A card player’s journey

When I was a kid every summer for years on end we’d head down to the beach somewhere as a family after Christmas to spend two weeks lounging in the sun, body-surfing, and generally taking it easy. Looking back from this distance it seems like a special time. It has a glow to it in memory. It was family time, a time when I still felt the innocence and joy of being an irresponsible child yet, riding my bike and mucking up and accepting all the simple pleasures of that hedonistic lifestyle as my very due. It has novelty value now also, because it has become so unfamiliar.

One of the things we would always do is play cards in the evening. It wouldn’t be every night. We’d go out sometimes, or else there might be something on TV – likely sport – to watch. It was a regular occurrence though, perhaps every second night. We’d play 500, either solo or in pairs, or else another favourite game called Oh Hell (aka American Bridge). We were kids, but we took to it easily and had a lot of fun playing. Over years I acquired a proficiency in playing cards in general, and took great pleasure in the skill required to play a winning hand. I can safely say that playing card games is one of the things I’m very best at.

Later, as I got older, the occasions when we would play cards became much less frequent. Becoming a bloke some of the games would change also. I haven’t played 500 for a long while, and Oh Hell only infrequently in the years since, but I’ve played plenty of hands of poker with the boys, and the odd casino card game. The only variation to that was when travelling, where a pick-up game of cards was always likely waiting for a plane or sitting on a train. I remember 10 years ago travelling through Egypt and Jordan I fell in with some keen card players. We would play Hearts at every opportunity. Most of them were good players, but one of the girls – an alluring Kiwi – was an exceptional player. I loved pitting myself against her, and had many hours of pleasure sitting on a dhow playing, or in the shade of palms at a red sea resort, or in the hotel lounge, and sometimes even in the bus.

Now I’m learning Bridge.

How this came about is that a few weeks ago I’m at the Cheeses for dinner when afterwards Mrs Cheese says to Cheeseboy, what are you going to do? The inference was that he had no hobby or diversion, as he should, and I was the reference point – a keen writer after all, and a cook on top of that. To be fair to Cheeseboy he is not without interests. He’s coached the local junior soccer team for years now, and once was a keen cyclist. In any case in response to his wife’s question Cheeseboy blurted out: Bridge.

I admit to being confounded at that point. I know Cheeseboy pretty well, and we’ve been mates for years – but I had no idea of this secret interest. I think Mrs Cheese was just as taken aback.

Turns out as a kid, just like me, the old Cheeseboy had been a keen card player. Like me he spent years playing cards with his family back in Holland. He enjoyed cards but, as with me, finds little opportunity to play.

Somehow in those minutes after I told him that if he wants to learn Bridge then I’d keep him company. As always Mrs Cheese, who is extremely diligent and efficient, found a local club where we could learn and play, and made sure that Cheeseboy organised it. Last night was our first lesson.

In the weeks leading up to the lesson we would josh around in anticipation of it. Let’s face it Bridge, and Bridge players, have a certain reputation. I took the mickey from myself by suggesting I might find a ‘foxy’ widow who would look after me. We joked about playing with a glass of sherry or Pimms, only to discover that tea and Arnott’s Family Assorted was strictly the go. In one thing our expectations were proven absolutely correct: we were the youngest there.

We rocked up and had the ladies at reception quickly flirt with us, commenting on our relative youth. Inside we were introduced to our fellow trainees – all older couples – and our trainer, a very proper type, as befitting the game of Bridge.

I’m not sure we were entirely approved of. Too much levity. We’re mates and have a lifetime of chiding and gentle abuse. It was novel to us, and amusing in its novelty, especially in the myriad rules. One of the other guys at the table joined in the banter.

The game itself was fascinating, unlike anything I’ve played before. It has common elements, but what makes it different is that you play virtually with a 3D perspective. Playing cards over the years I’m used to watching cards closely, and my opponents. You keep a rough count of cards whilst figuring out your own strategy, and scrambling to deploy alternative tactics as needed as the cards fall in unpredicted ways. A lot of it is predictable though if you’re thinking straight and haven’t missed anything. The game is in your head.

