Monty’s library selections last week were as follows:
The Bird Atlas by Barbara Taylor
Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds by PJ Higgins
Encyclopaedia of aquarium and pond fish by David Alderton
The sausage roll maker by Sophia Young
Finding Australian birds: a field guide to birding locations by Tim Dolby
A beginner’s guide to terrarium gardening: succulents, air plants, cacti, moss, and more! by Sueko Katsuji
Bug: the ultimate gardener’s guide to organic pest control by Tim Marshall
Yes, at five he has developed a wide range of interests and hobbies suitable for a forty-three year old.
With Christmas on the horizon Monty’s mind has turned to what treasures he might receive. Thus far he has humbly requested the following: a terrarium building kit, a guide book for building ponds and a recipe book that might teach him how to make curries.
Yes, Monty had burgeoning cooking skills; he loves to experiment in the kitchen and the ‘Monty salad’ is famously polarizing in our family – cucumber (roughly chopped), ripe tomatoes (diced), 100s and 1000s and finished off with native violets freshly picked. The perfect accompaniment to any meal.
Monty’s palate matches his hobbies; he guzzles home-made kombucha, loves coffee foam and enjoys nothing more than tucking into a big bowl of mushrooms.
But he has a restraint uncharacteristic of a five year old. Last Halloween he Trick or Treated for one and a half streets before declaring “I have enough” and walking home. Half-muffins are routinely left on plates ‘for later’ and a box of Tic-Tacs will last all year.
He shows no such restraint with his hair however, which is currently pink with a long plait dangling down over his face. His hair, he declares, will not be cut until it is well beyond his bottom. Recently, while swimming in the local pool, a girl paddled over to Monty and asked him why his hair is pink; “because it looks awesome” he replied and paddled away. Touché.
Monty loves birds and currently goes nowhere without his ‘Birds of Australia’ guidebook under his arm and his binoculars slung around his neck. Whilst visiting his grandma last week Monty pointed out the birds printed on her dining room chairs are not Sulphur Crested Cockatoos (as has always been presumed) but are in fact the lesser known Major Mitchell’s variety.
He loves sloths, puzzles, National Geographic documentaries, eating herbs and kale directly from their plants like a goat, and his favourite records are (in order): The Kids are Coming (Tones and I), Graceland (Paul Simon), Welcome to the Madhouse (Tones and I).
Monty does not want to learn how to ride a bike. We have been out together four times with his new bike, evocatively named the GT Stomper. On each occasion he has hoped the bike might propel itself forward without the requirement for him to pedal. On our last such fruitless effort I displayed some sub-par parenting and, in a frustrated tone, said something to the effect of “why did we buy you this bike if you don’t want to ride it?” As Monty wandered off in the direction of the car he calmly called over his shoulder “I dont know. I didn’t ask for it.” Which is completely true.
This is a hip dude at the peak of his game who knows what he likes, what he doesn’t like, and what he has no time for. All critical life attributes that most of us take decades to work through.
The Hellratz started the match with 4 players, a classic Alpha move. In fact for a brief period there were more grandparents in attendance than players. Milo arrived 5th and so strolled directly into the starting 5 (after hugging his grandma).
Hellratz were without Stretch for this one, but with the Wyld Stallyns small, slashing line-ups the analytics probably would have pointed to extended rest for the lanky rim protector anyway. In his place we welcomed back Smilez, another junior member of the squad growing in confidence week by week. Don’t let the perpetual smile fool you, he is ready to do whatever is necessary to get a Hellratz W, including cuddling the opposition.
The most noteworthy aspect of the Stallyns unit in the early going was their coach. Some people might say his approach was somewhat more direct and forceful than is required for the world of under 10s basketball.. But those people would be losers. Coach Stallyn knows where he wants his squad to be and Coach Stallyn is prepared to make the aggressive, outlandish, arguably abusive public pronouncements required to get them there. Coach Stallyn was wearing red bike shorts under his other, also athletic shorts and a Woody Harrelson-esque tank top which suggested he had just come from his game, or was on his way there after dealing with the upstart Hellratz. Although I fear it was neither.
The Hellratz quickly established their groove, raining buckets on the Stallyns like there had been an explosion in a nearby bucket factory which caused many of those buckets to be flung into the air, only to shortly thereafter rain down on people standing around in the nearish vicinity.
Although I did not attend training this week in either a journalistic or ‘hanging around waiting for my son’ capacity, it is clear the theme of the week was pivot foot. One, two, sometimes seven times the Hellratz propped and pivoted, this way and that, flouting the three second rule, bamboozling the Stallyns. “Take it! Take the ball Keith!” Coach Stallyn would yell with increasing ferocity. But Keith could not take the ball. He slapped helplessly at air as Smoov and The Big Fundamental pivoted around, sometimes in a full circle, before making the perfect pass for The Magic Man or Pocket Lightning to finish in the lane.
Towards the end of the second half Milo found himself the recipient of one such pass; a crisp, wrist snapper from Smoov. In a classic example of Squircle Offence Milo was perfectly positioned somewhere towards the middle of the key with his back to the hoop.
He was wide. open.
In one smooth motion Milo spun around and caressed the ball into the air. Up, up it went with an atypical sideways rotation. The crowd gasped, Milo held his breath, Coach Stallyn yelled and then, just as it reached the climax of its journey, I am pretty sure the ball looked at me and winked before splashing through the twine.
