The power of ritual

Last Saturday we had breakfast at a little café in the nearby town of Taree. This is noteworthy, because it was a break in a well-established pattern. Those of you who know us well will be saying, “What?! What happened to breakfast at the Waterbird?”

The Waterbird at Manning Point…Because Saturdays we have breakfast at the nearby Waterbird Restaurant, with several good friends. The previous Saturday we did that, and next Saturday the group will likely repeat the practice. The Waterbird has been in existence for seven years or so, and since it opened, we have shown up there almost every Saturday morning. Sometimes there are four or five of us, sometimes a dozen or more. There’s no decision to be made about it: if people aren’t away somewhere, they show up for Saturday breakfast.

I believe this getting together could be called a ritual.

Always some local entertainmentThe Waterbird is a modest restaurant right over the river at Manning Point (careful not to drop your keys). It used to be a bait and tackle shop, until Jim the Proprietor decided it was an even better location for a restaurant. So he renovated and expanded the little shop, donned an apron, tied back his long hair, hired a waitress and bought a coffee machine. The food is more than adequate and the ambiance is stunning. Dolphins, pelicans and cormorants abound. It’s quite a place.

There’s another layer to the ritual. Dozens of years ago back in The Big Smoke, after Eve’s early morning Saturday yoga class, everyone would go out for breakfast and do the quiz from the Good Weekend magazine. This practice transported itself to Mitchells Island, and now you’ll find the lot of us deeply engaged in the quiz while we wait for breakfast to arrive. There we are – a raucous group trying to sort out things like which two countries start with the letter Z, or who has the most ever Olympic medals, or who invented the lightning rod. We have a scorekeeper and an ethics judge; there is much head scratching and wrangling. I’m sure it’s health-promoting on many levels.

But like many rituals, breakfast and the quiz at the Waterbird took a little getting into. Before something becomes a ritual, you have to try it on, and things don’t fit perfectly at first. The jokes aren’t always funny, the food is not to everyone’s taste, sometimes it’s too sunny or too cold out there on the deck – but on balance it’s pretty good. So you do it again, and then again, and by the third or fourth time you’re hooked. This is the birth of a ritual.

When I look closely, my life is punctuated by many rituals. Rick and I have a coffee and work on a New York Times crossword most days. We celebrate a birthday with a movie and dinner out. We call our kids every Monday. A beer on the deck marks a satisfying conclusion to a few hours in the gardens or behind the lawnmower.

The Shedders also have their rituals. For example, we get together most evenings for a shared meal; that’s just how it works here. On a Friday morning more often than not we’re all engaged in housecleaning. Every year on 31 December we sit down together and review our year-just-gone, sharing the highs and lows and learnings; a day or two later we assemble again and share our dreams and aspirations for the coming year. Every January we pack up our cars and travel up to Camp Creative for a week of community, learning and creation. And if someone’s been away for a while, there’s automatically a cup of tea and some sharing in the lounge room. These are the rituals that lubricate our Shedders lives.

What IS it about rituals? As I sit here on a Saturday afternoon, after perhaps the 200th time laughing with good friends and doing the quiz, I find myself trying to tease out the nature of ritual, and its purpose.

Transitions

When the Shedders first moved to Mitchells Island, we left behind dozens of under-acknowledged rituals. They needed replacing. We softened the transition to this whole new life by the creation of such rituals as breakfast-and-the-quiz. The transition from living as an independent family unit to sharing a cooperative household was aided by rituals like shared evening meals and loud music while housecleaning. Change is good; perhaps we all have a deep need for it – and rituals give us stability in the face of these fresh starts.

Our personal stories

Rituals also allow us to tell a story that helps explain who we are – for others and for ourselves. Knowing I always enjoy doing the Saturday quiz with a group of friends tells you some key things about me – that I relish being with my friends, that I am stimulated by the challenge of the quiz and the interactions we have while we do it, that I cherish the beauty and serenity of the Waterbird’s location. When I tell you that I love attending our Wingsong community choir (not to mention going out for dinner at the pub afterward), it also tells you any number of things about me. That I get together with old school friends every year when I am back in Canada, that I never miss a Medd Family Annual Picnic – these rituals remind me how much I enjoy the power of family, friends, music in my life.

