Tuesday, July 17, 2007

One Hundred Things I Love about Australia: Part 4

Welcome back to One Hundred Things. I lost my train of thought, but a bus came along eventually. I didn't have exact change for the fare, and the driver's a bit surly, so I'm sitting in the back.

And away we go:

31. Place names. From redundant to melodious, all the way to silly, Australian place names are particularly memorable. Ben Elton, in his novel Stark, muses on the obvious, plain nature of Aussie place names: the Great Sandy Desert, Shark Bay (where a man was, well, taken by a shark). The Great Australian Bight. Everyone hears about places like Kalgoorlie and Woy Woy (occasional home of Spike Milligan), and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert brought silver-screen glitter to the rough-and-ready outback towns of Broken Hill and Coober Pedy.

Some of the favorites I've actually encountered:
Black Bob's Creek - who was he?
Three Legs o'Man bridge - the flag of the Isle of Man looks like this. Must've been discovered by a Manxman, I suppose.

Bumbalong Road - I just like it.
Dry Farm Road - no prizes for guessing what you'll find here.
Tumbledowndick Hill - surely, there must be a Jane nearby, and they must be related to Jack and Jill.
Remarkable Rocks - A natural formation on South Australia's Kangaroo Island; they are, in fact, remarkable.
Curl Curl - My favorite Sydney beach, along with Narrabeen and Collaroy.

I could go on, and perhaps I will, a bit later.

32. The Sydney Opera House. It is one building that very much speaks for itself. While it might resemble the inside of a dishwasher, or a queue of turtles, it's a striking edifice. Its position of prominence on Bennelong Point - central both to Sydney Harbour and to the CBD (central business district, or "downtown" to the Yanks) - is fitting; it's an extraordinary sight from a distance, and just as much from up close. It's a well-used complex as well; opera, symphony, drama, and all sorts of public events take place there. A cocktail party on the balcony, overlooking the Harbour, is a grand and quintessentially Sydney experience. It's ironic, in a way, that an opera house is so beloved in such an un-stuffy country, but the SOH is. She's a beauty.

33. Mambo. Funniest, most wacky t-shirts and gear around. The best of their gear is the Reg Mombassa art (Reg is also a member of iconic Aussie band Mental As Anything). You might know his art from the cover of Public Image Ltd's greatest hits album. My favorite of his is the "Australian Jesus at the Footy" image, taken from the Book of Reg, wherein Jesus feeds the 5,000 with only a couple of meat pies and a warm tin of VB. Also, the series of Mambo Dog shirts are great; the best-known are the dog farting (musical note) and, er, showing affection to a leg. Funny, funny stuff. (I'll leave you to search for these, rather than transgress on image copyright.)

34. Christmas in Summer. What could be better? Prawns on the barbie, or sausages, cold beer, and beach cricket. With my in-laws, we usually have a picnic out in the bush and some fly-fishing on Christmas Day. There's a big traditional Christmas dinner in the evening, with turkey, mashed potatoes and the lot -- as is the case with many people, us still being in the Commonwealth and all -- but by then we're all sunburnt. Oh, that reminds me: don't kid yourself with the sun when you get here. It's hot, and sunburn comes fast and strong. Lather up with the sunblock, and wear a hat and sunnies (AKA "slip, slop, slap").

I finally discovered the Bucko & Champs Christmas CD's last year; they're classic. If anything, they're over-the-top ocker, but good over-the-top. A sample of their Christmas spirit:

Dashing through the bush
In a rusty Holden ute
Kicking up the dust
Esky in the boot
Kelpie by my side
Singing Christmas songs
It's summertime and I am in
My singlet, shorts and thongs
(c) 1994 Colin Buchanan & Greg Champion

35. Rocket. You may know it as arugula. It's a salad green -- thickish stem, oblong sort of leaf, about six inches long. It has a somewhat spicy taste, like radishes. Baby rocket is less than half the size, less pungent, and more tender. Both are fantastic with a bit of balsamic, or just olive oil and parmesan shavings. Plus, the name 'rocket' is great. "I'll have a rocket salad." *chuckle* Right-o, Buck Rogers.

36. Tin Roofs. Corrugated tin is commonly used here as a roofing material (that and ceramic tiles; I don't miss seeing tarpaper at all). Rain sounds fantastic on it. Like a canvas snare drum.

37. Flavoured Milk. In the US, nobody above the age of about ten drinks chocolate milk. Here, it comes in all sorts of flavours -- chocolate, vanilla, malt, coffee, strawberry. Adults and kids alike drink it -- it goes an absolute treat with meat pies (see earlier post).

38. Multiculturalism. It's just the way things are. Indians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Croatians, Italians, Greeks, Irish, South Africans, Lebanese, even Americans. They're all here, and it's not even worth noticing. But there's no reason to pretend one doesn't notice, or to pretend that nobody's different. Look, we are different. It's good that we are.

