Beast, We Make The Thirst Fruitful

June 12, 2018 § Leave a comment

I finished Sarah Wilson’s book on anxiety, First, We Make The Beast Beautiful.

It’s warts-and-all honest about some genuinely messed-up stuff and freely dispenses doable self-help, which I appreciate.

I think she gets the ‘experience, not expertise’ perspective about right; she’s reminds us she’s not a medical professional, just someone with battle scars and wisdom and ideas.

I can’t not identify with her journey; we use the same tools of nourishment (solitude, hiking, yoga). Her food, waste and simplicity causes are terribly important. Therefore, I’m a fan. For years now I’ve I followed her around reading most of what she writes and daydreaming at her (selectively-curated) life.

I have not quit sugar, for the record. As I have said before, some people work harder at quitting their vices than others do at simply keeping them in check.

That said, I feel anxious like everybody else. In reading it, I hoped to learn a few things about my own fretfulness.

But this book is peppered with markers of privilege that glazed my eyes. Hers is a quest for sanity and meaning that only (ample) time and (disposable) cash indulges. They aren’t just first world problems, they’re the top one per cent of first world problems. Exhibit A:


When your spiritual counsellor wraps you in cashmere and sunlight, and rents harbour views to you by the hour, and lets you have a massive wank, everyone’s doing just fine.

She has accumulated a diagnostic manual of modern day illnesses and a world-wide colony of medics and mentors who dispense potions and aphorisms in equal measure.

Quit sugar. Take a tablet. Say yes. Grow angel wings. Get some sun. Live out of a suitcase. Sit on a cushion. Don’t return calls. Tape your lips together. Meditate.

That sort of advice comes at no cost, but in her case has been paid for over many hours with doctors, psychiatrists, endocrinologists, autoimmune specialists, spiritual gurus, Ayurvedic healers, meditation teachers and god knows who else.

Sarah Wilson traipses a #blessed path from Sydney’s eastern suburbs to its northern beaches, and their equivalents around the world, surrounded by like-minded souls. She is equally at home (or quietly losing her mind) in a national park, a restaurant or a library.

She can, and does, disappear on a whim, to open and then lick her wounds in boutique places of calm and focus. A one-person tent in the forest, bespoke luxury accommodation (frequently sponsored by the local tourism board), a yacht by a heat-stroked Greek island, a grungy Bondi café.

Seen through the lens of Instagram, these escapes look nothing but idyllic. The truth, as the book makes clear, is a hell of a lot more complicated. I think that’s the best thing I learned overall – her public life is just as much a charade as anyone else’s. She is…kind of a weirdo.

But most of us don’t have the luxury of irresponsibility that she has, or a handmade, artisanal safety net beneath us. She has good genes, manic productivity, a healthy bank balance, VIP status, professional connections and many, many, outstretched loving arms to fall back on.

I think if she had more ordinary problems she might have fewer extraordinary ones.

Mostly I’m troubled that this book is part of a modern movement in which it is increasingly important to be broken or damaged, get a diagnosis for what ails you, tell everyone who will listen, and have your world rearrange itself to accommodate.

The unending (and lucrative, if you’re selling it) quest for wellness first requires that you be sick. A generation ago, ordinary people didn’t have time for that, let alone money.

Now we do.



The kindness of strangers

June 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

1. A bus full of Hindus

On Sunday I finally ticked off the Coast Track in the Royal National Park south of Sydney, 31 glorious kilometres of cliffs, forest and beaches.

Because it’s an A to B trek, getting back to my car was an adventure in itself: a ferry, a taxi, two trains, a bus and then a further three kilometres on foot.

The second train took me as far as Helensburgh station, which is more or less where the train line goes, not where Helensburgh is. But there was an expectant bus waiting. I had no idea if it would get me closer to my goal but joined a stream of people and hopped on.

The driver said he could take me as far as the top of Otford Road, then point out the way. We trundled uphill to the village then followed a maze-like route around the streets. Finally he stopped the bus and jabbed a finger at the windscreen. This was the end of the line.

I looked behind me at all the remaining passengers who seemed content to stay on.

‘Where are they all going?’
There was a one word reply.


