On not driving: a few thoughts on fear and courage

When Bill was in his 30s, a train locomotive slammed into the rail trolley he was working on. He had the presence of mind to lean forward, out of the direct path of the engine, but he ended up with internal injuries and fractured ribs, a back injury that took time to heal. Somehow he recovered from it. Miraculously, his back hasn’t bothered him since.

But now his legs give way from time to time, like when he’s standing at the sink doing dishes. The doctors say there’s nothing that can be done. It’s his back, and Bill’s 89, and it can’t be fixed. He says it’s not painful, but I can see it’s getting him down. For one thing, he can’t dance any more. And there’s the not-knowing when it will happen again.

Bill mows and rakes the leaves off the nature strip all up and down our street. He does it, just because, as a kind of a service to the street. I’ve never known anyone else who took on such a thing.

‘Top o’ the morning to you, Treasure!’

Our paths cross almost daily, as I head down to the shops, check for mail at the post office box, and he is out there with the rotary mower or the rake. Most days, in this colder weather, he wears a vivid blue jumper and black track pants with a white stripe down the outside of each leg. His hair is pure white, his eyebrows jaunty.

* * *

A few days ago Bill began talking about the importance of having a car. I can’t remember how we got onto it. He said he’d known a number of women who’d relied on their husbands to drive and were left helpless, stranded, when their husbands died. I said I had a licence but didn’t drive – had never been a regular driver. He said that one day, when I grew up, I should do something about that.

‘Bill,’ I said, without rancour, just to set the record straight. ‘I’m 47.’

He said right back, without apology, ‘I wouldn’t have guessed that.’

He offered to drive me anywhere if I needed it.

* * *

From Bill’s perspective, I probably don’t seem very grown up. It’s not just the way I look. He knows I’m single again, and that I’m an apartment-dweller, and I’ve told him enough that he’d have surmised I’m a renter, not an owner. So I’m unmarried and unmortgaged, and because I’m clearly not heading off to work every day, and not accompanied by children, he must also have surmised that my life is relatively free of what most people consider to be normal adult responsibilities. And perhaps that translates into the idea that I don’t have them and never have had them. Not true, but on the other hand, I can understand why it would look like that.

As for the matter of the car – I’ve never had one – not wishing for the expense, even when my income was, shall we say, considerably better than it is at present. I’ve also felt I was making a positive choice, environmentally speaking. Doing without a car is a viable option when you live in a city with good public transport, as long as you are reasonably mobile – especially if you can manage to live in an area that offers almost everything you need close by. I live five minutes from the shops; two minutes from a beach. Having a car under these circumstances does not seem like a necessity; it seems more like luxury.

The thing is, too, I love walking: the slower pace of it – being outside – how getting out there engages all my senses – how good it feels to do it – how much better I feel when I do it regularly. I fear what having a car would do to my life. The thought of replacing walking with driving around in a box makes me feel claustrophobic. Although, of course, it doesn’t have to be like that.

But there’s this, too: I don’t believe the shape of my life has to be the same as anyone else’s. I have resisted the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle pressure to have a car; to treat it as a fundamental rite of passage. Maybe it’s just a thin branch thrown down across the quagmire of (my own) conformity.

My father said more than once that having a car would change my life. He was right, I am sure; but in the end, there have always been other things that mattered more.

* * *

Once I tracked down a woman who’d been a friend in primary school. In her spare time, she raced Porsches; Boxters were a favourite. She said she’d seen a photo of one in a magazine when she was in her teens, and decided that was for her, thank you very much. She stuck the photo up on her bedroom wall. She’d earned enough to buy her first Porsche by the time she was in her early 20s.

We didn’t have too much in common – the fact that I didn’t drive at all was a bit of a kicker – and we soon parted ways again. But I think, sometimes, of her determination, and what surely must have been courage.

In my former friend, I think I may even have detected a streak of ruthlessness.

* * *

Of all the road trips I did with my father in the American West, there is one that reverberates in my memory in a way quite different to the others: Glacier National Park in Montana, just south of the Canadian border. I remember the window of the car wide open as we drove through the woods, me sitting up on my knees in the passenger seat with my face out in the damp rushing air, breathing it in, the fragrance of deep wet earth and green. The absolute ecstasy of it.

* * *

There is a sense of being confined without a car. My world seems very small at times; I’ve seen enough of it to have a sense of what I’m missing. I have to ask myself: is there another reason for not getting a car; for not driving?

In my heart of hearts, I have to admit it: there is fear.

I’m terrified of the major roads in my city – the sometimes enormous and complex intersections; the confusing spaghetti of options in some of the newer areas where even experienced drivers can find themselves tearing out chunks of hair as they go shooting off down the wrong road. The signage is not always all it could be.

There is also the complicated fear of negotiating the buying of a car … finding, without unduly calling attention to my small size, a car in which I can feel comfortable; in which I am able to see properly out the windows in all directions without sitting on pillows; in which I am able to go for longer drives without developing an aching back from stretching and craning to control a vehicle that is in all crucial ways just a little too large for me. And how to sort this out while navigating sales pitches and all the rest of it … and to somehow do all this when I have not ever been a regular driver, so that merely getting in a car and turning the key feels unfamiliar, highly deliberate and thought-filled. Driving has never been second nature to me.

Intellectually, I’ve half tackled the problems already. Plenty of cars now have highly adjustable driver’s seats, and features well suited to a smaller person, like a lower dashboard. There are services where they do your car shopping for you, too. Plus, I can get a few driving lessons to build my confidence. So that all sounds good.

But then, I imagine I’ve got the car and it’s all sorted: there I’ll be, out on the road. Exposed. My mind fills with images of terrible accidents; bodies mashed, torn apart.

How does everyone else who drives overcome this terror? I’m full of admiration for anyone who just gets out there and does it.

Until I grapple with this, I know I will not truly have taken full responsibility for my life. I will have let fear overcome the practical desirability of being able to drive – and the desire, I must admit it, to be able to move more freely in a wider world.

* * *

But there’s a conundrum there.

What if my fear is helping me: helping me to live by my principles, in relation to not having a car? In other words, providing the emotional underpinning to the living-out of my ideals? And shouldn’t I be guided by those, first and foremost?

