Around the Next Bend

Recently, I was out for a walk at a place where I’ve gone for walks dozens of times in the past. But this time, I noticed a trail off to my right that I’d never seen before… and so, with no real destination in mind, and some free time on my hands, I turned off the main path and down this new one, just to see what was there.

Turns out, there is a whole other system of trails, and some beautiful big fields (where you can find wild bunnies frolicking, no less!) which I never knew about. I can’t even begin to tell you how happy (and surprised) I was to find this, just a little ways away from where I’d been so many times before.

Is this an analogy for life? You bet.

The thing is, you really do never know what is coming around the next bend, and life being as unpredictable as it is, you never know when you’re going to see that turn coming that leads you to someplace really special.

what lies around the bend

Having personally been in some dark places over the years, I can tell you, it’s hard to believe that these turns or special places even exist – but they do, and eventually, one way or another, you always seem to find them when you least expect it.

That Special Kind of Dark

The night was dark; that special kind of dark that it gets when it’s really late – when even the nocturnal animals have gone to sleep – in the still, calm hours before dawn.

The stifling heat of the day was long gone; the air was cool now, almost to the point of being chilly, and neither the ground nor the rocks nor the trees had any more of their daytime heat to radiate. The world had that special stillness, holding its breath in anticipation of the start of the next day.

It was in this special darkness that she found herself; shaken, sore, and shivering slightly. The pain in her head had settled into a dull ache now, just enough to keep her awake and alert.

The sharp crack of twigs breaking under her feet seemed to reverberate throughout the entire forest each time she took another tentative step. Tired and stunned as she was, she still somehow found herself able to be thankful that she still had her shoes. Several times now her feet stubbed on protruding rocks, or stumbled into small dips in the uneven ground.

She rested for a moment, pressing her hand against the trunk of a tree to steady herself, but she’d hardly been still for more than a few seconds when the fear of being lost and alone surged back to the front of her awareness.

She fought her panic, gulping deep breaths to calm herself, refusing to give in to hysteria. Gritting her teeth, she took another step forward.

The darkness was oppressive – though she could see virtually nothing, her other senses seemed painfully alert. The sound of each step she took seemed to echo endlessly, turning into the sound of footsteps behind her, and several times she whirled around – only to see the same nothing behind her each time.

Each time a twig from a low branch touched her arm, she felt like a strong hand was trying to grab her, and she whirled to grasp back – only to find her hand clutching a thin and brittle twig.

Step by step she kept moving in this way, fearful for what lay ahead, terrified of what was behind.

But slowly – though she hardly noticed it at first, and then almost refused to believe it – dawn was creeping its way across the sky. Shapes began to resolve before her eyes – a tree here, a rock there. The world around her went from deep black, to deep blue, to pale gray, and finally to the colors of the normal waking world.

And when the suns first rays touched the tips of the trees, she thought she would go blind from the brightness – the golden glow of a thousand candles, all ignited at once.

With each passing moment, as daylight returned, the terror melted away – although not completely. Where was she? What had happened to her? At least now, in the warm light of day, these were questions that she could finally face.

She had passed through the dark night and made it into the light.

Now, she had hope.

The Old Man and the Forest

Although no one could quite remember exactly when the old man had moved into the house on the edge of town, by the forest, everyone seemed to agree that it was a long time ago.

Not that anyone would admit to paying much attention to the old man. He was a loner, an outsider, who lived in his run-down cottage under the eaves of the Old Forest, and most people tried their best to ignore the fact that he existed.

Oh, the children in town told stories, of course, as well as a few of the adults. They said if a child wandered into the forest during the day, he’d be lost forever, and if he was caught in the forest at night, the old man would find him and capture him. What happened to the captured children, nobody would say with certainty, but many variations on the story imagined a grisly end.

However, most adults regarded these stories as just old cautionary tales about the Old Forest that had become twisted and distorted with time and repeated retellings. Still, most adults did keep their distance from the old man, and nobody could remember his name.

***

His house – more of an old cottage, really – sat right up against the edge of the Old Forest, so much so that the moss which had once grown and spread all over the roof was now brown and dead from lack of sunlight.

It must have once been a quaint and pleasant cottage – perhaps made back before the village was settled – with a gently sloping straw-thatched roof that came down low on either side.

As for the old man himself, he kept mostly to himself, and was rarely seen in the village proper. On occasion he could be seen strolling along the dirt roads of the village at dusk, just after the sun had set – especially in the winter, when the sun set early.

He sometimes visited the village doctor and traded for some herbs and plants that he must have either grown himself or found in the forest. The villagers didn’t avoid him necessarily during these times, but nobody would approach him on purpose, and people looked the other way and avoided his gaze.

