beautiful monsters: August 2003 Archives

August 28, 2003

flag declaration

Carla has added her flag design to her blog, and since I’m up in Rotorua I thought I’d nosey through piles of dusty school projects and find the concept sketches I did for a new flag. In fourth form graphics. About five years before I even knew that Carla existed. Ok, so the design is slightly different (and I think I like hers better now) but the symbolism was exactly the same; earth, sea/sky, cloud/spirit, new life, blah blah...


Went over to Tauranga today to pick up some photos for the 90th birthday celebration that’s happening on Sunday. I’ve been telling everyone it’s my great aunt’s birthday, but actually she is my first cousin twice removed descending. I think. The family is so confusing. There are five sisters, two of whom have died, with various children between them. Which seems simple enough... except that most of them have married at least three times, there’s a few Maori kids in the family, by adoption, the children of one sister were brought up by another, one sister died and her husband married another of the sisters... and so on. I just assume that I’m related to most of them by blood or marriage, and if not they’re all really nice so I’m happy to consider them family.

We bought the weirdest orange coloured limes from a roadside stall on the way home.

Posted by Fionnaigh at 06:38 PM

August 27, 2003


My father has a cycle trainer at home: Result? Can watch Buffy without feeling guilty.

Helped my grandfather sort through a box of stuff yesterday – scored lots of pretty cards, and a locket he made out of two ha’penny coins to give to my grandmother during the war. It’s real pretty. Also acquired some gorgeous old books, and I’ve been leafing through my great-grandfather’s sketchbooks.

The beach at Otaki, 1901

Home is, well, home... the stream has moved a little, the island has merged with the bank and the water is faster and deeper under the toitoi. The trees are all taller, except for the weeping cherry which my mother cut down for crimes against the view. It’s not quite raining, but the cliffs and the trees on the top of the mountain are dissolving into the clouds. The cat is blissed out by the fire. And it’s so damn quiet, a few birds chirping across the stream, and the rain pattering through the trees.

I went for a walk last night, to look for glow-worms. The stars are amazing here, the mountain blocks out any light from the city, and the sky seems huge, the stars so close. Mars glowing orange, just above the shadow of the rhododendron.

Posted by Fionnaigh at 01:34 PM

August 26, 2003


'Today the river in my head whispered a memory.'

Young greenstone carver Potiki knows there is a dark secret surrounding his childhood. Twenty years ago, on the South Island West Coast, two Maori carvers, Tam and Manaaki went searching for a sacred greenstone boulder. They took Potiki, Manaaki's little son with them. Something terrible happened that day that wreaked havoc on all involved.

'The worst memory you can have is a memory of love.'

Last night I went to see Potiki’s Memory of Stone, by Briar Grace Smith. It’s a powerful story. The soundscape, composed by Gillian Whitehead and featuring Richard Nunns playing Taonga Puoro, is haunting and evocative. And the set design is simple, but beautifully effective. And the actors… are brilliant. Yeah, you should go. I laughed until my belly ached, and then shook with silent tears.


John Katipa, the actor who played Potiki, also stared in Blue Orange. He was absolutely brilliant – his character was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, which is one of the many psychiatric labels I’ve been lumped with over the years.


If you’ve ever acted, you’ll know what it’s like to crash after a show. I used to crash real bad. I’ve been known to try to slit my wrists after the last performance. Well, I still seem to crash like that even when I’m not acting in the play. Went for a walk round the waterfront last night. I couldn’t seem to pull the pieces of myself together. I couldn’t break free from the lives in the play… and then I got wrapped up in my own regrets and mistakes and foolish deals and might-have-beens.

Sometimes, I think too much.

Posted by Fionnaigh at 09:46 AM

August 25, 2003


Poached eggs still turning out weird and unappetising. Briefly considered buying an egg poacher but then I tried Carla’s recipe for scrambled eggs. Mmmm, yeah, I’m a convert. In fact, not only has Carla shown me the light in egg consumption, she’s also radically influenced my taste in beer. To the point where I actually like the stuff. Lots.

Posted by Fionnaigh at 11:20 AM

August 24, 2003

islands and coffins and stuff

Our writing class went on a trip to Matiu/Somes, the Island in the middle of Wellington Harbour. It’s an amazing place – it’s so small, but packed with so much history. Originally Matiu was covered in thick coastal forest, and provided a home for many species of birds, reptiles and insects. When Maaori people lived on the island, most of the big trees were cut down to clear the view for defence and to make room for crops. Then European settlers arrived, and used the island to quarantine animals… and people suspected of carrying infectious diseases. More than fifty people never left the island. During the Wars, the island was used as an internment camp, and hundreds of people were kept there. Now the forest is creeping back over the island, thanks to the work of dozens of volunteers. Kakariki and tuatara have been released onto the island, and many other creatures are returning there.

We had crap weather for the trip, it was cold, wet and windy and we had to go out in it to do our writing exercises. But I snuck back early from our tour of the island, put on the heaters, and brewed up some spiced hot chocolate. It was worth it to hear everyone exclaiming as they came through the door and sniffed the warm spicy air. After it got dark we all went for a walk, and saw some little blue penguins – oh so cute! And then we heard them all night, braying like donkeys right under the house. We played the National Geographic board game, because it was the only one in the Forest and Bird house, and made mulled wine before the generator switched off for the night.