Signposts

I can see another important quality of rituals. When I look back at the peaks and valleys of my life, I often think of the old rituals that marked its passage. My farmer-father making fudge in the kitchen on a rainy day. Camping at Christmas time with 3 or 4 other families when our children were young. Taking the kids out for Friday dinner at Manly Wharf when the business had met its targets. These events have meaning for even decades after their expiry.

As rituals connect us to ourselves, they also connect us to each other. The simplest way for my communities to prosper is to create rituals where we can put our opportunities to get together on auto-pilot. We don’t have to think, plan, phone around, negotiate. We just show up at the Waterbird, we go to choir and the pub, we pack up our suitcases for Camp Creative. In this way our communities thrive.

It’s a grand design.

Disclaimer. Whoops! My spell checker just alerted me to a typo – there is no such word as “rutual”. But wait, perhaps a rutual is a legitimate word that means a ritual needs to be abandoned or freshened up. Very few things last forever.

The wisdom of Wingsong

Singing togetherMy intention is not to make you jealous, but beware, it could happen—I’m about to describe our community choir.

I joined this choir some six or seven years ago. We meet weekly in a country town about a half hour’s drive from here. The town is Wingham and the choir is called Wingsong. You wouldn’t want to expect too much from a choir located in such a setting, but in this case you’d have underestimated the situation. Our choir is a winner, a fully satisfying experience.

Let me fill you in.

First, about a community choir: you don’t audition, you don’t have to have experience or be “a good singer”, you don’t commit to anything. There may or may not be concerts and gigs. You go just because you like to sing and you thrive on getting involved in the harmonies. As with most such choirs, we show up once a week, pay a small fee to cover the costs of the hall and photocopying of the music, and then sing for an hour and a half.

So what’s special about Wingsong? For one thing, we’ve become a good-sized choir. Last week there were over 45 people attending. You can get a truly full-bodied sound with 45 voices, in an almost equal distribution of basses, tenors, altos and sopranos. But to really understand Wingsong’s success, you start by looking at the top. Wingsong is blessed with not one but three choir directors, all highly experienced. One is a natural singer/musician and has led this choir for some 20 years. One, with a significant knowledge of voice, was a director of a Sweet Adeline’s choir for several years. One has an MA in music, near perfect pitch, and can arrange beautifully for four parts. They’re teachers and natural leaders, with a big-hearted commitment. They’ve all ended up in the Manning Valley (as you would, but that’s another story) and they co-lead this choir out of the sheer joy of the music and the contribution.

Another secret of success: Wingsong chooses thoroughly good songs, across a variety of genres. Last week we worked on two or three pulsing African numbers, a rocking gospel tune, a couple of pieces of Australiana that are heart-breakingly beautiful (including one that ought to be the Australian national anthem), and a complex, haunting song written and brilliantly arranged by a well-known NSW musician. There’s something for everyone—well, really, there’s everything for everyone.

One more thing that Wingsong does well is manage the dilemma of social versus musical priorities, which all choirs must face. You tend to relish many of the people you sing with, and the resulting conversational need has to be balanced with everyone’s desire to sing and learn songs in a disciplined fashion. We don’t have a lot of rules, but nonetheless, the work gets done without friction.

We help to resolve this dilemma with another ritual: going out for dinner at the pub afterward.

***

In writing this post, I wanted to build a case for choirs, so I googled “health benefits of choral singing”. Accustomed though I am to marveling at what’s out there in the known universe, I was nonetheless stunned at the amount and depth of research that has been done about singing in a choir. I could have read all week and never got this post written.

One of my favourite posts was an article in Time magazine, called Singing Changes Your Brain: Here’s how the article opens:

When you sing, musical vibrations move through you, altering your physical and emotional landscape. Group singing, for those who have done it, is the most exhilarating and transformative of all. It takes something incredibly intimate, a sound that begins inside you, shares it with a roomful of people and it comes back as something even more thrilling: harmony.

Hundreds of studies show provable benefits of choral singing physically. Oxygen in the bloodstream is increased, and exercise is provided for the heart and lungs. The accompanying movement of the body provides light exercise. Singing turns out to be a good upper body workout.

