The Return of the Tennis Menace

What luck!  I was mowing the back lawn, down the back near the shed, where the hydrangeas are constantly threatening to take over completely, when I found it.  It was lying in some long(ish) grass, a perfect, yellow sphere.  Picking it up, I could see that a brand-new tennis ball had found its way into the yard.  It was as if it had dropped down from heaven itself.

 I took it as a sign.  Having been gifted a brand-new tennis ball, I would now devote myself to becoming a tennis player.  All I needed now were tennis shoes, tennis socks, tennis shorts, a tennis shirt, tennis hat, a tennis racquet, a tennis court and a tennis net and I’d have all the gear you need to play tennis.  Granted, that sounds like a lot, but it all means nothing without a tennis ball, which I had.  Without a tennis ball, all those other things are for naught.

 Truth be told, I didn’t just find a brand-new tennis ball.  I also picked up two lemons and a ping-pong ball in near-pristine condition – but I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew, at least where the lemons are concerned, so I’m ignoring them for the minute to focus on my tennis career.  It’s going incredibly well.

 It’s not as though I’m starting from scratch.  For a time when I was a teenager, I took tennis lessons.  I don’t know why – it’s not as though we had a tennis court, so the opportunity to practice between lessons was essentially non-existent.  I’m not sure if my parents saw some potential in me or it was some kind of joke, but I took tennis lessons for a couple of years.

 There are several reasons why the Tyabb Tennis Court has never hosted the Australian Open.  Firstly, there’s no seating to speak of, which makes it hard to sell tickets.  There was a clubhouse of sorts, which I remember as the kind of structure you’d expect to find attached to an on-site van at a mid-range caravan park.  

Immediately behind the clubroom, there was the Frankston to Stony Point train line which was both a good and a bad thing.  If the words ‘close to public transport’ are considered a positive, the Club couldn’t have been any closer without the risk of being cleaned up by the 4:45 limited express to Frankston. 

On the downside, any overly- ambitious lob was destined to sail over the clubhouse and land smack bang in the middle of the tracks.  Which is awkward.  It’s hard to imagine Novak or Daniil slipping through the hole in the fence to retrieve a lob that’s landed in between the sleepers.

When I first started playing tennis, I was terrible.  After a couple of years of lessons and lots of effort, I remained terrible and as a reward for this extraordinary feat of consistency, I no longer had to go to lessons.  I’m not sure whether this was a decision of my parents or at the invitation of the coach, but either way I was off the hook.

I retired my racket – a heavy, lumbering object made of wood that looked as though it could have been used by Bjorn Borg sometime in 1975.  Whereas the rest of the tennis world had moved on to exciting, lightweight rackets made of graphite, my tennis racket was an old piece of timber that may once have been a chair.  It has remained in a closet at my father’s house ever since.

 I came out of retirement briefly.  My brother owned a house that had a tennis court and, naturally enough, every family function from that point on included some kind of tennis tournament.  Given that I had had lessons from someone who, if not a professional, had at least watched an entire tennis match from start to finish, I fancied my chances.  To put it mildly, I was extremely confident, especially given I was in my mid-twenties and was pitted against my twelve-year-old cousin.  It was hardly fair.

The score line told the story – six games to love.  That’s not a result so much as it is a crime scene, with dignity falling victim to a fatal attack.  Besides, all’s fair in six love and war.  Job done; I trotted up to the net to shake my cousin’s tiny hand.  ‘Good game’, I said, trying to sound as encouraging as possible.  ‘Sorry for beating you,’ my twelve-year-old cousin replied.  At that point, I told her that there was something in my eye before excusing myself for some time out in the caravan behind the shed.  I tried to compose myself but, such was my state of mind, I only ended up composing ‘Baby’ by Justin Bieber instead.  I retired immediately.

All great sport stories require a comeback.  Mostly, they involve a return from injury or a bad patch of form.  But never, in the history of sports, has there been a comeback by someone who started out rubbish, didn’t so much as lift a tennis racket for the best part of three decades and then returned to the sport in middle age, taking out a grand slam.  This, clearly, was my destiny.

Clutching my new tennis ball, I stood in front of the hydrangea bush, half expecting it to burst into flames or, better still, for an arm clutching my tennis racket to reach out to present it to me, like Arthur’s Excalibur, but nothing happened.  Using a spatula I found resting on the patio couch, I bounced the ball a couple of times before it hit an edge, rolled off the porch and under the deck, where it now resides with everything else we’ve lost and will probably never see again.  My great tennis comeback was over before it even had a chance to begin.  Anyone for ping pong?

The Maroon 5th Circle of Hell

Everyone has a limit.  A point beyond which, if pushed, they are destined to break.  For some, they stumble across their breaking point when they least expect it.  Not me.  I know all too well the thing that sends my spirit into freefall, generally eviscerating my will to live.  For some it’s the sight of a sodden kitten caught in rainstorm.  Others can’t stand the thought of an impending nuclear holocaust.  But, for me at least, it’s the music of Maroon 5.

Normally, I’d write something here about ‘not wanting to offend any fans of Maroon 5’.  But if I’m being honest, I do.  There’s something about their highly-preened soft-rock stylings that gets me completely offside.  It’s not that they rub me the wrong way; it’s that the thought of the physical contact necessary to rub me in any direction at all that gives me the heebie-jeebies. It’s music that’s custom-made for carparks and shopping malls.  Like Nickelback but with a better haircut and a higher voice.

