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Waves of anxiety

This is a small, surfing town. Groups of teenage girls and boys wander from the beach to the convenience store, hanging around, girls sometimes in only bikinis, boys without shirts. I often catch myself marvelling at the boys’ bodies. The effortless muscle, lean and supple. I rarely went to the beach when I lived here as a teenager. It is pretty obvious why: it’s the body thing. And I was skinny. Effortlessly so. I didn’t know this at the time but putting in so much effort now for little result makes me realise how good I had it. I wasn’t comfortable in swimwear and I was frankly a little scared of the girls who did hang out on the beach. I had read bits of Puberty Blues and I was pretty sure these girls were the same and I wasn’t having a bar of it.

I gave up surfing when my family moved here, in the 80s. I had tried for a number of years to surf when we lived further north. Mum and Dad would fill up the Kombi and drive us to Byron Bay every weekend. I really loved surfing at the Pass. On good days the waves rolled gently for miles down the beach. When the tide was full they didn’t come straight into the beach but rather went alongside it. On those days I could catch a wave and have it take me softly along, without much speed or violence, until I could ease myself off it down the beach. Paddling back wasn’t too much of a chore. I lost my mother’s signet ring at that beach. I’ve never forgiven myself for it.

When we moved here I was 13. I lost all my confidence in the water. I lost interest in surfing because my fear didn’t allow me to continue. It’s come as a surprise then having moved back here, I have granted myself a little window of interest again. My son has become fixated on surfing. He badgered my brother for a board, knowing he had four or five of them lined up in his front room. They stand there like boards in a surf shop. As a child my brother would have wet himself with excitement if he knew one day he would grow up to have his own RACK of surfboards. The little pieces of wood that stand perpendicular to the wall between the boards are even wrapped in foam to protect the fibreglass.

On the second last day of the school term my brother brought learner’s softboards around to our house in his newly-purchased 1969 Ford Galaxie. I couldn’t believe he bought the car, and from e-Bay no less, but I secretly admire his ability to ignore practicality for the sake of owning such a incredible thing. On the night of the school Christmas carols he picked up Dash and I and we rode along with his wife and their three kids in this hulking, low, pale blue beast as he crawled it through the streets. It’s so big it has the unearthly air of a train. My brother borrowed the boards from the high school so Dash could spend some time learning to surf over the holidays. There is one short red board, for Lou, and a long, blue board, for me. One day I had mentioned that I might like to give surfing a go again when the waves were small and rolling. My brother didn’t forget I had said it. I had fantasies of catching waves in a clear ocean on a day when there is no breeze. I conveniently forgot there would be 50 other people trying to do the same thing, and they could actually surf.

Once Dash has an idea in his head he doesn’t allow anything else to jostle with it, he spends all his time thinking about that idea and verbalising the thoughts most of us keep in our heads. It drives me crazy. Surfing is his current idea and until I took him out on that board he wasn’t going to shut up. As soon as my brother delivered the boards he wanted to go. I tried to explain it was too late, the morning would be best. I promised to take him the next day. This didn’t really placate him but the fact that it was soon going to be dark meant he couldn’t really argue anymore.

The next day I packed his board into the car, sliding it from the boot, through the back and in between the front two seats. We went off to the headland to check the best place to get into the water. It was pretty windy at home and remembering that as a child we spent many hours agonising over wind, hoping for still days, I knew that the beach was probably going to be un-surfable for a small, skinny boy of six and his overweight mother. The tide was also at its peak. The waves would be full and lacking sufficient, even break to provide a satisfying, safe ride. When we got onto the beach my fears were confirmed. The wind lashed us from the north-east and the waves were scraping at the beach from various directions. This was not a good day for surfing, we should come back later. He wasn’t having this. I saw him tear up. I wasn’t going in the water, it would be a disaster. I told him we’d come back in a couple of hours, when the tide had gone out a bit. I promise. Somehow I managed to get him back in the car.

Of course, two hours barely made any difference and the waves were pretty much useless for learning to surf. He caught two or three, me pushing him onto the waves as they came through, and promptly the nose of the board dived down and he slid, legs splayed on each side of the board, off and under the water. This put the fear into him. He refused to come out again and stood in the shore break, battling to keep hold of the board.

The next time we went down to the beach wit both the boards and he did the same thing. He stood next to the board and wrestled with it as waves broke just ahead of him. I tried to get him to paddle out but he was not doing it.

