Goodbye Sue

afternoon_tealColours. Some of my life is in pink and grey, the colours of the galah; some of it is in the red of outback earth and some of it is in teal, the colour of the awareness ribbons for ovarian cancer. I have an ambivalent relationship with teal. Sometimes I’m happy to be part of Team Teal, hosting fundraising afternoon teas for cancer research. Sometimes it’s a colour I don’t want to see. When I was in London in June, a woman in a striking teal sari walked past in a sudden shaft of summer light that broke out from behind a cloud. I don’t want a fucking omen. Fuck off. I was miserable for a while, convinced I was in for it all over again.

But I wasn’t. Back in Sydney, my routine checkup was all clear; the specialist shifted my checkup intervals from three months to six months. After that, yearly, and after that… you’re back out in the world with everyone else.

That teal sari wasn’t for me.

sue_2010It must have been for Sue, my cancer buddy. We were diagnosed at around the same time, and compared notes. We were friends before we got sick; she was a long-time colleague of my partner Steve. Not long after Steve and I got together, we popped in to see Sue in her house in the Blue Mountains. She had three gorgeous little boys, triplets that were everywhere at once. Steve threw them on to the sofa, one after the other. They ran back, wanting to be thrown again. Sue struck me as amazingly calm in the midst of the whirlwind.

We were in overlapping environmental circles. She came to Bathurst to give a talk about the Transition Towns movement. We chit-chatted on Facebook about climate change and wind farms.

When I was diagnosed with primary peritoneal cancer, a variation on ovarian cancer, she sent a message:

Hi Tracy. Wanted to let you know I’m thinking about you & Steve and hoping for the best. Also, you wouldn’t believe it but I’ve just had a pelvic scan myself this week – I have a “complex ovarian cyst” which my doctor seems slightly (but not overly) concerned about. Having a CT scan next week and seeing a surgeon at Westmead the week after. I’m trying not to feel worried – no history of cancer in my family, but surgery is never fun.

I wrote back:

The teal brigade is a wonderful club but we don’t want any new members! Fingers crossed and we’ll both be thinking of you. Tracy xxx

Reluctantly, though, I had to admit her to the club. Our CA125 levels were “through the roof”. We started chemo, both trekking from our homes to Sydney for treatment (she at the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse at RPA; me at Westmead). We lost our hair, started wearing beanies. Got our dates for “debulking” surgery. Looked at the stats on ovarian cancer. Not good. Very not good. I kept thinking about her children, the three boys (Kalang, Milo and Tallai) and their older sister Kittani.

After surgery, our stories began to diverge. When I woke up – complete with colostomy bag and half my guts out – I heard the magic words: “We got all of it.” Wow. But for Sue, the news wasn’t so good. They’d had to leave some behind – to take more tumour would have killed her on the spot.

We both went back on the chemo treadmill, me for “mopping up”, Sue for holding the beast at bay.

She came to my Afternoon Teal fundraising event in February 2015, and I went to hers at the gorgeous old Paragon Cafe in Katoomba. I went back to teaching. For Sue, being ill became more-or-less her full-time job. It was wearing.

I’m in pain most days and every dose increase of painkillers just means more sleepiness and fatigue (not to mention nightmares & nausea!). I can’t drive and I struggle to do basic household tasks.

But she was still keeping a hand in as an active citizen. From her hospital bed at the O’Brien centre, she held a spontaneous working bee for The Colong Foundation for Wilderness. She urged us all to support her boys’ team (the Migrating Wombats) in the Trek for Timor. And she celebrated an enormous achievement: seeing her boys through to their 18th birthday.

When she announced on Facebook that she was back in Katoomba for “palliative care”, it was still shocking, despite all I knew.

I messaged her:

I’m hoping that you can feel as well as you possibly can for as long as you possibly can. And enjoy whatever there is to enjoy and be as comfy as possible.

And she replied:

Thanks Tracy. I know you will carry on the awareness raising for us Tealers. I’m okay now that I’m back in Katoomba. Love to you and Steve. I know he will update old work colleagues where appropriate. Look out for the published research on BGB-A317 down the track. ????????