I had rung my internet service provider for the simple reason that I had no internet.  The way I see it, they’ve only got one job and they were failing terribly.  They weren’t much better at running a call centre.  When you ring a call centre, they do everything they can to talk you out of it.  The experience begins with a recording, featuring a voice solemnly intoning that wait times are ‘longer than usual’ as a result of a ‘high volume of calls’.  If that’s not enough, they then offer you the option of a ‘call back’, so that instead of wasting time on hold, you get to suffer the indignity of them ringing you at the least convenient moment possible.  

I wasn’t going to give up that easily.  I hung on.

Then things turned nasty.  Without warning, I was put on hold.  Generally, hold music falls into two distinct categories – there’s the ‘corporate loop’ message, where a musical tidbit is played incessantly whilst someone who sounds so upbeat that they must not be on hold tells you all kinds of useless information about the company.  These information morsels generally begin with ‘did you know?’ and then tell you that instead of being stuck on hold and visibly ageing as you wait, you could submit your query online instead.  Which, of course, would be true if the reason for calling was for something other than the fact of not having any internet.

But corporate shoutouts are one thing.  What happened to me next was an entirely different level of inanity.  As the voiceover segued into music, I was suddenly and unexpectedly confronted by the sounds of ‘She Will be Loved’ by Maroon 5.  On a loop.  Which, if you’re on hold for the best (or worst) part of forty minutes, is quite the experience.  

In Dante’s Inferno, some people mistakenly think the fifth circle of hell is wrath, made up of a swamp.  Those people are wrong.  The fifth circle of hell consists exclusively of the music of Maroon 5 in all its steaming, sulphuric glory.  

Ordinarily, if exposed to the music of Maroon 5, I’d take evasive action.  If that means jumping from a moving vehicle because ‘Moves Like Jagger’ comes on the radio, so be it.  Hot asphalt at twenty miles an hour is still preferable to having to sit through ‘Moves Like Jagger’.  But this time there was nowhere to jump to that wouldn’t cost me my place in the queue.

After what seemed like and may well have been an eternity, I was put through to someone who gave me ten different versions of ‘have you tried turning it off and on again?’  After an exhaustive exchange that included everything from trying to reset the modem using a paper clip, to jumping up and down on one leg and chanting, I was no closer to having internet.

I’ll admit I was cranky.  When the very cheery person on the other end of the line asked whether I had any feedback, I took my chance.  First of all, I checked to make sure that our call was being recorded for quality and training purposes.  When he confirmed it was, I unloaded.  I told him in no uncertain terms that leaving people on hold and making them listen to the same soft rock song repeatedly was not so much ‘customer service’ as it was a calculated attempt to punish anyone foolish enough to ring for help.  There was an awkward silence, before a gentle ‘click’.  Our time together was over.

It’s an awkward age we live in.  One where corporate behemoths are so desperate for your approval that every interaction – no matter how minor – warrants a customer satisfaction survey.  Mine arrived about thirty seconds later.  If you’re the fire department, you’re unlikely to issue a satisfaction survey whilst someone’s house is still on fire. Similarly, internet companies should avoid sending surveys that beg you to tell them how awesome they are whilst you still have no internet to speak of.  Not even Maroon 5 would do something that silly.

It took some time, but I now have internet again.  That means I’m finally in a position to submit an online query to my internet provider to ask why my internet isn’t working, even though it is.  I could always say that I was asking for a friend.  

And whilst I sailed through my internet-less life easily enough, due in large part to the fact that I’ve refused to get rid of my DVDs, the soft rock stylings of Maroon 5 now haunt me in my dreams.  In fact, things are now so bad that I commonly avoid closing my eyes altogether, just to be sure that the gentle strains of ‘She Will Be Love’ doesn’t devour me as I sleep.  Consider it lesson learned – never ring a help line.  Instead, from this point on I’ll make all my complaints by telegram.

A Tale of Two Christmas Trees

Christmas – depending on your point of view, it’s either a celebration of the human spirit or a disaster of Hindenburg proportions that tests the limits of human endurance.  I like to think it’s the former and do all that I can to prevent it from turning into the latter.  There have been some might close calls over the years.  Let’s face it, for a single day it demands nothing less than a marathon effort.  Christmas may come but once a year but, according to my local supermarket at any rate, it starts in mid-August and ends abruptly on 26 December when the hot cross buns come out.  But for all the drama and the race against time, these days I like Christmas. 

When I was growing up, we alternated between real and plastic trees.  The real ones weren’t purchased so much as they were purloined, usually in the dead of night by my father.  One evening in mid-December, he’d disappear with nothing but a shovel, bucket and a torch.  And, possibly, his wits, although the end result suggests he may have left those at home.

He’d return home, hours later, with a branch that he’d optimistically refer to as a ‘tree’ and a series of possum scratches on his face.  The tinsel didn’t so much as decorate it as it did mask its hideousness.  Inevitably, this diseased, mangy piece of foliage would be home to a small number of pine needles and a very large number of insects which, once inside, would flee the ‘tree’ and take up residence in the house.  It was a surprise to no-one when we made the switch to plastic.

Plastic trees go either one of two ways – either they pretend to be real or they embrace their fakeness.  Ours landed somewhere in between; in that it thought it was real but looked hopelessly fake.  It was reminiscent of a talent show contestant who honestly believes they are a gifted and beautiful singer when, in reality, they couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.  Ironically, it looked real only to the extent it resembled the real one my father used to pluck from some unsuspecting neighbour’s front garden, riddled with pests and diseases too numerous to mention.  Over time, the tree became threadbare as artificial needles fell to the carpet to, eventually, be sucked up by the vacuum cleaner.  Eventually, it looked a collection of coat hangers. 

