Pick me! Even an Olympic Village Needs a Village Idiot

This may come as a shock to you, but I am yet to be selected as a member of Australia’s Olympic Team.  Despite this apparent and egregious snub, I have continued with my demanding training regimen of wearing a tracksuit whenever possible and drinking lots of tea.  I’ve also learned all the words to ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi’, which means I’ll be an asset when cheering on more talented members of the squad.

Frankly, the team selectors have something of a bias towards picking young, athletic types and barely give middle aged has-beens like me a look in.  Which is a shame, because I have so much to offer.   It’s easy to win medals and break records when the competitors have talent.  If a middle-aged man manages through either divine intervention or, more probably, the process of elimination, to end up on a dais without it constituting a pitch invasion, it deserves not so much a mere ‘congratulations’ as it does a national public holiday.

I’ve never been much of an athlete, but that doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned hope that I could simply be a late bloomer.  Whilst others peak in their twenties, I’ve spent decades biding my time and it can’t be too long before it all falls into place and I clock a sub-ten second one-hundred metre dash. 

In primary school, I remember being shocked when told that we were going to compete in a race by way of a lap around the compound.  It sounded like madness then.  It sounds like madness now.  But some of my classmates seemed not only ready for the challenge but inexplicably enthused.  As the starter’s gun went off, they charged along the fence as I stood wondering whether this was some kind of elaborate practical joke.

Don’t get me wrong – I like to run.  It’s just that the type of running I do has nothing to do whatsoever with speed.  It’s more about being durable and moving forward no matter what.  Suffice to say, last year I was overtaken by someone who was pushing an occupied pram.  But despite the fact that I’m susceptible to being lapped by infants, I’d still be a worthy addition.

If nothing else, I could bring balance to the team.  It’s no good if everyone’s fantastic; you really need a little bit of mediocrity to put the Games, if not life more broadly, into perspective.  I also have plenty of experience.  Not experience that is remotely relevant to competing at the highest level, but experience nonetheless.  Unlike most of the members of the team, I’ll know what to do in the event there’s no internet coverage.  Some athletes have never experienced life without internet, whereas I grew in an age where, if we wanted to see cat videos, we had to get off our backsides and make our own.

I haven’t settled on an event yet.  To be honest, I’m not especially fussy.  That said, the decathlon looks like a lot of hard work for little reward, so I’ll probably give that a miss.  The equestrian events have a certain appeal in that, afterwards, you don’t have to hang around for public transport to get back to the Village.  Sadly, the event that I’ve done the most training for – Pub Trivia – has not yet been recognised by the organising committee as an official Olympic sport.  They don’t know what they’re missing.

On the plus side, Paris will be the very first Olympics to feature competitive break dancing.  This is excellent news.  By my reckoning, I’ve seen ‘Breakdance 2: Electric Boogaloo’ thirty times and know all the moves Special K, Turbo and Ozone used to try and stop their local recreation centre from being demolished by greedy developers.  (Apologies if I should have preceded that with the words ‘spoiler alert’, but I figure if you’ve not bothered to watch ‘Breakdance 2: Electric Boogaloo’ in the last forty years, you probably never will.)

Having moved house in the last twelve months, I have easy access to the one thing every breakdancer needs – cardboard boxes.  Indeed, I’m one quick trip to the shed away from having as much flattened cardboard as anyone could ever need to perform their breaks, pops and spins with confidence.  If that doesn’t get me over the line with the selection committee, I don’t know what will.

I even have my backing track all organised.  I’ll be performing to the golden sounds of ‘Agadoo’ by Black Lace.  Released in 1984, it topped the charts for reasons most likely associated with some kind of clerical error.  Quicker than you can say, ‘push pineapple, shake the tree’, the entire stadium will be enthralled.

It is, of course, possible that I’ve left my run too late.  Much as my dreams of being a member of the Johnny Young Talent Team are now seemingly destined to go unfulfilled, so too does my ambition to be selected to represent the country (and any country would do) at the elite level.  It’s a funny thing to consider all the things that are no longer possible because of the passage of time, even if they were always impossible due to a severe deficit of talent.

When the Olympics roll around in a few months, chances are I’ll be watching them from the couch at home like everyone else.  I will, of course, be dressed in my team tracksuit in a tragic bid to feel part of the action.  And, naturally, the floor will be covered in flattened cardboard boxes so that I can perform a few celebratory breakdance moves in the event the mood should take me.  I will, however, have forgotten the words to ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi’ by then.  Perhaps that’s for the best.

The World Where You Live: Confessions of a Crowded House Fan

What a world we live in.  You can be minding your own business when your phone suddenly informs you one of your all-time favourite bands has released a song.  Last Friday, I awoke to discover that Crowded House had released a brand-spanking new tune called ‘Teenage Summer’.  But despite the sense of joy, I hesitated.  What if it was a pale imitation of the music I’d grown up loving? 

