Diary of a Detour

This book-in-progress began as a blog to update friends when i was undergoing chemo. It revolved, initially, around cancer and chickens. But, as the journey continued via many detours, it morphed into a series of bloggessais about many things.  You can read the pieces in any order but if you want some orientation try reading the first post,”Chickens Saved My Life,” first.

The Ecology of Cancer, and What do Ants have to do with it?

Ants are like cancer cells. Conversely we might say that cancer cells are like ants.

Even though they sometimes feel more mammoth-like and slothful, lumberingly prehistoric rather than tiny and socially frenzied. “They feel.” Of course cancer cells do not have feelings so far as I know. What I mean is that they feel to me, these colonies of CLL cells that circulate through the bone marrow and the blood and the lymphatic system, they feel to me massive and heavy and slow. Or more accurately, they make me feel like a sloth, I imagine myself as one of those creatures I saw a few weeks ago in the Tar Pits in Los Angeles: slowly dragging my massive body over the never-ending earth. But in the last few weeks I have also been having nightmares, dark and jagged dreams in which a massive sloth-like creature is out there, lumbering over the horizon, coming closer, filling the screen, threatening to engulf me. This CLL beast exists, I guess, both within and without.

When I heard Deborah Gordon declare that ants are like cancer colonies I experienced a rush of resistance. I did not welcome the idea of analogizing my condition to a common-and-garden insect that lives in colonies, rather than to the singularity of an exotic species of mega fauna now extinct. I was alarmed not charmed by the image of colonies of ants scurrying around in my body. But also in some peculiar way I did not yet quite understand, this analogy—of cancer cells to an ant colony—struck a chord. Suddenly a new image, one not immediately accessible to my habits of thinking and feeling, began to reverberate.

Ants, the ants that I know, live in my garden, not in my body. It has always been mysterious to me the way ant colonies would spring up in the garden, how they would know where the aphids were congregated, how they would march and scurry from their nests to my favorite rose bush, devastated by a colony of aphids. Aphids are small insects that suck the life out of plants and then secrete a sugar-rich sticky honeydew that ants love. In fact they “farm” the aphids, protect them from predators and parasites and nurture their eggs. In the face of this alliance—a mutualistic relationship or type of symbiosis—I would feel very small and ineffectual. All I could do would be to hope for an invasion of ladybugs (to eat the aphids, and thus deflect the ants) or I could spend hours everyday hosing off the aphids with jets of water. Sometimes you would sink a pitch fork into the compost pile and as if from nowhere a black mass of moving matter would crawl up your arm. After initial panic—rushing around dementedly shaking arms, trying in a frenzied manner to brush the ants off—I figured out that in the process of pursuing their own ends, foraging for fabulous stuff to take back to their nests, they were doing me a favor. Like worms, they were doing their bit to toss and turn and hasten the process of decomposition in the compost. In the end by leaving things be—as much as is possible for a neurotic controlling gardener—the garden settled into its own ecology. Or rather, it became more possible to observe the interaction of plants and creatures. To see, for instance, which plants attracted bees and when. African blue basil and rosemary are bee magnets. The weedy fennel, when it’s younger is a host for the swallow tail caterpillar that turns into a spectacular butterfly, flits around the garden and then sashays off to Mexico. Later, when the garden is festooned with the fennel’s yellow umbels the bees come swarming in.

But the story is not so simple, not such a paean to natural balance and harmony.

Enter the chickens.

Nowadays there are no infestations of ants, no plagues in the garden. The beak of a chicken and a squirrely squirming ant—these things exist together in a powerful force field of attraction. Heaven if you are a chicken, pretty dismal, I guess, if you are an ant. Though maybe the ants have just changed their habits, become invisible to chicken and human eyes, or moved on over to my neighbor Mrs Tam’s garden. Chickens also love worms, but since the birds are surface scratchers and since the vegetable beds and the compost are barricaded the worms survive there, in fact they survive everywhere deep in the soil, doing their work, sifting and turning.

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Ants are like cancer cells, says Deborah Gordon, in so far as they are regulated but without central control.

An ant colony is regulated, its survival depends on the distribution and co-ordination of tasks and roles. Communication, or an exchange of cues, exists between the ants. The tasks and roles themselves are not fixed, but shift and change as the environment shifts and shapes. The ants exist in a dynamical social network. A hub may form for instance simply by ants moving into a space where there are lots of interactions. Gordon calls it the anternet. Ants do not always behave the same way. Foraging behavior for instance changes in times of drought. If one element changes (e.g. the availability of water) then the behavior of the colony changes. These changes, in turn, shape social and reproductive patterns. By observing these changes in patterns of behavior or modes of regulation, scientists can observe how natural selection is working on this colony.

There are many biological systems, apart from ants, that function without hierarchy. Bird flocks, without a leader, turn in the sky, fish schools swerve to avoid predators, tropical forests develop patterns of diversity… and cancer cells mutate and metastasize. For all of these systems, we still don’t fully understand how the parts work together to produce the dynamics, the history, and the development of the whole system.

It has often felt to me as though the garden is a battlefield. The march to the rose bushes and the swarming in the compost bin seem to be ant maneuvers carried out with all the efficiency of military campaigns, masterminded by some center of control (and sometimes the body too feels like and is popularly conceived of as a battle zone where the war against cancer is waged). Indeed this is how the great and pioneering ant scholar E.O. Wilson described ant society—in terms of hierarchy, conflict and regimental organization. So why should we relinquish this view (or feeling) in favor of the model proposed by younger scientists, including Deborah Gordon? Most significant for me, in terms of the efficacy of the analogy, is that Gordon and others tell a different sort of system story, emphasizing situated (therefore variable) processes of recognition and response. They understand the ant colony as composed of flexible units (whose functions change according to situation) and propose a system characterized by different architecture and components. Nodes of interaction are at the heart of Gordon’s model and frequencies of interactions at nodes are what shape material social orders. It is this that grounds the argument against the way that Wilson’s analogy works, wherein the behavior of ants is offered as a sociobiological model for human behavior. Ants, Gordon argues, don’t provide moral lessons or insight into behavior or feelings, but they do provide insight about the dynamics of networks, systems without central control.

It’s a tricky business, this maneuvering (is it a dance or a battle?) between feelings and conceptual models, between the garden and the body, ants and cancer cells. Sometimes new images, just as much as new data, can interfere with feelings and reorient one’s thinking.

What matters in networks is the ecology of the system.

So, taking our cue from ant colonies, how might we think about the ecology of cancer? What are some of the ways that cancers diversify and spread? How is organization regulated? How, with answers to some of these questions, might we approach intervention in ways less dramatically belligerent?

Cells in the body act collectively—for example, as networks of neurons to produce sensations, or as patrolling T-cells that mobilize other immune cells to respond to pathogens. It seems they communicate with one another. In the process of metastasis, the cancer cells may use signals from healthy tissue to recruit other cancer cells to a new location, where certain areas of tissue constitute an attractive resource. If researchers can figure out how cancer cells are recruiting then maybe they can set traps to prevent them from doing this.

All very well, but it doesn’t solve my problem (and my oncologist’s) which is how to understand the malignant cells of my cancer, Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL), as part of a cancerous system, given that it is a cancer of the blood not manifested in solid tumors. In CLL the cancer cells (malignant B cells, a type of white blood cell) course through the marrow and travel through the blood and lymphatic system. What happens in a “normal” body is that the B cells are recruited to fight infection, they die off often and regularly and new ones grow. In CLL, because of some genetic glitch, they don’t die off but in fact relentlessly proliferate, interfering with and crowding out the production of healthy white cells, red cells and platelets.

Although the cancer is in the blood and not localized in tumors the cells do cluster, they form hubs just like ants. They cluster in lymphoid tissue. Research has identified a form of regulation in this lymphoid tissue, or micro-environment, whereby malignant B cells communicate with other healthy cells. Curious about the relation of the cancer cells to certain healthy cells Dr Kipps and his colleagues looked at this relationship in the lab. They found that when the CLL cells were removed from the “suspicious” healthy cells, the CLL B cells began to die, whereas the same cells, when replated back onto the healthy cells, perked up immediately. Because they supported the survival of CLL cells and because CLL B cells became attached to them, the researcher group called them “nurse-like cells,” or NLC. They concluded that one of the ways CLL cells survive is by recruiting these protector cells.

Dr K describes CLL as a very social beast. By this he means that the survival of the cells depends upon a network of relations, which indeed amounts to a form of regulation, without central control. The relation between the NLC and the CLL B-cells is symbiotic just like that between ants and aphids. In a dynamical system like an ant colony it is possible to observe how when one element changes (e.g. the introduction of drought) the behavior of the colony changes. So, similarly, by focusing on the microenvironment of another dynamical system – a colony of cancer cells – it becomes possible to envisage forms of intervention more akin to the strategic introduction of drought, rather than war. Rather than therapies which are the equivalent of carpet bombing, indiscriminately destroying good blood cells along with the bad (which anyway doesn’t work with CLL which is notably resistant to standard chemotherapy), the solution might be to try and intervene in the signaling system to change the behavior of the cancer colony. Or, as Dr K puts it: to foster therapies that isolate the CLL cells so that they die of social neglect.

To observe how cancer colonies evolve, how cellular activity is regulated, how selections are made: this chimes with other ideas vibrating in the air in this second decade of the twenty first century when the Darwinian inheritance is being reconfigured. We humans have made such a mess of the planet that perhaps our only hope lies in attending more closely to other forms of organization, to looking more closely at ants and fungi and chickens (with whom we share about 60% DNA) and extinct species like the sloth from the Paleolithic era to species like bees that are disappearing by the day, as we poison the environment and our own bodies. By looking outside the human body to other “bodies” or clusters of living cells in the natural world it seems to me that we have more chance of figuring out solutions, or ways of being in the world, perhaps even ways of living with cancer rather than definitively conquering it. Just as in certain approaches to invasive species in habitat studies. It’s a reversal of the gaze or perspective. Rather than trying to understand the natural world through the lens of human society, we reverse the perspective so that a description of a natural society—an ant colony in this instance—can illuminate how we think about modes of organization in the human body. Or, more pertinently (since reversals always carry the dangers of dualism) we can begin to think of the nature-society play as itself like an ant colony.

I don’t for a moment think that Dr K and co are spending their time out in the desert down on their knees observing the behavior of ants. They are in the laboratory working late at night, separating the malignant B-cells from their nurse-like protectors and replating them, and trying to figure out how to intercept the signals. They are running algorithms. In defining the various cells, structures and molecules that protect the CLL cells they are working on the development of novel anti-leukemia agents such as monoclonal antibodies and immune-based treatment strategies and genetically engineered T-cells. No, they are not looking at ants; but for me, as a gardener and a non-scientist and someone with cancer, bells start chiming.

In writing this I have become less alarmed by the ant analogy, more attuned to the reverberations sparked by hearing Deborah Gordon speak. At some point analogy clicks and opens up a different link. A link to the ecological.

Even though he places emphasis on the environment Dr K is cautious: We still don’t fully understand how the parts work together to produce the dynamics, the history, and the development of the system, he says. There isn’t a single explanation for how CLL happens, let alone how it evolves, adapts, transforms. Unpredictable things happen. Needless to say there also isn’t a single solution.

Nevertheless, this perspective gives me hope. Not that a cure for CLL will be produced tomorrow, but certainly that more efficacious and less damaging possibilities are opening up that might prolong the life expectancy of people with CLL (so far this has not been possible). The outlook is considerably brighter than when I was first diagnosed six years ago.

It fills me with energy and hope: that this research can be understood in terms of a larger project, within an ecological matrix encompassing micro and macro environments, time scales ranging from the big bang to now, symbiotic relations as apparently diverse as the relation between ants and aphids in a garden and malignant B-cells and nurse-like cells in a CLL environment.

It gives hope when things are going well (like now, when treatment is resting in a sweet spot). Not when you are teetering on the edge of a chasm filled with black rising sludge and you see death edging its way up out of the tar pits toward you, like a massive land sloth.

In the dark times it is the sloth that imaginatively materializes, rather than a colony of ants. Although the ant analogy has greater scientific resonance, the sloth connects affectively to my bodily experience. But in the process of writing this piece I have relinquished the idea of ants scurrying around inside my body, am more able to situate ants and cancer cells in an analogous relation, within the framework of dynamical systems. This I realize: it is not necessary to feel ant-like in order to grasp the import of the analogy. You might say my cognitive apprehension has marginally improved. On the other hand, it is only through sensation, through ways that the body experiences being in the world, being in the garden as well as in the hospital and the lab, that understanding grows. Figures of speech, often fantastical, may seem to be at odds with scientific data, but the human sensorium involves a rich patterning of signaling networks. The connections between science and imagination are myriad and marvelous.

 

Notes

“Ants are like cancer cells”…….. Deborah Gordon in her talk “The evolution of collective behavior in ant colonies.” at the conference, “Anthropocene: Arts of living on a damaged planet,” May 8-10, 2014, organized by Anna Tsing at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her writings include Ant Encounters: Interaction Networks and Colony Behavior (Primers in Complex Systems) and Ants At Work: How An Insect Society Is Organized.