***

Dix, however, thought differently. He thought differently about a lot of things, actually, but he usually didn’t do or say anything to show it… except in this case.

Dix had always felt strangely curious about the old man, ever since he saw him when he was little. He remembered that night very clearly, though he was only 6 years old at the time. He’d been out late, playing in the big oak tree at the edge of his father’s fields. The tree was ancient and huge, with ample large branches, many of which hung low to the ground – perfect for climbing. Once you got up a bit in the tree, you had a clear view over all the surrounding fields, including over the neighbor’s field, and then the empty meadow, and then, tiny with distance, the old man’s house on the edge of the Old Forest.

That day he’d been playing in the tree, looking out at people working in the fields. He’d just watched the last few workers head in as dusk approached when he saw him – the old man, clearly visible now that the wheat had been cut, walking along a track beside the far edge of the field.

Dex remembered being riveted by the sight – he’d heard stories, of course, but he’d never seen the old man himself. Now though, he somehow sensed the inherent injustice of the stories as the old man walked with his long-legged stride along the track, his head down, his eyes watching the path before him in the dimming light.

And then, suddenly, the old man had stopped in his tracks and looked up – looked right up across the field and into the tree and seemingly right into Dex’s own eyes. Dex felt a surge of panic, of fear at being discovered, but only for a moment. In that next heartbeat, somehow, Dex saw right back into the old man’s eyes, saw the calm, quiet contemplation there, and knew with a certainty very unbecoming of one so young that this old man was not like what the stories told.

But before he could even blink, the moment had passed, and the old man was walking again, and Dex’s mother was calling for him to come inside.

Ever since then, Dex had tried to catch a glimpse of the old man again – but it wasn’t easy. But Dex kept at it, and several years later, when he was 12, he managed to catch a better look.

It was midsummer’s night, and the village was throwing its annual celebration. Dex took the opportunity to sneak out of the village and creep along some of the less-used tracks between fields, until he was near the Old Forest and the old man’s house.

Then he saw him – the old man, sitting quietly on the side of a small hillock, his back to the forest, looking out over the fields and towards the village.

Dex had wanted to come up to him, to talk to him and ask him questions – questions about who he was, why he lived alone, and whether he’d really seen him that day years ago – but on this night, something held him back.

It was something in the old man’s face, or perhaps just in his eyes, that kept Dex from disturbing him. He didn’t seem quite so old then, sitting in the grass under the purple sky, the first evening stars twinkling above him.

Dex stood there – for how long he was later never quite sure – and then slowly, as the deepening dusk spread across the sky, he turned around and walked quietly back into town.

Ever since then, Dex had tried to defend the old man whenever people spoke of him – which was rare, but still, word got around. He also tried to meet the old man again, waiting near the edge of town at dusk, or wandering the fields before dawn, but though he saw the old man from afar many times, he was never quite able to get close to him like that again.

People started to avoid Dex, or look the other way when he came by. He almost expected his parents to scold him for his behavior – though he was nearly an adult now himself – but they never brought the subject up again, and as Dex got older he thought he saw the signs of resignation in their eyes.

Eventually Dex reached his 17th year, and it was time for him to choose his future. Nobody seemed surprised when he announced that he was going to leave town and set out on his own rather than stay and help with the farm. Surprisingly, many people – including his parents – seemed almost relieved.

After packing what little belongings he had and slinging them on his back, he hugged his parents for the last time and set out on the road, heading out of the village.

He’d deliberately waited until sunset to head out, and as he plodded along out of town, dusk deepened around him. After he passed the last house on the long road that led north to the next town, he looked one last time behind him, and then swiftly jumped off the road and cut across one of the fields – heading straight for the old man’s cottage.

By the time he got there, dusk had passed and night was here in full, and for a moment he almost regretted his plan. The Old Forest loomed frighteningly close now, and all those old childhood ghost stories began to rise up again in his mind – but he stood his ground.

The stars were out now, as was a sliver of moon – casting a surprisingly bright light over the land, at least compared to the deep dark under the nearby trees.

He waited, listening to the sounds of the night – the occasional rustle of leaves in the distance as the night breeze fluttered its way through the forest, the haunting calls of the owls, or the mournful howls of wolves… and then, he saw him.

Plodding up around a bend in an old horse trail, the old man came, like a whisper on the wind, a barely visible gray shadow in the night, with just a hint of silver twinkling around his neck. At just a dozen paces away from Dex, he stopped and looked up.

Though it was far too dark for Dex to see it clearly, he was sure the old man was smiling, or if possible, grinning, as if he’d expected to see Dex here this night. And then, in the most surprising moment of his life, Dex heard the old man speak.

In a voice that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a man who looked half his age, the old man said, “I was wondering when you’d show up.”

