Savannah Lions

Above the rim is where Bor lived best.

When he was on a court – whether it was a ‘real’ one at the Auburn Basketball Centre or by the cheap Kmart hoop nailed to the electricity pole by his cousin’s driveway – and he leapt above all the other dark black faces or arms, Bor was happy.

Getting up higher than the others. Grbbing the rebound with a slap of hands or getting the tip in off his fingertips. Being airborne. Having hang time.

At least, it’s what Bor thought that’s where happy was and what it felt like. But he wasn’t really sure. Maybe, happy really meant clear. Having your head clear of people wanting things.

Clear of his father, Salva, and the ceaseless soundtrack about “responsibility, community, church and family is our four point shot that beats basketball”. And, “not squandering everything this new country has given us”. Somehow, it seemed to Bor, that his Dad didn’t really mean that part because track 2 that followed was usually about “God saved the best for last and made the Dinka and their land” and “the demons of the White Army who stole our cattle but could never take our prayers”. For Bor, his father seemed blind to his own contradictions.

His father who thanked his God every day for the pay cheque from picking dead cats and leaky batteries off the conveyor belt at the recycling plant.

And, clear of Mr Sanderson, the principal at Granville Boys, and his bullshit lectures about “racism hates positivity and hope, and that’s how you beat it”. And then sent you to a week of detention, and missing club basketball practice, for not backing down to the Mussie who smeared “nigga” in texta on your locker. Fucking white man with a sailboat on Sydney Harbour. Another hypocrite in the Lucky Country.

Clear of his own head. No Bor – the town his family ran from as the Whites, their tribal child soldiers’ faces smeared with campfire ash, shelled and attacked it. No Christmas Island – and being the 6 year old his mother about the Arab men with the stitched up lips. No Fairfield Hospital five years later – and choking on the priest’s incense as his mother, as frail as the dried twigs she used to herd cattle with as a savannah girl, stopped breathing from the cancer in her stomach.

He just wanted to be blank like he was when he was ballin. The squelch of his size 13 Nikes on the wooden court when he stopped hard to set a pick at the top of the key. The coils his fingers made when he wrapped his huge hand around the ball. The righteousness of showing no emotion and slowly jogging back to the defensive court after having jammed on some private school white boy. Chest bumps with his point guard, Sokiri, who was always laying it off to him and smilin. It’s where he could just be.

It was the opposite of where he had to be now. The start-of-year, weekend church getaway that his father, “garbo by day and God’s man all the time”, had organised for the community. Being off the court for three days at some retreat place west of Lithgow was gonna suck. Dorms for males and females. No drinking. No ballin.

And it wasn’t that far from Christmas when he’d had to spend what felt like a week at church services in the hall the South Sudanese rented from the Ukrainians in Lidcombe. The faded pink plastic bucket chairs were still the originals from when the hall had been built in the 60s. There was a small stage at the front where the priest and lay people like his father preached from and tired portraits of tired-looking Ukrainian poets on either side. There was no air conditioning and the western Sydney blowtorch made South Sudan seem temperate. Bor thought the place had ghosts with garlic breath. He kept going outside to just get air, and kept getting busted to go back in by some Deacon or some Lead Chorister or some other self-righteous relative who had a title to enforce God’s will. Or just give him a hard time cos they missed the old clan ways.

Three full buses of African freaks going back to the bush, Bor thought to himself. He knew that the adult men born in Dinkaland would talk about every friggin cow at the side of the road as if it was the first cow or last cow they were to ever see. And, how these weren’t really cows – just lame facsimiles of the real cattle back in Jonglei State. He was smart enough to know it didn’t really matter to them that much, and they were mostly bullshitting. It was their version of hip hop or something. Background. A way to relate. Knowing all that didn’t annoy him any less.

And, the women would play the ‘success sweepstakes’ and try to top the accomplishments of each other’s kids. Whereas Bor knew most of the guys were actually popping pingas they’d buy from the Lebo’s at Parramatta Square after school – if they weren’t ballin and being sports tested. That their high-breasted, shiny skinned daughters mostly walked around Westfield with all their sista sass going and looking for mythical white boys to get them outta the ghetto. At least that’s where they thought it was somehow. The truth was that the ‘hood in their heads like the Bronx – not Bor Town or Berala – but there was not telling them that.

“All aboard the Jesus Express, everyone,” Salva yelled out from the steps of the first bus which was parked outside the Auburn train station. His big white teeth beamed against his ‘two-minutes past midnight’ skin. Bor and three friends from his regular club team wanted to hide from the looks of the Chinese shopkeepers and hijab ladies with their caravan-like prams who bought colanders and rice makers at the dollar stores, but that’s hard to do when you’re nearly 7 feet tall and the only dark faces on the street.

His father, who coached the under 12’s at their club and actually knew the game, hustled over to Bor and his mates. He was all elbows and clipboards. “No hoops and no alley-oops this weekend, my sons. Just halleluiah’s,” he said with his formal accent that made him sound like the airport customs officer he was back in the homeland.

Salva shook Sokiri’s bony hand, and said he was sorry his mum had to stay home with her little ones and couldn’t make it. Sokiri’s dad had died of sepsis in a UN tent hospital in Egypt. He’d gotten Sokiri, his mum, and Sokiri’s little brother and sister out of South Sudan, and then his body had given up to the dirty machete wound on his leg.

“Fuckin hell,” Bor thought to himself but mumbled “last bus, lads” to his crew, Yokwe, Adel, and Sokiri. His YAS-Bee Crew. They were sicknasty. They were hardbroiled. Taller than everybody else in the school playground since Year 3. The Dinka Boys. Not different – distilled and stronger.

They piled on to the bus and headed straight to the back seats, behind some invisible barrier from their church-going uncles and aunts and the laughing little kids. Bor took the long bench seat at the very end, and each of his mates took up a double seat close to him. Their long legs spilled out in a tangle of angles in the bus’s aisle. Like sinewy Sydney gumtree branches blown to the ground during a summer southerly.

Yokwe was their DJ of consensus. He bluetoothed a JBL and started to pump out drill hip hop. Manu Crooks and One Four. Bor thought Yokwe did a good job of setting the volume at exactly the right level to piss off everyone else on the bus. They would feign shock when somebody eventually told them to turn it down.

