Inspired by Mr Trump’s dictum that I should #DressLikeAWoman, I recently did so and went about my everyday life in the Hunter Valley. Thanks to Jessica Coughlan for filming this clip: DressLikeAWoman It turns out that it’s remarkably difficult to do CrossFit in a ballgown!

 

As part of my late night/armchair fitness blog reading experiment, I ended up reading a lot of stuff about CrossFit. Of course, I got curious about it, and after dithering around for a few months (quite a few months, actually) I finally went down to my local box and got a membership. As we’re fast approaching the second year anniversary of my first class- 28th January, 2015- I thought I’d blog about my first years in the sport. And yes, I know people argue about whether it is actually a sport or not, but let’s just assume that it is.

CrossFit is, I discovered, much more fun than I thought it would be. Yet it has also periodically been humiliating, challenging, overwhelming. While all exercises are scaleable, the scale of the scale is sometimes still too much. If you imagine the hardest possible version of an exercise as a 10, and the easiest version as a 1, I often start off around minus ten. I went from being a person who, in a normal gym context, is considered to be quite strong, to an absolute weakling- a kind of pathetic lifeform, a mix between Gollum from Lord of the Rings and a newly hatched butterfly. Flap flap, flap flap.

People often say that CrossFit is empowering. It certainly seems to build a sense of capability, that one is able to deal with the challenges life throws at you. I expect this happens as part of the regular practice of challenging perceived physical limitations. Because CrossFit is always hard, and asks you to do things you don’t think you are capable of, this flows across into the mental sphere. You start questioning other limitations in your life. ‘Are these barriers as solid as I think?’ ‘I told myself I couldn’t do X, but I was wrong, so how about I give it a go?’ And, most importantly, the realization that ‘failure isn’t the disaster I imagined it to be’.

CrossFit also seem to change how people approach real-life problems: ‘if I work on this problem, bit by bit- like slowly increasing the weight of a lift- surely I can overcome it’. It’s the classic example of breaking a large challenge down into smaller, manageable chunks and creating positive reinforcements at each stage of this journey. A friend reports that when she is faced with a large, boring word-processing task, she mentally breaks the document down into ‘sets’ of descending size, with a reward after each set. Similarly, when faced with the final 5% or so of a large project- the completion stage I traditionally flame-out on- I use a visualization of pressing a heavy bar overhead. It reminds me that a final burst of energy, of raw power, is always required to finish something.

The years’ notable achievements include my first rope climb, where I hung like a retarded ape, grinning with insane pride, about a metre off the ground. I am also proud to report surviving my first Christmas WOD, which has given me carte blanche to stuff myself on the actual. I’ve also met some really nice people, learned that box jumps aren’t necessarily lethal, experienced the full rainbow of different coloured pull-up bands (cue the soundtrack: I can Sing a Rainbow), and generally become a happier, healthier animal.

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It should be an easy task: go to the shops and buy a new pair of leggings to wear to the gym. Why is that hard? But surprisingly, it is. I have a nice pair of black leggings made by Running Bare that are about five years old. Despite being a cheapskate, I brought them because Running Bare were one of the few sportswear companies that were still manufacturing in Australia. I’ve got to replace them because, well, after five years there’s only so much lycra can do. 

Leggings are important: they matter. A good pair of leggings can make you feel like Superman’s girlfriend or Catwoman, or perhaps even a leopard on an unusually good day: a sleek, fast running machine. Good leggings brace the body, don’t ride up or fall down, and encourage a certain spring in your step. Baggy leggings, on the other hand, make you feel like a geriatric elephant.

Various people had recommended Lorna Jane leggings, but I just can’t bear to spend that much money on a tracksuit. Also, their marketing isn’t particularly inclusive, being squarely targeted at financially independent young women in their 20s and 30s, who live in an urban area and don’t have children. Good marketing is essentially a form of storytelling, and as their story is not my story, I find it hard to warm to the brand. Having said that, Lorna Jane tank tops are well made and lovely colours; I brought a bright blue one when it was on sale, but I yanked the silver dangly bit off the back because it made me feel like a dog. 

