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

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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

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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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Hospital Corridors

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Some people like airports and railway stations and shopping malls and art galleries.

Some people don’t like hospitals.

I do. I love them. All of them. Old ones, new ones, empty ones, full ones.

I see curing, healing, surviving. I see endless helping. When I visit a hospital I see people engaged in the pursuit of other people’s happiness. A selflessness. I know there is pain and death and lingering (inattentive staff and plain human error) but somehow the flip side still pushes through to me. It is what I feel.

In the corridor of Charlie’s art is secured to the wall. No one ponders it. It does its best to draw attention to itself. Large canvases. Orange vinyl chairs sit empty. The spaces are large and often vacant, like everyone is suddenly well. Once, new, the corridors were carpeted with a dark heavy-duty material but eventually that folly was replaced with linoleum roadways and I imagine orderlies pushing beds, two abreast, being able to race. Wide corridors. Being able to make donuts with hospital beds.

The hospital has old parts pretending to be closed. But then someone is seen in an office behind venetians. In the back-end there are old entrances, closed. Salmon brick and baby blue facade. Beside them sits an assortment of chairs, broken or bent and left out to rust or be stolen. No one does, because no one wants a disused hospital chair.

Do I love them because they are always ramped? Made for me. Even the old ones. Masonite ramps, too steep. Covered walkways that still let the weather in.

Once I visited a friend in Royal Perth and on leaving ran into a doctor I knew. He took me through emergency and out onto the roof top where the doctors hung out on their breaks. A few old chairs looked out over the railway line and the roof tops of old buildings. The sun shone there, and in secret, warmed their faces. In white coats they brought their coffee and took in the air. Some probably had a smoke. I felt lucky to have been up there with them. Like kids sneaking behind the bike shed at school.

At Fiona the staff don’t have their own canteen. So instead they eat with the public at the cafes strewn throughout the central courtyard. In their baggy green scrubs and forgotten paper shower caps. It makes life-saving seem so very ordinary, buying cappuccino, between laparotomies.

When I was little my mother took me to nursing homes and hospitals on the weekends visiting various decrepit members of the extended family. It captivated me. I liked to peer into spaces that seemed hidden. I liked the way strange and repugnant smells stung the inside of your nose. Methylated spirits. Why does all hospital food only smell of boiled broccoli? I wanted to know what happened behind the pulled curtain. My mother always went to the flower room to fill a vase and arrange the flowers she brought from her garden. She always knew where to go and get stuff and how to speak to nurses to get things done. Even then I knew this was a skill.

 

by Graham Miller

by Graham Miller

 

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Happy Hens

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I am at a seminar given by a guru in the world of animal welfare. This man is not a vet. He is a scientist and somewhat of a philosopher too. Professor David Mellor says that when an animal is engaged in its environment it does so with enthusiasm and purpose. He says you recognize easily the happy hen – there is nothing half-hearted about the way it forages and searches the dirt. He mimics the sound of a happy hen and the audience smiles. We all know the burp burp burp of the happy hen. It doesn’t require training.

 

I think about the analogy of the happy hen – of how I can use this in behavioural medicine with clients and their dogs. Why do people so easily fail to see the discomfort, fear and anxiety in their dogs? Do they not know what a happy dog looks like? So often people see compliance and tolerance in dogs as calmness, when really it is an expression of learned helplessness.

 

In behaviour medicine it is imperative to change an animal’s emotional response to the triggers of its fear and anxiety. This is done through association. As a dog learns to associate its fears with yummy high value treats, over time the fear and anxiety may decrease. This is our job – to change emotional response.

 

David Mellor says how new understanding in neuroscience is making changes to welfare. Animals (including us) do stuff because they find it rewarding – it results in the release of the happy neurochemicals. As I say to clients all the time – dogs do what works for them. If being aggressive is a successful strategy to keep scary things away then that is what they will do. The treatment here is not punishment of the aggressive response but teaching the dog that the scary thing is not scary in the first place. As scientists, who used to be so wary of anthropomorphism, it is now apparent that recognizing the emotional lives of animals is indeed an important part of welfare and behaviour medicine. I feel I have known this for some time – open your eyes and look at what the animal is doing.  The dog is right there in front of you – behaving – you just have to look. Anthropomorphize well.

