Me and my da.
Posting mostly to try to keep myself awake. Local time is 4.43pm and I am not sure how I will make it to my goal bedtime of 9pm. We shall see!
I did sleep all the way from SF to Auckland, and the flight from Auckland to Brisbane went quickly because I was enchanted by Bear Grylls, especially in the Iceland episode in which he and Jake Gyllenhaal put the Bro in Brokeback Mountain. Alain winced when I mentioned this, because apparently Bear is a big ol’ hatey Tory Christian who spoke at Hillsong last time he was here. And it turns out he is also a big fakey faker!
Alain and I found each other at the airport and headed out into the greater Brisbane area for flats white. I had to get a SIM card for my phone, and this turned into an epic ordeal as there was already an angry mob of villagers in the store brandishing pitchforks at the Telstra staff, who were being sheepish. Ever since the Regrettable T-Mobile Incident of ’04, Jeremy has done all the talking to phone companies for me, so when they started explaining the details of my plan it was as if they were speaking the language of crows: “Caw! Caw! Caw!” Alain said my whole face glazed over.
Now we are at Alain’s flat and his Bourke’s parrot, Monty, is circling my head and from time to time landing on me and giving me kisses. His feet are cool and he is careful to keep his claws away from my skin.
The Fault in Our Stars is written by someone my age about teenagers dying of cancer. The teenagers are adorably articulate and wry, which is what happens when they are written by clever fortysomethings – see also Juno and The Gilmore Girls. But I cried and cried for Wendy, who was just that funny anyway at fourteen, and for Jen, who at forty-three knew exactly what she was leaving behind. Glioblastoma, leukaemia.
The Still Point of the Turning World is written by Emily Rapp, who lost her son Ronan in February. He was three. Tay-Sachs. I’ve become violently allergic to the notion of meritocracy because of its implication that there are people who are without merit. Jen never made much money. Wendy never finished high school. Ronan never learned to speak. What does that make them? Emily Rapp says:
If you love but the love is never known by the other person as the love you bear for them, is that love wasted? I eventually realized that this way of thinking was more about ego than anything else, and that no love is ever wasted; in fact, the most precious love is often the kind that isn’t returned, and that is given freely.
I’ve realized it is my most deeply held political conviction that all are created equal. A person’s performance as an economic agent under late capitalism is about as relevant as their performance in chess or dressage or sport aerobics to what they are actually worth. Every person is a planet with a diamond core, a Tardis, bigger on the inside. We can’t possibly love anyone enough, but we can try.
Rumpus: What did Ronan smell like?
Rapp: Rice and shampoo. Sleep.
Rumpus: I know what it felt like for me to hold Ronan. What did it feel like for you?
Rapp: It felt like holding the world.
There are only two in the USA: the other is in Tennessee. This one was founded by Pat Derby, an Englishwoman descended from Shelley who found herself in Hollywood training cats, bears and elephants for shows like Lassie and Daktari. She hated the violence and cruelty of the industry and exposed it in a pretty wonderful, if bleak, book cowritten by Peter S. Beagle, who also wrote The Last Unicorn. She died in February.
The sanctuary is only open twice a year and you have to buy tickets in advance. It’s up in the Sierra foothills and it was a scorchingly hot day. Six hundred people came. I grumbled about the heat and having to wait in line for a shuttle, and then the shuttle came and we were taken to a picnic area where there were two Asian elephants to the left of us and three African elephants to the right. Gypsy, Wanda, Mara, Maggie and Lulu.
There are massive steel fences around their enclosure but the enclosures are vast – acres upon acres. That they wanted to visit with us at all is astounding to me. We were kept at a safe distance, about twenty feet, but we were in the presence of elephants, and this is an ungainsayable thing. I’ve seen elephants before but I don’t think I’ve ever seen happy elephants before. We were there for their entertainment as much as the reverse. They made eye contact.
I believe of them now, as I believe of whales and octopus, that they are sentient. How they must suffer when they are caged or in chains.
Maggie, one of the African elephants, lived in an Alaskan zoo with only an Asian elephant for company. The two have different vocalizations, but Maggie speaks both languages. Gypsy and Wanda came to the sanctuary at different times from different places but are now inseparable. Archival footage of circuses revealed that they had been friends before and had remembered one another for decades. Lulu, rescued from the San Francisco zoo, was the most reticent of the females. She wanted to be near Maggie and Mara but she didn’t particularly care for us. Up on Bull Mountain we saw Nicholas and Prince; Prince also prefers to keep away from humans.