Bridge has the added complexity of having to play two hands, yours and your partners when you’re the bidder. I found this additional requirement tested my ability to keep everything in my head. It was almost as if by taking on this also something had to come out. It was quite a challenge, but I assume a challenge I’ll adjust to.

In any case I learned the game okay, albeit in an incomplete version – other bits are added in next week. The one game when I was the bidder was testing, but worked out well. These are the sort of things I like to master. As always, it feels almost like a direct challenge to my intellect. I enjoy those challenges greatly, and I love winning. I can’t ever imagine ever being part of a Bridge club, so my playing career may be brief, but before I part from it I want to get it absolutely right.

I may even absorb the etiquette.

Power and beauty

I had an invitation to visit a racing stables yesterday in Glenhuntly. I have a friend who has had an interest in racehorses for 10-12 years (including Caulfield Cup winner Elvstrom), and he’s been trying to drag me in for most of that time too. I’m not in a position to do anything like that, but I took up the invitation to attend yesterday to catch up with him and his family, and out of curiosity. It was an unexpectedly satisfying experience.

It was a lovely day and a brunch of sorts was put on, before the trainer stood to talk up the racehorses in his stable as they were paraded by for us. Later we had a full tour of the stables, which was interesting enough in itself, but the bonus was that we could get up close and personal with the horses. They seemed just as curious to see us as we were to see them. They watched on with interest as we gathered, offering there head for a nuzzle or gently nibbling at my jacket sleeve.

They are magnificent beasts, but up close you really appreciate the grace and beauty of these animals. I doubt there’s any such thing as an ugly horse, but these are the true thoroughbreds. There was a dignity to their bearing, as if they understood their privileged status. Their coats were shiny, like satin, and every one of them powerfully muscled. To be in their presence was to understand their coiled potential. At rest they were like athletes between events, with an edgy languor. Trackside you get but a general impression of their athleticism, but to be there stroking their flanks, to observe their powerful hindquarters and the definition of their muscles is to understand that they are made to gallop, built for speed. To run fast is their raison d’etre, and to anything else would be a betrayal of their purpose.

I was profoundly moved. I felt a kind of Nietzschean sense of order and reason. But then as they were paraded around I was moved by their pure grace. I’ve always loved animals, but as I get older that feeling becomes deeper, and feels more meaningful. I know that animals are not as innocent as we make them out to be. I spoke to the trainer earlier and he had mentioned how someone had said if only horses could talk, but, shaking his head, he said they were enough trouble with talking too. They were like people, he said, they had their own characters and personalities.

Still, I am drawn to something unspoilt in them. Uncorrupted. We use and exploit them; we use and exploit each other. Animals are true to their souls. That is different things for different beasts. I am regularly moved by the unashamed devotion of Rigby, and it is true of most dogs. They give without expectation of receiving. They give because it is their nature, because they take pleasure from it.

For these horses it seemed to me they well understood the whimsical possibilities of the power and grace god has granted them with. They remained individual, and equally capable of returning devotion. Like all of us perhaps, they yearn for affection. Unlike many of us, they yearn for it without shame. More and more I think, animals are the best of us.

Which is not to say there is not much good in us too, and more admirable in its way because so often it comes in spite of resistance. I met with my friend and his wife, met his kids, all of them good people. Then towards the end one of the stable staff came up to me, “remember me,” she said.

I had watched her without recognition as she had paraded one of the horses. Now as she spoke to me I knew her. There was a café on the corner from my massage shop where I would get a coffee every morning, and often every afternoon. They got to know me and I grew friendly with a couple particularly. One was this woman – barely a girl then, bright, attractive, and generous natured. We shared a joke most days and a bit of gossip. She followed me on Instagram. I sensed she came from a privileged background, but was very down to earth. Now she was working at a stables.

