Archive for the 'sanity' Category

an annotated bibliography of the inside of my head

You know those books that you can’t stop thinking about, won’t shut up about, and wish everyone around you would read? The ones that, if taken in aggregate, would tell people more about you than your resume?” Yeah, I do. Here are some of mine. (I’m going with the obscure ones. If you haven’t already read Dark Emu and The Body Keeps the Score, go, do.)

Nuclear Rites (1996) – Hugh Gusterson embedded himself as an anthropologist at Lawrence Livermore National Labs. He talks about bomb tests as rites of passage for the weapons scientists, and I find myself thinking about this whenever I think about douchebag VCs investing in horrorshows like Uber. A Cold War kid, I saw The Day After on TV and followed the news trickling out of the Chernobyl disaster. I couldn’t conceive of why anyone would build such fucking appalling weapons. This book helped me understand, at least a little.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1998) – I constantly quote Michael Frayn’s “In a good play, everyone is right.” This is a book-length version of the same idea. Her doctors had one framework for understanding Lia Lee’s epilepsy, and her Hmong family had another. However kind and well-intentioned Westerners think we are, when we tacitly assume the superiority of our version of the truth, children die.

Depression: A Public Feeling (2000) – This book introduced me to “political depression”, the idea that anxiety and grief are a wholly reasonable reaction to the destructive and hypercompetitive economies in which we are forced to live. The first chapters are a poetic memoir of one of the author’s depressive episodes, and I find myself reading them over and over. I’ll always be grateful that Ann Cvetkovich gave me a way of thinking about my relationship with my landscape of origin as a settler seeking to right the wrongs of the past.

The Language of Blood (2003) – A wrenching memoir that changed the way I think about transracial adoption and motherhood. If you like it, see also All You Can Ever Know.

Mother Nature (2005) – An anthropologist and primatologist considers the evidence for how best to raise children. A book of radical kindness. If you like it, see also A Primate’s Memoir.

Postwar (2006) I’ve called this the missing manual for Generation X. It provides the context for the political climate in which we were born – the fading of the postwar consensus and peace dividend, setting the stage for the attack on social institutions by Thatcher and Reagan, and the collapse of the social contract that brought us to where we are. You’re not going to like this book, exactly. It’s hard work and heartbreaking. Judt died before seeing his worst fears fulfilled, but if you want more, his student Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands is basically the prequel.

This House of Grief (2014) – Another dumb joke of mine is that Mad Max: Fury Road is a keenly observed documentary of my childhood. This book is, however, a keenly observed documentary of the middle-class Australia in which I grew up, its lonely and angry men, its frightened and angry women, and the horrors it inflicts on its children. In some ways it’s the distillation of everything I’ve talked about here: the slaughterhouse of empire, and ways in which it drains our private lives of meaning.

Horses in Company (2017) – Lucy Rees, who wrote some of my favorite pony books when I was a child, has spent the intervening thirty years catching up on new science around equine ethology. Much as alpha wolves and cocaine-addicted rats illustrate the stress of being an experimental subject rather than authentic wild animal behavior, the received wisdom about dominant and submissive horses reflects domestic animals under resource constraint. Rees argues that wild horses, who can eat the grass beneath their feet, live in the real-world version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, and that in this state of nature they’re feminist matriarchal gestalt entities. I jest, but only a little. If we could take violence out of the way we interact with animals and children, maybe we could take it out of the way we interact with one another.

on bitterness

When I was pregnant I craved bitter greens, and this craving has never entirely left me. Last night I ate, with great focus, a plate of shaved brussels sprouts. Last week I told a colleague the story of how I broke my leg. I left part of it out; nevertheless, he said: “You sound bitter.” I am.

The evangelical church in which I spent my teens is highly critical of bitterness. So is society at large. I’m beginning to understand the ways in which this serves political ends. Bitterness is the perception of injustice. God knows we are treated unfairly, but God forbid we should be angry about it.

Burnout is cumulative, like concussion. After I was fired, I never wanted to work in the tech industry again. Now that I have returned (as if there were any other industry; as if academia, journalism, publishing, teaching weren’t equally soul-destructive) I can feel the limits of my capacity to endure, just as I feel the limited range of motion in my ankle. There are leaps of faith I could make in the past I won’t be able to make again, and not only because I am ageing. I have lost the faith that made such leaps possible.

In its place I have my bitterness: the astringency of medicinal herbs, that can heal, or poison. Knowledge that exists beyond the imagination of the church and society at large. Witchcraft.

california in the spring

Can a place be too pretty?

