His curiosity was the curious thing about him

The internet will runneth over today with everyone telling their own Terry Pratchett story, as well it should. This is mine.

I couldn’t read my first year of school. The letters stubbornly refused to become sounds. Teachers carried on unperturbed. I would get it eventually, they said. A lot of children have learning difficulties. I was just one of many who was none too bright.

That wasn’t good enough for my mother. She began teaching me phonetics and decided that maybe the problem was the stories in the books I was reading weren’t as interesting as the stories I made up in my head. So, when I was still quite small, she hired Truckers from the library. And I became a reader.

It’s hard to overstate the influence Terry Pratchett had in my life. I can’t give him full credit for teaching me to read – that honour is bestowed on my parents – but I can credit him with making me love books, with becoming one of those children who read standing up in the hallway between classes, and, maybe, becoming a journalist. I’d not have ditched physics for English lit if I didn’t read the way I read Pratchett. Were it not for the Scientific Encyclopaedia for the Enquiring Young Gnome I’d have stuck to the plan of becoming a veterinarian.

I convinced dad to buy me Mort, my first Discworld book, when I was 11 in exchange for a promise of helping out in the vineyard. The ratty IOU hung in dad’s shed for months. One $15 book: three hours of pruning.

There’s a quote somewhere about how people using a second language, no matter how proficient they are in their adopted tongue, are missing the final five per cent of perversity. That’s what it’s like reading a Discworld novel as a child. You know it’s funny, but you don’t understand most of the jokes. I was 17 before I figured out what a Droit de Seigneur was. Magrat’s continued ignorance didn’t make me feel much better.

Reading Pratchett turned me on to the absurdities of the world, and I started paying close attention so I wouldn’t miss any. Pratchett could explain things better than anybody else, so I let him; I don’t think there’s an essay I wrote between the ages of 15 and 21 that doesn’t have a Terry Pratchett reference slipped in somewhere. I should have  lost marks from the teachers who spotted me appropriating all his jokes. Instead, I got gold stars and an enthusiastic note in the margin. “How RAD is Terry Pratchett!!”

And old boyfriend borrowed Going Postal once to see what all the fuss was about. Fifty pages in, he came back, looking annoyed. “You’re not actually funny, are you? You’re just quoting Terry Pratchett.”

No, I’m not actually funny, or smart, or politically astute, or any of the things that people tell me they think I am. I’ve just read a lot of Terry Pratchett.

It’s very nearly the same thing.

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Don’t try to wake me in the morning

I wrote this on November 11 last year, sitting on the steps leading into the kitchen of my old house in Hobart. Didn’t post it because talking about depression is not really something I do. Then my good friend James Brady wrote this truly excellent piece about his own experience with depression and the importance of talking about it. So here we go…

