Wednesday, December 29, 2004

That would be me with my lazy American energy-profligate habits, yes

I was doing a load of laundry last night, getting ready to leave, and I asked my mum's husband about the clothes dryer. With a grave look he shook his head and said, "Out here in Australia people never use the clothes dryer unless it's an absolute emergency. It wastes a lot of energy. You can hang the clothes up on the line outside."


I've been rereading Moby Dick on the beach. I quote to you from pg. 6 of the Wordsworth Classics edition:

"...And doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this:

'Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.'

'Whaling Voyage by one Ishmael.'

'Bloody Battle in Afghanistan.'

Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent parts on high tragedies..."

Grow old along with me/ The best is yet to be/ The last of life for which the first was made

In my leisure I am an amateur philosopher cum hallucinogen-fueled spiritual lecturer, as any of my friends who have had the dubious honour of drinking with me can attest. Does this sound familiar to anyone?

"One of the worst things about modern society is the lack of interaction between the generations! There are so many things that young people can learn from the elderly, and yet in our shallow yuppie bubble-lifestyles we only ever interact with people who have the same politics and generational perspective that we do! Noone has any respect for age and all of us silly young'uns think that we've invented everything. Ask Plato - in his glorious "Republic," he doesn't think people are even ready to assume any power until they're at least 40. In fact, every generation has something to teach the rest. Children have zest and joy and a connection to the primal happiness in the universe; adolescents have a painful but ultimately fruitful obsession with the delineation of the ego and an unbruised idealism (reaching its apotheosis in Whitman's "Song of Myself"); adults have a sense of responsibility, stability, and well-developed creative power; and old people have the wisdom and insight that comes with a reconciliation with death. We've all got to interact with each other so that the younger generations develop and the older generations don't forget the lessons they've already learned! Oh, I miss my family! I miss old people!"

Trust me, I could continue in this vein for hours, as long as the semillon doesn't run out. In fact, I've already pontificated about it here.

Unlike many of my fellow philosophers, I had a chance to put my theories into action yesterday, when I was staying with my grandfather Pop near Merimbula Beach. Pop was the second youngest of seven brothers and two sisters, and as a result my family on my mother's side is like unto a mighty Mandelbrot-branched oak tree, with great-aunts and uncles and second and third cousins galore.

In the afternoon Pop had two siblings and two cousins over for tea, and I shall be a modern-day Marco Polo and bring back to you the rare spices and filigreed ivory treasures from our inter-generational entente.

It turns out, dear Reader, that the price of milk in the shops these days is outrageously high, much higher than it used to be. So is the price of a yearly golf membership at the Merimbula Links (up to $300 from the $25 it was a few decades ago.*) Also, television these days is mostly ads; in fact, there seems to be more ads than there is programming! Most of it is horrible and violent, just like the awful modern music these days, which is basically just noise. There aren't any cute little neighborhood shops these days, because it's all big chains (and it all comes down to economics, doesn't it? Yes, that's what rules everything nowadays.) On a personal note, I have a wonderful young figure and miraculous powers of heat-generation, since I was wearing shorts in such cold weather - but I shall find out that these gifts are only fleeting, when I myself get old someday.

At this point, my mind reeling from such a massive influx of wisdom, I excused myself to take the dog for a walk down the beach. Running along the edge of the waves in glorious solitude, taking deep breaths of sea air, I could again relax enough to ponder the vital necessity of rapport between the generations.

Har de har har.

But, to be fair, if the young have a duty to listen to the lessons of age, the old also have a duty to listen to the lessons of youth. And perhaps neither of us have been listening....

*In wide-open Australia, golf is a proletarian sport.

Monday, December 27, 2004


In large farms they often add pieces of ground up bone and meat to cows' feed. In addition to sometimes causing mad cow disease, this is absolutely unnatural since cows are herbivores, and although it might provide vitamins, it disturbs the cows both physically and emotionally.

But chickens are omnivores. My mum's farm is well supplied with fresh eggs with fat yolks the colour of dandelions, from hens that are fed from the table scraps and vegetable peelings and basically any organic trash that comes from the kitchen. You can give them meat, bones - even chicken meat, raw or cooked, absolutely no problem.

The only type of table scrap you should not give a hen is raw egg or eggshell. This is not because it's bad for their digestion. In fact, eggshells are a good source of calcium and are often ground up and added to chicken feed. The reason is that you don't want the hens to get used to thinking of eggs as food. If they do, they start eating their own eggs, even if they've got embryos in them.

Friday, December 24, 2004


Dear reader, I feel that we have become very close over these past four months, and especially in the spirit of this holiday season, I feel moved to confess to you one of my deep dark secrets: I love Enya. Oh, yes. It's not just that I don't mind it if her music is playing. Catch me in the right mood and I'll be humming along in raptures. I especially like those tracks when she sort of rocks out, seriously, it sends my spirit up to Parnassus to sip manna with all of the younger, hotter Greek gods.

And the undertones of comedy that accompany anyone so breathily sincere are very comforting in emotionally turbulent times. Today I was driving in between Christmas celebrations with the two sides of my family, and I listened not only to "The Memory of Trees" but "The Celts." I found myself imagining the occasions that inspired Enya. That peppy track with the "La La La" must be intended to commemorate the epic voyage of the Yellow Rubber Ducky from one side of the tub to the other. This very solemn song, with lots of people intoning somber Latin phrases to a slowly plucking harp, must be trying to convey the heaviness of soul that falls upon you when somebody else has eaten the last slice of fruit cake, that you put in the fridge specially to save for later, and they knew it, too. And this serene, ethereal track, with the chorus that sounds like a choir of slightly drunken, very repetitive Hallmark angels, must surely be intended to convey the oceanic calm that follows when you've been constipated and you've just had a really good shit.