 

Often times owners are confused when we recommend enrichment in their dogs lives as a treatment for fear and anxiety. They are unsure how this will make a difference. I implore them not to underestimate what using your brain to find your food can do for the rest of your life. But it is hard to convince people. I think now, after listening to Professor Mellor, I might use the example of the happy hen. Giving dogs creative ways to forage and search for food allows them to do what they have evolved to do – scavenge. It fulfills in them a basic need to use their senses. Give your dog a hobby and watch it engage – if it is really enthused you will know it. It will not look half-hearted.

 

 

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Uncinate fasciculus

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I learnt about this tract of brain matter while studying for my membership in Animal Behaviour.

In a mentor’s recording on anxiety the words slipped past my ear. I had to replay it several times to make it out and then I googled it. Function Unknown, says Wikipedia. But when I queried her source she pointed me to a scientific paper. Out there in neuroscience La-La land lives a researcher who knows the tract like the lane behind his house. I wonder if he too fell in love with the way the words sound. Latin does that. A language belonging to no one but the body.

Uncinate fasciculus – It is a part of the limbic system that connects the amygdala and the frontal cortex. The wider and more robust your uncinate fasciculus the more control you have over your emotional state. People with flimsy fairy floss connections might tend to be more anxious and not able to think as much before they act.

What has this got to do with Animal Behaviour I hear you asking.

If we give animals things to do that involve cognitive challenge – perhaps working out how to source the food from the food puzzle – they channel their frustration into positive action. They problem-solve and, for animals with emotional problems, where they are apt to react quickly and inappropriately, thinking is a good thing. Just like we encourage young people to think before they act – we can motivate dogs to use a bit more cortex too. Requesting your dog to look at you, to watch, to sit and to touch are all ways to teach a dog to use his brain. When coupled with a reward the dog learns he has control and can predict his future. Having control over your life is powerfully soothing. Having no control, unpredictable encounters and no way to communicate your needs is frustrating and anxiety causing. Think of all the ways in which we make lives unpredictable and frightening for dogs (after all they are a captive species) and you can see why such simple things can make such a big difference.

I think of some of my troubled patients. Little terriers that shake with fear at human touch, pupils so large that irises have disappeared. Some have learnt to approach their fear with snarls and snaps and their success at keeping the scary thing away means they have perfected their timing, increased their speed of reaction. They have been labelled mean and nasty, but what a difference when    they are seen for what they are – simply petrified. Their daily encounters with the human world are full of life-threatening fears. Piss-and-poop-yourself-scenarios. No thinking is done in this state. Just reacting. Just surviving and escaping.

Take some time out from your fear. Work to get your food. See you have some control over something you need. This can help. Like list writing for dogs. Organising your thoughts. Getting the washing done. Folding it neatly and putting it away. Jiffing the sink. All tasks done to still the mind. Suduko for dogs.

I attend some of the veterinary camp where the students are being invited to explore their personalities. They are learning about themselves and each other. Maybe it will help them later. They are being asked to work as teams and see another point of view. It’s hard in your twenties. They are being asked to stretch themselves, both emotionally and physically. The introverts are feeling the pressure. I too. Moments of solitude only found in the bathroom, away from the hubbub, bliss. The camp is held in an old detention centre – where lepers where housed. The feeling of institutionalised care fills the pores of the building, is steeped into the jarrah boards. Over lunch I sit with the psychologist who is the key facilitator discussing the brain. Later the students will be scaling walls and using ropes. For some it will be scary. I want to know if she thinks it is good for your brain.

I question the value of flinging yourself from solid into thin air. Why must someone overcome a primal fear? If you’re frightened of heights and asked to climb and then jump, how does this help you? But then I think of the uncinate fasciculus. If you can overcome the fear and the internal chatter that is telling you not to jump, that jumping equals death, and can take control of the glued feet that refuse to move towards the precipice, then maybe you strengthened the uncinate fasciculus. Maybe you have added a neuronal pathway not there before. Jumping from stuff. Feeling fear but surviving it. Feeling buoyed by doing something so unusual and against what your body and primitive emotions are telling you it is safe to do. Is this why?