The buses pulled out and made their way to Parramatta Road and toward the M4. The road was sclerosis with wheels. Abandoned Chinese teak furniture warehouses. Second hand white goods dealers with dinged-up fridges. Kebab stands that opened at five and served the Bangladeshi Uber drivers through the night. Each place had the same cheap “OPEN” sign in red LED lights. Islander families in Toyota Tarago vans arm-wrestled for lane space with tradies’ utes weighted down with welded-on tool boxes.

Bor was used to looking down at stuff. Now, he looked through the side window of the bus into the back seat of banged-up maroon Mitsubishi Magna in the next lane, trying to get into the turn-off lane for the Costco. There were two kids in the back, maybe 7 or 8 each, a brother and a sister. Hazaras like he’d kicked footballs with in detention. The siblings leaned inwards and touched shoulder to shoulder while watching Frozen on a smudgy iPad.

He remembered his mother taking him to Costco to load up their cart with cheap packaged meat and the walnuts and pistachios that his dad loved. Afterwards, in the food court with its cement slabs and benches that looked like a prison cafeteria, she would sometimes treat Bor to a chocolate churros. “Look, Bor, all the condiments here are for free,” she said with delight.

Their caravan went up the Silverwater Road ramp to the highway that would take them through the Blue Mountains to the old Department of Sport and Youth camp they were renting. These people just can’t get enough of barracks, Bor thought to himself. It struck him that his father and friends were always sitting around in cheap cafes in 70s style suburban arcades and talking about freedom. And, then they chose not to have it. “Community cohesion,” his father said with pride at learning a new expression at the multicultural centre’s lecture on leadership training. Safety in numbers, herdsmen, Bor thought.

One Four played on Yokwe’s speaker:

See, I grew up in church
But I had devils in my ears saying, fuck it
Controlling my young mind like a puppet

They were going through Katoomba which Bor remembered from a Year 6 school trip. Three Sisters. He’d had a daydream there about leaping from Sister One to Sister Two to Sister Three. Him starring in a commercial for Air Jordans. He stuck his mobile in the pocket of his Bulls shorts and put his legs up on the seat in front of him. He pulsed them back and forth to strengthen his jumping muscles.

Yokwe had his eyes closed and surrendered to the music. Adel was checking What’s App on his phone; he didn’t tell the other boys in the crew, but Bor knew it was the study group that he was part of.

Sokiri was half standing and half dancing in his seat in front of Bor’s. With his smile set on maximum volume like always, he’d snap a hand out and then bounce it back toward his chest to the beat.  The guy was always positive and always moving. His feet were never still and that’s partly why he was probably the best ‘pound for pound’ player of all of them. American college scouts with logos on their rayon sports shirts and little video cameras on tripods to set up court-side had already been out to their games a couple of times.

One of the aunts in the front heard the music and Bor saw her getting up out of her seat to walk back toward them. She’d spotted Sokiri doing his thing. Her wide hips touching the seats on either side of the aisle. The big bow of her dhuku head rap was covered in a bright yellow pattern. She was Adel’s mum’s sister and she looked like a sunflower on steroids to Bor. Adel didn’t need to look up to see her coming; he scrunched down in this seat and kept locked on his phone. Just beyond her shoulders through the bus’s front windscreen, Bor could see the other two buses going around a bend in the highway just by an Ugg boots wholesaler.

Then, everything scrambled and shattered. Sunflower got bent at the waist and sucked down the aisle and through the bus’s exploding windscreen. Other black bodies were ripped from their seats and ricocheted off the top of the bus, and then its sides as it flipped. Bor, somehow jammed in place by his locked legs, saw Sokiri fly forward and hit the plastic emergency exit in the roof panel with his face. It broken open with a stamp of crimson on its rubber seal. Sokiri had then somehow sunk into a scrum of screaming near the bus’s front.

The bus flipped again, but with less pace. Bor was now upside down and he saw aunts and nephews falling from the sky and smashing ribs into armrests and skulls against skulls. A baby, wrapped to her mother chest, disappeared beneath the aunt’s prone body. Bor felt warm liquid on his face and noticed there was now blood on the windows that hadn’t blown off in the crash.

There was last roll and then movement ceased and sound took over. Bor was on his side and heard the low groans that people make when they no longer care if anyone else is listening. When there’s only a thin line between their now and their forever. Muted under something, Manu was on the JBL speaker. You know that shit can get hectic, you know that shit can get hectic.

Bor was again in the roadside drainage ditch just beyond the village. The main shooting had stopped and, about 50 metres away, he could see one of the White soldiers, maybe 12, trotting up the bitumen toward the ditch. His sandals were too-large and made of tyres. He was smacking his palm against the banana magazine of his clunky and scratched-up AK-47. It wouldn’t dislodge to let him re-load another 30 rounds.

His father, Salva, rose to a squat beside them and whispered “Crawl to the trees!” to his mother and him. She dug her carefully painted nails in Bor’s forearm and kneed them both toward the tree line. Bor’s shins dragged through semi-dried pats of cow dung. He looked back to see Salva, his hand-ironed uniform shirt still tucked into his work slacks, running straight at the small ash-covered White, who was now bent over and wrestling to unjam his weapon.

Bor released his legs, firing with cramps, crumpled into a commando crawl position, and pulled himself with arms toward the exit portal. He felt the sharp edges of the cubes of shattered safety glass press on his palms and it made him lose traction. At the small opening, he angled his way through, all sharp elbows and knees, like a praying mantis unfolding. Like trying to squeeze through a hoop that’d fallen down. Instinctively, he padded his shorts to check his phone was there.

“Odetta! Bor! Show yourself,” his father yelled and they pulled apart the tangled vines of the forest scrub his mother had dove them into. An assault rifle hung on a frayed canvas strap over his father’s shoulder; there was a clean clip with blue tape around it loaded into the firing chamber. There was spittle drying on Salva’s face and his uniform was patterned with sooty strings. “Now we must act,” Salva said without looking at them.

He was on the road now and on his hands and knees now. Before him, there was a bashed ball of warped metal, splintered glass, plastic shards and prone people that was the first bus and a ute that must have crossed over from the other lane. A mangled meteor – and starting to toss flames from its very centre where the two engines must have collided at speed.

