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Eleven

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You and I were both up early on your birthday. I gave you a hug and a kiss and said, “Happy birthday Alex.”

You sang, “Dad, I’m so happy to be eleven!”

*

Of course, you’re embarrassed by Dad’s music. You don’t think much of Fleet Foxes or Vampire Weekend, but you like Lana Del Rey, and Ben Folds is our road trip soundtrack. Every time. We turn it up loud.

In the same way there’s days you love the Old Gum Tree Park, and other days, when not so much. You swing between being a little boy and an almost teenager who, some might say, can be a little demonic! I guess your emotional vocabulary is developing, and this isn’t always easy to spectate. But I mean this in a kindly way.

It’s what happens when a boy is eleven.

All you wanted for your birthday was a lunch at an all you can eat restaurant (term employed loosely here, I think) so off we went to Charlie’s Diner at the Brighton Metro. As I’d been at a conference Saturday morning I arrived late and you’d all eaten.

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Where Max had sat appeared as a site in Pompeii when the tables and houses were frozen forever as the lava struck. There were plates and drinks and bowls, all with just a sip or bite taken, as if Vesuvius had burst through. It wouldn’t take the archaeologists long to discover whose meal this was.

I loved that you and Max immediately took me on a tour about Charlie’s to the bains-marie as you both pointed out the endless offerings.

“Dad, here’s all the pizza! There’s the Asian food.”

“Look at all the chips. They’re pretty good.”

“Right now, come to the dessert bar. Around here. You can come back as many times as you want!”

*

You’re a beautiful big brother. As one of the people down the park said to me last week- “Alex is caring, and tries to look after his younger brother- I don’t think Max listens too well.” But you do laugh at and love him as we all do.

I become misty when I think of you both in fifteen years. I can see you at the Ashes cricket, or at a music festival (I think you’ll come around to Vampire Weekend), and I know you’ll be there for each other. There’ll be knowing nods and gruff exchanges and glances across the pub just to check on your best friend, your brother.

I know you love him with gentle ferocity.

boys

Your humour makes me happy. Just like an eleven-year-old should, you laugh at YouTube and those crazy physical dares and stunts that are all a bit Three Stooges, but I also love how you watched Frontline with me- and can quote the clueless current affairs show host Mike Moore, and at random times around the house you’d say, “Mmmm. Martin Di Stasio there with that disturbing report.”

I love that you roar instantly with me at Mad As Hell when Micallef features one of his fake promos, for funny ABC shows like

The Rise of Hollywood’s Power Mice

The Depraved, Godless, Sicko Hedge Sparrows of Yorkshire.

*

You’re nearly finished at primary school and are in the senior unit where, in an innocent, unlikely symbol of your unstoppable progression, you can use a microwave or boil a kettle to have noodles for lunch. I can see you in there quietly leading your friends with your constant sense of justice.

Just as I can still see you in our Singaporean condo on your first ever school day as you headed out under the towering cityscape and into the hugging heat. My hot tears from that day are never far away.

alex 3

Tim Winton is my favourite Australian writer and one of his best lines for me is not found in Cloudstreet or The Riders or Dirt Music, but the Young Adult novel he published thirty years ago.

Lockie Leonard, Human Torpedo.

At the end Lockie is talking to Vicki who, like some adolescent girls, wants to grow up too fast, and I’m so joyful that in this gorgeous character’s reply I can hear you, dearest Alex.

“I hate being a kid,” she said.

“See? I’m weird,” he murmured. “I love it”

LL

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Pub Review: The Prince of Wales, Kapunda

prince

I’d driven non-stop for over four hours, dodging kangaroos, AM radio (up next the latest from Danni Minogue!) and berserk truckies like the one in Spielberg’s Duel, and Friday-exhausted, fell into the front bar around 8pm. It was a hike from Kimba.

“Hello West Coast smack-head,” greeted mine host. “Christ you’re getting fat, Mickey.” He continued. “Are you still driving that dopey sports car?”

Welcome to Kapunda’s Prince of Wales hotel, run with gruff affection by lumbering iconoclast Peter “Puffa” Jansen.

