Archive for October, 2002


The story of the night was Peter’s. He was at a pumpkin-carving party on the weekend, and a friend chiselling out the final details of his sculpted squash sent his knife right through the ball of his thumb. Ow. He pulled out the knife and started spraying arterial blood about the place.

Peter took him to the emergency room. The doctor took one look and said: “Pumpkin?”


Saw The Seven Samurai for the first time at the Castro last night. A perfect film at every scale, from the choreography of the action scenes – you always know exactly where in the village you are – to the translation of the jokes – “Find hungry samurai.” Shimada and Kyuzo are exactly what I’ve always wanted Jedi knights to be: dangerous, melancholy, competent and kind. A simple, urgent plot and unflinching characterization: this is what people are like. Isn’t it terrible? Isn’t it hilarious?

Damn, it was inspiring.


I was held up on the way to work by a road crew repainting the white lines at the intersection of 17th and Folsom. There was a slender, beautiful boy pushing the paint machine on a trolley. It had a big tank dripping white paint and a complicated apparatus for making the line wide and clearly defined on the asphalt. I was just thinking that it looked like a fragile piece of machinery, when my young beauty gave it an almighty kick.

Behind him came an entourage, all in their emergency-orange vests: the first scattered some kind of powder on the wet paint; the second wielded a sort of leaf-blower to help it dry; and the third gestured helpfully, if cryptically, at the waiting traffic. It only took them about three minutes to finish my side of the intersection, the east, which was the last. As I drove through they were packing up the paint machine. It all seemed hyperefficient to me, except for the cryptic gestures. I wonder how many intersections they can repaint in a day?

In other thoughts, I’ve got Yo-Yo Ma’s CD of the Bach cello concertos on high rotation in the car stereo. I will ever bless the name of Miss Emily Brayshaw for recommending these. I’m onto my second CD set, because I scratched the crap out of the first lot by having them floating around Wim the Volkswagen for a year and a half. Hedwig the wonder car’s CD changer ought to help this lot escape the same fate.

The first lot weren’t by Yo-Yo. I think it was the Naxos set, something very generic anyway, and it was a very dry, precise performance, which I loved: cold and academic, my kind of music. So much so that I thought Yo-Yo was a bit sloppy and sentimental and Pablo Casals-y when I started listening to these.

I was wrong. He’s not. He really knows how to play cello, that Mr Ma.

southbound on 101

Had a very Russian River weekend, with the usual delicious foodstuffs and hawks and redwoods and turning leaves and amazing weather and hanging out with friends. But driving home on the freeway is dull. We have to make our own fun.

R: Enjoy me while you can. We’re going to have huge fights after Claire’s born, and you decide to bring her up as a Catholic.

J: So she can reject our values and become a fundamentalist Unitarian.

R: Right! She’s not just going to like trees, she’s going to think trees are really really great.

J: Have you noticed how many American cars look like jokes?

R: What, with the blonde, the priest and the rabbi welded on the hood?

J: You’re really fond of that meta-joke, aren’t you?

R: It’s the priest. Catholicism, the funniest of all denominations.

J: I don’t know, I seem to be mining a rich Unitarian vein.


Having stomped around for the last day or two feeling bookless – Lawrence and the Arabs, for all its merits, just isn’t cutting it – I parked illegally and spent forty minutes in Dog-Eared Books on Valencia. I stomped crossly through fiction, classics, drama and critical theory, rejecting everything with a bitter scowl.

Then I found natural history: bada bing, bada boom! I bought Malthus, Darwin, Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man. The woman at the counter asked: “Are you doing a research project?” “Nope,” I said, “I’m having a baby.” She looked blank. “I want her to be a good chimpanzee,” I explained.

Have I mentioned how excessively fond I am of my cat? Just now, in a transparent bid for attention, she launched herself from my desk, described a ballistic trajectory with its zenith about six feet in the air, dropped like a speadeagled brick onto the pink rug and bit it. Take that, puny floor-covering!


Some time ago, I don’t even remember when, I had a vivid and elaborate dream about stealth aircraft flying out of an airfield near my son’s (!) playground. These planes were wedge-shaped, a bit wider than the recently-announced Birds of Prey though otherwise very similar, and shockingly manouverable: vertical take-off and landing was the least of it.

The coolest part, though, were the two mission patches the pilots gave my son after we went for a joy-ride over Seattle. One was a sort of Rosie the Riveter deal, with the outline of the stealth plane disguised as Rosie’s, err, riveting tool. The other was a campfire, with the outline hidden inside one of the flames.

