A Formal Apology to Members of My Immediate Family

We were a gang.  And a gang is a very great thing when you’re growing up.  When you’re one of five children, there’s no shortage of co-conspirators for whatever trouble you happen to be planning.  Brothers and sisters are an audience.  They’re your biggest fans and your harshest critics.  Sometimes simultaneously.  And they’re always there – both when you want them and when you don’t.  It’s non-negotiable.

I’m the eldest.  Not by much, but in terms of family hierarchy, being the eldest really matters.  When you’re the eldest, you’re the family icebreaker, that one that crashes into your parents and softens them up so that those who come after you can have an easier time of it.  It was a role I took on less from a sense of duty and more as a matter of destiny.  It was no easy thing.  And although they benefited from me breaking down our parents’ spirit of resistance, I don’t think my brothers and sisters have ever bothered to thank me.  Which, if I’m being totally honest, is fair enough. 

I have four siblings – two sisters and two brothers and there’s only about six years between us from start to finish.  Which is a lot of kids in a very small amount of time.  We were close in every respect.  To drive the point home, our parents dressed us in matching outfits.  We looked like cult members.  Technically, we could have formed a basketball team or a band but, instead, we specialised in getting on each other’s nerves.  We were good at it.

Come to think of it, I bear most of the responsibility.  As an adult, I’d like to think that I am thoughtful and kind to others, empathetic and a good listener.  That may be or may not be true.  But is most definitely true is that I didn’t start out that way.  That’s because, as the eldest of five, I was the tormentor in chief.  It’s not something I’m proud of.

There’s less than a year between one of my brothers and I.  Indeed, we’re the same age every year for four days.  When we were growing up, these four days were known as ‘the silly season’.  It’s fair to say that we completely lost our minds as we tortured each other in a bid for supremacy.  But aside from those four days, my brother is a remarkably relaxed and a (mostly) reasonable person.  Which means that whatever I said to inspire him to anger and punch a hole in my bedroom door must have been pretty terrible.  I don’t even remember what it was.

I wish that were the worst of it.  When we were growing up, we had a wood heater.  Essentially, it was a black metal box with a window at the front.  It was located in the living room where (admittedly) we spent most of our time and was the only form of heating in a six-bedroom house. 

The house was designed so that the master bedroom was at one end of the house, and all the other bedrooms were at the opposite end.  Even better, the house was divided into two, with a door separating one half from the other.  Closing the door meant that fifty per cent of the house was entirely deprived of heat.  To make matters if not worse then definitely colder, my father insisted the door remained closed at all times to keep the cold out.  In winter, those bedrooms were very, very chilly.  You know you’re in trouble when the bottom bunk in your bedroom is occupied by a family of penguins.

The wood heater was an amazing thing.  If you were on the right side of the door, it could really punch out a decent amount of heat.  The golden rule in our house is that you could never stand on the hearth to be closer to the heater.  Naturally, this meant that we all stood on the hearth whenever we could to defrost ourselves after emerging from our bedrooms.  But then I took it a step further.

One day, I decided to put coins on top of the wood heater whilst it was in full flight.  I then told my youngest brother that I’d found some spare change and he was welcome to it.  He didn’t need to be asked twice.  He raced in and scooped those coins into the palm of his hand, only to discover that they were nearly hot enough to melt.  The sound of yelping and scent of sizzling flesh followed. 

Sometimes I preferred psychological to physical torture.  Meal times with five kids are a stampede.  The call would go out and there would be the thundering of feet as various family members ran on the kitchen bench to get a plate.  The task, then, was to assess which plate had the most food on it.  My youngest brother – his hand still recovering from being scalded by a twenty-cent coin – would go to reach for a plate at which point I would express surprise that he hadn’t chosen the biggest meal.  He’d pause, reassess, then reach for another one when I would, again, express surprise.  This would go on for some time.  Put simply, I was horrible.

That’s just the tip of a very ugly iceberg.  I have no idea why I was so mean to them.  They’re all great people and they made life infinitely better just by being themselves.  When I think about Christmas, birthdays or long, languid summers, I think of them.  There’s a point when you’re growing up, when things switch and your siblings go from being adversaries to friends.  I can’t recall exactly when it happened, but I’m glad that it did.  It’s a connection that, like family itself, is non-negotiable.  To Cam, Beck, Sarah and Lachlan, I’m completely sorry and I promise to do better.  Starting….now.

A Remembrance of Things Passed Out The Window

I’m under a lot of pressure.  For the past few years, my father has busied himself by compiling his memoirs.  It’s an epic exercise that makes Marcel Proust look like a lightweight.  The first volume concluded just before I was born – a period which my father has described as the ‘happiest years’ of his life.  As the designated bookend to a period of sheer, magnificent bliss, it’s hard not to take that description personally.  It makes me feel like I’m the comet that drove the dinosaurs to extinction.  But that was just volume number one.  There’s been so much more since.

Since the first volume, my father has produced further, more specialised instalments of his life story.  These might loosely be divided into ‘work’, ‘travel’, ‘travel through the former Soviet Union’, ‘travel down to the shops for milk and bread’ and, finally, (and I sense with some degree of reluctance if not outright trepidation) ‘family’.  It’s not that the earlier volumes didn’t feature his family; it’s that most of those mentioned had long-since departed, meaning that the laws of defamation don’t apply.  Which, given the manner in which my father writes, is a good thing.

But the further down the rabbit hole he ventures, the more he is willing to experiment.  Perhaps in a futile bid to avoid controversy, he has requested contributions to the latest volume from each of his five children.  The lobbying has been intense.

