Slow reader


I have always been a slow reader.

This is a big problem. First, I love to read. Reading fiction gets me involved in someone else’s life. Sometimes, it takes me to another place. Other times, it can shed light on the place where I live — in Melbourne now — or have lived, in New York City, Boston or Italy. Reading literature can completely shift my perspective on things I think I’m familiar with and change how I look at the world, simply through the innovative use of language.

Fiction can make me feel that I am not alone, or, conversely, how many other ways there are to live. And getting really stuck into a novel brings me a kind of relaxation I can’t achieve any other way.

Difficulties reading non-fiction keep my world very small. I have so many avenues I’d like to explore: Why the world faces the many problems it does, the inside story of someone else’s real life, how my favourite songs came to be, and so much more. Then there’s just plain wanting to have things to say.

Anyone who reads much at all would be flummoxed at the prospect of summarising why reading is important and would be able to name many more reasons than I have.

I said earlier that I have always been a slow reader, and I meant it. When I was in high school, my mother tried to help by arranging for me to see an eye doctor who specialised in training eyes. He identified that fusion was part of my problem and gave me exercises to get the vision of my two eyes to converge.

One exercise used a stereopticon — you looked at cards with two identical images side by side and focused your eyes through the device until they formed a single image.

Another involved bringing my pointer finger (pointer finger? When was the last time you described your index finger that way?) from a distance toward my nose, keeping my eyes focused on it all the way. 

On the reading side of things, he gave me exercises to teach me to read for ideas instead of one word at a time. He also gave me exercises in reading comprehension and active reading — learning to approach non-fiction material with questions in mind, scanning the text  to see where it is heading.

It probably doesn’t help that I read in bed and don’t start until I’m just about ready to sleep. Or that I treat reading as a prize I earn after accomplishing things during the day when I’m more alert and could actually make some progress. 

The result of all this is that I don’t get very far in my reading when I do manage to sit down and that keeps me from becoming very engaged. That has the knock-on effect that I sit down to read less often. That, in turn, results in me forgetting what was happening in the story and who is who in the book. I get confused about what I’ve already been told but now forgotten, and what remains to be revealed. So then I have to start over,  or at least go back some pages.  That makes me less inspired to read. As you might expect,, when I do get involved in a book, my pace speeds up.

As my daughter who whizzes through books points out, I don’t give myself time to read because I think I should be doing other things. But reading is one of the most important things I could be doing with my time, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned and all the others that people who read more could name.

Is it too late to make a new year’s resolution?

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Coats and Shorts

Simon is away in frosty and rainy England with his brother Richard, sister Sarah and brother-in-law Tim, planning his mother’s funeral.  It’s a sad time but it’s also been a time of looking through old photos, collaborating on the booklet that is the order of service with poems, photos, meditations, the legacy website and reminiscing about their childhoods. 

I’ve been able to feel a part of all this because I’ve had a role in writing my own tribute (on which my last blog post was based) and in identifying some poems for Simon to read or include in the booklet. 

It’s helped a lot that the time zones have allowed Simon and me to talk every day, sometimes even twice a day: when it’s morning here, it’s evening the day before there and when it’s evening here, it’s morning there.  

That’s meant that I could hear daily progress reports — how they’re progressing with all the many aspects of the funeral and about visits with my father-in-law. I’ve also heard about the support they’re getting from Sarah and Tim’s church community who are making cakes for the celebration afterwards, and Sarah showed me the beautiful flowers that will decorate the room.

On this side of things, my daily walks have been different without Simon. I’m pleased to say that I have kept them up but haven’t had to get up on Simon’s work schedule so have slept in a little. 

That has meant that I’ve encountered different people and dogs. 

For example, I’ve gotten to know Floyd (which I think is a proper dog name) and his human, Graham. Graham, I now know, is really miffed at the Council for not dealing with the big puddle around the water fountain, despite complaints from him, me and others over a period of months. “Lazy,” he calls them.

Simon’s absence has also had a few other implications. Abby and I have alternated who gets to sleep with Hugo, our harlequin poodle, whereas normally he sleeps only with her because I get Simon. 

It’s also meant that Abby and I have gotten to eat meat which we don’t usually because Simon’s vegetarian.

Those minor benefits aside, we’ll be glad to have him back when they’ve all had a chance to recover and spend time together without the pressure. 

If our weather here in Melbourne persists, I’’m sure he’ll be glad to exchange his wool coat for shorts.

