UNDER THE SKIN

There was a boy at Kelburn School called Kyle Murphy. He rode a skateboard, was buck toothed and lived with his father on one of those roads in Kelburn with views of the harbour that make you feel like life is wonderful. Kyle’s father was a neat guy. He was really nice with Kyle and had plenty of time for me as well. I never knew what his father did during the day but some evenings he worked as a security guard and thus Kyle and I were not strangers to being backstage at some great concerts in Wellington.

Apart from seeing DD Smash and Peking Man up close the show I remember best was the one named for Mick Hucknell’s hair. We also saw UB 40 but I remember Simply Red fonder. We met the band afterwards and I got a piece of paper signed on by them all. Way to feel six feet tall when you’re only five.

At concerts I am a real ‘party on the inside’ guy with the following exceptions: Bon Jovi with my Irish mate Rob at Emirates Palace 2008. I was wriggly during a Basment Jaxx show at the Atlantis Beach last year because every flaming person who walked past handled me as if we were on a Colombo bus together and I was a tourist and they were collectively that pickpocket I slapped back in 2005.

In my parent’s lounge we grew up with a built in record player. There, where the bookshelf now is, was a fixed chest with a liftable lid. Beneath was a small turntable positioned next to a footwide slot for storing records including my beloved copy of Run DMC’s Raising Hell. Scott Fordham stole this record from me in the fourth form. He was and probably still is a bastard who somehow had a gang of people around him for a few years while he stole, bullied, harassed and generally tormented. If there is any justice he’ll either be in prison now or at least very lonely.

My dear mother stood by me once as I fondled my record. Mum spoke in love, “Be careful”. I assumed that she was referring to the word ‘hell’ in the title but on reflection it is more likely that she appreciated how brilliant the beats in my hand were and didn’t want me to drop it and get fluff from the carpet in the grooves. Yeah, that’s it.

Jonah and Ben played a concert for me in the lounge this evening. Jonah was on drums/pots and Ben on the keyboard. They jammed and it worked. Jonah had what we call a ‘concentrating face’ on and Ben moved through chords like they’re going out of fashion.

These moments will be memories terribly soon.

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SAY WHAT

This evening as Jonah was explaining to me why God invented girls, he shared that, among other things, it was probably because it would be boring to have just one type of person. He casually makes rather poignant points more often than he is aware. Even Ben looks at me when Jonah speaks like this and mouths “cute” as he has done for many years whenever he is delighted by Jonah’s proverbs.

A friend of a friend described Ben as adorable this evening as we sat at a table on a beach with pizza. I had only met her once before and still don’t know her name but did notice Ben earlier pulling up a chair along with a few other children at the same table as said lady and proceeded to play the entertainer. What a lovely thing to say to someone whom you barely know about their first born son. I was as close as I come to speechless. 

Hearing swearing has never really bothered me. In fact, dirty language doesn’t really exist in my book. There are some words which I don’t use in my weekly meetings with my line manager for no other reason than they have a stigma attached to them (which I didn’t put there, I might add) and for the sake of my salary, I avoid. 

I guess my argument is simple: It is quite possible to be offensive, rude, unpleasant dot dot dot without cussing while at the same time it is possible to be hilarious, kind, sweet and even beautiful while dropping in some light, colourful language.

My sons hear me use words others call curse words. Not a lot and never directed towards anyone. However only once or twice have I heard this special vocabulary fall from their own mouths. Somehow they have learnt a difference. Weird. Interfering teachers most likely.

I’ve also put on some weight recently, which many people have been telling me to do. Now my pants mightn’t fit. Did they think of that? Huh?

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ON EARTH

The head of the peninsular I live on is known locally as Mussandam. It is entirely beautiful because it brings peace. The towns are small, the goats are at ease and the women and men cheerful. There cannot be another place like it. So quiet and kind. Even if the stereo in my car worked it would never, ever be switched on along Mussandam’s roads. 

Actually, there has been a small number of places in my life which make me feel so calm:

* Sungai Lembing

* Xojakent

* Kathmandu Durbar Square

I took Jonah and Ben to Mussandam (again) this week. Together we enjoyed a day of playing, deep talking, paddling, stick gathering and relaxation. As Jonah dismounted from a swing at the playground near the port at Bukha, he looked across the water to one of the most imposing mountains we have ever stood side by side and adored and commented dryly, “Why am I looking at a picture?”. And he was right because the tide and the town and the people and the peak were presented perfectly still in front of us, as if touched up for a gallery. It was Ben who reminded us that it was more awesome than a picture; it was real. He had noticed a bunch of soaring gulls. We stood there for a short time valuing God’s earth and how captivating it could be, even unintentionally. I was already planning my next trip.