Standing up a big straighter than before, the old man swept quickly past Dex and to the door of his house, opening it wide and revealing a warm and welcoming light from within. “Well, come on inside,” he said, gesturing with his arm, “I’ve a lot to tell you, and the night is wearing on.”

With that, Dex seemed to feel himself break free of his awe, and he smiled and nodded, and stepped inside the house.

USB Insanity

A while back, I wrote about how I have a lot of USB devices hanging off my computer.

Well, these days… I have even more.

My current computer has 4 USB ports on the back and 2 on the front, which is pretty typical. (The ports on the front though aren’t very useful for stuff I keep attached permanently; I like to keep my wires in the back & out of sight.)

I also recently added a USB 3.0 card, giving me another 2 ports on the back, and I have an old 4-port (powered) USB hub plus a 2-port (unpowered) port in my keyboard. This gives me a total of 14 USB ports (some of which are taken up connecting the hubs of course, so really there’s just 12 available).

And it’s still not enough.

I had recently picked up a new 7-port powered USB hub, but it turned out to be rather cheap and died on me (freezing and taking down the entire USB subsystem with it!). So I had to go back to my old 4-port hub… which leaves me a bit pressed for ports to plug in the simply obnoxious amount of USB devices I have connected to my computer.

And if that wasn’t enough, one of the ports on my old 4-port hub recently died after a power fluctuation, so now it’s a 3-port hub.

So, I’m on the lookout now for a new hub – a good one this time – that has at least 5 ports (preferably more) and is externally powered (a necessity for using USB to charge devices).

In the meantime though, I figured I’d update my list of USB devices, just for fun.

  1. Dell Multimedia Keyboard (my favorite keyboard, both for its volume knob instead of just buttons, and for the fact that it has a 2 port hub built-in – very handy for where to plug in mice)
  2. Microsoft Comfort Mouse 3000
  3. Logitech Trackman Marble (for when carpal tunnel pain forces me to switch mouse hands)
  4. Printer
  5. Microsoft LifeCam VX-1000 webcam (for the bunnycam)
  6. Microsoft LifeCam Studio (for Skype)
  7. Logitech headset (for Skype, audio recording, & other VoIP stuff)
  8. UPS (battery backup)
  9. 1 TB external hard drive (for local backup, in addition to my cloud-based backup)
  10. Microsoft eHome infrared receiver (for using my Windows Media Center remote)
  11. 8 GB USB flash drive for Windows ReadyBoost

I think it’s fair to say… I have an obnoxious number of USB devices! And this doesn’t even count the USB gamepad (only sometimes connected) or the USB bluetooth receiver (also only sometimes connected).

The American’s Guide to Australia

Or, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Australia but were Afraid to Ask.

Just a handy little reference guide for anyone who wants to know more about that crazy land down on the bottom of the Earth.

(Note that some of these terms may not be specific to Australia – for example, some are common to the UK as well as other Commonwealth Realms.)

Prepare to be confused!

Flat White: An espresso based drink, like a latte but with little or no foam.

Tea: The evening meal, what Americans would probably just call “dinner.” Not to be confused with “tea” the drink. Also not to be confused with “teatime,” which is the time you drink the tea, not the time you eat tea (which would be “tea time”, or “time for tea”). Confused yet?

Ute: Short for “utility,” as in “utility vehicle,” what Americans would call a truck or pickup truck. More often than not, this refers to a uniquely Australian type of vehicle that bears more than a passing resemblance to the old Chevy El Camino car/truck thing.

Wrong side of the road: Unlike most of the civilized world, Australians drive on the left side of the road, with the steering wheel on the right side of the car. This, combined with their relative isolation, means that most Australian cars are either locally produced or come from Japan (which also drives on the left – a.k.a. “wrong” – side of the road), with a smattering of European models (the right-hand drive versions, of course) thrown in for good measure. Even more oddly, one of the biggest Australian car companies (Holden) is actually a subsidiary of GM (General Motors), and there are also a lot of Fords running around. Go figure.

Petrol: Like their UK cousins, this is what Australians call gasoline. Also don’t forget that it’s sold by the liter, not the gallon, and that liters are smaller than gallons… and don’t forget to factor in the exchange rate too. (Basically, what I’m trying to say here is that gasoline is more expensive in Australia, much like it is in Europe.)

$2 coins: Unlike here in the US, where the largest denomination coin you’re likely to run into in normal usage is a quarter ($0.25), in Australia you’re very likely to run into their $1 and $2 coins – the latter of which are ridiculously heavy, given their small size. So don’t just toss your change into your pocket or cup or whatever – it’s probably worth more than you realize!

Alfoil: Aluminum foil, or what Americans might colloquially call “tin foil” (even though it’s not made of tin). A rare case of when the Australian term for something actually makes more sense than the American term, and also an example of the Australian habit of shortening the names of things.

