Experience the nectar

Bhutan by Ashley Kalagian BluntIn 2015 I visited the Kingdom of Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan country wedged between China and India, like a pea delicately set between two butt cheeks. Bhutan is world renowned for its Gross National Happiness philosophy, which the government believes is a more important metric than the standard GDP. It’s less renowned for its history of ethnic cleansing, which forced more than 100,000 people out of the country and into refugee camps in the 1990s.

One other notable cultural aspect of Bhutan is that everyone is really into anatomy, specifically one region of male anatomy.  For example, one of the local drinking establishments is named Phallus Bar. Their slogan is  –  this is true  – Experience the nectar of Phallus Bar.

(I didn’t experience the nectar. I kind of regret it.)

Bhutan folk art tooIn villages in Bhutan, if you, as a male property owner, want to indicate to your neighbours that you’re strong and virile, you paint a giant phallus on your house. This is one of those cultural aesthetics that is perfectly acceptable in the region it originated in, but if that same Bhutanese guy were to move to the West, his neighbours may not appreciate his exterior decorating style. Or they might. It really depends what neighbourhood he ends up in.

Bhutan folk artThis obsession dates back to a Bhutanese religious folk hero, the Divine Madman. He was both a Buddhist master and ladies’ man, judging by his reputation as the “Saint of 5000 Women.” The Divine Madman used his “thunderbolt of flaming wisdom” (his term, not mine) to kill evil spirits. He was basically an x-rated Buddhist superhero.

This is all to let you know that in May, a monologue I wrote after my Bhutanese travels is being performed at Voices of Women in Sydney. It’s called “Tonight’s Performance: You’ve Definitely Got Rabies” and it doesn’t require you to know about the Divine Madman, Phallus Bar or anything about Bhutan. But aren’t you glad you do?


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:

The Lily
Mea Mai
Banyak Pintu
Samian House
Cornucopia House
Enom Roo
Pleasant Cottage
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.


A certified medical ice cream float

Update: I haven’t managed to get Pretzel and Popcorn, my wood-chewing, hay-eating, mould-sprouting chinchillas – yet. In the meantime, I’ve had to find something else to reduce the tedium of the enforced breaks I’m supposed to be taking five times a day, according to the chronic fatigue specialists.

Which led me to purchase this Certified Medical Device:Ashley Kalagian Blunt ice cream float

Yes, that is an inflatable ice cream cone, with scoops of strawberry and vanilla and a cherry pillow on top. No, it didn’t come in chocolate. I guess people don’t want to think about the colour of chocolate when they’re in the pool.

I realise this makes it look like having chronic fatigue is basically a vacation. If you’re the type of person who aspires to a lifetime of napping, watching TV and staying at home, and you don’t mind feeling vaguely ill most of the time (and extremely ill some of the time), chronic fatigue might be a vacation for you. Pretty much everyone I know, however, has goals, aspirations and interests that require significantly more energy than it takes to float around on a plastic ice cream cone.

When I bought the ice cream, I pictured myself calmly lying in the pool, staring up at the sky, enjoying the fragrance of the frangipani flowers and the chittering of the rainbow lorikeets. The ice cream float is more of a barge, however, and it didn’t come supplied with an anchor. This means it never stays in one spot. It drifts and meanders through the pool, ricocheting off the sides.

Which would be fine if I reliably had the pool to myself. I happen to share it with the residents of 800 other apartments, however, several of which are small children.

Unfortunately having the ice cream barge in the pool with small children is not ideal for two specific reasons:

  1. the ice cream is constantly moving but for some reason was not equipped with steering capacity or braking; and
  2. small children are not smart enough to get out of its way when it comes drifting toward them at speeds of up to 7 knots.

This is how I ran over a child in the pool last week. She was fine, but the hassle of making sure I didn’t run her over a second time meant I could hardly lie back and relax.

Which is why these days, I’ve spent my breaks lying on my ice cream float as it stays securely in one spot on the living room floor, while I stare up at the ceiling, listening to traffic. Is this helping me get better? I don’t know, but it’s damn well making me feel like I’m getting $38 worth out of my ice cream purchase, that much is clear.

Heal yourself with chinchillas


Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time watching teenage girls on YouTube lecture me about chinchilla ownership, and I have a learned a lot. I’ve learned chinchillas eat hay, specifically Timothy hay, as though they are tiny misshapen horses. I’ve learned chinchilla well-being requires vertical play space. I’ve learned chinchillas need a supply of wooden toys and pumice stones to wear down their constantly growing, freakish teeth.

I have a lot of time to watch chinchilla advisory videos because, since I’ve been sick, I’ve had to stop doing most things. I had to quit stand-up comedy, because I was going to bed at 7pm. I had to quit drinking, because it makes me much sicker. I had to quit exercising, because it also somehow makes me much sicker. I had to quit the speaking club I’d been part of for five years. I had to quit going to all non-essential places, because going places is the worst.

