raleigh bike.pgI was given my first bike when I was eight years old. It was shiny and black and a source of endless delight – not to mention unrivaled freedom.  It had no gears or hand brakes, but as I didn’t know any better, neither of these were an issue. What it did have was rather nifty mudguards (soon removed for convenience and speed) and simple back-pedal (or coaster) brakes that were dead easy to use. That little Raleigh bike was my most beloved possession from the very first day, despite crashing headfirst into a hedge down the road on my initial solo attempt at riding it!

From thereon out I had any number of adventures, big and small, wherever my wheels could take me. One of the more dramatic of these adventures started out very low key. My friend Felicity and I were about 10 years old at the time and, unlike many of the youth of today, we were assumed to be both capable and independent. Parents weren’t informed of our movements, we just trotted off on our merry way. As long as we were back by dinnertime and there was no obvious damage to explain, we were left to our own devices. In this instance we had planned a trip to the local shopping centre to hunt for Christmas gifts. It was a distance of about 2.5km and we knew from experience that this took about 30 minutes on foot, about 10 minutes by trolley bus, or about 12 minutes by bicycle. Ever the staunch Scot, I opted to save the bus fare and rode my bike up the (very steep!) hill to meet Felicity as she hopped off the bus.

Some time later, after purchasing what knickknacks our pocket money could afford and enjoying an iced confection in the park, we headed for home – Felicity hanging out the back of the trolley bus and me in hot pursuit on my trusty bike. I’d grown quite a bit in the couple of years I’d had the bike and it had become a little worn in that time. My brothers had taught me to fix punctures and how to put the chain back on when it inevitably came off, but they still did the tricky things like adjusting the seat height since this involved enough physical strength to tighten the nuts and bolts. Or so I’d always assumed…

As I careered down the hill in hot pursuit of the trolley bus, laughing like crazy and taking the sorts of risks that ten year olds do, it never occurred to me that anything could go wrong. Not until the trolley bus stopped a little sooner than I expected and, when I tried to slam the brakes on by back pedaling desperately, my feet came off the pedals!  The seat had tilted back rather dramatically as I applied emergency pressure on the brakes and it was pretty obvious that the saddle was, in fact, not properly secured. I was left clutching the handlebars, my behind only centimetres from the back wheel, my legs akimbo to avoid the chain and the wheels.

coasterbrakeNow, the thing you need to know about back-pedal brakes is that pushing back on the pedals forces a set of brake pads to expand inside the hub on the back wheel. Friction then slows the wheel down very efficiently. The downside is that your feet actually have to be on the pedals for this to work – and there’s no backup plan if they’re not. My feet were nowhere near the pedals at this point, having slipped off when the saddle tipped backwards and tried to deposit me on the rapidly rotating back wheel. All I had was precarious balance and a grip of death on the handlebars.

Felicity’s face told me that she fully expected me to slam into the back of the bus at any moment and, considering the rate at which I was bearing down on it, this seemed extremely likely. Immediate evasive action was called for and instinct took over. I swerved out from behind the bus – narrowly missing both it and the on coming station wagon, then swerved back onto my side of the road just as the bus started off again. All this time I was trying desperately (and unsuccessfully) to haul myself back onto or over the saddle so that I could get my feet back on the pedals.

I whizzed down the steepest part of the hill and into the long sweeping curve towards the intersection, hoping with every part of me that the traffic lights would be in my favour and that there would be no oncoming traffic. My luck held, the road started to level out, and my speed dropped enough for me to risk the rapid dismount. I leapt clear of my bike whilst keeping hold of the handlebars and running alongside it. It was, after all, my treasure!

We careered to a halt, narrowly missing being clipped by the bus as it trundled past, and fell into an inelegant and only slightly grazed pile right near the bus stop. Felicity made a flying exit from back  of the still-moving bus and rushed to my assistance. Between us we managed to drag my bike to the verge, and then collapsed in a heap, laughing and whooping with the joy of being alive and being 10 years old and invulnerable. There being no actual damage, the parents were never the wiser – but I closely supervised any maintenance of my bike done by others after that!

Bicycles have been part of my landscape since that very first machine. I’ve had racing bikes, mountain bikes, a BMX bike, static exercise bikes and a hybrid bike. They’ve varied in colour from black to pink; silver to blue – but all (except the static bikes) have provided me with unsurpassed levels of independence, adventure and enjoyment. I still ride whenever I can – and every time I see someone else on a bike – whatever their age or gender, whether they’re wearing cutoffs or lycra, barefoot or in expensive cycle shoes – I smile. Rock on, riders, be free!


