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Cricket, tennis and Father’s Day brunch

 

FD

The chorizo is ferociously tasty, and just short of generating physical pain. It’s as hot as the Henley Beach weather is not. Outside, Alex and Max are leaping over some wooden benches. Storm surges roll past the jetty in thunderous grey and white. Even the seagulls shelter under the eaves. We’re starting Father’s Day at a café.

*

Alex went to his first cricket training last Sunday. Worried he wouldn’t be good enough, he had told me repeatedly that, “Ty can bowl at 55 kilometres an hour, Dad.” Indeed, his mum confirmed that he had bowled at a Jason Gillespie cricket centre with a speed gun measuring the pace of his looping delivery. Statistics can haunt us early in sport, and life.

Max batted first, and as the family expert, then showed Alex how to insert the box or protector as it’s now disappointingly known. What a curious sight, to see the boys bonding over a triangular plastic prism. Still brotherhood is a surprising beast and this shared skill is a most Australian thing. Not for the first time I considered a cricket box, and wiped a tear from my eye, although this was a parental observation, and not the wincing experience of an inadequate lower-order batsman on a dusty West Coast pitch.

Alex galloped in to bowl from an excessive run-up, all limbs and heart-breaking innocence. Max was back a pitch length as well, and reminded me of the Yorkshire fellow who once commented that a bowler ran too much before delivering the ball. “I don’t go that far for me holiday,” he noted.

He nodded as the coach advised on his action, listening well and taking it in. He’s made an investment in this sport, and already values his emerging place in this most Australian of pursuits. Too soon, his summers appear to be stretching out, in their endless, languid joy. He’s on his way.

*

Max and I went on his first school camp Monday, down to Narnu Farm on Hindmarsh Island. As a former teacher who gorged himself on camps early in his career, I reckon everyone has a lifetime quota. Although I reached mine years ago, I was excited. I was a volunteer.

I had some benevolent community-mindedness in jumping on that bus, but like many, a major motivation was to watch and learn, to see Max in action. Of course, I was going to spy on him.

As leader of Group 3 and its eight kids, we cycled through a set of activities including horseriding- the old gelding Pudding a class favourite; animal feeding- an escapee goat providing a highlight, as goats generally do, and finally; half-court tennis.

I played with Max and two of his friends. Between fetching balls from the neigh-bouring (sorry!) horse paddocks I discovered much. Dispensing with the medieval French scoring system we played first to twenty points. It was close throughout. If Max and his partner lost a point, there was no disappointment, just the fizzing joy of a close contest; an opportunity to go again, to share the action with his friends.

Self-appointed scorer, he’d jump up and down, proclaiming, 16- 15, and so on. He preferred it tight, to enhance the social connection. He had no wish to surge ahead, and claim an easy victory.

Great or errant shots with balls lurching about in exotic trigonometry offered little for Max. He simply wanted us: his mates, his Dad, himself, to zip about together on a tiny court in communal enterprise. He was entirely in the moment. That was his universe. I loved it. I’ve rarely been happier.

*

Later, in the bunkhouse, Max took himself off to bed around ten. Of the fifty kids, he was the first asleep, and I suspect, the first awake. One of his friends told me that in the morning, “Max told them funny stories” as they squirmed in their bunk beds with the sun struggling through.

The deputy principal was unsurprised that Max was done in moments. “He runs pretty hard.” I nodded, “He’s just the same at home.” Over his coffee the deputy continued, “He gives every minute a flogging, does our Max.”

I considered. Giving every minute a flogging. Beyond report cards, or NAPLAN results, this, I reflected, is exactly how I want them to tackle life.

Henry

 

 

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Port Adelaide v Collingwood: a Messerschmitt up your arse or free bird seed

free bird seed

During the second quarter, on the fifty-metre arc, at the Punt Road end was, to paraphrase Hunter S Thompson, when the stories and the beer began to take hold.

Six of us are in Row S, connected by the time we spent together at Kapunda High School, and variously on the Barossa’s cricket and footy ovals.

Much of our conversation is our old cars and coaches and mates and publicans and parents and maverick teachers who shaped us.

It’d been a ripping trip so far: early flights, the North Fitzroy Arms for the Footy Almanac lunch which concluded with the final siren at the SCG, the obligatory Young and Jackson nightcaps, and a Saturday laneway breakfast.

With the Uber app showing cars descending like black Pacmen three of us ride in a Caprice, and I’m reminded of the great Dave Graney and his song “Feelin’ Kinda Sporty” which opens with the magnificent

A black Statesman “73

Caprice.

