Rubbish Man Jogger


An Autumn morning. A splatter of rain. Spits really. The boy is excited. He loves rain. It hasn’t rained for years, he says. It can feel that way. A sky permanently blue. A sun a constant burning white. Today the sky is filled with storm clouds and there is the crack of thunder in the distance. A sky of substance. Something to look at and make into animals. Somewhere else it rains. Here a few drops dry instantly on the pavement.


From my verandah I see a man hopping on one leg up the steep embankment of the park. He is not injured. It is not the hop of a lame man. It is a vigorous hop. I watch him to see what he will do after he reaches the crest of the bank. He jogs now down the slope on two healthy legs. He weaves in and out of the eucalypts, occasionally bending down to pick up rubbish. He is the rubbish-man-jogger. Daily, on the oval, he performs his series of exercises mixed with the task of collecting food wrappers and tin cans. His jogging shorts are pulled higher on his waist than those of a regular jogger. The shorts are old and thin, worn constantly. He has no fat on him. His muscles are always working, if only at a trot. Up close you can see the tension in his face. In his neck you see the sinuous muscles of a man under strain.


Maybe this jogging is his meditation. It keeps him calmer than he would otherwise be. I imagine him as a tightly wound clock. Does he count his steps too?


I am leaving the house and come across him again – this time outside my house weaving his expert steps between the bollards that line the park. How large do the blades of grass appear? He has his head down, intent on purpose, but he senses me there and raises his head and smiles and waves. We exchange the wave of pedestrian and jogger. In his hand still is the collection of waste he has collected from the park. He will deposit it in the bin shortly, and then run on.


I wonder about him while I wait for my train. Something about him reminds me of my father. It could be the high pants. It could be the loose skin over muscles straining hard. It could be his work ethic. His doggedness. His assault on the hill on one leg. I see his tight tendons. Everything at breaking point. A mind stretched taut?


I miss my train by seconds, still fumbling with the notes at the ticket machine, as the train pulls up. I mutter a Fuck to make me feel better. It does nothing. I try it again a couple of times. Fuck fuck fuck. But in truth I am not late for anything. I have a date with books and words and texts. Twenty minutes later they will all still be there. In the library, joggers are not.


And it means the train will be empty. Only the late people. And ones who bring their bicycles. A middle aged woman wearing a shirt with paws on it – giving her away as a volunteer at the dog rescue, asks a younger man in high viz gear, cradling a hard hat, How is it that you are that handsome? then quickly steps off the train. Never on the 8.40am.


A nice morning for the jogging rubbish man. Man jogging rubbish. Jogger man. Rubbish man. Hopping up hill.

The Giant, the Cook and the Cripple.

Image 3

Pat Metheny plays. I stare at the knots in the wood of the orange pine ceiling. On my single bed. I remember studying ceilings; a past time of the spinal patient.


I think of yesterday.


On a quad bike. Held between the thighs of the Giant. Meanwhile the Cook roasts the chickens and tomatoes with fennel. Roasted sweet potato encrusted by macadamia crumble. Stone fruit tarts for after. Her kitchen is her castle. Stainless steel. Plywood. His is the scrub. The glades. The sandhills.


But after all what will I remember?


Freedom. Air rushing past. Being without my chair. The spray from the ocean waves as we hurtle along the wet shoreline. Hubert, tan galloping, keeps pace 38,39,40km/hr. His ribs showing. Tongue lolling. Eyes of an athlete. Hound. Rescued, he must think he is the luckiest dog alive.


After us comes the eleven-year-old on a tinier bike and then my Small Good Man. The eleven-year-old wears a motorcycle helmet that makes his head look like a pumpkin. He putters. But he’s getting the hang of the lean. Always into the hill. Faster too. He hits a bush. He learns to reverse. The Giant tells him whatever happens don’t let the handlebars hit the ground.


It is another lifetime ago since I straddled a machine. European pine forest roads, mountain switchbacks and black ice. A tasselled leather jacket because I could. Thighs that clenched. Now, I don’t feel the seat.  Mine is a flaccid lower half – legs like the stick insect the boys later find. When he lifts me my limbs dangle like laundry off a line. This is a different kind of pillion. Think disfigured damsel. Wedged. With my right hand I link his forearm and he grips me around the middle. His brachium is like a leg about me. He is my seat belt. My saddle. After he says, some embrace.


