Rottnest 2017

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It’s all about the silence. Although it isn’t silent when you listen. There is the slap of the sea – constant, background. There is the screech of children. Sometimes a meltdown from the chalet behind. And always the bang of screen doors. There is the latch on the gate, the diesel hum of boat motors, the flip flop of thongs on bitumen. There is the crash of glass bottles entering the recycling bins, the whistle of a boatie to the landlubbers on shore. A father chastises a son for talking back and a mother attempts to smear sunscreen on a wriggling, moaning child. But there are only a few cars. There is a rubbish truck. There are no horns or sirens. There are bicycle bells. There are few telephones ringing, except for those timing the cooking of the pasta.

Rottnest.

The Cairns – they come every second year. They wish for yearly. They are Sydney-siders. Big city people, but lovers of the simplicity of Rottnest. We will always have Rottnest. Rottnest has seen new partners, seen pregnancies and babies added. Beds have been upgraded with bed runners and better mattresses. New tiles, new lights (still too bright), a change in couches (too hard) and outdoor balcony seating. We no longer can move a couch from the chalet onto the balcony, so instead order a foldaway bed and install it out there. The Cairns have a three-bedder and so an expanse of balcony and extra large kitchen and fridge. The three-bedder is looking very good. Another Perth mother arrives with a lanky girl child. She makes wonderful curry and goes to Mass. She talks about her street where she has moved from the wealthy to the poor side, since splitting with her husband, and how wonderfully refreshing the poor side is. They have a gifting shelf in their laneway where people exchange all manner of books and knick knacks. Since separating she has brought back inside a beloved Jarrah table, a family treasure, which was relegated to life on the porch in the home she shared with her husband. A teenager has not come this year – but two small boys are now two older boys, only inches apart. Still boys. Still lovers of cricket and riding their bikes.

Day One Monte stacks it in front of the Visitor centre and requires fixomull to a scraped knee. His diabetes is no longer new. His pump gives him and his parents freedom from needles, but still requires the input of calculations and knowledge of what has been eaten and of how much carbohydrate it contains. It is second nature to Monte to count everything that goes into his mouth. Every chip, every BBQ Shape. “26 Shapes Mumma.” He has a record low of 1.8 one day on the balcony, appearing to the adults unlike himself, a callow meek Monte declares, “I am Low.” Low he is. He is told to sit. Troy gets juice from the fridge and two glasses are downed. In minutes he is back to over 6. We, the diabetes rookies, are nervous and ill-equipped. The parents and the child have it all down pat. No one panics. Juice and jubes and the blood glucose is back on track.

Monte, diabetes or not, is determined to do well. He is competitive with everything. He aims to be the best. He is sore at losing and when things don’t appear fair. He is like a wind-up toy with an Ever Ready battery. He keeps going despite being red-faced and hot. Sometimes his face folds and he hides himself under a Turkish towel on the beach. Sometimes he won’t swim. “Chop Chop young son,” is called to Troy as he stand up paddle boards towards the shore, after-all another man is required on the cricket pitch.

Raff is a harder nut to crack. Brilliant light blue eyes and wry smile. Tells it like it is. He says he is bored, but also that he is having the best time. He rejects the application of sunscreen or the wearing of a hat. He plays cricket but won’t watch it on the telly. He loves school and can’t wait for the holidays to end so he can go back. Both boys love Jasper and he plays with them well, with a patience he does not have for his parents. On the last night they play a game where they must search for each other while trying to get home to the base without being caught. Raff: “The most intense game ever.”

Nostalgic treat – original Tim Tams and Neapolitan Ice-cream.

Middle aged couple pre dinner and lunch time cocktail – Aperol Spritz.

Typical discussion – ailments, need to reduce alcohol consumption, difficulty with reducing alcohol consumption, lack of interest and desire in decreasing alcohol consumption, how lack of alcohol just makes them cranky.

Milly’s laugh – “howabouthoseeagles”

Troy’s story – Snoopy (said with a lisp) and Mr Michaels.

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My lip is burnt and it makes me touch it. I worry it with my front teeth.

