the winter soldier

So I did a podcast! I can’t bear the sound of my own voice but if you can, you may endure it here. I hasten to add that Sumana and Brendan are delightful and so are their voices. Like most of the people I know, they were bewildered by how completely I succumbed to Captain America fandom last summer, and wished to inquire further.

I’ve complained often, most recently in the context of Pym, about how never I or characters resembling me show up in fiction. This was a feature, not a bug, for many years. Books were windows, not mirrors. But representation is important, and eventually the lack of representation of genderqueer financiers who grew up on mining asteroids started to get to me.

Of course, when I eventually encountered myself in fiction, it was as a traumatized amnesiac supersoldier, so go figure. I mean that literally: I had to go and figure this out. It took me months to unpack why it was Bucky – and not even really MCU Bucky (lovely and brilliant as Seb Stan is) but the Bucky of chapter 2 of part 2 of Feather’s epic novel Your Blue Eyed Boys, Bucky sitting on a roof panicking because something good has happened, because he has made a human connection. (I misremembered in the podcast: this scene takes place after he hooks up with Steve.) What, exactly, about this did I recognize?

The full answer is beyond the scope of this blog but the short answer is trauma. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, a period that future rachaeologists may term my Nightmare Phase, I ran away all the time: I panicked, I fled, I lost my fucking shit. I did not know why. I thought I was just broken. Spoiler! I was, but not innately. I was a product of a society that had no better use for me than to try (and fail) to wipe my personality and shape me into a weapon.

Back then I did not have the names I have now for my child-abusing church or my rape factory of an undergraduate university. I fell for the cover story, which was that Australia was egalitarian and a worker’s paradise. It took me a long time to notice the blindingly fucking obvious, which is that Australia is ruled by cruel and complacent old money undertaking wholesale environmental destruction, and that every institution depends on the unpaid labor if not outright exploitation of women and people of colour.

This is the point at which Liz always likes to jump in and say, that’s not just Australia. Which is true. But my metal arm has the Southern Cross where Bucky’s has just one red star.

Anyway so, I have spent the last nine months or so reading up on why some people (Spoiler! Me.) have crippling anxiety and are hypervigilant and kind of agoraphobic and don’t know when they are hungry or tired or whether things hurt. Trauma is not the defining fact of my life by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a model with explanatory power, like how for example people lying to children about important things makes me feel dead inside.

Still, as Salome always reminds me, mine is a very mild case and even the things that happened to people I love were not the worst things, and have proved to be largely survivable. The only real gift of suffering is compassion, and I hope that the fucked-up things that happened will make me more patient, more empathetic, less apt to judge, more able and willing to listen.

The name winter soldier comes first from Thomas Paine’s These are the times that try men’s souls, and second from the investigations into war crimes in Vietnam, instigated by the veterans themselves. To be a winter soldier is to own the shitty things that you have done and to believe in a better world even when that seems impossible. In this sense, Steve is a winter soldier too. He’s the America I want to believe in: the supersoldier who remembers how it felt to be skinny, the superpower that remembers what it meant to be a colony. I am the mining asteroid and I am the weapon. But that’s not all I am.

five things to force-reboot the blog

1. I don’t know what to tell you about my father. I’m very sad.

2. I took Boo Bear the horse to a show – the same show Gunther and I prevailed at last year. Boo Bear and I did not prevail. He refused many, many times. I was mortified. The next day, with another, much better rider, he was even naughtier and ended up galloping around the ring with no rider and no bridle on. Eventually he remembered that he is lazy and walked over to Toni, asking to be taken home. Shaming as this all was, it makes a significantly funnier story than my uneventful outing with Gunther, and I have been dining out on it ever since.

3. In reflecting on this it occurred to me that Gunther is Gryffindor (bravery, daring, nerve and chivalry) and Boo Bear is Slytherin (ambitious, cunning and resourcefulness.) I ended up putting all the horses I have ever loved into their houses. Bellboy, Alfie, Noah and Rhun: Gryffindors. Bella and Ruah, Slytherin. Roland, Ravenclaw. Dear old Jackson, Hufflepuff.