But Nicholas swam for us, and dug a log up from the bottom of his lake. Another animal again in water, his bony head like a hippo’s, the water pouring off his gleaming skin. Graceful and at peace.
It was everything I love most passionately about California: the dry hills, the circling raptors, the ridiculous mule deer, and the people who pour out their lives trying to fight injustice and make safe spaces and be kind.
I rode Jackson today. I’m trying to stay out of his face during warmup, so I trotted him in both directions on the buckle, reins looping down. I worked on my position instead of his: elbows in, shoulders back, hip angle open. Trying to make a square corner under the trees, I flexed my right ankle and sank into my seat.
Jacks lifted his back under me and came soft and round.
Not surprisingly, when we jumped I was tall in the saddle and he was forward and electric into my hand.
Toni and Colin came back from two solid months at HITS Thermal reinvigorated and with higher standards than ever. Christi and I have been riding with both of them quite a lot, and more is expected of us: faster, softer transitions, tighter turns, straighter and more precise approaches.
Luckily I spent the winter and spring riding Jackson (my Bella has gone back to her owners, I don’t want to talk about that) and we’ve built and built and built on the connection we made in the fall. Today was our third lesson with Colin in just over a week. He had us riding trot poles then doing inside turns at the canter into verticals. I would look at the impossibly twisty track and tell myself firmly, “We can do that,” and then we did.
My lug-eared, coffin-headed old Thoroughbred Jackson has taught me more than any other horse I have ever ridden. There is a place on his back where I feel strong and safe and secure. I sit there like a little fat Buddha and I can use my hands and legs independently. In one memorable flat lesson, Jackson taught me to weight my outside stirrup on a small circle. In another, just after I got back from London, I visualized myself as a haggis, sinking into the saddle. To get that tight inside turn, I just weighted the outside stirrup and sat like a haggis. We nailed it.
He is both fussy and lazy. If you mess with his face he gets pissy and sucks back behind your leg. If you use your leg more than he thinks is fair, he does huge clumsy stupid bucks. Between the two extremes is a place where you can move him forward off a quiet leg into a soft, living contact, a conversation between his mouth and your hand, and if you can stretch up from there and wait, wait, wait, he can jump anything.
Today we jumped nearly everything like that, forward and uphill off a positive leg into a positive contact. The one exception, of course, was the fence where we missed our distance, he ran out and I toppled off his shoulder. I wasn’t hurt, except in the dignity area, and I got back on and regained our mojo. But I had arena sand down my pants.
Who cares? The April sun hot on my back, the white sand and green leaves of our Grand Prix arena, Jackson listening and hunting the next fence, confident and bright. Colin was unfussed by the fall and called it a momentary lapse of concentration, which is exactly what it was. Everything else, he said, was awesome. I like it when he praises my riding, but I like it even better when he says: “That horse is so much happier and healthier since he’s been in your program. He’s enjoying his work.” I tried to think of a compliment that would mean more to me, but I can’t.
Kirsty is a force of nature. I’ve been meaning to go up to Edinburgh since Alex and Ioanna moved there from Ireland years ago, but the details eluded me. When I mentioned it in passing to Kirsty the whole thing was organized in what seemed like sixty seconds. I flew in early for the London conference I come to every April, and Kirsty and I caught the train to Edinburgh.
The journey was gorgeous and fascinating. “Green and pleasant land,” I tweeted as we left London, then “dark Satanic Mills!” as we crossed the midlands and I saw four huge power stations (Eggborough and friends maybe?) belching steam into an otherwise cloudless sky. As we sped to Scotland we saw Durham Cathedral, the Angel of the North (which I have loved since first seeing pictures of it and which came as a completely unexpected treat), beautiful steampunk Newcastle, Lindisfarne like something from a Miyazaki film or happy dream, the sun sparkling on the mouth of the Tweed at Berwick, and the looming bulk of the Torness Nuclear Plant.
Motion sickness got to me after a while. (The hangover from the night before probably didn’t help. That was Grant’s fault.) I thought I was going to hurl all over Waverley Station. I took my first steps in Scotland trying not to puke and telling myself “Don’t mention their accents don’t mention their accents,” so of course when I called Alex I blurted out “you sound very Irish.” I guess at least I didn’t vomit?
