Archive for May, 2004


I am mad with love for the Hubble Deep Field and Ultra Deep Field images. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the HDF, at a wonderful public astrophysics lecture at Macquarie Uni. The lecturer explained that this is what you get when you point the Hubble at a patch of darkness less than one degree wide. How pretty, I thought, it’s full of stars! But those aren’t stars; they’re galaxies.


Now I am reading Timothy Ferris’ book The Whole Shebang, in which he casually comments that “…most galaxies are so far away that their light has not yet come within reach of our telescopes.”



I wish I’d taken the camera to Emeryville on Saturday, because the sun was glorious and everybody was behaving perfectly in character: Neil banging competently away at the chicken coop, Salome micromanaging, Lesley providing sardonic commentary, Kat curled up with a graphic novel, Claire blicketing, Ian and Jack competing for the position of Most Affable Guy, Muriel gorging on nutritional yeast.

It’s nice that we had a good day because by the time we got back to the city Jeremy had started to feel sick. He refused all food and turned a rather ghastly shade of green. He spent the first half of the night resting on the couch between vomiting sessions, then at about 5am he started to feel better and I started to feel worse, so we traded places.

Carole and Jamey, may their names be blessed forever, took Claire all day Sunday so we could recover. I slept, on and off. I had stomach cramps and shooting pains in all my joints and long bones. Some time around 11am I pierced the illusion of sequential time; the sentences in my head were all beginning and ending simultaneously. Jeremy said I didn’t have a fever, and in fact it was probably just dehydration. I hadn’t been drinking much because Jeremy said even water made him throw up. I started drinking very watered-down apple juice, which helped a lot.

I asked my white blood cells what was the story. They replied that the pains in my joints were in fact caused by my immune system fighting off the virus. I asked if I was going to throw up again; they said no. I asked when I’d feel better. They conferred among themselves, then reported that I’d be up and about in six hours. This all turned out to be accurate. It sounds Californian as all get-out, but in fact it was my crazy Queenslander sister who first taught me that you can ask your body questions like that and obtain useful replies.

Now I’m back at work, feeling basically okay but extremely tired and sad. Fighting off a virus seems to suck all the serotonin out of my brain, the way firestorms use up oxygen. I don’t like being sick, but I do like my blue-eyed little disease vector, especially when she comes hurtling at me for a hug. I guess it balances out.

much ado about dreamland

I am haunted by watermelons.

3am eternal

R (weary but game after yet another wakeful night): You little ruffian, you.

C (bouncing on mummy’s bladder, laughing her head off): Eee! Eee! Eee!

J: How much sleep did you get?

R: Couple of hours. You?

J: Almost none. She squeaked as soon as I lay down.

C: Eee! Eee! Eee!

R: Whom the gods would destroy, they first send lovable rogues.

she’s so happy

The other morning Claire was sleeping and Jeremy was off making the tea and I was lying sideways across the bed reading Kenneth Clark. She didn’t even hoot when she woke up, just sized up the situation, then crawled commando-style down the quilt and over my elbow so she could roll over and lie in my arms laughing up into my face.

And people wonder why we call her Wiggle Worm.

best reaction

R: I got shot!

Jonathan: It’s about time!

i get shot

“I’ll come and watch Claire in the bath,” says Salome. “You come and open this damned wine.”

“My corkscrew’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with my corkscrew!”

“Good. Use it yourself.”

We change places. The cork comes sweetly out of the bottle, I hear Claire splashing around, then there’s a sound like a gunshot. Something hits me on the back of the shoulder and tiny shards rain around the kitchen. I duck.

“That sounded dramatic,” says Salome, sticking her head around the bathroom door. “What was it?”

“Don’t know.”

“Sounded like gunshot.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought, but…”

Salome goes back in the bathroom. I think, the wine bottle? but it’s fine. Then I’m guessing, a light bulb? All the light bulbs are intact. There are shards of what look like glass on the floor, but they’re actually just white plastic. Finally I notice a tiny hole in the plexiglass skylight over the kitchen.

“Meteorite strike,” I tell Salome as I bring her glass of wine into the bathroom.

“Call the landlord! Oh wait, that’s right, you can’t!” she says, laughing. “Bet you wish you had a landlord now!”

“Dad-DY!” says Claire.

So I call Jeremy. “Hey landlord! Fix my skylight!”

“What happened to your skylight?”

“Meteorite strike!”

“Not likely,” says Jeremy.

We get the baby out of the bath and into her jammies. We drink our wine. Jack arrives. We pour a glass for him and tell our story. He’s skeptical.

“So where is this meteorite?”

“Couldn’t find it.”

Salome pokes around, looks under the bench. “Here it is.”

Jack inspects it.

“This is a round from a .22,” he says. “Some guy fired it up into the air, and it came down on your kitchen skylight. I ask you, what are the chances? I tell you what else, this guy was a real killer. See how the bullet’s been hammered down on one side? That’s so it tumbles when it penetrates flesh. Some gangsta three blocks away fired his .22 pistol in the air ’cause his basketball team won, and it came down and landed on you.”

