So many books, so little time

So many booksOne morning several years ago, new to this area and missing the camaraderie of my Sydney book club, I wandered into the Waterbird Café to ask its all-knowing proprietor if he’d heard of any local book clubs. “Funny you should ask,” he said. “A woman was in the other day asking the exact same thing.”

“Next time you see her, give her my number,” I said.

A few days later Desley and I met. We sussed each other out, and finally said, why not start something ourselves? We invited our husbands and began looking for others who might be interested in talking about books.

Thus a new book club was born.

We called ourselves So Many Books, So Little Time. Membership shifted a little over the first years, but eventually resolved into a group of eight: there was Rick and myself, housemates Eve and Daniel, co-founder Desley and her husband, and two of their good friends. For several years we met every four to six weeks. Our protocol was to take turns, an orderly one-at-a-time, presenting our thoughts about a book we had selected to read (you might imagine how hard it is to sit still while someone else expresses their provocative views). Then we’d dissolve into free-form discussion. Rarely did we all agree on anything. My club mates sometimes had excessively strange opinions. But I always gained a much deeper understanding of the book as everyone expressed their views and insights. I loved these discussions, even when I had to shout to be heard or sit on my hands to keep quiet.

We always concluded by selecting the next book, and over time we got good at selecting just the right one. The club was a raging success.


I finished my book and now I don't know what to do with myselfThere’s something about a book. And there’s something about people who enjoy reading books. Our Shedders community itself was born in part out of a love of reading. On our annual holidays together, some 15 years ago, we were not so much the types to kick a football around in the garden or drink ourselves noisy by the light of a campfire. More likely you’d find us sitting companionably reading, sometimes using a finger to mark our place while we shared an insight. We’d swap novels and give each other books for Christmas. (Not wishing you to think we were too cerebral, I should mention that we also went swimming, took beach walks, hiked, did yoga, and cooked meals.) (And then we’d get back to our books.)


But I digress. Back to the So Many Books club. A year or so ago it nearly came unstuck. Two of the group moved south a couple hours from here. Shortly after that, Desley and her husband decided to move to Bowral, some six hours away. We all met at their house as they were packing up, to have a last meeting and a sorrowful boozy lunch.

However, over the discussion of our final book (Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh), something unexpected transpired. Our enjoyment of the meeting made it inconceivable that we could abandon such a good thing. So we made the challenging decision to meet at each other’s widespread homes. We’d go to Bowral, stay at Desley’s, have a book club meeting, and spend two or three nights. Imagine sharing a house and three days with six people whom you know mostly through their opinions on books. Outrageous. But we were up to it.

Tulip festival in BowralSo it happens that we’re just back from a weekend in the Southern Highlands. We took in the tulip festival, and I have to say, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen the weeping cherry blossoms, thick and luscious, lining the streets of Bowral. We toured the countryside, taking in the hills and vistas. We bought croissants at the best bakery I’ve come across this side of France. The Southern HighlandsOver a couple bottles of wine, we took turns trying to remember what we used to do on weekends when we were twelve years old—and gained a real insight into each other’s childhoods in the process. We also sat around fiddling on our various devices. There was a time when all eight of us were quietly assembled in the lounge room, keeping warm by the gas fire, intent on our own contraptions – tapping away as we caught up on emails, researched, played games, read books. A bystander might shake their heads about such a gathering, but there in the moment we were just friends who had talked a lot and now were sitting in companionable silence.

And of course, we had a meeting and discussed a book.

That was, as always, the best part.


Which reminds me, I also wanted to tell you about the book in question: Mendel’s Dwarf, by Simon Mawer. Treat yourself to this excellent New York Times review.

I loved the book. Mawer has climbed into the mind and heart of a brilliant geneticist, who is a dwarf. Written from the perspective of this character, Benedict Lambert, you see clearly how the world views those who stray from the norm. Imagine every eye in the room turning to look when you walk in, and then carefully shifting its gaze away again. Repeat this experience everywhere you go, every time you go out, over and over. How would this shape you? And what if as a geneticist (and a dwarf) you came to confront the exact spot on the exact chromosome that can mutate and cause you to be the way you are? Imagine standing at a microscope and having to choose the embryo which is safe from dwarfism – thus keeping the future safe from beings like you.