A bevy of cousins

I spent Christmas Eve with my mum's side of the family and it wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be. When greeting my alarmingly developed cousins I almost bit off my tongue to keep from exclaiming, "Gosh, you're so tall! You're so big!" - as an expat family member, I was used to these annual squeals, and they annoyed me no end, because I didn't feel any bigger. I was resolved not to be that annoying older relative - and it was remarkably difficult. After my second glass of bubbly I confessed these fears to my cousin Sam (who's now in Year 10, gosh! And he's bloody huge!) Sam said, "Oh, that's okay, I would have taken it as a compliment." And it dawned on me that Sam sees all his relatives all the time, because they live in Canberra, and so nobody has a chance to be surprised by his growth, and he never has people squealing at him about how tall and grown-up he is now. So let me be an example to you, folks: double-check your mental models!

I spent much of the evening drawing pictures of winged unicorns for my eight-year-old cousin Belinda, and let me just mention for the record that nobody has ever had a cousin so brilliant, wise, beautiful, and artistically talented. Belinda sent me a card earlier this year, covered in glitter, with the message: "Dear Zoe. I hope you are having a good time in America. When are you coming to Australia? We really miss you. Love Belinda." (In response to which my ovaries, trained though they are at thumping, practically exploded.) When I first saw her Belinda was really shy. She kept on following me around the backyard, but whenever I turned around to look at her she'd duck behind a chair or somebody's legs, and peek out bashfully.

But the unicorn pictures were an excellent ice-breaker, and opened up the floodgates of conversation. "You know Zoe," Belinda said thoughtfully, "I reckon I've got a lot of stuff, and half of it I don't even use. There's just all this stuff in my bedroom that people keep buying for me, and I don't really want it. I'd rather just make stuff or play with the stuff I got." Pause to apply glitter to her shooting star picture, as my heart swelled with pride. "Zoe, what was the greatest thing that ever happened to you? And why? And what was the grossest thing you ever had to do, you know, like cleaning up stinky dog poo that was full of maggots?"

One comment and two questions, all, I believe, very appropriate for Christmas. Merry Christmas, dear readers; I wish you peace, happiness, and an appropriate balance between relaxation and alarm. Oh, and thank you so much for all the emails, I've been really touched by the letters and I'm glad to know that my ramblings have given some of you some pleasure. Best wishes....

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Swing your pretty stick

It's one of the nicest things about Australia, and I'd forgotten it: the amiable toleration of others' eccentricities. In DC I often feel that I'm being frowned upon for what my friend Matthew calls "the crime of being joyful in public." You'd be amazed, the mean reactions and hostility I've gotten for random cartwheels or pirouettes in the spring sun or uninhibited laughter, like, how dare I be happy if you're in a bad mood? But in Australia such behavior is appreciated in the same way that you'd appreciate an unusual flower or a poodle with a silly haircut.

I was walking from the art gallery to the mall to do some Christmas shopping yesterday and I spotted a wonderful stick on the ground. It was long and very smooth and gracefully curved like the flick of somebody's calligraphy brush, and somehow I just knew that it was waiting for me.

There are so many uses for a good stick when you're going for a walk. You can behead your imaginary enemies or dandelion puffs, you can twirl it around, you can scrape a pattern in the sand behind you as you walk, you can try to balance it standing up in your palm, and when you're crossing a bridge, you can drag it across the rails, making a xylophone sound that varies depending on the kind of metal in the rails. Everyone I passed gave me a grin or tipped their hat, and one man called out "The old stick on the fence! That's my favorite!"

Heartened by this societal approval (a rather unfamiliar feeling for me), I took the stick into the mall and absent-mindedly twirled it as I was considering my purchases. In "Sportsgirl," a shop assistant rushed up to me. "What's that you're holding? Is it a stick?"

"Yes," I said, wondering whether the store had a "No Sticks" policy and I was about to be tossed out.


"I saw it on the ground and I wanted it."

She whooped, "That's awesome!" and gave me a hug.

Ah, Australia. If you play, everybody else wants to play too.


It is a hidden garden
I’ve often circled, sometimes seen -
With fountains that overflow
And great generosity of green -
But only after slaying a dragon,
With aching feet from miles,
Blood still crusted in my nails.

Each time I visit
I suspect will be the last
And as I breathe the leaf of a fig-tree
Or trace a toe into a splash
I’m already saying goodbye.

There are people I know who live here
I am ashamed when they smile
With tender relief to see me again
They never ask where I’ve been.

And yet I wonder
If they even recognize their delight
The sunny traceries
Of the paradise I begrudge them?

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Be careful when you let off your fireworks

The first lapdance I ever got was from my cousin Mandy's roommate.

Mandy lives in Canberra, she's four years older than me, and of course I adored her: she was mysterious and confident and beat me at poker and taught me how to wear dresses, and she is blonde and pretty as the picture on the front of a magazine. It seemed like she always had a boyfriend pining in the background, wishing she'd pay more attention to him, sending her gifts of chocolate and diamond rings and scarves crocheted with the emblem "I love Mandy" he'd spent hours knitting. "I don't feel like hanging out with him now," she'd snap as he stringed a lonely violin outside her window, and she'd go out with her friends instead. Cue a cheesy 80s movie montage here: Mandy, eyeshadow sparkling, bops on the dancefloor; the boyfriend weeps into his popcorn on his couch at home.

One particular New Year's Eve Mandy was living in a group house with four friends, and they had me over for their party (to which Mandy's boyfriend at the time, Chris, was emphatically not invited). Now, Australians know how to drink. Maybe not as much as those Dionysian devotees in Kentucky, but we are pals with the grape. But I was eighteen at the time, and though I'm hardly a champion drinker now, in those days my liver was just starting to become acquainted with its life of work and sorrow. Half a tequila shot later, I was deep in rapturous conversation with Mandy's roommate Greg.

Greg said that he made his living by travelling to Japan (an easy eight-hour flight) for three months at a time, where he worked as a stripper. The tips were plentiful, the sushi was juicy, and he had a much easier life than his female friends in the same profession. "I don't believe you!" I slurred ebulliently. "You're telling me shtories!"

"I'll prove it to you!" he said, and pointed at another roommate. "Put on some ABBA!"

He dashed off to his bedroom and came back five minutes later wearing a policeman's uniform and a wig with a long blond ponytail. Before I'd quite realized what was happening, there was six and a half feet of boozy, red-cheeked Australian beefcake, jiggling and gyrating over the chair where I sat, guffawing. (Despite Greg's strong build, I don't think he would have made it as a real policeman - the uniform was missing some crucial fabric in the butt cheek area.)