There is a grove of peppermints and a fairy forest; a place for taking children and singing lullabies to the chugalug of an engine. The black trunks and the feathery green leaves. The Giant and the Cripple hum along. There are reeds and rushes and swarms of small midgies. The ground water is close and the mud gluey. There are gouges raked into the earth where a tractor bogged. But on the bike it is all just a surface on which to ride. A platform to view the rear of a big roo bounce away. Hubert takes chase. He’s called back by the hoot of the horn. Lean forward, scoot. Lean. Fly.


A dragonfly hitches a ride to a giant’s woodshed. A dead snake twisted into dried leather hangs from the wire fence.


He lifts me from the bike like I am a sleeping child to place me back in my wheelchair. Like laying a toddler in a pram. I am lofted high. A memory of being plucked from a pony ride floods back. Being placed on your feet by a large man. A momentary lapse between you and the earth. Like stepping from the rollercoaster.


Later at the table we talk of surviving house fires and losing stuff, of book edges turning sooty but not burning right through. Of losing to fire the exact same George Haynes’ etching of a naked woman under the dappled light and shade of a south Fremantle tree. Of waking to the sound of picture glass cracking. The Cook once found an unexpected photograph of me in the rubble of another house fire in a whole other place. She picked the photo from the detritus and placed it safely in the elbow of a tree. The man and I had long since parted but somehow the image of me was there for her to see. And rescue.


Image 16



Pat Metheny plays the theme for Cinema Paradiso. Guitar strings squeak. Hearts break. A child hits a tennis ball against the wall of a mud brick house. A dog lies on a three-dollar charcoal wool blanket from an Op shop in Albany where white-haired women helped a homeless man clothe himself. A Small Good Man says the best reception for the phone is in the toilet.


He works outside on a large jarrah table, in this pocket of still bush. He has postcard sized images that he shuffles about. They are photographs of another forest place. He worked long hours, from dawn till dusk, but it is the crepuscular shots that form the ballad. A place of mountains and the people that are drawn there. More treacherous than here. Beauty turns to tinder. He stops and looks again. He moves them like someone arranging cards for a magic show. Eventually they settle where they will hang on a gallery wall to speak a narrative of place.


Assassin flies make roads in the air three inches off the ground as if involved in a grand prix circuit across the grass. Sometimes a magpie picks one out of the air. Teaching its baby, who squawks beside it.


A large karri stands near the house, orange spirals about its trunk. Some branches are dead and grey. It is bigger than all the other trees. It spreads itself wide in ownership. Beneath the karri are peppermints and kangaroo paws and smaller gums. Closer to the water the chalky white of the Paper Barks can be seen. The karri’s rusty skin catches the sun and shines. It is windless but still there is the sound of bark falling. Like footsteps in the forest.


Sometimes a distant cow can be heard, baying morosely, as if for a lost calf. At dusk the waders from the mud flats take to the skies. The sound of their flight suggests air is not nothing. They go to their place to sleep high in the trees. Tomorrow they will stalk the mud once more.


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Coolidge Effect

Frank Beach

When an ethologist, Frank Beach, needed to name an effect he had noticed whereby male animals show a renewed interest in sex when presented with a new and receptive partner he chose to use the anecdote of the 30th President of America, Calvin Coolidge, as he toured a farm with his wife Grace.

The President and his wife visited a government chicken farm in Kentucky and separately were taken to inspect the workings of the farm. In a large barn a rooster was busy servicing many fowl. Mrs Coolidge asked the stock man if a single rooster was capable of mating many times a day. Yes Ma’am. She asked the attendant to make sure he told the President when he came by. When the President arrived in the same barn the rooster was still mating. The manager said to the President – your wife wanted you to note the capabilities of a single rooster, Sir. The President, known to be a man of few words then asked the stock man – Same hen? To which the attendant replied, No Sir, always a different hen.

Make sure you tell that to Mrs Coolidge, said the President.


This is how the phenomenon, witnessed in mammalian males whereby there is an increased appetite for sex with a new partner, came to be called the Coolidge effect. It is the reason why a single bull can service many cows. It is the reason why a single ram can do the same with a flock of ewes. Maybe it is the reason men are aroused by affairs and strip tease. Maybe it is the reason why marriages fail or become loveless. Is it why men use the service of brothels more than women seek the service of male prostitutes? And is it why fluffers are required in the pornography industry? After all we are all just animals in the end. We like to think we are more than hormones and brain chemistry.

