Puppy pre-school

Carlton North Puppy Pre-School graduating class of May 2013.
Carlton North Puppy Pre-School graduating class of May 2013.
Carlton North Puppy Pre-School graduating class of May 2013.

Nahla’s tail wags furiously as she leads us through the Rathdowne Village restaurant strip. Only a few months old, full of bravado, she is oblivious to everything but our destination, the Carlton North Veterinary Clinic.

The others have already arrived pups in tow. It’s a mixed bag of breeds. A roly-poly Shar Pei straight from a toilet paper commercial. A black Doberman/Labrador cross, boisterous and proud. A gentle little ragdoll Cavoodle and a Miniature Schnauzer with his hipster beard. Hyperactive and naughty, Nahla is the brown sheep of the group. Every fibre of her being strains to leap at anyone and everything. Apparently it’s a common trait in chocolate Labrador pups.

Tonight is the end of six-weeks of Puppy Pre-School and a hush falls over the room when the dog trainer (‘The Colonel’) enters. Everyone dutifully bends down, scoops up their pups and marches upstairs. She talks for the best part of an hour, attempting to instruct us on the protocols and etiquette of responsible dog ownership. Not a lot sinks in; everyone’s too busy gushing over the puppies.

Realising that nobody is listening, The Colonel finally relents and gives the signal that everyone has been waiting for. ‘Puppy play’ is about to begin. Leads are unclipped, tails wag furiously then the puppies leap into the centre of the room. Bums are sniffed, snouts are licked and puppy wrestles break out left, right and centre. The room brims with boisterous energy, slobber and lolling tongues. We stand back and watch the carnage unfold. The cares and worries of the day fade away. Only laughter remains.

An edited version of this piece was published in The Sunday Age on 26 April 2014. Read it online.

Twenty years of baggage

UWH gear
UWH gear
Some of the underwater hockey gear I’ve accumulated.

Preparing for my annual trip to the Australian Underwater Hockey Championships I found myself rummaging through my spare gear. Sitting on the floor in living room of our Carlton North apartment it dawned on me that a full twenty years earlier I would have been sitting in my parent’s house in Wonthaggi doing the same thing. In December 1993 it was a skinny little freckle faced squirt getting ready to play in his first National Championships. The butterflies in my belly have faded as the bats, fins and snorkels strewn across the room have aged and worn but the list below is a physical remainder of two decades spent chasing a lead puck around the bottom of a hundred different swimming pools across the world:

  • 11 pairs of fins (three unbroken Breier Carbon Fibre open heels, one pair of Najade, four pairs of Technisub Ala – one good and three clapped out – one pair of Technisub Stratos FP, a pair of F1s shitboxes and two pairs carbon Leaderfins)
  • 10 left handed gloves (three silicone Boney, four silicone South African, a latex TruBlue, one Slovenian and a latex Stu Parko special)
  • One right handed latex TruBlue glove
  • Five masks (two Reef teardrops – fuck! things are getting dire – one Cressi Big-Eyes, one TUSA SplenDive II and a Cressi SuperOcchio)
  • 20 Waterpolo caps (1s, 2s, 8s, 10s, 2 pairs of 11s and 13s plus a singe 1 (red), 6, 9 and 11)
  • About 30 odd sticks (3 pairs of Arnold Piccoli endorsed wooden monster hooks, 1 pair plastic Dorsels (unused), 1 pair CamAm Gav Wise plastic (I tried them once), 1 black South African Sharkie  (Unused), about 10 pairs of assorted homemade wooden bats and one right handed wooden Razor white ‘appropriated’ from Parko or Nick Martyn by the looks of it)
  • 17 pairs of bathers
  • Four pairs of Victorian branded tri-vests (thank god those days are over)
  • Three pairs of Lycra socks
  • Three medium fin keepers
  • Four pairs of swimming goggles
  • Three snorkels
  • Three gear bags (one Australian branded, one Hockeysub and one cricket bag)
  • 20m of 3mm utility cord
  • Phillips head screwdriver
  • Bastard file (rusty)
  • Swiss Army knife (unusable)
  • Bag of zip ties
  • Three rolls of Quick Eze
  • Voltaren (both tablets and gel)
  • Two black Textas
  • One White paint pen
  • One and a half rolls of Duct tape
  • Three rolls of Electrical tape
  • Three orange Super Soft Trueblue pucks
  • Three green Trueblue pucks
  • One Pink Trueblue puck
  • One Simms puck
  • One Lead puck
  • Two Elite Men’s World Championship gold medals
  • One Elite Men’s World Championship Bronze medal
  • One Australian Nationals Men’s division gold medal
  • A shoe box full of Australian Nationals Men’s  division bronze medals

