Did you spend time by the pool? A snapshot of an inner-city kampung

We regularly return to Yogyakarta in Indonesia to brush up on language and culture; connect with family and friends and escape our every day lives. Whenever I tell someone I’ve spent a month in Indonesia – they picture a resort, a pool and nice bar. Reality is a little different. 

Ten years after our Javanese wedding, we were back in Yogyakarta for another holiday. It has become a place of comfort. I relax as I head down the road away from the airport now. I know what to expect when I hit the city. I walk in to “our” room, with a cupboard full of clothes that I have left behind since last time and check the cupboard for coffee beans. It has become a second home. It is relaxing, but not in the way many would think.

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Ten years ago – looking as serious as possible at all times

Yogyakarta is a really interesting city. It is a big university town with lots of interesting art and culture. Street art is very popular in the town – officially, in the form the changing of sculptures down the main street; and unofficially in the form of graffiti murals and paste-ups. One of my favourite pass-times has always been exploring the new works around the city, in the alleyways and on wrecked buildings. The most impressive on the ruins of a small village destroyed by the erupting Mount Merapi volcano in 2010.


While we are in Yogyakarta we stay in an kampung, less than 10 minutes walk from the main drag. It is the epitome of low-socio economic inner-city settlement. These are my personal thoughts after a month there this year – and shouldn’t be extrapolated across the country – this represents my experience of the inner city kampungs I’ve walked, jogged, cycled and stumbled through.

Kampung dwellings are very close together, if not sharing common walls. Accessing these areas involves walking down a one-car wide “gang” or alleyway, before turning in to the community itself – a crammed, squashed together place of screaming humanity.

There is a river just behind the kampung. Choked with rubbish and used by some for their daily ablutions. It runs fast, having had sand continually dug out of it for nearby construction. If someone could figure out a way of combining rubbish with concrete, the river might run clear. People catch fish from the river to eat. Small, sad looking things that live off of the rubbish and such floating by.

Our river – it actually looks ok in this picture

The totality of kampung living is quiet challenging to someone coming for such a mobile society such as Australia. Some have lived in this kampung their whole life – living in houses owned by their parents or grandparents. Admittedly, some have recently moved in to the area, taking over someone else’s foxhole or building something new. People do move out and up; but many will remain here – some by choice, others by lack of alternative.

The houses are simple. A family may have a sizable dwelling, or they may use a room inside of a dwelling shared with others. We stay in a simple and by Australian standards, small four bedroom house. It dwarfs many others nearby and offers a structural integrity and vermin-proof existence not afforded to everyone.

Tight living

Staying inside the kampung for an extended period is equal parts comforting and claustrophobic. Its safe and secure. Its close-nit. It is close living. So close you can hear your neighbour clear their throat pre-dawn. Every morning. Everyone knows when you’ve come home late. Everyone knows. Everything. Always.

I was once naive to believe that there wasn’t much gossip in the kampung. I was told that people are happy. They don’t worry. The longer I’ve stayed and the more about the culture I’ve learnt, the more I’ve challenged this.

Staying inside a community and a culture like this fast-tracks understandings about the world around you, and fast tracks your language. Over the past ten years of kampung stays – particularly a six month period in 2011; I have had the opportunity to learn so much about the way of life for inner-city people in Yogyakarta.

It can be easy to say people are happy. They have smiles on their faces. Yes, there is a certain level of day-to-day happiness in these places, but in my opinion, it is less to do with contentment and more to do with reservation. Sure, they aren’t stressing about the incidentals in life. They are too busy working out how things are going to work out for the rest of the day.

Yogya street art – love your neighbour

Things are pretty close to the bone in these sort of places. The average yearly salary in Indonesia is around $10,000 AUD. The average wage in the inner-city kampungs is well below that. That is if you have a job. Many don’t.

Staying regularly inside this kind of environment gives you a sense of perspective. It highlights your sense of and your ACTUAL entitlement. I can choose to holiday in this environment and check out the way of life before safely returning to my real world and my country. The people I interact with do not have that option. It is a massive of entitlement.

I’ve had to check myself when I’ve wanted to get all “white-knight” and look for programs or things I could do to “improve” life in the kampung. I’ve had to assess whether those things were actually necessary, feasible and wanted in a world where day-to-day life is about existing. Was I doing something for the people of the kampung that the people of the kampung actually wanted and needed – or was I going to do it to make myself feel good – or even look good back home?

