Last year I shared a bunch of resolutions I intended to utterly fail at – and that felt great. Failure is a part of trying, and dealing with chronic fatigue makes me that much more likely to fail, since my daily health is so unpredictable. Acknowledging that I’d probably fail at most goals I set in 2019 was actually very encouraging.
Then I skulked off and secretly set some actual goals anyway. And those went pretty well, especially as the year wore on. Every few months, I regain a little more of my cognitive and physical capacity. Some people think that chronic fatigue is permanent, but when I was diagnosed, the doctors told me that most people recover. ‘On average it takes 3 to 5 years,’ they said. ‘Though it can take 10.’
I’m in my fourth year.
At the start of 2020, I made a list of goals for the year. I could have shared them on Jan 1, but I decided to test drive them before fully committing. Four weeks into the new decade, I think these are the keepers. For Reals 2020 Resolutions & Goals
Have a first draft of the new novel by December 31.
I’m 40,000 words into a zero draft.
Gradually increase my micro swims to tiny swims. #chronicillnessrecovery
Jump in the pool without hesitation.
This will save me upwards of 15 minutes each time I swim. (And I’m already nailing this.)
Read more books.
Because my daily cognitive energy still has a hard limit, I’ve been prioritising writing over reading. This year I want to increase my reading time, and add to my list of great reads.
Author David Sedaris recommends this in his masterclass. (I took the course, and then had the opportunity to meet him when he came to Sydney in January.) Candice Fox also mentions it in her Better Reading interview, describing herself as nosy. (She also describes how she came to interview a serial killer, so I feel like she’s someone with useful advice.)
Sedaris decided he’s no longer engaging in small talk, and instead starts conversations with questions like ‘Have you ever eaten horse?’ just to see where things go. I’m not willing (ie. not brave enough) to give up small talk entirely, and the introverted part of me would prefer to go through life never having to talk to strangers at all.
But then I realised it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing resolution. I decided to try asking two or three ‘better questions’ each week.
I asked the fruit store cashier about the strangest fruit they stock, and she got all excited telling me about lemonades, a type of lemon that taste exactly like lemonade. (I’m going to follow this up in fall, when they’re in season.)
I asked a hairdresser about other jobs she’s worked, and she told me far more than I ever wanted to know about gum disease, thanks to her previous experience in dental office reception.
I asked a Pet-O cashier about people with strange pets, and she ended up telling me all about her bearded dragon, which she hand-feeds.
I’m excited to see what I’ll discover by asking questions this year, and also how the rest of my resolutions progress.
Walking through the Melbourne CBD, I passed a shopfront that had a plastic (I assume) skeleton posed inside one of the glass doors. The skeleton peered out, with its hand on the handle, like it was about to stroll onto the street.
The shop billed itself as a purveyor of “scientific curiosities”. I went in and turned to the first glass display case, a tall one beside the door. The guy working there appeared from another room and asked how I was going. I was saying the word “fine” as I looked at the glass case.
“Fine” isn’t a long word, but my voice caught in the middle of it, and it came out with a strangled upward inflection. Right as I was speaking, I caught sight of a spherical glass container, the size of a softball, that contained a preserved puppy corpse.
The puppy looked like a bulldog, or maybe a bull terrier, white fur with black patches. Its eyes were closed, and it was curled foetally, to fit the sphere. The liquid it floated in was clear, not cloudy the way formaldehyde normally is. (Maybe the formaldehyde – and the puppy – were fresh.)
The dude asked me if there was anything he could help me with.
“I’m just looking. Unless you have anything particularly interesting?” I was giving the guy an open invitation to show me his favourite oddities.
“No, things are just how they look.”
“Right, yeah, I just caught sight of the puppy. Is it … just for aesthetics?”
He looked at me strangely.
“Like, there’s no scientific purpose?”
“Nope, it’s just a puppy corpse.” He paused before adding, “Stillborn.”
The puppy ball cost $495.
The shop is Wunderkammer, and their tagline is “chamber of wonders.” They offer an explanatory pamphlet that notes, “The word ‘wunderkammer’ translates as ‘wonder-chamber’. The term is German, although collections of curiosities have existed in Italy since as early as the 16th century. These were the first museums and housed both the familiar museum fare such as natural specimens, coins and minerals, as well as more aberrant and miraculous objects, such as religious reliquaries, double apples, ‘mermaids’ and the like.”