Sometime around the middle of my final year of university, I stopped getting out of bed. It started just with morning classes — lectures I didn’t want to go to, tutorials I felt ill prepared for. Then I stopped turning up for work, sleeping through the boss’s calls for shift after shift until he stopped calling. I slept though study time, weekends, weekdays, mealtimes, reversing my body clock so I would be awake and doing what little study I still did at night, and sleep, or at least pretend to, when my flatmates were around during the day.
I watched movie after movie and disappeared into series upon series of soft-core angsty drama and awful fantasy epic. Anything that promised an escape from thought. Books, music, and newspapers were discarded. I spent days trawling overseas classified sites, picking out the flat, job, and friends I would have in London or Toronto or anywhere else. In June I stopped changing my clothes, in July I pushed the furniture against my bedroom door and stopped returning my boyfriend’s calls. I’d long since lost interest in sex.
There was a tree on the Hume Freeway, near Euroa, that stood close to the road and a little apart from the others. A jerk to the left would do it, just as you rounded the bend. I didn’t want to kill myself. But I wished that I would die.
When my father called to say my grandmother had died, I ignored the call. She had been shrunken and terrified in hospital a month before and I couldn’t talk to her, couldn’t comfort her, and now she was dead and I couldn’t grieve. I showered and went shopping for funeral clothes, made good for a week following my mum around my grandparents’ farm and filling the family church with teapots, then I came home and went back to bed.
I emerged from my stupor to complete one assignment, two weeks late, for an investigative journalism class. It was like writing in syrup. A month later my lecturer told me there was interest in getting it published, if I could make a few adjustments and submit it before deadline. I didn’t.
I told my indigenous studies lecturer about my grandmother’s death, and they gave me an extension. I didn’t deserve it. If I had done the work a week out for a funeral would not have mattered.
The whole year was a black mark on my previously good academic transcript, already marred by a 3am decision two years previous not to attend a criminal law exam. School was all I’d ever been good at and I watched it crumble, occasionally pushing out the stubborn bricks.
I wanted to drop out and work at a bookshop or a cafe in some two-bit town where I could work and sleep unmolested by the specter of a more successful self who sat on my shoulders and weighed me down with unfinished tasks. But such obvious defeat would never escape parental intervention, so I decided to fake it. I started applying for jobs as a cadet journalist, sending my resume anywhere so long as it was at least two hours drive from anyone I knew so no one could watch as I failed. The job in Bunbury was perfect — 3000 kilometers away. I completed every remaining assignment — seven essays across four topics — in a three-day bender at the very limits of my extension period and hoped that would be enough to earn the degree I’d promised them.
Then something happened. I started work. I turned up on time, did the work, stayed late, volunteered to work on weekends and developed strong opinions on kerning. Day after day, I turned up. And I was good at it. I wasn’t failing. Improvement was its own motivation for hard work again, just as it had been at school. Just as it would always be.
I’m slipping again now. It started in October last year. I’ve propped it up, but it’s happening more and more. I can’t get out of bed.
I know that work is my cure. But when it happens, work is precisely what I cannot do. Sometimes all I can do is turn up.

Clear eyes, full heart, now lost

Cracked hooves wore a footpath along the fence line, just as the fence line wore a groove into his neck.
The idiot had been pushing against the top wire till it bled, pacing back and forth and calling out to the horses in the paddock beyond.
The breeder named him Beau Levant, but he wasn’t much of a dandy.
He looked like a CGI dinosaur, with a diplodocus neck sprouting out of huge, hulking shoulders. Riders at his local pony club used to call him T-Rex.
Others called him Ritchie.
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Ritchie had belonged to a friend of my mother’s. In November 2002 we found ourselves in need of a paddock mate for a retired horse, lest the old fool put himself through the fence while my riding horse was off at competitions. And Ritchie was desperately in need of food. His owner had decided to sell him, and needed the condition our good grass could give him.
Four months later he was sold, having performed beautifully under saddle. His new owners didn’t seem worried about an old racing injury, the only souvenir from an abysmal career, that flared up occasionally and caused him to duck his head like a crank shaft to maintain momentum.
Three months after that, mum ran into the new owners in the supermarket. Ritchie was lame, unridable and about to be put down. He came back to our place the next day.
And on Thursday, 10 years after we thought we’d have to and 10 years before I’d be ready for him to go, he will leave for good.
There’ll be no last-minute rescue this time. Compounded pain from old injuries has made his gait slow and his breathing labored. The vet will arrive at 10am.
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I’d hoped he’d last a little longer. I haven’t seen Ritchie in almost 12 months, and I wanted one last chance to see his teddybear ears swiveled toward me as he licked hands and pockets hunting for treats.
He is not particularly bold or impressive or even noticeable. But he is the nicest horse I’ve ever known.
If Arthur Weasley was a horse, that horse would be Ritchie. Lanky, kind, and intelligent in that rather specific way that the unkind mistake for stupidity.
He was — is, is until Thursday — intensely curious, poking and chewing at things until every knot, gate latch or belt-buckle is undone, every box unpacked, every bucket carefully flipped over and searched for carrots.
He could open the gate into the yard where the other, fatter, horse had to spend the night, but only did so sporadically, choosing to leave her in there on the days she had bitten him or stolen his food. Once, with the help of an equally pesky colt, he dropped the entire top wire of an electric fence, pulling the pins out of the insulators while the wire was still live.
The tendon that was bowed when we got him swelled and stiffened over the years until one foreleg was almost twice the thickness of the other. He and Prince (who I wrote about here) used to bob and limp their way to the top of the paddock at feeding time like an Anzac Day parade.
And on Thursday he’ll join that Prince in a matching divet on the hill.
Rest well, my friend. I hope the grass is sweeter where you go.