A becak in the alleyways

Staying regularly reinforces how easy things are in Australia. From the basics like clean drinking water, warm water that comes out of a tap and refuse removal – to more complicated things like recylcing, planning for the future and healthcare.

Life expectancy is low (69 years). Survival rates of non-communicable disease are low. Risk factors, such as cigarette smoking (over 60% of the male population), high cholesterol diets and excessive sugar consumption teamed with low physical exercise are major issues.

People live day to day; making it most days. They don’t have time jog. They are too busy surviving. Food is an essential source of energy – unfortunately a lot of that energy comes in the form of rice and sugar. People can’t access a salad – if there was even the refrigerated option to have one, they need affordable energy.

Same goes for meat – people talk about exporting frozen carcasses to Indonesia rather than live export. I get the animal cruelty aspect, but in the inner-city there are no freezers. Cows are slaughtered on a needs based system. There is an abattoir near our kampung. The cows seemed ok, but they were not getting slaughtered quickly (as in number, not style). Honestly – the protein intake in our kampung is low. A lot of tofu and tempe is eaten. And rice. And sugar. And rice.

Food is a thing that you buy in the morning, convert in to meals and eat. You don’t keep it for later. Food safety and food security are major issues day to day.

Urban poultry farming

Quality of life is low. Strokes account for over 20% of deaths in the country. People live difficult lives and die young. Every time we return, we are greeted by another “space” in the kampung that used to be filled with a life. A human with a great personality. That can be confronting. It is almost reported with a nihilistic manner when we arrive. Everyone is dying, it was just someone’s turn.

Over my time of coming to the city – I’ve learnt so much and seen so many interesting things. I’ve witnessed the election of Jokowi, while deep in his party’s supporter base. I’ve spoken to villagers returning after their homes were destroyed by a volcanic eruption. I’ve learnt so much about Javanese culture – its intricacies and its contradictions. I’ve been hassled by street hustlers and avoided what have felt at times to be set-ups.

The Jokowi stickers were EVERYWHERE – as were flags, graffiti and posters

I’ve watched the evolution of the city and Indonesia. There are things that are obvious, confusing and at times concerning. Almost all of the young Muslim women I meet now wear a jilbab/hijab.  The older women are wearing them more and more too. What, ten years ago was something you wore to and from the mosque, is becoming all day every day wear. And they are bright, blinged up numbers. There are also big shiny Muhammadiyah schools all about the place. The lurch of Muhammadiyah towards a more conservative way of thought in recent years may have been a factor in the proliferation of head-wear for women – I wonder what else is being impacted.

There also seems to be a new mosque being built on every corner. Given there was almost one on every corner already, I find it incredible that there is a) enough money and b) enough demand to build these new buildings. I know part of this is almost a colonialist action, to over-saturate the area and drown out similar strands of Islam that you are in competition with, but it still seems staggering. What happens next with Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism is Indonesia will be interesting to watch.

Despite these leans towards conservatism – there are some other things that really interest me developing in Yogyakarta. There are far more bars and nightclubs than when we first started going to the city – and they are well attended by Indonesian s – not just bules. Sure, they are full of cigarette advertising and your attendance is life-reducing, but they are well patronised and full of people (male and female) having a good time in ways that would make conservatives a little upset.

Local bar – on a quiet night

There is also been an explosion of coffee culture in downtown Yogyakarta. When we lived there, there was literally no espresso-serving cafes in the city beyond the tepid offerings from the large hotels. Suddenly, there are espresso machines, aeropress cafes, pour-over single origin speciality joints and speciality coffee roasters. The real life implications for this and any public health impacts aren’t known – but I can tell you now, I would have loved a bloody coffee when I lived there.

Speciality coffee roasters

Holidaying in this environment has moments of challenge. There are risks – from exposing ourselves and our family to tropical diseases and food-borne disease relating to poor food handling. Oh, and the cats. And rats. There are bats too, but they seem pretty low key. There is car and motorbike based pollution. Pollution for the seemingly typical South-East Asian rubbish disposal technique of setting it on fire.

You hope for the best and know that through a position of absolute privilege, we can come, observe, immerse and learn – then leave for the safety of our real world – leaving friends and family to live the reality of inner-city kampung life. I will always keep coming back to Yogya – it is in my blood now.





A crash course in Javanese culture – ten years on

I don’t think I’ll ever forget my first trip to Indonesia. From the chaos I witnessed outside my car window on the way from the airport, to the culture I had no idea about – it was an experience I will never forget.