I regret not asking if they had any mermaids in stock.
Some things Wunderkammer did have in stock during my visit:
– a mummified fox and rabbit in a shadow box
– preserved crocodile feet
– a Singapore ball (a type of mace in which the spikes retract)
– a taxidermied porcupine
– a dissected frog, its organs neatly labelled, under glass
– a ‘Breast Believer’ pump in its original cardboard box (I couldn’t figure out what this was, even after several minutes of googling)
– a Hamilton bone drill
– a taxidermied bat impaled on a metal pole, wings spread wide, mouth open as if screaming (probably because of the pole shoved up its butt)
Then I discovered that Melbourne’s fire truck sirens sound like they’re shooting lasers. Pew pew pew!
We also visited the Melbourne Zoo, and in talking about it with friends later, learned of two separate incidences of people (men) breaking into the zoo’s lion enclosure.
In 1989, an adult karate student broke into the den in the middle of the night in an attempt to test his martial arts skills by fighting the lions. Zoo officials found what was left of him the next morning.
Then in 2004, a man broke into the lion enclosure during the zoo’s opening hours. The crowd watched him pull a Bible from his bag, hold it over his head, and invite them to join him and pat the lions.
Last year I recommended ten podcasts I love. This year I’m still spending a ludicrous amount of time lying down, which means I’m still listening to a lot of podcasts. Chronic fatigue has basically turned me into a podcast curation service.
Here’s ten more I’m sure you’ll enjoy.
The Shrink Next Door
This six-episode series tells the bizarre true story of a psychiatrist who came to control every aspect of one of his patient’s lives, including moving his family into the patient’s house and making himself president of the patient’s company. It sounds implausible, but the evidence exists to prove every step of the manipulation, as this series shows.
Reply All is a podcast about the internet. This description made me initially sceptical about it, but Reply All isn’t techie or niche. It explores the human experience of using the internet from all kinds of angles. Like in episode 130, when the hosts try to help a listener whose Snapchat account has been hacked, and end up stumbling onto a ring of cybercriminals in Europe.
Told over eleven well scripted episodes featuring a variety of interviews, The Dream explores multi-level marketing, why so many people get involved with it, and how it’s nothing more than legalised pyramid scheming. At the start of season one, the host signs up to a multi-level marketing company, and everything unravels for her as she tries to make back the money she spent.
Missing Richard Simmons
This six-part series from Dan Taberski explores the abrupt and mysterious withdrawal of Richard Simmons from public – and seemingly private – life. I didn’t know or care much about Simmons before listening to the podcast, but Taberski is an excellent storyteller, and has a good sense of humour as well. He draws listeners through the series by creating mystery and empathy around Simmons.
Taberski followed up this series with two more: Surviving Y2K, which weaves together various stories that centred on New Year’s Eve 1999, and Running from Cops, which examines the cultural impacts of the reality series Cops. All three series are absorbing and distinct.
A comedian named Mo Rocca is obsessed with obituaries. This doesn’t sound like a compelling concept, but Mo excels at weaving history and facts into fascinating stories. Plus, his obits are inventive. In one episode he tells the story of a JFK impersonator whose career ended with the real president’s assassination. Another looks at the demise of the Neanderthals (and the surprising fact that many people today have some Neanderthal DNA). My favourite is the story of a pair of conjoined twins from Thailand, the original “Siamese” twins, their brush with the American dream, and how they negotiated daily life between the two women they married.
Root of Evil
I listen and read to a lot of crime stories, and this was the most fascinating true crime case I’ve ever encountered, anywhere. The podcast weaves together two interconnected narratives: a cold case investigation into the Black Dahlia murder, which took place in Los Angeles, 1947; and the story of the intergenerational trauma experienced by the Hodel family. The murder storyline and its investigation are more interesting, although the family storyline adds depth to the series. The Black Dahlia murder is bizarre, but the theory of the crime put forward here was one of the most startling, insane things I’ve ever heard.
A short but impressively told documentary crime series that begins in the New Hampshire woods, in 1985, with the discovery of two barrels containing four bodies. Investigations are still revealing new information about this case 34 years later. I especially love true crime podcasts, and Bear Brook is the most impressive of all the ones I’ve listened to, both because of the fascinating way the investigation unfolds, and the superior storytelling skills of its host, Jason Moon.
