Turns out, Dads are good for something after all
With all the exhaustion of a middle aged man, my five-year-old son declared that he was struggling to get to sleep. He didn’t know precisely why. He was forlornly resigned to his fate. But it would surely be nice if slumber was an easier bedfellow.
Amen to that brother. I know exactly what you mean.
Leaning over, seizing an opportunity to impart fatherly wisdom, I told him the answer was lists. Try and name every kid in your class and keep count. Name as many TV shows as you can and keep count. Before you are half way through your first list, I assured him, you will be fast asleep.
The next morning he looked me in the eye and said that lists work. Dads were good for something after all.
As a foreign affairs portfolio holder sleep is now an enduring preoccupation of mine. As I traverse time zones and attempt to work, jet lag has become my constant foe.
Meticulously I wake up early on the day of my departure in order to induce the necessary tiredness to sleep on the plane. I refuse the meals I shouldn’t eat and give firm instructions not to wake me for breakfast.
I use caffeine to get me up and a night cap to put me to sleep. But when it is all said and done I always end up in the same place: 3am in my hotel room, totally buggered, but I just can’t sleep.
It is in this moment, in the depth of the night, that I have discovered the comatosing effect of the list: the capitals of Africa, the periodic table, or the name and number of recent Geelong premiership players.
But there is one list which has had more slumber success than any other: airports I have visited.
In 1993, having just finished university, I was backpacking in Vietnam and Laos with a close friend, now a Labor colleague. In need of a distraction to pass long hours on trains, planes and automobiles, we played endless hands of German Whist and engaged in meaningless competition.
The most significant and competitive contest was who had landed at the most airports.
At about fifty apiece the scores were even. As we parted ways for the return home I picked up an extra airport putting me one in front. My mate was not pleased. And so began a contest which has now been running for almost twenty years.
It is a competition so fierce that we have barely avoided litigation.
Having the occasion to visit the oil fields of Bass Strait, my competitor was helicoptered into three off-shore rigs and attempted to claim each of them as an airport. Fat chance. You’d need a runway and wings for that.
A month later, as a guest of the US Navy, my mate was flown onto the USS Stennis, a passing aircraft carrier about an hour’s flight south of Adelaide. He assured me that both a runway and wings were present. Bugger.
Last year, in Bangladesh, I was taken in a seaplane to the Ganges River Delta to visit an island which was being helped to adapt to climate change with support from Australian aid. As we came in for a perfect landing on the water I texted my rival right then to claim the airport. An immediate text returned saying that he was happy to count seaplanes given he’d been on three. Double bugger.
In an age devoid of jousting, the need for men to engage in needless competition is given expression in many ways. For us it is airports.
My friend moved on in the world and began to travel far and wide across Australia visiting obscure airports in every outback town. He built a big lead in our competition which in turn stopped being much fun.
But then I was appointed the Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs and I have since made a spectacular comeback. Suddenly counting airports has become eminently satisfying.
Whether it is the list or the contentment that comes with triumph, airports are definitely helping me to sleep.
Now I know that in a year or two fortunes may change. At that point I will need to turn to other lists - golf stats, my current rose bush audit, Star Wars characters - to put me to sleep when slumber is an elusive friend.
But lists really do work in the middle of the night and it felt good to teach Harvey that. And nothing is more fun than beating a mate in contest and that critical paternal advice will have its day as well.
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