Version 2So I was going to post this longish essay on J.M. Coetzee, but I thought instead, I’d tell you about my dog.

That’s him on the right there. Odie. He’s a seven-year-old rescue beagle who has fans in various places (I’ve come out of shops to find strangers taking selfies with him). And he’s hungry. Oh my heavens. Always hungry.

I’ve been thinking a bit about Odie lately, because:

One: We’ve moved from Australia to the USA, and he’s my wingman. I work at home, and he watches me snack;

Two: We’ve been going to the vet a lot, due to his excessive peeing, and

Three: I’ve been reading the novel Disgrace, by Coetzee.

I grew up with dogs. Big ones, the kind best greeted via the front door, with a family member (never alone, over the back fence). Sometimes, they tried to take my food. Other times, they took me for a walk. The death of one of them broke my brother’s heart.

But I didn’t think I was a dog person. I preferred the screw-you attitude of cats. There was something clean about it.

It would suit me now to say ‘I was a cat person, until I had this dog’—but that’s crap. I’ve been in denial. Decades after my family imploded, my father’s German Shepherd would cry with joy when she realised it was me walking down the driveway. She’d do this butt-wiggling dance of excitement, her eczema-blighted, old-dog back swinging from side to side, keeping time with her tail.

It was delightful, of course. But as a young adult I just couldn’t process that amount of feeling—that much need—from another being.

The truth is, I still struggle with it. The I-love-you stare of a dog can bring even the most hard-hearted of us undone (even when it’s really I-love-you-and-also-do-you-have-cheese). But I’m not so scared of feelings now. The companionable wag of Odie’s tail when we’re out walking makes my heart sing. It’s mawkish, ridiculous. But there it is.

Being with Odie—especially in a new place—means having someone on my team. When I stand awkwardly in the park, he’s right there, ready to be talked about. He watches me resignedly (or perhaps he’s napping?) while I try to work out how to get a doctor’s appointment, where to buy a car, how to get a driver’s licence. And he’s shared (vicariously, of course) my joy at the sheer range and deliciousness of chocolate-coated caramel on offer in this part of the USA.

Odie and I have been spending some extra time together lately, what with all those trips to the vet. After a couple of Olympic-sized pees in the house (I still just—can’t—even), the vet wanted to run some tests. Ultrasounds, blood tests, urine (guess who had to follow him out in the morning with a large disposable cup?). As they ruled out infections and kidney failure, Odie just kept looking at me, panting in that way I choose to interpret as a smile.

It’s kind of terrible, the power one has over a dog. And it’s made worse by the trusting way they look at you. This is something J.M. Coetzee touches on in the novel I mentioned. Disgrace, which is set in post-apartheid South Africa, is about a professor who loses his job after he has an affair with a student. He moves to his daughter’s landholding, where he begins volunteering at an animal shelter.

Of course there’s far too much in Disgrace to do it justice in two paragraphs. But one thing that resonated with me was the way the protagonist’s attitude towards animals changes, the more of them he has to put to sleep. He doesn’t harden towards the dogs, as you might expect. He treats them with increasing respect, even as he knows they will die (and that he will help them).

What does this mean, and why does it tug so much on the heartstrings? I think it’s something to do with love and power. Because the truth is that I love Odie at least in part because he has to love me back. He knows I’m the boss (even if he sometimes chooses not to listen). It’s simple: he trusts me, and I have to live up to that.

Of course, by the fifth hour-long return trip to the vet, I wasn’t feeling my generous best. But I’m pleased to report that Odie’s pee problem doesn’t appear to be too serious—he’s on medication which has reduced his pee volume, and helped our new rug remain (relatively) unscathed. I mean I still had to nonchalantly catch this morning’s pee, and will need to remember his twice-daily medicine, monitor his water intake. And I can’t pretend this doesn’t sometimes feel farcical, when there are so many humans on the planet who don’t have access to clean water, let alone medicine.

But the fact remains that in this small area of influence (his life) I’m responsible. It’s my job to look after him, and luckily, I’m able to. I mean look at that face. Doesn’t it just bore into your soul, asking that you please at least try not to be crap?

And also maybe could you get up, and fetch him a snack?

