You don't have to understand the world. You just have to find your own way around in it. - Albert Einstein

Monday, 25 March 2013

One Less Fat-Shaming Ad in the World Tonight

How many times a day do you see some advertising in all our varied forms of media that is really stupid at best, or horribly offensive at worst? Probably really quite often, unless you live in a cave in Outer Mongolia. How often do you speak out and try to do something about it? Probably not very often. You might have tried once or twice and become discouraged at how hard it is to find someone responsible for the ad to listen to you. Or maybe you're just so overwhelmed by the enormity of this issue and don't know where to start.

I want to give a HUGE congratulations and thank-you-for-fighting-the-good fight to Lucy from the wonderful blog Lulastic and the Hippyshake for her her fantastic response to an incredibly stupid AND horribly offensive ad for Weetabix in the UK. Bonus points for sending Barbie through the mail. Really, have a look, it's gorgeous.

I must admit, only twice have I ever bothered to actually put my outrage into a formal complaint. The first time was about six years ago, when I noticed a sign in the front window of a shop saying 'No Fat Chicks.' Yes, really, it's true. I complained to the shop manager, and the manager of the shopping plaza which hosted this shop. I was told it's just a joke, get over it, and actually, the people I spoke to seemed to be angry with me for complaining. I rang the local council, the police, and Equal Opportunity. The response I got from these agencies was, basically, well yes I agree that's terrible, but we can't do anything about it. Equal Opportunity explained to me that unless I am actually refused service in the shop on the grounds of being overweight, they can put any sign they like in their front window. The sign stayed up, and I altered my path when walking through town to avoid going past that shop ever again. Eventually, it packed up and moved to another suburb. I got the message from that experience that there's really not much point complaining about injustice, it's just a waste of energy.

Well I found a renewed wave of energy today when I was walking past a Michael Hill jewellery store, actually in the same shopping plaza as the No Fat Chicks shop had been. Now I have never seen an ad that manages to combine fat-shaming with Easter-merchandise-promotion before, but someone had managed it. The sign said 'Put it on her hand instead of on her hips this Easter.'

 Cough choke splutter.

Let's look at what this message is implying. Firstly, that all women are concerned about the size of their hips. Secondly, that all the husbands, partners and assorted loved ones have some kind of vested interest in keeping their women's hips smaller. And also, that it's a bad thing to eat chocolate at Easter, because it will make your hips too big. There a lot of individuals who happen to have large hips and will be choosing to eat some chocolate this Easter weekend. This message at the jeweller's was just piling the shame onto these individuals.

How is it any business at all of a jewellery store to comment or have an opinion on the size of their clientele's hips?

I was still feeling pretty annoyed about it when I got home. Maybe I was inspired by Lucy and her campaign to educate the Weetabix company. So I looked up the store's phone number, and gave them a call. The woman who answered the phone wasn't at all sympathetic. She told me that it was just put up as a bit of humour. She really didn't see what my problem was, but she told me rather grudgingly that she would pass my feedback on to the manager, and hung up.

So next I called the management of the plaza that the store is in. At last, I spoke to someone who listened to me and didn't treat me like a lunatic for complaining about a silly little sign. She was sympathetic, and assured that management would talk to Michael Hill about it, but pointed out that they had no power to force any shop in their plaza to take down any signs. All they could do was pass on my concerns.

The next step was to find the Michael Hill website and send them an email expressing my feelings about this cruel attempt to use people's concerns about obesity to sell them jewellery. I really wasn't expecting to get any further than that, so next I sat down to write this blog post and share my outrage with you all. I'd only gotten three sentences down when my phone rang. It was a regional manager from Michael Hill. He'd just read my email and rang me straight away. Yay, an intelligent, competent person! We discussed the issues involved here and he said he completely agreed with me. And he wasn't just saying that to shut me up - he made it clear that he really did have an awareness of the issues I was concerned about. He agreed that that was not the sort of environment they wanted at Michael Hill, and assured me that the sign would be coming down very soon, certainly before the day was out. He also said that they would take care to edcuate the staff who had put up that sign as to why this was inappropriate.

