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The Whippet #10: Poison, gene editing (not CRISPR), other people's clothes, advice from comedians

McKinley Valentine — 13 min read

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Good morning, steppe ponies!

One of the best things I’ve learned recently is

how to enjoy haiku.

I was always like, “okay, that’s nice I guess? But what was your point?” I was thinking of them in terms of words, because they’re made of words, and I’m a verbal thinker. But a haiku is not about words at all, it’s incredibly visual. I know that seems blindingly obvious! But listen! A haiku magically creates a very beautiful 2-second gif in your mind’s eye. Alan Watts says good zen poetry just gets the reader to pause briefly, to catch their attention on a very specific sensation or emotion – it's mindfulness stuff.

Even that old horse
is something to see this
snow-covered morning

You can IMMEDIATELY picture that horse, right?

New Year’s first snow -- ah --
just barely enough to tilt
the daffodil

and that flower, with a tiny heap of snow on it?

O bush warblers!
Now you’ve shit all over
my rice cake on the porch

Aw man. (These are all Matsuo Basho, sorry to be obvious but I’m new and basic.)

People get really hung up on the syllable thing, even though we know that only makes sense in syllable-based languages, and is nonsense in English. We know it, but we still make all this 5-7-5 nonsense. But it's really about being able to fling an image into another person's mind.

Once you know, it's a tiny superpower. You can give anyone a free painting anytime, by texting them one. By Yosa Buson:

Before the white chrysanthemum
the scissors hesitate
a moment

The life-changing magic of other people's clothes

(by Rosa Lyster, writer of the amazing "The Best Time I Pretended I Hadn’t Heard of Slavoj Žižek")

"A friend recently returned a whole lot of clothes I lent her. Elle is a neat and thoughtful person, so all the jumpers and shirts were washed and folded and somehow in a slightly better condition than when they left. They looked zesty and refreshed, and probably loved their holiday away from me. I am extremely hard on my clothes. I spill coffee on them all the time and I tear them more than I would guess is normal.

At the top of the bag of clothes were two items that did not belong to me: some black pants from Zara and some high-waisted jeans, also from Zara. The black pants were good grown-up office pants, perfectly fine, but the jeans were a different kind of creature altogether. I recognized them as such at once. I rapidly churned through a familiar yet still giddy set of emotions, clutching the jeans to my actual chest. Like this:

Oh God I bet these are amazing.

It is going to hurt my feelings when I have to part with them, as I surely must.

Must I, though. She put them in here by mistake, obviously, and maybe she will just think they got lost. People lose things all the time.

No. Theft is Wrong.

What even is the matter with me.

Let me just try them on.

Oh God they ARE amazing.

I look neat ‘n’ clean and like I know what is what.

This is how Elle feels every day at her job, where she does complicated tasks in an orderly and trustworthy fashion. She comes home from work and thinks, “Well, I did a lot today, and a great deal is required of me, but I know in my heart that I am up to it.”

If I had these jeans I would feel like that also.


"This is the best thing about other people’s clothes: They retain their air of otherness, always. Their powerful energy clings to them still."


"It’s exhausting to always have to be yourself, and other people’s clothes offer a temporary respite from that."

Read the whole thing, it's wonderful, Rosa Lyster is wonderful.

Octopuses and squid can edit their own genetic instructions

"Unlike other animals, cephalopods do not obey the commands of their DNA to the letter. Instead, they sometimes interfere with the code as it is being carried by a molecular “messenger”. RNA, a close cousin of DNA, is used to transfer software-like instructions from the genes to protein-making machinery in cells. This re-coding has the effect of diversifying the proteins cephalapods' cells can produce, leading to some interesting variations.

"The system may have produced a special kind of evolution based on RNA editing rather than DNA mutations [what the rest of us use] and could be responsible for the complex behaviour and high intelligence seen in cephalopods, some scientists believe.

"Scientists discovered that more than 60 per cent of RNA transcripts in the squid brain are re-coded by editing. In other animals, ranging from fruit flies to humans, such re-coding events only occur a fraction of 1 per cent of the time."

--I didn't catch the significance of that the first time I read it. They think they might have a completely different method of evolution: editing their own RNA while they're still alive, rather than random DNA mutations. That's amazing. Also have you been reading about CRISPR? Editing the genes of living creatures, being able to cure genetic diseases in people who are still alive, and it's all... not a pipe dream but really well established and possible, and it's cheap and easy. Here's a 101.--

More about what the squid thing means and how it arises isn't really known yet (sorry, that's how news goes). Full article.

The Alnwick Poison Garden

"Behind big black gates, the carefully curated garden contains about 100 legendary killers like belladonna / deadly nightshade, Strychnos nux-vomica (strychnine), Ricinus communis (ricin), hemlock and angel's trumpets [so-called, because, well...] Guides explain their deadly properties while keeping ne’er-do-wells and curious children away from the plants, warning them: “Do not touch any of the plants, don’t even smell them. There are plants here that can kill you.”

