Family relations


I caught up with my younger nephew for lunch last week. I’d seen him a couple of months before when we went to the footy together, and in the time between he seems to have grown more. He’s 16 and about 6’3”, with the frame of someone who will grow a few more inches yet and fill out into a powerful physique. Right now he is very lean, as I was his age, and in fact everyone says he looks like me, though I don’t see it completely. He’s a lovely, gentle, sensitive kid, but he’s also had issues with his self-confidence.

We’ve always been close. I love his sensitivity, which is a greatly under-appreciated quality. I guess I appreciate having someone to care about too, and want to guide and support him as much as I can.

I’m an important person for him, I think. His father died a few years ago, but even before that he was absent, living in England. There are no male figures in his life but me, and at times it’s been hard for him without someone to lean on. He basks in my affection, and draws strength from it. I am family, but remote and disaffected from his mother, and it would be simple for me to fade away – not that I ever would. That I choose to remain in contact and speak intimately with him is a form of reassurance, proof that I see something in him worthy of love.

We had a pizza each in the Emporium, my shout, while I asked him questions about school and what he wants to do next, his friends and potential love interests. He was quite open with me, I think because these are conversations he can’t – or won’t – have with anyone else. I skirted any questions relating to his mother or grandfather, not really interested in any case, while in reply he asked questions of me about work, and what I wanted to be when I was growing up. Afterwards we went for a walk.

It felt strange in a way. He will grow into an impressive looking man, and even now he’s well ahead of the curve – Donna says she sees my nephews much as she did William and Harry growing up (my other nephew is tall and good looking also, though less so, and has done some casual modelling). He is taller than me now, though I’m still much the bigger, and beside him grizzled, and even wise. I feel older about him, and remember that the years are ticking. I realise how it must be as a parent and the feeling of passing things on. There’s no sense of loss in that, rather extending something which you already possess.

That night, or the night after, I dreamt of his mother. It’s been a year since I’ve spoken to my sister, and haven’t missed her at all. We always had a difficult relationship, and after we broke I acknowledged that I had never liked her. It was her doing – she took offence at an honest answer I gave to a question from her. She said she wanted an honest answer, but really what she wanted was an answer that confirmed what she hoped for. I had done that in the months before, but when I failed to on this occasion she took offence. She sent a bunch of very nasty SMS to me, and that was that. I haven’t missed dealing with her difficult personality.

I hadn’t dreamt of her once either, which was significant. I missed the kids, but she was out of sight and out of mind. Meeting with my nephew brought her back to me, though the dream was innocuous.

Then yesterday I returned home from work to find an interesting envelope in my letter box. Mail has become relatively rare these days, and personal mail almost non-existent. The envelope was coloured and across the front of it in fancy ink and script was my name and address. I opened it inside the house and found in it an invitation my aunties 70th birthday in December.

I’ll go, and I’ll be happy to go, and look forward in particular to see my cousins. But it also means that I’ll encounter my sister. I suppose it had to happen sometime, but really I would have been happy to put it off permanently. I’ll be civil and polite, I’ll happily break bread with her, but no more than that. There are family things I have been excluded from, and I’ve had to make separate arrangements in its stead. I’m not someone who holds grudges, but nor am I someone who will sweep things under the carpet. Even if my sister knows she has done wrong there is zero possibility of her apologising, or even admitting to it – my sister is one of those people who have never been wrong. Under those circumstances I am unwilling to return to a phony and convenient family arrangement.

It should be an interesting night, but I’ll have Donna there to lend support.

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Great winds…


About 18 months ago I broke with one of my oldest and closest friends. It was not an easy decision, but it was a long time coming. It came as a shock to my friend though, I think.

It still makes me sad, sometimes, and I still care for him. You can’t just switch off years of friendship and memories like that, and there were many splendid memories. We travelled quite a lot together and had adventures abroad, and at home too. We had much in common – an independent spirit, a love for the good life, a sense of adventure, ambition, hunger and intellect. Throughout all of that, there were some cracking times and a lot of deep and meaningful conversations. Though both of us are innately competitive, there were a surprising number of tender moments. We got each other – by and large – on a deeper level.

