I live a charmed life.It wouldn’t work for most people I don’t think, but for me it is a skin tight glove, molded and designed to fit perfectly.My schedule is hectic.There are planes, and hotels, and stages, and radio stations, and studios, and rental cars, and so many different skylines that the whole world begins to bleed together like a chalk drawing in the rain.

In 2006, the year I turned 30, I graduated Magna Cum Laude with my BA in English, my fourteen year old daughter was repeatedly attempting suicide and failing in school, and my four-and-a-half year old ADHD twin boys were rapidly being kicked out of every daycare center in the city – all of which was the death knell for my failing marriage. Around this time, I created a MySpace account to stalk my daughter, who, I discovered, had a clandestine account herself. On my profile I listed writing and reading as two of my hobbies and one day I got an invitation to read a blog written by some “author” named Brad Listi. Everyone was an author on MySpace, it seemed. Most of them were trying to sell me something and the ones who weren’t tended to write boring blogs about finance or essential oils or some other subject I had no interest in.

I was, as a matter of course, rejecting nearly every “author” who invited me to read his or her writing – but for some reason, I went ahead and accepted this Brad Listi fella’s invitation.

 

Look at this earnest face.

Look at this earnest face.

We were somewhere in Colorado after driving the day through Nevada and Utah, and we had miles ahead to go. The sun had set only a few minutes before, the twilight dimming over racing lengths of the Colorado River that we raced in turn, and the blue-edged black of early night was swiftly flooding the sky; we pulled into a gas station below a ridge lined with fast-food restaurants. Their signs were electric and bright against the deepening dark of the winding hills we’d driven behind us, and the plastic yellows and reds made the clean white and green panels of the gas station look more natural, somehow.

We were the only customers until a young couple in a black SUV pulled in across the empty lot. They stood close together on the other side of their car while they filled up, and talked in low voices. They both wore jeans and dark hooded tops; he put out a hand and touched her shoulder, awkwardly.

The distance from horizon to horizon above us, above the buildings and the highways, was vast, in its size, in its overwhelming impartiality. Dust from the road blew across the concrete beneath us; it settled and then passed as the breeze picked back up, and swept out into the shadows and the emptiness of the mountains and the valleys.

*

We were somewhere in West Texas and the man with the gut overhanging his belt was smiling as he spoke. Sweat beaded at his temples and he wore expensive-looking sunglasses under the white brim of his faded baseball cap. He was looking at Zara so I assumed he was talking to her; through the thickness of his accent I had no idea what he was saying. I kept the handle down and watched the numbers on the pump gauge race higher and higher. We’d come too close to running the tank empty. We’d been driving with the fuel light on for the last few hundred miles of old derricks and faded red soil and scrub. The orange LED had become increasingly apparent with every cresting hill that revealed nothing ahead but more of the same wide flats.

The air-conditioned convenience store of the gas station was a world away from the harsh dry oven heat of the morning outside. I grabbed a couple of bottles of water from the fridges and a pack of jerky from the display hooks and walked to the counter.

I paid with card and as soon as I’d signed the receipt and handed it back the lights flickered once and shut down. With a last despairing whine, the air conditioning choked into silence. Instantly the interior fell into shadow and the air turned still.

Customers groaned. The counter staff, a trio of women between fifty and sixty, fluttered to the computer and tried helplessly to turn it on.

‘Sorry,’ one of them called. ‘No gas. The pumps have gone too.’

Another minute and we would have been stuck here until the power came back. I made my way to the backroom bathrooms using the light of my phone’s screen to light the windowless corridor. When I came back out the power was still off. We got back into the car and drove away, leaving behind us the powerless gas station and the waiting customers, waiting still.

*

We were somewhere in Mississippi and we’d just crossed over both the state line and another one of the endlessly long bridges across the water. It was afternoon and I’d texted a photo of the road ahead of us to Joe Daly in San Diego. I was writing a text to someone else when I pressed a wrong button on my phone and it deleted the three weeks’s worth of conversation we’d been having.

The sun was over the sea and behind the ragged ghosts of clouds it was in glory; Zara reached down into her bag for her camera and passed it over to me.

Soon the long green marshes and waterways gave way to concrete sidewalks and suburban buildings and we found a low-roofed gas station circled with pickup trucks, with mothers in pulled-back ponytails and busy walks, with teen basketball players and laughing men in singlets holding beer cans. As we stood by the entryway a man with a head of tangled brown hair and a thin, scratchy beard walked up to Zara with carefully deferential steps. With all politeness, in a voice like road gravel and iron filings, he said hello.