The second bus had somehow dodged the collision and end up going through a hedge and abutting a roadside house. Bor’s bus had slammed into the ball, bounced off and rolled to stop in the opposite lane where it had been glanced and spun round by on-coming traffic.

Muscle memory kicked in and he took it all in like a court. Where the basket was, where the defenders were, where the open channels to the hoop were. He spotted a red fire extinguisher that had somehow come loose from a bus slowing rolling off the road. Bor pushed to his feet and sprinted for it. He scooped it in one hand, kept moving, pulled the seal pin, and shook the canister.

Bor hit the flames and started to spray. First at any people – not knowing if they were conscious, knocked out or dead – who were on fire. An aunt on her backside with legs spread, blood streaming from her neck onto the wrap-around orange and black fabric of her traditional tob, screaming and slapping at the fire on her thighs. The white mist of the extinguisher covered her and Bor froze as a sick smoke from her body. She shook her burnt hands in pain and it swirled the smoke.

His father grabbed their hands and they began to run up the dusty road, the rifle banging at Salva’s side. They ran past a boy’s twisted body, its legs bent double underneath it, a blood stain spreading across the swoosh symbol of a Nike t-shirt he had on. His eyes were open and faced back toward the village, where a light grey plume was rising from the site of the communal hall. The Whites had ordered everyone to report there.

But a purple shoot in Bor’s peripheral vision snapped him back and he turned 90 degrees to start spraying at the blazing source. With one foot atop a loose bus bench, which was shielding some of the heat, he poured all the extinguisher’s content at the moving fire. For every flame that died, another appeared and threatened to spread to the whole scene.

As his canister emptied, from somewhere, Adel came running like a hunchback. One arm was demolished, bloody and limply hanging at his slumped side. In his other hand, he palmed another fire extinguisher and jumped behind their barrier. With his teeth, he pulled its pin and started to spray by balancing it against the hip on his good side. He shouted “pick and roll” and pointed with his chin to people moaning.  Some were still stuck in the smashed structures, some were dragging themselves randomly on the road.

The extinguisher clanged as Bor dropped it and scooted to a punched out window on part of the first bus that somehow still looked like an actual bus. It was like falling into a vat of offal at an abattoir. If only not to drown, he started to grab at the limbs of uncles and aunts, the small waists of mangled nephews and nieces.  As Adel yelled that the fire was growing, Bor pulled and pushed, forcing their slippery bodies, some responding with moans and some stone silent, out of the bus and into the road. Red and black on black until he could find nothing else to wrestle.

Out of extinguisher, Adel started to check out the people from bus one and, using one arm, he began to pull the more stable ones by their shirt and dress collars to the grassy road verge. Walking wounded from bus two, several calling for help on their phones, began to assist Adel and others. Pain and purpose blended together as sheer struggle to survive.

Bor trotted back around to his bus. Adel’s aunt’s big body lay twisted, like laundry in a dryer, in the way a big body shouldn’t twist. Around her, there was a ring of shattered window glass. Her eyes were open, but she was still and silent. Further down from her was Sokiri.

There was only one shoulder of his Golden State Warriors jersey left, as most of the uniform had somehow been ripped away. He was bleeding from different places, like somebody had left a nail gun lying around on a building site and it had fired rapidly and randomly at him. But Sokiri’s left side down by his thin flat gut was the worst. In his left hand, which was sliced through at the light-skinned palm, there was part of a wooden paling from the fence that he must have landed on. Bor noticed it was painted light green to match the exterior of the timber cabin they had crashed in front of. Sokiri had his head tilted back with his jaw and mouth clenched.

Bor dropped to his knees, and unzipped and pulled off his Lions tracksuit jacket. He balled the jacket up with one hand and used the other hand to pull the bits of timber and refuse he could see in Sokiri’s gaping wound. When it seemed cleaner, using what he knew from first aid, Bor applied the jacket with pressure to where he saw the blood coming out. He leaned down over and toward Sokiri’s left ear. “With you cuz,” he whispered. Sokiri nodded and showed his teeth in a forced smile.

From PE at school, Bor knew to look for an artery where he could also push down to stop bleeding. But there was none easily found between Sokiri’s gut and his heart. The jacket filled up with blood and it was squishing through Bor’s fingers. A white collared shirt speckled with blood drops dangled in front of him and his father’s voice said: “Take it.” Bor grabbed it with his free hand and put it on top of the wound as well. He put his ear to Sokiri’s chest. Salva, bare chested, was on his knees on the other side of Sokiri, and had placed one hand between the boy’s head and the gravel and pine needles he lay on. The boy had stopped smiling and his breathing was coming in bursts.

Bor pressed harder, somehow wishing he could just plug Sokiri up, and pulled his mobile out. He yelled “Triple O” at Siri and then yelled at operators until he was with a live paramedic on FaceTime. Bor showed her the wound through the Internet.

“My name is Karen. Tell your father to shift over and put as much pressure as he can on the wound and I’m going to talk you through starting CPR on your friend. You’re doing fine. You are going to compress his chest 30 times and then put two breaths of air into his lungs. Now find his breastbone and press, 1, 2, 3…,” Karen said. Bor had the phone further up on Sokiri’s chest and noticed she had half-a-dozen piercings in her right ear.

Bor pushed his arms straight and kept focussed on the downward compressions. “11, 12, 13.” Just concentrate, he told himself. Like free throws. He closed his eyes.

Salva kept pushing on the wound, now oozing dark brown, while turning his frame to be closer to Sokiri’s face. “Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness. In your compassion blot out my offence,” he whispered. “Oh purify me, then I shall be clean. O wash me, I shall be whiter than snow.”

“24, 25, 26,” Karen counted down over the phone. Bor opened his eyes and his vision was blocked over with his tears. A ray of sun shifted from behind the tall pine they had been shaded by. Bright circles was all he could see. Salva touched him on the forearm and said: “He is still breathing.”

