new short story collection. Out now!

Saturday, November 17, 2018

relationDips: condiments

Using the broadest definition of the word, a condiment is a substance, sauce or herb, (I'm going to include spreads as well) added to food to enhance its flavour. There is an unbelievable number of different condiments available. Take a look in your pantry and your fridge and you'll probably find numerous may also want to check the use by dates on them while you're there.

There are really obvious and popular examples like salt and pepper, tomato sauce, mayonnaise and peanut butter. There are also less well known condiments such as caramelized balsamic vinegar, sesame spread, sambal oeleck and mango, lime and chili dressing.

The knowledge and or use of these various condiments depends on individual taste and culinary daring. I tend to steer away from the exotic ones and purposefully avoid such unpleasantries as Vegemite and worcestershire sauce. But each to their own right?

Most people add something to their food to improve the flavour because they want good taste: an enjoyable food experience, not just another boring meal. Usually, it's not the case that the food is bad, but more that it is better with a condiment: more exciting even.

His mates were thrilled when he announced that he was getting married. There was an explosion of handshaking and backslapping as he made the announcement over a round of beer at the local pub. They offered hearty congratulations and well wishes to him, except for one of his friends who asked, with zero tact, why the hell he would do that. Why would he tie himself to one woman for the rest of his life?

The mood at the table soured immediately as the man's joy was challenged by this one dissenting voice. The man sipped his beer, gathering his thoughts, before he replied to his friend's question, "Because women are not condiments."

Disgruntled, the friend who loved women in the same way he loved food, walked away. The celebrations resumed in the wake of his departure.

Friday, November 9, 2018

A Dog's Eye: Vietnam part 3 (faith in elephants)

Every now and then the elephant driver would appear to get a little frustrated with the beast beneath him. He was sitting on the elephant's neck, one leg on each side with his knees cocked behind the pachyderm's huge ears. When it slowed down or stopped, the driver would bounce on its neck and nudge it behind the ears while repeating some words of "encouragement".

I was with my mother and my daughter on the elephant. We sat in a relatively comfortable howdah with an umbrella to protect us from the sun. I was not worried about this journey even though I didn't know where we were going and how long exactly we would be gone. The other two passengers were far less sanguine. We traveled down a road through a lakeside village, in Vietnam's central highlands, and then entered the lake down a steep "ramp". Occasionally, the water was up to the elephant's shoulders which left our feet just above the water line.

We wore life jackets in case of an accident, and I'll admit there were a couple of times when I thought we might be having an unplanned swim. After roughly half an hour we finished our ride and climbed down on to solid ground, connected to it by the security of our own feet.

It required an element of faith for us to ride this mighty creature. We had to believe that it would behave itself, and if it didn't, that the driver would be able to control it. Being a visitor in an overseas nation, and being able to enjoy that experience also requires some faith. Control ebbs away under the direction of locals who, despite some language obstacles, we trust. In our case, my wife was in complete control and what a champion she was. She did an amazing job of organizing things for us and protecting us from being ripped off. It was relatively easy to trust her. I mean I married her, so...

Nevertheless, there is a sense in which having to trust others makes us feel uncomfortable. Allowing others to make decisions for us, takes away our power, it violates our independence. For some people, the land of interdependence is a foreign country they have never visited- nor do they wish to. Taking risks with their safety based solely on the assurances of others is anathema to them.

How much is lost to a person who allows fear and/or a desire to stay in control rule their lives?

Sunday, November 4, 2018

relationDips: Vietnam part 2

My experience of Vietnamese people, both in Australia and in Vietnam, is that they are extraordinarily hospitable. As it is across Asia, it's all about the food. There's always a fine selection of food when you sit to eat at someone's home. Pho (beef noodle soup) may be a quintessential Vietnamese food, but we only had it outside of the home, in any number of ubiquitous little restaurants. Home meals, family meals, comprise a table full of plates and bowls filled with salads, meats, sauces and noodles. 