Frank Beach was a great scholar with a keen sense of humour. He also believed in seeking knowledge and continually learning. Beneath a list of things “to do” he wrote, “Of course, I shall never accomplish all the goals just listed, but that is unimportant. What counts is to have aims, to be able to work hard toward them and to experience the satisfaction of at least believing that progress is being made. I do not want to cross the finish line of this race – not ever – but I do hope I will be able to keep running at my own pace until I drop out still moving in full stride. It’s been one hell of a good race.”

Compare this effect with that called the Bruce effect after its discoverer, zoologist Hilda Bruce, in the late 1950’s. She discovered that mice could block their pregnancy if they were placed with an unfamiliar male after mating. This effect is seen only in some rodent species but is thought to have arisen because male rodents tend to kill offspring unrelated to them. Evolution has ensured that mice are capable of miscarrying and then mating with the new male rather than wasting time and energy gestating young that are likely to be killed after they are born.

Don’t you love science?

Fear of Falling

fear of falling

When orderlies move the non-ambulatory patient they slide their hands between the person and the bedding. It is a delicate, intimate thing to do. To touch someone there. But not just touch – hold and lift. Support.

On my count, the lead-lifter may say. One, two, three.

In the non-ambulatory patient support of this type is vital. It is a kindness to prevent panic and fear.

Do you remember before you walked? I don’t think it is a memory most can recall. It is just too far back. What fear did you as a toddler feels as you pulled yourself on to your two stumpy feet and tottered away from the safety of the sofa?

For fear of falling is a primal fear. There is no stopping it. We have it like the rest of the animal kingdom. It is deep in our ancient brain. When animals are lead to slaughter one of the biggest improvements in their welfare is seen if you can prevent them from slipping. When a hoofed animal’s foot moves rapidly beneath it to prevent it from falling then this is slipping, and slipping is scary and causes a stress reaction and release of cortisol. Of course it is measurable in observable ways that does not need test tubes. It is written over the face of a slipping cow and it is in their vocalisation. When you see the white of a cow’s eyes you know you are seeing panic. What makes pain and fear so unrecognisable to us with the big brains?

An abattoir of high standard should have less than 1% falling and less than 5% vocalisation in their animals.

Walking calmly to your death is not as stressful as slipping your way there. I think of the hangman and the fall away beneath the feet of the box or opening of the trapdoor floor. A fraction before your neck is snapped no doubt there is that unsupported feeling. Falling.

What then makes some people able to override their fear of falling and take to the rocky sides of mountains or the sheer face of cliffs? Do they have an insufficient amygdala incapable of arousal?

You hear screams of panic at amusement parks where people willingly place themselves in positions where they feel unsupported and as if they are falling. Somehow the knowledge that the ride is safe is enough security for people to voluntarily place themselves in a simulated fall. They feel the adrenaline release as they plummet and soar again, await the rise and then the fall. People report that they feel more alive after the ride. It is the brain chemicals that have fired and their release is addictive.

A pony-tailed man throws a delighted toddler in the air. He is unsupported and higher than ever before. On his face is pure pleasure. A squeal. A laugh. A giggle. Machine-like. He looks forward, not down. His mouth agape, his eyes twinkling. Each time caught and then thrown up again. Like the surprise of the jack-in-the-box, the thrill gradually subsides, and the fun wears off. The chemicals are exhausted, depleted. Kaput. Till next time. Throw me higher. Make it faster. Spin me more. Us and our addictive brains.




The Need


somethings just need

there is an ache

there is a want to write without punctuation, without capitals. No stops. No starts.

just on and on

like drawing without lifting the pen

without an eraser

the dog just sleeps. endlessly

so capable of filling his time with breath

yoga of the most perfect type

i have an exercise physiologist now – a branch of physiotherapy – she tells me I need to breathe whilst doing the exercises she has given me to strengthen my already strong arms so I use my neck less. apparently i have taken to doing this and there are only so many joint hours left. use them wisely. learn to breathe.

I think of the snake bite dog and its paralysed respiratory muscles. A diaphragm no longer capable of action. It died in a flurry of spit and froth. The tube helped a bit. Its heart remained strong. Pounding its beat. Asking us to believe in it. But the breath. Gone. the gums the colour of concrete.

Control your breath. control your life

in front of me sits a book open for study. its text is turgid. it has tables and diagrams. i write instead in a journal. i make it pretty to help me. I bring out coloured pencils and draw images of brains and neural pathways. i hope it means it is making its own pathway. walk and a path will form. read and a track will open up.