The blunt cranial and corporeal references are like warm handshakes. These are Puffa’s way of welcoming me into his cosy pub. His is an inclusive environment: no-one is spared his jibes, and these are all part of the boisterous charm. To not be abused would be offensive.

But to understand the publican we need to know more of his curiosities. He was fond of a mid-week luncheon and these sometimes included local identities such as Norton Schluter. Norton ran the Greenock Creek Tavern: a Barossan boozer with such similar atmospherics it could be a sister pub to the Prince.

Legend has it that Puffa and some captive chaps once when out to lunch. When traversing the state Puffa preferred to sip cans. He reckoned they “travelled better.” Post-dessert they inexplicably then drove to Broken Hill in the big publican’s even bigger Falcon and returned four days later.

The Prince of Wales is a snug pub with a front bar like a lounge room. It’s this spatial dynamic which assists the natural intimacy.  The decor is spartan and the space is dominated by the beautiful, antique pub fridge with timber doors and those ancient chrome door handles. About the bar are maybe ten black-topped stools.

bar

Often, early in the afternoon, there’d be but a single conversation with the tethered denizens such as Roger and Matesy, and the quips would shuttlecock about the bar and there’d be volleys of chirping from in their cups.

Retrospectively, I can see that chief among its attractions was a clear-minded absence of TAB, thumping music, big-screen TVs and dining options. The Prince was solely dedicated to conversation and cups although I recall watching the 1989 Grand Final in there on, I imagine, a boxy old Rank Arena, and willing on Ablett the Elder before the clock ran out.

It was a venue for personal firsts. On a lazy Sunday afternoon I was introduced to the English public school tradition of spoofy which initially only required three coins but, if you lost, it resulted in significantly more fiscal investment, especially if there were six or seven of you in a roaring circle. And the pain of loosing to Goose or Whitey went far beyond the mere monetary.

spoofy

Also in 1989 some mates and I hired a VN Commodore wagon and headed to Brisbane for about three weeks. Of course, we set off from the Prince. Ever the social benefactor Puffa said, “Here you yo-yo’s take my radar detector. I’ve seen how you blokes drive. It might save you a few bucks. Just bring me back a carton of that new Powers beer from Queensland.” And the detector did ping numerous times across New South Wales. We delivered Puffa his slab.

I also remember old mate Trev and his band ‘Imelda’s Shoes’ playing one Sunday afternoon in the bottle-o drive way. I stood by the war memorial as the drums and guitar blasted down Mildred Street.

Puffa loved a bet. Up on the wall behind his bar, next to the clocks, was a row of coasters on which the wagers had been scribbled. It was like a silent bookie. Puffa once said to me just after Christmas, “Don’t worry about the Sydney Test, smack head. It’ll be a draw. It’ll be rained out.”

I’d seen the forecast, so retorted, “I reckon it’ll stay dry.”

Puffa then barked, “I’ll give you 4 to 1 that it’ll rain. Easy money for me, you yo-yo!”

Of course, Fanie de Villiers bowled South Africa to victory in a rare, entirely rain-free Test. After I returned from New Zealand in late January Puffa took down the coaster and I enjoyed his cash momentarily, before donating it in yet another ill-conceived spoofy final. I had a skill for that.

Although it now offers a broader range of tap beers I’m sure we only drank West End Draught in either schooners or butchers. My A3s cricket captain Kym Ryan took his lager in a handled mug, and this seemed sophisticated. In 1986, it probably was.

*

Early one morning during our last year in Singapore my cousin Puggy- called a “smack head” by Puffa as often as anyone- sent me a message to say that the iconic publican had passed away.

Trev and I called in a while back when in Kapunda for Woodsy’s birthday. We invested a vigorous hour as the pale sunlight bent through the windows, and I expected Puffa to burst behind his bar and bark, “Hello smack head!”

When next in Kapunda I urge you to visit and enjoy a butcher of West End Draught! But not a game of spoofy.

Puffa

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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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Cricket, tennis and Father’s Day brunch

 

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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

 

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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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Watching Our Boys Write

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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.

boy writing