Monday, December 22, 2008

the (other) land of the free*

You may have noticed that I’ve been falling a bit behind on my posts: they’ve been coming out a bit late, and the spaces between my posts have gotten rather lengthy. That’s because for the past few months I’ve been very busy writing other things: namely, applications, because my current job (a maternity leave cover) ends in February. Well, one of them has paid off, and I’ve been offered a very exciting professional opportunity! In Thailand. We’re moving to Bangkok!

Starting in March 2009, I will be working for twelve months with the World Vision Foundation of Thailand, the Thai branch of my current employer, supporting the coordination, implementation, monitoring, and development of their anti-human trafficking programs throughout the greater Mekong region (Note: “human trafficking” is like drug trafficking but with people, and the profit comes from exploiting people's labour rather than from illegal movement or goods: in other words, slavery). The position is based in Bangkok but involves frequent travel to Thailand’s border towns and neighbouring countries (exciting!!) because a key piece is to facilitate communication and collaboration among regional projects. I’ll be focusing particularly on two projects that protect migrant rights and discourage unsafe migration from neighbouring Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

Since human traffickers are not exactly the nicest of people, many friends and family have raised understandable concerns about my safety. Fortunately, I will not be engaged in the kind of high-profile bust-ups of billion-dollar sex-trafficking rings that get you targeted by international crime lords. I will be working with victims and potential-victims of human-trafficking, not with traffickers. I will be working largely on community education and development programs: making vulnerable people aware of the threat human trafficking poses to them and encouraging safe and lawful ways for people to make a living where they are, or migrate safely to find work. I don’t expect that anybody dangerous will even notice me, much less target me. Also, although I will be working with World Vision Thailand, the position is funded and administered through AusAID as part of the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development program. I trust the Australian Government to watch my back.

Erika will of course be coming to Bangkok too, and we’re eagerly exploring things for her to do there. She’s signed up to get TEFL training and certification next month. Also, we’ve recently discovered that Habitat for Humanity has a significant presence in Thailand, and working with them could be exactly what she wants to do. She’s also hoping to explore more outdoor sports opportunities.

Needless to say, we’re extremely excited about this opportunity. It’s pretty much exactly what I was hoping for in my next career move, and I’m thrilled it’s happening so soon.

*Like the US, Thailand calls itself the Land of the Free. This is in reference to 1) the pride that Thai people take in having successfully resisted colonization by Western powers, and 2) a comparative difference in the political autonomy of lower class people in two rival Tai (pre-Thai) city-states in the thirteenth century (it’s a little complicated).

Arthur Winifred "Dusty" Rhodes: May 11, 1917 - December 19, 2008

My grandfather (shown above on his 91st birthday with my cousin Patty) passed away quickly this past week, having lived an incredibly long and rich life, active and mentally acute right up to the end.

I greatly admired my grandfather. Anyone who met him knew that he was considerate, polite, charming, helpful, involved in life, always present. He could put almost anyone at ease, easy with a story or joke in his soft Missourian drawl and a twinkle in his blue eyes. His charm masked a blindingly brilliant mind, with thoughts firmly grounded in practical matters, a strong and determined leader when situations demanded such a role. My grandfather was also deeply committed to his family, always looking for ways to help us, always wanting to know how we were. He seemed to believe that nothing was impossible, that with enough information, the right tools for the task, and enough helping hands we could solve any problem, from drywalling to a broken heart.

He and I shared a love of maps. As Corban noted, his encyclopaedic knowledge of the roads of New England and the east coast was incredibly helpful, and was one of the ways in which he most often shared his love and concern for us all. When my wife and I were setting off on a roadtrip from Boston to New Orleans, he made sure we had a route that took the most beautiful roads, had some picnics along the way, and avoided as many tolls as possible. He made sure we had water and a flashlight. And he was pleased to learn afterwards of the new bridge in West Virginia that not only cut down on driving time, but had a truly spectacular view west down the valley.

You see, he was always learning. Even though, at 92, he knew it wasn't likely that he'd be driving through West Virginia any time soon, he hoarded and cherished facts as much as he did other useful things, like bits of rope and scrap lumber. You never knew when it might come in handy. But our shared love of information went beyond what was merely useful: we would flip through his atlases, or later the online Google maps, revelling in the sheer amount of information represented there and the vastness and diversity of the world's geology and habitations. Through maps, we would explore Europe, retrace his family's travels there, and go off on new adventures through Russia, following the path of the Trans Siberian Railway or the coast of the Mediterranean. When I told him of my planned move to Australia, out came the maps, and together we learned of the continent's sparse population, inhabitable center, and exciting proximity to Antarctica.

His life-long learning extended beyond facts, though, and into matters of conscience. Long an ardent Republican and proud veteran, Grandpa Dusty nevertheless expressed his concern and disappointment with the Iraq War and the general state of today's military. And closer to my own heart, he made sure I always knew he loved and supported me, even after he learned that I was gay. He comforted me when, in high school, he happened to be visiting when I was heartbroken by my first love: 'Tears are tears', he said, and gave me a hug, even though I saw that he was confused. My mother tells me that he took it upon himself after that to educate himself about gay issues, reading materials from PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), and participating in a church discussion group with the aim of supporting gay people in his community. And year later he warmly welcomed my wife into our family, read from First Thessalonians while smiling proudly at our wedding. Some of my friends were surprised that such a traditional gentleman would be so loving to his lesbian granddaughter, noting that their own grandparents' values had ossified years ago. But knowing that Grandpa Dusty's deepest roots were those of love and loyalty, combined with a commitment to always learning more about the world, those around him, and himself, I wasn't surprised.

My grandfather made the most sense to me after I visited Caruthersville, Missouri, where he was born. There is rich soil there. The land is so flat that you can see the curve of the earth, inviting the observer to imagine what is beyond that edge, and to take a step to see more, and more again. And the deep Mississippi pushes fast and strong along the edge of town, coming from somewhere, going somewhere, with power and boats and people and evidences of northern storms. It is a place to cultivate just such a grounded adventurer as my grandfather was.

It's so hard to speak in the past tense, isn't it? "Admired", "was". They seem wrong, because I still see his best qualities in his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. And I still admire the way in which he lived his life, I still aspire to be as helpful and loyal and full of grace as he. Though it may sound trite, I know that my Grandpa Dusty will live on as long as we continue to learn from him and hold memories of him.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

the races

I now live in a state that has a civic holiday for a horse race. That’s right, Melbourne Cup Day (November 4th, oddly enough – yes I’m late in posting this) is a public holiday that honors the annual, much anticipated, boisterously celebrated pivitol competition of Melbourne’s season of the sport of horse racing. The races are held at historic Flemington race course in the northern suburbs. Everyone gets extremely dressed up (I wasn’t allowed to enter our picnic area with flat shoes – had to be heels), and some people (ladies especially but not exclusively) spend more time, money, energy, and attention on their race-day outfits – especially their hats – than can possibly be healthy. Done moderately, though, it can be a blast. Basically, it’s like the biggest, fanciest tailgate/barbeque party you’ve ever seen. Some people even seem to watch the horses run, but for most the sport isn’t really the point: to see, be seen, hang out with friends and family, and get drunk seem to be most people’s priorities. We couldn’t even see the racetracks from our spot. Personally, I enjoyed making my “hat,” getting dressed up, and spending the day with my cousins and family.

around the bay in a day

My uncle John drove us all the way around Port Phillip Bay last weekend. We’ve been looking forward to this “around the bay in a day” drive since we arrived, and had the perfect weather for it: it was pouring in Melbourne and its suburbs, which kept most people at home. Leaving the rainclouds behind with the city limits, we had the sunny roads and beaches to ourselves.

Three highlights of the day were vanilla slice, the ferry, and the pier: vanilla slice is a classic Australian dessert consisting of a thick layer of vanilla custard resting between pastry slices with thick white sugar frosting on top. As you can imagine, it squirts out everywhere as soon as you bite into it, making it delightfully impossible to eat politely. A small café at the furthest tip of the bay has what is consistently rated the best vanilla slice in the state of Victoria, which largely inspired our trip in the first place. I truly have never had such delicious vanilla slice. It was the best. Lucky for us, upon arriving we got the very last slice the café had, even though it was still midmorning.