Like the teenagers. They too have burnt lips. Mothers give them cream, similar to what used to be applied to nappy rash. We swim at Little Parakeet and are joined by other old friends. They too chaperone teenagers. We reminisce briefly at what Rotto was like when our children were babies. When at nighttime they slept and we barbecued attached to baby monitors. They have a teen girl who has taken to “Fuck you” and giving them the finger. We have a sullen, string bean boy. More broody and somber. Disdainful of questions. Irked by any attempt of mine at humour or dance. Even if it will only be seen by him. My mere swaying with the beat can send him into a frenzy of STOP MUM. Strangely it only makes me want to dance more.

So. Two middle-aged couples on the beach while our teens roam about the beach, without energy, without vim. Sapped. Arms flop about their bodies like lifeless limbs. A French couple squabbles with a small boy having a tantrum on the sand. An open hand strikes the boy. Leave him be, we all think. It is easy to parent from afar, when you are not in the thick of it. Perspective is clear, a way forward, so easy to see. But when you are amongst it, not so much. What should you do when they unleash the “fuck you” we ask, but never seem to get an answer. Perhaps they too, don’t know. I guess we will muddle through, like we have with all the previous parenting woes, only to find out later that, despite trying our best, there was indeed a less painful way. Later we joke we don’t know which we would prefer – the fuck you or the silent moping. They tell the story of threatening to remove teen girl’s bedroom door if it was slammed one more time. Slammed hard. Makita comes out. Door hinges unscrewed. Later, on opening their own bedroom door it nearly falls off as teen girl has loosened its screws with a Stanley knife. Touché, thinks Dad. A valid response to authority.

Then comes Australia day.

I love Australia, but not when it’s shoved in my face. I don’t like balconies festooned with triangles of Australian flags. I don’t like boats with massive billowing flags fit for a parliamentary flagpole. Boats anchor – A Salt Weapon, Reel Xtreme. I don’t like Aussie Crawl played over and over again, or Men at Work, whilst middle-aged men in Australian flag hats and boardies sit with a beer and sing the chorus and play air drums. Later said man will wander from the beach to the shops and take a piss on the brick stairs between the chalets. Choice. When two blondes, fresh from their shower, with large glasses of white wine pass under our balcony to join the Men at Work boat, I ask politely if they might relay the message to turn their music down. The glare – long and hard eyed, the clenching of their teeth somewhere behind their closed lips, the lack of a verbal response, the cackle when they reach their friends, their pointing me out as “that lady on the balcony” was all a tacit agreement that we do no longer (if we ever did) like each other. It makes me think of dogs and their mostly excellent reading of each other’s body language. As humans – we think we rely on verbal cues – but we are just as much influenced by a look, a small movement of the lip or eyebrow. So in dog language we gave each other the “look away.” Don’t mess with me.

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On the mainland it is sweltering. A seaplane, supposed to be part of the sky show ahead of the fireworks, turns without enough speed for a hot windless day, a wing dips, a motor stalls, and it plunges like a poorly made paper plane, into the river, killing pilot and passenger. We think of Big Steve (back in the US) and of his job sorting out the cause of any similar “fatal.” G says he would hate the way a passenger died, because of a pilot’s inexperience.

The sky did its thing tonight. After a hot day the storm clouds have arrived and made a sunset of rose and mauve. The wind, which was playing havoc with the Big Bash TV reception, decided to fade and allow some uninterrupted viewing. It must be hot on the mainland. Cricketers are sweating. The distant lighthouse stood solid and beige while the sky all around changed and morphed. A big white voluminous cloud puffed itself up and all around it other darker clouds swirled and spread. The sea turned from soft mohair blue to beaten pewter. My raised stinger welt begins to itch. The fan ticks.

I dream that I am entering a lift as someone with a thin whippet style dog is exiting. Some how there is a cavernous gap between the landing and the lift and of course, as it always is in dreamland, this is not abnormal or a surprise. What is shocking is that as the man leaps across the dark and endless gap but the dog does not. He, then at one side and the dog still in the lift, urges the skinny thing to jump across to him and as it does so he pulls on its leash and its head slips loosely from the collar and the flimsy dog disappears into the dark. A thump is heard as it hits the bottom and then nothing. It is somehow my fault, in my heart, that this dog was afraid to jump, failed to jump, didn’t leave with the man. I wake up, annoyed and made itchy by the stinger welt across my chest. I itch it. Stop. Itch some more. Think of John Turturro in The Night Of.. and wish for a pointed knitting needle. Itch some more.