The novel dips into eugenics, and has you contemplate a world without serious physical defects. No achondroplastic dwarfism (and no Benedict Lambert). No ALS (and no Stephen Hawking). For me the book came to be about the painful beauty of diversity, and about the impossible choices we will increasingly have to make as genetic engineering becomes the air we breathe. Shall I scan my genes for any lurking danger? Do I want a boy or a girl? Blond? Dimpled? How tall?

A good book can stay with you for a long time.

Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.

[Author’s note: Groucho obviously didn’t know about
my new Kindle paperwhite, which would allow me to read even inside a dog.]

Duets in paint and print

This blog is about human beings interacting (for better or for worse) in a quest for intimacy and integrity in our relationships.

Duets in Paint & PrintI got a new angle on that vocation over the last half year. It began when our writers’ group, the Taree Scribblers, teamed up with Taree Artists Inc and created a remarkable project. This is how it worked:

At our March meeting, the fifteen or so writers in Scribblers each brought along a piece of written work. The fifteen or so artists in the artists’ group came as well, and each brought a painting. We put all our names into a hat and swapped the writings and paintings around. Each artist ended up taking home a piece of written work on which they would base a new painting, and each of the writers took one of the paintings to inspire a new story or poem. Over the next month or two, the paintbrushes and keyboards came out as we all got to work.

Duets on displayIf you do the maths, you can see that we ended up with about 60 pieces, or 30 pairs. We called the project Duets in Paint and Print. As you might imagine, it all took a great deal of coordination, but eventually each pair became part of a Duets exhibition. Half the works are currently on display at The Bean Bar (a popular Taree café), and the other half at the Harrington Library. There are plans afoot to include all the works in a book.

—Those are the basic facts. But the experience of it is something else again. The artwork is worthy, as are the pieces of writing, but the overall result is much more than the sum of those parts. People who’ve been to the exhibition say they found it moving to stand in front of two people’s works, sitting there side by side, linked in this unusual way.

Bower bird To illustrate, I received a call a few days ago from someone who identified herself as Lynn. With suppressed excitement, she told me she was the artist who had done a painting based on a story that I’d written about a bower bird. She had just sold the painting, and wanted to share that the purchaser had told her she loved the painting and the story, and the way they danced together.

The works do indeed feel to me like they’re in a dance – the colourful paintings matched with the austere black and white of the stories and poems, both media trying to bring a common theme to life. There is an atmosphere of fragile partnerships, each tentatively reaching out to and contributing to the other.


The painting that I drew in the lottery was a mass of colour. I assume you’d call it abstract.

Duets 1The prospect of writing from it was daunting. One of my fellow Scribblers took home a painting with three horses, and someone else one with a vase of roses. You could write a story about those things! But the elusive piece I ended up with—I liked its colours and that was about all I could say with certainty.

I understand writing. I know what I like and what I don’t; I feel strongly what’s honest and what’s contrived. But art?! I’m right out of my comfort zone. And now I was to write a piece inspired by a living, breathing human being who would no doubt read my story, who would take my response personally. I wanted to do well by that artist.

So I hung the painting on the wall just over my monitor, and pleaded with it to talk to me. For several days we just co-existed. I let it get used to me while I waited for it to start communicating.

Eventually it did. The mass of colour became a landscape, a deeply forested spot, the kind of place you might have a tryst. I became enamoured of the contrasts, sun and shadow. There was a glowing red spot that clearly had a big story to tell.

The partnership was taking form.


Here is the story I told about the painting.

There is this place I go to.

It’s not so easy to get there any more. I no longer pack along a picnic lunch or take a rug to sit on. It’s all I can manage to go through the gate, trundle up the slope and stand a few moments in the little glen.