‘Excuse me, ma’am,’ he asked. ‘Do you suppose I could buy a cigarette from you?’

Zara smiled and gave him one, waving away his offer of money.

‘Thank you,’ he said, and held it up to us happily, almost as if brandishing a prize. ‘First one I’ve had since I got out of jail this afternoon.’

*

We were somewhere in New Mexico and Zara was inside the gas station, buying something to drink on the road. I was leaning against the rough stone rear wall around the corner from the automatic doors, smoking. I’d barely lit up when the big Native American standing next to his truck straightened up and walked over to me.

‘Hey man,’ he said. ‘How are you today?’

He looked like he was somewhere past forty years old. He had a battered black cowboy hat and his face was solid and scarred and round. He wore a weathered denim jacket and a t-shirt that was rumpled and old over the size of his torso, all slack with fat and slouching muscle.

‘Well, thanks, man,’ I said. ‘How about you?’

He nodded once or twice at that, looked away, looked back.

‘Pretty good,’ he said.

He looked away, looked back.

‘That’s some accent you got there,’ he said. ‘Where are you from?’

His voice was slow and deep; melodic within a single register and unfettered by any trace of emotion.

‘Australia,’ I said. ‘Melbourne, Australia.’

‘An Aussie,’ he said, pronouncing the middle sibilants with hissing American esses, rather than buzzing Australian zeds. ‘Wow, you’re far from home.’

‘Yeah,’ I said, smiling. ‘I’m on a road trip with a friend of mine.’

‘OK,’ he said, and looked away, looked back.

‘Chester Healy is my name,’ he said, and he stuck out a hand. We shook, and his grip was even in its strength.

We spoke, and I started to notice his speech fell into a pattern free of any of the flowing syntax I associated with conversation. He broke his replies apart with that curious look away, look back, wordless every time. Our talk fell into question, response, pause. Question, response, pause.  And Chester Healy casually, unthinkingly, dropped curses where they seemed out of place, further breaking the rhythm of his words.

‘So where have you been to?’ he asked, and he lit a cigarette.

‘Oh, everywhere,’ I said. ‘We started in LA, we drove out to New York across the north, then came down South through Washington and through Louisiana and Texas, and now we’re headed back to LA.’

He paused, looked away, looked back.

‘Washington,’ he said, saying the word as if it had some further importance than any other. ‘So did you get to see that fuckin’ nigger they got there, the one who keeps throwing his weight around?’

‘Of course,’ Chester Healy said, after a pause, look away, look back, ‘My wife is a black lady, so I can’t say too much. She gives me a hard time when I say fuckin’ things like that.’

Zara came around the corner then, and I introduced her. Chester Healy looked around at the cars at their petrol pumps and rubbed a hand across his chin.

‘I better be movin’ on,’ he said. ‘Things to do.’

He paused, looked away, looked back.

‘Say, do you have a spare couple bucks?’ he asked.

I only had a five in my wallet, and I handed it over. He shook my hand again. ‘Hey,’ he said. ‘If you’re going near Flagstaff, watch out for smoke. I heard it fuckin’ over the radio. That whole place is fuckin’ on fire.’

His face, for the first time, split into a grin.

‘It sure was nice to meet you though,’ he said. ‘Never met a real live Aussie before.’

*

We were somewhere in Nebraska and I was drinking Red Bull. Zara had never tasted it and she sipped from the can and pulled a face.

‘Is it always that sweet?’ she asked, and shook her head. ‘I’ll stick with coffee, I think.’

I smiled and tipped the can up to swallow the last of it. The sweet, faintly chemical taste of energy drink was cold and sharp. A tingling wave ran over my scalp and I resisted the urge to run my hand through my hair.

For no apparent reason, the gas station garden beds were dotted with cheerful plastic dinosaurs. In lime green they stood watch over the roads leading into and out of the place, wet with the faint haze of rain that gently soaked the air.

*

We were somewhere in South Carolina and we’d been driving through a morning of thick, sweet-smelling warmth on our way to Charleston. The roads were overgrown and verdant at the sides, and pleasant in their dense miles of dark and leafy green. The night before we’d pulled in to the deserted parking lot of a small and modern-framed church to plot our route and the air had been awash with the scent of cinnamon.