It’s tough work being a fan.  Some people are football fanatics; they pledge their allegiance to a team and stick with them no matter what.  It’s a devotion that transcends rationality and, at times, decorum.  I didn’t have it in me to support a football team – I lacked the faith.  I was a music fan and I pledged myself to bands, through thick and Thin Lizzy.

That said, there were a few false starts.  Some musical passions burn brightly for a moment before fizzling out.  Like KISS.  For a brief moment in the 1970s, KISS was everywhere.  And by ‘everywhere’, I mean on t-shirts, lunchboxes and collectible swap cards.  They were the biggest thing since sliced bread, which they also marketed to impressionable youth under the name, ‘Gene’s Seven-Grain Wholemeal Slice Party’.  No rock band before or since has produced a bread that comes anywhere close.

Everyone at my school worshipped KISS.  My brother and I busted open our piggy banks and blew the lot on KISS albums at K-Mart.  I bought ‘Dynasty’ – which included the rock / disco crossover smash hit ‘I Was Made for Loving You’ and my brother snaffled ‘Unmasked’, which had a cartoon strip on the cover and was home to the soft rock power ballad, ‘Shandi’.  They were the first and last KISS albums we bought.  I’d love to say we had a musical epiphany and dumped Gene, Paul, Ace and the other guy for LPs by The Clash, but it wouldn’t be true.  We just lost interest.

My brother liked Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, but it did nothing for me.  It was remote, as if it had been beamed in from another planet.  As the product of superhumans, wholly inaccessible and unreachable.  ‘Thriller’ wasn’t something you could really relate to. 

Say what you like about Crowded House, they’re a different proposition to KISS and are unlikely to be mistaken for Michael Jackson any time soon.  Formed from the ashes of Split Enz, I liked them immediately.  And Neil Finn wrote songs that mere mortals like me could understand.  A lot of them could be played on an acoustic guitar.  And whilst many an act of musical butchery has been committed by people with acoustic guitars trying to emulate their heroes, something about those kinds of songs is inherently human.

Their debut album was crammed full of catchy tunes.  It arrived at a time when some pop music had started to take itself extremely seriously and suffered from delusions of grandeur.  The first Crowded House album didn’t pretend it was saving the world; it was rooted in something far more domestic.  These were songs that could be sung in the kitchen over the sink or when hanging out the laundry.  The songs belonged to everyone.

Their second album, ‘Temple of Low Men’ was darker, less exuberant offering than their debut.  It was the perfect soundtrack to teenage life for young people of a certain disposition, and I was just such a young person.  I loved that cassette and would play it was I fell asleep.  There are times when I still hear the sound of the tape deck ‘clicking’ as the album finished.

There’s a game called ‘seven degrees of Kevin Bacon’.  The object is to connect yourself to Kev through other people.  In the early nineties, I was three degrees from Crowded House.  My uncle, Mick, worked at a private school that Neil Finn’s kids attended.  My cousins were classmates with them.  It was a tenuous connection, but it would do. 

By album three, I was out of school and at Uni.  It was a sublime record stacked with ‘bonus-Finn’ by way of older brother Tim.  For sensitive singer-songwriters everywhere, it was the gold standard.  Almost every guitar player in Melbourne has, at some or other, strummed the chords to ‘Four Season in One Day’ whilst staring plaintively out a rain-streaked window. 

The following album marked the end of ‘phase one’ of the band.  ‘Together Alone’ was more sonically daring and arty than its predecessors.  It was the sound of the band growing up.  It was the perfect soundtrack to my last year at Uni.

The band broke up and, a few years later, one of them passed away.  There would be no going back.  Or so I thought.  Years later, the unthinkable happened.  The band reformed and started to release new music.  I kept my distance at first, but things have evolved.  The most recent incarnation is a family affair, with my cousin’s former classmates now on board, improving my score on the Baconometer to ‘two’.

As it turns out, the new song ‘Teenage Summer’ is delightful.  It’s so tuneful and stuffed with melodies that it’s hard to tell which part of the song is, in fact, the chorus.  As it turns out, the band are still with me.  What a relief.  Things may change and some things that are broken can never be repaired, and while the past will remain determinedly where it is, there is always the chance of renewal and the hope that change, no matter how traumatic at the time, might actually lead to something better.  It’s true for bands and, I think, for people.  Now excuse me while I fetch my headphones…

A Message from the Middle Ages

Here’s what I’m really enjoying about being middle aged: glasses.  Wherever I go, I now need to take multiple pairs of glasses and then swap between them as required by the circumstances.  There are sunglasses for the glare which, in turn, need to be replaced by my reading glasses in the event that I need to look at anything printed in something smaller than thirty-six font.  And then there are glasses for the ordinary business of seeing where you’re going.  It’s gotten to the point where I now need to factor in time to change in and out of various pairs of glasses.