 Try as I might, I cannot convince my father that there is a difference between being retired and being in full time work.  So far as he’s concerned, my failure to prepare an account of my life is a result of pure intransigence.  In the interests of time, I asked whether a drawing would suffice, but this was rejected outright and it was noted with some degree of passion that my earlier artistic efforts defied interpretation, which is why they had all been disposed of in the compactor.  I was aware that my father had thrown out the drawings of my youth and, to this day, the groaning sound of the compactor as it crushes household waste, haunts me in my dreams.

It wasn’t just me that had failed to deliver.  My siblings had (wisely) kept their thoughts to themselves.  Until now.  In the most recent round of interrogation, my father pointed out that both my sisters had handed in their contributions.  I immediately felt on the back foot.  To make things worse, he suggested that they had provided definitive accounts of some of the most significant, character-shaping events of our collective childhood, including the brown lolly debacle of 1985.

My parents were masochists.  In fact, I suspect that’s true of all parents, at least to some degree.  As for mine, they chose to wallow in the unique form of self-flagellation that is travelling with a large number of people in a confined space.  They would describe these catastrophes as ‘family holidays’.  They are better described, I feel, as manifestations of complete insanity.

There are very few rules in life that are sacrosanct.  Don’t stick cutlery in an electrical socket.  Never stage an invasion of Russia during winter.  And never, ever, take a family of seven away in a caravan.  No good can come of it.  Ever.

It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime.  Which probably refers to how long it felt it was taking as opposed to its overall significance.  All seven of us were travelling around the US and Canada in a mobile home.  This was not a trip that measured success in terms of how long we spent in any one place but, rather, how much distance we could travel in the limited time available to us.  Which means that rather than spending several weeks in America, it would be more accurate to say that we spent time driving over the top of America in a box with wheels.

According to my father, he bought us a bag of lollies everyday as an act of charitable beneficence.  He most likely reasoned that if our mouths were fused together with sugar, we’d be incapable of asking ‘are we there yet?’ more than four thousand times a day.  It was a plan that came unstuck with ‘the brown lollies’.  I’m not sure what it was – a mistake that saw sugar swapped out for used motor oil or some kind of curse, but the brown lollies tasted wrong.  Given that they were plainly defective, we asked that these be replaced.  My father refused, saying that there would be no more confectionary of any kind until all the brown lollies had been consumed. 

As the eldest sibling, I took the hit.  I munched, chewed and chowed-down on as many of those putrid brown abominations as I could without lapsing into a coma.  When it became apparent that this would take weeks, I then resorted to throwing them out the window whenever my father wasn’t looking.  It was like dropping breadcrumbs.

In my own mind, I was the hero; the one who selflessly sacrificed himself so that his brothers and sisters could have access to better quality confectionary sooner.  But, with the benefit of a lot of time, my father now remembers things differently – according to him, it was me that chose the brown lollies to begin with.  Suddenly, the request for my life story seems less about building a family history as it does the collection of evidence.  Memory is, it seems, an elastic thing.  But being told that the great brown lolly debacle is all my fault has left a bitter taste in my mouth, much like the brown lollies themselves.

The Great Profanity Calamity

It’s so awkward.  You’re sitting with family members, having a pleasant time with music gently playing in the background before you’re unexpectedly deluged by f-bombs as the singer launches into a mode that can only be described as ‘nuclear gutter-mouth’.  When did singing and swearing become so hopelessly entwined?  Indeed, a cursory glance (a term which seems oddly apt) at the popular hits of today confirms that many artists have a vocabulary consistent with having been raised at sea.  It wasn’t always this way. 

Radio was once an expletive-free zone.  If John Denver’s house had a swear-jar, I’ll bet it was empty.  Even artists who liked to shock would avoid swear words, for fear they’d get less airplay.  But don’t think for a moment that the lack of curse words means older songs are genteel and overly polite.  Not at all.  Puccini’s ‘Madama Butterfly’ has a body count that would startle even the most hardened of gangster rappers but none of the cast stoop so far as to resort to using filthy language.  Or, at least, I don’t think they do.  (It’s in Italian, so I can’t be entirely sure.)

It used to be the same way for television.   When screening movies with questionable language, networks would often mute the sound as the actor spoke the offending word.  The effect was akin to having the line drop out for a just a moment.  I have a vivid recollection of watching John Singleton’s ‘Boyz In the Hood’ starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ice Cube and marvelling at the vast stretches of silence.  Some might consider this to be butchery, but I liked the expletive-free version.

As an uncle, I firmly believed it was my duty to ensure my nieces and nephews were exposed to a wide array of musical influences.  There’s not a child alive that won’t respond with pure delight to the sound of ‘Tutti Fruitti’ by Little Richard.  (Incidentally, I once planned to write an opera about Little Richard called ‘Cosi fan Tutti Fruitti’ but I struggled to attract investors.)  But as they grew up, I started to give them more challenging things to listen to.  I wrestled with all the big questions – like, what’s the best age to introduce a child to ‘Bad Motorfinger’ by Soundgarden?  Probably seven. 

Thinking back, the two words I struggled with most as an uncle were ‘age appropriate’.  Not just with music, either; the tendency to go ‘too early’ extended to books and movies too.  I let my enthusiasm get the better of me.  On reflection, even I would agree that Hunter S Thompson’s tale of drug-fuelled debauchery and excess as depicted in ‘Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas’ are best suited to someone who is older than twelve.  That said, the pre-pubescent recipient did go on to become a journalist so, perhaps, the book did its job.  For the sake of completeness, I should add that being a journalist is where the similarities between Hunter S Thompson and my nephew both begin and end.  But still.

