adventure time: sausalito

The Week of All the Deathiversaries, which I have taken to calling Shark Week for short, ended with some kind of football game which I resolved to go to the far end of our metropolitan area in order to avoid.

Pretty safe to say that we have, as a family, grown fond of kayaking. Among the floating homes of Sausalito we discovered this round, glassy lagoon. Venice has nothin’ on us.

I would also like to call out this colony of harbor seals for some really fine achievements in lolling.

I like it here.

two years

My mother was a genius
My father commanded respect
When they died they left no instructions, just a legacy to protect
Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway
We rise and we fall and we break and we make our mistakes
And if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When everyone who loves me has died
I’m willing to wait for it
I’m willing to wait for it

all the birds in the sky, by charlie jane anders

…active listening was hard work.

We don’t need better emotional communication from machines. We need people to have more empathy. The reason the Uncanny Valley exists is because humans created it to put other people into. It’s how we justify killing each other.

It’s not unlike colony collapse disorder, but for humans.

the neapolitan novels, by elena ferrante

How difficult it was to find one’s way, how difficult it was not to violate any of the incredibly detailed male regulations.

Merit was not enough, something else was required, and I didn’t have it nor did I know how to learn it.

Maybe there’s something mistaken in this desire men have to instruct us; I was young at the time, and I didn’t realize that in his wish to transform me was the proof that he didn’t like me as I was, he wanted me to be different, or, rather, he didn’t want just a woman, he wanted the woman he imagined he himself would be if he were a woman.

Naples was the great European metropolis where faith in technology, in science, in economic development, in the kindness of nature, in history that leads of necessity to improvement, in democracy, was revealed, most clearly and far in advance, to be completely without foundation.

one year

I had a meeting Friday morning with a man who does Silicon Valley liaison for Australian startups.

“I first came here to visit SGI when I was working at a manufacturing company called Wormald,” he said.

“Wormald, huh?” I said. “Did you know Robin Chalmers?”

“Of course I knew Robin!” He said that Dad was the first management theorist he’d met, and described Dad’s model of companies plateauing when their products were commoditized, and needing to find new products their factories could make in order to achieve new growth. The Innovator’s Dilemma, in other words, but worked out from scratch five years before that book was first published.

I remember having the same conversation with Dad myself. It was in the early 1990s, which was probably Peak Dad. I was at uni, flailing around, trying to figure out who I was and what I was going to be. He was running the factory, building the fire systems for the Collins Class submarines and thinking deeply about Australian manufacturing and competitiveness. We talked endlessly about everything: astronomy, Cantor’s diagonal argument, Christianity, geopolitics, John Donne, Martin Gardner, maths. He was unbelievably patient with me, and loving and funny and thoughtful and silly and wise.

I’m very grateful for the reminder of what he was like then, even if it did hit me like a bullet in the chest. I miss him so much.

five years

This is Jen and her daughter Reese heading out for Halloween in 2009.

You can almost see how long-awaited Reese was, what a fantastic and amazing turn of events she turned out to be. She had just learned to say her cousin Maggie’s name when this picture was taken. Look at Jen slinging the weight of that love and hope, all wrapped up in sparkles, casually onto one hip.

She was a big sister to me when I was a very small and anxious person. I miss her a lot.

blue lily, lily blue by maggie stiefvater

…in my head, everything is always so tangled. I am such a damaged thing.

the dream thieves, by maggie stiefvater

“Do you have a better idea?” she demanded. “Maybe we can hurl some stuff into the underbrush! Or hit something! That solves everything! Maybe we can be really manly and break things!”

the raven boys, by maggie stiefvater

Blue tried not to look at Gansey’s boat shoes; she felt better about him as a person if she pretended he wasn’t wearing them.

new year adventure planning

Local

Bike the Iron Horse Trail

Go to Anne and Mark’s Art Party

Hike Tennessee Valley to the Pelican Inn and back

Kayak Sausalito and/or Tomales Bay

Learn archery

Serve a meal at Glide Memorial

Summit Mt Diablo and/or Mt Tam

Visit Hearst Castle

Further afield

Getty Villa

Grand Canyon

La Brea Tar Pits

New York

San Diego Zoo/Safari Park

all hail the executive functions!