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Brown eyes and wimmins

The synchronised soup kitchen began with the standard post-work debrief. This time it was her with the grievance, a tricky last minute work trip that needed to be worked around our holiday next month. We were both knocking off, a three hour head-start crumbling against my poor time-keeping skills, and we talked about work until we made it back to our respective kitchens and began the night’s preparations. Hers was a hearty stew, able to be made ahead of the arrival of her husband and parents-in-law later that evening, and mine was a jumble of the sad vegetables lurking at the bottom of the crisper. The married and the single, chained together with copper wire.
There’s an episode of the Gilmore Girls that begins with mother and daughter sitting in their respective living rooms while on the phone to each other and watching, in silence, the progress of their robotic vacuum cleaners. My sister and I, more than 4000 kilometres and two time zones apart, have started to do the same thing.
ME: Why the fuck is this not salty? I added like a tablespoon of soy sauce.
HER: It says I need a quarter of a teaspoon of mace. I don’t own mace. Do you think that’ll matter?
ME: Ok, I’ll use the dark soy sauce.
HER: I’m using extra hot cayenne pepper, so I think it’ll be fine without.

I used to come home from school and spend hours on the phone to the friends I’d been with all day. We’d talk just to hang out. Now I communicate for a living but I don’t really talk like that anymore. Except with her.
We didn’t get along when we were younger, which is understandable because I was an insufferable bookish little horse freak and she was a proper teenager with a boyfriend and a job and a desire to stay out late at parties.
Moving out of town meant a pony for me and isolation for her. The sheer unfairness of it ruptured the allegiance fostered through joint moneymaking and Cabbage Patch collecting schemes, and the rift grew with every year that she grew older and I refused to.
I resented her for not realising that she was beautiful and deserved better, and hated her boyfriends for taking advantage of that. I locked myself in the garden shed, one night our parents were away, refusing to come out until the boyfriend left. We fought with the violence, viscousness and consistency of cats.
And then she went to university and we became sisters again, and years later we both found ourselves in Western Australia and, suddenly, became better than best friends. And I know it’s cliche and perfectly ordinary to have fought as kids and befriended now, because every set of siblings I know has done it. But it is so precious, this common thing, that I’m frightened one day something might change and we’ll be just sisters once more.
So I’ll smooth the page and stick the memory down and remember this day, when we spoke for 90 minutes about soup.
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Brief thoughts on dying

My maternal grandmother died terrified, shrunken and alone in a hospital bed five hours from home. Her voice was fading, she was wearing a nappy and she lay crying at night asking to go home. Still, she would never have chosen to die. Despite checking every box in the model for voluntary euthanasia proposed in the Voluntary Assisted Dying legislation, apart from being a Tasmanian resident, she would never have made that decision. She did not want to die.

My paternal grandfather, however, would have chosen voluntary euthanasia if his death had not come in the swift, well-ordered manner that it did. I’ve written before about his model death, hand in hand with his wife on their bed at home after being discharged from hospital. But if he had been facing a drawn-out, painful death, if he had been at risk of losing his faculties, fading, as voluntary euthanasia campaigner Robert Cordover wrote, “like a chalk drawing on a rainy pavement,” I am sure he would have chosen to die. He would have done as Mr Cordover did and researched painless ways to end his own life, and my grandmother would now be like Nica Cordover, unable to talk openly about the nature of her husband’s death for fear of criminal repercussions.