There certainly are, er, troubles here over differences -- big ones, sometimes. The Cronulla riots, the rise of One Nation, and the debate over the Government's refusal to apologise to the 'Stolen Generation' (aboriginal children taken from their families and placed in white Australian homes) are a few recent examples. But what I observe here is, by and large, an extremely heterogeneous community interacting peaceably -- no, cordially -- and appreciating what everyone brings to the community.

It does seem that, to a large extent, aborigines exist separately, and the balance between supporting their autonomy and including them in mainstream society appears extremely difficult; I don't claim even to begin to understand all the issues there.

But the existence here of a broad range of cultures is a wonderful thing, and it's an enriching aspect of life here.

39. Clever Everyday Things. It's amazing that some of these things aren't used everywhere; they make so much sense, and they seem so obvious here. Like:
- Half-flush toilets. Most toilets here have two flush buttons: half-flush and full-flush -- I guess you could call them the #1 and #2 buttons. The half-flush button only pushes the valve down half as far, so it uses half the water. Completely sufficient for 'lighter' applications.
- Power-point switches. All power points (electrical sockets) have switches. So the socket doesn't have to be live all the time. It makes things just that much safer; now that my not-quite-two-year-old son's learning new tricks every day, the power-point switch is a necessity.

40. State of Origin (thanks, JJ Cooper for the suggestion). Every year, during the middle of rugby league season (see earlier post), there's a two-out-of-three All-Star series between New South Wales and Queensland -- Blues vs. Maroons (why is it pronounced 'Marones' up there?), the Cockroaches and the Canetoads. Sure, the grand final's good and all. But if you're only going to watch one match all year, you'll want it to be Origin. Play goes up a couple notches, and the hits are harder. Guys who play on the same team all year belt the living daylights out of each other, all for their states. There's nearly always a punch-up; one year, the biff started eight seconds after the opening kickoff. Pulsating stuff, without fail. Even - maybe even especially - the 'dead rubber' matches, like this year, when Queensland won the first two matches, clinching the series. The third match was the best of a great series; no way the Blues wanted to go down three-nil. And they beat Queensland at Queensland, meaning that the Maroons got to collect the trophy, but a bit of the pop went out of the celebration.

Coming up: Roundabouts, year-round golf, Paterson's curse, comedy films that are funny, and more.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Part 3 - postscript

Er, my comment about 'balance' was more curt than it ought to have been. Poorly considered, in fact. My apologies, abjectly, to my two friends who suggested a balance.

I'm coming around on the idea. I'm indebted to you even for reading. Thank you.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

One Hundred Things I Love About Australia: Part 3

Back again!

First, a couple of people have asked whether I'll do a list of One Hundred Things I Don't Like About Australia - for balance. Answer: I don't know. Balance? *shrug* Meh.

In any case, I'll think about it. But for now, here is the third installment:

21. Fishing. It's all around. Australians love to fish, whether it's perching a rod on the pier, casting out into the waves on the beach, chasing marlin offshore, or -- where I come in -- fly-fishing the streams of the mountains and tablelands. Now, I'm not anything like an avid fisherman. I've caught one fish -- that's right, ONE -- a smallish rainbow trout -- in my thirteen years here. But I appreciate the skill and craft involved, especially of fly fishing. Figuring out what the fish are hungry for, presenting a fly that looks right and delivering it in a convincing manner for the circumstances at that moment, impress me. I always enjoy it when I go. And it's an excellent excuse for a walk in the countryside.

22. Sports News. I remember from The Old Days in the US that the local news gets half an hour, then it's the national news. Here, at least on Channel Ten, it's half an hour of News, then half an hour of sports news. Every night. All the football codes are covered: rugby union and league, Aussie Rules, and football (or TSFKAS - The Sport Formerly Known As Soccer). Then there's cricket, swimming, auto racing, motorcycle racing, horse racing, netball, golf, hockey (if you mean NHL, better say "ice hockey"), basketball, on and on.

The acclimatisation from American sports to others takes some time, but it happens. It's helped by the fact that the commentators are very good; you can actually learn about the sports as you watch. Which is something else; after a lifetime of watching gridiron football, I still don't know what a 'nickel' defense or a nose tackle really is, or why a lineman is more suited to guard than tackle. (I like football well enough, but I don't understand the jargon.)

23. Blundstones. Work boots - ankle-high, brown, clunky but light. A U of elastic on each side, and pull straps front and back. Classic workwear. They're comfortable, and they're uniquely Australian. They work.

24. Roo Bars. I first saw these monsters on the fronts of semi-trailers in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, back in the US in the Eighties. At the time, I figured they'd been invented for the film -- rough-and-ready highway armor. But no -- they're real, and they're here. Big, heavy-gauge metal frames hung on the noses of trucks, utes, and cars, they protect the vehicle from damage caused by hitting a kangaroo at speed.
It's pretty tough on the 'roo as well.