We spoke for about 10 minutes. I was glad to see her again. She told me how this was her dream, about how she was out of bed by 3.15am 6, and sometimes 7 days a week. For me it capped off a fascinating morning, and it felt as if I had closed a loop. It’s good to meet with good people again, especially as I’d never the chance to say goodbye before.

Absent mothers

It’s Mother’s Day today and all over Melbourne, all over Australia, and probably all over the world families are gathering together to celebrate it. It’s one of those rare days that seem to galvanise everyone into doing something.

I’m not, but that’s because I no longer have a living mum. I feel a little sad at that, and quite left out. Everyone I know is doing something today, and had mum still been alive that we would have done something also.

I have so many memories of Mother’s Day, and it’s clear to me now that I don’t have a mother to celebrate it with that I took much for granted. It was not quite routine, but it was certainly regular, like Christmas.

Now that I’m in this position I realise how much hinges on our mothers. Mothers are the lynchpin and centrepiece of family. They draw us together and give us reason to be thankful. They house our love, and give it back to us in spades. When the rest of us are too lazy or forgetful it’s they who will rally and bring us together, because that’s their pleasure – to be together with us, and our joy is theirs.

I see now how families fray and drift apart when the mother is gone. We become individuals, rather than members of a larger entity, the family.

I miss mum, certainly, but I miss much more than that. I miss having a family, miss that overlooked sense of being loved, miss these functions. Days like today you feel denied entry to a club that everyone else is part of. It is what it is though. At least I know it now.

My Thursday

I was in Brisbane last Thursday for work, and hoped while I was there to re-acquaint myself with the place. On the drive in from the airport I peered out the window hoping to recognise familiar landmarks and orient myself. I lived on the river back then, in Tenerife, in an old woolstore converted into apartments. It was large with high ceilings and a small view of the river from the balcony. It was a good place to live, a 20 minute ride on the bus into town, and trendy New Farm just a suburb away.

We bypassed that on the way in as I knew we would, but even so I didn’t recognise the roads I would have taken leading to it, though we passed by a pub I remember going to.

The office is in Ann Street and once out of the car I felt as if I’d been turned around somehow. I used to work in Market St, just across from the river, and for a moment I had no idea where it was in relation to my location.

It was a busy day in which not everything went initially to plan, before finally it was fixed and there was a mad rush to squeeze everything in before I left. I had to leave by 3.45 and didn’t get to have lunch until 3, and then just for 10 minutes. I took a quick walk down towards the city centre before returning.

It was a long day. I was up a little after 5 and in a taxi just before 6. We took the beach road heading towards the city with the sun not yet risen. It’s not a time of day I’m generally about, and if I am I’m certainly not out, and so I took a sleepy interest in the world at that time.

Beach road is notorious for cyclist as all hours of the day, but I was surprised nonetheless to find big packs of them wheeling in one direction or the other. They were not cycle commuters on the way to work, but rather cyclists who had donned their lycra to go for a long ride before work. At some point they would return home, shower, dress, perhaps have some breakfast before joining the great throng of worker bees heading to the hive.

For someone who keeps more civilised hours being up to see the sun rise is always an interesting experience. You feel as if you witness the city rouse about you. It’s the start of something new, a sense never experienced when you’re up with everyone else. I peered out the window taking things in. Being on Beach Road I had a broader view of the city. In the distance I saw flashing red lights indicating a quite substantial, but still invisible structure. It intrigued me until I figured it must be the West Gate Bridge. It made sense that it would have lights on it come dark to warn off potential low flying aircraft, but I had never noticed it before.

I watched his and her joggers in their flashy outfits out running together, as doubtless they do every day. Here and there was someone walking their dog. As the sky slowly lightened we stopped by lights where the ubiquitous tradies in their shorts and high vis tops headed into their construction site. It’s the tradies hour, and no matter the weather they have their King Gee shorts on, and perhaps a lunchbox in their hand for later in the day.

The sun peeked over the horizon as we crossed the Bolte Bridge. The city looked splendid, but the light was still dusky as I reached the airport.