Jeremy is in Australia and I am, naturally, bereft, but otherwise hanging with my cats, my children and my children’s recently developed executive functions has been good fun so far. When he is here, Jeremy (as a programmer by definition a member of the proletariat) makes the kids’ school lunches for them, whereas I (having ascended to the managerial class) supervise the children making their own lunches the night before. They’re also pretty competent cooks of simple if eccentric evening meals, such as sweet-corn-with-bacon or this evening’s tentacle-y pasta surprise. Our tastes in media are converging, so we pile onto the sofa to watch and discuss Steven Universe or The Fosters. It is convivial, and it’s a world away from his business trips when they were small. Parents: it gets better!

They’ve both been taking advantage of the time alone with me to grill me on various topics. Today Claire asked about Ireland, and I told her about the great Not-Getting-Into-Oxford fiasco and how well that all turned out in the end, and how picking up how a stray copy of Wired Magazine in Dublin sometime in 1994 led so unexpectedly and wonderfully to San Francisco. Later I made some wild assertion or other and Claire scoffed: “What would you know? You didn’t even get into Oxford.” Later still Julia (and this is a good illustration of how hilariously both the same and different they are) named different people in our family-of-choice and asked exactly why I loved each of them, requiring me to show my work.

“Our children are pretty great,” I texted Jeremy. “Did you know? Why wasn’t I told?”

adventure time: gattaca

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Marin Civic Center. This building, you guys.

It’s organic architecture, inspired by the Marin hills on which it stands.

Like Star Trek, The West Wing and Hamilton, it is a love song to participatory democracy and the dream of what humans could be.

It’s hard to believe your eyes.

adventure time: staycationing

Claire is at Star Wars again, Jeremy and Julia are with Yoz and Dexter and I am sitting in the house alone with the kittens and the clothes dryer! Amazing scenes.

I have become the type of mother that keeps a To-do list of holiday activities in Evernote; Ian accuses me of being “improving.” Monday we finished off the Christmas shopping – Desigual had a sale so the children made out like bandits, as you shall see. Tuesday we went ice skating, Wednesday we visited the Winchester Mystery House, which was more interesting than I had expected, and the Tech Museum of Innovation, which was slightly less. God love my little wolf pack, though; they can kill hours in even the most dated of science museums.

Christmas Eve we had lasagne at Jack’s house, and I made a very ugly pavlova; Christmas morning we went out for Claire’s birthday dim sum and then to Ian and Lisa’s for Orphan’s Christmas, where I made a very pretty pavlova. It was all very delicious and satisfactory.

Yesterday we finally made it to MoAD, which has terrific shows by Alison Saar and Kenyatta A. C. Hinkle, all about black women’s bodies and the pressure of history and the thorns and glass and glitter beneath the surface; and to the Contemporary Jewish Museum which had a great show full of robotics and color and light, of which the below was my absolute favorite.

I lay there for a while pretending to be an astrophysicist studying a white dwarf from a ship in zero-G while Jeremy and Julia came and went around me at interesting angles. I’ve checked off not-quite-half the items on my To-do list, and it’s been a terrific holiday.

the yatima book awards of 2015

Best capstone to a trilogy that, unbelievably, saw my OT3 made canon: Ancillary Mercy

Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series explores oppression both overt and covert, personhood and autonomy, cruelty and choice. It is also and very intimately about love and trauma and about the slow and painful process of recovering from having been used as a weapon. It is difficult and allusive and strange and I have seldom loved a story more.

Best memoir containing descriptions of the surface of living human brains: Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery

A few years ago Jeremy and I saw The English Surgeon, a beautiful documentary about Henry Marsh, and this book of his is an extraordinary complement, the effect of which is to make both texts deeper and richer. You walk away from the film thinking that Marsh is some kind of genius angel. The book is all about his fear, doubt and failures, failures that led to the deaths of patients he loved.