I shouldn’t point too much at his fear, it took me an age to get the board into the water. When we first got to the beach we went towards the spot where there were a lot of surfers. Most of them were on long boards as the waves were small and full-ish but had a good form. They were graceful on the waves. Some of them would walk up to the end of the board and back as they rode just below the crest. The blokes on shorter boards would smack their rides up and down trying to generate some kind of speed. It was not one of those days. It was a day for longer, slower boards. Just the kind of day I had wanted.

There was no way I was going out there. All it would take was for me to break one of the rules and I would be done for. I also knew my limitations. I hadn’t surfed for more than twenty years. I took Dash up to another corner of the beach where there were practically no waves and no other surfers. There was a bloke in the water having trouble balancing on his expensive-looking board and I didn’t really want to have people looking at me in the way I was looking at him right now.

Putting the board in the water felt ok. I leaned on either side and pushed it through the white foam. A whole heap of physical memories came back. They took me by surprise. I heaved my bulk onto the board that had looked well wide enough in the shed but now felt narrow. I was trying to balance a sausage on a pin. I paddled and immediately realised how strenuous paddling can be. When you watch a bunch of surfers meander about in the water beneath the headland it all looks so easy. The effort felt good. I paddled out until I felt I probably couldn’t stand. My boobs pressed hard against the board and it hurt. I tried to lift my upper body off the board to give them some space but trying to keep your shoulders elevated with several kilos of fun bag strapped to them while laying on a slippery board is not easy. I sat up on the board, almost involuntarily. Where did that come from? It just felt like the obvious thing to do. I had to work hard with my legs to stay balanced. I swirled them around underneath myself in small circles, working to keep everything the right way up.

I knew the waves weren’t really there for catching but I didn’t honestly want to catch them as I didn’t know what I would do when I did. I need to work on paddling and balance. In the end I just had to give it a go. I paddled hard trying to catch some but they were too full, not close enough to breaking. I could hear Dash saying “Go Mum, go Mum” as I worked my arms hard through the water. I turned the board around and waited. Finally. One came through that I could catch, even if it was only going to give me a short ride. I paddled hard, hard, hard, and the board was moving at the speed of the wave. I felt the wave take over. I was on it. I immediately grabbed the rails and made to stand up but thought better of it. I focused on not nose-diving the board and managed to stay on it. I landed on the sand, beaching myself, as it were, but I hadn’t fallen off. I looked up and my partner was sitting on the beach laughing. I started laughing. I picked the board up and headed back out and I didn’t care who was watching.

The perfect machine

As part of my quest to get back on the football field next season I have returned to the classes in the surfclub or what is known locally as ‘Block-Chi’. (The classes are run by a bloke nicknamed ‘Blockhead’, don’t ask me why they’re called ‘Chi’ because they are far more violent than any idea of Tai-Chi I have). I attempted the classes last year and ended up in this. This time I have eased into it with a lot of prepartory swimming and stationary bike work. This got my fitness to a decent level before I even tried to approach the dance-floor of doom that is Block-Chi.

A few weeks ago Block was showing me how to use the rowing machine. He felt that I had been ‘bludging’, which is probably true. I walked in and he was stretching his legs on the bar, his left leg well above the horizontal with his head resting on his knee.

“Hey Block”
“GEORGIE! Rowing machine. 200. First 100, 35. Second 50, 38. Last 50, you can wind it back a bit.”

I just looked at him incredulously and absent-mindedly rubbed my pectoral muscle.

“Hang, on I’ll show you.”

He guided me down the hall toward the ancient, rusting gym equipment.

“Flexing at me are ya? Feeling ya muscles?” He laughed at how ridiculous this obviously was and the joke he made.

He walked just behind me. I could tell he had already worked up a sweat from the heat he was emanating.

“Pull in yer guts. C’mon” he said softly. I tried to pull the guts in.

“Stick yer tits out. Don’t be afraid a havin’ big tits.” He touched me lightly between the shoulder blades. “We’re gonna work at getting rid of THAT”. He was referring to the stoop in my back, developed over years of slouching to hide, yes, big tits.

He continued, without waiting for any kind of disagreement from me.

“C’mon, I know what yer doin’. What all women do. Hiding. Always checkin’ if everythin is alright. Now get on the machine”.

He had seen right through me. Seen right through the tights that were not skin tight and always black. Seen past the long, fitted singlets that I wear under everything to smooth out the creases and hide the muffin top. He has seen through my discomfort with women fitter and leaner than me, even though they are significantly older and have had more children. Women like his wife who watched me in the mirror last week as I laboured through 200 on the rowing machine. She laid on a bench and lifted weights at a measured and disciplined speed. I wasn’t scared or worried about her. I just wondered why she can look the way she does and I look like I do. A barrel on fat legs. She is always friendly towards me and never misses a chance to encourage me. She calls me ‘Darlin’. I suspect she doesn’t remember my name. Her gaze made sure I didn’t quit early even though I knew she couldn’t possibly be counting.