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It’ll Come In

My mother-in-law Thelma and sister-in-law Sarah

My precious mother-in-law died a week and a half ago, leaving a gaping hole in my life and the lives of those who loved her. 

I struck it rich when I got Thelma as a mother-in-law. I hear so many complaints about mothers-in-law — meddling, bossy, judging, rejecting. 

Instead, I got a loving and accepting one who exemplified so much about loving in a family. 

For example, she and my father-in-law Phillip were accepting of my Judaism, the whole family has been, despite, as Christadelphians, holding different religious beliefs.

For years, when my husband Simon travelled a lot, Mum would call when she knew he was away, just to check on me and see how my daughter Abby and I were doing. She would also ring to see how that doctor’s appointment or job interview went. 

There were always calls and cards and gifts for birthdays and anniversaries and she would send the traditional corresponding anniversary gifts for the big ones. Mum and Dad were married more than 66 years; the Bride magazine list of traditional anniversary gifts doesn’t even go that high. And there was each year an Easter egg (little gift) for Abby. 

Although they could really bicker, sometimes about the most trivial things,  their love and devotion to one another was palpable. 

Thelma and Phillip

They visited us almost everywhere we were. It started with our New York City wedding;  I have photos of them dancing with my mother and step-father which bring me great pleasure. 

They visited us when we lived in Perth, three times I think including once for Abby’s baby naming and years later on our camping trip with the Family Bushwalkers who comprised our local family. We have photos of them on the beach, reading to Abby and riding on the train with her, among so many others. They were up for almost everything and I always got tired before they did. 

They also visited us three times when we lived in Italy including Christmas when my sister-in-law Sarah (pictured above with Thelma) and her family also came and we had a houseful — one of the very best Christmases I’ve ever had.  I have a picture I cherish of Mum and Abby decorating the fruit cake with Mum’s marzipan fruits. We  even got a visit in Italy from their close friends the Blands — members of the extended family I got through Mum and Dad. 

And when Skype came along, they did their best to visit with us that way. Unfortunately, they never made it to see us in Melbourne.

They were as engaged as parents and grandparents as they could have been at such a distance — they live in the UK — and I’m ever so grateful for it.  So although Thelma is what I called her originally, I came to call her Mum and Phillip, Dad, because it felt more loving to me. 

Dad now sleeps all day except to eat — has done for months — so in a way we’ve already had to say good-bye to him. I will miss in Thelma — and already miss in Dad — the love, time and effort she gave to our whole family. 

Mum gave us a crystal glass for our 15th anniversary. We’ve always been determined not to save anything “for best” but we’ve done that with this. Nevertheless, I’m sure, as she would say about something she had a hunch would be useful one day,  it’ll come in.

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Rapid Antigen Tests – Abby’s Negative Results

Last Wednesday, Abby developed a sore throat. I can remember a time, not so long ago, when this would have been unremarkable — it might have warranted a throat lozenge, an early-to-bed night or even, dare I say it, being ignored. 

But since we live in the time of COVID, and now its highly contagious Omicron variant, the first thing that occurred to Abby, of course, was that it was COVID. She works in a supermarket where there have been a lot of staff who have tested positive and had to isolate. It wasn’t at all inconceivable that she would have caught it too.

The problem, beyond just being sick, was that Abby was due to travel two days later to a training camp for a team that will compete overseas in a world competition this July. She was determined not to infect her teammates but also desperate not to miss the training camp. For those who don’t know, Abby plays Ultimate Frisbee at an elite level — think soccer with a disc.

Why was the training camp such a big deal? After all, everybody has lost something — or even worse, someone — during this wretched COVID pandemic and missing a training camp seems trivial. 

But we live inside our own skins, with our own dreams, and Abby has lost two that were huge for her — two opportunities to play internationally as part of world representative teams. COVID restrictions meant that the teams not only didn’t get to compete, they never even got to train together. 

Well, about a month ago, Abby made a Club team that is going to Worlds in the US and her COVID scare put the camp in jeopardy for her.

She had to decide: Should she go test (because of a blooming sore throat)? There was little point in going to a testing centre — people are waiting hours only to be turned away because it’s  overwhelmed. So she booked an appointment for the next day with her GP. But getting a PCR test anywhere would mean she would have to isolate until she got a negative result which is now taking days. That would mean not attending her training even if she was negative. 

