TINY TURTLE INVESTIGATORS: THE CASE OF THE LARGE STRAWBERRY
GOOD MORNING EVERYONE
“HAVE YOU TRIED BALANCING ON IT”
“YES OF COURSE I TRIED BALANCING ON IT JENKINS THIS IS NOT MY FIRST DAY AS A TINY TURTLE INVESTIGATOR”
(Source: animalkingd0m, via flavourpalace)
Eat Drink Man Woman
For a long time I’ve fetishised a specific type of hermit crab. These crabs live in Vanuatu, and more precisely, in coconuts, which they eat in order to make a home in the empty shell. Full of coconut flesh and milk, the crustaceans waddle around, waiting to be eaten by people like me, who fantasise about crab flesh with a naturally coconutty twist. Thinking about eating them makes me happy, and it makes me remember the time we bought a hard goats cheese from the Cowgirl Creamery in San Francisco. The cheese seller told us these goats were raised in an Italian grapefruit orchard and that they munched on the fruits all the time. This wonderful cheese had a subtle sourness: the grapefruit came through the milk. I imagined the cheeky goats, stealing the grapefruits, artfully climbing the trees to reach the fruits that would later come through their tangy teats and make their way to me, scoffing on the San Francisco harbour.
Goats climb trees (this is from the Lonely Planet blog, showing fruit-eating Moroccan goats)
The older I get, the more excited I become about fancy food. Last weekend was crazy. Hundreds of dollars were spent on meals fit for kings. The setting was Tasmania, the occasion was my boyfriend’s birthday. So we went to the restaurant Garagistes in Hobart, we broke the back of our MONA visit with a degustation at the restaurant next door.
Revelations abounded: who would have thought that the mutually-exclusive joys of making out and eating could be brought together in the form of an ox tongue on a skewer, the texture like a tongue, the added bonus the fact you can bite and swallow it and it tastes like a dream? I consumed things I’d never heard of such as celtuce, kohlrabi and lovage. I whinged that I couldn’t taste the chamomile in the chamomile-cured duck eggs. I drank wine that came from the vineyards that surrounded us, I ate crunchy fried sea algae plucked from the Bass Strait that separated me from my home, to which I would return, like some basted, marinated, cured, massaged boar. I was so fond of eating last weekend, that I fantasised about how delicious I would taste, considering the food I’d been stuffing myself with, if only I could roast and eat myself.
Amuse-bouche at Garagistes (photo from here)
And despite this eating frenzy, I know I won’t get fat from it, because the portions are the right size, there are few preservatives and added sugars. The ingredients are local and sustainably farmed. They are prepared by world-class chefs.
I’m not rich, but having an average income in Australia, no children, and only two small dogs to feed, means I can afford to eat like this every once in a while. Still, guilt and shame override when I think how my grandmas (both known for super-saver wartime recipes involving stale bread and one egg) would have reacted if they’d heard how much my meal cost. I remember the poor obese people I met in North Carolina and the poor skinny people I met in Ethiopia. Buckets of food that came out of fry vats in one place, starchy fillers made to trick hungry children into feeling they’d had enough in the other.
A few months after we arrived in Australia we were in Coles. We’d never tried mangoes because they were expensive, but this time, my six-month-old sister grabbed a mango from her seat in the shopping trolley and sunk her two new teeth into it. We had to buy it, and at home, sucking on the mango’s delicious pip, I came upon this feeling for the first time: the world is full of surprising and wonderful things to eat.
Spirited Away (Studio Ghibli)
The God of Small Things
When I was in Pittsburgh, I saw Andy Warhol’s time capsules. Only some had been properly unpacked: researchers were still carefully sorting through items in over 600 boxes that had been discovered after Warhol’s death.
Andy Warhol’s time capsules at the The Warhol museum in Pittsburgh
Of the time capsules, Warhol said:
What you should do is get a box … drop everything in it and at the end of the month lock it up. Then date it and send it over to Jersey … It’s one less thing to think about, another load off your mind … I just drop everything into the same-size brown cardboard boxes.