Fortunately, I recently discovered a solution to my legging dilemma. Superfit Hero are an American start-up currently running a crowd sourcing campaign on Kickstarter. I’m a sucker for a good promotional video, and they did a lovely job convincing me that their leggings were (a) well made (b) inclusive- they stock a huge range of sizes and (c) an expression of a philosophy that believes in female empowerment through sports, fitness and other forms of movement.

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For Sophie’s birthday last year, we made a large dinosaur pinyata. A friend cheekily referred to it as ‘aspirational’ as it ended up taking up most of the living room, and required three people to carry it up the road and into the sports hall where the party was being held. Unfortunately, I don’t have any images of the final pinyata- kids’ parties are like that- but will always treasure the memory of the large reptile, hanging from a basketball hoop by a complex collection of ropes, being attacked by sugar-crazed kiddies.

If you fancy trying this at home, you will need chicken wire for the frame, tissue paper and newspaper to make the paper maiche, and homemade glue (flour, salt and water), as well as some cut out coloured paper and paint to decorate it.

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Occasinally friendships propel you into difficult territory. As a case in point, my lovely artist mate Karen Smith recently asked me to take part in an exhibition of painted coffin lids. This creeped me out to the degree that I (1) refused to participate and (2) when worn down by Karen’s nagging, said ‘yes’ but didn’t actually do anything until the last minute. I wasn’t the only one alarmed by the subject matter. I left the coffin lid in my office during the holidays, so I didn’t have to deal with it, and when I came back someone politely said words to the effect ‘get it the hell out of here’. Having procastinated thus far, I ended up painting the lid on my kitchen table, and it was still wet when the exhibition opened: sorry Karen!

Strangely enough, once I got over my initial combination of superstition, paranoia, fear and dread, I found this project really intriguing. A life coach once gave me an exercise- imagine you are at your own funeral: what do you hope people say about you?- as a way of focussing on what I thought was most important in my life. The coffin lid did the same thing. It is based on one of my favourite books, Moby Dick, and my love of scrimshaw.

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There comes a time when you look at the plethora of reality-tv renovation shows and say enough! I mean, I get it: I know people want to make their homes grander, sleeker, bigger or more modern. And I understand how a crappy environment can drag on the psyche. But honestly, isn’t there a certain charm in 1970s orange vinyl benchtops? Why does every surface have to be immaculate? Shouldn’t a house have character? Visually, there’s not a lot of difference between minimalism and repossession: they both look like your belongings have been forcibly removed.

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I mention this because I recently worked with a lovely team of people on the sets for Maitland Repertory Theatre’s production of Gaslight, the classic play directed by Steven Ryan. It was a treat. The director wanted to make the set look like an old photograph come to life, so we kept the costumes and the props within the sepia range, with the only real flash of colour the lead actress’ gorgeous red hair (Leilani Smith). The lighting guys used bulbs that emitted a warm, golden glow. In the end it looked beautiful.

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Steve specifically asked us to include a piece of wallpaper curling off a wall, so we papered the flats and then roughly stripped them. The red wallpaper pattern was created with a stencil and spraypaint, then scratched and distressed. Large brown waterstains poured down the walls and black patches of mildew lurched in every crevice (we had a group of volunteers, dubbed ‘the mildew crew’, applying black paint with sponges). The younger members of the crew were encouraged to give in to their antisocial impulses, and scratch any piece of furniture with the sharp end of a screwdriver.

It was fun.

I’ve got to say, painting theatre sets is enormous fun. This is one of my recent jobs for Maitland Repertory Theatre’s Christmas production of The Butler Did It. Being a festive time of year, we immersed ourselves in rich colours: dark reds, golds, warm wood tones and rich greens. Even a bit of gold for that full tack-a-rama effect.

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I’m currently working on a book for Hunter Valley Grammar School. The School started in 1990, so I’ve been commissioned to write their 25 year history, in time for the celebrations next year. Part of this project has involved chasing down former students and asking them about their education, and how what they learned at school helped them in their future careers. I’m particularly interested in what people take with them from school into their adult lives.

