Zoë and her bunny

‘No, she’s not a groodle, or a cavoodle, she’s a standard poodle,’ I explain patiently as someone stops to enquire about Zoë’s breed. ‘I always thought poodles were small dogs,’ is the usual reply. I sigh, go into detail about the different poodle sizes and temperaments before concluding that the standards are the best poodles by far. They are.

I have had minis and even a rescue toy poodle. Except for one of the minis, none of the other dogs have come even close to the intelligence, elegance, and devotion of the standard. Zoë is not a lap dog nor is she particularly cuddly, but she is constantly by my side without getting under my feet. If I’m working in the kitchen, she leans into me. It is her way to claim me as her own. Her bark would deter most people from entering the house, but she is friendly with strangers, as long as I am relaxed in their presence. She is the perfect companion.

Zoë is well known around the village. People may not remember my name, but they know hers. If we stop at the corner store for milk, she is often rewarded with a piece of bacon from the proprietor. Children come and pat her and visiting tourists stop to have a chat. Zoë knows how to wheedle her way into most hearts.

One of her endearing qualities is her love of toy bunnies. Whenever I bring a new squeaky animal into the house, Zoë leaps with joy and plays for hours, biting obsessively until she finds the squeak she is looking for. We then play a game of fetch which will be repeated every morning until the squeak dies and it is time for a new bunny. She is like a young child at Christmas taking her toy to bed and protectively putting a paw over it. Her devotion to her bunny melts my heart.

A less endearing quality is her love of chasing real bunnies. Selective deafness is a well-honed skill and when she sees a rabbit, no amount of calling, cajoling, or yelling will stop her. She is off through the thick scrub but she ain’t never caught a rabbit…  What she does come back with is a coat full of burrs which take the best part of an afternoon to remove – one by one, tugging them loose from her woolly coat. Zoë is never sorry for her disobedience; she always returns with her tongue out, eyes sparkling and tail wagging. It is hard to stay annoyed with such a display of exultation.

You can see standard poodles are hardly lounge lizards. While they don’t need a huge amount of exercise, they do love a good run. They will chase balls, their favourite human, and of course other animals. I have seen Zoë keep up with kelpies and border collies at the dog park. There’s an elegance to her run, a regal poise, and a graceful stretch of the legs as she flies through the air, ears flapping behind her. Out on a field, she is cheeky and playful, bursting with energy and joie de vivre. Poodles are quintessentially effervescent party animals. They are a pure joy to watch when playing with other dogs.

I never have to worry about doggy smells in the house, nor are there any dog hairs to sweep. As poodles don’t shed, even people with allergies can safely own one. They are clean dogs but do require regular clipping. If you don’t, before long, they will resemble your favourite reggae singer without any of the musical talent. I don’t recommend home haircuts; dog clipping is much more complicated than you think. It is well worth the money to employ a groomer every six to eight weeks. Zoë isn’t ever coiffured to resemble topiary at Versailles. After a trim, she simply looks like a well-heeled, short haired dog.

I can’t imagine my life without Zoë. I never feel lonely with her in the house, and she motivates me to go for long walks which are good for us both. Zoë can read my mood and responds accordingly. I would go so far as to claim that she has more EQ than most people. I have often thought, she would make a great therapy dog. But then, I believe that every dog has the capacity to be a therapy dog. Zoë just happens to be mine.

Meditation upon my daughter

Sydney, 1996

I wrote this 26 years ago when my daughter, Ella was 9 weeks old. As her birthday approaches, I thought it a fitting tribute to her. It also is a fitting tribute to Thich Nhat Hanh, the revered Zen Buddhist monk, who passed away today, aged 95. I wrote this piece to read at the Lotus Bud Sangha in Sydney all those years ago.

There is nothing like having a little baby to look after to bring you back to the present. Her thoughts and actions are fixed in the present moment; this moment and this moment alone is all that matters. Show her a new object and she will delight in it, seeing it with a freshness we cannot conceive. Shot it to her the next day and the freshness remains – she is able to look at it as if for the first time, even the twentieth time. She delights in the small things in life. A breeze on her cheek can make her face light up and smile. It is a fleeting moment, but she enjoys it fully, unencumbered by ‘rational’ thought. She does not have to think ‘present moment, wonderful moment’ to meditate upon it. She does it automatically – without words, without thought coming between herself and the here and now.

She is not aware that she is a separate entity. The notion of ‘I’ and ‘me’ are alien to her. She is part of me and part of the rest of the world around her. She is part of space and knows no boundaries. Where she ‘stops’ and otherness ‘begins’ is something she will learn over a long period of time. At this moment, she truly ‘inter-is’. As she grows, she will have to learn other ways of seeing herself and the world. She will move from being a creature who fully feels connected with her surroundings to one who becomes increasingly egocentric. She will recognise familiar objects and no longer see them as if for the first time and she will develop a sense of a past and the knowledge of a future. Her ability to stay in the present will diminish accordingly. In the meantime, however, she is teaching me to look deeper at everything around me. As for my part, I hope someday to encourage her to see things with that same freshness she now takes for granted.

My daughter has taught me very quickly to be mindful of breath. In the past when I have tried the mindfulness of breathing meditation, I knew intellectually that breath equals life, but I never felt it the way I do now. My daughter was born limp and blue, her heartbeat the only sign of life. She was quickly suctioned and given oxygen. With that first breath her existence in the outside world started. Her life will go on as long as she keeps breathing. Is it any wonder that I regularly check her breath? I now see that meditating upon the breath is not simply a device to concentrate on something that is common to us all. Nor is it just a physiological phenomenon which can usefully be employed for relaxation. Meditating upon the breath is nothing short of meditating upon the sanctity of life itself. I now not only understand but feel why it is such a powerful meditation.