I’d bought it as a gift.  It was a CD, back when people used to buy CDs so they could listen to the music of their choice anytime they liked, before those same miraculous little discs were relegated to the status of novelty drink coaster.  I’d picked up a copy of the latest album by the rap group, Beasties Boys, entitled ‘To The Five Boroughs’.    The reviews I’d read described it as a mature reflection of the impact of September 11 on their hometown of New York.  It sounded thoughtful.  Mature, even.  And it was.  At least, it was in part.

For those unfamiliar with it, the opening track of ‘To The Five Boroughs’ by Beastie Boys is entitled ‘Ch-Check It Out’.  But instead of an ode to stuttering, the song is in fact more of a promise to have a significant impact on a social occasion.  This impression is best captured in a phrase that, in the interests of politeness, I’ll describe as ‘turn this parent f-bombing party out’.  I’m paraphrasing, obviously.  It occurred to me at that moment, that I probably should have listened to the thing first before handing it to an eight year old at a family function.  The eight year old immediately put it on the stereo and turned it up as loud as he dared.

Soon the room was being showered in profanities.  Unfortunately for me, the swearing wasn’t a ‘hit and run’ situation where a single expletive can be masked by a well timed cough or clattering cutlery.  Rather, these words were the chorus and were repeated over and over and over again.  By the time the song ended, my strategic coughing was so severe that my father offered to call me an ambulance.  The eight year old – keen to distance himself from the ensuing controversy – loudly declared that the music was horrible and that this was the ‘worst gift of all time’.  That’s a direct quote.

That eight year old is now an adult and I know for a fact that he really likes the Beastie Boys.  And I’m confident that he’s heard if not used the words he encountered that day in a sentence.  Many times.  As for me, I regret nothing.  And if you know nothing of Beastie Boys, I can only encourage you to ch-check them out.  You could do a lot worse.  I swear.

Stacks On!  In Your Face with a Business Case

Huzzah!  Christina Aguilera is coming to perform a one-off show in Melbourne later this year.  The breathless announcement came earlier this week and made clear that this event is not a result of mere happenstance but has come to be because of a fabulous Government initiative.  Hooray for everyone!  But as overwhelmed with excitement as I am to the point of being barely able to function, given the recent somewhat unpleasant business involving a major international sporting event being dumped with all the dignity of a soiled mattress, it’s incumbent on all of us to ask one, simple question – does the business case stack up?

I’ll be honest; there was a time when I thought a ‘business case’ was the thing you used to take your lunch to work.  When I got my first office job, my business case was one I’d acquired from a second-hand store.  It was old and falling apart.  At one point, the handle unravelled; meaning that when I carried it, errant staples dug into the palm of my hand.  Then the bottom fell out, along with my lunch.  It was at that point that I decided that this particular business case no longer stacked up and I replaced it with a satchel.

I’ve since become aware that a business case is a key determinant as to whether something should or shouldn’t happen.  Often, they’re associated with large-scale events but there’s no reason why they couldn’t also help inform everyday activities.  Just yesterday, I declined to unload the dishwasher because the business case didn’t stack up.  This was in stark contrast to the dishes themselves, which stacked up quite neatly.  Having weighed up the likely economic cost and benefit of emptying the dishwasher, I concluded that the most fiscally responsible course from here on out would be to eat with my hands.  It’s working a treat.

I’m beginning to see everything in a completely different light.  I’ve decided that before I next agree to put the bins out, I should refer the question to an inquiry and see what the experts have to say.  From there, I’ll probably form some kind of committee to reject the report before engaging a second set of more expensive experts to give me another report that recommends the development of a business case.  Granted, by the time it’s done, there may well be rubbish piled up to the roof, but if I do ultimately decide to take the bins out, it’ll be a decision that’s supported by the best information available.  There’ll be no question that it stacks up.

For those of you who think the very idea of a business case is as interesting as sewing a button or cleaning the lint from your uncle’s favourite jacket, I can only say that you are monstrously mistaken.  A business case is so much more that a set of figures and financial analysis.  A decent business case is like a wild stallion that is prone to being spooked and easily startled.  It’s for this reason that opposing sides to an argument can have conflicting views on whether a particular business case stacks up or stacks down.

But what recent weeks have demonstrated is that you no longer need two opposing sides to have conflicting views over a business case.  Rather, you need only one side and about fifteen months to undergo the metamorphosis from ‘stacked’ to ‘unstacked’.  This, it must be said, is groundbreaking. 

Previously, I was unaware that a business case could, in effect, go off like a carton of milk in the sun if given enough time.  Who was responsible for leaving the business case out of the fridge has, to date, not been satisfactorily answered and, I feel, whether or not an answer will or won’t be given may, of itself, be the subject of a business case.

Clearly, a business case can be a volatile thing, capable of turning at any moment, striking out at anyone unfortunate enough to be standing nearby.  What’s not clear is how something that, last year, stacked up, was a short time later found to be wanting; failing to stack up to the point of complete collapse.  Like fiscal Jenga, did someone pull out a vital block that caused the entire business case stack to collapse?  Who can say?

But if there’s anything that the calamitous experience of not hosting the Commonwealth Games has taught us, it’s that you should always have a Plan B.  I, for one, do not want a situation where Christina Aguilera is turned away at customs after arriving at Tullamarine Airport.  Luckily, I have the perfect solution.