Today I pause for breath where the hill rises gently before me. Behind the trees I can glimpse the spot where Lisbeth’s fierce spirit lies, and where Frank’s heart beats most strongly.

In the glade, just out of my sight, is the overgrown cross where we buried Lisbeth all those years ago. She was just three months old; she laughed and played and sang, and one morning did not wake up. Say what you will about a mother’s love—I always thought it was harder on Frank than on me. He never failed to blow his nose quietly into his handkerchief when we sat there.

There were a couple of times we thought we might sell up and move to town, especially in the last few years when his strength was fading. But we were too used to the familiar radiance and shadows of our homestead, and Lisbeth’s grave as much as anything held us here.

Light and shadow; sun and shade. The contrasts push at me, teasing my eye and my memory.

—Sunlight catching the gold of the maidenhair tree; deep shade under the willow where Scout, our old collie, would wait for us.

—Frank’s big wrinkled hands; Lisbeth’s tiny smooth face.

—His long, purposeful life; her little ephemeral one.

—Joy; sorrow.

This place reminds me that you cannot have love without loss, or loss without there having been love.

Today I’ll visit it again, perhaps for the last time.


Rick, who you’ll have pegged by now as a hopeless romantic, stood in front of the painting that inspired my second story, with tears in his eyes. Then he bought the painting. Or more accurately, he bought the duet.

They will hang together in the Shedders’ gallery.

Ah, hindsight…

Last Wednesday I dropped in to see my orthotist, a guy named Doug Long who most days works out of his home in coastal Laurieton. I asked him to make me another shoe insole. “Sure,” he said, “and look at you walking!” I mentioned that it was exactly one year ago today that I’d had my ankle surgery. With that comment, we gave each

Surgery is unpleasant

Surgery is unpleasant

other a startled look; after all, it was in the waiting room at the hospital that we had first met – exactly one year ago today. Doug had been sitting there dreading his imminent gall bladder operation, and I was dreading my imminent ankle fusion. When he discovered I was having the fusion, and I discovered he was the orthotist (the guy who makes special shoes, insoles and orthotics) that my surgeon had recommended, we cheered each other up by talking deals and making plans for the future. We both survived our surgeries and have been business mates ever since.

The incident brought to mind, as if it were yesterday, the very sober person who had been waiting at the hospital that day.

I’d long been advised that an ankle fusion might be the next step for a left foot that had been damaged when I had polio several centuries ago. The prognosis wasn’t straightforward or overwhelmingly exciting. The surgery was likely to reduce the pain I was experiencing when I walked; I might not have to wear an AFO (ankle-foot orthotic, or brace) any longer; it should give me extra years of walking. But no guarantees. I have a half dozen close friends who have had hip replacements – a major and bloodthirsty surgery that takes one off the street for many weeks but at least has a predictably excellent outcome. Not so this one.

So up until the moment that the anaesthetic started flowing into my veins, I was still busily pondering whether I should go ahead with the surgery or not. Even AFTER the surgery, I busily pondered whether I should have done it or not. Such is the human mind – or mine, at least. I even wrote a post trying to make light of the mental torture of it all.

At any rate, it’s now a full year later and the preliminary results are in. So for the benefit of that fretful individual sitting in the waiting room – and any of you who’ve been Report cardwondering how it’s all going – here’s what the teachers wrote on my one-year report card:

Good work getting the surgery done! You took the advice of two excellent surgeons and no end of enthusiastic friends and just bit the bullet. That’s a pretty effective life practice.

And good job with the team you assembled. You surrounded yourself with no end of positive supportive people. You had housemates who picked up the slack – making meals, doing the dishes, cleaning the floors. They served metaphorical chicken soup, climbed into bed to chat, lugged around the knee scooter, helped with the steps down to the TV room. You had friends who came long distances to visit and help, and others happy to listen and talk. And let’s give a particular mention to that husband of yours, who brought coffee every morning and who spun gold out of every potential negative. (For example, when you encountered that painful new enemy, plantar fasciitis, which stopped you in your tracks for an extra two or three months, it was Rick who kept saying, “This is great; it means those tissues are waking up after a long sleep.”)