She was signing off. But I still thought there was perhaps a little bit more time. I was going to reply – at least with a “hugs” emoticon – but got distracted and the next thing I knew, there was a message from Sue’s phone, but it wasn’t Sue’s voice in the recording. It was her ex-partner Wyn, the children’s father, who had been at her side through all of this, asking me to call him back.

Goodbye Sue. Thank you for all you gave the world while you were here sharing this little blue planet with all of us – human, plant, animal, rock, sea and sky. Go well Kittani, Tallai, Kalang and Milo and their extended family. And go the Teal!

My name is Tracy, and I’m a Pokémon Go addict

spearow_crochet

Caught a Spearow.

Writing this post… I’ll just keep the app running, okay? The phone is sitting on a clever little stand I made out of a piece of plastic packaging, and a non-slip sock filled with lentils. I wedge the phone between the plastic and the little bean bag snugs itself around it. I think I could make these for Etsy. Anyway, where was I? With the phone propped up nicely against the … buzz…. wow…. a Pokemon? YES! Oh, it’s just a Pidgey. Pidgeys are so BORING. They just look like … like pigeons. The other day I was walking along the street and saw a group of crested pigeons and I felt an inner buzz, that little spike of addictive energy and then I realised I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) catch ’em all because they were actual pigeons. And I realised I had it bad.

Pidgeys are boring, but it’s important to catch them so you can level up. I’m now at Level 16. So I grind through my Pidgeys (this is called “Pidgey grinding”) hoping all the while for something more rare and interesting, like a Bellsprout. Bellsprouts might not be rare in other parts of the world, but they’re very unusual in South Bathurst. I reckon I could crochet a Bellsprout. A quick Google. But other people have already done that. And other people are already having fun with Pokémon Go as addiction.

 

I confess I have found myself lurking near the controversial Evans statue in the town square, which has become a notorious local Pokestop. The scene was dark and cold, lit only by street lamps and the red glow that lights up the war memorial. There was a group of teenage boys just over there … and me. We did not acknowledge each other. We were there to do what we had to do.

But it’s not all just pidgey-grinding with me, I hasten to add. A few other things are going on. My agent (yes! I have an agent!) has just sent my novel (my novel!) off to publishers, so I have to sit around with my fingers crossed & get Bertie to cross all his claws, which is difficult for him to do. Bertie would be a useless Pokémon. Combat Power of about 8. He works best as a Lab assistant lying patiently on his lambskin rug behind my chair. And I’m still working on my PhD research proposal, which means reading up on the agency of nature and critical plant studies, which brings me back to the Bellsprout. We think of nature as dead. Animals are dead meat; plants might be alive but they’re vegetative, which has negative connotations. What if we felt the world as a living, thriving, thrumming thing, which is actually what it is? A thing full of myriad things all with their own lives, their own work? That’s what I’m exploring in my PhD; how we might become more alive to the more-than-human world. How do we make it interesting enough to stop fucking wrecking it? As I walk down Torch Street, I’m alive to the vibrating possibility of Pokémon flitting about in augmented reality like shimmering dragonflies. There’s this humming other world that I can enter and play with. As a child I did this with ants – I’m talking real ants, here, the ones that have an ant-smell – watching them walk in lines, talk to each other with their feelers, carry a crumb. For my PhD, I’m exploring how my crocheted guts became a way of interacting with my barely known and threatened organs. I’m exploring the hand-made, but I can also quite excited about the possibilities of augmented reality games as a way to get modern children interested in the more than human world. Locally, we could have a blackthorn pocket monster and a purple copperwing butterfly and the ant that tends its larvae. Kids (and adults) could catch em all, have fun and engage with the barely-seen nature that lives here with them.

Bzzzt. There’s a Weedle! Darn, I’m out of Pokéballs.

Of Pokémon and pillows

With the world going to hell in a handbasket*, I walked out into the sunshine on Torch Street and headed for Milltown Park, the tiny scrap of green at the top of the street with some play equipment and a sign. Overnight, Milltown Park had become a Pokémon Stop, and I wanted to know a little more about it. I was delayed in getting there because about three houses down, my phone began to vibrate, announcing the presence of a crab-like creature on the road, a little virtual pocket monster. I had to stop and shoot it! I flicked the red ball at the bottom of my phone in the crab’s general direction. Ridiculously easily, my ball felled the creature and swallowed it up. The crab-thing was now mine.

