The Unicorn and other amazingness

The Unicorn by Chris Roberts, created from the short story by Ashley Kalagian Blunt

By now I’m sure you’ve read my thriller novella, My Name Is Revenge, and are desperately looking around for more of my fiction writing.

You’re in luck! I’ve had a number of short fiction works published this year, including some flash fiction, and most of it you can read online for free from these fine publications. Enjoy!

The Unicorn
in SmokeLong Quarterly
A tiny story about a larger-than-life woman. The Unicorn inspired this amazing artwork by US artist Chris Roberts.

Your Results Are In
in Baby Teeth Journal
This story, inspired by several true events as well as my ever-growing stack of medical lab results, has been described as ‘creepy and fabulously funny’ (so definitely on brand).

Towers
in Stylus Lit
A tiny story about how rotten people can be.

Picasso’s Accountant
in Swamp
A story about relationships. (This piece came out last year.)

Pre-Morbid Status
in Verandah 33
The story of a woman discovering the bureaucratic horrors of nursing home life. (This is the only story listed here without free access, but no worries, the journal is available in both PDF and print.)

 

Serial killers, zombies, cults and genocide: ten podcasts to love

It’s been a year since I was diagnosed with post-infective fatigue syndrome, and about two years since the symptoms first began. In that time, I’ve spent a lot of hours on the couch/in bed, feeling frustrated and trying to remind myself that resting is recovering.

Before I was diagnosed, I watched a lot of TV. I’ve watched more TV in the last two years than in the entire previous decade. TV seemed like the thing to do when I was too tired to read. However, my doctors told me TV can be very mentally draining.

To allow myself to actually rest while I’m resting, the doctors recommended I listen to audiobooks or podcasts, an activity I can do with my eyes closed. As a result, I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts this year. Sometimes I listen to an entire series in a day.

One upside of being ill is that I’ve had the opportunity to lean into things I find wildly exciting, including serial killers, zombies, cults and genocide. You know, the usual topics ladies enjoy.

Out of all the podcasts I’ve listened to this year, here are ten I highly recommend:

  1. The Great Crime
    I’ve studied the Armenian genocide for nearly a decade, but I’m still learning a lot of interesting details from this podcast narrating the genocide’s history. It’s well delivered, and exactly as its website promises: “open and accessible to everyone, whether you’re familiar with the subject or totally unaware of this often forgotten, misunderstood, and fundamentally tragic saga.” Also, turns out it’s from New Zealand.
  2. Uncover: Escaping Nxivm
    “NXIVM calls itself a humanitarian community. Experts call it a cult.” This investigative podcast from Canada’s CBC is a fascinating look into the group’s leader, Keith Raniere, and a member’s struggle to escape.
  3. Everything is Alive
    Okay, you might not be into genocide and cults, but I dare you not to be utterly delighted by these imaginative interviews with inanimate objects. The host works in interesting true facts about each object. In my standout favourite episode, Ana the Elevator, we learn about architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s plans for a mile-tall skyscraper with nuclear-powered elevators. But the best moment is when Ana sees a video of ‘outside’ and exclaims, ‘Is there no weight limit outside?’
  4. In the Dark
    This crime-focussed investigative podcast has two seasons. The first unravels the disastrous investigation of a boy kidnapped near his home in rural Minnesota, a crime that went unsolved, with no trace of the boy, for 27 years. The second season investigates the circumstances surrounding a Mississippi man tried six times for the same crime over 21 years. He maintains his innocence. Both seasons are fascinating and revelatory.
  5. Happy Face
    The Happy Face serial killer was imprisoned in 1995 after the violent murder of at least eight women. What’s particularly interesting about this retrospective is that it’s narrated by his daughter, who was a teenager when he was arrested.
  6. We’re Alive
    Don’t confuse We’re Alive with the only other fiction podcast on this list, Everything Is Alive. We’re Alive is four seasons of zombie attacks set in Los Angeles and the southwest United States. Season 1 is interesting, the story moves along. Season 2 starts to build on season 1. Then season 3 pulls together all the narrative threads from the first two seasons and takes the story to a new level.
  7. Criminal
    With over 100 episodes, Criminal looks at crime from a wide variety of angles, featuring interviews with culprits, victims and experts. My favourite episodes include:
    #15 He’s Neutral: a man who solves his neighbour’s crime problems with a Buddha statue.
    #51 Money Tree: a woman whose mother stole her identity for credit fraud.
    #85 The Manual: a murder investigation and the manual used by the killer.
    #101 The Fox: the story of two 1970s plane hijackers who met in prison.
  8. Revisionist History
    Malcolm Gladwell is an author and investigative journalist who looks at a wide variety of social and historical issues from surprising and compelling angles. I also recommend all of his books.
  9. Atlanta Monster
    A true crime podcast examining the Atlanta Child Murders: “Nearly 40 years after these horrific crimes, many questions still remain.” The narrator, Payne Lindsey, has another podcast called Up and Vanished. I tried to get into it, but I found both seasons very slow.
    Bonus: Atlanta Monster also has the best theme song of all the podcasts I’ve listened to.
  10. Story Club
    A growing collection of true stories from comedic narrators, recorded live in Sydney.