At a certain point, you grow up and find that you’re responsible for your own tree.  I had no idea where to start.  I didn’t even own a bucket or a shovel, much less a torch.  I had to buy one.  I settled on a tree that was fake but believed it was real.  That is, a fake tree with pretensions.  To obtain this super tree, I had to travel to three different ‘Myers’.  Finding it was hard.  Assembling it was no easier. 

Rather than just take the tree out of the box and stand it up in the nearest corner, there were very specific instructions about how to massage the artificial pine needles into life to give the thing a more realistic appearance.  It was as though you had to be careful not to hurt its feelings.  After several hours of coaxing, teasing and massaging the foliage, I began to harbour dark thoughts about getting a bucket and shovel.

As high maintenance as it was, it was quite a tree.  It wasn’t to last.  Some things you keep, others you lose along the way.  At some point along the journey, I lost that tree and went totally tree-less for a few years.  There’s nothing more dispiriting that a pile of tinsel in the corner with a few flashing lights.  It looked as though a disco ball had crash landed.  But things have changed and I can, once more, hang my tinsel with pride.  In fact, I have found myself (almost) right back where I started.

My partner, Katrina, would not stand for a fake tree.  She insists on the real deal.  For her, it’s a family tradition, one that her late father carried out with great pride.  What makes family her tradition so different to mine, is that they purchase their real Christmas tree from a reputable vendor, in lieu of snatching it off the street in the dead of night.  And it’s enormous.  The thing reaches out for the ceiling and takes at least two people to manage.  Getting it into position is not so much a chore as it is a quest.

Katrina’s tree is, without fail, the largest tree I’ve ever seen that wasn’t still attached to a forest.  With its arms stretched out wide, it wraps itself around the living room in some kind of pine-scented festive embrace.  Rather than a bucket of sand, this thing is so huge that it has its own special stand, complete with anchor bolts and a watering moat.  As for the decorations, I can only describe them as ‘next level’.

I’ve never known anyone who considers nine complete sets of lights to be a ‘good start’.  There aren’t many Christmas trees that can be seen from space, but I suspect this may well be one of them.  If you go to your window at night, chances are you can see it glow in the distance.  Katrina’s Christmas tree is nothing short (and ‘short’ is a term that would never be used to describe it) of a monument to Christmas itself.  Christmases past and present are wrapped up in its ornaments and the lights emit a soft nostalgic glow.  It is magical.

My father still has the same fake tree.  To be honest, it now looks more like an aerial than it does a tree.  The family these days is so large that the tree is entirely overwhelmed by the gifts.  In a way, that little tree – denuded of needles and in danger of imminent collapse, is a reminder of what was.  And the tree in the corner of Katrina’s living room, full and bursting with life, is a symbol of what can be.  I’ll be sure to enjoy them both.  Happy Christmas to you all.

A Tale of a Very Happy Unbirthday

I was never any good at it.  This is despite the fact that I had no shortage of practice.  It comes up every year without fail, and yet the very thought of it makes me squirm.  Some may relish the chance to be the centre of attention and bask in glow of adulation (or, if adulation isn’t readily available, then candles), but it’s never been for me.  I speak, of course, of my birthday.

 The whole idea of a birthday party always made me feel uncomfortable.  It started with having to choose a certain number of friends to invite.  This was challenging because I knew at an early age that the number in question was entirely random and that I would need to make brutal decisions as to who (and, more to the point, who not) to invite.  In a small town like Tyabb, snubbing someone could lead to a conflict that lasts a generation or more. 

The second great anxiety was whether those that were invited would, in fact, show up.  Granted, a bag of mixed lollies and skin-full of soft drink is a pretty powerful motivator, but there’s nothing like an invitation to socialise out of school hours to find out exactly where you stand in the pecking order.  Which led me to my next problem – did I actually have enough friends to fill the arbitrarily determined quota given to me by my parents?  I had my doubts.

Then there were the gifts.  I remember one birthday in primary school where I was given a model aeroplane.  That required assembly.  I’m sure I said something along the lines of ‘thank you’.  I’m also sure I wore an expression that suggested she had made a grave misjudgement.  As a rule, you should never give anything that requires assembly to a kid who routinely manages to super-glue himself to furniture during art class.  To this day, my hand is still attached to a tiny, primary school-size chair.  I guess I could have it surgically removed, but I’m (ahem) attached to it.

My last major birthday party I had was when I turned twelve.  I was allowed to have six friends and, struggling for numbers, I may have invited the postman.  Dave was deeply appreciative.  On that birthday, we saw a movie I’d never heard of entitled, ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’.  I had no idea what a ‘terrestrial’ was and couldn’t conceive of a world where someone would want one, much less an extra.  But the two hours that followed convinced me otherwise.  As birthday parties go, there’s no way to top ‘E.T.’.  I decided to retire.

Liam turned ten in March.  He feels very differently about birthday parties.  For the last nine months, he has taken every opportunity to lobby, campaign and otherwise cajole in the hope of having a birthday party.  At the time he turned ten, we were managing other major events and we decided to defer.  Until November, as it turns out.

