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.
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.
Bob Geldof was playing his guitar at the same bar a friend and I were at just six old weeks ago. He wasn’t as serious as I expected which was my fault for thinking he would be more serious than he was. He’s touched starving Ethiopians and adopted Michael Hutchence’s daughter. He sang wonderfully and bobbed his head about like he had headphones on in the library. I had two cokes and a great evening.
My former flute teacher made a cameo in my dream last night. I can’ t recall why or how. Just who. Her. She was a very positive person with the mind blowing gift of somehow making the tootle appealing to a melancholy young boy. Her own tutor was my own grandfather. His name was Jack, from Karori. He drove a white morris and had a sloping lawn. Mum gave me a ceramic dog which had sat on his shelf before he passed. She knew it was a perfect keepsake for this chap.
I am trying to shape my boys less. They don’t need kneading. They are already shaped and formed in the same way a seed is entire. Ben is like me - his hair and his height. The way he wants to be different but not to miss out. He’s as cheerful and radiant as they come. His variety of sadness is like mine, too. It can be neither eyeballed nor spoken too. I have tried and tried only to learn that there are no words to cool it. It must be embraced. I tell him his feelings are his strength. It’s how his heart deals with a world that doesn’t understand. Our sadness can’t be talked down. It must simply be allowed. Then wrapped and snuggled and put back for later.
Ben loves to do many marvellous things: play keyboard; play minecraft and jump butt first into the pool. Today must have been a cracker. Tick, tick, tick. He also programmed a scorekeeper into a game he’s made using a programme called Scratch.
My Dearest Ben,
You are amazing. There is something about your spirit which I marvel at every single day. You are a tremendous boy - certainly gifted; multi-talented and staunchly both in and interdependent. I forget how old you are, to be honest. On any given day, you take us on a joyride of jokes, wisdom, feeling - but mostly jokes. You play. You think. Like your teacher said just two weeks ago: He is just what a kid should be.
It’s not my love for you which is heaviest. It’s my admiration and sense of wonder as your passions bubble away at ninety nine miles an hour. Ben, you are sweet. Your need for affirmation is heart felt; heart warming; heart wrenching. If I could get past myself to share clearly with you how important your place in this family and this world is then we’d both be much happier. You’re not big on kisses sometimes, but you hug like you know we both need a long one.
I am reminded of Derek Lind’s words to his older daughter - Forgive me all my faults and failings for raising you too hard, too soft (too poor). When I say “no’ and your face dissolves; I take no pleasure. I have heard people say they want only the best for their children. But, I don’t want you to have the best. I want you to know there is happiness in simplicity, or so I have heard. How many times have I taken an invisible deep down breath while we’ve been talking with seriousness? You have looked at me and said “Okay, Dada”. Not because you have learnt to be over compliant but because you have learnt to trust me. Oh, Ben.
I trust you, son. Somehow you have been carefully mined and shined. You’re as faulty as the rest of us yet in a flash or less I know you’d be there for me.
You will remind me one day of the mistakes I have made. Please understand I learnt things with you. I didn’t make the same mistakes with your brother. Don’t begrudge him that. Remind me when you need to but believe me also.
Last year, you and I floated on a kayak in six to eight feet of ocean. We sat for hours with a paddle and four dollars of fishing line chuckling through a million bucks of chat. It wasn’t like you to be so patient with the bait and so calm when we caught squat. It wasn’t like me to enjoy such childish conversation so leisurely. We only discontinued so we could put up our tent and keep listening to each other fireside and chicken-filled. Together we created Pantry Wars and worked out how to defeat the Peanut Butter Monster (c).
My dear eldest, your path ahead is outstretched and more gnarled than mine now is. I don’t think you’ll be the skateboarder I wanted to be (but I do cherish the way you come and stand close by me as I watch video clips while you ask me questions of physics and business). With my hand on my heart, I hope you find yourself in the middle of the pleasures and wonders of this world. Your future friends have a tremendous social life awaiting. Respect yourself. Respect that which is worthy of respect. Listen to people. Don’t listen to people.
Give and share. Laugh like it’s dinner time. Cry like you’re tired. Hug like you do when we’ve had a barney.
My son, I trust you. I adore you more than I have even shown. You are a Bucksmith. You are amazing.
With everything and more (if I had it).
It has been written before that the warmer the climate in a given region, the longer the greeting. In temperate New Zealand, many are content with simply tilting back the head while saying ‘air gun?’ while in hot deserts, men hold hands and ask how far to the nearest water and how the family is and thank god for anything and everything and if god wants me to I will drink water again today and then they repeat this twice, thrice, suffice. We lived in very cold place for a year, too, and while most were dressed in black, their heads were down, looking at their own knees. Cold and short.
