Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Small Motorized Chamber of Horrors

Yesterday, I dropped my CV off at the Town Planning Department down by the water, and caught the municipal bus home.  I do wish this town ran proper school buses - two stops from "downtown" we stopped outside the High School and half of the eighth grade poured on and I discovered why the other grown up passengers on the bus had competed to squeeze into the front two seats.
Perhaps it's a generational thing - but I don't remember anyone swearing nearly as much when I was in junior high.  Where we used adjectives, these kids toss around expletives like popcorn.  The bus echoed with "F*** this" and "S**t HER" and - "Oi James - you're a Sheepf****r!" 
I pricked up my ears - I'd never heard THAT one before.

Sitting in front of me was a baby faced thirteen year old boy with buck teeth and rosy cheeks and a sprinkling of freckles, whose highest aim in life was to spend it hanging over the top of my head shoving his middle finger into the face of the girl behind me.
            "STOP that, James" she tittered, fluttering her mascara.  "I can't believe you.  You're SO mean!"
Being forced to bend my head sideways, I was inclined to agree.  I shot him a look.  He graciously moved twelve inches sideways and stuck his tongue out at me.
My cell phone rang - it was my sister, I think, but the ringing profanity and steam whistle titters drowned her out. 
            "Can I call you back later?"  I said.  "I can't hear you in here."
            "She says she can't hear!"  James yelled.
            "What did she say?"  The girls screamed back.
            "She says she can't HEAR!"  He bawled and bounced up and down in my face, waving his middle finger furiously three inches from my nose.

I was Absolutely. Fed. UP. 
So I laughed at him - looked him in the eye and roared with laughter, and when I was done laughing, I shook my head - very very sorrowfully.
            "It's not working."  I said to him kindly, and I shook my head again. And sighed.

            "What did she say?" the kids on the bus roared, hoping for more games.
"She said it's not working."  James said in a small voice, and turned away to concentrate on hitting the daylights out of the boy across the aisle. 
            "You're SOOOO mean, James" the girl behind me piped hopefully, but she'd lost him - he wasn't going to risk turning around and catch me looking back at him.  Little snot.

At the next stop, the kids from the private school got on, and they were either Best Friends or Worst Enemies of the kids from the public high school so the noise level doubled, but they yelled at each other, not across me.
Worryingly, James and his pack of ratbags all got off at the stop next to our house, but I'm acting on the assumption that they live in the other direction and that I have nothing to worry about vis. eggs on the windows or T.P. in the shrubbery.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Recipe: Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs of Glory

Here in Australia, Easter marks the time of the year when the world begins to cool and emerge from the summer hibernation.  We take the shade-cloths off the vegetables.  Animals walk abroad by day. Butterflies and dragonflies rise in clouds from every bush. (bringing with them sixteen billion flies, but we won't go into that here. Leave it that my very own personal ear hole is not a shady resting place for weary travelers, not even if ye come in ye thousands or hundreds of thousands.  I have a fly net and I will wear it.)
            When I was small, every year at Easter, Mum would help my sister and I make marshmallow Easter eggs. We'd whip up great froths of sugary marshmallow syrup and make moulds by filling pans with flour and pressing a chicken's egg into them to make domed hollows. I remember the softness of the flour under my hands and the sharp burring in my nose as the flour dust billowed up when I pressed the egg into it.  
            The marshmallow eggs hardened in the fridge, and using chocolate or sugar water, we'd glue egg halves together into whole eggs and roll them in coconut that we'd tinted with food coloring.  We wove baskets out of paper we'd cut into heart-shapes and, nesting the finished eggs carefully into the baskets, and piling the baskets into rustling heaps on the front seat and floor of the car, we'd go out on delivery runs, driving baskets of eggs to all our friends.
            My mother was very strict about sugar in those days.  We were allowed to keep only two eggs each for ourselves. This is the most poignant memory - the afternoons spent in smelling distance of sugar and coconut and chocolate, carrying them, gently quivering, in my arms (in my memory they multiply into hundreds) and giving them away.

I haven't made them in years - but last week, in honor of the upcoming festival of spring renewal, a friend and I spent a Saturday making 'em.