How many kinds of awesome is that? Wow, I actually changed the world today, just a tiny little bit. Thanks heaps, Mr. Regional Manager. Michael Hill is no longer on my List of Mortal Enemies. 

Saturday, 23 March 2013

on 'The End of Mr. Y' by Scarlett Thomas, and Related Thoughts

I read a fabulous book recently, as I often do, and I want to tell you about it, which is something that I also often want to do, but often don't. I had a little epiphany about why I don't get those thoughts out and onto a blog post. I've been using the term 'literary review' in the titles of posts about books. This is because I like literary reviews, and they're definitely a good thing to do. But now I realise I need to stop using this expression. I have too many constrictive ideas about what a literary review actually is, and many of the thoughts I have about books don't seem to be part of my definition of a literary review. So I'll just write about books. If you would like to read a more conventional kind of proper literary review of this book, there's this one here on Goodreads and this one on Novel Niche, both of which I quite liked.

To begin with, my story about a book begins quite a bit earlier than when I actually read it. First, there is the story of how I came to read the book, where I found it, the way in which I came into my life, who told me about it, and what I've heard other people say about the book before I read it. All those experiences are somehow, in a way I can't explain, so fundamentally bound up with my relationship to the book that I always feel that the story begins there, sometimes long before I ever open the cover.

So this story begins with a horror heatwave, where it's too hot to eat, sleep or even read a book. By the last couple of days I was so desperate I resorted to spending the afternoons hanging out in the big Westfield plaza, which is usually something like my idea of Hell on Earth - only I doubt that Hell has air conditioning.

This is how I came to be wandering around a Westfield plaza looking for a way to kill time until the sun started to go down, and this is how I came to spend some time in a bookshop that wasn't a secondhand shop. It was one of those big discount warehouse kind of bookshops, with aisles to lose yourself in, and a lady on the checkout who seemed to have absolutely no interest whatsoever in anything that wasn't happening directly in front of her face. This gave me a lovely feeling of freedom, not worrying about what she thinks of me spending a whole hour in here, or the fact that every now and then I would take out a notebook and pen and make a note of a title or author that sounded interesting. You'd be surprised how many people seem to find 'note-taking behaviour' something of a concern.

One of the books that attracted me was Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas. And so I duly noted such in my notebook, which I must admit was actually a sudoku puzzle book, and I just used the spacious margins to make notes. Then I went home and looked up all the titles and authors I had noted on the online catalogue of my local library, which is always my first step when I hear of an interesting book. Only if the library doesn't have it, will I look at buying a (secondhand!) copy. It's really very rare now that I will actually buy a brand new book. My library did indeed have Our Tragic Universe, but it also had a couple of other books by the same author, which is how I discovered the existance of The End of Mr. Y, which sounded even more attractive than the first book I'd looked for, and so that was the one I put on hold, along with several other discoveries. A couple of days later I get a text from my library telling me my books are waiting for me. It's all a free service. How awesome is that? Sometimes I reckon public libraries must be the best thing about the modern world.

On the other hand, my Pile of Books to Read increases by about two feet. Sigh.

Of all the novels that I read, or consider reading, only a few will really grab me suddenly, fiercely and passionately. The End of Mr. Y is one of them. I read the first few chapters one day, and then was so sucked in that the next day I read the rest of the book straight through.

The main character, Ariel Manto, is a Ph.D student with some intriguing academic obsessions in the history of (actual, non-fictional) thought experiments in general, and the works of a (fictional) Thomas Lumas in particular. Thomas Lumas had written a book called The End of Mr. Y, which was considered to be cursed, as all the very few people who had ever been known to have read the book had disappeared, including Ariel's supervisor. Only one copy of the book is known to exist, and it's securely locked up in a German bank vault. So it seems impossible when she happens to find a copy in a second-hand bookshop, but it's real. And yes, it's going to completely change her life. I so know that feeling.