After Greg had taken off his shirt, slung me over his shoulder and spun me around in circles, it was clear that the party was off to a good start. But how could the next episode top the excitement? In our Western culture, we're not happy to sit back and bask in the glories of the past - we need progress!

In times like these, you turn to an old friend: fire. It so happens that the Australian Capital Territory, besides being the only state in Australia where marijuana is legal, is also the only place where you're allowed to buy fireworks - the theory being, perhaps, that if you distract the politicians with bright lights and the munchies, they're less likely to concentrate on raising your taxes.

So we paused to bring all the bottles out to the backyard, and Greg showed us his treasure box, which had a varied assortment, all the way from wee pops to holy sparkling motherfuckers. "Ooh, lemme have a go," I squeaked, having mostly recovered from my dizziness. "I wanna shee a bang!"

We got into a nice industrious rhythm in the backyard with our cherry bombs, taking it in turns to dash into the center of the yard, light them, and rush back to the hoots of the people drinking on the porch. Fizz...Bang! Giggle. Slosh. Fizz....Bang! Giggle. Slosh. We were in the zone, and so keen was our focus that we didn't even notice that Greg was nowhere to be seen, until....

BOOM!! A gigantic golden meteor appeared in the sky, and just as quickly exploded, showering the backyard with fizzing sparks. Imagine Gabriel blowing his horn, the continent of Africa smashing into Europe, London Bridge falling down: it was an epic, ear-shattering noise. With our ears ringing and our eyes still dazzled by the aftermath, little wonder that it took us a few minutes to notice the far more human cries that followed it.

"Ow! Argh! Bloody hell! I'm on fucking fire!" Still wearing his policeman's uniform, Greg sprinted around the corner, keeping up a stream of curses. His face was soot-blackened and there were flames leaping up from his long blond wig. "Somebody do something!"

"Hold still, mate! We'll douse you!" With typical keen Aussie wit, most of us had the same bright idea at once: to use the handy liquid inside our beer bottles. Pretty soon the air was full, not only of leftover sparks, soot, smoke, and top-speed Aussie stripper, but also alcohol flying in every direction. I'm afraid that our enthusiasm outweighed our aim, and pretty soon nobody was dry.

One of our greatest gifts as human beings is our empathy, and so I'd like you to take a moment and imagine how Mandy's long-suffering boyfriend Chris felt, when he pulled up at the house uninvited to plead for a few moments of her time, only to be confronted with this nigh-apocalyptic vision: billowing smoke, a cheery drunken crowd dripping with the booze they'd mistakenly tossed at each other, and a tall policeman with a bare butt and flaming hair, running furiously in circles in the middle of the backyard.

Dogs, gods, humans, cats, responsibility

My mum stopped the car in front of her house on the farm, which is long and ranch-style, bookended by rusty-roofed iron shacks and a bristly menagerie of potted plants. (Unlike the house in Pearce she used to live in - which, furnished with all the stuff she'd shared with my dad, still bore the ghostly marks of his perfectionist personality and dictatorially pervasive good taste - the farm is the apotheosis of life the way my mum likes it: laid-back, and comfy.) The dog, Fenris, came up to greet her with an amiable wag of his tail. And then he noticed me.

It was as if every particle in his golden, still-puppyish body wanted to vibrate independently, and he dashed over, leaping and wagging and panting and shaking and turning and licking and howling wee howls: "Oooooh, ooooh!", but he just couldn't get close enough. Eventually he decided that his favorite position was to rear up on his hind legs with his paws on my shoulders, because that meant I had to hug his chest to keep from falling over, and he could get in some licks at my face - but it wasn't a very stable position, and so he'd coil around my legs a few times before jumping up again. Then sometimes he'd melt to the ground, undulating on his back with his four legs splayed, peering at me winsomely, so I could rub his stomach, until the excitement exploded and he'd jump up again. It had been two years, but he remembered me, ohhh, he remembered me. And I'd forgotten how it feels, to be confronted with dog love.

Supposedly we can divide ourselves into dog people, and cat people.* As far as I understand, the rivalry goes thus: dog people wonder why cat people waste their efforts on heartless if elegant killing machines who'll never love them back, instead of energetic pals who are always in the mood to play, and in fact if the cat owner wakes up two inches tall one day and Puss hasn't had breakfast, watch out. Meanwhile cat people are awed and inspired by their mini-deities of beauty (and sometimes, humorously over-guarded dignity), and look down their noses at people who need unquestioning worship from a shaggy drooling piss-sniffer, as in, is that really the only way you can get the love you need? And is that really the kind of love you crave: hopelessly unconditional?

But as with many other things in my life, I reject the choice. Cats are splendid, almost holy in their elegance and sensuality - and it's very relaxing to love a creature that brims with world-swallowing narcissism: you can love it just as long as you want to, and when you take the love away, it couldn't care less. Their selfishness is a perfect, and perfectly beautiful, icy zero. Ahh, but dogs. Not only are they a hell of a lot of fun, but they are a marvellous psychological tonic (even better than ashwagandha.) So many times I have been wallowing in a morass of self-centered and resentfully circular thoughts only to be nudged into a game by a dog: shaggy, drooling, wriggling, gleefully dignity-free. What was so important again? So many times I have been prostrate with despair and felt a soft nose against my arm - unquestioning, ever-lasting, all-encompassing. Who doesn't need unconditional love? Who are we kidding?

And that's what dogs give us, because that's what we need, so that's what we made them for. We made dogs, playing god: we've made them in all shapes, sizes, colours, and personalities - some so inbred (golden retrievers, for example) that they suffer from congenital disabilities like hip dysplasia; some so physically altered for style that they live their lives in pain (bulldogs, with their "cute" squashed wrinkly faces, wheeze their whole lives and never once draw an easy breath); some, like Rottweilers, with inherently mean and paranoid personalities, occasionally snap into madness, killing children, and then we kill them; and some, like Chihuahuas, are just inherently silly, so their hidden depths that still remember howling wolves in the forest suffer immense cognitive dissonance, which leads to towering neurosis, manifested by incessant yapping.