“the researcher group called them “nurse-like cells,” or NLC”….. “Blood-derived nurse-like cells protect chronic lymphocytic leukemia B cells from spontaneous apoptosis through stromal cell–derived factor-1”

Jan A. Burger, Nobuhiro Tsukada, Meike Burger, Nathan J. Zvaifler, Marie Dell’Aquila, Thomas J. Kipps,  Blood. Oct 2000,96(8)2655-2663; http://bloodjournal.org/content/96/8/2655?variant=long

“chickens (with whom we share about 60% DNA)”….. NIH 2004 News Release. “Researchers Compare Chicken, Human Genomes: Analysis of First Avian Genome Uncovers Differences Between Birds and Mammals” National Human Genome Research Institute. Last Updated: November 17, 2011http://www.genome.gov/12514316.  Accessed May 15, 2014.

 

 

Chicken Shit

There is a Shambhala saying, “You do not just want to work with chicken shit, you want to work with the chicken itself.” I take these words to mean something like this: chicken shit may be messy and stinky and time consuming to deal with, but as a task it can almost invisibly become routinized, easy, predictable and satisfying. The chicken is another matter: flighty, opinionated, even though her opinions are impenetrable or rather the logic of her opinions seems to bear no relation to the material conditions of her existence. She imagines she is a queen and should be treated thus by loyal subjects, or she imagines she is hawk, a bird destined to prey on all smaller creatures and insects and even invisible beings who plague and torment and also add spice to her life. Or she may be perfectly healthy, apparently happy and cooing one moment, and then just like that, without warning, dead as a dodo. Understanding the chicken, loving her through thick and thin, is not always easy. Though you might say that this is all projection—human projection of our own or my own crankiness and unknowingness—onto the chicken. The Shambhala saying (Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s riff on the Buddhist maxim, “Work with the greatest defilements first”) is after all a saying, a dicho, a deployment of metaphor. To take it too literally is to stray into minefields of our own making, fields carefully cultivated with chicken shit and home-crafted, jerry-built landmines.

Many cultures and story telling traditions and philosophical orientations utilize animals in this way. Think of Aesop’s fables, think of African folk tales, think of a philosopher like Jacques Derrida. I remember hearing Derrida talk, over many weeks, about the cow, in the context of “eating the other.” And in Sydney, delivering a lecture on friendship he spoke about cats, taking a very concrete, quotidian experience to play with the notion of friendship. Well, he said, it’s irritating and a pain to deal with other cats in the building who come and eat your cat’s food. But you can work on your attitude and eventually see this cat as existing in a continuum with your cat. Instead of continuity breeding contempt and hostility and erecting domestic barricades you might eventually entertain the notion of a feline continuity, and welcome the other cat into your home, not grudgingly but with generosity of spirit. However, he said, and I remember how Derrida played out this moment dramatically, using the pause, the tilted head, the glinting eye and raised eyebrow: What if one day you hear a scratching at the door and you go to open it and you open it and there, sitting on the mat is a cat, but this cat is a lion. This image was so vivid, it has stayed with me as complex thread unraveling over time. Was this a metaphor? Or was it an example grounded in the material world? I think it was both. And so it is in many of these traditions or inflections of moral precepts, or teasing out of philosophical conundrums. The Lion and the Chicken are not to be taken literally, but neither are they merely metaphors. They are at once familiar, quotidian (the lion is a kind of cat, the chicken is connected to chicken shit), and their dramatic performance is surprising, unlikely, has the capacity to wake us up, to confront us with the surprising and unexpected and alien and difficult.

Chicken shit happens. Chickens, on the other hand, can take us by surprise, provoke unhappenings.

All I wanted when I first went to the Shambhala center at the end of my street was some help with meditation, some hints on how to integrate the body with a calming of the mind, some training in how to foster a practice, a routine. I wanted to subdue the panic, find some way of coping with illness. Trained in the hard knocks school of high theory I felt I did not need any more mind-training.

Today I pull Training the Mind off the book shelf, to check on that chicken shit reference, and two slogans printed on flimsy bits of paper fall out: “Work with the greatest defilements first” and “Don’t be so predictable.”

On the one hand there is sitting meditation, a concentration of the mind on the breath. On the other hand there is contemplative meditation. Theoretically the focus on breath, on the body, grounds one for contemplation. I still haven’t quite figured out where the practice of sitting-and-breathing-and-not-thinking intersects with sitting-and-breathing-and-thinking-about-things, about, say, the slogans. I just muddle along, helped by teachers, by the structure of the sangha.

Training the Mind by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche explicates the seven points of mind training (lojong) attributed to the Indian Buddhist teacher Atisha in 982 C.E. The list of fifty nine mind-training slogans are often referred to as the Atisha Slogans. Pithy, practical, a way of training our minds both through formal practice and through everyday life as a means of awakening. Waking up entails coming to realize the habitual nature of the self (not just the generalized self, but my self, uurgh), realizing the “other” as other. The slogans bear repetition because of their capacity to change: they double back, dodge and creep up on you from unexpected angles.

You should work with whatever is your greatest obstacle first – whether it is aggression, passion, pride, arrogance, jealousy, or what have you. You should not just say “I will sit more first, and I will deal with that later.” Working with the greatest defilements means working with the highlights of your experience or your problems. You do not just want to work with chicken shit, you want to work with the chicken itself.

Good habits, repetition, the assurance of a routine, all this is necessary to maintain a meditative practice. It is very hard to learn to breath without this kind of structure. The structure facilitates: How much easier the day becomes if everyday you manage to find even a short time for slowing the mind, for breathing peacefully. But, but, but … (insists the voice of the skeptic, or looking at it differently, the Derridean) it is also all too easy to settle, via routine, into the fatness of certitude

his certitudes perched like fat chickens

How do you grapple with the tenacious grip of the ego and yet avoid positioning the other as the predictable obverse or prop to one’s glorious egolessness? How do you avoid interpreting the slogans through the lens of a moral universe? How to pre-empt the snarkiness, the judgement, the relentless drive to control everything, the frustration and irritation and despair with those around, with myself, with Israel’s assault on Gaza, with immigration policies in this country, with the global environmental catastrophe engulfing us all? How do you engage with the world, how do you avoid grand generalizations and self-righteous litanies of complaint about the bad other? For this we know: mindful shifting of the habitual can in itself become a habit, promoting a comforting quietude and detachment from politics both quotidian and public.

from the farmyard in which his certitudes perched like fat chickens, every night of the siege, one or two were carried off in the jaws of rationalism and despair.

Chicken shit happens. Chickens transmogrify. Between the cushion of contemplation and the world out there is an ocean, an ocean where we surf and are tossed by the stormy waves of birth, old age, global catastrophe, genocide, sickness and death.

It’s all very well to realize and to see the lion or the chicken as merely a projection of self. But to fully recognize the lion or the chicken as something other than a projection of self. Not so easy. Not so easy to do this off the cushion, out there or in here, in the world.

Oh the world, the world.

 

Notes

 There is a Shambhala saying …. Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving Kindness, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, p.150. Slogan: Work with the greatest defilements first.

from the farmyard in which his certitudes perched like fat chickens …. J.G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur, p. 211.

 

 

 

 

 

Spheres of Glass

I wandered, lonely, escaping from the Seattle Sheraton, from the giddiness of social encounters and a plethora of conference talk, escaping Chihuly. Chihuly ornaments and glass sculptures are nested in every niche of the Sheraton, commanding attention from every shiny polished vantage point. Almost every hotel in Seattle (and many other hotels around the world) exhibit Dale Chihuly glass works, but his great popularity is centered on the garden installations. I saw “Gardens of Glass: Chihuly at Kew” in 2005, but was neither charmed nor seduced. As a tourist and gardener and sometimes critic, like others of my ilk I would always rather be seduced than not. On the other hand I’d rather be intrigued than charmed (but of course you cannot always choose the things that move you, you cannot orchestrate those moments when the air turns cold and you shiver, or when a hot feverish breeze gets under your skin, or when perplexity renders you speechless; for all that a certain kind of taste is trained into your body, you cannot always predict how you will react). So now, visiting Seattle for the first time, Chihuly Garden and Glass is on my bucket list. I’m intrigued to see how these glass works work in their native setting, hoping my mind can be changed.

After all, the conceit of these garden installations is potentially intriguing: the insinuation of fantastical glass sculptures in amongst real plants. They are mostly, though not entirely, gigantic, these sculptures, bearing names like garden grass, reeds, blue herons, sun, French Blue Ikebana with orange and scarlet frog feet, green trumpets, red orange reeds. They imitate and mimic. As you wander through the garden you encounter vegetative landscapes, living matter, interspersed with signs of the synthetic, squishy materials juxtaposed with brittle surfaces, warm and fleshy with glassy coolness. Of course no garden is entirely natural, but if all gardens are to some degree designed then grand public gardens like Kew are meticulously curated (and so too, one imagines, the “original” Chihuly Garden). As a viewer ambling through a series of interconnected gardens or galleries, one’s curiosity could be tickled, one’s sense of assurance about which goes with what. Mimesis in this mise-en-scène possesses the potential to provoke the irreality of the garden itself.

But the garden and museum fell short of conceit.

So here I am, escaping the extravaganza, walking back to the downtown conference along 5th Avenue. Walking segues into trudging. It seems as though I have been hiking for days through rough terrain. A sliver of anxiety worms its way up, up from heavy footsteps into my stomach and buzzes there, a caged mosquito, looking for blood. An old familiar feeling, a feeling that hasn’t visited for months. Perhaps, I tell myself, it is not somatic at all, just disgruntlement, the massive gaudy Chihuly glass works—luridly pretty, drained of affect—weighing heavily upon my fragile psyche. Suddenly a wave of home sickness ripples through me, a yearning—to be home, curled up in bed with Elvis and Roxy, or in the garden picking fava beans, or in with the chickens, cooing, stroking their silkiness.

Lonely as a cloud.

When all at once I see a crowd, a host, of spectral chickens. Dead, plucked and headless chickens, impaled, fluttering and dancing in a shop window. Two washing lines slice the window vertically. Meat hooks hang from the cord lines, piercing the elongated yet rather fat necks, all skinniness concentrated in the legs which dangle in the air, feet splayed open like hands stretching, feeling for solid ground. In between the legs and the necks plump appurtenances, rounded if rather lumpy breasts. Is it a shop, a restaurant, an office? There is no lettering, no description, no invitation.

My dragging footsteps freeze.

Behind the chooks hangs a large Chinese paper lantern, once scarlet now faded to puce, and in the right foreground, on a dusty cluttered desk, a jar of bright lively daffodils. Golden. In contrast the chickens are pasty and pale, a grimy faded yellow. The sickly yellow of birds-eye-custard, dished up in my childhood at the end of every vile boarding school meal, smothered over every horrible pudding, the horribleness only exacerbated by this fraudulent cover-up. Or is it whiteness turned old and musty and tinged with the ochre of decay? I step closer, nose against the glass. There is something odd about these chickens, they are too smooth, too drained of blood, too dusty, their necks—inauthentically fat—are hollow. There is something about them that makes me want to reach out through the glass to feel their textural duplicity.

These are imitation carcasses, synthetic chickens, plasticcy. Relief and hilarity. The sense of laughter, however, isn’t just provoked by the discovery of the hoax, rather it’s to do with the uncanny persistence of irreality, an undecidabilty that persists in the scene before and after discovery, for now I’m part of this scene that I stumbled upon. The sense of unease, shadowed by the intimation of disease returning, the horror provoked by this exhibition of dead and naked chickens, the unasked-for juxtaposition of my silky girls and these synthetic mute corpses, is somewhat alleviated by the certainty that they are merely imitations. I’m off the hook, “my chickens” whose heads I would never chop off, who I would never pluck and hang and eat, are OK, they remain in the realm of the real while these phantoms are merely incarnations of a spectral brutality. But then the scene I witness—as though in a museum, as though this is an exhibit, as if it were a still frame from a movie—insists on including me in its mise en scène, on incorporating the dissociation from which I suffer. Cognitive dissonance shot through with strains of the uncanny. When I see ducks hanging in Chinese butchers, gleaming and velvetty in their soy basting, I can’t wait to taste and to experience in the mouth the crunch of their crispy skin. Even chickens, I never hesitate to eat chicken, I enjoy the cooking of chickens and chicken parts. “Chickens” in general. Not particular chickens. Not my chickens.

I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment when a more than usually violent jolt of the train swung back the door of the adjoining washing-cabinet, and an elderly gentleman in a dressing-gown and a traveling cap came in. I assumed that in leaving the washing-cabinet, which lay between the two compartments, he had taken the wrong direction and come into my compartment by mistake. Jumping up with the intention of putting him right, I at once realized to my dismay that the intruder was nothing but my own reflection in the looking-glass on the open door.

Freud, writing here about the uncanny presents us with a scene conceptualized as a frame within a frame. He is jolted, subjected to a shock. We might almost say that the movement involves transference, it is a movement between—between the viewer and the image. Enter the chickens as a third term, a mediating twist.

Speaking of cognitive dissonance, of the personal and the social, of no man being an island:

 The “taming” of this continent, in five centuries and change, required a mighty mustering of cognitive dissonance.

How bizarre to come upon this apparition on an ordinary street, while ambling along, to encounter thus the uncanny echoing or correlation of living and dead, natural and artificial, self and other, chickens and daffodils. Somehow this view into another world (office, butcher’s shop, Chinese restaurant?) wakes me up, looks back, interpolates. The austerity of the frame, string strung across the window asymmetrically, the sickly color-co-ordination, the insinuation of springtime and gardens, of a host of golden daffodils, into this macabre composition is provocative in a way the Chihuly is not.

