Sunday, 27 June 2010

'Alongside' Conversations

Recently, I received a text message from my daughter. Verbatim, I quote…

‘Hey can you pick me up at like 4.15 and we can go for a drive yeah?? :)’.

She writes like she talks but… like there were not as many ‘likes’ as she like, usually like puts into her like normal-like speech patterns.

Do you resonate with what I’m… like, saying here?

Sometimes the best conversations occur when you are on your way somewhere. Let’s face it. The modern parent is a taxi service to their kids. And with my daughter being 17 years old, we are racking up the hours in her Learner Driver log book as well.

I find that no matter where we are at as dad and daughter (and sometimes that is a challenging place), driving alongside each other is pretty soothing. In Victoria (Australia), Learner Drivers have to spend 120 hours behind the wheel with a supervisor alongside them to be allowed to apply for their driver’s license. We could see that 120 hours as a massive hassle or, as an extraordinary opportunity.

What I am learning is that as we drive, there are quiet periods. Quite often my daughter will start talking about something a friend has said… something that is really capturing her at school – the important thing is that it comes from her first. It might be the motion of the car – it is carrying us somewhere – but talk can be different when we are side to side, not face to face.

As adults, often, we drive the discussion (if it can even be called a ‘discussion’). We bark the instructions and set the expectations. Leaving a gap for stuff to come up is key and even if your ‘parent-teenage child’ relationship is strained at times, I reckon regular ‘alongside’ time leaves that space for communication lines to have another channel.

Earlier this year, I read something on the day I started this Time & Space venture full-time. I was asked to consider what it is that I want to say to the world. Two things came to mind.

Firstly, we are not perfect. Our own parents were not perfect (and don’t we remember that), we are not perfect (and no doubt, our kids will remind us of this) and my prediction is that despite the fact that they currently believe that they will be the coolest parents to their own future kids, our children will not turn out to be perfect parents. We live in a world that assumes perfection - the media portrays images of super-parents and I believe that can put pressure on mums and dads trying their best with their kids. After all, my daughter gets 'L-Plates', then 'P-Plates' in her driver training but there is no license issued for being a parent!

The other thing I have to say is ‘half the battle is being there’. We may not be the most popular person in our kids’ lives every moment of the day but in time they will remember and put new meaning to how we hung in there and spent time alongside them.

Thanks for giving yourself the Time & Space to read this.

Bill Jennings

NB - Whenever I write about my kids, I always run the post past them first and get their 'OK' before I publish. Cheers, BJ.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Joe's son

My great friend of 20+ years, Tony, lost his dad Joe, on the 24th of June, 2009 at about 4.45am in the morning.

Tony and I are about the same age, in our forties and we met in 1989. The first thing I ever said to Tony was "Do you like a beer mate?" We were mates from that moment on.

Tony is from Sydney, I'm from Melbourne and how and where we met is a whole other story... suffice to say, we were part of a different year back then in 1989. Young people with ideals who were starting in a volunteers' program that saw me leaving my home to do my year in Sydney and Tony did the opposite - Sydney to Melbourne. We now live back in our own home towns. Over 21 years we have kept up contact and a great friendship has ensued. We often just talk about sport... lately we have been dissecting Australia's flagging fortunes in the FIFA World Cup.

I met Joe, Tony's dad, a couple of times. How would I describe him? Joe was old school. Practical. He was an 'unrevised' man... no modern 'sensitive, new-age' elements to Joe. An Aussie bloke who had endured his fair share of adversity in life and 'sucked it up' as they say in sporting circles. There was never any 'wordy' expression of sentiment from Joe. The last time I visited his place, travelling through with Tony... he gave Tony some chops.

"There you go, you've got your mate up from Melbourne... I got you some chops." Simple expressions, practical gifts.

On Joe's funeral booklet... a black & white photo from 1947 shows Joe and Barbara (who would become his wife) on one of their first dates walking through George Street in Sydney. Joe and Barbara are holding hands - she is beaming, her eyes are smiling. Joe can't hide half a smile curling up the right side of his mouth. He is looking sharp in his pinstripe suit. Tall, broad shoulders. She looks so pretty. A young couple in bliss.