My mission patches were way more stylish and art deco, but the Bird of Prey guys had exactly the same idea. I probably read about mission patches like these somewhere; I’m into skunkworks and Dreamland and that whole Rachel, Nevada thing. I prefer this explanation to the alternative, because if I’m actually picking up classified information in my sleep, it’d behoove me to turn myself in.


R: So the guy I had to meet turned out to be this way-cute, twentysomething Dubliner with black hair and blue eyes. He was gorgeous, and he lives on Merrion Square, and he’s a CTO.

J: Is that so.

R: And you’re just a humble senior software engineer.

J: Humble?

R: Okay, you’re an arrogant senior software engineer.

J: Senior systems software engineer.

(Meanwhile on The Onion: “Corporate Brass Forced to Tolerate Tech Support Guy’s Wolfman-Like Hair, Beard.” That was no lycanthropic freak of nature, that was my husband!)


The 21st century has been temporarily wound back. Our CEO brought Krispy Kreme donuts for all. We’re going to party like it’s 1999!


I am very fond of my colleague Jim, but the microwaved leftovers he is eating for lunch smell like sweaty socks.


Glorious wedding on Saturday, at a Unitarian church in the hills above El Cerrito. My sweetie and I are strolling the grounds before the ceremony, admiring the rapturous view of the bay.

J: I wonder what Unitarian Hell is like?

Several people turn and wonder what the crazy pregnant woman is guffawing about.

Bon voyage, Dan and Kathleen!


“The burn is the original seeing.”

the human condition

Wiese Street, just now. Elderly black man to his elderly companion: “Hey! Ain’t nothin fair, ain’t nothin’ right. Nothin’ is fair, nothin’ is right.”

Companion (she’s heard it all before): “Yeah, yeah.”

on your permanent record


Me: Did you have fun in the science museum?

Ross (my nephew, aged 4): Were you with me?

Me (confused): Yes, I’ve been with you all day.

Ross: Then you know what kind of a day I’ve had.


Ian: I’m inventing television!

Me: We’ve already got one. It’s verra naice.


Kathryn: We stayed in the Standard Hotel.

Jeremy: Where the rooms are one metre wide and high. And everything weighs a kilogram.

the lucky country

A modern Australian love story: he’s an Iranian asylum-seeker who’s been detained at Woomera for two years. She was Indonesian, and has died of burns from the Bali explosions. He’s on suicide watch.

Worker’s bloody paradise, mate.

la boheme

Yep. Her tiny hands are frozen. Frozen, frozen, frozen, her tiny hands, frozen is what they are. Really really cold. Yep. And tiny.

I get it, already.


I am the Venus of Willendorf.

poor fella my country

What a thing to wake up to.

John: Did you know anyone in Bali?

Rachel (mystified): Bali? No. Why?

John: Oh… surely you’ve heard…

australian for baby

I only thought of the name on Wednesday night at the Crimson Club, but by Saturday there were sprog-a-palooza cookies, a sprog-a-palooza sponge cake (delicious!), and sparkly red and black letters suspended between two trees spelling out sprog-a-palooza.

The Australians laughed. The Americans had to have it explained that “sprog” is Australian for baby, then they laughed too.

Claire’s not even born yet, and she already has lots of cool friends. Thanks, everyone!


I love books as much and maybe more than I love food, even. After a dry spell earlier this year, I’ve had a fiercely wonderful last few months in reading. Every new book seems to interlock with and comment upon and deepen my understanding of the one that went before. I think it started with Throwim Way Leg by the wonderful Tim Flannery. (Links to the books down there on the right.) I’d tried to read it years ago but never got stuck in. This time it swept me away, most memorably to the murder of two children by Rio Tinto security guards, an incident for which Flannery clearly hasn’t forgiven himself.

From there it was a short step to Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, because Flannery and Diamond share a passion for the fabulous strangeness of the Papua New Guinean highlands. I also read Flannery’s The Eternal Frontier and Robert Sapolsky’s heartbreaking A Primate’s Memoir. Thanks to all of these, and they’re all great, I started thinking pretty hard about people as animals, and about the instinctive roots of much of our behavior.