I’m probably going to spend a significant chunk of the coming year in bed again, so I’m pretty desperate for new recommendations. Please send them my way!

 

Canberra: world’s most ludicrous capital?

Over my several years in Australia, whenever the topic of Canberra came up, people derided it. Australia’s capital is the epitome of bureaucratic blandness, people told me, a snake-riddled suburbia of confounding roundabouts, especially punishing to anyone stupid enough to try navigating the city by foot.

In response to this unanimous negativity, I developed a perverse desire to like Canberra. (This is further evidence that my brain’s main goal is to sabotage me.) I’ll show them, I thought. When I visit Canberra, I’ll see it from a whole new perspective.

I even tried to navigate the city by foot. This experience is best captured by this actual Canberran sidewalk to nowhere:

Sidewalk to nowhere, Canberra, Australia
This stretch of pavement may as well end with a sign reading, ‘That’s what you get for walking, you two-legged idiot! Regards, Canberra.’

The more I learned about Canberra, the more ridiculous it became. The city’s name comes from nganbra, a Ngunnawal word supposedly meaning ‘meeting place’. However, according to local elders, writes my favourite Aussie historian, the word actually means ‘breasts’. As David Hunt put it in True Girt, ‘Australians are the only people in the world who would name their national capital “Tits”’.

This is typical of the national tendency to appropriate Aboriginal words without grasping their meaning, Hunt adds. In this way, Canberra is somehow more, rather than less, appropriate as the name of the country’s capital.

Or, consider this: front and centre over Parliament’s main entrance is a stainless steel rendition of the Aussie coat of arms, kangaroo on the left, emu on the right, each leaning in to support the shield. According to Justine van Mourik, Parliament House’s art curator, when artists submitted coat-of-arms designs during the building’s construction, at least one was rejected because the kangaroo was ‘not visibly male’.

The kangaroo now poised above Parliament is definitely visibly male, its hunk of maleness the same size as its snout.
Visibly male kangaroo, Australian Parliament Coat of Arms

Van Mourik offered no explanation for this criterion in Parliament’s coat of arms; there’s no mention of animal gender in the charter that dictates the design, and it’s definitely not a standard feature. Here is another rendition of the coat of arms I found in Canberra. Note neither of these animals are visibly male. Also, they’re rocking some A+ googly eyes.
Australian coat of arms with googly eyes, Canberra

Another Parliament fact: if you take the guided tour, you’ll learn that the monstrosity holding up the flag is ‘the largest stainless steel structure in the southern hemisphere’. So there’s something to inspire national pride!
Parliament House, Canberra, Australia

I’ve also read conflicting accounts of the city’s design. The American town planner responsible, Walter Burley Griffin, may have based the layout on occult symbols, maybe Freemasonry or Kabbalah. National Geographic observed that, seen from above, Parliament House looks suspiciously like the Illuminati’s all-seeing pyramid eye, and some people believe the double ring roads encircling Capitol Hill indicate the area is a consecrated temple. National Geographic went on to note that these suspicions are baseless – but that’s exactly what the Illuminati would want you to think, isn’t it.

And one more thing, which isn’t exactly a civic issue, but I’m including it anyway. Canberra is home to the gang-gang cockatoo, nicknamed the squeaky gate cockatoo. This is because their call sounds exactly like you’re in a horror movie and a deranged man wielding a blood-soaked chainsaw is creeping up behind you through an unoiled door. Which, I can say from experience, is especially unsettling to hear when you’re walking through the bush alone.

I first visited Canberra in 2012, and I’ve been back a few times. Though I now accept that it’s a ludicrous city in many ways, I actually like it more for all these reasons. And sometimes, it’s also quite beautiful.

Swans, Canberra Australia
Black swans on Lake Hurley Burley, sunset

Just don’t expect to get anywhere on foot.

Symptomatology A-Z

The spookiest thing about chronic fatigue is that science doesn’t understand it. As one of my doctors explained, no branch of medicine ‘owns’ this cluster of illnesses yet. In other words, they don’t know where the problem originates in the body. Maybe it’s caused by inflammation in the brain. Maybe it’s a gut flora issue. Maybe it’s an ancient Aztec curse.