But the fear – my consciousness of it – is a sign that I have yet to genuinely and whole-heartedly make the decision: whether to re-commit to not driving; or whether to commit to re-learning how to, and to getting a car. At least trying it.

What of the environment, living life my own way, etc., etc.?

I can see that driving might allow me to be more effective in the world, and to enact other ideals that matter to me: like being useful to others; like knowing and experiencing this country for myself; like being willing to change, to try things another way.

I don’t have to betray my ideals. I just need to find another way to live them.

* * *

Facing fear … deciding … committing … and tenaciously, ferociously, trying and trying again for the things that matter.

* * *

Bill has lent me the book his three daughters prepared for his 80th birthday, celebrating his life. He says bashfully that it might be a bit on the rosy side, but I want to see it.

After I look through it, I wonder about the nature of courage. It’s clear Bill has it. He encourages and emboldens others, like the new ones who’ve come to be part of the Thursday dances which he MCs. He keeps his family gathered close, without suffocating them.

In the book, several people who attend the dances write of that thing Bill does at the end, when they’re all gathered round in a circle singing ‘Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye.’

How he cries ‘Can’t hear you!’, drawing even the shy ones out, into the light.

* * *

I can’t help feeling that Bill divined in me, not so much a person young and irresponsible, since I’m anything but, but a person who has not quite tackled all the fears that have shaped and limited her life.

He’s right. I still have some growing up to do.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

The Human Hovel Monument, or … Why do I bother hiking?

I don’t know what it is with me. I can take a perfectly good experience and turn it into … something else.

It could be that I’m a little hard of hearing. Or that, as a writer friend once remarked to me with a biting sort of affection, ‘You live in your head.’ (Yes, a writer friend said this to me. Did she mean I live in my head even more than other writer people?)

Maybe it’s something to do with the fact that, at a management conference for work a few years ago, we did an exercise on styles of conflict management which involved physically moving to the quadrant in the room assigned to our preferred style, and I ended up in a corner all by myself, the only deep green with a touch of blue (red was a last resort). All the other managers, moving confidently and en masse to their corners, tended towards blue or red with touches of green.

Maybe I just mooch around on the sea bottom just a bit too much of the time.

* * *

Whatever the case, there I was two days ago, on my first hike in six years, in a group of about sixteen, half an hour or so in, when I began to hear mutterings up ahead that sounded like ‘human hovel’. And then I heard ‘monument’ tacked on there somewhere. What the hell?

I couldn’t help picturing what awaited us at the Monument to a Human Hovel: a ruin, enshrined, of a small, lean-to shack, dishes still undone after 154 years, yard an absolute disgrace, and an actual decrepit human draped over a dingy sofa on the front porch …

At last we arrive, taggle-wise, and gather around an obelisk made of rocks, with an almost illegible plaque stuck on the front. Highish. I can just make out, peering up at it from near the back of the group, the names ‘Hume’ and then ‘Hovell’. A-ha – the famous Australian explorer Hume after whom the Hume Highway was named. And Hovell, after whom … I will check that later, I think, trudging after the disappearing group.

Not long after, we stop for morning tea by some actual ruins. (The Cumberland ruins, if you’re actually looking at a map … but how can you be? I haven’t told you where we are yet. It’s coming.) I give the tumbling bluestone walls behind the fence a cursory glance, then find a spot on a low-hanging branch in the sun to eat my banana. As I turn to zip open my backpack, a rabbit dashes out from underneath the bushy end of the branch, skitters off across the grass.

About ten minutes later, as we begin on that part of the walk that stretches from morning tea to lunch, our leader points left towards the grass and says ‘Rabbit.’

Squinting across the yellowish, waving expanse but not spotting anything but grass and a tree, I say, ‘Might be my rabbit.’

‘I think a fox might have got it,’ she says.

* * *

What I hate about hiking:

  • blisters
  • aching back from lugging water, thermos, morning tea, lunch, raincoat in case it rains even though it won’t this time, whistle, money, phone, map with pen in plastic sleeve just in case, all the clothes I’ve shed on the way, and that’s not even half the things I’m supposed to have in there according to the list (crap, I forgot to pack Band-Aids)
  • peeing under/behind trees (how do other women do it? I’ve never dared ask)
  • when there are no trees to pee under/behind
  • not drinking enough because I don’t want to have to pee too often
  • drinking anyway and having to pee and not being able to.

But if there’s one thing that absolutely gives me the screaming irrits, it’s the sound of someone’s hiking pole tick-tick-ticking on the trail right behind me. That, or getting a hiking pole in my eye.

* * *

At one point, a very experienced member of the group does a double take when she sees that I have unzipped the bottoms of my walking pants and am now walking in shorts.

‘I see you’ve gone legless,’ she says, amused about something. Huge, ancient hiking boots? Baggy shorts? Skinny legs?

‘At least no alcohol was involved,’ I shoot right back.

* * *

Speaking of being a bit deaf. Someone kindly speaks to me at one point, only he does it from behind me and from a reasonable height, so I really just get ‘Mrbbrrbng mbrrrss’. Somehow I detect from the sound quality it is actually directed at me. (Amazing how you can do that.)

I turn and ask him to repeat.

‘They’re living legends,’ he says, nodding across the fields at the racehorses in their enclosure. I know they are racehorses, because of the conversation in the car on the way to the meeting point. Within the parkland is a place, the place in Australia, where champion racehorses are brought to live out their retirement. Also, they look pretty racehorsey.

‘Mmm,’ I say, brimming with interesting information.

‘Living Legends’ is what he meant. With Capitals. Of course. Doriemus lives here somewhere. Saintly. Fields of Omagh … On the drive in, J. said that groups of school children are sometimes brought here so that they can draw them.

* * *

One thing I can’t fail to hear are the planes passing overhead on their way into, and out of, Tullamarine airport. It’s a little surreal, walking through bushland, troops of kangaroos visible and watching us through the trees, while jets heave in and out of view, quite close.