“29, 30.” As Bor finished the compression count, and moved to seal Sokiri’s nose with his fingers and puff in his mouth, he found the boy’s mobile in his shorts. He pressed 1 for the speed dial for Sokiri’s mother.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Hooters”

She hit the button on the smudgy iPhone screen and the CCTV vision rewound to earlier in the night. To the table of four young guys who’d come in for beers and buffalo wings after summer-time college football practice across the road.

Linda, really Belinda but it was easier shorter, started to count. Two there after she handed them the menu’s with ‘Hooters’ splashed all over them; three more there after she put down the mugs of draft Miller. Definitely that cute blonde boy on the end in the cut-off ‘Titans Football’ t-shirt; Linda saw on the tape that she definitely got him. She could tell from where his eyes travelled and the way he leaned out from the table into the aisle to follow her walking back to the restaurant’s kitchen.

Some nights after a shift, she’d take off the white t-shirt and orange short-shorts, have a fast hot shower, and lie on the queen bed in her apartment near the strip mall with the Korean nail parlour and the Mexican-run Chinese take-out. She’d go to the app and start to count up all the “hits” she’d got on the fuzzy, black-and-white footage from the security cameras in the ceiling.

Linda counted her hits the way the other girls counted the cash tips jammed into the back pockets of their uniforms. The number of times the guys she was serving had checked her out.

She might run a total score for the night and see if it beat the last night or the last week. Or, sometimes, she’d average out all her hits across the number of tables served or number of guys served. Or, she could divide the hits between T’s or A’s – tits or ass. Or between young guys and older guys.

Or, if it had been a truly shitty shift with Chef smoking too much weed and running behind on orders, she might look at the females. There were more women that came in than people thought. Some were the Korean chicks with the Army husbands; for them, everything was a transaction including the marriages made near the DMZ. Girls tougher than the men that went to combat in Iraq or some other shithole. “Calculators with cunts,” Linda thought to herself. Others were the kinda girls she grew up with: trailers, tattoos, Trump signs, and oxy to make those fade. The only good part was getting the fuck out, she knew, even if meant being talked into going to Hooters by some half-broken ex-Afghanistan guy showing some interest.

She also knew she wasn’t meant to have the app to access the restaurant’s CCTV system – it was only for management. But after she’d tried being a shift manager for about a year and went back to not even hosting but waitressing, no one had remembered to get her off the system. Trevaughan, the general manager, even knew she had it cos she saw him look at her phone on the sticky bar counter one night – the spying on their movements and their waistlines to “protect the brand, ladies”. But the chickenshit didn’t say anything. Probably wanted a piece of her ass – and knew that it would cost him his job if he ever were to get any.

Linda scrolled through the tape. She was looking for the shaggy grey beard and the John Deere cap. Phil. A regular. He came in about once a week when he came off the road between runs to places like Houston and Fargo. Always sat at the same table next to the window looking out the slushy parking lot where his restored ’78 Camaro was. Yellow with a black racing stripes. Took the menu and then always ordered the same thing: some Buffalo wings with no blue cheese dip and a Mushroom Swiss burger. Diet Pepsi.

Always some kind of book and always a copy of the National Geographic magazine. Yellow border on the cover with lots of pictures.

And when she found him on the tape, about a week ago, it was like it was the half-dozen times before that. She came over and stood really close to the table, her thighs touching its lip. He handed her back the menu and Linda held it behind her and sucked in her stomach muscles. He quietly ordered his food, and she repeated it without writing it down. “No blue cheese. Gotcha, darlin.”

There was a gentle smile on his face like someone sitting alone on a porch who’d just remembered a great day of fishing as a kid with a kind old uncle. He looked directly into her eyes the whole time they ‘talked’, and when she turned to leave, Phil went straight back to the National Geographic. No following her ass down the aisle. Just flipped to some story. When she paused the tape and zoomed in, it was something about brewers growing algae to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “Weird,” she thought to herself, but at the same time got frustrated with how science could beat her sex appeal. How she was doing the stuff she best knew how to do, and could not get a hit from Phil.

Linda skipped back to the college boys from tonight and went forward/rewind on that part of the tape to look at the hits again. She pressed pause each time a boy’s eyes landed exactly where she wanted them to; it pushed a button inside her too.

After a while, she plugged the phone into the bedside charger and went to the small galley kitchenette where the pressed timber cupboard hinges were all nearly broken and the only food was protein bars, diet energy drinks and a bottle of olive oil. Pretty much everything she earned she sent back to a West Texas town, her older sister, and a little girl with curly hair who didn’t know her mother from her aunt.

She poured oil into a souvenir shot glass from some old church in St Augustine in Florida, and put it into the microwave oven for 20 seconds.

When it pinged, Linda took the warmed up oil back to her bed, poured it over her hands and pussy, and fingered herself to sleep.

On her next shift, Linda was bussing plates after a table of Indian IT guys. Civilian contractors from the Fort McDonald, the Army base outside of town. They all let their boss do the talking. When he looked at her, they looked at her. All wearing Walmart slacks and light blue business shirts under the big parka’s they kept on even during lunch. They were all scared shitless, Linda reckoned, and she used it to boss-girl them into a $20 tip she let the nerd boss slip into her waistline. It was against Hooters policy for there to be any contact. To protect the girls. Fuck policy, she thought. Girl’s gotta do. Reality. Or, unreality.

As she leaned over to get a plate covered in the carcass of a half-eaten Philly Steak Sandwich, Linda saw Phil’s yellow Camaro fishtail through the melting brown slush into a space by the front entrance. She noticed there were stickers of planes – mostly curling up at the edges from snow and sun – across the car’s back window.

After he’d carefully shaken sleet off his jacket and cap, hung the jacket in the entry vestibule that smelled like a deer hunting stand, and took his regular seat, Linda went over and gave Phil the menu.

“How you goin, Phil? It’s Phil, right? I saw it on your jacket.”

“Right. My jacket. Phil.” He looked directly at the name badge pinned to her shoulder. “Linda.”

“Belinda, really, but I like it shorter. I’m gonna guess your order today, Phil.”

“You are going to guess my order today, Linda shorter than Belinda,” Phil said. He leaned back a little and rested his hand on his National Geographic.

Linda nailed his order and finished with “No blue cheese.”

Phil came forward with his elbows on the table. He was closer to her mid-riff now.