If I'm going to really get into a novel, I need to be able to identify with the protagonist in some way, to be able to understand their motives. If I don't, I can still appreciate the literary merits of a book, and what I can learn from it, but it just won't get into my heart. But I could slip into Ariel's world like slipping my door key into my own front door. I belonged in her space. And I liked her.

I asked myself why I liked her, what I thought of her. The first thing that came to mind is "She's more depressed than she thinks she is." She's so busy focussing on survival day by day that she doesn't stop to think about how she feels about things. She never feels sorry for herself, though the lifestyle she's describing in the beginning of the story is pretty bleak. She never indulges herself, she just gets on with it, making the best choice she can in any given situation. Still, there is a melancholy air behind her voice that made me feel that she was someone who knew The Black Dog intimately, that perhaps her denial was her defense. Later in the book she reveals that she used to cut herself to deal with her emotions, but now she smokes cigarettes instead, which is of course much more socially acceptable. Details like this confirm my image of her, and make me feel closer to her. I feel like she and I would be able to understand each other without talking about things much, like you can with some people. That is, if she weren't a fictional character.

Then I had to ask myself why that was the first thing that I picked up on about her, the primary way I related to her. Am I more depressed than I think I am? Is my denial my defense? Umm, yes, probably, and yeah, I reckon, respectively. Depression is a constant force in my life; sometimes it's stronger than other times, but it's always there somewhere. Sometimes I do need to just get on with things, keep going day to day, not in spite of it, but because it has to be irrelevant. The only other alternative is to watch everything fall apart.

Okay, so I admit, I'm having some depression lately. Having admitted that, I'll just get on with things, and back to all the other reasons why The End of Mr. Y is a fabulous book. And fabulous books are in themselves, of course, a wonderful way to combat or deal with depression.

It often seems to me that novels tend to fall into one of two categories - either it's 'light' and entertaining and enjoyable and assumes that the reader is probably not very bright, and doesn't place any undue demands on such, or it's 'heavy' and dense or just so bloody high-falutin' in showing us how very clever this book is, and so must we be if we're reading it. Hmmph. Well this book is a rarity - it's a down-to-earth, grounded narrative without a hint of that rarified dialect I refer to as 'academic wank,' but it also assumes that the reader is an intelligent person and able to deal with some abstract thought.

I must admit I took Jonathan Coe's quote on the front cover - "Not only will you have a great time reading this book, but you will finish it a cleverer person than when you started" - as something of a challenge, given that I consider myself a pretty clever person on a good day. I had a sneaking suspicion that perhaps Mr. Coe just wasn't as clever as me to begin with. And yes, I did have a fabulous time reading this book, and I appreciating being treated as an intelligent reader, but no, I didn't actually learn anything new as such, or end up any cleverer. I don't know if I would be someone who could be described as being 'well-versed in quantum physics' as the Novel Niche review suggests, but it has been something of a hobby of mine ever since I had my first experience of spiritual enlightenment in a chemistry classroom in high school, and as for being 'formidably read across the sciences' - well, yes, I am a bit formidable when it comes to reading. I'll cop to that one.

But even though I wasn't learning anything new as such, damn I enjoyed reading about these subjects being discussed by regular human beings who are interested in life, rather than professional scientists. If you are interested in brushing up on your quantum physics or your existentialist philosophies, I would much sooner recommend an excellent story like this one over a non-fiction, academic text.

I do love books that are about books, stories about stories. In this case, The End of Mr.Y is a book, written by a real person and presented as fictional, about a book called The End of Mr. Y, by the fictional author Thomas Lumas, which asks to be considered as fictional, though of course we know it's not. I love the double reality this creates - when we're thinking about The End of Mr. Y, do we mean Thomas' book, or Lumas'? Are they actually the same thing? Is Thomas Lumas really a part of Scarlett Thomas, anyway? Is the name a clue? Where does one story cause another to happen, or is it all one story? You can go round in circles thinking like this. What delicious fun. As the main character Ariel reads Lumas' book, she shares it with us, sometimes in direct quotes, and sometimes in a synopsis in Ariel's own voice, filling in the bits in between. I really enjoyed this split experience of Mr. Y's story. It didn't feel so split, though, maybe because Ariel relates to Mr. Y, and I relate to Ariel, and all our perceptions of the one story sift out into a beautiful cohesion.