We all continue to go about our business – the hikers hiking, the kangaroos lounging and watching, the planeloads of people heading to wherever they’re heading. For a moment we’re all aware of each other except, perhaps, the people in the planes.

On the way back to the city after the walk, we pass the aircraft viewing area, where there are quite a few people gathered, mostly standing beside their cars and looking up in the direction of the main flight paths. I’d never noticed them before, though I’ve flown in and out of the airport often enough.

They instantly remind me of the people who gather in the parking lot near Uluru to catch it in its best light, either at sunrise or sunset. They fill in the time sipping champagne.

* * *

We don’t see any Eastern Barred Bandicoots, though we pass through a number of gates in fences designed to protect their habitat. The fact that we don’t see them makes sense, because they’re nocturnal. Also, what kind of shy, furry, endangered animal worth its salt would be sitting around waiting for a herd of humans to pay it a visit?

We see some birds. But not many. Magpies. Crows (little ravens, actually). Sulphur-crested cockatoos. Rainbow lorikeets. Fairy wrens. Something I think is a hawk but might be a falcon or an eagle.

I read later there are a lot of bird species to be seen at the park, if you know what you’re doing. (Here’s a site with lots of photographs of birds from some people who knew what they were doing.)

People have stopped to look off to the side of the path where a small black-and-white bird with a coy dance is twitching from branch to branch. I hear someone say something about robins. I throw in my two cents as I trudge past, not thinking, because by that time the blisters and backache have well and truly kicked in (or so I tell myself comfortingly later), ‘That’s a willy wagtail, isn’t it?’

It comes out of my mouth sounding mildly scornful.

Let’s see now. What could be the quickest, most effective way to really get up the noses of a bunch of people I have only just met?

Later, when I find out more about the park (see above link to the Birding Lovers site), I discover there are five species of robin to be seen In the Woodlands Historic Park. In fact, the park is ‘famous’ for them.

* * *

We stop for lunch on Gellibrand Hill, which is flattish on top and planted with a radar tower. We gaze back at Melbourne, from whence we’ve fled only that morning.

Tops of hills are fairly traditional for hiking lunch stops. You can understand why. They’re the reward for going up hills. Not only is there the view, but there might not even be any more going-up of hills after lunch, even though you could actually probably manage it after lunch and a decent pee.

Though that can be a problem, on a hill, if there aren’t a lot of trees. And in this case, once the cleared, sloping group hit undergrowth and trees, there is a fence. All the way around.

Individuals can be seen skulking off in a southerly direction … Because we’re on a hill, they can actually be seen quite easily.

The trick is to determine, without staring, whether they are engaged in scoping out a decent, obviously private, stand of trees, or whether they are genuinely striking out on their own to check out the second set of actual ruins: the Dundonald ruins, which consist of a stone stable and a patch of ground with some wooden stakes in it, still vertical, where the homestead and gardens once were.

Obviously if it is the former situation, if they’re scoping, it is not kosher to be following them; whereas if it is the latter, it is OK, in fact it is quite pleasantly sociable, once you’ve finished your cheese and chutney sandwiches, to tag along for a bit of ruin-gawking.

I manage to kill two birds with one stone: I find my particular spot in the trees, speedily unkit (only partially, of course), dangle from a branch for a moment like a hapless chimpanzee, rekit, and manage to then tag along behind someone else (correctly identified as a view hunter) to see the ruins.

Thank my granny’s knickers, I am going to be able to make it through the afternoon.

Just as well, too, as our fearless leader announces that the afternoon walk will be a little longer than she’s anticipated.

* * *

Did we notice the carefully cultivated Aboriginal burial ground we passed, or that we might have passed, on the way back? J. asks us later, on the drive back to Melbourne. I did not.

The rest of the walk passes in an achy blur. Me unaware that the sunscreen I slathered on at about six in the morning is no longer doing its job.

* * *

Afternoon tea, when we finally reach the end of the walk and stagger back to the cars, then to the toilets and across to the picnic benches, is a feast. Every single person has brought enough to share with every other person; everyone except me has seemingly erred on the generous side in their interpretation of ‘Bring something small to share for afternoon tea.’ My pathetic block of luxury chocolate remains unopened and untouched, as homebaked muffins are passed around.

* * *

On the way home, I manage to clearly and unequivocally mix up the names of the driver and her friend of thirty years, the second passenger, both of whom have single-syllable names beginning with ‘J.’, which I had instantly and irreversibly managed to join together in my mind as ‘J. and J.’

* * *

On reflection, the question isn’t really ‘Why do I bother hiking?’ It is: Is there is anyone left in Sunday’s group who could bear to be on a walk with that new person, the self-absorbed twerp who never seems to properly listen to anyone else?

Once I crawl out from under this rock, I might sign up for the next one – under a pseudonym, though, I think.

Say … Em Barr-East? Or Kip N. Kwyett? Or perhaps, in hope, Betton X. Thyme.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

A feeling of sympathy

Consuela's eyeMy cat has eyelashes. Or close enough to, with that fringe of fur over her eyes. With her eyes downcast, reflective, behind them, how can I not see a person there?

And if I were to contemplate, for a moment, that it might not, on any level, be a person I see in Consuela’s eyes, how then to explain how she could be so adept at reading the person in mine?

* * *

Among other things, Consuela can get me to:

  • get up (stretches up against the closed blinds, making them bang and clatter; stomps across the doona and me; meows)
  • let her outside (leads me to door, or sits in front of it; stretches up and taps me on the shoulder if I’m sitting down; meows)
  • let her inside (bangs on screen door or jumps up onto windowsill; meows)
  • top up her food bowl (leads me to, or looks meaningfully at, bowl; rubs against cupboard where food is stored – or fridge, if she’s hoping for tuna; meows)
  • switch on the cold water just the right amount in the bathroom sink so that she can take a drink (leads me into bathroom; or sometimes just sits on closed toilet seat … for ten minutes if necessary)
  • play with her (looks at me with wide eyes, goes rigid, then whips out of sight to scrabble madly up and down the hallway, from kitchen to living room, including up and over the back of the futon couch – yes, I still have one of those – like it’s a large musical instrument – scritch, plink, plunk; leads me to, or attacks, the scratching post; meows)
  • take her onto my lap (gets a fuzzy look on her face; just gets right on up there – why not?).