From there, we took a 1-hr ferry ride across the channel that joins the bay to the sea, and enjoyed the views out to the Southern Ocean, with nothing but water between us and Antarctica. The fierce currents, stiff wind, pretty little towns, and bluegreen water made for a gorgeous ride.

On the way back home up the east coast of the bay, we stopped in the town of Rye at a pier where I had gone fishing with my Nonno (grandfather) as a child: it was just as I remembered it, with white sand and the clearest turquoise water deepening so gradually that even a toddler can wade out quite far. I still remember Nonno, an ancestral fisherman from Stromboli, taking such great pride in my catching two fish on the first line I dropped.

Thanks, John, for such a great day!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

melbourne behind-the-scenes: laneways

Growing up between New York City and Boston, where it is rightly unheard of for a woman to walk down an alley even in midday, it took me a few weeks here to realize that despite its regular street grid, Melbourne’s city center is physically a labyrinth, a honeycomb, a catacomb. There is much more surface area than the outer shell would suggest. Regular pedestrians are just as likely to walk through the blocks than around them: malls, ‘arcades’, ‘laneways’ alleys off alleys provide not only more direct walking routes, but also a host of truly tiny cafes and shops between and underneath Melbourne’s streets, largely sporting quirky fancy fashion or specialist trades like cobblers and the like. At odds with the general Melbournian friendliness, their small size, entrenched clientele, and suave servers makes these Melbournian institutions seem cliquish and uninviting, furthering my wonderment that anyone ever finds these tiny holes in the city’s wall, let alone enough customers to maintain downtown rents.

The laneways, while occasionally very shwank, usually provide a sudden and welcome gritty and odorous counterpoint to the clean sophistication of the sidewalks. Most notable in their contribution to the city’s melody is the insanely good and prevalent laneway graffiti, which has even come to be recognized by some of country’s greatest cultural institutions, and has a considerable artist and fan community (including but not limited to sites like this) despite its often-disturbing subject matter. There is even a laneway art commission, encouraging artists to further contribute to the appreciation of the hidden corners of the city, my favorite of which features gold-plated water pipes: I love not just the beauty of the paintings, but also the mesmerizing shapes of the external pipes (which they can get away with because it doesn’t freeze here) and the general decrepit and shoddy buildings: with its single-thickness dry-mortared brick and cement slab walls resting on loose dirt, most of the city would crumble in a minute if there were an earthquake, flood, or really stiff breeze, further endearing it to me in its ephemerality.

More photos to be added soon. Sorry for not having the time to weed through to just choose good pics.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

a profile of public Melbourne

Having lived here for almost a year now, here’s a rather scattered stab at how I would now describe Melbourne:

Situated on a gentle lightly-wooded hill alongside a freshwater river at the inland end of a deep-channeled bay in a warm temperate climate, this location was ideal for European-style habitation. Delightfully, the first European exploration of the Wurundjeri land along the Yarra river that would become Melbourne was by a Mr. Batman of England, in 1835: there are now many Marvel-esque Melburnian nomikers, such as Batman Avenue. Unfortunately not named Batman City or the like, Melbourne received its name from the titular surname and residence of the sitting British Prime Minister of the time. Though remaining a small pastoral colonial outpost for the 15 years of its existence, forsightful early city leaders established a city street grid as early as 1837. Even though most of the streets remained unbuilt and even impassable (due to swamps and the like) for decades, this early planning imparted a lasting orderliness to the city center that I have never seen paralleled in a city of Melbourne’s age.

This early planning was actualized more quickly than anticipated, as the gold rush of the 1850s in the fields west of the city exploded the population and money pouring through its banks and ports. Due to building on virtually unlimited undeveloped land with vast available funds and a strong colonial desire to emulate the glory of all things British and assert its own importance, many of the institutional and important buildings of the city are built on a grand scale, with elaborate Victorian architecture. For these same reasons, there’s also an extensive and generally excellent railway system. By the end of the 1800s, Melbourne was the second-largest city in the British Empire and tenth-largest city in the world, thought its precedence has since slowed to that of a densely-centered but otherwise-average-sized modern city of 20,000 (in the city center itself) and 3 million in the greater metro area.

Modern Melbourne is largely shaped by its non-British immigrants, who started arriving during the goldrush (though this wave left little lasting effect on the city’s culture), then from post-War Europe (esp. Italy and Greece, whose influence is more apparent in the suburbs) and more recently from southeast Asia (esp. Vietnam, China, Malaysia, and India). While still largely a white (British) city in most social and physical respects, Melbourne is starting to become part of the modern Australasian community: indicative of the population, the remaining Victorian edifices now sit between a considerable amount of truly excellent modern Asian-influenced architecture, with thankfully rather few 1960s and 1970s atrocities in between. The city’s alleys (“laneways”) and other nooks are beginning to be put to good use by those familiar with space-efficiency in overcrowded* areas. Within the city center, affluent people of many varied Asian descents** hurry to and from work, or stroll on holiday. Food from every conceivable Asian ethnicity (and others, too) graces the city center restaurants, and family-friendly holidays like Buddha Day and Diwali are publicly celebrated. Less evident are the religious institutions of these communities, with no temples or mosques apparent anywhere in the city, hinting at the remaining strong Anglo institutional and cultural entrenchement, though partially resulting from the remarkable secularization of the city’s general culture.

The city’s culture is very urbane, with much better fashion and arts institutions (though not necessarily art itself) than Boston and even most of New York City. The city’s sophistication unfortunately makes much of its most enjoyable aspects inaccessible to the less-than-wealthy. I quickly resigned myself to feeling like a bumpkin here, as I could appreciate but never afford the fare, threads, and lifestyles of the cool café culture and rich nightlife, making me feel as if I have been existing as a spectator at the fringes of my own home. It would be a wonderful city to be rich in: the gorgeous food alone could tempt even the most avid miser into bankruptcy. That said, it remains affordable for Petra and I to live comfortably if frugally right in the middle of the city on one salary, encouraging us to enjoy more elusive entertainments like the ever-free people-watching, beach culture, and biking.

The people of Melbourne remain very friendly despite their urbanity, which I continue to find delightful. There is a slower pace of life here than in most American and European cities, and a relaxed and personable attitude pervades most interactions, even those of officials and clerks. I suspect I have been spoiled by this year of humane conversations, and think with shame on the brusqueness of New England.

And the weather is gorgeous.

Other big aspects of the city that I have little to do with are the rabid sports culture (there are something like 7 sports arenas in the city itself, with cricket and Aussie-rules football dominating) and the lively business culture. More on some specific aspects of the city in the upcoming days, and more photos to be added to the slideshow below later.

Sorry for not having the time to weed through to just choose good pics.

*the city’s density and crowdedness is especially strange given that this is a largely unpopulated continent, and vast flat fields surround the city in close proximity. What limits growth is lack of water.

**unlike the US, many of the non-white people in Australia have themselves immigrated, rather than their parents. 25% of today's Australians were born elsewhere. It makes for a very different dynamic.

Sunday, November 30, 2008


Upon awakening early Sunday morning to a gloriously sunny sky and bundles of energy, Petra and I decided to have a one-day holiday. We packed our bags, biked down to the river, and hopped on a little boat going to the seaside village of Williamstown, an hour by water and about 10 miles by land around the curve of the bay southwest of the city. The ride itself was an adventure, wending through the containership ports, but I’ll hold off telling you those tales for another day.

When we arrived in Williamstown, we couldn’t believe that this sweet sleepy town was so close to the city. Ice cream shops and cafes lined the main street, which hasn’t changed much from when it was built in the 1800s. The town green, the dominant feature of the area, was liberally dotted with happy children and relaxing parents. The sun was warm, the air smelled salty and sweet, and we had all day to enjoy it.

After reveling in a vaguely passable and enjoyable Mexican lunch of enchiladas and pintos con queso, we biked along the shoreline, enjoying the vistas across the bay to the city, the quiet, and the brilliant orange of the coast rocks’ lichen. The water was disorientingly clear, giving us excellent views to the snails, crabs, and weird seaweeds below. Eventually we came to the Jawbone Coastal Preserve, a tract of land set aside to protect the rare saltwater flora of the area. Though small at only 50 hectacres, the little park was gorgeous, packed with many different ecosystems and myriad strange birds. Alien-looking succulent plants of various kinds turned the salt water into fresh. White butterflies flitted among pink flowers, and grasses swayed gently in the breeze (though they were actually painfully spiny – dangerous grass!). The squabble of ibises and the occasional mournful horns of containerships out in the bay provided the soundtrack.