Also spooky is the way chronic fatigue affects the entire body and the brain. One theory has to do with a problem in the way the body creates or uses energy at a cellular level. This means the cells are affected throughout the body – brain cells, muscle cells, lung cells, etc.

Whatever their cause, my random assortment of symptoms would make a strange alphabet book.

A: Alcohol intolerance
Long before I realised I was sick, I’d have one drink and feel parched for hours, even if I drank a litre of water after. It was like I’d had a glass of sand. Then that one drink would wake me up in the middle of the night and keep me up for a couple of hours. I assumed this is just what happened when you hit your mid-thirties.

A, again: Air hunger
Air hunger is a fun term for not being being able to get a full breath. It feels like metal band clamped around your lungs, preventing them from fully expanding. This is why my GP thought I’d also coincidentally developed asthma. Air hunger comes and goes, and can last minutes or hours. I often get it when I’m doing something physical, like walking, but it can also happen when I’m sitting at my desk. Nothing like being winded from typing to remind you how sick you are.

C: Concentration impairment
My brain is affected in all kinds of ways. Like all these symptoms, this one comes and goes. Some days I can’t focus on anything and will wander the apartment, randomly starting things, then abandoning them after five minutes.

E: Energy spikes
Occasionally I feel fantastic and have to restrain myself from attempting to answer all the emails/clean all the things/run all the errands/write three books to make up for lost time.

F: Fatigue
Fatigue is more than tiredness. When I’m tired, I can still do things. Fatigue is the body’s determination to stop doing things, and after a time it becomes impossible to override.

H: Headaches
Maybe fatigue related, who knows?

I: Insomnia
I assume this is the brain forgetting how to sleep.

J: Joint pain
At first I thought I’d escaped this symptom. Then my left ankle and right wrist simultaneously developed a peculiar crunchiness that also randomly comes and goes.

L: Light sensitivity
The more tired I am, the more light hurts my eyes.

M: Memory problems
I’ve struggled with both short- and long-term memory since becoming ill. At my worst, I couldn’t read because by the time I got to the end of a sentence, I couldn’t remember how it had started.

More M: Muscle weakness
I’ve heard about many people with chronic fatigue who physically can’t get out of bed. Though I had a few days like that, mine isn’t nearly so bad. Still, most days my hair dryer feels like it’s made of solid concrete.

N: Noise sensitivity
My brain became particularly sensitive to noise. It struggles to filter out background noise, and when I get tired, I can’t separate the sound of someone talking to me from background sound. I’ve also realised sound takes a physical toll on the body. In an especially loud room, I can feel sound, like lying on speaker.

O: Orthostatic intolerance
This is my new favourite term. I get so tired that it’s unbearable to be upright, even when sitting. As soon as I lay down, I feel significantly better. I thought I was going crazy until I discovered the term for this exact symptom.

R: Reactive depression
Well, sure.

S: Sore throat
Frequently waking up with a sore throat is one of the reasons I spent a year thinking I was coming down a with a flu and just had to rest a lot to ‘fight it off’.

T: Temperature dysregulation
Prime example: my brain no longer suggests I remove my jacket before I end up with a heat rash.

W: Wakefulness
Being absolutely exhausted but lying awake all day is pretty much the definition of a waking coma, isn’t it?

Z: Zzzzzzzzzzzzz
Other days I sleep 16 hours or more.

spirit animal chronic fatigue sufferers
Current spirit animal

 

 

Chateau Relaxo (and other houses I’ve known)

Comedy post chronic illness house namesSince I first began aimlessly wandering my neighbourhood (a side effect of being sick), I’ve collected nearly 150 house names. I’d passed most of these places many times before, and never paid attention to them. When I was healthy, I always had somewhere to be and something on my mind. Now my mind is desperate for distraction. Also, I walk much slower.

I still find the concept of naming your house quirky, because houses in Canada didn’t have names. It’s as odd to me as if people slapped name plates on their furniture. ‘Welcome, this is our couch, Sylvester, and our loveseat, Wooloomooloo.’ Odd, and oddly endearing.

After collecting so many names, I’ve realised there are a few broad categories the house names fall into. These include:

Place names: this seems to be the most common. Some of the names are obvious, like Indiana, Nebraska, Lochinvar, Chippendale and Austin. Others are less obvious, but on researching them, they turn out to be more obscure place names. Clutha is a town in New Zealand, Uralla is in New South Wales, and even Chelveston is a town in England.

