Archive for January, 2011

jen died this morning

I can’t trust myself to write about it.

my dear jen

This can’t be happening.

save yourself


Claire, in agony: I CAN’T EVEN FIND MY BOOTS!

Me: Are they near the bookshelf? Where you left them last night? Even though I asked you to put them away? Do you think maybe if we all put stuff back into its place we might be able to find it again the next time we need it? No, that’s crazy talk.

Jeremy: We should ask the Mythbusters.

and when that’s done? i blog

Homework supervision, piano practice supervision, roast chicken with kale, yams and spinach salad, dinner all sitting up at the table, bedtime at the official house standard bedtime and no later. And then! After reading Claire a chapter of The Little White Horse, then my daily mandated five hundred words on the novel?

Jesus God, this fiction gig is freakin hard! (And parenting’s no picnic either.)

The smugness when I actually hit the word count, though! The meaningless bullshit sense of achievement! The glow.

nothing to envy, by barbara demick

Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, on the other hand, are terrible, atrocious people.

columbine, by dave cullen

After my first year at uni I got a summer gig on an archaeological dig at Port Arthur, the big Colonial gaol site and open air museum on the Tasman Peninsula. It was fantastic, my first adventure away from home, prefiguring Ireland and America. I got to try on different selves and to spend my days in hard physical labour and my evenings flirting and learning to cook. (Zucchini should be peeled and sliced and blanched and served with pepper and too much butter. Whatever you do to them, eels hand-caught out of the well are gross.) And despite its awful history Port Arthur was, and is, gobsmackingly beautiful. Every Benthamite Panopticon should be built out of sandstone and set in parkland, on a cove.

In 1996 there was a huge, terrible massacre there. The person responsible has said that he did it in order to be famous, and so I have not spoken or written his name since I read that, fifteen years ago. (Boy, I sure showed him!) But my desire to expunge his infamy reflected a deeper conviction that the massacre was an aberration, a rain of lead from the sky. It wasn’t about Port Arthur. It wasn’t some terrible reflection on human nature (Port Arthur’s awful history is that.) It wasn’t how life is. I resist all efforts by heartless men with guns to define the human condition.

The Columbine book is super-interesting in this way, because it discusses Eric Harris as a fully-fledged psychopath. (Dylan Klebold’s is a very different case.) Harris was, as far as anyone can tell, clinically aberrant; as if incapable of empathy at the genetic level. He was a rain of lead from the sky. He doesn’t tell us anything about bullying or nerds or people who wear trench coats or social life in American high schools. He is a natural disaster, like a hurricane or a flood. And this is most movingly expressed by Patrick Ireland, who is best remembered for climbing out a window with blood pouring from the bullet wound in his head. What kept him going through the hours it took him to crawl to the window? Not hope, as it turned out. Trust. At his valedictorian address to his class, Ireland said:

“When I fell out the window, I knew somebody would catch me. That’s what I need to tell you: I knew the loving world was there all the time.”

Life is mysterious and amazing.

late to the party

I made Julia Child’s boeuf bourgignon! It woulda been awesome if I’d cooked it longer. The original plan was to make it ahead of time and reheat it. But it smelled great, so we et it. With new potatoes and buttered peas. And ice cream for dessert. NOM.

I’d never actually cooked out of “Mastering the Art…” in real time before, and it was like she was standing at my elbow anticipating my questions. Damn, but that is a well-designed cookbook.


Have I mentioned how splendid horses are? No? …that surprises me.

Thanks for all the Kate Bush and Kinks thoughts! For your next assignment, please discuss Abba, Michael Jackson and Queen.

I’m totally having a royal wedding party. There will be Pimm’s. Stay tuned!


Q: What do Remain in Light, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, Blue, Rumours, The Dark Side of the Moon, Kind of Blue, Legend, London Calling and Pet Sounds have in common?

A: I just synched them all onto my iPod, after watching Pirate Radio made me realize I have neglected the kids’ musical education. This is part one, 1959-1980.

Q: What’s the best Kinks album? Kate Bush? Who have I left out? What should I pick for volume 2?

A: No, really, I am asking you.

super manny

I thought I’d been dropped in the deep end. My first ride back, after three weeks away with only two rides in Sydney, was on Manny, in the indoor arena. But he’s a new Manny. I rode as light and soft as I could, and he did big blowy sighs (which is a VERY GOOD thing; it means the horse is happy and relaxed) and the first time – the first time! – I asked him for some lengthening in the trot, all I did was unclench my diaphragm and he immediately stepped his back legs under himself and lifted his shoulders so he could reach his front legs further out. It was MAGIC. Then we did a canter and I collected it just by clenching my diaphragm, and there he was, uphill and happy and bouncy and fast-but-controlled. A Ferrari in third gear!