There was a man who would put his arm around my shoulders everyday and leave it there. His beard was dark and neat. His smile was relentless and, as if we needed more, his greeting was warmth. He was Salem’s father. Babu Salem. He was neither tall nor poor yet he was happy and contagious.
There is a lot of bumping and slapping among younger greeters I have seen. Fists, palms, arms, thumbs. It can be quite a spectacle to watch and a treat to be involved with. Women around here kiss a lot. Not because the know each other well, sometimes, but because they wish each other well, always. It’s charming.
In learning Russian for eight lessons, I was disappointed to learn that there was but one simple word used as a common greeting: zdravstvujtye. Now, there was no way in Helsinki I was going to be able to pronounce that clearly more than half the time, without vokda or piva. Later, it was revealed there are other words used when found face to face with another Russian understander.
One aspect of some cultures which delights is the way you greet a room when entering. All going politely, you are greeted in return. Be it a store for plywood or an accounts office at a bus station.
In North Yorkshire, we learned to say ‘now then’ the first time we saw folk each day.
So, when running at a rate too hurried to cough out a “supdog”, what is the appropriate manner to greet another jock? I have used:
* a low wave
* a high wave
* left eye wink
In return, a thumbs up has always been given. Even in the minimart picking up Gatorade, a thumbs up was presented. Therefore, a thumbs up it is. Not a double moob pat inside two finger kiss peace sign as I had hoped.
The most wonderful greeting comes from the Japanese, though, when they pick up a telephone. It’s lovely and them.
For reasons known only to Women’s Day, I have decided to adopt a diet. As I looked down at my hooves the other day, I saw digits larger than I had ever seen before. They were between my left and right hallux on bathroom scales on the mustard/custard/rusted coloured tiles on the floor of our en suite. I was on a path which would certainly lead me to a career in long haul coach or lorry driving if I wasn’t prudent and active. Around Europe would be my choice, based in the west (for a greater per diem) but travelling as east as is Russianly possible.
As a result my trackies are crowded into by thigh-gapless, pale ambulators - approximately three out of seven days. Then I run. From the flag to the flag, I tell my sons. It is a fair loop with smooth and rough surfaces, a bridge, traffic and a near non-stop view of the finish line thanks to a recent Presidential initiative to promote our flag nationwide and the successive construction of a one hundred plus metre high pole, draped with the flag of the land/sand that has been my home for nigh on seven years.
It is deliberate that I run clockwise as I couldn’t bear to run otherwise, coming off the bridge past the fire station only to be left staring at a solid white promenade three kay long. It is, some say, more fun to turn a corner and then cross the line shortly after. In conclusion, I run the direction I do to please a small obsessive part of me that prefers to not know where I am going.
Like other athletes, I prepare a playlist of punchy beats to keep my mind off my puffing and thumping.
The first time I ran ten kilometers, music was belting. My iPod, at the time, was on shuffle, and my legs were on rush. As I got to kilometre nine (did I mention I was in a Malaysian gymnasium?), a new song was about to start. Hoping it would be Def Leotard or akin, I pressed the up arrow on the treadmill and was ready to gallop home. Yellow Ledbetter is not as chirpy as it needed to be, but it is, nonetheless, a tremendous running track. The fact that it doesn’t have any lyrics tickles me. There are simply several plucky guitar parts played beneath a track of Eddie Vedder’s sleeping noises. It’s enjoyable and commonly an encore.
To compliment my new found childish appreciation of running I brought a box of Wheet-a-bix. Without (significant) fat or sugar it tastes a lot better than the recycled socks listed in the ingredients (40%).
In our family, we often call Jonah The Sayer. He says the most delightful things and uses amusing turns of phrase effortlessly. Having put on his smurf pajama shirt and striped green legs, he made his way on foot down our hallway this evening. Unlike last night, say, where he may have hurtled himself at the sofa with a kung fu kick and a bellow of ‘oh yeah’, or something; he paused. He was considering a batik that Ben had inked years ago when we lived in an appropriate country to regularly batik. It sits at eye height for adults in a square dark frame. Its glass has remained unbroken despite the miles it has been. Jonah pips, “Why does Ben always do wonderful things? Why can’t I do wonderful things?”