"Also included in the gardens are narcotic plants like opium poppies, cannabis, magic mushrooms, and tobacco. Many of these required special government permission to grow. Because the danger posed by poisonous plants is very real (some can kill or sicken just through touch), some plants are caged, and the garden is secured each evening behind gates under a 24-hour security watch." Full article

It was created by an English Duchess, and was opened to the public in 2005. It's in Northumberland, you can go there.

Reader question: How to prioritise friendships and also making art?

"I want to prioritise my friendships and my relationships with people, particularly the ones that need some love right now (there are always friends who need some love right now). BUT I also need to throw my energy behind my creative pursuits because that's the other thing I'm here for. How do I balance that?"

i AM EXTREMELY EXCITED ABOUT THIS: it's an excellent question, and since I know a statistically disproportional number of Whippet readers have strong creative pursuits, I thought I'd get people more qualified than me are gonna answer it, namely comedians Lisa-Skye and Kate Dehnert. The answers are long, but then it's an important and difficult question, so short answers wouldn't really cut it. (I have a couple of my own thoughts but I'll put them at the end.)

Lisa-Skye is Melbourne's favourite sparklepuppy muppet dominatrix comedian, and is also super busy and seems to manage this balance pretty well to an outside observer. Point 2 is so smart and practical.

"I'm a polyamorous, full-time creative and have been so for a couple of years. I'm also lucky enough to have loads of close friends. So this is a constant pressure for me (and always will be!)

Here are three things I do to best balance my work and my people:

1. Talk it out
As with literally everything, honesty and communication is key, as is asserting your boundaries. To be honest, as a 'Daddy' [explanation: here] (ie I tend to be the paternal/nurturing one in my friendships and relationships) I struggle with the latter. If I tell a close friend that I can't be there for them right now, will they feel unable to turn to me next time they have a crisis? I just have to trust that they will, and make time for them when I am able.

Making a living wage out of the arts is kind-of trying to pull of the impossible. So your friends have to understand that sometimes, the work has to come first. You can't just chuck a sickie to come hang out - your work is as important as their 9 to 5. Even if your hours are often flexible, you're still putting in as much (or in many cases, more) working hours per week than non-creatives may be, as well as living your work, rather than being able to turn off after leaving the office.

People justifiably don't get this - especially if, when done right, work in the arts can look effortless (with my comedy, people see me 'off the cuff' on stage, and don't consider the 10 hours of work offstage it takes for every hour on stage). Patiently and kindly explain that this is important, hard work - but don't be a martyr about it (there's no Sufferlympics).

With patience and love, explain why you're so busy, and why this is important to you, and what it means to your fluctuating energy and time levels.

2. Keep notes, write lists
Ok, this is super nerdy and idiosyncratic, so YMMV. I have a list of the creative stuff I have to get done, but also set reminders to check in with people.

I have a horrible memory and a lot on the go, and my relationships are as important to me as my work, so I note down reminders accordingly. If I know 'Sam' has a scary meeting on the 24th and may need to debrief, I'll put a note in my diary to check in with Sam on the 24th. Or if a friend has just been through a breakup, I might write myself reminders to check in on them every two days. It may appear clinical, but this way I can fully devote my brain space to my creative work, and then, when I get reminders, set aside some time to check in.

I also keep a list of close friends and partners, and when I have a gap in my schedule, refer to it so I can make sure I'm putting in the effort across all my relationships. Remember it goes two ways though: early on, I had friends and lovers who resented my artistic drive, or wilfully refused to understand that it was real work, and no amount of patient explanation would sway them. Those people aren't for you. Relationships have to be nurturing and respectful both ways.

3. Be mindful of your peaks and troughs, and signpost/schedule accordingly
The week before a festival [as in, comedy festival, fringe festival], I need to look after (in order of importance) me, my projects, and specific friends who are also doing the festival. I signpost this WELL ahead of time, and people get it now: they know pre-and during-festival Lisa is a busy guy.

I have a 'bat signal' for very close friends and partners - that is, if they tell me it's the bat signal I drop everything and go to them - but in times of peak creativity they have to understand that I can't be there for smaller, non-bat signal crises.

Post-festival, I always try to do nice things for the friends and partners I've 'abandoned'. And I always stay abreast of their peaks and troughs and help out as needed. I have a friend whose busy period at work is two crazy weeks in June, so in that time I cook for them and do their laundry.

I also try to work out what are the least time-consuming ways for me to keep communication going during peak times: I haaaate long message exchanges and text-based interactions. I prefer to meet someone for a coffee, or record them a voice memo while I'm driving, then they can record one back, or have a phone call.

This balancing act is bloody hard. It's a two-way street and with patience, practise, understanding and time, you'll be able to give your mates the energy they need when you can, and focus on the work when you have to."

Lisa-Skye's website is actually kept up to date and her much-lauded show Spiders Wearing Party Hats is returning for a one-off charity performance this Monday (the 17th) at 7pm. Buy tickets.