She, in return:

  • respects my sleep for most of the night
  • doesn’t jump up on tables and counters
  • doesn’t shred stuff (… mostly)
  • doesn’t leave me any nasty surprises
  • only stares a little bit when I talk to myself
  • is affectionate and trusting.

In almost every one of our interactions, she is looking up into my eyes. It’s true, she seems attuned to the tone of my voice as well, and to the particular significance of at least some of the sounds that I make (i.e. ‘ … nibbles?’). We ‘talk’ a lot: i.e. I say something, she responds with a meow of appropriate vigour and tone, depending on what she wants. She also pays attention to my physical movements, at least the ones that might affect her (opening the back door to the garden; settling down in a chair; packing a suitcase). What, then, does she get from looking into my eyes that she cannot get from my voice, body language and actions alone?

If there’s one thing that drives her crazy, it’s when I sit and watch television for a prolonged period. She sits a little way from my feet and looks up at me, refusing to budge, as I blob on the couch. Where have I gone? She instantly relaxes when I look down and pay proper attention to her. Phew! I’m back. Perhaps she finds the long, unbroken stare towards that noisy box behind her head strange and unnerving. What on earth am I doing?

When I hold her on my lap, sometimes she gazes steadily up into my eyes … just gazes … and purrs.

Right now it’s cold. There are always two chairs at my desk: one for me, and one for her. She’s standing on her chair now, tapping on my shoulder with one paw, looking up into my face. She wants to get onto my lap. But there isn’t quite room enough for her here – I have to say ‘no’.

She’s a gentle cat, but a few times she has batted me on the cheek – a bit too close to an eye – when she and I were face-to-face like this. Wha–??? It was my glasses – and especially it seemed to be my new glasses, which have slightly thicker frames and stronger lenses. When I take the glasses off, or even just lift them away from my eyes as I look back at her, the subtle pre-strike tension in her face and body melts away.

When my glasses are on, does she see enlarged and aggressive eyes, potentially harmful intent, despite our close relationship? It’s obvious that she is gauging how I’m responding to her – not just that I’m looking at her.

And that when my eyes disappear in the creases of a smile, all is right between us. The same as when she gazes up at me and purrs.

* * *

According to Josh Knobe, an experimental philosopher at Yale, the results of a recent study he has conducted with George Newman and Paul Bloom suggest that people tend, not only to believe in a true self, but to ‘think that the true self is whichever part of you is morally good’. That is, whichever part those people think is morally good.

Am I doing something similar with Consuela? Do I think of her as a ‘person’ – a creature like myself with a ‘true self’ – because she behaves in a way that I see, not only as reflective of my own behaviour in many ways, e.g. in the way her meows often mirror my speech, but as ‘good’?

While we’re at it: how ‘morally good’ is an animal likely to be? A cat like Consuela?

And what might connect her moral qualities to mine?

* * *

I doubt Consuela has a sense of right and wrong. But she does have a sense of something being bad. For example, with scratching on the carpet, which is forbidden but I’m afraid often repeated. Even when I go to turn around glowering in my chair to cry out ‘Consuela!’ she will usually stop the moment my chair starts to swivel, crouching over the offending bit of carpet, eyes wide. But sometimes she won’t stop, and keeps going, flattening her ears and, it almost seems, clenching her teeth while she bloody well does it anyway. She seems like a very young child breaking out and doing that thing she was told absolutely not to do.

* * *

The biological basis of morality is currently a matter of intense debate – although we have by no means only just started thinking about it.

In the Descent of Man, published in 1871, Charles Darwin wrote:

The social instincts, which no doubt were acquired by man, as by the lower animals, for the good of the community, will from the first have given him some wish to aid his fellows, and some feeling of sympathy.

Morality has long been seen as the domain of religion and of philosophy. Current books on the evolution of morality frequently refer back to the ideas of philosophers such as David Hume, as well as to variants of the Golden Rule – e.g. Rabbi Hillel’s ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour’.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’ is also often quoted – usually to indicate that science today generally challenges such a notion, of a fundamentally cruel world.*

These days, scientists across numerous disciplines, including psychology, primatology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology, are also looking closely at the development of human morality. In fact, there is a new, blended, field having specifically to do with morality: moral cognition.

Moral Tribes coverJoshua Greene, in Moral Tribes (2013), reiterates the idea that morality evolved to enable ‘otherwise selfish individuals’ to cooperate. Cooperation evolved because it ‘confers a survival advantage’. (It wouldn’t have evolved if it didn’t.) And he says: ‘The essence of morality is altruism, unselfishness, a willingness to pay a personal cost to benefit others.’

(None of this is new. He builds on these ideas to explore the foundational idea of his book, that we – humanity – need to work towards developing a metamorality that transcends ‘tribal’ differences and localised moralities.)

Franz de Waal, in a paper published in Evolved Morality (Behaviour 151, 2014), considers the way that many animals exhibit a de facto (if not necessarily conscious) standard of behaviour in their social interactions. Evolved Morality coverHe documents how our close relatives, chimpanzees, display elements of moral behaviour, e.g. by actively pursuing courses of action that reduce conflict and competition, and that produce harmony in their relationships. He also speaks of ‘impulse control’, particularly in relation to social inhibitions, having ‘paved the way for human morality’.

In a quite different take on the evolution of human morality, Patricia S. Churchland, also in Evolved Morality, sees mammalian care for offspring as one of several key developments. She says, ‘…the mammalian brain had to be organized to do something completely new: take care of others in much the way she takes care of herself.’ The mother not only seeks to keep her babies ‘warm, fed and safe’; she takes pleasure in it, just as her babies take pleasure in being looked after. In fact, they take pleasure in being together, and feel pain at being separated, to the extent that the mother may feel pain when her baby is in need, has fallen out of a nest, etc. Churchland seems to be suggesting that this was the origin of the development of empathy as well.

She lists ‘learning local practices and the ways of others’; ‘recognition of others’ psychological states’ and ‘problem-solving in a social context’ as the other key capacities, not unique to humans, on which morality depends.