And it's not just their genes we make. We train them or we don't train them; we dump these sensitive and devoted animals into the middle of chaotic families, so they always smell fear and frustration in the air; we spoil them so that they're fat and ridiculous; we throw loud parties around them with strange people. A dog needs us to know what's right and wrong, and if we don't provide that, or if we provide it inconsistently, they basically go crazy.

We made them without inner resources, because that way, they depend on us. My dad said, "It's more cruel to put a dog into prison than a man. A man has memories, he can think, he can remember stories, he can do math in his head. A dog can't do that; he depends on external stimulation from the world, and if he doesn't get it, the boredom is very quickly overwhelming."

My dad believes our responsibility for dogs is total, even more than for a child ("Whom you hope, someday, will be independent," he'd say, giving me a meaningful glare). If we choose to live with them, we've got to make sure they're happy. I was in the Australian National Art Gallery today and there was a striking painting by Albert Tucker of a man's twisted, baggy face. Tucker said he'd been flipping through the newspaper and saw a photo of a man who was arrested for kicking a dog to death. He was so struck by the marks of moral depravity on the man's face that he turned the photo into a painting, pointing to, he said, "our universal human condition."

Who so thoughtlessly torments their creations? Who demands unquestioning adoration and yet refuses to reciprocate? Who would ever do a thing like that?

And yet the forgiveness of dogs surpasses perhaps even Job's. In one of James Herriott's essays**, he describes finding a golden retriever bitch who'd been locked up in a dark shed for the first year of her life, and yet she feebly wags her tail as she gazes at him with sweet wide eyes. That's the most terrifying thing about the love of a dog: if they'll forgive you anything, the moral responsibility is all yours.

In her essay "24 Hour Dog" Jeannette Winterson describes getting a puppy: an intelligent, wise puppy who adores her and follows her on a walk, miraculously sensitive to her moods. Her dog-training manual tells her that she's got to force the puppy to sleep alone, even on the first night, to teach it self-reliance - and so she listens to him wail in desolation all night. The next morning she thinks, "It is too much for me. He has found me out." And she takes the puppy back to the family who sold it to her: "Give him to someone else. I can't take responsibility for his soul."

I came back to the farm again today and Fenris repeated his enthusiastic greeting, this time with a hint of desperation: I thought you'd gone away again! I whispered, No, no, I'm here. I'm here for a little while. As I pottered around the house he followed me, lying nearby watching me as I read, circling the kitchen as I made tea - he would have come with me into the bathroom if I'd let him. I was reading in bed tonight, about to go to sleep, when he pushed through the door and jumped onto the bed with an apologetic tail wag. Fenris needs a bath; he's got a distinct doggy smell at the moment, and bad breath. "I can't sleep with your horrible doggy smell," I said, and opened the door to let him out. He obeyed slowly, tail meek between his legs, and settled down just outside the door, peering back dolefully over his shoulder. A factory manned by ten thousand Jewish mothers could not have manufactured the guilt I felt.

So I went over to the computer, and I wrote this, and Fenris is snoozing at my feet.


*I'd argue that there's also fish people, and no-pet people, but that's another story.
**A vet in Yorkshire from 1939 until his death in 1995 who wrote a series of memoirs about his life with the animals, his eccentric fellow vets, and the gruff but lovable farmers; the first is called "All Creatures Great and Small." His writing is hilarious and heartwarming and very, very life-affirming - check it out.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Read about Stalin on the beach

Australia is at the end of the earth. It's a 14 hour flight from the US, and getting anywhere at all involves an international flight of at least a few hours. As a result we're sheltered: for example, there's no rabies anywhere on our island.*

This isolation has different effects on different people. For some, the distance creates an overwhelming travel itch, a desire to see the wide world so long denied them. (My dad and my friend Matthew are good examples of this type.) A global Grand Tour is almost an institution at the end of high school, and anyone who's spent time in a youth hostel anywhere is, I'm sure, familiar with the lazy-vowelled Australian accent. We roam the world with our backpacks and dusty sandals, needing little to sustain us but our indefatigable good humour and interest in the multifarities of existence, and also our nonperishable tub of Vegemite.

And others are insular and complacent - not that there aren't people like that everywhere, but it's particularly easy in Australia, which is so comfortable, and prosperous, and where there are quite formidable barriers to travel. Sitting on the sunny beach near Sydney, swimming in the happy ocean and watching the other happy middle-class swimmers, it feels a bit like Prince Siddhartha's garden: what, world politics? War? Famine? What, in this happy world?

I took "Koba the Dread," a biography of Stalin by Martin Amis, to the beach with me. I think that Amis' principle audience is the left-wing Socialist-leaning British literary community he's known throughout his life, who only recently admitted the full moral horror of the Soviet Union, and so the organization of his book suffers from his need to continually convince us just how bad the Stalin era was. My dad always told me the story of how my great grandfather was sent to Siberia because he was Swiss, so I don't need convincing, and I was twiddling my thumbs a bit during parts, but it's nonetheless a good book, and chock-a-block** with black humour.

I like the story about the Party conference in Moscow Province with a tribute to Stalin, where everyone applauded and nobody dared stop. Amis quotes Solzhenitsyn: "The older people were panting with exhaustion. After ten minutes, with make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers! The first man to stop clapping (a local factory director) was arrested the next day and given ten years on another charge."

There's another section where Amis actually tries to weigh Hitler's evil against Stalin's: why, he wonders, does it seem OK to joke about the Soviet Union, whereas Nazism is considered beyond the pale? If you choose quantity of human life slain as your metric of loathesomeness, Stalin is ahead by a good 30-40 million souls. Amis concludes that Hitler had a brief career of incandescent intensity, and only managed to carry out a few of his apocalyptic plans before everything blew up in his face. It's not just the 6 million or so lost in the Holocaust that stuns us, it's the world conquest that he didn't (quite) manage. Stalin, while he had slightly less hellish ambition and personal magnetism, managed a sustained and productive career with a whole series of famines and genocides; he was a self-actualized dictator who fulfilled his potential. A sort of hare vs. the tortoise race theory of evil genius.

