© 2006

People studiously scrutinize the front and back of an envelope before opening it, hoping for a clue as to what the contents might be. The quickest way to discover what's inside is to open the bloody thing right away. But, you know, people are kind of crazy. And that includes me.

First off, I tried to recognize the handwriting. Nope. And there was nothing written on the back. I sniffed the envelope. No giveaway scent. But there was something semi-solid inside, as well as a folded piece of paper. I shook the envelope and heard a jingling sound. Then held it to the light. What was it? And from whom?

The side of my bed dipped a little as I sat down. I carefully peeled open the flap so as not to tear the paper. Inside, appeared a silver chain with a silver surfboard attached. I took the note and unfolded it. "Hey, Kyle. I'm really sorry about the fight, man. I kinda lost it. I guess I got confused about stuff. Can we talk? I just want you to know that I'd like us to be mates again. Give me a call and maybe we can sort things out. Your friend, Stuart."

I read the note again, then noticed scratching sounds at the back door. Roo! Damn, I'd forgotten all about her.

"Sorry, Roo," I apologized after opening the door. Her short legs propelled her down the hall, skidded to a halt, and caused the hall runner to concertina into a series of rolling mounds before colliding with the front door. The return trip was delayed a couple of seconds until her galloping paws got a grip on the polished floorboards. If only people could be as open and honest with their emotions, I thought.

I didn't phone Stuart right away. There were chores to do. Roo's landmines for one, and weeding for another. There was also a note from dad, asking me to fix a loose tile on the roof. The chores were a blessing really; they gave me a chance to think things through before making the phone call.

"Could I speak to Stuart Shaffer, please?"

"Just a moment. May I say who's calling?"

"Kyle Taranto."

That was weird. She sounded foreign. Some seconds later, I heard Stuart's voice. "Kyle?"

"Hi, mate. How's it?"

"Cool. Thanks for calling. Did you get my note?"

"How did you get into the school locker room?"

"Snuck in. No one was there."

"Who answered the phone just now?"

"The housemaid. We have staff here."

"Staff? Bloody hell! Anyway, thanks for the gift. I'm wearing it now. It rocks something fierce!"

"Can we talk?"

"Feel like catching a wave?"

I figured it preferable to meet on neutral ground. Surfing also diminished any potential chance of tension.

"I see you're wearing the necklace," he grinned as we sat on our boards out back, rising and falling with the swell, and waiting for a promising wave. "Why did you call?"

"You asked me to."

"Does that also mean you ... wanted to?"

"Sure. I missed you."

Next thing I knew, Stuart disappeared from view down the face of a four-footer rushing to shore. The following one was mine.

We surfed for about 90 minutes, meeting from time to time on the back line after a ride, exchanging pleasantries, but talked little about the cause of our recent dispute. It wasn't until we showered in our Speedos under fresh water on the beach that Stuart mentioned something I found disconcerting.

"You freak me out sometimes, Kyle."

"How so?"

"I dunno. The way you look at me, I guess."


He shut off the water and grabbed a towel. Then I took my turn at showering. "Maybe it's me," he said, drying his longish, straight blond hair. "Forget it."

I said nothing, but understood what he meant about the way I looked at him. Hell, everybody gawked at Stuart. He was a major head-turner, blessed with a killer face, matched by his tanned, muscular body. He needed to make only the slightest movement for a muscle to bulge or flex or ripple. It was simply a phenomenon impossible to ignore ... or admire.

We walked home together, chatting about the surfing conditions and some of our better rides. Finally, my patience gave way to curiosity. I had to know what was eating him. "Does it bother you when people check you out?"

"Ha! Why do you think I wear my boardies so low? It's cool to show a few pubes and a bit of butt to the chicks." There was a pause before he added, "Are you worried about what I said back at the shower?"


"You're different, Kyle. You're my best mate. My other mates aren't the same. Don't ask me why. I don't really understand it myself. Somehow it's... special being with you. Maybe it's your smile and ready laugh or something. You don't bullshit like other guys do. It's like you're not competing with me. Know what I mean? You get just as excited as me when I do a 360 on a cool wave. You went totally ballistic out there--for me! I dunno, Kyle, I'm probably talking through my ass here. It's just that..." He hesitated a second. "It's just that I don't want anything to go wrong again ... wrong between you and me, that is."

I didn't quite follow him. "What could go wrong?"

We reached the corner of the road that led toward his house. "Nothing, I hope. See you tomorrow, Kyle."

"See you, Stuart." I watched him for about a minute, then yelled, "And thanks a stack for the necklace!"

G'day Captain. Yeah, it's a tricky one. I tend to think your problem is that you're unique. Rick grew up with you, so he was used to the way you are. And vice versa. Stuart's only just come on board. You're a bit of a culture shock. I also think you're stirring unfamiliar feelings within your young friend. He's only 14, after all. My guess is he's apprehensive.

You have two choices here, mate. You can modify your behavior to suit him, or you can continue being yourself. It's not an easy choice to make. But consider this: if you spend the rest of your life modifying your behavior to suit others, who is the real Kyle?

At the dinner table that night, I asked my folks if they modified their behavior to keep the peace at home.

"That's a strange question to ask," mom said, raising her eyebrows. "What on earth brought that on?"