* * *

Back, then, to the question, ‘How morally good is Consuela?’ Nevermind ‘good’, for the moment: does Consuela display moral qualities at all?

Revisiting Patricia Churchland’s list of key capacities for moral development with Consuela in mind, it would be difficult, first of all, to go past the fundamental idea of mammalian care of offspring, and the way close mammalian relationships are defined by care given over a sustained period.

Consuela seeks to be close to me, welcomes me home, often follows me from room to room. Even when all her other needs are met, such as food, water, play and warmth, there seems to be something beyond that – interaction? companionship? – that matters to her.

Though she may not be consciously doing this for my benefit, to positively care for me, her behaviour nevertheless does benefit me. It gives me comfort, joy, pleasure, affirmation of being. As a result, I am extra gentle and loving with her.

True, not all cats are like this: she happens to be a sociable cat, adept at reading and fitting in with human ways. But this is also a facet of moral behaviour, Churchland suggests, this ability to ‘learn local practices and the ways of others’. Consuela and I have routines and agreements, really a whole suite of human ‘ways’ into which she fits herself. Likewise, I do my best to respond to her requirements as a cat.

In her ‘reading and fitting in’ behaviour Consuela is also, to a degree, recognising ‘others’ psychological states’ – perhaps not always correctly (as when she swats my face when my glasses disturb her) – but nevertheless, she is, on some level, reading me, or attempting to.

The final key capacity that Churchland lists is ‘problem-solving in a social context’. I may not have a handle on just what Churchland means here, but it seems to me that Consuela’s figuring out how to get me to do all the things that she wants from me – per my list at the beginning of this post – displays a reasonable degree of problem-solving. I mean, stretching up against the blinds so they clatter and clank, to get me up in the morning? That’s problem-solving. She’s doing just what she needs to to achieve the desired result, but nothing more costly (as whipping me across the face with her claws would be).

* * *

Can I say that Consuela is morally good, or at least that she displays the foundations of good moral behaviour? Yes, I think I can, at least as far as you can say this about a being who does not, as far as we know, consciously and positively decide to be one way or another; who does not consciously and positively consider the well-being of others. But she does not harm me or others, and she tends towards behaviour I consider good. And so: morally good she seems to me.

* * *

As for what connects Consuela’s moral qualities to mine: it seems that she and I engage on a social level – her cat ways intersecting with my human ways. And somewhere in that place where our ways intersect, moral behaviours seem to be operating, at least on the most basic level.

* * *

With her eyes downcast, reflective … how can I not see a person there?


* Interestingly, the lines ‘’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all’ come from the same poem, In Memoriam A.H.H., which Tennyson wrote as a requiem to his friend Arthur Henry Hallam.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

The line starts here

I’m at Hobart airport, lining up at gate 4 (Jetstar) to board a flight back to Melbourne. I am the first person in the right-hand queue. We haven’t actually started boarding yet. After a few minutes, something makes me turn around to look at what’s going on behind me. I discover that I am alone in my own line: no one has lined up behind me. The other line stretches out of sight around a food island.

Does no one else realise that there is a boarding pass scanner on the right as well as on the left, and that when boarding passengers, the airline staff always operate both at once? Or does everyone who has lined up behind the first person in the left-hand queue think I am with someone, and not standing in line, as it were, on my own behalf? Or what, exactly? Why would people line up behind the person to my left, and not line up behind me? People usually form two lines at this gate. I can see no external clues to help me answer this mystery. There was no announcement, that I heard, directing us to line up on the left. Is the answer, therefore, something to do with me?

Here are a few ideas that enter my head.

I’m small.

I’m wearing a backpack.

I’m female.

I’m ­­_? (Other?)

I’m small.

Yes, I’m small, very small, teeny tiny Vietnamese lady small, so it is easy for strangers to think I’m younger than I am, especially at a glance, and especially if they are seeing me from behind. Beyond that first instant, people usually see and hear enough of me to rapidly add a few decades to their first estimate (I see the years clicking away in their eyes like a toy cash register), and to reassess how they should be interacting with me.

The people who’re in line, they haven’t seen my face. They might well think I’m standing there next to someone in the first line; that perhaps I’m someone’s child.

Still, it beats me why not one of them figures out they can form a second line themselves, behind me – and get on the plane sooner!

I’m wearing a backpack.

The wearing, by adults, of backpacks, like hoodies, can create distrust. In the case of the hoodie (sweatshirt with hood), the suspicion usually starts when the hood is worn over the head. Is the wearer hiding something? Deliberately, and rather irritatingly, trying to look ‘badass’? But even simply the wearing of casual clothes like hoodies and trackpants, especially by adults, can create unease in certain settings, such as shops and, yes, the airport, unless the clothing is clearly upmarket and in style.

Likewise, backpacks, unless they can clearly be linked to an undertaking like study or backpacking around the world – on second thoughts, often because they can be linked to such undertakings – create unease in a way that handbags, manbags, and pretty much all the other bags that people carry or roll on board with them, don’t. In reality, backpacks can’t be classified that easily, and hence they suggest … unpredictability.

In my case, I find a backpack is the best way to transport my laptop and personal and important papers. I like to leave my hands free, and find it more comfortable to have the weight on my back than on either side of my body.

The people in the left-hand line – do they see the backpack and think, without even realising they’re doing it – ‘Not sure how to read this person. Not sure what she’s up to’ – ?

I’m female.

An older female.

Been trampled on recently? I have.

It wasn’t serious. I was on a train, in a crowd, in the process of getting off. The young woman with the earphones, as far as it was possible to do to a person who was vertical, walked over me, right through my space, brushing hard against me as if I was not there. I’m pretty sure it was deliberate, that I had somehow got up her nose, but I can’t be sure.

I received this recently in a letter from a friend who lives in Massachusetts:

… I’ve reached the age where women become invisible in our American culture. It’s not just sexually invisible, it’s actually invisible. It’s really weird. People walk into me on the sidewalk, people cut me off with their grocery carts, with their cars. (I swear, I’m not making this up!)

My friend and I are the same age.

I know that suggesting that age could have anything to do with what happened at the airport seems to be completely counter to my idea that my small size makes many people, at first glance, mistake me for a child.