Eventually, the sun became too much for us, so we retreated to a bird blind and Petra dozed while I watched the frighteningly large pelicans preen. Then back to town for astoundingly good Williamstown-made ice cream (flavors: jaffa for me, licorice for petra’s first scoop, passionfruit for her second), honeycomb rocky road and dark-chocolate-coated anise rings from the local sweet shop, and a sleepy cloudy boat ride back home. A perfect one-day vacation.

Friday, November 28, 2008

thanksgiving down under

After a long and arduous bike ride, I (unsurprisingly) realized I was disastrously hungry, and had the excuse of realizing that it was technically Thanksgiving, so set out to compile a feast. The resulting dinner was lovely, if a bit lonely and light on the vegetables. We had those of our favorite traditional Thanksgiving dishes that we could create on short notice with Australian ingredients: mashed potatoes, cornbread with honey butter, a roast bird (Petra’s annual break from vegetarianism, even though all we could scrounge was a chicken), and pumpkin pies, which were only possible because of my previous careful hoarding of a dusty tin of American pumpkin. Notably missing were gravy (because I was too lazy), suffing (ditto), cranberry sauce and/or relish (cause they don’t have fresh or tinned cranberries here), green bean casserole (because all of its component parts are too toxic for Australian consciences), french silk pie (because my arms were tired enough after the mashed potatoes), and fresh grean beans (because, well, that would have ruined the starchy effect).

This year, we are notably thankful for the following:
--family (including the addition thereto of little Matthew and Thomas, and joining the Melbourne fold)
--friends (including the addition thereto of our new Aussie mates)
--the results of Obama’s election, and the possible return of hope, morality, and direction to America
--Australia’s easy lifestyle, socialized health care, and general humanity
--our continuing health and happiness and the same for our loved ones
--the glorious weather

Wishing you all a happy Thanksgiving!

And, for your enjoyment, our first, rather exhausted, attempt at a video message!

Petra in the USA: hebron

Within five minutes of arriving at Lilli’s house, we were working on a project. Some things, like hope, truly do spring eternal, and my mother-in-law’s will to forge through her to-do list is definitely among them. In this instance, our task was the procurement and installation of a new kitchen refrigerator. We took a number of careful measurements, and set off to Lowes. Lowes is a dangerous place to bring Lilli. In a hardware store the size of a cathedral, her potential to accomplish (productive) mischief is limited only by her creativity (in other words, unlimited) and finances, the constraints of which serve only to inspire more creativity.

(Un?)fortunately, we successfully completed the refrigerator quest in fairly short order, at which point getting it home before the freon could displace too much deflected us from further explorations. The following day, we set up the fridge, filling with food just in time from Toby and Cmoore. Their well-trained and well… personable avian companions were traveling with them. Shy Deadalus took a particular liking to Lilli’s collar.

Best of all, we carved pumpkins! I love carving pumpkins. It’s been my favorite part of Halloween ever since sis-in-law Lisa and I were staying together on Nantucket and we carved over 50 of them for the harvest fair. I took a celestial approach to the first pumpkin. For the second, we drew inspiration from thin green striations in the pumpkin’s skin which, in the words of the Hebron Cub Scout from which we bought it, looked umistakably like hair. Pumkin-carving is the best. Seriously. What makes a better holiday tradition than a hollowed-out gourd with a candle stuck inside? What is better than carving pumpkins? Only carving pumpkins with family.

Petra in the USA: northampton

After returning from New Hampshire, I set out to visit the home of my beloved Alma Mater, the P-town of Western Mass, the crunchy crucible of hippieish intelligencia, where farmer’s fields of corn and squash overlap the manicured lawns of the local Waldorf school, and Smith College renews its annual struggle to prevent the beavers from damming the river and flooding the women’s rugby fields: Northampton.

After catching up with Caroline for dinner (she now can cook Ethiopian food – well done, C!) and falling in love with her kittens, I met up with my childhood friend Lindsay (aka Scooter). She and I rounded off the evening with some Herrell’s ice cream before crashing at her new digs – a converted dance studio above the famed Iron Horse club. In the morning, we jogged along the river and discovered a fabric sale in a lady’s front yard, where we spent some time searching for treasure.

Heading back for breakfast shortly thereafter, we came upon an exceptionally tame, glossy, and well-fed hawk devouring his morning kill with obvious relish: poor decimated squirrel. I wondered if this was the same hawk who appeared on campus in the fall of our Junior year, whom Erika and I had nicknamed “Friend”, and whose lecture-time hunts became famed for their ferocity and humor. (Erika notes: DO NOT approach hawks as closely as the photos show Petra doing, especially not when they’re eating. Petra was really pretty foolish to do this, and has promised not to do so again. KEEP AWAY from wild predators.)

After breakfast we swung by the farmer’s market, where I became transfixed by a basketful of beautiful heirloom tomatoes and some Indian corn. Hurray for native New England delights!

I do love Northampton, and it was wonderful to visit again. Does anyone know of any cute songs written to praise Northampton? There’s got to be one by now…

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Petra in the USA: north country

My Dad grew up in beautiful, mountainous northern New Hampshire. Towards the end of my first week in the US, we went up to his hometown to visit my Auntie Sylvia. I hadn’t expected to have time for a visit to the North Country, but, well, I made time. Like you do, when it’s important. Which it was. I love New Hampshire, and I love my family. Just look at the photos and you’ll see why.

Petra in the USA: peace and concord

It was wonderful to be at home! The plane was almost empty from Melbourne to Los Angeles – which is a criminal waste from an environmental perspective, though I reveled in the luxury of three whole seats to myself. I even got to visit with the lovely Emily midway through my journey: she trekked out to visit with me during my several-hours layover at LAX. All of which meant that I arrived in Concord happy and well-rested enough to enjoy it.

There’s nothing like the smell of autumn in my neighborhood. It’s fresh and rich and crisp, the unmistakable smell of leaves and vines decomposing smells clean and perfect, and seems to permeate my entire being from toes to forehead. You’d think it was my home and the smell into which I’d been born, or something. Dad and I raked leaves and laid some flagstones in the backyard. We went to the best apple orchard in the world for caramel apples (heaven!) and apple cider doughnuts (lofty clouds, at least) and, of course, fresh unpasturized sweet tart cider pressed on old wood boards, of which I could wax poetic, but if you haven’t tasted it, you just can’t understand.

My genius mother finally identified the source of my frustrations with baking in Australia: castor sugar! Normal, “all purpose” white sugar is a coarser grain in Oz than its US equivalent. For baking, Aussies use the finer ‘castor’ sugar. I didn’t know this, hence my complaints that sugar here just doesn’t cream into butter like it does back home. Now, it all makes sense. Needless to say, Mum and I did a lot of baking, the best of course being chocolate chip cookies and apple crisp.

I also spent quality time with my enormous, shaggy, half-feral, mountain-lion of a housecat, Frederick, who to everyone’s bemusement adores me almost as much as I adore him. He is MY cat, and I am HIS human (though he rather likes the postman, too). Bliss!

Petra in the USA: Boston revisited

I spent my birthday (Oct. 15 – yes I’m slow posting) strolling around Boston, visiting old haunts and old friends. The capitol building looks stately and picturesque, people in colonial-era costume loaf around the common offering tours of Historic Boston, and I even saw the neighborhood peregrine falcon looping around, lazily reminding all pigeons and squirrels in the immediate vicinity of the imminence of their impending mortality.

I swung by my old workplace since I had some time, surprising the heck out of my friends and former colleagues, most of whom didn’t know I was in the country. By purse chance there was a big meeting on that weekend, so I got to check in with some people who I hadn’t realized were in the neighborhood either.

After some shopping for some singularly American items, I finished off the day with Megan and Jessie, who have entered that truly delightful old-married-couple state which close platonic friendships such as theirs sometimes reach. They have a collection of doilies and teacups. The collection is currently ironic, but many of the most sincere hobbies begin that way, so keep an eye on them…

All this was happening about a month prior to Nov. 4, and the bar where we stopped was running a little election of their own. The bartender had created two election season cocktails: The Maverick (a Southern-style drink involving Johnny Walker Red and served in a highball glass) and The Change We Need (a martini endowed with a deep turquoise hue courtesy of Blue Curaçao). Both were to be offered up til election day. Promiently displayed over the bar was a blackboard tracking the drink orders as they came in. As of our visit, The Change We Need was leading by 8 orders over The Maverick. Predictive? I think so.