It was on.  Even though Liam was closer to being eleven than he was to ten, we sent out invites for people to come rock climbing with us.  He was extremely excited.  Indeed, he was so profoundly eager that I also began to look forward to it.  His enthusiasm was infectious.  And although this may be because he washes his hands too infrequently, I couldn’t wait.  To see someone so committed to a birthday was inspiring. There would be games, sing songs and craft activities.  It would be awesome.

It’s been a long time since I’ve spent the afternoon with a room full of ten-year-old boys.  I was in for a surprise.  We arrived at the venue to find a function room waiting for us.  There was even a special sign that read, ‘Happy birthday, Liam!’ on the trestle table.  The kids were rounded up and given a safety briefing before being set loose in the rock-climbing pen.  It was as if someone had unleashed the devil and left the gates of hell wide open.  Mayhem ensued.

There was shouting, there was screaming and there were limbs flying everywhere.  It was like a tornado of small people.  Things only went down hill from there.  By the time I had returned to the comparative safety of the function room, the sing that read, ‘Happy birthday, Liam!’  had been completely violated and now said, ‘Yer Phat Liam’.  I’m not even sure what that means.  But I’m sure it’s not good.  Liam’s older brother, Ryan, had been volunteering at his school, so knew most of kids by sight but not by name.  So we decided that instead of learning their names, we would simply assign them any name we liked.  One kid we christened ‘Marmaduke’, another we called ‘Chauncey’.  We even had the kids volunteering to be ‘Dennis’ for the day.

At the end of the mayhem, Liam said it was the best birthday party he’d ever had.  I’ll bet he can’t wait to turn eleven.  Lucky for him, it won’t be that long.  I learned a few things that day.  Firstly, that ten year old boys, in pack form, are complete animals.  The other is that it’s okay to be the centre of attention sometimes.  Especially on your birthday.  Or even nine months after your birthday as it turn out.  It’s a lesson that I’m sure to take to heart.  

Hall v Oates: Writs on my List

Say it isn’t so.  If further proof were needed that the world is hurtling towards hell in a handbasket, it comes in the form of news that one of pop music’s most enduring and beloved duos are locked in legal disputation.  When news broke that Hall had sought and been granted a restraining order against Oates, I struggled to believe that it wasn’t some kind of cosmic hoax.  No matter the circumstances, I felt in my bones that this kind of action wasn’t something that I, in good conscience, could support.  In fact, my exact words at the time were ‘No, I can’t go for that.’

If you don’t know who ‘Hall and Oates’ are, I can only say that you’re out of touch.  Put simply, Hall and Oates are the greatest duo since sausage and sliced bread.  Other musical duos can’t hold a candle to their catalogue of superior pop and soul.  The Captain and Tenille?  Not even close.  Chas and Dave?  Don’t make me laugh.  Hall and Oates are responsible for some of the most amazing music of the 1970s and 1980s.  Their songs were part of the soundtrack to my childhood.

It’d make more sense if the restraining order was specific to John Oates’s moustache.  Large and with a reputation for unprovoked violence, it was often feared that the moustache of John Oates might one day break free from captivity and seriously injure an unsuspecting Madonna fan.  That’s why his ‘tache was often sedated and under armed guard.  It was a safety thing.  But as far as I can tell, the restraining order is against John Oates in his entirety rather than confined to an errant piece of facial hair.

Details are scant and it’s difficult not to speculate.  How did it come to this?  I’ve been in lots of bands where my musical contributions might best be described as ‘negligible’ and my personality not so much an irritant as it was a source of ongoing and severe mental anguish, and yet none of my band mates ever saw the need to get a restraining order.  Frankly, I deserved one. It might even have taught me a lesson about the importance of harmonising vaguely in key and not blaming every atonal squawk that had the misfortune to escape my mouth as advanced jazz improvisation and something that real music lovers would ‘get’.  John Oates was always in tune.

Some are born to pop stardom.  Others have stardom thrust upon them.  The road to fame for Hall and Oates was littered with great music that was broadly ignored by the record-buying public.  Their first album landed in 1973 – entitled ‘Whole Oats’, it was produced by Atlantic Records’ legendary producer, Arif Mardin and didn’t trouble the charts.  That’s despite being some to some spectacular songs like ‘Fall in Philadelphia’, ‘Waterwheel’ and ‘Goodnight and Good morning’.

Their second album, ‘Abandoned Luncheonette’ fared little better, although was home to the song ‘She’s Gone’ which would go on to become a hit three years later after it was covered by someone else.  Still, they stuck at it for one more record before parting ways with their label.  It wasn’t until their fifth album that they started to get some serious traction with the song ‘Rich Girl’.  But their moment truly arrived in the as one decade fell into the other.  The eighties – or the first part of the eighties – was theirs.  They had an ability to blend a disparate array of influences from soul, folk and rock into perfect slices of pop music.  They stood astride the first half of the decade like a musical colossus, notching up hit after hit until, eventually, fashions changed and they fell out of style.

   Hall and Oates were from Philadelphia.  And Philadelphia is a very important city for our family as it’s my sister in law’s hometown.  Suffice to say, ‘Go Eagles’.  Before she married my brother, a group of us spent time in Philadelphia.  More than just the city that witnessed the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art that were once pounded into submission so memorably by Sylvester Stallone in ‘Rocky’, Philadelphia has a rich musical history.  I was keen to experience it, first hand.