Well, the roof of the stadium literally turned into confetti and tumbled down upon us all as the multiple grandmas roared in unison, the disgruntled siblings looked up from there ipads and smiled and even Coach Stallyn nodded with a you did good look of respect. The rest of the Ratz, intuitively understanding the gravity of the moment turned towards Milo and celebrated with him, The Big Fundamental even reaching down to give him a cuddle at the free throw line. Delightful stuff.
The second half saw the Stallyns increasingly ignore their coach’s carefully considered directives “Run! Make Space! Help him! Spread out! Run!”, and they did so to their detriment. Due to their lack of running, space making, helping, spreading and running the Hellratz ran riot. It must be said Milo missed several defensive assignments in the second half due to his skipping and double arm windmilling but he can be forgiven for this week only. He will need to quickly put that swish behind him and look to next week as the match-ups get tougher, and the coaching more nuanced.
One small postscript; in the dying stages, with the game well under control there was a moment of exasperation between The Baby Faced Assassin, not known for gesticulation or indignation, and Magic Man. Magic, dribbling at full speed on a fast break missed an opportunity to feed the ball to the Assassin for an easy lay-up and instead faded out of bounds and hurled the ball into the side of the backboard. Magic Man, to his credit, acknowledged his error, but this is something we will need to keep an eye on in coming days and months.
Final score, Hellratz 26 – Wyld Stallyns 10
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Welcome everybody to another season of Hellratz basketball. The team looks rested and feisty after a short break and ready to take on the challenges that await them in this shortened summer season. There’s no doubt the Hellratz surprised a lot of pundits during the long, arduous winter season, during which undershirts and in-game tracksuit pants abounded, but there will be no surprises this time around. Everybody knows what the Hellratz are about and the whole league will be out to knock them from their lofty perch.
Critically the front office has done a wonderful job of keeping the group together so we will be running it back as they say, with the same line-up that the loyal group of sideline-parents and disgruntled younger siblings in attendance against their will have come to know and love. By way of quick recap here is the unit on hand for round 1:
The Magic Man – Audacious, competitive. Never saw a shot he didn’t like, or couldn’t make.
The Big Fundamental – All foot-work and focus. Not afraid to put his body on the line for the Hellratz.
Baby-faced Assassin – Smoothest jump-shot in the comp. Heart rate oscillates between 55 and 57 bpm.
Stretch – Intimidating length, calm and reliable. A feared inside presence.
Pocket Lightning – His age is a mystery. Legend has it not yet 5, but absolute electricity across the pine.
TheBoss – Representative player and coach. She demands excellence and receives it.
The Prodigy – Assistant coach, mentor, hype-guy.
Milo – The protagonist of this story, and one of the junior squad members. Given the Hellratz rookie squad is under 10s Milo has a full 5 more seasons to compete at this level. He and Pocket Lightning are undoubtedly the future of this franchise and, pending injury and general disinterest, could form a special combination for years to come.
Well, the Deadly Dojo looked sharp in the warmups. Despite their legendary focus and professionalism, the Hellratz couldn’t help but take an envious look down the court. Really nice Dikembe-era Hawks-like uniforms, and multiple flash haircuts including undercuts, mini-mullets and arguably even a squirt or two of hair gel. The Hellratz unis are mining-industry orange interspersed inexplicably with multiple shades of blue. Yuck.
Smoov aside (whose style is irrepressible), top to bottom utilitarian haircuts under the Hellratz hoop. Deadly Dojo won the early instagram battle.
Once the ball was tipped (or gently passed in from the sideline as is the practice of our times) it was clear there is to be no season 2 hangover for the Hellratz. The Magic Man took over early, relentlessly dribbling this way and that through the entire Deadly Dojo squad, launching high arching bombs from all corners, delivering his signature ‘come and get it’ hand-gesture celebration. The Baby-Face Assassin, looking passive and possibly asleep swished everything he touched, involved team-mates with crisp passing and suffocated his man on defence.
When he wasn’t comparing heights with Milo (he has grown a little in the off season) Pocket Lightning was everywhere, leaving little tracks of fire behind him as he burned around the court, stealing, dribbling and generally terrorising everybody. Pocket Lightning’s signature moment came in the period shortly after the half time siren had sounded. Deadly Dojo’s power forward had not heard the siren, was delighted to see a wide open lane appear in front of him and dribbled apace towards the hoop. Pocket Lightning, giving up three quarters of a body length in height, pursued and harassed him for 15 seconds, achieving a held-ball while everybody else had already sat down for half-time water and Minecraft chat.
Interestingly, not content to rest on their season 1 success, The Boss and The Prodigy have implemented two significant tactical amendments to the summer game plan. Firstly, in the half court the Hellratz have adopted the legendary 90s Bulls-era triangle offence. However, the structure has been astutely modified to better suit the Hellratz style of play. Rather than a triangle they form more of a flattened squircle around the three point line which moves and oozes this way and that until somebody decides to jack up a shot. Borderline unstoppable.
Secondly the Hellratz have taken on a straight line Uruk-hai inspired defence, with devastating effect. They form a straight line, spread out across the width of the the court just their side of half-way. There they lie in wait for the opposition to dribble tentatively forward. As soon as the poor ball handler crosses that half-way line there is no going back. The Hellratz descend, hollering and waving their arms around, and amidst the ordered chaos the ball-handler is overwhelmed, generally flinging it to The Magic Man or Pocket Lightning who finish things off at the other end. It is like a half-court trap with more terror, and may revolutionize basketball.