I did face one disappointment on my personal tour of Boston and environs. Walking past my favorite local pizza joint late in the afternoon, that tiny, priceless epicenter of energy and community spirit endlessly disgorging mouth-watering aromas of cheese, grease, and, well, cheese – I saw to my dismay and shock – shock, I tell you! – that Dial-A-Pizza has raise the price of their pick-up-special for an extra large cheese from $5 to $7. Dial-a-Pizza, how could you? This is not the change we need! But if you just give me… just one bite… of your pizza… I could probably forgive you…

Monday, November 17, 2008

petra in the USA: it's very pretty, but so's Maine.

I've already been to Paris, I already been to Rome
And what did I do but miss my home?
I have been out west to Californ'.
But I miss the land where I was born.
I can't help it.
Oh, New England.
Oh, New England.

I have seen old Israel's arid plain.
It's very pretty, but so's Maine.
Oh, New England.
Oh, New England.

- Jonathan Richman

The morning after Sylvia’s wedding, my parents and I set off for Harpswell, Maine, where they now own a house. I’m very glad that they do because it makes them very happy, which makes me very happy. I love Maine and I’m glad that Maine is now part of home.

I love Maine. I love wet black rock, black trunk of white pine,
green needles blue sky.
Blue green teal water - white surf white salt white gray black barnacles.
Red seaweed black mermaids purse, green brown red mud kelp.
Granite gray.
Yellow of fishermen and women in foul weather gear.
Silver gray wood - weathered lobster traps. Faded red green blue orange yellow white buoy bobbing.
Frothing sea green – frosted sea glass. Old glass buoys with bubbled glass: wavy glass - waves crash.
Opalescent lavender cupped in empty mussel shells – wampum.
Sharp shriek – seagulls. Giant barn owl – “who cooks for you?”
Sometimes bats. Ugly moose sound irritated.
Salty sharp sea water. Sweet lobster. Fried clams.
Butter, home made jam. Quiet.
Salted sea breeze, salty people
practical, grounded
old houses, old places
old land
well rooted

The first half of these photos are some of the hundreds taken by Erika last year while visiting Harpswell, ME. The second half are by your truly.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Petra in the USA: goin’ to the chapel

My best friend Sylvia got married to Jane Gillette on the 11 October 2008, and I am more pleased than I can say that I was able to fly home to Massachusetts, USA, to be her Honor Attendant (like Matron of Honor, but without being forced to be matronly). Sylvia met me at the airport with my parents when I arrived the Wednesday evening before the wedding, and we were basically together continuously from then until she and Jane took off for their well-deserved “mini-moon” at the end of the reception three days later: three perfect, amazing, exciting and joyful days.

Highlights, for me, included:
-Helping Jane’s dad select an appropriate wedding hat from his impressive collection,
-Enacting the wedding ceremony on Sylvia and Jane’s coffee table with Jane’s specially designed paper dolls – a sort of pre-rehearsal rehearsal,
-Constructing practice “bouquets” for the actual rehearsal from pipe cleaners, ribbons, shoe-box packaging and – if memory serves – at least one crystal doorknob,
-Doing Sylvia’s hair for the ceremony: 39 bobby pins!
-Plotting with fellow honor attendant (Jane’s sister Katie) to augment the …celebratory spirit and romantic atmosphere… of Sylvia’s car for the big day (balloons, streamers, bells, and a truly exceptional CD of love songs).
-That Sylvia and Jane asked me to lead the Passing-the-Light ceremony at the rehearsal luncheon and to give a toast at the reception. While I’m pleased that I seem to have pulled off both respectably, the highlight is the fact of their asking, which meant more to me than I can really express without devolving completely into embarrassingly melodramatic verbiage that would convince no one of my sincerity regardless of how genuine I actually feel.

And of course the biggest highlight was the wedding itself: being part of a great mob of nearest and dearest, dedicating time to celebrate the incredible fact that Sylvia and Jane have found each other, loved each other, and decided to build their lives together.

There was nothing 'political' about their wedding, but unfortunately politics encroach nonetheless. As the election results have come in in the weeks since the wedding, the memories of the celebration become even more poignant with California’s adoption of Proposition 8 and additional, equivalent bans in Florida and Arizona. The strength of Jane and Sylvia’s commitment is even more apparent in contrast to the fragility of its legal recognition (though since they live in Massachusetts, they are currently safer than they would be if they lived in California).

I hope that we can all renew our commitment to protecting same-sex marriage and the rights of same-sex couples, for the sake of Sylvia and Jane, for the sake of me and my wife Erika, and for all of the other same-sex couples out there.

Most of the best photos are credit the wedding photographer, Andy Taylor; others yanked from Facebook.

Monday, November 10, 2008

election from down under

Top five questions from Aussies leading up to the US election:

1) What in Gods' name is the Electoral College?
-Um . . . do you understand, like, how the voting system, um . . . works? Can you explain it to me?
-So, do you actually get to vote for your candidate directly?
-Why is the Uni ("university") vote so important?
Advanced Variations:
-Why do some states have more votes?
-What are the big states?
-Why on earth do you all care so much about Ohio?!?
Variation Exhibiting Mastery:
-How is that supposed to make any sense at all, and why haven't you gotten rid of it yet?

2) Did you vote? Gosh, I wish I could too . . .
-How did you vote?
-Oh, but you don't have mandatory voting over there, do you?

3) What is up with Sarah Palin?!?
-Why do so many American's always seem to want a poncer/bohunk/yobbo to be president?
-Surely she's not really that bad, is she? It's got to be exaggerated by biased media sources? Oh. Really? Well then how did she even get to be a governor?!

4) You are voting for Obama, right? Otherwise . . .
-So, um, [pause] who do you, um, support? [weighty pause]
-Don't worry, Obama's going to win in a landslide.
-My other American friend says Obama will be assassinated as soon as he's elected. What do you think?
[Answer: I think that's a very insensitive and inappropriate question]
Variation from colleagues, upon visiting my desk:
-Wow, no question about who you're supporting, huh?
-Wow, you're . . . like . . . really interested in American politics, huh?
which almost invariably segues immediately into question number five...

5) Oh, you're American?

Erika watched the election results come in on CNN at the home of a fellow student. I had a very difficult time focusing at work, but managed to accomplish things nonetheless - turns out you can still write emails even if you're refreshing at the end of every sentence!

The large flat-screen TV in the Public Affairs department at work - located conveniently right next to my area - was tuned-in to election news all day. Most people paused in their workday to watch John McCain's concession speech, and virtually all productivity ground to a halt when Obama appeared for his acceptance speech.

After work, Erika and I met up with my cousin Matthew at venerable South Melbourne drinking establishment The Maori Chief, where the official election celebration hosted by American Democrats Abroad Australia had been going since 10 AM.

Everyone here is really happy about the result, but most people don't quite seem to get how amazing it actually is because they think Obama's win was virtually inevitable. This could mean one of two things: either it was as close a call as I think and they are naive about how bad things can be in the States, or they're right and I don't give my home country enough credit.

At the moment, I'm actually proud enough of the US to believe it's the latter.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

it's a new day

[UPDATE: The embedded video above won't play any more, but you can watch/listen on YouTube or DipDive.]

the celebratory song by I love that disaffected hiphop stars are bouncy and smiley like kids again. That shows something seriously right happening in the world.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Trick (McCain) or Treat (Obama?)

Happy Halloween! One of my favorite holidays for sure. In its modern form, it’s cultural catharsis, acknowledgement of death and fears, easement of taboos, performative identities, candy, titillation, it’s got it all. And Halloween’s traditionally about paying heed to the day on which the lingering remnants of the departed are most powerful as the barrier and balance between two worlds, one of death and one of life, is at its most precarious.

Sounds like the elections to me.

While goulies and ghosties may give a start, what scares me most are things in reality: state-sanctioned torture, corruption, willful toxic pollution, greed, war, climate change, and neglect are more horrifying than any fancy. So on this day when we play with our fears, let’s acknowledge the real terrors that would await us in the next four years if John McCain is elected President. The choice is up to you: more tricks, or the treat of a competent leader bringing positive change.