When I arrived, I was certain there would be a Hall and Oates museum.  I longed to go there.  I imagined myself being thrilled by the big drum kit from the ‘Out of Touch’ video, or learning how to do the ‘shoulder shimmy’ dance so beautifully executed by Darryl in the video to ‘Maneater’.  Perhaps they still had John Oates’ moustache in captivity.  But, sadly, there was no such place.  Bands aren’t commemorated with statues or museums.  They just tour the nostalgia circuit.

That they’ve fallen out is bad enough.  That the reason for their falling out is unknown is intolerable.  Luckily, I have family members in Philadelphia as we speak and I am assured they’re looking into it.  Hopefully we get some answers soon.

When I first learned that Hall and Oates were in some kind of unspecified dispute, it felt like part of my childhood had died.  It also made me go back to some of those glorious songs. Perhaps it’s just a misunderstanding.  Maybe they’ll find a way to put their differences aside. I hope so.  If they do manage to get over it, it’d surely make my dreams come true.  

The Colossal Car Stereo Conflict

There was no escape.  Once the call went out, seven people who, under ordinary circumstances, kept a respectful if not healthy distance from one another, would be required to submit themselves to the exquisite agony and confined space that is the family car.  Truth be told, it wasn’t so much a car as it was a van.  That’s how it goes with larger-than-average families.  For most of my childhood, we had a Toyota ‘Dante Inferno’ that came with a sign above the sliding door that read, ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’.  Each of us had an assigned seat. 

There were lots of things to dislike about a family car trip.  Cramming parents and children into a metal box is not a natural state of being.  To be squashed up against a sibling is an invitation to conflict.  Suffice to say, that car saw more than its fair share of bickering, petty arguments, seatbelt pulling and pinching over the years.  We kids were often almost as bad.

But more challenging than being lumped together for an extended period of time was the fact of music.  At the best of times, music is a tricky business.  Back before everyone was permanently head-phoned (so to speak) and listening to the music of their choice, families had to select and listen to the same music. 

When it comes to communal listening, there are several approaches.  There’s the autocrat, who determines what music everyone else will be listening to.  However, to be the autocrat, you either need to be driving the car (because the act of driving comes with a range of other special powers such as determining when windows are open and whether or not you’ll drive through or past your preferred fast food vendor) or in close proximity to the stereo.  Basically, it means you have to be an adult.

There’s the ‘take turns’ model.  To be honest, this requires a good deal of bravery.  By giving everyone in the car their shot, you may well get a burst of something from the ‘Baby Shark’ extended Universe.  Granted, not everything chosen by a member of your family would be drawn from that particular hellscape, but it was a real risk.  Kids, little kids especially, have a tendency to latch onto something and flog it to death until you begin to question why it is that God cursed you with ears.  To this day, I know the lyrics to a lot of tunes from the Sesame Street songbook.

 Autocrats are one thing, and there’s a certain perilous democracy inherent in the ‘take turns’ model, but best practice is also the most difficult to pull off.  I speak, of consensus.  Getting seven people to agree on anything is an achievement worthy of a prize.  Spirited debates were almost always guaranteed to descend into conflict. 

Service stations used to stock emergency cassettes.  The range was confined to the world’s greatest musical artists – The Little River Band, Queen and Chad Morgan (in no particular order).  These were available to either break deadlocks where consensus proved elusive or, alternatively, provide relief from the Wiggles.  I don’t recall my parents ever resorting to Chad Morgan, although they may well have threatened it.  For a consensus, there was one cassette and one band that brought us together.  That band was ‘The Beatles’ and the album ‘The Beatles Ballads’.

 It may have come with a magazine.  The cassette appeared in the mid-eighties and featured a strangely stylised drawing of the band on the front cover.  It was, apparently, considered as the cover for the ‘White’ album but was rejected in favour of, well, almost nothing.  Unlike the ‘Red’ or ‘Blue’ albums, the song selection seemed largely random, plucking tunes from various points of the Beatles’ career, then presenting them in an order that may well have been drawn from a hat. 

The collection kicks off with ‘Yesterday’, a song that might safely be described as ‘well-known’.  It’s followed by ‘Norwegian Wood’ and then, somewhat puzzlingly, ‘Do You Want to Know a Secret?’  ‘All My Loving’ sat next to ‘Hey Jude’.  In retrospect, it was jarring, but at the time, I didn’t know any better.  The songs were, of course, mesmerising.  It was impossible not be struck by how incredible this music was.  It set a standard.  It was no accident that in primary school, I drew a picture of Paul McCartney on my exercise book. 

That tape remained a fixture on the dashboard of our Toyota ‘Dante Inferno’ right up until the sun got hold of it and it really became a fixture after it fused with the plastic.

Two weeks ago, I had a birthday.  And on that day, The Beatles released a new song, ‘Now and Then’.  It would probably be quite at home on side B of ‘The Beatles Ballads’.  I know there’s some computer magic involved and it’s not the same as something recorded on the floor of Abbey Road, but it’s wonderful to hear those people and that voice again. 

Even now, there’s still fierce competition for the control of the stereo, but I’ll slip on ‘Now and Then’ when the kids aren’t looking.  And even if it feels like a long and winding road and those in the back seat are imploring me to let it be, I will smile and think of ‘The Beatles Ballads’.    

Pony Up! Confessions of a Failed Jockey

I don’t care much for horse racing.  I appreciate that to say so during the Spring Carnival is tantamount to sacrilege and by merely uttering such a sentiment, I am at risk of being immediately deported, despite having been born here.  I suppose when you’ve ridden horses at the elite level like I have, it’s hard to get that excited about a bunch of people dressed like Christmas presents galloping around in a circle.