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Beach Baby

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Daily I walk the port. It remains cold, despite the onset of spring. A biting wind. The dog has been let off his leash more lately, but, having found the odd chicken bone or two he has taken to wandering away and searching for himself. After all what is more fun than scrounging. Innate dog. His recall is dwindling and it will need some reinforcing with roast chicken of my own.

Still. Nose to the ground he is searching the grassed areas where people tend to eat and leave their scraps. I see him, triumphant, munching, rudely open-mouthed, on something. Ignoring me. Lead back on. We walk the boardwalk by the beach.

 

I see a couple – the man has a baby held to his chest. It looks just born – its hair still plastered down like it has freshly emerged from an egg sack. Even from a distance there’s a newly hatched wetness to its slick of black hair. His large hand cups its skull and presses it into that dip between his neck and shoulder.

I think of the wind assaulting it, pushing at its eyelids. On the beach a woman (the mother, I guess) is in all black – leotards and top – and has her legs wide apart and is stretching to her side, this way, then that. He moves around her with the baby jiggling and thrusting its hungry head into his udderless shoulder. Skin-warmth the vaguest of similarities. Leotard is intent on her exercise – staring straight out into the ocean, her hair an angry blonde storm.

The man has baggy brown pants on – probably cheesecloth – and they bristle in the wind. He has long white arms. I wonder how much fun they are having. He looks cold, but ever so patient. I wonder if they have argued about her time, his time. I wonder if this is her saying I need this space. His way of making it up to her after a suburban meltdown.

Take the baby home, I think. Wrap it in warmth. Soothe it with mohair and mother, real milk. It makes me recall my own mother – shocked at the fact that new mothers no longer have a lying in period – where they stay home, after the birth, and simply look after the newborn, propped up in bed with a mountain of pillows, feed sleep feed. I am turning into my mother. Enough exercise already.

I think of Alain de Botton’s new novel The Course of Love and his writing, “love is a skill and not an enthusiasm.” This father has skill, standing back in the dunes watching the mother bend and twist. He hunkers down so the baby is protected and waits. He waits while she struts the sand. Punching it with the soles of her perfect feet. Asking the world why? More bending.

Still. I think do your yoga, eat your chia, somewhere else, somewhere warm. Leave the seaweed-strewn beach that is cold and bitter to walkers of dogs with thick coats. Dogs made for wind and rain.

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Pakenham Living

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First two days in the studio.

 

Murphy makes his grumph grumph noises at some of the passersby, but mainly he is relaxed, despite the heavy noise of the street traffic just outside his door. He is happily urinating on the street on the nearest pole. He had a zoomie on Bathers Beach as the denim surf frothed and the wind whipped around.

 

I speak to the peroxided hairdresser as she smokes a cigarette on the street and compliments Murphy on the hues in his fur, make friends with the Bread N Common waitress from whom I buy my salami flute and have coffee at the High Street Dispensary sitting with my face tilted toward the winter sun.

 

Nightly drunks and carousers holler up the sidewalk. Swear and swerve, stumble and scream. Every morning the street sweepers clean up after them, but the bin is over flowing and the rubbish men are not due, and so a raven does his best to empty it, signalling to his other raven mates to come and feast at the dish of human detritus, dropping what they don’t want on the bitumen. Road = crow canvas.

 

I have discovered that butter (anything other than Watsonia) can be bought at Kakulas Sister for a high price and regular linguini is out the front. Despite the fact that the serving women are sour and I feel invisible in there, I purchase.

 

My hands are dry from too much water and Jiff. I have googled how to remove paint stains from hard wood floors. Rubbing alcohol.

 

I have cleaned the walls and the blinds to the height I can reach but there is so much beyond that I cannot. Not till I purchase the extendable duster. Joy.

 

I have no television and so I watch Masterchef on my computer and follow the Tour on the tour tracker. The radio is my companion.