There’s only four days left ‘til the election. Vote for Barack Obama on Nov. 4th, and help others to do the same. (We voted last week!) To find your polling place and to learn more about Obama, see the “seriously for Obama” links on the right.

In the meantime, enjoy the cute song and the special Halloween Obama links below!

Halloween and Silliness for Obama
Pumpkins for Obama
Robots Attack!
Monster McCain
Hockey Mom and Moose sing about Palin
Frankenstein for President
Scary Palin in the Oval Office
Barack and Babies
I got a crush on Obama

Seriously for Obama
where to vote
election projections
if the World could vote
Obama inspires black community
song: Yes We Can
speech: "Yes We Can" in NH
speech: in the Virginia rain
to Sarah Palin from Young Women
song: We Are The Ones
Melbourne Uni Students for Obama

matt in ballarat

A few weeks ago, we took the train out to visit my cousin Matt in his adopted home, Ballarat, for the weekend. The train ride itself was delightful, about 1.5 hours of fields and more fields, culminating in a semi-urban town a bit bigger than Northampton in the middle of it all.

Ballarat sprang up during the Australian gold rush, and its former glory is evident in the Victorian architecture everywhere, and the tourist industry (which we mostly ignored) makes sure you don’t forget it. While the residential sections of the town are ridiculously British with their brick walls and little front gardens, the flora and landscape situate it squarely in the southern hemisphere.

But we weren’t there to see the town: we were there to see Matt. Matt is wonderful, and a wonderful host, feeding us well and making us feel right at home. We walked around, ate, played with his housemate’s dogs, and visited his office. Matt’s a lawyer/barrister, and here in Australia that means he has to wear a silly wig sometimes in court. He was patient enough to show me his wig and put it on, but not quite enough to let me take his picture thusly adorned.

My favorite part of the weekend was driving out to a nearby town to meet his boss, a great guy named Jeremy and relax on his patio in the sun, and then taking a walk up a nearby hill. The ridge provided a great view of the area, including fluorescent canola fields and gum trees galore. And sheep industriously breaking out of their paddocks. And the wattle is in full bloom. Yellows and ashy greens all around. The area outside of Ballarat reminded me a lot of home: a very Australian version of home, an impression amplified by the company of two of my favorite people in the world. I hope to get to spend a lot more time in Ballarat.


About a month ago Erika and I took ourselves to CERES, the Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies. It was a gorgeous sunny spring day absolutely perfect for biking, and we wanted to go where there were plants. Luckily, I knew just the place.

CERES has expanded significantly since I first visited years ago with my uncle. Built atop a reclaimed landfill about two miles from downtown Melbourne, CERES is an inspiring sustainable model farm/garden store/café. Chickens run amok amidst pockets of gardens, random buildings, and windy dirt paths, all along the banks of the Yarra.

Hand-painted educational signs dot the view around every turn – if you have a question about what you are seeing, the information is right there before you! You have only to look! Kind of like Google but painted imperfectly in eco-friendly pigments on recycled ply-board. What these signs describe are the many examples of innovative sustainable, low-impact technologies that CERES promote: recycled wastewater ponds, solar panel installations, native plants, bike repair workshop of awesome, creatively reused everything. I particularly like their emphasis on technologies and practices appropriate for an Australian environment.

Not quite everything is appropriate, though. There is a hokey vaguely-appropriative feeling to some of the content, a syle reminiscent of North American eco-pagan-hippies (as much as I love you). In the multi-faith adobe-walled chapel Krishna and the Buddha hold court over a Christian-style altar adorned indiscriminately with a potpourri of religious symbols. The “African Teaching Village” that I remember from my last visit has only recently and imperfectly been rechristened “the “multicultural education centre,” with the painfully cartoonish “African” architecture and some of the signs yet to be improved. Their intentions are wonderful, but it’s another reminder of how culturally naive Australia has been until very recently (and in many ways still is). If I wanted to pursue further multicultural consulting here, I would have my work cut out for me.

We rounded out the lovely afternoon with a delicious snack of muffins and tea at their café. My tea featured such ingredients as local lemon myrtle, eucalypus, and powdered heaven, which the waitress patiently poured over ice especially for me. I love fresh food, and I love people working creatively to save the environment.

Friday, September 26, 2008


While bike riding yesterday, I stumbled upon some great skateboarding teenage boys, who were kind enough to let me take their photos for a while. They were all adorably kind to one another, very supportive, very dedicated, very responsible (except for the complete lack of protective gear), and very talented. I had a great time watching them.

These are some of my favorite photos from the afternoon, not because of photographic/artistic merit, but because they capture a bit of their spirit. Almost all the photos here are of the same shirtless boy, my muse for the afternoon, but the whole gang of them were great. And yes, there's some teenage-boy photoshopping on some of the photos, as presents to the boys:

more of the boys on (my new page for photos for strangers) Lisa, you'll love the figure studies in the complete album -- took a bunch of them for you.

And don't worry, Ma, they were all in one piece at the end of the day. Missing some skin here and there, but no permanent damage done.

Friday, September 19, 2008

spring + spines + stingers

We visited the Dandenongs Primeval again, now that it's spring. Warmer! Flowers everywhere (even on evergreens)! Flirty parrots parading in pairs, etc. And the rain forest is even greener, which I wouldn't have thought possible.

We spotted two interesting members of the local wildlife population. The first was an adorable echidna, who trundled along beside the path for quite a while before it noticed us. The second was less adorable: an evil Bull Ant, more than an inch long, which bit and stung Erika's ankle in an astoundingly painful manner. Even that couldn't detract from the loveliness of the day, though. Check out the photos below!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

semester 2

I’m well into my second semester now—done with Week 5. Not as interesting subject matter as last semester, but I’m so busy that I’m just as happy to not have a strong desire to explore the topics more. My three subjects for the semester are Philosophy of Language and Mind, Political Philosophy, and Scientific Realism and Anti-Realism.

Philosophy of Language and Mind is about words, how do words mean anything, are words descriptions or shorthand to refer to something or do they have separate meaning, how do we mutually understand one another, is it all just in our minds, etc. Kindof like linguistics crossed with psychology, a morose hermit, and a bad sci-fi novel. Interesting class discussions, but ultimately it all feels rather pointless.

Political Philosophy this semester is being taught on the philosophy of the market, i.e. economics. I sincerely disagree with most of the assertions that are taken as the neutral starting ground for the discussion, (i.e. that market transactions are necessary for human survival, that capitalism is structurally just, etc.) so feel rather disconnected from the topic. Interesting, though, since I’m learning even more about how I am, as Utah Phillips put it, fundamentally alienated from the institutional structures of my society. Fascinating.

Scientific Realism and Anti-Realism is difficult—finally, a real challenge! It’s in the History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) department, not the philosophy department, and it’s reminding me how so much of my interest and background in philosophy is really in HPS. The ethics of HPS. Which don’t usually go together... more on that later. Anyways, Scientific Realism and Anti-Realism is about the debate between people who think that science tells us things that are essentially true (realists), and those who think that we have good reason to think that science at best can reasonably predict observable results, but that predictive success doesn’t necessarily give any indication that what they’re talking about is TRUE. It’s actually a lot more interesting and complex than it seems at first glance. My jury’s still out as to whether or not this distinction actually matters at all.

Just to make sure I don’t get bored or starve, I’ve also taken on a tutoring job. Tutoring here is not quite what we call tutoring in the US. A professor (Helen Verran, who taught the Ecology and Environmentalism class I so enjoyed last semester) sets the readings and gives weekly lectures. Then I lead two 1-hour classes a week, discussing what was introduced in the lecture and readings, making sure the students have a good grasp of the essential concepts. The subject is the Philosophy of Biology, always of great interest to me (Anatomy! Naturalists! Genomes! Oh my!). I’m learning a ton, not just from the subject matter, but from the experience of teaching. It’s exhausting, and a really strange power dynamic, but a lot of fun to see them learn. And fun to prepare the lesson plans and handouts and web tools. I could get used to being paid to do this! :)

Oh, yeah, and I’m writing my thesis, too. Due at the end of the semester (2+ months). First draft’s due (ack!) next week. It’s coming along fine. On Monday I gave a presentation to all the other honors philosophy students and it was well received. But I’m really bored with the topic at this point: that’s what happens when you fully immerse yourself in the minutia of something narrow for an entire year, whose focus has been shifted away from the neat stuff that got you interested in the first place to simpler, defendable ideas that will fit within the stringent word limit. I’m really looking forward to finishing, so I can move on to figuring out what I want to do next.