2. A Russian with an app

I started my trek down Otford Road, which turned into a roller-coaster descent ending in a swamped weir. Everything was flooded following several days of rain. I crab-stepped carefully through a swift-running creek for the tenth time that day, facing upstream and testing each foot fall against the current.


Safely on the other side I was at a loss again so I hailed an older man walking his dog and asked for directions.

‘I am Russian, I don’t speak English’ he said, in perfect English.

I started trying to mime waves and beach and cliff then (mercifully) he produced a cracked smart phone and offered it to me. There was a translation app on the screen. After a second I typed in ‘sea’. A word blinked up in the space below:


He peered at the screen and a light bulb went off. He began to escort me to the sea.


It was maddening. I was tired, hungry, wet, odorous and thus, I am ashamed to admit, impatient. The Russian resisted my attempts to get directions with a ‘calm now’ gesture, patting the air with a down facing palm. He topped out at snail’s pace, his little dog falling in alongside. The final half kilometre of my trek threatened to take as long as the preceding thirty.

Calm now.

When I finally recognised the way I thanked him profusely with prayer hands (would have been more appropriate at Temple) and bolted.

3. Three Colombians in a hot tub

At last, clean and dry for the first time since breakfast, I wanted to thank the people next door for letting me use their driveway all weekend. I grabbed a couple of beers and walked over to find they were seated not at a table but in an outdoor hot tub. It was fragrant and steamy; a bottle of whisky at arm’s reach with only a slug or two remaining.

There were two men and one woman in the tub, and two more women elsewhere. I learned they were Colombians. Like me, they had rented the place for the long weekend and their hot tub was a drop-in zone.

‘You should get in the tub.’
‘Feel how warm it is!’

I dipped my fingers in their tub and admired its appeal but confessed that I had done all the soaking I planned to do today.

We talked about weekend plans, sport, the weather and eventually citizenship and visas. Their female companion, lolling in a white bikini, was facing an uncertain future. Her occupation was not on the list recently released by the government and her 457 visa was stuck in limbo. One of the men, an engineer, had become an Australian citizen. The other was torn:

‘I have been here for five years. I love Australia…but Colombia is my home,’ he said with a shrug of the shoulders. I nodded; it was like that line from the song Anthem in the musical Chess:

My land’s only borders lie around my heart.

The next morning I drove back up the escarpment, bound for my own inland home. It’s always a bittersweet feeling turning your back on the sea.

At least now I can write it in Russian.









April 2, 2017 § 5 Comments

Like many others, I spent the second half of March ‘dot watching’ – as a virtual spectator of the Indian Pacific Wheel Race. I have to confess my involvement began in a pretty skeptical way:

But, as the days wore on and riders stacked up incomprehensible daily distances, I found myself checking the (most excellent) race tracker with increasing frequency. Once a day, twice a day, several times a day, hourly, setting it as a home page…

Eventually I had to eat my words:

By the time Kristof Allegaert entered Canberra on Thursday 30 March I was out on my bike to cheer him on and join the little peloton that rolled through town. At Australia’s Parliament House, with 5,000km in his legs, he still had the energy to wave at me. I could not have been more fascinated by this freakish creature had it come from the Moon instead of Fremantle.

So when I woke up on Friday my first thought was ‘Where’s Mike?’

I checked his position and started to estimate his arrival time, and that’s when I saw this:

And a horrible possibility started to form.

Being here, it was painful reading the thoughts of people who had no idea how lonely that stretch of road is, or how dark it is at 6.20am, at this latitude and longitude, on the day before daylight savings ends. ‘The sunrise may have been a factor.’ It was pitch black. ‘It is probably some other cyclist.’ It’s a country road. ‘His tracker is still on. That’s a good sign.’ That’s a bad sign.

So, with a couple of friends who joined the dots and came up with the same awful picture, we waited for the world to catch up.

It’s a devastating way for any person’s life to end. It also killed a superhuman suffer fest that captivated an obscure but enthusiastic community of onlookers. Your dedication and your wit were a wonderful accompaniment to the race, dot watchers.

I think the race organisers did the right thing in cancelling the event forthwith, but I also admire any riders who intend to battle on, and I’ll be there for them too.

It is unacceptable that, in a race with just 70 entrants, one was killed by a car and another seriously injured. If the IPWR is run again, I predict it will only do so with different rules in place.