I didn’t have to quit my job, but I work so few hours now that when my pay comes into my account, a bank employee calls to laugh at me.

My life has become an abhorrent vacuum, which I’ve been trying to fill by watching all 426 episodes of Law & Order SVU. But eventually even that will run out. Since the fatigue specialists told me I could incorporate pet-patting into my recovery program, I’ve been angling for a pet.

My husband and I have both wanted a dog for years. But we’re renters. We approached our landlordess about getting a dog, but we forgot that where we live isn’t a home, it’s an investment property. And even though we’ve lived here six years and proved ourselves to be mature, conscientious adults who could reasonably be expected to take good care of a dog in an apartment, no.

A friend suggested I get a cat, because they’re easier to care for than dogs. But I doubt any cat will permit the strict patting routine my recovery program requires. So I began to research the pros and cons of getting several chinchillas.


  • A single chinchilla can achieve the cuteness of level of approximately eight kittens, scientifically speaking.
  • Possible names: Mustard, Popcorn, Pretzel, Son of Coco.
  • We’re not allowed pets in our apartment, but as chinchillas are closer to animated stuffed toys, this doesn’t apply.
  • Instagram celebrity potential = high, especially if Pretzel acquires a wardrobe of Batman-themed costumes.


  • Like gremlins, chinchillas shouldn’t get wet. They don’t turn into mauradering monsters named Stripe, but they do go mouldy. Even the oil from your hands can muck up your chinchilla’s delicate fur. To keep dry and clean, your chinchilla needs to roll around in a special plastic container filled with special chinchilla dust, such as the actual product All Living Things Blue Cloud Dust. In the words of Autumn Windish, my favourite YouTube chinchilla expert, “No one wants a mouldy chin.”
  • According to Autumn Windish (I will be very disappointed if that’s not her real name), chinchillas need much more than just a vertical cage, Timothy hay, blue cloud dust, wooden toys and pumice stones. They also need a hay dispenser, water bottles and a litter box. They need a product called a chin-chiller, a granite slab for preventing your thick-furred chinchilla from overheating, which you can purchase in packs of four. They need something called kebabs, which Autumn Windish describes as ‘self-explanatory’. But here I have to disagree with Autumn – it is not at all self-explanatory why chinchillas need kebabs.

The overriding con is that my husband has a strict anti-chinchilla policy. He claims that, contrary to my doctor’s advice, having a chinchilla is not essential to my recovery.

He is not the person home sick and alone all day, however. Nor do I think he is fully aware of just how easy it is these days to order pretty much anything online from a pet supply store and have it delivered straight to your door. Besides, once he sees Pretzel and Popcorn on their respective granite chin-chillers, he’s sure to change his mind.

The new torture

Developing post-infective fatigue, a condition that’s still largely a mystery to modern medicine, was a stroke of significantly bad luck. But I also had good luck, in that I had access to specialists at the nearby Fatigue Centre.

The Fatigue Centre specialists explained that while there is no cure for post-infective fatigue syndrome, there’s a lot I can do to manage myself and, in theory, aid my recovery. Their advice boils down to two main points.

1. Track everything
They mean everything: all activities, sleep, mood, breaks, naps, steps and dog sightings. Well, I added the last one, but the rest are legit.

For two weeks I kept hour-by-hour notes on what I did and how I felt. This let me see how much I’m able to do before I have so little energy left, I can no longer feed myself or even maintain a sitting position.

I also have to track my daily step count. When I was healthy, I averaged 18,000 steps a day. Being active and not owning a car made this easy. My favourite days were when I could go hiking and get up to 35,000 steps.

Now instead of trying to increase my steps, I have to keep them under my new threshold, which started at 6000 steps. Every day I scratch step-count math in notebooks, planning what I might be able to do based on the required steps. A sample of my step tallies:

Steps from the couch to the bathroom, one way: 16
Steps used per load of laundry: 675
Steps used getting to work, one way: 1532
Steps for an average grocery store trip: 2159
Steps from my door to platform 16 at Central Station: 1023

Managing chronic fatigue by resting excessively

2. Rest excessively
When I was healthy, I always tried to do as much as I could, usually two things at once. I’d wash the dishes while talking on Skype. I’d exercise while listening to an audiobook. I’d stretch my calves while brushing my teeth.

Thanks to my chronic fatigue, much of my day is now taken up doing zero things at once. I’m supposed to take a minimum of five breaks each day, which should be 15-20 minutes. Not in total, but 15-20 minutes each. During these breaks, I’m allowed to do any of the following:

  1. Lie down or sit and have a cup of tea. As a bonus, I can look at a tree! (Sometimes I cheat and look at several trees at once.)
  2. Pat a pet: this one sounds great, except I don’t have a pet (I am in the market to borrow your pets, if you don’t mind bringing them by five times a day, or just donating them for the duration of my illness).
  3. Meditation/mindfulness/breathing exercises: I feel like if I had any aptitude for this quantity of meditation, I would already be a monk. Yes, meditation is highly beneficial, but when given free time, my brain prefers to lists all the productive things I could be doing with those 15 minutes if I were well, and then berate me for being sick and useless.
  4. Colouring in: no.