Like Serial, Direct Appeal explores a single murder trial to consider the possibility of a wrongful conviction. “For the last 13 years, Melanie McGuire has been serving a life sentence for the murder and dismemberment of her husband, whose body was found in three suitcases in the Chesapeake Bay.” Criminologists Meghan Sacks and Amy Shlosberg examine the evidence, including their own interviews with Melanie. It took me a bit to get used to the rapid-fire way the hosts talk, but I’ve come to love the show as much for their charismatic interaction as for the gritty, baffling details of the case.
Every week, Crime Junkee summarises a major crime story, including cold cases, serial killers, murders and missing persons. The host delivers the story in a chatty style, while her (largely superfluous) producer provides personal reactions. They often cover less infamous cases, like American serial killer Herb Baumeister, who kept a bunch of mannequins posed around his indoor pool so he could pretend he was having pool parties, and also killed as many as 21 men.
This podcast uses documentary-style interviews and storytelling to examine the unseen forces that shape ideas, beliefs and assumptions. Season 4 featured a two-part series on how the human brain processes emotions that was especially interesting.
Bonus: My favourite podcast is still Everything is Alive. Each episode features a scripted interview with an inanimate object, as well as a phone call to an actual person or organisation that is always peculiar and fascinating. All the episodes are enjoyable (and one features Sydney comedian Jennifer Wong playing a copy of The Canberra Times from 24 October 1988). But my absolute favourite episode is Connor, a portrait of US President William Taft. It’s both humorous and incisive, and it features the best monologue on bread you will ever hear.
At the start of 2018, I often struggled to leave my apartment due to the severity of my chronic fatigue. So for the first time in my adult life, I set no resolutions or goals for the year.
It was weird.
Because not only do I normally set resolutions and goals, I am also one of those over-ambitious weirdos who tracks them through the year, periodically reflecting on my progress.
I’m starting off 2019 still sick. I need to be realistic about what I can achieve.
Or do I? If I’m not going to achieve my resolutions anyway, this is a chance to set some truly grandiose resolutions, the type of things I’d definitely attempt if the phrase ‘you can do anything you set your mind to’ was actually true (it’s not, sorry).
Resolutions I Sincerely Plan to Achieve in 2019
Summit Mt Everest in a Pikachu onesie.
Prove the Big Bloop is a giant undersea creature and not just ‘shifting ice plates’ like ‘scientists’ want you to believe.
Learn to speak hieroglyphics.
Train a romp of sea otters to compete in the synchronised swimming competition at the 2020 Olympics. Admit it, you’d watch that.
Construct a building using only pancakes and industrial-strength maple syrup on the border between two nations. Not a house though. Maybe a bank?
Catch a serial killer (this could tidily knock two items off my long-standing bucket list, depending how it plays out).
Grow a third arm.
Successfully petition for sea otters to be eligible to compete in the 2020 Olympics.
Circumnavigate the Earth north-south on a unicycle.
For once, I feel no anxiety about these resolutions. I know they’re doomed to failure. And allowing myself to fail is, under the circumstances, actually a pretty good feeling. 2019 is shaping up to be a stellar year, even if the reality is most of it will pass much like 2018, ie like this:
One of the few positives of putting most of my life on hiatus due to illness is that I’ve actually had more time for reading.
I’ve always loved reading. I used to walk home from school with an open book, looking up only before crossing the street, and even then only if I wasn’t at a really good part.
When my chronic fatigue was at its worst in 2017, I wasn’t able to read. I’d start a sentence, and by the time I finished, I’d forgotten how it began. I’d re-read the same sentence over and over, but my brain was too tired to both decipher the writing and hold onto the meaning.
I still have days where I’m too tired to read, but they’re becoming less frequent. And because I have spent so much time home on the couch, I actually read more this year.