Took the Rainbow Room kids on a visit to a funeral home today. Lots of them have been asking questions about death, from the littlest, who’s cat died, to the older ones, who worry about people coming back from the dead. They wanted to know what colour coffins can be (pretty much any colour in the Resene catalogue). Apparently sometimes they choose a pale colour and the children in a family write and draw pictures on the coffin. The kids all got to have a look at a (empty) coffin, and have a go at being pallbearers. The parents asked more questions than any of the kids. On the way back the funeral director told me about one family who had a funeral for a 12-week-old foetus. “The coffin was so tiny,” she said, gesturing with her hands only a few centimetres apart. Then my eyes went all blurry.

Did you know you *have* to have a coffin. Apparently it’s the law. Well, I’m going out in an Ecopod. Just so you know.

Posted by Fionnaigh at 11:31 PM

August 21, 2003


Writers block still tripping me up. It even seems to be affecting my ability to blog. That, and laziness, and head in the clouds… and a kind soul took pity on me and lent me the rest of season four Buffy and season one Angel (thank you thank you thank you). But then my flatmate came home and kicked me out of his room (how inconsiderate is that?) so I didn't get to watch much. I tried to do some work on my novel tonight, but one of the characters kept turning into a demon, and it’s suppose to be a realist novel.

Hey, anyone read New Internationalist? The latest issue comes with a cool CD, “Sounds of Dissent,” with tracks from Ani DiFranco and a whole bunch of artists I haven’t actually heard of but that's probably just cos I'm clueless.

Just promise me one thing; if I drop dead tomorrow,
tell me my grave stone won't read:

ani d.

Please let it read:

(from Ani’s open letter to Ms Magazine)

I wish I had the guts and integrity that woman has. I’d probably sell out if someone made me an offer. I want acceptance too much.

Posted by Fionnaigh at 12:24 AM

August 20, 2003

writer's block

I only had one exercise this week: Write a poem about an object, quality, element or creature of the natural world; Use the form of a poem in the reader handout; Have the least natural thing you can imagine enter the poem. You wouldn’t think it would be that hard, right? Well, I don’t get it. Does least natural mean man-made, or just something that doesn’t belong in the poem, or…? I’m trying to write a poem about a ruru (morepork). What is the least natural thing that could creep into a poem about Ninox novaeseelandiae? My father pointed out that in Maaori tradition they are the spirits of the deceased, but I think he was getting confused between unnatural and supernatural.

I’m having my almost monthly “I don’t know what I want to do with my life” crisis. I think I’m going to go back to varsity next year, after all. I’m thinking about doing a Political Science major, and doing a couple more Maaori papers but not a major. What I really want to do is travel… go to Indiana, travel up through Minnesota to Canada, then head for Mexico and travel south from there. And maybe, somehow, try and get to Laos on the way back home. And the Solomon Islands. And…

There are two problems with my travel plan. Money… and company. Don’t want to travel alone; been there, done that, not doing it again until I grow a penis and a “don’t mess with me” look, or at the very least a large dose of self-esteem and confidence. There are only a few people I think I could travel with, and none of them are making any itchy-feet noises at the moment. Also some of them have partners who would either tag along or feel left out, neither of which would be very happy for me.

I might have to settle for somewhere closer to home. I have enough airpoints to get to Australia or somewhere in the Pacific…

Posted by Fionnaigh at 09:15 AM

August 19, 2003

Entry No. 178

Ok, so having trouble coming up with the titles right now...

Today was gorgeous. I spent half the morning lolling around in bed with the windows open, enjoying the sunshine. (Waiting for Tommy to leave the house so I could finish watching the episode of Buffy he interrupted last night). I watched Hush yesterday, which is possibly the scariest episode since Xander and Cordelia smooching. There was something about those Gentlemen gliding about that triggered a deep childhood fear… and who hasn’t had nightmares where they try to scream and no sound comes out?

Ok, so any Buffy analysis I do is going to be soooo out of date, but bear with me. And no spoilers, I’m only up to This Year's Girl (I can’t believe my supplier left me stranded halfway through a two-parter!)

Buffy is starting to get a little confusing. In the beginning, there were vampires, and they had no soul, they were evil, Buffy killed them. And Angel was a vampire but he had a soul so nobody killed him. Fine. But now… there’s Spike, who seems to be capable of expressing guilt, fear, pain, happiness, even affection. In fact, he’s acting remarkably human. Ok, so where I’m up to he can’t bite anyone, but that shouldn’t mean he stops being evil. And anyway, the human-like attitude started long before he got neutered. So what’s up with that? Why isn’t anyone staking him? Could it be because he’s not actually evil through and through? And if not, then what about all the other vampires getting staked. Maybe if we knew them for more than an episode we’d find out that they actually had feelings we could relate to.

Or maybe not. I’m tired, it’s late, brain addled. And I miss Oz. He comes back, right? And he falls in love with Spike, and… oh, nevermind.

Posted by Fionnaigh at 12:19 AM

August 15, 2003


Well, not really, but it kinda feels like it. I’ve finished my reading journal (in fact I’ve read 16 novels in five weeks!) and I’ve made a start on my folio projects. Kate hasn’t given us an assignment this week (cos we need to catch up on workshopping) and I’ve already done Harry’s exercise for next week. So this week I just have to write a poem, and keep plodding on with my novel and memoir. Yay! I celebrated by watching Buffy.

Nine days without sugar. Headache not quite so bad today. When I start eating unrefined sugars again I’m going to make buckwheat pancakes with maple syrup. Mmmmmmm.

Posted by Fionnaigh at 11:01 PM

Another exercise

(I feel like I should slap one of those content warnings on this, but I'm not sure exactly what it should say. Content may offend? Disturb? Not be suitable for reading in an open-plan office situation?).