On the breaks, I’m not allowed to eat, look at any kind of screen, chat, read, stretch or walk. I can listen to music, but only if it’s calming.

The breaks drive me insane.

I suspect most people nowadays can’t remember the last time they did nothing for 15 minutes. Nothing. Not a single thing, other than just sitting with their own rampaging thoughts. Oh, and looking at a tree.

Conclusion: 6000 steps a day isn’t enough, and in our driven, goal-oriented, information-saturated society, being forced to take medically advisable breaks is a unique form of torture.


Maybe you’re allergic to cockroaches

When I first began to suspect that my intermittent, worsening bouts of illness might be the individual heads of one sinister, hydra-like illness, I came to a horrifying realisation: I’d have to see a doctor. It was May 2017. By then I could trace a clear pattern of symptoms back at least six months. But because the mystery illness had crept up on me so vaguely, I had no accurate idea of when it really began. Perhaps mid-2016, or even earlier.

My previous experiences with doctors hadn’t inspired a lot of faith in the medical community. Luckily by this time I’d found a doctor who wore clean, moderately professional clothes and had not yet laughed at me.

My first visit to the doctor about my mystery condition was in June 2017. My main symptom was random days of extreme fatigue, the kind that prevents you from working or moving or even thinking much. I also had random headaches that may or may not have been related.

I acknowledged my symptoms didn’t give the doctor a lot to work with. Dutifully, she tested me for everything. She sent me for an MRI. She sent me for a full-body CT scan. She sent me for blood tests for every condition it’s possible to test blood for.

When I showed up at the lab with the doctor’s list of requested blood tests, the technician looked over the list and began collecting empty vials. When she had filled a bucket with vials, she held it up to me.

‘We’re going to take this much blood today. Is that okay?’

I blinked. ‘If you think I have that much spare blood, go for it.’

None of these blood tests turned up anything except the need for more blood tests. On paper I looked very healthy, but by that time, the fatigue had transitioned from part-time to full-time. I was struggling through even basic activities, such as chewing and breathing.

Testing for cockroach allergies

One of my referrals was to an immunologist. Suspecting allergies could be contributing to my symptoms, he suggested I spend several hundred dollars to allow a nurse to scratch a pattern of tiny wounds down my arm, and then dab allergic substances into those wounds. These substances were stored in brown bottles. I watched as the nurse unscrewed the cap on each bottle and dripped its contents onto my arm. One of the bottles was labelled cockroach.

‘People can be allergic to cockroaches?’

‘It’s actually pretty common.’

‘But what can you do if you’re allergic to cockroaches?’

She shrugged. ‘Don’t eat them.’

The immunologist visit was a solid reminder of why I do not trust doctors, especially when my scratch wounds revealed I was ‘mildly allergic’ to various grasses and pollens (thankfully I could eat all the cockroaches I wanted). The immunologist recommended I take an antihistamine.

‘What, just, forever?’ I asked.

‘Try it for a month and see if it helps.’

I went to my local chemist and asked the pharmacist on staff what antihistamine she recommended.

‘They’re all basically the same,’ she said in a harried, distant manner, as though asking her about the products in her pharmacy was an inconvenience she was struggling to tolerate. She pointed to a random box. ‘These ones are cheaper.’

I bought a box of antihistamines. Inside the box, the product information was folded into a tiny origami fan. The potential side effects of the antihistamines included fatigue and headaches. Still, who was I to question the advice of an experienced immunologist?

I took the antihistamines. My headaches got worse. I stopped taking the antihistamines.

After six months of tests and specialist appointments and weekly doctor visits, I eventually received a diagnosis by default.


From the Lighthouse: a writerly interview

From the Lighthouse writing and reading podcastDespite being unable to leave my house 87% of the time, I was invited for a guest interview on the reading and writing podcast From the Lighthouse with Stephanie Russo and Michelle Hamadache.

The interview was great fun, and I was able to share two key tips for writers, which I’m particularly keen on: setting rejection goals, and joining a public speaking club (like this particular one in Sydney’s Inner West). I also suggest rubbing salt in your wounds on an hourly basis because that is what it is to be a writer.



Why I do not trust doctors, part III

This time the doctor was a woman in her forties. She wore hot pink velour sweatpants. Her fingernails extended an inch past her fingertips, with electric yellow and green tiger-stripe polish and press-on diamond rhinestones. Her make-up was caked, her hair dyed pink. Of all that, it was the sweatpants that really threw me because what was this? Pyjama day at the walk-in clinic? I don’t remember what I went to see her for. I don’t remember what she advised me. In fact, I never heard what she advised me. I’m not a huge believer in the value of workplace dress codes, but I spent the entire time thinking is this woman actually a doctor?