Monday, September 27, 2010

Thoughts on Translation

I'll be back later this week with an update on the 100 Things list. Meanwhile, please mosey over to AuthorScoop, where I've posted an essay on translation - its effect on the works we see, and whether it's an art or a necessary evil. I welcome any thoughts you might have on it!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Poem I Left Behind

I am alive and I am tired;
forgotten tea, my tepid cup.
The world's asleep, it's half-past-two -
So why am I still up?

One Hundred Things I Love About Australia - Part 6

Happy Australia Day. And a cracker of a day it was. Sunny, high of 30C, slightly humid - textbook summer day. Pastries, playground and bike rides in the park, seeing Dear Son, 4, take off on his two-wheeler, with help only getting started - wow. Iced coffee in a local cafe. Swimming at a local pool, watching Dear Daughter, 6 1/2, swim half a lap, which delighted me -- then turn and swim another, which astonished me. Then another. Rolling onto her back and kicking, she led me up and down through *ten* laps altogether.

Finally, a few hours at a local Australia Day festival - small, impeccably run - marvelous entertainment, fun rides, great food, no crush of people. Perfect.

Today would cover about twenty of my hundred. In exactly a year from now, I'd like to take the oath and become a dual citizen; how fortunate to have two homelands to love this much.

But here we go - with the new ball to open the second innings. Now then: what else do I love about Australia?

51. ANZAC Day April 25 - The Antipodean equivalent of Memorial Day, but celebrated with great poignancy and gravity every year, and with cheery, beery gambling in the traditional games of Two-Up played in pubs everywhere that day. "Lest We Forget" is a familiar phrase, and everyone is familiar with the horrors of Gallipoli. Even today, thousands travel to Turkey to attend the dawn service near the battle site, and people across the nation awake for dawn services at home. At the church I attend, veterans and dignitaries plant small ceremonial crosses to commemorate the fallen soldiers from years past, even to that battle nearly a hundred years ago.

It's a sober, somber, uniting, respectful gesture that transcends jingoism and political bunfights; it represents a universal recognition within and among Australians of the sacrifices made by everyday people, become heroes through necessity and love. And they are remembered.

52. News of the World Australia is a long way from the United States. There are twenty million Australians in a world of six billion people. Consequently, news about Australia does not blot out the the rest of the world from coverage in the daily news hour.

My memory from the US is, in extremely general terms, that after the news of America (and the usual hot spots, such as Israel) is reported, there's precious little time or space for much of the rest of the world. So who would ever know that hundreds of Indians died in a train wreck, or the machinations involved in the Malaysian or Indonesian elections? Japan, maybe.

Then again, perhaps it's not so much what's included, as the perspective from which it's reported. News viewed through a prism other than the American camera lens - never mind the political slant - tends to reveal (again, in my observation) parts of the picture that I hadn't been used to seeing. Or, maybe it's something else again: perhaps that there's less of a rush to see things as black-and-white, Us vs Them.

Australia is certainly America's friend, but we live in Asia's neighbourhood, and we've still got a lot of England's stuff sitting up in the attic.

53. Rock-Star Politicians Remember Midnight Oil? I first heard them in 1985 - "Best of Both Worlds" impressed me immediately; it's a searing, soaring number. Their stock in trade was (is?) political commentary that rocked, that felt immediate. "Beds Are Burning" and "Truganini" dealt unflinchingly and immediately with sore-point issues in Australia, and they gained a worldwide audience. You might have seen the band perform at the Closing Ceremony for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney - after the Prime Minister refused to apologise to the Stolen Generations (story for another time - but a web search will help), the Oils took the stage wearing black outfits with the word "SORRY" emblazoned in various places. Cop that, Johnny.

Peter Garrett, the tall, bald, gangly dancing lead singer, is a Labor Party MP now - and Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts. Which means he's not only been acknowledged by the voting punter, but, rather than caching him softly in the back bench, the Government has seen fit to give him a portfolio. I just think that's fairly cool - love or hate his politics, he's clearly been seen as having cred beyond his, er, rock-star image.