Rummaging through twenty years of underwater hockey memories was an opportunity to reflect on my time in the sport. The act of cataloging my spare gear led me to the following realisations:

  1. Nearly two-thirds of my life has been spent playing Underwater Hockey
  2. I’ve had some amazing experiences and met a bunch of fantastic people along the way
  3. I have enough spare gear to allow two teams of left handers to play on another
  4. I am still passionately in love with the sport

Booze free for the weekend

This bar is unlicensed
This bar is unlicensed
This bar is unlicensed

Review: Vampire Weekend, Festival Hall, Monday 6 January 2014

We should have known something was wrong from the door bitch. She looked at our tickets, looked at the three grown men waiting impatiently in front of her, then looked back at the tickets with a frown. Just checking that you’re in the right place. Eventually, she shrugged and waved us in. Once inside, Curly looked at us and asked that classic rhetorical question, Beer? Ads and I nodded. Even though he stood less than ten metres from the “bar” Curly asked a security guard for directions. Sorry pal, this is the dry section. He pointed to the ceiling and the three of us looked at the NO PASS OUTS sign and panicked. This is what can happen when pregnant ladies book tickets for a gig.

We made our way to our allocated seats in a daze. I was too bewildered to notice at the time but, in hindsight, it’s amazing how easily you can navigate cramped and crowded aisles when you aren’t balancing three plastic cups overflowing with beer. We sat down and I looked across at the sticky carpets and beer soaked heaving mass just twenty metres away, on the other side of a row of thin medal bars. I’d never been stuck in the unlicensed area of an All Ages gig. How had it come to this?

Curly had called around lunchtime. You heard of Vampire Weekend? he asked. Yep, they’re good, I responded. Just so happens, I’ve picked up a couple of tickets to see them tonight. Want to come? I hesitated. It was a school night, the first Monday of January and I’d decided to try for fewer boozy nights in 2014. Sure, I’m keen. Seeing more live music was my other New Year’s resolution. It turned out that Curly’s pregnant cousin, Ella, had bought three tickets but she’d gone into labour early. Earlier that morning, Ella had given birth to a healthy little boy but obviously she wasn’t going to make the show.

It was a Festival Hall gig with an 8pm start. I naturally assumed that meant: doors open at 8pm, support act at 9pm and Vampire Weekend would hit the stage around 10ish. Curly had managed to rustle up another mate, Ads. The three of us met at a pub, the Hotel Spencer, near the gig at about 8pm. We had a couple of pots before walking down the hill. We got to Festival Hall at 8:40pm making it far and away the earliest I had ever arrived to a gig. Unfortunately, that event had coincided with being stuck smack bang in the middle of the dry section of licensed venue with the band at least an hour off hitting the stage.

Surveying the crowd, I realised that we were surrounded on all sides by kids. Everywhere I looked the oily sheen of prepubescent skin was lit up by the reflected glow mobile phone screens held closely to naïvely optimistic faces. The bitter irony of my situation dawned upon me, I’d been worried about going out on a school night but given the number of fifteen year olds around, I could have been back at high school. I spotted a few other adults scattered amongst a sea of adolescent exuberance, parents chaperoning their children on first dates, pregnant couples and maybe a reformed alcoholic or two.

Determined to make the best of the situation, I tried to identify a weak spot in the barrier that separated the unlicensed and licensed sections in the hope that we could sneak across. Try as I might, I couldn’t see a weakness. It looked fun on the other side of the barrier. Punters laughed, drank and chatted beneath an abundance of signage directing people to a dozen different bars where money could be exchanged for alcohol. It was as if the signs had been strategically placed just to taunt us. My frustration increased when I saw a guy buy soft drink from a licensed bar. Had he no regard for our plight? As far as I could see the only advantage of the unlicensed area was the lack of people waiting to be served at the so-called “bars”. I’m not an alcoholic but I do enjoy a drink. I had a couple of beers under the belt and was keen to enjoy a few more (responsibly of course) while listening to some quality live music.