Things went wrong from the start - I misplaced my copy of the original recipe and had to go googling.  I found a copy - but there were one or two significant errors in the text.
The original said to stop whipping while the mix was still liquid - following the interweb instead, we worked till they were "light and fluffy" - and the marshmallow stood up like meringues and laughed absolutely sneerfully at our moulds.  The extra whipping time also affected the flavor.  I remember the things as sweet, and I do know that children appreciate a higher sugar content than adults can bear, but - ye hells and garters - these things reached right out of the spoon and into your mouth and punched you hard in the tonsils and then you lay down and died.
            In the fridge, they wouldn't set. We moved them to the freezer - they gooped, sludged - and oozed. Out of daylight, we went ahead and dipped them in chocolate anyway, where they dribbled and fell apart.  We used shredded coconut as a binding agent to hold the mess together - and then it all oozed, like a mudflow in a jungle, carrying turf and trees and eventually the whole kitchen downhill with it.

My friend J is a librarian.  Spooning chocolate over disintegrating marshmallow, she planned what to do with her half of the loot.
            "This student didn't return three library books all semester. Have a chocolate egg, dear."
            "That one put her books back herself - all out of order. Happy Easter, sweetie."
            "And you- you brought food with you into the library. Here darling…. Have just a little more…"


Yesterday Mr. Tabubil and I had another crack at the recipe:
            We found the original instructions, increased the proportion of lemon juice, and stopped the beaters while the mixture was still pourable.
            Lifting the balloon whisk clear of the goo, I tapped off the excess and, and we each reached out a finger and -bellisima! 
            Hordes of sugary Easter angels!  Our hindbrains took over and we each reached out to lick the rest of the mixture free - we met half-way around the beater, somewhat shamefaced and unwilling to meet each other in the eye.
            The eggs were perfect.  They poured, they hardened, they dipped, and most importantly - they tasted as I remembered them.  Not too sweet, not too sour - they were just right.
            It takes a lot of taste-testing, making Easter eggs . You have to check the mix at every single step - the sugar syrup, the beaten mix, the pour, the chocolate dip - it all wants checking.
            Last night I had a stomach-ache. I lay on the floor and groaned, and Mr Tabubil peered down at me with academic interest.
            "D'you think it was the marshmallows?" he asked.
            "Ooooohhhhhhhhhhh." I moaned.
            "What did I say? Marshmallow?"
            "Fascinating. How about 'Chocolate'?"
            "Tim-tam" he breathed, very softly.
            "Ooooh!  Marshmallow!  Chocolate!   Ice cream!  Caramel!  Gaiety Biscuit!   marshmallow!"
            "Right." I groaned, and hauled myself to my feet. I poured myself a soup spoon of cider vinegar and drank it neat.  Then a second. And a third.
            "You got another spoon?"  Mr. Tabubil asked sheepishly.  "I'm not feeling so good myself."
            "Oh reeeeeaaalllly?"  I purred.  "Marshmallow, you inconsiderate creature, you!"
            "Pass the bottle, my dear. Uuuurggghhhh."

Marshmallow Easter Eggs 

(we doubled the recipe and have about 5 dozen egg halves)


1 tablespoon gelatine
quarter cup of cold water
half cup hot water
1 cup sugar
1.5 teaspoon vanilla
1.75-ish teaspoons lemon juice

 Put cold water in bowl.  Gradually stir in gelatine; let stand 5 minutes.  Put hot water and sugar in large saucepan, stir over low heat until sugar had dissolved.  Add gelatine mixture, stir over low heat until gelatine has dissolved.  Bring to boil, boil gently uncovered, 6 minutes.  Remove pan from heat, let cool to lukewarm.  Put mixture into small bowl of electric mixer, add vanilla and lemon juice.  Beat on high speed 5 minutes until thick and creamy and still of pouring consistency.   Marshmallow can be coloured with food colouring, if desired; add a few drops towards end of beating time.

Egg Shaping:
 Pour flour into large baking dish.  (we used about 2kg total.) Spread flour out evenly.  Press a large egg half-way into flour to make half-egg-shaped hollows. 
(The marshmallow does not affect the flour in any way; after the eggs are made, the flour can be sifted and repackaged and used for any purpose.)
Pour or spoon prepared marshmallow into hollows in flour bringing it right to the top.
The marshmallow takes 10 to 15 minutes to set firmly.  At the end of the time, touch top with finger, lift out gently.  Brush off any few grains of flour still adhering.  Join two egg halves together.  Top of marshmallow is slightly sticky, so halves cling together well.