Amis has some excellent literary flourishes. He notes that the Cheka, when they came to arrest you and send you to the Gulag, preferred to do it in the middle of the night for reasons of shock and awe. "This presented a logistical challenge in oft-purged Petrograd/Leningrad during the long days of arctic summer. Witnesses describe the two or three hours of darkness as something like a Monte Carlo rally of black marias."

And he has a good review of the writings of Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov, both of whom wrote about their experience in labor camps, which were monumentally soul-crushing (imagine eating your own shit because you're so hungry, and take it from there). Solzhenitsyn is the better-known, and his three-volume Gulag Archipelago is the touchstone for writings on the subject - it shattered, apparently, the bubbles of many of Amis' Communist-leaning friends when it first came out. One of the things that most fascinated Solzhenitsyn was how some people (including himself) managed to survive their stints in hell with their essential spirits intact. What was the common theme? Some people "were able to absorb something of the gulag into themselves, and take inner strength from it. In a place dedicated to death, what you needed in your self was force of life." Solzhenitsyn describes entering Cell 67 after seven days of torture:

"At the sound of the door opening, my three fellow inmates started and raised their heads for an instant. They, too, were waiting to learn which of them might be taken to interrogation. And those three lifted heads, those three unshaven, crumpled pale faces, seemed to me so human, so dear, that I stood there, hugging my mattress, and smiled with happiness. And they smiled. And what a forgotten look that was - after only one week!"

Shalamov's message, in his "Kolyma Tales," is less life-affirming. He relates stories of a prisoner hanging himself in a tree fork without using a rope; of a man whose fingers are permanently molded by his tools - he'd never straighten his hands again; of a philosophy professor who forgets his wife's name; a man whose rubber galoshes were so full of blood and pus that his feet sloshed at every step "as if through a puddle." Shalamov believes that "in the camp situation human beings never remain human beings; the camps were created to this end."

Shalamov and Solzhenitsyn knew each other, of course, and had a long correspondance. Solzhenitsyn was always trying to wheedle his friend round to a more generous estimate of human spiritual resilience. He pointed out that Shalamov himself never betrayed anyone, never denounced or informed. "Why is that, Varlam Tikhonovich?" Solzhenitsyn wrote. "Does it mean that you found a footing on some stone and did not slide down any further? Do you not refute your own concept with your character and verses?"

Juicy ruddy ocean-wet flesh with faint white streaks from sunscreen, and withered beaten frostbitten Siberian limbs; it's the world we live in. Further ponderings on how such differences can coexist, and what it means that I was born to the world of the beach, and why exactly I have the gall to get in a tizzy about my minor emotional trials in my glowing lively world, will be familiar to an averagely-motivated twelve-year old, and are left as an exercise to the reader (hopefully with the aid of an introductory textbook on world religion and philosophy).


* Thanks to a rigorous quarantine process for any animal brought here - the woe of many a doting pet owner, including my dad. Part of the reason we never moved back here was that he thought the 9-month separation would emotionally devastate our golden retriever, Cossack. My dad thinks that if you decide to have a pet, you've got to be physically, emotionally, and spiritually responsible for its well-being for the rest of its life. (This is NOT the same as spoiling it and allowing it to be badly behaved; a dog suffers without rules.) It's something I admire him for.

**Australian slang. "Full of."

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Tips from my mum's farm near Canberra

My mum moved onto a farm a few years ago and ever since it's been nothing but cows, cows, cows. She studied as a genetic biologist, but she's always been more interested in the, ah, hands-on side of the animal kingdom. She'll happily dive in to pull a grass seed out of a cow's eye or give them a nice milking in the morning.

Cows are ruminants, with very complicated digestive systems designed to get nutrition out of the cellulose from grasses (which our human stomachs could never handle.) When these marvelous intricate systems go wrong, however, "explosive" is an understatement for the hurricane-like results, and I'm not surprised that cow farts make a major contribution to the greenhouse effect.

If one of your cows is afflicted with bloat, it's a serious and potentially fatal situation. The thing to do is immediately pour a gallon of castor oil down his throat. Then stand him on a hill pointing up and give his stomach a massage. The tilt will help gas rise up his throat and he'll be able to let a few good burps rip, which will relieve the pressure.

I'm not even going to tell you what's involved in a last-minute cow caesarean in a ditch, using only a bit of string, dishwashing gloves and a tea towel.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Tips from a culture 100,000 years old

*If your nose is congested, pick a few leaves off a eucalyptus tree, roll them up, and insert one in each nostril. Oh my god this is amazingly effective.

*If you're suffering from an ant bite, rub it with some curly fern leaves and seal it up with the sap from a kurumdidge tree.

*Time is a circle with three sub-eddies: past, present, and future, which is also evenly intersected by the circular journey of the Rainbow Serpent creating plants, animals, and people; all six of these are the same.

*You have a personal, family, and tribal animal spirit totem, and you're forbidden to kill and eat the animals of your totem. Besides teaching discipline this allows humans to live sustainably on the land, because there are always certain places where certain animals will not be hunted.

*Going on "walkabout" or a spiritual journey focused on emotional and physical trials and opening up to learnings from yourself, nature, and other cultures is an essential prerequisite to wisdom. Karrajis or tribal leaders sometimes go on walkabouts that last 30 years.

*If it's a hot day, dip your hat in a river and the evaporation will keep your head cool.

*Wood grubs, which have a 35% fat content, are extremely tasty and nutritious.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Scottish backpacker looking for room in fun flat!

That was the first saved search term on this public computer, and it seems just about right for this Sydney neighborhood near King's Cross. I'm in Australia, and updates for the next three weeks are going to be sporadic if they come at all. But I'm planning to write up some stuff on fun things to do in LA with a femme fatale from Moldova, travel tips for 14-hour international flights, fruit bats, body-surfing, fern reproductive biology, amazing Australian artists like Margaret Preston and Brett Whitely, day-trips in the Blue Mountains with an Aboriginal tour guide, and helicopter rides over Sydney Harbor.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Chase a squirrel in circles

This isn't actually a fun thing to do in DC, but my uproarious friend Kaelan's constant squirrel stories have me in a nostalgic mood.