Choir 2A study reported by The Telegraph (UK) speaks about the benefits of working in a “cohesive social group”. Remarkably, people’s heartbeats become synchonised during choral singing. I’m not sure how that translates to a health benefit, but it points to the social aspects, also claimed to be important.

I encountered much research focusing on neural activity: what the brain is doing while you are singing. For example, for those of you interested in arcuate fasciculus, modularity and use-dependent neuroplasticity (!), here’s just the article for you.  It’s exhaustive, and you may find it a touch exhausting.

The psychological benefits are strongly documented. Choir singing is known to stimulate two of the “happy hormones”, oxytocin and endorphins, which results in a lowering of stress levels and blood pressure. Also from the Time article:

As the popularity of group singing grows, science has been hard at work trying to explain why it has such a calming yet energizing effect on people. What researchers are beginning to discover is that singing is like an infusion of the perfect tranquilizer, the kind that both soothes your nerves and elevates your spirits.

One researcher spoke about choral singing being “an outlet for the emotions people are carrying”. Other studies claim that singing lessens feelings of depression. And there’s no need to be a good singer, according to the studies. Just show up and let the music wash you clean. For several years now Rick and I have made our annual trek home from Canada the day after Labor Day. We fly for innumerable hours, navigate airports, get in a car, drive several more hours to get to Mitchells Island, unpack—and head off for choir. Jet-lagged, severely over-tired and displaced, this is how we find our way home.

I particularly relish this quote, which takes us straight to the tangled roots of our existence:

A very recent study even attempts to make the case that “music evolved as a tool of social living,” and that the pleasure that comes from singing together is our evolutionary reward for coming together cooperatively, instead of hiding alone, every cave-dweller for him or herself. (Enthusiastic emphasis is mine.)

As I stand in choir, surrounded by the harmonies and the intense focus of everyone there, I can believe this is an evolutionary reward. It’s one of the finest things I experience about being human.

***

I made a passing remark earlier about a song we sing which “should be our national anthem”. It’s a song about Australia—and a song about singing.

Choir 3I will sing you up, my country
I will sing you up, my land
I will walk across this island,
I will sing you, I will sing to you

 

You are old and you are drying
Murray River down and dying
I will sing you up, my country
I will sing you, I will sing to you
Of a love that pulses in me
Of a love you can take with you
I will sing you up my country
I will sing you up, I’ll sing you up, I’ll sing you up
I’ll sing.

Rachel Hore, choir leader/songwriter/singer

….Well, all right, maybe not quite national anthem material—but an anthem to the healing and joy-making powers of singing.

Longing to belong

Belonging 2This week housemates Eve and Daniel were visited for three days by good friends of theirs, and as is usually the case the guests wove their way in and out of our lives throughout their time here. Afterward, Eve said, “Thank you for including our friends and making them feel so welcome.” The comment, about something that I would take for granted, had me stop for a moment as I was struck by how important feeling included is—to Eve, and to all of us.

Eve is a master at inclusivity. She often invites the rest of us when she and her guests are going out to dinner. She carefully informs us when she knows a tradesman is coming, or when some event is happening that might interest us. There’s no doubt that Eve’s sense of inclusion, of drawing people together and making them feel a part of things, was a big factor in the setting up of our Shedders household.

Team Australia

Would that the broader world had a glimmer of her wisdom! My mind can’t help leaping immediately to the refugees in detention camps who don’t belong anywhere, to the homeless, to the disenfranchised. It makes me think of a time a few months ago when Rick and I were overseas enjoying the Canadian summer. One morning, in bed with my tablet, I encountered a series of articles about a new concept in anti-terrorism: join Team Australia. Then-Prime-Minister Tony Abbott had discovered that a good many people who come to Australia from war-torn countries harbour terrorist notions, and that “everyone has got to be on Team Australia and…you don’t migrate to this country unless you want to join our team.” This table-thumping induced in me a strong and unpleasant emotion, which I can only describe as feeling excluded. After all, like these other non-team players, I was born far away, have an accent, host some cultural oddities, and express dissident opinions from time to time. I had the sullen thought—well, if that’s Team Australia, I don’t want to be on it. It was enough to have me toss my tablet onto the bedside table and pull the covers back over my head.

