Archive for December, 2009

no one seemed unduly perturbed

It only took us four years to get around to filing for Julia’s Australian citizenship. The whole experience was as absurdly pleasant as if we were in Canada. When we parked the car near Central Station, a man who was just leaving gave us his parking ticket, still valid for an hour. Everyone in Citizenship was charmed by Julia, as who wouldn’t be, and we were filed and out of there in twenty minutes. The smokers had inadvertently started a fire in the rubbish bin in front of Immigration, but no one seemed unduly perturbed.

Julia grazed two knees at a playground in Bondi Junction, but is now proudly sporting Pooh and Eeyore bandaids. Salome is shaking her head sadly at this indulgence in branded merchandise. The girls and I just got back from the park across the road, where we set off the Christmas rockets and did some wushu and taiji. Claire is reading Raymond Briggs. Julia is turning the pages of a book and singing. I am stuffed full of avocados and mangos and may need to nap. We’ll be off to see Ric in a little while, and then Michael and Rachel and Patrick and Evelyn, and then tomorrow is Mark and Mark and Matt and Melinda and Aubrie and Jackson and Adrian and Sam and Korben and Tabitha…



Originally uploaded by yatima

the beauchamp, the burdekin, the beresford

I was in a foul mood driving up to the farm and couldn’t figure out why until Jeremy suggested that maybe, just maybe it had something to do with the fact that my pony had died? And while it doesn’t actually change anything, even stating the root cause in unambiguous words does seem to make it more tractable somehow. Defining the problem domain. I hadn’t realized, either, that Reg and Thussy had demolished the old farmhouse – more of a farmhovel, really – and that the new, architect-designed, passive solar, rainwater and greywater reclamation house was nearly finished.

It is beautiful. I admire it especially because it has two bedroom/study/bathroom arrangements, one at each end. I call them Reg and Thussy’s sulking corners. They are finally moving in together after only twenty years – I hope they’re not rushing it, they’re both very young – and they’re a couple who expresses love through bickering, not that Jeremy and I would know anything about that. Sulking corners seem to me to be a fine contribution to domestic architecture. There should be more of it.

My godparents were in rare form. I got Reg to explain a bit more about his adventures after the war, as a gun runner for the Australian arms dealer Sid Cotton. It was 1947. Reg, just out of the RAF which he had lied about his age to get into – he only survived the war because he was sent to Canada as a flight instructor – got a call about a job. He sensed that something was up when he turned up to a meeting with Cotton, Don Bennett, the creator of the Pathfinder Force, and a third man who he recognized as a very close advisor to then-leader-of-the-opposition Winston Churchill. Oh, and Osman Ali Khan, the Nizam of Hyderabad and the richest man on earth.

After partition Hyderabad and its Muslim Nizam found themselves surrounded by Hindu India. With aid from Pakistan, and with the de facto support of the British shadow cabinet, the Nizam hoped to establish an independent Hyderabad. Cotton supplied six planes. Reg’s job was to fly arms out of Geneva to Karachi, in Pakistan, and then onto Hyderabad. They lost two planes to poorly packed cargo – rifles and anti-aircraft guns. Reg barely made it out of Hyderabad ahead of two Indian air force bombers, who cratered the runway from which he had taken off. He lost his pilot’s license and went to what was then Rhodesia to earn it back – anecdote here about a friend who was killed by an elephant – and after flying briefly for British European Airways he became a Qantas captain, which is how he ended up in Australia, building a house with my Austrian godmother. Truly, the twentieth century was an age of wonders.

I dropped the family at home and headed out to Mike’s birthday drinks, which was perfectly lovely once I finally managed to sort out which Darlinghurst watering hole is which. It was at the Beauchamp, no, the Burdekin, no, the Beresford. People of Sydney please could you disambiguate these a little? Uncles Barnaby and Rob came over for dinner. Barnes gave us a laser show with lasers he had built himself; as we were washing up Rob and I had a moment of bonding over being Ric’s in-laws, and just missing him so very much. Today was errands: passport photos, exercise books, a failed assault on the post office. This afternoon was occupied with wushu, taiji, music theory and long phone chats with Mum and Kay. And here are Jeremy and Jan back from visiting Ric.

i’ll eat you up, i love you so

Decentish flight. The girls were awesome and Julia in particular completely won the heart of a 20something Turkish? Lebanese? guy sitting across from her. I watched Samson and Delilah, the first feature by an indigenous director to earn more than $1m. Wrenching, luminous. We emerged blinking into an overcast Sydney Christmas morning and I drove with great care to 7a. Julia flung herself into Janny’s arms. Claire was occupied in counting the stairs to the front door.

