Friday, June 28, 2013


At the end of April, while our Aussie guests were here, we all flew together down to the far south of Chile.  We were heading into the pampas – the thousands on thousands of rolling kilometers of open southern grasslands, going to Puerto Natales and the Torres del Paine.
We were going tower hunting.

And Ogden Nash can just go jump off the edge of the Ultima Esperanza Sound.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Poetry; the need for, in excess(es).

At the end of April, while our Aussie guests were here, we all flew together down to the far south of Chile.  We were heading into the pampas – the thousands on thousands of rolling kilometers of open southern grasslands, going to Puerto Natales and the Torres del Paine.
We were going tower hunting.

Sometimes it’s all about poetry. At the end of April, while our Aussie guests were here, we all flew together down to the to the city of Punta Arenas (lit. Sandy Point) in Patagonia in the south of Chile. Punta Arenas is situated right on the Strait of Magallenes -  a stout little town with neoclassical houses wrapped around a tidy Plaza de Armas, a university, the Chilean Antarctic Institute, and rather a lot of military. 

(I rather like the Antarctic Institute. The sign on their front door is refrigerated, so that the continent in their logo can have a polar icecap.)

The military protects Chile’s southern flank: the strait, the Drake Passage and the southern ocean generally (or at least as far as Argentina lets them.)  We weren’t going that way. We were heading away from the sea into the pampas – the thousands on thousands of rolling kilometers of open southern grasslands.  We were going north to Puerto Natales and the Torres del Paine, where the spine of the Andes mountains breaks the plains and makes a border with Argentina. We were going tower hunting.
            I have been here once before.  Nine years ago, on Boxing Day (December 26), I flew down here with my parents and my sister for a mid-summer week in Patagonia. These southern pampas are grazing country – on maps the rolling lands is broken into estancias (ranches, or stations) for sheep and cattle.  At that point in the year, the spring weather was tuned to maximum, and we drove out across endless, undulating plains of waving grass. Thunderheads moved across the sky at a rolling gallop, faster than the wind that came in waves and shook the grass from green to russet to gold and back to green again.            
            This time around, at the end of April, the short summer was done, and we were heading at that same rolling gallop headfirst into winter.  The grass was brown and silver, short and broken, and the line between the sky and the horizon was so sharp you could have marked it out with a pencil and carried away with you.

Poetry would come in handy here. Puerto Natales is a small town sitting on the shore of the Ultima Esperanza (lit. Last Hope) Sound, two hundred and fifty kilometers Punta Arenas. Puerto Natales serves as a base camp for the great National Park of Torres del Paine – lying another hundred-odd kilometers to the north.  The views from the town across the fjord are tremendous – the hills on the far side show as thick patches of bruised blue and purple and the air is so thick with oxygen that the sky lays down layers of color, one on top of the other, until the hills and sky all run together like watercolor paints –
And when the sun comes down-  here descriptions fail, and you have to turn to poetry – the wrong sort of poetry, poetry that has nothing to do with it, that shouldn’t ever suit -
            Do you know the poem about the Assyrians?   
            “The Assyrian came all down like the wolf on the fold/ And his cohorts were gleaming, in purple and gold-” 
            and goes on to Angels of Death and wailing widows and forests scattered on autumn winds and sprays of surf on bloody rocks?
            Just like that.  The sunsets were exactly like that.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Joys of Prescription Antihistamines

"Hey !  Mr Tabubil!  Heeeey!  Guess What! I'm going on the internet to look at pictures of kittens!"
            "Did you just type the word 'kittens' into the run command?"
            "How else do you do it?  It worked, too, see?  Look - kittens!  But I don't want these kittens.  They're too small."
            "That's because they're thumbnail pictures in an image search window.  Seriously, how did you get into the internet from there?"
            "I don't want these kittens. They're not big enough to cuddle. Does the internet have any other kittens? Ooooh - PUPPIES!!!"
            "Oh GOODIE.  You just found CuteOverload.  Although I don't know HOW, in your condition-"
            "You're being that pa word. Puh... pota-"
            "That's it.  Aren't you."
            "You bet I am.  Remember that nice little lie-down we talked about earlier?"
            "Don't be pota...pato... that mean P word any more.  It's not very - ooo!  OOOOHHH!  Look!  LOOK!! LOOK!!!!  It's a doggie and a bitty baby human and the babby has the big old doggie on a leash and the woggie is running and pulling the sweet widdle babby down the stweeeeet!!!!!!!"