Recently I interviewed Claire Dunn, who graduated from HVGS in 1995, and has just published her first book: My Year Without Matches. It’s an autobiographical account of Dunn’s year long immersion in a bushland camp, living in the shelter she built herself, largely in isolation, and without the benefit of electricity, running water or any heat source other than fire. Learning to start a fire became part of her daily ritual, hence the book’s title.

By all accounts, My Year Without Matches is a fascinating account of one woman’s exploration of nature and her own place in the world. Dunn speaks passionately about the human need for ‘re-wilding’, particularly when we live lives largely disconnected from nature and other animals. The following is an edited interview about her journey into writing and her new book. As part of the HVGS project, it has a strong focus on the School and its educational legacy, but hopefully what she has to say about writing and lifestyle choices is of interest to anyone with an interest in writing memoir, teaching writing and/or critical thinking, and environmental activism.

Book Cover:  My Year Without Matches: Escaping the City in Search of the Wild

How did you get interested in writing?

I always felt like I was a writer; it was partly just because I discovered I was good at it. One teacher at the School, Mrs (Elaine) Barker, was very encouraging of my writing. I felt like I had a skill for it, and a natural kind of talent for it, so that drew me into journalism.

What did your teacher do to encourage your writing?

She really pushed me to develop my own ideas, actually. I remember it quite clearly. I was much more of the ‘let’s do everything by the book, and check the notes’ type, and she started giving us these essays where you just had to think for yourself. That was really helpful. We were doing texts there weren’t any crib notes for…

One of the texts had absolutely no, it was a play, it had no critical reviews by authority figures. We had to develop all our own ideas about what the themes were and what the character development was, and all that sort of thing, and literally having no other choice, but to rely on your own ideas.

Did you debate ideas as well as just write about them?

I think so. It was a small class and it had a bit of healthy competition, so we really egged each other on. It was just new to me to go, ‘wow, they’re my ideas and that’s enough’. The only time I got 100% for an English essay was when I didn’t refer to any printed material, no reference material at all. It was kind of a seminal moment: wow, my ideas were good enough. And it also allowed me to craft the essay in a really simple way, rather than trying to stuff it full of quotes, but that was really the thing: you have your own ideas and they’re valued.

What did you do after year 12?

I went straight to Macquarie Uni and lived on campus and studied Communications, majoring in print journalism, thinking I’d become a journalist. The course was ok, but I was discovering life, so I really wasn’t that interested in studying. Year 11 and 12 had been incredibly full on and really, really channeled towards getting the best TER that I could. And quite a lot of pressure from external sources as well, that I really didn’t have much interest in academic study when I went to uni. I really wanted to discover life so moving to Sydney was more about that for me.

I got involved in the Green Society on campus, and then started running it for a couple of years with a friend. That really was such an amazing education: it was like coming out of a bubble, realising the extent of the environmental crisis that we were in. Climate change was still a fairly new kind of idea, and I worked on forest issues and nuclear issues. I went up to Kakadu as part of the campaign against the Jabaluka Uranium Mine. I just dived headlong into this world of environmentalism, and absolutely loved it.

Did you experience any health issues?

Yeah. Fatigue and that sort of thing. I started working in the Marine campaign for Port Stephens, and that was like working on forests but thirty years ago. It’s such a new concept, to put national parks in the ocean, so it was really like starting an enormous campaign. I felt like we were down the bottom of a huge hill that I couldn’t think about climbing.

I guess that’s when I started studying with Joanna Mason, an American eco-philosopher and Buddhist activist. Her whole work is about bridging personal change and social change, and reconnecting people, by addressing that human nature separation. It was a field of eco-psychology I was moving towards, and at the same time I started doing courses in wilderness survival skills and nature awareness.

Where did you do those courses?

A range of places. Up near Dorrigo and also in the Hunter Valley. One of the facilitators was living out near Dungog and we’d gather on land out there. Something in me just woke up when I started doing these courses. I realised that most of my life had been very much a head based, intellectual framework and I was missing a real physical engagement with the world. It was stripping everything back and getting back to the absolute bare basics: an elemental connection with earth, air, fire, water. Getting to know the plants and the animals and the birds, directly addressed that separation in myself first. It just felt incredibly right.