So now I really have to find everything else that Scarlett Thomas has published, and keep an eye out for anything new she might publish in the future, because I've got a feeling that this woman is gold and I'm going to love at least most of what she writes. And my To-Read Pile increases by ... oh big sigh.

Friday, 22 March 2013

on the Unbearable Pain of Being Alive

My family and I have had at least our fair share of health problems and hospital stays, but I never really understood how much pain there is in the world until I became Mr CJ's carer.

When he first became unwell, I knew that it would take a long time and a gazillion tests before they worked out what was wrong with him. But I was still naive enough to imagine that once they worked out what the problem was, they would be able to treat him, and he might not get cured, but at least be able to manage and learn to live with it.

That was four years ago. It turns out that even with all our whizz-bang medical technology, there's not much they can do with him other than prescribe addictive painkillers that just dull the pain, just a little. He's still in almost constant, intense pain. Whenever I look up from what I am doing, whether it's the dishes or a puzzle or blogging, the first thing I see is Mr CJ heroically bearing up under incredible pain. The first thing that happens every morning is that I have to get him to get up and take his morning meds, and my god is he in terrible pain when he first wakes up. In a way it's a constant reminder of how lucky I am, and I certainly don't complain about much any more. Priorities become crystal clear in the face of chronic pain. But it's also true that I'm living with his pain 24-7 and it's just fucking heart-breaking, to watch helplessly day after day while there's just so much pain everywhere I look.

And it's not just Mr CJ. There are actually thousands and millions of people around the world suffering chronic pain of one kind or another, and there's really nothing much that can help them. I see all these people whenever I go to the Pain Clinic for an appointment with Mr CJ, or to Outpatients to pick up his meds. The waiting rooms are full of them. I can't help but imagine all the waiting rooms in all the world, and all the people suffering and desperately hoping for an end to the pain. I was one of them for about a year, when I had a bad back, but I was lucky enough to be one of the few success stories, and I got pretty much all better. I feel the weight of all this suffering throughout my whole life now. Sometimes I just despair at the hopelessness of it all.

Today is a day we've been waiting for for a long time. He's been on a waiting list for almost a year to have this procedure that helped him a lot last time he had it - and that's pretty lucky. A lot of people are waiting much longer. The doctors may want to do this treatment again if it's successful - but then it will be another year or more on another waiting list. In the meantime, there's just all this miserable fucking pain.

There was a girl in the waiting room today. She was a young one to be in there, only about 21 at a guess. She was there with her boyfriend, both of them seeming pretty white-trashy with their tacky tattoos and loud complaints about not being able to go out for a cigarette. Now I did not mean to eavesdrop on her pre-treatment interview with the nurse, but it's a bit hard not to when you're all jammed in elbow to elbow in a tiny waiting room. She was here for an epidural - I got the impression she was having the same kind of treatment I had on my back. She asked the nurse if she'd be having a general anaesthetic. The nurse said no, "It's just a little needle." And this point the poor girl just absolutely panicked and lost it. She said that she'd had this procedure twice before, and once it had gone wrong. The needle had hit a nerve in a bad way, causing her excruciating pain. She didn't want to go through it, she wanted to just go home. Her boyfriend was being pretty wonderful. He dropped all his tough-boy attitude and became all cuddles, comfort and reassurance. He talked her out of going home. He said "They won't do the surgery on you if you don't get this done." Ouch - surgery. This girl has a long way to go, and right now, she's panicking in a waiting room.