Grandma Lorna left school in her early teens and lived her whole life within a 50 kilometer radius of the farm at Cassilis. She was not educated, worldly, knowledgeable or particularly confident. But she could not have been persuaded to end her life early to avoid later ugliness even if the legal avenue had been available and my family had been callous enough to pressure her and make her feel less valued. It would have been easier for us, had she died that way. But she was no less firm in her opinions and expressing her desires than my educated, highly intelligent and caustically cynical former journalist grandfather.
Laws like the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill that is being debated in the Tasmanian House of Assembly tonight would not have altered either of their views in the slightest. I know that just as I know the real reason my grandmother requested bagpipes at her funeral was because the Queen Mother had bagpipes at hers, and as far as Granny was concerned she deserved the same send-off.
But it might, had Gil Wahlquist not died as he did, have meant months of stress for he and my paternal grandmother, Vincie, while they worked out what to do, and months of anguish for Vincie as she watched a husband known for his razor-sharp wit lose the ability to write, read and even talk.
I don’t presume to tell Tasmania’s parliamentarians how to vote. As previously reported, there aren’t enough on the fence to save the legislation anyway. I’m not commenting on the specifics of the proposed Tasmanian legislation and whether the safeguards are sufficient to protect vulnerable people from coercion. And I understand the fear that such legislation is a slippery slope that ends in the death hospitals of Brave New World, where children receive death conditioning and the dying are medicated and shuffled off with the minimum social inconvenience. But that horror story began with the destruction of autonomy and respecting autonomy is what voluntary euthanasia is about. The question of whether a person ought to have control over their life, and consequently their death, can, for me, only be answered with a yes.
I acknowledge that my position on this issue is inescapably intertwined with my lack of a belief in an eternal soul. But it is wrong to say that makes a person less compassionate; it simply makes compassion more urgent. To quote two famous “post-modernist secular humanists”:
“You cannot for one second abrogate the responsibility that this is it.” – Stephen Fry.
“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” – Kurt Vonnegut.
The Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill won’t pass this time around. But maybe, one day, parliament will be kind.

How do you adult?

Found this while trawling through the notes on my iPad. Apparently it was written 420 days ago, in July last year. Like to say it’s gotten better but, as I haven’t showered in two days and ate pancakes for lunch, that would be a lie. And everyone knows adults don’t lie.

In three months time, I will be 25-years-old.
The panic has started to set in.
Panic is probably too mild a word. It’s more like the grey dawn terror of an exam morning when you had put all hopes of passing on an all-night study session and suddenly woken up, covered in post-it notes, having slumped asleep at the books. Too late to catch up. Failure awaits.
The problem is that 25 sounds rather too old not to be a Proper Adult. And I’m just not ready for the title. There are things one ought to have done by now that I have not done, like stopped eating cake for dinner.
I’m not married or likely to be in the next five years, I don’t own a house, there are no stamps in my passport and I’ve neither won a major industry award nor started a successful online business that combines artisan local cheeses with a social network promoting breakfasts with Ita Buttrose.
And, apart from all that, I know I’m not a Proper Adult because Proper Adults don’t talk about Adulthood, and certainly don’t capitalise it.
(Proper Adults are also presumably able to talk about life without quoting Gilmore Girls, and would therefore avoid saying: “Grown-ups don’t call themselves grown-ups. They say adult; and when they say it they say it like this, ‘Aaadult’.”)
I was listing these woes to my mother, which I should not have done, because Real Adults don’t talk to their mothers about things like this. They talk to their psychiatrist or their group of fashionable and impossibly well-accessorised and witty friends. Real Adults do not have their mother come down and look after them for the weekend when they have their wisdom teeth out and watch back-to-back television adaptations of Jane Austen novels. And the mothers of Real Adults, if they do stumble into such conversations, are too much engaged bemoaning their lack of grandchildren to mock the vain societal benchmarking which may give rise to such grandchildren.
My mother felt no such constraints.
“It’s not like when you can’t make the pinching motion to pick up peas when you’re 10 months old,” she said.
“These aren’t developmental goals.
“Failing to meet them doesn’t indicate a problem or some kind of learning disability, it just means you have a different life.”
Now, it’s all very well for my mother to say this. She was married at 23 (“Yes, and I wonder now if that was a good idea,” said she, a lady three weeks shy of her 34th wedding anniversary), had bought her first house before that and then spent seven years building a life with The Husband before deciding to have children. That all sounds properly Adult, to me.
My big sister, in the four months before her 25th birthday, got a fiancé and a mortgage and started colour-coding her freezer.
Indexed food storage is surely a pillar of adulthood. I don’t even have dining chairs. If I have more than two people over for dinner it means someone’s sitting on the computer chair, and we’re all huddled around the coffee table.
It’s easy for mum to point out that if I wanted any of those things there’s nothing particularly stopping me from getting them.
Mum: “Do you want to get married?”
Me: “No.”
Mum: “Well, there you are, then.”
Me: “That’s not the point, mum.”