Well, the second half was more one way traffic. The Big Fundamental took over as he usually does when energy begins to flag and discipline evaporates. Fundamentals deliver in the 39th minute as they do in the 1st. Jump shot, lay-up, jump shot, including a beautiful swish from 15 feet into the opponent’s hoop. The Big Fundamental was somewhat dismayed by his oversight but he needn’t have been, it was yet another glorious display of technique and focus.
Any opportunities that the Deadly Dojo briefly identified in the second half were hunted down by the prowling pair of Stretch and Smoov, and snuffed out by superior length and athleticism.
A final note on our protagonist. It would appear Milo has de-prioritised tucking his arms inside his singlet for warmth this season and is starting to deliver on his significant potential as a feared defensive stopper. His focus and increased confidence were notable, involving himself with timely passing and smothering, demonic efforts on the defensive end. Milo scored two baskets in his debut season and is hungry for more this summer. Based on what we saw in game one, Milo would be a strong overs bet and the future is bright.
Final score, Hellratz 33 – Deadly Dojo10
Which shows length and switchability on the wings will beat sweet haircuts and classy uniforms every day of the week.
Subscribe for more Hellratz updates as the summer season hots up.
People choose to take on the role of full-time parent, long or short-term, for all sorts of reasons. People are also lured back to their careers for all sorts of reasons; money, boredom, stage of life, morning teas. One important reason that I think is not discussed or acknowledged enough is the basic human need for compliments.
Children are generally not great at delivering positive feedback. The meals I deliver day in and day out to my boys are always critically evaluated. As they chew, they hold their little fists out perpendicular to their bodies like mini Caesars of Rome. My teeth clench, my eyes widen in anticipation and my heart sinks as their little thumbs plunge downwards. Sometimes I am rewarded with a horizontal thumb and very occasionally I get one that briefly hovers around 10 o’clock before settling back at the 9. My dancing is the subject of derision and scorn, Monty now thinks I am only the third best Lego builder in the house (he is not right about that) and last month Milo said I look ‘okay’ but I would be much better looking if I had hair.
As for adult feedback, I assure you the only time adults-in-public ever notice your parenting is when your child has opened a box of spaghetti and is making pasta angels on the floor of aisle 3, or when they hold up the ice cream queue by asking for 5 samples, including the rainbow twice… just to be sure.
No, during the day your moments of parental pride are almost always achieved alone. Yes! Negotiated Milo’s birthday party list down by 4 without causing any playground fallout. Yes! Managed to brush Monty’s hair while convincing him it will not impact his long-term ambition to have dreadlocks. Yes! Convinced Milo for the 7th straight week to go to Coding Class while he begged for a week off only to hear what a great time he had afterwards. Yes! Super-glued Monty’s water bottle lid back together for the 3rd time. Yes! Found and returned 12 Minecraft books to the library the day before they are overdue. Yes! Resolved an argument over the last banana by eating it myself.
Fist bumping yourself gets boring, and your knuckles get sore.
The workplace has all sorts of structures and systems in place to ensure people are regularly given feedback and praise for their work. Admittedly these compliments are often bland and meaningless, but that steady, nurturing flow can usually be relied upon in some form, and it is good for morale. But expecting or delivering compliments for positive, creative, effective or just brave parenting is largely taboo. Parenting is seen as an expected, almost universal skill, and the day-to-day grind of its execution nothing remarkable. To receive thanks or acknowledgement is one thing. But to receive a compliment for your skill or perseverance is, I think, something else altogether.
Last week I was standing at the supermarket check-out with Monty, loading our groceries onto the conveyor and discussing the relative merits of chicken wings versus chicken thighs, while I simultaneously rebuffed his varied requests for chocolate, Chupa Chups and New Idea Magazines from the evil end-cap of temptation. Mid-load I looked up at the 18 year old check-out chap, who was sporting a nice wispy moustache and a passive expression (as is the style du jour), to say hello and without warning he said to me “you’re a really good dad.”
“Thanks” I said. But, caught off guard, I had teared up a little. He noticed this, found it weird, and we continued the rest of the transaction in silence. But his compliment had lodged itself in my cerebral cortex, and was perhaps more resonant than any I have received during 20 years of structured feedback sessions in the office. As Monty and I walked back to our bicycle, I squeezed his hand and grinned.
Parenting is confusing, confounding, confuddling and sometimes even contorting. It is a constant work-in-progress, with each day filled by numerous little wins and a roughly equal number of little losses. It is generally impossible to know if you are winning. I think therefore that when we witness good (or even slightly better than competent) parenting we should all be more comfortable delivering compliments; to friends, family and to strangers with children in the airport security queue. Especially to strangers with children in the airport security queue.
All humans need compliments; and perhaps at certain moments white-knuckled, solo child-wranglers need them more than most. So, if an opportunity arises, be free and loose with a parental compliment. It will be more impactful than you think.
When your baby is tiny they ask no questions. As they grow into something slightly more human-like they begin to notice the inconsistent, confusing and weird world around them and look to you, their all-knowing oracle, for guidance and explanation.
Their first questions are like this; “Daddy, where is my foot?”
You say “oh my darling”, show them, maybe give it a little tickle, and feel smug that you know where all the major limbs are on a human body and they do not.
Then without warning, one day, while eating a Cruskit with peanut butter… “Daddy, what’s a soul?”
“Huh?” you say, spitting out the bit of Cruskit that you had fished up off the ground absentmindedly and popped into your mouth. And so it begins, the deeply humbling realisation that you know almost nothing about anything.