A Finnish Sock Knitter and The Marine Mammal Researchers



This year we have new comers. Old friends have new partners. But even though couples have split, friendships are secure. They’re those thirty year friendships that, like good wine, age and mature. They become deeper, richer, more satisfying. There is the familiar laugh. There are the remembered stories. The retold jokes. Almost like siblings. Maybe better – because you choose them. You live separated by oceans and deserts. The world could be cleaved in two. You could have lost contact, but you didn’t.

Sam. A boy – his skin the pale blush of an apricot – is a natural enemy of the sun. He is plastered, covered, drilled into a cap. The older boy needs less instruction regarding the sun. By eleven, the routine is second-nature. School has taught them something life-saving. No hat. No play. Sam has natural exuberance. He is a born story-teller. He amazes his own father with his natural right-fit. How did I end up with a kid so bold? He is the kind of kid who trusts himself, already. He can belly laugh. He can still be fooled by stories of pirates and sea caves. Up the beach he has made friends already with kids from another chalet and is involved in building a castle.

The first day brings wind. So much that a woman on the beach in front of us merely play-fights with a sun shade like a washer woman with the sheets at a Hill’s hoist. She speaks to the balcony where her husband sits watching – Who bought this one? Where are the sand bags to keep it anchored to the sand? Instead it billows and becomes parachute, threatens to carry her, Mary Poppins-like down the beach. But it is Rottnest and even an husband’s failed purchase can’t make you stay cross.

Jasper. The first ocean swim of the season. Forced to cross into the weeds to collect the skim ball has him balking. A year ago he would have refused to swim and have the feathery weeds finger his skin. A father prepares to go after the ball, heading towards the shore to take off his shirt. But then the boy dives in and crosses the weeds. Done it. Tick that fear off.

Friends. Despite staying in Bathurst, they meet us at the Big Blue of Longreach. Tania has bought Exit Mould to clean her accommodation’s bathroom – saying the fungi on her bathroom tiles is so bad that it has turned to moss. That they even sell Exit Mould in the General Store says something. Back to our chalet for bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches on toasted white bread. After lunch on the Longreach balcony perhaps they are thinking of a change in accommodation next year. Move from the ghetto. The kids are sent to the shops for a lolly treat so peace can be extended on the balcony. They return with deodorant style sticks that deliver sugared corn syrup and additives to your tongue via the rollerball. It is all about the delivery. The BrainLicker is examined and declared an evil sweet. Made in Spain. Who would have thought? Only at Rottnest.

Professor of Parenting. Five-year-olds are on the beach in front of us. A small powered boat is anchored in the shallows. It is the only thing to target. They throw bombs of sand toward it. The wet sand sticks to the boat’s side and lands in it too. The failed husband calls from the balcony to the kids and asks them to refrain from throwing sand at his boat. They don’t stop. We all watch from our vantage as he heads down the stairs to the beach. He squats on the sand and motions with his hand for the kids to come speak to him. He speaks too softly for us to hear but we can see him pointing to his boat and explaining perhaps why he would rather they didn’t continue to pelt it with wet sand. His body language is soft, kind, gentle. The small tribe of boys runs off down the shore. After all a pelican is in the shallows fishing. He turns and walks back to his balcony. We want to applaud. We nickname him Father of the Year. We imagine what he might have said. We expected a telling off. We imagine what we might have said, had the boat been ours. We admire the man who has chosen to make himself small in front of little children rather than wave his fist, point a finger and shout.

On the index finger of my right hand I have an infection in the nail bed. A cut hair from a canine patient somehow made its way down the side of the nail and festered there. Eventually the body repelled it. I was driving the car, when I noticed a black hair poking from the nail bed and I worked it out. A long hair emerged. For several weeks since the nail has still not been right. It has a scar to its surface as it grows, and the skin is still sore around the base of the nail. The nail grows furrowed, like it keeps a memory of the hair in its surface.What else will work its way out from beneath the skin? I paint the cuticle with betadine. It reminds me of doing the same thing for my mother shortly before she died. She had an infected nail too. She needed some one to look after it for her because it was hard to look after your right hand with your left when you are right-handed and nearly ninety. I took her hand in mine and tended the nails. Her hands are so familiar to me. I can still see them in my mind. They are almost easier to recall than anything. Of course they aged over time, but their essence was always the same. Long fine fingers.