“We’re going to the jungle,” Raquel shouted across the street. “Come with us.” I grinned at her. My week had been boring as hell; if she’d said “we’re going Morris dancing,” I would have followed her. She came inside to explain to Antonietta that we were going out for the afternoon. I ditched my school bag and changed out of my uniform.

Manuel, Beni and I sat in the back of the truck. We were tossed around as Mario swerved to avoid the largest potholes, or rattled through the small ones. Beni put his arms around me in the darkness, but his bony limbs provided little cushioning.

When we climbed out of the truck we found ourselves in a clearing beside a corrugated iron shack. A tangle of trees rose around us, and I could hear toucans somewhere near by. Mario lit a fire, and we crouched beside it to share a bottle of pineapple wine. The drink was so sweet it seemed to burn my throat. When Raquel passed a joint around, Beni laughed at me. I found it hard to hold my breath in, and the smoke leaked out of my nostrils.

After a while Beni wandered off into the trees, and beckoned for me to follow him. I got up, thinking he wanted to show me something. Away from the firelight he leaned against a tree, grabbed my shoulders and pushed me down onto my knees. It took me a moment to realise what he wanted. I felt the familiar freezing sensation in my mind. Faced with an erection, I always felt it was my fault, like I was obliged to do something about it.

Beni seemed to have a bottomless libido. Sometimes I thought he was about to cum, but it was always a false alarm. He pushed my head back when I tried to come up for air. I don’t want to die like this. Thoughts raced through my head like alarms going off, but I had no way to evacuate. I had no idea where we were, or how far from San Carlos. Finally he seemed to loose interest, and wandered back to the fire. I slumped against the tree for a few minutes. I couldn’t remember how to cry.

Back at the fire the others were all moving into the shack. “Are we staying here?” I asked Raquel. “But… I haven’t told Antonietta. She’ll worry.” Raquel just giggled.

There were three camp beds in the shack. Beni beckoned me over to one of them, but I crawled in with Manuel, and tried not to listen to Raquel and Mario fucking. After a few minutes I felt Manuel pushing me down the bed. I don’t think he noticed my tears. He proved to have as much stamina as Beni. Eventually I pretended to fall asleep. Manuel whispered a few times, and prodded my back, then he gave up and jerked off beside me. I lay with my arms wrapped tightly around my chest, listening to the shack moving in the wind, and animals snuffling outside. I was still awake when the first birds began to cry. I crept outside and waited till the others woke and packed up to leave.

It was raining when they dropped me back in San Carlos. At first I tilted back my head and felt the fat drops burst on my face, but soon the water in the streets was up to my ankles and my clothes were drenched.

That night I had really bad asthma, which soon developed into a chest infection. My entire extended host family seemed to be convinced that I was either lovesick or homesick. No one made me hot lemon drinks or brought me books to read, or showed the slightest sign of sympathy. Antonieta came into my room one night and told me I had to ask Jesus to come into my heart and help me and give me peace, and he would heal me, and she’d wake me up early for school.

After a few days I decided I needed to see a doctor, so Antonieta called her brother. He gave me a packet of antihistamines. I explained to him that I was already taking anti-histamines for hayfever, but they wouldn’t help at all for the asthma.

During the night I started coughing up blood, so on Saturday I got myself to the Montesinai clinic. The doctor looked at the medication I’d been given and shook his head with a slightly incredulous look. He gave me some new medications. I was now taking eleven different pills and potions, not counting panadol or vitamins.

I decided that I was going to get an early night, but I couldn’t get to sleep for hours. The TV was going, Pablo was crying, and someone seemed to be dragging furniture around just outside my door. When I managed to doze off for a few minutes, Antonieta walked through my room to the bathroom – I probably wouldn’t have woken if she hadn’t said “Con Permiso” on her way through. It was so hot, and there was a mosquito buzzing around my head. Then a cat started yowling under my window, and soon another one joined in. After a hissing and shrieking at each other for a while, one of them fled, pounding across the roof. At four o’clock Pablo woke up crying and didn’t stop. At five o’clock I gave up on getting any sleep.

Posted by Fionnaigh at 08:22 AM

August 14, 2003


The moment Daz walked into assembly, he knew his life was about to change forever.

She was sitting in the third row of seniors. The loose ringlets framing her face reminded him a bit of a Christmas card angel. Amidst the pale, pimply kiwi girls her skin seemed to glow.

Daz stumbled blindly to a seat and collapsed, letting his school bag sink between his knees. She was two rows in front of him now, and a little to the right. In the noisy hall he couldn’t make out the sound of her laughter, but he could see it rippling through her curls as her shoulders trembled.

Daz closed his eyes and let the realisation tingle through his body. He was in love.


“Lola,” Marama said at lunchtime.

“Huh?” Daz turned and stared at her blankly. Marama was his best mate, well, his best girl mate anyway. She was practically one of the guys.

“The new girl.” Marama rolled her eyes and sat down on the bench beside Daz.

“Her name’s Lola. She’s an exchange student from Mexico.”


“She’s in some of my classes, how do you think?” She threw her banana skin at him, and it landed on his knee.

“Gross.” Daz picked up the skin and dangled it in front of her. “No, I mean…”

“You’ve been staring at her all day, Lover-Boy. I’m not stupid.” She grabbed the skin and threw it into the bin behind him. “So aren’t you going to ask me about the rest of my holiday?”

“Yeah. Meet any cute babes?” After a few beers on New Years, Marama had told him that she was bi. Daz thought it was pretty cool, it meant they could babe-watch together.

“As if I’d tell you,” she snorted. “You’d just want to perve at them.”

“Yeah,” Daz grinned. “Speaking of perving,” he glanced across the courtyard. “What classes was she in?”