Into the boxes Warhol shoved old wigs, posters for his shows, doodles and notes from his beloved mother.
'Some Angels up there Love Her' by Julia Warhola
Every time I want to clean out old stuff, I just sit there, staring. A black velcro-secured wallet with fluro scribbles, which my grandma got me in 1992, when I said I loved it.
My mum told me off because the wallet was expensive and I shouldn’t have let grandma buy it. While I was getting in trouble, my grandma was wandering around the neighbourhood, stealing plants. She didn’t think there was anything wrong with carrying secateurs, gathering cuttings from other people’s gardens (and smuggling them back to Serbia). She came back with a passionfruit plant and a cockatoo. We put up ‘found’ posters, as the cockatoo, unsettlingly, tore apart the cage we got from the op-shop. When the cockatoo’s owner came to pick him up, he told us the bird was dangerous and had attacked people before. My grandma beamed, she’d carried the cocky with her bare hands.
The wallet itself is irrelevant: it is just the host of that memory, which I think of whenever I see it.
If put everything in a box and sent it away, to be found after my death, it would be a disappointing boon. I have no spectacular wigs, no Julia Warhola scraps. But, as Joan Didion says (when she talks about our non-public writings):
We are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its marker…
If I packed things into a time capsule, they would, as Warhol says, become ‘one less thing to think about’, but that’s what I worry about: I would never think of them again. Looking at the crappy old things I’ve kept, I wonder how many memories I’ve lost.
– A small brass donkey (I bought it in Bali where we went just after my dad died. It was the only holiday I ever had with my mother and sister and we got chased by fat monkeys in a resort.)
– A certificate that says ‘Sofia milked a cow at Whalen Park Farm’ (The first excursion I ever went on. I cried on the way there, but on the way home, I brimmed with achievement)
– A drawing of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (which my sister did when she was little and copied everything I did and made my favourite films her favourite films).
I will never think of these moments, unless I am sitting with a rubbish bag, battling with myself and my past, choosing which memories to keep and which to throw away forever.
It had been a bad month at French kindergarten. My grandma was hanging around smoking outside our classroom daily, ever since the Hunchback of Notre Dame incident, which had left me a mess. Madame Christine had thought it appropriate to tell us pre-schoolers of a hump-backed young man in love with a woman who mocked him for his disability, a love-sick young man who went to have a dangerous operation to make himself acceptable to her, who died on the operating table, his loving heart pumping blood out onto the sheets until he was dead. I had been experiencing impromptu sobbing fits ever since.
Gargoyle at Notre Dame
It was fitting that a month later, with the hunchback wound fresh in my mind, my own heart would be broken.
Dina, with her short hair and Snoopy watch put her hand up: ‘Est-ce que je peux aller aux toilettes?’ Immediately, the subject of my unrequited love, Nemanja, piped up, ‘Madame, je peux aller aux toilettes!’ As I watched them go, my Snoopy-less limb shot into the air.
I remember it clearly: with fast-reddening face, I fly down the corridor where my grandma’s smoke lingers. I crash the door open and there is the bathroom: echoey, clean, the dwarf-sized toilet cubicles all empty.
As if the door I smashed through has not made the slightest noise, as if my panting body is invisible, a scene continues. Dina washes her hands. Nemanja leans against a wall, watching her. ‘Wash, wash,’ he encourages. Yes, these were instructions we four-year-olds often heard, but I had never heard them uttered so romantically. I see my desperate face in the mirror and realise it is irrelevant, because Nemanja loves Dina’s face instead. I bang the door shut as hard as I can.
Hieronymus Bosch, Detail of plate 12, Garden of Earthly Delights
My identification with the hunchback stayed with me in the short term, and continued to some degree, forever.
In high school, at the end of every party, people slow danced to REM’s ‘Everybody Hurts’. Inevitably, I watched the boy I loved swaying awkwardly with someone else, then went home to write poetry about the different ways my heart was hurting.