So I made my apologies about the unintentional eavesdropping, and I said to this girl, "I had this procedure done, and I was a success story. I used to use a walking frame, and now I'm totally fine. And your doctor (whose name I had also overheard) is a really good doctor. I've known a lot of doctors, and really, he's very good." This was totally true - I wasn't just falsely reassuring her. I told her how I understood that if you've had a bad experience in the past, it can be really scary to go there again. I wished I could have said "Nothing like that will happen again" but of course that's bullshit - there's always a risk. So I said "That probably won't happen again." That's going to have to be good enough for her, just like for everyone else.

And she started to breathe and wrap her head around the concept of going into that theatre to face an epidural conscious. Her boyfriend started to tell her about how they would have such a nice relaxing evening tonight, watching DVDs, and he's going to cook dinner. Would you like a carbonara, he asked. She sniffled and nodded. He got her talking about ingredients - will I get some mushrooms for it? And I was thinking, this bloke is doing a really good job dealing with her distress. He picked up a Gourmet magazine from the coffee table, and starting going through it, showing things that looked yummy to his girl, getting her thinking about something else to distract her. Then he got a bit annoyed with that magazine and plonked it back down on the coffe table, picking up another one instead. He said - really, I swear he said this out loud - "The recipes are so much better in Woman's Day, anyway."

By the time Mr CJ was called in she was pretty much calmed down, and the recipe for tonight's carbonara had grown into something astoundingly gourmet. I thought about making a joke about how I would kidnap her boyfriend while she was in there and take him home to cook for me, but you don't want to joke around in that state. So I just reminded her that a lot of the other people in this room would be having their treatments today and then going home to cook their own dinners. She got my point.

I'll be nipping back up to the hospital to pick him up soon. We are all praying for one simple thing - that he will wake up in the morning and not have a headache. Please pray with me. We need all the help we can get.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

of the Neverending Stories

I had to have a little chuckle when I came across this post this morning, where Stan Carey describes his 'to-read' stack of books as a mountain. Then he corrects himself and points out that the mountain is actually more of a range. Now there's a man who's honest with himself, I thought to myself. I am still in total denial, obviously. I'm still just calling mine a 'pile' - though now I'm suddenly aware that this is a terribly inadequate word.

Since as long as I can remember, there has always been, somewhere, in some form, a pile of books that I intend to read.

This is what my Pile looked like a fortnight ago when I started writing this post.

Then I procrastinated, which of course is something I'm very good at... though now I'm kind of glad for it, because I got to find that gem about the Pile becoming a mountain range. In the meantime there was another trip to the library. And now my Pile looks like this.

These pictures, however, only show the portion of the Pile that is visible to me and on hand at the time. The Pile in these pictures really are just the tip of an enormous literary iceberg. Beyond the immediacy of the physical presence of the Pile, there are great shadowy heaps of titles and authors swimming around in the part of my mind that is devoted to remembering the things I want to get around to at some point. There are so many titles and writers in my internal memo database that even I can't access the whole list all at once. I can't even imagine it. Really, I've tried, and I just can't wrap my head around the concept of all the books that would potentially exist in the Pile if I could see it all at once.

I remember having a revelation about the infinite nature of the Pile about two years ago. I really wanted to re-read one of my favourite books. It was probably Anne of Green Gables, because the forty-seven times I read that book through my childhood were just not enough. I never want to forget how awesome Anne is. And at the time, I thought to myself, okay, well I'll just finish reading the books I've got here in my Pile now, and then I'll get to it. But, of course, by the time I reached the last book in that particular incarnation of the Pile, it had already grown again. Suddenly I realised that the Pile would always be there. No matter how much  I actually read in my life, the Pile is still going to be as big as ever was, if not bigger. There are always going to be new books popping up into my awareness that I will want to read, and even if everybody stopped publishing anything new right now, I would still need several lifetimes just to get through all the books that are already out there that I want to read. Every now and then, I get a little bee in my bonnet about some particular topic or historical personage, and I'll go to the library catalogue online and look up everything I can find on the subject. A lot of the books I find I won't bother reading through, but a lot of them, I will. I remember realising, all of a sudden, that the Pile would always be there, no matter how much or how little I read. One day, I'm going to die, and I'm going to leave behind a Pile of books that I didn't get time to read. That's just life.

