Grant Stone is an icon of WA science fiction fandom, an archivist, a renowned raconteur and one of my favourite people. Spending time with him is always good value and lunch this week was no exception.

As always, the conversation was peppered with fascinating titbits from Grant’s past and present, ranging from his early interest in botany to his later research into the cultural ecology of Barbie (dolls). This time the mix alsnik_1970o included some shared reminisces of our respective childhood years, in Johannesburg (RSA) and near Bunbury (WA).

The tales of Grant’s childhood and teenage years made them sound idyllic, a time of great freedom and adventure. I confess that by the time we parted I felt slightly regretful at not having grown up in WA, although my own childhood was not all that dissimilar.

Like Grant, I have a plethora of happy memories of racing around with friends (on and off bicycles), camping, climbing trees, collecting various things (stamps, plants, posters, etc.) and reading – so much reading. Quite simply, what’s not to love about all that?

Of course, just like everyone else, we also experienced sad, bad and boring times. But all those experiences were processed and allocated varying levels of importance in the time and context in which they took place. They became part of the complex memory-maze of our respective personal histories, which enables us to leave the sad/bad bits back in the past where they belong.

Shaping a coherent mental map that highlights the best in life is a way of being that can encompass all life experiences. One way to do this is try to be both participant and observer of your own life, to mindfully or self-reflexively create your history as you live it.

When I quit my day job I promised myself I’d use the ‘spare’ time creatively, that I’d do more things I enjoy and spend more time with people who’re important to me. In this way I’d be shaping a new part of my personal history as something I’ll both enjoy and want to remember.

Social interaction is a richly rewarding aspect of creating that history, but it takes planning and not insignificant amounts of mental energy. One week in, after catch-ups in all directions (including lunch with Grant, an Indie-rock concert and an elegant afternoon tea and lawn bowls with newly-married friends), my hermit tendencies have started to surface. The polite message they’re sending is that not all of this next chapter of my history needs to be shaped in the first week… who knew?  😛


Remaining mentally active and maintaining strong and varied social contacts provides a surprising number of significant health benefits. It helps to reduce the risk of Alzheimers, promotes a longer lifespan and reduces stress, anxiety and depression. I’ve been thinking about this for a while – in fact ever since retirement later this year became an objective. How will I fill the many hours I will (hypothetically) have spare? I have any number of art, craft and writing projects I can finally fall upon like a starving wolf, but most of those can and will be done in isolation in my art shed or study. A little voice in my head tells me that I’ll need more than this, so a couple of months ago I decided I should probably start focusing on the issue now make life more fun for future-me.

I already do some volunteering and have no immediate desire to expand on that, but joining a couple of new social groups sounded plausible. Having decided this, the sociologist in me immediately started to think about the layers of complex verbal and non-verbal cues that would need to be decoded. Whilst many of these are resolved at a subconscious level, social encounters – particularly with new people – require a fair bit of interpretation. There’s always extra information that needs to be processed in any given situation in order to function effectively. This can be exhausting,  but in my experience it can also be stimulating, interesting – even amusing.

Of course, existing groups have their own dynamics, shared history, in-jokes and group behaviours and, as often as not, don’t actively reach out to include outsiders.  They are, after all, already formed and functional and very possibly don’t need to be outwardly focused. The more closely bonded the group, the more difficult it is to gain traction in it. A group of close friends who spend heaps of time together is generally a harder nut to crack than a social group that meets on a regular basis but doesn’t keep in regular contact between meetings – although this isn’t always the case. Either way, the need (of whatever sort and for what ever reason) is largely on the side of the person trying to join in – and it falls to them to do the running, to make the effort. This is obviously made easier if the group is at least somewhat accommodating, but the time and effort still needs to be put in by the wannabe participant.