54. Cricket rock-stars In a less serious vein, one of our more prominent athletes of recent years - cricket fast bowler Brett Lee - made a bit of a name for himself with his band, Six and Out.

55. Rock-Star Chefs Australia's long been thought of as a cultural backwater. Given its origins as an Alcatraz the size of the continental USA, that's no surprise.

But visit Australia today - one of the major cities, at least - and walk into any public gathering place, and you'll find four prevalent conversation topics: Sport, Real Estate, Wine, and Restaurants. And not necessarily in that order.

Sydney papers report on chefs switching restaurants, or opening new ones on their own, with a breathlessness once reserved for player trades on the sports page, or sightings of major celebrities (no, not you, Dannii Minogue). Dining is excellent, and apparently, so is the wine (I can't vouch for it personally, but Aussies certainly do study it and rabbit on about it, with good reason, I'm sure).

56. Film-Star Sports Moguls "Aussie" Russell Crowe (like Neil Finn, claimed as a native son by both Aussies and Kiwis) helped resurrect one of Australia's oldest, most storied teams, the South Sydney Rabbitohs of rugby league. Does he know how to run a team? I don't know - but he sure as hell is involved. He goes to games, talks to the players, and bloody well cares. Last year, to motivate the team, he wrote a Book of Feuds for the players, including reasons the Rabbitohs had an axe to grind with every other team in the comp. Unleash Hell, indeed.

57. Actor Rock-Stars Again with Russell - make hay, etc. Mr Crowe, actor, rugby league saviour/demagogue and sometime muso, also plays out now and then with his combo, Thirty-Odd Foot of Grunt. I have absolutely no idea about their oeuvre, but I don't think John Butler is looking over his shoulder just yet.

58. Utes Hey, Americans - remember the El Camino? The car with a pickup-like bed instead of a back seat? Generally remembered as an oddity? Well, that's what prevails here instead of pickup trucks. They are the work vehicle of choice among tradesmen, and they are also a premier muscle car, possibly owing to the V8 engines under the bonnet (that's "hood" for you Yanks).

"Ute", I believe, is short for "Utility". But nobody's called them anything but utes since, oh, Ned Kelly took a hammer and fashioned a helmet out of a billy and a Holden back panel.

59. Priorities - Nudity I've long nursed (ho ho!) a pet peeve about American values as they apply to what makes appropriate entertainment viewing. To wit: murder and all sorts of violence and brutality - much of it graphic - is considered suitable for viewing by nearly anyone. But flash a boob or a butt, or discuss sex, and it's ARMAGEDDON!!!!!!!!! (My material may be out of date, but gimme a break; I've been overseas for sixteen years now.)

No, Australia doesn't have Velvet After Dark in prime time - that's not what I'm talking about, not really. But there isn't this paradoxical dictum that sex is unhealthy to discuss, but violence is, well, a natural part of life.

And, yeah, all Americans seem to take a period to adjust to the relaxed attitude about toplessness on many public beaches here. But most of us manage to adjust; I think I stopped gawking within three, maybe four years.

60. "I'm Australian" Ask an American what their background is, and they'll give you a pie chart; it'll be something like, "Oh, I'm half Irish, a quarter German, an eighth Scottish and an eighth Cherokee". Soon after arriving in the Sunburnt Country, I had a bit of a discussion with an American friend and an English bloke about this. American Friend and I swapped ancestral recipes, at which Sir Pom snorted, "That's preposterous. You're both American, end of story." Then he yammered on about his family having resided in the same shire for a thousand years, at which point I chuckled something about inbreeding, which thoroughly amused his date, a most perceptive and fetching young Australienne.

But I digress.