We had Christmas lunch at Lulworth. I barely recognized Ric. He has lost a lot of weight and is mostly in a wheelchair and hardly talks any more, although he did ask very characteristically “From where did their flight originate?” The children were buried in toys. After a brief recess we resumed festivities for Claire’s birthday and dinner and cake. If I woke at 6am on the 23rd and flew out at 11pm and the flight was 15 hours and then I was awake from 9am to 9pm, I think that makes about 54 hours of Christmas? In the event it was just about one hour too long. I retired to bed and slept for a year or so.

Woke to the sound of birdsong and rain. Called Kay and Thussy and arranged to see them; bundled up the kids and Jeremy and Jan and went to the lovely Randwick Ritz, a beautiful old Art Deco cinema palace, where we finally saw Where the Wild Things Are. Clearly, I am a boy pretending to be a wolf pretending to be a king; it all makes sense now. We went to one of the cafes on Bronte Beach for lunch and saw a hundred or so white sails against the grey sky as the yachts set out for Hobart.

taking flight

Enormous mood oscillations as we run the last few errands and try to pack for Australia without leaving the apartment in its customary shambles. I’m going to miss you all, right down to the mean old cat.

by satellite, by satellite, by satellite

If you go to and scroll down to Handlebars, which is right now the second on the list, you’ll see the awesome inspiration for yesterday’s gloom. It’s a portrait of the Tenth Doctor as the lonely trickster God, getting increasingly out of control. It got me thinking about how the Doctor is in some ways the personification of Britain, or even of the Anglosphere: brilliant, in love with humanity, in love with cleverness, lacking a sense of proportion, ruthless, Death, destroyer of worlds.

It’s a remarkably prescient piece of work, foreshadowing not only the 2009 story arc of Doctor Who itself but also that of the Obama administration. But as the first-hand accounts start trickling out of the smoking embers of Copenhagen, it’s clear that the days of the Anglophone trickster are over. It was China, India, Brazil, South Africa and the USA that sat down in the decisive meeting, and it was China that prevailed. It’s the Monkey King’s century now. It’s his planet to destroy.

power and pragmatism

In some ways it’s more painful to live under the Obama administration than under Bush. You seriously never thought you’d hear me say that, did you? It’s impossible, however, to avoid the conclusion, if you sit down and look at this botch of a health care bill – women and children thrown under the bus again – and the near-total-disaster of Copenhagen – saved only by the man himself arriving in his Tardis at the last possible moment and salvaging something, anything from the wreckage.

I had hoped for so much more. I don’t know what. Comprehensive, single-payer health insurance and a binding treaty on climate change, for a start. I know Obama is at heart a moderate, a reformer, one who believes in institutions and working through them. I don’t know whether I am that moderate any more. I held on through the tumultuous summer and fall but when he committed tens of thousands more troops to the war in Afghanistan – I almost wrote fresh troops but they won’t be fresh, they’ll be the same tiny minority of working-class people on their sixth or seventh tour – the president broke my heart.

I am not saying I have better options. I guess that’s my point. I let myself dream of better days, and now those days are here and they involve a difficult and disappointing set of compromises with the real world and its constraints, and I no longer even have the fire of my outrage to keep me warm. Paul Krugman, who is rather like Jeremy in his infuriating habit of being right about everything all the time, tells me to suck it up. “If you’ve fallen out of love with a politician, well, so what? You should just keep working for the things you believe in.”

No one is coming to the rescue. Time to grow up.

christmas came early

Epic days these days usually have a substantial barn component; today was barnier than most. Erin was giving us a dressage lesson and Toni rode past to report that whoever was supposed to ride Bella hadn’t turned up, and that Bella would need to be ridden.

“I’ll ride her,” I said cheerfully. Toni and Erin looked at each other, and Toni said: “Okay. This can be your Christmas present.”