Roll up, roll up, Ladies and Gents!  500 pesos to see the wonderful world of prescription antihistamines! Next time I may just choose Door B and take the allergies. Possibly there will be kittens down there as well.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

It's the future and we're living in it.

I went to the dentist today.  It's been a while.  It's not that I've been putting it off, exactly, it's just that I live a very busy life and there are many many things to do, and dentists are only one of them. Sometimes, however, your husband gets fed up and makes an appointment for you, and then you're stuck.

"Tabubilgirl!"  My dentist cried.  "Long time no see!  It's been months! You cancelled an appointment for a cough and you never came back. I trust that nasty thing has cleared up by now?"
            He bowed me with rather more than the necessary gravity into the chair and clipped a little paper bib around my neck.
            "Are you ready?"
            "You are sure?  Absolutely sure?  You have your music?  Andrew Lloyd Webber is all ready to go?"
            I burst into tears.
            "I forgot!"  I wailed. "I left my player on the dining table and I didn't notice until I was already on the bus and I had somewhere else go before I came here and I just don't know how I'm going to do this without my happy music!"
            My dentist is a very nice man.  He dabbed at my tears with my little paper bib and waited until I stopped crying.
            "Oh Tabubilgirl." He said.  He shook his head and smiled.  "Do you remember the first time you saw me?  I wrote a note in your file. 'Tiene mucho miedo.' She is very afraid."
            "That's all you wrote?" I sniffed.  "I'd have said a lot more than that."
            He smiled again - he has a very gentle smile - and patted my hand.
            "I am very careful with your fear.  We will only do x-rays today.  And possibly we will do impressions. For a guard against tooth grinding - there must be a lot of stress built up in that little mouth of yours, eh?"
(Presumably, my dentist saves his smirking for when he pulls up his dental mask.)

We settled for x-rays. When the films were done, he let me up to stretch.  He stretched as well, and smiled his lovely smile again.
            "I have the most wonderful new app on my phone, Tabubilgirl! I was playing with it just before you arrived.  I turned on the radio and held up my phone to the speaker and the app listened to the music, and fter only five seconds - five seconds, Tabubilgirl - it told me the name of the song!  And the name of the composer!  Even which orchestra did the recording!"
            "Really?"  I was intrigued. "I have an app like that, but It doesn't know classical from a hole in the ground.  It only does popular music. I do get the lyrics-"
            "Yeah - they run on the screen in real time, while the song's playing-"
            My dentist clapped his hands. "Come into my office!" He said. "You must show me. Lyrics!  How marvelous!"
            In his office across the hall, soft music floated across the carpet and around his heavy wooden desk.  He pulled his phone from his pocket and held it up against the speaker of a stereo and pressed the screen -
             "No time! Beethoven!  The seventh symphony.  Performed by the Vienna Philharmonic.  Can you believe it?  Performed by the Vienna Philharmonic!  It's incredible- it knows
            Tabubilgirl, my wife is in California right now, visiting her mother.  Yesterday, while I was driving home, I called her telephone from my car. I said to her 'Are you at home?  Turn on your computer'  and she did and she asked me what the weather was like and I turned my phone around and held it up to the window of the car and I said 'See for yourself!'  It's the future, Tabubilgirl!  And we're living in it!"
            "I remember" I said " the very first telex I ever saw.  You remember telex?  They used it before the fax?"
            He nodded.
            "In the mid-eighties we were living in Papua New Guinea, in a little town in the middle of the jungle. My dad was doing a lot of traveling - he'd be away for weeks sometimes, and this was the eighties - we didn't even have affordable long distance telephone! I remember that one day the secretary in Dad's office called and told us to come down to the office. She wouldn't say why, just told us to come.  When we arrived, she held out a blue sheet of paper.  My dad had written a letter - just a few lines, and sent it through by this brand new machine.
            I remember that my mother snatched that piece of paper right out of the secretary's hand - she held it so hard that she trembled.  I remember that she cried.  It was my dad's own handwriting - his own hand- written that same day in some place so far away it might have been on another world.  My little sister and I crowded around her and we saw her tears and we reached out to touch the paper with something like awe. It was magic.  A new sort of miracle.
            And today, only twenty years later, I can open a video window and watch my sister-in-law's new baby cry and smack her baby lips - in real time, from the other side of planet.  And you can talk to your wife in California from your moving car - in video-"
He nodded again, and smiled, and nodded, and smiled and held up his phone against the stereo -

