A sunny Friday afternoon in Wellington.
I thought there was nobody at home at first but then I heard voices from the other end of the house. They carried me to 4’s room where she was on her mother Rach’s lap, recovering from a tantrum. 4 searched my face for a reason to restart her yelling. I smiled.
“I’m going to do some exercise,” I announced cheerfully.
“Okay,” said Rach, who was kind enough to not laugh at me. 4 continued her deep breathing, staring straight ahead.
I went downstairs and changed into my running gear. My shoes and shorts still bore the clean chemical odour of the stores I bought them from. I realised I’d become another one of those people with new exercise clothes – the guy you see run past your house once or twice, huffing and puffing and looking out of place, then never again.
Back upstairs I went. 4 was in the living room now, setting up a megasketcher write-and-wipe pad, toy cash register and a bag of plastic food. I heard Rach in the kitchen, preparing real food for dinner later.
“Barns can you play café?”
“You only have to play two games!”
“Well, , I was actually going to go for a run…”
Enormous pout. Bottom lip protruding at least two centimetres out from face. On the cusp of tears.
“…but why don’t you tell me how you play café?”
Bottom lip put away. She launched immediately into an explanation of the rules. No smile or indication of relief. It was just a ruse, a tactic to force me into staying! But it was too late: now I was stuck playing café. Might as well enjoy it.
I thought of 8, who might not want to miss out. “Where’s your sister?” I asked as 4 finished setting things up.
“She doesn’t want to play,” she said. I wondered whether 8 had even been asked. Ah well. Forget it and move on.
I played customer first, and I made myself the most difficult customer possible. I demanded things that weren’t on the menu. I condescended to the waitress. I sent food back and asked to see the manager. 4 loved all of this, of course – and, being 4, she gave plenty of my condescension right back to me, often with a raucous laugh.
Then it was my turn to go behind the counter. 4 was a much easier customer than I had been. I inserted into the transaction a ‘telephone call’ to the ‘kitchen’, who I thought had messed up the order but had in fact gotten everything just right. 4 giggled as I flinched at the abuse supposedly coming down the phone at me.
“Did you get in trouble?” she asked, still grinning.
“No, no,” I said. “Just a misunderstanding.”
At this point, 8 came into the room and saw that we were playing café. Being 8, she immediately saw ten potential rearrangements that would make everything much better and, as she went to move things around, suggested a handful of new rules. It seems there can never be too many rules; indeed, coming up with more rules often appears to be more entertaining than playing the game itself.
I broke character for a moment. “Hang on, . Let us finish our business. Then I’m going to go for a run, and you two can play.”
“OK,” she said. She hovered impatiently around us as 4 paid the bill with my credit card. I said, “Thank you, come again.”
I left them to their ever-increasing list of rules and headed out for my run.
The park near our new house is small, an oval of about 200 metres’ circumference with a playground alongside it at one end. I planned to run around it until I got tired; having seen people running before, including my previously quite unfit brother, I didn’t see how difficult it could be.
The first lap was fine, bringing a welcome raised heartbeat. By halfway through the second, I was gasping loudly. I retreated into a corner to stretch and catch my breath.
As I tested my muscle flexibility and endured the exquisite pain of a good stretch, I understood that this was not going to be easy. Four years of sedentary lifestyle and two years of smoking meant that I couldn’t get fit again just like that.
Surely I could do a few more laps though. Come, let’s try again.
Round I went. My legs felt less like jelly but my lungs heaved with strain. After twice more round the park, I had to stop again and stretch – though stretching was just an excuse to stop running and rest (for God’s sake).
I thought back to how those regular futsal games when I was 22 were no big deal. I hadn’t exercised properly for four years before taking that up, either. But the difference between 18 –> 22 and 22 –> 26 is tangible. Ed and Rach pointed this out later: I’d hit that mysterious mid-twenties slump when things just don’t work quite the way they used to anymore. Every effort is more of an effort.
So, one last effort. One more lap and then run home. I did so, loudly gasping the whole way. After I got back home, I remembered Mr Cunningham’s words in third form PE – if you stay on your feet, you recover much faster – and so resisted the urge to collapse onto the bed. Instead, I showered and grabbed a beer, still a little breathless.
I went upstairs. No distant voices this time; the living room was transformed and filled with the activity of two young girls.
“The café’s still open,” said 8 cheerfully. 4 looked at me and smiled widely. I smiled back.
“Am I allowed to bring in beer from outside?” I asked.
“Yup,” replied 8.
“Excellent,” I said, and sat down on the sofa (aka Table 7).
I don’t know if I would’ve done this a few years ago. I was far too wrapped up in myself to give much to others. (I still have a long way to go, of course.)
As my calf muscles ached through a long and joyous café experience, now with two excitable wait staff rather than one, it seemed that my body had become less patient over the years; my temperament, meanwhile, had gone the opposite way. Perhaps this is a result of paying close attention to becoming more patient with other people, animals and objects, and paying little heed to the slow atrophy of my body.
The benefits of mindfulness seem obvious. Now, to continue the never-ending process of restoring balance. Right after another beer.