So how does one go about cracking the code, finding the elusive cryptic clues or secret handshakes that will grease the social wheels sufficiently to promote easy social integration in new situations? In reality there is no one-size-fits-all solution to social interaction, no one thing that will simply make it happen. It takes determination, time, risk and the willingness to listen. Perhaps part of success in this also hinges on finding / choosing the right target audience.

After some thought, I hit on two options for my initial forays. The first of these was to join an aquarobics group at the local pool. This provides me with physical as well as mental stimulation, along with a fair bit of amusement a couple of times a week. My other selection, based on availability and ability,

was to join a knitting group with a friend. Settling in there has been slow going, but the assessing glances and pleasant (but distant) smiles became nods and smiles of recognition the second time round, then warm greetings the next time. We’re starting to fit in and I’ve started to remember some names – and some people seem to have remembered mine. I haven’t knitted much, but I do know quite a lot more about knitting projects that other people have completed (such as a wedding dress, jumpers, blankets, socks and knitted vegetables!) or have underway (just as varied). Common ground is slowly being uncovered – and I’m starting to look forward to the sessions – knitting, chatting, laughing, chocolate biscuits and all.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say mission accomplished, but I think I’m on my way.

I’ve often wondered why it is that so many people seem to have a tendency to want to share intimate details of their lives with complete strangers. Whether it’s on a plane, at a bus stop, at the hairdressers, in a checkout queue at the supermarket or in any number of other situtations, unsolicited confidences are routinely both given and received. Since friendship is held to be an idealised bond of great significance, a relationship that overcomes isolation and provides support in an otherwise unsympathetic society, why turn to strangers?

What brings this to mind is my regular visits to the local indoor hydrotherapy pool to indulge in what I like to call exercise. In reality it’s an hour or so of wallowing around in deliciously warm water (now geothermally heated!) and indulging in moderate activity, often to the sounds of whatever audiobook I happen to be listening to at the time. Of late, however, my MP3 player hasn’t been cooperating, so I’ve been subjected to the sounds of the spa pump and the general conversation of other pool users, both of which I try to turn into white noise to accompany my exercise routine.

Striding determinedly up and down the pool in chest deep water wouldn’t, at first glance, appear to provide an ideal opportunity for someone to try to share details of their life with a fellow pool-user, whether a stranger or otherwise. Despite this, my experience is that many people go out of their way to strike up a conversation, keeping pace with their chosen confidant or waylaying them at one or other end of the pool with an open-ended question to do so. I always find it confounding when people do this to me, as I’m pretty sure that I don’t have the sort of face/demeanour that necessarily invites confidences. Nevertheless, a great deal of rather personal information is often shared with me. Frequently it appears to be information that the self-same people seem unwilling to share with friends or family, but is laid out in surprisingly intimate detail in the pool with what appears to be little or no compunction. Why is this so?

This week I ended up performing the function of stranger-confidant for an elderly gentleman (EG). I was caught unawares and answered a question in passing as I started walking a lap of the pool, after which escape would have required a level of brusqueness not available to me. I submitted with good grace, but kept walking – which required EG to stride along with me and work for it. He was not at all put off and went on to tell me in graphic detail about his even more elderly sister (EMES), whose attitude to life in general appears to frustrate him enormously. It turned out that EMES is over 90 and underwent hip replacement surgery four days ago, as a result of a nasty fall few days earlier when she fractured her hip. Since then she’s apparently been abusive and angry, says she’d be better off dead and seems to have a fine job in alienating everyone who cares about her. EG admitted that his tolerance is particularly low at present, having fractured his shoulder three months ago. He confessed to being in constant pain as he tries to remobilise the now-frozen shoulder and to regain some movement in the joint. There was more – lots more – about both subjects – before EG’s time was up. He finally headed for the spa and sauna (to ease the shoulder), after which I kept my head down and was careful not to make eye contact with anyone else for the rest of my session!