As a teenager, I was in a band called 20/20 Vision. Once we played the Hastings Day Parade on a flatbed truck.  We stood on the back of that thing, trying to keep our balance as the generator powered our amps and guitars.  People loved it.  Mostly they loved the fact that we were moving and they only had to suffer through our original songs for a few seconds before we were gone, but they loved it all the same. 

If, God forbid, the business case should unexpectedly unstack itself before the big performance, my hope is that we can dig out the flatbed and the generator and send Christina Aguilera sailing down High Street Hastings on a Saturday morning.  Granted, she’s a fabulous artist who deserves more than a flatbed truck.  But I figure while it may not be ‘Beautiful’, at least it stacks up.

My World Cup Runneth Over

I’ve never really been that into sport.  I played, for a time, but found that I excelled more at falling over than keeping my balance.  It may well be a metaphor for life more generally.  I was bowled, knocked over, walloped, thumped, stumped, struck and skittled more times than I can mention.  Indeed, if these were the metrics of a champion, there’d be a statue of me outside the MCG.  Granted, it wouldn’t be made bronze; more likely marshmallow or some other spongy, pliable, sugar-fuelled substance, in keeping with its subject.  But match stats rarely celebrate players for the number of times they gripped their knees whilst trying to catch their breath instead of the ball.  More’s the pity.

Like any kid, I tried to support a football team but, for a host of reasons, lost interest.   I appreciate it’s heresy, but I failed to appreciate how important loyalty was.  When I was seven, I switch allegiance from Essendon to Carlton – an act my father described as possibly the greatest betrayal to ever occur outside of wartime.  There were football cards, of which I collected a grand total of about fifteen, including my personal favourite – Bruce Doull – or as he was known then, ‘The Flying Doormat’.  I didn’t understand what it meant then any more than I do now, but I like it all the same.

I even went to some football matches.  My father is a member of the MCC.  His ritual was to pack a small travel bag – the type that travel agents used to dispense whenever you booked a major trip – and included a thermos of sweet tea and a packet of chocolate biscuits.  Most commonly ‘Gaiety’.  Presumably, Tim Tams were considered too extreme and Iced Vovos too fiddly, so ‘Gaiety’ it was.  This was a strategic masterstroke because, my father reasoned, the food at the ground was prohibitively expensive.

But biscuits are one thing.  Full-blown insanity is another matter entirely.  My father didn’t simply spectate; he participated by way of advanced bellowing that might be regarded in some cultures as a declaration of war.  Conceptually, these outbursts are amusing.  Up close, they’re terrifying.  I was horrified.  The atmosphere was febrile and teetered on the precipice of chaos as fellow spectators weighed up whether to laugh it off or, alternatively, hide under their seats to avoid the spray of invective.

At a certain point, I stopped going to large sporting events.  That’s not to say that I didn’t take in my fair share of junior soccer, football and basketball games.  I’ve navigated draughty multi-purpose venues in a dazzling array of far-flung suburbs, all in the name of supporting a family member.  But as for large-scale sporting spectacles, it’s been some decades.  Until, of course, the world cup.

Meeting someone is something of a Venn-diagram experience.   You overlap where you have something in common; something that can be shared and built upon.  And as glorious as this common ground is, just as significant are those things where you differ. 

We bonded over music.  So much so that we even started writing and performing music together.  But Katrina’s other great passion is football.  By which, of course, I mean ‘soccer’.  As someone who had come here from Dublin, the Women’s World Cup tournament presented a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the Irish national team play in Australia.  And so it was that I found myself agreeing to go to Perth to see a football match between Ireland and Canada.  As you do.

It was raining and cold.  We arrived at the stadium to find that at least ninety percent of the spectators were there to support Ireland.  The stadium was a sea of green with a few, small flecks of red.  When it came time to sing the national anthems, it was somewhat even.  They played the Canadian anthem first and, from the results, I couldn’t even tell you whether or not it had words.  When time came for the Irish national anthem, things were a lot louder.  It was sung in Irish and had the stadium had a roof, it would surely have been lifted by the sound of thousands of voices singing at full volume.  That was just the beginning.

There was then the matter of football chants.  It’s a subject I know nearly nothing about.  It’s a subject on which Katrina could well be considered, if not an expert then, possibly, a world champion.  She wasted no time in starting several chants.  It soon became apparent that those at our end of the ground began to see Katrina as their leader as she led a full-throated rendition of ‘Olé, Olé, Olé’.  I asked for a translation and learned that, roughly speaking, this translates into English as ‘Olé, Olé, Olé’.

The chanting was one thing.  The heckling was another.  The Canadian team were very good, playing a strong brand of possession football.  It was easy to see why they were the reigning Olympic champions.  However, they did have an unfortunate habit of collapsing to the ground and writhing around in imaginary pain whenever Ireland had momentum.  This provoked calls from Katrina to ‘get them an ambulance’ and then, when the player inevitably returned to their feet having sufficiently disrupted the game, a cry of ‘it’s a miracle!’ 

Things have come full circle.  Once, I shrank with embarrassment when my father shouted at football matches.  Now, all these years later, I’m back where I started, but I no longer feel embarrassed.  Instead, I accept it.  All of it.  Now being forced out of my comfort zone (which is, admittedly, gigantic) is something to be grateful for.  And I am.  Ireland lost the match but won the singing.  And we were happy. 