There are many striking things about Indonesia. The sounds, the sights, the smells – good and bad. It’s an ever-changing, and intriguing place. The majority of my time in Indonesia has been spent on the island of Java. The majority of that time the university city of Yogyakarta. Don’t ask me about the best villa in Bali, or tips for exploring that Island- I have no idea – the majority of my time in Bali has been spent in hotels near the airport waiting for my next flight to Yogya.

Yogya is a fascinating City – town with more universities than the entire tertiary system of Australia. It stakes its claims as cultural capital of Java and in many ways Indonesia, claims the best batik, the birth of the nation, the original capital city, longest running sultanate in the archipelago, the best dancers. All of these claims can be disputed – either by the neighbouring City and fierce rival Surakarta, other cities or even Islands within the archipelago, or Malaysia – let’s not go there.

My first visit to Java was over 10 years ago. I was going head first into a Javanese wedding ceremony – intricate detail, four importance, ceremonial splendour. It was our wedding I was going to. We’re getting married in Australia in the march- how do I use 12 to have a traditional Javanese ceremony; mother-in-law had always wanted one of her children to have a traditional Javanese ceremony; and I was determined not to say no so this kind of experience. After arriving in Yogya, I had one afternoon to acclimatise and familiarise myself with the place, the language, and the culture before the wedding ceremony. It was rapid cultural immersion.

We arrived at my mother in-laws only to be whisked away for what I was told would be a few photos. We were some traditional clothing and headed into down-town Yoyga to withstand several hours of staged photography. By the fourth hour we were to head to the kraton or Palace some more photos. I was cooked – physically and mentally. Hot. Sick of posing. Overwhelmed with the entire experience. I was ready to go home, so pulled rank on more photos.

That night the men and women from the kampung or village gathered in separate houses for a bit of a get together. It was kind of a Javanese bucks party. Apart from everything that makes a bucks party a bucks party, segregation of genders. The local Imam came and read a few words from the Quran and gave us his blessing. In our kampung there’s a mix of Muslims and Catholics, there’s no segregation of religion, the Imam was a friendly guy who did a good job and everyone seems pretty pleased with his input. Well least I think. I couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying, but it all felt pretty positive.

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Not in anyway overwhelmed

The next morning saw an early start for jazz. It’s good to see across cultures that women are still expected to do the bulk of the dressing up and beatification. Jasmine stood the most incredibly elaborate arrangement of fresh flowers in hand design I have ever seen, tarring of hair to create these Widow Peaks including intricate Gold Leaf outline.

I on the other hand was only being wrapped in several metres of sarong material and having elven ears pinned to my head. I had been given the option of wearing the full traditional Javanese outfit – with an unusual hat with fake ponytail- or a Dutch variation which was basically a sarong with a blazer. I was only going to do this once so I went the whole hog.

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What had I got myself in to

Huge sarong in place. Bare chest. Kris. Flat top hat. Eye make-up. Pointy ears. Fake ponytail. I was in this big time. I was wishing I had a few more weeks to prepare my upper body to be exposed to several hundred people, but my texts were as good as they were gonna get with the shorter notice so I just went with it. One could have excused me of laughing at myself, dressed in this way – but to everyone else involved in dressing me, this outfit and every symbol it represented carrying huge gravity and respect.

The Javanese lady (a Pemaes) that walked me through my enrobement did so with an almost holy reverence – to the form of Javanese language she used to explain things to me, using the most formal version of the language. Unfortunately, this formal version of the language is not used that often – so even those translating for me had moments of confusion. There was great Reverence and seriousness of everyone around which really set the tone. I did my best to embody the respect and regality my clothing represented. This was not big kids fancy dress, this was respecting centuries of tradition and culture.

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Act casual

Once we were dressed, we headed out through the kampung, to our waiting car. Jas looked incredible. The detail in her hair, and her outfit was amazing. She moved so gracefully and looked every part of the Javanese princess. I did my best to look strong and Regal. It was not easy but I tried my hardest.

Upon arriving to the hall we were separated once again. Jas had another as support and translator. I had to elders from the area. They knew no English. I knew know Indonesian or Javanese. They were meant to explain the ceremony and the process to me. We gave it a go for a few minutes before resigning ourselves to just winging it.

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Who me?

