Past, present and future [September 23]
When I was an ABC radio presenter the management mantra in vogue at the time was ‘try to use the present tense’. Reporting in the present tense, we were told, makes stories seem fresh and exciting. For example, ‘An artwork was sold for a million dollars’ sounds like yesterday’s news. ‘Artwork sells for a million dollars!’ sounds like it could be happening right now.
I had a running joke with my producer friend Sally. We tried to out-do each other in ‘freshening up’ imaginary stories. ‘Michelangelo paints ceiling and crowd goes wild!’ she’d say. Then it was my turn: ‘Elvis leaves the building and Elvis impersonators rejoice!’
Sally is one of those ‘social glue’ people. Friendship groups form around her. She used to bring her dog Teddy into the office and stern colleagues would melt at the sight of him. When she left the ABC she took the party vibe with her.
In her next job – media guru for Parks Victoria – she persuaded taciturn park rangers to share their best bush stories with the world. She once created a viral internet sensation by posting a nutty photo of a hairless baby wombat on the Parks Vic website (go ahead, Google it).
I haven’t thought much about past and present tense since I left radio. But recently I re-discovered just how very different they are.
Early this year Sally was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive lymphoma. While she endured months of fierce chemotherapy, Sally’s room at the Peter Mac cancer hospital became party central.
Dozens of friends and relations came to visit, marveling as Sally modeled her new beanies and told us stories about her amazing life. These stories happened in the past but they deserve to be told in the present tense.
‘Young Australian woman hitchhikes alone across Uganda during Idi Amin’s reign of terror’. ‘Farmer’s daughter runs remote sheep farm with her sister and shows the shearers what’s what’. ‘Former sheep farmer writes children’s book about pet lamb caught up in live sheep export trade.’
Two months ago Sally’s story came to an end in a hospital bed surrounded by her loved ones. And overnight I had to start talking about my friend in the past tense. Every sentence hurts.
I would much rather compose a sentence about her in the future tense: Sian will never forget her fabulous fearless friend Sally.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in September 2019)