25. Touch Footy. The social version of rugby league -- backward passes, six touches to score, same-sex or coed. It's great fun - a very good game. Also an excellent pretext for Sunday brunch at, say, a cafe on Bondi Beach, or a Tuesday evening 'cleansing ale' before heading home.

26. Crosswalk Signs. Disembodied legs - pants and shoes - almost Mod-looking. Simple, effective, stylish, amusing.

27. Small-time big-time dramas. In real life and in TV, the scale of sensationalism is lower here. It's crept upward, and the difference may no longer be what I imagine. But, well, too bad. This is my list. My impression is this: Things that might not make US local news still manage to make national news here; a robbery in Melbourne might get reported in Sydney. Imagine a holdup in Chicago appearing in the New York news; no chance.

The great afternoon soaps here are Neighbours and Home and Away. When I arrived in 1993, I got a kick out of watching them, because the big event on a day's show might be that, oh, Shane wagged school that day. How novel, how reassuring, that truancy would be the biggest problem!

28. Handmade chocolates. One doesn't usually think of Australia as a leader in chocolates, but, in my corner of Oz, I do. Within, say, ten minutes' drive of where I live, there are perhaps half a dozen shops that make their own, utterly exquisite, chocolates. The flavours are imaginative, and the pieces themselves are beautiful to behold. One of my favorites is Belle Fleur, which was four blocks from our previous house. They always have a large window display, made entirely of chocolate. This one, from Father's Day several years ago, is one of the classics. It's nearly life-size. Love the white chocolate propane tank.

29. Spitting the Dummy. I'm not a fan of the act, mind you, but "spitting the dummy" is one of the greatest idioms I've ever encountered. Dummy is what Australians call a pacifier; that key bit of knowledge tells you exactly why the phrase is an apt description of a tantrum or rant. It's perfect, and I'll admit to a smirk every time I hear the expression... even when I'm the subject in the sentence.

30. Gum Trees. Wonderful, stark, twisted trees are the eucalypts. There are, I'm given to understand, hundreds of varieties of gum tree in Australia. The dusty green of their long, slender, pointed leaves, and the stripes of bleached grey and cedary red on their trunks, and the dangling bark-strips found on some types, typify the muted range of colours in the general Australian landscape. The wild colours of birds - the parrot-green and purple of the rainbow lorikeet, the rosella's blaring scarlet, and even the snowy white of the sulphur-crested cockatoo - are startling in comparison.

But it's the gum-tree's gnarled, contorted shapes and shadows that make it so haunting and beautiful, even in its vast abundance.

Coming up: Place names, the Sydney Opera House, Mambo, Christmas in Summer, Rocket, Tin roofs, and more.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

One Hundred Things I Love About Australia: Part 2

Right. Now, where were we? Ah, yes:

11. Tim Tams. Just another chocolate biscuit? Nah. Not even. Two chocolate wafers - not too wafery - stuck together with a layer of soft, almost vapory chocolate frosting as thick as the wafers (not that lardboard stuff in Oreos, though I'll eat a sleeve of Oreos from time to time). Coated in chocolate. Descriptions, though, are useless. If you haven't tried 'em, DO IT. The legends are true. Some aficionados like to nibble off opposing corners and sip their coffee through a Tim Tam, which then gets melty. I've tried it -- it's not quite for me, but I'll try it again. There really ought to be a Kama Sutra of Tim Tam eating.

12. Question Time. Just as ugly as any reality TV, except that it's the government in action! Parliament Question time is the real stuff -- hideous to watch, embarrassing, and biting. It's the MPs in debate, taking turns on the floor. They have to address all remarks to the Speaker, even though they're clearly directed to various members of the opposite party. The Prime Minister, the cabinet, and the Opposition members are all involved; imagine President Bush having to roll up his sleeves and argue his points in the pits with Congress, while they shout him down. That's the stuff. I can't stand watching this, but at the same time, I love it.

13. Cricket. Sure, a Test match can go five days and result in a draw. But, let me tell you -- as a lifelong baseball fan -- it's great theatre. No "three strikes and you're out"; the batsmen (two at a time) are in until the defending team can get them out. And it's not a sissy's game: you've got to catch the ball - it's much like a baseball - with your bare hands, and bowling at the body is fair game. How the pitch wears over time, and how the ball wears, are all part of the strategy. And sportsmanship rules. Get too stroppy with the umpire, and you might lose your match payment (if you're pro, that is). Sure, it takes getting used to as a spectator, but it's a fine, fine sport. Plus, any sport where the Aussies can wallop the Poms on a regular basis is great fun.

14. Pubs. One of the things I noticed when I first arrived is that everybody goes to pubs. Sure, there are nightclubs and such, but what I like about pubs is that they're inclusive. All ages. My now-fading memory is of bars targeted to age groups -- most everyone in the place would be within five or ten years' age of everyone else. Or that's how it seemed. It doesn't seem that way here; at a pub, you'll see people from eighteen to whatever. And they're more social, in a broader sense: you could take a family to a pub for a meal, although the kids might not be allowed in the bar area. And (this might be a recent development) the food's likely to be decent or better. The footy and the races will always be on the TV, of course. If you find one with a bandstand instead of a roomful of pokies, so much the better!