One will place a maximum limit on daily moving time, a limit that can be easily monitored using the spot tracker. It won’t reduce the tactical mastery involved, the choices about when and where to stop and refuel, but it will enforce daily rest.

There are two ways that one rider can get in front of another: ride faster or ride for longer. In the IPWR, it was the latter that made this event stand apart from others. In a sense, it was a race against the effects of sleep deprivation, to see who can go without the most. Some manage that better than others.

I found the day 13 video of the Kristof vs Mike showdown very hard to take, largely because of the following quotes:


I realised I can’t see in the dark.

I was all over the road…can’t see…after it got dark.

I can’t see properly at night to ride fast enough.

I think the adrenaline will keep me going.


What Mike was doing was just impossible.

He pulled over because he was so tired.

Tomorrow, the day after, I have to ask Mike how he is now.

Kristof never got that chance to catch up with Mike.

Another rule will require riders to wear high visibility clothing between dusk and dawn. This is already a standard race rule for some ultra distance running events like UTA100.

A High Visibility Safety Vest that complies with Australian Standard AS / NZS 4602:1999 –D/N Class for day and night time wear must be worn over the top of your torso and back pack at the times and locations as specified in the Competitor Briefing document.

Basically after 4.45pm on any road section of the course.

No, it won’t save riders from motor vehicles. No, cyclists should not have to wear high visibility clothing simply in order to take their place on a road. But it could make a difference, not the least to getting a race permit.

I’m so, so sorry Mike Hall died alone, in the dark, on a cool and blustery morning, but I’m so glad he lived his best life. Kudos, chapeau, and respect, to him and to everyone who shared his journey, at least for a little while.



The day I met Martin

January 6, 2017 § Leave a comment

At the end of my second year at Mallalieu I marched up and down Sherwood Road knocking on doors for a summer job. I needed an excuse to stay in the city over summer and leave the country behind. I wanted to call Brisbane home for good, and this was my poorly-aimed shot.  I pressed my resume into a neat folder, dressed in my best guess at office attire and rehearsed a polite, earnest offer of work.

Which failed. After numerous rejections I slumped in the corridor on the first floor of an office building and considered my options. Tramp down the hill defeated and leave town yet again, or try something crazy.  I walked into the very next place of business, took in a towering, horse-faced receptionist called Philippa and the words “Body Corporate Services” stuck to the wall behind her.

In an airbag-like burst of entrepreneurial vim I demanded to see the manager. Lucky for me she was curious enough to fetch him.

“I’ve just finished my second year of a Law degree and I could make a BIG difference to your business this summer!” Without the slightest idea what that business was. I regurgitated this offer right on their floor mat like an optimistic pet.

The boss, Martin, blinked at me with bemusement and said “Oh, you would, would you?” and gave me a job on the spot. I was almost 19 and had never seen a payslip.

I spent that summer preparing and lodging by-laws for apartment buildings.  No parking, no noise, no sub-letting. The job gave me my first overnight business trip, an assignment that I could not possibly have taken more seriously if I had been sent to the UN to broker world peace. Actually it just meant that I took a bus (two buses; I had to change) to Noosa to sort out their by-laws. No pets, no garbage, no swimming. My travel allowance paid for a three-star motel and a meal at the Reef Hotel and I kept every receipt. I like to think that my colleagues in the Noosa office admired my calm dignity and big city smarts while I attacked their by-laws, but I was probably an enormous sore.

Fill in the census (eventually)

August 9, 2016 § 1 Comment

I regret having to break this news, but your individual census data is just not that interesting. I’m sorry. It just isn’t.

The ability to link that data, in an aggregated way, across data sets held by different government agencies, or even the same data sets but over time, is what is interesting.

The government doesn’t care about your individual characteristics. It’s interested in people sort of like you. People who share some of your characteristics like age, income or ethnicity.

If you were a policy maker, or a funding body, a minister, public servant, or journalist, wouldn’t you want to know if (other things being equal):

  • Wealthy people are more likely to access mental health services than the poor? Or c-sections? Or student loans?
  • Home owners are more likely to be recipients of certain types of welfare payments than renters?
  • People who walk to work have fewer knee replacements? Or more skin cancer?
  • Youth in remote areas aren’t better educated than they were five years ago? Or they are, but only if they moved to a capital city?

