“I just want to let it pass quietly”, Ned Nederlander sighed wistfully when I asked him a few months ago how he would like to celebrate turning fifty.
One of Ned’s great advantages in life, or at least in the last twenty five years of it, has come from his decision to swing hands with an older woman. As any toy boy knows, an association with a spouse with additional life experience provides superior access to three alliterative pillars of happiness: wisdom, wit, and wiliness. A fourth pillar, wrinkles, is not relevant to this story.
Ned recently benefited from my wise assumption that he was just being coy when he asked for a quiet birthday. He gave himself the day off work. I allowed it to pass relatively quietly. Well, admittedly I organised for Kleine Jongen to wake him with a blast of Happy birthday, reggae style” from a wireless speaker hidden under our bed. It just seemed easier (and wiser, wittier and wilier) than wrapping the speaker, which was a birthday gift.
In an effort to continue to provide the quiet birthday that Ned had requested, I convinced him to join me on an outing to a Swedish torture chamber/furniture store after lunch. Usually I will seek any flat-packed excuse to avoid going there (although I am a sucker for the World’s Greatest Dish Brushes; 59 cents in blue, red or green). But, we faced a domestic bedding emergency, and I needed a strong young man who could lift multiple heavy boxes, help me bring them home and carry them up five flights of stairs. I swear I thought it would take us 30 minutes.
|Apparently not available at the Amsterdam store|
I bore my guilt stoically for another 24 hours. The next evening, in an attempt to thaw the marital freeze, I slid an envelope across the table to my aging child groom. It contained an invitation to his surprise dinner the following evening. A surprise 50th birthday dinner that had been planned for weeks, even before he got Swedishly grumpy. A day’s notice was a mature and gracious compromise between defending myself against petulant spousal inferences, and allowing said spouse to retain some dignity when faced with a couple of dozen smug and secretive dinner guests.
I waited for him to beam appreciatively, throw his arms around me, thank me for my thoughtfulness, and apologise for his churlish behaviour the previous day. Instead, he raised an eyebrow, cocked his head suspiciously and coolly asked, “Will I know anyone there?”
Kleine Jongen, who had counselled me against any form of surprise celebration muttered, “Told you he’d hate it.” I retreated, leaving them to their mutual eye-rolling and shared sympathies.
The following afternoon, Grote Jongen arrived and I confessed that I had given Ned the tiniest heads-up. Grote Jongen looked crestfallen and declared “It’s not going to be much of a surprise then. That’s no fun for Dad”. I looked from one son to the other, and in the face of such contradictory views, found that all of my wit, wisdom and wiliness had drained away.
The four of us - and our varied expectations and fears - cycled off into the October night to the birthday non-surprise. The guest list at least remained a secret, so it was with some uncertainty that Ned ventured into the restaurant.
One of the highlights of the night was a rare audience with the Count and Countess of Oirschot, who had traveled half the length of the kingdom to be there. Years earlier, the Count had encouraged and enabled our move to the Lowlands, thus bearing most of the responsibility for the greatest adventure of our lives. He engaged his entire family in his efforts. On a sunny September day in 2011, after a gezellig lunch at their Oirschot home, the Count's ten-year old daughter took me into the garden. She chatted amicably to me in Dutch and was incredulous that I was unable to understand or utter a single word in her mother tongue. This delightful young member of the Counter family became the first of many Dutch people to try to guide me through their mysterious linguistic maze, by teaching me to count to ten. She remains my favourite Dutch teacher. Ever.
|One, two, THREE! The Count of Oirschot and Ned practice blending in |
with the enemy as they watch another Venlo ball hit
the back of the net in 2011
Later that day, the Count and the eldest of the four Counter children hosted us at a passionate Eredivisie match. It was there that Ned and de Jongens learned to count to three. They watched underdog VVV Venlo slam goal after goal after goal into the net of the Counter family's home team - PSV Eindhoven. It was possibly the biggest upset ever seen in Dutch football (if you don’t count the national team missing out on the 2018 World Cup, and since we’re on the subject, it seems an opportune time to casually mention that Australia qualified again this week, for the fifth time in a row. But who’s counting?).
A quick personal aside: Count, Countess en de vier geweldig Counter kinderen, we zullen altijd dankbaar zijn voor jullie steun. We zijn ook zo blij dat jullie waren naar het feestje gekomen.
There, that should amuse all my Dutch readers for a few moments.
I suppose Ned was expecting the Shagger’s Back crew to be there at his surprise dinner, and most of them were. These are the fearless men he has risen at 5:45am each Tuesday to run with for the past several years, summer and winter. Despite having endured numerous marathons, half marathons, and beer-fuelled recovery sessions together, these middle-aged pavement soldiers are occasionally prone to debilitating spinal discomfort. This, combined with a delusional sense of the state of their own love lives, has led them to adopt their quaint team name. They were, as expected, the last to leave the party, at 3am, and so deserve a special mention here.
The Blog Tart of Muiden (pink shirt, back row)
unwisely ignores my witty toast to Ned,
unmoved by my wily use of airline teaspoon props.
Ned correctly predicted that the Blog Tart of Muiden would be there too. It is widely suspected that BTM plans his life around opportunities to earn cyberspatial notoriety, and sadly he can think of no greater honour than being given his own blog moniker. Frankly, after so many years, I think he’s earned it. So welcome to your very own place in history, sweet Blog Tart.
Of course, every one of the surprise dinner guests deserves their own paragraph, but sadly none have paid me as much as BTM, so their names will not appear here.
A small but regrettably absent group do however warrant acknowledgement, because no celebration of Ned is really complete without them. In many ways, Ned would not be Ned Nederlander without them. In particular, he owes his own blog moniker to this group, so I hereby give long overdue acknowledgement of their contribution to Ned’s now infamous identity.
The lifelong friendships in this group were forged under the intense pressure of undergraduate lectures, field-trips and having too much time on their hands over several summers. Since then those friendships have survived the annual strain of the so-called World’s Toughest Fishing Competition (anonymous sources have suggested that it’s only tough on the livers of the competitors; seldom on the local fish population). Their bond has survived countless overly-competitive bocce games, in which balls were almost lost. Together they have turned the simple act of online footy tipping into an intellectually exhausting science that has at times teetered on the brink of war. Over decades they have welcomed “outsider” partners like me, and our children into their midst, while retaining their impenetrable original bond. Had any of the group made the long trek from Australia, the birthday party would have lasted well beyond 3am (with the exception of the Maid of Maroubra, who would have fallen asleep at 9pm). Extensive Dutch tutting – a national specialty - would still be being heard from the Amsterdam locals, and Ned would still be smiling. You all know who you are. You were all missed.
|A few of those who woulda, coulda, shoulda been there|
Now that the event is behind us, I’m relieved to say that it turns out that Ned was thrilled with my witty interpretation of “quietly” as “quite (loud)ly”. And he was left with no choice but to show appreciation for my wily arrangement of a surprise dinner to celebrate his half century. What a wise man.