I query the bill from builder for the skip bins and the services disconnection and feel a sense of bewilderment that we are spending so much money on a house renovation when we can easily live like this, in the small studio, with a very limited amount of stuff and not many possessions.

How we complicate our lives with stuff.

How mouse-in-a-wheel-like it all gets – this owning and then wanting more and more of it. And then, finding nowhere to put it, we decide to throw it out and start again.

It is simple here today. I have my old sink, not thrown out, sliced in two by handy men, but still the familiar sink I have scrubbed at for twenty years. Its grain like aged wood. I have scrubbed it when I am happy, and I have scrubbed it when I am sad. At our neighbour’s their corner sink meant it was not an easy sink for me. I could not reach into it and so never laboured at it. Besides, they had a dishwasher.  Here I am returned to succour of stainless steel scrubbing.

 

The laminex table too has been resurrected. Thankfully it was never discarded. Stored in an attic with other one days. It is mottled tomato red and white. It has shapely silver legs like a 1950’s screen siren, but its top is solid and dutiful. It is milk bar, country town. Graham and I worked at it years ago sorting through black and white prints on Ilford paper. Pored over strips of negatives on light boxes. Now a small transistor sits on it playing the local station’s football coverage. Sydney vs Geelong and Sydney need to lower their eyes. What does that even mean?

 

The men and boys will be out of the winter weather by now. They left at 3 am while the road was still wet and black and the traffic had stopped. I listened to the car start up and drive off and then fell back to sleep till Murphy woke me barking at the some dogs at his door. How dare they sniff.

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I sleep fitfully. One minute hot – throwing back the doona and pancaking myself on the cool side of the bed, feeling the icy sheets on the insides of my arms, then turning cold and snuggling back down, only to find myself hot again another hour on. The rain keeps the revellers down. Still I wake at five and take the dog out, watch the lights of the street sweeper advance up the road towards us, sucking the paper cups and used napkins off the gutter.

Today I discover the Italian coffee maker won’t work on induction. I set up the lap top camera to record Murphy while I duck out to the shops. When I return I see I have made a mistake and not recorded a thing. Later I try again and go for a short outing to the second hand bookshop to purchase a book I had seen in the window called the The Last Little Cat. (Books are never unworthy purchases.) But when I flick through it it isn’t what I had hoped and so I decide not to buy it. I look at the other books and stumble across a 1934 edition of Dogs and Their Management and in it find such sage advice as Do not fidget an Invalid – do what is necessary quietly, gently and quickly, and then leave him alone; no glaring lights or suffocating heat as well as nutritional advice such as Sheep’s brains boiled in milk is nourishing and makes a tempting food: it is a little relaxing.

 

I listen to Radio National – a balm for the soul – a man talks about his love of walking – initially as an escape from a brutal childhood hiding away in wilderness morphs into connecting with nature and healing his past. The treading becomes deeply spiritual. He gets stuck in scrub and only goes 100 metres in an hour. Scrub so thick he couldn’t see the sky. His drawl is strangely hypnotic as he describes the country that he meanders and struggles through. The pocket doc finishes and there is no time to reflect before the news tells of the Dallas sniper who shot five policemen in retaliation for black deaths earlier in the week. If only the sniper had discovered his solace in walking. Or in sink scrubbing.

 

 

 

 

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Noosa – from Beach to Light House (almost)…

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Image by Graham Miller

The sick are not on the path –

not the dying,

the undiagnosed illness saunters past,

the diseased gene.

The path is for the healthy, or the fat.

The families. Fathers with babies in back packs.

Mothers in slouchy hats.

Out come the SAKATAS –

because toddlers are always hungry when there is no shop nearby.

Fluorescent Nike, Campagnolo cyclist cap.

A family of four each with a different coloured shoe.

Things go on beneath the skin, in the innards.

Under cloth.

Breathable cloth hides ulcers, bruises, marks.

Absorbent dressings soak up fluid, discharge.

Bow legged men.

A dropped credit card found on the path. A collective What to do?

 

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Let’s Talk Language

 

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Today I spoke to vet students studying veterinary welfare, ethics and animal behaviour. It was their first lecture dealing with Animal Behaviour and I wanted to speak about language. I can imagine they might think it is unimportant. But it is the crux of the matter. You will hear it in vet clinics all the time – eroding the bond of compassion and caring that vets have with patients who, through the poor choice of language, become the enemy.