A few good insights came out of my revelation. The most important one for me, I think, is to always remember that life is just too short to read crappy books. Or even just mediocre books. I resolved then not to waste any more time reading anything that isn't just an absolutely amazing, fabulous, life-changing book. I'm a lot harsher now in culling my reading Pile. If I start reading a book, and a little way in it hasn't changed my life yet, I give up on it and look for a more important book. You'd think I'd start running out of books to read with such incredibly high standards. I was kind of hoping I would. But no. Every week of my life I just find out about more books and writers that really are that brilliant. Even if I'm not looking for them.

That was two years ago, and I still haven't re-read any of my favourites. I sometimes despair that I ever will again, with the Pile towering over my shoulder, calling out to me with the irresistible temptation of the potential of the unknown.

But, if I could, would I have it any other way? Um, no, actually. Now excuse me, I really have to wrap this up and get back to my reading.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

how to make Surprise Experimental Blueberry Frozen Yoghurt in approximately 17 Sontaneous Steps

1. Suffer miserably through another record-breaking heatwave. Climate change? - well isn't is obvious?

2. Wake up after the cool change has come through and have a meltdown, because it's so much easier to have a breakdown about something after the fact, rather than while you're busy coping with it.

3. Try to take it easy but end up feeling sick with over-exhaustion by evening. Become driven to distraction by a powerful craving for something, only you don't know what it is. Something to do with nutrients that the heat sucks out of you.

4. Go through every item in the kitchen, looking for whatever it is that you don't know what it is yet. Find a bag of frozen blueberries in the freezer. Oh, that's it. Or close enough.

5. Wonder what goes with blueberries while they are defrosting. Go through the kitchen again and come up with yoghurt, honey and linseed-sunflower-almond meal. Mix them together in a bowl.

6. Hmm. We're getting there, but it's not quite fabulous, and it's such a bugger to distribute honey in a really cold liquid.

7. Hit on the idea of freezing it - possibly influenced by a recent heatwave-induced ice-cream binge. Remember some recipes you read once about how to make ice-cream, and figure you're onto something. Stick the bowl in the freezer for 10 minutes just to get it firming up a little.

8. Get chatting on the phone and come back to the kitchen 50 minutes later. Discover that it's only just really cold, and still soft. Realise that this process is going to take a lot longer than you thought.

9. Put it back in the freezer.

10. Occupy yourself in the meantime by dusting, cleaning out and re-laying the main altar for the first time in aaayy-ges. (I don't know how this affects the yoghurt, but it's a good thing to do anyway.)

11. Pop back down to the kitchen after 20-30 minutes to discover that the blueberry mixture is now nicely firm but not quite frozen solid.

12. Chop the mixture in a criss-cross fashion with a sharp knife, like so.

13. Let it defrost a few minutes, then mash it up with a fork.

14. Repeat steps 9, 12 and 13 two or three more times.

15. Transfer mixture to freezer container. Lick the bowl because now you've decided that it's totally awesome.

16. Realise that it's after midnight, which means it's your birthday. Figure that you really should stick a candle on top of something. (Note - this step won't work most of the time. Consider it optional.)

17. Get creatively liberal with the concept of 'ice-cream cake' and take great artistic license in interpreting the prepositional phrase 'on top of' - it's all a matter of persepective. 

Friday, 1 March 2013

of a Mysterious and Dreadful Foreboding, and Something Strange About the Moon

Tonight, I had such a strange feeling come over me that something was wrong, something that felt terribly like a premonition of danger. Have you ever had that?

Well, I reckon it would be a pretty safe bet that somewhere in the world, there are many terrible things happening tonight. But I've just had the strangest experience.

