Rambling

This blog acts like a diary, where I write things I have encountered as a way of thinking them through. There’s a term for this, and it’s something to do with hermeneutics, but it also makes me sound like a wanker. So I’ll just call it musing.

The first thing is the Biosphere2. Humans have had a crack at making People-Terrariums for years, but I really like the Biosphere2 example because it demonstrates how fiendishly difficult it is to account for many different processes and their constituent tipping points;

“To grow food, they put in very rich soils, which contained a great amount of organic material that bacteria consumed,″ said Tilman. “The bacteria used a lot of oxygen, dropping the oxygen levels. The bacteria released carbon dioxide, which became chemically bound up in the cement. That broke the cycle.″ from APNews

I just think this is a fabulous example of how incredibly tricky gas transfer is, and how the myriad processes of natural systems exploit and limit their actions to maintain homeostasis.

Another thing that caught my eye this week was the seemingly endless blathering about trans women in sport, which is being imported writ large from American domestic politics, as a way to bolster the Liberal party’s chances in the upcoming election. It’s foul, there’s no other way to put it, but after overhearing yet another group of people ruminate on the issue and decide incontrovertibly that trans women are biologically male (and therefore should not participate in the women’s category) I mused upon the deeper symbolism of this issue. After all, it just seems to crazy that an issue that literally affects almost no one in Australia (professional athletes) should have such purchase. Why is that?

it’s easy to just run the argument – ‘it’s the same old story of demonising one vulnerable group to garner support’ and I think there’s truth to that. But I also think there’s something uniquely durable about this issue.

And then I hopped in my car and heard someone on the radio talking about popularism and politics – the now well-trammelled distinction between the globalists and the localists (there are multiple different terms) but what struck me is that modern politics seems divided between the elites, who include the ruling bureaucratic class, and everyone else.

The ‘everyone else’ class, thinks of itself as regular, sensible people who have ordinary, mainstream beliefs. They’re not idealogues or iconoclasts, fringe extremists or anti vaxers. They are just normal people. And the trans women in sport thing tracks very well with this group because it draws an incredibly clear line between the elites – those engaged in intellectual and/or bureaucratic work, and those who work in the ‘real’ industries, doing things with their physical hands. In other words, elites use their brains, everyone else uses their brains AND bodies.

This might seem abstruse but I think it makes a real difference, because when you say to someone who is a plumber or a mechanic, ‘Anyone who identifies as a woman is a woman’ what you are saying is, ‘the only thing that matters is how you think about reality – your thoughts about it are the only germane thing’. Being a petrol-head, ex mechanic I follow a lot of car-topics on social media, and I’ve seen multiple memes online of, ‘this door panel identifies as grey’.

This kind of statement represents a type of privilege – the ability to recast what is physically present as irrelevant. It is the ultimate mind-over-matter, and to those people whose lives are constrained by physical reality, either because they still live with the consequences of their physical reality – women who look after children and struggle to provide paid and unpaid labour, and everyone who works with their bodies and minds, this is a a sign of elitist parlour games. It is the relegation of the real, physical world. And it’s also at the heart of the poisonous political division between two groups.

The elites think those who think trans women aren’t the same as natal women are regressive, stupid, cruel, old fashioned, possibly religious zealots, definitely morons who are borderline Nazis.

The non elites think the elites are delusional, with a pseudo-religious disregard for the physical world. And, on top of this, they are shamed for their straightforward reading of the situation, which further feeds into the division.

Both sides seek to ossify their own positions, in relation to one another. This is a dangerous game to play. Max Weber, writing more than 100 years ago, argued against the dangers of bureaucracy that would find its own logic, formed through nothing more than its own self-generating legitimacy through language.

Casting the elites as maintaining a regime of knowing, an epistemology, that is decoupled from physical reality does not bode well for the discussion on climate change, where the impacts are felt on the ground, but a higher level of knowledge and understanding of its processes are only gleaned through ‘the elites’ – highly developed science. This is what disturbs me about this, ‘trans debate’ (aside from the obvious fact that trans people are getting shafted for political gain). It is an attempt to recast the relationship between ‘elite knowledge’ and the physical world, to question the legitimacy of those who work with their brains.

I will leave that there.

Privilege

It’s school holidays so I’ve spent a lot of time surfing and ‘helping’ to make a model of the international space station (more about that shortly).

And, as always, I engaged in my favourite pastime, cleaning. And while I was cleaning I had the radio on, and caught the end of ABC’s Radio National’s Music Show, featuring an interview with the Aboriginal rapper, Barkaa.

Stolen from The Guardian

I only heard bits of Barkaa’s piece, but mostly, she described rapping about her life, about the good stuff, and inevitably, the bad stuff too. Much of the bad stuff was the expected travails of a life navigating poverty and disruption, with some drug addiction and incarceration chucked in, and trying to forge a nice and happy life for her kids while also keeping in touch with her cultural background.

This was promptly followed by an hour long interview with Di Morrissey. I wasn’t familiar with Ms Morrissey, but she is some kind of television royalty apparently, and spent her life making commercials and later, prime time TV shows, and then writing a book. She sounded nice, and certainly had an interesting life, but it was very, very difficult to escape comparing the trajectories of both talented women.

Di Morrissey was born in 1945, into the shambling squattocracy of middle-upper class regional Australia. Her mother was pretty, ‘arty’ and moved to Palm beach with her husband, where Di had a comfortable childhood. She moved to LA with her mother, after her father died, for a period, and then back to Australia. She recounted feeling unfashionable amongst the Californian girls, who had prettier dresses and school bags.