Best inspiration for a hit Broadway musical: Alexander Hamilton

Ron Chernow’s biography of the Founding Father is fantastic in its own right, but looking at how Lin-Manuel Miranda manipulated the timeline and even the construction of some of the main characters is a master class in creative transformation.

Best book whose first chapter will make you ugly-cry into your latte at Cafe St Jorge, to the mild alarm of your fellow guests: Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize this year but be warned: her stories about what actually happened in the aftermath of the explosion, and how social class dictated who suffered and who died, will fuck you right up.

Best and most moving farewell from a writer you have loved all your adult life: On the Move: A Life

What can I add to what has already been written about Oliver Sacks, his imaginative compassion, the generosity of spirit that grew so unexpectedly out of his privileged and circumscribed circumstances? Not much. (In close second place for this category: Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia.)

Best gift for your girlfriends of the crazy cat persuasion: The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries

Disappointed in love, the brilliant Jessa Crispin packed up her apartment and couch-surfed her way across Europe, reading in search of reasons to go on living. A manifesto for all of us who are lost, lonely and ugly, outside and in.

Best book you bounced off hard as a stupid kid and now recognize for the straight-up masterpiece it is: Beloved

The insane, vindictive ghost baby? It’s us.

Best book-length elaboration on the theme that Black Lives Matter: Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ open letter to his son may also turn out to be an enduring masterpiece, but for me the most intimate pleasure of it was its celebration of Paris, a city that for all its fucked-up flaws is one of the finest things human hands have made.

Best book that killed off my favorite character from the previous book in its opening scene: The Philosopher Kings

Jesus, Jo! This series is obviously written for the pure motherfucking joy of it, for the wish-fulfillment of standing shoulder to shoulder with the writers you adored and building a city even more beautiful than Paris. (And then finding out that you had overlooked some very important questions about personhood, autonomy, cruelty and choice.)

Most heartbreaking memorial to our own lost generation: And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic

An essential book and a companion to the equally essential The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, Randy Shilts’ history of the plague documents the appalling cost of it and the sheer inadequacy of our human response.

Most beautiful portrayal of raw grief: Men We Reaped

Five young men close to Jesmyn Ward died in four years, and this devastating meditation on their deaths brings their loss into razor-sharp focus.

Most accurate portrayal of Australia as an airless mining asteroid that turns men’s hearts to stone: This House of Grief

Helen Garner is our Janet Malcolm and this book is our Iphigenia in Forest Hills.

By the numbers:

Books by women: 7. People of color: 3. Gay men: 2. Straight white men: 2. (Is this the most charming sentence in Wikipedia? “Marsh is married to the social anthropologist Kate Fox and spends his spare time making furniture and keeping bees.” Kate Fox wrote Watching the English! BEST DINNER PARTY GUESTS.) I used to joke that I didn’t read books by straight white men because their concerns were too narrow and parochial, but it’s not a joke any more.

Australian writers: 1. Russian: 1. English: 3ish, although Jo Walton is Welsh and lives in Canada and Oliver Sacks spent most of his life in New York. American: 7.

Total books read: about 120. Either I am slowing down or I lose 30 books’ worth of capacity in each year in which one of my parents dies. Guess we’ll find out!

my brilliant friend

I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad.

She said that we didn’t know anything, either as children or now, that we were therefore not in a position to understand anything, that everything in the neighborhood, every stone or piece of wood, everything, anything you could name, was already there before us, but we had grown up without realizing it, without ever even thinking about it.

She seemed as usual to have no need of male attention. We, instead, out in the cold, in the midst of that chaos, without that attention couldn’t give ourselves meaning.

alice and thimble shelved themselves in alphabetical order

yatima’s mostly-nondenominational northern hemisphere midwinter festival playlist

2000 miles

“I can hear people singing,” (and since I’m not allowed to listen to this playlist until after Thanksgiving) “it must be” Northern Hemisphere Midwinter Festival “Time.” Chrissie Hynde wrote this after The Pretenders’ first lead guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died of an overdose; as you’ll see, I like the sad carols. The ending of this song is sublimely 1980s; the band just repeats the chorus over and over until they end on a resounding chord. Jazz hands!