It's wonderful to look at, and participate in, such a amazing spread, even if many of the food items are unidentifiable, and some even unpleasant looking. Exotic? Nailed it.

One night, at the home of my father-in-law, I had another one of these great meals, and finished it well satisfied. I was relaxing with a cigarette after dinner when I was summoned next door to my new uncle's home...for dinner. I groaned a little inwardly.

I joined my father and law and uncle, and a hard rock loving friend of my uncle's whom I had met earlier that day. I joined them on the floor where another no less impressive array of food lay awaiting our enjoyment. Also, on this "table" was a large bottle of home made whiskey which was mounted on a little stand so as to make pouring easy.

And so began more culinary exploration, interspersed with drinking whiskey from small glasses ( a little larger than a shot glass). Before we drank we toasted, each time. Evidently if you take a sip, you must invite everyone else to drink with you. When we had finished eating, and of course I only picked at the food because I was not hungry at all, I stood to go outside for a smoke. My father in law insisted I stay, and so we smoked together on the floor of my uncle's living room, then stubbed out our butts in the food scraps.

Following the meal, we began to watch music videos and the aformentioned hard rock loving friend of my uncle and I worked our way through a fine collection of hair metal bands, mostly Bon Jovi. There was, quite naturally, singing and air guitars. Communication was very limited due to the language barrier, but we connected.

I don't drink whiskey. I never smoke inside. I prefer to sit at a table to eat, and I only ever have dinner once a night. Nevertheless, I had a really great time. When in Rome...right?

What is the appeal of this kind of activity? I think it's about building relationships. My wife was somewhat disproving of my involvement, but that was mainly due to the cigarettes. I was with her father and some other men in a family home. It was safe place, and I guess we were bonding. I wondered about the things we do to fit in, to gain acceptance, to not cause offence to others, to simply satisfy curiousity.

I've had some unsafe experiences in my life when my motives for involvement were far less pure than on this occasion, where my desire was simply to bond with the man whose daughter is now my wife. I've rarely encountered a better example of the intrinsic connection between food and relationships.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

A Dog's Eye: Vietnam part 1

Towards the end of our Cu Chi (pronounced goo jee) Tunnel tour, as we headed back to the bus, I stopped to sign the visitor's book. Bich had pointed it out and asked me if I wanted to write something. I said yes- would a writer ever say no to an invitation to write something? As I kept writing, Bich asked me to hurry up because our fellow tourists were probably waiting for us. When I explained to her the danger of offering a pen and a blank page to a writer, she smiled and nodded.

That little event neatly highlights two things about my recent trip to Vietnam. Firstly, the continued blossoming of our new marriage relationship, and secondly, the difficulty of nutshellizing my holiday. It was so great - undoubtedly the best holiday I've ever had -that it's hard to know where to begin recounting all the wonderful experiences I had. Therefore, I am not going to do that. Instead, I will offer just a few snapshots.

Fifteen million people live in Ho Chi Minh City which most locals still refer to as Saigon. It's a crazy, crazy town with so much to see and do. It struck me one morning late in my second week, as we were en route to meet my mum and sister at the Ducati dealership, that I had never experienced a traffic jam in Saigon. Despite the huge volume of vehicles, mostly motorcycles, and their chaotic movement, it flows. Regardless of the near misses, swerving, and the use of handheld devices by many drivers and riders, I never saw an accident. 

I know they happen - Bich had two minor accidents in one week prior to my arrival - but I was on the road for many hours, and I never saw any collisions. Even when observing from the footpaths, which are not at all people friendly (motorbikes use them, as do ubiquitous street vendors), or from the safety of one of Saigon's countless cafes and restaurants, I never saw anything go wrong on the roads.

It looks for all the world like a road system destined to perpetual choking, frequent accidents and road rage. But it works. With cars and motorbikes moving in all directions, not driving in lanes (because there usually aren't any) and right of way always taken, not given, Saigon's traffic should be a basket case...but it isn't.