It’s a fair question. I asked Jonah what wonderful things he would like to do and he gently and without hesitation remarked that he wanted to paint something. We moved together into their play room and flicked through the three foot squares of plywood we have leaning between their bunk and a pile of cardboard boxes; some reading Carlsberg. We quickly fished out a sheet which Jonah had started to paint a few weeks ago but was still in the ‘background stage’. It was entirely green on one side after a painstaking effort with a slim brush and water based paint. Tomorrow, we resolved, Jonah would do something wonderful by adding to his painting and I will summon the muscle to drill it to the wall.
Jonah is articulate and colourful. His rough edges are a relief as his babyface and blonde hair are overbearing.
I remember every minute of his birth. He was quick. Too quick. The cord around his neck when I first saw him…
Jonah will always be a younger brother. It’s an awkward place to be. You struggle there. Imagine walking around constantly holding an umbrella. You’re in a shadow. The roof is too low to feel you will ever fly.
I don’t know what to wish for my boys. Their world is already far from mine. We intersect at times. I still carry an umbrella so, I suppose, my request is that they look up and out with nothing in their hands.
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.
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.
We were selecting fruit in the weekend at a French chain. The boys had previously taken some time scrutinising the toy lanes. Ben with no money while Jonah managed a little. He decided to buy a cup sized, soft cat with pink ears and a tag half the vastness of the dark continent. He quickly named her Black Eyed Striples but after a day at school her new name is understandably Purrsia.
As Jonah picked out pears I asked him to look at the flag and tell me which country they had come from. The flag was matchbox shaped and to the right of the word “pears” on the sign. He blurted out “Japan”, to which I unforgivably gave back “close”. The pears were sent from China, which Ben rapidly established. You won’t believe me, but when I said “close” I meant physically and geographically. I didn’t mean “close” like “they’re all pretty much the same over there”. We went to Tokyo last summer as well as Shanghai and you’d be nuts to confuse the two or even really say they were “close”. I quickly back peddled and relayed to my sons that which I have just written and they gave the appearance of buying it.
It was fun skateboarding in Tashkent during that year. It was annoying though - to other people, not me. My favoured spot at the Alisher Novoi statue allowed me the occasional beef with locals. There were bold enough to give me an ear bashing and I was cocky enough to give them a “Ya ne panemaiyu (I don’t understand)”. Yet, frequently I would ask members of the public for directions when I didn’t even need them, just to practice some of the new words Olga had taught me during our weekly lessons which were so late after school we needed a babysitter.
The world is rangi changi; multicoloured. There is no going back - people are mixing and spreading. Some of the safest communities in the world are those most open to foreigners and diversity. People bring their languages and various hand and head shakes with them. Their ingredients. Their hair washing methods. Their approaches to child rearing. We don’t become one; we become wonderful. In the past few weeks, I have genuinely taken pleasure and humility from meeting new people - a Saudi woman whose husband has made the family rich selling doughnuts; Bahrani skateboarders who needed a break from their call centre lives; a Greek BMXer who didn’t have a bed for the night; an Australian realtor with blonde hair and charm; A Pakistani port worker, Akhbar, who spends ninety minutes of his day off walking ten kilometres, gladly; an Irish sailor who had finished his cigarette by the time we shook hands.
I wonder what they made of me.
In our family, some people don’t always wear shirts. We call this time ‘Tummy Time’. Ben is the most enthusiastic participator in Tummy Time as the days and evenings get warmer and being something Ben digs so fullheartedly, Jonah follows suit. Birthday suit.
We’re not in those months yet when the toilet flushes warm or you hope your singlet is doing a good job at keeping your work shirt dry. It is still the best time of the year for going outside to delight oneself in autumnal activities such as strolling or sipping from a jar.
Thirty years ago, there was a shop assistant in a Wellington clothes store who told me my bum stuck out. I was trying on trousers I didn’t like anyway and I still hear her words today. I don’t know why she said such a thing. Her choice of words hurt me at the time and leaves me pensive. I wonder what she is doing now, that rear facing, fanny fancying condemnatory commentator.
Our bodies are confusingly important to us. They are our weakest link yet they guzzle most of our attention compared to, say, our minds or spirits or, outrageously, other people’s needs.
It is guaranteed that my dear boys will struggle with their bodies. All of us did/do/will. They are as handsome as their grandfathers but their world is fallen, peers and salesfolk are cruel and emotions are featherweight. I think prudishness is cursed so if they can find a modest, respectful way of enjoying their bodies then they have won a battle lost by squillions of their compatriots.
What lies ahead there are. What lies ahead?