When we describe dogs as wimps, sooks, babies or as nasty, mean, vicious we use loaded terminology. We use descriptors that are full of emotional baggage. When we describe a dog’s attempt at keeping himself safe as an act of jealousy, spitefulness or protectiveness we do him no end of disservice and do not help his owner understand their dog’s choices.

Dogs who display aggressive behaviours do so because they have found a tool that works for them. It is one that people notice (finally) and gets them the outcome they are after – the scary thing stays away.

It is one of the most difficult concepts for clients to understand – that the aggressive dog is most often a very frightened dog, that through practice and rehearsal, and no one listening to his lesser signals (or having had them punished for previous displays), has learnt that going on the offensive early is his safest bet. These dogs are no less frightened than the whimpering, hiding dog that displays his belly, but they have just hit on a more successful strategy. And you can bet they will use it again.

The last thing this dog needs is to have his fears confirmed and continue to not be listened to – then he may resort to his final choice – biting. When we call these dogs protective, jealous, angry or mean we are missing the very point.  The dog is communicating fear in the loudest and best way he can, when all the previous and polite signals have been ignored.

I tell the students to ask clients to describe behaviour. Don’t ask for interpretations and steer clients away from that too. What does the dog do? What did you do? What happened first? What does it look like? What would you like the dog to do? Let’s teach that…

Let’s give the dog cues NOT commands. Let’s make the dog feel safe, so he doesn’t have to protect himself by using aggressive responses. Give him choice, a way to escape safely. Let’s not put him in situations he cannot handle and he has previously shown us he does not cope with.

Let’s use the least intrusive and minimally aversive techniques to implement the change.

A prison officer working with youth offenders once told me that the kids in the centre weren’t bad, but sad, and I remember what a difference that change in label meant. Working with sad children engenders empathy and caring. Helping people out of a sad place is worthwhile, whereas dealing with bad suggests that changes aren’t even possible. One bad apple...It even suggests a contagion that is best isolated and thrown away. Use language that helps owners feel compassion and caring towards their pet instead of puts them in a position against their pet, pits them against one another, and tells them their pet is out to garner control over them.

Dogs, like all animals, including us, do what works for them. It is as simple and as difficult as that.

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My Beautiful Laundrette

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This was a hip movie when I was a student but probably not many people would remember it these days. It was also written by one of my favourite writers, Hanif Kureshi. It made being in a North London laundrette something you could feel good about.

When you think of laundromats you think of student days. You think of late nights and weekends spent watching the blur of jeans and t shirts. But I am middle aged. But still in possession of a broken front loader. Its breaking started with a difference to the quality of the sound of the spin before it gave up with a belly full and spewed it out undigested, wet and heavy. It worked again once more on gentle spin, then after that died completely. Not even a spray of WD 40 to the door catch did a thing. Now it is a block of useless heavy machinery in our bathroom – waiting for the next bring out your dead.

I go to a laundrette to find it no longer offers self serve. Probably haven’t operated that way for three years – too much vandalism, says the woman taking a delivery of business shirts from the arms of a customer, as I look searchingly around the room at the silent, disused washers with piles of named packaged clothes upon each one. I know I will not want to pay her to wash my pile of dirty laundry, but I ask – out of interest. Looks like two loads, she says. Thirty six dollars.

She directs me to another laundromat I had never noticed, but I drive on by when I see it has steps. I know one without steps. It is twenty minutes away, but the drive is familiar and never feels long. Down roads that I once peddled my bike with a transistor strapped to the handlebars. Afternoon Delight on the radio, a White Knight slowly dissolving in my mouth, as I ride the bitumen in the hot sun. I never tire of these streets. The smell of them.

The laundromat is called a laundrobar, but of course has no bar. I expect students. No one is there. One machine is in use – all the others are vacant and free with their lids up saying come feed me. It is five dollars for a load and two machines are labelled as taking both $2 and $1 coins. I figure they are the new machines and so use them although they all look identical. I imagine developing a rapport with a machine and wanting to come back to this particular one. Like the favourite seat on a bus, on the train, in the cinema. Such a creature of habit.