I don't belittle the American desire to claim our roots by percentages; it's part of the pride in being a melting-pot nation. However, what I have noticed here is that people here, even first- or second-generation immigrants, generally proclaim they are capital-A Australian. They still wave the flags of the motherland at World Cup time (that's the one where they pay "soccer") and retain pride and connection with where they came from. But there's no waffling about being Australians. Sure, I know at least one Australian of Italian background who cheered when Italy beat Australia in the 2006 World Cup quarterfinal (on a dive, let's remember!). But Australians embrace religious freedom.

Finally, in the spirit of Australia Day, I'll share something I picked up at a trivia contest over the holidays:

Q: The Australian coat of arms features a kangaroo and an emu. Why those two creatures?

A: Because they are the only two creatures in Australia that are physically unable to take a backward step.

I don't really care if the explanation or the reason is apocryphal - it's just so fitting that it should be true.

Coming up: England Sports Geography, choice of sauce, seaside pools, and more.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Revamping, resuming

I'm getting back to the writing... Please be patient as I work out the new Blogger, new devices, and gadgets.

I've added a Followers widget - you are cordially invited to join, but casual visitors are equally warmly welcomed and thanked.

Cin cin -


Tuesday, December 15, 2009


It's been a long, long time. I will return to finish the 100 Things list, likely after Christmas.

Otherwise, I'm not only struggling to write anything, but I'm having a hard time wanting to. Maybe it's that I'm more interested in learning guitar right now; or, it could be that my last couple of efforts were coolly received (and rightly so).

Meanwhile, life itself is fine and beautiful; whether and when my writerness resurfaces is another story (or, come to think of it, perhaps not - which is precisely the point).

Shalom, y'all.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The secret to oatmeal and poems

The sweetest raisins won't disguise lumpy oatmeal.

Allow me to explain.

This weekend, I had something like an epiphany. That is, I'd known this concept for a long time; indeed, it's something I think we all know. But now, suddenly, it was clear, sharp and blazing: instead of knowing it, I felt it.

The idea is this: Poems often (usually?) have particular lines or turns of phrase that stand out, that particularly impress themselves upon the reader. Different readers may find different gems in the same poem, but that's not the point.

What hit me is that, when a poem is great, there isn't any bad line. Even if a word or phrase doesn't stand out in a good way, it doesn't stand out in a bad way either. A great poem doesn't have any distractions or specific flaws. Nothing gets in the way, no imperfection distracts the reader.

That may seem obvious (or it may not; for that matter, it may not even seem correct). But it changed how I view the writing process. To me, this idea means that every piece of the poem must be right. It's not enough to have one brilliant line, then not bother too much with the rest.

I think I pay attention to all sections, but there are always parts of the poem on which I focus more attention - maybe because they need it. But often, it's the parts that are already working well that I work on most.

It's not enough for the poem to fit technically; the effect has to be right. The crystal might look perfect on the shelf, but it's only when we hold it up to the light that we know how it splinters and scatters the daylight.

Just a thought - but one that makes me think that nearly every poem I've written could use more work.

By the way, this thought came to me as I was reading 80 Great Poems from Chaucer to Now, by Geoff Page - it's a collection of, well, eighty great poems - not necessarily The Best poems, but all great. He discusses each poem in technical, artistic, and historical contexts. But the poems all impress with their lack of obvious flaws, which is what lit the bulb for me.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Political Poetry Corner: "Primary Colors"

With apologies to the redoubtable William Haskins - this poem is a topical adaptation of his poem, Colors. (password is 'citrus')

We watch
the vote in States of red
to end the scourge of
Tax and Spend,
to keep the guns
upon their shelves --

and pray we don't get shot ourselves.

We watch
the vote in States of blue
to boost the Poor and
Middle Class,
to pay for doctors everywhere --

at home in castles in the air.

We watch
the cars bedecked in yellow
ribbons to proclaim
as soldiers risk their lives in toil --

those cars, they burn a lot of oil.