That’s why he became my friend. I found in him a lot of traits which are conventionally attractive, and he has conventional admirers because of them. Generally, I’m not much interested in the conventional stuff because very often it tends to be more shallow. What I admired was the man inside. At his best he was a warm, incredibly sensitive man with a generous, giving nature. For many years, and through lots of ups and downs, he was a great friend to me.

I’ve given him a fair boost, and the obvious question is if he is all these things then why are you no longer friends? (And bear in mind, there are two sides to every story – this is mine).

Let’s face it, all of us have more than one person inside us. He used to complain about how blunt I was sometimes, used to complain about my strong personality and attitude. All fair calls.

In my friend there lived this lovely person, and side by side with him was another person – selfish, terribly self-absorbed, often petulant and precious, driven by ego and status – and surprisingly insensitive and rude occasionally. I hated that side of him. I thought it was a common, low-rent personality that did no credit to the friend I knew and loved.

This character was always in him, but early days only made a fleeting appearance. As the years went by, as challenges crested and then riches came, this character became more present. It was not helped that life had taken him away from his old friends and the naturally democratising influence of us. You know what it’s like, when a friend starts talking shit you tell them, and soon enough they pull their head in. We were not there anymore to do that, and in our place was a transient number of acquaintances willing to flatter and admire him for his conventional qualities. He was always receptive to flattery, and it turned him from his more individual gifts that only few of us knew to admire, to the more prosaic but superficial qualities the crowd knew him for. Still, for much of this period he remained a great guy to be around, and dear friend for much of it.

In the last couple of years, the balance changed. Geography meant we hardly saw each other. When we did mostly it was by email and phone. He remained a generous friend, but more frequently he was harsh and inconsiderate. At times I thought I sensed disdain, though at other times he was charming. Often I thought I had only to be out of sight for him to forget about me. By and large, I felt discounted and disregarded.

Now this coincides with a tough time in my life and I was probably more sensitive than I would normally be. I factor in some fragility, but at the same time if I am, then he should have to – and that was part of the issue. I’d felt some disquiet for a while, and we’d clashed before, and smoothed things over. It wasn’t great. To help me out (helping him) he would put some paid work my way occasionally, but more and more there was an attitude – I felt – of master and servant. I was his mate, I saw myself doing him a favour, the money was secondary and I didn’t appreciate being ordered around so rudely. Then he demanded I do something I wasn’t able to and he became nasty and personal, as he was wont to do. I went away and thought about that.

There’s a great song by Keith Richards that sums up my general state of mind at the time – You Don’t Move Me Anymore. A tipping point had been reached. It was harder knowing him than not knowing him. I had precious little energy, precious little belief, and what I had he chipped away at. The time had come to move on. I went to him and told him, I’ve had enough. That was that.

Towards the end of last year, I contacted him again. It had weighed on me that he might think I was bitter or angry towards him. I’m not really that type, but I was concerned he might think that. I wanted him to know that I thought well of him. We’d had great times, and I didn’t forget that. I was grateful and appreciative, it was just that we’d moved in different directions. It happens. Happily, he accepted in the spirit and with the grace it was intended. I was relieved.

These days I dream about him every 6-8 weeks, and he crosses my mind or comes up in conversation sometimes. In truth, our lives had become so separate that there wasn’t a huge wrench. Sometimes I feel sad, but not regret. It’s unfortunate, but I mourn a friend I lost years before we parted.

I dreamt about him again last night, which has prompted me to write today. In the dream last time it was as if we still friends and at our best. I felt sad after that. Last night we met again in a group situation having made this break. It’s a bit awkward, but civil, and then something happens to break the ice and it’s as if nothing ever changed.

I have these dreams and it makes me reflect on the ebbs and flows of life. It’s a dynamic thing. You think sometimes that something is forever, but then a year or two later it is of the past. There’s good in this, growth and regeneration, but there’s inevitable sorrow on occasion as you let go of things that were precious to you. I don’t know what to think of it sometimes, but at the end of the day, it just is. It reminds me of a Sioux proverb I heard once read:

“Sometimes I go about pitying myself. And all the while I am being carried on great winds across the sky.”