It would be wrong to say that on glimpsing those daffodils my heart with pleasure danced. But a lightness did indeed enter into my leaden feet, as I imagined a dance macabre between those denuded plastic chickens and my feathery cooing girls.

You have to walk through the Chihuly museum in order to reach the garden. Which means your experience of the garden is overdetermined by the sense of aesthetic homogeneity indoors. Actually the transition between the two realms is striking. It is called the glass house, and although modeled on the great glass houses of the nineteenth century such as the Crystal Palace, it is a very simple structure, bare and austere. In contrast to the nakedness and transparency in which you find yourself a huge sprawling floral abundance hangs from the ceiling: glass flowers, larger than life, fashioned in red gold and orange, drip lusciously, suspensed in space, suspended forever. As you stand under them it is almost impossible not to imagine the whole gigantic structure crashing, splintering, dispersing into a thousand pieces. It’s a gloriously extravagant composition, this mixing of glass textures, this invocation of an aesthetic of timelessness through an illusion to practices of preservation, to ways of keeping things alive in artificial environments. Like glass houses, like museums, like tombs.

In the glass house a space opens up in which to meditate upon scale and materiality.

But after the glass house is the garden and before the glass house there are galleries, endless iterations of frilly floraciousness. The psychedelic underwater worlds are interchangeable with the flowery abstractions. The garden is just another gallery, a medium of display, a staging for the performance of anxiety: to elevate glass blowing from a craft to a grandiose art. Such production requires factory conditions and many workers. Nothing new in this, but the process of effacement in the name of a single genius artist serves to efface process in general. I so wanted the installation to yield a tension, a gesturing to something outside itself, to the multiple imbrications of nature and art, to the materiality created out of breath and fire. What I found was an abundance of precious cheerfulness but little sense of the uncanny, or of the fragility of glass, how close it is to splintering. Nor much sense of how the social is inscribed in the material world. Wonder is a word often used to describe the Chihuly effect, but for me wonder served to efface the complexities of process.

Wonder is also the predominant response elicited by another famous and popular display, the Ware Collection of Glass Models of Plants, in the Harvard Museum of Natural History (often acknowledged by Chihuly as an influence). This collection is composed of 3,000 models of ‘Glass Flowers’ constructed by father and son Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, over five decades from 1886 through 1936.In fact all kinds of plants, not just flowers, make up the collection which was commissioned in order to teach students of botany. The models are disturbingly life size (too large to be miniatures, too small to be sculptures) and remarkably accurate in anatomical detail and color.

The wonder that these “flowers” elicit is complicated by a range of emotions and epistemological speculations, as evidenced in the richness of critical writing that circulates around them. Much of this writing hovers between description and defiance of description. How unlikely that these scientific models should be made of glass rather than other substances so much more amenable to modeling (they are constructed primarily though not exclusively of glass) like wax or papier mache. Their materiality, in practical and imaginative terms, is of the utmost importance. While extremely thingy they are also chimerical. Wonder is generated in the play between seeing and not seeing, knowing and not knowing: you know they are made of glass and yet ….. “They look real enough but as if the real is from another realm,” says Jamaica Kincaid. It is she who captures the uncanniness of the artificial perfection, and nails the relation of these objects wrought in glass to the garden.

The glass flowers and their many stages of being are in a state of perfection stilled. It is always a gardener’s wish to have perfection and then to have it forever. It is also within the gardener’s temperament to first desire forever and then to do everything possible to dismantle and smash forever. If the flowers encased in cabinets stored in the museum make up a garden, they are not the exception to this latter sentiment. Though it seems as if they will last forever, every cabinet bears a legend warning of their fragility. The people taking care of them give assurance that they will last forever. But as every gardener knows, forever is as long as a day.

Glass matters here, but other materials matter elsewhere. Plastic and yarn, for instance, can be exploited for their mimetic potential. What matters is scale and texture and the way that the materiality of the sculptural object is able to gesture outside its own perfection (its mimetic perfection, or formal coherence) to chisel a crack in the cognitive dissonance that glues everything together.

Think of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s glass poem, Wave/Rock. The poem is constructed not on the page but on a thick sheet of glass onto which the words Wave and Rock, many times over, are sandblasted. The letters of the word wave “break” on the rock constructed not on the page but in glass. The form of the words mimics their meaning, enacts their materiality. Waves break, and simultaneously the process of waves breaking is frozen, the cycle of nature is eternal, and at the same time fragile, vulnerable to destruction particularly in and by human hands: the one who sculpts, composes, the one who reads and sees and knows and does not know. Wave/Rock dislodges an habitual cognitive dissonance. We might almost say that the movement involves transference, it is a movement between—between the viewer, looking at and through the glass, and the image.

Enter the chickens, proposing a third term, a mediating twist. For me the chickens in this instance represent an ecological dimension that Finlay Patterson most likely did not intend, but that the work now speaks.

Glass in the end is not the most important thing (though glass contains a particular potential). It is the materiality of the process incorporated into the sculptural object, the “work” in the “work” which gestures towards something playful and also potentially destructive. The wave, this one wave which is also many waves, all waves, breaks over and over again but is itself vulnerable, and perhaps after all not so eternal.

Take “Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs.” This is a project initiated by the Institute for Figuring, run by Christine and Margaret Wertheim. The Wertheim sisters, inspired by a type of mathematical modeling called hyperbolic geometry, put out a web call to invite women to join them in crocheting a coral reef, following some simple mathematical rules for generating a certain kind of spatial configuration and dimensionality (interestingly embodied by reefs and reef creatures). Women from all over the world responded to the invitation, contributing individual items and elements. The Institute for Figuring initiated workshops, crocheting workshops which incorporated an ecological component, a learning about reefs, about the threats posed to their existence particularly from the onslaught of plastic detritus.The artists, as well as using more familiar materials such as wool and yarn, incorporated into the sculptures recycled materials, such as plastics. Leslie Dick, from whose fabulous essay I learnt of this project, writes of a “mental shift in scale (from individual item to larger combination)” which is “mirrored by the relation of the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs to their real-world counterparts, particularly the Great Barrier Reef in the Pacific. Leslie Dick contends that the project, drawing on so many practitioners, produces a new kind of artist (and thus art work), one immersed in reverie, in a project that enables a rich variety and combination of imaginative explorations. She invokes this kind of artist:

While she may have confidence in her expertise, her work avoids grandiosity, remaining at a manageable scale (until it joins the larger combination). This artist particularly enjoys the invitation to sink below the ocean, to enter its dreamlike darkness, an alternate reality of color and shape. She enjoys making phallic shapes, using her hook and yarn to build leaning towers, star shaped fortresses, a landscape drawn in lumps of color. She enjoys making vaginal shapes, fuzzy, curly edged openings, soft to the touch, fronded and weird.

I have only seen images on screen but these marvelously thingy things look so incredibly life-like, so reefish, it’s uncanny. And dissonant too, the way “alien” materials are almost seamlessly crocheted into the sculptures. There is a cognitive dissonance at large in our world now: we revel in the beauty of underwater worlds, of forests and canyons, of places like the Great Barrier Reef, and we are filled with wonder at art that mimics that beauty and preserves for eternity a Platonic perfection. Peeking into the world of “Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs” jars that perfection, chisels into the glue of cognitive dissonance, invites reverie and wonder and playful engagement but also a cognitive recalibration, a reimagining and respinning of a conceit that intertwines the natural and synthetic worlds.

Speaking of cognitive dissonance – as we were making our way back from the spectacular San Juan Islands where we spent a night on Orcas island, a catastrophic event occurred in beautiful Washington State, one of the deadliest landslides in U.S. history. As we hiked around Cascade Lake and climbed to the top of the tower on the top of Mount Constitution, marveling in this world seemingly so pristine, a community in Stillaguamish Valley in the foothills of the North Cascades were suddenly without warning buried under mud. A natural disaster? Unforeseen, said the emergency manager of the area. Timothy Egan wrote a week after the event that in fact there had been warnings, most notably a report in 1999 that outlined “the potential for a large catastrophic failure” on the very hillside that just suffered a large catastrophic failure (although it seems the inhabitants of the endangered community were never told of these official reports). Egan reports visiting the area 25 years ago and being shown a mudslide occurring on a hillside above the river, a hillside in which old growth forest had been clear felled, leaving nothing to hold the hillside in torrential rain. Just like the hillside above the small, disappeared community, of Oso.

Egan says, “The “taming” of this continent, in five centuries and change, required a mighty mustering of cognitive dissonance… A legacy of settlement is the delusion that large-scale manipulation of the natural world can be done without consequence.”

Scale and texture. A continent, an ocean, a garden, a shop window, forests, mud, glass, yarn, plastic, plants, the real and the imitative, the beautiful and the catastrophic.

I return to San Diego where rather than rain there is a drought, and the river if it can be seen at all, is skinny. I make a routine visit to the hospital on the UCSD campus and am astounded by the number of new buildings, massive grandiose medical buildings mostly, being developed on the very edge of canyons. Mesas have been sliced into and rearranged. Glass and concrete structures teeter on air. We have no old growth forests here, just coastal scrub and chaparral. But they too hold the earth down. What, I wonder is the cognitive dissonance we suffer from here? I imagine a performance art project enacted by chickens let loose on the medical campus, or even an installation of dead, plucked and headless chickens, hanging from the canyon walls, dangling over freeways, reaching for the daffodils.

 Notes

“I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment…” …. Sigmund Freud, in a footnote to his 1919 essay, “The Uncanny” in Art and Literature. Trans. James Strachey. Comp  & ed Angela Richards. 1919. The Pelican Freud Library 14. London: Penguin,                    1985. Freud situates his essay as an investigation into aesthetics: “understood to   mean not merely the theory of beauty but the theory of the qualities of feeling”     (339).

 The “taming” of this continent Timothy Egan, “A Mudslide, Foretold,” The New        York Times, 29th March, 2014.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/30/opinion/sunday/egan-at-home-when-the-earthmoves.html?action=click&module=Search&region=searchResults%230&version=&url=http%3A%2F%2Fquery.nytimes.com%2Fsearch%2Fsitesearch%2F%3Faction%3Dclick%26region%3DMasthead%26pgtype%3DHomepage%26module%3DSearchSubmit%26contentCollection%3DHomepage%26t%3Dqry485%23%2Ftimothy+egan+mudslide&_r=0

accessed march 29th.

 

“They look real enough…” Jamaica Kincaid, “Splendor in the Glass,” The Architectural    Digest, June 2002.

http://www.architecturaldigest.com/ad/archive/artnotebook_article_062002

Accessed 15th March, 2014.

“mental shift in scale (from individual item to larger combination)…” Leslie Dick, The       Institute for Figuring and Companions: Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs. Track 16             Santa Monica,” X-tra, Summer 2009, volume 11 number 4.

http://x-traonline.org/article/the-institute-for-figuring-and-companions-       hyperbolic-crochet-coral-reefs/

accessed 12th February, 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cantankerous Rooster

Marathon, Texas. It is early morning and light is creeping into the motel room. Last night we walked back to the motel under a huge black sky, so black the stars shone like the burnished feathers of a silver rooster, burras brayed, flights of angels winging us to our rest. I remember living in San Augustine near Oaxaca, being kept awake and woken and harassed all day and night by the sound of braying burros, turkeys, a rooster, dogs, people. Gracias a los burros my rooster does not have to crow. He stands on the dressing table in front of a mirror so there are two of him. Sculptural. Silent. He is double and a doubler; he has, for instance, doubled the amount of words allowed in this bit of writing. I open the door and step out into the dusty parking lot. The sky is now a soft donkey grey, fringed to the east with vermilion, redness seeps out of the earth, filtering into the sky.

I can stretch my arm in any direction and reach the edge of solidity and then my fingers will close around the sky.

I take the rooster outside and photograph him. He is immobile. His coxscomb is scarlet, his body painted in swathes of yellow, green and blue. His tail is feathery, the featheriness of sliced tin, a shiny indigo blue. He is perfectly proportioned. His toes are splayed giving him a firm purchase on the ground, or the dressing table, or wherever he alights. Always out of place, he will be my register of place as we travel through desert regions towards Marfa.

The rooster joined us before the desert. In Johnson City, home of LBJ we find somewhere to pee: A tiny coffee shop in a large yard filled with iron ware. Flying pigs and alligators and cows. All painted. On the counter a faded photo of a Starbucks van, the side door slid open so that “tarbuck” is eliminated. What you see then is the starbucks icon and the word “sucks.”

While he fixed me an excellent espresso John and I swapped a few minimally anecdotal details—he’d lived in San Francisco, he could tell I wasn’t from Texas. Probably not from San Francisco either. The old guy he’s swapping yarns with, toothless, dusty, feels like he’s roamed the local block for years, and probably drunk every bottle in town, but who knows? Who knows peoples’ stories unless you drive with them for days and days through the desert and can talk of this and that and failed relationships and swap another hilarious story of another disastrous episode in the life of love. I asked John who made the rooster and the other creatures, where they came from. He looked at me quizzically as if to say which leg can I pull, which story will she buy, or as if he were asking himself is this a trick question, what’s she after this foreigner, who on this wide earth wants to know about the provenance of painted tin chotchkes, who gives a flying fuck where the rooster comes from. Then he laughs and says Juan, Carlos, Roberto, Ricardo, Miguel…..an army of anonymous Mexicans. I realize then it was indeed a sneaky question, the sort of question that a snooty gardener asks, either to elevate her purchase, raise it out of the realm of tourist art and into the realm of artisanal individuality, or simply to trip up a pretentious vendor.