Marama folded her arms and raised one eyebrow. “Art, actually. And she’s helping out in the Spanish class.”

“Art.” Daz didn’t turn to look at Marama as he spoke. “Funny you should mention that. I was thinking about changing to art. And I’ve always wanted to learn Spanish.”

He could almost trace the outline of her bra underneath the thin uniform shirt.


Daz tried to turn his attention back to Mr Herrick’s integrations, but the numbers kept swimming around the whiteboard. How was he supposed to understand integration if the numbers wouldn’t keep still?

Daz was all for integration. Wasn’t that what the principal had been going on about? Racial integration, bringing people of all different cultures together in one school. But he couldn’t work out what that had to do with the curves Mr Herrick was drawing on the board.

He'd spent most of the class trying to spell something out on his calculator. He’d got as far as
but then got stuck.

He couldn’t even remember if it was possible to do an A with a calculator.

Posted by Fionnaigh at 12:52 AM

August 12, 2003


This is all nature, he says.

He is lying on the waterfront, the concrete rough and warm under his back.
The corners of buildings crowd the blue hemisphere above him.

She closes her eyes and tries to be one with nature. She can hear an aeroplane buzzing across the sky. Jervois Quay is a murky river of noise, rising over its banks and flooding the city. After a few moments she starts to notice waves slapping against the rocks. Seagulls screeching.
The wind.

She opens her eyes and the skyscrapers seem to fall towards her.
He starts laughing, and his laughter is part of the song of the day, with the seagulls and the cars and the wind. She closes her eyes again, breathes in the salt and the slightly rotten scent of seaweed.

He is standing now, reaching out to the city and the harbour and the hills.
We are nature, he says.


He says he wants to see the world: the jungles, the cities, the arid deserts.
This is the world, she cries. He laughs and touches her cheek. Stay with me, she says, but his eyes are fixed on other landscapes. He tightens the straps on his pack and kisses her cheek.

We’ll share the same moon, he says
and turns away.


He sends his love with the moon and it pours through her window
saturates her dreams.

He is restless and feverish.
His hands graze over his skin, tugging at his body, searching for her.
The moon blushes golden and slips beneath the horizon.

She reaches out at night, as though her arms have not accepted his absence.

Posted by Fionnaigh at 09:15 PM


How dumb am I? Picked up my student ID card today (lost my old one) and then headed up to the library to get some books. The woman at the counter checked them out, put a barcode on my card, and stuck on a bright green sticker that said “Grad.” And I stared at it in confusion, and said, “But I’m not a…” What a doofus. I could’ve had my books out for so much longer, saved myself a fortune in library fines… but no. She peeled the sticker back off, un-issued the books, and then reissued them for the undergraduate allowance of two weeks, fussed around for ages while the queue grew to about thirty students, all glaring at me. Fool.

Never mind. I found some interesting books about “Evil,” a topic I plan to write an essay on for one of my courses. Some of them should be good. So to speak.

The first floor of the library is slightly unnerving at the moment. There’s lots of loud drilling going on, areas sectioned off by sheets of black plastic, and men wandering around with large sheets of ply wood. They’ve been at it for months, and it doesn’t look that much different, just a big whole under the south end of the library and lots of loud machinery. And inconvenience. Can’t take my usual shortcut. How long can the construction possibly go on for?


Got my feedback from the Writing for Children workshop. Yay! It was nine pages long, and very encouraging. Kate’s was so lovely it had me in tears!


See? I’m not completely mad. Even rats get addicted to sugar. And here, “The symptoms from sugar withdrawal were not as pronounced as what we see with morphine, but it was withdrawal.” According to the same article, even a picture of cake triggers chemical reactions that cause cravings.

Ok, I’m sorry, but I’m probably going to be a little monotonous for a few more days. It’s hard to think about anything else! I’ve never had such bad headaches, and I can’t dissociate from them. My usual method (involving scalpel blades) is off limits because I don’t want to go down the old “kick one addiction by adopting another” road.

Apparently sugar withdrawal can last for one or two weeks! Yikes! No, must think positive. That means I’m halfway through at worse, almost free at best. I don’t feel much better, I’ve still got a splitting headache, and I’m still craving chocolate every moment. Told my flatmate (a long time NA and AA member) that last night I dreamed I ate a whole packet of chocolate biscuits and woke up shaking and upset. He turned to me with this really worried expression and said, “Maybe you should go along to OA; that sounds like a Twelve Step dream!”

My legs feel so heavy, walking up the steps to the institute is agony. It feels like my feet have been fused to the ground and it takes all my strength to wrench them free.

I was going to cut out all sugars, but in desperation resorted to one piece of fruit a day (which crept up to two a couple of times).

Posted by Fionnaigh at 12:07 AM

August 11, 2003


It’s Monday. Oh gawd…

The air seems to tingle with nervous anticipation. It feels like Christmas, or Easter, only scarier.

We get our folios back today.


Posted by Fionnaigh at 11:52 AM

August 10, 2003

I am a saint

I’m going up to Rotorua for a week during the university holidays. I’ve been going there about once a year, if that. There’s little to draw me back; my parents are there, but they can always come and visit me down here or meet me halfway. My Rotorua friends have all moved on, and the house aggravates my allergies. Still, I’m looking forward to it. The stream slipping past under the dark, bush-covered banks. The trout basking in the shallows, the herons and shags, and even the ducks. Don’t get many ducks around Wellington… My mother’s garden; spring is the best time to visit. The magnolias will be swollen with buds, bulbs pushing up through the earth, the early blossoms. Heather has created a ten-acre garden, and it’s incredible. Natives planted along the stream banks, the plantation trees edged with golden larches, thickets of vegetables, fruit trees and nuts, and flowers, everywhere the most gorgeous flowers.