Biscuits: The sweet kind, not the savory kind. What we in America would probably just call “cookies.”

Cool change: This is exactly what it sounds like – a change in temperature (getting cooler). Often – but not always – accompanied by some rain showers (which often come with the cold front that causes the “cool change”).

Weber: A generic term for an outdoor grill. Usually means the big round “kettle” style kind made by the Weber company, but not always. Sometimes even used to refer to any grill – including gas grills!

Barbie: No, not the doll, the stereotypical term for “barbecue,” which I have never actually heard used. If you use this term, you are basically identifying yourself as an ignorant tourist.

Yank or Yankie: Slang term for us – that is, Americans. Generally not used in a negative sense.

Top End: The top (northern) end of Australia, which it is important to remember is closer to the equator, and therefore tropical. Oddly enough, it does not refer to the northernmost part of Australia (which would be Cape York), but instead to the 2nd northernmost part (around Darwin).

Outback: Generally speaking, the large, remote, and very sparsely populated interior of Australia.

The Bush: What we in America would probably just call “the woods” or a “forest,” but drier and of course filled with native Australia trees (usually Eucalyptus trees – see “Gum tree” below).

Gum tree: Colloquial term for a Eucalyptus tree. May refer to any of the several actual species of trees (much the same way we here in the US use the term “pine tree” to refer to any of several different species of trees). Variations on this term include “Red Gum,” “River Gum,” “Snow Gum,” “Ghost Gum,” etc. Have a nasty tendency to drop dead branches without warning, so watch out when walking around them. Has absolutely nothing to do with the stuff you chew.

Ayer’s Rock / Uluru: More commonly referred to these days with its original native name of “Uluru,” this is that big (as in, friggin’ huge) rock out in the near-center of Australia.

Aborigines / Indigenous Australians: The original native people of Australia. Basically, these are Australia’s equivalent to our Native Americans – the people who lived there before Europeans came along and stole their land and destroyed their culture. Be careful what term you use when talking about them – it’s a bit of a sensitive topic, not unlike using the term “Indian” (when used to refer to Native Americans) would be here in the US.

Vegemite: It’s spreadable yeast. It’s gross. Don’t eat it. Trust me.

Chemist: Strangely, this refers to what we in America would call a pharmacy or drugstore. May also refer to the person in the store, which we would call a pharmacist.

Thongs: Amusingly enough, in Australia this refers to footwear, not underwear. What we would call flip-flops or sandals (the kind that have that little strap that goes between your big toe and the next one down).

Toilet: This means both the toilet itself and the room in which it is housed, but NOT necessarily the bathroom, which is often in a separate room.

Track pants: Basically, sweatpants. (You may also hear them referred to as just “trackies.”)

Prawn: This means shrimp, for some godforsaken reason. (Actually, “prawn” are technically a different suborder of animal entirely, but which still looks – and tastes – like a shrimp, so this one isn’t as odd as it seems.) Also note that the stereotypical “Australian” catch-phrase “throw another shrimp on the barbie” is technically incorrect – an Australian would almost certainly not say “shrimp,” they’d say “prawn.” And as I mentioned before, they’d probably not use the word “barbie” either. So really, the phrase should be “throw some more prawns on the webber.”

Mince: Ground beef (as in, “minced beef”). Another case of Australia’s love of shortening the names of things.

Pies: Might refer to the things you eat for dessert (fruit pies, etc.), but more likely it means meat (or savory) pies. These are just what they sound like: pies with savory fillings like meat & gravy, or sometimes vegetables (often potatoes) and curry-like sauces in them, instead of sweet stuff.

Chips: French fries; as in “fish & chips.” Outside of fast-food restaurants, they are likely to be much thicker than typical American french fries (often more like what we would call “steak fries”). Which brings us to…

Chips & Gravy: French fries doused with brown gravy. Surprisingly good!

Wedges: Fried potato wedges. Like french fries, but thicker and more… wedge shaped.

Hungry Jack’s: Australian Burger King – so named because someone else owned the trademark to “Burger King” in Adelaide, South Australia.

Crayfish: Just to make things really extra-super-confusing, this is what Australians call the lobsters they get from the ocean… but this is actually a spiny lobster, which doesn’t have claws like our lobsters, and in fact is not a true lobster at all! Compare with true crayfish, which are a fresh water species, and which DO have claws! Speaking of which…

Yabby: As if things weren’t confusing enough, this is what Australians call their freshwater crayfish (and these are true crayfish), which look more like the true lobsters Americans are familiar with (although they are somewhat smaller).

That’s about all I’ve got for now – I hope you found this little guide to be useful, or at least entertaining. Although Australia can be somewhat confusing, it really is a lovely country, and if you find yourself there, just relax and have a great time!