15. Meat Pies. Fantastic. The standard stadium-fare 'meat' pie may not have much in the way of meat, but otherwise, they're brilliant. Warm, with a flaky crust and savoury filling, with tomato sauce (it's not "ketchup" here) on top, they're a joy. And, to be honest, the hot dogs you find at stands outside the pubs late at night are definitely best avoided. Good hot dogs are as scarce here as good Mexican food; fortunately, they're redundant, thanks to pies and chips (and kebabs -- another story altogether). There's a French bakery across from where I work, and it sells the most wondrous concoctions under the banner of Meat Pies: chicken forestiere, steak and mushroom, boeuf bourguignonne, lamb and black pepper, standard mince. Sounds chi-chi, but you just get here, and I'll take you there for a pie. You'll see.

16. Butchers. We get so used to supermarkets. Everything's all wrapped up in neat packages. But here, in many places, you'll still find the small shops: the fruit-and-veg shop, the bakery, and the butcher. In my suburb -- one main street, less than half a kilometer -- we have four or five butchers, two or three bakers, and a fruit-and-veg shop. That's in addition to the supermarket and the two seafood shops. Getting meat that's been fresh-cut, and recommended by the butcher who cut it -- often to your order -- is fun, and it's vastly superior to the shrink-wrapped supermarket fare.

17. Parks. Cities in Australia have a lot of open space. They protect their parks and invest in them. The playground equipment is modern and innovative, the jogging and bike tracks get used, and the playing fields attract all kinds of activity. Kids, dogs, joggers, touch footy games, ibises and cockatoos. And even in the city, grassy places to have lunch. Sydney's urban planning problems are bad now -- the roads and public transport can't cope with the burgeoning population, and we're running out of water -- but, fortunately, the parks are already there. And the local councils fiercely defend them. Quality of life gets top priority here; Australians know how lucky they are to have what they do.

18. Bluesfest. Every year at Easter, there's this wonderful festival at Byron Bay, in northern New South Wales -- the East Coast Blues & Roots Festival. We've been five times, and when my youngest is older (maybe next year), we'll go again. It's four-and-a-half days. Byron's historically sort of a laid-back, tie-dye and surfing town, but it's become hugely popular. Still, though, it's wonderful. And the Festival is brilliant; the headline acts range from ZZ Top to R.E.M. to James Brown to Parliament/Funkadelic to Dave Matthews to The Wailers, but it's almost always the lesser-known acts that wow me. Lots of blues, and a touch of everything else. I could rattle on for hours. The music starts every day at 1PM and goes to 11PM, with four stages going. So, in the morning, there's the beach -- the place is known for good surfing, and we've seen pods of dolphins on more than one occasion -- and the rest of the day there's food and music. And as big as it's gotten (not Woodstock-big; they limit the ticket sales, and the festival sells out every year), I've never seen or experienced the slightest aggro. People take their kids (we did); kids go on their own. We rent a place on the beach, with friends, and take the week. It's bliss. The only hard part is having to leave.

19. Vegemite. As with Tim Tams, the legends are true. It's dark-brown, salty gunk. It's fermented yeast. Whether it is actually a byproduct of the brewing process, I don't know. But, strangely, it's good on toast, and it's full of Vitamin B (a very good thing to have in the morning when you're 'not feeling the best'; Aussies know a little something about next-day recovery). I have mine on a toasted bagel with Tasty cheese (something like sharp cheddar). Kids grow up with it and actually ask for it; if you try it for the first time as an adult, you won't believe me. But it's true; ask my kids!

20. Seafood. Seriously wonderful. All kinds of fresh fish and seafood -- king prawns, crab, yabbies, scallops, calamari, octopus, mussels, the lot. The restaurant eating is divine, and reasonable. (Remember, no tipping!) If you enjoy wine, Australia does very, very well at that too. But one of the greatest archetypal Australian experiences is fish and chips on the beach. Fresh fish and hot chips, with a lemon squash or a cold beer, with your feet in the sand, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience you can have every weekend. There's always an option to order specific fish -- "John Dory and chips" or "Barramundi and chips" -- and that's great -- but, when I'm taking it out in a cardboard box and sitting in the sand, the regular "fish and chips" (usually flathead or something like it) suits me very well. Fried or grilled. I love it.

Coming up: Fishing, sports news, Blundstones, roo bars, touch footy, crosswalk signs, and more.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

One Hundred Things I Love About Australia: Part 1

I'm often heard saying, when describing something I like about my adopted* and beloved homeland of Australia, something like "This is Number Eight on my list of Things I Love About Australia!". But, I fear, some believe my list is a furphy.**

I must set the record straight: There isn't a list.

Well, I've got that many things to put in the list, but I haven't done it. Until now.