I could go back to Old Town in San Diego and buy this rooster, closer to the source of its production. Or just nip across the border and buy it by the side of the road. Probably I could even nip back to Zimbabwe and buy the same rooster. And yet not exactly the same.

There was a bigger rooster, grander. But as soon as my eyes alit upon this one I knew he was the one for me. He is life size, perfectly proportioned, he has stepped out from a child’s picture book, from meticulously illustrated Mexican playing cards. R for rooster. G for el gallo. Watch out, says the old guy, he’s a cantankerous rooster, that one.

Molly, who has turned up at the coffee shop with Allen and Lynsey says, we will photograph the rooster everywhere we stop on our journey towards Marfa. He will be our sign, our register of place. The problem is Molly drives off with her lovely camera and I only have a phone. Luckily, the rooster responds well to i-phone attention. Preens, holds still while I teeter and shake.

In Harper where we get gas he stands beneath a wall on which is painted a much larger than life US flag and under it a large star of David and the slogan: Stand By Israel. Over the doorway on the same wall it says Building for Sale. Somehow my focus is screwy and the rooster is cut out of the picture.

He does appear, albeit tinily at the bottom of the frame, under two bucking broncos, at Lowe’s a local market in Fort Stockton. We had a cup of tea at a restaurant here and the young Mexican American who served us wouldn’t take any payment, it’s just water he said. I bought a bar of fancy dark chocolate with sea salt, an anomolous foreign import, and Katie bought a local newspaper. We ate the chocolate at the Rock House by the Rio Grande, it was musty.

In Marathon we have breakfast at Nancy’s Coffee shop. Under the large sign is scrawled, faintly, barely legible, “Foiled Again.” He stands in the large expanse of the dirt parking lot in front of our rooms. The horizon is so low it just peeks over his head.

We drive down into Big Bend National Park. At last and eventually we arrive at Terrlingua ghost town. There is a row of seats along the verandah of the saloon which is also a gift shop and also the hotel, next door to the Starlight Theatre and Bar which only opens at 5.00 so we will not get there, but it looks enticing, stars are painted on the ceiling. On the verandah everyone has a bottle in hand, slow gossip fuels the atmosphere. New people in town, everyone is alert but pretends to notice nothing. Though they all noticed Nora. Someone has already picked up the keys to the Rock House, and when I ask who she says a boy and a girl with tattoos. Nora later tells us that on her way out a woman grabs her arm to comment on her tattoos and confides loudly that she has her ex boyfriend’s name tattoed on her butt.

At the Rock House the Rooster sits on a table, the Rio Grande behind him. And then I bring him in for the night to sit safely at the foot of my bed. There are rooster thieves abroad, and vigilance is required.

IMG_1978

Now we are here, in Marfa, the rooster and I. You would not exactly call him Juddesque, my rooster. Picturesque, yes definitely. Ex-situ incarnate.

I shall take him home this rooster, a Texan I guess, home to California where he will be charged to remember all the fantastical details of this journey which I shall forget slowly, memory by memory.

IMG_2041

Blown Through the Air

Falling asleep in the air, surfacing in San Diego, creepily hot in mid winter. The garden is confused: fruit trees blooming, lettuces wilting, chickens discombobulated, facing with befuddlement the question: To lay or not to lay today? today is it winter or is today not winter not today?

Leaving Australia as temperatures climbed over a hundred degrees. On the East coast of the U.S. in grubby smouldering cities where only sometimes snow flitters fitfully across the landscape there are four inches today.

Wild fires are breaking out in Australia and in California. How wild I wonder? Raging yes, but unrelated to the domestic?

It’s a bit like sex in the grass, breakfast in bed, says J, it sounds like a splendid idea. Nevertheless he brings me a tray with coddled eggs (Holly’s eggs: Creamy saffron yolks) demure in pastoral china, and a slice of toast festooned with two thick slices of Fat Dave’s bacon. Succulent, salty. Lula Mae stopped laying this week, the day that Holly started. They coordinate the rationing of human pleasure.

I have been a trifle chookless while travelling. Though In Hawaii at Hanauma Bay where I went snorkeling there were wild chickens on the beach. Not very wild, wild once perhaps for a while after escaping domesticity, now semi-naturalized on the beach, not exactly cuddling up but certainly making do quite well with peckings and pickings from human picnics. In Austinmer, on our way down to the beach for an early morning swim, Sarah took me by some chickens to whom she ritually throws her apple core, broken into pieces. In Melbourne each morning I would let Helen’s chickens, making an almighty ruckus as soon as light filtered into the world, out of their coop. After I left and temperatures soared she put ice cubes in their water and posted photos of them sheltering under the shade of the lime trees. And an image of the dog standing, just standing motionless, in the heat in the fish pond. Dazzle the water nymph, wrote Rosa.

So much to do. Pruning in particular—fruit trees, roses, grape vines—and searching for missing library books, buried under dust and piles of other books and mountains of accumulated fines. There is one I cannot find, Notes of a Native Son. I had begun to think of this book as mine I’ve had it so long, renewing it each year. Perhaps someone nicked it, or I left it somewhere like at the hospital or perhaps it has gotten mixed up with gardening books, I’ll check again today. Or perhaps not. When a book goes missing this is usually what I do: buy a replacement cheap and take it into the library, mock-mournful shame-faced, and the nice librarian Jimmy always says, you know we don’t do this you have to pay the fine on-line, and then he takes the book I offer and looks it over, quizzical, as though it’s a novelty for him and a vaguely wondrous event, to hold a book in his hands. And then he says, OK, this time, but it’s the last time. But this time I feel in my bones that eventually James Baldwin will turn up at home and I shall keep him, or it, that library book that has spent so many hours in my hands, made grubby with breakfast stains. After travelling with a kindle, its lightness—while in motion—has now become unbearable, hence this compulsion to pay the fine, as though then the book will materialize. Partly through superstition (paying the fine will magic the book into the world again; but also via an irrational though tenacious inkling that my heroic fine will keep the doors of the library open) I bow to institutional punishment; but I also bow down in homage to the world of books, of solid three dimensional sticky objects that sometimes carry you away on a fluid flowing stream, a river into which you can dangle a foot and despite what the philosopher says you can return and do it again and again it is the same river, you can find yourself again, albeit differently. Like Inside Llewyn Davis which we saw last night. That gasp of recognition as he encounters the man in the suit in the alley again, or is it for the first time, or the second time, and gets his balls kicked in. You think for a moment it may turn out differently, better.

In homage too to Baldwin. How he manages words and how they correlate or not with feelings and how feelings infiltrate and stoke the fire of politics. The fire. “Stranger in the Village” is, at any time and in any place even though of course time and place are specific and matter, an extraordinary essay, in its evocation rather than description, of what today is endlessly in so many contexts called “otherness.” A fire that burns through thickets of sentiment. Exile: what does it feel like, where does it feel, how to think it?

In Australia there is much provocation to think of exile and asylum. Thousands of asylum seekers confined in Detention camps, on and off-shore. One government after another, Labour included, passing the buck. A sticky sensation of guilt and shame adhering to my Australian passport.

But this sensation was not everything. The Australian sojourn was simply marvelous: a passport to pleasure. It came at the right time: Bondi Beach in summer, Fitzroy street, friendships renewed, gardens native and otherwise to walk in, long conversations, spicy Asian food, the bats the black bats swooping through an indigo sky, all this worked better than any drugs.

I got better and better. But was blindsided by others getting iller and iller. I guess this happens when you are away and return and see how everyone is older and not quite as young as we all once were. I felt a niggling sense of shame that I—who make such an habitual hue and cry about not-being-well—should be so well when others all around me were teetering like skittles, battling with demons of pain and separation, incomprehensible medical diagnoses and imminent death. I remind myself: there is no hierarchy of suffering. If I write in order to combat the feelings of isolation and uncertainty that chronic illness can foster, I write for other reasons too, some merely neurotic, some to do with the pleasure afforded by any addiction, and for some reasons (though reason seems far too grand a concept) to do with a sense that putting into words this thing called illness (yes I call it thus even though there are therapeutic regimes that advise rethinking it as “wellness opportunity”) produces a materiality, albeit chimeric and diaphanous, something that can spark recognition, something that can be passed from hand to hand, blown through the air or kicked from one place to another.

Well, that’s the hope.

I had an immunoglobulin infusion the day after returning, blood tests still looking good, feeling fine, but of course it’s a just a matter of time before the symptoms return. Kipps asked me if I’d finished the book. I think he does not know what a holiday is. Lucky for me he works so hard. As expected the ball is in my court, but the choice is more clear cut than often: Continue without drugs for as long as six months if this good runs lasts that long, or start back on a low dose of revlimid with or without the ritoxumab. Certainly I would opt not to do the combination. Too many infusions and all the stuff that goes with that. But Sheila, wonderful Nurse Sheila, said that it would be possible to do the revlimid off-protocol so I wouldn’t be tied down by endless testing and could arrange labs with her and be able to travel. It’ll cost something but not a lot. The simple truth is this: I don’t want to think about it now. Am going to put it off for a month but then will probably opt for what Kipps sees as a pro-active move and the possibility of staving off the next big treatment for longer.

In future posts I will sketch some vignettes of this Australian escape. For if obsession is potentially curative so too is travel. Obsession narrows the gaze and travel expands it. Though they are not as antinomous as it might at first appear. Travel, good if you can get it, is a way of interrupting and shaking the quotidian. Recharging and reshaping.

I take heart from Pamela Brown, ironically wry and curiously lyrical. In her latest book of poems, Home by Dark, which she gave me over cups of tea in a café at Edgecliff station, she writes

 Like Michael said,

Now we’ll spend

The rest of our lives

Watching our friends die

But, and elsewhere, she also writes

 This is my quotidian

But it’s not everything

Frenzied Calm

The obsession grows slowly, building in momentum. In the beginning it tickles, a feather playing whimsically over the surface of your skin, a pleasurable sensation. Delicately a world opens up, a world of the imagination, a “what if” universe.

It begins as a stray thought, a meandering fantasy. You are into your sixth month of chemo treatment, and have made a radical, anxiety fraught decision – to retire. On the one hand this is an acknowledgement that time is running out and on the other hand it’s a hedging of bets: that this way you can stretch time, make more of it, more time of your own choosing, less time whittled away in academic responsibilities and more time spent writing, gardening, cooking, with friends. Fuelled by a fantasy of slow time and slow food you nevertheless imagine rapidity: what if you had a stove that heats up more quickly, that cooks more speedily, that responds to your touch the way his car anticipates James Bond’s every tactile desire. What if there were gas burners that could alternate between flames shooting into the sky and the merest whisper of heat. Imagine not having to get down on your knees to use the broiler. Imagine having all four rings that work, tossing that pair of pliers you use in place of a missing knob.

And then you think well why not, why not give myself a retirement present? An idle thought.

You start dreaming, in a desultory way, about kitchen ranges. Just occasionally, while waiting for the clothes to dry, the water to boil, the chickens to lay an egg. The thought starts idling, seldom switches off, purrs away this side of consciousness. You encounter some beautiful ranges on line. Italian. Far too expensive. Gorgeous primary colors and great design – chunky yet streamlined. Suddenly kitchen ranges seem to pop up in conversation everywhere. Everyone has an opinion. Even people you’d always imagined as rat runners, always eating out, grabbing fast-food-with-the works and eating on the run, they too have range stories. Every house you visit lures you into the kitchen, every kitchen range you encounter elicits a story, a saga of mishaps, opinionated suggestions, alarming anecdotes. In Nasser’s kitchen you come face to face with the desired Italian range, magnetic, gleaming redly. You feel that this undoubtedly is it, the decision is made. Then you open the oven and it’s the size of a shoebox. So that puts a kibosh on that, and the search is on. You start visiting show rooms, department stores, specialty appliance shops, talking to the sales people and experts, reading reviews and users’ comments on cooking sites. And all the information you receive is totally contradictory. Nevertheless there is some pleasure in the exercise. It takes up time, time that could be devoted to other things. It takes up space in your head and on your desk where bits of paper are strewn, scraps on which are scrawled notes about ranges, scraps mixed up with insurance elective forms, with thick booklets on how to fill out retirement forms, and receipts for drugs that have to be checked against the FAS list, and lists of foods that are poisonous to chickens. You chuck that list, the chickens eat everything. You start a folder called Ranges.

It seems you might have to stretch the budget a bit to get the kind of range you want.

The horizon of desire expands. Eating your breakfast you imagine your beautiful new stove, you imagine it orange. You look at the timber floor, scratched, worn down to paper thinness. You look at the dingy walls, you look at the grungy greyish cabinets, painted an aeon ago. You look at the bulky energy-guzzling lights. They look back at you.

So you start researching sustainable flooring. Seized by nostalgia you are seduced into the world of linoleum, bewitched by the range of colors and patterns, play dough colors, gorgeously marbled, slightly unreal. You order samples and they come in great big boxes and take up lots of space. You start cruising around paint shops picking up swatches, speculating, merely speculating, what color walls, you wonder, would set off a Pop Rocket floor. Idly. Just for fun.