Marine Mammal Researchers. She is exactly how you might imagine a marine scientist to be. She is beer bottle brown. Her tan is so deep it can’t fade, not even in a Scottish winter. They live by the beach in the Bahamas so the sound of the water on the shore is their traffic noise. They have mongrel dogs who share their house. One was killed by a stingray barb to the chest as it chased the fish in the shallows. On their first morning Charlotte goes out running and decides to cross-country. Why you may ask. Because she is Charlotte. She has head phones and music, maybe a podcast of This American Life, as she lopes out. Fearful suddenly of snakes in the knee-deep shrub, she turns her music off and takes to the bushes with a stick. She comes across a fence with a sign that says trespassers face a $1000 fine. She wavers. But the way back is two hours. She scales the fence and finds herself on the runway and the sound of aircraft above. She runs the airstrip to find the airport closed and another fence barring her escape. She tests this one with a stick, incase it is electric, before over she goes. Back on the road she meets some other tourists, but they are lost too and can’t give her directions to “Long Bay.” Despite the three-hour run she still has the energy to ride to the West End and see the seal colony. That night many bottles of wine are drunk. Charlotte = Excess. We hear how the marine scientists fell for one another. How Charlotte didn’t know what was coming over her when she was compelled to drop things just to reach down to retrieve them and somehow find her body closer to that of the other woman. Being in love is like that. Genderless.

Perri. When she wakes in my house she tells me her dream of killing a man with a dart. She has a white towel around her, like she has stepped from a sauna. The man wouldn’t die. He needed slashing. Not just prodding. In dreams the killing is always protracted. Then we talked about knitting. Knitting needles can’t be brought in your hand luggage, not unless they are made of bamboo. Too weapon-like. I must go to work but I can direct her to the wool shop where she can buy the double-ended needles she needs to make the Finnish socks. She has three to make for a friend going somewhere cold – where a Dutch heel is needed and the love of a hand-made sock can do more for your health than most things.

finnish socks

When Jasper is sulking Perri suggests I try asking; “What do you need to feel better?” Charlotte says that is therapist speak for “So who’s grumpy now?” He cannot be jollied from his hump. He stands back at the beach. He won’t join in the cricket. Watching him is hurting my brain and my heart. I want him to pull himself out of his mood. I think of my father and his favourite line, “buck up” to a child with a sullen face. But wanting it doesn’t make it so. Asking him what is his mood about does not receive an answer. The more you pry with Jasper the deeper he sinks into himself. A touched snail. I wish I could learn to stop asking. I try Perri’s line. Nothing is his response.

We are about to have coffee at the Geordie Cafe when my phone rings. The phone says it is Jasper but it is not him. Instead a woman says – is this Jasper’s mother? He’s had an accident and asked me to ring you. He’s fallen from his bike. He’s grazed his face. I ask the woman where he is and tell her to tell Jasper that his Dad is on his way. Graham wants to know how bad the injury is? It’s his face, I say. Gravel rash is always painful but especially so as it crosses your lip and cheek and eyebrow. Luckily the teeth are intact. We never discover what was the cause of the bike accident. There were no Quokkas to blame. No other cyclists or random sticks or potholes. Just over the handlebars he flew, seeing the road as he came down hard to meet it. At the nurses station they cleaned the wounds and trimmed the flap of skin hanging over his lip with a scalpel blade.

Confined to the chalet for the afternoon with three new Simpsons comics. His good mate stays with him. Later Charlotte describes his scabs perfectly – fried egg and creme caramel.

Just Graham and I go together to The Big Blue. It is rare to be together, alone on the beach. I swim and then once back on shore Graham goes to the far end of the beach to snorkel the reef. I am alone on the beach in the sun. I can’t really manoeuvre far but can position myself towards the sun and close my eyes like a cat sun-baking in a windowsill. I am alone. On the beach.

If you are able-bodied this might not seem significant. But to someone dependent on the propulsion of others, this is deeply gratifying. To be that person who wakes up before the rest of the chalet and strides out with nothing but their bathers and a sarong and then dives into the ocean for a morning swim and then takes a leisurely walk home along the shoreline – this is the thing I yearn for most.

At Magnetic Island there are times of the year when you are unable to swim in the ocean because of the Irukandji jelly fish and their deadly stings. For me the ocean will always be full of the Irukandji –  a thing to look at and long for.

A family pass by. Perhaps they wonder how it is that I have come to be plonked here on the sand. Like a forgotten something. I pretend not to notice them as they dawdle by.