But could both things be happening? You look at me, for a moment you see child; you look at me again (something makes you look a bit more closely), you see greying hair and a few creases around the eyes, a sober expression, you see ageing woman. Perhaps there’s that weird feeling of having been tricked by appearances?

But that kind of experience could only happen to someone who is standing close to me, so this – being an older female – can’t be the explanation for why no one has lined up behind me.

I’m ­­_? (Other?)

But what if I were a really glamorous-looking female, or even just a normal-looking woman – that is, someone you could (you felt) categorise – a woman with two children – a woman with flowing, bright clothes who looked as though she ran her own retail business – an older woman standing beside a man who appeared to be her husband, and both retired –?

What do I look like to others? Do we ever know that? I don’t, I feel, quite fit into any particular category. And without a person accompanying me to tell you where I fit in a family or a partner relationship, without wearing clothing that clearly shouts out what I do or at least what I want you to believe that I do – without those sorts of signs, and without knowing me at all, you might see me either as an interesting enigma or as an unsettling riddle. If you were to give me any thought at all, that is.


Perhaps it’s something else, that relates to all of these, but isn’t precisely to do with any of them: something to do with authority.

Perhaps, at first glance, people feel I lack the authority that indicates ‘The line starts here’. I mean, if I were Idris Elba … there’s a physical presence if ever there was one … would there be no line on the right? People would have flocked to the right.

For most of us, seeing authority invested in the wrong person can be as offensive as it would be to see, say, our ordinary-looking next-door neighbours cast as the leads in the next big blockbuster romance. It would probably feel not just weird, but wrong. We might feel disgust and even contempt. (Imagine the sex! No, yikes, don’t imagine it!) Damn it, we don’t want to have to look at it. We won’t go to that movie. We won’t participate.

And by this I don’t mean that that wrong person necessarily has to look different in any way, although looks play their part – often quite a big part, as most of us have realised. It might simply be that we feel they are not deserving of, or not suited to, the authority invested in them. I feel this way about certain politicians.

My chagrin at encountering situations where I am not granted the authority I feel entitled to, in my person, based on my conception of my self worth and life experience, and the way I conduct myself, is very real. I’m not talking about job promotions here. I’m talking about day-to-day interactions. Being fully visible to others. Being listened to and taken seriously. That kind of authority. I expect to have it, and am really taken aback when I discover I don’t.

I think that’s why this experience at the airport has stuck with me, even though at the time I just raised my eyebrows and emitted a small puff of incredulity.

But of course, I make these kinds of mistakes, too; I judge and misjudge others in an instant. We all do. Giving every single person we encounter our time and most careful consideration is just not something any of us can do, unless we encounter very few people indeed.

Still – I would have lined up behind me. So that’s something.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

Going grey

I’ve never heard anyone, man or woman, talk about the greying of their hair in a way that expresses how I feel about my own ‘going grey’.

The usual comments I hear are from younger women announcing that – OMG – they’d just found their first grey hair. Downward slope, etc., etc.

For sure, there are many fears that go along with turning grey. Fear of growing old. Fear of looking old. Fear of being treated old.*

There is the fear that, if the grey is not disguised in some way, a woman may be seen as being ‘past it’ – with all that suggests about lack of energy, productivity, etc.

There is the fear that, if she doesn’t disguise the greying of her hair, she’ll be seen as not ‘making an effort’ to look her best. That her self-respect is slipping, and that perhaps she no longer regards herself as quite as interesting/desirable/worthy.

Tracey Spicer is an Australian ABC TV presenter who decided it was time, prompted by questions from her seven-year-old daughter about why women wear make-up and men don’t, to try doing things differently. She started by cutting back her make-up to a ‘bare minimum’; doing without spray tans, hair treatments and serums; cutting back on blow-dries and dye jobs; no longer shaving her armpits, and contemplating the same for her legs. Despite all this, she continued to dye her hair, saying, ‘Sadly, I don’t have the confidence to tackle that one yet.’

This from a public figure who had the courage not only to effect all the other changes within her professional (not just private) life, but to do a TEDx talk on the topic which involved her wiping off her make-up, spritzing her hair to encourage it to jump back to its natural frizz, kicking off her high heels, and peeling off her dress to reveal a plain tank top and shorts beneath. This woman is brave.

Even for her, though, going with hair au naturel is too difficult, too charged. At least for now.

* * *

As for myself: watching the number of silvery, wiry, hairs increase, I actually feel – curiosity. It’s similar to the feeling I had when I was going through adolescence. Who was I becoming? What was I going to look like? Except that I am much better prepared for this second adolescence – happier with myself generally, and more resilient. Which is just as well, because this ageing thing is just going to keep on unfolding, for as long as I’ve got.

There’s another aspect to how I feel, which I can really only describe as relief.

To be taken for someone younger, especially someone much younger, is to be stripped of experience and authority, and denied agency; it is to be perceived in a way that denies who you are today.

Just to get my point across: would it be flattering to Barack Obama if someone (who otherwise had no idea who he was – just humour me here) mistook him for a high school student? No, it would not. His silvering hair and often tired eyes are part of a persona that is immensely dignified, not only by of his role on the world stage but by his strengths and achievements as an individual.

To lose a couple of decades (or more) of my life in the measure of someone’s quick assessment can feel as though the risks I’ve taken, the fears I’ve overcome, the lessons I’ve learned and the things I’ve achieved have been erased. Of course the feeling flickers up for only a moment, but it does not feel good. The experience is not flattering, regardless of what the other person may have been thinking.

Damn it, I want what I am to be visible on the outside. Bring on the grey hair, I say.

You might challenge me that it’s how we feel about ourselves on the inside that really matters. But the reality is, my journey and my is-ness as a person really gain their meaning through my interactions with others – not only with the really important others in my life, but also with strangers. An inner mantra of ‘I am this’ is never enough.

I know that the fragile moment of first (mis-)impression might or might not have a chance to be overwritten by the reality of who I actually am.