So, in installments, I'll put together my One Hundred Things I Love About Australia. Which is not guaranteed to number one hundred; it could be like Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide series, which turned out to be a four-book trilogy.

Here, then, is my first ten:

1. No tipping. Waiters, hotel staff, and bartenders are paid a living wage. (I don't know about cabbies, but the last time I gave a tip to a cabbie, he said, "You're a yank, aren'tcha?" and handed it back.) I hate tipping; it's an elitist notion, and it's awkward. The idea that US waiters would be taxed on the assumption that they've made 15% in tips is bizarre. (I don't know whether that's true anymore, but a waiter once told me it was.) There are still tip jars, and some places will take tips, but it's not the norm.

2. Dealing with it. When an Aussie has a gripe with you, he'll tell you. Right up front. And he won't mince words. And you'll have it out. But then, when it's done, that's it. No grudges, no skirting the issue and pretending nothing's wrong. It's done, and you're having a beer together. I love it. I reckon I'll live ten years longer just saving the wear and tear on my stomach lining.

3. Footy. Rugby (either code - union or league) is demanding. Same guys on the pitch for offense and defense. No pads -- but the hits are big. No stop-and-huddle; get back up and chase 'em down again. To score a try (equivalent to the American 'touchdown'), you actually have to touch the ball down, or it's no score. None of this right-in-front extra-point stuff; the conversion has to be kicked from a spot in line with where the ball was touched down -- that may be right near the sideline, or it might be right in front. And no specialist kickers; the conversion has to be kicked by one of the players on the pitch. Rugby players (leaguies or rah-rahs) and Aussie Rules players are FIT -- seriously.

4. Coffee. I wouldn't have thought it, but coffee in Australia is excellent. Every cafe, every restaurant, has espresso coffee. They make drinks that are - as far as I know - made only here. Aside from cappuccino, caffe latte, macchiato and the rest, there's the flat white (cappuccino without the froth) and the long black (espresso topped up with hot water -- not too much, or it tastes too much like a filter coffee). Australians are serious about coffee; many Australians have ancestries in Italy and Greece, among other nations. Starbucks, I'm pleased to say, is superfluous here, though it's finding a place.

5. Public Beaches. The waterfront is public -- full stop. It's not a province of the privileged few. The beaches -- which are wonderful -- are all public-access, and they're usually patrolled by volunteers from the iconic Surf Lifesaving Clubs. The same applies for waterways -- rivers and streams. (I'm not sure of the shore access restrictions for streams; I'll check with my father-in-law, the trout-fishing guide.)

6. Lemon squash. I'm not a big soft-drink fan; I don't like the abstract taste, and it just doesn't quench my thirst. But I love lemon squash. It's a lemon-flavoured carbonated drink -- cloudy and yellow, and usually 5% lemon juice or so. It's sour -- jaw-locking sour. It tastes like lemon, don'tcha know. Brilliant.

7. "G'day". Yep -- they really say it here, and regularly. And it doesn't sound contrived... usually (there's always somebody who can manage it). It's either bright and cheery, or it's laconic -- either way, it's a fine greeting.

8. Local fauna. I love having sulphur-crested cockatoos, rainbow lorikeets, black swans, rosellas (like lorikeets, but red with cobalt-blue wings) galahs (like cockatoos, but grey, with a pale red breast and white crest) and ibises fluttering, soaring, screeching and squawking around the place. Driving into the country, seeing kangaroos and wombats along the roadside still cracks me up. Having to chase roos off the fairway before hitting a golf shot is magic, even when it's annoying.

9. Mangoes. A good, fresh, ripe mango, in season, is an impossibly lush eating experience. Slicing off the cheeks, then cross-hatching them and turning them inside-out to get a porcupine of mango cubes, is a daily summer luxury.

10. Lamb. I've always loved lamb. Australian lamb is amazing, and it's affordable. I remember lamb being a rare treat; here, I can have it on a fairly regular basis -- in any number of ways. Sydney's got to be the best place for eating that I've ever been -- more on that in the next installment.

Coming up: Tim Tams, Question Time, cricket, pubs, meat pies, butchers, and much more.

*: After nearly fourteen years, I feel pretty well settled in. But I still cop it for all the typical Yank palaver.

**: Sort of the Aussie equivalent of 'urban myth': A story that's making the rounds but has little or no basis in fact. Supposedly named after some bloke named Furphy (duh), who ran a water wagon around the mining camps or some such, and spread gossip. Of course, that could be a furphy.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Pearls Before Me


I set out to read a collection
Of poems by Rodney McKuen;
I decided, through much introspection,
I haven't a clue what I'm doin'.

Anthology catches attention:
The Poems of M. Angelou!
Disbelief kept in willing suspension,
I’m finished by quarter past you.

The next day I wandered unsteady,
in search of some coffeehouse verse;
I savored some rare Ferlinghetti
in landscapes of living - and worse.

If I had met Dorothy Parker,
She likely would not have been there;
A rose is a carnival barker,
But a fawning acquaintance is air.

