Pony Up! Confessions of a Failed Jockey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My (Not Very) Brilliant Songwriting Career

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Son, we need to talk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours faithfully,

The Artist Formerly Known As Dad”

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

The Berlin Waffle Doona Disaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.