Does the answer lie in making new neural pathways? I think of the study someone in neuroscience La La land could do – image the brains before and after jumping. See the uncinate fasciculus turn from dirt lane to super highway.

 

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Rottnest 2015

 

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Mini Murmurations.

 

Starlings do this thing. Instantaneously. Like a sheet shaken out. About to be laid over a bed. Thrown into the sky in one action. Graham is sitting on the arm of the couch on the balcony trying to capture the moment on his iPhone. It escapes him every time. They are alerted by. What? No one can work it out. Milly is sent to startle and throws sticks into the casuarina. They do not stir. Then, when no one is ready they fling themselves into the sky, light, like screwed up tissues. All a flutter. One flies into the house, attempts an escape through the fly screen but then crashes into a glass plane. It lies momentarily stunned on the cork floor tiles. Graham scoops it from the ground and releases it. The starling flies off, uninjured.

Later, back on the mainland it is discovered ( by Graham) that the birds are not Starlings since they only live on the east coast and perhaps the bird most likely is a Swallow – the Welcome Swallow.

January in Rottnest is new for us. A decade of trips in November during school term has come to an end since private school demands attendance, especially during exams. It is warmer than our usual holidays. Every day a cloudless blue sky with predictable easterly winds that change to south-westerly by the afternoon. No blankets required at night. Warm enough to inhabit the balcony all night long.

 

As we enter Longreach we sense a difference, but it takes us a few moments to realise what the difference is. Have some trees been removed? The rear brick fences of the chalets have been cut down, so a brick fence only a few feet high surrounds each yard. Everything on view. Bikes and the detritus of beach life. There is a feeling of over-exposure, less privacy. It takes us a few days to adjust, and then it is as if there has always been low fences. More cricket is played on the street. More view for the barbecuers. Not liking the change, turns to liking it, forgetting it was any other way.

 

Monte – pale, nuggetty, five years old. Bullish. Exuberant for life. He moves so fast that often he almost topples on the turn, but rights himself before he falls. He has only just learnt to ride a bike, but needs no trainer wheels, and can make the steepest hill. He perfects the skid. He needs someone to tighten the string of his swimming shorts and to tie his shoelaces, but he knows to check before he eats anything and to ask how many can he have. How many chips Mamma?

Monte has been a type 1 Diabetic for a few years now. He has a pump that feeds the insulin directly into him, so there is rarely a need for needles. The pump is carried in a pouch, like a traveller’s wallet. A five-year old, like an astute tourist in a dangerous land.

 

I’m low, says Monte.

 

Mother Milly has become an adept reader of her son’s endocrinology. From marketing to maths. From regular mother to someone who understands the intricacies of a disease and a physiological process because it is the condition her child has. She has no choice but to become fully informed. Like being on a roller coaster, sometimes she panics, but there is still no getting off it. She has to open her mouth and holler, fling her arms in the air and then cease, get a grip, and hang onto the carriage, ride the thing till it comes to a stop at the end. Her child is with her and she has to take the plunge too. She has learnt that other mothers are interested, only in as much as they want to know how she saw the disease develop. What were his symptoms? Perhaps they have a child that may one day be afflicted. But when it comes to understanding more, she sees them glaze over.

 

Monte, denied an adventure with the big boys pleads his case, Hugo can take the diabetes bag.

 

The diabetes bag is the lifeline to all that is going on in the world of Monte’s blood glucose. Seemingly only a moment away from being too high or too low. Despite the technology of a pump there is still the required calculations to make. All through the day he is being tested and the insulin amount dialled in. Both parents have become skilled in the area of nutrition and glycemic index, of calculating the amount of insulin that is required to counteract the food just consumed. Sides of packets are read for their sugar content. But still there are the inevitable fluctuations that result in a low. Luckily Monte can tell his own symptoms. He can feel a tingling is his legs. Milly is always at the ready with a jelly baby or an orange juice. At the peak of the Longreach hill, on the way to the settlement, the mother and son are beside the road with bikes laid over. Amongst the tall grasses they sit and a skin prick to a finger tells her, “No, you are not low – it is just the hill. It has exhausted us all.”