At the end of her schooling, she said she would like to be a writer, and so a family friend suggested that she work as a journalist to ‘get some experience’, and ‘marched her in the door of ACL publishing’ in downtown Sydney, where she gaily recounted a few years producing copy for the Women’s Weekly, before traveling to London, marrying a nice chap, spending a couple of years working in TV in Hawaii waiting for her and her husband’s US citizenship to get approved before he started work as a diplomat. Much was made of her work in TV but also of her outfits and the fabulous parties with heads of state, and a ‘dippo’ life.

Her account of her life was colourful, interesting and gave an insight especially into feminism of the 70s and 80s – for instance, she left her husband to move back to Australia to ‘see if I could write a book’. I’m not sure whether her children came too, but much was made of the fact that she was moving for career, in an age when men routinely did so, with their ‘trailing wives’.

Every step of Ms Morrissey’s life was handed to her, doors opened, barriers removed, the world, quite literally, her exciting, beguiling oyster. I guess, in terms of age, Ms Morrissey would be Barkaa’s great grandmother.

I thought of Barkaa’s great grandmother, who was she? I would have loved to hear an interview with Barkaa about her mother, grandmother and great grandmother, where they came from, what their lives were like, but that’s not on the cards.

Barkaa is from Western NSW, from the Barkindji Nation, based around the Darling River basin. In the 1950s, many Aboriginal people in Western NSW were living on reserves or missions, or on stations (mostly oriented around training people for work, or work itself – sometimes paid, often not). Those who did not live on reserves or missions often lived in settlements on the edge of towns, in conditions in which you can imagine. It was apartheid. The colonial government (well, we still have a colonial government) controlled all aspects of people’s lives – where they could live, and in many cases, had legal guardianship of their children. It’s worth remembering that Aboriginal people gained franchise in 1962. This system of apartheid was still in full swing in when Ms Morrissey was flitting off to LA with her glamorous mother.

When Di Morrissey’s mother was moving into the arty, shabby gentility of Pittwater in the 1950s, her Aboriginal contemporaries, perhaps Barkaa’s great grandmother, would have been living a completely controlled life, proscribed by the government and administered by local police. Her children may have been removed, or may not have been, but she would have likely raised them in very difficult conditions. It’s not hyperbole to say that it’s likely Barkaa’s great grandmother would have been treated like stock, while Di Morrissey’s mother moved to a comfortable beachside home in Palm beach and later, to LA for a while. It’s really, really hard, when you live in Australia, to ignore the different lives that Aboriginal people have led, and marvel at how incredibly different they are. And yet many manage to do so fairly bloody well.

As just one example, when I googled Di Morrissey to see where she was born, (Wingham NSW) the wikipedia article told me about the town – it tells me this;

The first land grant in the area was made at The Bight to George Rowley in 1841. Wingham was chosen as a location for a government settlement because supply boats could not proceed any further up the Manning River and was also located on the road from Raymond Terrace to Port Macquarie. Named after Wingham in Kent, England, Wingham was proclaimed a village in 1844 but allotments were not made until 1854, the same year that Henry Flett laid out Taree as a private settlement. In the meantime, Tinonee had also been established as a government settlement and in 1866 had a population of 100, compared to 90 at Wingham and 150 at Taree.[2][3][4]

Wingham was proclaimed a municipality in 1889. By 1909, Wingham consisted of 285 houses and had a population of 900, but government services had been transferred to Taree, which had a population of 1300 in 269 houses. The municipalities were merged with each other and the Manning Valley Shire in 1981 to form the City of Greater Taree.[5]

So that’s nice. But, if you’ve been to Wingham you would know that it seems like a really fertile place, with excellent fresh and saltwater options, very good soil and a really benign climate. I would assume that it was home to a large Aboriginal population. I wanted to know what Aboriginal women of Di Morrissey’s mother’s vintage were up to, in Wingham, in 1945. Separately, I looked up the list of Aboriginal reserves, on wikipedia but not linked from the Wingham page. It told me there was an 80 acre reserve in the Parish of Killawara, County of Macquarie. That’s it.

I know this isn’t a shock to anyone, but I guess I’m just noting that the invisibility isn’t an accident.

Class tourism

Under normal circumstances I manage to avoid ABC Life Matters. I know it’s on at 9am, but, every now and then I find myself in the car after a quick ad hoc trip to the school uniform shop, or chewing glass while my ears bleed.

The chattering classes are preoccupied with class tourism, and this episode of Life Matters was the epitome of this. The host breathily gushed her intro about the horrors of the ‘outer suburbs’, setting up the dualism between ‘good’ urbanisation and ‘bad’. Quota words got a lap around the oval – holistic, inclusive (for good suburbia), alienating and ethnic for ‘bad’.

She did note that about 80% of Australians live in suburbs, and yet it seems that the only ones that are a problem are the ‘outer’ ones. Yes, this means the large houses occupied by some of our newest Australians.

To be sure, the angsting over suburbia is an Australian academic tradition, but I think fetishising the outer suburbs as something new and unsettling is just the newest version in an old racist trope. In the 1960s Eastgardens (in Sydney) was considered a nascent den of iniquity, housing undesirables in cheek-by-jowl homes. The design and layout was ‘revolutionary’ – the suburbs were planned for some green space and so that people could have a backyard, as an antidote to the (declining) inner city urban terrace housing that was uncontroversially the pit of all sin.