I boarded the 5pm Qantas flight out of Brisbane that afternoon, but we were stalled on the tarmac for 20 minutes. I was in row 4, I had extra legroom but was in the middle seat. I was weary after a testing day and just wanted to get home. As it was in the morning the plane was full of businessman. I sat and listened to my music and an audiobook and counted the minutes.

It was post 8pm when I was finally in a taxi heading home. I had seen the sun rise and returned after it was dark, and missed altogether the day in Melbourne. It felt strange. I had been there at its birth, and here I was again in its late maturity, but the bit in between, the fun bit I had missed altogether.

It was a little after 9 that I got home. It had been a long day and I was bone weary. Rigby greeted me warmly and I lay on the couch for an hour dully watching TV before deciding to make an early night of it. I was in bed by 10.30, early for me, and about to turn the light off when Donna called. I turned the light off anyway and spoke to her in the dark for 45 minutes. And that was my Thursday.

Happy Friday

If I’ve got to work then this morning for me was the ideal kind of morning. I would bottle it if I could.

It’s Friday to start with and that’s always a different vibe. The finish line is just a few hours ahead of you and the long week almost behind you. You’re in casual clothes and looking forward to a sleep in the next day. I always reckon there’s a completely different feel in the office come Friday, and it’s all positive.

We’ve had marvellous weather the last month. With a few exceptions each way the daily temperature has been between 25-28 degrees, which I think is the ideal range. Each day is sunny, every day is blue skied. It gives a skip to your step.

This morning I was in at work early. I say early, but it’s around the same time every day – around 8am, give or take. I walk in the door, flick on my PC, quickly check my email, then today I was off to get my coffee.

That’s a regular journey, though mostly I don’t pop out until I’ve been at work for half an hour, and generally it’s to one of two nearby coffee shops with the brew is top and notch and the crowd three deep. I don’t mind the wait. It allows me to clear my head.

This morning was a bit different. I got word that Short Stop – a nearby shop selling top shop donuts – was having a promo in that every purchaser would get a free donut. I’ve hopped into that before, and so after checking my email I was out the door again to beat the queues.

There was a queue as it happens, but not nearly as daunting as it would become. The coffee there is excellent so I ordered a latte to earn my free donut, and ordered (and paid for) another donut just for good luck – a maple walnut butter donut. I waited for about 6-7 minutes before I was out of there with coffee and bag of donuts in hand.

That’s when I cottoned on to how good it was. I walked down Little Lonsdale back towards Elizabeth Street. The sky was a lovely pale blue, the sort of sky you so often see hot air balloons lingering weightlessly. I was in my shirt sleeves and the day ahead promised more sunshine and blue skies. It was Friday, I had a couple of donuts and a good coffee, and a productive day in the office working on the things I want to work on – and tomorrow I could sleep in.

I slipped back into the building, for once quite content to be there.

Dark horse

Last week I ran into an acquaintance at a city café (Little Mule) at lunchtime.

I sat across from her and ordered a short mac and we caught up the news since we’d last seen her. I’d bumped into her on the street 6-7 months, but the last time I’d seen her properly was probably NYE 2015. I see her comings and goings on social media, but we hadn’t had a conversation for many moons.

In the course of our ensuing conversation I made mention of the book and the movie producer’s interest and the rest of it. She looked at me strangely and delved deeper searching for details. Finally she shook her head and said she had to ‘re-calibrate’ herself. “This is you being excited, isn’t it?”

Very little flaps me and I had to give a wry smile at her question. I accept that outwardly I appear calm and unexcitable. And in this case I’ve deliberately damped down my expectations – bit still, it is fascinating.

She spoke about the man who would interpret Obama’s anger – how his quiet and certain calm would translate into seething anger when interpreted by someone less inhibited. I’m not inhibited, I’m just focused and laid back. I’ll get excited at the right time, and if the occasion warrants it I might try on something ecstatic. Stranger things have happened.

Right now the time isn’t right. I’ve got a few people reading the manuscript now and for some reason I take more from their feedback than I do from some distant movie producer. They know me after all, and I know them. JV, who is the biggest reader among them, got back to me saying it’s a ‘good read’. That’s reassuring.