We watch
campaigns in Black and White
with tales of preachers'
God-Damn gaffes,
or sniper fire in Serbia

no worse than in suburbia.

We feel
the words congeal to grey,
the bungles bundled
end to end,
they summarize America --

we drown in esoterica.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

One Hundred Things I Love about Australia: Part 5

Ahem. Well, it's been a while. But I still love Australia, and here, I finish off - after a ridiculous hiatus - the first half of the Hundred.

Last over before lunch:

41. Roundabouts. If you're in Massachusetts, they're giant, and they're called 'rotaries'. They're circular intersections that obviate the need for stop signs or traffic lights. Just yield to the right, and cruise on through. They're efficient, and if you try hard enough, you can pretend they're something like an ess; if you go straight through, you get the small frisson of a tight set of turns. Well, it's not much, really - but there is no fantasy about a four-way stop sign.

If no one's around, you can drive straight over the hump in the middle.

42. Year-Round Golf... with ocean views. The golf clubs have been in the cellar for a couple years - the weekends belong to the tin lids* now, which is better than any oceanside links course. When the sticks come back out, though, I'll relish getting back onto Long Reef, St Michaels, Mona Vale, and any number of public or private courses accessible to the general public (at least during certain times).

I grew up in Ohio, where the golf season is, oh, maybe six months of the year. I've never been an avid golfer, and have never shot lower than the mid-90's, but I do enjoy playing. Hitting off on a coastline of gorgeous cliffs separated by perfect beaches is, well, divine.

The sea breezes, and my Ginsu-like slice, mean I lose X golf balls per round, where X > 4. The good news is that I usually find X-1 golf balls. Aussie golf is a sharing community.

I particularly love playing at Long Reef, where Long Reef and Dee Why beaches are just off to the south, and the golf course slopes up from the road to the sea, culminating in a hundred-plus metre cliff. The view up and down the coast is extraordinary, and the golfers share the cliff edge with wedding parties, photographers, and hang gliders.

*kids. I have that annoying expat affliction to be fascinated with colourful local slang terms. What a nong.

43. Paterson's Curse. It's a spectacular flower - a column of lush, purple blooms atop a thistle-like stalk, found along country roads and in paddocks (what they call fields or pastures back in the States) - and a noxious weed. Amid the muted greens and browns of gum trees and tussocks, Paterson's Curse splashes a bit of Monet across the Arthur Streeton countryside. The trouble with it is that livestock won't - or can't - eat it. Hence the second half of the name.

The first half is a tribute to the great Australian poet A.B. "Banjo" Paterson, author of Waltzing Matilda, The Man from Snowy River, and The Geebung Polo Club, among others. He wrote about Australian bush characters the way Robert Service did the men of the Klondike gold rush.

It's ironic, and hilarious to me, that some of the most colourful foliage in the Australian bush is also a great nuisance. Aussies don't wear a lot of purple.

44. Comedy films that are actually funny without trying too hard
. Let's overlook everything Paul Hogan did after Crocodile Dundee. And let's forget Yahoo Serious (whose films, in all fairness, I've never seen). Australian humor can be raucous, make no mistake. But few can be laconic the way Aussies can. In large part, it's because they're only too happy to take a poke at themselves without either getting moralistic or putting on the hairshirt.

The following are some of my great favorites - have a look at them; I'll guarantee you'll see what I mean; they couldn't have been made anywhere else.

The Castle - A man and his family, and their pride in the blue-collar house in which they live. It's off the end of the airport runway ("close to transport!"). Some reviewers thought the film was unkind to blue-collar Aussies; not at all, say the rest of us. It's an affectionate send-up that needed to be low-key and low-budget. It's rife with classic one-liners, which - unlike lines more self-conscious films - never sound contrived. Think of "You had me at 'hello'", for example, from Jerry Maguire. That was written to be a catchphrase. "Tell 'im he's dreamin'!" - well, you'll see.