 

The day we leave Fremantle a fire takes hold of the bushland and suburbs of Bullsbrook. It is too late to leave. Leaving now will result in death. Take refuge in a room with two doors…. The radio makes its familiar emergency notice. The one that gets the hairs on your arms rising. The bush fire takes days to control and stains the horizon with its billowing smoke. It feels like the world has imploded across the water. Perhaps we will spend the rest of our lives on the island. At night the orange of the flames can be seen. Smoke still in the morning.

 

Beach cricket. Monte has the prekindergarten child’s inability to lose gracefully. He can never understand why he is out. It is never fair. It is always too early or Hugo is being too hard. But before the game begins they shake on “being out means no tears.” No downside mouth turns. Handshakes aside, tears still flow.

Rafferty is only slightly bigger than the younger Monte. They could be confused as twins. The older boys call him the Raffinator, but the nick name is ironic for this small boy’s aim is not destruction or leadership. He exists in his alone world, riding his bike single mindedly up and down the road, or searching the beach for shells that resemble letters to make words, or checking his newly purchased soft toys for defects in the stitching. He speaks in a husky, beyond-his-years voice with iridescent blue eyes and the closest he gets to eating lettuce is rubbing it against his tongue. I want a T-shirt that reads I love Raff.

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The teenage boys are sinewy and brown. They are bullied into washing up, into emptying a bin or two. When their sheets make their way onto the floor they sleep on bare mattresses. They lose stuff. They forget stuff. They leave piles of wet belongings like snakes shed skin. They hold themselves away from you when you ask for a hug. You remember them young and their bodies soft. You remember them telling you where it hurt. When they told you stuff. Before they rolled their eyes when you spoke. They now know the island like it is a second home. They make their own movies, take their own pictures, post to their own instagram accounts. They are forging their own Rottnest. They can ride every hill with ease and speed. They can have a stack and not cry. Let a bubble of blood form a clot on their knee, and not ask you for a bandaid. They can walk off on their own to be on the jetty whilst you order a meal at the pub. When their food arrives he cannot be located and you begin to imagine yourself as Harrison Ford in Frantic. Then, the speck of him is there, slowly returning up the beach. Just walking Mum. They spend the afternoons in their room with their headphones and their technology, but still are drawn into the beach cricket games, the beach paddle ball competition, the snorkelling and endless trips to the Geordie shop to purchase sweets and ice creams. Making memory of beach, of summer, of family. Salting their veins.

 

Bus ride – once the island had trees before the need for fuel. Then the trees were felled and burnt and now the island is barren and scrubby. Volunteers still plant. Little squares of plastic mark their progress. So easy to cut down and plunder. So much harder to regrow.

 

At night we have various cocktails made with Campari or Aperol, Prosecco and Cinzano Rossi. It is our first year requiring the presence of a jigger from the mainland. Teenagers are sent to the shops for oranges so slices can adorn the drinks. Then we play Cards against Humanity. Strangely, or not, couples seem to find their partners answers the funniest. Milly – beautiful laugh. Learning the meaning of words such as queefing. Then, the adults all do a skin prick test to assess their own blood glucose. Why? To see if it hurts? To marvel at how, despite the excesses of ice-cream and alcohol, homeostasis remains. Blessed is a working pancreas.

 

We cook from Yottam and Graham makes tortillas with Masa flour. The smell of maize flour makes everyone think of various South American journeys. But I have never been to South America. To me it will always remind me of home, of Rottnest, of men in board shorts and no shirts standing at the bench top working the tortilla press with a red cocktail to the side, whilst women cut onions and make salsa and small boys play cricket on the sand.

 

Maths. The maize flour will send Monte into a massive low. It is decided he can have pasta and left over Bolognese instead.