So I had an hour on Scottie, keeping my hands still and soft, trying to get him to work off my leg; achieving with satisfaction two good canter transitions where I squeezed him with my calves and felt his hind legs stepping forward – outside/inside – into the gait. Then I got off and saddled Bella and got back on and had an hour on her; a brief school in the indoor arena, and then a long walk around the Stanford Linear Accelerator with Erin, who was riding The Flying Dutchman. We walked above 280 for a bit and revelled in the knowledge that at least some of the people driving past us wished they could be us.

So I wanted Bella for Christmas, and I got her.

On the drive home I had a good idea for a YA novel.

As 280 swung down to San Jose I saw this fire starting – first the old cloud no bigger than a man’s hand, which could have been no more than shadowy slip of fog, but by the time I got to Randall Street a thick black mushroom of ill omen. I am glad all the people got out, and I am very sorry about the cat.

Then we picked up Rowan and drove to Heather’s house, where we decorated and ate approximately one million cookies, and the children were reasonably charming, and we met a man who had grown up in Ryde in Sydney and who is flying out on the same flight as us on Wednesday, and we started listing people we might know in common and his first one was Rachel Moerman. So I laughed and said: “Have you met her boyfriend?” “Who, Big?” “Yep. Notice the family resemblance?” “Oh!”

Now there are eggs baking for dinner.

julia’s ballet teacher has good taste in music

The set list:

I said: “You like ‘We Are Family’? You’re gonna love ‘I Feel Love.’

Julia said: “I can’t stop dancing! This is the BEST SONG EVER.”


It’s no secret how I felt about this decade geopolitically; a decade that started with massive election fraud (not that liar Lieberman would have been a better VP than Cheney), that devolved into state-sponsored mayhem and murder, that saw the ocean rise up and swallow a quarter of a million people and flood one of my favourite cities on earth.

Speaking personally, though, holy wow.

bukes of the year


Laugh out loud mordant.

Mary Olivier: A Life

I can’t imagine why this perceptive, penetrating novel isn’t considered a modern classic.

Of Human Bondage

This is, of course, and God knows why it took me so long to read it. It’s wonderful. I am looking forward to everything else by Maugham.

The Aquariums of Pyongyang

Included not so much for its writing as for its astonishing and chilling survivor testimony from the North Korean gulag.

The Halfway House

A despairing, beautiful, haunting account of Cuban refugees in Miami.

Lilith’s Brood

Octavia Butler was the single most important find of the year, and this may be her masterpiece.

The File

The ideal book to read on the 20th anniversary of the fall of East Germany.

The American Painter Emma Dial

As vivid and sad as a drowned bird in a swimming pool.

The Story of a Marriage

Set in my San Francisco in the forties, and containing a couple of twists that I did. not. see. coming.

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court

Gossipy and absorbing; good background for the appointment of Sotomayor, and terrifying in its portrayal of the ultra right wing Roberts court.

Tales from Outer Suburbia

An artifact from the world of my childhood, which never existed.

Ice Bound

The memoir of the doctor who, while wintering over at the South Pole, found a lump in her breast. A love song to the ice.

China Mountain Zhang

I didn’t know science fiction could do that.


Or that.

Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living

(sings) “C! S! I! RO!”

Seed to Harvest

Saint Octavia hear my cry.
Kamikaze Girls

Entirely responsible for my newfound love of Lolita culture.

Brother, I’m Dying

Immigration is murder.

The Girls Who Went Away

Essential companion reading and a corrective to Juno.


Not my first Butler but the first to sink its fangs into my throat, to my great delight.

Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe

Doreen Baingana c’est moi, if I had grown up in Uganda and become a wonderful writer.

Tales of Nevèryön

Reformatted my brain and opened a new eye.

The Arrival

As predicted, the best book of the year.

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

Smashed my heart into tiny shards.