I went to college in New Haven, and I think that the squirrels there were possessed by the spirits of megalomaniac aliens - perhaps the Martians that the Scientologists are always going on about. Or perhaps they were the victims of a Rats of Nimh-type IQ-expanding experiment conducted by deranged eighth-year med students in a secret laboratory beneath Beinecke Library. Whatever the reason, those squirrels were Jabba the Hut-ly fat, neck-jerkingly hyperactive, more ambitious than our MBA denizens, and fearless in that special way belonging to the totally insane.

My first introduction to the surreal world of Yale Squirrels came the first day of freshman year when, bright-eyed, I ventured out across Old Campus. A squirrel on the lawn was resting on his fat haunches, maniacally nibbling at something red in his fat paws. I noticed pieces of shiny silver paper scattered around him, and then a broken blister-pack of - could it be? - yep, cold medication gel-caps.

Now, these gel-caps contain active ingredients that have been calibrated for a human being with a weight averaging maybe 150 pounds. A squirrel, no matter how pudgy, is lucky to hit 2 pounds. A colossal overdose that would put any of Courtney Love's bloodcurdling pharmacological binges to shame was surely in the cards, and my sixteen-year-old heart swelled with tender concern for this hapless child of the Animal Kingdom. How could I save him from himself? "Drop that!" I exclaimed, and stepped towards the squirrel, waving my arms.

He blinked haughtily at me, and when it became clear I wasn't going to leave him alone, he trotted to the nearest tree, red capsule still lodged firmly in his mouth. He only went up about three feet, and when I came closer, he ran in circles around the tree trunk. Still anxious to preserve the greedy rodent's life, I continued to chase him, (running much faster since my circles had a wider radius), squawking, and flailing my arms. The squirrel continued running in lazy circles, until I became so dizzy that I fell over onto the grass, panting with my loss of wind and dignity, at which time he climbed down again and calmly continued to nibble at his gel-cap. By this time I'd collected quite a crowd, many of whom were snickering at my complete and utter squirrel annihilation.

It was a good scene-setter for the next four years. My roommate Anna and I were devoted dining-hall thieves, and it was a rare dinner we wouldn't return from with a tall stack of cookies or a few boxes of cereal. We were also fresh-air fiends; we kept the windows open well into the dead of winter. As a result, our living room became a sort of squirrel watering hole. Sometimes only the signs of squirrel presence would be there: some muddy pawprints, a cookie half-eaten and a small pile of napkin shreds confetti'd on the ground. Sometimes we'd notice their bristly tails as they scurried out the window. But often, if they were in an obstreporous mood, they wouldn't heed our home-coming one bit. I'd open the door to see a gigantic squirrel sitting on our table, his massive belly spilling over his ankles, holding up a cookie half his size with his paws, and peering at me over it. He'd just stare, and chew, and take another bite. Sometimes the squirrel would achieve a particularly unnerving effect by staying motionless except for his beady little eyes, which he'd roll furiously around in their sockets.

At some point I decided that the only way to fight lunacy was with lunacy. When I came home to a squirrel guest, I'd jump up and down, stamp, scream in tongues, wave my books in strange circles through the air, and shoot rubber bands at them. Usually this had the desired effect of actually shocking the little bastards, but once it worked too well. The squirrel must have been so alarmed by my fiendish behavior that he forgot that he came in by the window, and instead darted for the door. Unfortunately, since I was standing in front of the doorway, this meant that he collided with my foot, then actually ran all the way up my jeans leg, up my jacket, and launched himself off my shoulder for freedom. The sensation of tiny squirrel toes clambering all the way up my body is not one I'm going to forget, ever.

To be honest, I enjoyed the drama. One of my assignments in English class was to write a parody of a famous poem, so I chose to skewer Yeat's "The Wild Swans at Coole" with my own "The Squirrels at Yale."

And I must admit that I got off pretty easily, when it comes to Yale squirrels. I have a dear friend who arrived at her dorm room after a two-week vacation to discover that a female squirrel had developed an affinity for her bedroom. This affinity was so great, in fact, that this squirrel, who happened to be pregnant, had chosen to give birth to a squalling litter of a dozen tiny, bloody, finger-sized babies - along with afterbirth and a pile of assorted nesting fluff - right in the center of my friend's pillow.

Dupont Sidewalk Man

Rain walking

A basket of flowers
By a trashcan
Blue, yellow,
Wilted, still juicy -
Picked it up
And kept on,
Happy, happy.

And then in the late
Rainy street:
A man
Sitting on the sidewalk.

In the middle
Of the sidewalk
In a business suit
He held his head
In his hands.

I still overflow
With spring and so
I sat down too.

"What are you thinking about?
Is it good
Or bad
Or both?"

He was surprised. "Oh
I don't
Know. Well -
It's probably

"Want to tell me
About it? I'm just
A random stranger and
I'll go away. Maybe
You will feel better."

I had confused him.
Another man walking home
Glanced at us.
He didn't know
What to think.

"But who are you?" said
My sidewalk man. "And what
Are you doing
With those flowers?"

"I'm going home!
And the flowers -" I smiled
To confide -
"I've just found them.
Threw them away!
But they're alive.
I shall keep them
In my bedroom."

He reached
To shake my hand
And I gave it. "Well,
It's nice to meet you -"
And then I looked
Into his eyes. Oh -

They burned. Oh -
He had done
Such terrible things. And
Would do them again.
He had betrayed
He had struck in anger
And took pleasure in others' pain -
It was all burning there
And I gasped
And for a second he would not
Let go
Of my hand I
Snatched it
Back -

I had a bruise on my leg
He pointed
And smiled
With delight:
"Look. You're hurt."

He was drunk -
You know how
It can make you like
A beast -

I squeaked, "The flowers
Are for you. Please,
Take the flowers.
Good night. Good

And ran, almost, away,
Two top speed heart thudding blocks
Before looking over
My shoulder.

I am not a priest
Not Jesus or Buddha
And I cannot forgive
All that must be forgiven.

I offered it to him
And then I snatched it back.
But I should not offer
If I cannot give.