 

Other holiday-makers join the balcony. They have brought their own Hendricks to make gin and tonics. They add slivers of finely sliced cucumber to thick-bottomed glass tumblers brought from home. Jasper’s T-shirt with the silhouette of a wolf stirs the man to tell his wolf-bite story. He was bitten on the ankle by a young wolf he was walking on a chain at a wolf sanctuary in England intent on conservation and reintroduction. When asked what was the purpose of the walks he says that the wolves required the exercise. The trainers spoke to the wolves in Inuit.

 

The The plays. Echo and the Bunny men. Nick Cave. Beck.

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Boat grounded. Man stands and inspects it, hands on hips. Rocks it. Doesn’t budge. Rocks some more. Another man, his boat still afloat a few metres away enters the beach. Not a sideways glance. Hops on his boat and motors away. Never a word between them. From the balcony we think, Not very Rotto. Friends join the man with the grounded boat. More people will it from the grip of the sand with hands firm on hips. The bottom hangs on. In the end the tide does their work for them. Later they secure it further from shore.

 

Hugo has a scratchy eye. Sand for sure. Tightly hanging on to the underside of an eyelid. Bike ride to nurse’s station. Blue light. Flipped eyelid. Like rolling a blind. Unsuccessful flushing. Cotton bud. No corneal ulcer. Instantly better. Nurse’s bread and butter. Earlier in the week the tanned beachy nurse told me of the face-plants of cyclists – the ones who, riddled with fear, don’t lose their grip on the handlebars and meet the bitumen with their face instead of their hands. Then how she’d spent her shift by the side of a woman with a slowly leaking aneurysm, choosing to die at Rottnest, with her family all around her. The nurse was moments from sending for the flying doctor, after more than ten hours of dying, and the woman, maybe knowing she would be flown away from her beloved place, passed away. Later the family gave the nurse champagne.

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Walking back from the pub the iPhone cameras come out. A beautiful place in which to chose to die. Light pools, sand, gum leaves. Shacks and verandahs with dart boards. Black bitumen roads shining silver. The black blobs of quokkas waiting to unseat cyclists who travel too fast.

 

The morning is still. We get out early. Our tribe of beach goers. Small boys, big boys, men, women, diabetes bag, flies. Turkish towels. Graham and I take the beach wheelchair and the regular chair too. The others cycle. We get there first and inspect the scene. Far below lies a crescent-shaped beach. Turquoise water. It is a narrow sandy path between thick scrubby bushes. It is a single file path made by feet. I transfer to the hippocampe and leave the titanium one by the bikes and we push it through the path, taking out the sides of bushes, till we get to the rocky path. Now there is no set path, just goat trails. It is a two-person job to get the chair down to the beach. Discussion over piggy backs gives way to just carrying the chair with me in it. Holus bolus. Like I am a queen unable to touch the dirt. Cleopatra-like (wish). Handed down the cliff and limestone till the beach is made. Over salt bush we hurtle. No thought as to the journey back. We swim. The water is icy. A red starfish is found. Small boys get to feel it, comment on how they find its sliminess disgusting, before it is returned to its crevice. Boys snorkel. Small boys practice skimming rocks. Home time.

 

The uphill journey gets to the rocky ledge before another man, a stranger, appears and offers his muscles to the task. Three men now – and the job is easier. I suspect it has made his day – to help someone. To feel the value in his working muscles, lift another person. Just as his appearance was a gift to us – as the scaling seemed bigger and harder than the descent – his helping has given him a story for later in the day. He will tell how on a steep rocky path he came across three people, one in a wheelchair, scaling the path from Armstrong Bay. He gave his arm to the chore and the woman was returned to the safety of the road, to the familiarity of bitumen and manmade surface.

 

 

 

 

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Grey t-shirt and Jeans

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Today I heard the tail end of Mark Zuckerberg saying he wore the same thing every day to cut down on his cognitive choices. Wearing a grey t-shirt and jeans on a daily basis gave him one less thing to think about. Rather than it limiting him, it freed him.

Some of us have more anxiety over clothes’ choices than others, but even if this gives you little stress, it can still be possible to imagine that ridding yourself of having to choose can be a good thing. A liberating thing. Sometimes this is why I would like to shave my head.

Just as the monastic life and a hairless head gives the monk more time to meditate.