A small Indian man enters and asks me about self serve dry cleaning. I say I have never heard of that. It is very expensive otherwise, he says. Yes I imagine. He wears a checked woollen scarf tied around his neck despite the fact it is nearly forty outside. The drier makes the laundrette hot too and I wonder what mental illness he might have to ask about dry cleaning and be wearing a scarf in this heat. I decide to tell him how the normal washing process happens in case his choice of words was incorrect and he really just wants to do a regular wash. He listens to me drone on about how to use a washer and a drier and then says politely yes so No dry cleaning here and turns and walks away.

I think of the laundrettes I have used. The time spent watching clothes fall about themselves in a drier. It is dead time. But still beautiful. They appear to dance, but be boneless too. All flesh and jiggle. I am distracted by my phone, but stop myself scrolling through Facebook and instead watch the clothes do their disco in the machine. There are the clothes of a partner and a son in there. Spinning. I fold underpants, not mine. I think how in my youth it was always just my stuff. The regretful pang at a loved t-shirt shrunk by the intense heat of the drier. Not responsible for anyone but myself. How easy it is to care for yourself. When you are one.

 

 

 

 

 

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Magic Miller

One hot day trapped inside a Fremantle cottage the boy discovers card tricks.  After the I’m bored. Forced into finding something other than my offerings. The excitement of washing up is declined. Knock yourself out hanging up the wet washing, I suggest. He will not mention the boredom again. The plantation shutters are closed, the jarrah boards still cool beneath the bare sole. The overhead fan shifts chunks of hot air about the room. In the distance there is the holler of children in the municipal pool, running the length of the giant inflated crocodile. A sliver of me remembers having to be there, steamy by the pool, while the boy did this. The interminable waiting till his finger skin was pruned and pale and he would finally agree to leave the chlorine and head home.

At first it is ordinary cards. Later Bicycle cards. The magician’s choice. Difficult for hands with a small span. Still. Soft touch. Cushioned. False cuts. Shimmery and capable of the perfect slide.

He is learning terminology. Like a new language. As pretty as French. Like we, the would-be renovators, learn that bricks come rumbled.

He is sent his grandfather’s old magic books. They arrive in a regular post pack to Jasper (Magic) Miller, despite the old man’s mistrust of Australia Post. The grandfather had, only the day before, taken them to the second-hand store. He went back down to retrieve them before they were placed on the shelf. That is something he might not do for anyone. It is hard to describe magic in photographs and harder still to relate tricks in words. There is tenacity to admire in a man who learnt his skills from the mustard Scarne. The print is small. It takes more patience than most people have these days. It takes concentration and rereading. Peering. It makes you do that thing with your brow. It requires your brain to muscle hard. Deciphering. Who has the time these days?

 

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Magic Miller can use You tube and the internet. He can see the trick slowed down in front of him and practice before a screen like it is a mirror. He can replay and rewind till all he needs is practice. This too is something harder to do these days. Who really wants to practice to be good at something? Just as people don’t expect to suffer, or wait or have pain, they don’t expect to have to work at something. Yet there is no other way. Not for anything. And certainly not for magic. For the reality is so very ironic that really, really good magic takes the opposite of how it seems. Effortless. It is all work. Very very hard work.

The texts are old and musty with that familiar old book smell. Like the taint of an old Aunt’s house, or a dimly lit second hand shop. The internal pages have yellowed and the text block grey. Fingers have smudged and marked. I think of restorers who sand paper the edges of books, taking a grain of paper from the book to restore it to whiteness. Graham recalls the books from his own childhood in his father’s house. They are instantly familiar. Like they have been shelved in his memory, along with the smell of them, down a dark hallway. He may have thumbed through them, on a monsoonal afternoon, in a Hong Kong house at the top of Peaceful Bay. In the background an older brother’s Bowie’s seven-inch Star Man on the turntable.

Magic is good for the boy’s adolescent brain. It is hands on. It is concrete. A perfect brother for a single child who lies on his belly in his bedroom. From the seventies. Like playing with a yo-yo. It is still real. The repetition. The practice of moving his hands. Of doing something smoothly and succinctly. Just as juggling is. Just as skate boarding is. Sleight of hand, sleight of cognition. Synaptic magic.

