Saturday, May 31, 2008

sky wars

Have I mentioned that there are wild parrots everywhere? Lorikeets, galahs, and cockatoos are the most common. While the bright pink doe-eyed galas do strike a chord with my inner 4-year-old girl, the mischievous “cockies” have quickly become my favorite.

I’m proud to say I can now identify its call in ‘the wild.’ Not hard, as it’s similar in volume and tone to a three-year-old child sneaking up to you while you’re napping and delightedly yelling “blah!” as loud as s/he can. For instance, I was walking peacefully along Flinders St in the center of Melbourne early in the morning a few days ago when I was shocked to have my eardrums just about blasted out with a gleeful “GRAWK!” about two feet from my head. “Cockatoo,” my ringing naturalist’s ears proudly identified. Glancing around to find the offender, I spied a yellow-crested head peeking around the corner of the awning nearby. When it saw that I’d spotted it, it bobbed and burbled, went to the next awning that I was to walk under, and waited. Deciding to play along, I walked under it, and was gifted with another gleeful “GRAWK!” from a very proud bird. We kept this up for a while, it sometimes swinging upside down on the edge of the awning to check on my progress. When we reached the end of the awnings, it flapped to the decorative 1900s Art Nouveau metal fa├žade above, cocked its head, peered at me sideways, and then delicately began tearing the metal off the building.

These destructive and prankster tendencies have not enamored the city officials to the birds. In addition to their age-old campaign to gnaw the bark off of all city plantings, the big cockatoo fad these days is chewing the expensive little light bulbs that cover the iconic Melbourne Arts Centre spire. While a few have lauded the birds for joining the fight against global warming, the city has not seen this campaign in a positive light, and have brought in the Green Berets of the bird world: Bibi the peregrine falcon and Zorro the giant wedge-tailed eagle. They are supposedly tethered to the top of the spire to discourage, not eat, the cockatoos. However, from our excellent 9th-floor vantage point, Petra and I noticed a sudden and unusual pigeon diaspora yesterday morning. What looked like the entire winged population of central Melbourne was beating a swift northwesterly retreat. Not long after, a falcon (complete with loose jesses and tether) zoomed by. I imagine that pigeons would be much easier prey than feisty cockatoos to a suddenly-freed falcon.

No reports of feathered casualties in the papers this morning, but I think I may go check on my awning friend. Hopefully s/he’s still around to continue the campaign against decorative metal bits.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

we're aunts!

We have nephews! Erika’s brother Reed and his wife Sue are now the proud but tired parents of twin boys: Matthew Ronald Nonken (on the right) and Thomas Chanel Nonken (on the left), born Tuesday evening in North Carolina. Matthew is 4 lbs 13 oz and Thomas is 7 lbs 1 oz: everyone's still at the hospital, as little Matthew is getting some tlc for low blood sugar, but all reports are good.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

c is for delicious

One of my favorite books when I was a kid was The Search for Delicious, in which the hero undertakes a series of exacting challenges in order to make his contribution to the king’s dictionary. The book concludes that delicious is cold water when you’re very thirsty. While I ultimately concur, the next in line would have to be a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie comprised of butter, eggs, flour, sugar, chocolate bits, vanilla extract, and ineffable perfection. I have been questing through the Greater Melbourne area in search of that cookie for three months now, and have finally, this evening, come the closest yet to recreating perfection. My assistant in this successful endeavor has been Ms. Betty Crocker, whose cookie mix, despite having been made in Australia with Australian ingredients, results in a semblance of godly American cookie-tude.

The missing backstory here is that Australian cookies… suck. No way to beat about the bush on this one. All Australian baked wheat-based confections* somehow end up tasting a bit past their expiration date even if I make them myself. This covers everything from the Ms. Fields cookie stalls at the malls to restaurant desserts to refrigerated grocery-store dough to the ingredients themselves. We think the problem is in the butter, and maybe the flour too. I can’t understand it. They always result in cookies that are too hard and crumbly, and/or taste slightly rotten. I was getting desperate, and considering petitioning the UN to airlift frozen Tollhouse slice-and-bake to our roof deck.

Enter Ms. Crocker, via an unlikely convenience store in St. Kilda after this evening’s French class. (cue angelic choir.) Though the aftertaste is slightly unusual and they’re a bit too sweet (I know!), they are the closest I’ve found my Mum’s. I miss my Mum and her cookies. There’s no place like home, and no cookies like my Mum’s. No, really, my Mum’s cookies are better than your mom’s. I dare you. Send me cookies to prove me wrong. Please. :)

*With the highly debatable exception of Tim-Tams, and recognizing the unquestionable superiority of Mint Slices (like a Thin Mint with a peppermint patty on top)
Oh, and my cousin Claire's pumpkin cake, which isn't a cookie but is incomparably delicious

Monday, May 26, 2008

let me tell you a story: Utah Phillips, 1935-2008

Utah Phillips died on May 26th. I just heard. My sister was listening to public radio, and they read his obituary. She called me. He’s a great hero of mine. He was a cantankerous old guy, an Army deserter turned alcoholic bum turned pacifist anarchist, who wrote rather awful folk songs. This man taught me so much (only a slice of which I'll have room to mention here )and I never met him.