I sat down and Block squatted next to me.

“Grab the handles and pull. Go ON”.

I pulled it with more of a struggle than I expected.

“Ugh. That’s heavier than last week”.

He got up and adjusted something and the tension eased off a bit. I pulled the handle and began sliding backward and forward on the little seat a few times while he observed.

“Don’t hit yourself in your guts. It’s in the front part of the foot, getting yer arse back and forward. Use your legs”. He stood and watched a couple more pulls. “This machine is perfect,” he said as if he were looking at a Ferrari rather than an old rower that has seen better days, “perfect for taking you wherever you want to be”. I believed him.

“200, don’t go over 35”. Something made him revise down his estimation of my ability. “And don’t slack off. By the time you come out of here I want to see you red in the face, puffing and blowing”.

I go through my 200. I imagine this machine taking me where I want to be, back on to the field. I imagine myself using the guile gained through 20 plus years of football to fool women half my age. I imagine the ball coming off my foot and curling into the top corner of the net. I get to the end of the 200 and I can’t imagine any more, only focus on my face in the mirror above the machine. I am red and breathing hard, grimacing on each pull but I feel ok. Slightly dizzy but not nauseous. I guess this is probably enough.

After the rowing I walked out of the small gym to the large room with the dancefloor, had a sip of my water and tried to catch my breath before Blockhead saw I was finished and gave me more orders. The rest of the class were skipping, hard, to Jet’s Cold Hard B***h. Due to my stress fracture I can’t skip or do any of the more bouncy routines Block takes us through. I run up and down the stairs or I spend a lot of time marching up and down on the spot, lifting my knees high and pumping my arms into the air. I’ve now started to use weights while doing this. I’m sure people who come to the class and haven’t seen me before must think I’m some dork and a fat one at that. I don’t give a shit about people like that. We’re all at the same level in Block’s class. There is no one who is better than anyone else, we all get the same treatment: a stern talking to when we’re bludging and a gentle ‘good girl’ when we’re trying, even if we’re getting it wrong. Small, genuine mistakes are forgiven, laziness is never tolerated.

I left class that night feeling strangely deflated. I didn’t bounce out the door feeling like I could jog home. I felt like someone had given me a firm but gentle punch to guts. I felt found out. The novelty of the class had been punctured, I looked ahead and saw only months of hard work.

HE’S a fan

Sticker on car at Toormina

Sticker on car at Toormina

I’ve been tooling about, trying to write something about football and my (perhaps very misguided) decision to get myself fit so I can get back on the field next season. As part of this I’ve been thinking about why I like football, and sport in general, so much and why not many people I know can understand this. Of course, there are men I know who totally get football and they fully understand why I like it, even while questioning, I suspect, whether a woman can really get football. There are a whole lot of others though who are openly confused and slightly put out by my obsession and I am continually feeling apologetic for allowing something as barbaric as sport play a large part of my life. The message is: in the scheme of things sport should be allowed to provide only a small amount of meaning to one’s life. It is merely a set of games intended to amuse.

I feel apologetic about my sport but at the same time I feel inferior in my obsession, when compared to men. I feel I need to make up for being a woman by taking it very seriously. I need to be sure of my facts and always admit when wrong. I never try to make out I know more than I do because I suspect I will always be found out. (However, I am not afraid of telling a bloke he doesn’t know what he is talking about and once got into a mild argument with a man at the Spanish Club in Sydney over how much Chelsea paid for Chris Sutton when he moved from Blackburn. It was 10 million, I was right).

The other day I read a review of two books about football fans and noticed this:

“For me, the study of diehard fans is essentially about men. I don’t mean that women’s stories are uninteresting, or that their fandom is any less valid…But there is a way that men support their clubs that speaks more powerfully to their behaviour in other spheres.”

