Answering the big questions this Christmas. How a baby gave a message of hope. And made a fool of me.

December 25, 2012

My first memory of church is not Christmas, but cake.

A mate at school had a very religious upbringing. Every Sunday, he’d be dragged to the house of worship.

His picture of church was one where every table had a bowl of chips. Chocolates at every turn. And more cake than a skinny school kid could dream of.

It was with this glowing appraisal in mind that I ventured off for a morning with him. Mum was delighted. Dad shook his head, and said nothing.

When I arrived, it became clear that his feast of faith had been a cruel ploy. In fact, there was nothing to eat. Just a few hours of fire and brimstone from the pulpit. I had been conned. I didn’t hang around to ask if that was a sin.

Dad was fixing the car when I got home. I told him my tale of woe, and he laughed. Mum shook her head, and said nothing.

Since then, my trips to Holy Houses have been few and far between. Mainly weddings and funerals. Of late, sadly, more of the latter.

Two years back, we went to a wonderful church in New York on Christmas Eve. Old and majestic, with the first dusting of winter snow.

It was midnight mass, and the place was packed. As seems to be the case in most churches, there were several loud singers in the congregation. When I say loud, I mean Aretha Franklin in robes. The girls thought it was hilarious.

It was a modern service. The priest was most impressive. He gave an inspired sermon, about the need to look after each other. On every level. And that it’s never too late. Simple messages. For such a complex time.

Like so many others at this time of year, I’ve been searching for answers. To questions big and small. A helping hand , to chart the path ahead.

Guidance comes from many directions. Much loved family members. Great mates and colleagues. In kitchens and down the phone line. At the front bar and in racetrack grandstands.

It’s this long-term quest for direction that prompted me to pay church another visit.  A magnificent old building, next to The Teenager’s school.

I drive past it every day, and have often wondered what it’s like inside. It LOOKS like a place to soothe the soul. What better time than Christmas to find out.

I swapped my regular Sunday afternoon appointment with the old pub jazz band, for a session of a different kind. I know many of you just fell off various bar stools. And no, there wasn’t a lightning bolt when I walked through the door. Although I thought I heard the faintest clap of thunder.

It wasn’t a big crowd. In fact, for a pre-Christmas sermon, I was a little disappointed. The Big Apple had obviously spoiled me.

The man conducting proceedings was in shorts. There was music, led by an enthusiastic young bloke with long hair and a guitar. A few carols that I’d never heard of.

As time went on, I found myself having a closer look at that beautiful structure. Rich wooden beams, and stained glass windows.

It got me thinking. How many people had come here before me, looking for answers? Had they been helped, and given a clearer sense of what it’s really all about?

Those around me were happy. They were enjoying each others company, and the words of wisdom on offer. I was happy for them.

All the while, a baby in the front row was staring at me. He had blue eyes and a mass of blonde hair. With the most delightful giggle. I had seen that look somewhere before. But where?

Then it hit me. This little fellow was a mirror image of me.

It was one of mum’s favourite old photos. Me on a rug, with the most ridiculous baby smile. And here I was, looking at that picture once again.

Was it a message from above? Maybe the ultimate answer, to go back to where it all began?

I pondered this Christmas miracle in the making, and considered making a donation to the money bag doing the rounds. Even jumping to my feet. Right up until the man in shorts introduced the baby. His beautiful child. Named Lydia.

The smiling baby boy, was in fact a girl. Had been all along apparently. Everyone knew, but me.

It just shows, the answers we seek are never easy. Even when the question seems so simple.

We’ll get there, with love and support from those who matter. Someone way smarter than me said every worthwhile journey begins with one small step.

Merry Christmas Lydia. May your smile continue to light up those around you. And Merry Christmas to you and your family.

‘Tis the season to go to the track. The punter’s guide to enjoying Christmas.

December 15, 2012

Any punter worth his rum balls knows the festive season is a special time.

Sure, the Group Ones are over, and most of our champions are chomping on hay in paddocks with tinsel hanging over fences.

Don’t let it bother you. There’s no better time than the next few weeks to organise a trip to your favourite racetrack.

It’s a four-week window, give or take a few days. From now up to Magic Millions day, in the summer heat on the Gold Coast.

There’s something special about heading to the races over the holidays. Everyone’s a little more relaxed. Even more fun to be had than usual.

Groups get together to enjoy some festive cheer. Sometimes it’s a once a year thing.

Permission is granted to have a few extra cool drinks. The holidays will do that to you.

You will see some racegoers in funny hats. Santa shirts. No one will mind.