Then – and later – I started thinking about why people choose to confide in random strangers. My conclusion is that we are all simply keen to talk – particularly about ourselves – and sometimes it’s easier to do so in situations where we’re away from the usual distractions and demands of everyday life. Perhaps this separation provides a space for a people to foreground issues of interest or concern and address them by articulating them to strangers – as often as not to clarify the issue, rather than to ask for advice. I wonder if telling me about EMES helped EG in any way? Will he feel better able to cope with EMES or at least with his frustration about her outlook on life?

Does it help in any way to tell strangers things about our lives? Does the relative anonymity, the absence of shared social circles allow for sharing of this sort without fear of an emotional or social backlash? Strangers are, after all, strangers. As they aren’t part of our social milieu, it removes the need to worry about over-sharing, of burdening them with our concerns or about any associated social consequences. In addition to this, strangers may possess objectivity possibly not available to those close to us and as a result sometimes offer surprisingly useful insights or suggestions. Whilst there is no obligation (real or imagined) to take on board any of the comments received, having shared the issue with a stranger and received such comments could plausibly make articulating it again at a later date to someone closer (a friend or relative) easier. At the very least it might provide some perspective on the issue and thus make it easier for one to manage.

Are strangers then the no-cost equivalent of a psych or pastor? Do they fill the role of someone who has no prior knowledge about one’s life or circumstances and to whom one can unburden woes with minimal risk – effectively a social sounding board? If so, perhaps my retirement occupation could be busking as stranger-for-hire… I apparently have the skills 😛

hire a stranger

My best friend flew up from Brownies to Guides when we were about 11 years old. I wasn’t a fan of Brownies – the one time I went along they’d seemed to spend all their time doing what I considered frightfully ‘girlie’ things. Guides, on the other hand, apparently went camping and did lots of outdoor activities, which all sounded much more fun. So I joined up. The only downside turned out to be that I had to polish my shoes on Friday afternoons before going to meetings, but I soon learned to offset that by not polishing them on Friday mornings before school 🙂

In no time I’d mastered reef knots, sheet bends and that most useful of knots, the bowline.  I learned basic first aid and was taught how to raise, lower and fold a flag. We did indeed go camping and we also played endless variations of Kim’s game. In the version we played, 24 different objects were placed on a tray and covered with a cloth. The items were then revealed to the player for a limited time, say one minute, after which they were covered up again and the player was asked to list as many as s/he could remember. It was fun – and good training in observation and recollection.  We also learned what has turned out to be a most useful skill, namely Scout’s pace – a method of covering distance fairly quickly by alternating running and walking 50 paces. This gives one time to recover somewhat in-between bursts of running and is much more fun that jogging or running flat out!

One of the most interesting aspects of my time as a Guide was getting involved in the international pen pal scheme. Our troop established contact with a troop in Canada and a few of us started corresponding with girls of similar ages in Toronto. This wasn’t my first encounter with correspondence, as my sister was living in Angola at the time and I would occasionally exchange postcards with her. In both cases I learned a little about how and where other people lived and, as importantly, started to write for pleasure.

In later years, I began to keep journals, corresponded with friends via snail mail and email, wrote a lengthy work of narrative non-fiction and, more recently, a memoir. Last year I job-shared for a while and ended up with my other half (of the job share) as an office pen pal. We left descriptive and informative notes for each other so that we would both know what needed to be done. It was surprisingly entertaining and I found that I missed that more than any other part of the job when I left.

All of these writing experiences have been influenced by those early pen pal days, by learning how to express myself in ways that a reader might find interesting. I was therefore delighted to receive a card in the mail a few weeks ago, sent to me by a friend who also lives here in Perth. She chose to post a physical card rather than send an email or a text message. It was a lovely surprise, as was the follow up package I received a couple of weeks later. This contained an eclectic range of goodies, from a vintage magazine to a beautiful drawing of a teacup. The magazine includes a pattern for a knitted poncho and a recipe for a no-bake Pavlova. Win!

I’ve sent a physical reply (in the mail) – and have created this to augment it. Enjoy, dear Pen Pal 🙂