What if Nemanja had followed me into the toilets that day? What if I’d been the one he encouraged to wash? Would I, in my happiness have forgotten the plight of the hunchback? Would Nemanja and I have been happy together?
Hieronymus Bosch, Detail of plate 12, Garden of Earthly Delights
That day in the toilet, I was unloved, but as I’d recently learnt, I was not alone. I knew of at least one other person who had experienced unrequited love. And I knew that the hunchback dared to dream.
A hunchback-kind-of-person doesn’t give up. A hunchback-kind-of-person becomes knowledgable, charming, persistent, all the things her good-looking, popular counterparts don’t have to do. A hunchback-kind-of-person uses these tools to convince the teacher to partner her up with the object of her desire at end-of-year French assembly dance.
Masters of the Universe
When I was two, I drew a picture of a rooster, which was, my mother will tell you, of four-year-old standard. It went up on the wall of the Philosophical University of Belgrade, Psychology Department. As she studied damaged children, my mum would glance at my drawing. She didn’t want me to be crazy, and did her best to make me a specimen of perfect emotional well-being. Even if it meant hiding behind trees, stalking my grandma and me down the street, taking notes on my separation anxiety. I was given every test, ever, from birth onwards, so she could keep on top of my development. My opinions, from the age of one, were noted and carefully examined.
Rorchach inkblot test. To me this one looked like a giant (‘Normal’).
My mum told me the truth about Santa Claus early, because she wanted me to learn this upsetting piece of information in a safe environment, where she could control the variables, rather than have other kids shatter the illusion, damaging my psyche when she wasn’t around.
Then the variables became unmanageable: when I was five, we moved to Australia. My Prep teacher told the other kids to ignore me if I cried, which I did, a lot. At playtime they called me names, words which I would relay to my mum on our walks home from school: ‘idiot’, ‘stupid’.
But now, it was eight months later and I was winning. I was fluent in English (‘A testament to the brain of a child!’ my mum’s frantic diary-of-my-development will tell you). I was accepted by the group of girls that played ‘Goblins and Girls’, first as a goblin, and eventually as a girl. Now, on our walks home, I dazzled my mother with tid-bits: ‘Would you believe it,’ I’d tell her, ‘They have one word that means two different things: “line” and “lion”!’. I explained the confusing differences between what is in English called a ‘pig-tail’ and a ‘pony-tail’.
As we bumped my sister’s pram up the steps of our house, I started babbling about Masters of the Universe, starring He-Man, a muscled warrior. ‘The kids talked about He-Man –’
‘What?’ My mum stopped dead on the steps, stopping me dead in my sentence. ‘What did the children talk about?’
‘He-Man?’ I wasn’t sure whether He-man existed in Yugoslavia, but I assumed she was aware of the TV show I watched daily.
She made me sit on the couch. She sighed deeply and looked me in the eyes.
‘I’d like to explain something to you. What those children were talking about is a thin membrane which covers a woman’s vagina. This membrane is penetrated the first time she has sex with a man, by his penis. His penis breaks this membrane. Now you know.’
For several minutes I was too shocked to say anything, and by the time I’d uttered: ‘He fights Skeletor. His sister is She-Ra,’ it didn’t matter anymore, because I now knew what a hymen was, and about its terrible fate, and there was nothing He-Man could do to set it right.
Lost and Found in Translation
Everyone goes on about Inuits having 100 words for snow, and whether this is true or not, the fact is, the world looks very different depending where you come from.
From the film Atarnajuat the Fast Runner
Anna Wierzbicka is a linguist who talks about how difficult it is to translate certain emotions from one culture to another.
For example: the Aboriginal Kayardild word ngankiyaj is generally translated as ‘shame’. In fact, ngankiyaj describes an emotion men are expected to feel in the presence of their mothers-in-law, whom they are supposed to avoid. ‘Shame’, does not encapsulate the nuances of ngankiyaj: shyness, embarrassment and freak-out.