I’ve always been into meditation and done silent retreats, but this kind of filled that gap. It was a very dynamic, open eyed awareness of being in the natural world and expanding my senses and learning the skills of bush food, fire, water, shelter and bird language. I’m a very determined person, and once I find something that really switches me on, I just follow it. And that really excited me. All the time I knew that I was starting to walk a path quite different from most of the people that I’d grown up with. It was like another step further away from that mainstream path. That’s always an edge for me, I keep getting drawn more and more towards the path less travelled. I feel like I’m an explorer, and think I always will be; I’m just so curious about different paths and different ways of looking at things.

How does this pathway affect your work with the Wilderness Society?

It started to be like a shift, one interest really started to take over the other, as one waned the other one grew….that whole one door closing, another one opening thing. I started getting drawn, inextricably, towards this other path.

Were you worried about stepping away from your activism work?

There was a lot of fear and trepidation about leaving the Wilderness Society, because it had been my passion, and I had this paid role in a national environment organization. There’s very few paid roles, especially in Newcastle, and there was a lot of fear that if I left it, I’d never be able to come back to that kind of job. I really liked living in Newcastle and had a great network of friends, all based around that kind of environmental justice/social justice scene, which is really lively in Newcastle. So I hung on, longer than I should have or needed to, because I thought ‘well, this is a dream job, and I’m walking away from it’.

Dunn established a pattern of working in her family’s plant nursery for half a year and then travelling for the other half.

I went to America and studied at a tracking, nature observation and wilderness survival school in New Jersey. It was wild, totally wild. It was with one of the world’s best trackers: Tom Brown, Junior. He’s a bizarre character but it was just such an adventure. I learned incredible amounts, and I was hanging out with everyone from U.S. marines to prairie hippies, and they were all lumped together in these intense courses where we were learning advanced tracking and awareness, everything from basketry to spear throwing, meditations to blindfold walking out at night.

The experience led Dunn to take part in a year long wilderness immersion program.

And then the idea of the year long program came up, and I knew I wanted to do it. I just knew that it was something that I had to do. I really felt like I was yearning for a retreat and a life changing experience… I wanted to know what my potential would be if I wasn’t answerable to key performance indicators, or the to-do list, or anything like that, but was just immersed in wild nature.

Can you tell me a little bit more about the course?

It was called the independent wilderness studies program, based on the model of the one that’s offered in New Jersey. It’s a four season immersion in nature. This one was in Australia, at Halfway Creek, between Coffs Harbour and Grafton. It was the first time it had ever been run, and a young couple facilitated it. The idea is to practice earth skills, so instructors would come in the first half of the year and teach us all the different survival skills, and then we were to build our own shelters out of just natural materials.

Then it was really up to us how deeply we went into it. It was like the door was open for us to dive as deep as we wanted to, and I wanted to dive really deep, so I made commitment to only light fires with sticks for the entire year. I was craving solitude. I’m a bit of a spiritual seeker and I really wanted to dive deeply into my own experience, and see what happens when I’m just in a place that’s not dominated by the human world. I really wanted to sink into the skills and sink into myself and kind of go on a journey of self-discovery. It turned out to be quite a journey, quite an experience.

Did you write while you were up there?

I wrote a lot in journals, which was the raw material for the book.

Did you get lonely?

I did get lonely in winter. We started in summer. My book is structured on the fours seasons, starting in summer, and also around the sacred order of survival: shelter then water then fire then food. Each season has quite a different flavour. In winter, the others all went away to an aboriginal community to learn weaving and hunting and gathering. I decided not to go because I wanted to be alone.

I discovered some truth about solitude. It’s an incredibly rich world that really uncovers some of the shadows that we don’t see when we’re so busy and so distracted. And I was chronically busy before… I’m so deeply passionate about life that I’m often overloaded with things I want to do, and people around me. Peeling all that back, what I started to uncover was that deep conditioning to achieve and to strive. Even though I’d taken myself out there with no expectations, actually what I’d found is there’s deeply ingrained expectations that I have to have things to show for my day, and that just being myself is not enough. It was a really painful process of shifting that conditioning and teaching myself and allowing myself to just be. A

Living out there was shifting my compass bearing 180 degrees in the other direction. It was moving from the head to the heart. It was like a rite of passage, which indigenous societies have always had, and are guided and accepted and just part of life. We’ve lost that. Even though I was 31 when I went out there, in a way it was my rite of passage from adolescence to more of an adult place: learning to know myself as distinct from my cultural upbringing.