When I had recovered myself somewhat Kirsty and I had fun storming Edinburgh castle, and when we finally did make it to Alex’s house the awkwardness of nine years’ separation did not survive its first encounter with a pretty decent Sangiovese I’d brought out from California. Alex made osso buco. It was delicious. Ioanna is delightful and their daughter Lena is so best. We figured out how to fix capitalism but I didn’t write it down, so that’s a pity.
I dreamed Jeremy and I were invited to a party being held by a prominent Utah ladyblogger – no, not her. The other one. She and her husband lived on five acres with a barn down the back that was managed by her trainer. They had a small ranch home but had built a much larger house on the property, and the party was held there. This is what you dream about while trying to refinance your mortgage after watching The Queen of Versailles.
Its living room was entirely decorated in marble parquetry, which, sure, sounds attractive, but the stone was all pink and beige so it was like being inside a patchwork liver. Even the television surrounds were made of entraily marble. Envious of our hosts’s tract of land, I tittered unkindly at their lack of taste.
The other guests included Jim Carrey and Julian Assange. I sucked up to Carrey, who tried not to seem bored.
Julian acted like a douche.
As part of ongoing efforts to live a more makerly, human life, I resolved to make a thing a month this year. Not a vasty thing; something small and manageable. In January, I cross-stitched a little constellation embroidery for each of the girls. In February I hand-wrote a letter to a dear friend.
This month I will try out the Kintsugi repair kit that J gave me for my birthday. It repairs ceramics with a mixture of glue and gold dust. I will test it on some of our table china, and when my technique is alright, I will fix a chip in the beloved bowl I brought home from Avanos, in Turkey.
When I first read about Kintsugi, I cried. The chance to be more beautiful in the broken places feels like a gift, like grace.
From Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes:
We choose the dead because of our tie to them, our identification with them. Their helplessness, passivity, vulnerability is our own. We all yearn toward the state of inanition, the condition of harmlessness, where we are perforce lovable and fragile. It is only by a great effort that we rouse ourselves to act, to fight, to struggle, to be heard above the wind, to crush flowers as we walk. To behave like live people.
I’ve been having a lot of trouble with my zombies. When the dead are rising out of their graves and coming after me to eat my brain, the only way I can get them to lie down again is by making up a new story (I notice that this is the plot of ParaNorman, which I watched with the girls; this pleases me.)
Writing as a way to defy death is a major theme of Lawrence Wright’s wonderful Going Clear, a book I urge upon all my fellow Scient-trocity enthusiasts. I once met Jerry Pournelle and asked him about Hubbard. Pournelle said that there were days when L. Ron knew that the people around him were deluded, and days when he shared their delusions, and both kinds of days were the worst. I guess L. Ron’s real innovation was to use stories to turn living people into zombies which, mixed blessing at best. And he died in the end anyway (sorry, spoilers.)
Look. I need to write, to keep my graveyards neatly landscaped and my grey matter intracranial and off the menu. And I want to write, because books are awesome and I would like to make one. But even the effort of making up new stories to reframe bad things that happened to me, even in therapy with a good therapist, wipes me out. And when I read the acknowledgements sections of books like these two beauties, or Katherine Boo or Peter Hessler or or or, the authors thank the entire editorial and fact-checking departments of the New Yorker. It’s exhausting.
My would-be-creative girlfriends and I used to joke that we needed wives. What we actually need? Is staff. Maybe we should take a note from L. Ron and train up our zombies.
I’ve been thinking, for complicated reasons, of things I have that are irreplaceable: the rosettes I won on Alfie and Noah; the Onkaparinga blanket Sarah gave me to take with me to Ireland, and which is wrapped around my knees as I type; the ring my father-in-law gave me; the bronze horse on my hall table, which was a present from my mum. Big Ted, Alain’s bear when he was a child, who is beaming fondly down at me from his shelf.
For that matter, the bears my mother gave to Claire and Julia: Topaz and Bess. Topaz spent three days lost behind a shelf at Claire’s pre-school, and another two days in the back seat of a taxi in New York. Our miracle boy.