We had a Christmas race day last year, and a mate of mine couldn’t stop winning. He was collecting trifectas like lucky dips. He told me he hadn’t had a bet in months. I forced a festive smile.

Friends will give us tips at the most unlikely meetings in the weeks ahead. Most will do nothing. We won’t mind, because we’ll be full of Christmas cheer.

We get to have a flutter on Boxing Day, between overs in the Test, and on New Year’s Day, before we head for a recovery swim.

There’ll be Christmas Cups, and Yuletide Handicaps, and Santa Sprints. Late in the day, we might even look for some omen bets. Anything with Rudolph in the title is worth throwing into the quaddie.

The quality of holiday racing has improved in recent years. Brisbane’s summer series is great fun. Randwick is famous for those late December races. January in Perth is always a hoot. And of course, Magic Millions.

A few of us will be trackside next weekend. Spirits will be high, even if we won’t be wearing flashing ties.

Come and say g’day if you see us. We may or may not be singing Christmas carols after the last. Depending on how many winners we’ve found. If we’re in silence, don’t tell me about your successful trifectas. I only have so many festive smiles.

Getting the new tree just right. A Dad’s way of embracing the Christmas spirit.

December 4, 2012

Rule number one. You can never have enough tinsel. When it comes to Christmas trees, bare is bad.

I have a new tree this year. First time I can remember actually buying one.

The girls suggested I wade into a nearby pine forest, and cut one down. Strap it to the roof of the Honda. Show it off to the neighbours. Yes, they watch too many movies.

Instead, my new symbol of the festive season came in a box, from a busy department store. There were so many to pick from. Different heights, bases, and thickness. Who knew?

I can’t recall buying our last one. And I have no idea where mum and dad found theirs, all those years ago. Pretty sure it didn’t come in a box.

In fact, I have no memory of our Christmas tree as a kid. We had one, of course. I just can’t picture it. Maybe too focused on the goodies underneath.

Those who sell these trees are very clever. Next to the stacks of boxes, are decorations. Every single festive item you could imagine.

They assume, quite rightly, that those of us in need of a new tree, are likely to purchase stuff to cover it.

I started with the tinsel. Three bucks a strand. The more you buy the more you save. All the colours of the rainbow. I bought a few extra, just in case.

There were boxes of baubles. Bargains on every shelf. How many coloured balls does one need? Of course, men have no idea. So we buy lots.

Two dollars for little hanging Santas. Sparkling signs, that say WISH and JOY. Gold coins for each.

The girls and their mother sped past, with their bulging trolleys. They were in a Christmas frenzy of their own. The Teenager nodded approval at my purchases. Daughter Two pointed out a wonderful gold star, to sit on top. Sold.

I turned left, and found an entire section for the Christmas feast. Plates and mugs and tablecloths and hats and oven mitts and trays. All featuring Santa. I showed restraint, and passed on the oven mitts.

Those special items are now tucked away in a cupboard, waiting for the big day. But the tree is there for all to see.

The Teenager played Lead Hand in the assembly process. She’s extremely patient with such things. Daughter Two, struggling with a head cold from Canberra, gave advice from the sideline.

My instructions were clear. Everything I’d purchased had to find a place. The less order the better. This was the shotgun approach to tree decorating.

I’m happy to say that in the end, every member of the family had a hand in the process. The tree now lights up my room.

The girls have two Christmas trees this year. Both adorned with love. That’s the festive spirit.

Starting the year with a heavy heart. Family tears for a little lost dog.

December 31, 2011

This was going to be about fun times on New Year’s Eve. Laughs to end 2011. But laughter is hard to find around here at present.

Coco has gone missing. Our beloved dog. The tiny ball of fluff responsible for so much family fun.

She made the trip with us to the Gold Coast this Christmas. Part of the celebration. Even got a new collar and lead from Santa. With sparkles. That she never got to wear.

One minute she was part of the fun around the brother-in-law’s pool on Boxing Day afternoon. The next, gone. We think she wriggled under a fence.

Coco has form for escaping. Loves the wind in her fluffy ears, skinny legs  hurtling down the road. Always to come home, with a wicked grin.

But not this time. She was in a strange place. Different road. And as much as we adore her, it’s fair to say she is easily confused.

We started searching straight away. The extended family. House by house. Street by street. Into the darkness. Nothing.

Everyone expected her to sprint back in that night, tongue hanging sideways. But she didn’t. There were tears.

We went looking again the next morning. Started the process of contacting the city pound, local vets, and the RSPCA.