“What should we do? Should we call the police?”

“Yeah,” says Jack, laughing. “They’ll get right on it. ‘Oh, we’ve got all these murders to solve, but wait, a bullet broke this chick’s skylight! We’ll be there right away!'”

“Can you believe this? Six years I lived at Alabama Street, not a scratch on me. I move to a better neighborhood, and BANG.”

“Did it hurt?”

“A bit. Do I have a bruise?”

They look. “No.”

We drink our wine. We look at the bullet. Salome says:

“I liked the meteorite story better.”

doubt, vomit and the great books of the world

Wow. Eight hours actual sleep last night, unpunctuated by two-hour crying jags or sudden eruptions of vomit! Luxury! Teething molars is a bitch, it would seem, and the worst of it comes on at 3am. Shannon’s theory is that as Claire sleeps the fluid accumulates in her sinuses and jaw, just like the sinus pain you get when you have a bad cold. Nowadays the baby books all say that teething doesn’t hurt, but the baby books don’t have to mop gallons of bilious macaroni off the sheets in the dark hours before dawn. Between that and the horror, the horror of Showbiz Moms and Dads on Bravo I have revised my earlier position on Claire’s status as infant prodigy. I now view her instead as tiny, adorable demonspawn. Thanks for your attention to this matter.

She does crack me up, though, she’s such a little bruiser. Having spilled her guts, literally, all over both of us and the bed the other night, she blicketed happily around pulling pillowslips out of the bottom drawer while Jeremy and I stripped the sheets and carted them to the laundry (the laundry! How did I ever survive without a laundry?) Once we’d restored some semblance of order it took her about ten seconds to fall asleep in Jeremy’s arms. Then last night Bryan came over and as he and I were chatting, Claire tripped over her own feet and did a face-plant on the carpet.

R: Are you all right, love?

Claire gets up on her elbows and grins at me.

Bryan: She meant to inspect that bit of carpet anyway.

In other book news, Bryson’s Short History prompted me to read Oliver Sacks’ wonderful Island of the Colorblind; I love Sacks’ enthusiasm for multiplicity and his overflowing empathy and admiration for the way people adapt to the weirdest situations. The Gaskell Bronte biography made me pick up The Professor, which I’d never read and which is usually dismissed as a draft of Villette. Not sure yet what I thought of it. Exquisitely written, but with all the suspense of a wet noodle. The Penguin Classics introduction arguing that it’s a mature work of fiction reminded me of my own defense of Marlow’s Faustus in my Honors thesis. Everybody protestethed too much. I’m just saying.

Now reading Kenneth Clark’s Civilization. Like Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, which I had another go at last week, it’s not really right for the bus trip too and from work, because I keep having to stop and think. The trouble is that when I do that I look out the window and get distracted by Mission Street. I have the attention span of a gnat. They’re both lovely writers, but they both keep tripping me over by saying things that are profound, highly questionable or both. Clark’s book was written in 1969, and you couldn’t write one like it today. If you did, it would be Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, a very different beast. What Barzun presents as his own unabashed curmudgeonliness, Clark serenely sets forth as fact. As It Was In The Beginning Is Now And Ever Shall Be, World Without End, Amen. He holds these truths, for example, to be self-evident:

“…if one wants a symbol of Atlantic man that distinguishes him from Mediterranean man, a symbol to set against the Greek temple, it is the Viking ship. The Greek temple is static and solid. The ship is mobile and light… The carving on its prow has that flow of endless line that was still to underlie the great ornamental style we call Romanesque. When one considers the Icelandic sagas, which are among the great books of the world, one must admit that the Norseman produced a culture. But was it civilization? The monks of Lindisfarne wouldn’t have said so, nor would Alfred the Great, nor the poor mother trying to settle down with her family on the great banks of the Seine.

“Civilisation means something more than energy and will and create power: something the early Norseman hadn’t got, but which, even in their time, was beginning to reappear in Western Europe. How can I define it? Well, very shortly, a sense of permanence. The wanderers and the invaders were in a continual state of flux. They didn’t feel the need to look forward beyond the next March or the next voyage or the next battle. And for that reason it didn’t occur to them to build stone houses, or to write books.”

This bugs me on many levels, not least because I heartily agree. I am that mother on the banks of the Seine, trying to build a city of stone I hope will one day be Paris. But my conscience won’t let me stop there (Bryan again last night: “Anglicans are Unitarians with doubts.”) By design, ten years of education in critical theory stand between me and the uncomplicated embrace of my desire. If you reject theory, you’re just using someone else’s, as I read in New Scientist the other day, or possibly on Mordwen’s blog. Much as it pains me to confess it, real estate and good books aren’t universal, absolute values. I was going to write that they are a peculiarly Western incarnation of the Higher Good, when I bethought me of Genji and The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagan and remembered, again, that It’s More Complicated Than That.

But if books and houses as the embodiment of civilisation and what’s worth preserving aren’t specific to Western culture, I think I can make a good case that they are specific to the middle class. The people I think of as My People are not all white, by any means, but they may all be (whether by birth or aspiration) bourgeois.

