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

Undoing


This is another little story about my train trip into the city this morning. It’s becoming a genre of its own, but I think that’s because in that space of time and making that journey you are in a state of transition, from the comfort of home to the density of work. In between you are in a neutral space, not quite yet up to speed, but receptive to the dawning day. Everything is fresh again, and though it’s far from being a conscious thought, with the new day everything becomes possible again.

This morning I sat there in the usual way. Across from me sat a mother with her son. The woman was middle aged, plain, a little plump. She was dressed in a heavy black winter coat, and in general her dress was more functional than stylish. Like so many women she had a big, black leather handbag, from which she took a copy of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.

Her son was about 10 years old. He wore a dark duffel coat with loops for buttons. He had an old fashioned haircut, like a fighter pilot from the 1940’s. It was cut short at the sides, with a distinct part and his hair neatly combed across the top of his head. Did he comb his hair, or did his mother for him, I wondered?

I’m listening to a story set in Morocco and I’m remembering my own journey there, how Casablanca was boring, Fez interesting, Marrakech fantastic, and Essaouira funky, but at the same time I’m curiously pondering the mother and her son. Is it school holidays? I thought not. What brings them out then? It appeared as if they were set on a trip together to town, for reasons I could never discern (they stayed on the train as I got off at Richmond). I recalled that these brief forays into the city when I was his age were like an adventure to me, remembered how with mum we might go shopping for school books or clothes or something altogether different and then end up having lunch in the Myer’s cafeteria, or perhaps somewhere like the Hopetoun Tea rooms.

As I’m thinking this the boy looked around curiously. He was not accustomed to the peak hour train crowd. There wasn’t much to see though, and soon he retrieved his own book to read – something called Bomber Boys.

There is something about such scenes that make me feel incredibly tender. Perhaps there is something nostalgic about it that recalls moments just as I described when I might have shared such a journey with my own mother. But that’s only a small part of it. I don’t know but it seems such simple scenes undo me – and it is the simplicity of it that does me in, or rather, the simple modesty of it. You see in something like that the established pattern of love and affection. It is known, felt, perhaps overlooked by the boy, but real for the mother. You imagine the small worlds, the boy spying the book he was interested to read and contriving to own it, the mother out shopping with her son and spotting the coat she decided to buy for him. Then there is the mother reading her book. You imagine this is an escape for her, a little bit of time all hers. I wondered, what does she think when she reads such a book? What does she feel? Is it just entertainment, or does it tug at something deeper?

And of course there is something in the very modesty and conservatism of her dress that becomes poignant. I don’t know what it is, but my imagination works overtime. Is that her nature? Or has she sacrificed something to be a mother? Or is it a reflection of self-image? Perhaps because I’m bolder in style and ambition I am often abashed by those who are not. I want to get around them. Celebrate yourself, I want to urge them. It doesn’t matter what other people think – or more aptly, what you think other people think. Live for yourself.

I feel that and it cuts deeply, but I know also there is something condescending in it – and besides, who am I to tell anyone how to live or what to feel? They know their life. Doubtless they are happy, more or less, with it. Not all lives are big, nor should they be, but it doesn’t make them less true, and what value fruitless striving when all you need and want is beside you?

I think it is the recognition of that which moves me. It puts me in touch with a corner of myself that is deeply felt, but neglected. I am straightened up and humbled by the simple truth of what I see, and envy, in a sly way. I feel strongly the urge to acknowledge it, to reach forward and look in their eyes and bless them – or ask for their blessing.

June 7


It’s just occurred to me that yesterday was B’s birthday, dear and long departed now, the woman I loved and wanted to spend my life with at one point. I wish she was still around, still walked the earth, even if I had nothing to do with her.

I always remember, even if, such as now, I remember after the fact. I always want to remember. She is worth my reflection, and much more. In this case perhaps there has been another prompt.

I had a long dream last night that in large part was about death. The details are scratchy now. I had some kind of terrible, fatal disease we were in a race against time to cure. It was a rare disease that when you get to a certain age the sun eats away at your flesh, like acid. The day approached near and there was a sense of frantic inevitability that became resignation. Even then there was the hope a cure might be found before too much damage was done. The surprise came in that when the day came, and after, nothing happened. There was relief at that, but a tortured confusion as well.

The dream was a result – I think – of news I heard late last night that a girl I had gone to school with had on Tuesday night committed suicide. I had but vague memories of her, but it came as a shock still. She was happily married and had two boys, but had apparently suffered from depression for years.

It’s been a tough few weeks, but this made it more personal. Watching the nightly news I often find tears in my eyes, either depressed by tragedy or uplifted by acts of virtue. Lately there has been more tragedy, though there are always fine people.

Last night I felt tears in my eyes at the news of the two Australian women murdered in the London terror attack. The closer you can identify with victims the more personal it seems. I didn’t know either of the women and they lived in different states to mine, but they are of my culture, they grew up in the same environment as I did, would recognise the same touchstones that perhaps someone from somewhere else could never. If I had met either one in London chances are we might have exchanged a greeting as Aussies. Now what they had is stopped. It’s so unfair, so senseless, not just for them, but their families too, and for all the victims and their families. (It’s a great curiosity that of the 8 people killed in the attacks in a huge city such as London that six of them were foreign).