This is only one amazing aspect of Vietnam: a country to which I am now perpetually bound courtesy of God giving me an angel from Saigon as my wife.

Friday, October 5, 2018

RelationDips: like father

Image result for like father movie imagesThe film Like Father, which stars Kelsey Grammar as Harry and Kristen Bell as Rachel, is a reconciliation story, and that's primarily why I loved it. There is so much brokenness in this world, so many loved ones estranged from one another, so much pain and regret. Unity and peace are relationship ideals, which we all desire, but we have to work so hard to achieve them that many people find it easier to cut people out of their lives instead.

Burning bridges is a simpler process than mending fences. Building walls is a less complicated option than tearing them down. Wait a minute! Look at those metaphors literally. The opposite is in fact true. The truth is, it requires more time, effort and care to build a wall than it does to destroy it. Logic is turned on its head when it comes to relationships.

Harry is a workaholic father who walks out on his wife and daughter, Rachel, because it is too hard. Rachel hates what her father did, but her remedy for the pain is to become a workaholic herself. (Hence the title of the film). On her wedding day, she does business on the phone outside the church while the music plays, and the congregation waits expectantly for her to walk down the aisle. The groom wonders about the delay as familiar feelings torment him. Finally she enters, but during the ceremony, her phone, which she hid inside the bouquet before entering the church, falls on to the floor. The groom pulls her aside and says he cannot marry her. She loves her job more than him.

Unbeknownst to Rachel, Harry is at the wedding.They see each other for the first time since Rachel was a child, but she runs away, upset by being jilted, and shocked to see Harry. Later he comes and knocks on the door of her apartment, thus beginning the reconciliation which initially takes place courtesy of copious amounts of alcohol at a bar, before continuing on the pre-booked honeymoon cruise.

Like Father is a very funny film with heart, and a poignant message about relationships and the choices people make.

The emotions experienced by Harry, which ultimately caused him to abandon Rachel, are not uncommon. Many men become husbands and fathers before they are emotionally mature enough. Some survive. They fight against the selfishness and learn to excel and flourish in these important relationships. Many others, flee. I doubt any of those who run from responsibility, escape the guilt and shame associated with their selfishness.

Most of us acknowledge that people are more important than things. Why then, do we live as though the reverse is true? The man who works so much that he has no time to invest in his marriage says he is providing for his family. He is doing what he has to do. Challenge! I met a man like this once. He said he had thought he was doing the right thing in making sure his wife and children had everything they needed and more, but when his marriage fell apart and his children stopped talking to him, he realized that his family wanted him, not his money.

Relationships are hard, but we are built for them. We are designed to prioritize each other. We were created to love and be loved. You don't have to look far to see evidence of how wrong we have got it. Invest in people and relationships above all else. Forgive others, forgive reconciled to one another, and find peace. 

Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Mirror: Risen

"Because you have seen me, you believe: blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

Image result for risen film
In the immediate aftermath of the disappearance of Jesus Christ's corpse which had been placed in a sealed tomb following his death by crucifixion, a rumour began to circulate that the disciples of Jesus had stolen his body in order to perpetuate the myth of his resurrection.

Fear of this malevolent gossip about a risen saviour prompted the Jewish leaders to request the tomb be sealed and guarded by centurions. Three days later, the seal had been broken, the stone had been rolled away from the entrance and the tomb was empty.

So far we are in accord with the Biblical narrative. However in the film Risen, Joseph Fiennes stars as a tribune named Clavius who is assigned to find the body of the so called Messiah. Clavius witnessed the death of Jesus, and was certain the rumour of theft was true...until he began to investigate the alleged crime.

He meets and interviews a number of Jesus' followers and is troubled by how they present themselves and defend Jesus. One day, following a lead from a spy, Clavius locates the home of one of the apostles. He bursts in and finds Jesus' inner circle there. He also sees Jesus. This moment in the film is pure gold, The man Clavius saw die and be interred, who set his own Roman seal across the entrance to the tomb, sees Jesus alive and well. To say he is surprised would be the biggest understatement in history.