Tidings of comfort and … pause

Thanks to Bob Gutowski for use of this image via Creative Commons
Thanks to Bob Gutowski for use of this image via Creative Commons

Shortly after I had my first child, someone bought me flowers. Let’s say they were irises.

For more than a week I shuffled past those flowers, bleary and joyous and confused. We had made a person. With eyes and ears and hair; who had hands that would grasp at cups and spoons and pens and screwdrivers. Who stared and yawned and stretched and farted.

One day I came in the front door and saw that the flowers had died. They weren’t just a bit droopy, or crispy around the edges; they were completely (pardon the pun) cactus. They must have been like that for some time. Yet in my mind, until moments earlier, they’d been fresh-smelling parcels of purple. Clearly, I’d been distracted. And my mind had filled in the details for me.

Of course at the time, it was no big deal. I chucked the flowers out, and got on with things. But they’ve been on my mind recently, and I think it’s because of December.

Now I know how this sounds, but I don’t much like this time of year. I get stressed about buying presents, I avoid decorating the tree, I resist caring about what we eat for dinner. I’m happy for others to enjoy it: to pop the Christmas crackers and read out the silly jokes, work their way through a month of advent chocolate, spend days and weeks covered in salt and sand. I’ll work to facilitate that; I see the value of it. But personally—it makes me tired.

December is a pushing-up point; a moment of enforced pause. We work away all through the year, hitting (or missing) work deadlines, inching our way through the school terms, chasing our tails to keep the house in some reasonably clean state (or perhaps that’s just me?). The news sails past—boats capsize, bombs go off and people get smashed-up in their sedans on the way to work. Maybe someone you know gets married, or your brother buys a house, your neighbour makes it to the other side of the cancer treatment. And then—wham—it’s almost next year, and what does it all mean?

We wake up each morning assuming (quite reasonably, for the most part) that today is a regular day; that nothing catastrophic will happen; that dinner will be as we planned it and we’ll bicker, as usual, about whose turn it is to do the dishes. That’s what allows us (the lucky ones) to enjoy the wonderful, safe, ordinariness of existence. We have access to healthcare, education, nutrition. We can lock our doors behind us at night. But we know that bad things happen. People do terrible things. People get hurt, they go without. Life isn’t fair.

Coming up to December (especially if I’m going to have to listen to songs about peace and hope and joy), I want all of this to make sense. But it doesn’t. I hear and see and read about awful things happening, and I don’t do enough about it. Sometimes I don’t even want to know about it. I want to be safe in my kitchen with the sun streaming in and some nice classical music on the radio.

So, wait, am I saying that everything will be better if I pay more attention to flowers? Well, no. But those irises are a useful reminder that I look at out at the world from inside my own head—that reality is moving on, whether I notice or not. On the one hand, that’s a reassuring thought. I’m not in control of everything. I can’t be. On the other hand, it’s unsettling. Who wants to think about how easily things could change, how fragile we all are? Let’s just push that thought down hard, right?

Well, maybe that vulnerability is the bit I’ve been missing. If I’m feeling at all celebratory this December, it can’t be only about those new shoes I want, the opportunity to eat pudding and pavlova, or the list of achievements I can (or can’t) rattle off over the dinner table. It’s about accepting fragility, and celebrating the daily ways we overcome it. Or even, the ways that we don’t.

There’s no rule that says I have to be jolly at this time of year. Only, maybe, present. Happy enough about all the snacking and talking and general existing that’s going on. And remembering, when I can, to look around. And notice.

Running’s not about, um, running

Thanks Patrik for the use of this image under Creative Commons.

When I was 14, my foster sisters told me they were going for a run. It’d only be about 1km, they said. Would I like to come?

By the time I’d ‘jogged’ down the driveway and onto the road, the two of them were blurry, heat-affected smudges in the distance. My ankles were searing. My lungs felt like they were collapsing. My foster sisters tried to help, but I was moving glacially. And I hurt. Oh, my giddy-burning-airways-aunt, I hurt. After about 200 metres, I turned around and went home.

I’d been known to roll my eyes at exercisers before, but after that day I moved to open sneering. The sight of someone in sneakers was enough to make me snort. Ugh, I’d think. So bloody happy, so well-adjusted. Because derision is a constructive way to deal with failure, right? (It’s great for concealing envy, too. No-one can even see that green-eyed monster. Like a ninja.)