I thought about the last thing I’d said to her. She’d been left to her own devices the night before, on the big verandah. This resulted in a barking onslaught at sunrise, aimed at next door’s chooks.

Not what we wanted after a late night. I let her know that, angrily, as I locked her away. It might be the last thing she’ll hear from me. Why does that always happen?

I tried to explain to the girls that it would take some time. That someone nearby was probably looking after her, until the pound re-opened. Possibly trying to convince myself.

That afternoon, we put up flyers all over the neighbourhood. Laminated, with coloured photos. The Teenager demanded only the best for her dog.

The girls were much younger when Coco came into our lives. She made an impact from Day One.

The Treasurer was going away on a business trip. The Teenager and Daughter Two were naturally upset. It was my job to cheer them up.

After leaving the airport, we ate junk food, and bought stuff, and ended up in a pet shop.

The girls explained that they’d been looking at a puppy the day before. The Treasurer had told them they should show it to me while she was away. We could decide later if we wanted it.

This was the cutest mutt I’d seen. Papillon x Maltese. White, with black patches, and tan markings on her face. Normally, I wouldn’t look twice at a dog that small. But there was something special about this one.

It was an on-the-spot call that Dads are famous for. Why wait? What better way to take their minds off my limited cooking ability, than for the girls to have a new puppy at home!

With the boot full of food, bowls, leads and other expensive puppy accessories, we headed home with a new family member. Smiles replaced  tears.

We set up the rumpus room for her, cordoned off with cardboard boxes. She jumped, and played, and did a wee every ten minutes. Something that never changed.

As she grew, Coco played a different role with each of us. She kept the Treasurer company during the day in her office. For the girls, it was cuddling on the lounge, after a hard day of barking at next door’s cat.

My treat was the same each night. When I sat down after work, she would jump on my lap, to have her neck scratched. Always for a few minutes. Then she would take off, looking for dinner scraps, and a mat to pee on.

It’s been five days now. We’re refusing to accept that she’s not coming back.

There is the chance, of course, that someone has picked her up, and spotted what we love about her. Maybe, they’ve decided to keep her.

That would make us all terribly sad. But if we can’t have her, we hope she ends up in a loving home. If that’s the case, here are some important tips.

She’s a fussy eater. Good luck trying to find the right dog food. I never could. Leftover BBQ meat is a favourite.

She’ll enter every part of your life. Nothing is off-limits. You’ll try to section the house off, and it won’t work.

She’ll bark at birds, and cats, and salesmen, and the guinea pig. Until you tell her to stop. Then she’ll give you that “just letting them know who the boss is” look.

She’ll try to sleep on the end of the bed. And will look away when you come into the room, in the hope that you might somehow miss her.

Most of all, she will love you, every minute of every day. Unconditional love. What we’re all looking for, but rarely find. We had it, from a sometimes smelly, always affectionate, four-legged friend.

We’ll keep checking the pound. She’s micro chipped, so that’s in our favour. And her foam bed in the laundry will stay right where it is.

Please come home Coco. It’s not the same without you. The smiles you gave us that first day, are gone. Tears have returned.

We’ll let you sleep on the bed. Bark at sunrise. Wee on any mat you want.

If anyone knows where she might be, please let us know. We want our family back together.

Mums and Dads who give the perfect Christmas gift. And you can’t buy it. Not even online.

December 13, 2011

I’ve been trying to remember my first Christmas.

How far can you go back? If you happen to be ancient like me, it’s tough.

I can picture where we were living. Our first place. Britannia Street. The house that Dad built for us.

Where was the tree? I think it was in the corner of the lounge room. To the right, as you walked in the front door.

Try as I might, the rest is pretty much a blank. No memory of my first present. Or the decorations. And no photos.

What I can remember, is how Mum and Dad approached it all. It was their special time.

Somehow, they made sure I never missed out. Year after year.

To this day, I’m not entirely sure how they did it. Things were tough for us. In those early days, I had no idea.

When Dad’s business went bust, the family struggled big time. We lost that house. They were shattered.

But every year, come Christmas morning, there would still be a scooter. Or a Malvern Star. Or a cricket bat. I was never disappointed.

So how did they manage? It took me years to find the answer to that. Doing what parents had done years before. And still do today. They missed out themselves.

Thinking back, I can’t remember one decent present that they gave each other during those grim years. Not one.

If you’d been with us back then, you would never have known. Look under our tree, and you’d see plenty of gifts. Their trick was to wrap things they’d already given to each other. Complete with mock surprise. Fooled me every time.

Christmas Day would start with ham and tomato on toast for breakfast. I still have it to this day.