There have been some moments of reckoning.  There was the time a work colleague saw the size of my text messages and reacted by laughing out loud.  Then there was the time I took a shopping list to the supermarket and could not see what was on it; a problem which I then sought to overcome by holding the list as far away from my face as possible.  And then Covid, where my glasses and mask refused to peacefully co-exist and I spent most of my time trying to see through the fog. 

It’s not just my deteriorating eyesight.  I have completely lost touch with popular culture.  Once, I knew who all the best singers were and what position they’d reached on the charts.  Now I’m completely and utterly adrift.  It’s got to the point that I don’t even know what a Doja Cat is.  I’ve made things worse for myself by making fun at my own expense.  When one of the kids asked me about the Ice Age, I described it as the ‘best years of my life’.   I now routinely claim to be connected to various historical figures – Julius Caesar was my flat mate at Uni, Winston Churchill was my paperboy.  That kind of thing. 

Age-shaming myself is one thing.  Being age-shamed by others, especially in a retail setting, is another thing altogether.

I like to run.  Not very fast and not very well, but I choose to believe that it’s keeping me fit, even if I am occasionally overtaken by someone pushing a pram.  (It’s happened.  More than once.)  When I run, I put my Apple iPhone in a little armband-pouch thingy that sits on my bicep.  That way, I can listen to fast-sounding music and imagine that I’m moving at a far greater clip than I actually am.

 The trouble with the Apple iPhone armband pouches is that they tend to wear out after a while and need to be replaced.  When I noticed some critical fabric had started to tear, I knew its days were numbered and I should do something about it.  Ordinarily, I wait until disaster strikes, but in this instance I was unusually proactive; keen to avoid it breaking when I least expected it to and have my phone fly off somewhere into the distance.

I don’t wish to name names, so for the sake of anonymity, I’ll refer to the store as ‘JB Hi-Fi’.  I started by searching the shelves but found nothing.  I then had to strategically position myself near a member of staff who was helping someone else so that, once finished, I could pretend I’d just remembered I had a question to ask; as though there’s something slightly pathetic about deliberately loitering in a vain quest for service.  As I stood, pretending to be interested in the large array of influencer lights (it’s a thing!  Who knew?), I hoped that the person currently hogging the scarce staffing resource would hurry up and pick a toaster.  Any toaster would do.

Eventually, I got my chance at which point I casually tackled the staff member to the ground to prevent anyone else getting in first.  After all, there are lots of people in this world in desperate need of a decent toaster.  I asked whether they stocked the Apple iPhone armband pouch thingy.  He replied, ‘We should’.  I answered, ‘I know’.  He then looked at a computer screen and, either because he misinterpreted it or he didn’t believe what the computer was telling him, began to inspect each shelf individually.  Finally, he found another staff member – tall, dreadlocked and standing at the doorway, feigning interest at the receipts people were flashing as they exited the building.  He asked whether she’d seen any Apple iPhone armband pouch thingies.  Flicking her dreadlocks behind her, she said: ‘I haven’t seen one of those in ages.’

 The message was clear.  I was a relic, a dinosaur.  Old enough to have legitimately claimed Julius Caesar as a member of my share house.  I had been royally aged shamed.  The staff here were young and cool and hip and, clearly, I was none of these things.  Dejected, I left and shuffled next door to Officeworks.

I find Officeworks strangely comforting.  Just as some people who are not me find Bunnings to be a home away from home, there is something about multiple rows of well-organised stationary that I find soothing.  Some people listen to whale noises to help them sleep.  I only need to glance at the Officeworks catalogue and I’m practically unconscious.

There they were.  Apple iPhone armband pouch thingies, as far as the eye could see.  In an instant, I was no longer a relic, but someone whose preference to take their phone with them when they run was considered entirely legitimate.  I bought two.  For safety’s sake, you understand.  Clutching my purchases and my receipt, I walked back past JB Hi Fi at which point I pressed my purchase to the window and gesticulated wildly, saying, ‘Do you like Apple iPhone pouch thingies? Well, how do you like these Apple iPhone pouch thingies?’  She looked confused.  Or at least I think she did.  I’m not sure because I wasn’t wearing my glasses at the time. 

FROM THE DESK OF KEVIN RUDD, AMBASSADOR EXTRAORDINAIRE

Strewth Donald!