Wierzbicka calls for a culture-free translation, using simple universal phrases to describe words. That way, words aren’t diluted or approximated. Her method is called the Natural Semantic Metalanguage (or NSM).
Here’s the NSM translation of ‘unhappy’ (from here):
X felt unhappy
- someone X felt something bad
- someone can feel something like this when this someone thinks like this for some time:
“some very bad things happened to me
I wanted things like this not to happen to me
I can’t think about it”
- this someone felt something like this because this someone thought like this
Up until the age of 9, I spent a lot of time with my older cousins Andy and Jovan. Once, they painstakingly dressed me as a dwarf and made me give a speech. Another time, they rubbed pollen on my face and arms to make the adults think I had Hepatitis. I was required to do impersonations of soccer hooligans, politicians, make prank calls, say rude words, all of which I did with the greatest gusto, because my cousins were gods to me. Weekends spent there, playing with my cousins and watching old Hollywood films with my aunt were some of my best childhood times.
Then the golden days came to an abrupt end when the Yugoslavian wars began (ruining not only my social life but the entire country as well). My family moved to Australia and Andy and Jovan went to England to avoid conscription.
I recently saw Jovan in Washington, DC. I was with my then-boyfriend, interviewing exorcists for a documentary project. Jovan was at a conference about anti-Semitism for his work as a social psychologist. The two of us spent dinner wildly laughing, alienating his colleagues and my boyfriend. That’s when I remembered a Serbian word we don’t have in English: uželeti se. It’s not the same as ‘missing’ someone. Missing a person implies that you are lacking something. Uželeti implies that someone’s presence augments your existence, and their company is what you’ve been needing. It’s that feeling you get when you are heartily discussing a Belgrade primary school gang called Whammics (Wham and Eurythmics combo) with a Whammics founding member, and you’d forgotten all about Whammics until this moment.
X felt ‘uželeti se’
- someone can feel something like this when this someone thinks like this for some time:
- “something very good happened
for a long time this did not happen
I feel happy when this someone is here”
The Importance of Being Empathetic
I recently saw two boys waiting at the traffic light. One of them was peeling paint off the traffic light pole. The other boy said, ‘How would you feel if the pole peeled the skin from your face?’ I guessed that this Mother Teresa of roadsigns had recently been confronted by a parent for doing something bad. Perhaps he’d been told, ‘How would you feel if your sister peed in the bath while you were in it?’ And now this kid was rehabilitated, a bath-pisser no more, spreading the importance of walking in another’s shoes.
When I was that boy’s age, my family lived in Whyalla, South Australia. My dad’s job sent him to fix the BHP factory’s software. When we walked into the creaky, portable house facing the bush I said, ‘It’s cute. Small, but cute.’ It was not, but this was a line from The Baby-sitters Club, which I’d prepared earlier. There were bull-ants and brown snakes in the backyard.
The parents of Whyalla listened to Jimmy Barnes, kids listened to the Tin Lids. Everyone had asthma. On the wall of the supermarket someone had graffitied ‘Piss on the Abos’. This was quite different to the Baby-sitters Club life I strived for, and not only did my parents ban me from forming a club of sassy, adventurous child-minders, they told me I was not old enough to look after kids.
My Grade 2, 3 and 4 class had 60 kids and three teachers (until Mrs Finch won a Mercedes in a raffle and quit). Our class was called ‘The Centre’ because it was in the middle of the school, but you could be forgiven for thinking it was the institutional section. The Centre had all the ADD kids and psychopaths (like William, who I was quietly attracted to, until I accidentally kicked his foursquare ball and he pinned me down and tried to bite my face). We also had the kids with disabilities: Sharni, who had no hands; Colin, who had an intellectual disability and keen interest in sex; Bella, who had Cerebral Palsy and despite not being intellectually disabled, had to do everything with Colin.
Each week one kid from class would do ‘Cooking with Colin and Bella’. This entailed an embarrassing trip to the supermarket with a Special Needs teacher, while Bella lumbered along and Colin tried to erotically engage with shoppers. It culminated in a lunchtime meal, which I didn’t eat, having witnessed Colin’s shoddy hand-washing.