At first I thought, what tosh, women can be just as loony as men! Of course they can be serious fans. Of course their fandom speaks volumes about the rest of their lives!  A MAN has written the review hasn’t he? I started thinking about it and thought perhaps there was a bit of truth in that. I love football, I love my various teams, from the local club to the overseas club I follow  but if they lose, my life will not be ruined. I do not fall into a deep depression. I get annoyed, yes, but I am usually distracted by other things closer to home soon enough. Like the dishes. Or ironing the school shirts. I was mightily pissed off when we lost the Ashes and I could appreciate the ‘cultural’ significance of it and enjoyed the tactical discussion of each Test but I was not about to allow some gloating Poms to ruin my day. (And besides, the Australian cricket team is in a ‘rebuilding’ phase, just like our rugby team, so these losses are feeding future triumphs). I enjoyed watching the Ashes while it was on but when it was finished I didn’t mourn the loss or the end of the series.

I don’t know whether I allow myself to be distracted because it provides a defense against sport-induced depression or because I know it just DOESN’T REALLY MATTER. Anecdotal evidence gathered through discussion with a very small amount of women points to a prevailing opinion that sport can be interesting and that it plays an important if somewhat over-emphasised role in society but that, as a football manager might say, at the end of the day, there are much larger things in life. (I could compare its role and importance to art or literature here but I am not going to do that right at this point in time because I will be here for a long time and I want to post this today). Women are fans, they enjoy football and can be fanatical but is there something in them that doesn’t allow them to get to the same point as men, simply by virtue of them being women or because sport doesn’t act as an extension of their role in society or how they see themselves?

I can’t really provide any answers to that right now but I can try to put my finger on how I like to see my obsession with football: as a semi-intellectual engagement with a seemingly meaningless but major part of our culture. Football, (and sport), is kind of like this:

“Football is the love of form. A spectacle that scarcely leaves a trace in the memory and does not enrich or impoverish knowledge. This is its appeal : it is exciting and empty.”
Mario Vargas Llosa

Maybe I like it precisely because it DOESN’T mean anything.

Did you see me? Out there? I was pumped!

I have to admit that I have struggled to take the Olympic athletics seriously because honestly, who ISN’T doped to the eyeballs? But if this lady has been visiting BALCO I don’t want to know.

It’s far too entertaining.

PS I’ve discovered a new name for one’s girlfriend: “travelling partner”. How quaint.

Football while doing the dishes

I am always looking for excuses to post about sport and usually I am waiting for some kind of connection to books or writers because after all, this used to be a book blog.

Today I found AS Byatt writing about Euro 2008 and I knew I had another excuse. If you love football go and read it. If you love AS Byatt go and read it. If you love neither read it. Who knew she was so enamoured of football? I loved the article, she managed to sum up so much about why I love football, how I watch it and how it becomes a part of people’s lives, even those that read books.

I haven’t been watching a huge amount of Euro 2008 because I don’t have pay tv and the  highlights show on SBS is at a time when there’s homework to be supervised, shirts to be ironed and cooking to be done. When I do manage to sit down Dash always manages to put himself between me and the telly and/or sit next to me with his arm draped tightly around my neck while he proceeds to ask me one hundred questions about the game.

What team are you going for Mummy? And which colour are they wearing? And why aren’t you going for the blue team, because that’s your favourite colour? I am going for all the teams, then I am always happy. And what’s the score? There’s no goals, this is sooo boring, don’t you think it’s boring Mummy? And what are we having for dinner? And why did he fall over? Why don’t you like that one Mummy? Is this the Swans? Well, they’re red, why isn’t this the Swans? Oh yes, the ball is round. Was that a goal? It looked like it went in the net! When are they going to get a gooooaaaaallll Mummmmmmyyyyyy?

And on and on. Eventually I give up. I’ll start making dinner while keeping one eye on the football and Les and Fozzie (that good Lismore boy).

The thing that I have really enjoyed about this tournament is the podcast. The Guardian and Five Live have produced podcasts that I dutifully download every day and then transfer to my iPod. I listen to them while I wash up. I will forever associate James Richardson‘s voice with being elbow deep in hot soapy water. I’ll miss them all when it’s all over, which will be by this time tomorrow.

I think it will be the (boringbut predictably efficient) Germans but I do hope the (rather more exciting but unpredictable) Spanish prevail.

I said push OUT through yer bumhole!

So we’ve done the whole move to the country thing and I haven’t written a word. We still haven’t found a house, there’s been work, there’s been Christmas and all that stuff and well…I’ve got nothing.

I have been sent back to the keyboard by an exercise class and those who have seen me post-baby would realise how surprising this actually is but after 5 years the ‘baby’ fat excuse is wearing a little thin. Ahem.

This class sums up a lot about this town and is a sign, to me at least, that I am slowly beginning to understand and enjoy a place I couldn’t wait to leave 15 years ago.