Oh Dupont Sidewalk Man
Forgive me.
Human being
With wilted flowers
On the sidewalk
In the rain.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Goin' Down the Highway

Goin' down the highway,
Doin' 44.
Jack did a fart,
It blew us out the door.
The engine couldn't take it,
The wheels fell apart.
All because of Jack's,
Supersonic fart!

The Makers

Yes, there's definitely a particular poetic cliche in this unsympathetic day and age: the defense of poetry. It's still relevant! It's still important! We're not just a bunch of obscure academics stultifying in our tenure writing poems that only our colleagues read! Poetry can change the world! It's slightly lame, I admit; Homer didn't need to spend time justifying his existence. (Did he? Actually, I guess he did, against people like Plato.)

But what can I say? I love poetry and I'm totally sympathetic to it.


Who can remember back to the first poets,
The greatest ones, greater even than Orpheus?
No one has remembered that far back
Or now considers, among the artifacts,
And bones and cantilevered inference
The past is made of, those first and greatest poets,
So lofty and disdainful of renown
They left us not a name to know them by.
They were the ones that in whatever tongue
Worded the world, that were the first to say
Star, water, stone, that said the visible
And made it bring invisibles to view
In wind and time and change, and in the mind
Itself that minded the hitherto idiot world
And spoke the speechless world and sang the towers
Of the city into the astonished sky.
They were the first great listeners, attuned
To interval, relationship, and scale,
The first to say above, beneath, beyond,
Conjurors with love, death, sleep, with bread and wine,
Who having uttered vanished from the world
Leaving no memory but the marvelous
Magical elements, the breathing shapes
And stops of breath we build our Babels of.

-Howard Nemerov

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Ice-skate on the Mall

LOCATION: National Gallery of Art sculpture garden ice rink (Near Constitution and 7th St) EQUIPMENT: Yourself, $7 to skate, $3 to rent skates (What, you don't own figure skates?)

My DC activities don't usually involve spending money - this is not on purpose, just a reflection of my mode d'etre. But for ice skating in the sculpture garden it's worth it.

What happened this afternoon:

I carried my bike down the stairs and rode past the crackhouse across the street, recently featured in a CityPaper article, and down the 16th st hill. I was thinking about Ben, who is always very worried about working to be useful, and wondering whether working is the only way to live well; is it not okay to be a religious hermit living in the wilderness? Is it not enough to have family and friends, and to enjoy yourself? I noticed a woman waving to me: Elizabeth, my neighbor at the art gallery I used to live in, and the mother of the two little girls I babysat at Dumbarton Oaks. She gave me a hug and said she’d missed me, and I invited her to my yoga classes. "Just email me," she said with a sad smile, "It's my work address and I’ll definitely get it, it’s a place where I spend way too much time."

I kept on riding through a park with a monument to Andrew Jackson, sitting proudly on top of a poor dumb animal. There was an engraving: "Preserve this Union", and I thought more about monuments, how they transfigure perfectly simple places into reminders of genius and ideals and cataclysmic events. Next to Andrew Jackson there was a large group of Japanese tourists crowded around something. I couldn’t see what it was because they were crowded so tight, but the enthralling thing was quite close to the ground, because they were looking down.

I went closer and saw a man sitting on the ground between two home-made billboards covered in posters and flyers: "Ban all nuclear weapons" and "Peace now!" The text was bordered with bright yellow paper cutouts of flowers. The man was old, skinny, and dirty, and he was hugging his knees and rocking, with his nut-brown face cast down. The Japanese tourists were taking pictures of him: posing next to the man, taking close-ups of the bulletin board. One man was lying on his belly to get an interesting camera angle.

It was a greenhouse-effect-warm winter's day and the sun was shining. A squirrel darted from a tree, and ran through the crowd, causing a few of the crouching photographers to jump up in alarm.

I had stopped, and my mouth was hanging open. Some of the tourists noticed me staring, and fidgeted. But nobody met my gaze except one woman in a red dress, standing off to the side, whose mouth was also hanging open. She was looking at me, then at the peace protester, then at her friends taking pictures.

After a while the group of tourists decided they’d had enough of the pictures, and they all kept on walking at once, leaving the man to rock alone. But the woman, who had jammed her hands in her pockets, climbed over the fence into the park away from the group. A man - I think it was her husband - called to her, but she did not turn around.

I kept on riding and met Collin at the National Gallery of Art sculpture garden, where we went ice-skating. "Building an ice-skating rink in the middle of a sculpture garden is basically like crapping on all of those sculptures," Collin said. "But I guess they have get funds somehow."

Some of the skaters were hobbling anxiously along, clinging to the side wall, and some were carving gleeful arabesques in the center of the ring. And there was one little girl, with long stalks for legs and a tea-rose for a face, who didn’t know how to skate, but she’d zoom off at top speed anyway, and when she crashed into the ice, she’d just pick herself up again, giggling.

Oh, it is so terribly hard, to live inside a poem. How do we endure it? Can we endure it, without dying a little?

Friday, December 03, 2004

Join a peace protest flash mob

Flash mobs: SO five minutes ago. But they're still fun. And they've come to DC!

Thank you for your interest in the First DC Flash Mob.

Please make sure you are available between 12 noon and 4 pm on Saturday December 11th, 2004.
Spread the word to those you trust and have them send an e-mail to or

What is a flash mob?
A flash mob is a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public (or semi-public) place, do something unusual or notable, and then disperse. Traditionally, flash mobs have had no political connotations, however, this one will be different. All members of a flash mob simultaneously converge in the same predetermined place at the exact same time; they then perform a prearranged action (such as a chant), and disperse into different directions just as suddenly as they had appeared. This normally takes less than 5 minutes and no interaction occurs between any of the participants.