Another photo shows Joe the footballer - Rugby League is the football code of the workers in New South Wales and Joe played over 100 games for the North Sydney Bears (who disappeared as a senior club in the 1990's). Joe is being tackled by a St George player. He has two hands on the ball and is about to pass it... one finger is sticking out from the ball. It was probably dislocated. As a forward, Joe took all the big hits - that was part of his role on the team. He endured a lot of injuries. Legend has it that in one game on the Sydney Cricket Ground, Joe was so badly cut that he was taken to St Vincent's hospital. These were in the days when a side could not replace players so the Bears were down to 12 men. Once they had stitched him up... Joe got in a taxi back to the ground and went out and played the last 15 minutes!

Those injuries are a powerful metaphor for the ones that didn't show as scars or dislocations in Joe's lot in life. They were deep within and restricted Joe's capacity to play the 'game of life' in a fully fit fashion.

Injury number 1 - Joe lost his son in motorcycle accident.

Injury number 2 - He lost Barbara too early - a long battle with cancer that eventually claimed her. Appreciate that Tony, the youngest of Joe's kids, lost his older brother and then his mum at sixteen. That is a lot for a young boy to endure.

Joe, having access to only the narrow band of masculinity available to men of that age, became withdrawn. He was angry and distant. From what I have gauged from Tony's stories, Joe sounded heart-broken and he pushed love away. Where Joe got back on the park as a footballer, he took a much longer time to find his way back as a father. Remember Tony was only a boy when all of that sadness happened. He needed his dad but sometimes traumas happen to people that stop them doing their key roles.

Lets cut through to early last year. Tony has been consciously visiting his dad regularly now. Joe had moved a couple of hours north of Sydney. Tony decided that despite the emotional absence of Joe, he would reach out with a forgiving heart to his dad and try to reconnect. He just gave back practical kindness to his dad. It was over about ten years that the son had faithfully been visiting and caring for his ageing father.

As we chatted over the years, I heard via Tony about Joe and built up a picture of how ever so gradually the father started to drop his guard. It was his son who was reaching out. As he got older, Joe needed Tony... for all the practical stuff - shopping errands, odd jobs around the house and visits to the doctor.

So, on one of those visits to the doctor, early last year, Joe found out that he had cancer. It was serious and Tony, being a 'career bachelor' was in the position to move up and live with his dad through his final months. Tony gave up work and nursed Joe in his own home. In the final days as he weakened, Joe had to go into palliative care at the local hospital. He was not happy about this.

I laughed as Tony explained that he tried putting a reassuring hand on his dad's head, he stroked his hair, as the paramedics moved him on the trolley into the hospital...

"I'm not a bloody cat!" - Joe was fighting to the end and growling at his son but he he was too weak to fully push away now. I do know that in those final days in the hospital, in those final months living full-time with his dad, in that ten year period of reconnecting... Tony built to a point that some lucid conversations were shared. Joe's guard was down and he had got back on the field of life because of his son's willingness to reach him.

So it is nearly a year since I saw my great mate get up and tell Joe's story in a moving eulogy. I am proud to be Tony's mate... he has endured tough stuff in his own life but he has never built a complete fence around his own heart.

I got a voice message from him yesterday. He has worked out how Australia can beat Serbia this Thursday morning in the final match of the group stage of the World Cup. He had done the statistical analysis. We are hanging on to a slim hope of qualifying for the final group of 16. One stat' is if Germany and Ghana draw, Australia only need to beat Serbia by eight goals! But the most important statistic is this one... at the 15 minute mark of the Australia-Serbia game which I will be watching in West Preston (Melbourne) and Tony will be watching in Marickville (Sydney), it will be exactly one year since Joe died.

We may not get the movie script which would see Australia scoring a goal just at that point but I will be thinking of my good friend at that time... about Joe and holding a quiet thought of respect out to a son who forgave his dad and helped him re-join the game of life.

Thanks for taking the Time & Space to read this.

Bill Jennings

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Community Rituals

There is the small matter of a football tournament presently taking place in South Africa - had you heard?

It is Sunday night in Melbourne and as I write Australia is undefeated in this year's World Cup (well, we haven't played yet!). If you are into soccer, by the time you read this, you will know the result of the long awaited opening game with Germany. Looking at my computer clock right now, the game starts in 4 hours and 25 minutes. It is a special time for some families in our local community - here underneath (what we call) the West Preston skies!