A great ride on Jackson. I tried to sink into the saddle three strides out from the fences and feel the takeoff in the base of my spine. Christi said he jumped beautifully, snapping his knees over the poles.
To Salome’s new place to see Cecil B. de Milstead in his new home. Cecil and Milo lay on cushions in a patch of sun. Milo gazed into Cecil’s eyes but it was impossible to tell where Cecil was gazing. His eyes really are beautifully crossed.
To Adventure Playground in Berkeley, where the first people we saw were Yoz and Dex. Jeremy had raved to Yoz about the place yesterday. Apparently he sold it well. It’s a playground built by kids, for kids; haphazard and magical, with boats and piano parts and a zip line. The kids can earn hammers and nails and pots of paint. Julia painted a fort green. Claire made a sundial.
California has been so sunny and beautiful and my friends are so dear to me, but I am missing Mum and Dad and Sarah and Iain and Alain so very much. I wish I could be in two places at once.
For a day that began with Hedwig having to be towed to the garage for the third time in a month, today turned out very well. I succeeded in having Front Porch grits for breakfast, I consigned five bags of old clothes and, after I had disposed of the car, we wandered around Bernal in the sunshine and met up with Carol and Tim and Ruby and Zoe and Yoz and Dexter. There are Water Contraptions, made of plumbing parts and galvanized iron basins, outside a house at the top of Alabama Street, that we would never have seen however many times we drove past them.
Yesterday was also memorably splendid: a good ride on Jackson, with one circle where I felt myself weighting the outside stirrup in an effective way; lunch at Inka’s, and being asked my opinion on a saddle by a passer-by who had it in his truck, because he recognized that I was still in my breeches and riding boots; dropping the kids at their piano classes while meeting Cecil the cross-eyed cat at the SPCA, and being struck by his temperamental likeness to Ross’s Oscar, the nicest cat in the world. Salome took Cecil home. He is now Cecil B. de Milstead.
In Sydney I always want to read books about Australia and books by women. On this trip, I wanted to read books with dragons in them, too. Luckily Naomi Novik’s Tongues of Serpents exists to fill this very specific niche.
…no one could be immune to the almost shocking loveliness of the immense harbor: one bay after another curving off the main channel, and the thickly forested slopes running down to the water, interspersed with stretches of golden sand.
The dragons were there for their mixture of violence and lovingkindness; like cats, like life. For roughly the same reasons I read Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief by Pauline Boss.
“Don’t stay away from your homeland more than three months or you’ll never again know where home is.” …The immigration experience provides special insights into how people learn to let go of what used to be in order to embrace the new.
That was a little more unsettling than I’d hoped.
Nightmares again; this time trying to explain to Cameron why I am no longer a Christian. Or rather, trying to fathom why he is, after all that has happened. Confusion and incomprehension.
It was MLK Day, which I had off but Jeremy did not. I took the girls ice skating. We met Gilbert and Heather and Ada and Heath and Max and Noemi and Jim there, and also – surprise! – Heike and Kira, who I had not seen since Kira finished her lessons at Petit Baleen. It was good to see them! Heike and I took Julia skating between us, and then Julia got brave and skated with just me, and even on her own. Claire skated with Ada and struck out alone as well.
I was very wobbly to begin with, but I kept my chin up and looked where I was going and waited for my muscle memory to kick in again. I have a riding mantra at the moment – I correct part of my body then try to set and forget it, saying to myself “This is how we do it now.” My big fault is always overthinking and overcorrecting, so I’m trying to just fix one thing at a time and then relax. By the end I was skating around all right. I couldn’t turn and skate backwards, but considering I haven’t skated at all since the eighties, it wasn’t too bad.
We visited the MLK fountain in honor of the day, then went home to wait for a tow truck to come and get Hedwig. (Not starting again. Gary thinks the new starter engine is faulty.) I made Claire watch the inaugural address with me, and when Obama got to “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall” – tribute to the coalition that elected him, atlas of the America I love and hope to live up to – she said:
“This is why I don’t want to be a grownup. You’re always crying when people are just saying words.”
I drag a weeping child out on an errand and return with a child that is giggling.
Me: That was some good parenting there.
Me: Admit it. Say, “Mama, you are wise.”
Julia: Mama, you are pies.
Me: What? There’s no such thing as pies!
Julia: Yes there is!
Me: I don’t believe in pies.