To seek to be seen as someone younger (and, arguably, more sexualised), may seem a worthwhile gamble, if it attracts potential partners, or if it attracts the approval of anyone I need to please, including a potential boss; but if the message I radiate in this endeavour is that I am focused on being desirable and pleasing, a natural consequence of this may be that I will find myself being taken less seriously. After all, I am giving away power in the process: I am handing over judgment and choice to another person.

As an older woman, surely judgment and choice are the very things I ought to be hanging onto and consolidating?

Of course, the bind that women face is that they feel (often correctly) they will be taken less seriously, or simply rendered ‘invisible’, if they don’t present themselves in a highly gendered manner (bright and shiny hair, high heels, painted nails, etc.) that either highlights their youth or gives the impression of youthfulness.

So we need to find the right moment for ourselves to go grey and, having done so, we shouldn’t feel like Rapunzel’s hideous witch-mother (thank you, Meryl Streep), responsible for locking away youth and beauty.

We should be able to say to ourselves, actually, I am less concerned now about trying to please, and I don’t mind if that’s the impression I make with my grey hair. I’m damned if I’ll jump through hoops to conform to a particular look, and my crazy, unpredictable, silvery hairs might as well tell others that right up.

Love the grey, I say. Love it.

* See Melanie Joosten’s The Right to be Old and Invisible Women for sensitive and rigorous coverage of this topic.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

The Station Agent

The Station AgentYesterday, as noted, I watched The Station Agent (2003), directed by Tom McCarthy, in which Peter Dinklage plays the role of Finbar McBride.

Several weeks after his friend, boss and fellow train aficionado Henry dies, Fin learns that Henry has left him an old train depot in the Newfoundland area of New Jersey. Recognising an opportunity to claim the solitude and self-defined life he craves, Fin moves into his new house, only to find himself being drawn irresistibly into the lives of others – in particular Olivia, who is struggling to come to terms with the death of her son two years before and the break-up of her marriage; and Joe, who, beneath his unstoppable desire for conversation and fellowship, appears to be quietly harbouring his own struggles with his father’s illness and growing dependence on him.

It becomes apparent that Fin’s desire for distance from others is a response, at least in part, to his experiences as a man who happens to be a dwarf. (He also happens to be an introvert who is not, at the start of the movie, in the habit of looking beyond his own direct interests and comforts. Not that you can blame him.) Although The Station Agent is firmly centred on the rich interactions between Fin, Olivia and Joe and, to a lesser degree, Emily (the librarian) and Cleo (a local schoolgirl), it is also laced with closely observed moments in which Fin is stared at, mocked, overlooked, questioned and doubted – and just plain treated differently – because of his dwarfism.

In fact, the film is a brilliant, living and breathing expression of many of the kinds of experiences described in the chapter ‘Dwarfs’ in Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree.

For example: Fin is waiting up at the store counter to pay for his basket of groceries. Although the sound the basket makes as it meets the counter is perfectly audible, it isn’t until the other guy at the counter says something that the woman behind the cash register turns around. The man gestures towards Fin, who was there first. ‘Sorry,’ she says, turning herself towards Fin ever so slightly and staring down at him. ‘I didn’t see you.’

Two acquaintances of Joe’s friends roar up to his lunch wagon in their 4 x 4 – uncomplicated guys who just want a good time. They spot Fin leaving his house and heading off on his customary walk along the train track. Hilarious! ‘Da plane! Da plane!’ one of them calls out, to Joe’s acute discomfort, mimicking the dwarf Tattoo from the opening sequence of the TV series Fantasy Island. ‘Fuckin’ Mini Me,’ responds the other. And on it goes, until they’re back in the truck and on their way.

At Cleo’s passionate insistence, Fin finally overcomes his reluctance and goes along to speak to her class. One of the boys in the class, knowing full well what he’s doing, smirkingly asks, ‘How tall are you?’, before he is hauled out of the classroom by the teacher.

Joe’s intrusive questions about Fin’s sex life typify a huge curiosity about the dwarf experience, but in a way that is (possibly?) more male-oriented. And at one point, walking behind Fin, Joe dusts something off his shoulders – a gesture it is difficult to imagine him performing with any other male apart from, say, a little brother.

Some moments are so subtle it is hard to put your finger on exactly what is happening. When Fin overhears the owner of Good to Go taking a delivery order over the phone from Olivia, and offers to take the groceries to Olivia himself, his offer is met with distrust. ‘You’re going to have to pay for it, you know, before you leave the store,’ the store owner warns him. As if being shorter renders him less responsible or trustworthy.

But there are beautifully rendered moments that toy with our expectations as well. The lead-up to the classroom scene and the early moments in the classroom have us thinking that Fin will be forced to stand there in front of the class and answer questions about being a dwarf. In fact it’s not immediately clear, until he begins to speak, that Cleo has actually asked him along to talk about trains. But then Fin – and we – are thrown when the discussion unexpectedly turns from trains – about which everyone else except Cleo couldn’t give a toss – to blimps. (And yes, we should have given that young girl more credit.)

There’s also a scene where Joe, as he dishes up a delicious meal for Fin and Olivia, says to Fin: ‘So, do you people have clubs?’ There’s an awful silence in which we are poised, with Fin and Olivia, thinking He can’t actually have said that, can he? Before he continues – ‘You know, like, “Train of the month”.’


Fin (Peter Dinklage), Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) and Joe (Bobby Cannavale)

The more I think about the film, the more nuanced it seems. The way Olivia, Joe and Fin hardly touch on their troubles in their conversations with each other. The long, awkward silences and missed moments that convey as much as anything can of what they are each going through. Olivia opens up to some extent with Fin, but neither Joe nor Olivia has any idea about the night in the pub when Fin has finally had enough. Fin and Olivia also seem oblivious to what is going on with Joe. His apparent neediness is a shared source of amusement, when Fin jokes (very uncharacteristically) to Olivia that he moved to the area to be close to Joe.

In fact, I think The Station Agent is, as much as anything, about how relationship with others – friendship in particular – can give you a kind of freedom from your personal prison, no matter what that prison may be.