Our experts weigh in.

flow

Last night as I was drifting off to sleep, I thought about Frenchs Forest, where I grew up, and the tiny pieces of bush that I knew so well: the undeveloped block adjoining the high school, which is now the Northern Beaches Hospital; the little steep park around the corner from our house, called Blue Gum Reserve; and the steeper gully leading into Bantry Bay, which is now part of Garigal National Park, named for the traditional custodians of the land.

Liz has been talking about BART stations through time, and for a minute I could see all those little remnants joined up into one vast sea of dry sclerophyll woodland fading into the blue distance. There were sandstone boulders and shady overhangs. Banksias and grevilleas grew brilliant and spidery in the understory. It smelled like eucalyptus trees under the hot sun and sounded like cicadas singing. This was my home country for tens or hundreds of thousands of years, before the houses were built, even before special constable and crown lands ranger James Ffrench clear-felled the forest that now, in ghost form, bears his name.

I realized that the high sandstone flats, in Allambie and Narraweena and Beacon Hill, are carved and were likely ceremonial. People would live closer to fresh water, I thought. As I traced in my mind the clear cool creeks (Frenchs, Carroll, Bates) that run down into Middle Harbour, I realized that the rill that ran across the bottom of the high school oval and into Rabbett Reserve (willow trees and golden sand, frogs and tadpoles) ran the other way, into the confusingly-named Middle Creek. My home was high on the watershed itself.

Middle Creek flows not into Middle Harbour but into Narrabeen Lagoon. According to the Dictionary of Sydney:

The camp site at Narrabeen Lagoon was the last community Aboriginal town camp to survive in the northern Sydney suburbs. Probably, before the British invasion, Narrabeen Lagoon was one of the many coastal occupation sites offering seasonal shelter, fish and wetland resources… higher and less accessible country was used for ceremonial and educational purposes by the Gai-mariagal. Dennis Foley, a Gai-mariagal (Camaraigal) descendant, describes the area as ‘the heart of our world’.

Dennis Foley has written of the destruction of the camp in the 1950s, when what became the Academy of Sport was built. When I was a child in the 1970s, it was whispered that there were still people living there. These were the survivors of the genocide of the Eora people. There is no sign or memorial.

I’ve been thinking a lot about gods and goddesses and the dead: la Calavera Catrina and Guadalupe and Epona, all psychopomps, all syncretist beings like me. I’ve been thinking about AORTA’s Theory of Change:

Decades of neoliberal policy have erased histories of enslavement and genocide, and the movements that fought and resisted along the way. Today’s social movements are often disconnected from local, regional, national, and global movement history, which can lead to a sense of isolation and alienation.

And about this essay, in which:

Derrida asked, ‘Is it possible that the antonym of “forgetting” is not “remembering”, but justice?’

Gods and goddesses move around outside time, where the dead are not gone, just elsewhere. Historical memory is a kind of augmented reality, a map drawn in the colors of love and grief and anger. May I honor the memory of my dead. May they seek justice through me. May I be a good ancestor in my turn.

lucky just to keep afloat

I’ve had the Split Enz song “Six Months In A Leaky Boat” on constant replay this trip. I wasn’t at all surprised to find out Tim Finn wrote it after a nervous breakdown. I complained to Jeremy that everything I want to say about the legacy of settler colonialism and consequent mental illness, this song says in five minutes.

Aotearoa, rugged individual
Glisten like a pearl, at the bottom of the world
The tyranny of distance, didn’t stop the cavalier
So why should it stop me? I’ll conquer and stay free

Ah c’mon all you lads, let’s forget and forgive
There’s a world to explore, tales to tell back on shore
I just spent six months in a leaky boat
Six months in a leaky boat

An old friend tried to argue that Doctor Who isn’t a modern King Arthur myth because “no one cares that much about stories.” And yet it moves. In case you’re not convinced that this song is a miracle of subversive irony, I’ll just point out that Thatcher banned it during the Falklands War.

watershed

Honestly though this was a devastatingly hard year, politically, professionally, and personally; and it was the fifth such year in a row. Breaking my leg was the least of it.

It was too blustery to ride today, but too sunny to stay inside, so Jeremy and I went for a walk in Heron’s Head Park.

It’s the site of a never-completed shipping terminal, next to the decommissioned Hunter’s Point Power Station, not far from where Islais Creek, our local watershed, meets the Bay. Back in the 90s, citizen activists spearheaded wetlands restoration and now it’s a sparkling salt marsh, a magnet for pelicans and sandpipers. There’s an eco center with a living roof.