My point is that lack of transport, insularity and a lack of local employment has long been viewed as a planning problem. I note that the radio guests never used the term, ‘dormitory suburb’ but indeed, this is what they’re referring to. However, I think, contrary to the pearl-clutching of all the guests and hosts, none of whom, I am almost certain, actually live in the outer suburbs, the areas they refer to are probably the least problematic ‘new suburbs’ that Australia has had. This is for a number of reasons – there are more employment opportunities in the suburbs, in shops and services, than in the dormitory suburbs of Australia’s recent past. Women are more integrated into life – they work, participate in education more, and there are strong cultural communities that are connected through churches. The housing is often multi generational, which means that people are connected in more ways. And, importantly, there are a mixture of people from different cultural backgrounds, which means that everyday life will take on different patterns. The sterility of the dormitory suburbs of the 1950s-70s was oriented around an extremely regimented, culturally uniform nuclear family.

Sure, there are problems with infrastructure and transport, but listening to the academics and hosts talk, I really wondered if any of them had been to Peterborough or Marrickville, or Summer Hill. How socially cohesive are these neighbourhoods? Are they not dogged by overloaded transport, air pollution and a lack of green space too?

Of course they are. In fact, these suburbs are probably emptier than those in the ‘outer suburbs’ during the daytimes, as people send their kids off to private schools, full time care, and both parents in single generation households go to work full time.

I’m not suggesting that the outer suburbs are great, or without problems – for sure, there are many. I think though that discussing them like they’re some kind of weird, alien, dystopian hellscape is ridiculous. The only suburban places that are truly like this are the ones that are outside the growth corridor and have a majority of public housing. Abject poverty and disadvantage is the recipe that bakes the shithole, nothing else.

International Women’s Day

The older I get, the more I realise that the Holy Trinity of race, class and gender are the immutable schisms that structure every bloody debate.

Grace Tame amongst others, features in a video about increasing safety, respect and equity of women in Australia. For the middle class Twitteratti, there’s only one way this can go – a criticism about the lack of diversity or intersectionalism in the video, “advanced Karen-ing”.

I’m not interested in that. I’m an old school feminist and I’m wary about the censoriousness of contemporary purity politics. We can have multiple demands for justice and they can all be valid.

I like Grace Tame, and Lucy Turnbull, for that matter. I think it was high time someone gave the PM stink-eye.

Listening to the local ABC this morning we were informed that the focus of this IWD was ‘bias’ and a female scientist was interviewed for her thoughts. Rather awkwardly for the interviewer’s proscribed text) she confirmed what a lot of we already know – for many women working in professional, technical fields, there’s not much implicit bias. That which does exist lies around the structural factors – child rearing and ‘career’.

Of course, there’s a reason this is the focus of IWD – modern, western feminism’s obsession with the idea that women’s equality is primarily oriented around equality in the workplace. Our identities are our work and vice versa. Thank God for IWD highlighting that my 200k annual income might be slightly less than that of my be-penised colleague.

Yes, that stuff is important. As I said before, I’m not interested in engaging in whataboutism – this campaign is a good one, but to me, there is a far more important issue.

Two year’s ago Hannah Clarke’s partner murdered her and her three children. He burned them to death after hunting her like a tracked animal.

These are the things that don’t seem to be changing. When I was a teenager, in the 90s, there was the kind of sexism that enabled teachers to have sex with their young female students. Grace Tame’s story and her teacher’s frank belief that he’d done nothing wrong, tells me that this has not changed. I knew women who were raped, bashed, hit with cars, women who were literally starving so they could get away from their partners. When I was at high school there were several girls who were 14 (I left school at 14 so can’t talk about older age groups) who were in sexual relationships with teachers, who were in their 20s and 30s. Some got pregnant – I remember one who moved in with the teacher, and some of the older women I knew being very approving that he’d decided to take care of her. This was in the early 1990s.

This does not seem to have changed.

What has changed is that I don’t know them anymore.

When I went to university, I felt I’d moved into a completely different world. My female friends were bright, motivated and fascinated by their fields of study. They did well, as did the males. It was gendered, for sure, engineering for instance was almost entirely male. But many of the other sciences were not, and many of my female friends went on to have very fulfilling careers in many varied fields.

Domestic violence is not solely a ‘class thing’, I guess I want to say that, but it is generously enabled and amplified by it. Social mobility is exactly what it says on the box – mobile. Yes, it is the practical ability to leave a poisonous situation but it’s also the ability to think of oneself in different terms.

Women accept the treatment they believe they deserve.

Ms Higgins features in the IWD video. I’ve known a few women who’ve woken up from black-out drunk sex. What makes Ms Higgins feel indignant about the experience when others don’t? What makes Ms Higgins speak out about it when others haven’t?

Social class is a distal cause. And yes, I realise the main cause is obviously that a male had sex with her when she was too drunk to consent. And so with that in mind, I think I’d like to move away from ruminating on the cultural causes and simply rely on reality – we know this shit when we see it. We should act on it.

Instead of endlessly wringing our hands about respect or the root causes or whatever, let’s just apply the laws that we have. Let’s take it seriously. When someone like Hannah Clarke gives an account of the controlling behaviour of her husband and then leaves him, let’s see that for what it is – one of the most dangerous periods in a woman’s life.

When a teacher starts fucking a 14 year old student, let’s see that for what it is. Let’s actually use the laws that exist.

We know all this shit – endlessly pontificating about the root causes of violence against women is a parlour game. You can see this in the language – see all those documents that talk about ‘gendered violence’, instead of violence against women.

Watch the IWD video if you like. It’s slickly produced and beautifully represents the moneyed classes beautifully. Or, watch this video, in between the Facebook ads for diet products and cute dogs. It’s from 2018, of a woman giving a speech about her dear friend and colleague who was murdered by her partner. Watch all of it. It’s about a million times more compelling than Lucy Turnbull telling you off.

The Battle of Portaloo – Wellington, March 2022.

