Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Cabin fever in the big city

As I write, the windchill outside is minus fourteen degrees Celsius. I'm all for braving the elements, but when you've got a monstrous head-cold yourself, it's hard to muster up the oomph to get out in subzero weather, even to go and watch chunks of ice floating down the Hudson River in the hope of seeing a polar bear perched on top of one. This cold snap has kept me and the kiddo under virtual house arrest for over a week, and forced me to rely on old-fashioned diversions like home-made playdough and guitars made out of cardboard boxes.

Like the agoraphobic subterranean citizens in E.M. Forster's neglected sci-fi masterpiece "The Machine Stops", I get my news from the outside world via a screen. For some reason, all the news this week seemed bad, almost bad enough to take the shine off all those Little House on the Prairie vibes I'd accrued, baking scones, crocheting dolly hats, and feeding playdough cupcakes to teddy bears...

Canberra was burning, houses and lives lost, and a world-class observatory (where my partner once spent a summer as an undergraduate, doing all-night observation runs and amusing himself by rolling pencils at huntsman spiders rendered slow-motion by the cold) burned to the ground. Not that you'd have known about the fires from the newspaper of record, though - barely a paragraph in the New York Times. Thank goodness for Uncle Lionel, who e-mailed breaking news from the front lines, as he and family battled the fires with garden hoses:

Houses all around gone just brick foundations and twisted metal and burning gas and exploding gas bottles and mains and burning fences about 15 metres high - with at least 85 km winds and dark as midnight with burning ash and cinders in eyes ... no fire trucks around - police saying evacuate but if you do - you can't go back ....

The fire came over Narranundah hill, which is or was covered with Radiata pine, with a violet red shimmer and roared ... whole fences across the road went up. Power lines blew down and transformers on poles exploded. ... I did not see a fire truck till 9 pm when 10 of them came slowly up the Hindmarsh drive and stopped outside the burnt out houses.

Meanwhile, in the capital of the US, two burning issues that never really went away came back around again. Reproductive rights, in the form of the 30th anniversary of the landmark case of Roe v Wade, and racism, in the form of George W. Bush's decision to weigh in on a suit against the University of Michigan Law School's affirmative action procedures. I don't know which is richer. Conservative lawmakers wanting to tighten restrictions even further on access to contraception (including the morning after pill) and abortion, when currently 86% of counties in the US do not even have abortion providers, and even for those that do, freedom on paper is not the same thing as choice? Or the nation's highest-ranking recipient of affirmative action -- George Jr., a mediocre student who got into Yale as a "legacy admission" because his dad had gone there - telling everyone else they can get by without it? (There's a concise and stroppy overview of some of the issues here, and much more if you search for it).

But that's life in what some days passes pretty well for a theocratic patriarchy. Even as I say that, I hear a chorus of "pshaw, typical liberal exaggeration," and "if you don't like it, why are you staying there?" You know what? Lately that feels less and less like a rhetorical question, by which I mean less like a question I can control the answer to. By sheer luck the passport I hold isn't on the list of countries requiring special registration with the Immigration and Naturalization Services. But the detention of people from the expanding list of "Arab countries" continues. Some have indeed committed immigration violations, like not being able to afford to fly home when their visa expired. Others have committed no violations at all, and didn't even need to register, but have still been locked up indefinitely on no charge at all, as detailed in this sobering article in Salon.

[Note in passing: you can now read all the "premium" articles on Salon.com for free if you watch -- which is to say click your way swiftly through -- an ad for a luxury car or a personals service or somesuch. Poor old Salon is having a hard time making a go of it on subscriptions alone. Naturally I'm deeply sympathetic; also I'm deeply human and am more than happy to be able to read their quality features for free with a few clicks of the mouse. I can't help myself, but I feel a twinge of guilt that my something-for-nothing freeloading might help lead to the demise of the site. Sic transit gloria online publishing...]

I'm not the first to note that it is all alarmingly reminiscent of the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s, when families were broken up and whole communities intimidated, dispossessed, and locked up. Just across the river in New Jersey, six of the thousands of people detained under John Ashcroft's frightening new blend of "justice" and "security" have just finished a hunger strike. They've been in jail for up to 13 months, charged with no crimes, and given no indication of what's going to happen to them. They want answers, they want better food, they want to be moved to a jail where they can see their families without a glass wall between them. One of the men has a daughter he hasn't met yet -- she was born after his arrest, and he just wants to see her. Look, I don't care if the guy overstayed his visa, forgot to put his middle name on a form, or failed to pay a parking ticket, for god's sake let him hold his baby.

What keeps me chipper these days, when all the news seems bad and the winter virus from hell has left me with a voice like Dame Edna when I was hoping for Marlene Dietrich? For one, reading top-class fiction, like "Jon", a deliriously dystopian tour-de-force by upstate New York writer George Saunders, in which an overly plugged-in and turned-on youth conjures up a few divine revelations despite himself. If, like me, you're a conflicted technophiliac Luddite, read it when you've got a spare uninterrupted twenty minutes or so, and then disconnect from your computer for a week on the strength of it. Totally apocalyptic. I loved it.

And my other pastime these days is watching a person become a person. The little lad is one and a quarter (already!), and his favourite word this week is "Wow," which he applies to everything that catches his eye. On our one long outing this week, to the organic butcher at 99th and Broadway, he bellied up to the glass-fronted display case and expressed delight at the variety of things on display. Chops, sausages, free range chickens -- it was all amazing. "Wow!" and "WAAaaaaooow!" and "WOW!" he hollered, melting many a chilly city-dweller's heart with the sheer force of his enthusiasm. It seems somehow very yogic, to be that deeply impressed by random organs, a basket of lemons, a man in a striped apron. I don't know if it's one of the Six Buddhist Perfections or not, but maybe it should be. That disarmingly genuine cosmic wow can get you a long way through a bad day... I'm doing my best to get the hang of it myself.

Speaking of which, thanks to the kind correspondent who reminded me about the bucket fountain in Cuba Mall. As a Wellington baby, that clanking hypnotic beast was my original cosmic wow, and every time I'm back in the city I spend at least an hour doing transcendental bucketation in front of the thing. Now guess what -- it's got its own bucket fountain website, with a wicked real-time screensaver version of the real thing. You can even buy T-shirts! I sure hope they plan to make them in teeny weeny sizes too, so I can get my daily cosmic wow in the one neat little package...