The class is held in the local surfclub so while we are sweating and swearing we can at least look out the glass doors and see the surf, which beats looking out the window of a gym and seeing a major artery in the Inner West. It’s run by a bloke I have known since I was a kid and he has a nickname that implies he’s not too bright and a little bit of a boofhead but I’m loathe to divulge it because who knows, he might google himself every now and then. He’s a loud bloke, forthright, with a habit of calling our family the “7-2-7s” because my parents once owned the local convenience store. He is not a gym instructor, he is a bloke who likes being fit and exercising and he wants to share the love. He also seems to like ordering people around in a strangely caring manner.

My brother had been on at me for a while to go and in the end his stories had got the better of my curiosity and I purchased some clothes that loosely resembled fitness get-up and went along. I thought some vague increase in fitness and reduction in weight would be a bonus.

Well, the stories were pretty accurate: this is a no-frills class. There’s no preening, no pouting and everyone is welcome in whatever they want to wear. There’s a bit of boxing, skipping, some gym work, some work running up and down the club’s stairs, some yoga. It’s basically a group of mates and some others. Everyone knows everyone else. There’s no microphone or wanky earpiece, this bloke only has one volume. LOUD. There’s music in snatches but not when the real exercise is being done, the instructor seems to put it on randomly and loudly for light relief when he feels like it. And he likes us to be able to hear him. He likes us to hear when he tells us to “push out through yer bumhole” or “pull up through yer ballsack or fanny, whatever yer got”. Laying on the floor with your hands underneath you is “get yer hands under yer tits”. The request to sit on the floor with your legs apart for some serious stretching is “chuck a spread”. One woman tonight was continually ordered to “grab yer tits! grab yer tits!” as she was perceived as using her hands to make sit-ups easier. I was assured, loudly, that my stomach muscles were right where I left them and if I just kept going I’d find them again.

It’s unconventional yes, and some may find it offensive but if you know the bloke, you know this is exactly his style, he’s not getting off on the power. He actually just enjoys the exercise and spurring others on to get fit too. It works. You work hard. You want to laugh but you can’t because that would require extra breathing that you just can’t do. Laughing is left to the curious tourists who can’t help but stick their head in to see what all the yelling is about. He works you hard but threatens to throw you out if you work harder than he thinks you are capable. And he calls me Georgie. And no one does that except my grandmother. I’m not game to tell him. I still want to find my stomach muscles. So twice a week I’ll be attending for some physical torture disguised as irreverently-described yoga poses.

Welcome back cricket

The season crept up on me this year. The weather turned sour last weekend and the temperature has struggled to get above 20 since. So when I realised today was the first day of the First Test and the ABC was streaming Kerry O’Keefe et al right into my laptop at work, I plugged in the headphones and I immediately felt warmer, more relaxed and I could swear I smelt a touch of 30+ SPF.

When I heard Kerry O’Keefe explain away his interest in a player’s large legs, because ‘he’s a legs man’ I felt a little interest spark. Cricket has won back my heart and summer, my lovelies, is just around the corner.

The frisson of excitement just hadn’t been here this year. For a number of reasons. Life has been a little frantic. There is the split Test program, with Australia playing Sri Lanka and India rather than the exquisite pain that is 5 tests against single opposition. We’re not playing the Poms and we don’t have the blood lust that we had last year after that horrendous Ashes series in England. We don’t have the need to avenge the sight of English people winning (and I say that on behalf of peoples everywhere, not just Australia). All we’ve got is a secret wish that Murali doesn’t dare break Warne’s wickets record on AUSTRALIAN SOIL.

And here, I come to the secret crux of my lack of enthusiasm: the effing huge hole left by S.K. Warne. I do love McGill and as much as I think he has attitude (unlike some of the more automaton fast bowlers) and was glad he got the nod today ahead of Hoggy, he just doesn’t turn the ball as much. Or at least make us think he turns the ball as much. The potential of last season, the revenge, the swan-songs, the possible records, it was all a little bit special and quite possibly it is unreasonable to expect another season to live up it.

So, after Day 1 of the First Test at the Gabba, at stumps, it’s Australia 3/242 with Hussey not out on 28 and Clarke not out on 5. The day perhaps has belonged to Phil Jacques who has struggled to get a place in the Australian team for several years, despite good domestic form. With the retirement of Langer last year and an absolute shitload of runs scored in domestic matches this season he has been given another chance. Today, in his third test in the baggy green, he reached 100, only to be stumped before troubling the scorers again.

I look forward to tomorrow’s day of play and I do hope that you will join me.