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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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On this otherwise routine Tuesday my boys walked to school together

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Out the gate, backpacks jumping, and into the heart of a suburban morning. The simplest of connectives, from home to school is a pair of comfortable 8-irons. One to the corner, and then one to the playground.

By the gate, I guard after them. Alex and Max dissolve around the turn, with a sudden jolt to the right.

It’s their first time. It’s both ordinary and extraordinary.

In my car, I edge around the block to meet them. Our bond’s broken by a tangle of local geography and ribboned tarmac. The one-way street demands I steer away from them, counterintuitively, cruelly, past the park, and then down a hopefully untroubled avenue.

Of course, their little world grows. Out they go, in beautiful binary.

It’s one hundred seconds of quarantined blackness. It’s one hundred seconds of paused parental terror, but it’s also one hundred seconds they need.

Alex and Max have jettisoned from my troposphere, but I launch to them like a satellite, eager to discover a warm orbit.

At the intersection by their school, my car crouches as the outdoor squeals spurt through the open window like snatches of pop songs.

And there they are, bouncing along the path, side-by-side, as brothers should, their flapping shorts of shamrock-green, quince-peels of hair. The roadside trees fold forwards.

Spotting me is simple permission for them to accelerate to school, exploding scraps of rainbow. They scamper through the gate, and to their mates.

I yell after them, but my voice vaporises behind their giraffe legs and the innocent rush of a new day. “Good job, boys. See you tonight!”

Misty-eyed, I drive off. A bright, early morning, already it seems late.

Soon, it will be.

 

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My Favourite Thing

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On this planet here’s my favourite thing.

Monday evenings, after dinner and baths Max and I sit around the big, rustic table and he does his homework. Following our reading we move to the week’s list of words. You know the antique drill. Look. Cover. Write. Check.

I love watching our boys write.

Mostly, I sit in silence. Like his mum Max’s nose wrinkles when he’s connecting a new idea to an established one. Each squiggly letter is crafted with quiet industry. It’s a magnificent, affirming sight. Our universe tightens to this page, and his cognitive load is massive. It’s exciting, but as nerve-wracking as a footy final.

At their age it’s a tough activity. What could be more demanding for a six-year-old? But they bring such blameless engagement to the task. Vacuuming language inside and not sending their words skywards, this is an unnatural ask, the reverse of speech, but they work hard, and I’m proud.

Forming the words, Alex bursts into his future, and as our globe spins from post-industrial to digital, this learning, this language will be their elevator. I’m delighted that both boys seem to value it. Not as much as dinosaurs or spies or ice-cream, but it ranks.

I keep watching.

Why is it so mesmerizing? It’s the transparency of their concentration. All our formulated hopes are projected onto the transit of that blue ink. Max comments between words, revealing the wisdom of his interrogations. “This is hard to spell.” Or, “Bed and bread rhyme.” Or, “Cake is simple to write, isn’t it Dad?”

We invest these moments with calm. The dining table’s a still beach at dawn. These are triumphs, but I mourn my slippery seconds.

Each simple term is a thrilling performance. I pause. Instants ago, these boys were babies. Now they’re holding pens, fashioning words, making meaning, interacting with their widening worlds.

I keep watching.

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