It's these little things that make the wonder.  Digital music - sound spun out of numbers, for your ears only. X-ray photographs of your insides, on demand, no waiting.
A machine that holds your memories and do the listening for you and read out the lyrics, in real time in case you don't remember or never knew- A weather check from a world away, a baby's smile, brought into your home -

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Vitamin E Oil Works as Advertised

Winter, with the electric blankets on the beds and the kerosene heaters in the living room, is a drying sort of season. Skin cracks and pulls and breaks out in eczema and weird localized rashes.  
            Winter, however, doesn't bother me. I have my secret Australia weapon - my little orange bottle of Vitamin E oil. This stuff is so very moisturizing that doctors recommend it to make scar tissue fade, and on winter spots it works like summer sunlight on snow.
            Mr Tabubil has a small red winter spot on his left calf.  He's not fussed, but I am good at winter spots, and take care of them whether the owners want me to or not.  I started small, doing it up overnight in layers of moisturizer cream and Vaseline  but it didn't vanish, so on Saturday night I decided to pull out the big moisturizing guns and dug out the little orange bottle.  
            Mr Tabubil sat on the bed, looking martyred, but I am strong-minded and I ignored him.  I held the bottle over his leg and squeezed - and the dropper top of the bottle popped off and pinged sideways off the nightstand, and while we were giggling, an entire bottle's worth of Vitamin E oil dropped in one quivering mucilaginous blob onto his leg and slid all over the sheets. 
            A little of this stuff goes a long way: a drop the size of a pearl pinhead does all 10 of my cuticles AND my lips. One 100 ml bottle lasts me all year.  
            It's nasty stuff when it comes by the bottle. Mr Tabubil gagged. I reached down and started scooping, but that ropey, viscous, goop just plain wouldn't scoop.  How it all came out of the bottle in the first place I still can't figure out.  I scraped and pawed and rubbed until half of the stuff was on me rather than the sheets, and then I went into the bathroom and pulled out a bar of soap - 
            And here, we seemed to enter some sort of obscene sci-fi slasher flick. It wouldn't wash off; the more I scrubbed, the worse it got. My arms grew thick and tacky with  translucent goo -down my fingers, across the palms and the backs of my hands and up to my elbows.  Muffled swearing from the shower indicated that things weren't much better for Mr Tabubil's leg - soap and water seemed to help it MULTIPLY. 
            It was very "Killer Jellyfish from Outer-Space!" - suitable for a mid-afternoon matinee at the drive-in where your boyfriend's best friend is hiding in the backseat with a cup full of jell-o - a film like that might get to the heart of it. 
            We worked it out, eventually.  Dawn dish soap was what it took.  A whole bottle.  And only piecemeal. I couldn't touch shiny surfaces till half-way through Sunday. The sheets spent two days soaking in a heavy Dawn solution, and there's a zone the size of a car tire on one of them that looks like the spill sheet under an oil pan.
            On the positive side, as of Wednesday evening my arms are soft like velvet from shoulder to fingertip, and Mr Tabubil's legs are as silky as a head of waving hair in a Pantene Ad.
            But I'm not allowed to touch his winter red spots any more.  He's quite emphatic about that.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


Have you ever HEARD a rainstorm coming?  A blustery purple day, a damp sidewalk, and a sound like a diesel engine roaring up the street behind m. I turned around and saw a wall of grey, and the howling began - the wind moaned along the electrical wires with a sound stripped from grade-school books ghost stories- throbbing purple "ah-hooooo" sound and I was drenched - just like that - raindrops the size of 50-cent coins sparking and bouncing off my skin like hail.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

School Uniforms.

It's Wednesday. Let's be funny.

When I was fifteen years old, my family moved to the city of Antofagasta, in the North of Chile.  I had a new school, with a new uniform-  a white blouse, a navy-blue tie and a very short, very tight navy-blue tunic. The tunic was cut so tightly that we couldn't run up the stairs to our classroom - we had to take the steps one a time, in a ladylike fashion - and the only way to sit at our desks was with our backs straight and our legs elegantly crossed- but no matter how carefully we sat, the tight skirts rode up past our hips and the boys in the class ogled our thighs and underpants.
First thing I did was write to a friend in the US and ask her to send me two pairs of navy blue cycle pants - QUICK.
            I had those cycle pants with me in Chile in less than two weeks, and every day after that I sat and slumped and leaned and lolled exactly however I wanted.