4. Julia aced her first piano audition and Claire is setting up her Etsy store. I love my nerdy, awesome kids.

5. There is no fifth thing.

horse heaven, by jane smiley

recovering from genocidal trauma, by myra giberovitch

‘Survival is an achievement’

‘Impairment and suffering that follow trauma do not preclude concurrently restorative and successful adjustment’

Appreciating and acknowledging survivors’ abilities, and developing programs from a strengths perspective, helps survivors change their self-perception. It encourages them to talk openly about their wounds, gain insight into how these wounds affect their present lives, and make a decision to heal them. This approach uses the resiliency of the human spirit to recover and heal from the most severe forms of dehumanization and degradation.

‘A sense of control over life and the ability to continue to make decisions, both long and short-term plans, are the best predictors of emotional well-being among older adults’

spirits abroad, by zen cho

Old people should be grateful for affection. The sudden disturbing thought occurred to Vivian that no one had liked Nai Nai very much because she’d never submitted to being looked after.

“Yi Yi,” said Vivian. “She didn’t talk to you because in Nai Nai’s eyes you are perfect already.” As she said this, she realized it was true. Wei Yi — awkward, furious and objectionable in every way — was Nai Nai’s ideal grandchild. There was no need to monitor or reprimand such a perfect heir.

She put her soft hand on Ah Lee’s arm and stroked it. Love came up the arm and melted Ah Lee’s thorny teenaged heart.

the dead do not improve, by jay caspian kang

Adam eventually picked up a variety of drug habits because he thought they would provide a grittier spin on the traditional American Jewish experience. They did not.

Whenever he saw the bay or the Golden Gate Bridge swallowed up in fog, the grim-faced surfers crossing Great Highway on their way out to the shore pound at Ocean Beach, even the valley nerds wobbling along the 1 on their ridiculously efficient bicycles, he felt his hatreds soften, at least a little.

There’s nothing as stifling and infuriating as a well-intentioned, garrulous white man who is trying very hard to introduce you, his unexpected minority associates, in his best, most graceful way.

the internet of thims

While they are equally cute and dear to me, my cat Alice appears in pictures as an inkblot with eyes, whereas my cat Thimble is photogenic as hell. I’m just sayin’.

alviso slough

I get the impression my sister would prefer it if i did not have tragic song lyrics at the top of my blog for weeks at a time. So here are some pictures of Alviso Slough.

I drove over after a work thing to see if looking at a ghost town would have any effect on my profound grief for my father. And it did.

Alviso was a bustling port town until the Bay silted up and the wetlands reclaimed the fishermen’s houses and the cannery. Now ducks nest here, and coots turn upside down in the water, only ten minutes from the Superfund site that is Silicon Valley Ground Zero. It was rush hour, but there was some freakin’ insane birdsong going on.

Places like Alviso, and the Exclusion Zones around Chernobyl and Fukushima, are comforting to me. They remind me that even after everyone I know and all humans and even the mammals and birds are dead and gone, there will still be rocks and water and sky.

black lake, by bjork

Our love was my womb
But our bond has broken
My shield is gone
My protection is taken

My heart is enormous lake
Black with potion
I am blind
Drowning in this ocean

My soul torn apart
My spirit is broken
Into the fabric of all
He is woven

Family was always our sacred mutual mission
Which you abandoned

death and ptaxes

Time continues to pass. Wednesday would’ve been Mum and Dad’s 55th anniversary. Thursday morning, I learned Terry Pratchett had died as I drove myself to the dentist. I bawled my eyes out, and as a result my pain tolerance was too low even for the water pick. My hygienist, Lisa, was super sweet about it. After that I had to meet with my tax accountant.

Being a grownup? Sucks.

It’s Pi Day, by the inexplicable American reckoning. I was kicking myself for not organizing pies – the line at Mission Pie is doubtless out the door, it was last year – when I remembered that we own the means of production! Claire’s hard at work on her Key Lime Pie, and I have the makings of a strawberry/apple and a tarte tatin, when she’s done.

on work, khalil gibran

And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart,
even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection,
even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy,
even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit,
And to know that all the blessed dead
are standing about you and watching.

happy birthday, sarah

I still can’t really write about Dad (although as Mary wonderfully pointed out, he’s been a hero of this blog all along.) So I will write about my sister instead, shown here adoring ponehs.

