dad on the planet. Move on.

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Being a Dad is a challenge. Being a Mum is more of a challenge, and we should cut our whining and consider ourselves lucky and be more supportive, but it is still a challenge.  You feel like a spare part – but society expects you to be a major player. You feel like there is something you should do to help – but it isn’t very obvious. You want to be involved, but workplaces don’t support that really. Oh yeah – the department has got a family friendly policy, but don’t ask your boss for a morning off to attend an assembly. You’ll get laughed out of the office.

You’ll want to get involved and you’ll want to be supportive and you’ll also want some recognition from society that you are more than a walking inseminator – but none of that is probably going to happen so just try and keep yourself busy and engaged and for God’s sake, don’t complain. DO NOT COMPLAIN.

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Here are a few things you can do, to make yourself be less annoying and improve your life, and the lives of those around you:

  1. Forget about sex. For now anyway. Seriously, forget it. Just move on.  For the next few months just sort yourself out. You know what I mean. But even do that quietly and respectfully. You might feel great, and now the baby is sleeping a little more, your feeling a little more like you should try it on and look for a little bit of action. Your partner, despite having grown a 4.5kg parasite for nine months, looks amazing. You’ve never thought she has looked more beautiful. That incredible thing she has gone and done in growing and delivering a child has led to you thinking she is probably the most amazing human being on the planet. She’s also had an unexpected, chest related bonus you weren’t planning on. She is amazing. She looks amazing. She’s the sexiest creature ever. The issue is – she’s lactating. 62035291.jpgYep, those massive fun-bags you want to pounce on don’t belong to you any more (not that they did), they don’t even belong to your partner any more either. She is a walking food source and no amount of sleep, back rubs or gifts are going to change that. She’s also had massive body changes, is feeling incredibly responsible for a brand new, super needy human being and has more things to think of than you’ll ever know. Eventually (I hope for your sake), she’ll bring sexy back and you’ll be back in business – but until then, cool your expectations, be incredibly loving and supportive and focus on being useful. giphy.gif
  2. Focus on being useful. I spent six months as the stay at home parent when my first son was 3 months old. This was in another country, with an incredibly supportive Aunty helping out around the place, but primarily, child rearing was my gig (during the day). IT WAS HARD. Harder than work. Harder than manual labour. Harder than deciding whether to have a macchiato or a latte at lunch. SERIOUSLY HARD. latte-vs-latte-macchiato.jpgSo, when you come home from an INCREDIBLY stressful day at the office, doing whatever the hell it is you do; or get in after a really solid day on the tools and your back is throbbing – get useful. Now, this may not mean coming through the door and helping out by cooking. If you cook dinner, your partner is still looking after your kids. You need to ASK what is the most useful thing to do and muck in and do it. Then, when its sorted and baby is sleeping – turn your attention away from the couch and take on the next most useful thing you can tackle. You need to help the hell out. Raising a child is a full time job. Cleaning the kitchen and doing the laundry is ON TOP OF THAT. It is not an all inclusive deal, my friend – you need to do you share (as in an equal share) of the housework on top of the invaluable work you do earning money, because your partner is doing the invaluable work of raising your child for nothing. It is sometimes called domestic foreplay. If point one really resonated with you and you’re in a massive dry patch right now, try point two on for size. See if you can launder your way back to loving. Try to scrub your way to sex. Seriously, worst case scenario, you’ll actually help out by doing a small portion of the amount of housework you should be doing. Best case, you might gain some appreciation.images
  3. Don’t baby-sit your kids. Don’t do it. And don’t let ANYONE say that you are. You’re not babysitting. You’re not a desperate teenager saving money for next weekend’s binge drinking (or responsibly buying a car, or uni text books). You’re parenting. You’re fathering. You’re not doing a favour or taking on some additional task. You’re being involved in the most important thing in the world to you, aside from your partner. If someone asks if your babysitting your own kids. Tell them to go away (in much more colourful language). If your partner says your babysitting your kids – correct them. AAEAAQAAAAAAAAOQAAAAJGIxM2NiMTYxLTFiN2ItNDU5ZS1hZWRhLTcxYWIxZWIyYjMyNQ.jpgOn a slightly related side note: if your partner refers to you as “one of the kids” or a “mother of three” and includes you in the count – you need to grow some balls and man up. I don’t care how completely useless you are as a partner and a father, if you let your partner believe that you are as useful as a child in her life – forget point one. In fact, forget having any sort of meaningful adult relationship with your partner. Man up, stand up and change what ever has to be changed man-child. 635688549940642012-1245705170_man child.jpg
  4. They’re your kids. Yep, get involved big guy. You’re not doing a “favour” by being involved and taking them to swimming on the weekend. You’re not special. You are just doing what is expected of you – so don’t expect a pat on the head for just being an average father. Being involved in your own child’s life when you are not at work is not amazing. You don’t get a Father of the Year nomination for doing what is basically expected of you, having decided to bring another human being in to the world. tywinlannisterfar_893624.jpgJeez, if you think it is some big deal that you are involved in the most rudimentary way in the raising of your own child – you’re probably expecting a medal Ceremony for Domestic Services for that load of washing you put on. Pull your head in. It is your child, your house, your family. Take responsibility for what is yours and do what is expected of you without wanting a pat on the head every time you fulfil your most basic obligations.
  5. Work on your relationship. Once you’ve got your head around covering off the basics above – put some extra special effort in to getting along with your partner and work on your relationship. Take time out to spend together. Use eager grandparents to care for your child. Don’t feel bad for taking up a grandparent’s offer to look after your kids if your going to spend time with your partner. Your parents or in-laws remember how banal and mind-numbing raising kids can be, and they want to show off to their friends about how engaged and supportive they are. Exploit this for your own gain. They did. Don’t you remember being dropped off to Nanna and Grandad for the school holidays? THE SCHOOL HOLIDAYS! Not an evening so you can watch a movie – extended bloody periods. My parents even went over seas. article-2501704-195AE59800000578-881_306x423.jpgHonestly, get over your self and how important you think you are in the raising of your own children and give Gran and Pop a turn. They want to prove to you they still have it. And seriously, as much as you think you’re critical to your kid’s well being day to day, you are so quickly forgotten once the milo and lollipops come out. Honestly, your kids will go to sleep without you, they’ll be safe(ish), they’ll enjoy bonding without you hovering around being clingy, they’ll love it. Get out and spend some time with your partner and reconnect. Keep dating, well beyond the birth of your kids. Make your relationship a major priority. you’re a team in this childrearing thing, and if that isn’t your number one priority, ahead of kids, work and craft beers – you still have time to re-jig things. Make time. Exploit your parents generosity and reconnect. You never know, point one may be back in play if you’ve done well in the other areas.