PE class, though, couldn't be hacked.  PE was a relic of the Edwardian age. The boys went outside and played basketball, volleyball, baseball and soccer. The girls stayed inside and ran relay races up and down the gym.  My arrival caused something of a stir - I was from NORTH AMERICA, where girls did more than this - the girls in my class thought that maybe I might make a wedge to push open a door, and taking me by the hand, they led me up to our gym teacher, and asked her if this North American girl might be able to show them how to play soccer - ?
            The gym teacher froze absolutely solid.  Her face turned white, and then it turned red, and for an entire minute, her mouth opened and shut and opened and shut - she couldn't speak a single word.  

When she finally could speak, her words were brief and final:
            "Nice girls do NOT play soccer! NICE girls do not HIT and KICK and PUNCH!"
We went back to running relay races.  In warm weather, for a change of pace, we'd stroll down to the town boardwalk and spend our PE hour sunning on the town beach in our bikinis, and the boys would leave their sports to follow us, and stand knee deep in the waves so that they could have a good view.

Monday, June 3, 2013


Several years ago, right here in Santiago de Chile, my mother had her very first mammogram. For those not familiar with the procedure, a mammogram consists of having your breast slammed forcibly between two panes of glass and photographs being taken of the resulting aesthetic abomination. It was my mother's first time, and she was under the impression that she was going in for something innocuous, something like a CAT scan or an ultrasound. Reality left her extremely surprised, highly unimpressed and extremely sore, and she told the doctor so when she saw him afterwards.
            The doctor listened and smirked.  Clearing his throat he explained exactly how mammograms worked. It wasn't quite a medical explanation. It began with the sins of Eve, and got steadily worse. 
            "And it's worth it." He finished up, looking smug. "You'll have to learn to live with the pain. When you're made a woman, you just have to accept that there are things you just have to put up with."
            Generally speaking, my mother is a deeply polite and retiring sort of medical patient, the type of patient who would rather suffer a massive asthma attack on the floor of the ER than interrupt a nurse's conversation and indicate that the nurse might need to turn some attention her way, but this doctor's breathtaking response to her concerns sent her right over her personal line.  Standing up from her chair, she leaned over his desk and spoke directly into his eyes. 
            "I'm going to make a device for men."  She said.   "Just like this one.  How would you like it if I took you in my hand and squeezed-"
            The interview finished quite abruptly. But she was furious for days.

The point of this incident is that in the intervening ten years or so, things haven't changed much. I may have mentioned, at various moments  in this blog, that I've been going through a few gastrointestinal issues.  One of more picturesque symptoms is bloating on an industrial scale, and one day, not so long ago, I was obliged to make an emergency appointment with my GP -
            "Tabubilgirl!" He cried, as I came through his office door. "Congratulations!  I had no idea!  How far along are you?  Four months? Five?"
            "I'm not pregnant, Doctor." I said. "This is one of the symptoms."
            My GP sent me to a gastroenterologist. 
            A "very nice man."  He told me.  "He'll sort this out - run some tests, find out what sorts of food sensitivities you have-"
            It didn't quite happen like that. The gastroenterologist admired my bloat and palpated my belly.  He watched me writhe in pain, made notes about 'unusual abdominal rigidity', listened through a stethoscope to all sorts of irregular noises- and then he steepled his hands, looked me earnestly in the eye and told me that it was quite common "for women- women in particular- to develop a psychosomatic conviction that they are overweight."
            I gaped. I stood up and turned to show him my profile.  I swiped my hand over my swollen stomach and demanded to know if he thought THAT looked psychosomatic. 

            It was his turn to gape. Weakly, he admitted that it didn't, and I sat down again and we got down to business.
            "You're right."  He said.  "You're absolutely right. It's about quality of life, isn't it?  If you go out for lunch and the other women look thinner than you, that is an issue that needs to be fixed. You should be able to hold your head up high. How you feel about yourself matters."
            I reminded him (with remarkable patience, I like to think) that the bloating was one symptom of a larger issue-
            "Absolutely."  He said again.  "When you can't hold your face up among other women when you're out, that's a real issue.  Don't you worry, we'll get to the bottom of this!"
            I think that he found my outrage amusing.  At least, he dimpled and patted my hand and did everything but  call me a fascinating, bewitching, mysterious little creature as he ushered me out the door. As I stomped my way down the hallway, he leaned out his office door for a parting shot. 
            "We'll sort all this out, Tabubilgirl!  The important thing is to think positive about yourself!"