IMG_1168 Today I’ve been gathering Pokémon and feathering my real-life nest with some cosy winter pillows and cushions. Other than the deliberate excursion to Milltown Park, I’ve been able to catch my Pokémon seamlessly, without going out of my way. In Bunnings, as Steve bought an aluminium set square and mulled over how he might custom-build some bookshelves in the middle room, I found a bat flapping about at head-height near a Bunnings customer service person. I was the only person aware of and reacting to this purple bat; it was like being the only person able to see a ghost. I flicked my red ball at it. It bounced fruitlessly down the concrete aisle and disappeared from view. I tried flicking my red ball in different ways, from different angles. I took a few steps backwards to get the angle right, taking care not to knock over the hardware stacked on a display stand behind me. It took a few more goes, but I got my bat. I pocketed my pocket monster.

As we went about our day, feathering our nest, Steve and I talked about how augmented reality could be a wonderful way to get to know local layers of meaning not visible to the naked eye: historical facts about a building; pictures of insects that live in a particular tree. Point your phone at things and find out more about them. That could be good.

Next stop Spotlight to buy some fabric for new cushions. As I walked across the vast expanse of asphalt that is the car park at this new bulky goods retail paradise, I whipped out my phone to see if there were any Pokémon hereabouts. Nothing. The carpark and all the world around it were Pokémon free. I looked up at the buildings, the cars, quietly sitting in the sun and realised I was already seeing the world in a new way: a space that was now somehow negative, because of the absence of something. The absence of something that didn’t actually (or yet) exist. And yet the absence itself felt kind of real.

Within a very short amount of time, the world has been blessed in some parts with Pokémon fairy dust and left languishing in Pokémon black spots in others. Why was the bat in Bunnings? Did Bunnings ask it in, as bait? If people come into your store hunting Pokémon, presumably their eyes might also be caught by the tangible objects available for sale. However these decisions are being made – or whatever algorithm is making decisions for us – for now, Bathurst Bunnings is a have, and Bathurst Spotlight is a have-not, in this brave new augmented world.

Yup, Brave New World. While developers and gamers have been tinkering with augmented reality for many years, there is something decisive about the release of Pokémon Go. Unlike earlier projects, this is fun for all the family. I suspect reality may never be quite the same again, just as it was never the same again after the telegraph, or radio, or television, or the Internet (or fire, or the wheel).

But in the meantime, glitches.

Later, with Steve, I took my old flesh-and-blood black Labrador to the Blayney Road Common for a gentle walk. Bertie ignored the kangaroos solemIMG_1177nly watching us in the golden light. I fired up my app. No Pokémon hereabouts, but I could see a Pokémon stop in the virtual distance. Ah. I tapped it and discovered that this PokeStop had attached itself to a real-world sign that says DANGER LIVE AMMUNITION IN USE – KEEP OUT. I was beginning to see how quickly this Pokémon Go thing could end up in tears. Having children shimmying the fence to get closer to the PokeStop in the middle of the local rifle range can’t be right. There is something eager and ignorant about Pokémon Go. It’s as oblivious to local sensitivities as the tourist who wanders into the Balinese Hindu temple in a bathing suit, tracking sand.

The game will either learn how to work this stuff out, or risk being banned like the clackers. The clackers were acrylic balls on the end of nylon string that you’d clack together. They were a fad that took over my primary school one year back in the early 1970s. The concrete corridors reverberated to the clacking sound. Kids were soon sporting great lumps on their foreheads where they’d been struck in the face by fast-moving hard plastic balls. The school banned them and suddenly they were gone.

Whether Pokémon Go is banned like the clackers or irons out its glitches to spread the fairy dust over the smartphone wielding world, one thing is certain: the way we inhabit physical space and tell stories about it is changing decisively. Robotic surgery means that surgeon and patient need not be in the same place, although at this point in evolution they still need to inhabit the same parcel of time (although even this could conceivably change, with a piece of surgery programmed in and the patient settling herself on the trolley at her own convenience to go under the knife). There was a woman on TV the other night with cerebral palsy who was playing a musical instrument just by moving her eyes.