Leaded.

At high noon, and accompanied with ample yarns, we entered the All Nations Hotel to confer with the ghost of Bill Hunter, and then white pub-vanned to the MCG as the match commenced. Each of us is merrily apathetic about the result.

I love footy, but occasionally its lone function is to provide a panoramic context across which we can splash our stories. Rocket would love to be watching his beloved Sturt while Nick, the Hayward boys (not Kapunda’s Gatlin boys) and Lukey are Norwood men, but as neither is scheduled at the MCG today we get along to Collingwood and Port.

With the match chugging along Nick and I discuss contemporary AFL footballers and old players from home, in particular one Mail Medallist and local publican who loved scrapping at the bottom of a pack, like a nuggetty 1970’s Selwood.

“You know what he used to do in the sheds before a game?”

“No. Tell me.”

“He’d smear heaps of Vaseline on his eyebrows so the elbows would slide off.”

I giggle.

Needing to refresh their refreshments the Haywards return with their shouts: Bundy for them, and mid-strength beers for us. For a moment, I fear we’ll need petroleum jelly too, but happily there’s no fight in the forward pocket.

We move onto that most vital of topics: Which Test Cricketer would you most like to have a beer with? (until very recently in pre-production at Network Ten)

“Warney?”

“There’s nothing to discover. Nothing.”

“Yeah, and I can’t have a beer with someone who calls their book, ‘My Autobiography.’”

“That’d have been a funny meeting at the publishers.”

I take a difficult sip of my mid-strength. “Waugh twins?”

“No. Steve’d bore you to death.”

“The worst kind of mental disintegration.”

Ultimately our choice is clear. One of the most stylish middle-order bats we’ve seen, and still a bloke about whom little is really known. An anti-Warney. The one who quit the night of the famous 2006 Ashes victory in Adelaide. Damien Martyn.

On the ground, Port is doing well with Robbie Gray slotting a few while Unley Jets alumnus Brodie Grundy is holding his own for the Magpies.

We wonder if the Chappell brothers still own the Leg Trap Hotel, and if David Warner is less likeable than a curved television and if it’s possible to make Boonie more Australian. It isn’t.

This brings us to the best quotation ever, the one which places sport and our little, self-tortured world into perfect context. Nick remembers his Dad giving him Australian allrounder and WWII pilot Keith Miller’s book. “Pressure,” Keith said. “I’ll tell you what pressure is. Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse. Playing cricket is not.”

Still laughing at the magnificence of this, Rocket heads off to a cavern and emerges with some appropriate beers. Normal transmission is resumed. Pendlebury is smooth and constructive, as usual. We note that Ollie Wines has thighs like Californian redwood.

The conversation then tends, as it must, towards other nostalgia and juvenalia. We’re now at Stalag 13. The verdant field of the MCG recedes and we’re all in front of a black and white TV, sliding our paws into packets of Lolly Gobble Bliss Bombs.

“Burkhalter and Hochstetter.”

Much giggling, given to misty eyes.

“Captain Hoganhoffer?”

“No prisoner has ever escaped from Stalag 13.”

More giggling.

“I’d like to hear this on the BBC World Service: Munich Messerschmitts 2, Stalag 13, 3.”

Someone slides next to me with a pie. A message comes through that another Kapunda High contemporary is on the second deck behind the Port cheer squad. We wave at Maria, who waves towards our bay.

Looking back now it makes sense, and indeed there’s a happy inevitability in the childhood image that would become our weekend’s talisman. The footy is now on mute as we moved towards the creature that Mark Twain described as “a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton.” The coyote, but of course for us, Wily E Coyote.

I don’t know how we came to this, and I don’t want to know, but as the shadows lengthened across Melbourne, Lukey, with his talent for the comic and the absurd mentioned it and we were off.

“Easily the greatest cartoons ever.”  

The coyote hanging in mid-air until he realizes that he is about to plummet into a chasm!”

“Yeah, and he’d hold up a sign like ‘Goodbye cruel world.’”

“Or ‘Help me.’”

“‘Mother.’”

By now the laughter and the memories and the beer and our good fortune at being in this fun space meant, for some of us, there were tears of childish abandonment.

“What of the Giant Kite Kit?”

“The roller skates and the fan blowing the coyote along?”

“From the Acme company.”