We didn’t really jump, just did patterns over poles on the ground and a couple of teeny fences, but when the big white dressage horse was being lunged next door and bucking on the end of the lunge rein I knew he was going to infect Manny’s mood. So I concentrated really hard on staying the same and not riding defensively – keeping my hand and elbow and shoulder unlocked, letting him move forward, and jamming my heel down as far as I could so I had a strong base to follow him. And Manny was perfect; soft and happy and responsive. And he did pick up the white horse’s mood, and he did buck, and it didn’t matter because my heels were down and my core was strong.

It’s Manny that’s improved, far more than I have. We were talking about it afterwards and Toni said “It’s like he’s looked around and taken a deep breath.” He used to get complicated because he was over-anxious to please. Now he knows he won’t be punished for mistakes, he has relaxed and is able to enjoy himself. Every horse that comes into this program gets better: fitter, happier, more delightful to ride. It is an awesome pleasure to behold.

maintain the rage

We had a huge bunch of friends and kids over on Sunday morning for pastries. Claire just wanted to hole up somewhere with a book, but littler kids kept finding her and invading her space. She was filled with impotent fury.

Moira: She reminds me so much of how you were when I first met you.

Me: …I was 22 years old.

Moira: Yep!

my first world problems let me show you them

Something’s working, anyway. Tonight I wrote 500 words on the novel (now at 13K) and 500 words on a new short story.

The last couple of days have been very difficult and sad, for no reason I can exactly fathom. The kids are doing their schoolwork and I am reading my work mail; maybe it’s trying to live in two worlds at once that’s doing it to me. Wanting to be back in San Francisco, wanting not to leave Australia. My divided loyalties, my inability to do justice to either set of obligations.

vacation: exhausting last stretch

Oh yeah so I have a blog.

Homeschooling Claire: I have Google Translate open in another window. She is reading Isabel Allende’s La Ciudad de las Bestias. When she comes to a word she doesn’t know, I translate it for her, and she enters the word and its translation in the dictionary she is compiling. We picked up a typo on the second page.

Very late night last night scaring myself with mystery stories off Wikipedia. “Research.” The stupid novel is, well, coming along.

Lunch with Kay and Kelso yesterday: pies from Chatswood Chase. Kay’s mother Ros turned up. Her interests these days are Antarctica, astronomy and Aboriginal politics. We had a lot to talk about.

Q: What does Antarctica sound like? A: Calving icebergs. Seabirds.

Q: What does Antarctica smell like? A: Fishy penguin poo.

Note to self: send her Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World. And Big’s Rach would like The Middleman.

Kay and Kel had their interview at the American embassy. After eighteen years of trying, they won the green card lottery. So they are moving! To New York. Look, I know New York is nice and all, but we counted it up and we have spent like five of the last 22 years in the same hemisphere. (She went to France. I went to Ireland. She went to America. She came back, and I went to America.) So she’s moving to the West Village? I told her Berkeley is the West West Village.

I am restless in Sydney. I miss my Barraba family and my San Francisco family. It’s overcast most days, so we haven’t been to the beach. I read Black Chicks Talking and am halfway through Best Australian Essays. Bought at Berkelouw’s and Ariel, respectively. I will keep the dead tree book industry alive single-handedly, if I must.

the manly ferry

We could have lined up for the Sydney Festival thingy on the Opera House steps, but instead we went for one of Sydney’s mundane miracles. On the back of the Manly Ferry, looking at the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge and the pure living sapphire-and-emerald beauty of the Harbour itself, I thought to myself in astonishment: “I used to take this for granted.”

chicken tagine with green olives and preserved lemon

It is my favourite dish at the Moroccan place Francis found in Midtown, where we always have dinner. Rach H. made it for us last night when we went over. Between Jeremy’s visit in September and this trip, Rach’s mother passed away very suddenly from cancer. Seeing her face I was reminded how exhausting grief is. It is very hard work.