Gettin' Square - Small-time Gold Coast crook gets one back. David Wenham, normally a heartthrob, does a brilliant heroin addict no-hoper. His court testimony scene is utterly priceless.

Crackerjack - Mick Molloy as the yob who keeps his membership in the bowls club just for the parking space. Good, sappy happy ending, and affectionate, funny look at a mainstay - albeit one that's fading - of Aussie culture.

45. The Piss-Take rite of passage. You've only just met these folks, and they're needling you. What gives? How dare they?

Calm down, son. It means you're all right. They don't bother taking the piss if they don't think you're worth the time. I mistook the ribbing at first; apparently, Yanks are popular targets for razzing, because they fall for it. I reinforced the stereotype, but I worked things out eventually.

I like the needling better than the awkwardness and feigned congeniality that usually accompanies first meetings. Aussies get right into it.

46. Lemon, Lime & Bitters. I don't drink booze. Australia is a drinking country. Drinks pervade Australian culture - they're everywhere.

So what does a non-drinker order?

I have never been a cola fan. And you try matching your mates' six rounds of beers with six Cokes. Urgh and gurgle.

One alternative? Lemon, Lime & Bitters. It comes premixed now - doesn't everything? - but the from-scratch method is to line a glass with a few drops of Angostura bitters, then add a dash of lime cordial (or Rose's lime juice). Fill the glass with lemonade (aka Sprite or the like) and ice, and there you go. It's tangy, refreshing, drinkable, and a little bitter.

No, I won't drink six of those, either, but it's very good and eminently serviceable for staying the course over a few hours.

47. Front Seat of the Cab
. Where I come from, passengers always ride in the back - behind the partition, giving directions through the cash slot.

Not here. People get in the front seat, and they talk with the driver.


48. Bodysurfing. Okay, this is not particularly Australian. Except that, well, beaches were always a rare, holiday treat for me. I'd never been to a beach with waves you could ride.

Now, I'm spoilt for choice when I want to go to the beach. And though my surfing skills are still between wishful and rudimentary, I can throw myself on a wave and sail along for a few metres on my belly - over and over again, with the breathless elation of a kid on the roller-coasters.

Once I work out how to keep a board under me, and stand on it for a length of time, that'll be it. Endless summer.

49. Sea Change.

I enjoy a bit of television - really. But I pick my spots. I don't have the Reality TV gene; cannot stand to be in the same room with it. I have never seen Desperate Housewives, The O.C., or any of a long list of Essential Shows (though I'm mighty partial to The Simpsons, Law & Order, and Boston Legal).

Sea Change was an Australian series a few years back; to my mind, it's the best non-comedy television series I've ever seen. It centred around a city lawyer, played by Sigrid Thornton, who chucked it all to move to become the judge in a sleepy coastal town. Some of the story involved the obvious clash between her initial big-city anxiety and rush, but most of it about the local characters: the cop who's a surfie, the dim single dad with the heart of gold, the overbearing, empire-building local real estate agent and his Stepford-by-the-sea wife (or so it seemed), and the rest.

It added gentle drama and clever intrigue to the good-natured self-ribbing I mention in Thing I Love #44 above. It lasted only three years and ended at the peak of its popularity. An unpopular decision at the time, but the series remains perfect in memory.

See it if you can.

50. "The Same, But Different". Australian life is, in many ways, similar to the American life I left; the differences are sometimes subtle, but just different enough to seem like a parallel universe.

But despite the unstoppable march of cultural imperialism across The Sunburnt Country, none of the standards come through unaltered. Nothing deep about this, but it's there. Burger King is Hungry Jack’s; Dunkin' Donuts? Nope - Donut King. Mars bars are like American Milky Way bars. Milky Way? Three Musketeers.

I love the rectangular ashtrays often found outside public buildings and pubs, just because they say "Smokers Please" on them. A passing touch of civility.

Coming Up:
ANZAC Day, Rock-Star Politicians, Utes, and more.