The course of time

I wrote last week about how I’ve changed from what I used to be, how I don’t have the patience or will, the appetite, to go as hard as I once I would without a second thought. I wrote that on Friday, but it was in my mind all of Thursday. That night, as I went to bed, I found myself going back to my childhood and when a lot of this started.

It feels as if time and recent experience has given me a different perspective of when I was a kid. I would recall it in fragmentary bursts before. It would be colourful and lively in my memory, all golden, but. Thre was little connecting it into a narrative of development. Maybe because I’ve looked deeper into myself in recent years, I now look back differently.

Sometimes I see a photo of myself as a young teenager and struggle to understand how he and I can be the same person. I can close my eyes and picture any number of photos very similar in type. I’m a cute kid. I have floppy, chestnut coloured hair, an infectious, innocent smile, and clear blue eyes. I even have freckles! For the early part of my high school years, I was undersized for my age, and it was something I hated. I don’t know where or how I got it into my head, but I always wanted to be tall. Then one year, when I was about 16, I must have grown 4-5 inches, becoming a tall, lanky, paled skinned, and somewhat awkward kid. I wasn’t as pure cute as I used to be, but I went from being one of the shortest kids in the class to one of the tallest.

I always think my childhood was happy, but I think it’s more accurate to say that I was lucky that I had close friends and had many adventures – the sort of stuff that Spielberg puts in his movies. WeE lived in a deloping outer suburb where there was still a lot of bush and wild tracks. There was a heap of kids in the street I grew up in, but I was one of the eldest and so I, along with two others about the same age, became a leader. We went for long bike rides and built tree-houses and played street cricket and constructed makeshift rafts to sail the Plenty river and played games and kicked the footy, and so on. My best mate in those days was my next-door neighbour, Peter Woody, much taller than me – he topped out at about 6’8″. We did everything together, not all of it legal, but it was all in fun and from a sense of daring.

We had built our house, and I remember while it was being constructed how dad would pick me up from the local primary school and take me to the property to see how it was going. This was the early seventies. It was a good home, and even after a stint in Sydney for two years when I was about 15, we returned to it. I had a loving and close extended family, but looking back the family unit I was a part of was dysfunctional – and I wonder how much that impacted on me. My mum had had a nervous breakdown and was emotionally frail, though very devoted. Ultimately she would leave my dad and take me with her. My sister was a nasty brat who tyrannised my mum. My dad was the big businessman who worked long hours and travelled overseas and had an aura of impatient accomplishment. We had little relationship outside of the footy we would attend together most Saturday afternoons. In my final year of school, he actually stopped talking to me for a few months because of some slight (I cocked a fist at him in an argument).

I’ve always thought that I was pretty much the most normal of us, but my view on that has shifted in recent years. On the outside, I think that probably appeared the case. While things bubbled along at home I continued to have my adventures. I had my struggles, though, I think. I feel as if I struggled for confidence back then, and for years to come. I would deny it, ashamed even to think it might be true as if it was unmanly. I was a smart kid at school, but a terrible student. I was the sort of kid who’d turn up to do a test one week and get near-perfect marks, and the next week do another and be mediocre. I never studied, and my homework was cursory. I wasn’t interested in that, but there was an element of unconscious rebellion in it.

What was I rebelling against? What did I want? I think I took for granted my ability. I’d always managed to pull a rabbit out of the hat when I needed to, and I gave it no thought until we moved to Sydney, and I was required to do an aptitude test before commencing school there. The result of that was that was declared to have ‘well above average’ intelligence. I can still remember the moment being told that and a sense of dawning realisation. Once it was in my head, I became conscious of it. It was like my get out of jail card – I was well above average intelligence, I’ll be right.

I think there was some striving for identity. I was neither popular or unpopular at school. I was good athletically, I was smart enough, and I played most of the school sports. I think I was a nice, decent kid. But I remember times when I’d act up. There was a famous occasion I debated with my teacher in English class and was banished from it. Another occasion I was told off by my science teacher in the middle of a test because I’d got out my comb – I had a fold-out comb, just like the Fonz – and began to comb my hair when I finished before anyone else. On another occasion, I opened a classroom window and climbed out of it while the teacher was writing on the blackboard, and walked home (that was maths, and I hated maths).

Then there was the moment that changed my life, and which I found my memories gravitating towards last Thursday night.

It was my final year of school. It would have been about August, a few months shy of the exams. We’d had an economics test as a trial for the exams and had our results read out in class. I did okay without doing great – about 75%. It was good enough, but I’d achieved it without putting any work into it. While everyone else slaved away over their books in study period, I’d be out on the oval kicking a footy around (earlier in the year I’d actually skipped an economics class to kick a footy on the oval the classroom overlooked, and I knew it). On this day I’ll never forget, we were walking out of the class after the results were released one of my classmates (Ian T), turned and said to me with some bitterness “if only you’d study, H”.

There was a moral judgement in his words. Where’s the justice if his best effort was just good enough to achieve a mediocre mark when someone like me – lazy and indifferent – could swan in and without apparent effort do better? The inference was clear – if I put in the effort I might be anything. I’d done nothing and even so, had got a few marks better than he had – he, who diligently spent every available hour studying. I probably shrugged my shoulders then, but when I crashed and burned a few months later at the real exams, they were words that came back to haunt me.

I’ve never forgotten. There was a great lesson in that and, to my credit, I heeded it. It took me a while, but I realised that being smart wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t unmake the mistakes I’d made, but in time I learned to put the effort in and to apply the intelligence I had to a work ethic I learned. It almost became a thing for me, for many years to come. I was still capable of being brilliant, but that was a cheap trick I couldn’t take credit for. The kid that turned to me in the corridor at school was much more worthy than I was, and I recognised that. Character means taking on the hard yards. It means staying the course and doing the right thing before doing the easy thing. And it recognises that every effort counts. I used to glory in all that. I used to think I was harder than anyone, would go further, stay stronger. It was a belief system that contained its own validation, and which became self-perpetuating. Until I came tumbling down.

Which brings me to today. My failures over the last twenty years or so are not from a lack of effort, or intelligence, but judgement and hubris. I accept that. It was that ethic that kept me strong when things were bad because I refused to submit to despair. This was a test that I needed to pass. And I did, more or less. But now I find that I don’t have the conviction I had before, and with it, the appetite for the effort required has waned. It’s not because I fear hard work – recent events have proved the opposite. It’s more a mental thing, as if I have lost belief in the point of it. I’m fudging it still and getting away with it, but more and more I’m reverting to those old ways when I’d rely on natural talent to get me through.

I can only believe there’ll be limits to that, as there were before. And I have to wonder, in light of all this, if I’m on the right path? And – if I’m not – which is?

And, just to be clear, I don’t think this necessarily a bad thing, just a true thing. And if it’s indeed true, then I need to adapt to it.

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