Kate Dehnert is a comedy writer/performer. She was a Moosehead [comedy grant] recipient in 2016 and recorded several voices in The Tokyo Hotel radio-play for the ABC. Her answer:

"So, I don’t know the exact circumstances of your situation, but here’s my take on it as a writer/performer. I’m also writing all this in a snarky way, because as I was writing it I found myself talking to a younger version of myself. So. You’re probably a very nice and good person. Please do not be offended. We’re just here to kick some sense into younger, stupider, Kate. However, when I write ‘you’ I mean you. Not younger me. That was just the projection part. Bothered? All good art is layered so BACK OFF. Righto -

Simply put, work out a system that works for you.

But here’s what (currently) works for me (on days where I don’t work a day-job, nor do I have an ‘official’ deadline):

  • By 8am I am at the computer and I begin to write. My creative brain is most effective when I haven’t muddied it with newspapers/emails/social media/other’s opinions.
  • 11am exercise.
  • 12pm lunch.
  • 1pm back to the computer to do admin (emails, research, work on creative projects in a task-based way e.g. scene exercises; character exercises; punching things up; work on other’s people’s stuff.
  • 4pm-ish go for walk if there’s time.
  • 5pm-ish cook and eat food.
  • 7pm-ish socialize/relax, or, if I feel like working, I work. I often just work in a loose way while I watch a movie. More like ‘noodling about’ with an idea. Or I go back into full-boar creative work because this is also another time that’s good for my creative brain.

You have to recognise when you’re most creatively productive and when you’re better at doing the admin/task-based stuff.

Also, you have to have standards so you don’t slack about. Mine is to do at least 6 – 8 hours of focused work a day. 6 seems pretty casual, but sometimes creative work is bloody hard and exhausting. Why beat a dead fish? That’s the saying? These rules don’t apply when there’s a deadline. If there’s a deadline you run as hard and as bloody fast as you can because when it’s done, it’s done. Don’t regret what you didn’t do. Work hard and work smart.
Here’s the thing, having a system is important because it means that if you have to quickly drop something to support a friend, you have old-reliable to get you back on track when the dust has settled.

And in terms of balancing that with friendship. Here’s what I do:

  • I let my friends know what’s going on with my life (seriously, they might just be angry at you because they don’t know/understand what you’re going through or what pressures you’re under. TALK TO THEM. NICELY.).
  • I actively ask what’s going on in their lives and try to book in catch-ups. Because they’re my friends and I’m interested.
  • On average, I probably socialise twice a week. I would love to socialise more, but the nature of my work means I have to use a lot of my spare time to achieve what I want to achieve. Otherwise the career part just doesn’t happen (and it often takes bloody ages to make a creative career happen).
  • Call your mates for a chat when you’re on a walk? When you want to clear your head? Just check in with your friends? Because you know, your friends aren’t obstacles? [I bolded this because it's great - McK]
  • It gets easier as you get older. Your friends are probably busy too.
  • If you’ve got friends that constantly depend on you in their day-to-day lives, then maybe the best thing you can do is to encourage them to get professional help. Use your brain, this doesn’t apply to recent, big events.
  • Good friends understand and help each other. It goes both ways. You need to understand when to hang out, and they need to understand that you might have a deadline so you can’t go rock-climbing.
  • If you work better in solid chunks, then just let them know you might be AWOL for a couple of weeks but you’ll try and grab them for impromptu coffees instead. Because surely you don’t want to be alone for two weeks. If you do, commit and book a cabin. Just properly fuck off. But if you’re not back with two-weeks worth of solid work, then you might be procrastinating and perhaps you were using your friends as another reason why you just can’t seem to get any work done.

The right circumstances to work on creative projects rarely exist. Figure out a plan. Just work. And know, I say all this as someone who has screwed it all up before/am probably currently screwing it up right now with this little plan of mine."

Follow Kate on Twitter, she didn't get paid for this. (She also sends me Whippet article suggestions, which she doesn't get credited for. What am I doing.)

Last thoughts from me:
There are two reasons to put a lot of energy into helping your friends:

  1. They need help, and you’re in a good position to give it
  2. Part of you worries that you’re only valuable to your friends in terms of what you can do for them, the benefits you provide (even intangible ones), not just because your own self as it exists is lovely to them.

If you’ve got any of the second thing going on, please recognise that it's a false idea, and do some work to challenge it and break it down, if you can.

I also sort of think that, beyond the practical concerns (money, a couch to crash on, helping them with tasks their depression has rendered unmanageable), you can’t really help another person. Not really. You can’t make a break-up or a parent’s death not hurt, for example.

So your continued loving presence in your friends’ life is important and good, but it probably doesn’t need to be hours poured out. Like, visit them for an hour after work, instead of the whole evening. And actually leave after the hour and go home to make your art. Things like that. “Short hangs” has been my new policy of trying to see my partner more while still addressing my introvert needs and scheduling in blocks for regular exercise, meditation, etc.

Lastly I’m gonna recommend Honor Eastley’s new podcast, Starving Artist. In her words: “It's a podcast about art, money, and how to make it work; each episode I interview a different artist to ask them "how does money work for you?", but what I'm really asking is much bigger questions that I want answers to: "How do you live? How do you deal? What makes a good life?"

and another podcast, Friendshipping, which is about, how do you do that?

Ask me a question on literally any topic except contemporary politics. You can ask by replying to this email: let me know if you want to be named and/or linked.


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