I make do with being on my low slung beach chair sitting in the sun. The ocean is endlessly comforting. Like watching a fire, the shore line is movable and beautiful. The wetness receding. The dryness taking over. Beach sand like blotting paper. Sand as lip, wave as tongue. Over and over the lap and constant sweep of the water. It is company that is perfect. I reach down into wet sand. I feel it slip through my fingers. I plunge my hand deep. Bury me. Water laps about my wrist.







Nearly there…

New Yorker _ behaviour cartoon

The year has a way of picking up speed at the end.


Like a train with failing brakes – headlong down the mountain. Where’s the man with the Mars Bar when you need him?


Today is one of the first warm days. Only a moment ago it was still jumper weather. But then suddenly, forcefully it hits – Summer. In Perth it is usually dry and endless. The sky is Texas big. The blue is cornflower.


People seem glad summer has come. But by the end they will be feeling differently. Already the grass is losing its moisture. Turning cracked and dry. The gum is stressed by its home hemmed in by a concrete driveway. Its roots need to breathe. But instead like a face Glad-wrapped. Tortured.


It withers on.


I have one more module to go for my animal behaviour course and then it is over. Kind of. Because I have enrolled to sit an exam. You idiot!


I will have six months. To Memorise. It is a long time since I memorised anything, but it is my plan. Memorise, like I did when I was a student trying to get into vet. When I thought my world would collapse if I did not get in. Then, I memorised whole passages of literature, loads of French verbs, chemical equations, rules of physics. My brain was fitter then. I had determination. I rose at 4am to study before school when the rest of the house was still asleep. I tiptoed to the kitchen and made myself an instant Nature’s Cuppa and held it between my hands as I read over my notes. Over and over.


I did not have to take an eleven year old to tennis, to swimming, to piano. I did not have a floor to sweep. I did do the dishes. I still do the dishes.


I pray that memorising might be fun. It want to memorise to relieve the stress I might feel going into an exam unprepared. Memory will save me.


In the meantime I will brush my teeth with my non-preferred hand – believing it is forging new pathways in my brain.


The boys are out tonight on a twilight sail. There is no wind. Even better. Lulling around. Adrift. Becalmed. Graham’s preferred sailing. Bobbing really. Beer in hand. Bombies off the side. Jasper with the men. Armed with a hacky sack for entertainment (and brain training). Soothed by the slap of the water against the side. Taking in, as if by osmosis, the gentle way the men have of being together. No need to inquire really about the state of each other’s minds. More just being together, while the sun goes down.



Room for Behaviour

scout hall

A room full of behaviour vets.


Women mainly. We are described as the ones engaged in the fluffy, feel good stuff, but make no mistake about the science. It is heavy. There is long-term potentiation, serotonin, biochemistry and neuroanatomy, enough to make your head spin. The desire to skip the hard stuff is slowly disappearing as the need to open it up and have it within my cells, known and understood takes over. Like learning a new language. They say when finally you’re fluent you dream in the foreign tongue.


I am feeling positive about doing my membership examination next year. Maybe for the first time. Most of us are buoyed by nearing the end of the course – feeling in a way that things are falling into place. Dr Caroline gives a talk on the brain and up flashes her slide “behaviour = protein” – she tells us it was an epiphany for her. Of course her epiphany is hers alone. They are personal connections. To her brain it makes complete and utter sense. Unless you are a behaviour brain nerd it probably doesn’t give the clarity she is aiming for. But it is a piece of the puzzle. Some bits we still have to put together for ourselves.


Analogies. Metaphors. Stories. Pictures of the Sydney Harbour Bridge being built and being likened to the architecture of the brain. They are all bits of the puzzle.


Epiphanies are being had all over the room. I have my own nonsensical epiphanies over the weekend. Dogs = prisoners. Owner = prison guard.  I think of how the prison workers I have met always correct the word “guard” preferring to be called “officers.” Because even though it is just semantics it is important.


Dr Jacqui steers away from the label of “problem behaviours” and calls them “training issues” and for dogs with the more serious imbalance of a “behaviour problem” as dogs with “mental health issues.” It helps me because the mere swapping around of the words “behaviour” and “problem” has never really differentiated the conditions enough for me. Language is how we communicate our world and with behaviour medicine so many words are already loaded, hijacked by life, before we come to them. Our words in behaviour are words we already use daily when we talk about children and spouses and all the other relationships in our life.