It was sunny and the highway was lined with white honeysuckle. The plants were reaching and alive; long, long vines strung the trees further back into the woods. We drove into a gas station and when I got out of the car the sunshine was a gentle heat on my back. A flock of birds flew overhead in a long V and one of them called out a whistling arpeggio. Away in the foliage, another bird, unseen, called back.

Zara went inside while I worked the pump, and we passed each other at the doors as I walked in to get something to eat. I wandered through the aisles and the attendant kept a curious eye on me as I walked back to her with a handful of muesli bars.

‘So…’ she said slowly, in the first true Southern accent I’d heard on the road. She was pretty, in a plump, flushed way, and her sharp-collared white shirt was open two buttons at the neck. Her hair was streaked blonde and she wore golden rings. ‘Where are you all from?’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I’m from Australia.’

‘Well,’ she said, and she smiled and leaned in towards me, ‘That lady out there in the car? I don’t know who she is to you, but I couldn’t understand a word she said.’

‘Ah,’ I said.

I returned to the car and as I was pulling my seatbelt on I told Zara what the woman inside had said.

‘Right,’ Zara said. ‘That explains why she was smiling and nodding so much.’

*

We were somewhere in Iowa and the storm had finally broken. The rain had come down in pounding torrents as we crossed the swollen Mississippi, and it had thrown hard across highways where the only guides through the blattering screens of water across the windshield were the fading red brake lights of the cars ahead, but for now, the clouds were exhausted, and holding back their recovering strength.

The turnoff to the gas station took us up a winding spiral road that wrapped around a hill in the middle of nowhere, nothing more than a place for people who need to refuel. The lot was busy with traffic, so we filled up and then moved the car to park by the embankment around to the side.

People bustled inside, talking to each other across the racks of road stop clothing, filling up cups of coffee at the dispensers, poring over the dried-out convenience foods in heating cases. Zara was fascinated by the hangers full of Jesus t-shirts emblazoned with psalm numbers and sorrowing pictures of the Saviour on the cross. She searched through them while I went to the counter to pay.

A bald man in rimless round glasses was there, talking to the clerk, and the two of us struck up a conversation. He’d been the principal of the local school for twenty years – appropriately, he looked like James Tolkan, the principal from the Back to the Future movies.

He was friendly, and we spoke a little about how long he’d lived out here, in this quiet space far away from the cities. He asked if I knew much about Iowa, and I mentioned Field of Dreams. He laughed at that, and we traded lines back and forth. He saw a lot of truth, he said, in the one about Heaven.

When I got back outside the air was cool and damp. Down below the top of the hill, soft green land stretched out, far into the distance. The sky was a rolling patchwork of light greys, and close. The breeze blew, only slightly, and I looked out to the smoky wisps of rain on the horizon, away on the edge of seeing, and then back to the peace of the place at hand.

It’s spring, and all of you sexy people out there know just what I mean when I say, mmm-mm. It’s time for the return of the sexy.

The sun is bouncing brightly off that freshly waxed chest in front of you where its owner is parked enjoying a delicious shot of wheatgrass. He’s working on his computer like he’s got a novel brewing. Or maybe he’s a writer for GQ. He’s just made eye contact with you as if to say candidly, “I see you watching me being sexy over here. I, too, acknowledge your sexy.”

Oh, yeah.

That’s right. It’s been a long, cold run up here in the mountains, and I am happy to report that spring is finally in the air. The birds are birding, the chipmunks are chipmunking; and the bees…are beeing sexy. Yesterday, I was at a giant garage sale for my kid’s school. Helping out because volunteering is sexy. I didn’t end up doing much, but I did walk away with a great deal on a purple and black corset, which just goes to show, economy is sexy, too.

A lot has happened this last year. Grandpa got married. He’s 90 and she’s 96, but neither of them are a day over sexy. Together they witnessed the rise and fall of the USSR, the coming of age of Barbie, and the invention of the chocolate chip cookie. Had a preacher man say some words over them without actually signing a marriage license so they could be sexy together without getting their families all riled up over mingling their bank accounts. Last I heard, they had moved back to their single rooms over at the independent living center. A little space is sexy, too—oh yeah.