But first, a note: this may not make sense, as I’m in week two of being Officially Fucked Up with Covid. Let’s begin.

Aotearoa, and Pōneke in particular, are having a bit of a tidy up this morning, following the protests staged on Parliament lawn over the last three weeks. Yesterday I received a link to three streams on twitch.tv, from my brother;

‘Shit is kicking off in Wellington’,

Which indeed, it was. The police, after three weeks of standing, watching, waiting, moved in and removed the protesters, using force. It’s led to the usual angst over who the motivations and group identity of the protesters as everyone seeks to over-analyse a bunch of tired fuckwits setting fire to tents in a howling Wellington gale.

The responses are so predictable, but I’d make a few, highly contestable observations. The final accounting will be delineated according to good old fashioned racism. It will, in the final shake down, be the fault of Māori. Not entirely, of course – there’ll be some finger pointing at foreign influences, but the crass violent stuff? Guess who gets lumped with that?

Let’s be clear, I live in a racist country. No-one in their right mind would ever argue that Australia was not deeply, irretrievably racist. It is. But so is New Zealand. New Zealanders just do a better job of telling themselves they’re not.

Indeed, the subsequent chatter is part of a well attended project to upholster the protest in high minded, socially responsible, kindness. Standby for statements like, “we need to hold space for…” and “we need to consider what it means to be….”.

And of course, look closely at how not-racism is framed.

The jeunesse doree consume media laced with Māori words and have gaily incorporated a kind of New Age spiritualism into their everyday lives, expressed, quite naturally, through the idiom of hard core neoliberalism. Large corporate entities ‘lead the way’ to ‘radically include’ Māori ‘ways of doing and being’ into their commercial operations.

The New York Times expressing its horror at New Zealand’s lack of manners this morning

Here the New York Times wrings its pale, sclerotic hands over the creep of what they see as American-style dissent. Everyone sees their own motivations, prejudices and experiences reflected in these things. It’s a kind of Rorschach test.

A quick story; When I was about 8, I went to stay with my grandparents. My cousin lived with them – shifting kids around was pretty common in my family. So, me and my cousin, (who, I should mention, was the coolest person ever because she was almost three years older than me and extremely sophisticated by virtue of saucily wearing the F out of her white bubblegum jeans) were sitting in the back seat of grandma’s car, outside the 3 Guys, in Papatoetoe. We had the back windows cranked down, and were horsing around in the back seat. It was warm, sunny and a bit rainy, in that foetid Auckland kind of way, and this Pākehā guy walks up right beside the car. My cousin looks out the window at him, and he takes one look at her, and pale-face me, sitting on the other side of the back seat and says, “Fuckin Hori” and spits at her. He missed, and she just wound up the window and went back to giggling about whatever we were doing.

This wasn’t a million years ago, it was the late 1980s. And it was very, very common. If you didn’t see this shit growing up, you weren’t looking very hard. Or, it didn’t affect you and you could ignore it.

Let’s leave that there and just observe the predictability of the narrative around the end of the protest. I think I could predict the end date of the protest because about one week earlier hand-wringing Pākehā twitter started to say shit like this;

“I’m not at the protest but I’ve noticed that the white hippies/yoga mums/middle class women are leaving because the whole thing is getting too brown for them”.

And then, the absolute nail in the ‘send in the headkickers’ coffin – “Poor Māori are turning up because they’ve been brainwashed into doing the bidding of a protest movement they don’t know much about. It is mobilising their grievances for the purposes of the nasty middle class yoga mums”.

These ideas are so common – the idea that this is all the fault of white middle class NZ, who’re committed to their hobby politics (anti vaccination/wellness bullshit) right up until the point that things get more serious, at which point, they manipulate silly “brown” people to do their bidding, while they retire back to their bench-top oat grinders.

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve heard triumphant social media claims about, ‘the guys at XX petrol station gave us our tank for free!’. Guess who gets free petrol?

And then, we get the Māori public-servant, professional cheerleaders too – anguished over their cousins and friends making cocks out of themselves, looking like ignorant rural bumpkins.

Of course, there’s a kernel of truth to all of these ideas, but the reality is a lot messier, and it’s very hard for me to not notice the overwhelming drive or purpose of these narratives – Māori are violent, and the violent end of the protest was about them.

Now I’m seeing bullshit about Māori ‘warriorness’ – which absolutely confirms it.

In the last few days the argument centred on whether Māori were unwitting dupes, or ‘warriors’ pushing their own sovereignty issues. It doesn’t matter either way, because the point of these arguments is to make the idea that the responsibility for the violent and extreme end of the protest lies with Māori. This becomes the underlying, unquestioned part of the narrative.

Here’s a slightly different take that might act as a prophylactic in the coming days;

The anti-mandate protest was kicked off by a loose coalition of wellness ‘yoga mums’, paranoid sovereign citizen delusionists, ordinary, privileged, mostly Pākehā people unaccustomed to being told what to do by the government and those who ‘just want it to go back to 2019’. I said mostly Pākehā for the simple reason that Māori have got a pretty clear idea about what would happen if a bunch of them turned up and started camping on Parliament’s front lawn. As the camp became more established, and the police held off, other groups, those who would usually feel less able to march around in front of the police swearing at them, turned up.

Then, two weeks in, the inevitable happened – the early, un-vaccinated protestors had the finger of predictability inserted up them. A pandemic of “radiation sickness” (Covid) spread through the camp and hollowed out the initial group, leaving those later arrivals in their place. Emboldened, some of the Māori protesters called for others to bolster the ranks, much to the relief of the politicians, who’d been waiting until the crowd was sufficiently brown enough to send in the head kickers.