For the last few months I have been noting down the quite reasonable questions Monty has been asking me, questions for which a fully-formed adult human should have a reasonable response, and questions for which I have, unfortunately, been providing entirely half-assed answers. Here they are:
“Daddy, why does the teaspoon float on the water?”
“Well, you know it’s because the void space in the spoon is displacing more volume of water than, you know, it’s own volume. Yeah, so, surface tension. You know?”
“Daddy, how does a sleep apnea device work?”
“Well, it gives you more oxygen which helps you sleep.”
“How does that help you sleep?”
“Well, oxygen is pretty good isn’t it? I mean, particularly good for sleep right? So, that’s how it helps you sleep.”
“Daddy, what is that little plastic circle thing on your COVID mask?”
“It’s a filter.”
“What is the rest of the mask?”
“Oh, that’s also a filter.”
“Well, what’s the plastic bit for?”
“Um, that’s to get air in… or out.”
“Daddy, why are prawn tails good for chickens to eat?”
“Well, calcium. Yeah, it’s the calcium in the prawn tails and that’s good for chickens. Pretty sure that’s what it is.”
“Daddy, why are those clouds so low?”
“Umm, it depends on atmospheric conditions… you know, temperature, pressure and maybe, you know, altitude.”
“Daddy, why is the iced tea so foamy?”
“Well that’s because you shook it up and, umm, sent all the air bubbles out of it and, umm, into the foam.”
“Daddy, what’s that slippery ultrasound stuff for?”
“Umm, well, it helps the machine see through your skin I guess, or helps the wand slide back and forth. One of those… or both.”
“Daddy, how does a tornado get formed?”
“Low pressure. Yup, the low pressure forms a cone thing, with wind. And that’s a tornado.”
“Daddy, how do frogs breathe through their skin?”
“Well, it’s all about permeability isn’t it? Wait, frogs breathe through their skin?”
I challenge you to play mini-golf with a child and not give them tips on their game. Like singing the chorus to Informer by Snow, or saying no to an arancini ball, it’s impossible.
My brother and I, who would both like to think of ourselves as relaxed, non-obsessive dads, recently played a round with our four boys, and by the third hole we had both fallen into the irresistible trap of mini-golf parenting.
The problem is little children suck at mini-golf. They hold the club around the wrong way, they constantly forget if they are left, right or one handed, they swing wildly and aggressively with absolute disregard for Newton’s Second Law of Motion, they mix their grips up so their hands are crossed over like they’re in a straight-jacket, they push the ball along like they are brooming leaves, they constantly stand directly in front of each other, they take absolute liberties with the ‘club-head away from the edge’ rule, and sometimes it just seems they have completely forgotten the basic premise of the game. They suck.
And an adult can only abide such mini-golfing atrocities for so long.
We restrained ourselves for three holes but eventually a supportive parent seeks to correct and improve via unsolicited feedback; in a gentle and constructive manner of course.
“Hey, maybe look at the ball while you are swinging aggressively in its direction.”
“Have you thought about pointing the club away from your foot?”
“Weren’t you right-handed a minute ago?”
“Woah, probably would be easier to hit the ball if your hands weren’t crossed over like an octopus.”
“Why are you standing on top of the concrete Statue of Liberty?”
“Isn’t the hole that way?”
“Did you not see your cousin standing directly in front of you as you were bringing your club head back like a champion wood chopper?”
“Did you not see your cousin bringing back his club head like a champion wood chopper? Why are you standing directly in front of him?”
“Do you remember the basic objective of this game?”
“Do any of you care about your handicaps?”
We told ourselves the feedback was for them, not us. They would certainly enjoy themselves more if they played a little better, right? Then they would have more fun! Yes, fun is the objective. There is no chance any of them are going to join the Vegas mini-golf tour with its lucrative powdered orange juice endorsements and its all-you-can-eat frankfurter buffets, right? So what else is there but fun?
Well, they did not appreciate our feedback.
By the 5th hole they were grumbling and telling us to be quiet and by the 7th we had a full mini-golf mutiny on our hands.
“Yes I prefer playing with one hand!”
“No I don’t want to line up my club head perpendicular to my shoulders!”
“You’re not a mini-golf professional anyway so what do you know?!”
“You are the worst dads we have ever had!”
To avoid a complete walk off we agreed to withhold our constructive feedback for the rest of the round, and for the most part we did. We focused on our own scores and passively watched them bumbling around the course; spanking their balls onto the footpath, brooming this way and that for 12s on par 2s, periodically whacking each other in the shins, helicoptering their clubs around single-handed, playing holes backwards and some of them not at all. Not once did any of them even attempt one of the 7 classic putting grips as laid out in the PGA handbook.
Their scores were atrocious and barely warranted tallying. But I must admit they did appear to be having a lot of fun.
So, now I can’t shake the slightly uneasy feeling that my mini-golf feedback may not in fact be confined to the hallowed astro-turf greens of the Holey Moley links. It is decidedly possible that we are constantly dispensing enthusiastic, perhaps over-earnest advice that is at best unnecessary, and at worst unwanted. It is possible we are diminishing their fun.
It seems unreasonable and unfair that parenting should be so complicated, that even our best-intentioned efforts could prove counter-productive. So what are us parents to do?
I think, in fact, that simply being there on the mini-golf fairway with them is the best our children can hope for, and the most we should expect of ourselves. And if they choose a lifetime of mini-golf mediocrity, and they never get to taste the sweetness of a free frankfurter buffet, then that is their misguided choice to make.