Good work on the fitness program. You’ve worked hard with yoga, leg and core strengthening, swimming, and time on the bike – all paying off.

On the suggested-improvements side, you really should consider easing up on the fretfulness. We know you like to think of yourself as a practical, realistic person, but one can’t say that the time you spent looking at the half empty glass added anything to your recovery or your experience of life. Give up the woe-is-me-ing.

Well, I can now walk a kilometre, without a brace; I can stroll along the ocean and as soon as the water’s warm, I’ll be in for some body surfing. I’m experiencing less pain all the time. Every month is better than the last. I had a surgeon who did a clean job and can be forgiven for saying, over and over, “It will be a year until you really experience the benefits.” Now he says it’ll be another year before the ink is dry, and that’s okay too.

In hindsight, one year on, I’m glad I did it.


Speaking of hindsight, don’t you wonder what’s going through Tony Abbot’s mind these days? He seems to be holed up after his ignominious “spill” this week, not saying much at all after having faxed in his prime ministerial resignation. (Faxed? Faxed? Who faxes anything, never mind a very public resignation?) (It might relate to having to live off his pension now, a paltry $300,000+ per year, which I suppose would have you avoid lashing out on a courier.)

A walk on the beachI like to imagine what Tony’s thinking, as he walks along the beach, hands clasped behind his back:

If only I hadn’t been so belligerent and bombastic. If I could do it again, I would speak politely to people who challenged me, and I would listen very closely to good advice. I would dish out compliments at every opportunity.

If only I hadn’t been so fear-mongering. What happened in my childhood that has me so frightened of boat people, terrorists, economic peril and anything else that moves? I’m going to put myself in therapy.

If only I hadn’t been so combative and isolationist when clearly working collaboratively is what produces results.

I’m ready to transform! (He punches the air with his fist.)

**Pop.** (Bubble bursts.)

It makes you wonder: do we actually learn anything from hindsight?

If I had a chance to do my year again, would I worry less and refuse to indulge in negative self-talk? Would I do anything differently?

Would Tony?


Little feet

Here today…

Flying highAs I write this the little screen in front of me tells me that I am 33,472 feet above sea level. Courtesy of Air Canada, I am enroute from a three month summer on Vancouver Island, headed toward home and spring in Mitchells Island, Australia. I have left behind my son, my mother, my daughter and her partner, several good friends, and dozens of relatives and in-laws who are dear to me.

It’s hard to imagine at this point, but I know from experience that within a few days these people will become part of happy memories. How can I prevent these wonderful experiences from dissipating into a misty past? My heart and mind will soon be full of my Australian housemates, our Mitchells Island gardens, the choir I sing in, Saturday morning breakfasts on the Manning River and the myriad other things that make up my Australian life.


That was a couple of days ago. As I write this I am in the throes of jetlag, with that strange sense of displacement that I’ve described in a previous blog. Some of the brain circuitry just wants to dwell in yesterday-life, and some is champing at the bit to design tomorrow-life. Sometimes tomorrow and yesterday stumble together in great confusion. Just being present is not yet a possibility.

The whole sensation brings to mind a feeling I was swamped with after an extraordinary event I attended a few weeks ago. Let me tell you about it.

Sand Sculpting CompetitionEach summer the coastal Vancouver Island town of Parksville hosts an international exhibition and competition called The Canadian Open Sand Sculpting Competition and Exhibition. Some thirty sculptors from around the world are accepted to contribute; their expenses are paid and they are eligible for prizes up to $5,000. They have a total of 30 hours over a three-day period in which to create a sculpture. (All sorts of disasters apparently happen during creation, as heads fall off and pillars collapse.) The sand is clean and refined, and the works are sprayed with a special glue that helps keep the elements at bay.

This year’s theme was Heroes and Villains.

Rick and I drove to Parksville one day and wandered into the exhibition, having heard that it was “fantastic”. When you travel among enthusiastic people, many things are described as “fantastic”, so one takes the fervour with a grain of salt.