I think about school uniforms and the way individuals still attempt to put their personal stamp on their dress style. The skirt shorter than allowed. The hat more bent and battered than supposed to be. The untucked shirt – a duck tail. Some of us strive to choose. But does it equate with making us more content?

Ridding yourself of choices, the program goes on, relieves stress. Even small decisions take mental energy. For this reason I am thankful to have never discovered make-up. I never have to decide on lip stick, eye shadow, powder.

I start to think about this concept for dogs. When we give anxious dogs cues to follow that result in predictable outcomes for their actions we take away some choice. This can be reassuring and decrease their stress. Modern behaviourists also like to give dogs choice. We like to give cues and signals as opposed to commands. But this is not to say that choices are easy for dogs. It does cause them stress. Especially if doing one thing ends in a result that they cannot predict. One time they jump on Johnny and everything is fine, the subsequent time they get yelled at. The next time Johnny is over there is stress around his visit. Should I jump on him or not? What will happen if I do? Perhaps I might nip him and see what happens then.

Watch the dog without direction. The one with too many choices. He is a bouncing jerking mess of mayhem. He is all over the shop – pawing, licking, barking, whining. He is seeking information as to what to do. But no one has taught him to be calm. No one has rewarded calmness in him. He is trying on lots of outfits. Red shirt, blue pants. Green top, corduroys. Loafers, no runners. Top hat, cap.

Make life simple and predictable for dogs to give them back some calmness. Give them some cognitive space. Let them be a grey t-shirt and jeans type.

 

 

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Akbar

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Swan taxi to the airport. Wagon.

No need to dismantle the chair.

First question before reaching the end of the street.

“That man – he was your husband? And the boy your son?”

“Yes.”

“What is happened to you?”

I explain. Paralysed. Long time. No need for you to feel sad.

“He must be a good man. Where I come from a man would not be with a woman such as you.”

He is an original refugee from Afghanistan after 9/11. He came by leaky boat to Christmas Island 14 years ago. Thirty hours at sea. Once a school teacher. Now a taxi driver.

He tells me how good men are in Australia. He tells me the story of how his small son must spend a night in hospital and in the same hospital room is another child. The parents of this other child are a strong and handsome man ( more handsome than himself, he says) and a woman who has, how do you say? He makes a chopping motion at the elbows and knees as he drives.

“A dwarf?” I offer.

“Yes. This would never happened in Afghanistan,” he says.

“She would be discarded there. But here she has a handsome man. Remarkable.”

Then he tells me of going to the desert with his mother when he is young man. They are visiting ancestral lands. They travel on the back of an open truck. Struggling along the side of the road is a woman astride a donkey with a man on either side supporting her. He bangs on the truck window and gets the driver to pull over. He sends his mother over to the woman to find out what is wrong and if they can offer assistance. The mother returns to the truck and says it is no use. The woman has been in labor for over a day. The baby is half in and half out. His mother has had many children and he trusts her knowledge when she says nothing can be done. He says the woman has the most terrible look on her face. His mother tells him the infant is already dead and the woman will soon join her child. He asks the truck driver if they can take the woman, but he refuses saying she will bleed and mess on his truck. The men with the woman do not want any help either. They want to press on, despite the futility. Akbar argues with the men – urging them to let them take her with them to get her to a doctor. He asks them if they had land or belongings that they did not think of selling in order to help her. But she is dying. They travel on, away from the truck. Barely fifty metres on she slumps over and dies. Akbar tries again to get the truck driver to take them back to their village. But the truck driver does not want to make his journey longer.

In Melbourne. In the taxi queue.

A sedan.

I ask him to pop the boot so I can show him, how once inside the taxi, I can dismantle the chair for him to load it inside. But he won’t take me.

“I can’t take you if you want to bring the chair,” he says.

“Yes, I want to bring the chair. Yes, you can take me.”

“No,” he says – crossing his hands in front of his chest. Shaking his head. He drives away to the next customer and I am abandoned on the sidewalk.

“He won’t take me! He refuses!” I am yelling up the street to the taxi controller. I point at his cab. “He won’t take me!”

I hear my mother’s voice.