That’s what else I’m spending my time on these days. Figuring out what to do next year. Do I continue on here to complete a Masters? a PhD? in straight-up Philosophy, or Ethics, or the History and Philosophy of Science, or can I combine them? Can I get funding? What would my research topic be? Do I even want to be an academic after all?

Yeah. A lot on my plate. So my apologies for not updating this page more often. I’ll get to it whenever I can. Love to you all.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


Australia National University is courting me for their PhD program, and though I am 99% sure I want to continue on here at the University of Melbourne, I was willing to give the ANU a second glance. First, they have more applied ethicists on staff than any other university I’ve heard of. Second (and not coincidentally related to the first), they are the home of the internationally-renowned Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE). Third and most convincingly, they offered me an all-expenses-paid long weekend in Canberra to see if I liked their faculty and campus. I’m a sucker for free vacations, so off I flew to Melbourne’s nearest neighbor to the north.

Canberra is the Australian equivalent to Washington, D.C. It is the seat of Australian federal government. Like D.C., Canberra is located in a neutral territory not part of any state, and was chosen for its symbolic rather than functional geography. While D.C. is supposed to be at the heart of the original northern and southern American states, Canberra is as close as they could get to halfway between the two major cities Melbourne and Sydney. It would be like putting D.C. between Boston and New York… which would coincidentally make it end up in Hebron, CT, my hometown! Canberra’s location is about as reasonable and interesting as Hebron’s. There are some hills. Some fields. A few ponds, a big man-made lake. Some very small mountains off on the horizon. And in the middle of it all sits… Canberra.

When I mentioned to a few friends that I was going to Canberra for a few days, I invariably received the same response: “Oh god, why would you want to go there?” The overwhelming sentiment was that Canberra was such a dreadfully boring city that it wasn’t even worth visiting, despite the plethora of free museums and the like. “There’s too many bloody trees,” “The whole things’ one big boring park,” “There’s nothing to do”... Honestly, this sounded pretty appealing to me. I like places where most cityfolk think there is nothing to do. I like places with lots of trees. Canberra sounded like my kind of city.

I was wrong. Canberra is awful. [EDIT: my mistake, Hebron. You are much, much more interesting and lovely than Canberra.] It was like the newly-developed sections of Nashville TN without the music culture, or a smaller and less-historical Albany NY without the waterfront, or like the Storrs campus of UConn without the agrarian/pastoral backdrop… Picture the least inspiring modern low-rise urban landscape you can, and make it more boring. It’s like a business park. Add to that the fact that it’s terribly windy, designed entirely for cars (everything is spaced really really far apart with big boring parks in between so it takes forever to walk anywhere), and really actually has very little to do: it isn't rural enough to have outdoors fun, and not urban enough to have city fun. It's described by its inhabitants as a suburb in search of an urb.

And then the creepiest part: I was there during the school term, during both weekdays and weekend-days, and took numerous daytime and nighttime walks, so I assume I was seeing the city at a good cross-section of what should have been its busiest times. And there were no people. Anywhere. It was a ghost town. The streets and sidewalks were empty. The malls were empty. The restaurants were empty. The museums were empty. Where was everyone? They must have gone from being holed up in their homes to being holed up at work, and magically gone from one to the other because there was no rush hour traffic, very little traffic at all actually. I asked around, and learned that this was normal. It was disconcerting, and led to the whole city having the least energy of any populated place I have ever been.

So I followed suit. I holed up in my hostel, then snuck to the university campus for the lectures being presented by the philosophy departments (they have three), and repeated this for the majority of four days. The presentations were admittedly excellent. There were lectures and discussions of everything from the fairness of fair trade to the ethics of selling kidneys to the possible permissibility of political assassination to the representation of ‘the other’ in the WWII firebombing of Japan to the philosophy of statistics. My personal favorite was by a PhD student, Lena Eriksson, who spoke quite convincingly and insightfully on if and how religious reasons can be considered to be reasons on a public debating ground. The philosophy faculty in general seemed like a fun, brilliant group of people who really enjoyed one another and who worked closely together despite holding very different philosophical views. Pretty rare.
What made the endless talks bearable was that ANU had asked one person from each of the major universities in Australia and New Zealand up for the weekend, so I got to meet fellow students from all over. There were about a dozen of us total. I found I had a great deal in common with Roger, the guy up from Melbourne’s other university (Monash), and plan to keep in touch with him: he’s a rare philosopher/ outdoor adventure sports enthusiast/ vegetarian/ goofball like me! I don’t come across one of those every day. Roger and I stuck around in Canberra for an extra few days after the workshops ended, visiting the museums and biking around the lakes and up the hills and walking at night and looking into the cafes and bars and shops, hoping to find some quality that would redeem the city, but to no avail. The longer I spent there, the more I realized that it was a small, soul-less, inefficient, and uninteresting pile of concrete. I have no desire to ever return, even for the excellent PhD program. Sad, really.

Ok, that’s all really depressing. So let me end with the two highlights of the weekend. First: The new National Museum was fascinating. It presents aspects of Australian culture and history in a very unusual way. Rather than having a chronological layout or a subject-themed layout, the museum was organized by visual and material content. I.E., rather than having pre-colonial, Victorian, industrial, and modern sections, or having sections on industry, Aboriginal life, and sports, the museum had sections like: things made of grass; rabbits (stuffed rabbits, a piece of the fence, a rabbit fur blanket, photos of dead rabbits); heavy things made out of metal (post boxes with old postcards, irons and ironing boards, cars); words (prison-era texts, modern Aussie slang quizzes, audio recordings of Aboriginal songs); complicated visual patterns (industrial textiles, Aboriginal paintings, landscape photographs, textured natural artifacts); stuff relating to the bottom of the ocean (fish traps, scuba gear, trash, shells, photos of people diving); etc. My favorite exhibit was the backlit glass case of things that were 3”x1”, from arrowheads to action figures. The exhibits, and really the entire museum, seemed like they were created by graphic designers with a penchant for flea markets and a drastically irreverent and ahistorical conception of the world. My kind of museum. I was intrigued to note that while most of the adults visiting were confused and disturbed, the kids were all totally engaged and fascinated. Whatever the museum was doing was working for the kids. And for me.

The second highlight of the weekend was making chocolate chip cookies in the hostel kitchen, which had no oven. Roger and I tried various techniques (I love practical problem-solving!), including running the cookies through the conveyor-belt toaster, pan-frying the cookies, and microwaving them. Microwaving was the greatest success by far. They didn’t brown up satisfyingly like the others, but they were more thoroughly cooked and cookie-like. More fun than I’ve had in ages.

(the first photos below are a panorama)

cane toads are racing (port douglas extra)

Any of you who have seen the Cane Toad movie will appreciate knowing that we went to a Cane Toad race in the back room of a rather artificially seedy bar in Port Douglas. It was complete with beer, betting, a sleazy commentator, embarrassing racing technique (the racers spurred on the toads with kid’s birthday party noisemakers), and the chaos of lost toads. I have to say, they are even grosser in real life than in the movie—and this from a kid who LOVES toads. But I had a great time, and consider it to be one of the highlights of the trip.

Daintree Rainforest (last Port Douglas day)

(Sorry for the delay: retro-posting this some weeks later)

I woke early this morning to the sound of pouring rain. I pulled the covers back up for a few more moments of dozing, thinking as I did so that there could be no more perfect sound to hear at the start of a day we planned to spend in one of the worlds oldest and most spectacular rainforests.

The Mossman Gorge lies twenty minutes North of Port Douglas. Most visitors to the Daintree Rainforest, the oldest rainforest in the world, build their visit around this gorge. Wide and well-maintained trails wind through the lush, towering, and rather inhospitable trees and vines, following the coursing river. An impressive steel cable suspended bridge that swings over a tumble of rapids provides an excellent vantage point for photographers. Actually taking a picture proved tricky, however, because, being suspended, the bridge is remarkably springy underfoot. Most visitors – regardless of age – took time to enjoy bouncing.