Joe, still young, stuck for who-knows-how-long in a tiny community that has little to offer him, is straining desperately to find something beyond the restrictive role of carer for his father, who seems (although we only ever ‘see’ him through Jo’s end of their telephone conversations, and Joe’s comments) to be otherwise on his own. It is not so surprising that a walk along the train track with Fin, as ‘boring’ as it might seem on the surface, represents a kind of joy and liberation that Joe might not otherwise have experienced.

Likewise, Olivia is trapped in her prison of grief; and Fin in the dual prison of his own solitary nature and the way that so many others insist on seeing him.

It isn’t that the friends understand each other perfectly or see each other in an ideal light, or that they can solve each other’s problems. Even the sensitive Olivia cannot hide, in a moment of extreme distress, that she somehow sees Fin as a child-man; a man who might see her as ‘mother’. But the fact that they are present for each other and have an unthought-out, genuine need for each other’s company, offers them each a means to something better, something beyond the confines of what they are in themselves.

Fin is not a perfect person. For his own sake and others, he could do relationship a lot better, for a start: taking more responsibility for initiating interactions, and being more aware of what’s going on with others. Though one could argue this is fundamentally not in his character, he clearly undergoes a change in the course of the film as he starts to care more about the others and to see into their suffering.

But there’s a lot that happens to him that is simply beyond his control; and the same could be said of what is going on with the other characters. Thankfully, the film manages to delicately balance what can be changed, and what cannot, ending on a note of very real acceptance and hope.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015


A couple of days ago I read the chapter ‘Dwarfs’ in Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree. I had meant to just finish the chapter on the Deaf that evening, and to then move on to something else, but I found myself thinking I should really read ‘my’ chapter without further delay. So I did.

This was not what I had expected to happen. I hadn’t bought the book with the idea that any chapter in it was ‘my’ chapter. I bought it because of its exploration of attitudes towards difference.

I knew there would be things in this chapter that would cross over with my experience, but it shocked me, the degree to which the experiences described were familiar. Not exactly the same, and not as severe, but still, terribly familiar. The idea that small stature is somehow in and of itself hilarious to some people really stands out.

My major was in Theatre, with a focus on acting. For a while, I had the pleasing experience of being approached by people who wanted to compliment me on my acting ability and stage presence instead of to comment on my small stature. I didn’t ever imagine I’d be cast in ingénue roles, but I did see a future in which I could play a variety of roles where my size was not the key reason for the casting choice. I was devastated when the supervisor for my major said that, with my abilities, I could look forward to playing the type of roles that Linda Hunt was cast in.

Now she is no mean role model, and she had by that time earned her Academy Award for her role as Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously (the only role I had seen her in). But I didn’t see myself as belonging to some sort of short-person category of human, dwarf or otherwise. Nor had I picked her as my role model; in fact I hadn’t picked any role models. I was me. The idea that I would be defined, professionally, as a short person and confined, because of this, to playing people with small, quirky physicality had never before entered my head.

I know it says something about my own mentality at the time that that’s how I processed my supervisor’s comment (not for a moment, for example, considering what other roles Linda Hunt might have played other than Billy Kwan, who happens to be a dwarf); but I also think the comment did present certain ideas about my physicality and prospects which were limiting. They were not what I wanted to hear from my supervisor.

I had another experience in which I was being coached by a director in the physical aspects of playing comedy. I got the message that with my height I could expect to be cast in comedic roles a lot in my career. I remember a nightmare rehearsal, being pushed to make huge, exaggerated expressions; to open my mouth wide like a clown. It’s not that I felt stupid, though I did; it’s that I felt I was being asked to betray my innermost self.

For the record, it’s not that I hated doing funny stuff. I loved the challenge of playing five roles in Dario Fo’s We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay! for the same director. The joy of it. But I didn’t want physical comedy – funny walks, silly voices – to become my life.

By the time I finished college, despite my chosen major, I had turned fully to visual art, where I could keep my mouth shut and work alone, where I could be as subtle and inward as I liked, and where being funny was irrelevant.

* * *

So today I spent some time looking up Linda Hunt to see how she’s got on.

Here is how a recent CBS interview with her begins: ‘She’s hard to see on set sometimes – lost amid the chaos of a busy day of shooting. But once the camera finds Linda Hunt – she nearly always steals the scene.’ (When the camera does weave its way to her, she’s wearing a bright yellow suit. So hard to spot.)

And it goes on: ‘At 67 – and just 4 feet 9 inches tall – Hunt spends her days surrounded by actors who are half her age, and almost twice her height.’ The jokiness, the way she is contrasted with everyone else, pretty much sums up the substance of the whole interview. And the title? ‘Linda Hunt: A towering talent.’ Hilarious. Whatever her credentials, and her starring role as Hetty Lange in NCIS: Los Angeles, Hunt herself hasn’t managed to escape, after decades in her career, the focus on her height, her difference.

I kept going …

Once upon a time, I was a stand-in for a child actor in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, Last Action Hero. I don’t appear in the movie. I was just required to literally stand in for a child actor so lights and cameras could be focused and set up appropriately. As several other small-statured adults and I clustered in a New York café, all waiting for our big moment (pun not intended), one of them happened to say how great the Little People of America meetings were and that we all ought to go along.

OK, so, I’m not a joiner at the best of times.

The fact of even being in a café with a small group of small-statured adults, basically because we were all small-statured and happened to have training as actors (not that that was actually relevant), was weird. I’d come to New York from my job in Massachusetts, just for the weekend, because I was not going to turn down the opportunity to be paid to participate in the shooting of a movie, especially not in New York, and it didn’t hurt that Arnie was in it, even if I’m not a fan. (I did get a glimpse. A slip of unexpectedly red hair moving past, over the top of what was suddenly a wall of people. That’s it.)

The idea of attending a convention of also-tiny people was, frankly, dreadful. But I’m finally starting to get it. I’m not sure if it will change my feeling about joining stuff, but I understand better now how shared life difference might be related to like mind, on which I place so much value.

As a woman named Ginny expressed it In Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree, ‘When I met my husband, there was something that we had in common that was more than a physical attribute; it was a life experience.’

I took a look at the Little People of America website, read some articles … and then, cat on lap … treated myself to a movie: The Station Agent, with Peter Dinklage …

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015