Border Force

That May-to-September period in Australia was rich in intolerance. As Rick and I were leaving Australia, in late May, Parliament was busily passing a new bill called the Australian Border Force Act, formed with the intention of militarising the functions of customs and immigration. Negative media focused on a few key aspects about how the Act was designed: to make a more threatening presence as one attempts to enter Australia, to make it easy to withdraw citizenship from undesirable folk, and to muzzle dissent about what happens in refugee detention centres.

Belonging 3By the time we returned to Australia in early September, the stamp of Border Force was imposingly in evidence. New and impressive insignia decorated the uniforms of security people. Guns rode on hips. Large BORDER FORCE signs reminded us in two simple words of strong boundaries and the fierceness with which those boundaries would be maintained. I sensed echoes of the same paranoia that abounded when we flew via the United States at a time when Homeland Security was first making its intimidating presence felt with fingerprinting, interrogation and big announcement screens.

Belonging 4You might remember the incident in Melbourne in September, where the city was to be flooded with Border Force officers performing random checks in public areas for people’s visas. Public outcry stopped that operation as the general population Belonging 5woke up to what it feels like to be threatened off Team Australia. That side of the Border Force legislation seems to be hiding its tail between its legs (where the tail will hopefully atrophy—or may only be biding its time for another big wag).

Zero tolerance

There’s a concept that I think is at the heart of much of this exclusionary behavior. It’s become fashionable to have zero tolerance for bad things. We regularly hear about someone having zero tolerance for illegal boat arrivals, for the abuse of women, for sexual interference with children, for the abuse of animals, for terrorism. Our schools have zero tolerance for bullying, I read just this morning.

In this way, we display our moral rectitude. I’m sure I’ve used the slogan myself on occasion, as there’s a certain swashbuckling quality to this pounding of righteous fists upon the table.

But in the end, zero tolerance is just sloganism, and a slogan doesn’t require us to bring thoughtfulness to an issue. Please rest assured that I am not in favour of bullying or abuse—but I do recognise that every case of wrongdoing has to be looked at on its own merits. We can’t afford to execute (and what is zero tolerance but a form of execution?) without deeply understanding the greater context.

Such concepts as zero tolerance, Border Force and Team Australia allow us to speak in empty concepts. We can identify and judge quickly. If it’s not white, it’s black—whereas in truth, every issue is its own shade of grey.

Our former Prime Minister had zero tolerance for a lot of things. We seem to have been at war with everyone, which is what happens when you have zero tolerance running amok. It’s quieter in the Australian world at the moment. Our new PM seems less inclined to strident opinions and catchphrases, and I find that most restful. It’s something to emulate.

 

Here’s a thought: maybe we should put Eve in charge of things for a while. She understands our deep human need to belong, and what happens when that need is denied.

Life under the long white cloud

I’ve just been engaging in one of those post-New-Year’s projects: sorting through holiday photos. It’s put me in the mood to tell you about our five days in New Zealand, as those November memories still sit very pleasantly with me. You might remember my recent post NZ 3about our week in the Cook Islands—well, after that adventure, Rick and I and our four travelling companions headed off from Rarotonga for the four hour flight to Auckland.

Speaking of the flight, let’s start with the issue of airport safety and security. Please note the hen and chickens, photographed in silhouette in the Rarotonga airport. I found them an attractive new breed of airport security. But even more I loved the Air New Zealand flight safety video, which whole-heartedly introduces the Kiwi experience. If you haven’t travelled Air New NZ 1Zealand recenty, you MUST play this YouTube video. For the first time in my years of travel, I listened closely to a flight video. I have certainly never experienced a plane-full of several hundred people unable to take their eyes from their screens, laughing broadly all the while. The video has a certain irreverence that alerts you to the New Zealand spirit before you have to deal with it in person. Kiwis seem to have missed out on the serum of Sober Correctness that has immunised pretty much every other airline I’ve flown on. Perhaps the most expensive safety video ever produced, it steals heartily from the movie Men in Black, while paying mischievous tribute to the mighty All Blacks. It’s an altogether superior way to contemplate a crash landing.

Besides, after all these years I could now probably find a life vest on the plane if I needed one.