Chiro-mania! Revealing the Bare Truth

Everything changed.  In an instant, I was cast into an abyss of doubt in which I began to question everything I’d done over the past twenty-five years.  Worst of all, this momentous revelation occurred through an interaction that, for anyone else, would be considered pedestrian to the point of dull but, for me, was a seismic shock to the system.  Maybe I should have seen it coming.  Perhaps I should have prepared myself and braced for the inevitable impact.  Or, then again, it might be fair enough.  After all, does anyone really expect their life to be upended because they visited the chiropractor?

Moving house means a lot of things.  It requires you put your life into cardboard boxes, to remove all trace of yourself from wherever it was you had – until that point – called home and to disconnect yourself from the routines and rituals you’d formed.  And, if you’re moving far enough away, it means changing all your service providers.  Dry cleaner, grocer and medical professionals – you’re forced to start from scratch.  And so it was that I went in search of a new chiropractor.

I’ve been seeing a chiropractor for a long time.  This is a result of having one leg that is slightly longer than the other, after I broke one falling out of a tree.  I wasn’t my best moment.  I took a rope, slung it over a branch and tried to swing like Tarzan only for the rope to slide off the end and for me to fall from the sky like a meteor.  That is, if a meteor wore gumboots.  The resulting break saw me miss six weeks of school and end up with an odd pair of legs.  And a lifetime of chiropractic appointments.

I had a guy.  I’d been seeing him since my twenties and, each visit, the routine was exactly the same.  I would wait in the appropriately titled ‘waiting room’, thumb through a vintage copy of ‘Time’ magazine to catch up on some not-so-current events and avoid making eye contact with the other patients.  Feel free to quiz me on the state of the Democratic caucus in 1997 or the cultural significance of ‘The Joy Luck Club’ – I am completely up to date with being totally out of date.  ‘Time’ it seems, is not timeless.

When my name was called, I’d enter the treatment room, get undressed and wait in socks and underwear for the chiropractor to arrive.  Then the adjustment would begin.  It was an intensely physical process that often sounded like someone was walking across a sea of cornflakes as my spine was whipped into shape.  Having to get undressed was not my favourite thing, but it’s something you get used to, given enough time.

But moving across town meant I couldn’t see my chiropractor anymore.  It was, as much as anything, about a need to move on from much more than regular chiropractic care.  It happens sometimes.  It was strangely sad to book one last appointment.  And then it was done.  Now I’ll never keep up with the current affairs of 1998.

As I always do, I left it too long.  I don’t know why, but there seemed to be a lot of things to do to settle in and finding a new chiropractor was a fair way down the list even though I’d been lifting, twisting and shifting all kinds of things as part of the big move.  Eventually, though, it was obvious I was going to need an adjustment.

I found somewhere within walking distance and booked and appointment.  As you do on a first visit, I filled in an extensive questionnaire and waited.  Time magazine, from this era or any other, was conspicuous for its absence.  When it came time for my appointment, the chiropractor showed great interest in my survey, noting that I’d had surgery on my arm a few years earlier.  I replied that she’d see the scar soon enough.  Then it came time for an adjustment.  The chiropractor asked me to remove my shoes and my raincoat.  And nothing else.

Talk about awkward!  That comment about seeing my scar would – at best – have seemed weird if not downright bizarre.  I remained coatless and shoeless but otherwise fully dressed the entire time.  Then it hit me – now that I think about it, I don’t recall my last chiropractor ever asking me to strip off at each appointment.  Perhaps I had just assumed that should be the case and he was simply too polite to correct me.

It now seems quite likely that I’ve been turning up and stripping off on a monthly basis needlessly.  Maybe (and I can’t be sure) it was required at the first appointment after which I simply assumed.  It was so long ago – back when the current events described in the Time magazines in the waiting room were, in fact, current, and not merely interesting from an historical perspective. 

This changes everything.  Not only do I feel humiliated beyond belief at having stripped down to my underwear for decades of chiropractic appointments, I’m starting to question whether I should have been disrobing on tram trips and visits to the supermarket too, to say nothing of work meetings.  I’ll say this much, if I’ve been wrong on this the entire time, it would explain an awful lot.

Having been adjusted by my new chiropractor, I feel a lot better.  About my back, at any rate.  And that, I feel, is some comfort.  Ultimately, a chiropractor’s preference in terms of near-nudity shouldn’t matter that much.  But it’s a sign, if it were needed, of just how much things have changed.

The Paradiddle Riddle of a Middle Life Crisis

Thank you!  Let me say with all sincerity how much I appreciate your cards, letters and gifts.  To those who went the extra mile and sent me a telegram, well done for knowing that telegrams still exist.  In the interests of honesty, I’ll simply say that I was mildly disappointed that these didn’t arrive in ‘gorilla-gram’ format, but I’ve learned not to be too fussy.  The thing is that you noticed.  I am grateful for all the ‘congratulations’ and best wishes that you have seen fit to shower upon me.  After all, it’s not everyday that you get to celebrate the start of a mid-life crisis.

Before you start, I’m here to say that a mid-life crisis is as legitimate a life milestone to celebrate as anything else, and I think it should be embraced.  Forget the shame and stigma that so often accompanies the slide into temporary insanity that, in cricket terms, would probably be described as a middle-order collapse.  Eighteenths and twenty firsts are wasted on the young; those kids barely know what to do with themselves.  But a midlife crisis is fueled both by a sense of urgency and, possibly, higher quality liquor.