So that’s it. I could go on all day – but who needs that. We’re all losing interest. So that ends my general advice to Dads. Its nothing more than the basics really: don’t be a demanding tool, be respectful and fair, and don’t expect a ticker tape for doing the basics. Again, I’m no expert and my advice in general – but I’ve been trying to follow it for a while now and, despite the small sample size, it seems to be working.

My Amazing Grandfather

This is a simple, yet sad post that I wrote in the days after my grandfather died. He was an amazing, gentle man. A fishermen by trade. A member of the 2/14th, severely wounded attempting to evacuate his CO during the Battle of Isurava. A leader through actions. A man of God. I was hurting in the days after he died, and putting this post up brought a tear to my eye.

My Grandad was more than a Grandfather. After my Dad died, he was the man to step in and helped fill a void in my life, becoming an influence on me in the only way he knew how – gently, quietly and patiently. He put up with my teenage attitudes while we lived next door. He was just there. Waiting. Waiting for me to come around and want to talk.

That time eventually came. We talked. For hours. On the phone, in letters, in person with a little scotch. We laughed. We solved the world’s problems. We talked crap. We teased Mum. I loved his company. Once we were back, living nearby, I would just go sit and read next to Grandad. I was desperate for peace away from the kids to get through my uni readings, he loved the company and never felt the need to fill the air with unnecessary words. We would read together for hours. Silent. Present in each other company. Happy.

In his later years, Grandad’s frailty became more and more apparent. For years I was convinced each time I left his home, it would be the last time I would see him. There were many tears shed as I would head back up north to Darwin, convinced there would be no more. Especially just after my Nanna died – my old mate seemed broken. His heart certainly was.

The love of his life was gone. My grandparents were married for over 60 years. They had 15 children together. A herd of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They had fun together. Adventures. Camping trips around Australia in to their 70’s and 80’s They spent days and days together. Chatting. Laughing. Teasing each other. No one would have begrudged him if he had left then. But I think he knew the family couldn’t handle so much grief in such a short time. He stuck around. I always felt it was more for us than him.

He did more than stick around though. He lived. He travelled. Sydney. Broome. Darwin. Copenhagen. Herrljunga – Sweden. Oh, Sweden. He was welcomed like a rock star and treated like a king. A life-long dream realised in his early 90’s. He was reunited with his father’s family after a mere 125 years of separation. Diligent genealogy had opened a door and my Grandad shuffled through it, ready to meet some more family and make the most of it.

There was afternoon teas, dinners, a lunch attended by nearly 100 people who came purely to meet him. Our hosts moved out of their house in the embodiment of Swedish hospitality to allow their elderly relative to be comfortable. He stayed for six weeks. A passionate patriot, I asked him towards the end if he was actually going to go home. He smiled wistfully, and for a while and said, “Maybe not”. He did shuffle home eventually, but he made a mark far larger than his frame. There are family there that will be shedding a tear for Dear Old Jack, such was his impact on that trip.

Now, I’m left to prepare for a life without my dear old mate. No more stopping in to see him. No more hugs – those big, meaty hands, clasped on to my shoulders. No more chats, about little things and big. No more sitting, watching him sleep, as the twilight of his life became so tiring. No more silent scotches, their air full of mutual appreciation and love, rather than words and noise.

My heart is broken, Grandad. Simple words do it no justice. I never wanted you to go, but I could never wish you back. You are in the arms of your Lord and your God. In the arms of your beautiful Vera. There are plenty of mates waiting there for you too– and I reckon your Mother and Father, Charlie, Joe, Peter, Gerard and Margie are at the front of the queue, desperate to share a whisky and hear about how nice that mob over in Sweden were to you. To sit and to chat. To reminisce about old times.

God Speed.