I rode horses as a child.  Whether my parents erroneously believed I’d stopped growing at ten years of age and was a chance of becoming a professional jockey, they never said.  I don’t recall asking for horse riding lessons.  But our parents believed that if we were growing up in the country, we ought to be able to ride a horse.  Perhaps they were skeptical as to whether the whole ‘car’ thing would catch on, and being able to ride would give us a substantial advantage over all those suckers who thought the horsepower of a Ford Cortina was better than an actual horse.  Fools!

The lessons were in a paddock in Mount Eliza.  Mostly, I remember being completely terrified.  Not of Mount Eliza, but at the idea of having to ride a horse.  It was always a grim affair.  We’d arrive for our lesson and the stable hands were always possessed by the type of dismal countenance that made you want to turn around and leave.  Glumness hung heavily from their faces as they walked the horses from the stables to the front yard.

I can’t remember the name of the owner, only that his primary means of communication was shouting.  Perched on a saddle, you never knew when he’d turn his attention towards you and unleash a torrent of abuse about the most trivial of perceived infractions.  He had strong opinions on posture, bridle grip and how tight the strap on your helmet was.  I suspect he had opinions on everything, from interior decorating to international currency exchanges.  He was ahead of his time.  Nowadays, ill-informed but keenly felt opinions are in high demand on Sky News.

At horse riding lessons, I wasn’t there to learn.  I was there to hang on.  Nothing can describe the sense of churning terror I felt whilst riding – maybe a Goya painting, but not much else.  Whilst we were encouraged to relax, I kept a firm grip on the saddle at all times.  Things only got worse when we had to trot.

Trotting on a horse requires that you bob up and down, or otherwise run the risk of bouncing around before tumbling from your mount.  I could never get the timing right, so was always bouncing around in the saddle.  Cantering was faster but less jarring.  Occasionally, one of the horses would get spooked and would take flight with the rider hanging on for dear life.  It was the random nature of these events that frightened me most.  One moment, you could be trotting along, the next, you were hurtling at the speed of light towards the windbreak.

I let my parents know how much I was enjoying horse riding lessons by crying incessantly whenever it was time to go and begging to be left behind.  But they were determined.  They had seemingly decided that horse riding lessons ranked somewhere between learning to swim and green vegetables in terms of importance. 

There was only one way to end the madness – by buying a horse.  I appreciate that getting a pony for Christmas might seem to many like a dream come true, but this was more like the moment in the horror movie when you realise the scary person on the phone is, in fact, calling you from inside the house.  There was no escape.

Magpie, as he was named, was probably the meanest horse that ever lived.  He was the kind of horse that, if he’d had fingers, would have administered a nipple cripple for no reason other than that he could.  If it’d been up to him, he’d have been swathed in tattoos.  Magpie took great pleasure in trotting towards the nearest tree with low-hanging branches in the hope of ridding himself of the unwanted passenger on his back.  I begged not to have to ride him.  To no avail.

Things only changed when we were moving house and we had to transport him from the neighbours to his new home.  Magpie didn’t have a saddle or bridle, but my father insisted I ride him anyway.  I refused.  Intent on teaching me a lesson, my father climbed on the horse and trotted off down the driveway until they disappeared.  I was left to follow with nothing but my shame for company.  Until, of course, the horse returned up the driveway without my father, who had fallen off and broken his arm in the process.

It was a pivotal moment.  One in which I realised that defying my father had ensured my personal safety. 

Magpie lost a champion in my father that day.  And I officially retired from horse riding.  Magpie would long have gone to the great paddock in the sky, but I still think of that horse sometimes.  He was the first real enemy I ever had.  And to this day, I can’t bring myself to watch horse racing.  It’s too painful.  Perhaps if they introduced some low-hanging branches I might take an interest.  But until then, I’ll leave it well enough alone.

My (Not Very) Brilliant Songwriting Career

I was thirteen, maybe fourteen, when I started writing songs.  They were purpose-made for the band I was in and none of us really knew how to go about being a group.  We began with other people’s songs and found, to our surprise, that when we performed them they bore little resemblance to the originals.  Anyone hearing us may have sensed something vaguely familiar but would’ve struggled to identify which song we were attempting to perform.  Put it this way – our renditions of other people’s songs were such that vegetarians were advised to steer clear; so grave were our acts of musical butchery.  So we started writing our songs of our own.

I took it seriously.  In my teenage years, I took everything seriously and songwriting was no exception.  Every spare moment, I would scribble lyrics on a notepad.  It was common for me to return to class after a ‘study’ period, clutching freshly-minted lyrics to a new masterpiece whilst having learned nothing of the periodic table or science generally.  To put this in perspective, I can only say that science has endured to this day but my lyrics have not.  It’s for the best.

The great thing about songwriting is that you can – consciously or otherwise – write to the strengths of the players.  Even though our cover material had more in common with a car wreck than actual music, our original music actually sounded like…. music.  But writing music is one thing.  Getting anyone else to care about it is another matter entirely. 

 I recall, vividly, being asked to play at the school’s end of year dance at the Bittern Town Hall.  For the occasion, we rented a public address system so powerful that our music could be heard from Frankston and, possibly, outer space.  It was more than Bittern Town Hall required.  When time came for our big performance, I strode purposefully onto stage as we began performing our original songs.  I put my hand to my forehead to see past the stage lights and saw abandoned floorboards.