At Kelburn Normal School in the eighties, there were some surprisingly cool people. Male and female preteens who loved to play and laugh and do messy handwriting and punch and look for the ball down the bank and talk in assembly and stuff. It was a school that bred leaders and entertainers. Writers, drug users and more than a few nerds. A few of us were skateboard riders, and good ones too. That didn’t stop us being called to our faces “yobs” by some asshat of a principal, pre 1988.
My Form Two teacher had her better moments, like when she told us that she was ‘pissed off’. Her colleague was not so funny. To press her button (she has a blue rinse most likely) before we went to manual training once, I announced that I was hoping we would get to use a half round bastard file during the upcoming lesson at Newlands Intermediate, where children were encouraged to bring their skateboards to school. I was instructed to speak as if I was in the presence of the queen.
There were tyre swings as round as a giant’s belly and as dangerous as a cheese grater in an overstocked top draw. We would smash into the walls with them and twist them round by their chains mercilessly hoping that lunch would be on everyone at the completion of the cycle. Those days were wicked. Struan and I would sit way up high on a white wooden pole someone had erected in the middle playground. Together, we’d spy on girls. Girl. Jane. We sung songs to her in a medium voice so she couldn’t really hear but we felt brave nonetheless. On Saturdays I learnt a swathe of tricks on my skateboard at Kelburn Normal School. We called her Baby Jane.
With Laurence and Jeremy and Julian now, we could write stories on more pages than there were dog poos inside the wooden tunnel on the army built Adventure Playground on the far side of Kowhai Road.
School was simple. You did not need to do any work. You just had to be quiet. That’s all teachers want(ed). Still, that was often too much and my Standard Four teacher left a desk outside his class for me for moments like when I laughed childishly when he said “sex” in a social studies lesson. Dude, “gender” would have sufficed. The same tosspot sent me out of class for saying “unreal” too many times during news.
There were a few other girls we liked and hence started kissing in around Form 2. Just a smidgen. There is a smile on my face as I remember the week three of us slightly snuck off site and interviewed people on the street about their preferences, pretending we had a project to do. I remember when my cousin came along and we interviewed her as well. She was walking to Teacher’s College from Uni. It was and is a shame that we got found out and berated beyond compare. We had litter duty for a week. Possibly including leaf sweeping.
For some reason, sadness envelopes when I think too much of those years. They were good squashers, the grown ups there. Keep quiet, do this, no ideas, guess what I’m thinking, stop that. Secondary school was equal.
A million dollars would give me so many uplifting choices. Open my mind again. Blow out the dustwebs. Inject a spring. I was told it was hump day today but I am even more excited about returning to the skatepark tomorrow following a couple of weeks lag.
The beauty in Oman is simple. The six different blues of the ocean. The brutality of the Hajar Mountains coupled with the sweet gentleness of the local people make it my getaway of choice. I have had neither a complication nor a speeding ticket in Oman despite its long roads, legions of goats and near prohibitive border fees. It is a place best shared.
I often wonder why boys don’t do so well anymore. I come across too many who seem deflated, depressed, defunct. Like you, the usual articles have passed before my eyes - Dad’s too busy at work, anger problems, the All Blacks drink too much and other cliches about poor role models etcetera. There’s more though. It deeper and easier.
It is the seemingly little, daily knocks against boys that grind down the seed in them that should rise up inside battleproof men.
Here’s a spontaneous list of grinders and crumblers:
* Be careful
* Don’t get dirty
* Look after your clothes
* Don’t push
* Get down from there
* Don’t touch
* Don’t cry
* Why did you do that?
Add to these that disapproving look passed down from previous generations; high-fives (but no hugs); dismissive comments about boy’s hobbies; always answering their questions; public scoldings and general bubblewrapping - we are well on the way to atomizing the heart and core of our men.
Of those men I know who have cheated on their wives, I was not surprised by a single one. I even predicted one over a year before it happened, and sensed it was happening a month before it was confessed. These men were nagged. Stood over. They were joked about and belittled. They were bubbling and fuming for some time.
Boys need to be loved, but I’ll argue they want to be trusted more.
That time of year is here. Christmas. Not Christmas Day, but Christmastime. It has its perks. Its moments.
For me, among other things, it’s a time I understand again who I am close to and who I am far from. Certain people come to mind. Other’s don’t. My hurts are sorer and my smile is wider at Christmastime.
It’s a time to swim and sleep and skate. I like to see Christmastime through the eyes of many people. Those who purchase it, avoid it, drink their way through it and a small number who even celebrate it.
Ten years back, we shared boxing day with dear friends in York. We were all childless and slim. We ate duck in a smoke enhanced room on Rose Street, near the Nestle factory.
There’s a month.