It’s a proverb that always gave me solace. I can only hope that it’s true, but I’ll only know in the fullness of time. In the meantime, I hope he’s well and, even more, hope he’s found a way back to himself.

Hail the individual


Was walking to work this morning when I passed going the other way a tall, slender, stylishly dressed woman. She was about 32, 33, and what I would call handsome, rather than pretty. It was the strong, confident face of someone who has experienced life and drunk it in. It would not be unusual for me to appreciate a woman like that as we passed by, but what really caught my eye on this occasion was her hair.
She had beautiful hair. It was dark, and fell to just below her shoulder, though ‘fell’ is the incorrect verb. Her hair was gently kinked and had an airy quality that immediately put me in mind of the seventies. It was an emanation, a halo of beautiful hair that was impossible to miss. It was a statement in itself, of style certainly, and certainly of individuality.
I felt a thrill just seeing her hair. You go, girl, I thought. I admired such strident independence. She was someone with her own mind, her own view of the world, her own unique way of expressing herself. I wanted to know her, but at the same wished their were more people with such irrepressible individuality.
I really think it boils down to that in the end. There’s no point in being anyone other than yourself all the way through. What joy is there in compromising on your individuality? The highest attainment of selfhood is to understand and embrace that individuality and express it without compunction.
I think there is a real practical benefit of this. Society is such that often we feel obliged to conform to norms which are ultimately quite arbitrary, and often no more than temporary.
That’s especially true within a work environment. We become a part of an explicit hierarchy. We have defined roles and responsibilities. Most of the duties we perform are clearly prescribed, and we must comply with office rules and regulations. We are squeezed on every side.
One of the reasons I managed to climb the ladder relatively quickly is because I rejected much of that. I always had a strong sense of self, had the confidence to speak my mind more often than not, on top of which I’ve always been stubborn. All the same, I’d never have got away with it if I couldn’t deliver.
Still, you have to play by the rules, even if you might stretch them a bit.
I reckon most major advances come from someone having the balls to defy convention. That’s true at work, and I think it’s true in history. I reckon we should celebrate individuality more, and in fact, encourage it.
If nothing else it’s liberating to see someone so completely themselves.

Re-connecting


Last Saturday I went to the MCG for the big game against Carlton. Nothing unusual in that, except this time I met up with my two nephews and niece.

It’s coming up to a year since my sister got her nose curiously out of joint and decided to disown me. That’s been no great loss for either of us, except that it means that I’m not invited to family functions, and opportunities to catch up with my nephews/niece – who I do want to see – have been few and difficult.

Up to Saturday I hadn’t seen any of them since May last year, bar the eldest, B, who I caught up with for lunch about five weeks ago. I kept in contact with my nephews by social media, and on one occasion with my niece. I send them birthday cards and Christmas presents. I try, but I’m not an active part of their life.

Despite that I’ve got a good relationship with my nephews. The eldest is a quirky character, but is both decent and sensible. The younger, R, is more sensitive and vulnerable. He’s a little bit lost and so treasures I think the tenuous link to me. Both of them know very well what their mother is like. I don’t know how much they know of my split with her – it’s not something we talk about – but as they have witnessed, and been the subject of her volatile, spiteful temper, I suspect they both well understand.

It’s different with my niece. It’s tricky for me as she’s going through a stage where a lot is changing for her. From a little girl she is slowly becoming a young woman. I’ve missed most of that and so haven’t really known how to interact with her remotely. On top of that she’s a girl while I’m a grizzled bloke, and there is less common ground between us than there is with her brothers.

It was great then to see them on Saturday. It was my eldest nephew’s birthday yesterday. Last week I contacted him to discuss it. He’s a Carlton supporter so in passing I suggested that perhaps we could go to the game together on Saturday, and his brother too (who is an Essendon supporter). He was keen on the idea, and later came back to ask if it was okay if their sister could come too. I could see my sister in that request, but of course, it was fine.