Flavius then travels to Galilee with the disciples where Jesus appears to them again. Aside from the presence of tribune Clavius which is mere speculation, the film goes back to the story as presented in the Bible. One evening, Clavius has some time alone with Jesus who asks him what he is searching for. Jesus offers some suggestions: certainty? peace? And then he drops another bombshell by repeating Clavius very own words about what his hopes for the future were. A day without death. Hearing his own words from Jesus' mouth almost brings the battle hardened tribune to tears.

At times I felt the film was a little pedestrian, (the odd collection of accents was off putting, and there were some very ordinary acting performances) but in the two aformentioned moments I was really moved, emotionally. These were very powerful scenes, and I thought Fiennes did a great job of portraying a man who didn't know what he was looking for until he found it.

Everyone is looking for something. Countless people throughout the centuries have found their search ended when they met Jesus. The day I met Jesus, for example, my search for meaning in life was terminated. I know exactly who I am, why I am here and where I am going. I know this because Christ is Risen.

Risen is now available on Netflix.

Friday, September 7, 2018

A Dog's Eye: the rort and the blind eye

Image result for teaching englishShout out to the evening class ELICOS* students at another college, whom I had the pleasure of teaching this week while filling in for their regular teacher. I don't know how long I could have sustained teaching a morning class and an evening class, but I have to say it was fun. So stimulated was I by working with a new group of students (and a much higher level than my class), that each night I struggled to unwind and go to sleep.

Although it wasn't an easy gig, I am grateful for the opportunity for two reasons. Firstly, it reinvigorated me as a teacher. For some time, I have been feeling a little stale at my usual place of employment, and have become increasingly frustrated with my students. The challenge this week presented reminded me why I love teaching. Secondly, of course, is the money. Every little bit helps.

I expected a different kind of student this week in the evening class. I had anticipated much higher proficiency, but I also expected better attendance. I'm not sure how I feel about the fact that the evening class students also rock up to class whenever they can, or whenever they feel like it. They also extend the break to suit themselves, and they leave when they are tired or have something better to do.

The attendance policy at this college is clear and matches the national guidelines for the ELICOS program. At my regular place of employment, we also have such an attendance policy. However, we report on progress, not attendance which means that poor attendance only becomes an issue when it results in poor assessment results. Naturally the two are inextricably linked, but if a student only attends half the classes, yet still achieves the minimum pass mark, then there is no problem.

All our students are in Australia on working holiday visas (visa subclass 500). The conditions of this visa state the student is allowed to work for 20 hours each week, but they must attend 20 hours of English classes a week. Would it shock you to learn that none of them do. That's right. Zero percent full attendance.

At the other college where I taught this week, I discovered, despite my hopes and expectation, that they also do nothing about poor attendance. I asked about the roll and if partial attendances were recorded. The answer was no.

Image result for turning a blind eyeSo here we have two colleges who turn a blind eye to students rorting visa subclass 500. Why? Isn't it obvious? They don't want to lose students. I'm told that ELICOS colleges in Sydney and Melbourne are very strict on attendance. Elsewhere it is not the same. Many students change cities, not just for a different experience, but to find more lenient attendance policies. 

Let me be clear: students who consistently fail to attend the required number of hours in class are breaching their visa conditions. Not clear enough? They are breaking the law. What do the colleges who extract exorbitant tuition fees from the students do about this situation? Nothing. Why would they?

If one college were to crackdown on this problem, the students would simply contact their agents and transfer to another college. If all colleges enforced their attendance policy, instead of just writing them and "informing" the students about them in order to satisfy regulators...the entire industry would shrink significantly.

Image result for turning a blind eye

Self interest? Can I hear an "amen"?

*ELICOS = English Language Intensive Course for Overseas Students