And so it begins. You rename your Ranges file: “Kitchen.” The idling revs up. You imagine a creamy color for the walls, not-quite-white, off-white perhaps, though your purchase on color is clearly precarious. The descriptive confusion, however, is just beginning, you are about to enter a forest, a delirious entanglement of names and colors that seemingly bear no relation to one another, and yet are always presented categorically in columns and rows, or in families, as though they accord to genre specificity, to taxonomic logic. Puppy Paws, French Manicure, Cappuccino Froth, Papaya, Frappe, Squish-Squash, Little Angel, Pineapple Fizz, Havana Cream.The difference between Moonlight and Morning Sunshine is infinitesimal if it exists at all. You wake in the gloom of indeterminacy, gathering strength to face the forms, the endless insurance forms in which you have to find exactly the right words to describe your disability, make elections, decide once and for all how much income you’ll get each month versus pay-outs to your partner when you die. The more you get now, the less he gets when you pop off. You put the forms away, unfilled-in. Nevertheless you feel pleased with yourself, your capacity to make at least a few decisions, today you will narrow the range of possible kitchen paint colors. You cruise around the city collecting paint samples. You get home and try them out and they all look different in situ, all wrong. Start again. Like a lepidopterist organizing their butterfly collection you are completely immersed in the project, captivated by detail, utterly content.

Details, ah yes, the myriad swarming details. Such as knobs for the cabinets. On the industrial edges of the city you find Knob Heaven and float amidst the offerings, a Holly Go Lightly buoyed up by treasure in this Tiffanys of Hardware. Ebay opens up even further opportunities and choices. You spend hours and hours there, discover a glass color called Coke bottle green, aka Depression Green. It is warm ice: clear, pale, translucent. You purchase samples to compare, one or two here another few there, you will send them back if they aren’t right. Now the house is full of boxes of knobs. Most aren’t right. It seems translucent green is a difficult color to render, and not all depression green glass is created equal.

And another detail—those bulky dim energy-guzzling lights, they have to go, cannot survive in your new streamlined gourmet paradise. LED ceiling lights, this you can get a handle on, but under-the-cabinet lights, this is mysterious. What is the difference between strips, tapes and diffusers? You find an environmental lighting place and a charming engineer who is happy to explain it all to a dumbass Martha Stewart wannabee.

Could it be that the knobs are a way of screwing down anxiety? It’s true that the more you screw the more a calm seeps into the kitchen, but it is a calm infiltrated by willowy strands of frenzy.

This frenzied calm is not unfamiliar. It comes with fixation, especially a new one, a new one displacing or not inconceivably augmenting, old obsessions. It brings pleasure: You wallow luxuriously in endless rolling waves of choice.

Painters come, inspect, frown and then smile and say: this is easy, will take no time. They estimate a week, ten days at the most. We choose a guy called Jack, he’s worked with a lot of old houses, he flatters our small Californian bungalow, he says that when he’s finished it will look like an original craftsman. He is reassuring. He tells us he teams with an electrician, a whizz at working with old houses, at figuring things out. He’s Jack too. The painter says, I’m Little Jack, he’s Big Jack. Big Jack, when he comes on board, tells me that he taught Little Jack everything he knows.

To compensate for the mid-high-end range it will be a modest “remodel” – no tearing down of walls or installing new cabinets. You will keep the deep green formica counter and the old wooden cabinets even though the Jacks have called them “carcasses.” Just a simple paint job, new flooring, new stove. Oh and what about the rusty clugging fridge? You narrow your choices, make decisions about things, use this opportunity to expunge the clutter. There is a long list of things, big things like a commercial stove (heavy but petite, adapted to a small domestic space), a new bisque fridge, a shiny hood, and small things like hooks and knobs and icy glass splash back tiles. All these things will make your kitchen cleaner, sleeker, more stream-lined, easier to work in.

Speaking of things, this is a period of transition. As a retiring Buddhist, or a Buddhist retiring, I am in the process of letting go, infinitesimally, of material things. This relinquishing isn’t like renouncing pleasurable things for Lent. It isn’t really about things as things, it’s more about a state of mind. It’s Ok to love plants and cultivate them, but not to lust after the cerise blossoms of the peach called Baron. It’s ok to raise chickens in your backyard, but not to love them immoderately. It’s a question of proportion. This I know.

I think of this kitchen adventure as a last fling with things, a slow waltz with the sensuous cushioning of daily life.

I had no idea how slow that slow waltz would be.

It begins with a rearrangement of the whole house. Everything has to be taken out of the kitchen. It’s a small kitchen. Not much stuff, you’d think. Yet box after box after box fills up. We starting by labeling scrupulously, in the end the garlic press and paintings and the iron and cans of cat food are flung into the same box. At two o’clock in the morning we run out of boxes, so stuff is just carried through to the spare room where the bed is upended to make space. Cook books are all over the living room. You have to step over large containers of vinegar, toilet rolls, tins of tuna.

The house has to be entirely rearranged. The entry to the attic is through my miniscule closet overcrowded with clothes, with fantasies of a more fashionable life than I get to lead in my mundane chicken-bound existence. The Jacks have to enter the attic in order to ascertain where the beams are in the kitchen, to construct a duct from the newly installed hood out through the ceiling. They return through the attic and into the bedroom in clouds of spurious grey matter. So I have to drag all my clothes out. It begins systematically but in the end, or very soon, I start throwing things randomly into black plastic trash bags. For the next six weeks I will wear the same three articles of clothing again and again, day after day.

We are all discombobulated, but the cats most of all. Elvis and Roxy are freaked and suspicious. Nothing is in its right place. They cannot enter the house through their normal way – a cat door that leads from the back garden into the kitchen. We have to rig up a ramp to the back bedroom and leave the window wide open. The chickens take this as an open invitation: Mi casa es tu casa. Chickens and cats pick their way over a forest floor of things—boxes of kitchen items and bags of clothes, a blender, toaster, food processor, quesadilla maker, cake tins, wooden spoons, my mother’s fish knives. The detritus of human hubris. Elvis who has ignored J for twelve years turns his back on me each night and curls up in the crook of J’s leg. He holds me responsible. He is right, and my heart is crumbling.

As work begins on the kitchen clouds of dust, shards of dried (old and toxic) paint, globules of grouting, slivers of rotten wood fly into the air and spread through the open doors and windows into the rest of the house. You fight your way through a fog of filth, space travelers entering an alien planet. Big Jack and Little Jack, and J too, are all indifferent to what I consider filth. And all three are indifferent to the difference between open and closed doors. You cough and splutter and seethe and go around closing doors and windows. Two minutes later they are open again. You close them. You watch the dust settle daily over the few bowls and plates that have been secreted in the living room for eating off laps, over clothes, CDs, plants, the cats’ food, tea towels, books, bread. My skin is scaly. Irritation and stress fester and bubble. I cannot comprehend this indifference to filth. The three men no doubt consider me fanatical and as Buddhists and Painters and Electricians and Husbands know, fanaticism is pointless. What does it matter? Well to me matter out of place is dirt. The more displaced the more alarming. I imagine the filth as endemic, the project of cleanliness never ending. I have become the suburban Woman of the Dunes, endlessly removing sand that seeps back through the cracks, rising up, engulfing the universe.

If only I were a chicken. The greatest joy for a chicken is to take a dust bath, to hunker down into the earth under the pepper tree to scrabble and scratch and hurl the body around and fluff the feathers and make sure grit infiltrates every feathery layer, and then to shake and shimmy and fill the air with clouds of dust.

For meals we have to perch on the edge of chairs clutching our plastic bowls of cereal, or hard boiled eggs, or sandwiches bought down the road. At lunch we turn on the TV and we are in a courtroom drama. Today, June 10th 2013, the trial of George Zimmerman begins. Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman on February 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida, while visiting his father in a gated community in which Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch volunteer. Trayvon Martin was carrying skittles and a can of iced tea. He was not carrying a gun.

We aren’t the only people in this country, and in the world, to be drawn to the TV today, to cell phones, to laptops, to radios. This trial has been much anticipated, preceded by protest and by media debate about racial profiling, vigilantism and, given the proliferation of guns in this country, laws governing the use of deadly force. The protests were prompted by the failure of the Sanford police to arrest Zimmerman. Before a special prosecutor assigned to the case ordered Zimmerman’s arrest, thousands of protesters gathered in Sanford, Miami, New York and elsewhere, many wearing hoodies like the one Martin had on the night he died. President Barack Obama said that if he had a son, “he’d look like Trayvon.”

Forty four days passed before Zimmerman was arrested and charged with second-degree murder, to which he is pleading not guilty. In order to secure a conviction prosecutors must show that Zimmerman acted with ill will, hatred, spite or evil intent.

One day follows another, dates crop up and fall into line, stories follow a sequence, history is narrated. Sometimes, however, the flow of time is barbed. Time spins furiously in slow motion, in Spartacus time spinning wheels are intercepted by spurs, spokes, foreign bodies. Collisions occur: Time is derailed.

Perhaps I have grown more particular, sensitive to dirt, to alien microscopic creatures, since having CLL. With a damaged immune system you get to be more cautious. Neurotic even. You imagine things: you imagine the state of Jack’s lungs and skin as he scorns to wear a mask, you ask yourself what if those lurgies glom onto my wonky immune system? What if Elvis’ asthma is exacerbated and he has a fit and dies? The line between pathology and realism is a fragile line. One thing leads to another. What if the colors are all wrong and Big Jack and Little Jack become fixtures in the kitchen, here to stay forever, forever never ending, never completing. The “what if” universe in which you wallowed, purring, fed by and feeding a luxuriously obsessive fantasy has changed its contours and tones. ‘What if’ is now a perpetual unrelenting anticipation of disaster.

Conceivably, it has nothing to do with CLL, is simply a matter of categorical dissonance. Mary Douglas speaks to me in magisterial tones: Categories, she says, are in and of themselves spurious. There is no absolute distinction between clean and dirty, no invincible boundary, what is dirty in certain societies or circumstances may be clean in another. The point is not any absolute difference but rather the processes and attempts and elaborate rituals erected to instantiate those distinctions, to make sense of the world, to ensure order. Mary Douglas speaks to me and I listen, and it makes no difference. Or put it this way: the fault line between filth and cleanliness, purity and danger, opens an invincible crack of opportunity for that night stalker: obsession.

Again, we find ourselves in front of the television. Every lunch time we turn our backs on the chaos in our house and enter the public courtroom. The trial begins with jury selection, a process that, as it turns out, will take nine days. Prosecutors and defence lawyers cannot overtly use race as a reason to challenge a juror. But jury selection is a space where the insularity and focused particularity of the court is haunted by ghosts and demons that infest the larger location and culture. Animated, those ghosts invade the courtroom: invisible, but not nameless. Emmett Till, the Scottsboro Boys, Martin lee Anderson …Remember Rodney King—an African American man brutally beaten by white cops in Los Angeles in 1991, an incident vividly captured on videotape. Nevertheless a jury without black representation (after the venue was moved from Los Angeles to the virtually all-white Simi Valley) acquitted the officers of state criminal charges.

On Day 5 of Jury Selection a middle-aged black man who works in a school describes his family and friends’ reaction to Martin’s death as “typical,” given a history of violence against African-American men in the U.S.

Day 9.  A six woman jury is selected, five are white and the other black/Hispanic.

 At the end of the day we turn to the news and analysis and interviews. It is becoming a habit, a fixation, an obsession.

Every so often, randomly it seems, Word announces that it’s in Compatibility Mode. What, I wonder, is Incompatibility Mode? Computer dumb, relationship savvy (or battle scarred) I can say with some confidence what Incompatibility Mode is in a relationship. It occurs in the kitchen. J and I, after some years of frustration in a shared kitchen, worked out a modus operandi, or compatibility mode. The key is not-sharing. He is easy going, unmindful, non-judgemental, a great cook, full of invention and surprise. I’m the sort who cleans up as they go, and can’t help offering generous dollops of free advice—albeit well considered, based on many years of perfecting a range of kitchen techniques, of doing things just so, this way precisely, and no other. He’s the sort of person who produces utter chaos in the kitchen, using every available pan and pot and utensil, several different kinds of oil and flour and sugar much of which lands up on the floor along with vegetable peelings and a few fugitive oily anchovies. All squished and trodden under foot. Out of all this apparent chaos and disorder J invariably produces a marvelous meal, a wondrous alchemical concoction. But then, afterwards, replete and sated I would be left to face the chaos and would have to spend many hours washing, cleaning, sorting. There would be moaning, whingeing, recriminations. For him, after my turn at cooking, clean up would be a breeze. Moaning, whingeing and recriminations would follow—from me. The solution we found was to reconfigure the division of labor: whoever cooks, cleans – the kitchen is theirs for the night. Peace ensued.

“Fucking punks. These assholes always get away.” Prosecutor John Guy quotes Zimmerman from a tape of a call he made to a non-emergency police number after he spotted Martin walking around the gated community where he lived. We are riveted to the television for the first day of testimony. June 24.The opposing attorneys set the scene today. “We think that this is a simple case,” says Benjamin Crump, the family’s solicitor, outside court. “There are two important facts in this case. Number one, George Zimmerman was a grown man with a gun, and number two, Trayvon Martin was a minor who had no blood on his hands. Literally he had no blood on his hands.” Defense attorney West: “George Zimmerman is not guilty of murder. He shot Trayvon Martin in self-defense after being viciously attacked.” The claim is that, after the two got into a scuffle Martin was slamming Zimmerman’s head into the concrete pavement when he fired his semi-automatic pistol and shot him in the chest.

“Stand your ground” is not mentioned today – and indeed the 2005 law will not be mentioned or actively invoked in court during the entire trial. But it is this law that provides the scaffolding, that makes it easy to plead self-defense in a killing in Florida, and it is what will put the onus of proof in this case on the prosecution. The State will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman did not act in self-defense. Zimmerman’s team will merely have to argue that Zimmerman felt threatened.