Women’s names: Many of the houses also have women’s names, such as Shirley, EvelynElvira, Isabella, Tara, and Edna. Women, like houses, cars and boats, are basically property, right?

Roses, because people like roses, I guess: Eden RoseRosebank, Rosebriar, Rosedale

I’ve also discovered a few standout names:
Best Australian film reference: Bonnie-Doon 
Worst Bart Simpson reference: Kalamunda
Best language mash-up: Chateau Relaxo

And the award for most inappropriate house name … Pompei!
Comedy post chronic illness house namesI’m curious about the train of thought that led the owners to name their house after the site of an infamous volcano eruption that killed numerous people. Sure, it happened 2000 years ago, but the violent destruction of a community is still the first thing people will think about when they visit. You may as well name your house World War II.

Here is the complete list of house names I’ve discovered since my original post in April:
house names chronic illness comedy

The real question is this: what would I name my house, assuming I could ever afford one? When I lived in South Korea, my apartment building was steam heated, and the pipes creaked and groaned through the winter. I referred to my apartment as The Belly of the Iron Dragon, which lacks a certain lyricism, I’ll admit.

I assume in the case of houses with place names, the names refer to where the owners’ families came from. If this is the case, I could name my future house Winnipeg, or The Peg or even Peggers. But since I live Down Under, I could broaden this tradition and name it Up Over. While I’m still waiting for the cost of housing to miraculously drop, maybe I’ll name my sofa.

Hit me up with house names, if your neighbourhood has some good ones. I’m eager for more!

 

Greetings from the nursing home

Ever since visiting my great grandmother in a nursing home when I was a kid, I’ve dreaded the physical decline, mental deterioration and lack of mobility that are, for most people, part of old age. Occasionally I’d imagine myself as elderly, and start to panic. To calm down, I’d have to remind myself that people don’t just ‘get old’. It happens over a lifetime, and I had many, many years to go before I needed to worry about it.

Then, abruptly, at age 34, I became elderly.

Sure, I don’t have excessive wrinkles, and aside from one skunk streak, my hair isn’t grey. But since I got sick, I’ve experienced all the aspects of being elderly I’ve always been afraid of. Consider my life now:

  • I spend long stretches of time sitting quietly, staring into the middle distance
  • I tire very easily and extremely
  • I’ve lost all my muscle tone and am probably losing bone density too; some days even the hairdryer is too heavy for me
  • I sometimes needs help walking
  • People suggest I get a wheelchair
  • My main occupation is going to doctor appointments
  • I eat a lot of oatmeal (to be honest, I always ate a lot of oatmeal)
  • I can’t remember conversations I had two minutes ago
  • There’s a guy whose entire job seems to be wandering around outside my windows with a leafblower, and he is my nemesis
  • I tell long, rambling stories, and get confused in the middle of them
  • I have falls

The first time I fell was outside the infectious disease specialist’s office. I’d gone to sit on a bench because I was exhausted, as usual. When I tried to stand up, my brain noted that my feet were stuck under the bench. Then it noted that I was off balance, and heading quickly toward the ground.

My brain shuffled through the process it needed to execute to right itself. Clearly, something had to happen with my feet, but my brain was baffled as to which foot to move first, and how. It was still sorting through options – right foot forward? Left knee bent? – as my hip and forearm smashed into the concrete.

I suppose if I were truly elderly, my hip would have broken. Still, this was little consolation as I lay on the ground, confused about what had happened. A crowd of concerned onlookers rushed over to ask if I was okay and help me up, and I wished so, so much that on that particular Tuesday at noon, I could just be at my job like a normal, healthy 34-year-old.

I did go to work after that, despite the abundant evidence that I did not have the mental or physical capacity for productivity. My boss watched as I sat at my desk, putting bandaids on my scraped elbow, and then she sent me home, where I sat quietly, staring into the middle distance, and wondering if I would have any visitors that week.

 

My neighbourhood is a poem

Lately I’ve been collecting the names of houses in my neighbourhood. Where I grew up, houses didn’t have names. They were just houses. Everything else had names, including apartment buildings, but not houses, and that didn’t seem strange.

When I moved to Australia, I was surprised by how many houses had names, and announced those names via name plates as if they were attendees at a networking event. But I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the house names because I was a busy person with places to be and things on my mind. My neighbourhood is a poem, Ashley Kalagian BluntNow that I’m sick, I don’t have places to be, or much on my mind. When I can walk, I drift along like a fatigued tortoise, trying to reach a precise step count.