I don’t know why I support the Canberra Raiders, I think it’s a childhood disease of the blood. Objectively, there is not much to like about this life choice: disappointment, cold fingers and luminescent colours that look good with nothing. But I do, and I fear I have passed this disease onto my five year old. And like all genetic family quirks that we hand down, I feel a confused combination of shame, regret and elation.
Monty’s first Raiders game was about a month ago. We sat in the sun, the Raiders scored constantly, there were flame throwers, a big horn going off all the time, the lady behind us gave Monty a voucher for free chips, green wigs and fairy floss. We even had an ice cream. This was an inauthentic experience and, I fear, a desperately dangerous manner in which to commence a relationship with the ‘Green Machine’.
So last week when I was discussing the possibility of travelling to Parramatta for the Qualifying Final Monty’s ears pricked up. “Ooh is that rugba league dad?” he asked, using the correct pronunciation, “the Green Machine? I’d like to come!” Well, what can you say to that? I asked Milo if he too would like to come. He looked at us both with a smirk that said enjoy yourself losers, replied “No” and returned to his book.
So off we went; a bright Friday afternoon full of promise. We packed light to remain nimble – 12 Dr Seuss books, the educational boardgame ‘Sum Swamp’, two soft blankets, three stuffed toys (Slothy, Grogu and Blue Bear), A3 paper in a variety of colours, and two lime green jumpers.
We arrived mid-afternoon at a salubrious purveyor of temporary accommodation in central Parramatta, our dwelling for the evening. I will protect the modesty of this establishment by withholding its name but certainly crimes have been committed there; both reported and un-reported. As we opened the door we were greeted with what I initially thought to be the whiff of stale cigarettes, but then soon after more accurately identified as stale urine. All of the various door and drawer handles came loose when you pulled gently on them, the beds were so concave you could play that marble game where it spins around and around endlessly, we had a beautiful view of the carpark and I wouldn’t even let Monty set foot in the bathroom. But he loved it.
“Ooh I love our hotel dad. I think this is the best hotel we have been in. Oh, my bed’s better because I have a beautiful view out the window (NB. of the carpark) but yours is better because you are in front of the TV etc etc.” Which of course goes to show, all of life’s rich experiences are deeply contextual.
We played some hide and seek, which is stressful when you don’t want your child to touch any of the soft furnishings. I terminated the game after I tried to hide under the ‘desk’ and it collapsed – like when you have half assembled some IKEA furniture using only the dowels – and we struck out to find food and rugba league.
After a quick meal on Church Street we joined the various lime and yellow tributaries that were flowing together to form a stream towards the stadium. Monty was well below the surface of this stream and clung tight to my hand. The sun was dropping and soon Monty, with his unique perspective, noticed the giant fruit bats that inhabit the skies of Sydney every evening in the warmer months, swooping and gliding. Captivated, he began to count as they drifted past, eyes glued to the sky, and the next time he looked down we were standing at the foot of the gleaming, disco-lit stadium. “woah – this is different to Canberra Stadium dad!” he exclaimed. Umm, yup.
We navigated our way up the stairs and through the cavernous walkways, Monty skipping ahead to explore and steal views of the grass and the lights. Eventually we arrived at our seats and I quickly realised a key flaw in my planning. I had purchased seats in the front row, which also happened to be directly behind a television camera. Monty could not see over the barrier without assistance, and even then the camera obscured 90% of our view. We were banking on multiple tries in the left corner, I mean right in the corner, to ensure we had a view of anything. Parramatta was running our direction in the first half, and those who happened to watch the game will know that we got our wish.
As we approached half time Monty, who had been on my lap for an hour or more, was less sitting on and more clinging to me. He looked somewhat overstimulated, and I could see he was starting to tune into the general restlessness of the great green mass that swayed around us. “It’s a bit noisy dad.” he said. I agreed and asked whether he would like to go home at half time. After a moment of consideration he agreed that might be a good idea because afterall we could still watch it on TV, or maybe Hey Duggy (which he charmingly calls Hey Doggy), or maybe read Dr Seuss.
So as half time arrived I levered us up out of our seat, enjoying the exquisite sensation of blood once again flowing unencumbered through my femoral arteries, and picked our way through the crowd. Around us middle aged men had taken to their feet, looking down forlornly, self consciously smoothing their jumpers with their hands as they wondered if lime green was, in fact, as flattering as they had always believed it to be.
The bats had evidently arrived where they were going, so the skies were clear as were strolled back to our luxurious dwelling. Only once were we the recipient of drive-by yelling “better luck next year!”, but I sensed at least a sprinkling of genuine sympathy to it; I think that’s what you get when you are accompanied by a little green person with angelic blonde ringlets.
Back at the hotel I was not surprised to learn we only had three television stations, and none of them were showing the rugba league. Probably for the best. So instead we watched Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom (I am 100% sure the first time it has ever been enjoyed in that room), read some Dr Seuss, brushed teeth (I brought the toothbrush to him) and fell very swiftly to sleep.
We recently purchased a small outdoor pizza oven as we thought it would add authentic, interesting, interactive culinary experiences to our children’s lives, and delicious pizzas to ours. So far, after one attempt, we have achieved a small fire and three ‘accidental calzones’.