I wandered the docks of Venezia
To breathe in the scent of Lord Byron;
But signs of his genius grow hazier,
The glimpse of a shimmering siren.

The Poest of poets is creeping
Away from my somnolent prose;
But he'll nevermore catch me weeping -
I'm off to read palms at Thoreau's.

Walt Whitman and I have a wager
About his barbaric old yawp:
When I write my first twenty-pager,
I'll yawp, and he'll yawp, then we'll stop.

When Shelley comes by for a beverage,
I run out and open the gates;
Together we muster our leverage,
And whip up a cocktail for Yeats.

A bell jar can balance a lily,
But not so Miss Sylvia Plath;
She told me my concept was silly,
preferring an aquavit bath.

And now, in the gloom of the gloamin',
While poems play out in their turns,
I wake up and think, "How at home in
This stanza would be Robbie Burns."

But guilty or innocent are we?
"Hurrah!" or "Go jump in a lake"?
Experience tells me it's sorry
You’ve waited so long, William Blake.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

*pop* - another book reviewer!

I've just posted my first book review -- it's on POD People, a blog for review and commentary on self-published works.

I review Fire Pearls, a collection of short poems about love. The review is here; I welcome any thoughts on it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Last Day of the Holiday

My two-plus-week holiday ends tonight. My parents left yesterday after their visit, and everybody in the family was out (work, day-care, all that racket).

So, I ended up with a day to myself.

I'm not a patch on Ferris Bueller; I have a track record of whiling away free days doing nothing much, then going into a funk for being such a useless git and wasting my liberty.

So, what to do today? As my Lovely Wife suggested, something that wouldn't leave me depressed.

The first order of business was a given: Local cafe, big breakfast. Scrambled eggs, Italian sausage, bacon (ours is more like Canadian than American: thick, but less hammy), sauteed mushrooms, hot tomatoes, toast. No baked beans this time, which is good; they only get everything else all soggy.

So, big breakfast and a double macchiato. I'm full and wired. Wonderful. Now what?

Golf? Nah. Shopping? LORD, no. Sit in the car and do crosswords? Ye... NO.

I could feel it happening: a day wasting away. Time to move -- Time to Do Something.

So. Feeling decidedly chunky and unfit, I decided to get out the bike. It was a beautiful day -- hot, sunny, slight breeze. A day to do things with. Something out of character.

But -- where? Then I thought: the one place where I feel more alive, more hopeful, more inspired every time I go: The Domain. It's a massive park (it's Sydney's equivalent of Central Park), and it contains the Royal Botanical Gardens, the Art Gallery of NSW... and the 'Boy' Charlton Pool.

So, I did. Rode from our house in the Inner West (Five Dock, if you must know) to 'Boy' Charlton Pool, in the city, near the Botanical Gardens. It's kind of ridiculous in a Best Of Sydney way. Here it is:

Yes -- that's the Opera House in the background. This place is in an amazing location, and it looks out over another bay.

Afterward, I stopped at the kiosk opposite the Art Gallery of NSW. Couldn't think of a coffee -- I ached everywhere -- but I bought a lemon squash and went looking for a place to sit and drink it.

Then, I found it -- the perfect spot. Just down from the AGNSW: a statue. I love statues. My favorite place in Paris is a sculpture garden (I think it's the courtyard of the Palais de Justice) .

So, here's the statue where I sat, sipped and pondered -- it's Robert Burns.

I love -- LOVE -- a city with statues of poets.

I pedalled home, feeling a little more accomplished, a little inspired, and very well vacationed.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Growth

Well, here it is -- day sixteen of the beard. I'm enjoying it more than I thought; it adds a lot of grey, but I rather enjoy that.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Operation barba rossa (e grigia)

I'm five days into growing a beard -- yesterday is usually the day when I decide that enough's enough, and I hack it off (to the great relief of my wife and my chin). This time, I pushed past the barrier, and I may go further: I'm on vacation, and I have another ten days of liberty.

Also, my parents are visiting; my dad, influenced by the months he and Mom spend each year in Alaska, has grown a beard. I'd never seen him in one before; he grows a good one, but it's still an adjustment. But Dad's presence and unabashed delight in his thick, wise-looking beard has pushed me past the four-day wall.

Why? Several reasons:
  • Growing facial hair is still novel to me at the age of forty-two
  • Because I can
  • It will set me apart: it's not a goatee
  • I still like to emulate my Dad
  • It's handy to stroke pensively, which could be a boon to my fledgling writing career
  • Independence - my wife doesn't like the idea

Why not? Several reasons:
  • Not all men look good in beards; naff appearance is a risk
  • They itch
  • A beard is more practical in the Pacific Northwest than it is in Australia
  • There's an awkward 'tween stage, what I think of as the Carol Brady stage for people trying to grow their hair long
  • It will probably make me look older, which doesn't have the appeal it did when I last grew one, at twenty-two
  • Ridicule - my wife doesn't like the idea

It's coming out with a much greater proportion of grey than I have in the rest of my hair; the five-day spikes are all copper and silver. My hair is either brown or auburn, depending on season and whether I'm in the sun. I've got a few grey hairs, but not a lot yet.