NZ 2At any rate, we landed without so much as a runway thump in Auckland, where we rented a van and drove a few hours south to Rotorua. The red line gives you a highly approximate idea of the small part of the North Island we explored.

Cultural centre

On our first evening, in Rotorua (itself a charming town no doubt full of surprises we didn’t get to explore), we went to the Tamaki Maori Village. As cultural introductions go, this one was warm and engaging, with an authentic feel. We experienced elements of the marae (a traditional religious political ceremony) and were treated to excellent demonstrations of some half dozen other long-time Maori practices. You’ll have heard Performing the hakaof the haka, but have you seen it enacted live? This amazingly aggressive war dance is no doubt what keeps the All Blacks at the top of the rugby scrum. Our tour guide tells us that the dance was developed to terrify and deter the enemy, but that in practice it probably had the effect of enraging and inciting them into battle. (There’s a message in that for all of us.) Check out the haka’s modern day application here. Stand well back from your monitor.

The acting and dancing was superb, the food (much of it cooked in the “hangi” pit) was excellent, and the hundred fifty or so of us on the tour were happily sated at the end.

But there’s no accounting for what sticks in your memory. A part of the evening I remember very fondly was driving back to our rendezvous in a large coach, where our Maori driver, in a deep, smooth baritone, led us in round-the-world-old-familiar songs the whole way. And in a demonstration of Kiwi-style anarchy, he drove his big bus and 40 startled passengers around a small round-about several times to the tune of “The wheels on the bus go round and round”… … … Perhaps you had to be there.

Volcano Country

NZ 5Our second day gave us a glimpse of one of the area’s three active volcanoes, a reminder for me that we live on a rather thin crust of earth—and that active volcanoes have a habit of surprising people.

Our first stop was to visit the 10:15 am display of Lady Knox, New Zealand’s very own tame geyser. No spoilers, but those sceptics among you who are wondering how a geyser can go off at 10:15 am every single day of the year will get your answer—a reasonably satisfying one.

NZ 6Then we walked through the most dramatic visual experience of the trip—the Wai-O-Tapu park. The crust must be uncomfortably shallow here because the NZ 7extraordinary pools (all brightly coloured by different minerals, and all untamed) were at 100C, as were the bubbling mud pools, as was the magnificent Champagne Pool. The whole area was exquisite and unsettling at the same time.

What’s in a name?

The three dramatic peaks of the area are Ruapehu, Tongariro, and Ngarahoe. I tell you this because I loved the mountains, and I loved their names. I spent all day alternately NZ 8photographing them and trying to get my tongue around the unfamiliar words. Almost every name in the countryside we travelled was Maori, and it was a wonder how much difficulty I had learning and remembering them. I’m still working on Aotearoa, which is the increasingly-popular Maori name for New Zealand. (My ear hears it as “Ow-tea-a-roa”.) I’ve never been big on changing place-names, but there’s something about the Kiwis and their naming conventions that has me wondering.

A typical hillsideWe spent a day travelling the Forgotten Highway. It apparently stays forgotten—through the whole of its steep, winding way, with sheep-strewn hillsides and a small fortune in fencing, we saw almost no vehicles. Statuesque Lombardi poplar windbreaks are everywhere. They were planted by Europeans to mark boundaries and river fords, and by disciples of the Maori prophet Te Kooti, to symbolise a new pathway away from war and towards peace. Everywhere the two cultures seem to merge rather than wrangle.

Lunch at the pub in the Independent Republic of Whangamomona is not to be missed, representing as it does another example of Kiwi humour cheerfully overcoming political correctness and deference. Be sure to read about its long line of Presidents.

Our final day was spent cruising through the scenic villages on the west coast; I wish we’d had a week for this.

Rick and I have often been known to say quietly to each other, “We could live here.” The towns and countryside of New Zealand were no exception.

 

 

Community: anytime, anywhere

Eve and I were approached this week by Focus, a local community magazine, to be interviewed for an article on the Shedders. We do get a fair bit of publicity, and each time, I am reminded about what a smart (not to mention interesting) phenomenon we have created here in Shedders-land. Day to day, we just go about the business of living and getting along, so every now and then it’s good to stop and reflect on how we arrived here and just what it is we’ve got.