And now, a small but influential group of self aggrandising Māori carpet-baggers will seek to talk up the role of Māori in the protest, as a means to feathering their own nest, while the rest of Pākehā NZ get on with telling themselves that the protest was nice except for the crazies in the beginning and that the messy ending was mostly a (brown) ‘gang thing’. It also conveniently obviates the need to call this a political protest. It’s most politics, it’s just crazy people and Māori.

People often look to make sophisticated explanations about events like this, partly, I think, because they like to feel like they’re the authors of them -whoever tells you what is going on has some power over it all, a high fungible form of capital in the era of late-capitalism.

But the reality is a lot more banal. The holy trinity of race, sex and class is usually a perfectly serviceable explanation, if only people care to answer one question – are we racist?

In defence of hunger.

Imagine, if you will, the fuming talk-back caller, brusquely unclipping the earring and placing phone to ear…….

Whilst out running this morning on a dirt track through the bush I encountered a small group of young kids, preschoolers, on push-along bikes, guided by an adult who was walking alongside Initially I couldn’t figure out what was unusual about the picture – I know one of the kids, and so I know the group emanated from a small, local childcare centre. What was strange, I realised, is that none of the children had a backpack. Nor did the adult walking with them. The track is long, and probably the kids will be out for around an hour or more, and yet they did not appear to be traveling with a ‘rider’ of fruit segments, individually wrapped biscuits and enough water to irrigate 10 hectares of canola.

I remember, in those long ago days when I was shepherding small children around, that parents seemed to provision each and every excursion, no matter how small, in the manner of a colonial overland expedition, complete with dining table, carpets and a wide selection of exotic fruits.

“It helps to keep them going” they would say, which is another way of saying, “I’m allergic to telling my child that their mild discomfort is not life threatening”. Poor behaviour was a sign the child was hungry, and could be immediately solved by wedging something in the noise hole.

I realise this makes me sound like I am exactly one hundred years old, but there are a lot of things going on here. Firstly, we’re teaching kids that they can’t handle, and should not expect to cope with, mild discomfort. Secondly, we’re also teaching them that emotional reactions, ‘I don’t want to bike any more’ can be solved with treats. These do not seem like good things to me.

In my first year of university my anthropology lecturer attempted to impress on us the importance of noticing the weird things in our own culture, exoticising ourselves, if you will. His example was water bottles. Five years ago, he claimed, students could sit through a 2 hour lecture without needing a drink of water. Now, [he gestured wildly] every desk was festooned with water bottles, and the idea that a young adult would go through the day without flushing themselves with two litres of water was quite untenable. Were we sitting in a psychology lecture, the explanation would quite naturally follow that that these young adults were simply regressing to the suckling stage, unable to cope with the exigencies of post larval life. We all giggled, once again, at the straightforward folly of studying psychology.

Which brings me to baby formula.

The point of baby formula, in case you’re wondering, is to fill babies up with slowly digestible slurry that resembles wallpaper paste with yummy taurine, so they sleep fitfully through the night. Anthropology would not hold with this – newborns are designed, quite obviously, to be breastfed, the fourth trimester and all that. Formula is obviously important for those whose mothers can’t breastfeed for whatever reason, but that’s not how it is used or marketed. The secret sauce of formula is the thing that everyone knows but no one talks about – your baby, instead of waking every hour or three for a few mouthfuls of breastmilk, will instead sleep for much, much longer. The breastfed baby learns to experience hunger and importantly, not to panic about it. This baby will wake its mother, many times.

The formula fed baby, less so. The connection between formula feeding and childhood obesity is contentious and not settled, but it’s exactly outrageous to suggest that such a radical departure from the normal method of mother-baby feeding might have some negative consequences.

Hunger is normal. We ignore it at our peril.

Beyond death

We’re coming to the end of the acute end of the pandemic. The end of the beginning, perhaps.

It occurred to me today as I giggled over the two monikers ascribed to the concurrent protests in Wellington and Canberra, Dumbkirk and Dumbernats, respectively, that there’s a likely outcome of these protesters’ actions.

We’re no longer concerned with mass death, or tanking the health care system due to the unvaxed. We’re also disabused of the notion that vaccines will prevent widespread transmission of omicron, although certainly they inhibit it significantly. I’m not broadly in favour of our state government, in that they’re incontrovertibly a shiny-arsed bunch of carpet baggers, but in terms of the pandemic, it appears the NSW state government has broadly applied the general maxim first articulated by Guru Dolly – “You’ve got to know when to fold them”.

Public health measures chew through political capital at a rate of knots. The cost of vaccine passes and mandates was high. The vaccine pass system lasted for approximately two months. It was punitive rather than practical, a hat tip to all the people who got vaccinated to protect the healthcare system, and to ‘open up’. Very few people actually wanted to get the vaccine, and many more thought it was probably unnecessary for them personally. But, they did it, swayed, as they were, by the compelling set of apocalyptic graphs trotted out by bespectacled public servants in ill fitting jackets. And, of course, the images floating in from media and also loved ones overseas.

A reckoning with those who wouldn’t get the vaccine was popular, and the mandates and passes were it. By mid December, with a vax rate of approximately 95%, and with protection against the circulating Delta strain holding firm, it was no longer necessary to preserve passes etc.,. for the sake of the health system.

And then came omicron.

It’s not my intention to recap our rather dull Hot Vaxed Bummer.

What I wanted to talk about is the long term. It’s now pretty clear that having Covid, without the benefit of pre existing immunity through a vaccine, can leave a person with some longer term problems. To be sure, this can happen to the vaccinated too, but, as more data emerges from the unvaccinated (pre vaccines) cohorts, we’re starting to realise that there’s something more nuanced that death on the table.