It’s spring and it’s time to be sexy. Two weeks ago, Slade Ham, Megan DiLullo, Uche Ogbuji, Richard Cox and Sam Demaris came up to our house. It had snowed 8 inches of fresh powder, so it wasn’t very sexy. Even so, we laughed, told stories, ate donuts and drank a lot of very sexy whiskey. At one in the morning, we broke out the kickboxing gear and sparred in the living room. I got the wind just about knocked out of me by a well-placed punch to the side by Slade. Brought me to my knees it was so sexy. Even Scott just shook his head from behind the video camera and didn’t rush to my defense. Megan put on some headgear like she was going to jump in but was eventually pulled back to the sofa by a 90 proof magnet. Uche broke out into some def poetry while Sam called us a bunch of high schoolers. Richard played Tiffany. There is nothing sexy about Tiffany. Donuts are sexy, though. Especially if you’re a dude made out of fried bread. Oh, yeah.

But Spring is in the air now, and all of those kinks have been smoothed over. No excuse to not be sexy. Even Simon Smithson and Zara Potts and the rest of you living down under don’t have to stop being sexy even though it’s well into autumn now for you. Autumn is a sexy word for fall. You’re down there and we’re up here and we’re passing like two sexy ships in the night. Passing the baton of sexy.

Don’t worry, though. We’ll have enough sexy in the northern hemisphere to carry you over. Nathaniel Missildine in France. David S. Wills in China. Steve Sparshott and James Irwin in England. Irene Zion over in Belgium(?) and Judy Prince somewhere in between. We’re creating a mesh network of sexy and beaming it south. Down below the earth’s belt. Now that’s sexy.

That’s right, Spring is in the air and it’s time to be sexy so slip out of those shoes and curl your toes deep into some warm sand somewhere. Wear something that ends in an ‘ini’. Order something cold that comes in a pineapple or coconut shell because drinks that come in their own skin are sexy. You know it. But it’s spring, so don’t worry too much about having to try. In spring, just about everything is sexy. In spring, even Tiffany is sexy.

So, keep on keepin’ on, wheatgrass boy. You’ve got a spot of green in the corner of your mouth there.

There you go.

Oh, yeah.

This has been a bad month for earthquakes. The Pacific is working things out with its tectonic plates in a spectacularly violent fashion, affecting those near and dear to us in dramatic and terrifying ways. Our hearts, usually occupied by the few square miles around our own lives, become pained by the vision of devastation of those we love far away, and we struggle to make sense of the distances between us, our inability to run at a moment’s notice to the aid of the victims.

I have a love-hate relationship with images. I’ve written about them before, in a more personal context. But every massive quake or tsunami or hurricane in the era of the 24-hour news cycle becomes one more opportunity for me to dip into helpless depression, a feeling of impotence. The horror that we all experienced watching September 11 unfold internationally, I still remember with crystal clarity. I also remember the depressive episode afterward, culminating months later with me jumping in a car alone for a road trip, trying desperately to shake the grip of helplessness that had strangled me since September.

Our own Zara is in the middle of the most devastating event of her life, her world having been literally shaken to its foundation. I can only watch with grim respect as she answers her own need for understanding by writing it down and sending it to the rest of us via the wonder of internet connectivity. And in the face of this most recent earthquake, Japan’s northeastern shore being washed away by an unimaginably horrifying wave, I find myself torn in twain.

My son goes to a Japanese immersion school in Portland. Every day, he goes to school and interacts with his Japanese teachers, and a host of interns who, for one year, elect to uproot themselves from Japan to learn how to be teachers in the United States. The interns are woven into the fiber of our school: we have to do fund-raising, an impossible amount of it, every year to bring our interns here, and every year the community rises up to pull us through the financial gap. They live in our houses, they celebrate holidays with us, come to parties with us, share meals and laughs. They become family.

We’re saying good-bye to this year’s Japanese interns tonight at a party thrown for them. They will perform for us, we will give them awards, there will be Taiko drumming.

But I’m not sure it will be so celebratory.

As the first video of Japan was coming in last night, my husband and I watched the tsunami roll in over a tiny town. It was gripping and slow, the first wave having already flooded the area, the surges behind creeping up to continue the brutal work of the leader. The journalist in the helicopter above must have been dazed: every time he turned the camera to the sea, there was wave after wave, lined up like battalions, ready to smash into the already wracked earth below. On live television we watched as entire neighborhoods were washed up into the interior, cars, planes, houses. At that distance one can imagine that these are but toys, but we know with grim certainty that those cars and houses belong to people who are also being washed away.