Then the idea occurred to us to get a Rapid Antigen Test (RAT). But where? Everywhere you go you see signs in pharmacy windows saying “No RATS. No ETA.”  

I called our regular pharmacy — we go only there for our various prescriptions — and asked if they had any. It came as no surprise that they were out and their order wasn’t expected until late the following week. The pharmacy assistant asked if I wanted to go on the waitlist but told me that they were only taking names from their most loyal customers so not to to tell anyone they were expecting tests in. It’s come to this.

We finally found an independent supermarket we heard had some. We rang to confirm. Yes, they had some. No, they would not put one aside because they were flying out the door. We hightailed it there together which was lucky because we were each allowed to buy only one test and the recommendation is that the test be run at least two days in a row.  She did one test the moment we got home and the other the next morning. Thankfully, both were negative.

How pathetic is it that it was so hard for Abby to do the right thing?  Vaccine stroll-outs, endless queues for PCR tests, long waits in isolation for results, and everyone for themselves in search of RAT tests so they don’t spread the virus to others — all because the government hasn’t ordered enough. 

What kind of a way is this to manage a pandemic? 

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Good Morning, Princess

Here I am again, writing about Silver Princess trees. As  I wrote in a November post, it was the changing Silver Princess in our garden in Perth that taught me about the seasons in Australia. And, uncannily, it was a Silver Princess on the mug the Town of Cambridge gave me at my Australian citizenship ceremony — we were all given bone china mugs with a native flower on it and mine was a Silver princess.

What I didn’t say then was that I somehow managed to put a crack in that beautiful mug. Simon knew how much it broke my heart and tried his best to mend it at the time. In the end, we kept it on display but unfortunately could never drink from it again. 

He’s always known how much that mug meant to me and this year he did something about it. He tells me it wasn’t easy, searching to find another — they don’t make them anymore and I’m not even sure Australian Fine China is still in existence.

But Simon found one, on ebay no less, and presented it to me for Christmas. It was the same exact one, minus the Town of Cambridge insignia on the inside. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It’s been difficult to bring myself to use it for fear of breaking it, but I’m determined not “save it for best” so Simon’s bringing me my tea in it every morning.

I’ve already got one sitting on a shelf, haven’t I?

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OK, this is embarrassing, but the image above is of my sun glass case. I don’t know where I got it — maybe from our store of glass cases that came along with new glasses — but clearly I have got to replace it. As you can see, the vinyl top layer has rubbed off in so many places, it looks like a map of all the continents and islands of some other planet. My phone case (pictured below) is begging to be put out of its misery.

I’ve got a bunch of things that need replacing or replenishing. In some cases, I haven’t done it because of lockdowns and the inability or disinclination to go shopping. In others, I have nothing to blame but inertia. 

My knickers and bras are another case of things that need to be new-ified. I’ve lost 16 kilos (35 pounds)  and my knickers and bras are testimony to that fact. It’s true that some of them are just too old in the first place, so old that they have, as my father-in-law would put it, lost their nature — become baggy and thinned out. But in addition, they are now simply too big.

Our towels are in such bad shape that it’s demoralising to dry myself. They’ve been falling apart for some time and now have gaping holes in them which we hide by hanging them so the holes don’t show. At one point, we were just tolerating the disintegration for no discernible reason. It’s certainly not because we can’t afford new ones. Post-renovation of the bathroom, we’re putting it off until we decide on a “colour scheme.”  But now it’s ridiculous. 

I said in last week’s post that I don’t make new year’s resolutions and then proceeded to describe what amounts to one. Here’s another: If something is falling apart, replace it.

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The “Too Hard Basket”

It’s a bit of an obvious topic for a blog post, but we’ve begun a new year – 2022. I’ve more or less given up making actual new year’s resolutions, but the convenient fiction of a new year does present itself as an opportunity to start fresh. 

This year I’d like to put fewer things in my “too-hard basket.” You know how there are the items in the in-tray and those in the out-tray? Well there are also the items that you put in the too-hard basket. I’m not talking about the tasks that you just need more information for, more time to complete or those you genuinely have to schedule to do another day. 

I’m talking about the tasks that you don’t take on because they appear insurmountable.  “It’s too much!” “It’ll take too long!” “I’ll never finish it!” “It’ll be unbearable!” Unfortunately, they are usually necessary tasks or you wouldn’t put them in the too-hard basket, you’d put them in the circular file, on the floor next to the desk.