We walked and talked for a long time, and then dropped by Bay Natives nursery and bought some eggs still warm from the nest. Reclaimed Industrial Landscape is one of my top three aesthetics, and my hope for the new year is that the same transformation can happen in my cold dead heart.

red clocks, by leni zumas

And at this point, what else can she do? You could stop trying so hard. You could love your life as it is.

self-medicating with art

The world is on fire, and everything seems to be about death right now, but some things have dealt with death in a way that makes me feel less terrible.

Nights are endless because you wake at the softest cough or sob, then lie awake listening to her breathe so softly, like a child. – A Manual for Cleaning Women

This book encouraged me to go back to the stories I’ve already told that still haunt me.

I took the kids to see an all-woman production of Jesus Christ Superstar. It was fabulous, all Resistance and bisexual lighting. Jesus was so good she almost upstaged Judas. Between my parents loving the Sydney production and the Spiral Oasis staging at Burning Man in 99, I have such an odd relationship with this play. It’s puzzling that Lloyd Webber could have written this one decent thing, in a career otherwise so very full of crap. Maybe Judas is his Mary Sue, as Doctor Horrible is Whedon’s.

He rubs his fingers over old scars. – I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Michelle McNamara and death fought one another to a draw.

hashtag funemployed hashtag summer of love

In May, the tech industry and I parted ways under circumstances I am contractually obligated to describe as mutual. Ever since, I’ve been having the greatest summer of my life. The bestie and I drove out to the eastern Sierras to see the wild mustang herds that live up around the Montgomery Pass. The high desert was hock-deep in wildflowers, and we spent three hours one sunny afternoon sitting on a hillside watching the wild horses fight and fuck. Mono Lake looks like the surface of another, possibly better planet, and asks to be further explored.

Then I won a residency at a writer’s center down in Santa Cruz and spent a week alone in a cabin on the edge of the redwoods. There were hummingbirds and mule deer and quail. I’d wake at 6 or 7 as usual, then read for a couple of hours, then have coffee and maybe go for a hike. Then, with only short breaks for meals, I’d draft scenes or type them up until late in the evening. When I got stuck, I’d copy out poems by hand.

I realized that, for longer than I can remember, I have been in an antagonistic relationship with time: late for work, behind on deadlines, scrambling to make as many memories with my kids and parents as I possibly could. Suddenly the days roll out before me, not as ordeals to be endured, but as hours for creative work, hours to hang around with the girls and Jeremy (without whom none of this would be possible), hours to spend at the barn, hours to binge on books.

I always regretted not taking real bereavement leave after Mum and then Dad died. I guess I’m doing it now, just a couple of years late. A friend said: “Your voice sounds lighter.” Idleness becomes me.

a love song for the archive of our own

§ Because I am chronically behind the times, here is a Tweeter Essay about the Millennials, those 90s-amnesiac little bastards.

§ Millennials uploading their exquisite, funny, wrenching, trauma-aware love stories to AO3, for no compensation, while holding down day jobs

§ Millennials imagining a world in which relationships built on consent and vulnerability and authenticity are not the exception but the rule

§ …while finishing challenging Master’s programs in library science and psych. So dedicated they make us Gen Xers look like fucking Boomers

§ Would I enjoy even the approximation of sanity I have today without my secret Internet village of Millennials? The fuck I would

§ Whatever I achieve now and for the rest of my life, for art, for love, for the resistance: I am standing on the shoulders of giants

§ Now go read everything by lalaietha and staranise and gyzym and Avoliot and scioscribe and idrilka and Speranza and too many others to name

five images/second fortnight

Marching in the cold rain, my END WHITE SUPREMACY sign sagging, my husband and children festooned with glowstick necklaces, my city jammed with peaceful protestors from Civic Center to the Ferry Building: Market Street one river of loving souls.

The next day, beyond exhausted, crashed out on the couch; shy Alice making her way up onto my chest, quietly as if I might not notice, then crashing out there with me for most of the afternoon. Her fur from which no light escapes. The soft floof that grows out between her toe beans.

Driving up Bernal Hill with Liz to enjoy the raggedy clouds and dramatic light and rainbows. Stopping in silence at Alex Nieto’s memorial, a landslide of flowers.

An emergency drill at NERT to teach us how to self-organize and keep records. Head down counting people in and out of Logistics as incident after incident came in to Planning and Operations; adrenaline and worry and focus and exhilaration. When we got through it, high-fives all round.