I just made those up, but the point is: If you were responsible, wouldn’t you want to know if people’s lives improve over time, if payments and services go to those who need them, and if policy settings actually help people? We spend billions every year on things that are meant to help people, and we don’t really know who’s getting what, in which combination, or if it’s achieving anything.

You can get some of this information from surveys, but only from a small sample of the population, and only based on self-reported information rather than what products and services are actually being consumed.

You can get some of it from separate data sets held by government agencies, but not the kind of analysis that linked up data offers.

Say 5 per cent of 20-year-olds have a medical condition. We know how many because they have been treated for it by medical practitioners via the MBS. Say there’s an expensive drug prescribed to treat this condition. The drug is on the PBS.

Five years down the track, 5 per cent of 25-year-olds have this medical condition. Are they the same people? We don’t know! They might be. Without data linkage, we’ll never know. If the same people aren’t better after five years of government-subsidised treatment, isn’t this a problem? What if the first medical condition is gone but now they all have a different one? Surely that tells us something about this condition and those treatments and these patients.

Wouldn’t you want to know?


Boomers, bushwalks and beauty

January 28, 2016 § Leave a comment

So, I went to a retreat.


Shoulda seen this coming, but it was reeking with boomers. Comfortably-off boomers (just comfortable; if they were wealthy they’d be at Gwinganna) taking time out from their busy lives for some well earned pampering. I never knew such a group of soft cores, as dependent as children on how to eat and where they are and what to do. Whose idea of a personal health revolution is to eat a salad, ride a minivan to a lookout and then have a body wrap. Conversation often revolved around treatments. What treatments are you having today?  What treatments are you having tomorrow? How was your treatment? This is the language of the retreat.

I met Celia from North Bondi and offered she must like the beach. No, she hates the beach. In her youth she left England and traveled on freighters, got off in Sydney, asked for (and got) a job at the ABC for the next fifteen years. That is just how it was then. Eventually she married (rather well I assume) a lawyer and lived in Vaucluse. She just loved the constantly changing views of the harbour from the house in Vaucluse. The lawyer died of smoke cancer, as people do, and Celia is seeing off her inheritance one holiday at a time.

Then there was Chris who worked in road construction, staying for 12 days. Twelve days! It better not be some kind of workers compensation deal. When in disbelief I told my partner, he said gravely “the first 12 days are the hardest”. Chris said that he had needed to “break some bad habits”. I was dying to know what the bad habits were but he didn’t elaborate. He said that he had learned some Good Strategies during his stay. I don’t think the strategies included walking because later that day he was driven the couple of hundred metres to the train station.

Which brings me to manicured and preserved Di, quintessential Third Wife, wearer of sunglasses at breakfast, finder of six-star cruise deals. Prefers to fly business class, is here for the treatments, puts ice cubes in her Sauv Blanc. In the hours that must be endured between treatments, finished her book.

In the gym where these people flex their limbs, raise their heart rates (but not over 60%) and push at machines there are (no joke) motivational posters. CHALLENGES. PERSEVERANCE. SUCCESS. The values that got boomers where they are today.



I went to the pre-breakfast stretch class and the bedtime guided meditation. I missed life coaching and Aquafit and Pilates because I was in the national park sweating away on foot and on bike. Like the kids of yesteryear, I showed up at meal times (the meals were nutritious and pretty).

Morton NP was damp, fragrant and gleaming, its escarpments and gorges like the blue mountains but with all the people removed. The forest was a catalog of our most famous natives: banksia, fern, tea tree, grass tree and several kinds of eucalypt. I had close encounters with a very vocal and demonstrative lyrebird. Deep in the valley I chittered at silvereye and yellow robin; up on top I admired a yellow tailed black cockatoo. There were grey kangaroos but also soggy, chocolate-coloured wallabies with weighty tails that looked like draught stoppers.


There are stair warnings everywhere. Steep track! Grade: Difficult. Contains steps. Take care when descending the stairs. I feel sad that it has come to this, that we are now so useless at moving that able-bodied people have to be warned about going up and down steps.