On a borrowed racing bike, 1975

Dogs have been part of our household landscape for as long as I can remember, from my faithful childhood hound (Gypsy) to our current puppy many years later. At various times we’ve shared our home with a range of Heinz-57s (mixed-breed dogs), a Border Collie (briefly), a Welsh Springer Spaniel, Labradors, German Shepherds – and now have a young Doberman. I’ve spent years dog wrangling: from feeding, grooming, exercising and training to planning holidays around their needs. None of these things has been particularly arduous – indeed most of it’s actually fun, but it’s an ongoing commitment. In a blogpost last year I introduced you to Miss Molly, the most recent addition to the family. Seven months on, she continues to take great delight in showing me in various an assorted ways (every day) that a Doberman poses a few challenges I’ve not encountered with our other dogs.

Until MissM joined the family, I firmly believed that dogs should sleep in their own beds, ideally in the laundry or kitchen. I still believe that… but it turns out that my bed is super comfortable and my pillows especially so. Indeed, if my head happens to be on my pillow… well… heads are apparently pretty comfortable too. It turns out that Dobermans are very people focused. What this means is they don’t much like being on their own. In fact the closer they are to you, the happier they seem to be. If you stand still for more than a few seconds you end up with a large lump of dog leaning against the back of your legs. You move, she moves – and leans. I’ve discovered that the all-time favourite Doberman zone appears to be a lap – pretty much any lap, really. MissM fitted in mine quite comfortably when she was 12 weeks old and she got the idea that this was a thing.


A lap dog right from the beginning

At 10 months she’s quite a lot bigger and ends up draping herself across me when I sit at my computer, which definitely doesn’t work for me – although she seems perfectly happy with the arrangement if that’s all that’s available. This up-close-and-personal attribute of Dobes has been both my biggest challenge (not what I’m used to in a dog) and surprisingly enjoyable and companionable.

MissM’s big chest, sleek head, strong legs and narrow waist (not to mention rather pointy claws) make her a very elegant looking dog. This is misleading, as she’s actually all paws, legs, claws and very wet tongue – and is keen to share all of them. Doberman pups are happy, friendly, waggy-tailed and will do anything for food – and for attention. They are jumping dogs – both on and up. Ours jumps to my (not insignificant) shoulder height with all four feet off the ground when she’s excited. She’s very excitable…

Dobes are also stubborn, wilful, tend to be mouthy (and by this I mean both barky and chewy) and need firm, consistent behaviour modification. This means grabbing the pup gently but firmly by the shoulders or collar when they transgress and telling them NO in a deep, firm voice. Every time they transgress. They learn fast, but will push your limits until they’ve figured out that they won’t win that particular little battle. Reinforcing the NO with eye contact helps, but it takes consistent (and exhausting) repetition on some fronts.

In MissM’s case, we have two particular challenges. One is her tendency to jump up on us (and visitors) and the other that she grabs our hands in her mouth. In a small pup this may seem cute(ish), but in a big dog it’s no fun at all and needs to be nipped in the bud – or as soon as plausible. Despite all suggestions from friends and family on this front, Dobermans really don’t respond well to physical punishment, such as a rolled up newspaper swat to the bottom, and are particularly mood sensitive to their owners.

Boxes make good chew toys – and you can nap in them too!

So, to solve the jumping issue, we’re getting her to SIT before being greeted or patted by anyone. In a matter of days we saw an improvement – although training some visitors is almost as challenging as training MissM! With regards to the ‘mouthing’, we’re trying object replacement. When she grabs at hands, first comes the NO, then offering a replacement – an appropriate chewable item – and placing it in her mouth if necessary. When she chews on the toy instead of the hand, she gets praised immediately. If she tries chewing hands again – then it’s rinse-and-repeat: more of the NO – more of the replace with a toy, etc. Repetition and consistency really are the keys to success, along with patience. Bucket loads of patience…

What I don’t get is how this breed got such a scary reputation. They’re definitely super protective – and a stiff-legged, deep-chested baying bark resounds around the neighbourhood every (every!) time anyone walks past the house. Actually, car doors shutting, the chickens scrabbling in the hutch and a wide range of other sounds also initiate a Hound of the Baskervilles response. Loud? Definitely. Scary? Well, I’ve an idea that popular culture has a lot to do with these perceptions.

Having said that, I’d say that taking your Doberman (or any puppy, really) to training should be mandatory. If nothing else, it trains the owner/handler in how to manage themselves, which makes it easier for the dog to be compliant. Eventually.


With September nearly over and summer on the way, kite-flying season is well and truly here. Spring days in Perth tend to trend towards being reasonably dry and sunny, yet also moderately breezy – perfect weather for kite fans, however inexperienced, to have some fun.