Dad didn't wait for my answer. "Does this have something to do with your new friend Stuart?"

"We had a fight, but it's cool now. We surfed together this afternoon."

"So what else is new? You and Rick were always fighting, then making up. What did you and Stuart fight about?"

"We were wrestling and he kind of spat the dummy for no good reason."

"It must have been a good reason to him."

"So what about my question?" I reminded them.

"Modifying behavior?" Mom glanced at dad then continued after a moment's pause. "Well, yes--to an extent, that is. It's important to any relationship to give and take. You need to be sensitive to your partner's--or friend's--needs. You can't have it all your own way, you know."

"Not that your mother doesn't stop trying," dad laughed, then got the predictable hairy eyeball.

"Okay," I responded, "let me put it this way. When you guys married, did you figure the other guy was unique? Like, is that why you married him? Uh, her?"

"How do you mean, son?"

"A friend told me today that you gotta be yourself. If you modify your behavior to suit everyone else, then who the hell are you?"

"There are degrees of modification, son," mom explained. "If your question is: did your father get the real me? then the answer is yes. And I got the real him. Shortly thereafter, we got the real Kyle."

My right hand made a desperate dash for the glass of water in front of me. I took a gulp, hoping to miraculously banish the sudden hot rush of blood to my cheeks.

"And did we?" mom continued. "Get the real you?"

"You didn't adopt me, mom. It's not like you checked me out before deciding to keep me. You got what popped out."

"To turn your question back on you, Kyle," my dad intervened, "have you modified your behavior to please your mother and me?"

I shoveled the last of the chicken casserole into my mouth and used the chewing time to contemplate my answer. "I guess so," I concluded. "I do my chores, my homework, and stuff like that."


"To stay out of trouble."

"Really?" mom asked with a wink. "Is that all?"

Then the truth dawned. "Okay, because I love you."

It was true; I loved my folks with all my heart. They were the best folks a bloke could wish for. Dad was the one who took me surfing when I was a little Kyle. He taught me to paddle around in the mush until I grew big enough and sufficiently confident to ride the waves by myself. And ever since those early days, surfing stayed in my blood. It became a religion almost; a way of life. A culture.

But my passion went further than simply riding waves. I fell in love with the sea, and all the wonderful creatures in it. As a boy, I made up my mind to become a marine biologist.

Dad also introduced me to Mount Warning (Wollumbin), which quickly became "my mountain". It was an endless source of high adventure and fascination. Rick and I hiked there regularly, and sometimes other guys from the school swim team joined us. Those were awesome times that would remain with me forever.

No matter where you are in Byron Bay or the surrounding shire, Wollumbin dominates the land and seascape. It may be an extinct volcano but it's also a living museum, the last refuge of ancient rainforest from a time when Australia was part of the pre-historic super-continent, Gondwanaland.

Wollumbin is sacred to all the tribes of the Bundjalung Nation. It's the place where the Law Men gather to receive guidance from Babara (God) and put Natural Laws into practice for the well-being of Marmeng (Mother Earth), rather like the Bundjalung version of Moses and Mount Sinai. The wise and respected Bundjalung elder, Uncle Eric Walker, said: "Its a holy mountain to us, its just like a cathedral or a church, you know. It was at that place that our old people used to go up and talk to God and God would give them old elders the directions and give them the laws and they would come back and tell our young people. But the young people had to be initiated. Dont kill, dont steal, dont be greedy... It was the same law that Moses got when he came down from Mt Sinai. They were exactly the same, they were strict laws, they were good laws. They did not make them today and break them tomorrow like they do today. If you broke them you had to pay the price."

My dad and I often visited the local Bundjalung fishermen at the beach. They called him "boss", which was their habit when addressing him, and they called me "little boss". They fished to feed their families, but always offered us one or two fish to take home. To refuse would be insulting. I got the feeling those wizened old guys with weathered faces and gentle smiling eyes had wisdom to burn, disguised perhaps by their poor social and financial status. It was a different story when you got to know them.

"Respect everyone," my dad told me, "and you'll learn a lot."

Meanwhile, my relationship with Stuart puzzled me. It was cool that he had lots of friends, and a different girl every other day, but I sensed something wrong; or going wrong. He seemed distant. You can imagine my surprise when he blamed me.

We sat in my room while he helped me with my math homework. "Kyle? Is anything wrong?"

"Yeah, my brain. How the hell do you understand all this algebra shit?"

"I mean with you. You've been kind of distant lately."

"Distant? Me? How so?"

"I dunno--like you don't care or something. Are you losing interest?"

"In you? In our friendship? No way! What makes you think that?"

"You've changed."

He was right. I had changed. Ever since G's email about modifying behavior, and my chat over dinner with my folks, my awareness of how and how not to behave in company was almost paranoiac. I focused on not rocking the boat. "I guess I'm confused about stuff."

"Like what?"

"I don't wanna upset you by doing something totally lame, Stuart. I don't want us to fight again."

And G's advice? That's a very noble goal, Captain, but I'm afraid it's not terribly realistic. Conflict is part of life, particularly in the case of a fiery hot-head like you. When conflict occurs, as it inevitably will from time to time, the important thing is how you deal with it. And I'm talking about the REAL you!