I remember when I first heard his voice, though. We (my twin sister and I, and probably some friends too, though I can’t remember now) were at yet another Ani DiFranco concert in 1995. We were 14 years old. The first half of the concert was on fire—we were all ready to jump out of our skins with pumped-up tearing guitar and feminism. Then the lights came up for the intermission, and we were all at a loss. They turned up the intermission music, something mellow to keep us in line, and it slowly started to seep in through the ringing in my ears. It was compelling. It was a riff with a story, and the more I listened, it was a story with a riff. It was telling the story of our country, the part we never hear, of the Korean war and freight trains and labor strikes, of the poetry of bums and of Catholic anarchists and opera. But standing there in the smoky sweaty hyped auditorium, I couldn’t quite hear well enough to put the pieces together—I just knew I wanted to hear more.

Those stories came out the next year on the best recording I'll ever own, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, an album with Ani’s music supporting Utah’s guitar plucking and rambling histories, and was followed up four years later with Fellow Workers. That first collaboration really changed me. It was musically strange, still is, fiddles and turntables, but the music keeps you going, makes you remember that though the words are talking about the 30s, the 60s, that it really is as relevant as it strikes you, and that though it’s an old guy rambling on, that it’s ok to get riled up. Having that musical support and encouragement allowed me to listen.

Utah Phillips is usually described as a folk musician. But he wasn’t a very good singer, never claimed to be, didn’t actually sing many songs during his concerts. “Folk music is boring. ‘Wack fall the di-do, oh blow ye winds, hi-ho,’ hell, that’s boring.” Though he did write a good many songs, he was at his core a storyteller. His stories were irreverent, funny, respectful, and full of a deep understanding of our place in history, on just whose shoulders we stand today.

“Time is an enormous long river, and I am standing in it, just as you are standing in it. My elders were the tributaries. And everything they thought, and every struggle they went through, and everything they gave their lives to, and every song they created, and every poem that they laid down, flows down to me. And if I take the time to ask, and if I take the time to see, and if I take the time to reach out, I can build that bridge between my world and theirs, I can reach down into that river, and take out what I need to get through this world. Bridges, from my time to your time, as my elders from their time to my time. And we will put into the river, and we let it go, and it flows away from us and away from us until it no longer has our name, our identity; it has its own utility, its own use, and people will take what they need and make it part of their lives.”

It was through his stories I first learned of the history not taught, of the American labor movement, the strikes and speeches and murders and heroes that fought with innovation and courage to give us fair wages and hours. The history of Mother Jones and Ammon Hennessey, of the Pennsylvania coal miners and the Lawrence MA textile workers, of Marian Anderson and war deserters. The history of the folk. And through him and our shared hero, Mark Twain, I learned to love my country despite its government.

This was no passive history, no past America. Utah was an agitator to the end, reframing the political pieces we are handed, reminding us of our power, trying to get us to speak up and act out. He refused to see the world the way those in power want us to see it, and refused to let them dictate his life. This wasn’t reactionary, defensive anarchy: this was about defining who we are for ourselves, as individuals and in communities. At 14, this whole concept was revelatory to me, and continues to inspire me in everything I do.

“No matter how new age you get, old age gonna kick your ass.”
Utah suffered from heart problems for years. It had recently sapped his energy so much that he couldn’t play the guitar any more, and he got out of breath just recording his radio broadcasts. He didn’t give up on life, but his heart eventually gave out. He died as best any of us could ask: in bed at home, with spring breezes coming in through the window, asleep, next to his wife.

What Utah said of his elders is better than any words I could say of him: "But they lived those extraordinary lives that can never be lived again. And in the living of them, they gave me a history that is more profound, more beautiful, more powerful, more passionate, and ultimately more useful, than the best damn history book I ever read.”

For more information:
Utah’s life story

Utah’s note to friends on his birthday, two weeks ago

Sunday, May 11, 2008

musical 2nd impressions

When you think of Australia, you probably don’t think ‘thriving music scene.’ At least I didn’t. I knew that this great country had produced the Bee Gees, AC/DC, Silverchair, and Wolfmother. Not the most inspiring of musical histories. And I’d heard that the radio is 99% American, and is on a 30-year delay, which is true: the most recent music we might hear on the airwaves is maybe 1978 plus the rare Justin Timberlake and a smattering of other pop, and the worst of that, too. It’s really awful. I shudder to find myself longing for Sexyback.