Prior to 2005 most states required you to retreat from a confrontation unless you were inside your own home. But in 2005 Florida, urged on by the extremely powerful gun lobby headed by the National Rifle Association, became the first state to pass a “stand your ground” law. Now 25 states have these “shoot first” laws.

Imagine Jack arrives at my house one day while I am in the garden planting bulbs, dibber tucked into one side of my belt, hand gun on the other side. I refuse him entry, say I’ve had enough, cannot bear this home invasion a moment longer. He becomes abusive, starts cursing and lunges at me. I feel threatened and so, in self-defence, pull my gun and shoot. He falls to the ground, dead. Painter dead as a dodo. Under protection of “shoot first” laws I am authorized to use deadly force even if the person who makes me feel threatened, let’s call him Jack, is—like Martin—unarmed. An upright and righteous citizen-sheriff I am safe from prosecution.

Or maybe not. It would be easier I imagine if the hoody that Jack habitually wears were pulled low over a black face. My sense of threat would be more believable to a jury. Or then again, maybe not. Remember the Florida case of Marissa Alexander, who last year cited the Stand Your Ground law to justify firing what she said was a warning shot to protect herself from her abusive husband. No one was killed or injured.But that defense was rejected and she was convicted by the same state attorney’s office prosecuting the killing of Trayvon Martin. She is currently serving a 20-year sentence.

No doubt there are many legal complications, loopholes and explanations to be taken into account. Nevertheless, U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown, of Jacksonville, an advocate for Alexander, seemed to have touched a nerve when she said at the time of sentencing, “The Florida criminal justice system has sent two clear messages today. One is that if women who are victims of domestic violence try to protect themselves, the `Stand Your Ground Law’ will not apply to them. … The second message is that if you are black, the system will treat you differently.”

Brown is a woman not afraid to exercise rhetorical flair, and not afraid to say the R word. During the Haiti crisis in 2004 she referred to the Buah administration policies on Haiti as “racist”, and called his representatives a “bunch of white men.” When Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriego said that, as a Mexican American, he deeply resented “being called a racist and branded a white man,” Brown lobbed back: “you all look alike to me.”

Peace ensued. But now, in the domain of the kitchen, our orbits collide, a ferocious incompatibility reigns.

Exchanges might go something like this:

These light switches looked elegantly off-white, in their packaging in Home Depot, I say to J, but up on the wall, here in the kitchen, they look grey and murky. We’ll have to go back and change them.

“Oh, they aren’t so bad. I can live with them.”

Live with them! For the rest of your life you can get up every day and face this ugliness and live with it?

Or like this:

Do you have any receipts?

“Receipts for what?”

Well, for instance the wax furniture paste we had to buy to fix the scratches on the counter top the painters made? Or the extra primer, or the screws for the knobs, or the drill we had to buy to cut the glass tiles……

“Hmmm, I wonder where they are. Don’t worry they are somewhere, they’ll turn up.”

Or

“Everything went well today, it’s looking great!” Thus J entices you into the kitchen. You look, nothing seems to have changed. You look closely, peering into every corner, into the back of every cupboard. Aha! There’s only one coat of paint on this shelf. “Oh, I didn’t notice. Do you think it matters? When there are things on the shelf no one will notice.” No one?! Who is this phantom No One? This No One reconciled to half assed mediocrity.

“Through time, in this country, what I like to call bleeding-heart criminal coddlers want you to give a criminal an even break, so that when you’re attacked, you’re supposed to turn around and run, rather than standing your ground and protecting yourself and your family and your property.” These are the words of former NRA president and longtime Florida gun lobbyist Marion Hammer, championing the “stand your ground” law.

You feel you are losing your kitchen and it may never come back to you. I think about Zimmerman on the look-out for outsiders, for people who (as he said in a police interview) “victimize the neighborhood”: Criminals, punks invading his space, intent on destroying the gated calmness of his community. I don’t want to leave the house, because there’s always something left undone, overlooked, incompleted, botched. But I have to leave the house, have to keep returning to the paint shop because we can cut costs this way, Big Jack and Little Jack get paid by the hour and run by the seat of their pants, fixated on the job, unmindful of how the future unfurls. We are always running out of primer, out of this, out of that: rollers, paint trays, rolls of plastic, sand paper, buckets, primer, more primer, just another quart of trim. You also have to keep returning to the environmental lights shop to consult and get advice. Big Jack, who is also Old Jack, knows nothing—it turns out—about LEDs. When I try tentatively to explain the difference in voltage he looks at me contemptuously and says “I’ve been installing lights for sixty years.” He proceeds to fuck up grandly. So over the weekend we call in another electrician, a green guy J knows through yoga circles, who unearths the problem, fixes it and charges quite a lot. You are nervous about raising this with Big Jack so you raise it with Little Jack who says he’ll sort it. And then he adds, “Big Jack’s not as young as he once was. But he taught me everything I know.”

Day 7, July 1st. Detective Chris Serino takes the stand, and audio and video recordings of police interviews with Zimmerman in the days following the shooting which had been made public during the discovery phase of the case were replayed in court today. In these interviews Serino appears skeptical and pushes Zimmerman, suggests that he was running after Martin before the confrontation, suggests that he shouldn’t have followed Martin after a police operator had told him he did not need to, asks Zimmerman if it hadn’t occurred to him to ask Martin what he was doing there. Racial profiling aside, the cops seem not entirely happy with these law enforcement mavericks who take it upon themselves to do a job the police can do quite well themselves. Yet today, very calm and considered in the box, Serino explains that the questioning was tactical, a “challenge interview” where detectives try to break someone’s story to make sure they’re telling the truth. He was persuaded that Zimmerman was indeed telling the truth. “In this particular case, he could have been considered a victim, also,” he concluded.

There is however, one interesting moment in the interviews that contests the (not without foundation) stereotype of the profiling proclivities of the Florida police.

Serino: What is that you’re whispering? Fucking what?

Zimmerman: Punks.

Serino: Fucking punks. He wasn’t a fucking punk. (clears throat)

Serino had initially recommended a charge of Manslaughter, which most legal experts agree would have had a much greater chance of conviction than second degree murder. Why did he change his mind? What pressures and negotiations and deals occurred? This we might never know, but for sure we can assume that the judiciary and the police and the neighborhood watches and various political pressures intermesh in complex and contorted ways.

On this day too an audio analysis expert for the FBI testifies that the origin of the screams on an audio tape of the altercation cannot be determined. Contradictory evidence will be submitted: Both Martin’s mother and Zimmerman’s will attest that the voice is that of “my son.”

How electricity is generated and how it moves in circuits from the sun and through a dwelling is hard to imagine but not as complicated as circuits of indebtedness, circuits of giving and receiving, owing and repaying, commissioning and paying by the hour for services received, for immediate labor embodied in skills accumulated over years of experience. Priming—this is tough and meticulous work, tedious and slow. You are appreciative of the Jacks’ attentiveness to this part of the process, you bear witness to the pain in a sprained wrist, the back that’s a bit crooked, the legs that buckle occasionally. You know that even though Little Jack in a moment of exasperation told you your cabinets were a piece of crap and should be trashed this hasn’t prevented his patient persistence, pride in a job well done, in cabinets that begin to gleam as the final coats of filtered sunlight slither on. You forget sometimes to ask them what they think, to show appreciation, you don’t want to behave like a Madam, but you want the guys to know that you know what you want. Yet the more the job progresses and drags on the less you feel you know what you want, and the more perfection bays at your heels, aggravating everyone’s anxiety.

Day Fifteen. It has felt as though this trial will never end. Day after day we pull the plastic shroud off the television, dust cloths off the sofa, prepare our feast of hard boiled eggs and switch on the cable news. Now, after almost three weeks of testimony, after the interrogation of 58 witnesses, it is over. July 13. Not guilty. Race has hardly been mentioned in court. The Prosecution said, today, after the verdict, “This case has never been about race or the right to bear arms. We believe this case all along was about boundaries, and George Zimmerman exceeded those boundaries.”

The processes and attempts and elaborate rituals erected to instantiate and often to blur boundaries, to make sense of the world, to ensure order. Clean and dirty, black and white, a threatening act and an act of self-defence. Lines of continuity, jagged lines of differentiation. Consider the line of continuity between the old lawless South and the South today where racial violence might enjoy legal sanction. Boundaries. Categories. Where are the fault lines?

There has been one witness who’s rocked the boat, who’s raised the issue of race. Rachel Jeantel—spiky and insolent, contemptuous of protocol, uneasy in court, ungroomed for public appearance—was Trayvon Martin’s friend. He called her just before he died. Over nearly two days, days 3 and 4, Jeantel’s testimony was broadcast live, nonstop, on cable news. It was riveting, not just because of revelations and certainly not because of her persuasive powers, but because of the dissonance she introduced into the proceedings, her disturbance of the tacit agreement to not discuss race or gun laws. In her reluctant laconic sullenness she danced into the court, out through the television set, into the world and into my dusty house like a skirmishing corkscrew. Jeantel said she overheard Martin demand, “What are you following me for?” and then yell, “Get off! Get off!” before his cellphone went dead. She testified that he described being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker” as he walked through the neighborhood.

“Do people that you live around and with call white people, ‘creepy-ass crackers’?” the Defence asked.

“Not creepy. But cracker, yeah,” Jeantel said.

“You’re saying that in the culture that you live in, in your community, people there call white people crackers?”

“Yes, sir,” she said.

When the defence suggested that Martin attacked Zimmerman she blurted out “That’s retarded, sir.” It was the conjunction of those two words—“Sir” and “Retarded”—that sparked a macabre levity, for the first time in weeks J and I roared with laughter. It was as though the unconscious of half the US erupted for a moment, shattering the precarious compact of civility, exposing how frenzied is the calm.

You imagine a deep dark hole in this country into which all the puddles, all the rivers of heartache and injustice perpetrated by the judicial system trickle and disappear. They don’t always mesh: justice and the efficiency of the system.

The chickens are neglected. They are fed and watered, let out in the morning and locked up at night. There is no time that isn’t kitchen time, or Trayvon time, no time to pick up Holly and stroke her neck, watch her eye lids flutter and close as she sinks into sleep.

So when Katie and Susan visit they pick up the chickens and murmur sweet nothings. I am thrilled that they are here, not only because they are who they are, but also because it gives me license to shut the door on the kitchen for three days, walk away from it, not think about it. But Katie and Susan discern a cranky demeanor and try shucking, teasing, easing out the oysterish story. To deflect their attention from my fixations I tell them a story about my maternal grandmother who lived in the inner suburbs of Salisbury in colonial Rhodesia. Every night she drank a lot of whisky. But her drinking was not random. It was ordered, repetitive and ritualized. She would never touch a drop during the day, would only begin at six o’clock in the evening, just as the television news came on, though the news was preceded by preparations, undertaken by the cook but overseen by her: ensuring the soda siphon was full, the tray laid with her special glass, a tumbler of ice and a decanter of whisky. Two minutes before six she would rush from the verandah into the living room, settle into her armchair, switch the TV on and as the news began take her first sip of whiskey and soda. After the news she would continue sipping, dreamily edging into blotto land. I remember how she would regularly complain to my father about the weekend shabeens held by all the servants who lived in the neighborhood, they would make illegal stills of skokiaan during the week and have loud parties on Saturday night. “You simply can’t imagine, Jack,” she would say, “how strong skokiaan is, how it induces violence, it shouldn’t be allowed.” And he would roll his eyes, and say “And what about whisky?”

Katie and Susan look at me, incredulous, and they say, in unison: “Jack? Your father’s name was Jack?”

You imagine a small but deep and dark hole opening up in the middle of the kitchen, a deep dark hole which sucks, dollar by dollar, all your retirement savings.

The obsession grows slowly. At first a feather stroking your skin, teasing. Then you start making decisions, a mix of torture and delight. Then the renovations begin, and the obsession takes a turn. For the worse. No longer in control of a fantasy world, the world starts intruding, making demands, taking up time, insisting. The feather insidiously sprouts razor teeth, becomes a baby shark nibbling, nosing you into a corner, drawing blood.

 

 

Notes

Mary Douglas speaks to me …. Mary Douglas, an anthropologist and cultural theorist, wrote the highly influential Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (first published 1966).

there are many legal complications, loopholes and explanations .… mandatory-minimum sentencingnot the least of it in this case.

 

 

 

 

 

 

strawberry/fetish

Last night (wed 24th april, 2013) was a party to celebrate Milane who died four nights ago. She loved a good story, a wicked joke, a gathering of friends. And so we gathered, a small party hosted by Nina MacConnel and Tom Chino. All of us shell-shocked, seized in passing moments by grimness, but mostly there was conviviality and the sharing of food and drink, particularly gin and tonics, Milane’s favorite.

There was a gift for each of us. Before she died Milane sorted through her photos and there was a little bundle for each of us with our name on it. Moments forgotten: Memories returned. There I was in a celebrating group at a Christmas party at Bookworks, the bookshop Milane once owned, there in the Getty Villa garden, a trip made when the renovated Villa opened. At book signings. When we left the party that night Tom and Nina gave each of us a large white paper Japanese lantern to take home and light for Milane.

 **************

 In our garden, hung on the fence where apples are espaliered, close to the chicken run, the lantern has refused to stay put. It dances wildly, a white ghost cavorting in the dark swell of the night.

