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Cross Country

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It’s instructive, every now and again, to enjoy some sunny elevation. Not so much that you become disconnected from the good earth and its human endeavours, but just enough.

There’s a glorious, painterly aspect and my canvas bursts with sun and sky and sea. I look down the fairway, across the seventh green to the ocean and then to Brighton jetty with its abrupt pier and somewhat sinister telecommunications tower pushing upwards to transmit the city’s texts and calls and photos, and finally off towards the middle distance of the emboldened Glenelg skyline, behind which sits our modest bungalow.

I’m at Marion Golf Course on a bright Wednesday morning strolling the primary school cross-country track that Alex and a host of unknown competitors will soon tackle. Much of the running circuit is out-of-bounds for the golfers, although probably well explored by high-handicapped hackers like me whose Hot Dot is drawn to the fierce wilderness like a goat to the roof of an abandoned car.

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Later, I’m by a green with the loose knot of our boys and a tall, kindly grandfather who offers grandfatherly pre-race wisdom.

“Just do your best.”

“Where you finish is irrelevant.”

“The main thing is to enjoy yourself.”

You can imagine my surprise when he then channelled Walter from The Big Lebowski and barked:

“Dude, this is a league game, this determines who enters the next round robin. Am I wrong? Am I wrong?”

Actually, I just made this bit up, but enjoyed the generosity of his encouragement, and hoped the boys, now squirming with energy and anxiety, did too. We were, for that moment, a little community. It was lovely.

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About three dozen boys from half a dozen schools strained across the line, gawping at the official’s earnest, controlling remarks.

“Don’t sneak over or there’ll be a false start.”

“When you hear the Robin Hood horn, go!”

Alex was mid-line, tall and tense. On his left was a small lad who was sporting that most ridiculous of hair sculptures, the man-bun. Oh, dear.

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A minute or two in and a number had already surrendered to their personal galaxy of defeat and were walking, some distraught and slump-shouldered, while others, without an outward care, were happy to be out of school, and in the perky, breezy, coastal morning.

Running, of course, is the original and most pure of sporting pursuits. There’s no ball, or inferior teammates: just you, your legs and a relentless, unyielding terrain. I reminded myself that this is a gruelling event, especially for a ten year old, and requires uncommon resilience. How many young kids really want to run long distance?

On his final lap Alex emerged from the hilly scrub, exhausted, but still running. And while he’d finish mid-field it was his first cross-country race, and he showed impressive grit. I hoped that this was a metaphor for his inner character and a likely predictor for how he’d face his future. Who could tell? At that point, I was proud.

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In the car on the way back to school I offered him an apple, but he was busy with a bucket of orangey sports drink. He didn’t even mind that the radio was on Triple J.

“Dad,” he noted, “You’ll have to run faster when we go to the beach. If you were out there today, you’d come last.”

“I reckon you’re right.”

“I’m gonna train 355 times before next year’s race. So I can do better.”

Would he be an Olympian? Possibly not. Had we handed him the key to an active, participatory life? I hoped so.

From our elevated spot we drove down to the flat and into the rest of the day.

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4

Jetty Jumping

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Just as that shopper in front of you is oddly surprised when the supermarket cashier asks them to pay, and they go, “Oh,” spend an epoch finding their purse, and then finally pay the $42.75 with only ten-cent coins, I find it equally bewildering that folk in South Australia are astonished annually that autumn is our best season. Although TS Eliot was considering the northern hemisphere in The Waste Land when he wrote, “April is the cruelest month” down here I reckon it’s the best time of the year.

On the border of Innes National Park, Marion Bay is a new favourite. Thursday was a gold medal day with the sun lower in the sky, but still deliciously warm, and the fierce, forbidding wind gone.

Our party of eight kids and eight adults assembled early at the Stenhouse Bay jetty. We had it to ourselves and one of the dads, Andy, suitably wet-suited, jumped in and then one of the mums, Karla, bravely sans wetsuit, followed to greet and safe-guard.

The water was a fetching Greek island-blue, flat as the Adelaide Oval pitch and as clear as a Paul Keating insult.

Meanwhile, Benny cast a line and jagged a squid within moments. Landing it on the jetty’s warm timbers, our circle of kids closed and peered on, as bewitched and curious as you’d hope, given that many of their parents are science teachers.

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Of course, I observed from a distance, trying to compose a haiku about squid on a jetty but failed, instead barking brashly about there being more ink than at a Port Power home game.

Our brave warrior Alex was first to leap into the Antarctic aqua. He splashed and yelped about and then hauled himself up the metal ladder. He’d go again half a dozen times.

With their eternal sibling rivalry sparking, Max was next in our family. Bravely, he went over the edge, and in, but paddled quickly back to the pylons, singular urgency on his damp dial. There’d be no treading water for him, but as is his compulsion he interrogated his world with physical and emotional strength. I beamed at both of the boys, and silently thanked their mother for this genetic detail.

In her shorts and Spiderbait t-shirt Kerry was up next, fiercely determined and commentating in her funny way. The boys looked upon their mum with awe and the frequent, inner confirmation that she’s cool. Once in the drink she laughed constantly, adrenalin and biting cold motoring her across the bay.