Interestingly, this seems to have cleared up some mental capacity for noticiting details, such as all the strange, poetic house names I’ve passed for years but never noticed. Consider these actual local house names:

Orana
Nebraska
Lochinvar
Norwich
Flinders
Hurlstone
Millbrow
Allerton
The Lily
Elton
Divo
Mea Mai
Banyak Pintu
Austin
Hartford
Sedainota
Shangri-La
Edna
Orielton
Karuah
Monteith
Rosedale
Samian House
Darley
Ventura
Boro
Cornucopia House
Durham
Enom Roo
Grosby
Abna
Pleasant Cottage
Huon
Derwent
Lymington
Elk
Toorack
Moss-side
Clareville
Minora
Rosstrevor
El Nido

Even though Edna and Elton are on different streets, I picture them as a friendly elderly couple. I also picture Elton with a purple glitter finish, maybe some rhinestones (the actual house isn’t living up to its name’s potential). I also quite like Rosstrevor. I assume it was a gay couple who argued for ages about the house name, and finally agreed to mash their first names together.

Shangri-La is a terrible choice. If I came home daily to a place called Shangri-La (or in my case, rarely left) and it was dusty and someone had left clipped nail shards across the bathroom counter and there were burned out lightbulbs that only an electrician could replace because that is not at all inconvenient, I’d feel pretty disenchanted with life.

I mentioned my house name curiosity to my colleagues recently, and one of them told me about a man she knows who migrated to Australia and decided at some point to name his house. He had a tasteful nameplate made with the image of a rosella and a fancy font spelling out “Bella Bosta”.

“It’s Brazilian slang for beautiful shit,” she said.

Which is just about the best metaphor for life I’ve ever heard.

 

Congratulations, you’ve won post-infective fatigue syndrome

Congratulations, you've got post-infective fatigue syndromeThank you for playing Why Am I So Sick All The Time? It’s been an exciting several months, but we’re finally ready to announce the outcome. Remember, all of these conditions and more were in the mix:
Lupus
Malaria
Ross river fever
An allergy to cockroaches
Pregnancy
Maybe some kind of cancer?
Multiple sclerosis
Syphilis

After much consideration and approximately 8500 blood tests, we’re delighted to announce that you have chronic fatigue syndrome! But wait, there’s more! Medically unexplained fatigue comes in a variety of colours and styles:
Standard chronic fatigue
Post-cancer fatigue
Post-concussion fatigue
Post-infective fatigue

Since you’re lucky enough to have post-infective fatigue syndrome (or PIFS, for fun), you’re probably wondering what ‘infection’ you had that kicked this all off, right? Well, it could have been anything. A cold, a flu, that one time you sneezed so loud your husband dropped his iPhone in the sink. In fact, the infection could have been subclinical, meaning you never had any symptoms! Imagine that!

Curious how post-infective fatigue differs from standard chronic fatigue? No-one will adequately explain that to you, ever.

With PIFS, you can enjoy a wide range of new and unpredictable symptoms, including but not limited to the following:

Fatigue, obviously
You’re so tired, it feels like you’ve been awake for a week straight. It feels like you just ran an ultra marathon. You’re so tired, the physical act of holding yourself upright in a chair is unbearable.

Wakefulness
Combing nicely with your overwhelming tiredness is a complete inability to fall asleep or even catch a short nap. Ideally, you should be awake as much as possible to contemplate all the things you could be doing if you weren’t so horrifically exhausted. This also gives you ample time to catch up on social media, so you can see how everyone else’s lives have gone on without you. Look at all your friends and family, achieving their goals and living life to the fullest!

Impaired concentration & short-term memory
You know that thing when someone introduces themselves and you forget their name within 8.29 seconds? Now imagine that for every third thing said to you. And you know how sometimes, you walk in a room and you can’t remember what you wanted there? Well, replace sometimes with always. And replace walk in a room with open a cupboard or click on a desktop file. Then you’ll get it. Except you won’t, because by the time you’ve reached the end of a sentence, you’ve forgotten how it started. Something about mangoes?

Pseudo-nausea
Are you nauseous? Or are you just so tired you’re starting to mistake that for nausea? It’s hard to tell!

‘Unrefreshing sleep’
This is the technical term specialists use to describe how even when you do get a decent night’s sleep, you’ll wake up feeling like you’ve been run over by a lawn aerator.

Shortness of breath
Sometimes your lungs feel constricted and you can’t get a full breath. Maybe you’ve got asthma. You never had asthma before, but maybe you’ve coincidentally developed asthma at the exact same time as this other mystery condition. No, seriously, pay $25 to blow into this tube. Blow! Blow! Blow! Well, there’s definitely something wrong with your lungs, and it’s definitely not asthma. That’s all we know.

Thank you for playing Why Am I So Sick All The Time? We hope you enjoy your new life with PIFS!