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Rottnest 2016

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I am reading Carol by Patricia Highsmith. It is not Rottnest. It is Manhattan 1950’s. Still. It is moody, full of cocktails, road trips, hotel lobbies, minks, telegrams. People spend time in libraries. Under the fan in the bedroom with the ocean view, by the lap lap of the waves I read it, every now and then pausing to view a yacht slowly make its way across the screen created by the window. G has removed the flyscreen so the view is clear and unpixellated by the mesh.

 

Smoke haze obstructs the horizon as the mainland burns. Often there is that feeling here. That over there something catastrophic has happened and you’ve all been blown away – but here on Rottnest we are none-the-wiser and continue on, oblivious to your fate. We will do okay till the shop runs out of supplies and then it will turn to chaos here too. Smoke is thick so the silhouette of the city is gone. The twinkle of lights peters out. In a sudden shift the wind turns and the boats swing around to face the ocean and a squall makes a mess of the once smooth surface. From slick to rippled. From the balcony I can see into the cabin of a stinker and see he too watches the Big Bash on his wide screen.

 

We are here with teenagers. They sleep late and often have to be woken and prodded to rise from their beds. They have sunburnt lips, leave their shorts on the floor in the kitchen, lose stuff, drink too much juice and serve out way too much Nutragrain. They take several showers a day, leave the light and fan on and have to be reminded to not use a new glass every time they need a sip of water. They have moments of sullenness and answer everything with the same indignant huffiness. They are able to wash the dishes (once a day), take the rubbish out (after being asked) and get supplies from the shop. They call each other old boy. Sometimes it is hard to tell if they are having a good time or not. It is so not cool to be enthusiastic or smile, except at each other. They have banded together like we are some common enemy and I remember doing something similar with my sister against our parents. An us and them approach to the family holiday.

 

I want to grab him and hold him close. I see mothers on the beach with toddlers wrapped about their torsos – their chubby thighs clinging intently to their mothers’ sides. Not that he ever did that. He never has liked to be held and hugged. So that after a while you no longer even try to touch him. You just give up. You tell yourself that it’s not his thing- he’s not huggy. And when you see other boys hug their mothers you think lucky you.

 

There is a screeching child in a boat off shore. The noise penetrates my colouring-in. Yes really. It seems my fifty plus brain has a new found intolerance to such a noise. Somewhere from deep inside the description grizzle pot bubbles to the surface and I am reminded of being called that by my own parents when I squawked my discomfort at some minor thing.

 

They say the job of parents is to create happy memories. These become the trust account for the later adult to draw upon – but I think how the brain is hard wired to remember most of all what is frightening, new and extreme. It is designed to deeply recall the things that threaten safety. Given the new safety of children and the need felt by parents to make childhood safe how will they remember theirs – a blanche mange of juice and chocolate.

On the day of the thunderstorms one boy has burnt his bottom lip so badly that it blisters and the other nearly faints in Subway. This they may remember.

 

Teenage brains are also primed to seek danger and risk and at no other time is the brain ripe like it is to the addictive pull of dopamine – driving forth the need to have it flood the brain. It is why the teenager is apt to be able to learn and desire in both good and bad ways with more abandon and passion than at any other time. It is why alcohol is consumed and drugs tried in excess and the background worries of parents seem small and mundane to the dopamine-fuelled teenagers. What can possibly be more important than feeling this alive? Memories made at this time are more indelible, fixed like they happened yesterday. That first grope in with a Hale boy in a bungalow at Thompsons. The smell of coconut tanning lotion. White bread from the bakery spread with Vegemite. Phoning my mother from the pay phone, as requested. That tequila sunrise at the Quokka Arms. When the brain is fuelled with dopamine anything seems possible and whatever created the release is well remembered by the addictive brain. It seems we all have one –a brain that seeks pleasure as its primary aim – it is just important to have the right drug ready for them – with any luck they fall passionately in love with art, politics, music, sport, the environment – rather than the heady pursuits of drug taking.