Chiron Beta Prime

So much for being nondenominational: because I’m a lapsed Anglican nerd, I sometimes wonder whether Jonathan Coulton (suspicious initials, those) named his protagonists the Andersons because it means “Son of Man” and whether he chose Chiron because Chi-Rho was a Greek monogram for Christ. That said, the song works equally well as an anticapitalist anthem, with the robot overlords representing limited liability corporations. Oh, and it’s hilarious.

Fairytale of New York

Mandatory, obvi. I usually start crying around “I could’ve been someone./ Well so could anyone.” Reminds me of when Rajit Singh returned our lost luggage and, years before that, when I met Shane MacGowan in Dublin, his broken teeth like tombstones on the red hills of his gums. I wish Kirsty MacColl were still alive.

Joy

This one makes me think of Jamey, who gave it to me, and of my mum, whose story it is. Tracey Thorn’s voice is a silver thread running through my marriage, from “Protection” as the anthem of our first year together to “Hatfield, 1980” for the summer we lived in Cambridge. Mum would have loved the lines: “We face down all the coming years/ And all that they destroy/ And in their face we throw our joy.” That was her basic rationale for all the mah jongg and Bailey’s.

River

Tracey’s Tinsel and Lights is such a great album that three tracks off it have landed on my playlist. This is a Joni Mitchell cover that earned its place for the lyrics: “I’m so hard to handle/ I’m selfish and I’m sad.” (No, YOU are.) I always think of Emma Thompson’s wonderful line from the mostly-reprehensible Love, Actually: “Joni Mitchell is the woman who taught your cold English wife how to feel.”

Sister Winter

A Sufjan Stevens cover, but I heard Tracey’s version first so it’s definitive to me. I love the strangeness and sensuality of the lyrics – “I kissed your ankle” – and Sister Winter as darkness and heartbreak, but also as an intimate relation. I love the friends waiting patiently for the suffering heart to recover. Demeter and Persephone are here, and so is Jonathan Shay’s Odysseus in America with its call for the communalization of trauma.

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree

Speaking of, that summer in Cambridge I wanted to hear the King’s College choir at last, but I was urged by a smiling Anglican to keep the girls behind the screen where we wouldn’t disturb the other congregants. Ah, the established church, ever eager to tuck its women and children away out of sight. Against that, though, set the pageant I attended at Holy Innocents in San Francisco, where the congregation discovered six-week-old Julia in her sling and urged me to take the role of Mary. I declined – I’m not that reconciled to my church damage – but I still have the tinsel crown Claire wore as a three-year-old angel. This strange old poem was given a mid-20thc setting by Elizabeth Poston. “It keeps my dying faith alive” – we’ll see, I guess.

Gaudete

Another silver thread through my life: My parents playing Steeleye Span when I was still too young to recognize the electric guitars and folk songs as incongruous with one another. Me carolling in York Street with the choir of Christchurch St Lawrence. Alex and I in Dublin discovering that we both loved this song. Maddy Pryor’s incredible voice was probably the prototype for my love for Kirsty Maccoll, Tracey Thorn and Vienna Teng. The ending of this song is ridiculously 1970s; the audio engineer just fades the choir out and you have to pretend that they’re walking away from you still singing.

O Holy Night

This one makes me think of Salome, because sometimes we read each others’ minds. Talk about incongruity, the ukuleles and xylophones making it sound like a school play. Yet everything that makes the Northern Hemisphere Midwinter Festival important to me is here: the long dark, the beloved dead, the newborn baby, the terrifying angels and their incomprehensible message. The star and our journey.