There was another news item about a man who had campaigned against the Catholic church and the cover-up of child sex offences. His own daughter had been a victim and had later killed herself because of it. This man had been instrumental in taking the fight up to the Catholic diocese, and by all accounts was a much loved man of exceptional character. His was a state funeral, and a worthy one. I felt tears come to my eyes listening to the tributes to him. I was sad at his passing, but grateful that such people exist – and hoping that one day that I might measure up to such an exemplary standard.

In winter, these are the times.

 

Random encounters


The last few days I’ve been witness to a couple of random moments which piqued my curiosity.

On Saturday afternoon I caught up with Cheeseboy for lunch. It was a pure winter’s day, cool, but the sky a pristine blue, and the sunshine like crystal. It was very pretty, and so we chose to sit outside at a café at the end of my street.

We sat and talked about all the usual stuff, about work, about our plans for the weekend ahead, about a golf weekend we’ll never have, gossip about mutual friends and, of course, sport. As we sat there going about our very prosaic activities a couple sat at the next table over from us, right in my eyeline.

He was a handsome man of about 30, dark skinned and vaguely exotic. She was an attractive woman of about the same age with curly brunette hair. At first glance I thought them a recent couple out for a coffee on a Saturday afternoon.

Cheeseboy and I continued our conversation. I paid no special attention to the couple, but as time went by it was impossible for me not to notice that they weren’t talking. They had coffee delivered to them, but not once did I see them exchange a word of conversation. They sat there awkwardly, neither seemingly willing to break the silence, but both apparently very conscious of it.

The man sat facing me, the woman was in profile. He looked out towards the road, and occasionally glanced backwards her, but without seeming intent. She seemed the more stricken. She looked straight ahead, her expression grim.

Finally I looked up and saw she had begun to cry. Her eyes were large and moist and had taken upon that puffy look that came with tears. She continued to look straight ahead, and still there was no conversation. It appeared that the tears had sprung from a deep well. She sat there knowing without a word having to be spoken. He knew too, without needing to comment. I was witnessing the end of something, and I wondered what their story was.

Then yesterday I’m in the lift returning from having picked up a coffee. In the lift with me were a couple of guys who work for the NBN (I always wonder why they don’t get out of the lift a few floors below and don’t walk the rest of the way, a la their tech model). As it transpired both of these guys were Filipino. They chatted about their respective weekends before one said he was heading back to the Phillippines on the 25th for a month. No kidding said the other, I’m heading back there on the 29th for a month too! Really, the first one said, I’ve got to go back for my grandmother’s 90th birthday. Get out of here the second one said, or something similar, I’m going back for my grandmother’s 90th birthday too! Both burst into laughter, and I couldn’t help but smile too.

The lift doors opened and they got out before I could find out if they had the same granny.

Another voice silenced


I couldn’t believe it when I heard Chris Cornell was dead. It couldn’t be true I thought, just one of those internet rumours that later turn out to be rubbish. It wasn’t a rumour, though. It was true.

It’s funny, I just wrote about him in passing the other day. As I did I wondered at the music still to come from him, thinking, at least he would do some good stuff. He won’t though, not now. He’s gone.

I saw him about 5 years ago at the Palace theatre with a couple of mates. He was great. He had that mighty voice, the best voice in rock music, but he had presence too, and humour. He was a good bloke.

That’s what makes this harder in a way. There’s a great sense of loss that another of the voices I grew up has now been silenced. That feels a real thing, but even so, it feels a little different with Cornell. There’s a lot from that great generation of musicians that have passed on, but – without being rude about it – many that didn’t come as a great surprise. Many had troubled or volatile lives, many with a history of substance abuse, many who – despite their fame – who lived on the edge. Chris Cornell was not like that – at least he didn’t appear to be so.

He always appeared to be very fit and healthy. Though he had lived in the heady world of rock music there was never any suggestion that I knew of that he lived dangerously. He had his moments with drugs and alcohol, but seemingly without the self-destructive intent of so many others. He seemed happily married and perfectly grounded. He was revered and successful, but he seemed real too, the sort who easily met my criteria of someone I’d have a beer with.

It’s emerged this morning that it was suicide. In a way it makes sense of things – how does a fit and healthy 52 year old die? It makes it even sadder though, and I’m at a loss. It’s an awful tragedy.

Last night it was in my head all night and I went to bed feeling an indeterminate anger. I lay there trying to figure it out. Maybe it was because it seemed so unlikely – or at least, so wrong. Maybe it was because it was another good person gone – and too many lately. Maybe it was more personal – I grew up with Soundgarden, and later Audioslave, and Chris Cornell was a regular voice in my ear. He is of my generation, almost exactly my age, and he has gone now while I remain and I tried to riddle that. Finally there was a sense that as time goes by it feels as if my team becomes depleted and me – and people like me – are left remaining, clinging to memories of a time fast fading, and the people of that time plucked from us one by one. Once it was our world, now it is not – and the world is much changed.

That night at the Palace I surreptitiously taped some of his performance. I have a heap of his music on my iTunes, but I reckon those recordings, more intimate, more gritty, will come to mean more to me because I was there and he spoke to me that night, as he did to hundreds of others, and many thousands more through his career. That much we share.

On a final note it seems I am writing a lot lately about people who have passed away. I wonder at that myself. It feels abnormal, but wonder if the frequency will remain at this level. Are these the times? I don’t want to write so much of these things and I’ve decided to refrain when I can. I’m not here to write eulogies, and it’s too damn depressing besides.