However, it soon transpired that this exhibition was by any definition fantastic. (See Webster. Fantastic: “imaginative or fanciful; extraordinarily good or attractive”.) We were spellbound by the imagination, the talent, the execution – and by the deep Batman and Jokersensitivity of many of the pieces. For example, there was a massive sculpture of halves of Batman and Joker, locked in enmity and mutual torment – showing how you can’t have good without evil, that they are each half of the whole of human experience.

OgreAnother moving sculpture was titled “Every villain thinks of himself as a hero”. One side of the sculpture displayed a rather grim and ugly ogre, Heroa chained storybook villain. But when you walked round to the back, you saw his view of himself: radiant, clear-sighted, a quiet force of nature. A hero. How often have we all felt the same way? One moment I am a hero in my own mind, though perhaps the villain in others’. And who knows how the villains in my life regard themselves?

EinsteinBut one sculpture in particular stopped me in my tracks. I was first captured by an enormous and perfect bust of Einstein. I stepped in close to study the miraculous eyes, and to my amazement discovered a tear streaming from a corner of each of those all-seeing eyes. Puzzled, I began to look more closely at the whole display. Sure enough, there behind Einstein was the devastated city of Hiroshima, with the Enola Gay dropping its payload in one Hiroshimavignette and a saddened Buddha in another.

Here I was, walking with a hundred other tourists through this cheerful sun-kissed place, and out of the blue was cast into one of the darkest moments in our history. I was flooded with imagery from a film I had just seen, Mr Holmes, set shortly after WWII, where the protagonist is touring what a year or two earlier had been a magnificent park in Nagasaki. The subtle tear streaming down Einstein’s face captured his painful knowledge of his culpability amidst his good intentions. Hero and villain all at once.

How many times have I tried to do the right thing and instead incurred damage I don’t even care to think about?

At any rate, perhaps the most poignant part of the whole display was knowing that in two weeks bulldozers and trucks would move in, and all these magnificent works of art would be gone. It was unbearable to think about. I have a friend who has created beautiful pieces of art and left them in the forest to be consumed by the natural order of things. I’m familiar with the Ephemeral Art movement. But these glorious pieces that had moved me so deeply with their richness…how could the world let them just disappear? How could they have been created in SAND, I ask you? Clearly, someone needed to throw a coat of bronze over them, and preserve them for a hundred lifetimes.

Well, here’s how life is: some things don’t get bronzed. Sand castles, for example.

And memories, for another.

I’ll hang onto my Canadian summer in the way that humans have forever tried to, and then ultimately—let it go.

Time for a cuppa with housemate Eve.

Come fly with me

Helicopter at sunset over SydneyOh, Bronwyn.  I feel embarrassed to be joining the long list of detractors having a go at you at the moment. It’s too much like shooting fish in a barrel. However, you make it irresistible.

I mean, seriously, who charters a helicopter to avoid a one-hour car ride? Are you the kind of fabulously wealthy person who can snap your fingers and a helicopter appears? And even if you were that kind of wealthy, what on earth would make you want to do it? We know of people who could and would, for example Donald Trump – but then it’s not really a good time to be emulating him.

And Bronnie, on the public purse?! Words nearly fail me. My imagination doesn’t extend to hiring a helicopter, compliments of the taxpayer, for a tiny ride to a personal, partisan event. It’s painful to contemplate. I’m in Canada at the moment, and you’d think the turmoil Bronwyn Bishop plays the evil queenof Australian politics would be far over my horizon. However, I am unable to avoid a glance at the Sydney Morning Herald every now and then – and I find the entire news front is dominated by your shenanigans. Even the Canadian papers are having a laugh about it.

(For those of you from other parts of the world, who might be forgiven for not having noticed these Aussie antics: Bronwyn Bishop is a political VIP, Speaker of the House and favoured child of the Liberal Abbot government, who was recently discovered to have spent $5000-something for a helicopter charter for a short ride to a Liberal Party fundraiser. It hasn’t been going well for her since.)