 Our original music had the effect of repelling the occupants of the dance floor to the nearest wall, to which they then clung as they sought to endure our musical assault on the senses.  A night that had been full of dancing and teenage frivolity was instantly transformed into a test of endurance.  An audience desperate to hear ‘Holiday’ by Madonna was, instead, subjected to the over-wrought lyrics of my tortured teenage soul.  It’s a wonder that the entire school didn’t drop out. 

 Despite that experience, I continued writing songs.  My bandmates were supportive, but they probably hoped if I kept going that I would – eventually – write something half decent.  Just as, theoretically speaking, a monkey might type ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ with enough time, my bandmates reasoned that I could – given a few decades – stumble by chance across something nearly as good as ‘Aga Do’ by Black Lace or anything by Kajagoogoo.  They waited in vain.

                The older I got, the less I was prone to treating the act of songwriting as therapy.  Songs could be playful.  Funny, even.  I discovered great songwriters like Loudon Wainwright III, John Prine and others who were able to include a fair dose of humour in their tunes.  Not that they couldn’t be touching or poignant too, more that their songs could be witty and engaging too.  It was inspiring.

 Things have changed a lot since I first started playing music.  You can now make a record in your bedroom and distribute it to the entire world through streaming platforms.  Granted, you’ll be paid a pittance but in theory at least, it’s easier to be heard than ever before.  These days, you don’t need a monster-sized public address system at the Bittern Town Hall.  Just a laptop.

 The local folk club had a theme night.  The theme in question was ‘heavenly bodies’.  There would, of course, be loads of songs about the stars and the moon.  It got me thinking – which planet doesn’t have a song?  The answer was both obvious and socially awkward.  That’s how we came to write a song about ‘Uranus’.  The premise of the song was to lament the fact that nobody writes songs about the planet Uranus and that things would be different if it had been given a better name.  I’ve never had more fun writing a song in my life.

 When the theme night arrived, there were lots of great songs from great songwriters, and lots of planets represented.  But not ours.  Ours would be the only song about Uranus.  At first I was confused by the audience response until someone explained they were clapping. In fact, instead of scrambling for the exit, people were laughing and cheering, particularly when we took songs by well-known artists and replaced the original planet with ‘Uranus’.  It was an entirely new experience.

There’s something to be said, I think, for persistence.  Or, perhaps, learning from your mistakes.  I’m not sure where we go to from here – Bittern Town Hall, probably.  But for the time being, ‘The Lonely Planet (No-one Sings About Uranus)’ by ‘A Band of Rain’ sits on streaming platforms for unwitting listeners to stumble across.  Maybe it will make them laugh.  Which, for a song, is a good thing.    

A Letter To My Fictional Son Who Lost His Phone In A Taxi.  Apparently.

There have been a lot of text messages.  They arrive from a number I don’t recognise with a message that reads: ‘Hi Dad, it’s your son.  I left my phone in a taxi and this is my new number.  I have an urgent bill I need to pay.  Please contact me.’  Obviously, it’s a message that shakes me to the core of my being.  I am overwhelmed with worry at the spectacular misfortune that has befallen my offspring.  So deep and profound is my sense of panic that I barely know where to start – should I call the embassy, the Army or roll up their sleeves and get on a plane to sort through the whole catastrophic mess.  But then I remembered – I don’t have a son.

It’s a scam, obviously.  One that relies on sending out a multitude of messages in the hope that, by chance, it will find a target.  Scammers are everywhere these days.  Seemingly, they live in your phone and emails.  There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t get a phone call with an automated message threatening all manner of harm from some Government agency if I don’t pay them a sum of money immediately or a text at three in the morning saying that my package could not be delivered.  But even for scammers, the attempt to mine parental concern for profit is not so much scraping the bottom of the barrel as it was digging right through it.

I could, of course, ignore the message.  But then there would be more messages.  It was best to tackle it head on with a message to my fictional child.

“Son, we need to talk.

Your message announcing that you’d lost your phone did not come as a surprise to your mother and me.  Rather, it seems to be just the latest instalment in a seemingly inexhaustible supply of inexcusably stupid behaviour that commenced shortly after you were born and persists to the present day.  Put simply, son, you are a bona fide idiot of unimaginable proportions. 

You must think your parents are fools.  By our count, this is the eighth time in the past three weeks that you have lost your phone.  Clearly, you are mistaking it for a Frisbee, as nothing else could explain the rate at which you seem to surrender possession of your mobile.  It’s almost as though you’re losing it on purpose.  Drastic measures are now required.

Clearly, the most appropriate thing for you at this point is to abandon mobile phones entirely and return to a simpler, easier to use technology.  Which is why I’ve taken the step of purchasing you a pager.  From now on, if someone needs to communicate with you, they can send a message to your pager and you can make your way to the nearest payphone.  Say what you will about a payphone, but no one ever left one in the back of a taxi.

That you also have an urgent bill to pay comes as no surprise.  Presumably you have accumulated a significant debt with the taxi company to whom you so recklessly bequeathed your phone.  This may sound harsh, but I feel that the best course of action in these circumstances is to withhold any help (financial or emotional) and let the folks at the taxi company do their worst to shake a few dollars loose.  Who knows?  If they succeed, I might try the same thing the next time I catch you sneaking into the shed to steal my power tools.

Which brings me to my next point.  I think the time has come for you to stop coming to the house.  I would refer to these ‘visits’ save that I don’t feel the term is appropriate having regard for the financial and emotional devastation these sporadic appearances inflict on not only your mother and I, but the household pets, also.  Even the cat is upset for days after you darken our door.