2018 reading breakdown
64% Australian authors
57% women authors
24% debut authors, of which 22% (11 books) were debut Australian women authors
6% zombie fiction
2018 reading highlights
Vodka & Apple Juice by Jay Martin (NF) Having left a successful career in Canberra, Martin is both excited and nervous to spend three years in Poland accompanying her husband on a diplomatic posting. Her narrative traces her efforts to learn the Polish language and the unwritten rules of Polish life, as well as the challenges of making meaningful friendships and helping her marriage survive the long, grey winters. Her writing is personable, peppered with gentle humour and introspection.*
Traumata by Meera Atkinson (NF)
Traumata is a sense-making project, or rather the summary of Atkinson’s lifelong effort at sense-making. Interspersing research into trauma, memory and psychology with explorations of her personal traumata – the plural of trauma – she presents an incisive case study of trauma’s effects, how it can compound at an individual level, and how it operates in society. (First published in The Australian)
Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett (NF)
Everett spent 30 years in the Brazilian jungle, living among the Pirahã tribe. His book recounts his experiences in the jungle, and his efforts to translate the language of this still-isolated tribe. Through his cultural immersion, his life and religious views change dramatically, as does his understanding of foundational concepts of linguistics, and more profoundly, how and if people from diverse cultural contexts can truly understand one another. Inevitably he learns far more from the Pirahãs than they take from him. The prologue frames his experiences by describing the morning an entire village of Pirahãs woke early to observe a visiting spirit on the beach. They insist the spirit is as present before them as Everett is. ‘Over the more than two decades since that summer morning, I have tried to come to grips with the significance of how two cultures, my European-based culture and the Pirahãs’ culture, could see reality so differently,’ Everett writes. ‘I could never have proved to the Pirahãs that the beach was empty. Nor could they have convinced me there was anything, much less a spirit, on it.’*
Always Another Country by Sisonke Msimang (NF)
Msimang grew up in exile from South Africa, the daughter of a freedom fighter and follower of Nelson Mandela. Her eloquent memoir of home, belonging and race politics traces her childhood in Zambia, Kenya and Canada, her university years in America, and her return to a South Africa that is free but not just. (First published in The Big Issue)
Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee (NF)
Lee’s experiences, both professionally and personally, make clear the human fallibility and biases of the justice system, and how it is stacked against women. Women and children are often victims of crime in their own homes, and the perpetrators are people they know. But juries are unlikely to believe any woman who isn’t the ‘perfect victim’, a woman who appears chaste, is not on birth control, and is preferably attacked by a shady-looking stranger in public, not an average-looking bloke she happens to know, even casually. And if a complainant is inconsistent in her reports, if she becomes too emotional, she is less believable, even though these are normal responses to trauma. Read the full review here.
Being Shot by Gail Bell (NF)
Blending memoir with journalism, Bell examines her own experiences, alongside those of a number of other shooting victims, to consider both the physical and psychological aftermath. She also interviews recreational gun owners, war veterans, and police and RSPCA officers who use weapons in their work. In an effort to understand the appeal of guns, she considers their 500-year history and current prevalence in pop culture. Read the full review here.
How I Rescued My Brain by David Roland (NF)
Roland was a psychologist who developed post-traumatic stress after working with violent offenders in the prison system, as well as traumatised patients. This and other stressors, including financial ruin and the breakdown of his marriage, likely played a role in the stroke that reduced his cognitive capabilities. His gentle narrative explores both the devastating effects of his conditions and the steps he took toward wellbeing, including mindfulness meditation. Having suffered frustrating cognitive limitations myself since the onset of my illness, I appreciated Roland’s direct, clear descriptions of his cognitive symptoms. He separates these into three categories: the general confusion of fog brain; rubber brain, the inability to take things in; and sore brain, the physical hurt that cognitive strain would cause, even for a task as simple as making lunch for his children.*
The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver (NF)
Just as loneliness causes us harm, friendship can dramatically affect our physical health, as new research shows. Having a caring social network of close friends may lower your risk of Alzheimer’s, obesity, heart problems and high blood pressure, and improve your chances of staying fit. Likewise, having a close friend at work can improve attention span, mood and even productivity. And while friendship can’t cure depression, spending time with friends and cultivating strong friendships can be part of good mental healthcare practices, alongside healthy eating and exercise. Combining scientific research, interviews and memoir, The Friendship Cure explores the many benefits of friendship, along with a few of the perils, through pop-culture references and anecdotes of both successful and failed friendships. Read the full review here.
Claiming Noah by Amanda Ortlepp
Under the umbrella of contemporary women’s fiction, this novel is part of the emotional thriller genre. Set in Sydney, it centres around two mothers and the realities of IVF and postpartum psychosis. With a quickly paced plot and blurred lines between protagonists and antagonists, it’s an engaging read.
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!
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).
in Stylus Lit
A tiny story about how rotten people can be.
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 the journal is available in both PDF and print.)
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:
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.
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.
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?’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
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.
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.
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!
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.