Vaccination prevents severe illness and as such, circumvents one of the key paths to Covid associated chronic illness, everything from heart and lung damage to thrombotic issues to liver and neurological damage. As I watched the cheerful, marching freedom warriors gaily burning a deep shade of puce under the clear, hot skies of a Canberra summer, I realised that these are the people who always end up with the shit end of the stick. Rheumatic fever, shingles, retinopathies, diabetes….the list goes on. These are diseases of poverty, both economic and intellectual.

Let me tell you a story.

I have a friend who is an anti vaxer. Her theory is that children don’t need to be protected from diseases such as diphtheria or measles because children have an immune system that takes care of these things for them. Vaccines only exist because adults need to stay in the workforce and can’t take time out to care for sick kids. Also, she (being my age) experienced diseases against which we now vaccinate – measles, mumps and chicken pox. She did not, of course, experience diphtheria or tetanus, or polio all of which are truly terrifying diseases. This was because her parents, being sensible New Zealanders, took five minutes out from worming everything in sight to vaccinate her.

This is not one of these stories where I tell you that one of her children died. Her kids are alive. However, as teenagers, they acquired German Measles. What followed was a quite severe illness, which was a bummer for sure, but again, not life threatening. And then, after that, followed a cascade of really interesting and quite devastating mental health problems for one of the children. I’m not talking about depression, or ‘feeling like totally not like getting out of bed’. I’m talking about severe mania, a disabling set of problems that ruined the child’s life. This was a consequence of German measles – just bad luck, and something that was once more widely known. Indeed, it was so unusual it took a bit of sleuthing to work out the root cause. And it wasn’t the parents who sussed it out, it was the child, who took herself off to the doctor, where, unfettered by the hovering anti vax parents, diagnosed the problem.

Perhaps you’re thinking – phew, she got treatment, and everyone learned a lesson. No harm no foul.

Well, lessons were learned, but there was no effective treatment. The mental problems continued, and continue to this day, years later. Perhaps what is more surprising, but shouldn’t be, is that the daughter sees the illness as a turning point in her life (which it was) and, quite rightly, laid the blame firmly at the feet of her parents. The parents dismiss this, and claim that she was probably ‘going to go mad anyway’ as one other member of the family suffers from schizophrenia, which makes sense because this relative also liked hats (suffice it to say that this is some of the most egregiously stupid fucking rubbish I’d had the poor fortune to encounter). The illness was the complete and irrevocable ending of the family relationship, all for the sake of a vaccination.

We have completely lost sight of the established consequences of serious illnesses, consequences that were once commonplace and well understood.

Which brings me to Covid19. The unvaccinated will acquire the virus, along with everyone else. Those who are healthy and younger will probably recover well. But a quick eyeballing of the assembled masses at DumberNats does not inspire confidence in their rude good constitution. Their encounter with SARS2 will likely add to their already comprehensive list of physical shortcomings, with long term complications.

We’re not paying enough attention to the general, long term implications of illness. Take one simple example, HTLV-1, which is a retro virus, an immunodeficiency virus. Most people have never heard of it, and yet, in some First Nations communities in Australia, it is endemic. It’s spread through sexual contact, needle sharing and breastfeeding, and predisposes people to a range of problems down the track, one of which is an aggressive form of leukaemia. It’s Bad News.

Each time we load a novel disease into our systems, it has a look around and gets busy rearranging the chairs. Usually, if we are robust, this happens without incident. But in others, those already at capacity with Harvey Norman sofas with those built in cup holders, this can be quite devastating.

And this if how I see the burden of Covid19 playing out in ‘rich’ countries – a disease whose consequences are borne by those with the least capacity to deal with them.

Well…

I haven’t written anything on this blog for quite some time, but that’s because I’ve spent about a solid month under water. To be sure, I normally spend a lot of time in the ocean but over December and early January, I made a gallant attempt at gaining gills.

And, as it turns out, the small number of people who spent a month underwater are the only people in New South Wales to not catch omicron. The following is a very poorly composed thinking-out-loud post that is little more than a ‘diary entry’ – something that I can refer back to when we’re hunting each other like pack animals in a few months time. Excuse the poor composition.

School is going back at the end of the month, and I have been very much on the fence about whether this is a good idea. Well, it’s a good idea – school is very important and kids like it. We’ve been far too quick to close schools and consider the impact on kids.

I have, however, resigned myself to the reality that there is no controlling omicron, and that being vaccinated gives us the best odds of staving off the most significant implications. We have skin in the game. Our teen is double vaxed, as are we (her parents).

This post is kind of like a brain dump of all the things I am worried about, and my hopefully measured response.

The first thing to note is that humans are giant meat-sacs of disease. We carry the stain of every virus and bacteria we’ve encountered. They shape us in many ways, from schizophrenia, to epilepsy to MS to Rheumatic heart disease to Parkinsons, to our microbiome and our skin and absolutely every other bloody thing. Those of us who’re older carry HPV and herpes viruses like wrinkles. The impacts are different for everyone and depends on your underlying immunity and genetics and age. And luck.

So, I’ve got some appetite for the fact that SarsCov2 might be yet another scourge that leaves a mark. The emerging research this week, after years of epidemiological suspicion, that EBV causes MS is just one example.