She and I weren’t especially close growing up, which I get. There are six years between us, I was irksomely hero-worshippy and she had her own complex shit going on. I do still remember a note she wrote me when I was 19 and went to Tasmania for six weeks on an archaeological dig, saying: “I always knew you were going to have great adventures.” When I got accepted to Trinity she gave me a blue plaid Onkaparinga blanket to keep me warm in the Irish winters. It’s still my go-to for snuggling on the couch in San Francisco. I bought another like it to keep me warm in Barraba, and she has it on her bed when I’m not there.

But our timing was sort of perpetually off. Our lives diverged. She was pregnant when I came home from Dublin, and she had her babies while I got my first job, my first apartment and my first car. She moved to Brisbane around the time I moved to San Francisco and our parents set off in their Winnebago to live the nomad life. Our brother Alain shared her house and helped raise her kids while our brother Iain and I made the annual schlep to Burning Man.

When Mum and Dad settled in Barraba, Sarah packed up her whole family and moved there, with the tacit understanding that she would become their caregiver as they aged. Dad was diagnosed in January of 2013; Mum in August of 2013; Mum died in February 2014 and Dad, of course, four weeks ago. It’s been a brutal couple of years for all of us, but the burden fell disproportionately on her. She and I reverted, hard, to stereotype. I was the out-of-town career woman who flew in to deal with bureaucracy and demand answers from doctors. She was the one who dealt with everything else, day after day after long, crushing day.

She did it with such patience and strength, I can’t even tell you. Sarah was Mum’s best friend and constant companion. She maintained Dad safely in his home and independent long after anyone else thought it was possible to do so. Small wonder that even when he had forgotten the rest of us, Dad’s eyes still lit up whenever she walked into the room. It was her stubborn advocacy that earned them both a merciful death in palliative care with their pain humanely managed. Sarah alone was with both our parents when they took their last breaths.

I couldn’t have done it. I am awed by her unstinting love and grace throughout. Fortunately there are compensatory upsides to going through Hell side by side with another person. I was on the phone the other day laughing my head off, and afterwards Jeremy said: “Was that your sister? I thought you were talking to Salome.” Funnily enough I had said to Salome a few days earlier: “I used to call her because she was my sister. Now I call her because I want to talk to her.” And then I started to cry, but from happiness for a change (as well as because I cry at the drop of a hat these days.) It has all been a fucking ordeal, but Sarah has been magnificent. I’m so proud of her and grateful to know her.

And, as it happens, she is turning 50 today. Why don’t you all go do something awesome that she would do: tolerate a pesky little sibling, lift some weights, swim a kilometre, snorgle a kitteh, devour a book, teach a child to read, manage an art festival, play the ukulele, be an amazing friend, donate to cancer or dementia research. As for me I will raise a glass to the greatest woman I know. Happy birthday, Sarah.

another roadside attraction

We first saw the Old Faithful geyser in January 2008, and I’d always wanted to relive that happy day. Most do-overs are anticlimactic, but this one wasn’t.

The geyser geysed.

Such geysing!

“Everybody smile! Milo, leave your brother alone.”

Then we visited the Petrified Forest and saw this majestic California oak springing from the fossilized remains of its ancestor. Plus a bunch of trees.

I wheedled our way into the hot springs but my phone was out of juice, so you’ll have to take my word for it that they were even warmer and more jewel-like and delightful than I remembered.

Nearly forgot the best part. The sun set and Venus and Mars shone by a Cheshire moon. Salome and I discussed the physics of such a moon until it set, orange, behind Coit Tower.  I said: “City’s always beautiful, but that was… Unf.” Salome said: “I arranged it all specially for your birthday.”

photo by Jules Ellingson


Here’s what I wrote when I turned 35:

I called Mum and said “Congratulations! I’m AWESOME!”

Only one tiny thing is needed to complete my happiness: a Swedish Warmblood mare, six years old, 16.2hh, bright bay with a white blaze and four white stockings, a trot that levitates, a huge jump and a kind and willing disposition.