I still think it needs work and a proper editing, but I’ve taken a break from it. I’m writing stories for now, and after that I don’t know what. I’ve already got an idea for another novel, and ideas/creativity is in abundance right now.

I said nothing of that to my acquaintance. I don’t say more than I have to, and often – according to some – not even as much as I should. I may be prolific on this site, but perhaps that’s because I’m so circumspect in person. Strange to think what someone who only knows of me from this site would make of me if we met in person. I don’t know you and you’d probably find me genial, but guarded – but at least you know what goes on behind the façade.

I certainly have my moments, and will riff about anything when on form and in the mood, and sometimes will go hard when I’ve got the scent of something controversial or the taste of blood. Otherwise I’m quite happy observing and keeping my counsel. The days of speaking for the sheer delight of it are long passed, and I’m happy to be a dark horse.

Different people, different parties

Last Friday I attended Donna’s birthday party at a city bar, six days after I held my own birthday party at a suburban bar. I celebrate my birthday once in a blue moon, but Donna does it religiously, year after year. Superficially it appears we celebrate in similar ways – picking a cool bar or restaurant to host it – but in reality our celebration styles are very different.

I’m not really a celebrator. I have a much cooler disposition. I’m social and generally affable, but I’m reserved too in the sense that I pick and choose my friends, and am not inclined to overshare.

Donna is a born celebrator. She’s bubbly and gets a kick out of being the hostess, and loves being the centre of attention. She’s got that social detachment going, all small talk and giggles, but she’s more open than I am.

Whenever I organise one of these things I try and keep it small. Picking the right venue is a big thing, but so too is inviting the right people. I want only those I consider real friends about me, and in general have ideas about what the perfect number is. Too many and the crowd diffuses; too few and the conversation lags and there is too little stimulus. I had 8 to my party, which I think is around the sweet spot.

Being a different person Donna tends to select different type of venues to me. I like the classic Melbourne style, intimate, cool, with a bit of attitude. Donna loves going to those bars with me, but tends to go for the aesthetics when picking a birthday venue.

She also invites many more people than I do – I think she invited 30 odd to her birthday, of which approximately 20 attended. Her close friends were in attendance, but so too were colleagues and what I would call acquaintances. I think a fundamental difference between us is that Donna wants to put on a show, whereas I want to enjoy the show.

There’s problems in having too many attend. For a start they tend to clump into groups, which can be anti-social. Secondly, acquaintances and colleagues will come and go. They’ll arrive later and leave earlier. They’re there to have a drink and share it with someone they like, but not love. To my way of thinking it starts off unfocused and loses energy as the night goes on. Put another way, Donna prefers the breadth, I much prefer to go deep.

My party finished up when the bar closed, and even then there were calls to take it elsewhere. By 9pm Friday most of Donna’s guests had left, and even the venue was on the wane.

As I seem to do every year I urged her to move on elsewhere to re-capture the vibe. Parties are like living organisms. They’re dynamic things that peak and then fall away if you’re not careful. There’s always a moment when you have to make a call – but somehow Donna always seems to miss the moment. I’ve never been to a good party of hers because they always lose energy and die away. I was gone by 9.30 on Friday, at which time everyone was just standing around.

I probably won’t bother with a party again for a few years. I’m not really fussed, but if I’m going to do it then I want to do it right. For that it means keeping it intimate and somehow raw (as can only be between good friends), and finding the right space for it.

Some of this can be explained by different personality types. Donna would be edging into the extrovert part of the spectrum. She draws energy from crowds mostly, which is why she invites them. I’m pretty well line-ball extrovert/introvert. All the tests I do show an even split, up in some areas, down in others. Crowds don’t give me energy, but nor do they take it from me. I can roll with it, and sometimes roll with it pretty hard, but I tend to think myself more introvert, if only because I need me time and enjoy it. It makes sense that I would go for the intimate over the rowdy because it’s a deeper experience.