**************

Milane had a gift for gift giving, and an eye for things. She took great pleasure in choosing just the right thing. Around my garden there are various Milane manifestations, but the one I love the most is a cement dove, a garden ornament migrated from another era, cast aside I imagine at some swap meet where her anachronistic beauty caught Milane’s eye. I love to hold the dove, her solidity fits perfectly into the shape of a hand, her lines are simple, her proportions just right. I knew Milane was dying when she gave me a clay icon of Ganesha that she had brought many years ago from India. She told me that his dharma is to place and remove obstacles, and also that he is honored at the beginning of rituals and ceremonies and invoked as the Patron of Letters during writing sessions. As part- Elephant he likes to eat flowers, fresh ones every day, she told me. At first, and for a while after Milane died, I did make an offering everyday of fresh flowers, but the punctiliousness of the habit has waned, the offerings sporadic and whimsical. Like my efforts at writing, at meditation.

The dove sat for several years on a rock in the white garden (so grandly named, more for aspiration than actuality, all kinds of colors creep in, some muted, others garish like the scarlet and orange nasturtiums). Then came the chickens. In their frenzied searching for bugs, in their rampaging destruction, they knocked the dove to the ground and she broke in two. Distraught, I was ready to send the chickens to the pot. But Milane cocked an eyebrow and laughed. We jambed the two pieces together and wedged her high up in a corner of the bower where the grapes and wisteria grow. In summer you cannot see her, but she is there, and in winter when the foliage dies back, when the garden mutates, you can see her there, up high, looking down at the chickens.

Nina’s chickens were asleep that night, the night of the party. I imagined them dreaming of Milane, carousing together in their sleep, a communal feathery dreaming. I hold Nina responsible in part for the coming of chickens to Herman Avenue. Steve, sensing a whiff of chicken desire in the air, had been waging a gentle campaign that began by the mysterious monthly appearance in my letter box of Backyard Poultry. Gorgeous full page spreads of birds: the silver spangled Hamburg, white feathers adorned by black crescent and V-shaped spangles; the Bearded Buff Laced Polish, creamy white and golden buff laced together, sporting an extravagant feathery top knot; The Mottled Houdan Bantam – lustrous greenish-black feathers, with one of every two or three tipped in white. My dreams were infiltrated by Porcelain Bearded d’Uccle Bantam cockerels from Belgium, Black Breasted Red Aseels from India, and Old English Creoles. And then, almost every time I saw him, Steve would suggest that I visit Nina and take a look at her chickens. So eventually I succumbed and Nina invited us to lunch. Us was me and Helen Barnes. She and Jeffrey were continent swapping: while Jeffrey was visiting Australia she had travelled from Melbourne to keep me company in San Diego. I had a bone marrow biopsy scheduled for that morning and had forgotten what an ordeal it can be (forgetting is part of the game, selective memory a survival device). It took a long time and then there were all sorts of bureaucratic hospital diversions and waiting and waiting and waiting. So by the time we got to Nina’s—stopping by the farm to see Tom and gather some vegetables from the farm stand—it was long past the lunch hour. But the sight of the chickens was restorative, to see them roaming, pecking, zigzagging around, following one trail only to be distracted, tempted by a posse of insects over there, a potential worm in the woodwork over here. To examine their coop, how the perches were composed and food distributed, how their shelter organized—all of this was inspiring.

And then there were the eggs. The eggs did it. Helen and I watched spellbound as Nina conjured from the eggs an omelet, so effortlessly, breaking the eggs with one hand, flicking a wrist and twirling a fork and then on our plates: yellowness, the taste of yellow in our mouths.

The transmutation of matter. How an egg becomes something else. You look at an egg, there it sits on the kitchen counter, self-contained, perfect in its ovality. Perhaps it is a deep speckled brown, maybe pale blue or green. When you crack the shell, break the oval perfection, you release into the world a magical potential.

At the party on the 24th of April I could not eat much. Nausea was settling in. Stomach cramps. I could not resist Nina’s couscous and Tom’s vegetables, the mellow spices that tickled the tongue but did not obscure the taste of Chino carrots and peas and fava beans. But when it came to the desert I could not manage a single spoonful. I was sitting next to John Alexander who was entertaining our end of the table with hilarious stories of gardening mishaps. At one point he looked quizzically at me and said “what about strawberries. How do you like them?” Oh I like them I said. “How about I bring you a plate just of strawberries, no cake or cream?” It almost broke my heart to say no. It wasn’t that I didn’t want those strawberries that come from the garden of the gods. It wasn’t even that I couldn’t imagine the taste. It wasn’t that they made me feel sick. It’s just that there was a nausea right through me, not just in the stomach. John’s hilarious stories had made me forget for a while, or rather the story telling and ripples of laughter had absorbed the ukky sensation.

I do not think I would have felt this way if they were other sorts of strawberries. But Tom’s strawberries are something else. For several years the grad seminar I taught on Gardens and Public space, a peripatetic seminar, would visit Chino’s farm and Tom would fire up the tractor, load everyone on the trailer and off we would go on into the fields. But before that we would sit at the trestle table where the workers have their lunch and discuss the reading and someone would present a paper. And Tom would send out two large bowls heaped with strawberries. Sounds of ecstasy, inappropriate sounds of swooning. I thought then that you would have to be on your deathbed to ever refuse a Chino strawberry. In the field Tom would stop occasionally and encourage people to pick from the plants in the field, strawberries for instance. And he would talk about the culture of strawberries, the particularities of the plant, selection for this region, how they grow, how they need to be nurtured. I have pages and pages of notes from Tom’s field discourses. He talks too about water, where it comes from, the price of water in San Diego, this virtually desert region, how he uses expensive domestic water on the strawberries because the municipal farm water contains too many salts. You might think of this as coddling but Tom, I imagine, thinks of it as farming.

Farming is work, practical, you get up each day at 4 am and by the end of the day you have to balance the books. You have to weigh up what comes in against what goes out and figure out how to make a living. The process is practical yes, but there is something mysterious, alchemical about the way in which water—clear liquid that flows, that has no color—is transformed into scarlet heart-shaped succulence. Water, labor, knowledge:

The condensation of a process into a succulent jewel.

Clear liquid that looks like water drips into my veins during infusions and some kind of transmutation happens, equally mysterious to me. Even when you check the science it doesn’t all add up. Even the oncologists say, we don’t really know exactly how it works. Drip by drip by slow drip it disappears into my body. A week later my lab results change, many of the danger flags disappear.

Saying no to those strawberries last night at Milane’s party felt to me for a moment like the approach of death. I wanted to howl for Milane. I thought to myself: she would never have refused a strawberry. Her ALS, once diagnosed progressed fast, but she continued to party with friends, a few at a time. Not long before she died, when speaking was difficult, she wrote on her writing app (a version of an old W.C.Fields saying), “Who put tonic in my gin and tonic?”

A few weeks later. I am beginning to emerge from that nauseous miasma, there is a shout at the back gate, and there is Alex Kershaw, a graduate student from Australia. A little sheepish looking, the way Australians sometimes are when performing an act of generosity. A self-deprecating shrug that says, Oh it was just something that fell off the back of a truck. He is bearing a cardboard box, in which gleam vegetable gems: round yellow and green striped squash, purple cauliflower, candy red radishes, and strawberries, deep scarlet strawberries. Around the vegetables he has tucked a Humboldt Fog cheese, a slab of dark spicy chocolate, a pack of organic Yerba mate.

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Immediately I picked out a strawberry and bit into it. As that strawberry dissolved in my mouth, the juice dribbling down my chin, I knew it was a Chino strawberry.

The chickens, too, love strawberries. Though love is too tender a word to describe what happens when a chicken encounters a strawberry, and they are not particular, any strawberries from anywhere will send them over the moon. It’s the color red that attracts. Never go near them in open-toed sandals if your toe nails are painted crimson, or they will dive bomb, pecking mercilessly. They play dirty football with spoiled cherry tomatoes or mushy squished strawberries. We always keep the hulls for them, they go beserk when tossed the green bits with juicy red entrails slurping out.

Today, I will feed Ganesha some flowers. My daily ritual is to rise early, feed the cats, let the chickens out of their house as the sky lightens. They hear me approaching and set up a mighty hullabaloo, hurling themselves against the door and scratching at the wire window. As I open the door they come flying down from their roosts and cavort down the ramp, fluffing and huffing and preening. Then I make a pot of tea and bring it back to bed, set it over the tea candle warmer, and sip as I write on my magical writing machine, the Mac Air. This is a ritual. It sets me in motion for the day. Later I will meditate. Really I should start the day by meditating, but I’m greedy for writing opportunities, for using that early morning energy before it dissipates. As I describe this early morning ritual it takes on a life, seems orderly and calm. But the truth is there are many mornings when I can’t rouse myself, the chickens remain in prison, many mornings when I can’t get writing, read a detective novel instead, or feel sorry for myself, or find distractions like email or the newspaper which reveals all sorts of hyperlinks, passages into other worlds. And then of course there are too many other things to do and so meditation slips away. I’ll do it tomorrow…

Between habit and ritual a thin line: between therapeutic and spiritual practices, between the gracious and orderly lighting of candles and the compulsive repetition of obsessive desire, between routine and observance. Many ritualistic practices—from the quotidian and idiosyncratic to those more formally prescribed—serve to preserve the way things are, to protect us against change, transformation, difference, grief. And yet, and yet … there is always the possibility of something mysterious happening. Rituals might be ways of channeling and bolstering obsessive impulses, but also they are often mechanisms for structuring pathways and passages, for enabling transformation. Lighting lanterns to guide the dead in their journey, to ease the transition from one state to another, not merely for those who are passed but for those of us who remain. Making a pot of tea in order to write. Sometimes though the pot of tea is not enough. And so today I will feed Ganesha some flowers.

Gifts circulate, chemo too. And in the circulation: transformation. Of course gifts seldom come without ramification, and chemo comes with myriad fluttering strings attached. This we know. If I offer flowers to Ganesha it is in the hope that he will, in eating them, keep Milane alive even though she is no longer here. The flowers are at once food and fetish and gift, not unlike the strawberry. Superstition, ritual, faith. In offering Ganesha flowers, day after day (punctuated by desultory periods of neglect) I believe that the gods in general will be appeased. Of course I also hope that Ganesha in particular will preside over a writing session and kick my ass into gear.

Chicken Joke

A man believes that he is a grain of seed. He is taken to a mental institution, where the doctors do their best finally to convince him that he is not a grain, but a man. No sooner has he left the hospital than he comes back, very scared, claiming that there is a chicken outside the door, and he is afraid that it will eat him. “Dear fellow,” says his doctor, “you know very well that you are not a grain of seed, but a man.” “Of course I know that,” replies the patient, “but does the chicken?”

This joke is told by Alenka Zupancic in The Odd One In: On Comedy. She says that what is at stake here is the post Enlightenment assertion: I know very well, but nevertheless…. (I know very well that there is no God, nevertheless I pray that God will save me from this awful situation, pluck me out of this shit hole). She traces a thread of connection between Hegel and Lacan, between the Phenomenology of Spirit and the concept of the Other. Her twisting of the skeins is provocative, she takes a paradox and plays it as though it were a queen of hearts or seven of spades, the paradoxes proliferate, the tricks are blindingly spectacular. Is it sleight of hand or logic refined to the nth degree?

Yet there is something left over for me, something that she doesn’t directly address though perhaps it lurks and swims around in the lower depths of the joke. What is left over is fear, a kind of fear embedded in category confusion and realized most obviously in phobias, but also in simple fears like the fear of dying. It’s not just me and the chicken, me and the other, but there is a third term: this thing, this grain of seed or let’s call it a corn kernel. Self and Other, these terms are mobilized in a circuit of exchange involving Other Things, and at some stage this circuit involves (or threatens) consumption, and disappearance or annihilation.

I came to chickens and to Buddhism at roughly the same time. Not entirely true, I grew up with chickens, and as an adult have had chickens in my life whenever possible, so in part I was enacting a repetition of the familiar (rather than the sense of discovery implied in the notion of “coming to.” But my relation to chickens has been very different this time). Buddhism was not familiar. After coming to political consciousness as a teenager I settled into an habitual semi-conscious cynicism about religion, or let’s just say faith, or spirit with either a small or large S. But in Shambhala I have found myself sometimes in a not-unfamiliar place. Not the place of religion, but of therapy, specifically psycho-therapy. Another form of repetition, therefore.

Chickens became an obsession when I was pretty unwell and heading into my first treatment. It was hard to work and to write and to do research, actually it was simply hard to find the energy to focus for long on anything. But oddly enough I was able not only to focus on chickens but to allow the chicken world to consume me. It became a totally encompassing obsession. (You can read about this in the piece “Chickens saved my Life”). Obsession, I’m convinced, is potentially curative. It is a form of denial certainly, a delusional projection, an enactment of repetition in the face of death. But it works. Sometimes it works. It takes your mind off things, prevents you from succumbing to another competing repetition, to the mantra of despair, or worse – of resignation.

If we want to use the language of psychoanalysis we might say that chickens are the way the subject’s unconscious (and her relation to herself) are externalized.