Here’s me at lunchtime today:

He’s far from six and he’s no mare. And I sure do miss my mother, not to mention my Dad. But despite everything, it’s been a pretty okay birthday so far.

men we reaped, by jesmyn ward

I think my love for books sprang from my need to escape the world I was born into, to slide into another where words were straightforward and honest, where there was clearly delineated good and evil, where I found girls who were strong and smart and creative and foolish enough to fight dragons, to run away from home to live in museums, to become child spies, to make new friends and build secret gardens. Perhaps it was easier for me to navigate that world than my home

Perhaps it was easier for me to sink into those worlds than to navigate a world that would not explain anything to me, where I could not delineate good and bad

How the privilege of my education, my eventual ascent into another class, was born in the inexorable push of my mother’s hands. How unfair it all seemed.

After I left New York, I found the adage about time healing all wounds to be false: grief doesn’t fade. Grief scabs over like my scars and pulls into new, painful configurations as it knits. It hurts in new ways. We are never free from grief.

this house of grief, by helen garner

The water in the glass he sipped from trembled; but still he gave off that little buzz of glamour peculiar to the Australian tradie

Crop-haired and wiry in her dark blue uniform, a huge diver’s watch on her wrist, Senior Constable Rebecca Caskey of the Search and Rescue Squad stood in the witness stand with her hands clasped loosely behind her. Something in her easy posture reminded me of nurses I had seen at work: women of few words, unflappable, alert and calm.

His responses were so inadequate to the gravity of the situation that it hurt to look at him.

Oh, how bleak and windswept it seems to women, the landscape of what some men call friendship.

station eleven, by emily mandel

“It must’ve been so beautiful” is the inevitable reply. “It was,” he tells them, “it is,” and then finds a way to change the subject because it’s difficult to explain this next part. Yes, it was beautiful. It was the most beautiful place I have ever seen. It was gorgeous and claustrophobic. I loved it and I always wanted to escape.

In art school they talked about day jobs in tones of horror. She never would have imagined that her day job would be the calmest and least cluttered part of her life.

Perhaps soon humanity would simply flicker out, but Kirsten found this thought more peaceful than sad. So many species had appeared and later vanished from this earth; what was one more?

like the corporate world’s full of ghosts. And actually, let me revise that, my parents are in academia so I’ve had front-row seats for that horror show, I know academia’s no different, so maybe a fairer way of putting this would be to say that adulthood’s full of ghosts.”

“I just mean, my life must’ve seemed unfathomable to him.” “Your life’s probably unfathomable to most people.

falling into the fire, by christine montross

“Sometimes holding all the blackness they feel is the only thing you can do. That’s not nothing. And sometimes it is enough.”

I question my intuition rigorously and routinely, but I rely upon it nonetheless.

Don’t just do something, stand there.

If I am to abide with these patients, then I must accompany them to that place among the rocks, to the sweating wall. I must face with them the uncertainty of what lies beyond. I must stand at the edge with them and peer over into the fathomless depths. If I tell my patients, as I do, that this life can be a tolerable one, that they can face their fears and their traumas, their visions and voices, their misery, then I must look at what I am asking them to endure and I must look at it full in the face.

How do we do it? How do we bear the unbearable realities of our human lives? Someday I will die and leave Deborah, and our son, and our daughter. Or someday each of them will die and leave me. How do we reckon with this inconceivable a loss?

my brother robin, by barbara williams

From left: Brenda, Robin, Barbara, Colin

My Brother Robin

Our Robin was born in Mosman, Sydney on September 5th 1935, the youngest of three children of Army Captain Kenneth Chalmers and his wife Brenda (nee King). His siblings were, sister Barbara, born 1930 and brother, Colin born 1933. In the summer of his second year he contracted a serious gastric infection which lasted for many weeks and effectively retarded his physical development at a crucial time in his young life.

The consequence of that was that he was always smaller than his peers which earned him, at high school, the nickname “Massive Muscles the Mighty Midget Mosquito” or “Massive” for short.