We shared a campfire in Khasab that evening. We ate bread and chicken and rice and marshmellows. I read to the boys as they slouched in sandy camp chairs. It was difficult to read more than a few sentences before our conversation started up again. Because it was dark, we somehow felt more comfortable with each other and talked with a capital T.

As much as I am wired to travel and my greed for foreign sights and terrible restaurants has scarcely been addressed, I keep my fingers crossed that I will also find a restful place within myself. A place of cool breezes, award winning friendships and delight. A place where I can be strong and good at stuff; wherever.

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MISSING IT

When Jonah went and scolded a piece of rope for being there when his friend was running along, his injured sidekick commented “he’s such a good friend”. Whenever I text an RSVP to the mum of one of Ben’s mates who has invited him to play or attend a birthday celebration, the word “delighted” is more often than not included in the reply. 

For as long as I can remember I have had enormous difficulty saying nice things to people. Thinking what to say and then somehow getting a suitable tone to match the phrase would take me weeks. Basically, after tossing and turning, reading, consulting socially savvy compatriots I would land on something roughly like this: Your hair looks fine.

There is a wanting knack to this which is holed up somewhere out of reach. I have been a part of my children learning many things. How to throw your head back to laugh; how to build a campfire; how to ensure the lighting is consistent throughout the filming of a short stop motion film; how to use a spork. I haven’t taught them to care for other people, though. I am not saying they don’t because they do. They’ve been shown how to go through some motions - send money to these guys because they only eat rice; and things like that. They could do with God-parents.

I am customarily anxious around people. That’s why I prefer pubs to cafes and small to large gatherings. Even if it were possible to bottle Axel Rose’s cool and combine it with my morning Weetabix and full fat milk there would still be strides to make to reach the level of sexiness and social aptitude I ditched many years ago in favour of (what I thought would be) a quiet life.

Answers on a postcard.

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ASSOCIATE

When Jonah talks to his friends, they beam. They love being around him. They love talking to him and they laugh to his wit. Jonah is a rockstar. He has a deep friend with whom he is near inseparable. Having spent hours upon hours together during the week the pair whoop when the see each other in the evenings. Imagine being so welcomed by someone.

Ben is one of those boys who people want to be like. They love him. He ooozes cool. His friends are jealous of him. He has the spine to enjoy being himself rather than absorbing into a crowd. He may not be a leader but he is not a sheep either. You could hardly be luckier than to be Ben’s friend. Ben lifts the tone and opens the mind. He is a (boy of) character. His integrity and ability to do the right thing is remarkable. He didn’t get that from me.

In the same way that there is singing and then there is karaoke or there is badass and then there is David Gonzales, there are friends and there are friends. There is no dearth of weirdness in my life and as I bump along this year of self inflicted adjustment, I am entertained by the way my relationships have changed. The conversations I am having are curious. I am frequently blindsided into small talk about the length of my belt or how cold or warm my bed is. I’m rolling with it. 

Also, I haven’t run in a while yet I did twist my ankle worse that I have in about seven years, on Wednesday, thanks to the beautiful transitions at Dubai’s coolest indoor skatepark.

JUST AROUND THE CORNER

Social ineptness and I have always been close. We hang out with a frequency which makes me sweat just thinking about it. We’re too handy. When I should be looking out, going out, reaching out - I’m in.  

By close, I mean close in a ‘that bus nearly took my tail off’ kind of way. Not close, like I want to be; with warmth and laughs and affectionate smiling and tickling.

I started to write a children’s story once but it was so awful I believe the computer I typed it on is still burning in the pail of sulphur I dumped it in after my first read through. I have even requested the internet be reset to make sure none of the words I ever wrote be read again, in any order, any time. It was about a community who lived on an island and were recovering from a terrible day. The shared a secret with each other. I though it was a good context for adventure. It was a relief to delete the first and only chapter. It needed more jokes.