“That is correct, Linda, and I am grateful to you,” he said and chuckled.

“Professional waitressing at its finest, Phil. Hey. You like planes,” Linda said and pointed out the window, getting cloudy from the heating system, at the Camaro.

“That is partially correct, Linda. I like model planes. Build em. Fly em. Race em. When I’m not on the road.”

He paused. Linda wasn’t good with nobody say anything and was about to say something. The man was funny. You’d never know it. He turned and looked out the window.

“Yup, I like model planes. Standing out in an open field, say after harvest with just the corn husks, and sending something I’ve built into the sky. Making it soar. Pulling a single-wing stall into a corkscrew. Or a Hammerhead.”

He looked back at her and his tone got quieter and slower when he started talking again. She had to really listen to hear him.

“You don’t know what I’m talking about, I know, Linda. But just imagine being able, for just a little bit, to control everything and make it the way you want it to be. Not to have to fight. Just fly. Calm. Beautiful.”

“Beautiful,” Linda repeated and found her hand up near a strand of her hair. She’d never heard these kind of words.

Phil paused again. It was like he didn’t need words to hold her.

“What do you like, Linda? What would you do with all your time if you didn’t need to be here at this restaurant?”

Linda heard the question.

She had no idea what to answer cos it wasn’t a 3-in-the-morning, eight Lone Stars later, honky-tonk question. A question from some Gulf oil rigger on shore leave who didn’t really care what you answered as long as it got him ninety seconds closer to a blow job in his Ford pick-up out the back.

And it wasn’t from a conversation that she made up in her head when she was pushing buttons on the security camera app.

And it wasn’t somebody she barely knew on Facebook yelling in capital letters about blue states or red states or Fox News or some other shit.

Linda saw that there were little bits of superglue on Phil’s thick fingers, sticking some of the little hairs together. She already knew he wore no ring.

“I’m gonna have to think about that one, Phil. I’m not really sure I’ve ever been asked before.”

Linda walked back to the kitchen to place his order with Chef. She had about ten minutes before the food would be ready and she would need to take it back to Phil’s table.

She realised that she hadn’t Skyped with her daughter since Christmas.

 

 

 

 

 

“FUBAR”

The dog lay at their feet as the two women, one older and one younger, stretched in an empty space between the weight machines crowded around on the gym floor.

The spaniel was white and brown and was wearing a blue ‘Support Dog’ vest. Her head rested between her shaggy paws and there was half-busted tennis ball in her mouth. She watched Diane, her master, and Poppy, the hospital gym trainer, bending from their waists until their heads almost met in the middle.

“You wonder what she thinks about all this. Like do they understand us,” Poppy offered her client. As she reached for her toes, Poppy’s blonde pony-tail came over her forehead and plonked over her eyes. Her movements seemed seamless like water running down a swift river, Diane noticed.

“I know this one probably does. Bloody mind reader. But for her sake I sometimes hope she doesn’t see the insides of this FUBAR head at all,” Diane said and knocked her knuckles on her short-cropped, female-standard military haircut.

Poppy laughed as she brought her left leg across her right leg and then put her elbow where it pressed to stretch the glutes. She told Diane to do so too.

“FUBAR. Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition. Haven’t heard that one for a while. Mostly the older guys. The Vietnam guys, and there’s less and less of them. Sweet guys,” she said.

“Yeah, I have plenty of friends in low places. The first time Army put me in the nut house they sent me to America. Programs allegedly more advanced there.”

“Push further into the glute. Feel it there? So, were the programs better?”

“Dunno really. I was pretty messed up at the time. It was only a few months after the shit so PTSD was just a bunch of letters to me then. Now it’s a fucking lifestyle, isn’t it, dog?”

The spaniel dropped the soggy ball from her mouth and picked her head up toward Diane, as the women stood up.

They each leaned forward on one bent leg, put their hands on each other’s shoulders and pushed. Poppy’s expensive workout pants stretched tight against her toned legs. Her legs looked like they’d been designed by a Ferrari engineer sitting in an immaculate white studio looking through a huge window out at a Shinto garden. Diane’s faded cotton rugby shorts, with her unit insignia’s embroidery fraying on them, pulled against her broad rump.

Diane felt the younger woman’s strength pushing through her lower back and down into her hamstrings. It was the first human touch, she recalled, that she’d felt in months and she breathed deeply into it.

But, just as she breathed out, the constant tingle in her spine switched gears into piercing pain. It was just to the left of where a piece of shrapnel from the IED had hit her in the back and caused two vertebrae to instantly rupture. “And hello Dolly,” she thought to herself. To try and ease the pain, she closed her eyes and imagined a zipper being opened and closed.

The dog shifted position and crawled in between the mismatched archway of the women’s legs.

Open and close, Diane said to the zipper in her head. Keep breathing. These were the card tricks Diane had picked up along the way in wards and clinics. From shrinks, physios, other vets, the fucking Internet. In-patient, out-patient, in-and-out patient, in-between patient, out-of-bounds patient. Anything but patient.

Self-awareness. Mindfulness. Acceptance versus challenging when it came to past traumas, present negative thoughts and future fears. Breathing. Visualisations. Role plays. Dousing her face with cold water when her distress levels were rising.

There was also the endless array of acronyms. From CBT to DBT to IMPROVE to SUDS – each some psychological Rosetta Stone dreamt up by an academic to deal with the pain, calm the constant chatter, and help move forward. Card tricks to baffle the brain away from what it wanted to always do: hurt her.

It was like taking one acronym – PTSD – and putting it in to fight another in a no-rules cage match. A Battle Royale for the Brain. But, Diane knew, that PTSD always knew the ring better, had fought many more bouts, and could take a storm of punches from any opponent.

“FUBAR,” she laughed as Poppy pressed harder. It was the acronym she remembered over all others. The dog stood up and her thick tail happily wagged between the stretching women. It made a hollow thumping sound as it smacked into the shaft of Diane’s prosthetic leg.

“It’s like she know it’s the end of the session. Places to pee, people to see,” Poppy said and backed off the stretch.

As the trainer’s steady hands left her shoulders, Diane felt like she was falling out the back of a C140 aircraft. She took a step sideways, steadied herself and then reached down for the dog’s lead.