Come to think of it, you’ve never been good with animals.  Your childhood resulted in the demise of more goldfish than I can count.  It took you a mere fifteen minutes to lose the budgerigar (maybe you mistook it for an iPhone) and there was the day that continues to live in infamy when you glued a guinea pig to each hand as a pair of improvised gloves simply because you said you were ‘cold’.  Joanie and Chachi were never the same after that.  For the good of the species, I made a point of never having a guinea pig for a pet ever again.

We’ve taken a vote and, sadly, the results are clear.  You’re out.  From this moment on, you are no longer a member of this family and we will be forgetting your name.  In the event that you have any procedural concerns, I can confirm that this outcome was one reached by secret ballot with your mother and I having one vote each.  The result was unanimous.

So, my child, farewell and best of luck.  In the event that you do, somehow, manage to retrieve your phone, please ensure that you delete my number.  It is, we feel, for the best.

Yours faithfully,

The Artist Formerly Known As Dad”

The scammers have not responded.  Granted, it’s probably extreme to disown your fictional child, but I feel that his imaginary life is such that a bit of tough love is required. 

The Berlin Waffle Doona Disaster

I thought I knew what I was doing.  I’ve been shopping by myself lots of times, mostly without incident.  Granted, there’s been the occasional oversight (and who amongst us hasn’t forgotten to get dishwashing tablets for several weeks in row?), but mostly I do a pretty good job.  It was, in retrospect, over-confidence that was my undoing.  That’s how I ended up with ‘European pillowcases’, but no European pillows.

Diamonds may well be forever, but the same can’t be said for doona covers.  Although, that said, I for one would gladly shell out thirty dollars for a ticket and a bucket of popcorn to see James Bond in ‘Doonas Are Forever’.  But, inevitably, there moral fabric of your doona cover will surrender and a great big gaping hole will open up.  You’re minding your own business when you hear it rip and there’s no turning back – the doona cover is blown and it’s time to get a new one.

I strode into the bedding store with a sense of purpose.  Browsing is for weaklings.  I wasn’t there to waste time, sniffling around like a two-legged truffle-pig.  No way.  I was there to hunt, gather and get out of there in the shortest time possible.  When the staff offered to assist, I waved them away.  With great intent, I strode across the shop floor towards a stack of doona covers that reached right up to the ceiling.  In the event that I was unexpectedly locked inside, I could use the doona cover tower to climb my way to freedom through the ceiling tiles.  

Because I’m nothing if not a creature of habit, I looked for something as close to my old doona design as possible.  That’s what led me to ‘Berlin Waffle’.  Not only did it look good; it put me in a mind to have a second breakfast.  Within moments, I had selected the right size and turned to begin the march to the cash register when I found myself pausing for a moment.  Having found my ‘Berlin Waffle’ doona cover in record time, I decided to build on my success and get some new pillowcases too.  It would be a total refresh.  What could be better?  Little did I know the kind of trouble I was letting myself in for.

I got three new pillowcases – also in ‘Berlin Waffle’ – to complement the doona cover.  As I dumped an armful of bedding on the front counter, I could tell that the staff were super-impressed with my efforts.  It was only upon returning home that my mistake became obvious – I had purchased European pillowcases.  I was unaware that ‘European pillow cases’ were even a thing.  Most people would, at that point, return to the point of purchase and request an exchange, but I sensed that I had totally burned my bridges and felt it unlikely that I could ever show my face there again.

The whole notion of a ‘European pillow’ has thrown me completely.  The cases are gigantic, and looking at the picture on the back (which, admittedly, would have been a good idea whilst I was still standing in the shop), I could see that the pillows themselves are nothing short of huge.  It’s hard to imagine a head big enough to warrant such a pillow.

The size of the thing is decidedly ‘off-brand’.  A ‘European laundry’ is basically a cupboard with whitegoods shoved in, whereas a ‘European pillow’ looks like something stuntmen might land on after they’ve thrown themselves off a building.  This glaring inconsistency has caused me to question the very notion of geographically specific products. I’ll never look at English ham, French mustard or a Dutch oven in quite the same way again.  The next time I get cut off in traffic and someone gives me a ‘Scotch Finger’; I won’t know what to think.

Having decided to keep three gigantic ‘European pillowcases’, I decided that the only thing I could do is get myself some enormous pillows.  This time, when I was offered help, I decided to take it and I can simply say that the range of options was as broad as the pillows themselves. 

It’s not often that you can put an exact dollar figure on your mistakes.  European pillows started at about thirty dollars, with the top end of the range going for something more like one hundred and seventy dollars.  The premium version was called ‘Super Goose Deluxe’ which, as it happens, was my nickname in high school.  Despite this, I opted for the cheaper model. 

Let me say now that it’s hard to steer a shopping trolley when it’s stuffed full of gigantic pillows.  It’s like being stuck behind clouds.  Upon getting home, I stuffed the European pillows into the European pillowcases and then, once I’d put them down, wondered where the bed has gone.  The person to pillow ratio in my house has now fundamentally altered in favour of the pillows.  There’s no turning back now.

I like to think of myself as self-sufficient, capable to solving most problems for myself.  But recent events have given me cause to reconsider.  Clearly, I am not quite the urban survivalist I thought I was.  I know I need to do better but I’m not sure how.  There must be some lesson I can learn, some chance for self-improvement.  It’ll come to me.  I’ll just have to sleep on it.  On my gigantic pillow.  Sweet dreams.