I’ve always liked holding hands. There is something very, very nice about it. Jonah holds my hand on the way to school each morning. There could hardly be a more cheerful way to begin the day. With children, palm to palm is most common. Fingers through fingers goes to another level. You don’t need to talk when you’re holding hands thus. Just hold. Hands. It’s as good as a hug. Not only are the hands holding, they are a little stuck. There is no rush or intention to move away just yet.

A new chapter wouldn’t hurt.

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INSIDE

My last meal in Nepal was what was described on the menu as a banana pancake. My father on a Sunday would make banana pancakes (and muesli pancakes). It’s fair to say he was really good at it and has a technique which involved not burning the batter and getting the slices of banana evenly spaced so that each bite had some of the extra sweetness five young boys hung out for. His milkshakes were pretty damn delicious furthermore.

When my Nepali pancake was presented it shouldn’t have been a surprise. A deep fried battered banana on a plate served with tomato sauce. Pardon?

In Tashkent, our first and last evening was spent at the same restaurant. Some five dollar a family joint my friend called the ‘blue and white awning place’. With no Russian or Uzbek we first ordered by smiling a lot and eventually meat and bread was laid on the table. The evening was warm and the corner we ate al fresco at had a slight but not overbearing bustle. I was fluent in shashleik by the time we left. My friend from a few sentences ago had helped me learn all the words I’d needed to dine out.

For a long, long time, food and I have never quite managed to work out where we stood with each other. Instead of being something which sustains me or gives me pleasure, it has often been a source of both comfort or guilt. Either way, as the consumer (or non-consumer) I’ve been left feeling rotten. Duped. 

To be honest I hope no one notices, least of all the two shortest members of the household who will invariably do as I do, not as I say.

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BECAUSE

Homework avoided me until my sixth form year at Wellington College when a braless drama teacher managed to convince me that in between daily sessions of wagging classes, work could be a rewarding experience. All I remember about her name is that she let us call her by her first one. I can’t even see her face in my mind. She might have been christened Vicki but it is possible she wasn’t. Vicki had been to the land of India and revelled in yoga when she wasn’t teasing us with her looks and flowing garments.

About a third of my 1991 school year was spent skipping. If wandering the streets of the city enjoying teenage angst wasn’t enough for me, I was skateboarding with other truants on the miniramp at Appleton Park, simultaneously near Kelburn and Karori. Surprisingly, detention and castigation were in the same box as girlfriends and party invites and I subtly sidestepped ever getting in trouble for missing chunks of school which were as noticeable at the scars on my shins.

While learning to teach, I was awarded a ‘C’ for my opening assignment and was so embarrassed by this that I decided to pull finger and learn to write. I did get better grades shortly after but I never quite managed to say what I wanted. My handwriting is dangerously untidy which has always been a source of poor esteem for me.

I started to keep a blog when our eldest son was born eight and a jot years ago; something for the family. The photos were wonderful while the commentary was feeble. Little did I know that I was starting on a hike which would bring me substantial pleasure and release.

After a year or so it dried up - I stopped sealing my thoughts on screen. Until I moved to Uzbekistan three years ago. 

A new blog was generated and for some reason I wrote more than ever. I’d had a few stressful years and becoming an author seemed to relieve much of that. Whoosh. I write because it nearly makes me happy.

A fraction of the posts I write I actually write. I write documents while I run. Ideas present themselves when I see something or someone I like. Anything in a day could trigger a post. I sit for an hour and type. I don’t edit or proof or wonder if it is any good. 

While in Rajastan once I sat on a camel for two whole days watching the Thar Desert go by. Eating chapati, fire cooked curries and unquestionably more sand than a three year old. Believe it or not, we disembarked from our caravan at exactly the same point we horsed the beasts in the first place. Jaisalmer. The campaign was not to end up in a different place but simply to wander a while.

My pieces are riddled with my children. There are usually a lot of feelings hidden in the text which only I know about. My church background slips in as does my lust for sightseeing. The readership of my blog is little; almost absent. Each entry is just for me. I have a few I like especially. A personal ‘best of’. 

My aim is simply to be a little happier. Writing releases some of the aches I drag about. I would prefer to write anonymously in order to explore another leg of honesty. When I drink beer, I think I am quite funny and I would like to be able to transport some jokes into my twaddle. Such an accomplishment is reserved for titans.