More information about the details of this particular flash mob will be made available soon.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Study at the Library of Congress, and ponder Blake, the yellow page market, and your 5th grade teacher in Indonesia (or maybe that's just me)

LOCATION: Library of Congress, 101 Independence Avenue, SE (Capitol South or Union Station metro stops) EQUIPMENT: Yourself, Library ID card (which you'll need to sign up for the first time you go there; this takes about 45 minutes and requires a government issued ID; ask at the front where to go) OPTIONAL: Memorized passages of Blake

When I was working as a consultant, I did a case on the yellow page directory market. This involved a field trip to the Library of Congress where I gathered a bunch of data on ad sizes by category over time.*

Dear reader, if you are a bookworm, bookeel, bookserpent, if you ever decided as a child you wanted to read every book ever written, if being in the presence of first editions (i.e. physical manifestations of the genius minds of history) catches your breath, if your favorite nook in your college stacks felt like home, if you have been known to lie in bed with a pile of books heaped around you, stroking their pages, like a lustful dragon - you cannot miss a visit to the Library of Congress.

Even though your local library probably has more books than you could ever read, there's something about overwhelming bibliographic excess that stirs the imagination. There's an entire series of rooms dedicated to current telephone directories across the world, for example (with the option to fill out a slip to check out copies from any city in the US since the 1930s). I wandered around the dusty rooms, musing over names from Saverne and Hamburg and Bangalore, and actually found a current address listing for my fifth grade English teacher from the Jakarta International school, Ms. Meyers.

Ms. Meyers! Oh, she was one of those teachers life puts in your path to make sure you get the message. On the first day of fifth grade, she greeted us while jumping rope in front of her desk and warbling opera arias. She played the guitar and led us in sing-alongs, recited poetry with verve, and often sang duets with her tragically doomed love interest next door, the biology teacher Mr. Duncan (who was married.) For about half a year, Ms. Meyers' English class and Mr. Duncan's Biology class played a series of practical jokes on each other - the English class coordinated a walkout in the Biology class, like an anklebiter flashmob, and then the Biology class invaded us in the middle of a poetry reading and threw their socks at us en masse. I remember walking into the classroom for a pencil during lunch and seeing Ms. Meyers perched, like a perfect Venetian statue of a nymph, on Mr. Duncan's lap - Ohhhhh, Mr. Duncan. Leave your potato wife. Choose the goddess... I was a painfully geeky child who could only handle imaginary friendships, so all the love in my fervent lonely heart was channelled towards my effervescent teacher. I adored her. I dreamed about her. I wrote her a series of odes, which have thankfully been lost in the winds of antiquity. All I can remember is one - carefully centered on a piece of red construction paper, in my curliest cursive, surrounded by intricate pictures of daisies, that began, "Ms. Meyers! Ms. Meyers! Your face is like a flower, I could linger there for hours..."

I shook myself out of my Indonesian reverie and trundled out into the main Reading Room. With my cart heaped with lush stacks of telephone directories, messy hair, and armpits and elbows and hands bristling with notebooks and slide packs and notes (they make you check all bags at the entrance) I looked like a crazed idiot savant bag lady. But I didn't care. My mouth was hanging open. The Reading Room is totally fucking awesome, dude.

It has looming ceilings with skylights, so that all the details are picked out by long dramatic beams of sunlight, and rows of rich wood desks, and vertiginous bookshelves, and soaring above you are marble statues of revered scholars and engravings with stirring quotations. If the Scottish Rite Freemason World Headquarters library is a bonsai tree, this room is a towering California redwood. The atmosphere is hushed and solemn and full of tiny noises from earnest intellects working hard; just being there makes you want to sit down and start poring over puzzles in Plato's Phaedrus.

I trundled further, and suddenly someone caught my eye: a man with blond curly hair, writing in a notebook. He was writing blindingly fast, perhaps three times as fast as I'd be able to, and yet his graceful handwriting reminded me of the Declaration of Independence. It wasn't just his hand moving but his whole body, torso rocking back and forth with each line, feet firmly braced on the floor to push through his active arms. (In this age of typing, I think we tend to forget about the world of penmanship, about how much you really can tell from the shape of the abstract lines people draw to frame their thoughts. I had a long-distance relationship for five years that involved a lot of letter-writing, and I can still remember the thrill of that familiar hand, and the effort I'd put into writing beautiful replies - maybe even as much effort as the calligrapher Lixin Wang is capable of exerting with his pinky fingernail.)

What was this man writing? A revolutionary manifesto? A searing poem? A love letter? A description of his most important personal epiphany? Whatever it was, he was fully engrossed in it, eyes sparkling bright with tears, smiling to himself, and I had the suspicion that if I'd stripped off all my clothes, jumped onto his desk, and practiced some of my belly-dancing moves, he would have just kept on writing.

So of course I fell instantly in love with him. I felt the need for some kind of gesture, of appreciation, of respect, of solidarity. So I stopped at a nearby desk and wrote down one of my favorite poems by William Blake (in my best handwriting, of course):

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart,
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

I folded the piece of paper up into an airplane, lobbed it at his desk, and then sprinted away, out of the Reading Room, through the marble halls, and out into the crisp air of a spring sunset, hyperventilating with glee.

I'm telling you, it's the small pleasures.


*If you're really interested, it turns out that the YP directories have been benefiting from ad size wars in particular categories which get a lot of YP business, including personal-injury lawyers, bail bondsmen, and pizza deliveries. Quarter-page ads used to be rare; now there are 30 pages of double-page ads for just one type of personal injury law in Manhattan. Nor is this escalation diminished at all in markets where there's more than one yellow page directory available - because compared to other types of advertising, YP ads are still about 10 times more effective in terms of $cost/$revenue induced. In fact there's a flourishing industry of consultants who specialize in nothing more than optimizing your yellow-page ads (consider changing the name of your small business to Aaaaronson & Sons....) Further, the yellow page directory business has been slow to catch up with the telephone industry deregulation, and there are many medium-size-market-serving directories which have failed to implement any of the new best practices, and the cost of design/publishing/printing has been plummeting, meaning not much startup cost, so if you've got some extra capital, starting a secondary telephone directory in a monopoly market will almost certainly get you a 30-40% annual return on your investment within five years. Wow! Isn't that astounding?

Wednesday, December 01, 2004


You don't understand
It's not the nail
But the broken bread
Not the bloody thorns
But the eyes that lie.
Forty silver coffin nails.
He is the chosen one.
Jesus meets his eyes
And loves him.
Judas by his side
Welcomes sinners
Into heaven.
"Do not fear
To enter here.
I am forgiven.
So are you."