Erith Coal Mine was fascinating, Fairy Bower Falls scenic, Tooths Track treacherous. I had to turn back when, having traversed a newly fallen tree, I could no longer see the route. Alone and wary, I scrambled back uphill bashing at leeches clinging to my shoes. Fear is a good motivator.



I had a facial. This is an indulgence to which my conscience, if not my wallet, will not often stretch since it can more or less be replicated at home for free. I have never forgotten a Women’s Weekly or some such story about Princess Diana’s secret to a flawless complexion: an old fashioned scrub with a face washer. It probably wasn’t true.

Once you disrobe and arrange the towels in their strategic places, you wait. When the therapist knocks softly and enters, she adds MORE towels and blankets on top. Lying in a darkened room, eyes closed, legs together, arms by my sides, under covers up to my collar bones, I’m transformed into an olden day bride on her wedding night. Waiting.

And listening. Listening to the thread of a jar lid turning, to the rhythmic pumping of some thin liquid, the placement of mysterious instruments. Running water. A cloth being wrung out. The squelch and slap of oily hands warming and emulsifying. More pumping. More slopping. At last, the defeated puff of a cushion as she plops on a stool behind my ears and goes to work on me.

When, nearly an hour later (I have become a woman), she leaves the room so I can privately re-robe, I finally steal a look at the creams and oils and serums. They have names like Mermaid Scrub and Goddess Mask. I am very serene. On the way out, as I’m gliding across the floor like a ghost, she warns me to watch my step.


In sync with its clientele, the whole place is shutting down at the end of the week and going on retreat itself. The regulars (one is already booked in for March) understood, murmuring about how you need to take time out now and then and that they will probably do some maintenance around the place. I guess the retreat is having some retreat-ments.

The pool

January 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

I went to the pool and got these anecdotes.

The spider

I swam in lane five. On my second lap I noticed there was a spider in lane five too. It was sitting, presumed dead, in the deep end, directly underneath my path. It was, despite its furled state, an alarming size and menacingly dark colour, and appeared fully intact. Doomed to check on the spider another forty times, the thought of how it perished would at least keep me occupied.

Did it drop in the pool from the side or run out of thread and fall from the ceiling? Did it spring from an underused swimsuit (pressed into action by new year’s resolutions) only to be whacked with a thong and swept into the drink? Was this spider error or did it encounter foul play? Did it almost make it almost to the blocks before succumbing to damp and chlorine?

I don’t know.

The spider drifted back and forth on unseen currents both human and industrial, and for an uncomfortable couple of laps disappeared altogether against the black line. But in the end it stayed, like me, in lane five. At the end of my set I dived down with the intention of plucking it out, but as I stared through my goggles at it, already out of breath, I saw that I didn’t have what it takes to grab a large black spider, neither alive nor drowned, and cradle it to the surface.

In a watery grave it stays.

The coach

There was a big man sitting in the bleachers, almost as round as he was high, wearing shorts and a t-shirt, socks and shoes. I assumed he was there for some kind of physical therapy reserved for the morbidly diabetic. He heaved himself up and, with the rocking motion of those with uncooperative joints, painfully navigated the steps to the pool deck, then leaned over to bark instructions at a young man in the fast lane wearing a team USA cap.

Never assume.


A very long time ago, I lost my kick board and pool buoy at the pool. I say at the pool but truthfully it may have been some other place. Nevertheless, I decided to ask the pool if they had them. The pool said they would let me look in their lost property. It soon became apparent that my kick board and pool buoy were not there, but many other people’s were.

After some fruitlessly specific digging (‘Was it the 3rd of January?’ ‘I’m not sure,’ I frowned, dishonestly) the pool attendant said I might as well take anything from That Pile Over There, nudging his foot at the pile of last resort; an undated heap of motley swimming aids; the long-term unemployed. This was the outcome I had more or less expected. I pawed through the actual (as opposed to metaphorical) flotsam and selected a not-too-shabby kick board and pool buoy. Some unexplained stains on one, a negligible bite taken out of the other. It was only later, as I was proudly examining my new gear, that I realised there was a name printed on the pool buoy.


Now I will spend the rest of my days hoping Zerler never shows up and challenges me for legal ownership of my pool buoy.

Of course, if it happens in lane five I might be in a position to throw a huge spider at him and run away.