At any rate, the experience of writing a response to the editor’s questions had me extra sensitive to the power of relationship—exactly at a time when I came across an article about an interesting development in Bologna, Italy. Here an urban neighbourhood has come to life as a big-hearted community. I found myself captivated by a familiar old theme.

Via Fondazza

Via Fondazza, Bologna, Italy

What happened was this: a pair of lonely newcomers to the area put out the word that they’d be interested in creating a closed Facebook group for neighbours along their street. People responded quickly and positively, and the result is a thousand people who now feel like they live in a small town. They now know each other, exchange greetings on the street, socialise, have adventures and help out.

Here’s a sample story from the article:

A few months back, Caterina Salvadori, a screenwriter and filmmaker who moved to Via Fondazza last March, posted on Facebook that her sink was clogged. Within five minutes, she said, she had three different messages.

One neighbor offered a plunger, then another a more efficient plunger, and a third offered to unblock the sink himself. The last bidder won.

“Can you imagine, in a big city?” she said, still in disbelief at the generosity. “It’s not about the sink, it’s the feeling of protection and support that is so hard to find in cities nowadays.”

And another:

This year, a young woman expressed a concern for her safety and proposed a neighborhood watch.

Another resident, Luigi Nardacchione, responded that she should just call him if she was on her way home late at night, and he would come and meet her.

“I am retired, I have time, why shouldn’t I help?” said Mr. Nardacchione, 64, a former manager of a pharmaceutical company.

According to one resident:

“It’s the mental habit that is so healthy. You let people into your house because you know some and trust them enough to bring along some more. You open up your life.”

I like that last comment: you do open up your life when you let people in. Fear climbs into the back seat, displaced by trust and goodwill. We all know that sometimes trust will be abused, but how preferable it is to have our heads populated by positive expectations rather than wariness and isolation.Random acts of neighboring

If you’d like to read the entire article – which I’d recommend, especially if you’re an urban dweller – click here. Beware. Drop off a few flyers and you could find yourself in the middle of a social avalanche.

***

On an identical theme, yesterday I received an email from a dear friend who lives here on Mitchells Island. He and his wife have purchased 40 acres, and moved up from Sydney about a year and a half ago. They’re renovating their house and have built up a nice little farm with a bit of livestock. They’re slowly creating a new home for themselves, very different from the one they had in Sydney.

Here’s what my friend said in his email:

On this Sunday afternoon our neighbours (two farms up) held a luncheon at their jetty.  This was a splendid occasion on a beautiful sunny afternoon with one of their own pigs on a spit, cooked to perfection with fantastic crackling.  It was a party for the neighbours and we got to know everyone on our road. Gradually, we are really becoming part of our very local community.  

The significance of a community in a rural area really becomes clear after such a lunch.  All the people involved become important in one way of another in just being there and you know that you can call on them.…Out of this we might have access to a ram for our ewes, and we may provide the services of our bull to our neighbour’s cows…I know such a network will become more and more important for us in the future.

So, in much the same way that the Via Fondazzians built their community, my friend is part of building one among his neighbours. He’s enjoying the camaraderie (as well as the pork crackling), and he’s setting life up so it can be easier, more economical and fuller.

***

Bear with me for one more quote. I’ll give the last word on building community to housemate Eve, from her contribution to the Focus article:

In balance, I can say that our arrangement is the best outcome I could have possibly imagined for my retirement and ageing. We Shedders spark off each other and support our divergent interests. In some areas, we collaborate—that is, in our communities, in teaching, in networking. We support each other in staying healthy, encouraging physical activity and good diets. We have learned so much from each other, not always easily or gracefully. But most rough edges have been smoothed out over the years, and as a result there’s gratitude and love.

Welcome to the neighborhood

The squeaky wheel gets the grease

Li'l ThumperI am not the complaining sort. “If you cannot be positive, then at least be quiet,” is a rule I’ve tried to abide to. At the age of five, I was much-influenced by Thumper (Bambi’s best friend) who said so solemnly, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” I take a dim view of nattering on about problems and concerns. Ever since I was five, it has seemed in bad taste.

However, I’ve had an insight which I hope is life-changing.