Other kids and their parents were casting fishing lines, and these whirled out into the tiny inlet, but the squids wouldn’t be dead for quids.

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I’m not especially happy about heights, but if there’s water beneath me I’m less worried. If you tumble off the Eiffel Tower onto the Parisian plaza below you’ll splat like a bag of cat food, but have a marginally better chance tumbling and a-hollerin’ into the ocean. Or something like this.

So, in I went. And many of you will nod at the news that I was wearing cut-off jeans.

Yes, swimming jeans.

As I fell towards the icy-ness I remembered the sea-lions I’d seen at Pier 39 in San Francisco, but doubted, somehow, that I shared their sleek, natural entry.

Flopping off that pylon Benny yelled after me, in acknowledgement of my Whyalla Norrie-inspired swimming jeans, “You’ll need a XXXX when you come up.”

“Yeah, and a Winny Blue,” my voice ascended, as I descended.

*

I love a jetty. Strolling along one is good for the soul as there’s something nourishing in the relationship between water and land, people and nature, and the crisp breeze and your open face.

I think again of my old friend John Malone and his poetic ode to these beautiful structures

People lean

from jetties, dream from jetties

fishing for

tranquillity. They are

walkways into and out of

the mind. Umbilical

chords attaching us to the sea.

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Sports Day

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The past month in our quiet corner of this blue planet has been Sports Day season, and last Thursday it was the turn of St Leonards Primary School.

Striding past the playground equipment, all the swings and ropes stationary above their crimped carpet of pine chips, the principal, I hear Mr HS is making his opening remarks. There’s the compulsory coffee van, heaving cake stall, curved sweep of parents and grandparents, school staff and finally the kids all sitting on the edge of the oval, in their houses, splashed and smeared in colour: Patawalonga (green), Buffalo (yellow), Holdfast (blue) and the boys’ team, Saints (red).

It’s a painterly scene with the waving gum trees and grey but innocuous clouds down south and to the east, over those low-slung hills. Mr HS also mentions that for the first time there’ll be a Spirit Shield. I like this as it places value on fairness, humility and being a good sport, whatever this means in 2018. I reckon the kids will be able to show us through their innocent investment and unbroken quest to have fun. There’ll be no ball tampering today.

The healthy sense of theatre continues. Some of the students are bursting to move, to get up and tumble about with their mates like Labrador pups, but they remain in place. This, of course, is rehearsal for adult life and its various endurance tests such as waiting in a doctor’s surgery when you’ve exhausted the grotty stack of magazines and you glimpse the rising dark outside beyond the car park.

Advance Australia Fair begins and I’m pleased that it’s the modern, inclusive version complete with didgeridoo and clapsticks. Everyone stands, staring into the middle distance, the kids singing while the adults mouth the words in a way that would challenge the most skilled of lip-readers.

Having reminded ourselves that we’re in the most curious and amusing of arcane states: girt by sea, we then move to the second, difficult verse. I know I’m outing myself as an incurable bogan but just as The William Tell Overture instantly connotates The Lone Ranger I hear our anthem and it’s instantly the AFL grand final.

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The final act in this preamble is each house performing their chant, in turn. There’s vigorous competition, community and connection in this. I look over at Alex who shouts the cutely warmongering words to the warm sky while Max is reserved in his recitation. He’s probably thinking of funny, alternate lyrics.

It’s been an excellent fifteen minutes in which the shared venture has contributed to the endless series of signals that is school tone. Having sat in many assemblies and public gatherings I’m warmed and proud that the climate here is eager and respectful. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.

There’s a strong sense of inclusion to the athletic program too. Egg and spoon races, lawn bowls, tug of war, and a STEM challenge as well as the traditional pursuits. Alex first heads to the sprints, a track of about sixty metres. He lopes like a baby giraffe but covers the patchy grass surprisingly well. He wins.

This is a good opening but there’s an entire timeslot available so he strolls back to the start and a few minutes later he races again. And again. I can feel the parents’ collective approval as they scan ahead to the post-dinner, post-bath evening and the likelihood of exhausted kids, fully cooked, and in bed early.

I then watch Max tackle an obstacle course that brilliantly combines sack race, hurdles, running and crawling, commando-style, beneath a large tarp which has been pegged to the ground, deep in the forward pocket. Bear Grylls time. Jumping into his sack, Max is characteristically unhurried in getting comfortable and balanced before bounding off, a blonde joey in the distant scrub.

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The tarp has had a long and productive life but now features a couple of long tears across its middle. Some kids exit at the first hole, others at the second. None seem to crawl the intended stretch, and I wonder if there’s a secretive psychologist on campus, taking notes for a longitudinal study on how these choices might predict future moral lives.

But, I doubt it. They’re just kids, having fun on a bright autumnal morning, and learning more about each other and themselves, while their loved ones enjoy these fleeting, fragile moments.

Suddenly, my time has vanished. Still immersed in a proud glow, I drive away, towards the city.

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