And, if we’re being hopeful, there’s pretty good evidence that being healthy is Generally Good. Obviously, it’s too late for the vast majority of people my age who aren’t and don’t have the choice, but at least it’s something. It really does seem that a good proportion of poor outcomes are related to ineffective clearance of the virus – having it sitting in your system, for months. This is a Bad Thing (and happens with other viruses too). It is implicated in auto immune diseases and also generally having a bad time. Vaccination is a very good thing. It’s truly incredible how effective the 2 dose regime of mRNA vaccines are against severe illness. mRNA vaccines are the way of the future.

Here’s my short list of things on the horizon I am genuinely worried about and most fall under the broad category of Long Covid and really, ME/CFS;

  • T cell death (I’m not too worried about this)/lymphocytopenia
  • Vascular/clotting
  • Parkinsons/plaques in the brain
  • Auto immune disease

I could go on about these things but I won’t. My broad interpretation is that omicron will cause long term disease burden in a small number of people, but it will have a big impact because of the number of people getting infected in a short period of time. It’s also difficult to tease out the long term impacts of omicron because it’s only been around for five minutes, and, almost all studies are carried out on unvaccinated people (pre vaccinated – most research reflects work carried out in 2021).

For me, the most interesting thing that’s happened lately is that I have come to question to current public health advice. This has only happened once before during the pandemic, when our Premier told us that outdoor masking was mandatory. This was unfounded in evidence and made no difference to the spread of Delta in Sydney (which abated due to a widespread lockdown in Aug 2021). In all other ways, our public health advice has been founded in evidence and broadly supported.

Now, it’s boosters. We’ve had our interval shortened to 3 months in Australia. That is, we are being entreated to ‘get boosted’ three months after our second shot. This will undoubtedly boost our antibody levels, the aim of which is to arrest the spread of omicron, due to the current strain on the health system. But, there is no discussion about what will happen once these antibodies wane, in about 10 weeks time (according to most data). What will happen then?

It’s well accepted that a longer interval between a second and third dose encourages the immune system to better hone its antibodies. And, that cellular immunity against severe disease remains strong after two doses for those who mount a normal response to the initial doses.

I just want to add here that were it not for vaccines, we would be seeing about 7000 admissions to hospital a day in NSW, during early Jan. Vaccines work. I might also note that a very dear friend who lives in Melbourne came to visit us over Christmas. She grew up in India. She’s a total gorgeous, no bullshit hard-arse, but a couple of her stories of the delta wave were just utterly devastating. Brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it. We are so very, very fortunate to be in the position we are in here in Australia.

Back to boosting……Boosting is an emergency response to an emergency situation brought on by chronic mismanagement of the health care system, which has had two years to prepare for a surge of infections. Most of those in hospital are older vaccinated people for whom cellular immunity is not strong, following two, or even three doses of vaccine (or unvaccinated altogether). These are people who are vulnerable, and our government knew perfectly well that the vaccine regime would not protect them well enough to prevent a surge of hospitalisations, given an increase in cases.

95% of the community got vaccinated to slow the spread, to protect the vulnerable. And that worked, with delta (although who knows how long it would have worked for?). But with omicron, vaccination does not protect against transmission or infection. To be sure, it limits the spread, but the effect is minimal.

Most Australians under the age of 60 were not at risk of severe disease from Covid19 before vaccination. Most people got vaccinated to protect the community, if not through herd immunity (a concept that was sensibly dismissed early on by our health experts) but with a general tamping down of infection. This was viewed as an acceptable cost, by most, especially given that we were in lockdown at the time.

Get vaccinated = get out of lockdown. It worked.

But now? Vaccination does not confer protection from infection. Even booster shots, that limit infection and spread, do not halt it, as they did with Delta.

And, in the case of the UK, many people’s booster shots are now waning.

(Booster shots are academic in my area anyway – there are no appointments until late Feb).

Re-boosting every ten weeks is not an option. So what is?

I have misgivings about the continued spread of omicron. On my good days, I think, ‘Well, it’s just another thing that humans take on board and deal with in our own way’. On my bad days, I worry about the long term health implications for my kid, and all the kids. I feel reasonably confident that children, especially when vaccinated, will deal with the virus in the same way they do other viruses. The evidence points in this direction. But there are unknowns. However, there are many unknowns about life. We are poorly adapted to our living conditions, and much disease arises from this alone. I read that 88% of Americans live with ‘metabolic disease’. 88%!

And one thing is for sure – we will encounter omicron, and so in a sense, the only thing to do now is research potential treatments for those who suffer its longer term effects.

Also, the peak will pass, and quite soon. And, there will be another rise in cases when school returns, but it will not be as big as the initial rise in January. And omicron is more mild, although it’s still a complete fucker. Mild is a medical term, not a colloquial one.

To finish, I’ll just add a quick story.

Last weekend we went and saw friends. The Mum had been ill with mild flu like illness, lots of coughing, sneezing, aching and generally feeling crap for about four days. She’d had three negative RA tests, but pretty classic omicron symptoms. No-one else was ill. So, we spent a couple of hours together, in their house, with her sneezing and coughing, with no precautions, although we didn’t hug each other (as we normally would!). The kids played outside, for ages. It was great. The following day, Mum tested positive on a RA test and called us.

Two days later my husbo had a sore throat and got PCR tested. And, the next day, I had sinus pain and general feeling of getting a cold. We all isolated and awaited results. Another day later the PCR came in as negative. One day later, we felt fine.

We both had our second shot Pfizer 4 months ago. I suspect we were exposed to omicron and ‘fought off’ a mild infection. And, I also suspect we’ve been exposed a few more times over the last month or so, in shops and generally through talking to people. It’s around.

I draw no conclusion from this anecdote, but it did change my outlook somewhat, which was interesting in itself. Although I consider myself not prone to anxiety about stuff in general, it made me realise that I’d probably dedicated an outsize amount to thinking about omicron (to be fair, it is tangentially related to my area of work).