“Me included. Mum’s crook with a cold so I need to go see her. But tomorrow right? Same time?” Poppy continued.

“Yeah that’d be good. Hope your mum feels better,” Diane said and looked directly into Poppy’s blue eyes. There wasn’t a single red line anywhere on them.

Diane realised just then it was the clearest she’d felt in weeks. And it hadn’t been about some kind of therapy or some kind of framework or model. It hadn’t been about anything going on in her head at all.

As Poppy turned off the gym studio’s lights, Diane organised her gear, picked up her regimental sports bag, and told the dog to lead on.

As they went into the hallway, she heard the trainer’s cheerful “Hooroo”. The kid knew her old Aussie stuff too, Diane thought.

“Remind me, dog of support. Let’s ask the nurses for the okay to use the hospital kitchen to make some chicken soup,” Diane said to the spaniel.

//

Pete Shmigel, January 2020

On ‘sitting on the dock of the bay’, ‘celebrating what’s right’ and other ways to do better in 2019

“Sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away, sitting on the dock of the bay, wasting time…”

A lyric about being lazy is perhaps the most productive advice anybody’s given to us, the digitally distracted and continuously chaotic dwellers of the 21st century.

I followed the advice and started my year by chilling. Mostly, I drove around the country towns of NSW and Victoria. Just signifying old streetscapes and older landscapes. Swimming in the public pools that other generations of civil Australians scrimped and saved to build, and devoted to old soldiers who sadly never made it home to cold beers at the Royal or the Railway pub.

Pausing my harried head was a healthy way to actually decide what’s right for this year. Usually, when I pause, something broader in my being eventually and intuitively locks in on the few half-decent ideas I’ve ever produced. Under-thinking is good.

I’m drawn to the beginning of the previous year when I struck on three things: to listen, to be clear, and to invent. I wrote this then:

The Year of the Ear. Work is changing, as technology goes faster. Futurologists don’t know where “Uberification” will lead. For me, there’s one sound response to uncertainty and risk. Listen. To hear where my clients and my colleagues are coming from. To understand what’s inspiring them and what’s worrying them… In a context that’s so fast and fluid – technologically, politically, socially – the smartest approach for me is to try to connect to those who matter the most.

UnFake News. Complexity is obvious. But adding to complexity is the changing nature and volume of information as sources diversify / tailor / micro-target. My answer to complexity is simple: simplicity. A mentor said: “Clarity is king.” A productive thing I can do is get to the essential. To cut clutter and get to the sweet spot. The why, to borrow from Sinek. That which makes most difference the best way – be it in policy, financial, management, emotional or social terms.

Make Stuff. Our work can be a practice of what Buddhists describe as mindful contact, thought, emotion and deliberate measures forward. It’s about pausing to understand the energy around an issue; to seek insight; to decipher with sound, scalable analysis, and; to come up with imaginative ways forward. To be my own Einstein and Edison – and invent.

I ask myself: how’d I go? Did implementation follow intention? Did I listen deeply, provide clarity, and invent new things?

As with most things, I plead WIP – work in progress.

On listening, I’m proud of leadership projects in Ukraine where the key was not to lecture but to respect and reinforce righteous people’s capabilities. However, if I counted the words out of my mouth as opposed to the words into my ears, I’d be net negative.

On clarity, I helped my industry here in Oz – the resilient recyclers – put forward a more specific yet more ambitious agenda for public policy. At the same time, like a kid running laps in a junior high school gym, I cut corners in cultivating consensus about that agenda.

On inventing things, I churned out more op-ed pieces than any other year, but for one more trip around the sun, I avoided going to the light that I somehow am scared shitless of: writing the fiction that I actually know I’m capable of. Just chickened out in large measure. Again. Cos I know that such yarns mean real and uncomfortable accountability before the Higher Power of my life.

There’s no point in new goals. Last year’s are fine and dandy. But how to ensure more progress?

Perhaps, the way I’ve started the year is the way to savour and succeed through year. Through more pausing and more moderation in thought, word and action. My tools for these tasks are my ‘Have I Truly’ questions:

  • Have I truly heard to this person and really tried to understand their point of view?
  • Have I truly looked for the ‘why’ of this situation and what’s most essential?
  • Have I truly trusted my creativity, eg, my Higher Power’s purpose for me?

And, I also share this: I’m getting divorced. Not from the Sensational Suzi. Heaven forbid. But from crazy-making, my own and sometimes that of others. From convenient cynicism, from self-inflicted conflicts, from the folks that I occasionally seek out just to jab at my own scabs, and from the social media scrolling for scrolling’s sake.

And, I’m getting remarried. Here, DeWitt Jones, a photographer for the National Geographic, soothingly spends 18 minutes teaching us to celebrate what’s right with the world and with humanity: “It’s not the light that shines on us, but the light that shines from within us.”

Let it be so.

 

 

 

 

On reading this at work and saying “F@ck it” to the Australian Busy Cult (ABC)

“Flat out.”

“So much to get done by Christmas.”

“It’s the busiest time of our year, what with clients’ requests and all.”

These are the cicada-like noises of Australian workplaces this week. They are the soundtrack of our new Australian cult: the cult of being busy.

And like all cults, there’s some part of their theology that’s probably reasonable and some part that’s really whacky but fully accepted by its members.

Think of Scientology: normal people, success orientation, and a firm belief that the hinges of the clam evolved into the hinges of the human jaw.

In the case of Australian Busy Cult, it’s absolutely the case that the vast majority of jobs have expectations of performance and the associated deadlines for its delivery. But the notion that we all need to be working hard all the time to meet them is absolute bullshit.

The fact is that some of you are reading this at work right now. Some of you spent the better part of the day mindlessly flipping through Facebook. Some of you have actually very little of substance to do today or some other day.

Yet, we live in an era where the Australian Busy Cult’s norm is for us to at least put on the show of being fully occupied and of having a million pressing and important tasks. To test this, let me ask you: have you ever heard anyone in a workplace lift say something like “Actually, I’m really chilled right now, don’t have very much to do and that’s totally cool”?

Nah. Somehow, we’ve convinced ourselves that the whole enchilada depends on others being told how busy we are and, by correlation, how important we are to the enterprise.