These past nine weeks have flown. Every day brings something brand new. While with adults we feel that there is a constant, that people ‘don’t change’ at least outwardly, with my daughter I realise that all of us grow and are forever changing. The baby I held in my arms three weeks ago isn’t the same baby I am holding now and yet clearly, she is! I am learning to enjoy paradox and I am learning to keep my mind open so that I can observe the world with the freshness she has brought into my life.

The ubiquity of Gifs

Gifs are a universal language that everyone understands. Who hasn’t sent a Gif to cheer up a friend or posted a funny reaction? With the click of a button, we can appear to engage with the world without any real effort.

There is no doubt that Gifs are wildly popular. A staggering seven billion Gifs are sent around the world daily. That is just under the estimated population of the world which currently stands at around 7.8 billion. Facebook, Instagram and text messages act as conduits through which Gifs jetset around the globe. As a product, Gifs are not short of a market.

The auto-play loop of a Gif is hypnotic. Perfectly sensible people watch cats walk backwards only to fall off cupboards. Repeatedly. I admit, there is something mesmerising about these images, but I fail to see how this recycled humour can be considered generative or funny once seen for the fiftieth time.

Gifs are said to enliven a message. There is nuance to a Gif that an emoji can’t capture. Popular culture is referenced in novel ways to get a message across. We can choose to raise a glass using the iconic scene from the Great Gatsby where Leonardo DiCaprio’s raises his Champagne glass. It allows us to be part of a mass experience while at the same time feeling as if the image represents us personally. Of course, Leonardo has nothing in common with our lives, but we can pretend to have some deep affinity with him by sending a drunken message to a friend at two in the morning.

Not everyone can be a master of repartee. It takes time and effort to come back with a witty remark or pun. A Gif eliminates this dilemma. Even a child can find an image that is apt and funny, even if hackneyed. This can be seen as a great leveller or even a democratisation of the conversation where everyone can take part. However, I wonder whether the conversation is worth having if all we do is regurgitate viral clichés.

There is a lot of cultural appropriation that goes on. Notice how many black faces there are in Gifs compared to other media. Is this a move towards equality or another form of subjugation? Black men are often portrayed as sex symbols or comic figures. Search for older women and you get the eccentric wrinkled faces wearing outlandish clothes. These women are not a celebration of age, instead they are used to ridicule. I am not comfortable with these portrayals; however benign they may seem.

Gifs are popular because they fit so easily into our frantic lifestyles. We can multitask, message several people at the same time as we work on a report. It just takes a click and we have sent a quick response. Easy, right? Yet we can waste precious time trawling for the perfect Gif.  Especially if there is something at stake. We want it to get to the heart of our message, to show exactly what we mean. I wonder whether our communication wouldn’t be clearer and more personal if we spent that time looking for the perfect word instead. After all, there are over 170,000 to choose from in the English language.

Diary Obsession

Each year, I spend countless hours hunting for the perfect diary, and for most of my adult life, each diary has disappointed. I’ve tried them all: A4 and palm sized, a page to a day and a week to an opening, dated and undated, horizontal and vertical, a page with notes, to-do lists, calls to make, and shopping lists. I’ve created my own using Day Timers, Debden and Filofax. I have ordered ridiculously expensive diaries from the States and Canada, and this year, I’ve gone Japanese with a Hobonichi diary.

I admire people who year in, year out, order the same page a day diary and find it adequate for their needs. For me, this diary has never worked. I need to keep my appointments apart from the many lists I inevitably keep. I don’t like my to-dos to morph into one large messy list which is visually overwhelming in a diary format. And I really can’t be bothered rewriting lists. The result is that I inevitably come up with a new system at the beginning of the year which I follow for no more than a month. If I am lucky. Then, the expensive diary sits on my desk, glaring at me for a year while I look back at it with remorse. I am finally relieved of feelings of inadequacy at the end of December, when I throw the thing in the bin and begin to scroll the internet rabbit warren for a new, improved model. In fact, the only diaries I have kept are from my twenties. Each year, I bought a Tasmanian Wilderness diary with Peter Dombrovskis’ sublime photos. I wrote down when essays were due and the odd appointment. That was all I needed.

Does this mean that I have been doomed to a life of disorganisation since my twenties? Well, no. Over the years I have found what works for me and what doesn’t. A single notebook or diary can’t do it all. The following is the best system I have been able to cobble together so far.

I carry with me a distinctive notebook where I keep a Master List of everything I want to get done. This is a random collection of things ranging from books I’d like to read through to reminders that the cat needs booster shots. Then, a small number of items from this list is transferred to my daily tasks.

At work, I use the calendar function in Outlook and that works well for appointments and time blocking for projects. I keep a paper to-do list each day and have experimented online with Trello which uses the Kanban flow principle (an interesting way to keep track of work if you would like to follow it up). At home, I have a daily to-do list which I cross off with a highlighter. I get the same satisfaction as crossing out items with a black texta but this way I can see what I have achieved. For appointments in 2022, I intend to use my small Hobonichi diary which fits into my handbag. I only ever use a pencil to jot down appointments as a change in plans is inevitable. This is a habit I have kept up for years, both for diaries and address books.

I am not saying this is the best way to do things. Far from it. All I can go on is what hasn’t worked in the past and what has. We are idiosyncratic creatures. What works for one person may or may not work for the next. And what works now, may not work later. In the end it is all trial and error until we find something that works – at least for a while.

I’ll let you know if the Hobonichi survives into February.

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