Thankfully, we had completely misjudged the schedule, the support act (Gang of Youths) had actually played before we arrived so we only had to wait about fifteen minutes before Ezra, Rostam and the two Chris’s hit the stage. The relative lack of alcoholic accompaniment became a distant memory once the music started.

Sitting there and watching, I mean really watching and listening, I noticed details that would have been missed from the middle of a sweaty, booze-fuelled crowd. I laughed during Oxford Comma when a clapstick thrown from the crowd nearly hit Ezra while he sang the line, “Take the chapstick, put it on your lips”. I noticed that there was something painted on a sheet that was thrown on the stage and Erza made a bandana out of. It was the reaction of the kids around us that was the most enlightening. For many, it would have been their first live music experience and they were pumped. I dawned upon me that All Age venues provide the gig going punters of tomorrow access to live music.

The boys from New York City produced a pretty solid set. Laid back melodic ballads such as Step and Obvious Bicycle suited a band whose frontman wears three-quarter length pants, boat shoes and likes singing with one hand planted in his pocket. Cousins, One and A-Punk where highlights. Their high energy percussion heavy tone was complimented by the happy hoping and double denim of bassist Chris Baio.

It wasn’t just gentle swaying and adolescent innocence in the unlicensed section either. Shit was getting loose by the time the encore rolled around. Kids stood on chairs willy-nilly for When Walcott. It looked like security was going to have to start grounding people. The set came to an end at 10:37pm and we made our way onto the street in an orderly fashion while discussing the relative merits of the gig and our seating arrangements. We were sober but had been treated to something different.

The unlicensed section had provided a novel vantage point that had given me a new perspective on the live music experience. I looked at the L-platers that surrounded us in the hope that someone might give us a lift to the pub on their way home.

The trials and tribulations of dog ownership

Nahla the wonder dog
Nahla the wonder dog
Nahla the wonder dog

If I were you, getting a dog isn’t something that I’d be entering into lightly. Nahla joined our family nearly six months ago. We ummed and erred for years but finally relented. That little chocolate Labrador has changed our lives.

Some would say that it’s just a dog; it’s not like having a kid. I don’t disagree. There is no way that you could get away with making your kid sleep outside or leaving it in the backyard five days out of seven while you go to work. Those facts are undeniable but so is our reduced mobility and flexibility. I never imagined I’d feel guilty about leaving a dog at home by itself. I can’t go out for a drink after work without wondering what the dog is up to. We can’t just head off for the weekend on a whim anymore. We need to arrange a dog sitter or take her with us.

You also need to consider the faeces. We were up to our elbows in piss and shit when she was a puppy. Once again, people say that it’s no different to dealing with a baby. I’ve never experienced that firsthand but at least a baby’s bowel movements are confined to their nappy. I’ll take that over being on hands and knees at 3am scrubbing a three foot wide patch of diarrhoea out the of carpet. Then there is the destruction to the garden, the fortune that was spent at the vet after a little incident with rat poison followed by the untimely demise of Survivor Chook1.

Nahla in the garden before she turned it into a barren wasteland.
Nahla in the garden before she turned it into a barren wasteland.

While there have been some issues, owning a dog also has so many upsides. Firstly, it is very social. I have lived in rentals in a dozen different suburbs but I didn’t get to know my neighbours in many. That all changed when we got the dog. It gets you out and about and, more interestingly, it gets you talking to strangers. We often take Nahla down to the dog park on Curtain Square where we spend a couple hours each week talking to other dog owners, people we share the neighbourhood with. They’re people that I wouldn’t have talked to unless I owned a dog. I might not know their names but I know what their dog is called. Pet ownership is our common ground. We talk about their routines, their habits, their nemesis and their spectacular failures.