I didn’t want to be pushing myself anymore, and I realised how much I’d been pushing myself all my life. Our culture is so obsessed with competition, and who’s above who in the hierarchy, and we just take it for granted because that’s how we’re brought up. But when you take yourself outside your cultural norms, in the more than human world… The forest doesn’t care who you are or what you’re doing; it’s just in collaboration, it’s a whole organism constantly in flow.

When you’re steeped like a teabag in that environment, you start to move towards that way of being, so all the hard places and stuck places inside of you seek to shift as well. But it was both incredibly joyful and incredibly difficult. I relished those days on my own. Often on dusk would be a lonely time. I’d wander a lot of the day, I walked the land, just with my binoculars and an apple in my pocket. Then on dusk sometimes it would be the fear of whether I’d get a fire going or not, but also this lonely little time. But once I was snuggled inside my shelter, with my fire, I wasn’t lonely anymore.

What was it like coming back into the everyday world?

The funny thing was that I felt really ready. It was a sense that the four seasons were complete. I was starting to get restless. I was really craving culture and a couch, café, friends and family, so I almost rushed out the door. But then I realised that it was actually quite difficult to come back. I felt quite claustrophobic within four walls. I just missed, mourned, for my shelter and the birds. I’d had this spot that I would sit every single day and watch the birds and they became friends. Even though I tried to recreate that, once you’re back in the world of phones and computers it’s really hard to limit it. I’ve found it really rocky.

The old identity is gone and I haven’t really found a new one. All I know is, and I talk about this at the end of the book, I feel like my role is to be a bridge between that world and this world- the wilds and the civilized domestic world- and to kind of bring people into connection with that wolrd. It’s not in the way I used to do it. That kind of activism is really important, but it’s not what my passion is now. I use this word ‘re-wilding’, it’s like re-wilding of the human heart, and that’s what I feel my role is now. There’s this campaign in Europe and America to re-wild the physical landscape by brining back the top order predators; amazing things are being done in Yellowstone National Park, where they’ve brought wolves.

My campaign is like a re-wilding of the internal environment as well. If we free up this domestic, civilized self we’re open to what our passions are. I want to really encourage people to find what makes them come alive and follow that. So it’s not about going bush, necessarily… That’s what I feel the world needs more than anything: people who are feeling alive, alive-o. We’re not listening to that.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?

The enormity of the project and when I realised that I didn’t know how to write a book. I thought I knew how to write, until I started writing, and then I realised I didn’t know anything. So it’s just been a steep, steep learning curve to learn how to write, and to write memoir, which is deeply exposing. I put everything out there, I didn’t hold anything back, I had to use all the tools of fiction but for memoir.

It could have been twice as long, I had so much material, knowing what to put in, what to take out, how much of the others to reveal, how much of my own to reveal. And just the absolute slog of it. It was a very solitary journey, writing a book, alone hours a day on a computer. I questioned it, so many times, and tried to stop, but something just kept urging me forward. And just when I was at the end of my tether, I’d get a really good piece of feedback, or I got offered a couple of residencies with writers’ centres, and they really boosted my confidence. I started to get some feedback that it could be published. And that’s the thing. It was so hard to throw myself into something that had no certainty, that might never see the light of day.

What’s the critical reception been like?

It’s been really amazing. I was incredibly scared about how it would be received, partly in my own community, and also in the wider world. But I’ve just had incredibly positive feedback from all walks of life. People are saying that it’s inspiring them to go on their own journeys, or just to reconnect with the birds in their backyard. People email me and say I’ve just brought a pair of binoculars, or I’ve just started meditating. A lot of women are really connecting with this archetypal character through the book, which is called the wild woman.