Twenty years later, I decided it was time to try again. Armed with some woefully inadequate sneakers and an asthma inhaler, I ‘ran’ the third of one street length on my block. Oh. My. Jelly. Legs. It hurt. But it was great. For 15 whole minutes, I’d escaped the apartment and my ever-expanding parental to-do list. Music blared in my ears, my feet flailed over the concrete, the ventolin worked, actual distance was covered. When I got back, I felt like someone had scrubbed out my brain with a clarity cloth (and like I was about to vomit).

So I got ‘into’ running. I bought better shoes, made an iPod playlist, figured out what baseball caps are for (no windscreen wipers on my eyes). I started going regularly(ish), and even did a few fun runs (the short ones). I was slow and ungainly, but I felt like this was something my body was meant to do. And in a way, it is. According to Harvard University’s Daniel Lieberman, modern humans (with our big brains and ability to use tools for essential skills such as whipping up a raspberry blancmange) evolved at least in part because we learned to run. Our bodies—long tendons in the legs, sweat glands aplenty and a head able to stabilise itself independent of the shoulders—are well adapted for running. Humans might not be the speediest member of the animal kingdom (Lieberman says horses and greyhounds can reach twice our fastest sprinting speeds), but we’re good at going the distance. Lieberman thinks that early humans used this running ability to ‘endurance hunt’ big game (basically, chasing them till they’re worn out). This led to a protein-rich diet and ultimately, bigger brains.

In other words, people were running before we were thinking big thoughts (and making blancmange). So you could say that it’s ‘hardwired’ into us. And it turns out (much to the irritation of my sneering inner teenager) that it has all kinds of benefits not just for the body (yes, yes, stronger legs, fitter heart, etc), but for the brain, too. Studies have shown that running helps with memory, and that it not only helps with cognitive ability, but it actually builds neurons.

On hearing this, my teenaged self can’t help but sneer. Just a little. So those running types can’t be content to totter past in their expensive shoes and tighty-tights: they have to be so clever, too. Doing what they were born to do, and always striving to do it better. So of course, when you think your 3km lunchtime jog is an achievement, there’s someone doing more—if it’s not the lycra-clad gazelle on the treadmill next to you, it’s the sweaty man shuffling past on your circuit of the park. Or the colleague taking you through their training program for next year’s New York Marathon. Or—perhaps even worse—the friend who thinks it’ll be fun to run together, jovially bouncing along beside you while you slowly melt into the pavement. At which point I’m right back there, gasping after those shimmering figures in the distance.

And of course, people will tell you that competitive sport isn’t a bad thing. It’s about beating your personal best, and all that. But I say hang my personal best. (It stinks anyway). When I go out running, having any kind of goal spoils it for me. Sometimes I don’t run for weeks, or even months. But when I do, I just want to be cruising along, pounding the pavement. I don’t want to be ahead of, or behind, anyone. I’m pretty happy in my own head—and that’s okay. If I’m going to sweat my way to some endorphins, I’d rather do it alone, thanks very much.

It turns out that for me, the problem with running (other than the undiagnosed asthma, which was also an issue) was those figures on the road ahead of me. I can’t connect with my running ancestors if it’s a race. And I’m a bit skeptical about applying evolutionary theories too liberally anyway, since the fact that humans may have evolved one way or another needn’t dictate behaviour today (I don’t see too many people chasing down big game in my neighbourhood). Which is not to say the benefits aren’t there. Running is good for you. As is any exercise: one of the studies about neuron growth looked at older people walking regularly, and found they were neurologically two years ‘younger’ after one year of exercise. So, you know, this whole cardiovascular exercise business is actually pretty good.

If I could go back to that teenaged self now, I’d tell her two things. First: the reason you feel you don’t fit in with your foster sisters is because you don’t. Relax. It will work out. And second: Running doesn’t have to be about running. Think of it like a dance. A brilliant, brain scouring, solitary dance in which you’re free to celebrate the specific arms, legs, ankles, eyes you were born with. Throw those feet at the pavement, and get on with it.

Oh and by the way, you have asthma.