We headed back in to the hall and to the waiting throng of around 400 people. Our first task was to through betel leaves at each other. One with the right, one with the left, one more with the right. This got lost in translation, so I stuffed the order up a little. There was howls of laughter and cheering, before the betel leaves were returned to me for another go. I quickly asked what this all symbolised, and were met with vacant stares. The Pemaes (the lady running the show) had moved on to the next thing, and no-one had a quick answer.

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Me and my homies throwing betel leaves at demons

This happened several times during the ceremony, or afterwards. No-one seemed to have a straight answer. It wasn’t until we moved to Yogyakarta for six months that we learnt about the symbols – and why no-one could tell us. These elaborate, traditional ceremonies are expensive, and nowadays not fully embraced by the Muslim side of things who want traditional Islamic ceremonies. People were favouring different ceremonies, either from cost or religion. Roll in to the detail that most of the explanations are in the most formal version of Javanese that no-one really speaks (sort of like Old English or even Latin for us).

Years later, we learnt that the throwing of the betel leaves is to show everyone that we are real people. Not ghosts or spirits. The betel leaves had the power to chase away evil spirits, so if they hit us, we were flesh; not demonic impostors.

Next job for the bewildered bule was to crack an egg with my foot. I’m not huge on textures, so was a little apprehensive, but got it done. My egg smashing prowess observed by the crowd, it was time for Jas to wash my feet. These two acts were our readiness to become parents. Not too difficult to work out.

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Foot washing post egg; pre-pedicure

The Pemaes then escorted us to the ritual chair – where it was my solemn duty to provide Jasmine with a selection of goods to signify the handing over of all of my wealth to her. Given her earlier foot-washing, it was the least I could do.

We the sat in front of our guests on a stage adorned with incredible fresh floral arrangements and proceeded with the ceremony. I had to make three balls of rice, very particularly, under strict instructions from the Pemaes. Jas then had to eat first. Then I. Then we drank sweet tea. Everyone was happy.

We then received a blessing from our parents. Well, Jasmine’s mum and step-dad. I had to leave my Kris with the Pemaes while we headed over, which seemed very reasonable.

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Simple subservience


After kneeling subserviently before them, we were then allowed back to our seats to watch Traditional Javanese dancing and an extended gamelan performances, before withstand  enjoying the efforts of a local rock cover band.

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Observing the dancing

While we sat and sweated, our guests feasted on an amazing spread of food. We were regal and gracious (and a little drippy) as we allowed EVERYONE to eat while we watched. My despair at the end of the ceremony to find all the food gone was immense.

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Guests enjoying the food I did not get to

To close our ceremony, all 400 guests came briefly to the stage; one by one and shook our hands, kissed us, passed on messages of congratulations, etc. Everyone had been having such a great time that there was a lot of positivity and love. My elf ears had really started to pinch by then and my hat was too tight, so I was having trouble faking my smiles with my throbbing head; by I shook every hand and got over myself. Jas had a couple of kilos of flowers pinned in to her scalp so I wasn’t suffering alone (or even suffering comparatively).

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We had to focus on our serious faces for the traditional photos

We eventually headed home to wash in the cold bucket of water that serves as our shower and attempt to scrub the tar out of Jasmine’s hair. Pak Wid/Oom/Jasmine’s stepdad had arranged a night in the best local hotel for us, so we were quiet happy to make use of the hot water to wash up.

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You guys are great!

It was a whirlwind experience – my first trip to Yogya was only seven days long and included the photo shoot, the amazing wedding ceremony, a trip to Borodur temple, Prambanan temple, the Merapi volcano and the fish restaurant. It sparked something inside of me, the understanding that if was to understand my wife, her mother and her family better – I was going to have to learn more about Java, Javanese culture and some language. It was a life-changing experience, and ten years on, I’m glad I did it. It was the start of a journey, the start of a range of awesome new experiences.

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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.


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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Monochromatic trees by Kevin Draper and Indra Geidens – photo Carl

Walkabout, playing and learning outdoors

“The next day, a few children asked if they could do it again today.” Outdoor Classroom Day was such as success at one local school; they might do it every year. It was a positive news story in my local paper that highlighted how lucky my children are for the education they receive and how afraid of the outdoors education has really become. We bring our children to school as such a young age nowadays, and often in to formalised structured environments despite research and best practice suggesting otherwise.

As a caveat, I live with a highly trained Early Childhood Educator who takes the role of teachers in charge of the earliest years of education as critical to a child’s healthy development. This person didn’t read an interesting article on Facebook, or a good book on childhood development, they dedicated their Tertiary education at a leading Early Childhood focussed university to become an Early Childhood teacher because they believed so strongly in it. I take my queues on the development and education of our children from the expert in our house – I read research and things of interest, but defer to the far more knowledgeable source.