Jan2013 139Images courtesy of Australian Geographic magazine

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On Boxing Day 2004, as a vast tsunami drowned hundreds of thousands across the Pacific, I stopped eating animals. With my television screen flooded with images of dead bodies, meat suddenly started tasting like what it is: remains, a corpse, a lifeless thing. What began as an emotional reaction to some gory footage, and vast incomprehension of the loss of lives, turned into a ten year journey into vegetarianism.

I’d always loved meat. As a child I remember picking pieces of meat out of any dish, thinking it was the ‘good bit’, valuing a dish only by how much chicken or beef it contained. Pepperoni was my favourite snack and I adored bacon. During summer holidays, my cousins and I went fishing and we used to giggle at the crackly noise a knife makes as it goes through a flathead’s skull. As I got older, and after some stints working in restaurant kitchens, I learned to love my steaks ‘bleu’. A bit further on, and I was married and living in the country, happily necking excess roosters for my chicken casserole.

It’s ironic how we shield ourselves from unpleasant truths. I recall being about three years old, during an active language acquisition phase, and considering the word ‘chicken’. I’d picked up the idea that words could have more than one meaning, and I remember thinking that ‘chicken’ couldn’t possibly mean both the feathery animal and the thing I liked eating. ‘It must be some other chicken’, I said to myself.

As I aged, I was able to co-exist the ideas that (a) I loved animals and felt a strong bond with them and (b) I really liked eating bacon. Occasionally the tension between the two ideas would get too much, such as when I made a pea and ham soup that ended up looking like a cannibal’s cookpot, or the time the pork belly included a sad little sow’s nipple. At such times I’d revert to vegetarianism for a while, never really intending to make it part of my life, but feeling somewhat disgusted by the prospect of eating flesh.

After the tsunami, vegetarianism wasn’t ever really an effort, though I did continue to eat fish for a few years. This ended while visiting the Japanese Gardens at Gosford Art Gallery, when a large carp stuck its head out of the water, and looked directly at me to see if I was carrying the bag of fishfood they sell to tourists. The carp and I looked at each other for a few seconds. ‘Shit’ I thought, ‘there goes the seafood’.

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A few years after that, I went from being a vaguely committed vegetarian to someone with a better understanding of the ecological and ethical implications of human dietary habits. They say that you are what you eat: it turns out that the world operates like this too. During a failed attempt to embrace capitalism (I was studying Law at UNSW) I enrolled in a postgraduate elective- ‘Animal Law’– taught by Geoffrey Bloom and offered for only the second time at UNSW, and in an Australian university. I’ve got to admit enrolling just because I liked the name, with no idea about the subject, but a dim inkling that it could have something to do with pit bulls.

As it was, the course transformed my thinking. Radicalised it, you could say. It was the first time that I’d encountered the work of animal ethicists such as Peter Singer and Tom Regan. I loved the stories about an American lawyer who made it his life’s work to rock up to SeaWorld and tell them that he was their orca’s lawyer, or the guy who saved many domestic dogs from death row by telling the judge that the animal was ‘a good dog having a bad day’. It was like flying into a cloud and then emerging on the other side to find that your aircraft was upside down. For the first time I was able to see humans as just part of the world, not as god like beings blindly teetering at the apex of power, with the incontrovertible right to control all other species. If you start thinking like that, you start looking at animal lives with an entirely new perspective. Factory farming becomes nothing more than institutionalized cruelty. I became a much better pet owner, simply by considering how my dogs may see the world, and what their priorities were.

Vegetarianism survived my pregnancy, though I did eat some fish, and I remember being amused by the number of clearly unhealthy people who wanted to offer dietary advice. After Sophie was born, well a few months later actually, I raised her as a carnivore. This was something of a chore- voluntarily assumed- as it often meant cooking two meals at night instead of one. The diet survived marriage breakdown, relocation, job changes, travel, illness and divorce. However about six months ago I started eating meat again. It is interesting how fluid this decision was, and how little angst went into it: my body wanted this kind of protein, and suddenly animals tasted good. Physically, I felt a rich sense of wellness and an increase in energy and élan. To use a visual metaphor, it felt as if a vast, sunlit grassy plain had opened up inside me.