The taxi controller begins her argument with the taxi driver. He gets out of his cab, gesticulating. She is photographing his licence plate and writing in her note-book.

I am negotiating with the next sedan driver. “You have to take me! I can dismantle the chair.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Yunderup

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The lapping of the river is like a giant dog licking itself. A constant slurp. It is skinny milk café latte. Sometimes it shimmers. Sometimes it is smooth, muddy brown. Bottomless. When boys get atop canoes and kayaks it becomes Huckleberry Finn territory. They have legs like twigs. Hobbit feet. Notoriously unsteady. They wear life jackets because a father said “what if a boat hits them” – one is unconscious, and then the other is forced to try to rescue a dead weight and then they both drown. Could happen? Fear makes you drive to Ray’s Outdoors and spend more money. Dog eyes make you buy more slow releasing dog food toys since there is a City Farmer’s next door. And whilst you’re at it purchase a piping bag for the Birthday eclair making later in the day. Since Master Chef these things are easily purchased, as is a madeleine tray, or blow torch for creme brûlée.

 

It is a river that flows and all rivers have their own strength. Beneath its silky surface, it is all force and wanting. Sometimes stronger than the muscles of an eleven year old. Especially ones so sinewy and strapping. More like sapling trees that bend and sway, than meaty boys. So not solid. Rubber limbs. Life jackets makes sense. It gives mothers and fathers peace. It gives boys freedom. Specks now as they paddle away. Urged on. Laughter carries on water.

 

Mosquitoes keep mothers inside. They suck even through denim. Mighty. Squashed, they are filled with more blood than their size allows. A baby keeps a young girl occupied. She has been abandoned by the sapling boys who have told her not to follow them. Her white blonde hair would make her a Gretel in the forest. She must stay with the women who drink tea and talk endlessly about how to make babies sleep. At least she has Nutella.

 

The baby is soothed by pumpkin and breastmilk. He seems easy, and hard to please, at the same time. Mothers of saplings remember back and can’t. Have stories, but stories could be made up. Memory is so mutable. It seems hard work – the baby thing – being so attached. Having to be carried, picked up, pushed around. I tell how I have spoken of Jasper in the plural to make him sound like more than one baby. I speak of “children” when I should have said “child.” To make myself sound equal to a mother of six. How hard can one be? I hear them all thinking. So I multiply him.

 

Now the saplings are off most of the time, or else take themselves away from the adults to commune in their room with their own music. Macklemore. What headphones they would buy if only they could save up the money. They run most of the day, jump in and out of pools, scrape knees, chew gum, and then at night fall they are couch-bound. Like heavily worked horses, they need watering, feed bags full of grain.

 

At night the river turns syrupy. Molasses. Really treacherous now. As if the snags and concealed boughs could move and strangle. It slurps and pulses. It grows stronger. There is a blood moon. It hangs heavy and low in the sky – disguises itself as a street lamp.

 

The dog stands on the jetty, peering. He is intrigued, but not stupid, and not brave either.

 

We talk of another dog, left home in the care of a comforting cleaner. Gold dog has had rounds of chemo to little effect to shrink down the size of a facial tumour. Despite the mass, she bounds happily in all types of tepid, stinking water. The smellier the better, you get the sense. If she was a person you might describe her as loopy, as the type to approach everything with gay abandon. The kind to strike up conversation with any stranger. She has anxiety too, and now is on multiple drugs to ease her disquiet. Sometimes she is panicked and wide eyed – her thoughts only on demons. She tears up whole rooms and, when a nail splits, it is as if an ax-murderer has been in the bedroom.

 

Solving her dilemma might be more than science and love can muster.

 

A new study shows that women look at their dogs with the same eyes they have for their newborn babies. Makes perfect sense to a woman whose love for her dog makes her curious about what he might be feeling and what makes him happy. He slips out the front when the rest of the house is eating dinner and could easily take off down the street. Instead he waits patiently outside the front door till someone realises he is missing and lets him in. He spends the rest of the night at the feet of the couch-bound saplings.

 

Babies and dogs are not so very different. Mothers are vets and vets are mothers. Babies are dogs and dogs are babies. Love is love.

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