I bought a drum kit.  I’ve always wanted one and after months of dithering, I finally lashed out and got one.  Granted, it’s not exactly a sports car or a hair transplant, but it is, nevertheless, a desperate and futile attempt to remake a life that – if we’re being entirely honest – has largely slipped me by.

But buying a drum kit is one thing.  Assembling it is another thing entirely, especially as it arrived in numerous boxes with zero in the way of instructions.  Perhaps that’s a good thing.  After all, my relationship with instructions is strained at best, if not entirely subsumed by hostility.  Forget weird drawings that don’t mean anything.  No instructions may well be the way of the future.

I have no intuition for putting things together.  I feel that the Alan key might be my natural adversary, right alongside the key of e-flat.  I dragged all the boxes up to my attic and began unpacking.  I considered making one of those ‘unboxing’ videos that are so popular on YouTube, but then decided that the world didn’t need to see me opening cardboard boxes and looking a little bit confused.  Perhaps it was the additional altitude, but once I finished hauling everything upstairs and was surrounded by a million hoops, nuts and assorted ephemera, I felt a little overwhelmed.

The solution was obvious.  The answers to most of life’s problems can be found in one place – the Internet.  Without a moment to lose, I quickly started googling until I could google no more.  After eight hours, I was no closer to assembling my drum kit but had a newfound respect for cats, especially when they’re using a typewriter.  (Who knew?  About seventy million other people, apparently.)

After a few days, I found some videos relevant to assembling a drum kit, including some hosted by humans rather than cats.  In a short period of time, I had made progress.  The kick drum started to look a lot like a kick drum.  The tom was mounted and hi-hats in place.  I even managed to assemble the wonderfully named ‘drum throne’. 

I stood back and marveled at what can only be described as the kind of achievement that deserves a plaque or, possibly, a statue.  I immediately took a photo and emailed it to IKEA to rebut their continued claim that my inability to assemble their furniture is more my problem than theirs.

Then I sat down.  My right hand reached across for the hi-hats while my left was perched over the snare drum, ready to strike.  I had my right foot on the kick pedal and the left controlling the hi-hats.  I was ready.  And then I started to play.  Or, at least, I tried to play.  The rhythm tripped and stuttered.  It sounded less like a beat than a mild telling off.  I tried to do a drum fill but missed and it went unfilled as a result.  In short, my attempt to hold something resembling a beat failed miserably.  Granted, I could claim I was engaging in some highfalutin jazz chicanery, but who was I fooling?  I was hopeless.

I read once that Keith Moon from The Who would forget how to be Keith Moon of The Who and it would take him a while to remember whenever the band came back from a break.  In my case, the break lasted a couple decades and, if I’m honest, I was never Keith Moon to begin with.  Maybe I’ll get better.  My neighbours are certainly hoping that I do.

I’m not sure what it is that draws us back to the things we loved in our youth.  Whether it’s having either the time or the resources to get things we’ve long coveted or trying to find something of ourselves we may have lost along the way, I really don’t know.  But I find that I’m often drawn back to the past and the people who built it.  As for the drum kit, I’m determined to figure it out, but for now it definitely has the upper hand.  I feel that if I keep on trying, eventually, perhaps inevitably, things will fall into place.

How to Cut Costs and Keep the Commonwealth Games

In a word: shattered.  All my hard work has been, it seems, for nought.  The decision to cancel the Commonwealth Games means that my long-held dream of playing representative sport will remain unrealised.  Not only did I fancy my chances of being selected to compete in the ultra-competitive sport of extreme-quoits (which was to make its Games debut), I was more than half a chance at being named ‘Captain’.  Granted, this would only occur if I changed my name legally by deed poll, but you can’t tell me that ‘Captain Quoit’ doesn’t have a powerful ring to it. 

Maybe it’s not too late.  Perhaps there’s something that can be done to rescue this Titanic bin fire, smothered in a schemozzle-glaze with a Hindenburg chaser.  Given that the issue is the price, there are a few practical things that can be done to trim costs.  Luckily, I have a pair of rusty hairdresser scissors I keep in the third drawer in the kitchen and am ready to start trimming in earnest.  The first step is obvious – relocate the entire shebang to the Mornington Peninsula. 

Stay with me.  The Mornington Peninsula has what it takes to host a (semi) successful games, which is a lot better than no games at all.  It starts with the opening ceremony.

Frankly, the opening ceremony is the budgeting equivalent of a truck filled with money being setting on fire.  This will need to be significantly downsized.  Instead of a major sporting arena, the opening ceremony should, instead, be relocated to the Twenty First Dance Club in Frankston.  It already has lighting and a public address system and athletes could be spared the indignity of having to parade in a circle, instead, simply climbing aboard the revolving dance floor and letting the technology do the work. 

Not that there won’t be problems.  Back when I used to go to the Twenty First Century Dance Club – which (admittedly) was sometime before the Twenty First Century – those at the front door were very particular about shoes.  Shoes rather than eyes, it seems, are the window to the soul.  This could prove something of an issue, as athletes are notoriously fond of sneakers, which once constituted grounds for exclusion.  To this day, the words ‘not with those shoes’ continue to haunt me in my dreams.  Competitors would need their ‘dress shoes’. 

No opening ceremony would be complete without top-shelf entertainment.  We should ask Andrew Hosking and Coupe de Ville now to set time aside in their diaries for 2026.  Granted, this will be something of a blow to Human Nature, who had probably considered themselves certain starters, but no one ever said that the new, streamlined version of the Commonwealth Games wouldn’t require a few sacrifices.  