I’m going up for my great aunt’s 90th birthday. She’s absolutely fantastic, plays in a little orchestra… imagine being 90 and still living in your own home, still keeping so active. She says she’s an “Anglican Quaker.” She believes in the Quaker philosophy, but she misses the singing. Must run in the family. While I’m north I’m going to go to Hamilton, get the feel of the place again, since my novel is going to be set there. Oh yeah, the novel. I was going to do some more writing tonight, but I’m so tired.

I haven’t had chocolate, or any sugar or caffeine, for five days now. That’s probably the longest fast in my whole life. The headaches and shakiness have eased off a bit, I’m not bursting into tears or hysterics all the time any more… but it’s still the Only. Thing. On. My. Mind. I keep trying to distract myself by getting ahead on my reading journal (only three and a half books to go!) but that doesn’t help, because the characters keep on eating yummy sugary delights. I’ve just been flicking through Fire and Hemlock, cos I finally got around to writing it up for my reading journal and there’s a cat in the story called Mintchoc. It’s torture. Every couple of pages, there it is. Mintchoc. Mmmmmmm mint choc…

I've been so restrained. I've walked past endless advertisements and shops filled with chocolate. I sat through three workshops with chocolate biscuits piled in the centre of the table to taunt me, and I handed out biscuits to the kids this morning without so much as nibbling on a crumb. I am a saint! No, really. Fionnaigh, the patron saint of recovered chocoholics.

Posted by Fionnaigh at 10:27 PM

August 07, 2003


Still so tired. And headachy. Haven’t had sugar for two whole days! Today I sat through two workshops that involved yummy biscuits, including my favourite Mint Treats, and I didn’t eat any. Went to the Mad Genius Songwriters night, which was fun – it was nice to hear some harmonising that was actually interesting – but allowed myself to be dragged away reasonably early. Largely due to the headache. What I’d like right now is an enormous slice of chocolate cake, and a soy latte with about six sugars, and a couple of blocks of Green and Blacks chocolate…

Don’t want to post the piece I’ve done for the non-fiction exercise this week, cos it’s dreadful, but I just have to share this anecdote. The first time Margaret Mahy won the Carnegie Medal, someone phoned to tell her that she’d won. She’d been told early, so she could book a flight to London to attend the awards ceremony… but the results hadn’t been announced. Margaret wasn’t allowed to tell anyone what was going to happen. Of course it just about drove her mad, she was bursting to tell someone the wonderful news. And suddenly, she thought of her dear aunt Francie who had lost her memory. Aunt Francie lived next door, and every day Margaret went over and told her the wonderful news. “Isn’t it marvellous Auntie, I’ve won the Carnegie medal,” she would exclaim. “Have you dear? Isn’t that splendid!” Aunt Francie would say, and promptly forget all about it. So the next day Margaret would go back next door and tell her the wonderful news all over again, knowing the secret would be perfectly safe.

Posted by Fionnaigh at 11:35 PM

Into the Fire

This is the start of a piece I wrote for the Landscape class.

Travelling, for a teenager, into unfamiliar territory is like shaking the contents of the frying pan into the fire and then pouring on petrol. Teenagers are already struggling in an alien environment: the borderland between childhood and the adult world: parents and teachers are like another species, friendships are fragile and unpredictable, even the teenager’s own body is rebelling and mutating. When an unfamiliar language, a strange culture and a foreign landscape are thrown into the mix, the results are all the more excruciating.

I was seventeen when I left for Costa Rica. I was bright and popular at school, and involved in a wide range of cultural and political activities – the perfect candidate for an exchange programme. Under the surface I was struggling to deal with the effects of several incidents of sexual abuse, and I was experiencing the first symptoms of a psychotic illness. I’d spent so long dancing from the frying pan to the fire that I’d developed a thick skin of scar tissue, but the layers were beginning to crack.

Fire is not a bad analogy for the Costa Rican landscape: the burn of snakebites and poisonous plants, the hiss of jungle cats, and the constant sputtering of the volcanoes… it has a savage beauty, but you wouldn’t want to jump into it.

I was placed in San Carlos (population 40,000), a bustling agricultural town to which my guidebook devoted two sentences. It obviously wasn’t a tourist area. There were three other exchange students going to San Carlos, and we travelled together in a van. The town was only 60km away, but it was about a three-hour drive due to the winding potholed roads. As we meandered through the mountains north of San Jose, we passed through endless coffee plantations, the rows of dark plants heavy with berries. When the bushes are in flower, my guidebook told me, the locals call it Costa Rican snow.

My host father was a farmer, and my host mother was a Catholic. Her name, Marielos, was an abbreviation of Maria de los Angeles. Her house was filled with pictures of bleeding hearts, glowing virgins, and doves emitting rays of light. In fact, the whole town looked towards the Catholic Church looming above the Plaza Central. But I wasn’t interested in an inner journey – I wanted to explore outwards.

To the south, San Carlos climbs upwards towards the central mountains. To the north-west Arenal volcano rises above the hazy plains. Between the houses in our neighbourhood I could catch tantalising glimpses of the volcano – one of the most active in the world.

It was weeks before I was able to escape from the city, but even though I was trapped, the wildlife was free to come and go at leisure. Costa Rica is home to between 500 000 and a million different species of flora and fauna, so it’s not surprising that a few of them ventured into the urban landscape. Toucans could be heard croaking in the trees near the colegio, iguanas and armadillos could be seen basking in the park, and huge spiders crept through the house.