At moments like these there’s a sense that the limitations of our human bodies are being swept away, allowing us to enter some sort of cyborg otherworld that is part flesh, part code.

I’m happy to catch some Pokémon on a Saturday morning, but I’m not sure I like where we’re going with all this, even if it’s bristling with benefits. I feel a bit like Rose R., the woman in Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings, who didn’t really like the world of the 1960s, with its blathering radio and television sets. She preferred her earlier, simpler world of person-to-person connection. Sometimes I’m not sure I really want to take these next steps, whatever they are. To take those steps is to enter a world with an operating system incompatible with the one currently installed in my brain.

It’s friendly and fun but we’re also being colonised. My street, my town, the way I move about in space is being tracked and manipulated; layers of meaning are being added from some remote place (company headquarters are in San Francisco) by people who can’t tell a firing range from a park bench, because it’s all just coordinates to them (or their robots).

I have some pocket monsters in my smart phone. They exist in my mind, and they exist in this nebulous thing called the Internet. They’re sitting out there in Torch Street right now, nebulous creatures waiting for children to find them. But these pillows – you can touch them, you can rest your head on them. You can count on a pillow.

And when I go to sleep tonight, I must resist the urge to slip my phone under my pillow and wake at three am to check on my pocket monsters.


*A man driving a truck through a crowd watching the fireworks; attempted military coup in Turkey; others.

 

Trying to herd seagulls

Yesterday morning my international reader (Jane) and I were walking towards the bus stop iimagen Cheltenham when we heard the cry of a seagull. I looked up and there it was, wings outstretched against a momentarily blue sky. Chelt
enham is a long way from the sea, I said. Jane agreed the seagull was out of place. Cheltenham never used to have seagulls. But they’ve been coming over from Gloucester in large numbers. The people of Cheltenham, unnerved by this development, have been trying to get rid of them, poisoining any seagull eggs they find.

I’ve arrived in the UK in the midst of Brexit. I can’t help thinking the Brexiteers are trying to do something like what the people are Cheltenham are trying to do in relation to seagulls: get things back how they were. Impossible and I’ll-advised, especially for the seagulls.

Jane and I were in an Air BnB house in Oxford the night the Brexit vote was counted. I was still jetlagged from my flight across the planet. Jane couldn’t sleep; she stayed up listening to the radio. The news came through in the early hours and we were awake for it. Jane was devastated. I was very surprised. I’d assumed the vote would go the other way. I’d spent the day wandering around Oxford which was bristling with Remain posters.

Today I had tea at Paddington station in London with Sian, an Australian friend, and asked her if she’d been surprised. No, she said, because she’d just been in Wales, where every visible sign was for Leave.

By now the line-up in this divided nation is clear: London Remain, Wales Leave, Scotland and Northern Ireland Remain; the old white working class Leave; older people Leave; younger people Remain.

The mood as the day wore on was very grumpy, a bit jumpy. London (Remain) was pissed off and apalled with other parts of the country. People were all talking about it, everywhere you went, people were discussing it. I’ve never heard ordinary people talk about politics so much in my entire life. A young woman sitting in the seat in front of me on the bus on the way from Cheltenham to London was whispering to her companion that she’d voted Leave but now felt she couldn’t tell anyone what she’d done. She felt bad about it. Her friend told her not to be ashamed of her vote, to stand strong and not be apologetic.

 

At Victoria station I bought a couple of newspapers and the young man who served me asked if I could explain the difference between The Sun and the Daily Mail. I daid they were much of a muchness and asked how he felt about Brexit. For him, Brexit was a vote on immigration, pure and simple. He was an immigrant himself.

When I got to my hotel in Paddington, three men were checking in. One was wearing an extraordinary outfit of skinny jeans and a jacket and a pleated dress under the jacket that came down to the knees. Sort of exactly half male and half female attire. Another hotel guest stared openly at him, trying to work it out. They three were off to the gay pride march. I went to my room and switched the telly on. At the gay pride march, someone had taken phone footage of people shouting angrily at Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, for a bloodless, halfhearted campaign for Remain.