I mean, our legislators could be finalising the new laws currently under discussion which will help to keep out asylum seekers (please note: that was irony), or revoke dual citizenship from people who might have communicated with an enraged Muslim (ditto), or increase surveillance aimed at omnipresent terrorists (ditto; sigh…). But Bronwyn’s exploits are keeping them busy in Parliament.

It would be an interesting mental exercise to calculate the cost. Consider several hundred parliamentarians on decent salaries, each spending several dozen hours on Bronwyn’s spending idiosyncrasies; then there’s all the staff involved who are busy finding evidence or finding excuses, and all the lawyers who are circling at several hundred dollars an hour—all at the taxpayer’s expense. That $5000 might have been bad enough, but it was only a molecule on the tip of the iceberg. If I were a less peaceful person, I would be beating my head against the wall.

$5000 might not seem like a lot of money, but in some circles it could go a long way. For example, my garden club spent hundreds of woman-hours fundraising to buy a swish new chair for the oncology department at the local hospital. Surely the heavens would have smiled on a politician for pouring $5000 in the direction of health care. Or think what the local public school, where I listen to the littlies reading, could have done with $5000 aimed at its dog-eared reading materials. That $5000 would even have filled a few potholes on our bedraggled local road. Am I incredibly naïve for thinking that a politician, who has chosen to make a career out of serving the public good, wouldn’t think of those kind of things as an alternative to chartering a helicopter? Doesn’t anyone in Parliament think that way?

But I guess Bronwyn was in a hurry that day. Or perhaps she was caught in the rapture of it. Picture the helicopter blades whipping dangerously through the air above you, while you smilingly hold your hair, skirt and dark sunglasses in place. The urgency of it! The raw power of that warlike machine! Part of me can really understand the thrill.

However, let us rein in those rogue emotions for a moment. Consider the possibility of an entirely different way of being. Imagine Bronwyn pulling up to her event in a little red Smart Car, where she’s been getting dictation done into a recorder on the seat beside her as she drives (I can tell you from experience, there is precedent for this).  Maybe I live on a different planet, but it seems to me that that arrival would garner a certain respect from people, and might even loosen their pockets for the Liberal coffers.

We do have to be a bit careful about this shooting of fish in the barrel: Bronwyn isn’t the only one of us guilty of confusing the source of respect. My own life rules for living well in community occasionally fall into disarray around me. I’ve been known to go unconscious about the consequences an action might have on myself, as well as on others. I sometimes spend where it’s unnecessary, or try to impress people, or get jealous when someone has more helicopters than me.

And while we’re practising a little humility, let’s remember that sometimes indulgence is just plain fun. We can’t afford to get too righteous about someone succumbing to the odd bit of extravagance.

But I’m not sure Bronwyn’s indulgences have ever been giving her fun—and they’re sure not fun now. So loosen your hair, Bronwyn. All of us old dogs can learn a few new tricks.

Fly girl

Shedder postscript. When we first started our Shedders adventure, I had a concern that we might turn out to have different spending habits. Perhaps someone would be more lavish with the communal pot than Rick and I, or more miserly. But it hasn’t worked out that way. We talk things through to our mutual satisfaction. There are no taxpayers’ dollars to rely on here, so we’re all responsible. Spending on behalf of others can work.

Fly 4

Do you love your Kindle?

The humble KindleI’m about to launch into an opinion piece about e-readers and bound books, but before I do, perhaps I should address the fact that this normally very reliable weekly blog has fallen off the grid for the last month. And I can’t even tell you why, other than that life has been fully occupied with our annual move to Canada, learning to walk again, and connecting with family and our northern life.

At any rate, whatever the complex logic of dodging commitments, here we are again.


Kindles. E-readers. Hmmmm.

I’ve been a zealous reader all my life. I can still remember the magic of Dick and Jane coming to life on the page, of counting the days to the moment when our school library opened on a Thursday, and of getting a new Nancy Drew every Christmas (and reading it under the covers that night til I finished it). I majored in English at university, and have read a book or two a week forever. If, as Malcolm Gladwell says, it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in something, then reading is an area where I hit my stride decades ago.