If there’s one thing I know about athletes – besides their near fanatical commitment to wearing sneakers – it’s that they like to eat.  A lot.  Not a problem – this could be the very first games where spectators are required to bring a plate.  You can’t tell me that competitors from other Commonwealth nations wouldn’t welcome a plateful of cold buttered pikelets and a jelly slice.  It’s a shame that other major athletic carnivals don’t apply a similar rule. 

I appreciate that equipment can be both expensive and hard to source.  After all, you’re unlikely to stumble over a javelin at Rebel Sport.  That’s why every sport will be modified to use just one piece of sporting equipment – namely, the second-hand tennis ball that mysteriously (or, if you’re my neighbour, not so mysteriously) appeared in my backyard last Thursday.  I appreciate that as athletic kit goes, a second-hand tennis ball is pretty basic, so I’ve decided to put electrical tape on one side to make it less predictable and more exciting.

To make this work, I’ve had to reduce the number of events slightly.  At the last Commonwealth Games, there were twenty-one sports and two hundred and seventy-two events.  I’ve decided to cut this back to just two.  Namely, backyard cricket and quoits.  Not only are these two sports for which I feel the standard of competition will be enviably high, neither of them requires that much in the way of space.  Indeed, community involvement would be assured once locals are asked to volunteer their backyards as venues.

And then there’s the athletes themselves.  At the last games, there were more than five thousand of them.  That feels somewhat excessive.  I would like to try and reduce that down to something a little more manageable.  Probably six.  And instead of a carnival across a fortnight, I’m thinking that an afternoon should just about do it.  Sure, it’s not as big and as grand as we’re used to, but is anything?  For all it loses in terms of pomp and ceremony, I can almost guarantee a pleasant day out for all concerned.

I may well be a genius.  In one column, I’ve managed to reduce the projected budget for the 2026 Commonwealth Games down from the eye-watering, shapeshifting sum of six billion dollars to something slightly south of two hundred bucks.  You’re welcome.  But if a one day, six-person, back yard cricket and quoits version of the Commonwealth Games sounds a little bit sad and lamentable, it’s still miles better than bailing out altogether.  Let the games begin. 

Yours truly – Captain Quoit

The Grand Return of the Electric Banana from Space

I used to know how to do this.  I was fourteen when I first started playing music in public, sometimes on my own, more often with others.  There’s nothing else quite like it; the nerves, the sense of anticipation, the journey of playing a group of songs to an audience.  How it feels when people respond enthusiastically.  How it feels when they don’t.  Broken strings, squealing feedback, thunderous applause and profound silence – I’ve experienced all these things when making music.  But all that experience counts for little when you stop.  In my case, I stopped for a couple of decades.

I was barely a teenager when I joined my first band.  A couple from church were in need of a keyboard player and I had a full set of fingers and a lot of time on my hands.  They were adults, which meant they were responsible for almost every aspect of band-life.  They had all the equipment, chose the songs and even picked me up for rehearsals.  All I had to do was listen to a cassette and learn the songs.  I would describe my efforts as ‘hit and miss’.  For the songs I liked, I got my parts down just right.  For those I didn’t, I relied on either inspiration or, possibly, ‘the Force’ to guide me.  Unfortunately, that guidance was not forthcoming and the resulting cacophony almost ended my musical career before it started.

Our first gig was in Balnarring.  It was in the room behind the church where they usually served tea and cold pikelets after the service.  On this occasion, there wasn’t a pikelet in sight, which, I feel, largely accounts for the indifferent reaction of the audience.  I do recall dressing up for the occasion, in a short-sleeved yellow shirt with black highlights and my best acid wash.  The shirt was my ‘good shirt’ – the one I wore whenever I was trying to make an impression – presumably an impression of a space-age banana.

Being invited into someone else’s band was one thing – having a band of your own is a different experience entirely.  We were all members of the same youth group.  One summer, we decided that we really ought to be a band, partly because we each played an instrument and partly because mixed netball had yet to be invented.  We attempted a couple of covers, but I think we knew from the outset that we’d be performing original music.

Original music is a tricky business.  On the one hand, the world loves a covers band.  Most people like to hear a song they already know, even if the song in question is being butchered into oblivion.  There are lots of gigs for cover bands.  But you can only go so far playing covers.  Original music, however, is all about integrity.  You stay true to your artistic vision in the knowledge that it’s harder to get a gig and that, when you do, you’re either playing to an audience that is either indifferent or (possibly) non-existent.

We quickly started writing our own songs.  Some of them were all right.  Others weren’t quite as good.  Our first major gig would be at Balnarring, although instead of a small room behind the church, we were playing on the back of a flatbed truck parked strategically at the playground beside the local caravan park.  I’m not sure what the people of Balnarring had done to deserve us, but they were going to cop an earful whether they wanted to or not.  And, aside from our total lack of experience and limited musicianship, we were desperately underprepared.

We had a chronic shortage of songs.  The only way to fix this situation was to write and learn a bunch of tunes in the week before we were due to play.  What could possibly go wrong?  Quite a lot as it turns out. 

Amazingly, we managed to write more songs.  Learning them was a challenge, but we did our best.  To fill for time, we made some desperate choices, such as deciding to perform a drum solo with two people standing at the drum kit.  Which, in theory, sounds okay if both of those people can play the drums.  Whilst one of the people in question was Chris, our drummer, the other person was me, who barely knew which end of the stick to hold.  The end result filled several minutes that would have been better spent in silent contemplation.