The other great thing is how my routine has changed. I’ve never been much of a morning person but the fact that Nahla rises at daybreak means that I now rise at daybreak. I get up and let her outside and then take her for a walk. Early morning has a different rhythm to the rest of the day. The city comes awake. Early risers make their way to work. Tradies are starting their day. People walking their dogs. Others walk just for the sake of it. The light is different. Everything looks fresher, younger. Birds welcome in the new day. You can hear the breeze making its way through the leaves. I see and hear all of that now because I am out and about with Nahla.

People also act differently around dogs. Strangers stop and ask about the dog. Some even check to see if it’s ok to give her a pat. I’ll never forget when the old woman from across the road met Nahla as a puppy. Stooped and grey, she must be eighty or older. She saw Nahla and her face lit up. She waved then hobbled from her veranda out to the street, she bent down and gave Nahla a pat. She straightened up and smiled a smile that made her look twenty years younger. Puppies and babies, they keep people young.

1 Savivour Chook was my sister’s longest serving chicken until she met Nahla.

Barefoot and beautiful

Sunset at Monty's
Sunset at Monty's
Sunset at Monte’s Reef Resort

The flight attendant calls us darl and signals that we’ve arrived in Queensland. We step off the plane into a different world. A world of wet heat, wide-open roads and the air-conditioner turned up full. It’s a two hour drive through squalling showers, cane fields and rotting old homesteads before we turn off the highway and head for turquoise water and white sand.

Monte’s Reef Resort is tucked away on strip of beach on the tip of Cape Gloucester. It’s about 45 minutes north of Airlie Beach, three hours by sea. This secluded tropical hideaway will be the backdrop for Justin and Brigitte’s wedding.

Judda was born and bred in St Arnaud. I shared a house with him in Melbourne for a year during our time at Uni. He’s a genuinely great bloke but back then I assumed he was an old man stuck in a young man’s body. It turns out he was just meant to be a Queenslander. The place suits him to a tee. Wake at five and head to bed at eight. Drinking mid-strength XXXX for breakfast. Singlet and thongs as standard pub attire. Fishing as part of the daily routine. Brigitte is from ‘broland but found her way to the Whitsundays where she met Judd. She’s smart as a tack, doesn’t mind a drink and calls Judd out on his bullshit. Yep, it’s safe to say that they are a match made in heaven.

Queensland has a different concept of time. It gets light early and the sun is set by six. Everything is more relaxed, there’s no rush, deadlines don’t matter. Things will happen when they happen, if not today then probably tomorrow. In the meantime, just enjoy the sun and the sand.

People have travelled from around the world for the wedding. Old friends, people who haven’t seen one another for years, catch up on old times. For others, introductions are made and new friendships are quickly forged. Judd and Bridgette’s big day is upon us before we know it.

It’s a cracking day, Shag and Gloucester islands provide a backdrop fit for any postcard. Smart casual is the suggested dress code. Shoes are optional. I consider throwing on a tie but the Chief Adviser wisely points out that one should never dress more formally than the groom. Shirt and shorts it is.

Guests drift down to the foreshore. It’s impossible to get over excited, the atmosphere is too chilled, but there is a sense of relaxed anticipation. People mill about, sharing beers and laughs.

The sun is high in the sky when the hum of the single prop engine signals the start of the shoeless formalities. A small speck on the horizon becomes recognisable as the seaplane arches around Shag Island. The bridal party glides gracefully through the middle of the bay then taxis into shore. Brigitte looks stunning stepping off the plane onto the sand. Judda’s smile is as big as Queensland.

Our friends commit to a shared future with the exchange of vows on the beach. We toast their health and happiness and the party begins.

And then there were eight

The CMAS Underwater Hockey Elite Men's World Championship trophy

The round robin is finally over. Nine games over six days for six wins, two draws and a loss means that we finished third in our side of the draw. A quarterfinal appointment with Colombia is locked in.

It has been fun thus far. We have had some tough games and a couple of easier assignments. One of the most enjoyable parts of coming away to a competition like the World Championships is testing yourself against the different styles played by other countries.

The general standard of hockey is quite high back in Australia but our geographical isolation mean international competitions are few and far between. We play a trans Tasman series against New Zealand every other year. They are fiercely contested affairs but coming up against the same faces year after year does wear a little thin.