I was thrilled to discover a banana palm leaning over our back fence. I soon found out that bananas are not trees at all. They’re perennial herbs that sprout from rhizomes. What looks like a trunk is in fact made up of tightly packed leaf stems, and, botanically at least, the fruits are berries. Most cultivated bananas are seedless, but the memories of seeds remain as brown specks within the flesh. Each plant produces one flower cluster and then dies, but a new shoot will sprout up. I watched the flower in our backyard, day after day, as the huge purple petals unfolded. Bananas are incredibly fussy, demanding shelter from wind, direct sun but not too bright, consistent warm temperatures, and even then it can take months for the fruit to ripen. There are hundreds of different varieties, and in Costa Rica I tried dozens: tiny green bananas thrown into soups and stews, huge plantains sliced and fried with any meal, and small, sweet eating bananas, creamier and spicier than anything I’d tasted back home.

Every week I would walk to the market and buy something that I’d never tried before. One week it was guaba, huge bean-like pods. My host-mother showed me how to split open the pods, and suck off the fluffy white pulp from around the seeds. Another week we brought home cashew apples. We broke off the nuts to roast, and then stewed the fruit with sugar.

I think my favourite fruits of all were the ones I picked at my friend Minor’s house. I remember the day we climbed up the jocote tree and feasted on the sweet and sour and spicy fruit. One morning Minor took me outside to show me the cacao tree. I laughed out loud, it looked so odd. There were pods like small lumpy rugby balls sprouting straight from the trunk. I thought the flowers might smell like chocolate, but they didn’t smell of anything at all. The cacao tree has to produce tens of thousands of flowers to compensate for the fact that there’s no scent to attract insects. The fruit doesn’t taste anything like chocolate either; it’s sweet and quite mild, but the purplish seeds, when accidentally chewed, are incredibly bitter.

Posted by Fionnaigh at 11:35 PM

August 06, 2003

Mutant eggs

Someone at the Stonesoup lunch asked how my eggs were going. Hmmm. Actually, they’re not going well at all. Tonight they kind of splattered into the pan, and bits disintegrated into the water, and they looked really gross. A bit like decaying alien life forms. And they both had double yokes. Freakish organic free-range shit. I did a Google image search for “poached egg,” just to make sure, and none of the results looked the slightest bit like my own attempts. I’m definitely doing something wrong…

After comments about the sex and feathered boys series, I'm wondering if I should have content codes in the subject line. (W) means it's safe to read at work. (T) means it's tragic and angsty. (D) for dangerous and disturbing. That kind of thing. Or would that spoil the surprise?

My writing efforts this week are all turning out crap, so I’m not going to post any of them. But a classmate has just started blogging (landscape writing on the blogroll), so there’s a small community of IIML bloggers starting to appear.

What do you think of the Beautiful Monsters colour scheme? I'm contemplating redecoration.

Too tired to think any more. Bed. Warm. Sleep.

Posted by Fionnaigh at 11:12 PM

August 05, 2003

Men don't have feathers III

When I was doing first year women’s studies I watched a video called “The Opposite Sex,” which dealt briefly with intersexuality. The first time I watched this, I didn’t think twice about the language used. Later I watched it again, and saw things from a different perspective. In the video the development of a baby in the womb is shown – at first you can’t tell if a baby is going to be male or female, it has the potential to be both. Then the baby develops testes or ovaries, a clitoris or a penis, labia or a scrotum. “But sometimes,” gasps the presenter, “the process can go horribly wrong.” A few photographs of intersexed genitals flash quickly across the screen. We are not introduced to the individuals, we just see their “horribly wrong” genitals. The presenter tells us that when a child’s sex is undetermined, “A fast decision about which sex to raise the baby is vital to its development.” Then, of course, the child should be surgically altered to look like a boy or a girl.

In reality, there is a lot of variation between the genitals of different individuals. Occasionally (about 1/2000 births) a baby is born with genitals that are so different from the cultural definition of “normality” that they are seen as a threat. Supposedly a threat to the baby’s happiness, but probably more of a threat to the child’s culture.

The language used by doctors describes intersexuality in terms of a biological male/female dichotomy. Instead of saying “intersexed genitals,” they speak of “enlarged clitorises,” and “underdeveloped testes.” Even in the face of undeniable evidence, they refuse to give up their insistence that there are two and only two sexes!

When deciding whether a child of indeterminate gender is male or female, doctors have certain criteria to follow… but these are all totally male-centered. For example, to be considered male a child has to have a penis that is a certain length or longer, and the child must be fertile. BUT to be considered female a child doesn’t have to have a vagina, or to be fertile! Also, doctors have made comments like “it is generally easier to live as a passive female than to live as an impotent male.” Because it is hard to construct a satisfactory penis, intersexed individuals are likely to be raised as girls.

The surgery is often invasive and traumatic. It can leave the intersexual person with little or no capacity for sexual pleasure later in life. The surgery is purely cosmetic; the aim is to make the child look normal. Sometimes the parents have to dilate the child's constructed vagina several times a day, which is often experienced as sexual abuse, and can be traumatic for the parents as well. The point? To make sure that a penis can fit inside, so the intersex person can have normal heterosexual sex. The argument is that if the child is left to grow up intersexual they’ll never be happy. I don’t believe that’s true.

There’s another video in the women’s studies collection, called “Hermaphrodites Speak.” It was filmed at the first international conference of the Intersex Society of North America, and in it intersexed people had the opportunity to share their own stories. Several things stood out in this video.

All of the intersexed people in the video had been lied to, or told nothing by their doctors, and often by their parents (who were encouraged to lie by medical professionals).