Mr CJ and I were out and about, and planning to go get some takeaway for dinner. But then suddenly, I started to feel bad - an anxious, dreading, foreboding kind of bad. It was such a profound, unusually keen sense of immediate disaster. It was just not 'like me' - I'm not generally prone to paranoid tendencies. I insisted that we go home immediately and check on the house. We got home and the house was fine. I called my mum and my best friend - they were both fine, relative to their circumstances. I turned on the news to see if there's been a terrorist attack or an earthquake. I checked my blog list for any indication of bad news. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Still, I reckon I'm going to wonder for the rest of life what happened, somewhere, on this night that was so very wrong.

So we went back out to finish our shopping at one of those extremely convenient open-til-midnight supermarkets. On the way back home I saw the moon, and somehow it's all gotten stranger.

It was what we often call a Bushfire Moon here in Australia. It's entirely likely that there is a bushfire somewhere around - we do have plenty of them this time of year. The moonlight is filtered through a smokey atmosphere and turns bright orange, or sometimes even quite red. We saw it when it was just rising, low on the horizon, and it's absolutely enormous - apparently about ten times bigger than the moon usually looks in this phase, at that position. Yes, it was very striking. And then I remembered something. I remembered the last time I'd seen a moon just like that.

It was December, 1999. I was living in Zuerich, near a mountain called the Uetliberg. I would often go walking in the foothills of the Uetli, revelling in my first experiences with living among snow. This night, I had gone on such a walk quite late at night. Now in those days I was young and fearless, and I walked alone anywhere I wanted to go, through all hours of the night and in all sorts of undesirable locations. So as I headed up the hills through the snowy paths in the very near pitch black of night, I was a bit surprised to find myself feeling something odd - something creepy, nervous, spooky. I told myself that it was probably pretty normal to feel a bit spooky, given that I was wandering alone through a late-night, wintery forest. And I kept going, but the feeling increased. It started to affect my breathing and my heartbeat. It felt harder and harder to keep going forward. And then suddenly a thought occurred to me - maybe this wasn't just spookiness. Maybe this was my intuiton telling me that there was danger around. This thought hit me like a tonne of bricks, and I was suddenly very sure that for the first time in my life, I was close to real danger. I turned around and hurried back down the hill, walking as fast as could possibly be safe on a dark, snowy downhill slope. Soon I turned a bend and just ahead, I could see a tiny red light. My heart was almost pounding right out my chest. I slowed down to a regular walking pace, and as I came closer I could see that the red light was the glow of a lit cigarette. Soon I could make out the silhouette of the man who was smoking that cigarette, and the dog that sat at his feet, attached to his master by a lead. In the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, a man just standing on the path, smoking a cigarette. This is it, I thought, this is the thing that everyone was warning me about, the stranger in the night who would do something terrible to me. It was one of the greatest moments of terror I've ever felt in the world. But somehow I just kept walking past at a regular walking pace. I even managed to say "Grueze" when I got close to him. He said "Grueze" back. Even though we were only a few metres apart by now, it was so dark that I still couldn't see any more of him than a silhouette, and the red point of his cigarette. I kept walking - and nothing happened. He just stood there, smoking his cigarette. Once I was around the next bend I broke into a run until I got to the point where I could see buildings and fences and civilisation was real again.

There was one more surprise in store for me. As the forest gave way to open sky, I could see the moon on the horizon. I remember thinking that I didn't know that they could get Bushfire Moons here in Switzerland. There certainly couldn't be any bushfires around - it was the middle of winter. But it was beautiful. It was huge and bright, dark orange. It was a waning gibbous moon - the same phase the moon is in tonight. I saw it soon after moonrise - in the same position, relative to the horizon, as the moon I saw tonight.

Twice in my life now, I've had this urgent conviction that something must be very wrong. And just a few moments after getting to the point where I was sure that was no longer any immediate problem, I saw the same moon.

I don't know what to make of it. But I know I'll never forget it.