But the word appear is key because often when I get to doing the task, it  isn’t nearly as hard as I thought it would be. It’s as if I look at the task in one of those funhouse mirrors – an overall concave one that distorts it so it’s large and looms over me, while I see myself in one that makes me look small. 

I have this friend who also can get overwhelmed by tasks and we help each other break them down into small, more doable chunks. The author SARK writes in one of her books about tackling this problem. She says she was completely overwhelmed by the prospect of organising her wardrobe so she broke the task down into baby steps, the first one of which was to open the doors of her wardrobe, look inside and close them. 

So I’ll text Jony one tiny step I’m going to take on a task that seems colossal and she texts some encouraging words accompanied by emojis of fireworks, cakes and thumbs up. Next thing I know, not only  have I taken that step, but the next and the next.  The trick is that if I thought I had to tackle all those steps, I wouldn’t even have approached them.

I also have a husband who does not seem to get overwhelmed and just gets on with the task at hand — it seems to come easily to him. His fun house mirror is convex, making the task look smaller. Or maybe it just reflects it at its actual size. 

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I suffer from Fear of Missing Out. It’s manifested historically on a large scale with fear of committing to certain career trajectories — if I chose to pursue psychology then I wasn’t pursing politics. If I chose law then I wasn’t pursuing writing or anthropology. And what about sociology,  health education, music and acting — all interests at one point or another?

Of course, that’s thinking of it all wrong. Psychologists can go into forensics, anthropologists can go into native title — indigenous land rights — and lawyers can write books. These are just a few examples of how choices are not black and white, all or nothing. And of course not everything has to be a career. What about amateur theatre?

It’s FOMO again when I’m at a restaurant. I stare at the menu, carefully studying all the options. Should I have the pasta? It’s true I can have it at home, but not with the yummy sauce promised here. Maybe I’d rather have the steak since I always cook vegetarian at home in consideration of my husband’s preference to eat food “without parents.”   Ultimately, I make a choice of course. But my husband teases me that I always change my mind at the last minute when the waiter arrives to take my order.

 But most recently, FOMO has come up during our holidays. We went camping recently with a few other families at a beautiful location at the junction of Tidal River and the Bass Strait. One of the families had a gazebo over several tables around which we would all congregate for meals. At just about any time of day, there would be people chatting there over cups of tea and glasses of wine. And some people were going to the beach.

I would confront the choice: do I hang out here with friends, including some I seldom see? Do I go to the beach? Or do I recede and read? I can always read at home, I say to myself. I can’t always swim in the refreshing water or take advantage of the relaxed gathering. 

But the thing is, I don’t read when I’m home. Or not much anyway. I crave it and often get myself into bed early enough to do it, but even then I’m too tired to be settling into the book.  The problem is that I treat reading as a privilege, something I earn, rather than something essential for my sanity and intelligence, so I leave it for last. When I’m away, and take the opportunity, I can get absorbed in the rich world someone else has painted for my benefit, and emerge refreshed, almost as if I’d been swimming. 

One of the friends we were camping with does not suffer from FOMO.  First of all, she reads while she’s doing everything else. I’ve seen her read from her Kindle, resting on her counter while preparing dinner, between turns in a board game and has a waterproof case for her Kindle so she can read in the shower.

But more to the point, she simply takes herself away to read, seemingly confident that she’ll be getting precisely what she needs at the time. Likewise, we’re staying with some friends at the moment and their son and his girlfriend spent hours ensconced in their books while the rest of us talked and watched the cricket. No conflict there.The trick for me is to make the choice — whichever because there’s no right or wrong one — and be engrossed in whatever I’m doing at the moment, without looking over my shoulder. Maybe I can experience the pleasure of making a choice — the Joy of Missing Out — a goal for 2022.

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Second Time Lucky

I reported earlier this week about five days we’d just spent on the glorious Wilson’s Promontory at the southmost point of mainland Australia. Tomorrow we’re heading off for a second holiday, this time to spend a week with friends at their beach house on the south coast of New South Wales. We tried the same thing almost exactly a year ago — drove seven hours from Melbourne to Canberra to spend New Years Eve with them at their usual home then all go to the beach house.

 And these are not just any old friends. Simon and Karen go back more than 30 years, Karen and I 20, and equally importantly, Abby and Karen’s kids Terence and Emma go back almost that far, back to when Terence had a wicked temper, Abby threw tantrums and Emma was a whinger. They have all outgrown those demons. Emma and Abby are essentially besties now, catching up regularly over Zoom and Terence is a lovely and intelligent young man. 