This particular posting was produced in response to a nomination from a wonderful writer and long time friend, Rachel. She writes here: RACHIEBEE

I nominate the superb Angela. Another long time friend. She writes here: THE SPONGE

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LIKE GOLD TO ME

One of my sons was kissing my toe this evening. I pride myself on maintaining spotless feet but this act still amused me. He then erupted into laughter with such voluntary oomph that my good self and his brother also burst. Chuckling and giggling (and squawking) and watermelon sized smiles have long been characteristics of these boys. They simply love to play and snicker and if they can do both simultaneously then all the better. It is hard not to get roped in. Jonah admitted tonight that he was close to Ben. That they were friends (as if I didn’t know).

It is hard to have a conversation sometimes that doesn’t have a butt in it. Tooot, fart, plooppy, dangle, wiss. Over and over again. Again. These boys are like cats - depression curers. So raucous yet so soft and gentle and more delicate than I remember sometimes. 

For years they have heard me say that my favourite thing is being their dad. They have been told untold times. They can recite it back to me. It feels good to all of us knowing this is in their roots. They are easy to be around and uncontrollably enjoyable.

Many people are much more deliberate in their parenting than I am. I try not to think about it too much. Simply, we are all blessed to live together under this one roof so let’s treat each other with respect, love, kindness and responsibility. I loved watching one son get a towel for another son this evening when he noticed his brother was without a wiper. Spontaneous. Without me barking down the hallway. Just helping out. 

I have a manifest of memories of my own father and the great things he did for us. I know my boys will have questions about the path we have chosen for them. That’s their prerogative. 

If nothing else, I hope to have passed on a passion for happiness and humour. An ability to stop and enjoy. A responsibility to one other. And pancakes cut into personalised shapes at the weekend.

MANIPULATE

Only in New Zealand would a physiotherapist write in her notes that a recently treated handsome man had injured his neck having fallen asleep on the couch watching the Ashes. 

Sometimes when my offspring are trying to break my jaw, sternum and bed I receive an elbow somewhere I’d prefer a ball and socket wasn’t. They do like a good tumble, our boys.

Pressing in the wrong places at the wrong time just hurts; while a carefully aimed and rubbed thumb can be so, so soothing it takes the massaged a mere stone’s throw from wonderland. Those wonderhands.

Last year I had abundant treatment for muscles who were not playing ball. Qualified women and men pushed and pulled until I was all better again. Oils, lotions, creams, hot pads, knobbly equipment and good humour all aided.

Sometimes I play music which some people would describe as melancholy, loud, disheartening. But I feel better, happier, arisen - because it touches just the right spot and holds with firmness until.

INSIDE OUT

I’d be worried if someone said they knew my secrets. Immediately I would wonder which one the had come into contact with. Some people have assured me that they don’t have a hiding place in their mind. A place for themselves and no one, nobody else. When pressed, they swore there were clean and ready for inspection.

Is that possible? To have everything out? Nothing inside, ticking?

While I run, my mind goes to all sorts of corners. Not the past nor the times to come. My inside voice talks to me about today. It tells me the things I can’t say out loud  as there is too much to lose. My actual dreams and desires. The choices I think I wish I could make. 

Although I have this locked pocket, it’s not a dark place. I see what is in there clearly. It shines and brings me happiness even in its transparent form. I see the faces and places nestled there. They help me along. 

Outside, I’m a bare person. You don’t get much. My feelings are in a bundle in my pocket. Just for me.

Although, I was asked yesterday if I liked our cat and I said I loved her. I don’t know why.

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SHININESS

Reading an article recently informed my that there are no such things as adults and that we are all just winging it. This resonates tunefully with the way the world looks to me. I find it a shame when top skateboarders say that their talent has been a mechanism for them to stay young. Balderdash. If being adult normally means forsaking hobbies and skills we honed as homies, then ‘humbug’ to adulthood. I have taken enormous pleasure this decade to be able to ride my skateboard at public and private facilities. Occasionally, when asked, I mention that I also work in a school and the response is calm. People don’t care and I like that. It’s the same at work - people don’t care that I skate and I like that. It is no big deal. 

This does reflect changing minds in the circles I go round in. There was a time when people were very surprised and not always kind when they learnt that the guy they sit across a board room table from rolls on wheels in the evenings and ends of the week. They were strange times, when kicking or throwing or hitting a bag of wind around was considered a perfectly grown up activity (along with neanderthal inspired drinking sessions) and board riding was seen as childish. The assumption was also that it wasn’t something I took seriously or did just with the kids. Thank God for people who use their minds now.