The people who had had surgery felt ashamed about their bodies and what had been done to them. Some of them were unable to achieve sexual pleasure, others felt their sexual capacity had been changed or limited, and they felt angry that their own unique erotic potential had been stolen from them, usually before they had even experienced what it could be like. Those who had not been surgically altered, or had surgery after the onset of adolescence, had felt positive about their bodies, and had enjoyed their experience of sexuality as it developed. All the people interviewed believed that children should be “left alone” unless there is a proven risk to their health.

In the last few years intersexual people have begun to speak out about their experiences, and to form political organisations and support groups; one example is the Intersex Trust of Aotearoa New Zealand. Their aim is to create a different future, where intersex people and their families are supported and respected, where intersexuals have the choice of surgery if they want it (instead of having their bodies mutilated when they are too young to express their wishes) and are given access to information and medical records. Their hope is that intersex people can have “diverse, rich and meaningful lives… in whatever way they determine that is to be.”

Posted by Fionnaigh at 09:49 PM

Procrastination Central

I’m having trouble finishing the essay for one of my courses this week. Actually, I haven’t made it past the first line. We were given a choice of four opening lines, and I didn’t like any of them but I’ve chosen “Travelling, for a ( _____ ), into unfamiliar territory is like…” And I’m starting mine “Travelling, for a teenager…” but I don’t know where to go from there. I want something that captures how teenagers are so messy and complicated anyway, and then you go and throw one into a new place with new people and new everything, and it all goes downhill. But I want to say that in some sort of funky metaphorical way. Like…???

My back is really painful today – it’s been getting worse for a while. I don’t think I’ve been getting enough exercise and my posture is atrocious. I’m contemplating going back to physio but I think first I should try sitting up straight.

I’m trying to write a review of Fire & Hemlock that doesn’t sound too whiny. It’s not that I didn’t like it, I just didn’t think it was a masterpiece either. All my book reviews seem to be turning out really negative. It’s not that I don’t like books… I’m just fussy at the moment for some reason.

I might make lunch… I bought eggs. I was a staunch vegan for several years, but now I’m eating (free-range organic) eggs. But I don’t really know what to do with them. How do you poach an egg?

Posted by Fionnaigh at 02:06 PM

Men don't have feathers II

I had great fun when I was going out with the boy* because I could confuse the hell out of people by asking “hypothetical” questions about our relationship. “If I’m in drag, and he picks me up at a gay bar, is it a queer relationship?” “What if he’s in drag too, and I fuck him with a strap-on, does that mean it’s straight sex?” I used to love tossing these questions at Christians and then watching their sheltered little minds boggle.

So, getting back to Saturday’s brunch conversation, the boy*2 said that cunnilingus was hard to perform when there was a penis in the way. I wanted to argue the point then and there, but it seemed a little complicated and controversial for a Saturday morning, and anyway I was preoccupied with the business of eating brunch. But the Sex Blog has been brewing in the back of my mind for a while, so I thought it might be time to get it out of my system.

The cunnilingus quote (I’m going to get some interesting search referral terms this week) arose during a conversation about same-sex marriage. What exactly, we wondered, is the difference between straight and queer relationships? Well a queer relationship can be just about any combination of genders and lifestyles sexual practises. A straight relationship, on the other hand, can only be between a man and a woman. So, the question has to be asked, what is a man? And what is a woman?

I’m presuming that most of my readers are progressive enough to realise that gender boundaries are pretty fluid and flimsy. There are women who wear the pants and men who do the housework, and that’s just where it starts. The idea of two separate and opposite genders is a myth, and an incredibly dangerous one. “But,” even my most radical friends sometimes remark, “there are physical differences between men and women.” That’s what gender differences arise from, right? Even if it’s partly social, it’s part biology.

At first the external differences seem pretty obvious. Men have a penis, and women don’t. Right? Actually, during the first stages of foetal development all humans are identical, it’s only later that differences in the sexual organs develop. The clitoris and the penis are formed from exactly the same tissue. Likewise the testes and ovaries, the labia and scrotum start off the same.

Most people think that the differences between male and female genitals are a biological fact, but actually they’re a social construction. Doctors take a look at the new-born baby, and if the phallus is over a certain length they say it’s a penis, and they say it’s a penis and call the baby a boy. And if it’s below a certain length they say it’s a clitoris and call the baby a girl. And if it’s somewhere in between they say the baby is fucked up and needs surgery*3.

The other physical differences are just as blurry. When was the last time you had your chromosomes checked? How do you know they match your gender? Some people have XXY, XO, or YY chromosomes. All sorts of things can alter hormone levels, even exercise. And reproduction isn’t very clear-cut, because there are people who can’t have children, or choose not to.

Oh dear, it’s just gone midnight and my train of thought has derailed in the darkness. There was a point I was getting at, somewhere around here… I think I was just trying to show that it’s all very blurry and mixed up and not as clear-cut as people tend to believe. Oh yeah, and there was that theory about cunnilingus. According to my sources*4 cunnilingus is “oral stimulation of the clitoris or vulva.” Well, there are many ways that this could be achieved even if there was a penis in the way… but I’ll just give you one example. An intersexual person who has a vulva and a large phallus that has been classified as a penis. Actually, when I started this entry I was intending to rant about Intersex Genital Mutilation, but I'm so tired I'll have to leave it for another day. And on that note, I’m going to bed.

* Not the boy I mentioned yesterday, who just happened to be the only boy at brunch on Saturday, but another boy, the only one I’ve ever managed a long term relationship with.