And with that, I am getting back in the sea.

Solving problems, Pacific style

Today’s rapidly scrawled epistle involves a confluence of interesting things without any sensible conclusion.

I have a friend with an ageing Border Collie called Lucy. Lucy is a large, ill tempered dowager who alerts her young and frisky compatriots to their imminent fate by gently showing her teeth and giving them The Look. She has no time for yappy fluffies, and even less tolerance for rudeness (overly forward Kelpies). After three years, she now, very occasionally, will accept a short pat from me, purely for ceremonial reasons.

It goes without saying that I love Lucy unconditionally.

Lucy’s owner is a sailor, and has traveled fairly extensively around the Pacific. And one of the things he’s told me over the years is that although he’d always considered European colonisation a retrograde step, a couple of his mates in New Britain pointed out to him that the arrival of (what amounted to) police meant that people could move from their defensible hill camps back down to the open coast, because there would be less chance of violence. Most importantly, this spelled relief from the endless curtains of mosquitoes.

At this point it would be easy for me to posture about the politics of who is speaking to and for whom and also to wade in with post colonial notions of correctness. Perhaps I’ll just say that I’m not one to accept the European colonisation of the Pacific as a peculiar socio-cultural flourishing, in part to do with heaps of murdering and stuff.

That said, the idea that people across the Pacific moved from coastal settlements up into more easily defensible dwellings, (well before European colonisation) is reasonably well attended. Generally it’s argued that this was to do with all the regular reasons – competition for resources following population pressure. But, this overlooks a couple of other interesting factors, the Medieval Warming Period and Little Ice Age, both of which occurred recently. I suppose my focus was always on the ‘big’ climactic stuff (land bridges and what not) overlooking the other more recent impacts of big climactic factors.

To offensively over simplify, the general theory seems to be that the rapid cooling during LIA caused an equally rapid retreat in sea level, making the surrounding reefs significantly less productive. This was on the back of the impact of the MWP, where water was scarce, which had caused smaller, coastal groups to band together into larger populations, with a focus on building and sharing water infrastructure. So large, coastal groups of people had gathered together to more successfully grow food in times of water shortage, were then faced with a huge impact to their main source of protein (fish). This caused movement inland to more defensible, often valley positions.

If anyone is interested, here’s a pretty good summary;

Nunn, PD, Hunter-Anderson, R, Carson, MT, Thomas, F, Ulm, S & Rowland, MJ 2007, ‘Times of Plenty, Times of Less: Last-Millennium Societal Disruption in the Pacific Basin’, Human ecology : an interdisciplinary journal, vol. 35, no. 4, pp. 385–401.

That burning sensation

Two years ago we were coughing our way through the smoke from the fires to the north of us. I travelled to New Zealand in early December and my flight back into Sydney was immediately followed by a 3 hour bus trip to Canberra then a 9 hour car trip home, through Cooma. The roads south of Sydney were all closed. Normally, the trip from Sydney to our place is about 3.5 hours (it’s not tremendously far, but the road is slow).

The following month the fires made their way to us, in particular, the Currowan fire that ripped through the suburbs immediately to our north. A timely wind change saved our bacon, but others were not so lucky. For the first year I couldn’t think about the fires, or talk about them, without feeling sick. It was relatively simple to ‘do the jobs’ required, at the time, but the impact of others’ fear in particular was something I found quite hard to deal with. Seeing people literally lose their shit was chastening.

Yesterday I hopped out of the ocean and met a friend who had a new dog – her friend’s dog, as it turned out. The friend had gone completely mad after the fires and was having another ‘low ebb’, one that precluded looking after an erratic Jack Russell with a startling moustache.

After two years, I think I’ve come to an accomodation with bushfire. I’ve learned about dryness, foliage, leave litter, water supplies and most importantly, radiant heat. If you’ve not experienced bushfire it’s pretty easy to think of it as a localised thing, ‘If I’m not on fire, and my house isn’t burning down, then it’s all good and if the fire comes, move to somewhere where it isn’t’.

That’s not really how it works. And not all bushfires are the same.

The Currowan fire had been burning for many days, igniting the air ahead of itself, traveling across bare and open paddocks leaving great swathes of scored black grass.

On New Year’s Eve a strong westerly wind blew the Currowan fire to the sea. A suburb just to the north of us, about 60 or so small, cedar and fibro houses mostly built in the 1960s and surrounded by trees, was completely evaporated. It’s still empty – there is some rebuilding, but not much. The entire suburb, which sat on its own small peninsula, disappeared.

Being a peninsula, the suburb is surrounded by sea. The residents ran for the beach. Many found themselves gathered on one of the northern beaches, where they stood, up to their knees in the water and watched one explosion after another pop up through the bush as houses disappeared. They cried and coughed and checked on each other, clutching their dogs.

As the fire drew closer, but still hundreds of metres away, the air on the beach got hotter and hotter. People started moving into the water, but there was a strong swell running with huge, dumping waves. Elderly residents were battered and fell, others trying to help them up, coughing. The air was now unbearably hot, and being completely immersed in the water was literally a matter of life or death. People started to cook.

This is radiant heat. Even as we stood on the roof of our house on New Year’s Eve, watching the fire front move towards us, the heat was incredible. To be sure, it didn’t feel dangerous, more like standing a few metres away from a big bonfire, but at this point the fire was still at least six kilometres to our north.

Radiant heat is just one of the many, many things I’ve learned about. I realised, as we mark almost two years since that day, that I actually feel OK about fire now. It is dangerous but in a knowable way. And the best thing to do is to know when to GTFO.