Four years ago during the last World Cup, a West Preston tradition was born. Our group of friends had intended to rotate the venue for a our shared viewing of the World Cup. But Australia won the first game against Japan (3-1) kicking three goals in the last ten minutes of the game - our superstitions kicked in and so it was sort of subconsciously decided that every other game would be watched at Nick and Clare's place. We brought the same food to share, we sat in the same seats so as not to upset Australia's progress through the tournament. Four years on and a collection of mums, dads and kids will gather again at Nick and Clare's and watch and hold our collective breath. Food will be shared, the match will be dissected and new memories will be built.

My son was not quite ten years old last time. He was then and is now, mad about the game. Last time the event was so large in his reality that he provided some wonderful memories for all who gathered at Nick and Clare's. Australia was down needing a draw in the final game of its three first round matches and Croatia had pushed ahead. It was too much for my son when Croatia took the lead that would give them, and not us, a place amongst the final 16 teams. He was distraught. Tears could not be hidden. Seeing my son Jack, a couple of the mums present including Clare, started crying - a young boy's World Cup dream was vanishing. The tension was too great. A game shouldn't matter this much but try telling that to my son.

Then, a miracle that created more tears... Harry Kewell magically weaved in and around a ball and slotted an equaliser into the goal deep into the second half.

Jubilation! A lounge room under the West Preston skies was full of people who were jumping and screaming in sheer delight. My son burst into tears again... tears of joy that flowed even more when the final whistle blew. Australia was through to the next round.

Now you can get far more expertly reported accounts of one game between Australia and Croatia in the 2006 World Cup but regard the angle of vision we had as our community enjoyed the afterglow of the win we had shared. The group were chatting and enjoying the win but also remarking how helpless they felt as a young boy willed his national team to keep their campaign alive.

I still clearly recall seeing, when it was time to go, Jack going up to Clare to do the right thing, manners-wise.

"Thanks for having us Clare" said Jack... and instead of just leaving it as a polite 'thank you' - his arms wrapped around Clare and she received an enormous hug.

Alot of us saw the moment. Clare reciprocated the hug and said "You are a wonderful boy you know Jack! You have made this night very special."

And here's my point. There is something lovely that in a few hours, we will be doing this all again. It has become a ritual for our community. I'll go over to Nick and Clare's tonight with Jack who is now my teenage son, nearly fourteen. He's a little more aware of how hard it might be to win... more wise in the ways and fortunes of the world. He is growing up and as we observe our community World Cup ritual, a point in time is marked again.

I think community rituals are so important for our kids. They give them a memory. The one Jack has will grow in its richness in time. In time Jack's appreciation will grow that he belongs to a family that loves him but he will also hold a memory of his village, the people who enjoyed his uniqueness... his special character that added to the life of his community.

Whenever I mention my kids in this blog, I always sit them down and show them the gist of the post - I seek their permission to publish. As I read this to Jack, a smile grew over his face... "Yep, that's fine... you can put that up" he says. I'm smiling too.

Off to bed now. Three hours and fifty-five minutes till kick off! I can't wait.

Thanks for taking the Time and Space to read this.

Bill Jennings

Sunday, 6 June 2010


Joe's dad stood at the door to the big school hall every Friday night.

This was when I was a teacher and coordinated kids who went off voluntarily to Friday night community service programs. School was officially over for the week, so it was always something of a privilege to be around young people who wanted to go and do something for someone else. The most popular activity was a tutoring program for kids who were new to the country... asylum seekers and refugees. At the time, you could walk up to this church hall in East Melbourne and see 100+ pairs of kids engaged in what I called, 'mutual learning'. Typically, a private school student was paired with a young person of similar age. Perhaps that kid had just arrived as an asylum seeker from war ravaged, East Timor.

You'd see laughter, enthusiasm - a lot of magic happening in the big room. Most of the kids made their own way home but Joe's dad was there every week.

"You're a good dad to be here and pick up your son every week" I said one night, "I notice you always get here fifteen minutes before tutoring finishes."

Joe's dad replied with a line I have never forgotten... "I believe in presence".

Every Friday night, Joe's dad built into his schedule that he would arrive in time to see his son tutoring a peer who, by their accident of birth, had started their life in the 'majority world' where education is not a given. He saw his son acting generously. He witnessed his son learning perspective, learning 'not taking things for granted' and being inspired by the enthusiasm of the people he met and taught.

Joe's dad was there at the door quietly witnessing his son's choice to make a contribution.

Joe's dad was present.

Thanks for taking the 'Time & Space' to read this.

Bill Jennings