She cut and peeled garlic cloves and crushed them in a mortar and pestle. She mixed them with cilantro, olive oil, turmeric (instead of saffron), chopped onions, lemon juice, salt and pepper and marinated chicken legs in the mixture for a while. She added a cinnamon stick and water and put everything in her Le Creuset on the stove to simmer for almost an hour. When the chicken legs were falling off the bone, she took them out to brown and let the liquid reduce with green olives and preserved lemon in it. She served it over couscous. It was divine.

And then there was pavlova for dessert.

this holiday: the physical toll

I have a very weird chemical-burn-like thing on my neck. Best guess is a caterpillar. It’s healing now, or at least the burned skin is sloughing off. Sarah had one of these too. Sarah: how is yours?

I have large bruises on my inner calves, exactly where jodhpurs have patches, and for exactly the same reason. Riding English in jeans is whack.

I have a large bruise on my hip, where I slipped on the pool stairs while holding Julia and made sure she landed on top of me while I took the force of the blow. As I explained to the kids afterwards, this is pure instinct, not a moral choice, and when they have my grandchildren I will protect the grandchildren at the expense of the kids. “It’s not called the selfish gene for nothing!”

Maybe best of all, I had a visual or ocular or opthalmic migraine last night.

We were at dinner with Jess and Mark and their boys, and I kept taking my glasses off to polish them because I was seeing spectra at the edge of the lenses. Then I looked up at something Mark said and realized I was still seeing the spectra without my glasses on. They were in multiple zigzag lines and they were flashing bright rainbow colours.

Both Jeremy and Mark have had them before and recognized them from my description. When I got home I learned that they are called scintillating scotoma. There was no headache. I did feel loopy afterwards, but apparently that’s normal.

Mum: it’s harmless.

It was very gratifying to find the exact thing I saw described here:

and to be able to show it to Claire. “Isn’t my brain interesting?” “Yes, Mama.”

ETA: How could I forget the scratch on my toe where I walked through barbed wire at Woodsreef!

centennial park stables

I was hoping to get a good instructor. Sandro trained in Germany and at the Pessoas’ barn in Brazil, so that worked out okay.

Sandro picked up exactly the same issues that Erin and Dez always ding me for: close my fingers on the reins. Keep my leg aids consistent, not on-again off-again. It’s as if there were an international language of good riding which I am just now able to have the most basic conversations in.

It was surprisingly difficult to ride in jeans and a too-tight helmet and no gloves. I was sloppy, especially in a couple of the transitions. But the horse had done dressage and was as sweet as sugar. By the end of the ride I had him cantering over a crossrail in a good rhythm and moving off my inside leg.

This barn is exactly ten minutes from the flat, as opposed to 35 minutes door to door in San Francisco. So that’s nice.

Then I got home and set off the burglar alarm and locked myself out of the flat for three hours. OH WELL.

as of tonight

…my novel fragment is twice the length it was when I left California.

Ten thousand words down, seventy thousand to go.

landscape and engineering

Another way to look at today is our progress out of the city: under the Harbour and up the expressway to Naremburn with its Victorian workers cottages; down through Sailor’s Bay Creek and up through Willoughby and Roseville with their California Bungalows from the 1920s and 30s; down over Middle Creek and up to Forestville and Frenchs Forest with their houses beginning in the 1960s. Successive waves of development further and further from the city, depending on the construction of Northbridge and Roseville Bridge respectively.

Then Scotland Island and Kuring-gai Chase and Cottage Point, all aristocratically inaccessible and beautiful. My own early-childhood-imprinted wilderness, my goanna sprawled insouciantly across the road. Wooded fjords and sailboats and Pittwater full of flashing fish.

“It takes a real commitment to self-dramatization to have an unhappy childhood in a place like this,” I said to Jeremy.

“You put a lot of effort in,” he said.

Barraba is similarly indebted to engineering marvels, in its case Split Rock Dam and Woodsreef Mine. The dam and the controversial tailings pile were separated at birth, as I pointed out to my brother-in-law after he’d graciously driven us all around and explained what he knew about them.

“Piles of dirt,” I said. “Men never grow out of your Tonka toys, do you?”

Woodsreef, when it was being mined, let Barraba grow to a population of 3000. The town has since dwindled to a third of that size. The missing pipeline from Split Rock Dam, if it is ever completed, would allow the lost population to return. The downside of Woodsreef is that the miners were mining asbestos, a mineral now so reviled in Australia that my sister asked us not to visit the mine, or if we did, at least not to get out of the car. I made sure when I got back to her house to cough theatrically. I am obnoxious.