The Gorge and surrounding rainforests are the traditional lands of the Kuku Yalanji people. As they understand and articulate it, their lands are where the rainforests meet the sea. We started our day in Daintree by visiting one of the communities’ organisations, the Dreamtime Centre, which had a gallery and educational materials, and offered a guided walk through some of their more sacred land. Led by a tall dark and handsome Aboriginal man with beautiful ‘locks (I was rather enamoured), we wandered up into the rainforest and learned about traditional housebuilding techniques, the uses of native plants (from trailmarkers to tools and weapons to food), and a bit about the spiritual component of the land. Circumspect as always to keep secret Aboriginal business secret, our guide nevertheless gave us a wonderful glimpse into his people’s history and worldview. The walk concluded with tea and damper (simple bread) at a campfire with our own private and very impressive didgeridoo performance. I loved it all! Erika especially loved learning all the practical stuff. An excellent rainy day.

Monday, July 28, 2008

swimming with the fishes (port douglas day 4 of 5)

The life under the water of the outermost edge of the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. We went snorkelling thirty + k’s (20ish miles) northeast off the coast of Port Douglas today, a highspeed catamaran ferry our steed and a floating pontoon our home base for the day. I’m a very strong swimmer, but it had been years since I donned a mask and flippers, and I found them rather disconcerting at first—the flippers made it especially hard for me to move around in the water the way I’m used to, and I kept tangling myself up. Luckily, I remembered my mom’s snorkelling tips from her recent Galapagos Islands trip (thanks, Ma!), and got my bearings quickly enough.

When I could focus on the water beneath me instead of not drowning—what a sight! The most over-the-top cheesy phrases of praise would not be enough to describe the emerald water itself, the panoply of fish bizarrely constructed of unimaginably bright colors, modern and deco designs, tamely meandering and darting all around us. I was shocked to realize I could hear them nibbling on the coral, swishing their little fins and tails through the water, blowing bubbles, all a sense I had never realized was missing through the thick glass of aquariums. Seen in immediate proximity, with no thick azure glass mediating the view, they seemed ten times sharper than I’d ever seen before. And the coral! Thousands of varieties, themselves of every conceivable color and shape, from antlers to boulders to brains to flowers to spaghetti, all growing on one another. Whole mountains and canyons and cliffs of coral. I was shocked at how 3-dimensional the submarine seascape was: all the pictures in the world can’t capture its depth and complexity. One of our fellow passengers was on to something when he devoutly said that it could only be the work of the creator.

Exploring this underwater world was like being a kid again, exploring a largely-unknown area at will, going any which way just to wonder at the beauty of it all, diving down into the slightly-scary depths and braving the shadowy places, floating in the warm upper water and watching it all unfold below. One disconcerting moment was when the photographer hired by the snorkelling company emerged up from a crevasse of coral beneath us, in full scuba gear, to snap a photo of us swimming on the surface. That was certainly the last thing we expected, but I love the resulting photo (scanned version forthcoming). We swam until Petra got practically hypothermic (it is the ocean, after all) and had to be warmed with hugs, tea, and towels, at which point we took the nicely heated submarine tour of the deeper areas. While previous tours of the day had spotted sting rays and sea turtles, we had to be content with a little shark and the (ho hum) gorgeous array of deep cliffs of more coral.

We loved it so much that we actually tried to book a second day of snorkelling for tomorrow, but found that it was just too expensive. I desperately want to buy an underwater film camera (digital just doesn’t cut it for these colours and lighting) and maybe learn to scuba dive. But I loved the flexibility of the snorkelling, and with my good French-horn trained lung capacity, I could dive down pretty deep with just one breath. Anyone have experience with scuba diving, and could share your thoughts on it?

(Note on the photos: some of the underwater shots are with my digital camera through the window of the submarine, some are with a disposable waterproof Kodak film camera whose negatives were scanned in at the processing shop. And if you’re trying to tell me and Petra apart in the pictures, my bathing suit has a racer back, hers is halter top.)

splish splash, I took time to relax (port douglas days 3 and 5 of 5)

I read an article in the paper the other day about a study indicating that your average adult will only start to relax mid-afternoon on the third day of her vacation. Perhaps that’s why we found ourselves sleeping to progressively later hours as the week went on. Perhaps that’s also why day 3 found us still keyed up enough to wake just before dawn to go jogging on the beach. On the other hand, the sun rises around 7:30 when you’re practically on the equator. In that context, getting up “just before dawn” isn’t actually saying much.

Regardless, there we were, jogging along the sand while waves crashed beside us and the sun rose into a cobalt sky. It felt like most of the town was out on the beach that morning with us: jogging, walking the dog, participating in the daily “Yoga on the Beach” class, or just starting the morning with a beachside stroll. One guy had collected coconut husks with which he and his dog were playing: he would toss the coconut husks into the surf, and his dog would ecstatically retrieve them.

The beach had a delightful feeling of community. I would have expected all the people to make the beach feel crowded, but it didn't. This is partly because the beach is four miles long and it would probably take most of the residents of the state of Queensland to actually crowd it, but I think it has more to do with people's friendly attitude. Back on the beach another day with my parents, we asked this lady walking by to take a picture of the four of us and ended up chatting with her and her husband for a pleasant half an hour.

We spent days 2 and 5 of our vacation just bumming around the Port Douglas. The beach is a four-minute walk from our flat, and the flat itself comes with access to two swimming pools. Needless to say we were in the water quite a bit. When we weren't in the water, we were on the town. There's nothing like shopping in holiday towns in the off season. On the beach itself, Erika carved an opulent lounge-seat out of sand, complete with a screen of palm fronds that blocked the wind without obscuring the view of the mountains. I helped, though mostly by sitting in the chair. When we didn't eat out, I introduce my parents to Mojitos and we put the barbecue to good use. With that and our books and card games, we definitely relaxed.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

a day with the birds (port douglas day 2 of 5)

Today, our second day in Port Douglas, we went to a rather gimmicky but enjoyable little zoo down the road for breakfast. A sumptuous buffet of fresh and dried tropical fruits, baked goods, and heavy British staples allowed us to eat for an hour straight. We wanted to linger, as we were surrounded by rude yet charming dining companions: the zoo’s vast aviary, flying and roosting all around us. Cockatoos, parrots, ducks: you name it, they wanted our breakfast. The silly rainbow lorikeets, the most personable, especially wanted muffins and coffee, while the shy egrets were after the bacon. They were not allowed handouts, but this rule was only loosely enforced. I worried about their nutrition, but they all seemed healthy.

After breakfast, we wandered off into the animal enclosures—and I mean into, as it is another lovely park-like set-up where you wander around fields and swamps and the like with the animals free with you within the large enclosures. Our first stop was the kangaroo and wallaby field. Wallabies are like mini kangaroos, and are rather painfully adorable. We got to feed some of the more adventurous little hoppers, including a mom with a tiny baby (‘joey’) in her pouch. Their little mouths feel rather like rabbits’, and their paws feel like rodents’.

As we wandered out of that field, Petra was accosted by an emu who was VERY interested in making friends with her and her handfuls of remaining food. While a friendly fluffy bird may not sound very intimidating, remember that emus are as tall as Petra, have beaks as big as my hand, can run very fast, and have a look in their eyes at all times that can only be described as psychotic. Petra bore up well under the emu’s attentions, though, and parted from the well-fed bird with all her fingers in tact.

A close relative of the emu was also at this zoo, though it was cordoned off in one of the few areas where visitors are not allowed to wander. The cassowary is a little smaller than the emu, with a brightly coloured head and razor-sharp claws. It’s pretty much a dinosaur’s head and legs stuck onto an emu’s torso. Cassowaries live deep in the rainforest of this part of Queensland, and were originally thought to have died out with the rest of the dinosaurs years ago. While the Aboriginal people of the area knew they were still around (as they were a favourite meal), the birds remained an enigma to white scientists for years. It was quite remarkable to see its lizard-like movement, hear it’s belly-tingling deep thrumming call, and feel the effect of its vicious red-eyed stare. Even its keeper is scared of it—calls it the Psycho Karate Chicken, as it can make gigantic leaps and can kick in any direction. It somehow seemed more threatening than any zoo animal I’ve encountered before. Must be something in the genes: run away from dinosaurs!