Our performance in the Balnarring playground was just the start of an illustrious career in which we played on the back of a variety of flatbed trucks – some moving, others stationary.  Occasionally, we’d begin our performance whilst stationary before being persuaded by the audience response to start the engine and drive somewhere else.  Eventually we moved on to other types of venues, like roller rinks, where the patrons were moving whilst we were standing still.

I’ve moved on from acid wash.  Mostly.  But all this time later, I have another band, albeit with one other person, and we were scheduled to play at the Newport Folk Festival.  There were so many questions – could I remember an entire set of songs and perform them without messing up?  (Yes.)  Would anyone come?  (Some people did, and even more have watched online.) Could I still fit in my electric banana shirt? (No.  Not even close.)  I was a little nervous, but it felt oddly normal.  Natural, even.  Without even knowing it, I think I might even have missed it.  I was glad to be back.  It turns out, some things may disappear for a time, but they never really vanish.  I’m grateful.  Our next gig will be in Balnarring.  Probably.

Octagon Nerdfest!  When Elon Fought the Zuckerberg

I guess I don’t understand technology.  By which, I don’t mean I struggle with the buttons on the microwave or routinely slather white-out across my computer monitor; I mean I don’t really get big tech.  And when I say ‘big tech’, I’m not referring to my refrigerator (despite its ample dimensions) but organisations that are so large and powerful that they generate an embarrassing level of revenue, the quantum of which is more readily associated with a sovereign state than a company. 

But as puzzling as these gargantuan organisations may be, more bewildering still are the strange and curious individuals who run these corporate behemoths.  I speak, of course, of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg.

Elon Musk is a busy guy with lots of jobs.  One of those jobs is running ‘Tesla’ – which, for those of you who may be unfamiliar, is the thinking person’s Toyota Corolla.  His objective in that job is to create something you can drive.  He also runs ‘Twitter’, which is something that he also drives, albeit into the ground in some kind of bizarre and inexplicable death-wish. 

When Elon’s not busy running Tesla and Twitter, he runs ‘Space X’, which is possibly the only private space service fuelled by a Queensland beer.  Apparently, Space XXXX (as it was originally known) runs on lager because it’s cheaper than lithium and preferable to anyone having to drink the stuff.

Mark Zuckerberg used to run ‘Facebook’ before it was rebranded as ‘meta’ in what I can only assume was internally described as something of a ‘Facebook-lift’.  Meta also runs Instagram and WhatsApp so Mark knows everywhere you’ve been, every restaurant meal you’ve ever eaten and what you’re thinking.  In the ultimate act of irony, Mark is also really into virtual reality, perhaps unaware that the real thing is already freely available.

These two men are enormously wealthy.  And yet, for reasons that are unknown to most of us, these two strange dudes have decided to cage fight each other.

I don’t know much about big technology, except that it’s threatening existence as we know it.  I know even less about cage fighting.  Mixed martial arts has always been a mystery to me, but I assume there are exponents who are very good at it.  In contrast, I strongly suspect that Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are coming to octagon with high hopes rather than anything in the way of actual expertise.

It’s madness.  Whilst it’s not nice to remark on anyone’s physical appearance, I feel it’s necessary in circumstances as extreme as these.  Firstly to Elon – you have the physique of a bowl of porridge.  However it is you’ve been spending your time, it’s safe to say that it hasn’t been spent getting into shape, unless the shape in question is an oblong.  Granted, your custard guts may well absorb all the kicks, karate chops and nookies your adversary might see fit to dispense, but I fear you’ll have the endurance of a wet rice cracker.

 As for Mark, I can only reiterate that reality and virtual reality are not the same thing.  The former has real physical consequences.  It’ll be obvious if he’s confused the two – it’s rare that someone steps into the octagon wearing a giant VR headset.  ‘Oculus’ and ‘octagon’ are not interchangeable terms.  I appreciate that you’ve taken up Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (the finer details of which are best left to the imagination).  I even respect that you’ve been training with Mikey Musumeci – a man who (like myself) has been described as a world champion in ‘submission grappling’.

But, Mark, the fact is that you look like a pencil with an eraser on top.  To be clear, that’s not a good thing.  You can’t go around challenging people to a bout in the octagon if you look like a human cotton bud.  Besides, what would happen in the unlikely event that Elon Musk caught you and you were injured?  For starters, Beaker from The Muppets would suddenly be without his stunt double.  The world simply can’t afford to take that kind of risk.

Not that anyone would know.  Even if you lose horribly because you tripped over and Elon got his sausage fingers on your slender frame, you have access to a platform that excels at misinformation that could easily cover it up.  But that’s hardly the point.  The whole billionaire cage match idea is so passé; ever since Warren Buffet gave Jeffrey Bezos what has been described as the ‘greatest atomic wedgie of the twentieth century’ during the famous mud-wrestling slap-down of ’97.

If this thing does go ahead, there’ll need to be an undercard, other billionaires lining up to do battle before the main event.  The night would open with Bill Gates versus Charles Koch, each armed only with a ruler and a compass, doing battle in a pit of jelly.  That would be followed up by Richard Branson against Kylie Jenner in a jousting contest.  Eventually, Elon and Mark would emerge before stepping into the octagon.

Ultimately, it’s hard not to think that they should each have something better to do.  Something more (I’m looking for the right word) …..useful.  Maybe they plan to donate the proceeds to charity.  But whilst they’re busy ‘submission grappling’ or subjecting each other to the firmest of squirrel grips, the world that they’ve helped create longs for a day where they use their abundant talents for good instead of evil.