So we caught up outside gate 3 at the MCG just after lunch on Saturday. The first thing I noticed was how much my younger nephew had grown. They’re tall boys. The elder is my height, maybe a smidge taller, but has stopped growing I think. R is a couple of inches taller than me at 16, and still going. He’s a good looking boy as well. All he needs is a bit of confidence and he’ll be a knockout. That’s what I try and give him.

My niece was taller too, but still the bright and cheeky girl of before. She was dressed up in her Blues gear and all afternoon we would tease each other as the game ebbed and flowed, typically calling each other, and the other’s team, pooheads. As you do.

It turned out to be a great occasion. It was an ugly game at times, but turned into a thrilling contest. The kids were enraptured, more or less, as the fortunes changed. The older of my nephews is self-contained and undemonstrative, but I caught him getting excited, then groaning as the game turned. The younger was infected with joy as our team charged back to win a game we looked likely to lose. For all of them it was a rare and memorable experience.

We parted after the game. I’d have liked more time to sit and talk with them – the footy is too noisy for that – but at least we re-connected for a while. There had been the risk of becoming a stranger to them, but was alleviated Saturday.

Still, as the family go out to celebrate B’s birthday tonight I won’t be there. It’s sad, but hopefully I’ll be there for him for many years to come.

Go with grace


Father and son

A rumour went around yesterday morning that Jobe Watson, captain of Essendon Football Club, was about to announce his retirement from the game. It was on the cards. He’s 32, it’s been a tough few years, and his form is not what it used to be. I felt a slight quavering though when I hear the news: I didn’t want him to go. A couple of hours later he confirmed the rumour with all his usual grace, class and Watson wit.

No matter what sport you follow you have your favourites. I’ve been following Essendon all my life. I’ve seen a lot of great players come and go. I feel a great affection for many of them, champions and characters of the game, the guys you’d turn up to watch and cheer on as they strutted their stuff. Most of them were very good players at least, and a lot of them big personalities as well. Terry Daniher say, or Simon Madden; Vander and Bomba; Lucas and Lloyd, not to mention Wanganeen, Longy, and Harvs, and all those others I’ve celebrated over the years.

You love them all, but there’s some you just love a little more than the rest.

I remember when I was a kid I idolised Graham Moss. I remember writing a letter to the big ruckman after winning his Brownlow asking him to stay. He didn’t, but I’ve never forgotten Mossy.

Later on I would watch Merv Neagle, taken not just by his dashing play, but by his good looks and insouciant aggression. When James Hird came along I was one of the many thousands who thought he was a golden haired wonder, incapable of vice or misstep, and an absolute legend on the field.

One of my favourites in his playing days was Tim Watson. He captured the imagination of a lot of us. Not only was he a child prodigy, he was an intoxicating mix of skill, power and pace, like Dangerfield, only better. He was a great player for many years and starred in a lot of big wins.

Later on he went into the media where his good looks, intelligence and sense of humour found him many more fans. I listen to him still today and can’t think of a better role model than him – a decent, funny, charismatic man of great personal integrity.

Of course he is the father of Jobe, who shares many of his attributes.

Jobe followed his father into the game about 10 years after Tim left it. He struggled at first, but eventually became the captain of the club, as his father had been, and a champion too, just as his dad – and won the Brownlow medal that always eluded Tim.

I was pre-disposed to love Jobe. He was the son of a much loved legend and I so wanted him to be a chip off the old block. As it happened he became quite a different player from his father. Where Tim was dynamic Jobe was relentless. Tim could turn a game in a quarter of brilliant football, whereas Jobe would construct a match winning effort over the course of the game. Tim was dash and verve; Jobe was insight and deft touches. Both are greats of the club.

I have great admiration for Jobe Watson the player. He was a very good player for a lot of years, and a great player for about four of them. When he won his Brownlow it was by a clear margin in a year when he polled votes in 12 of the first 13 games. Unfortunately his Brownlow became the Brownlow of the players who trailed him by 4 votes in that year – but that’s another story I don’t intend to dwell in.