We are warned against using “commands” when we instruct our clients about their dogs. Another cog falls into place when we replace “commands” with “cues.” When we switch “leadership” with “working with.” The beautiful thing about behaviour medicine is that animals have a say, finally. Isn’t it what you wanted when you first chose vet science as a career? You wanted to care about how animals felt. What animals want is important to behaviour vets because we are not all about wanting control. We want peace. This is a different thing. It requires both parties to give some. We need to speak to people about managing their expectations of what they want from their pet. We need to understand the behavioural needs of animals.


Let’s think about not clipping the wings of birds and ridding them of their natural ability to escape. Maybe you shouldn’t have a bird if you want to confine it always to a cage too small for it and have it live with its natural predators looking on. And what about not picking up rabbits, since for a rabbit to be hoisted up off the ground predicts for them that they will soon be eaten. Instead train them to enter their carrier and move them this way. Perhaps buying a rabbit because it is fluffy and soft and good to cuddle fulfills the need of the human animal, but takes not into account what a rabbit wants and needs.


Behavioural medicine with the animals we share our lives with needs to be not just about what owners want but about animals in their care too. Good behavioural medicine gives animals the right to say No. It is a mind switch. Animals can tell us –I am not comfortable with that. I am frightened. It stops us labeling them vicious and mean and bad.


Just as a prisoner officer who worked in juvenile detention told me once; “Kids in here aren’t bad – just sad.” When you work with children who you perceive as being sad, as opposed to criminal, it makes an enormous difference to the way you treat them. Who punishes someone for being sad? The empathy channels are open when they are allowed to be.


Epiphanies – they force a crack open. Okay so maybe we are not having Isaac Newton type epiphanies here, but still. I feel just the beginning of the weakening of the shell, the wall. Soon the crack will widen and all the knowledge banked up beyond will flood into me.



cuckoo nest

I am driving home from work listening to local radio’s Conversations with Richard Fidler. It is one of those chatty programs you can switch on and immediately you’re engaged – like eaves dropping on a couple, deep in chat, seated next to you at a restaurant, while you await your own partner.


Tonight, when I enter the conversation, he is talking to a parasitologist, Paul Prociv, about the life cycle of the rat lung worm and how there is part of the life cycle that requires development in a snail or slug. The larvae develop for a couple of moultings in the slug before the right host (a rat) consumes the slug and then the larvae develop into wrigglers that make their way to the brain or spinal cord, on their way to a large vein which will eventually channel them to the right ventricle of the heart. If, instead of a rat eating the mollusk, a human accidentally does so, the larvae will still go on their merry way, coursing through the tissue of the human brain and spinal cord. But, in the undesired host the damage can be catastrophic, leaving the person in a coma or paralysed. All from eating a slug.


I am repulsed. I am taken in.


I think of my careless washing of the lettuce. I think how easily a little slug could slip through into the salad. Eosinophilic meningitis here we come.


The parasitologist talks about the success of parasites. How, as a group, they out number all other living things. The word derives from medieval France meaning – some one who eats at the table of another. That sounds benign enough. And mostly they’re not trying to kill you. As Richard and Paul converse on the wonders of parasites they fall upon the word “cuckoo.” And then the cuckold man – whose wife’s has had someone else’s children whilst he is busy providing for what he believes are his. And the cuckoo birds who deposit their eggs in someone else’s nest for another bird to do the work of raising.


Their conversation drifts in another direction – to Paul’s family from Russia and his father’s own escape from a Stalinist regime.


I am still on cuckoo.


The obligate brood parasite cuckoo bird places its heavy shelled egg (some times disguised and other times not) into the nest of another bird and the cuckoo’s egg hatches first. Most hatchlings are able to obliterate the other eggs – either dispatching them out of the nest or outgrowing the other chicks  by squawking louder for attention and food.


The word mesmerizes over and over. The feel of it in your mouth. The look of it on the page. I think of “One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” How the word cuckoo has come to mean crazy because of its link with this book. How brilliantly does Jack Nicholson play crazy? Think “The Shining.” Redrum. That sound of the wheels of the plastic trike moving from carpet to wooden boards. You know it. How cuckoo isn’t as crazy as crazy comes. Rather it’s a fraction bit off. Tilted. Who really minds being called a “little bit cuckoo.” Maybe it’s even a kind of compliment.