Luckily, and very surprisingly, it turns out that there are a host of absolutely fantastic local bands of every conceivable genre (see forthcoming “culturally imitative” post). And they are really, really good. Any one of them would be snatched up and signed in an instant at home. I have to wonder: why is there such a profusion of talented musicians, hugely out of proportion to the population? Why isn’t the Australian music management scene taking advantage of this wealth of talent? Or are they just so inundated with good choices that they can’t handle any more? Or do the bands prefer to remain independent? Mysteries that will have to remain unsolved for now.

Here’s hoping for a local bands radio station in the future.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

India and Sweden, a kitten and kale

At the moment I am exhausted, hungry, and happy. I am washing kale in the hopes of replicating a dish Phoebe made for me once last year. I don’t actually have the recipe, and only sort of remember what was in it, but I don’t intend to let that stop me. Delicious kale, here we come.

The stress of culinary uncertainty is not the cause of my exhaustion. I’m tired because last night I went out to a Bollywood dancing night with a new friend from work, Ruchi. We had an awesome time. Ruchi’s a really good dancer—she’s part of a Bollywood dance troop, and teaches and performs on a regular basis. We were, in fact, at the club with the rest of her dance troop. Most of their dancing was choreographed and well-practiced. Needless to say, this was a bit intimidating, but she says I did fine. I’m hooked—I’ve been energetically bobbing my shoulders and flitting my hands all day. Despite only coming home at 4 am, after even more dancing and chocolate cake.

Erika and I spent most of the day biking around the city. We first went to visit a kitten that she’s fallen in love with at a nearby pet store. Big surprise, it’s a curious and energetic tiger-striped little Scottish wildcat. Not that she’s consistent or anything. Kittens here cost about $300 and are in great demand, which is bizarre to us, coming from a place where you often can’t even give them away for free. All ‘shelters’ here are swift kill shelters, since feral cats and dogs are the biggest threat to native Australian wildlife. The Aussies value their native animals much more than do stray pets. While I agree with that, it’s still sad to think about, and it does lead to a shortage of kittens. (Don’t worry, we’re not actually getting any pets. Just visiting pet stores.)

After that we went to worship in the blue and yellow temple of economy and design. Ikea is such a wonderfully respectful store. You only have to walk in the door to feel accommodated and catered to. And encouraged to spend money. Today the place was full of adorable babies, which was very distracting. We successfully escaped with the picture frames we came for and only one additional unplanned purchase of a small plastic cup. The highly discounted red leather couch was very tempting, but would have been difficult to carry home on the back of our bikes, and we really really don’t need another couch.

This evening we’re going to watch movies, eat (hopefully delicious) kale, and go to bed early. As glamorous as it is to live abroad, it’s nice to have a little mundanity now and then.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


This weekend, I was cold. Very, very cold. “In Australia, the sunburned country, the land of 10,000 beaches?” you may ask. Yes. If you go up in elevation enough, you can be cold anywhere, even Down Under.

And up I went. First geographically, five hours northeast of Melbourne. Then, in the tiny Coloradoish town of Mt. Beauty, we turned off the valley roads and started the winding, stomach-turning ascent through chasm-split and towering mountain ash and eucalyptus up to the barren, snowy high alpine plains of the Victorian Alps.

I was on this backpacking (“bushwalking”) adventure with a group of six other Uni students and two trip leaders, all part of the school’s fantastic outdoors program. Once we reached the snows, we all piled out of the school van, bundled ourselves in all available clothing (“rugged up”), slung our borrowed packs across our backs, and set out through the clouds. We were about 6,000 ft. up (1800 m). It was about 31 degrees F (0 C), wet, windy, and slow going.

The fact that we stopped every 50 ft. to look at the views made it even slower. While the clouds we stood in limited any long vistas, the nearby scenery was breathtaking. A huge fire swept across this entire range in 2003, killing the above-ground parts of all the plants (and most of the animals). This made what started as a barren landscape all the more bare, and the few twisted white snowgum trees mere ghosts of themselves. The plants are designed for fire, though, and kept their roots alive. They are pushing back up through the frozen soil with dense bushes of dark green and tan, with yellow strawflowers and hearty mosses scattered throughout, rubbing scrubs of color into the shades of grey. The cold and clouds conspired to make it all the more arresting by adding crystalline sparkles to every available surface. As if it didn’t look enough like an abstract fairyland already.