I’m not sure you know, but someone has just leaked footage of you sinking the boot into yours truly.  Fair suck of the sauce bottle!  Some dopey galah has left the camera rolling during a break before distributing copies of the resulting footage behind the shelter shed to any dingbat stupid enough to broadcast it.  Flamin’ heck!  Excuse the French, but you really ought to try shutting your yap for a bit.  It seems every time you open your cakehole, you get caught on a hot mic saying something stupid and end up looking like a complete nitwit.  

Now that you’ve made a mess, it’s left to me to clean things up.  Lucky for you, there’s no one more qualified to smooth over troubled diplomatic waters.  Just wheel me out, point me at a camera and let me weave my own particular brand of magic.  You’ll be amazed.  But whilst I’m willing to sort things out, I’d ask that you take a long, hard look at yourself so we don’t both end up the creek that dare not speak its name without a paddle again.

Try and see it from my point of view – after turning in last night after a warm Milo, I wake up to find your size six Hush Puppies fair up my clacker.  I can’t imagine what I’ve done to turn you into a right flaming mongrel.  Fair dinkum, Donald; the rubbish coming out your mouth made you sound madder than a cut snake.  Was it something I said?

 Granted, you and I see some things differently.  Whereas you appear to take any and every opportunity to suck up to murderous dictators you can, I come from a country where we threaten to shirtfront these drongos before refusing to sit with them at lunch time.  Sadly, for all of us, this didn’t have the sobering effect on Vladimir we hoped, and he now seems hell-bent on rampaging his way across Europe.  But at least we tried.  You, in contrast, appear determined to make Putin your best mate.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see the pair of you rocking up in matching shirts to the Deni Ute Muster before scooting off to the B and S Ball together.

Turn it up, Donald.  You can’t very well dislike me without having met me, even if saves time.  In the interests of fairness, you ought to get to know me first, perhaps even get stuck in a lift with me, then dislike me.  Like regular folk. But even if your comments suggesting you might not like me were bewildering, the suggestion that I might not be ‘the brightest bulb’ was a complete shocker.  Truly, Donald, you have been misinformed.

 I don’t know if you know this, but I introduced the term ‘programmatic specificity’ into the Australian idiom. Fact is, when I first dropped ‘programmatic specificity’ into casual conversation, the entire country went completely psycho and had a complete fit.  People were beside themselves.  They’d never heard so potent a sentence from a leader.  It’s like our country suddenly came of age.  Ten years later, it’s common to hear school kids use the term ‘programmatic specificity’ over school drinking fountains and footy fields.

I note you mentioned that I’d, ‘said some nasty things.’  Once again, you’ve been misled.  It would be more accurate to say that I ate some nasty things, namely my own ear wax whilst sitting in Parliament (there’s footage – it’s all over YouTube like a rash!).  It’s one thing to get caught on a ‘hot mic’.  It’s entirely another to be filmed chowing down on whatever you’ve pulled out of your ear with your index finger whilst sitting in the nation’s temple to democracy.  If Putin had been filmed eating his own ear wax, the camera man would never have been seen again.  It’s my ability to forgive others that truly sets me apart.

Granted, I called you the ‘most destructive President in history’ but I meant it as a compliment.  Giving each other a hard time is just what real mates do.  If you’re out of sorts, you’d be welcome to even things up by giving me one of your trademark nicknames.  To make things easy, I’ve prepared some suggestions for you to consider – ‘KRudd’ and ‘Kevin Rude’ were all pretty popular in Australia.  My personal favourite, though, has to be ‘Kevin Ruddy Wilson’.  Trust me, that’s a cracker.

The irony of all this is that you and I have heaps in common.  Like you, I too know the bitter sting of having power wrenched away by someone heaps less deserving.  And, like you, I understand how it feels to harbour resentment and bitterness as I plot my way back to power.  Now that I think about it, instead of trying to stitch me up, you should be calling me for advice.  Because after I was turfed from office, I managed to claw my way back and regain the throne.  All hail the mighty Kevin!  That’s right – instead of trying to give me the diplomatic equivalent of an atomic nipple cripple, you should be calling me your hero.    

Frankly, Donald, you’re lucky I’m an ambassador.  Because if I wasn’t my nation’s chief diplomatic emissary to your country, I’d be bound by Australian custom to say: ‘You. Me. Carpark. Now’.  If that sounds confusing, it loosely translates as an invitation to resolve our dispute through an informal means.  Preferably in a car park.

Let’s agree to bury the hatchet somewhere besides each other and try to get along.  It would be shame if our two great nations got into a tiff just because you had hurt feelings following a classic (if I do say myself) K Rudd burn.  Toughen up, princess!  If you don’t stop being such a sook, I’ll be short sheeting your bed and sticking a mango in your tailpipe before you know it.

Yours sincerely,

Kevin

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’.