I started mid-afternoon on Friday; Milo still at school, Monty my little pizza padawan. We rode the Flame Bike to the IGA to purchase an array of authentic ingredients that cost vastly more than our usual Friday night pizzas. We assembled homemade passata from scratch; Monty harvesting the pathetic miniscule basil remnants that had survived the winter and chopping it up. We prepared our pizza dough by hand (more or less) according to the recipe. I say ‘prepared’ but it was more like we coaxed it gently to life; the recipe was full of evocative words like ‘breathing’, ‘resting’, ‘springing’, ‘growing’. The dough was highly temperamental and moved forward strictly according to its own desires and timeframes. It would not be rushed.
Perhaps it was because the dough had seized my initiative, but while it slowly luxuriated I became disgruntled and lost interest in the instructions. This was a mistake.
I woke it from its slumber after 45 minutes. Jeepers – does it really need an hour of R&R before I can cook it? Yes apparently.
I broke the temperamental mass up into a few roughly similar-sized amoeba-looking globules and wondered how I was supposed to know how much dough each pizza might need. Does it matter? Maybe it doesn’t matter? I would easily have been able to answer this had I flipped the page. Yes it matters, very much. In fact one must deploy a small weigh scale to ensure consistency. The phrase roughly similar sized amoeba-shaped globules does not feature in the instructions. I know this now. The exactly weighed pieces of dough are in fact to be formed into precise and identical ‘doughballs’ – the dough is ‘balled’ to use a verb that has been fabricated from a perfectly good noun. The ball is to be smooth and stretched, and light and dense and balloon like and sealed and matte and shiny. Oh also one must ‘prove’ the dough after balling, and some higher end recipes even call for a pre-ball and post-ball proving. I knew nothing of any of this then, and having now read the instructions I continue to know nothing of any of this.
My other quite significant oversight was buying exactly 1kg of flour as the recipe called for, such that I had none for scattering or dusting or rolling or tossing or sprinkling or balling or proving. Again, I wondered if such flamboyant flour activities were a nice to have. I decided, yes, probably non-essential, and continued on smooshing my unweighed, undusted, completely unproven, unstretched and unloved masses of unballed pizza dough around our entirely utilitarian, jack-of-all-trades, non-artisanal, not-fit-for-purpose wooden chopping board.
Satisfied with my smooshing, I levered up the ugly masses and deposited them on separate plates for the boys to load up with non-conventional topping combinations. In hindsight I do recall noting how sticky and unwieldy these masses were at this point, and how rather unleverable they had become. I ignored my nagging sense of impending catastrophe and, well, cracked on. Of all the brainless choices I made which, when laid end to end, could have only had ‘small pizza fire’ as their outcome, smearing the sticky dough puddles onto ceramic plates with ridges around the outside and then allowing them to be drowned in passata, pineapple, salami, mozzarella, more mozzarella, more mozzarella, pineapple, was among the most brainless.
Well, the rest of this story is obvious so I won’t labour it. With the boys literally skipping, and hugging, and dancing right behind me I started with Milo’s. Of course, undusted, unproven and dangerously over its design weight, Milo’s pizza had no interest in separating itself from its comfortable plate. The instructions called for me to ‘confidently’ slide the ‘pizza peel’ (big paddle thing) underneath the dough. I think the only positive thing I can say about my dough was that it could smell fear. My confident peeling therefore made no difference whatsoever and I soon had a heaped pile of coagulated dough and eclectic pizza toppings perched precariously on the edge of the peel, tangled and not at all happy with their cohabitation.
I had shielded the unfolding pizza atrocity from the boys with my body, so they continued to skip and salivate. With a resigned shrug of my shoulders, I looked back once more at my beaming children and pushed the heaped mass into the fiery jaws of our pizza oven, with great, inconsequential, confidence.
The sticky mass clung onto the front of the 400 degree pizza stone like a cat into a carrier, tumbled over itself a little and then immediately burst into flames. Now I was on the clock. What is the optimum time for a quasi-pizza-ball to be on fire in order to minimise salami incineration and maximise the percentage of vaguely-cooked dough? I went with about 45 seconds, then desperately scraped the assimilated Borg-like memory-of-pizza out of the oven and presented it to Milo. Having repeated this terrifying process twice more we all sat down together to eat.
These two delightful children ate with gusto, only rejecting the truly charred, and stopping to compliment the moderately charred.
“You know,” said Milo between bites “some pizzas are really fancy, you know? But I love this one, it might be my favourite ever. It’s like, because you have no idea what you are doing, it’s not fancy at all, and that’s great.”
Which proves, that although most of the time parenting is like being whacked unsympathetically in the face with a damp hessian bag full of onions, once in a while… just once in a while, it is the loveliest and most uplifting pursuit you can spend your days and years pursuing.
If you want a lesson in supply and demand in which scarcity is the driving force, like buying a battered, brownish $6 banana after a cyclone in Queensland, then try skiing in Australia. If you really want to be humbled, bankrupted and demoralised, take your children with you.
We attempted this recently; enrolling Milo and Monty in ski school for the first time, buying them four days of lift passes because absolutely there was zero chance they would not be cruising down blue runs by mid-week blowing kisses and high fiving each other, we purchased cute ski suits for each of them, gloves, boots, woolen socks. We were even close to buying one of those plastic bubble things you put on your roof for skis and other such alpine things, like skiing families have. Yup, we were going to be a ski family and live happily ever after.