Back in the day my younger brother and I used to get stuck in and build traditional diamond shaped kites every year, utilising dowel sticks, crepe paper, newspaper, string and glue. In the end we probably spent a great deal more time building the kites than we ever did flying them, but it was all part of the fun. The trick was to have a long enough tail and to be prepared to run around like crazy until lift-off was achieved. Then it was a matter of seeing who’s kite stayed up the longest, went the highest and crashed most spectacularly.

kiteFrom that basic diamond shape we moved on to box kites, but these proved to be a great deal more challenging and less rewarding overall and were soon abandoned. The next iteration of kite manufacturing was hexagon-shaped kites, which worked remarkably well. By that stage we’d learned quite a lot about making each unit as light as possible and had started to cut up large garbage bags for the kite skins, in preference to the very heavy crepe paper we’d used in the past. Tissue paper made a brief showing, but generally proved to be far too flimsy. We’d also learned about adjusting the position of the tow point and bridle lines to make the kites fly most effectively – and with less running!

In due course we each had children of our own and they in turn wanted to make kites and fly them. So it was back to the drawing board, followed by construction and yet more running around with kites – and handlers – of variable skill levels. For a while each year brought with it slight innovations in kite design and effectiveness. Then came a foray into the world of commercial kites – including delta kites, power kites and fighting kites, each of which probably cost more than all the kites previously made by any one – or perhaps all – of us.

Although these all provided much entertainment, there remains that urge to actually make a kite from scratch, to glue and tie and decorate and then fly something that you’ve made yourself. As it turns out there’s a birthday coming up soon, so next weekend we’re having a kite day (weather permitting) to celebrate. With luck lots of kite-hopefuls will come along with kites they’ve made or bought and send them soaring up over the river. Those who arrive without kites will have the opportunity to make mini ones on the spot (from kits provided) and send them out to dance on the breeze too. Hurrah!

Books and stories seem to have always been part of my mental landscape. I’ve spent countless hours immersed in story worlds of adventure/mystery/action/history and can’t actually remember a pre-reading stage. I do remember being read stories by my parents well past when I was already in primary school, however. It was just one of those things we did as a family – my brother and I would sit or lie around of an evening whilst Mum/Dad read us a chapter from The Jungle Book or some other favourite tale. They would do all the voices of the characters and it was like our own personal radio play right there in the lounge room.Hippo with bird

Perhaps being read and told stories in this way as a child is what embedded the lure of story worlds in my psyche, making it such an intrinsic part of who I am. This connection resulted in books being read by me anywhere and everywhere. I’ve read in, on and – at times – under my bed, on the couch, on the floor, up a tree, in cars, trains, buses and aeroplanes, at bus stops and train stops, on an inflatable lilo, in a canoe, walking to and from school, in doctors/dentists/other surgeries, in hospital, at parties, on picnics, in a tent by lamp light, at the beach, and whilst knitting and eating (although not simultaneously).

I confess that this reading habit has resulted in a few awkward moments over the years. I’ve stumbled over kerbs and almost gone sprawling in a heap, missed my bus stop and had to bus back,  had library books confiscated by annoyed maths/science/biology/French teachers – and then had to find ways to ransom them back in order not to face paying library fines, glanced up to find people staring at me – waiting for an answer to a question I’ve completely blanked. I’ve missed meals, missed trains, lost hours – but gained so much more.

It was a logical extension of of all this to take to reading in the pool. In summer I use our backyard pool to do an hour of exercises most days. This involves 30 minutes of walking up and down (and reading) in the water, followed by 30 minutes of an aquarobics programme. Reading relieves the tedium of doing the exercises, makes the time pass surprisingly quickly and gives my arm muscles a minor workout holding the book clear of the water – it’s a win all round and a very effective use of my time.

As our pool is unheated – and not under cover – I use the local indoor pool in the winter months and have been doing so for about the past 10 years. But reading in the indoor pool inevitably generates a (surprisingly) large number of virtually identical comments from other pool users. Even though I try to avoid the comments by taking care not to make eye contact (after all, I’m reading and walking and in a pool – that’s quite enough, thank you!), there appears to be a compulsive need for people try to provoke some sort of response from me.

It doesn’t seem to matter what time of day I go or how crowded the pool is, it’s generally variations on the same theme: that must be a good book / what a good idea / how do you read at the same time as walk? / I don’t think I could do that /  goodness, when did they invent waterproof books? On average I get one question or comment per exercise session. That’s a lot of comments across 10 winters – from people who are seemingly endlessly entertained by the novelty of it all.

Funnily enough no-one commented during the period when I used an mp3 player to listen to audio books instead. Sadly my skill set wasn’t up to that level of technology for long, so peace was short-lived. I managed to kill the player by getting it wet, something I’ve never done to a book. I might stick to what I know and just start wearing a pair of  cheap earphones tucked into the spine of the book as props. 🙂