*2 Not the same boy I went out with; the brunch one.

*3 More on that tomorrow.

*4 My usual source of choice, the Shorter Oxford, doesn’t have even have an entry for cunnilingus.

Posted by Fionnaigh at 12:26 AM

August 04, 2003

Men don't have feathers*

The Vatican is campaigning against “evil” gay marriages. Doesn’t really effect me, because I don’t want an evil marriage (or any marriage for that matter) but I don’t have any problems with other people marrying in an evil manner, or an evil manor, or whatever. Wendy and Iona have blogged about marriage, and the Care of Children Bill could mean that a birth mother’s same sex partner will be recognised as a legal parent or guardian.

Lots of people have been asking the question, what is the difference between a queer partnership and a straight partnership? We had a discussion about this at brunch on Saturday, and the only difference we could come up with was anatomy. As the boy so eloquently put it, “it’s hard to perform cunnilingus when there’s a penis in the way.” I’m not sure I agree entirely (I’ll get back to that later**) but for simplicity’s sake let’s just say that in general there are minor differences of anatomy.

There’s another difference. Accidental pregnancy seldom occurs in a same-sex relationship. Or, to rephrase that, “gay sex is unnatural and wrong because sex is meant to produce children.” There are many problems with this argument, but I won’t go into them all. I’ll just say, are all infertile people going to hell?

Just because same-sex couples don’t usually have children accidentally, doesn’t mean there are no queer parents. According to census figures about a decade ago there were more than 600 same-sex couples with children, but I suspect the numbers are actually much higher. These families face all sorts of discrimination, from one parent being denied the right to make medical decisions about their children, to a lack of appropriate literature (when kids in a queer family start asking where babies come from, there aren’t many picture books about turkey basters), to a whole truckload of stereotypes.

Oh yeah, the stereotypes. Like, we’re all perverts. And child molesters. Just ignore the fact that most child molesters are heterosexual males; that’s obviously just an evil queer plot to throw you off the scent. Oh, and in a queer relationship there are no male role-models. Isn’t more important to have role-models who are happy, loving, strong, open minded, rather than gender stereotypes? Apparently not. Even if there are plenty of males in the extended family, among friends, not to mention on the TV and in movies and everywhere else, the nature of the relationship is obviously going to scar the children. Especially the boys. They’ll probably turn out queer. Which brings me to another myth; the children in queer relationships are more likely to be queer when they grow up. Firstly, this isn’t true (and if sexuality was inherited I’d probably be straight). Secondly, statistics aside, even if all the children from queer relationships grew up to be screaming queens, what exactly would be wrong with that?

I predict a long and frustrating battle before queer and straight relationships are treated with equity. The Christian Right will put up a struggle – they’ll probably be even more vocal than they were during the prostitution debate. And I bet they'll be loudest when children come into the equation. But I think they’re barking up the wrong tree.

All the children I know who have grown up within same-sex relationships are great kids. When I compare them to other kids I know, the only difference I can come up with is that those who grew up in queer families seem to be more open minded, more accepting of themselves and others.

Personally I’d make a terrible parent, regardless of the gender of any partner who was involved. After one of my guineapigs died from neglect and the other escaped and lived down by the woodshed for a few months before disappearing, I decided to practise caring for something less… animated. I’ve graduate from pet rocks to small plants, and I’ve managed to keep my aloe vera alive for several months - but everyone knows they thrive on neglect. Child raising is out of the question for at least a few years and even then I’m not sure that I want to have a child of my own. But one thing is for sure; I’ll damn well fight for my right to choose not to.

* This is what someone thought someone else said during brunch on Saturday. Unfortunately the concept is not very useful, as most women don’t have feathers either.

** Coming tomorrow, Men don’t have feathers Part II: The physical nitty gritty.

Posted by Fionnaigh at 12:05 AM

August 02, 2003


One of the downsides of doing three writing workshops at once is that I don’t get to know my classmates so quickly. We had a potluck dinner for the Landscape class tonight, and I wasn’t entirely sure who was going to turn up. I’m so confused about who is in each class, which exercises we’re doing where, whether I'm supposed to be writing fact or fiction; by Friday afternoon I have difficulty stringing two words together. Fire bad. Tree pretty. Ooooh, stars! I knew I was in the right place when I handed the food over to the host and he said that later we were going to give everyone feedback on the meal. “I would have added a little more salt to the pasta sauce, and if you cut the sultanas from the strudel it would be far more effective…"

It was a great night though; I feel as though now I’ve had a chance to get to know everyone who is a part of the course. I love hanging out with writers, talking about our successes and struggles, about the philosophy of writing and the writing community… and also chatting about travel and families, feminism, art, botany, and everything in between.

It’s interesting observing the different dynamics in the workshops. I think the Landscape class is the most pleasurable environment, and the people seem to be very compatible. I guess because it’s a specific subject area, we’re all drawn together by our interest in landscape. The other classes seem more like a random selection of people. They’re all interesting groups though. People in writing workshops often seem to have lived more than your average group of students. They’re more open-minded. I wonder why that is?

Someone from one of the classes winked at me today. Not once, but three times during the course of the workshop. It got me thinking about winking. It seems like such an intimate gesture, especially when someone winks at you secretly in a room full of people. I didn’t know how to deal with it! You’d think by the third time I’d have figured out a suitable response, but I kept blushing and ducking my head behind my papers. I didn’t wink back. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how… I just wasn’t sure exactly what I would be communicating if I did. For all I know he winked at everyone else in the class while I wasn’t looking, but still, there’s something delicious and slightly naughty about a wink.

Posted by Fionnaigh at 12:11 AM