The first morning we woke up early because, given we didn’t book our accommodation in 1986, we were staying in Jindabyne. Bad signs early; moans from the children, suggestions we should ski tomorrow, suits were uncomfortable, what are those strap things for on the pants? boots are too hot, will it be cold? can we have hot chocolate without skiing? To be fair, weather looked ominous, and increased its ominousness as we ascended the mountain (which can only be considered a mountain in relative, not absolute terms).
Arrived at the hire place. Boys put their ski boots on for the first time and looked at us with an expression that could only be translated as “what the fuck are these all about?” It’s a fair question and I could not give a cogent answer. Yup, they are super uncomfortable, weirdly angled, impossible to walk in and terrible for your ankle health. Put them on and get ready for fun! The upbeat atmosphere we were trying to maintain became quickly unmaintainable as we stepped out into the fresh mountain air and were blown forcefully back into the hire place. We gathered ourselves, said our goodbyes to the hire ladies for a second time then, unperturbed, again forced open the swinging door and stepped out into the squall, boys teetering around like they had just dismounted after a 5 day horse trek.
We quickly arrived at one of those terrifying, icy metal staircases with those tiny spikes that are supposed to enhance grip but only provide a convenient surface upon which icicles can readily form. Monty looked at me and with his eyes told me that even in good weather, in sneakers, he would find it difficult to walk down that staircase but now he was in a blizzard and he was wearing rigid, slippery boots that meant he could only walk like a Lego man. I silently told him I understood and grabbed his arm firmly.
We navigated our way precariously up through the well groomed, icy mud pathway that led to the ski school, otherwise known as patch of ice with some orange cones around it, the wind literally blowing small children over to our left and right. Upon arrival we were dismayed but not surprised to be greeted by a complete lack of signage or information. We stood around hopelessly until Bryn glided up to us and asked what our boys could do on skis. “Nothing” we both said. Bryn laughed, we did not. Bryn then scribbled their names down in his notebook and asked me whether they had any dietary requirements. I considered this an odd question and wondered whether Bryn had a packet of peanuts in his pocket which he intended to use as rewards, and wanted to understand his anaphylaxis risk.
We helped the boys onto their skis and shoved them in Bryn’s general direction, before backing away slowly. “Surely this is impossible” we said to each other in an admiring tone “how can Bryn possibly take care of all of these children?”
Of course it was, and Bryn didn’t.
We retreated to a safe distance, out of view. Kuepps joined a 45 minute queue for coffee, because obviously there is only one machine on the mountain. I looked around at all the people in my vicinity drinking hard at 1030 in the morning. I presumed most of them don’t ordinarily drink straight Jaegermeister or pints of apple cider before lunch, and wondered why they had made the decision to do so today; now that, compared to their regular days, the chance of crashing into a tree at significant speed with no protection whatsoever had increased by, I don’t know, 100 times. Perhaps I was missing something.
I saw Monty get blown over, then Milo. I saw them walk up a small hill with one ski on, then I saw them both get blown over again. I saw some of the group ski awkwardly back down that small hill. Monty had zero skis on now and Milo was throwing snow balls at him. Then I saw Monty lie down in the snow. Then I saw Milo trying to escape. Bryn belatedly went after him and seemed to talk him into returning to the coned off icy area. I saw Milo sit down next to Monty then I didn’t see much else after that. Bryn wandered up to them once or twice and unless the lesson was ‘sit there in the freezing snow with no skis on and look sad’ I don’t think Bryn was moving them forward according the curriculum.
Kuepps eventually returned with tepid coffees and looked over at the boys, still sitting in the snow not learning to ski. With fresh eyes Kuepps asked an obvious question “how long have they been sitting there?” Quite a while I said… “perhaps we should check on them” she suggested sensibly and headed off to investigate.
Shortly thereafter Kuepps returned with two popsicle stick children, tears and snot frozen to their pink little faces. “I thought Bryn had it under control” I said limply, probably not the first to overestimate Bryn, and we began the process of hauling our rigid children and their pile of equipment back to the car.
Thus ended Day 1 of ski school.
Day 2, Friday, again commenced early. Grey skies and whipping winds had given way to driving snow which we only discovered as we crossed the Thredbo River. This brought hoots of excitement from the back seat, and a general air of trepidation in the front seat. The snow went from pretty and interesting to concerning and problematic within 7 minutes, and by the time we arrived at the ‘snow chain’ police road block Kuepps and I were looking sideways at each other. We had received a thorough briefing on snow chain deployment from the teenager at the petrol station who was wearing a leather hat with attached ear warmers. However, despite our 45 seconds of experience we felt neither confident nor enthused. We pulled over and asked the boys whether they wanted to continue given the conditions. “No!” they said in unison then cheered when we agreed.
Thus ended Day 2 of ski school.
We returned to Jindabyne, swam in the hotel pool, played handball and ate burritos. In the afternoon we rented two taboggans for $15 each and headed back up the mountain to build snowmen, throw snowballs and fly down the ‘snow play’ hill at dangerous speeds. Exhausted we wandered across to the restaurant refuge for a hot chocolate, the boys waddling like overfilled dumplings. Tired and satisfied the boys smiled and covered themselves in molten marshmallow. Monty fell asleep in the car on the way back to Jindabyne.
On Day 3 (Saturday) we were stopped at a roadblock just outside Jindabyne by NSW Parks employees who told us the carparks were full and we couldn’t go up the mountain. Yes, as baffling as that might sound, this happens. In this situation many questions occur to you like; what about the lift passes? and ski school/ icy coned-off area? and ski hire and the many hundreds of dollars contained therein? But you don’t ask any of them because the person in front of you presumably did and yet still performed a miserable looking U-Turn and returned to Jindabyne. So you perform a miserable looking U-Turn and return to Jindabyne.