Buying grog at the Coles liquor shop, after my shop for dinner (salmon, dill, cream), two drunks are buying their booze. One has two large casks of cheap wine and the other a couple of bottles of fortified. Despite being at the counter before them I am overlooked and besides I don’t really mind them being served first. I am busy spying on the one with the crutches’ gammy leg. Doing my own kind of cuckoo work. He has a busted foot. He has a dirty bandage on it. He tells me the cast has just came off today (surprising considering the colour of the bandage) but he is still worried about the sullying (my word not his) of his skin. “It’ll take time, “ I say. He says it’s been good while already. I consider asking how the cream sherry helps. But that would be straight out cuckoo.

cuckoo 2

Learning Theory and Facebook Likes


As I study veterinary behaviour and study how animals learn I see evidence of learning theory in action all the time.

Just take Facebook for example.

For a behaviour to continue it needs reinforcement. For users of Facebook this is what that little thumbs up “like” button is all about. Every time a photo or post receives a “like” you are spurred on to contribute more. To up the ante. To get more “likes.” People may think it is superficial or silly, but it follows the laws of behaviour. In essence you can’t help but be motivated by the positive reinforcement of the little thumbs up. When a behaviour is positively reinforced with a “like” the behaviour is encouraged and the learner even keener to see if they can get a repeat pat on the head. Compare this with a mean-spirited comment which acts as a “punisher.” (A punisher is anything that makes a behaviour less likely.) A churlish comment attacking your post might mean a retreat from the using of Facebook – a wounded learner. Think of the dog who doesn’t come when called if all it gets is a berating from its owner.

When we want animals (and children) to engage and learn we would do well to remember what is motivating. It is not inspiring to be told you are not working hard enough, or you could do better. It is motivating to hear the American phrase “Good Job”, or “Thatta boy.”

I wonder if Mark Zuckerberg knew much about Learning Theory (he did study psychology so probably yes is the answer) when he designed Facebook with its little “like” button, or whether it just came naturally to him to praise the efforts of his peers. Because the “like” button is a generous thing. Push it often. Don’t be surly about it. It doesn’t cost you. It makes the author of the post know the post was read and received with pleasure. It means they will post this way again. Just as the dog who has the best recall will return from across the oval for the snippet of liver treat. Those “like” buttons are powerful reinforcers.

But controversy exists over who really came up with the “like” button first and a Dutch company claims to be the inventors. Rembrandt Social Media has sued Facebook, asserting that the “like” button violates two patents granted to Joannes Jozef Everardus van Der Meer in 1998. But of course no one can own the idea of “liking.” It is what we humans do – we have opinions on things and we want to express them to one another. As a completely social animal it is no surprise that Facebook is such a success. People may bemoan the lack of real intimacy in today’s world but to me Facebook is a testament to the craving that people have to connect with one another.

What seems good about the Facebook “like” button is that there is no nasty alternate “dislike” button. You just say nothing if the content of a post doesn’t appeal. Just slide on past. Just as you ignore the barking dog or the dog that jumps on visitors. “Extinction” is the practice of ignoring a behaviour with the intention of it not receiving any positive feedback, it will eventually die away. What if your posts never received a Like? After many repeated check ups on your posts you would eventually tire of checking in. You would do so less often. Having no “likes” decreases the amount of time someone spends on Facebook and therefore acts as a negative punisher – absence of reward causes behaviour to decrease. Then one day you would wake up and you would not even recall your password. Facebook would have become a place of inconsequence for you.

And then there is the “share” button. This may be the most positively reinforcing button on Facebook. For a “share” denotes special love of a post. Not only do you “like”, but you “like” it enough to go that extra mile and “share” it on your page. When you ask a child to share there is a feeling of losing some of what they have and of having to divide it amongst a hoard of others. Sometimes just sharing with one is hard. Sharing leaves you with less of what you want. If there are eight people eating cake, how much do you get each? Many a mother has lamented the child who has trouble sharing their toys. Isn’t this a reason for play dates? Learning to share. But we all know the value of sharing as we grow up. There are share plates of food at restaurants which invite conviviality and conversation, there is sharing a bottle of wine, there is sharing the bed. And now in the age of the internet there is sharing information, ideas, images and, of course, words. As far as Facebook goes “sharing” is multiplying, not dividing. It is expanding and sending forth, propagating and spreading. I like to think of it as a “seeding” button. Wind and birds pick up kernels – taking them far and wide – the seeds are scattered, deposited in fertile soil and the germination begins.