I'm fearful, but curious, that I'll end up with some sort of two-tone deal: Karl Marx or Michael McDonald, without the blowdried look.

Even blogging about it sounds like a commitment. But, either way, I'm guaranteed a new blog topic for at least one more post: there's either a progress report, or a Ship Abandoned message.

Also, there's a Great Beards in History discussion waiting to happen. For example: Greatest goatee in history? I'd have to vote for V.I. Lenin, although Colonel Sanders would be up there too.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Masnavi made me a hero

Well, sort of. I wrote a piece of a Masnavi poem - eight lines in aabbccdd form (see Absolute Write forums, Poetry - Games and Exercises), and I did like it. The thread, started by a friend, is here -- you'll need the Poetry Forum password, which is citrus.

Thank you, Kie, for bringing this form to our attention and engaging us in it.

A dear friend also liked it, and she named me in her Myspace Heroes list for it. She's a glittering soul, and she's introducing me to some fabulous poetry.

Thank you, Tina.

Anyway, here it is:

I lurch and straggle on this path alone,
a crippled beetle on a bloody stone:
the first and second simple steps I take
draw taut the chain from abdomen to stake.
The life I knew was happy ere I woke:
in sleep, a swan; awake, a Kafka joke.
Exhausted now, I pray for grace of death,
or music: strains of Locomotive Breath.

Monday, February 26, 2007

A poem for a birthday, not a birthday poem

For a good friend.

Fangs of Conscience

I stand atop an embankment
pitching rounded stones
into the red-raw clay below.
Tea-trees list in the breeze
and dangle their branches in the cool
of an unrippled pool.

The stones clack like dice
and form a sloppy cairn
below my feet.
On the hill behind me, a cow
hoods its lips over a stand of clover
and fulfills its ambition to eat.

Out of rocks, mud on my cuffs,
I look on my works and despair
in the chill air.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Help me assimilate:

You hear that voice; I know you do. Ease his pain.

Now's your chance; make that voice go away. You -- yes, YOU -- can cool my fevered brow.

Please - just tell me:

What does W00t! mean?

Where'd it come from? Is it cool, 733t, trekkie, street, emo, what?

Or, you can keep walking. The choice is yours.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Hey, Bob... Be my uncle, already!

I write poems and generally do an ordinary job of coming up with titles.
In Australia, "ordinary" means "incredibly bad".

Suddenly, I find myself inspired; I have a list of titles that are not bad.
In Australia, "not bad" means "excellent".

Now, all I have to do is write a slew of poems, hang them on these titles, and Bob's your uncle.
In Australia, "Bob's your uncle" means "you're all set".


(drums fingers)

Bloody Bob. Late again.
In Australia, "late again" means "late again".

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


stomp your boots and leave
your crumbs of outside on the floor
drape your soggy overcoat
on any chair you find

shoulder past the door
into the hollow tv chair
flip the buttons, tour the globe
by thumbing the remote - on

seven, news is on the air
but as the reader monotones
thoughts escape your head like sheep
bolt through a trampled fence

tail on tail, the dullard drones
to do a lesser nothing there
following themselves in blank
disinterest: life like sleep

peace in empty meadows: there
is nothing left to stir, aggrieve,
tantalise, or vex your mind
you have yourself to thank

Monday, February 05, 2007

Call me *what*?

Today, in an email exchange, a friend gave me a winking, good-natured insult. And then she called me 'sugar'.

I didn't think people spoke that way anymore. It felt what I imagine as Southern: sophisticated, dignified and clever. I've never been so delighted with an insult; it made me as happy as many a compliment has.

This is why I'll never be a politician; I'm too easily swayed.

Which reminds me: Why hasn't the leather garment industry ever used the slogan "easily suede"? It just seems a natural.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Elementary, My Dear Everett

You know, Rupert Everett could have taught both Elvis and Billy Idol something about the art of sneering.

I've just watched a Sherlock Holmes mystery on telly -- The Silk Stocking Murders, I believe -- and Everett was brilliant as a somewhat dissipated, haughty Holmes, barely tolerating in the beginning his capable, helpful, but plain, colleague Watson. The impatience is borne of a desire to be left alone in his vice -- to loll in morphine addiction.

But even in the guise of pasty and sallow poor health, Everett is still as enviable to other men, in his way, as any James Bond ever was. I've been a fan of his ever since I first saw Another Country. He casts an air of unquestioned superiority that doesn't alienate, but commands admiration... from a respectful distance. And, like Jeremy Irons in the Brideshead days, he makes a cigarette look like the most wonderful treat a man could ever want. (Only occasionally did cigarettes actually measure up to that vision.)