Books by women: 14/24
Books by writers of colour: 11/24 – I owe this entirely to the fantastic 50books_poc community.
Books from the San Francisco Public Library: 18/24. I LOVE YOU SFPL.

a serviceable paradise

I finally made it over to the new Blue Bottle Coffee location near work, for yogurt parfait and New Orleans iced coffee. It’s a stunning place, all blond wood and huge windows, just like my idealized typical Sydney cafe. Idealized Sydney is awesome; the food is incredible and there are no cockroaches and everyone is going to live forever. I am about to head back to Australia and tear myself apart all over again, the neurotic expatriate’s annual orgy of second-guessing and self-doubt. Whee. I didn’t love my country until I left it and now I long for it with an intense and hopeless passion. I also greatly fear having to move back. Don’t you wish you were me? To paraphrase Garfield, until you actually go and live there again, Sydney makes a very serviceable paradise.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t obsessed with the notion of sanctuary: a farm in a green valley fortified by impassable mountains (it was somewhere near Lithgow, or maybe Braidwood), a nine-hundred-year-old college quadrangle, a city on a hill. After ten years of war and bloodshed and political heartbreak, and after having my babies in an empire that seems to have gone mad with its own power, my longing for safety is more intense than ever. And at 38 I am finally smart enough to have figured out that nowhere is safe. Bushfires threaten my parents’ little country town; California’s bankruptcy is the water eroding the foundations of UC Berkeley; San Francisco trembles astride the San Andreas fault.

James Ellroy says “Closure is bullshit,” and he is right. Sanctuary’s bullshit too, and so are happy endings, and so is vindication. The grave’s a fine and private place; other places are busy and beset with interruptions and altogether not so fine. I blame time. It’s time that slams asteroids into your Chicxulubs and shoots your last breeding female in the eastern migratory Whooping Crane population. Of course it’s also time that puts a brand new baby Claire in your arms in the dark of a Christmas morning; that wakes you up at dawn to look into the wide blue eyes of a brand new baby Julia. I would not, in fact, have wanted to miss those moments.

Sanctuary is bullshit. Imaginary Sydney is imaginary and so is imaginary San Francisco, and this sensation of treading water, of struggling to finish a to-do list that gets longer the more items you cross off, this is, in fact, the experience of life itself. You wake up and hug your brilliant, stubborn children, you go to work and listen to peoples’ stories and try to figure out what it is they are asking for and which wishes of theirs you can grant, you listen to music and you mourn your beloved dead. And if you’re lucky you get a few minutes a day, three strides of Bella in a collected canter, one really good cup of coffee, kissing Jeremy on his throat and feeling his heartbeat quicken. The memory of the candlelit table on Sunday night, and everyone laughing.

another cheering thing

…is to try to host a small dinner for Optimal Husband on the occasion of his birthday, and to have it pack out the beautiful back room at a favourite local restaurant, and to look up the table at our friends’ faces bathed in candlelight and to be amazed all over again at how smart and funny and pretty they all are, and how much I love them.

the gift

As you can probably tell I’ve been having kind of a hard time lately, and I dragged myself out of bed before dawn this morning wishing I could just stay snuggled under the covers with Jeremy and Jules. I drove down to the barn thinking about how little progress I’ve been making in all areas of my life, really, but especially with riding, and wondering about my apparently-innate predisposition to settle for mediocrity and sabotage myself. It was awesomely cold at the barn, and the rain had stripped the poplars of their leaves.

There were horses listed for our lesson but no riders assigned to them, and since Bella was on the list I took her out of her stall and groomed her and wrapped her polo wraps and didn’t make them too lumpy. It’s comforting just to be in the presence of a horse, even when you suck and are a failure. Horses are large and warm and they like to be scritched just so, and they don’t really care whether you’re getting published in professional markets or how well you are hitting your quarterly goals.

We rode in the indoor and after we had warmed up, Erin called us all in and told us we were going to work on riding in a frame. This is the new, politically-correct term for getting the horses on the bit. It’s actually a much better term because it avoids the very common but mistaken emphasis on hauling the horse’s head in… anyway, Erin made an excellent point, which is that getting the horse into a frame is as much as anything else an exercise in multi-tasking. You need to be riding off your leg and into a soft hand with a good feel, yes, but at the same time you need to be making rigorous checks of your position and correcting any bad eq. She said we all had decent balance now and should be capable of doing both things at once.

I’ve learned this before. I actually learn it about once every eight years, and always on chestnut horses for some reason. The first was George, a spectacularly ugly liver rabicano of extreme amiability. I will always remember him for giving me that first feel of a horse’s jaw softening, his neck bending and his hind feet stepping up under his body. The next time I learned it was on my Alfie, who was far better at dressage than any purebred Arabian is supposed to be. The next time I learned it was in my late twenties on Noah the Swedish Warmblood with his fiery forward trot.