Too bad these instincts didn’t extend to little marsh chicken things. There were native wetland birds that looked like guinea hens that a goth had painted (black bodies, blood-red heads, black eyes) running rampant around our feet in the grasses and hummocks of the main enclosure. Unfortunately, my flip-flop(‘thong’)-clad feet strayed too near a nest that one such bird was attempting to build right on the edge of the path. I was pulled harshly from my adoration of the cassowary by a beak sinking into my big toe. I later found out that this particular bird is named Swampy, and has a reputation for being beak-happy and for building inconvenient nests. While I mopped up my bleeding toe, the keepers went off to move his nest again.

The culmination and highlight of the day were the koalas. We were mesmerized by watching a teenaged koala scamper around his sawed-off trees. It was quite the sight, as they hardly ever move. This one must have covered fifteen feet in the twenty minutes we watched him! After this energetic display, we went off to meet with his sister who was working as a model for the afternoon. (Scanned version of touristy photo forthcoming.) Working animals in Australia are unionized, so she had to get her timecard punched at the beginning and end of the photo shoot. By law, as a koala, she is only allowed to work half an hour a day, 3 days a week. Holding her for the photo was fascinating. She was very heavy at 20 lbs (9 kilos), and smelled pleasantly but distinctly of eucalyptus and musk. Her fur was soft, rather like a healthy dog’s, and her paws were hard and rubbery. She was very warm, and clung tightly to my torso, bottom paws on my hip bones and arms on my shoulders. Wonderful.

And there were arboreal kangaroos, too. Yup, you read that right: kangaroos that live in trees. But I’m tired and want to go to bed now, so you can read up on them yourself. :) Sorry. Goodnight.

port douglas (day 1 of 5)

As I’d mentioned, my parents are visiting on their annual trip from the States. They’ve been here almost a month now, and as a special treat took the four of us (me, Erika, and them) up to the coast of the northeastern corner of Australia, Queensland, for a vacation. Going on vacation to Queensland is the Australian equivalent of going to Florida, at least as far as warmth and beaches and the like goes. Queensland is much less populated (by humans) and more creatively hazardous than Florida (vicious crocodiles that put alligators to shame, jellyfish more deadly than man-o-wars, a host of other surprises), and has a pejorative reputation of being a bit of a rural backwater. As a reference point, this was the home turf of Steve Irwin, aka the Crocodile Hunter.

Our flight to Queensland was remarkably pleasant, a quality I attribute to two key factors:
1) The absence of stress and anxiety in the airport security procedures. I kept my shoes on, and none of us even had to show identification until we went to pick up the rental car at the end of the flight. It was an incredibly refreshing experience, and one that reinforced for me how dehumanising and unpleasant the airline security process is at home.
2) The presence of unexpected quantities of chocolate ice cream in transit. Thanks, Qantas!

Queensland’s winter weather is a tropical dream-come-true after grey and windy Melbourne. The heat and sunshine hit me as soon as I stepped off the plane. I could feel my spirits rising with the humidity. My hair swiftly followed, and has now achieved a level of curliness it is unlikely to reach again unless assisted by copious amounts of product.

Queensland so far seems full of delightful – and occasionally scary – animals. We’d scarcely arrived when we passed a mob of wild kangaroos monopolizing a cattle field. Fortunately the cows and kangaroos seem inclined to ignore each other. A bit farther along I spotted an absolutely enormous crocodile snoozing on the bank of a creek. Kookaburras are in abundant evidence, as are a smallish breed of wild fowl* we’ve christened “jungle chicken.” Possums don’t so much go bump as scratch and snuffle in the night, and the raucous screeches from the flocks of flying foxes (i.e. giant bats) echo throughout our neighbourhood. The bats are adorable. They’re nursing their young at the moment, and if you catch them at the right time, you can see the baby bats crawling around in the flowering gum trees, nibbling the blossoms.

From Melbourne we flew to Cairns (pronounced “cans,” like tinned products), which we passed quickly through in favour of more remote destinations. The road wound north past tiny towns, scattered businesses, tourist attractions, resort condominiums and holiday compounds. Despite notably increasing development, however, Queensland remains markedly empty. Mountains coated with rainforests bound seemingly endless sugar cane fields. The cane fields dominate the view as they have historically dominated the economy, though the areas large and growing tourism industry is gaining ground. The road never stays far from the coast, hugging the shore with occasionally unnerving proximity (think Great Ocean Road) and winding past pristine white beaches with turquoise waves and palm trees. Due to the convenient proximity of mountains and beach, this whole area is popular with hang-gliders, paragliders, and the like. We were tickled by the wonderful yellow road signs warning of the dangers that Box Jellyfish (“Marine Stingers”) pose to bathers who venture out of the designated swimming areas at the wrong time of year.

Port Douglas – our destination – is long and skinny. Although only the tip of it is actually strictly peninsular, the whole town feels finger-like because it stretches along the aptly named four-mile beach. The town is full of shops, great restaurants, and quasi-gated resort/spa compounds. Fortunately, the town is big enough that you can sense the existence of people, events, and a community unrelated to (or at least coexistent with) tourism: there is substance to Port Douglas beyond the tourists and the institutions that manage us.

Our holiday apartment was perfect: a fully furnished two-bedroom with a kitchen (so we could cook and avoid eating out every day), tile floors (great for sandy feet!) and a lovely patio. After checking in and getting settled, my parents, Erika, and I headed into town for the tail end of the Sunday market. There was a vendor selling coin purses and wallets made out of cane toad pelts. I kid you not. They were…bizarre. Eyes and legs and all. We also saw a man with two enormous and immaculately white Cockatoos on his head wandering the main street.

We finished off the day with a delicious dinner at a restaurant whose setting is so breathtaking that it’s difficult to describe. To reach Nautilus from the main street, you walk up a steep torch-lined trail through tall, lush rainforest plants and trees. The restaurant itself sits on a series of wide and open wooden platforms framed by more trees and plants. They describe themselves as “the ultimate outdoor dining experience,” and they are. We watched a possum scamper along a palm branch on the edge of the floodlit area while enjoying our perfectly cooked and creatively prepared meal. A capital culmination of our first day on vacation.

Note: the restaurant depicted here is not Nautilis, but another delicious venue, The Living Room, where we celebrated Mum’s birthday on Friday. Also pictured are a few shots of Palm Cove, a town down the coast a bit towards Cairns.

* Our Jungle Chicken is actually called Orange Footed Scrub Fowl, “Megapodius Reinwart”.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

family footie

We went to the footie (Australian rules football) again last night with a bunch of my family. This particular match – Carlton vs. St. Kilda – is significant in the LoSchiavo clan because up until Andy started playing for Carlton, most of the family supported St. Kilda. Now the family’s split about 50/50 between the two teams. I’ve decided to support Carlton. Sadly, despite Andy’s excellent performance, they lost by quite a bit last night. The boisterous crowds, family company, and delicious french fries (chips) made the evening well worth it, though. I could get used to this sports thing.

Monday, July 7, 2008


In addition to trying to save the world (see post below), we also visited the rural town of Daylesford. Located in the medium-altitude foothills of the Great Dividing Range, the town is only 114 km (70 miles) north west of the Melbourne. As most of that distance is through largely-uninhabited land, it seems like a distant isle of civilization. I am yet again reminded of how unpopulated this continent really is.

This former booming goldmining centre now has a population of only 2000, despite having famed mineral water springs, two beautiful lakes right in town, hills with views of the surrounding farmland, lovely Victorian architecture, and excellent restaurants. There is reputedly an active queer community, though we saw little evidence of this. Daylesford reminded me a bit of Main St. in Northampton, with a distinct overtone of Colorado thrown in. There are many abandoned buildings around town, and property goes cheap (check out this tempting one!), but this emptiness doesn’t diminish the spirit of the town: a combination of new-agey and old-timey, with a handful of realistic modern farmers thrown in. It felt a lot more like home than anywhere else I've been here.

After enjoying some of the delicious food on offer, wandering around the converted abbey on top of the hill, talking with the super-friendly unpretentious people around town, and enjoying the uninterrupted views, it was hard to come back to the city. Luckily, Petra’s cousin Matt lives not far from Daylesford, so we’ll have chances to go back.