But for all her cunning stealth attacks my determination to feel inadequate remains in place. I’m not sure what would shift it. Matching bed linens, perhaps, or an ironing board that wasn’t covered with dust. I did recently buy a new shower curtain, at mum’s insistence, but as it’s covered with tropical fish and I now sing “just keep swimming” whenever I use the bathroom, it probably won’t help.
I have a university degree. I have a job. I rent a small but neat flat and most of the time it’s clean and free of the conspicuous signs of feckless youth, like goon bags and condom wrappers and empty tequila bottles and an Arctic Monkeys poster. I am, by all accounts, properly shit at being a carefree party-loving 20-something.
So why do I still feel like a kid?

A North Dakotan lesson in why the abortion debate will never be over

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This is a copy of the report on the Right to life forum with Republican representative Bette Grande that will be posted on The Examiner tomorrow (or later today?). It is not, unlike the rest of the drivel posted on this neglected thing, an indication of my opinion. If you want to know my views on abortion and the proposed Tasmanian Reproductive Health Bill, click here, or here or even here. For an earlier profile of Mrs Grande, click here.

THE process of enacting anti-abortion laws so strict they don’t allow rape victims to terminate their pregnancy past about six weeks was detailed at a pro-life forum in Hobart last night.
North Dakota Republican legislator Bette Grande was the keynote speaker at the Right to Life conference in Victoria last week and visited Tasmania at that organization’s invitation.
Mrs Grande told the small audience that the North Dakota foetal heartbeat bill, currently tied up in federal court challenges, would ban all abortions past the point a foetal heartbeat could be detected, except where necessary to save the life of the mother.
Mrs Grande said the strict provisions even applied to victims of rape.
“Is there a heartbeat present?” she said.
“She would carry that because there’s a potential life there.”
The forum did not discuss proposed reforms to Tasmania’s abortion laws, which are before a Legislative Council committee.
The Tasmanian Reproducitve Health Bill passed the lower house in April and would decriminalise abortion on the proviso that pregnancies terminated after 16-weeks were done so on the recommendation of two doctors on the grounds of risk to the woman’s mental and physical health.
Mrs Grande said North Dakota’s laws were also for the “health and safety” of the mother, the area of abortion regulation left to US states after the landmark 1973 case Roe v Wade made abortion a constitutional issue.
It’s on those grounds that the foetal heartbeat law is being challenged, a process Mrs Grande said could take two years.
If it is upheld, she said, the heartbeat law would be effective across the United States.
In the mean time, North Dakota’s existing pro-life laws means women who have an unwanted pregnancy are given information about the developmental stages of pregnancy, adoption support information and details of the actual process of an abortion.
“Our health department is required by law to support the child being carried to term over abortion, in that they counsel to that,” Mrs Grande said.
If an abortion is requested the woman is required to have a 24-hour cooling off period, during which she is offered a free ultrasound and heartbeat screening, and is then required to sign a document “recognising they are separating a whole and separate person.”
Mrs Grande said the policy was about providing informed consent, adding women “have come too far in our right to independence to be lied to at a critical stage.”
“We know that society does not condone torture until death, but isn’t that what happens when you have an abortion?”
“Wouldn’t it be better if we convince these women, though love, that it would be better to give their child up for adoption than for it to be murdered?”
Mrs Grande said it was not a woman’s rights issue – “the choices for a woman took place before conception” – and suggested abortion had a high correlation with mental health issues and breast cancer, which Australian women’s health networks dispute.