Last Sunday Rick and I stepped into our suite for a three-day stay at Port Stephen’s fabulous resort, The Anchorage, for which we’d expended a good chunk of our offspring’s inheritance. My first thought (after an approving glance at the gleaming bathroom and king-size bed with its fine white linen) was that the room seemed a bit dark. And smallish, compared to my expectations. I went to the French doors and stepped out onto the patio. It was tiny, with someone sitting nearby on her (considerably larger) patio, talking enthusiastically on her mobile phone. And the “garden view” I’d been promised on the website was a few unmown dandelions on a small patch of stony pasture. Our room appeared to be wedged into a dark corner from which two wings of the resort swept out. Clearly we’d gotten the last room in the hotel.

Rick, meantime, had whipped his clothes into the closet, tossed his pocket paraphernalia onto the TV shelf, plugged in his iPad and bounced enthusiastically on the bed a few times. “Look, you can just see the harbour if you stick your head ’round the corner of the patio,” he exclaimed, as he joined me outside. “Isn’t this great?!”

One easy-to-please Rick plus one uncomplaining Heather meant that Room 107 at The Anchorage kept us on as its inhabitants.

Sometime later we joined good friends at their suite in the resort. Upon observing its generous glass doors and windows overlooking the colourful marina and manicured gardens, I became even more strongly aware we’d made a mistake in bouncing on the bed before insisting on changing rooms, especially when we’d noticed the half-empty parking lot and any number of unoccupied suites.

At the desk, three days later, I handed the receptionist my feedback form. The first question said, “How likely are you to recommend the Anchorage to others?”, for which I’d ticked 1 out of a possible 10. I explained that I was annoyed we’d been placed in a small room with dodgy gardens, that the renovations going on in the new wing had made life difficult, and that no one at the hotel had addressed any of these problems.

“Oh, goodness,” she said. “You should have said something earlier. We’d have happily found you another room.”

There you have it.

I’d ended up complaining – just three days too late for it to do any good.

I’m pretty sure this attitude is not at all what Thumper had in mind. I’ve just googled “complaining”, knowing that someone else will have captured its true meaning more eloquently than I (or Thumper) could. And sure enough, I found the perfect expression of the Heather approach to complaining: “Learn to accept in silence the minor aggravations, cultivate the gift of taciturnity, and consume your own smoke with an extra draft of hard work, so that those about you may not be annoyed with the dust and soot of your complaints.”  ~William Osler. (You might guess that William Osler was a Canadian.)

By the way, I also stumbled across the Rick approach: “Instead of complaining that the rosebush is full of thorns, be happy that the thorn bush has roses.”  (You might guess that this is a German proverb.)

Rick and I discussed the squeaky wheel principal a few days ago. I pointed out that the squeaky wheel has a rather bad reputation. The inference is that it’s a dog-eat-dog world and, although it’s not nice or fair, the people who squeak are the ones who get themselves looked after. They’re grabbing limited resources from the community pool.

Rick thought for a moment, then made the observation that for centuries anyone with heavy loads has been deeply indebted to squeaky wheels. If a wheel didn’t squeak, you’d never know the ball bearing was going, and you wouldn’t know to apply the grease, and the wheel would break down just when you most needed it.

That is, I think, a much more practical – and accurate – way to look at the whole issue of complaining.

The squeaky wheel gets the wormSo there is a learning in this for those of us who tend toward niceness (spiced up with a dash – the merest soupçon* – of timidity). My new rule is this: from here on, whenever I walk into a hotel room, or to a restaurant table that I’ve been led to, before Rick can bounce on the bed, or shake out his napkin and drink the water, I’m going to check things out quickly and carefully. I will immediately make a complaint if I’m not entirely happy. I will even make a complaint after he’s bounced on the bed, if that’s what it takes.

I am aware there are many of you who are yawning and saying, good grief, what ELSE would you do? – Well, I envy your directness. Keep setting a good example for those of us who sadly and at great personal cost misinterpreted the Thumper Principle.

* Soupçon: A very small amount; a hint; a trace. E.g.:
Add a soupçon of red pepper. Coffee with a soupçon of cognac.
No one is so depraved that a soupçon of goodness cannot be found in him.

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?

Hmmmm.

Little feet