Each time I come away to World Championships I am amazed at how much time the puck spends on the wall. The other countries seem to love that shit. I’ve never been averse to a bit of biffo on the wall but keeping it there for the entire game saps the interest out of the contest. It stifles imagination and creativity and turns the game into a bargefest.

The other obvious difference is the amount of time the puck spends on the back of player’s sticks. Some of the guys from other countries have mad skills: they use smaller sticks and attempt all these amazingly complicated and elaborate moves. They use the reverse flick far more often.

That type of play is very effective but I only know the Australian way. I try to get tight to the bottom and hit the puck hard. I’ve got a push-pull, a swerve, a flick and a curl.  Most of my teammates have a similar toolkit. What I like about our style of play is that there’s no bullshit. It’s basic and it’s effective.

Finals start tomorrow and there is no better way to test our style of play against the best in the world.

Channeling my inner Wonthaggi

The World Championships outdoor pool at Eger
The World Championships outdoor pool at Eger, Hungary.

Whether it is a recommendation from a friend, seeing a poster down at the pool or joining a club at University, all underwater hockey players remember how they found their way to the game.

My pimply-faced journey began in Wonthaggi. I was splashing around at the local pool when an old hairy dude rocked over and suggested that we give underwater hockey a go. Give it a try I did. I was hooked from the start.

We played on a Thursday night and I remember counting the days until the next session so that I could get amongst it again. I was telling anyone and everyone about this underwater pursuit that I had stumbled across. All my school friends where dragged along to the pool at one point or another.

The Wonthaggi pool is shallow, 0.8m to 1.5m, with fast, small tiles. It was a good place to learn the game. A pool like that gives you quick hands and teaches you the benefits of fast lateral movement. It is a small rural town but the club has produced dozens of national and international players. Some douchebag resurfaced the pool a couple of years back using those safety tiles that grip like a bastard and it completely changed the style of game. Club nights have turned into a flick and chase bash-fest.

I never thought it would happen at the World Championship level but playing in the outdoor pool here at Eger took me back to my time in Wonthaggi. The visibility is terrible and the bottom is like sandpaper. Jase reckons he has seen rivers with less algae. Apparently some bright spark decided clean it using a chemical toxic enough to strip the glaze from the tiles. On the upside, channeling my inner Wonthaggi has worked quite well when adapting my game to the slugfest.

Getting the first day jitters out the way

The Australian Elite teams arrived in Eger nearly a week ago. The first New Zealand contingent arrived a day or two after. Many of the other teams didn’t turn up until yesterday. It’s interesting that two of the nations who have to travel the furthest, arrived the earliest.

Getting here early has had its advantages. We have had a chance to acclimatize and get over our jetlag. Some of the boys have even begun to decode the Hungarian passion for pork-based cuisine.

The team was selected back in January then we have spent the last seven days training, practicing and talking. This extra time adds to the excitement but also presents some challenges. You have so much time to think. Anticipation builds and builds so that by the time the competition actually comes around you are a bundle of nervous energy. The trick is not letting those nerves affect your game.

It’s a trick that I’m yet to master but our first game was a solid hit out against New Zealand. We drew the game 3-3 but the result is almost secondary to finally getting the games underway.

Eight months worth of swimming and training is behind us now. We will be better for our first run. Now we can get down to business. Let the games begin.

Top 10 Underwater Hockey songs

Most of the Australian teams have been holed up in Eger for five days now. As it has turned out we have had a fair bit of time between sessions.

Some people have spent that time working through one TV series or another, others have amused themselves with witty anecdotes about memories past, a select few might have even spent their spare time usefully.

I decided to turn my hand to compiling an Underwater Hockey themed mixed tape.

Pink Floyd – Breathe

Brooke Fraser – Something In The Water

Paul Kelly – Deeper Water

The Who – Water

Yazz – The Only Way Is Up

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UtKADQnjQmc

Fatboy Slim – Brimful Of Asha

Faith No More – Underwater Love

Bobby Darin – Splish Splash

Cat Power – Water And Air

PJ Harvey – Down By The Water

Any others I’ve missed?