 

It took only seven minutes for the small town of Yarloop to incinerate. It was the kind of fire that made the sky wonderful at Rottnest. It was a timber town and now nothing remains but scorched earth and bits of blistered sheet metal. Pictures from the air make it look like something built of cards that with one puff is blown over. Residents wish to start over, despite the pain. It seems the human desire to keep rebuilding and creating cannot be stymied by bushfire.


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Lost Child

murphy nursing home

Murphy sits at Joan’s feet. Her hand finds his head and rests atop. Her fingers find their way through wiry fur to the bony skull beneath to massage his head. Her fingers are smooth and white. The fingers of an old woman whose hands no longer do work. Sometimes they wrap around a teacup, other times they rest on her lap. Her skin like latex. She once worked on the bodies of others as a physiotherapist. She would have touched a lot of skin. Kneaded many knots from muscles. Now she walks the corridors and attends any excursion she can. Anything to get out. The rest of the time she sits amongst the open-mouthed, the drowsy and the drooly.

She recognises us each time we visit, her face lights up, and she does not appear to have memory loss. The staff tell me she does. She cannot recall how long she has lived here. Today I find her standing outside one of the centre’s doors on a path through a manicured garden. Her hands come to her face that is breaking. I ask her, are you okay Joan, when I see her broken face. No I am not. I am trapped. I want to get away from here, she says, standing on the path and looking around, as if for the exit that is only metres in front of her. She has clear snot running from her nose and I say I will get you a tissue. No one wants to be without a hanky.

She takes it and holds it to her face. Murphy and I will walk with you, I say. Come sit in the garden. We sit. I offer suggestions as to things she might do. Others are inside playing Bingo after all. She is not the game-playing type. What about crafts or puzzles. Looking for ways to fill her time seems like asking her to pour sand into a bottle and then pour it out again. What would make you happy Joan? A dog.

Meanwhile a gardener is nearby and despite the heat is weeding, head down. Joan throws a question her way about her latest seedlings but the gardener doesn’t hear and so doesn’t answer. She is trying to make light of her tears now. I am sorry for being a bother. Joan tries again to question the gardener, and still she is not heard. She is an old unseen unheard woman, sitting. Beige and blending into paving. She is searching for conversation, for connection. She says she wishes she knew where the family of her dead husband were. Not her children, but still. She loved them, but they live far away and now do not visit. I don’t know where they are. Outside the gates somewhere. Her face is pained again like a small child lost. Gretel in the forest.

I wonder if audio books might be nice or even just the radio. There are so many interesting things on the radio, Joan. Like interesting matters. I don’t know how to use the buttons, she confesses. Come Murphy, sit here with Joan, and let her rest her hand on your head. Let her feel your warmth as giving and trusting as any human hand. Like family. He moves his head under her hand, shifts just a little to let her know she can leave it there as long as she likes. Good work Murphy.

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Colouring-In for dogs

colouring-in

There seems a growing trend to use meditation and mindfulness exercises to ease anxiety and stress in humans. This is clearly a good idea. Research says that the naming of emotions, even a simple acknowledgement such as, “I feel frustrated” can ease the feeling, because naming requires that the brain think about the emotion, not just feel it. Thinking means other neural pathways are opened up.

Simple tasks such as colouring-in requires concentration on a job that uses parts of the brain that are not part of the emotional brain. You don’t colour in angry. Or if you do you start to head outside the lines and so in your refocus to stay within them there comes a calming. You have to choose colours and make decisions. Simple decisions. Creative, thinking decisions. Peacefully.

When we give dogs cognitive tasks such as searching and finding their food from enrichment devices and food puzzles we are giving them a task akin to colouring-in. In using parts of their brain that are necessary in achieving the goal of getting the food they are not engaged in reactive, primal emotional behaviour. Instead, they are thinking. They are using their senses – noses to locate the food, ears to tell if the device is empty yet, eyes to search out the scattered hidden morsels, touch to rotate and push and hold the device. Making use of these senses is what they have evolved to do.  As the ultimate scavengers dogs have evolved to search, find and consume. Denying them this search is akin to asking humans not to be creative. To no longer seek. Seeking is strongly associated with a feeling of well being and we all crave it. Let them seek.

Colouring-in for dogs.

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