It’s clear Corbyn wasn’t comfortable with Remain, even though it was his party’s policy. Globalisation, of which the European Union is a part, has not divided its spoils evenly. The collapse of manufacturing in the UK, plus decades of neoliberalism, have thrown the traditional working class into the abyss. Some of us – like me – are flying around the world for our holidays. Others feel they have been consigned to the scrap heap. They’re quite right about that. But if that’s the problem, Brexit is hardly the solution.

I think of Lithgow coal miners. Lithgow is the next big town east of Bathurst, an old union town, a coal mining town. If Lithgow were in England, it would have voted Leave. If Lithgow had its druthers, it would mine coal forever. But that won’t happen, can’t happen, shouldn’t happen. The answer is not to go back, but to go out into unchartered, unknown territory.

Corbyn’s bloodless response is explained by his sense of solidarity with the English equivalents of the Lithgow coal miners. If they think Brexit is the solution, they’ve got it wrong. Corbyn has failed to explain that, to lead the way.

John Pilger, someone I’ve admired since my teenage years, has also got it all wrong about Brexit. He has just published a piece celebrating  the Leave vote as a carnival of democracy, a revolt against the silver tails. In my opinion it may be democracy at work, it may be a revolt against the silver tails, but that doesn’t make it right.

This is because there are real human beings on the receiving end of all this. Pilger and Corbyn may ascribe more noble principles – a defence of trade union rights, a cry for the safety net of the welfare state – but the real meaning of Brexit is powerless resentment parlayed into racism.

The world is a difficult place. Seagulls live in Cheltenham, men wear dresses. Slogans and symbols and a return to the past are not solutions.

What is England, this jewel, this sceptered isle (these words come back to me from Mrs de Beer’s English class)? In this hotel the breakfast room has some attractive crusty loaves in a basket. These are for display only. Next to the basket, the piles of pallid sliced bread that are actually for the eating. The Brexiteers are reaching for a fantasy, a basket of fake bread. And the immigrants, like the seagulls, are about to cop it.

Note: I’ve been writing this blog post with one finger, using my phone. This post is not quite what I had in mind but it’ll have to do for now. I’ve been having a wonderful time. Today I visited the William Morris gallery & enjoyed a couple of hours of pure arts and crafts love. I’ll save that for another post.

 

 

A crocheted cup of tea

Crocheted teacup: a work in progress.

Crocheted teacup: a work in progress.

Last night I made a cup of tea. I’ve almost finished it. There’s no chance it’ll go cold, because this is a warm, fuzzy, crocheted cup of tea. Have I mentioned that I have a mad desire to crochet everything? Like, everything? I walk down the street looking at trees and letterboxes and thinking about how one could render them in crochet. I know. I’ve got it BAD. Anyway, this cup of tea is to give to Mum because it’s coming up to three years since we said goodbye to Dad.

Steve and I happened to be visiting at the time, with Bertie the Lab. Deb and her family lived around the corner. So everyone was there, available, and it was pretty-well the ideal time for Dad to drop off the perch, as he’d been threatening to do so for some time. So once we were all in position, he made his exit. Steve and I changed our plans from a holiday up the coast to hanging around with Mum until the funeral. It was a profound time, throwing up the inevitable existential crisis – who am I now that one of the great overarching personalities of my life is no longer sharing this earth with me? -combined with the need to make a lot of odd choices, such as what does a person wear for their cremation? Mum got a full set of clothes ready, including underpants and socks and shoes, and put them in an ordinary shopping bag. For some reason dropping off this bag at the funeral director was far more disturbing than going to see Dad laid out in hospital a couple of nights before. Then, he’d looked perfectly peaceful, like someone sleeping. The nurses gave us a cup of tea. We sat companionably with him for a while, drinking our tea with him as we had done all our lives. That was quite nice, really. But dropping off that bag of clothes, the last clothes he’d ever wear – that was a much harder call.

I hadn’t rediscovered crochet at that time. It would have been a perfect companion through those strange days, but I didn’t think of it. The crochet obsession kicked in about six months later. Anyway, I’ve been going round the house looking for bits of wool to finish this cup of tea. I found some gold metallic yarn to suggest the gilt rim on saucer and cup; I’ll stitch a frog motif on the side of the cup because one of his nicknames was Frog. I’ll curve a bobbly length of crochet into a handle. Anyway, I’m glad there’s always cups of tea and I’m glad there’s always crochet.