The same goes for music. The assumptions made about people who play, enjoy and listen to certain types of music are outrageous. I read an interview with Ozzy Osbourne some time in the past eight days. He was saying that most people who read their lyrics are surprised to learn that that the band are not satanists and in fact rather wholesome in a whole bunch of ways.

I’ve have said before that although I don’t believe there is a devil, I have met her household. They wear blouses and ties. 

Ben Harper has written a lot of songs that I appreciate listening to. 

His lyrics: It takes a hundred miles of love to heal a mile of pain…

sat very heavy with me for a few years. Living in Malaysia was a mile of pain for my son, thanks to blouse and tie wearing pond scum. Since then, he has been on a long walk; about one hundred miles. People called Suriana, Jess, Martha, Mukhayyo, Jay, Steve, Dave have been rooting for him. He has been unlocked and the gems have been found, polished and in tact. I can see them in his eyes.

I literally sleep easier now when I think of him and those who have unknowingly stood by him, propping him up. I didn’t ask them to. They couldn’t help it. 

Now that his journey is well, well underway, I can begin mine.

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SMALL STEPS

He was making a mango lassi with his brother this evening when his finger kept finding the yoghurt. It dipped and dived. Irresistibly, the two kilo pot of plain dairy teased Jonah. It was poked and licked by a young hook. Olives have the same effect on Ben, so we bought him two jars of Greek unpitted from a friend who is raising money for Ethiopians.

Jonah is affectionate and strong. He still kisses and holds hands, even at school. He presently has a row of four absent teeth across his upper gum. His own suggestion was that he eats only corn chowder for a few weeks. He is a surprising boy. Hilarious and delicate with a pinch of indestructibility. He’s bumped his forehead, nose and top lip more times than I’ve had airport coffees. The scar on his cheek was earned through some terrific playing. We have very few injuries in our family - only stories.

He is seldom sad, with a maturity and reasonableness well beyond his height. 

I couldn’t connect with Jonah for his first year. I didn’t bond. I admit he was like a visitor. I loved every drop of him though. Something in me wouldn’t open up to him like I did to Ben. My fathering until then had been terrible and I did not want to be terrible anymore. Jonah was there but not deep in here. His softness and openness were not enough; or maybe too much for me.

We went to New Zealand after his first (second, third, fourth and fifth) birthday. It was then that I fell wholeheartedly in love with Jonah. I remember holding him and carrying him so much. Along beaches and sidewalks. Around homes and from cars. My reluctance slipped and peeled away. I saw him. My boy. At last. (At first). I remember being in Raglan and holding the wee lad. On the dark sand near a wall made of half round wooden posts; I finally realised I could love and behold this small son. I was his father but I could also be his Dad. I was going to connect with him like I had already clicked with Ben. Mistakes I had made needn’t be repeated. I could be a little bit better with Jonah. 

I can hardly believe how adept Jonah has become. He is a fiery, conscience driven wonder. His laugh, oh, his head turning laugh.

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A CONNECTION

A funny thing happened when I put on my tie this morning. It’s brown and wool and in better condition than it ought to be given that it was purchased, presumably, in the 1970s. It was my father’s tie. He used to wear it to work. He wore it with a white shirt sometimes, I remember.  Dad was a very smart man. Neat, well presented with a healthy complexion and infectious smile. There are a lot of memories where Dad is wearing handsome clothing in a fitting way.

As my tied tie greeted me in our mirror I choked. I missed my father, knowing he would have been proud of me today. Although unlikely to mention it, it is fair to say my father would have smiled had he known I was wearing his tie on this day. I have a new role at work and today was the day I had my first public duties associated with it. On purpose I wore my Dad’s tie. With a shirt with a soft green in it, patterned, and chocolate brown brogues below trousers the same. I wore a belt I bought in Nepal fourteen years ago for just 70 rupees. It is my favourite item and despite no one else knowing how deeply special it is to me, it holds my pants up while reminding me of adventures and people who divided my life in two.

My father never wore sunglasses while I was around. He never drunk nor smoked. He swore once or twice in earshot. I heard him cry only once, when he phoned to say he’d found his father in the garden. My father got better and better. Happier and happier, too.