Evolutionary biology revived my interests in feminism and psychology, hence Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born and DW Winnicott’s Home is Where We Start From. Rich is great on anger, and Winnicott has some reassuring words on being a good enough mother – your faults, after all, are what prompts your child to grow up and get over it. But I’m much more interested in science and history than theory these days – I’ve become that thirtysomething that used to annoy the piss out of me by saying “Fiction just doesn’t grab me any more” – so I drifted back to A Peace to End All Peace.

Though it took me weeks and weeks to get through it (I took holidays in Mating and in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair), I have to say it’s one of the best and most illuminating books I think I’ve ever read. I look at maps of the Middle East with new eyes, and you can’t ask fairer than that. I also learned a great deal about TE Lawrence and – much more interestingly – Winston Churchill, so that puts Seven Pillars and The Second World War on my list of things to get to.

Most recently, I plowed through the first volume of Janet Browne’s Darwin, which she jokes she should have called Darwin: Another Biography. She’s way too modest, because it’s just wonderful, like reading Jane Austen or Patrick O’Brian. Browne pulls off the astounding trick of making Darwin’s intellectual life absolutely gripping. You get to watch him look at the world and think about what he sees and wrestle with the awful consequences – to himself and to the people he loves – of telling the truth. Honestly, I can’t praise it highly enough.

How unbelievably lucky, then, that the very next thing I picked up is just as good, in its way. It’s Oliver Sacks’ memoir, Uncle Tungsten, and it describes a boyhood strikingly similar to Darwin’s, though a hundred and ten or twenty years later. Both were solemn little doctor’s sons, privileged, much loved, but exposed to loss and horror far too young. Both sought refuge in chemistry labs. Sacks is tremendous on the history of chemistry, and his book reminds me of the two great classics of the genre, Atkins’ Periodic Kingdom and Levi’s Periodic Table. It’s that vivid, that perceptive.

Nelson Denoon, the hero of Mating, comments somewhere that when your life is proceeding according to plan, happy coincidences and serendipity confirm the choices you are making. Sacks mentions that it was his aunt Alida who worked for Chaim Weitzman and translated the Balfour Declaration; as this is a key document for A Peace to End All Peace, I choose to take this as proof that I’m on the right track intellectually.

Still to come: the second volume of Browne’s Darwin; Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men, about Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, Thomas Wedgwood, James Watt and others; Seven Pillars and The Second World War, as I mentioned, and I think I’ll have another crack at Lawrence and the Arabs now that I have more context for it. And The Voyage of the Beagle and On the Origin of Species, since I really have no excuse for not reading primary sources. And some more Dawkins, who I’ve never done justice to. (Speaking of Dawkins, there was a great piece in the New Yorker about his bete noir, Stephen Jay Gould, and the influence on him – for good and bad – of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I wonder idly whether Stephen Wolfram has read any Kuhn?)

That ought to keep me busy, at least for a month or two.

(I haven’t even mentioned Copenhagen, Arcadia and Hydrotaphia. I love plays but if a 500-page biography is too short for me, and it is, a two-hour play is barely one bath’s worth of reading. Anyway I think Michael Frayn is most interesting for being married to Jane Austen’s best biographer, Claire Tomalin, who has a very beautiful name.)

One thing I envied both Sacks and Darwin was their apparently-unconscious ability to take their intellectual lives very seriously, by documenting their reading, for example. Hence, in a way, this entry. Two or three years ago I was examining with great optimism several newish, post-surplus social organizations that seemed to me to offer hope for the future. Those convictions haven’t faded, exactly, but they’ve been tested pretty hard. I’ve been forced to face up to the continuing presence of scarcity, both real and artificial, and to its human consequences. Ursula Le Guin says somewhere that good fiction is a set of provisional answers to the question How are we going to live? I’m more worried about this now than ever, and my provisional answer, my Charlie Ravioli, is somewhere in these books, this history, these birds, this botanical garden, this collection of shells and stones.

(As I write this, the Blue Angels are flying directly over my head, practising for Fleet Week. I used to love their perfect lines, the roar of their jets rattling the windows. Now they sound like the Four Horsemen of the military-industrial-entertainment complex, and I have Laurie Anderson’s sad O Superman lodged in my head. “They’re American planes, made in America… so hold me now, in your long arms, your petrochemical arms, your military arms.” How are we going to live through this horrible, inevitable war? How are we going to live with each other? How are we going to live?)


Peter’s the best. He bought Claire a newborn-sized NASA flight suit, complete with Space Shuttle mission patches. Did I mention that Peter is the best?