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 CuraƧao). 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.