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A philosophical shift accompanied this decision, and it will sound twee, but I’ll try to briefly explain it. I stopped eating animals because I became conscious that we had much more in common than I’d anticipated: evidence about animal sentience continues to grow, and I felt as if I was eating my siblings, or depriving an animal mother of her babies. Effectively, it was a decision driven by compassion but also by self abnegation. After a period of intense stress (aka divorce) I felt run down and as if I were at the bottom of a food chain. It seems as if I’d spent a lot of time considering other people’s interests but not my own. With my body falling to bits, I reversed my thinking around diet, partly as a way of rearranging my own worldview. It seemed to me that if I was sick, I could not take care of my child, and was putting another animal’s babies before my own.

Of course many vegetarians will rightly argue that a plant based diet is entirely capable of providing the human body with essential nutrition; and that I could have clawed my way back to wellness via tofu and black beans, not lamb shanks and burgers. I expect they’re right. I did have the occasional nightmare about driving a pig to hospital, with desperate emergency department nurses trying to save its severed leg, but apart from this very little psychic fall out. I’m now in the slightly odd position of understanding the consequences of my decisions- for an example, look at a PETA video of battery chicken farms- yet carrying on regardless. I know that a pig is more intelligent than a dog, and perhaps as aware as a three year old child, but I also enjoy eating bacon.

I would like to say that I consistently buy ethically farmed, free range meat: I don’t. I buy free range eggs, but as a single parent it stretches the family budget to always do the right thing. I’m also aware that it’s a luxury to even have this kind of choice.

Grass plain image sourced from http://www.garthsontour.com/2013/09/10/kansas-a-plains-state/

 

 

 

 

 

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There comes a time in every parent’s life when the endless nagging suddenly gets too much, one reliquinshes common sense, torches the family budget, and resigns oneself to many years of picking up steaming piles of shit. Yes, pet ownership eventually comes to us all. With Sophie about to turn six, I decided it was time to get an animal.

While most children by this stage have experienced the joys of small animal ownership, my habit of obsessively overthinking every decision meant that the poor kid hasn’t even had a goldfish. I spent months reading up on possible pets, carefully considering the pros and cons, and wound up unable to make a decision. Who could have known that the humble turtle could be expected to live so long? If one believes in the sentience of animals, as I do, then the ethical consequences of purchasing an intelligent rat for a five year old are horrendous. Would you like to be dressed up like Barbie and stuffed into a pink, plastic campervan?

But from personal experience, I know that pets are great teachers, and that a wise dog or cat can set you up for life. As is often noted, dogs teach optimism, loyality, resilience and a certain down to earth capacity to eat anything: it’s difficult to imagine a dog ever developing an eating disorder. Cats, meanwhile, instruct in the arts of malevolence, sensuality and indolence. A dog settles a kid with daily demonstrations of unconditional love; meanwhile, a cat shows them how to conquer and lay waste.

So last Christmas, with a few too many psychic eggnogs in my system, we adopted a puppy and a kitten, both from rescue organizations. They came with the unlikely names of Jasper and Leroy. Jasper, the kitten, is a splendid little tabby with a purr like an outboard motor: the vibration is completely out of proportion to his size. Puppy Leroy (‘bad, bad Leroy Brown, the baddest man in the whole damned town, meaner than a junkyard dog’…) is also stripy, technically a brindle, so together they look like walking television interference.

Leroy is a glorious mix of many breeds, a pure bred mongrel, the kind of dog that people stop you in the street and try and identify his breed. This is fun for me, kind of like watching people have a stab at a quinnella or a trifecta. Leroy is a mix of great dane, irish wolfhound, bull arab and bullmastiff, and so far only one person has managed to correctly identify all four of these breeds. (Few people get the wolfhound, the genetic joker in the pack). Whether any of these ancestors were pure bred dogs themselves, I doubt, meaning that he is blue ribbon mongrel.

Leroy is sensitive, detached, quiet: I call him the deviant.I find myself unused to the soulful manipulations of the hound species, very unlike my previous dogs, bullmastiffs, with their ‘attack first/ask questions later’ mentality. However he does get in touch with his inner psychopath whenever he sees a rabbit.

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