So we’ll be celebrating with people we consider to be family. 

Assuming everything goes to plan. Last year, it most certainly did not.  We were so happy to be there with them, looking forward to a leisurely few days. But the next afternoon, we heard the news that Victoria (the state in which Melbourne is capitol) was going into lockdown and we would be barred indefinitely from returning home if we arrived later than 11:59 pm on New Year’s day.  Abby and Emma got to go to a New Years Eve party but the next morning we hightailed it back home. The news was full of stories of seven hour queues of cars at the Victorian border so Simon, rather cleverly, identified what we were sure would be a less popular entry point. Though the route there took us longer and over dirt roads, we had no wait at all at the border. 

One year later, we’re trying again, this time to celebrate Christmas and stay all the way through New Year. We’re hoping that it’s second time lucky.

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A Comfortable Number

We’ve just returned home from five nights at Wilson’s Promontory, the southern most point on mainland Australia — it’s Wilson’s Prom, then south to Tasmania, next stop Antarctica. Simon, Abby and I headed to “the Prom” for the second year in a row with three other families who have made it their summer camping destination for many years. 

This is a campsite with hundreds of tents and caravans sitting side by side in rows. The caravans are something to see with their slide out kitchens, built-in toilets and showers, and awnings for tables, chairs and barbecues. 

We’ve camped at much more remote sites, such as Millstream amidst the gorges of Western Australia’s Pilbara, with no facilities beyond a pit toilet. Beautiful and peaceful at the side of a river, not far from a dry Aboriginal community, this is the kind of place you go to if you seek serenity. 

But Tidal River campground has an entirely different appeal.  It’s a social setting where you can smell each other’s smells — the grilling meat from the communal barbecue, or the odd spliff  — and hear each other’s sounds — someone setting up their tent, kids bickering about who’s doing the washing up, and other children on their bicycles headed for an ice cream at the sparsely stocked general store. In the toilet blocks you encounter phones being charged, teenage girls applying mascara and other women taking way too long in the showers. We set up our tent and kitchen to the sounds of the fellow playing 60’s songs on the guitar in front of his tent. We awoke in the wee hours to the sound of a wombat helping herself to our Vitawheat crackers.

Of course I don’t enjoy all the noises. For one thing, I didn’t like being awakened in the middle of the night by a screaming baby. I couldn’t believe how long the crying went on and got my knickers in a knot about how rude the parents were to be practising controlled crying at a community campsite. When it happened the second night I got up the nerve to go over to the tent and ask them to please settle their baby. “I can’t,” the mum said. “It’s night terrors.” I remember all too well the hours when Abby cried uncontrollably with the terrors and how helpless I was in the face of them. All I could do was to wish the mum luck.

I certainly didn’t like the sound of the all-too-ernest folk music the woman was blasting a few tents down the way.  Not the kind of music you think of someone blasting, yet blasting it she was. We didn’t like it so much that Simon approached her to please either turn it down or to at least turn her speakers inward. “I was playing it so that I didn’t have to listen to your  obnoxious conversation,” she said, “but I didn’t want to be antagonistic.” Really?

Back when we lived in Perth, we were part of a group called the Western Australian Family Bushwalkers. We used to go camping four times a year with several families, all cook dinner together, go on bushwalks (“hikes” American English) and organise Easter egg hunts for the kids. In between, we’d sit around the campfire over cups of tea or glasses of wine. For a quiet interlude, I’d hide in the tent for a read or a nap and Suzy would take some time to paint native plants.

But camping like this is kind of like living in an apartment building. I now live in a house in an inner city suburb and miss the proximity of people where I could walk out of my apartment and meet the musician from upstairs in the elevator or push open the door to the building and run into my first boyfriend.

I learned from a psychologist that there’s a term (which I can’t recall) for the number of people you are most comfortable with. Maybe you grew up in a large family and are comfortable around the busyness. It could easily work the opposite way so now you prefer solitude or just a few close friends. Alternatively, maybe you’re an only child always seeking the society of others or the converse, enjoying your own company best.

Although I soaked up the serenity of Millstream, I thrive with more people and activity. Not the kind of camping everyone would enjoy but for me it’s a great mix of a neighbourhood and the outdoors.

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