At the exquisitely restored Curran Theatre to see Fun Home with my wife and our kids (it’s great; you should go.) The audience filled with lesbians a generation older than us; the ones who cared for men dying of AIDS; my angels, the saints of our city. May I walk in their sacred footsteps.

five images from the first fortnight of 2017

Catching the night bus to Thoughtworks with Liz so that Danny and Jeremy would meet us at BATS, so that even though I bugged out early because overtired, the people who really needed to be there would be there. Seeing Maciej talk about resisting authoritarianism through solidarity and feeling the hairs rise on the back of my neck, because this is the moment he was born for.

Walking through bucketing rain to visit our neighborhood masjid with Jewish Voices for Peace, and drinking scaldingly hot, sweet chai while our hosts prayed to Allah.

Having a lesson on Sam in the covered arena right at Golden Hour of Barnhenge. The sunlight flooded in over the indigo mountains and spring-green pasture and red-gold autumn trees, and the cantering horses’ hooves reached down to kiss the hooves of their elongated shadows. In other lessons, I am pointing him at higher and higher fences and feeling no fear, just joy in his glad grace, the effortless delight of him. The new footing in both arenas, springy and inviting.

Getting rick-rolled by Nancy Pelosi at the rally to support the Affordable Care Act at City Hall. Never gonna give you up! The glare of bright sunshine, the edged bite of the winter wind.

That same evening, taking a yoga class with Julia and Annie Sprinkle.

five small, good things (at a time like this)

1. Slow-dancing with Captain Calkins to White Christmas this afternoon, in a sunbeam, under the mistletoe

2. Taking a Lyft home from Erik’s memorial last night, weeping, and then talking heart-to-heart to my driver about his friend who died of cancer in El Salvador on Wednesday

3. Jeremy’s birthday dinner at Gary Danko on Wednesday, the highlights of which were the cheese cart, and the fact that we were so obviously enjoying one another’s company that when a cake with a candle appeared it read not “Happy Birthday” but “Happy Anniversary”

4. Hearing Mae Jemison talk about space: “I wasn’t scared. I loved it. If I could’ve stayed out there in a glass bubble with my cat, I’d still be there”

5. Learning how to use the indirect rein with Sam Horse, and feeling his movement flow into a more consistent contact and his pleased response: Huh. You’re leveling up.

reentry

Sorry for the radio silence, but we landed and instantly started or restarted new jobs (me and J), new schools (smaller J) and/or searches for new schools (C). It’s been busy!

We sure did miss our various critters. (Taking this adorable goober to a horse show in a coupla weeks; stay tuned.)

Europe definitely gave me new eyes for the beauty and fun of our home.

Feeling a zillion times cheerier and more energized than when I left. Mark of a proper vacation.

adventure time: so that happened

o negative

I have rare blood, O neg, the universal donor. After Orlando I went to give blood and was turned away because my heart was racing (it was the day Jo Cox died; I wanted to say “Haven’t you read the news?” but the poor nurse was just looking out for me.) I’ve since had an EKG and everything’s fine with the ol’ ticker except, of course, that it’s broken. It was broken before Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights and Dallas; it’s shattered now. God in whom I can’t believe, please help this suffering country.

At the same time, I’ve been flattened by a vicious cold. All I can read is Helen Garner and Joan Didion and Diana Athill and this NYer piece on hospice, and all I can watch is Angels in America. It feels like 2005, when the black water drowned New Orleans, or 2003, when Baghdad burned. Baghdad’s still burning. I cling to these words of Roxane’s:

We have to do better than all this “the world is coming to an end.” The world is not coming to an end. The world is changing.

In whatever small way I can work towards justice and peace, let me work.

adventure time: mountain climbing

As a fan of sunbeams and meadows, I am very much in favor of Mt Tam.

Some of our short roommates share my enthusiasm for these landscapes.

Others find the whole California thing kind of tacky and overdone.

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.

mourning in america

After a hot spell that seemed to last at least a couple of years, San Francisco finally woke up in late autumn the other day. All the women wore their knee high boots and sweaters and scarves, and everyone looked relieved and cozy. I remembered a moment in ’99 or 2000 when, unlocking the front door of our apartment building on Alabama Street, I felt a breath of chill in the twilight and for the first time ever, got excited for Halloween and the Day of the Dead and Thanksgiving, for pumpkin pie and hot apple cider. For winter in America.

Smells, like music, short-circuit the rational mind. Today I stood over a tray of cheap romance novels outside a thrift store on Valencia and breathed their binding glue and ached to be with Mum. I walked under the Moreton Bay fig in the grounds of St Lukes, and trod on the figs crushed into the pavement just as I always did on the way to Rick’s house. In Rainbow Grocery, I caught the scent of a just-opened tin of Cadbury’s Roses, and what it meant: the family Christmas.