For my birthday, I was having a party at Whyalla McDonald’s. The day I gave the invitations out, Jessica was away. I crossed out Jessica’s name, and wrote Bella’s on the invite instead. It was generous: something a member of the Baby-sitters Club would do.
When I told my mum, she went off at me: ‘How would you feel if you got an invitation with someone else’s name crossed out? Knowing you were a second choice?’ In a flash, I went from feeling glorious to hideous.
I’d given Bella a second-hand invite. I rubbed her face in the fact that Jessica, who got to play foursquare and wasn’t forced to cook with Colin was, in my eyes, better than her. Every time I thought about my callousness (constantly), I wanted the earth to swallow me. I thought about Bella showing her mum the invitation, and it made me cry.
In this photo of the ensuing party, you can’t tell which girl was abused, which one’s sister was teen pregnant, which one’s dad lived in Coober Pedy and struck it rich after finding black opals in his toilet. You can’t tell which of the smiling girls is Bella, who came to the party showing no signs that I’d crushed her spirit. I can tell you that the birthday girl, redeemed, was experiencing acute relief thanks to Bella’s presence.
I had walked in someone else’s shoes, and I felt suddenly so much more mature that the nine-year-old of last week. Perhaps so mature I could be a member of the Baby-sitters Club.
Sobs on a Plane
Here is an understatement: I get emotional on planes. I know some of you find it lovely, crossing timezones and seasons, going from one dusk to another, as the people on earth go about their business. Not me.
If you are lucky enough to be my travel companion, you may find me quietly crying into a packet of complimentary peanuts soon after takeoff. Then I’ll mumble something about ‘experiencing a different reality’ and turn to the inflight entertainment. And if the film has a nostalgic montage in it, God help you, because I’ll be a sobbing mess until touchdown.
The worst thing is: I am one of those smug, cynical film know-it-alls. I get how these things work. Put in scenes from when the characters were happy, innocent, full of hope. Slow them down. Put some music over the top. You should be rolling your eyes vigorously, my mind says, as that scene from Father of the Bride comes on. But if I’m on an overnight flight, covered with a thin blanket, breathing the stale exhalations of those around me, I become a bawling, nostalgic loser.
Father of the Bride
A plane is capable of taking you from one world and turbulently delivering you into another. It migrates people in a way that isn’t natural for slow-moving bipeds, particularly those who find it hard to understand the world around them at the best of times. When I’m on a plane, my instinct tells me something is wrong and I shouldn’t be here. And then I get overwhelmed by nostalgia and cry. Why?
Maybe it’s trauma from my first plane ride: My dad had already gone to Australia, my crying mother was taking me and my newborn sister to the end of the earth to join him. At the airport, my grandma said, ‘You will never see grandma again’ (which wasn’t true, I saw her many times again, but why not further terrify a five-year-old who has been told a war was about to start and it was time to leave everyone behind?).
Up (2009) Pixar
I look out the plane window and I’m confronted by the truth: time passes, the sun sets and the tiny lights in peoples homes go on, then disappear. I am about to turn 31. I know that I will never be the five-year-old again, repeating ‘moon’ and ‘girl’ and ‘hello’ in my head, hoping those three would let me slip effortlessly into my new environment of Aussie kids.
When I am in that terrifying, unnatural place above Earth, I see my life as a montage. Little Sofija who believed that God lived in the clouds, who didn’t know her father would die young, and who went to the park with her grandma to examine insects, not knowing a war was coming and her leisurely lifestyle would come to an end. When I’m on planes I fondly remember that nice little person, who didn’t realise clouds are not for God, but for planes.
A Doll’s House
I’ve been researching lifelike dolls. I’m particularly interested in why people find them creepy. I visited Trish, who collects baby dolls. She told me about a tradie who came to fix her fridge. ‘What a cute –’ he started saying, then realised the baby in the cot wasn’t real. He got out of there as fast as possible.