Then our oldest son was nearing the start of school, we weren’t sure what to do. He didn’t seem ready to start schooling – and the majority of his peers and extended family were embracing Western Australia’s earliest childhood offering, Pre-Kindy, as soon as possible (the age of three). We were really torn. It seemed to early, he didn’t seem ready and peer-pressure was being felt. We eventually made a call to delay his start until the ripe old entry stage of Kindergarten, still unsure if he would be ready.

One thing we both new, with his interests, motivators and drives; beyond delaying his education journey slightly; our son needed somewhere to attend school that was not exceptionally formalised and had an emphasis on play. The importance of play-based learning was not just from our perspective, but backed by educators and research. We also wanted to find a school that combined play-based learning with outdoor play and exploration – not just once a day for a special occasion, but ingrained in how they do things.

We found our solution in a tiny community school in our town. Our school is a little bit away from being mainstream. Before you ask, it isn’t a Steiner school or a Montessori school. It teaches the curriculum, it did NAPLAN testing for the first time this year, it does all the school entry exams your school (probably) does and the kids read and write and do maths (even Mathletics). It also does a few neat things some school don’t – like teaching local Aboriginal language and culture (Ngoongar/Nyoongar), learning about native plants and bush tucker and doing a LOT of outdoor learning and play. Learning outside is more than just play; it is more than just physical activity –  it makes a valuable contribution children’s health and development – and education.

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Checking out the kwort the school made

Our school has a program called Walkabout – a very much outdoor classroom day, where classes from as young as pre-primary get out of the classroom, out of the school and in to the world. The kids have to walk to their destination – sometimes covering over 4kms in a day, with older or more capable kids encouraged to help those younger or less capable than themselves. Our sons now have an impressive strolling range – which makes getting out and about easier!

On Walkabout they build shelters, light fires, walk in the rain, embrace nature, learning local history and work on their communication with each other. They takes some risks, engage in risk-benefit analysis and work their way around unforeseen problems. Everything gets recorded in a diary (literacy) so the kids can reflect and share with each other what was good and what was hard. My eldest son loves it. It is the highlight of his week.

We explore the world and look for occasions and ways of giving back to the land, saying thank you and appreciating this beautiful country.                                                                                                                                 – School website

Pre-schooling, our eldest rarely drew. Aside from his art loving mother despairing she couldn’t get him to draw with her; there were also professional concerns regarding his pre-literacy pencil skills. As parents, we backed off. Our son is not one to be forced in to anything. Now, three years in to his schooling, his handwriting is coming along marvellously, we can’t stop him drawing (anatomically correct cross-sections of yabbies are a current favourite), and he writes everything down that he can (especially regarding nature, the outdoors and Walkabout). This newly found love of drawing, writing and recording has been nurtured through play and the outdoors.

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Jack drawing yonga (kangaroos) mating in our yard

Our eldest son is only in year 1 now, but his academic development is beyond what I would have accepted as appropriate by this stage. His brother is now in Kindy as well – and loves his time at the school – the same school; and is doing the things he is meant to. A small sample size, I know – but what is most important to me, is that they LOVE school and love the way they are taught.

My eldest talks about school classrooms with “set” desks and chairs you have to sit on like they are dragons. He’s heard of them, but never seen one – and faced with the prospect of taking one on, would be a bit scared. What will they do when they get to high school you ask? Adapt. As they have to now. High school is full of labs and kitchens, different rooms and settings for different subjects, transition between areas, no set desks. They’ll be ok.


For now, they love the play, the freedom, the subject matter. Outdoor learning leads to a greater connection with nature and both feel a strong sense of guardianship over our land and animals. Both boys can name animals by their Noongar names (and have a budding fauna knowledge (far beyond my own – insistences of, “that’s bush tucker, Dad”, on family bush walks are eventually conceded as correct, once I’ve finished Googling). This wonderful knowledge is mixing so well with the other important things, the reading, the writing and the maths.

Our children are developing really nicely – and I place a significant amount of the credit on the manner in which the school engages and educates them.  Schools only provide a small part of the puzzle of early childhood development and education – parents, families and homes take the majority of the burden and should never cede it or shirk it; but the right school system for your child’s needs is important. One that manages to mix learning, play and the outdoors so well is important to us.

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?


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.

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.

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.

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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.