The Australian Busy Cult also loves the technology that enables this. For example, it should be great news that Australians are officially receiving less emails. Too bad that all the messaging and collaboration platforms like WhatsApp have substituted this traffic by five-fold. (Do the quick audit right now of how many pointless conversation strings you’re in…)

If it was all just theatrics, no biggie. But what we say is what our thinking and our emotions ultimately become. Studies show how hard it is for many to conceive, how challenging it is for many to sleep, and how lonely many feel because they may not be spending any real quality time with real people “in real life” rather than the digital dimension. The Australian Busy Cult, like all cults, demands sacrifices.

Even when we’re not busy, our brains still seem to be. (Buddhists call this the Monkey Mind that we’re born with, and a key point of their practice is to get rid of it because it’s not necessary after about age four.)

That’s why it’s so interesting to watch Australians on this upcoming summer holiday. On the surface at least, the Australian Busy Cult tells us to “recharge our batteries for a big year coming up”.

Over Christmas and New Year, with the temperatures up and the beaches beckoning, we enforce a break. We command ourselves to slow down and take it easy – as if that was something that’s almost abnormal.

The phone must be switched off! Time must be spent with family and friends! There are newspapers and books to be read – not just work stuff! And, that stuff around the house that needs doing, it needs to get done!

Let’s not forget everything that needs preparing for Christmas and the need for ‘a plan’ for New Year’s Eve!

It seems the Australian Busy Cult just switches lanes and keeps rolling on rather than truly pulling over and looking at the scenic vista of our lives, relationships and daily occurrences.

So, if you are at work and reading this, or it’s in the middle of some task on some ‘to do’ list that you’re meant to be doing, I want you to do this instead.

I want you to escape the Australian Busy Cult. Here’s how.

Take a breath. And another.

Now repeat after me: F@ck it.

And now leave the office early.

To do: nothing. Exactly nothing at all.

Happy and exceedingly lazy holidays.

Geronimo’s Daybreak

Henry and his slow son, Henry, had stumbled out of the Commercial pub, and then some fool mate’s tool shed, and into the their creaky caravan next door at about 0430 in the morning.DSC05687

“I coulda fuckin swore there was still a bottle of JD in here,” Senior yelled as he conducted a search-and-destroy through a battalion of empty VB tinnies and a platoon of rusted oyster cages that got taken inside but never fixed.

Bev’s dog, Geronimo, stirred and grumbled in his sleep at the foot of the double bed that sank on one side only. He probably knew, like Bev, what was coming next.

“Fucking Junior. Where’d ya fuckin put the fuckin whiskey, ya halfwit?”

That was enough. Bev threw off the IronMan doona she liked and fond her Ugg boots in the half-dark. She could barely see them for all the diesel stains and caked on mud from the bay’s mangroves near the oyster beds. Geronimo jumped down and his little nails skittled on the bent linoleum tiles.

DSC05690 2By the time her salt-bleached Hilux got them down to the surf beach, the sun was starting to rise. As the little dog and her climbed over the scrubby dune off the service road, Bev remembered that expression: the sun will always rise again in the morning.

Truth is – she still needed to prove it to herself. Even after decades.

When she’d been a kid, trapped in the Dark House near the Post Office, with her drugged-out father dictating 10,000 word letters about the Jews running Australia’s big four banks to ABC radio hosts, it hardly seemed like it would. She tapped away at the old Olivetti, hoping that maybe they’d run out of carbon paper so she could go to sleep before school.DSC05683

Now, Bev walked down to the break, took off the boots, and let golden water run across here feet. She tried to take a deep breath and hold it when her phone chimed.

An app telling her what day it was. International Free-Range Chicken Farming Day. National Autism Awareness Day. It helped her remember there was a life outside Wilson Bay. There had to be more than scraping by on selling trays of a dozen shells at a time to Balmain tourists looking for some “real local catch”  (which seemed like it was always founded on somebody else’s real local impoverishment).

Today was World Kindness Day, the little screen in her palm said. Bev thought to herself:
“That’s nice”. That’s what her head said, but Bev didn’t feel particular kind. When she closed her eyes again, she could feel her calves cramp up like iron re-bars for pouring cement piers.

Anger. Wanting to bust in on the Old and Young Henry before Senior laid into Junior, and bust Senior’s head open with heavy skillet.

Wanting to bust into the Dark House before Dad lit another bong and rescue her Kid Self from another rant about aliens, or ethnics, or single mum’s on the dole – like his missing ex, Daisy.

Bev felt a tickle on her foot and opened her eyes. Geronimo had coming running back down the beach and laid a big pink shell on her toes. He yapped and jumped vertical.

DSC05692

“Best thing that ever happened to you, eh, sport?” Bev said and gave Geronimo a scratch under his chin. The dog whirled in circles while Bev balanced the shell on her foot and then flicked it into the surf. Geronimo dashed into the little break to retrieve it. It was how he’d earned his name.

She stretched her arms over her head, and made a mental list of which rows of cages she needed to pull today, of finding time to change the plugs on the outboard, of sharpening the curved shucking knives on the worn pumice stone.

The dawn, the dog, the to-do list’s, the rows of cages – Bev knew that’s what kept the show on the road day after day and year after year. She wished for kindness that didn’t come and she had anger she couldn’t enact. Survival meant routine.

“Step into the space in front of you”, something clicked in her head as the daylight grew from hint to heat. It surprised her. Hopefully, it wasn’t an early start to the cDSC05719acophony of her father’s crook mind. “Crooker than Rookwood”, he’d say in clearer moments.

But it was there and it was her own clear moment, it seemed. She flicked the shell into the surf again for Geronimo. It sprayed sand as it flipped end over end.

The coffee shop at the petrol station would be open soon and her flat white would be waiting for her. The dog came back, the seashell like a massive cheesy grin in his bite. Bev looked down to the end of the beach where the rock pools were, and where she never went. She turnedDSC05702 that way.

“Let’s go have a squiz, Geronimo,” Bev said. She caught their shadows – long and strong- on the sand as they started to walk down the beach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On a bookstore that’s a dive bar in Kyiv & writing

My dive bar in Kyiv is a bookstore.