You’ll be disappointed, I’m afraid

Myth and Ideology B, Assignment No.3

One of the trickiest things in life, is staying awake.

I mean this literally – who, once they’ve reached the appropriate coffee-drinking age, isn’t in some way addicted to caffeine? Doesn’t wake, dough-eyed and creaky, unable to face the day without that sweet hit of stimulant? (Lots of people, I’m sure, but not too many that I know).

And I also – being the somewhat earnest, frowny creature that I’ve been at least since primary school, if the photo record is to be believed – mean it figuratively.

Life has so many bits to it. Family, house, car, insurance, superannuation. Job security. Marriage. (Or lack thereof.) Children. (Likewise.) Friends. Exercise. Elections. Natural disasters. Christmas.

And then, of course, there’s death.

It’s a lot to hold in the balance.

I was a rather single-minded, if generally under-occupied, teenager. Didn’t do hobbies; wasn’t one for socialising; would seek to fix just about any mood with sugar (forget exercise). But I did love school. Not the social stuff – that sucked. But the classroom, the assignments, that pop of a moment when things fell into place – it was great. I liked how structured everything was. I enjoyed school report time. Lots of other things were falling apart, but at school I approached my life with a clear sense of what I wanted; I felt as if I were truly awake.

I was, of course, a fool. As one of my university lecturers would later write on a particularly rushed, ill-thought out essay: You’ll be disappointed, I’m afraid. I don’t really understand what you’re doing here … Your language often betrays fuzzy ideas … and you clearly don’t quite understand terms like ‘ideology’, ‘langue’, and others. 

It turns out that you can’t just string together a few vaguely clever-sounding sentences, and call it an essay. Any more than you can string together a few wildly unrealistic plans, and call it a life.

One actually, unfortunately, has to work at things.

At some point I must have noticed that Hazel Rowley, who wrote those words on my junky essay, had written a book. There was a promotional poster in her office. I’d never heard of Christina Stead, and didn’t know that the biography Hazel had written of her was internationally acclaimed. I enjoyed Hazel’s tutorials, though – the way she’d stride energetically around the room, apparently unaware that such enthusiasm was rather, well, embarrassing – and I took every opportunity to stop by her office, discussing essay topics, getting help, negotiating extensions.

When Hazel told me she was leaving Australia – she seemed surprised to have been offered a sizeable advance to write another biography – I was focused, pretty much, on myself. My helper was going away – to write a biography of some guy named Richard Wright, apparently. I didn’t really care what for. What I knew was that since the disappointing essay, Hazel had helped me write better ones – and had written some nice things on them, too. She might be able to help me get to where I ultimately, secretly, wanted to be – to a life as a Proper Writer.

Eventually, I got around to reading Hazel’s books. They were incredible. Her language was sharp, her research exhaustive. She was smart. Really, really smart.

Hazel died in 2011. She was 59. That day I sat at work – thinking about my children’s schedules, the dinner to be made, the to-do list on the post-it note next to the computer – wondering how to feel about this event. The obituaries talked, of course, about her remarkable contribution to literature. About how she made her mark in Paris, New York. Her uncompromising standards. Her insight.

What I felt, was sad. And disappointed – that she hadn’t been able to go on working, and writing. And that somehow, in spite of the nice things she’d written on my essays, I’d stopped.

It took me a while to realise that I had things arse-about. The relationship I had with Hazel was enormously important to me. She encouraged me, and she gave me a window on another kind of life. But although I took the time to tell her how much I enjoyed her books, and ask her for the occasional academic reference, I don’t think I ever thanked her for teaching me. For sharing with me the pleasure of the act of writing, of thinking, of making sense.

Next to that, my achievements (or lack thereof) are little more than a list.

A friend of mine recently put it like this: With six billion people in the world the odds are pretty stacked against any of us, or anyone we know, being truly outstanding. Happy? Now that is an option. So is fulfilled. And creative. And, occasionally, in a funk. Of course this friend is already outstanding – the point is that the proof, to mangle a cooking metaphor, is in the doing.

In other words, getting on with the big stuff – looking after ourselves and our families, reading, scribbling, staying awake – is what there is. We are what we do. The rest is window dressing.