IN 1939 the family moved to Port Moresby in what is now Papua New Guinea where our father was detailed to provide fortification for the strategically important harbour in the event of war. The contingent was made up of 22 army personnel, two howitzer anti-aircraft guns, two searchlights, one army wife and three children. Port Moresby boasted a population of about 700 “whites” and a similar number of native Papuans, two schools for white children, one state and one catholic, each with 22 pupils, and one for natives. The rivalry between the two white schools was intense and we children were divided between the two. Stone fights in the main street of town were not uncommon. We had to call a truce when we got home. Robin, being the youngest was often caught in the middle or left standing looking bewildered. Nevertheless we children had many happy and sometimes disastrous adventures together and with our friends.

World War II intervened and our tropical idyll ended with a move to Melbourne and to the Blue Mountains when Dad was posted to the Middle East in 1941. This was a period of adventure and, looking back, amazing freedom, for we three as we explored the bushland and invented games centred around the wilderness at our back door in Hazelbrook. There were few children in our village so we became a tight-knit trio for the next couple of years.

Our Mother’s untimely death in the latter half of 1942 brought an abrupt end to all this and we found ourselves back in Sydney in the care of Mum’s two Aunts who selflessly stepped in. These two women were then in their sixties and the elder one had raised our Mother from the age of five. It is hard to imagine their courage in taking on three unruly pre-teenagers. Robin was only seven. In recent years he told me that he really could not remember our Mother – a sad blank in his life and the possible reason that he did not relate to the kind and oh so tolerant lady, Rosa Heath, that our father married when we were teen-agers.

The disruption caused by the war and the demands of army life was probably felt more by Robin than Colin and I. By the time he finished high school he had attended 11 schools in two States, city and country public and private, and sat for University entry exams in the UK. One story of high school life he would tell related to compulsory School Cadets at that time. Not being sports minded or attracted to the army, he wangled his way into the ordnance section where he could sit with his feet up and avoids any physical activity. And his father a Brigadier!

Others will have to tell you about his years in England. What I do know is that he graduated in engineering at what was to become the University of Sussex and eventually part of the University of London – much to Robin’s dismay. His first job in engineering was with Sperry Rand. I also know that he became an expert curry maker and married Jean Ellison, returning to Australia in 1968 with Sarah and Iain at their feet. Alain and Rachel followed in due course.

As an engineer working in Australia he worked initially for AWA, a pioneer electronics company in this country, moving to other jobs throughout his working life. He was involved in many exciting projects. Software for the original Collins Class submarines; software for the automated on course betting at racecourses; the acoustic system for the new Sydney Opera House are some that come to mind.

As he and Jean settled in Sydney and we live in Brisbane we have not spent much time together over the years but I do know that whenever we were able to get together it was such fun to be part of their lovely family.

Robin was a man dedicated to serving the community in which he lived. He was prominent in the school Parents and Citizens organization during his family’s school years, spent a number of years as a volunteer guide at Taronga Zoo and compiling a data base of the animals there. In retirement he and Jean travelled in their motorhome for ten years during which time he helped a traveller friend compile and publish a guide book of information about the many, many towns and villages he visited in their travels.

Settling in Barraba saw him still looking for ways and means that he could contribute to the community and the town that he loved so much until his sad decline into dementia.

He was a self confessed sceptic, read widely, thrived on animated discussion always taking the lead role, read widely, loved to perform and entertain and enjoyed life to the full.

For me, he was my little brother and I loved him. May he rest in peace.

for the barraba gazette

Robin Paul Chalmers
1935 – 2015

Robin was much-loved husband to Jean, father of Sarah, Iain, Alain and Rachel, father-in-law to Ian, Jeremy and Rachel, and grandfather of Kelly, Ross, Claire and Julia. A brilliant engineer and a man of integrity and kindness, he bore his difficult last illness with dignity.

The family wishes to thank Doctor Piet, the staff of Barraba Hospital and the staff of McKay House in Tamworth for their care for Dad; and our friends in Barraba, who have supported us with such generosity of spirit.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the Centre for Research on Ageing, Health and Welfare’s Dementia Research Endowment or to the Battersea Dogs’ Home.