Whether its Ukraine or Australia, it seems the world over people do what it takes when it comes to planning laws and permissions. The rumour about “Kupidon” – and I hope it’s true so I never ask – is that the owners couldn’t get consent for a bar so they just bolted one on to the existing and permissible basement bookshop.

I love the idea that books gave rise to beer and borscht. That is a productive and practical contribution of printed wshotords to the common good.

It’s actually generous to call it a bookstore. It’s more like a broom closet with stacked shelves from floor to ceiling. Sets of antiquarian titles with ornate gold tooling on their spines and a steady stream of older literary types with bent spines dropping in for a chat with the proprietor. I’ve never seen anything sold. It seems commerce isn’t key.

It functions more like a cave-like confessional for authors, poets and other sundry scribes (of which I’m proud to nowadays count myself).

“Have you read so-and-so’s new one?”  

“Has Mr X been by lately? Is his health okay?”

“She didn’t deserve that award. It was politics.”

“How’s the latest one going? Are the words coming, darling?”

books

We have these conversations because they buy us a break from the words – words that can be hard. Hard to find and hard to put down. Hard as an upstate New York lake in winter.

It feels sometimes like a bad Wi-Fi connection. There’s something there, but it’s infernally frustrating.

You start thinking: it’s hardly worth it. Every smart or kupidonclever thing has already been written. My stuff is unoriginal or has no craft. Or, whatever undermining utterances the Mental Machine of Malicious Musings wants to muster depending on whether it’s been fended off with a serving of comfortable potato pancakes or not.

(Or, I can recommend the Big Shwed Burger named after my mate, Roman Shwed, the ex US sailor from Philly, radio broadcaster and now mayor of the “Kupidon”, who nearing 80 still gets to the poetry reading here every Saturday arvo.)

There’s really only one answer. It’s the method of great American author, E.L. Doctorow (“Ragtime”, “The Book of Daniel”, “Billy Bathgate”). He suggested that writing is like driving at night time- you can only go as far as the headlights. Even writing that makes me cringe with insecurity and self-doubt in light of his mastery.deruny

If ‘one day at a time’ has become our social slogan of slog and resignation, ‘one word at a time’ is my personal slogan of hope and inspiration.

If I can just somehow keep pumping stuff out – be it a short story, poem, or essay – something of my true voice, perhaps I find solace in a world of disquiet, calm amid the constant conflict. Perhaps, I will come to understand or at least accept so much that I simply don’t – mostly myself and my many bad choices. Perhaps, I will become better and somehow redeemed.

Perhaps, somebody will even read something and it will mean something to them. Winner winner chicken dinner.

Perhaps. In the meantime, there’s always another green tea to be ordered. There’s another conversation to ‘over-listen’. There’s a “Kupidon” to make my Kyiv home on cold drizzly day where the keystrokes keep me wteaarm company.

And maybe that’s what I’ve learned today as I type away. That writing is a bit like the “Kupidon”. Part scam, part hidden, part hope and part failure, part art and part artifice. And those are good parts to make me whole.

On floating through fear – and other tips for surviving a shitty business meeting

I’ve got a business meeting today that I’m concerned about – and ‘concerned‘ is the more socially acceptable way for a reasonably successful and reasonably old-fashioned Baby Boomer male to say ‘anxious‘ or ‘afraid‘.

As I put the toothbrush onto my old teeth, I caught my flawed (read: human) brain doing all the tricks it does in these situations where I’m basically scared:

  • drawing up a Plan-of-Battle (POB);
  • anticipating different attacks and how to recoil them;
  • thinking up arguments that diminish the credibility of my “opponent”, and;
  • digging through past injustices and scorns.

All that sounds real productive, yeah? Gonna make for a super successful set of results at the discussion? Gonna make me have a great weekend? Hardly.bundanon

So, I got in the shower and just kinda let the water flow down this battered body I lug around nowadays. I was reminded that the Buddhists have a concept called ‘upekha‘ (in the Pali language of their doctrine). If I understand it correctly, it’s basically ‘going with the flow‘ – or more specifically ‘equanimity‘. It’s about:

  • not assuming a bias – your own or somebody else’s;
  • not being attached to a preconceived view of what is or may occur;
  • not considering yourself, your interlocutors or this very moment as especially significant, and;
  • not presuming the worst.

A couple of smart people have commented on similar. The dude I’ve relied on for quite sometime, Prah Mana, who runs a Thai Buddhist forest monastery where we practice ‘noble silence‘ in the Bundanoon bush, once said: Expectations are premeditated resentments.”

Another mate, who has been CEO of two significant scale businesses, put it another way to me over dinner a few months back: It just doesn’t matter.coffee

Dont’ you love great advice that you don’t know how to use? That’s what a coffee on your own is for – figuring out how to go from theory to practice. Over my soy flat (yeah, yeah), I kept thinking about water, how it always soothes and guides me. How when I – too infrequently – get in a lap pool the world gets much better. Here’s how I’m going to do today’s challenging meeting based on that:

The Door. When I walk into the swim centre, I start to breathe long, deep and relaxed. It’s the pause button to my whole being to slow the fuck down and chill the fuck out. Same today with meeting.

The Change Room. At the swim centre, I get out of the clothes of the day and into the clothes of the present. Preparation reminds me I’m about to transition to something else. No, I’m not going to the meeting in my Speedos – not pretty. Rather, I’m just going to write down what’s being discussed as it’s discussed. Just record – but not judge or evaluate. Specific words being repeated; positive offers of cooperation; openings to value.

The Pool. I emerge from the change room and look at the pool, how many lpoolanes going, who’s fast or who is on my dugong-like pace. I just take it in the chlorine smell, the ripples on the surface, the big stopwatch on the wall. I decide where’s the best lane and place for my efforts in the pool. And so with today’s discussion, where / how can I actually do something worthwhile?

The Lane. I step down the ladder, duck dive under the ropes and off I go. Strokes. Paddles. Kicks. More breathing. More following the black line. My way – not Ian Thorpe’s perfection but Pete Shmigel’s progress. In a meeting context, it means talking and contributing where I can add something of benefit – and do it safely for myself.

That’s the intention! All set! And if things still go to shit, the swim centre will be open tomorrow too.