Most of all I love Jobe Watson for the man he is. It’s common these days for supporters of many clubs to have admiration, even affection, for Jobe, and that’s because of his class and character. Unfortunately for him, and for us who followed him, that class has been on display too often because of the dreadful circumstances the club found itself mired in. It’s too well documented, and I’m not going to add to it now, except to say that Jobe gained a lot of admirers for his grace and dignity and fortitude in the most trying of circumstances. Among other things he proved himself a great leader through that time, as the testament of his teammates so well affirms.

It’s unfortunate that his career came to that. Some of the best years of his footballing life were directly shadowed by the events of the saga, ultimately leading to a year out of the game. I’m glad he returned to the game, but it’s not a story he can escape.

He spoke eloquently yesterday. Footballers get marked hard sometimes. Jobe has always been an articulate, sensitive and insightful character. He brought that yesterday, together with the wit he inherited from his father. I can’t imagine him gone, and don’t want him gone, but I understand.

For me Jobe is not just a great footballer, he is a man of integrity and character, worthy of admiration as a human being. He’s been made well, the product of good education, affection and love. The Watson’s, for mine, are an almost ideal notion of what a family should be. They are all good people.

So in a few more games, and hopefully more than a few, Jobe will grace the field before he leaves it together. The fairy-tale finish would be a premiership, and I’m barracking hard for that, but regardless he leaves the game on his own terms and to a new life – to New York, and beyond. There’s few people I could more sincerely wish great luck to. I hope he finds all he hopes for, and all he deserves.

In the next room


If my mother was alive today she would be celebrating her birthday. Chances are we’d have caught up for lunch or dinner over the weekend and shared in a few bottles of wine.

She’s not alive and so tonight I’m celebrating it quietly with Donna, who was very fond of mum and always mindful of these anniversaries. It’s nice to do something for it. Mum would approve.

We’re going to a Vietnamese restaurant in Collins street called Uncle, well reviewed and said to have excellent cocktails – something else mum would give a big tick to. We’ll remember mum and share a few stories before moving on to our own stories. It’s something I look forward to. I don’t get out nearly as much as I used to, and it’s become a treat. I look forward to the excellent food, a cocktail I can’t afford, but will justify, and of course the conversation, which is always fun. For a little while I’ll feel different.

I’ve written about mum a lot here. If I was to be purely objective I’d say it has been an interesting exercise losing a much loved parent. I find that interesting, and much of that I’ve articulated here before. There is another piece of it I’ve never written of, and which I only formulated to myself the other day.

My mum is dead, my father is estranged, and my sister is a ratbag. There is no family in my life in general, and certainly no-one from those formative years when I was growing up. What that means is that when I look back to that time it is entirely self-referential. I don’t have access to other perspectives or memories. There is no-one I can question about the fragments of memories that return to me randomly. Living like this is like reading from a book you have written yourself. Not only are other dimensions missing, but it makes you feel solitary. That’s as it is, though.

Just in reference to mum I was doing some spring cleaning recently going through boxes when a slip of paper fluttered from one. It was a copy of the poem mum had read at her funeral. I remember her selecting it. When she knew she was dying a lot of thought and planning went into her funeral, and the things around it. I remember one Sunday going over to her place and sorting through things in preparation for it. It was a lovely day, and surprisingly upbeat.

Of course it happened, she died, and none of it was easy. And so the poem fluttering out was a surprise and, as so often these things do, felt meaningful. It’s her birthday, so let me reprint it here – perhaps, after all, it’s true:

Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away to the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
That, we still are.

Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to me in the easy way
which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.

Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me. Pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word
that it always was.
Let it be spoken without effect.
Without the trace of a shadow on it.

Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same that it ever was.
There is absolute unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?

I am but waiting for you.
For an interval.
Somewhere. Very near.
Just around the corner.

All is well.

Nothing is past; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before only better, infinitely happier and forever we will all be one together with Christ. (This part was omitted from the reading).

– Henry Scott Holland