I have a battered Kindle that I purchased some three and a half years ago. I bought it on the cusp of a three-week trip, thinking that I wanted to travel light without the usual stash The Kindle holds a lot of booksof heavy books. I was won over immediately. A book is a book is a book, I decided, and if you can get dozens of them on a device that weighs 200 grams and treats the eyes the same way that a printed page does, well, that’s not too shabby, as they say.

I’ve remained a happy Kindle user. I’m not as bad as Rick, who ordered a book online in bed one night because he didn’t feel like going out to the bookcase to try to find our print version, but I am thoroughly converted. On the occasions when I read a print book—dealing with the heavy weight, losing my place when the bookmark falls out, trying to shove it into my purse for a wait at the doctor’s office—I admit I often have the thought, “This is a great book – why don’t I just order it for my Kindle?”

I love that the Kindle is so light; I love that the process makes books so inexpensive and resource-wise to produce; I love that the “electronic ink” doesn’t involved the computer-style back-lighting that bothers my eyes. I love that I can change the font size to accommodate the amount or quality of light available (my 93 year old mother worships her Kindle for this reason). I love that it can go a month without recharging. I love that I can have the thought that I want a book and then have it in hand a minute later—anywhere in the world. I love that I can delete a book from my Kindle and then relocate it any time I want from my Amazon account.

Not everyone feels the same way. As a matter of fact I’d put myself in the minority of friends who are readers, most of whom prefer the experience of the printed page. And I can absolutely understand that, because in spite of all the Kindle’s indisputable advantages, some deep-seated part of my brain prefers it too.

A few months ago I read a thoughtful, well-researched article on what is being lost as we switch to e-readers. (I wish I could find it so I could pass it on to you right now.) The article made a good number of solid points, the main thrust being that we learned to read in a The amazing brainparticular manner that involves the experience of holding the physical book, of reading pages left and right, of thumbing back to recollect a name or an event. Our eyes learned to move in particular ways. These have become deeply imprinted brain functions that allow for better comprehension and retention.

Although the author self-admittedly came from a bias against e-readers, and I come from a bias toward them, I really appreciated the article. There wasn’t a point she made that I would try to refute. Yes, I do read differently when I read a printed book compared with a Kindle book, and perhaps not as well. My brain and its synapses no doubt reject some of the new programming I am trying to sneak in.

But here’s the thing: it’s about being in transition. It’s indisputable that the world is going in the direction of e-reading. Economics demand it. The cost of the bits of plastic, metal and sand in the electronic gadget is in reality probably not much more than the cost of the materials in one paperback book. The cost of “printing” and distribution is miniscule, once the software has been developed and the infrastructure is in place. Accessibility? – Well, when you think about the ubiquity of the cell phone even in developing nations, you know that e-readers cannot be far behind. Because of the low cost, children in the third world will before long learn to read on their Kindles, with access to the written world beyond anyone’s imaginings.

Inconceivable change is coming in these crazy times. Technology has loomed so high and so fast that it conceals our view of the world. Our horse-and-buggy brains aren’t wired for this onslaught. Even the six-year-olds who read to me at Mitchells Island Public School, with their flash cards and colourful little books, won’t be immune to the challenges. There’s a front-page article beside me in the Nanaimo Daily News that says kids aren’t learning to write cursive any more. What are the implications of THAT simple change for the human brain?

The tiger is on the loose. We can ride it, grab it by the tail, or get eaten for lunch by it.

The Kindle is where I take my stand.

Are you able to do the splits?



Don’t wanna

Rick and I had been planning a little project for some time: laying a small patio in front of each of two new sliding doors at the guest bedrooms. The project, which involves arranging a few dozen pavers on top of a shallow bed of gravel and sand, would not tax a handyman for a moment. Now, Rick and I have our skills, but laying out a simple patio was not among them.