I fight internally with myself. My need to be informed about these horrifying events, which touch people I know personally, rubs against my knowledge that if I look too deeply at the crisis, I can be thrown into another bout of useless debilitating depression. I’m not being useful if I just fall into the trap of watching the videos roll in with the same regularity as the tsunami surge to shore. I’m only creating that special fragility in my own psyche where the darkness can enter and take hold.

So my heart goes on being pained and open and broken on behalf of the victims, but I willfully turned off the video this morning when I could feel the chinks in my armor start to give way. The video is too visceral, too overt. And I wonder if we, those of us so far away, are actually experiencing shock–misplaced because the horror is not ours.

I understand the need for the images to get out. It makes our world small, and we reach with tiny hands across the breadth of the ocean. We rally our resources to aid strangers, we donate money and send rescue teams, we wish we could do more, but do whatever we can to bridge the space between. But I feel the media fatigue already. I’m turning off the video storm surge, and going to the party for our Japanese interns tonight instead, to ask them what they need, what we can do, maybe just listening to them talk.

I can do nothing else.



It was around two years ago that Zoe Brock first suggested I write for The Nervous Breakdown. We were in her San Francisco lounge room and I’d made it to about the space between ‘some’ and ‘how’ in the thought Maybe this will get me laid somehow¹ when I said ‘Zoe, I’ll do it.’

As you may know—but may not, because of my Scorpio predilection for Dick Cheney-level secrecy—I am a semi-professional astrologer.*For many months, I have been quietly collecting birth data from TNB contributors** whenever the topic came up on the comment boards, a sort of horoscopical scavenger hunt that netted quite a few charts for my burgeoning collection.

I had seen neither Twilight nor New Moon, and yet, shortly after touching back down into Los Angeles, I found myself at a preview screening of Eclipse with my friend Lindsey and two of her friends. As it turns out, you don’t really need to have seen the previous two movies if you’ve paid attention to any newspaper in the entire world for the last two years. Vampires, werewolves, no sex, Taylor Lautner without a shirt, and you’re good to go.

Dakota Fanning.

What a bitch.

I freakin’ love San Francisco. I mean, I love it.

It’s a weird hybrid of its own unique spirit and architecture and people, and the parts of my home town of Melbourne that make Melbourne, Melbourne. The trams, the street art, the tiny pockets of arts and culture, the live music, the bookstores (and the books)… the mix of parks and streets; green and grey. Progressive politics and e-commerce side by side; innovation and cultural projects and tiny bars down tiny streets that you have to know about to get to.

And, also, Zoe Brock!

On the flight from LA to SF I sat between a burly guy named Ken and a skinny young guy, whose name I forget. I feel a little bad that while I don’t remember his name, I remember that he misheard my introduction and called me Sam.

I like it when people mis-hear my name as Sam, which happens more often than you might think.

I wonder who this Sam guy is.

Sam Smithson.

I had no idea how many miles we had driven.

I’d lost all track of how many cities and towns and truckstops we’d been through.

The TNBers we’d met, at least, I could keep track of.

They call it the Big I, the huge, drawling loop of loops of freeways that lies on the outskirts of Albuquerque. It has eight main bridges and 47 smaller bridges, shaded a soft orangey-pink and aquamarine, rising up out of the sparse, desolate ground. It flows, a strange marriage between American highway culture and the desert; the colouring of it sits against the blue sky so perfectly that it just seems… right. Like remembering something you’ve seen in a dream but forgot until you saw it again.

It was OK, I guess.

After sudden rainclouds and sudden rainstorms, all of which avoided me as I slept in my warm hotel room and landed squarely on Zara as she foolishly went out to experience and enjoy life, we drove from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. We noticed as we drove that we had stopped caring at all about any journey that was under, say, eight hours. If it took above eight hours, then, yes, we would admit, that was a long drive. Anything else was a hop, skip, or jump.

Not even a big one, at that.

Seven hours, fifty nine minutes?

Whatever, man.

I could do that standing on my head.

We got into New Orleans as it was getting dark, with no idea where to sleep. As Zara drove, I rummaged through her bag and found the card from the Holiday Inn we’d stayed at the night before and called their national helpline, aware that the battery on my phone was seconds away from torpidity and getting lower and lower.

I frantically navigated my way through the help menu options, stabbing at the buttons and praying that the battery would find a last ounce of charge.

At this point in time, I may or may not have been visualising Schwarzenegger in the final scenes of Terminator 2.