After about four miles of distraction and sticky snow, we arrived at our shelter for the night: Edmonson Hut, near Mt. Nelse. It’s a simple 50-year-old corrugated iron hut with an accompanying outhouse (“dunny”). The tiny building (the hut, not the dunny) is graced with a fireplace, cooking tables, a bench, three sleeping lofts, many unfortunate drafts, and a curious resident mouse. All I can say is that Australians don’t have any concept of cold-weather architecture. The structure couldn’t have been better designed to keep any available heat away from the inhabitants. The driving, blinding wind and snow that started up outside as soon as we walked in the door didn’t help. We were already pretty wiped out by the cold when we got there, and spent the next four hours jovially chatting and shivering in our sleeping bags before succumbing to exhaustion. I don’t think anyone got much sleep.

In the middle of the night, I abandoned the relative warmth of my cocoon and braved the track to the dunny. It took me a moment to realize that the snow had stopped, the wind was silent, everything was even more sparkly than before, and… my god… there were stars. The sky. With nothing at all between it and me. No lights anywhere within my horizon but the lights in the heavens. Not a drop of moisture in the achingly cold air. Not even a pesky ozone layer to block the celestial glory. It put every single night sky I had ever seen before to shame, to irrelevance. And it was all unfamiliar: the southern cross, the milky way cutting the wrong way across, no big dipper, no Cygnus, no Cassiopeia… The surprise of it, the perfect clarity when I expected howling grey, the unfamiliar arrangements, the sheer number of stars, made it all the more dream-like, made it seem like a moment out of A Wrinkle In Time, as if I had intruded on a conversation between divine beings. I made everyone who was still awake come outside with me.

Credit to my fellow trekkers, everyone was chipper the next morning. The shocking gold and pink of the surrounding dawn-lit hills, together with the promise of food, was enough to put anyone in a good mood. Oatmeal is never so delicious as when it’s gulped, scalding, into a stomach emptied of its calories by shivering. Especially oatmeal made with delicious water. The water up there is so pure that you can drink it right from the stream. My swamp-born self was dubious at first, but then remembered that there are very few animals that have returned up there, and fewer still that would be at our altitude. Lo and behold, none of us got so much as a bellyache.

That second day we wandered on no particular track (the plants here don’t mind being walked on, quite the change from the delicate alpines at home), dumped our packs, and made our way under a deeply blue sky up around the peak of Mt. Nelse to the views from the fancifully-named Spion Kopje, an Appalachian-esque rolling ridge. And while the sweeping snow plains, distant peaks, etc., were striking, that wasn’t the most surprising aspect of the view: I couldn’t have imagined better hiking weather: sunny, crisp, not much wind, on a Saturday, in a theoretically-popular park. Number of people other than us? 0. Number of buildings, roads, powerlines, etc. visible? 0. We could have been exploring an unpopulated planet for all we could see. It brought home again how human-empty this continent is. I love it.

The afternoon brought us and our re-acquired packs down in elevation and into the sun so that grasses, not snows, surrounded us. I could see why tiny wild horses love this area. I wanted to be a tiny wild horse myself, those fields looked so tasty. The strange thing was, we saw plenty of evidence of recent passage of these creatures, but despite there being nowhere in the landscape for them to hide, we couldn’t see a single animal. I personally decided that they must be invisible.

In the evening’s distressingly-beautiful golden glow, we strode across undulating meadows to our night’s home. I’ve rarely seen so perfect a camping spot. The ramshackle Wallace Hut, of which the Australians are inordinately fond, provides an unusual setpiece amongst a tangle of soft grasses, snowgums, rock heaps, and surprising glimpses down into the southeastern valleys. The ground is cushiony but dry, the trees create quiet nooks throughout, the water is nearby and delicious, the campfire ring is snug, the sunrise and sunset views are both perfect. A pair of Pied Currawong considered stealing our dinner, but limited themselves to merely providing entertainment. Overnight the temperature dropped to around 20 F (-6 C), and I didn’t sleep again. I don’t know why: I used to be able to sleep in any weather.

We were awoken the next morning by a profusely pink dawn. After a quick feed, we hiked out along a dirt road that led to the dam where we’d parked the van. We saw other people (!) out sight-seeing and fishing, though no fish were sighted. A long drive home, made all the longer by – no joke – a home improvements theme on the one radio station we could hear (If I Had a Hammer, Sledgehammer, Pane of Glass Into My Heart, True Colors, Tear It Down, etc.). We were all glad to get home.

The photos below are from the camera of one of my fellow hikers, Debbie. She took most, I took a few. I didn’t have my big heavy camera with me. Thanks for sharing, Debbie! (I’ll add other photos from other people as they become available.)
May 13th update: photos from Emma added. Thanks for sharing, Emma!