It was hard enough to write about Mum’s death, which seemed to reduce me to a mental age of 12. Dad’s death seems to have left me almost pre-verbal. My appetite is picky and fugitive and my sleep fitful and unsatisfying. I am at most 5. I dreamed I was a mad old cat lady in France, and that I ended up spending my days rambling through the vineyards with the twin sons of the coke-snorting couple in the party chateau next door.

“Most of my dreams are obvious, but that one wasn’t,” I said to Jeremy, who rolled his eyes.

The parents were asleep on the job, but I sat by the river while the wild-haired, speechless little boys played in the dark water, and I made sure they didn’t drown.

five things because i’ll probably forget again on friday

1. There is a much longer story about the horse show that I will doubtless tell each of you over a bottle of wine some time, which begins with Nick-the-horse dumping me onto a fence at our Friday lesson, such that his bridle came off and I still have a spectacular bruise on my right butt cheek, moves through a 2-hour drive to get a delightful Dutch breeder named Constanza from the showgrounds to the airport (we are fast friends now and I am invited to her farm outside Utrecht), and ends with me enjoying myself in a show ring for the first time, riding the kind of blissed-out, fluid round we can do at home but never before in front of a judge. “Shit,” Casey reports the trainer standing next to her saying of our performance: “they are laying down some good trips.” We were.

2. Once again I have been puzzlingly overlooked for a Macarthur – perhaps something to do with the fact that I haven’t actually written anything – but I was completely goddamn delighted with two of this year’s picks: my longstanding beloved Ta-Nehisi Coates (have you read his new book yet, why haven’t you read his new book yet), and my new fling Lin-Manuel Miranda. I’ve listened to the cast soundtrack of Miranda’s musical Hamilton approximately one gajillion times since it was released last week. It’s a masterpiece. There’s fine-grained, scintillating brilliance in the detail work, a pattern not so much sequential as unfolding ever outwards, revisiting themes to add nuance and complexity and shadow. But there’s also the straight-up shot to the heart of a staggering story, fiercely told. God, just listen. Trust.

3. Three audiobooks by dudes, of varying quality but interconnecting themes: the Oliver Sacks memoir, and then Laszlo Bock’s book about people ops at Google, and then Vaillant’s account of the Harvard Grant Study. You always think you can’t love Oliver Sacks any more, and then you do. People are so real and present and urgent to him. I wanted to be scathing about Bock but his sincerity and curiosity were hard to resist. (Like Maciej Ceglowski and Sebastian Stan, he grew up a communist; maybe that’s why all three seem to have an inner core of diamond-hard idealism. Easy enough to sneer at freedom when you’ve never been unfree.) Bock’s description of evidence-based everything has the distinction of being the first thing I’ve ever read that gave me the slightest interest in working at Google. Still slight, though. Weirdly, Vaillant’s book has made me yell at the car stereo a lot more than Bock’s did. The Grant study is an extraordinary, 75-year-and-counting longitudinal study of a bunch of college men. With this astonishing wealth of material at his disposal, Vaillant’s mistakes are both egregious (autism, for example, is not a “genetic lack of empathy” and fuck you George for saying that it is) and pervasive. The case studies are quite glorious, almost worthy of Sacks, but the conclusions I draw from them are very different from Vaillant’s. A delicious takedown in the Atlantic paints him as a deeply flawed man.

4. Three books by ladies, of uniformly high excellence: Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up is just as life-changing as advertised. Sparking joy is good but the part that clicked for me is the act of thanking your no-longer-needed belongings for their service. My medicine cabinet has never looked so spare. I put off reading What Works for Women at Work for months, afraid that it would make me feel (more) guilty, but in fact it’s one of the most validating books I’ve read in ages. Jessa Crispin’s Dead Ladies Project documents a sojourn in Europe in search of reasons to live. I am devouring it.

5. How is it even possible that I haven’t blogged about Steven Universe yet? There’s probably a German word for the first time your kid recommends something to you and you pay attention to the thing and you realize, Holy shit, this thing is really good. My kid found a good thing. SU is, for me and Claire, that thing. It’s a love letter from maker Rebecca Sugar to her younger brother, and from both of them to the beach towns where they spent holidays growing up, and to the anime they adore, and it’s also a fully realized world with compassionately drawn, three-dimensional characters. It is beautiful and wise and sane and also hilarious and adorable. It’s a love letter to all of us, and so’s Ta-Nehisi’s book and Lin-Manuel’s show and Oliver’s memoir, and I needed all of them, I needed all the reasons I could possibly find to get out of bed, I literally needed reasons to get back on the horse, and they came when I needed them and I’m so grateful.