The nuclear apocalypse playground
Clambering onto rocket launchers, and the rusting wings of Sukhoi fighter jets. Scrambling through dimly lit tunnels. Jumping on the heavy metal lid of a missile silo. Pressing *the* button in the control room a dozen storeys below ground — yes, the one that, until it was decommissioned, would’ve launched a bevy of nuclear missiles aimed at the USA. At the Museum of Strategic Missile Forces in southern Ukraine last month, I (briefly) reverted to my 10-year-old military-obsessed self.
The rusting Iron Curtain toppled when I was a toddler. I am thus luckily young enough to have grown up without the threat of mutually assured destruction looming over me. This museum offered a sobering (and transgressively entertaining) reminder of the stakes — and grotesquely destructive — firepower involved. No longer does a nuclear confrontation seem quite so abstract or so historical.
We’re not done with apocalyptic brinkmanship quite yet — as China’s new hypersonic missiles and a buildup of its nuclear arsenal proves. If Freud was alive right now, I bet he’d be having a field day… 🍆🚀
The Spy Who Bored Me. For a movie about the narrow averting of nuclear war, The Courier (starring a moustachioed Benedict Cumberbatch and an alarmingly blonde-helmeted Rachel Brosnahan) was disappointingly tedious. If you have recommendations for espionage movies that are more scintillating than this snoozefest, please do let me know.
Jellyfish and ice cream headaches. A few months ago I began swimming without a wetsuit. I think this started because I wanted to take a dip during my half-hour lunch breaks at the inn (where I served, for a few surreal months, as an innkeeper) — and donning a wetsuit would’ve involved too much time-consuming faff. But I think it’s also thanks to the protagonist of my novel-in-progress, who is even more swimming obsessed than I am, and who’s convinced that wetsuits are for wussies. Given that I could sense his contemptuous side-eye every time I encountered him on the page, it was only a matter of time before I caved.
Your head feels like you’ve just deep-throated vanilla soft serve on cooler days (when the water’s probably around 10-12°C). Never have I been so grateful for my pandemic flab/proto-dad bod. It takes a while to acclimate, but once I do, I’ll stay for a solid 45 minutes or so (if there’s jellyfish then I’ll probably hop out rather sooner — the ones lurking near my nearest beach don’t seem to sting but accidentally touching their squishy bodies still freaks me out).
The new swimming spots in Europe which I added to my list were almost as frigid as the northern Pacific: the Black Sea (which, disappointingly, is actually a soupy grey) and two swimming holes along a limpid mountain river near Piodão in Portugal.
The paradox of cold water swimming: it’s both calming and invigorating, unleashing a wave of energised equanimity that I rarely feel on land. It’s also an extremely effective hangover cure — useful in a place like Odessa where the cocktails are both very good and very affordable, a potentially lethal combo.
FYI: The late Roger Deakin’s Waterlog — a legendary paean to wild swimming in Britain first published in the UK way back in 1999 — is FINALLY (!) being published in the USA. Astonishingly, I haven’t read it yet but intend to soon (I guess you could say that both the Yanks and me are behind the curve on this one). While you await your copy, whet your appetite with Leanne Shapton’s charming essay-review in Harper’s.
Here we go again. When Pliny the Elder (the Roman intellectual, not the [utterly fantastic] double IPA) said ex Africa semper aliquid novi — “Africa always brings [us] something new” — it’s unlikely he was referring to viral mutations, though he might as well have been. Omicron — and the sudden rash of travel bans its discovery has provoked — has left me with a sinking sense of déjà vu: remember the infamous beta — although back then we called it “the South African variant”?
Omicron sounds more like the brand name for a mainframe computer. Or an adorable chess-playing robot. Or a long-obsolete coding language. Not something that is highly transmissible, and possibly crafty enough to circumvent vaccines.
Tomorrow is World Aids Day. So it’s perhaps a fitting time to inform you that next June I hope to cycle from SF to LA as part of AIDS/LifeCycle, raising funds for the sterling work done by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles LGBT Center to support those living with HIV. I feel sheepish about adding to the chorus of those haranguing you for money this week, but if you do have a dollar or two to spare, making a donation HERE would be HUGELY appreciated.
A desk of one’s own at the edge of the world. With international travel more precarious — and complicated — than it’s been for a generation, I feel immensely fortunate to have had three wonderful weeks in Europe that went off without a hitch. Still: it’s nice to be back, ensconced once more in the redwoods—to have returned to my study, my books, my cat, and (of course!) my husband.
That’s all for this month’s Dispatch — thanks for reading! Replies are always welcome — and appreciated — so please do drop me a line to tell me about your favourite swimming spot/military museum/hangover cure, or simply just to say hello!