So, yes, doubt as the intellectual legacy of Protestantism; cultural relativism as the shibboleth and sacred cow of Liberalism, discuss. Or consider if you will exactly who is crewing the Viking boats these days, the unbearably beautiful vehicles of war that strike terror into the hearts of women not (yet) on the banks of the Seine but certainly on those of the Tigris and the Euphrates. I can’t even talk about Abu Ghraib with any coherence or detachment; there’s too much shame and disgust and worst of all, unsurprise. What I’m groping toward is some (useful, nonselfpitying) way to express my sense of complicity. This is very difficult to write. I must have deleted twenty false starts. All I can say is that the government to which I pay my taxes doesn’t seem to be thinking beyond next November, and that my taxes pay for bombs and schools for torturers. This may indeed be a peculiarly Western dilemma. I’ve pursued Clark’s civilisation all my life, in the shape of books and houses and the city of lights, and look where it’s got me: I help prop up an unelected and utterly corrupt regime. I honestly don’t know what to do.

But, but, but then there’s this: On the Uses of a Liberal Education, II. As a weapon in the hands of the restless poor.

also, she likes to stick raisins up her nose

It’s come to our attention that Claire is viewed as some kind of miraculous prodigy, an angel child with profound insight into the properties of matter, space and time. This is not exactly the case. She’s delaying publication of her paper on room-temperature fusion until the results can be independently verified. Her screenplay has not, as rumored, been green-lighted by a major studio. We’re still waiting to hear back. As for the selection of her juvenilia to be published in the New Yorker this fall, I might as well admit now that she is dating the poetry editor.

In short, she’s just like any other normal, healthy sixteen-month-old. Thanks for your attention to this matter.

charismatic megafauna

There are rumors of a coyote raising her pups on Bernal Hill. I dreamed about her before we moved. Very strong magic, said Jamey, to dream of a coyote. There have been actual sightings of a black bear at Point Reyes: notices were posted at the Palomarin Trail we hiked with Christopher last week. (Hike is a bit of a strong word: it probably wasn’t three miles to the beach and back. But I did climb the hill with a plump toddler in the Kelty Base Camp, which is not to be sneezed at.) Last night I dreamed I met the bear beside a creek. I was scared at first, but it turned out to be very tame and cuddly, with dense soft fur like Bebe’s. Not cuddly like a toy: dangerous but kind, like a very big dog. It put its muzzle in my hands.

Finally, a lion has attacked two horses around Felt Lake, where we used to keep Noah. The big fierce predators are coming back. I find it oddly comforting, like the herds of taki around Chernobyl. This is what the world will look like after we are gone. I am reading Bill Bryson’s Short History, which is full of asteroid strikes and hypercanes and the Yellowstone supervolcano, a bit like Mike Davis but on a cosmic scale and without the existential despair. Bryson makes these observations about life: life wants to be. Life doesn’t want to be much (look at lichen). From time to time, life goes extinct. Life goes on.

poetry (very meta, sorry)

I had one of those difficult, complicated dreams about software and online communities last night, qv Jeremy with food poisoning in Dublin: “I am a database.” People were exchanging their poems on IM, and other people were deriding said poems, goading me until I pointed out that however bad they were, they were better than Southey. Salome popped up and argued that I’d never given nineteenth century poetry its proper due, and that as with music (I like everything up to Bach, then virtually nothing until Stravinsky) my taste in poetry skips straight from Jonson and Donne to Yeats and Eliot.

As I woke I thought of countless counterexamples: Coleridge for Kubla Khan and The Rime, Wordsworth for that deathless bit from the Prelude (“Not in entire forgetfulness…”), everything Emily Bronte ever wrote, Tennyson for certain bits of In Memoriam and for the lovely, lovely Crossing the Bar, and I suppose for dreary old Mariana in her moated grange, certainly whenever I’m waiting for a bus; most of Browning and Meredith, all of Hopkins, plus Emerson, Whitman and Dickinson across the pond.

Not sure why I singled out Southey for dream-disapprobation, either. Not really familiar with any of his work, to the extent that I hadn’t even realized Lewis Carroll was parodying him with “You are old, Father William”. Maybe I had him confused with Shelley, who I’ve never really seen the point of at all.

I gave up writing poetry when I was 22, on the excellent grounds that I was very, very bad at it indeed, qv my lines on the death of Sugar Dog. For ten years I was never even tempted to try again, short fiction, irritable journalism and IP-based sarcastic asides apparently fulfilling my expressive needs. I am embarrassed to admit that since Christmas 2002 I’ve occasionally felt moved to write a poem, because the way I feel about Claire burns me like a Type G star five feet away in the direction that can’t be pointed to. But so far I have, you will be glad to hear, refrained.

Instead of writing poetry I have used other peoples’ poems as a way of recording the things I am not willing or able to talk about. In which spirit I offer this, from the great and unjustly neglected Judith Wright, who is so little Googleable that I am reproducing this piece from memory and doubtless gutting it in the process.

Silence is harder, Una said
If I could be quiet I might come true
Like the blue cup over the sink
Which is not dead
But waiting for something to fill it.