Now I am almost forty and my body has been through two pregnancies and its left sciatic nerve is fond of firing randomly. On the bright side I have more tact and patience and humility and clue than I have ever had before. And I am on Bella, who is cranky and has no neck, but who is also so very clever and kind. I had already been bending her in the corners. Now I just asked for a little more bend and a little more give, and she dropped her chin and softened her back and stepped out like she was two hands taller.

As Erin pointed out, the theory of riding in a frame is very simple. You keep a steady outside rein, you push forward with the outside leg and you keep a soft and asking and giving contact on the inside. The horse should move off your outside leg and into that giving rein, and should engage her hindquarters and drop her poll and chew sweetly on the bit. I guess that’s where the old name comes from. The theory is simple but the practice, of course, is almost infinitely complex. You can go on learning this every eight years for the rest of your life, and I hope I do.

Bella was spectacular. Erin, who is never complimentary, was complimentary. The little mare stepped up behind and arched her little short neck and I could feel the muscles under the saddle all relaxed and ready for work. I felt, too, what Erin had said about my balance. It’s taken me a year to regain the strength in the saddle that I need in order to be able to ask for this kind of work. The irony is that it’s much easier to ride when the horse is engaged. The horse will respond to a much lighter leg aid; the constant communication through the bridle makes turns and changes of directions almost trivial.

And it feels so very, very good and right. This is the gift horses give us: their willingness, their power and grace, their readiness to play along. Even when I let the reins out to the buckle, Bella would still cooperate, would drop her nose almost to the arena sand to stretch her neck, would come back to the walk at no more signal from me than me flexing my stomach muscles. What a remarkable thing it is, to achieve this kind of Vulcan mind-meld with a big strange alien animal. How much of my education and the good parts of my character I owe to horses like Bella. What good timing it was to have a ride like this after so many hard weeks. And how very, very lucky I am.

the big picture

My birthday came early. There’s a new Hubble Ultra Deep Field.

a less delirious thankfulness post

I was feverish when I wrote that last one. It is always worth pointing out, especially to myself, how extraordinarily lucky I am. When I was a child my dreams for the future could be summed up, very simply, as a library next door to a stable. These days the San Francisco Public Library does an exemplary job of meeting my book-related needs, while McIntosh Stables keeps me regularly supplied with new, interesting and gobsmackingly beautiful horses.

What I didn’t specify as a child, because I didn’t notice it, is that I also needed to be loved. I was doted on as a child, not only by my lovely and adorable mum and dad but also, although they’ll deny it strenuously, by my sister and brothers. Now there’s Optimal Husband, my favourite standup comedian and co-conspirator, plus way more serious friends than I’ve ever had before, a goodly proportion of whom live about a mile from my comfortable Victorian apartment in a cool San Francisco neighbourhood. All of which makes it possible to do what I do best for the kids, which is to fire continuous high-energy quasars of love at them.

I’m pointing all this out because while the worst side-effect of swine flu was to greatly amplify my chronic anxiety, my life is a very good one. I have a plot in a community garden and my kids have a good public school. Geopolitics and climate change are scary, but this little life we have carved out, my little family and I, this is a good strong place from which to stare down the scary world.

introducing scottie

I don’t want to talk about swine flu, or Bellboy’s death, so instead I will talk about Scottie. He’s a big dark bay ex-racehorse at the barn. I’ve ridden him twice now and it’s clear from what Erin and Michelle said during these lessons that he’s considered a hothead with a hard mouth.

For once in my life I think my misspent childhood on genuinely hotheaded horses with mouths like cast lead is paying dividends. Scottie is such a sweetie that even when he’s feeling his oats I can feel exactly where I need to apply pressure for a double downward transition. He’s anxious, but it’s mostly anxiety to please. I can’t quite bend him around my still-fairly-noodly lower leg, or get him into a consistent frame, but it sure is fun trying.

We’re spending the month of December working on the flat, to spare the horses’ legs and improve our seats. So today Michelle had us ride a course over poles on the ground. It was intriguing; exactly the same bending lines and careful approaches as an actual course with jumps, and with none of the carefully sat-on terror involved in piloting a thousand-pound animal through the air.

I haven’t jumped Scottie yet, it occurs to me, so all kinds of jests and japes doubtless lie in my future. But I haven’t seen him do anything silly or mean yet, so hopefully I’ll be able to keep my confidence and continue riding him with tact.