As we were sipping our coffee one morning, contemplating the project, Rick made the following observation: “I notice I’m feeling dread at the prospect of what we’re about to take on. Although we’ve worked it all out and have clear and simple instructions, I keep having this feeling of: ‘Uh-oh—too big for me.’

“As a matter of fact,” he went on, “it’s the same feeling I get about loading the kayak. I’ve done it dozens of times, we’ve got the tools and the leverage down perfect, it’s NOTHING for me to get the kayak up on the roof of the car – and yet every time I contemplate it, it feels like a big deal.”

Eventually Rick got to his point: “There’s a four-year-old in there calling the emotional shots. That little guy wasn’t capable of levering a 40 kilo kayak on to the top of the car, and he’s certainly not up to figuring out how to build a patio. He’s just a Little Guy.

“But what’s he doing HERE?! Here I am, a fully grown man who’s carting around the spiritual residue of a four year old. Go figure.”

At that, he grimaced and said, “Well, let’s get stuck into it.”

Little guy 1There was no sign of the Little Guy a few hours later, when Rick was measuring out dimensions, doing complicated calculations, and shovelling wheelbarrows of gravel and sand, all the while humming happily. The patios gradually emerged, punctuated with a number of learning experiences, and now there are a couple of nice platforms where you can sit on your deck chair and have a cup of

Tree dahlia

Tree dahlia

coffee, while the tree dahlias wave above you and the pheasant coucals cavort in the trees below.

The whole episode led me to speculate about my own Little Guy. There is a feeling I notice on occasion, which I might meticulously define as Don’t wanna. I haven’t distinguished out the voice, and I mistake it for my own, or perhaps for the voice of the universe. It’s just how it is. But in reality, I can see it’s my four-year-old talking. Don’t wanna, she’s saying. And if I scratch under the surface I can see a Little Guy who’s having an adverse reaction – about things that might be logical in a four-year-old but not so much in a strong, mature, independent adult. “This is too big for me,” the voice is trying to say. Or “I could get hurt,” or, “This is scary.”

The Little Guy wasn’t smart or articulate enough to define her terms, only to notice the raw emotion she was abuzz with. The 40 kilo kayak was clearly too heavy to handle, the wave was too big to safely walk into, the German Shepard was a terrifying size – and it all rolled into Don’t wanna. It’s a mantra our Little Guys learned well. Very well. Who’d have guessed it was becoming a lifelong partner, in for the long haul?

My own Little Guy doesn’t get triggered by construction projects. My four-year-old was trained by my father, a farmer, that there’s no challenge that a few tools and bit of thinking can’t solve—and you can have some fun in the process. My own Little Guy looks at construction projects like building a patio as, “Yahoo! I’ll help!” (She hasn’t noticed the irony of exploiting Rick when the project is my own idea.)

But my Little Guy learned other Don’t wannas. I have a spontaneous reaction any time Rick suggests a drive. I promptly think, Don’t wanna, with a whiney-voiced addendum: It’s too faaaaar. It doesn’t take much to spot that the voice is actually that of a Little Guy who spent 45 minutes on the school bus every morning and every afternoon, punctuated on occasion with two-hour drives to our nearest town. Eventually a more adult voice kicks in, commenting on the cappuccino coming up, the crossword puzzle we’ll be working on, the shopping we’ll be doing—and it’s only a 20-minute drive, for pete’s sake.

But the Little Guy always takes its cut, dampening my experience with her Don’t wanna.

Emotion is a powerful thing, sometimes learned early and rarely reliable as an indicator in the present.

Little guy 2At any rate, it’s fun to have the patios. But I suspect the greatest contribution the project will make is in the insight it has provided. For Rick, he’s discovered that rather than resisting the ungrounded dread, or trying to talk himself into a more sensible approach, he can simply get a kick out of seeing his little alter-ego having its four-year-old reactions. He can give the Little Guy a hug and set him on the fence to watch as Big Guy throws together a patio or two, or effortlessly hoists the kayak up onto its lift bar. Everyone’s in his rightful place.