Atheist Christmas Carol

The newest addition, which I heard for the first time live on Boxing Day last year at the Freight & Salvage, with Claire in my arms. I gave this one to Tina after we rode our bikes to the Forest of Wind Chimes at Wilbur Hot Springs and cried for Jen. “It’s the season of bowing our heads in the wind/ And knowing we are not alone in fear/ Not alone in the dark.” That’s all I got. Grace coming out of the void, for some reason. It’s so cold now but spring will come again. Not a metaphor: physics.

another good day, thanks

adventure time: yolo

Yesterday I drove north, past a bonfire and through an almost Sydney-severe rainsquall, to where California State Route 16 West peels off from I-505 into Yolo County. There, the sun came out and shone on the dry Capay Hills, turning them lemon and gold in front of the smudged indigo mountains behind them.

I wanted so badly to go into those warm yellow hills! And then Highway 16 took me around a corner and into Rumsey Canyon, carved out of the stone by Cache Creek, all geology and cattle pasture and gnarled old oaks. I wanted so badly to get out and walk around! And then Google took me up a still narrower canyon through which Bear Creek was running and gently steaming, and I met Tina at Wilbur Hot Springs, a gorgeous place that smells in a very friendly way of eggy farts.

We soaked in the hot green sulfurous water, shared bread and cheese and salami and radishes and olives and champagne and a little chocolate, rode bikes through the nature preserve, past the geyser to the wind chime forest, and talked about books and politics and our children and our partners and the parties we used to throw in the 90s and her painting and my writing and her sister, my friend Jen. We were urged to leave our electronics behind, and I did, so I don’t have any pictures, sorry about that.

Tina and I don’t see each other often enough and this has to be changed. As I drove back, the near-full moon rose on my left through a pink band of sunset. It followed me home to the city.

Today I drove south to a stable in the redwoods, where Salome and I saddled up and rode two bright gold pony mares through the forest to a chain of meadows in the sun. We talked about work and education and our children and her painting and my writing and our plans for the future. I stuck my iPhone in my jacket pocket, so here are some pictures for you.

We saw five mule deer, the sun pink through their absurd ears. One gentle doe was napping under the trees, curled like a cat.

California is so impossibly motherfucking beautiful sometimes, it actually kind of hurts.

five gifts for my mother on her 80th birthday

1. With my dearest darling bad horse Boo Bear living out his retirement at a lovely farm upstate (no, really, he aten’t ded), I have a new horse, Sam. He is a liver chestnut so dark and shiny that he looks like he was cast in bronze or, possibly, treacle. He is scopey and athletic but also kind and forgiving, sensitive yet gentle as a lamb. He is an education. He makes me a better rider.

2. The worst of grief bogs you down in the past. As I feel myself starting to come out of it, I’ve been getting these little glimpses of a future I might like to live in, enough that I’ve been making a list: Aziz Ansari’s new comedy Master of None, Trevor Noah as host of The Daily Show and, of course, on endless repeat, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.

3. Many pixels have been spilled praising Hamilton showstoppers like “Satisfied” and “Wait For It”, because those songs are amazing. This week, though, I particularly love:

  • “One Last Time”, because in relinquishing the presidency, George Washington paved the way for term limits and the peaceful transfer of power between rival factions, two of the things I love best about the American political system; and
  • “The World Was Wide Enough”, because Aaron Burr is such an irresistibly sympathetic character that he shows us how to make space for the people with whom we disagree, which seems particularly important this week.

It is difficult to say anything about the massacres in Paris, except how sorry I am for those who have been hurt, and how desperately I wish for peace.

4. I tried to make pavlova for Mum’s birthday, a pretty Quixotic endeavor considering I’ve never yet succeeded at meringue. After two dismal failures to achieve glossy peaks, I stuck a sort of eggy soup in the oven, wept briefly and discovered online that our Bamix is almost certainly the problem. It doesn’t introduce enough air to allow the egg white to achieve the proper foaminess. So I ordered a hand mixer and just now, the egg soup came out of the oven as a delicately browned giant cookie, which we all look forward to eating.

5. “Brown liquor,” said Jeremy after he had mopped up my eggy tears. I poured us two glasses of the 12 year old Bunnahabhain and we clinked our glasses: “To Jean.” My mother gave me my love for animals and my righteous anger at the world’s injustices, and she was a much better pastrychef than I am. I miss her every day, but I am very, very glad that she was my mother.