Bombs, detonators, nitroglycerin. Not so funny in 2017, but when you’re seventeen and watching Looney Tunes…

We talk of the Road Runner’s ability to enter the painted image of a cave, while the coyote cannot, which showed us that the existentialists are correct: it is an unknowable and absurd universe. Cartoons teach us this.

And then as the Paah (sic) delivered their knockout blow to Collingwood, Lukey delivered his knockout blow to us. A childhood picture that captures the fun, the innocence of the endless battle between the Roadrunner and the Coyote.

“Free bird seed.”

And there it was. Only three words. But a beautiful mantra of the past, a pulsing refrain, and the best televisual picture of a little bird nibbling at food in the desert, likely just outside Albuquerque.

coyote 

 

2

On this otherwise routine Tuesday my boys walked to school together

planet and moon.png

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.

 

kids

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My Favourite Thing

earth

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.

boy writing

 

6

Cooler than a robot, older than the wolf

beach

The endless swimming was a highlight of our three years in Singapore. On some Saturdays, we’d be in and out of the condominium pool four times. At dawn, when the boys and I’d occasionally happen upon whispering Japanese couples rounding out their evening with a bottle of breakfast Shiraz. Then we’d also dive in around midday, and driven by heat and claustrophobia, twice during the sultry afternoon. It was a theme park and often for us, an escape.

Early during our other-hemispherical stint, we were in the water, and I was talking with you about your birthday. I said, “How’s things now that you’re three? How’re you different?” Of course, your answer was instant, and assured. You replied, saying you were now, “Cooler than a robot, older than the wolf.” Not any wolf, mind you, but the wolf. I’d long suspected that you’ve a capacity for language, an opulent and striking relationship with words. Splashing about that muggy day, confirmed it.

Only a few months ago, and back in Australia, there was this domestic exchange. “Max, will you stop being so ridiculous?” It’s a word that’s vigorously employed from time to time in our house. But only as required. Ridiculous. You announced, “Mum, you’re ridiculous!” to which she said, “You can’t even spell ‘ridiculous!’” With sparkling comic timing, your retort came. “Yes. I can. M-U-M.” This talent, while sometimes maddening, might carry you far. It’s a gift.

A counterpoint to this linguistic skill is your love for engaging with the physical world. Moving like an inexhaustible machine, you explore, you probe, you pull stuff to bits. Inspired by curiosity, and bursting with a hearty sense of industry, you help me with jobs about the house. These are the moments.

One of my favourite things is when our world shrinks and shrinks, and it’s just you and I on a Saturday morning. A little backyard militia, we mow, and with a cutting wheel, we edge the lawns. All the while you question, encourage, engage. We sometimes visit the recycling depot, and lastly as a tiny reward, we pop by the Anzac Highway TAB, where in joyous imitation, you illustrate your fan of betting slips, resulting in financial return at least equal to mine.

It’s a routine that drapes exquisite meaning over these weekends. In a life often too complex, this fetching simplicity refreshes me like an oasis. We don’t often sit still on the lounge and chat, instead conversing while in motion. The car. With heaving backpacks, walking to and from school. Out the back, as Sunday shadows lengthen, playing cricket.

Last Easter, we wandered down to Glenelg Oval for the Sheffield Shield final. Strolling southwards, chatting; the breeze, the bent rays of autumnal sunshine. I love listening to your brotherly conversations, as these dance and hang in the air like bubbles.

*

If I close my eyes I can see a silent movie of flickering highlights, and these tumble about me, like rain.

You’re riding madly round the Old Gum Tree Park, with your feet dangling high above the pedals, and look, they’re now up on the handlebars as you wizz by in a mischievous blonde rush.

Lying under the patio, just after a December dawn, with summer’s heat already heavy in the sky, you’re hugging our new dog, Buddy and you’re talking to him like an equal, as if he’s a little brother. And, he is.

We’re on a Thai beach, and in a cocoon of pure, insubstantial now, you’re jumping like a kangaroo and laughing in the gently frothing waves. I barely believe we’re here.

Finally, you’re in bed, and I creep into your room, but there’s a thin shaft of light. Inspired by the nocturnal habit of Alex, you’re in your bunk, on your belly, immersed by a book, reading with a torch. This makes me happy.

Now exhausted, you finish your story, surrendering to our will, and within moments, you slide down into an irresistible sleep. You’ve interrogated your world, so delightfully, so energetically, across the long hours of the arching day that instantly, almost impossibly, you’re still.

You are now six, and will always be cooler than a robot, and older than the wolf. Max, we love you. Play on.

lawn mowing