Thus ended Day 3 of Ski School.
On Day 4 (Sunday – our last day) we departed even earlier, determined to secure one of the 37 carparks in the National Park. We were graciously allowed entry into the Park in order to avail ourselves of the goods and services for which we had already spent thousands of dollars. We were very grateful for the privilege. The drive was scenic and outrageously slow; a full hour and a half from Jindabyne to Smiggins. Although we are civilized people nobody really trusts the good nature of their fellow travellers, and so everybody glides into the right lane whenever an overtaking lane appears lest somebody interpret it as a genuine opportunity to overtake at 8km per hour. And yet from time to time a Land Rover of some description would overtake on the inside lane, thus saving themselves 12 seconds. I found this approach intriguing given the aforementioned scarcity of carparks. One’s chances of ending up parked adjacent to an irked and frustrated fellow traveller seemed high to me, and therefore the usual anonymity of poor driving etiquette is lost. Also, everybody’s cars are filled with poles and skis and any number of projectiles which could be used for spontaneous carpark violence. Intriguing decision making.
Oh also there is no internet for the entire drive. How is that possible? Only 37 carparks, and no internet. And one coffee machine as I mentioned before… but this is a diary, not a list of grievances so we must move forward.
The sun was out, we secured a park and so managed to convince our boys to don their ridiculous boots, snap on their skis and have a go with us in the ‘magic carpet’ area. Both enjoyed themselves (although Milo would never admit it) and in the 30 minutes we held their attention, both improved a lot. Oh, we finally got a chance to use our lift passes (for the magic carpet) but they didn’t work. So we pulled or pushed the boys back up the hill each time which tired everybody out pretty swiftly.
We had time for another taboggan and departed before any significant injuries occurred, which we viewed as a great triumph.
On the long drive home we asked the boys to list their favourite things from the holiday. Here is their compiled list (in descending order):
Meeting the Fox Terrier with the interesting colouring;
Finding the long stick with the spikes all over it;
We have a small flock of urban chickens; Goose, Cluckles, Silas, Strawberries and Henri. They are ISA Browns, Rhode Island Reds and a Leghorn. Lovely. Recently we noticed Henri had a large bulge on her chest, more accurately an enlarged ‘crop’. Now, short chicken anatomy lesson – chickens are skittish creatures and eat whenever they get a chance and as fast as they can, always mindful that when their beaks are pointing down their juicy thighs are pointing up; enticing a python, or a baboon or a hungry human. They must eat fast and then flee, back into the jungle I guess. If they find a bountiful meal they need to ingest it much faster than it can be processed. Therefore chickens have a handy pouch above their stomach called a ‘crop’ which is basically your school bag at an all-you-can-eat Pizza Hut in 1994. Very convenient. From time to time a chicken’s crop can become blocked (food, infection, injury etc) and things can get nasty if the blockage is not cleared. Unfortunately this is exactly what happened to Henri.
My google diagnosis/ treatment advice led me to attempt all sorts of things, each more agricultural than the last, and most beyond my agri-suburban threshold (I wear old Palladium boots to collect the eggs afterall); massaging her chest, eye droppers with olive oil, apple cider vinegar in her water and finally hanging her upside down to allow the crop to drain out because (another fun poultry fact) chickens can’t vomit. This goes down exactly as you are imagining it, messily. The boys sensibly watched through glass from inside the living room.
After a few days it was apparent that our efforts were not serving to clear the blockage and Henri was now just sitting quietly in the shade, looking around at her wildly pecking and digging friends, and probably not feeling too wonderful. After a few phone calls we found an avian expert vet and so Monty and I packed Henri up into a cardboard box and drove her across town.
The vet was lovely and said the things we had been trying, although not without risk, were essentially the right remedies, and that unless he could clear the blockage there was no medicine that would make a difference. Henri would ultimately starve to death if we left her. He did not look hopeful as he carried Henri away but said he would use his ‘crop syringe’ to get some saline liquid right down into her crop, and do his best.
At this stage Monty was bored and was asking to go home. We had already discussed the possibility that if the vet couldn’t help Henri we might have to put her down, to avoid further suffering. He said he understood but in the 10 minutes that we sat together in the small consultation room he clearly hadn’t really processed that possible outcome.
The vet returned somewhat ashen faced (a genuine but well-practised look), said he too had been unable to get much out of the crop and that euthanasia was now the most humane step. I explained this mysterious word to Monty and he caught me by surprise with his immediate and desperate sobs.
It was clear to me from his reaction that Monty is not a psychopath. This is good, and something that a parent may go years not knowing for sure about their child.
Monty was bellowing loudly, rivulets running down his cheeks. The vet asked if I would like to ‘settle the account’ in the consultation room so we did not have to stand in the queue outside, I agreed. This is a very awkward, and unavoidable human transaction. I signed a consent form, tapped my credit card and then said goodbye to Henri. Monty and I gave her a nice back rub such that her little eyes closed for a moment, and then the vet took her away in her box.
I carried Monty to the car, sobbing quietly now, and strapped him in. It wasn’t long before he had fallen asleep, his cheeks tear-stained, his faced still anguished and his little body heaving up and down involuntarily every so often. But before he fell asleep we had both agreed that Henri had always had delicious food to eat, a warm spot to roost at night, and good friends to kick around with all day. And for that we were both glad.