A couple of weeks later, I had to see another doctor for an entirely different issue.  I was feeling a little gun-shy, and asked Mr Tabubil if he'd mind coming with me, just in case.  I'm glad that I did. This time it was Mr Tabubil who emerged pale and shaking.   
            "I know that things can be really tough for women here in Chile, but it's one thing to know it and a completely different thing to see it happening!  That man looked straight over your head and I swear he literally- literally- didn't hear you when you  talked.  Four times in that conversation I had to stand up and put my fists on the table and say 'What this  woman is trying to say to you is this!'  Four times! It was like you weren't even in the room!  But he listened to me!"
            "Sort of."
            "Okay, when he refused to do a proper physical exam, said that the hospital's physical therapy department downstairs were making things up to support your delusion, labeled you as a psychosomatic hysteric and told you that you were incapable of understanding your own body or health and tried to put you on antidepressants after 10 minutes of ignoring every word you said- well, we walked out on him, didn't we?"

            We sure did. Does that count as a win?
            On a positive note, I now have a wonderful female gastroenterologist, who has taken me for a human being and is making great strides in sorting out my insides.  I have also gained access to a circulating underground list of "doctors that women should avoid in this town."  I've made a few contributions of my own.
            I love living in Chile, but there are lines, and at this line I choose to STOP.  I could write pages - volumes -  about what it's like to be a woman in this country. A lot of them are funny, if you like a certain type of alternative black humor. The rest of them are hilarious - in that special way where laughter is the only alternative to weeping or punching walls until your fists are bloody.
            A lot has changed from when I first lived here in the mid-nineties.  Women now control their own assets after they marry, and they are no longer subject- on pain of law- to the rule of their husbands.  Divorce has been legalized, maternity leave is mandatory in public-sector jobs, hospital nurses have hung up their mini-dresses and their high heels, and policewomen no longer chase down bad guys in circle skirts and knee-high leather boots and handbags.  Men like to talk about how good things are for Chilean women these days; eyes have been opened and the world is changing, improving,right left, center and sideways.  Society's eyes might have opened, but when men begin to talk about how good their women have got it, women's eyes begin to drop, and women are silent. 
            Next Wednesday morning I will go to a courthouse and stand next to a friend while she stands across a table from a Chilean man who decided that her words and her understanding of her own body had absolutely no relevance at all, at a time when they should have counted for most. It's the last step in a very long and extremely drawn-out process.  For a very long time there was no-one at all who would listen to her.  What else could a man, faced with a beautiful woman, have been expected to do? When you're made a woman, you have to accept that you have to put up with certain things, and learn to live with pain. 

When I was in my teens, I lived in Antofagasta, a small city in Northern Chile. Life was good for the construction industry up there; an 8.0 earthquake had recently hit and most buildings in the town needed some sort of reconstruction.  Every afternoon after school I would walk down to a sports club for sports lessons.  Every afternoon I would dress twice: once in my sports clothes, and over my sports clothes, I would put on the baggiest clothes I could find in my house, covering my skinny, undeveloped, entirely unsexual body with t-shirts and tracksuit pants three sizes too large.  And then I would walk a gauntlet of construction men on construction sites - my head down, my eyes on the road, my fists clenched as they whistled and shouted and told me what they'd like to do to me - what they'd like their DOG to do to me - in explicit detail.  
            One day, walking with a friend, I turned to her and said desperately - "Why don't you stop them!  Why do you let them do this!  Why don’t people stop them?"
            I still remember her face - this little girl turned toward me, dull-eyed, said, very, very quietly, so quietly I could hardly hear her.  "What can I do?  I'm just a woman."

            We are taught which words matter and which words don't.  And whose. Today, words still happen in the street.  If you react, the men saying them press on harder with words that are worse, ramping up the pressure, grinding it in. If you don't react, you've let them win - you've let them tell you who are you are and what you are, and there is rarely any dignity in their definitions. 
            When your world is bound by words like these, it's hard to see why you should stop at talking.  Looking is part of the talking - and staring comes after that - and if they let you stare, where might the next step take you when you have been taught to not to see and not to hear?            
            Today's post isn't the littlest bit funny. But laugh, please. Think of those sad little doctors in their high offices, and those cruel men on their building sites and laugh loud and laugh hard.  Wednesday is going to be a very difficult day, and we will need the laughter.