Cancer brought me to meditation. I signed up to Shambhala (a version of Buddhism) in order to learn some techniques for meditation. There is no doubt that meditation is a way of calming the body, reducing stress, promoting the anti-toxins, giving energy. Science tells us this though anyone who has meditated can tell you the same thing (still, the scientific writings are fascinating, keep a look out for the coming blog on the “bliss” app). But when I started going to Shambhala I found that the “techniques” of meditation were not so separable from the “ethos” of this version of Buddhism. One way of looking at this is to say that you bring into meditation a whole lot of baggage, and meditation itself shakes loose the careful packing (or repression), interferes with habitual patterns, throws into the unconscious—in slow motion—a Molotov cocktail. “Baggage” has become a remarkably familiar term in everyday language, it’s the kind of language that makes me squeamish. And indeed there are aspects of the Shambhala training that have induced squeemishness (many new age therapeutic models such as mindfulness training           draw on and are heavily influenced by varieties of Buddhism, and then in turn varieties of Buddhism adapted to a western environment, borrow the familiar new-age language). Sometimes I have yearned for a more severe practice, for what I imagine the spartanness of Zen to be. But then I remind myself that after all I am not Tibetan, like others in the room I am a predictable westerner looking to Buddhism to change something. So I tell myself this: suck it up.

I came to meditation hoping to find a way of being more at peace in the world (and therefore healthier, better able to fight the cancer). Of course once you start shaking that can of hope around the worms all come squirming out. And you find that you are faced with the phantoms of repetition. And you would like to change, quite simply (and even though it makes me squirm to say it) you would like to be a better person. Being more at peace might also have pay offs – for those around you, those who suffer the importunate blasts of bad temper, inveterate quibbling, acerbic barbs exploded randomly, not to mention hardly-muted envy.

Squirm and quease. Buddhism has in common with psycho-therapy a serious engagement with the unconscious (even though the word “unconscious” may not occur). Often the distinction is made between acknowledgement (just letting it come to the surface, letting it be) and analysis (analyzing dreams, jokes, stories, memories and so on). This distinction is hard to maintain but let us put aside this objection for the moment. Some of the Shambhala trainings are built on a dyadic structure. In a workshop you are given a question, or situation, and then the group divides into pairs. The first person has five minutes to speak (or not). The other person listens, they are not to respond in any way, they should not smile or offer encouragement, express agreement or approval or disagreement. And then you swap positions. And then there is five minutes for dialogue. The hard thing, the really hard thing, is not speaking, but listening in such a way as to resist solicitation.

Over and over again we repeat the same moves. We enter analysis (let’s say analysis, but perhaps we enter into other therapeutic spaces too—the sangha, the garden, the yoga studio, the church). You do this because you want to change, you want to break old habits, alter the way you relate to others or to the Other. Or you want to face life (and death) more fearlessly. Or both these things. But in analysis, as Zupancic points out, it isn’t enough for the analysand to become conscious of her unconscious. Often the belief is that the analyst will enable the analysand (through bringing to consciousness the patterns of repetition) to recognize their repetitious fatality. The analysand is prone to believing that when the therapy is over they will reemerge into the world and be liberated, “cured,” able to act differently. But actually nothing will change until the analysand fully recognizes the Other as something other than a projection of self. And this has to take place in the world.

In short, it is not simply that in analysis the subject has to shift her position (or even adapt herself); the major part of the analytic work consists precisely in shifting the external practices, in moving all those “chickens” in which the subject’s unconscious (and her relation to herself) are externalized.”(16)

I wonder sometimes if I am not Becoming Chicken, clucking and cooing and chirruping, grubbing around in the hedgerows looking for worms. Flapping around like Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush. Holly, Lula Mae, Sabrina (and Funny Face when she was alive) have coaxed from me a much more intimate relationship than I have ever before experienced with chickens. Is this identification? Have I wormed my way successfully into the being of the chicken? Or perhaps more profoundly found a way of acknowledging the otherness of Chicken-Being, realizing how the chicken thinks and feels, out there in the world, independent of my consciousness. I wish this were so, for it would mean a moving around of chickens, a changing of the way of being in the world. Often, as I sit in the garden at the end of the day and the chickens pick and peck and scratch I feel remarkably contented, at one with the world, grateful to have passed through the repetitive obsessive phase. And then Sabrina will suddenly extend her neck, cock her head and stare. Eyes glinting blackly she will dive at my leg and peck. It hurts. She thinks I am a corn kernel.

I know very well of course that I am not a kernel of corn. Nevertheless…

Boomerang

Why did the Australian go berserk?

Because he got a new boomerang and then he tried to get rid of the old one.

Yesterday, an infusion day, Akos [Ronas] gave me a ride to the hospital. He was euphoric having just sent off his book manuscript. But, he said, his relief was shadowed by a joke. Akos is married to Judit Herskó, whose father was János Herskó, a Hungarian film director who would often enter his own films to tell a joke. He might for instance materialize at a trolley station, and for no very good reason, would tell this boomerang joke. I guess it was at the height of boomerang jokes, I vaguely remember them circulating when I was a kid, round about the time of hula hoops.

Every writer knows this: The sense that your book is never really finished, it will keep coming back, there will be more revisions, and more and more. And now that all the versions are electronic, the old versions, full of typos and one or two crucial mistakes, threaten to reappear in the proofs. It’s only when you get the published book—that solid thing—in your hands, that it feels finished. Maybe. But of course all that is changing. That solid thing, the book, is disappearing, words materialize and evaporate as you write, as you read. This is not to say that nano publishing and the drive towards the short bite rather than the long book guarantees the sense of an ending. No, instead there is something far more precarious: ephemeral finality, ghosted by a labyrinthine digital archive. Words are like money. They melt into air and reappear in new configurations. Akos’ book is about plastic money, a history of the credit card in post communist countries. Some of these credit cards, linked to the state rather than banks, are used much more habitually and extensively than in the U.S, for instance. Money in the form of bank notes and coins and written checks scarcely exists. Credit cards have become a form of ID, they store information, can be used to receive, electronically, all sorts of things, like your pension payments. And even as I write, credit cards themselves are disappearing: into cell phones, into thumb prints, into eye scans. Not only in the post-Communist world. You know that dubious item you bought (no didn’t even buy, just perused in a browsing sortee late one night), well it will reappear for everyone to see on some social networking site as something you “like.” Even worse, that aberrant impulse will return to plague you in the form of endless haranguing from cheesy underwear companies. You might forget but the marketing machine will not. Your secret is never safe with Victoria.

The boomerang joke can manifest in many guises. You could give it a Zizekian spin, which might go something like this. The Australian wants to get away from Australia and start afresh. So he goes to California, say, and sets up an alternative market where he sells tea tree oil and water-wise Australian native plants and a unique new service, surfing therapy (therapy while you surf ) ……. No problem with the Californian surfing dudes – they take to therapy like ducks to vodka. But then comes a guy who looks and talks like Brian Brown. Laconic, gruff, handsome in a chiseled hard-knocks kind of way. Turns out he himself is a surfing analyst, and the question he asks, which sends the whole new age entrepreunerial enterprise for a loop, is this: “Why did the Australian go berserk?”

For me, in the infusion center later in the day, it bounced back in the spectral form of CLL. In the last week I’ve been feeling considerably regenerated, exhilarated, hopeful again. The lab results confirmed that the feeling isn’t merely illusory. So Dr Choi thinks we can now double the oral chemo dose; and reduce the infusion chemo to once a month. He warns that things will probably get worse again, before and if they get better. He says they do not know whether the increased dose correlates with increased effectivity (this is a trial, it’s one of the things they are trying to determine), it does seem to be the case, but it might be that because patients are improved before the dose is increased their systems are in a better position to deal with the ravages of the drug. In the Infusion Center, while keeping up a façade of cheerfulness, I experienced again the cul de sac sensation. The futility of it all. Although there may be periods of respite, CLL itself will always bounce back. Once it’s started progression it will move in a relentlessly linear fashion, gathering momentum, working towards a conclusion. But against this teleological drive, as a person who “has” CLL (and other kinds of chronically incurable diseases, I imagine) you experience periods of optimism, euphoria even. Just when you have forgotten about CLL, are getting on with life in an enjoyable day-to-day fashion, it whizzes through the air and hits you on the back of the head, sending you catapulting back into the ER, back onto antibiotics, back into a funk. The malevolence of repetition.

There is an extraordinary air of cheeriness in the Infusion Center. At its worst you might think of it as something akin to battery chicken farming. When you close your eyes and try to sleep the noise keeps you awake, the noise of beeping machines, televisions, people talking on cell phones, nurses reading out orders – all these noises merge together and sound like the strangled clucks of a thousand tormented chickens. All of us chickens chained by tubes that run between machines, that run from little packets of clear liquid hanging from hooks, into a multitudinous network of veins, ready and waiting for chemo plumping. But at its best everyone is cheerful in the Infusion Center, polite even, even as the day wears on. There is much joshing and spinning out of repartee, bits and pieces of verbal exchange are tossed hither and thither, everyone enters into the fiction that this is just an ordinary day, a day like any other. And of course for the nurses and staff it is, which makes it all the more extraordinary that under duress and repetition they are so alert and behave with such good natured equanimity, remembering names, histories, stories. And through this enactment of an illusion everyone rises to the occasion, enters into the spirit of the performative event, into this compact of civility.

I do appreciate the considerable theatrical skills, as well as the hospital experience, that it takes to generate and sustain a mood. Still, sometimes you want something to puncture the air of equanimity, you want something that hits the nail on the head, you want a joke that is grim, black, irreverent. The boomerang, as used by Australian Aborigines, was and is a tool and a hunting weapon, some are designed to return (in their flight frightening birds, say) but mostly they are intended to hit and bring down a prey, a moving target. Curiously, when it comes to jokes (and illness) hitting your prey can simultaneously be a way of releasing all those lurgy birds lurking in the wetlands.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chickens Saved My Life

Chickens changed my life. Saved my life. Though it is also true to say that as we surf the stormy waves of birth, old age, sickness and death, many things, people and events change what we call our “life”. A life is merely a conglomeration, a concatenation of effects and affects, often unpredictable, though even when predicted things seldom turn out as expected.

And it was not by chickens alone that I was saved. But among all the therapies—chemo, meditation, acupuncture, naturopathic treatments, exercise—chickens, four glorious chicklets-becoming-hens—have changed things most dramatically. Holly, Lula Mae, Sabrina and Funny Face flap, flutter and jump onto anything that might resemble a perch, including human shoulders and heads. They frequently land together on one side of their feeder and tip it over. They also landed like a miracle, about six weeks ago, on me, and tipped the balance from death to life.

I have an incurable cancer, a form of leukemia called CLL (chronic lymphocytic leukemia), so like everyone else I am going to die but probably not tomorrow. Still, life was becoming rather hard to live. Now – after spending the summer in chemo-and-chicken therapy, I have been given a reprieve. I have been wanting chickens for years, and for years have been putting it off, there were always other things to do, work to get done, fetish desires to satisfy. CLL is one of the slow cancers, for some people it does not progress beyond what used to be called the “indolent” stage. For others it can race along alarmingly fast for a slow cancer. My symptoms just got gradually worse, though I wanted to defer treatment for as long as possible since once you start treatment you also start damaging your body’s ability to fight back. As my wonderful oncologist says, there are no such things as side effects. All drugs have a range of effects, some good some not so good (and sometimes the connection between good and not-so-good is knotted, complicated, only measurable over time). So when my oncologist said I think its time to start treatment and I saw the summer disappearing into an infusion center the absolute horribleness of my condition (so far no treatments have lengthened life for CLL patients) took hold, gloom defeated an habitual pollyannerish reflex. And then, in the midst of gloom, my thoughts turned to chickens. Chickens turned into obsession.

Soon I could think of nothing but breeds of chickens and what color eggs they lay and coops and ventilation and chicken manure and compost and predators and fencing and automatic watering and mites and fleas and worms and herbal remedies, and the chirruping noise that chicks make. I dreamed of collecting fresh eggs from free ranging chickens fed on weeds and greens and fruit from the garden. I could smell the omelettes made from these eggs, buttery and sizzling, sprinkled with herbs. I could also smell the chicken shit and rapturously and endlessly imagined the compost we would have, how contentedly my garden would grow. J, my partner, embraced the idea even more whole heartedly than I, encouraging a flagrant defiance of budget in order to get the project happening. I spent endless hours on the internet, ordering books from the library, reading back copies of Backyard Poultry, visiting friends and perfect strangers with hens in their yard. Planning in minute and exacting detail. My treatment lasted three months and some of that time was spent back-breakingly (not me) and obsessively (me) assembling “el palacio de las princesas,” so named by my friend Isabela. And then the ordering. And then the arrival one morning, through the mail, of a cardboard box containing four day-old-chicks. Through all this demented focusing on chickens I had been feeling not too bad, forgetting the C word. And now my forgetfulness morphed into full-blown happiness. We started laughing. The tiny chicks are fluffy and adorable but also absurd in their pomposity. As the chicks grow their absurdity develops along with their adorability, keeping us laughing, tickling a severely compromised immune system, kicking it into gear.

Two weeks ago I saw the oncologist and he told me what I already knew, could feel, that so far the results are good. This isn’t the end of the story, there will be more tests and more treatment sooner or later. But for the moment I’m feeling better than in years and it feels great. This blog—about chickens and therapy and cancer—will tell the story of the chickens from the moment a vague idea became focused as an all-consuming passion. But it will also be about other things, because just as a life can be changed by a chromosome going awry so it can be changed by a chicken or a book that one is reading or a feral plant that takes root in your garden, and grows into an intriguing presence, altering the culture of the garden and making you see and feel differently.