Trish says: ‘I don’t pretend they’re real or anything. I just like them. What’s so bad about that?’ Her hundreds of dolls are beautifully displayed in every room. Trish let me carry one around, and, possibly due to its weighted bottom, its eyelashes, or the tiny capillaries that you see if you look closely at its eyelids, I found myself rocking it gently, like a newborn. But something was missing. Unlike a newborn, the baby didn’t stir.
Then, last week, someone stole my housemate’s laptop while she was at work. They climbed through the window after jumping a 3-metre fence. I had the same jolt the tradie felt when he realised that the baby wasn’t a baby. My flat, a safe place, suddenly felt unfamiliar.
Someone had come in to my home while I was in the next room. Was it a man? Had he been watching our windows for weeks? Did he have dreadlocks? And where were the dogs in all this? All day they’d slobbed about on the couch, overtly unalarmed. My flat, which I knew so well, suddenly felt like not-my-flat, but something from a bad dream. This is uncanniness: when something is frightening because it’s familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.
The Uncanny Valley phenomenon talks specifically about dolls: we are fine with dolls until they start looking too human. When we have to do a double-take, we get scared and repulsed. The tradie’s discomfort was linked to the uncanniness of a baby that doesn’t breathe.
Like a final lesson in dread, a few days ago, an old friend died. I went to the nursing home and I saw her: my first ever corpse. I felt a sudden fear, which I could now name.
I had known this woman. She survived the Holocaust, listened to Bach, and in her old age grew to love cheeseburgers. And here was a representation of Alisa, on a bed, with open eyes and mouth. Except this isn’t her, I thought. The body looks alarmingly like her, but this isn’t her, because something is missing. And who took the precious thing and where it is now, is an unsettling mystery.
Of Balls and Men
Consider this. At all times, every male on earth (your dad, your pharmacist, Matt Preston) has, dangling between his legs, two small, precious, poorly-protected organs containing millions of live gametes. And if this wasn’t precarious enough, a mere flick to these balls could cause a grown man to double over in horrifying pain, like he’s been shot.
The theory is: sperm can’t survive at body temperature, so balls have to be outside to keep sperm cool. But hang on a minute. We’ve managed to evolve from fish into mammals, we can walk on land, feed children with our breasts and watch Orange is the New Black while sitting on a couch that hydraulically lifts to provide a storage solution. Why are sperm so special that they can’t adapt to living a measly two degrees higher? Nobody knows. So, considering exposed testes make no sense practically, what can we learn from them on an emotional level?
Men have told me that being kicked in the balls causes immobilising pain, nausea and temporary blindness. Balls can be hurt thousands of ways including running in inappropriate underpants, dropping your keys on them, or sitting down funny. It seems that the most sensible thing to do if you have them (just like if you found yourself with external kidneys) would be to sit at home and cry. ‘Aren’t you always scared of getting hurt?’ I asked a friend who has balls, yet continues to go out in public and even rides a bike. ‘Only sometimes. Like when there’s a toddler running towards me, or a dog.’
Here is my segue into dogs. My dogs are my vulnerability, and for the purposes of this blog post, they are my balls-equivalent. I’m terrified of them being hurt. They don’t understand that the road between our place and the park is treacherous, and if they ever got off their leads and bounded ahead, they’d be crushed under a wheel, never to eat anchovies or bark at horses on Game of Thrones again.
Sometimes, in dark moments (like when they ate a pack of ibuprofen), I wonder if my life would be better if I’d never got dogs. One day, their little bodies will breathe no more, and I’ll be left alone, to remember them as two small pups at the beach who followed me deep into the water, clumsily swimming for the first time, just because they’d go with me anywhere. ‘Why love when it will break your heart?’ I ask myself. Then I remember the skateboarder who hit his balls on a pole and got back up again. To soar in life, be it on a skateboard, or with miniature dogs sticking their heads out of your car window, you need to make yourself vulnerable. It takes – sigh – yes, it takes balls.