I’d end up outside while Mum was cooking lunch. Dad would help me test-ride the scooter, or the Malvern Star. Or we’d oil the new bat. And it was always just us.

For some reason, Dad never invited his side of the family over. Another unspoken rule. I knew little about them. There may have been a phone call or two. Nothing more.

Our holiday fun always came from Mum’s side. She adored her sisters, and their kids. There would be Boxing Day gatherings whenever the tribe could be gathered in the one spot. Still happens to this day. Sadly, without Mum.

My parents had a love of Christmas, that was different to what I see around me now. They embraced the gift of giving, totally. Their joy came from others being happy. Especially me.

The things they treasured were the bits and pieces I made for them at school. Badly. Wonky ashtrays. Out-of-shape clay figures. Let’s not even mention the woodwork class letter box, that may have been missing an opening for the letters.

There were no big family shopping trips to spend money we didn’t have. No fancy lights. The day just seemed to arrive, with everything done and dusted. Mum at work yet again.

Things are so different now. Not better or worse. Just different.

No-one will go without in our house this year. No presents coming out for the second time. There will be several trips to the biggest shopping centre we can find. That groaning sound you hear is our embattled credit cards.

I’m proud to say I’ve taken at least one thing from my parents. My favourite gifts, will be whatever the girls make for me. Home-made cards. The bits of paper promising to help me around the house. Even though I know they’re more likely to write their own Chinese opera than wash my car.

Life can get too complicated sometimes. In most things we do, simple is good. Mum and Dad knew that. For one day of the year, we were the richest family in the street. That’s something I’ll never forget.

My precious Christmas angels. How they’re lighting up our street, and costing me a fortune.

December 6, 2011

I live in a house of Christmas fanatics.

These girls, they refuse to live by the regulations set down by society. When it comes to the festive season, they go by their own rules.

Christmas trees go up on December 1, right? Well, tell that to Daughter Two.

She’s taken responsibility for the tree. Her pet project. This year, she decided mid-November would be a good time to get to work.

I explained that this was way too early. Bad luck. Bordering on foolhardy.

Daughter Two wasn’t listening. She was on a yuletide mission. No need to check the calender. It was tree time.

She enlisted the services of The Teenager. Together they emptied several dozen boxes onto the lounge room floor. Tinsel, and coloured balls, and angels, and candy canes, and tiny stockings. A mass of green and red and silver.

They are famous, these two, for their inability to finish any household chore. All things done by half. Their motto is “Make a start, so it looks like we’re actually doing something, and then let someone else finish it”. But not the tree.

They worked all that Sunday arvo. With Christmas carols playing in the background. Not a cross word between them. Another first. And by the end of it, they’d done a spectacular job.

It didn’t take long for them to turn their festive fingers to another project. One that splits our family down the middle. Christmas lights.

They were inspired a few years ago, by a great mate of mine. A crazy man who dedicates weeks of every year to turning his humble house into a showpiece of blazing electricity.

He spends thousands on those damn lights. Works every spare day and night. People come from far and wide to see his dazzling suburban spectacular. He even cooks a sausage sizzle for them, while guzzling cool drinks.

The girls thought it was wonderful. And immediately, demanded to know why I was so lazy, and so lacking in the Christmas spirit.

I explained that my friend was well-known for spending vast amounts of money on ridiculous projects for no clear gain. They were having none of it. We needed our own light show.

My dissenting voice was barely heard. I pointed out how high our power bill already was. It rivals newly created African nations most months. This is because the girls have a medical condition, whereby their fingers are physically unable to turn light switches off.

No-one was listening. Before I knew it, I was wrapping long lines of coloured lights across the deck and around our garden.

I did this task poorly. It didn’t help that ants were munching on me as I stretched across the bushes. But mostly, because I am incapable of untangling anything beyond a shoelace. And Christmas lights are designed to instantly tangle.

It took hours. Neighbours complained about the language, which I admit wasn’t fit for the season. Someone mentioned that my rows may have been comically uneven. It was my first and last time.

This year, out of courtesy, the girls asked me to help. I declined. To their great relief.

They’ve discovered that they can do the job much better without me. Quicker too. What took me half a day, now gets done within the hour. Something about that bloody untangling.

I could happily celebrate the festive season in the dark. As long as I can have a cool drink on Christmas Eve, and play Neil Diamond’s carols, I’m at peace.

But the rest of you seem to like the lights. The concept isn’t fading. I accept defeat.

The Christmas fanatics in my house are doing their bit. More power to them. I just wish I wasn’t paying for it.