Gradually, as he's drawn into the case, Holmes' attitude toward Watson softens. He only becomes interested in the case when it appears interesting enough: beautiful society debutante, found strangled with a silk stocking, dressed in clothes that aren't her own.

As they move on, Holmes looks upon Watson as inconsequential but useful, then indispensable, and finally, as a warm friend. Watson suffers along, and appreciates the change, but it doesn't move him unduly. He's a steady sort.

Everett creates in his Holmes a sort of Harry Higgins-like character: despicable, unassailable in his superiority, but finally fond and likeable. Rex Harrison might have appreciated Everett's Sherlock Holmes. It adds a strange depth to the character I hadn't seen before.

The only problem is that now, I want a cigarette.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

In lieu of deep thoughts

Q: What were James Brown's last words?

A: "I don't feel good."

Amazing performer. Take this test - listen to a James Brown song. You've heard him before -- millions of times -- but you still can't keep still. He still sounds cool, x decades later.


Two bumper stickers on one car, seen in last Wednesday's commute:

"I can't sleep: Clowns might eat me"


(with a photo of a floppy stuffed-toy bunny)
"Have a good day, you worthless turd"

I so wanted to follow this car and find out where it was headed.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

What I Like About myspace

So I've finally capitulated and set myself up in myspace (myspace.com/poetinahat, in case you're wondering).
WHY?  *shrug* Some people I thought would know better *ahem* were already there.  What's the harm?
In my first few days, I've decided that I LOVE it.  Well, at least one thing about it:
The music.
There's music - free to listen to - of every description there.  I've spent time just checking for stuff I've been missing for years - or never got around to hearing - and found it there.  Fantastic.
My first spin was James White and the Blacks.  Their angular, strident, wiseass funk was one of the best things to come out of the late 70's.  I figured he'd be a longshot, but... BANG.  There he was.  What's more, his signature tune - Contort Yourself - was top of the list.
Soon after, I chased down another New York avant-garde genius, Richard Hell.  His torn-t-shirt poetry, with the jangly backing of the Voidoids -- like the Blacks, a virtuosic band -- still feels new on every listen.
To me, this is music that has lasted.
Since locating and revelling in these treasures - reminding me of a deluded, but happy, time of my life - I've gone on to chase down other old and new favorites.  Folks like Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, who are a brilliant New Orleans combo I'd recommend to anyone.  Sparkling piano, throaty vocals and a sweet, sweet grooving rhythm section.
On and on: artists I should be more familiar with, but haven't been: Bonnie Raitt.  Link Wray.  Keb' Mo.  Stan Getz.  George Harrison.
Then there are the Eighties bands who still fascinate me, and left some astonishing work: Bauhaus/Tones on Tail/Love and Rockets: a brilliant Goth lineage.  Wall of Voodoo: one hit from a brilliant album.  Wire: taut, experimental, funny.  Jonathan Richman: one twangy guitar, songs about, oh, the ice cream man.  The Fall: sarcastic, dismissive, confusing, infectious.
There are, happily, lots of bands from my home, Australia: Karma County, The Sleepy Jackson, Gelbison, 78 Saab.
And, of course, there's the new groups: Faithless (not usually a big fan of trip-hop - or whatever they call it - but this duo get it very right), Scissor Sisters (I don't know about the rest of their stuff, but 'Filthy/Gorgeous' is a killer), and all the stuff I haven't kept up with in, oh, fifteen years.
Many of the band sites appear to be maintained by the artists themselves, or by some authorised person.  And the way sites connect to each other by 'Friends' lists means that one find leads to many others.
I'm remapping my past by music, and filling in the gaps along the way.  It's, in a way, more expressive of me than a journal.  More confusing too.
So, myspace -- even if I don't meet a single person -- has been loads, loads, loads of fun already.  And I haven't even really delved into the community aspect of it at all yet.  Just the jukebox bit has been brilliant.
If you're on myspace, I invite you to drop by my page; in the words of trumpeter Chet Baker, let's get lost.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Facial Responsibility

I recall reading that, during his career as a lawyer, Abraham Lincoln rejected an apparently well-qualified prospective employee. His colleagues protested and demanded to know his reason.

"I didn't like his face," Lincoln declared.

The other men scoffed and protested that his reason was absurd. Lincoln noted that the rejected applicant was forty years old. "After the age of forty," he said, "every man is responsible for his face."

I'm forty-two. I guess this is it. Well, Face, let's get on with the show.

Welcome, you and me, to my blog; it's my first time here too. Stick around; let's see what happens with my face if I do

this ...writes a series of ribald sonnets... or
this ...posts tirade against reality tv... or even
this ...transcribes the front page from Le Figaro, June 13, 1968

Anything yet? Einstein hair, Marty Feldman eyes, peace-sign nose ring?

By the way, the Lincoln anecdote is from The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes (Clifton Fadiman, ed.; published, of course, by Little, Brown). It's a brilliant book -- loads of fun. It's as close to Instant Erudite as there is.

Steve, can I have the book back? You've had it for two years now.