To cover with coconut:
 Put coconut in a basin;  you'll need about 2 cups coconut.  Add a few drops of desired food colouring.  Wet hands, shake off surplus water; use damp hands to rub colouring evenly through coconut.  Coat eggs evenly with warmed, sieved jam (apricot is good), then roll in prepared coconut.

To cover with Chocolate:
Put 125g (4oz) or more (lots more) semisweet chocolate into top of double saucepan, stir over simmering water until melted.  Add 60g (2oz) solid white vegetable shortening, stir until melted.  Remove from heat, cool to lukewarm.  Press fork into marshmallow egg, dip in chocolate until evenly coated.  Drain off excess chocolate, then roll in coconut (about 2 cups).  Refrigerate until chocolate has set.
Or skip the vegetable shortening and the coconut and use melted semi-sweet chocolate on its own - fondue style.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Where's Wally? And Mrs Wally?

D'you remember (how could you forget?) that Mum and Dad had tickets for the Gold Medal Men's Hockey match at the Olympics a few weeks ago?
This image is from the Special Edition of Sports Illustrated “Team Canada – 2010 Olympic Champions”.

(Look for the only two people in the stands NOT wearing Canada jerseys.
Sigh.  Seriously, people, this is just ridiculous.)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

With Love from Canada

Sophie and the Engineer in Canada sent a VERY Tabubil-friendly care package to the newlyweds for Christmas.  It was held up by an Australian mail strike - but it arrived last week and we are feeling powerfully loved.

The box contains approximately six tonnes of more-than-delicious Canadian chocolates (have we mentioned how very much adored you are, O Best of All Beloved Friends?) a 2010 calendar about suicidal bunny rabbits and a box of Mr Tabubil's most very favorite cereal in whole wide world.
It is called Cinnamon Toast Crunch - also known as 'The Dental Surgeon's Summer Cottage Down Payment'.  It is slightly more than 98% sugar by weight, with a few grams of wheat slurry tossed into the mix as a binding agent. He loves it beyond reason.
            There had also been one sachet of packet soup, but it had been confiscated by the Customs Inspection Team. One of the constituent ingredients was dried corn, which is apparently high on a list of Threats to Indigenous Australian Fauna.
            A letter left for us in place of the soup made us a generous proposal: for a small one time payment of AUD $44.20 (all major credit cards accepted), the Australian Customs Authorities would mail those 150 grams of corn-touched contraband back to the sender.
            The Australian Customs Authorities not operating (to the best of our current knowledge) out of an internet cafe in Nigeria, we thought it prudent to decline.

Have I mentioned just how much Mr Tabubil adores that cereal? After several taste tests to "see if it's as good as I remember it.... Yup, yup..... mmmm.....hang on, better check one more time...." (and, to be perfectly fair, much urging of the sticky sweet stuff onto me) Mr Tabubil, with many dark sideways glances at his loving brand-new-spouse, ostentatiously weighed the box, marked the weight, and placed it on a shelf of honor in the pantry.
            Well, really, what was a girl to do?
            She sank a sandwich baggie full of salt into the center of the cereal as soon as he was out of the kitchen, is what she did, just to throw him off when he weighed it again.

Post- script:
The salt plot worked, up to a certain point, and for a given value of "worked" that wasn't one I had considered when I did it. I probably should have considered it, considering.
            Mr Tabubil completely forgot the joke, and after work the next day, bypassed the kitchen scales and went straight to the pantry for some serious snacking.
            He found the salt, all right.
            To clarify: he found a small sealed bag of crystalline white powder hidden deep inside a box of cereal mailed to us from a foreign country -
            He called me, in sickly green tones, with a very wobbly look on his face.
            Had I seen this?  Who would have put it there?  Why would it have been sent to us?  Should we flush it, quietly, immediately?  If we report it will they think that we had something to do with it?!
            Torn between guilt and black hilarity, I explained - most abjectly. He really wasn't very amused. Not even a little bit.
            Now, a week later, he can see the funny side, but at the time - !

The Background Check

Mr Tabubil and I live in a moderately small town in the semi-to-mostly arid outback - red earth and mallee scrub and sunset-painted rocks.
            A friend visited from the Netherlands not long after we moved here. She drove up from the city by night, and in the morning, first thing, she asked to be taken to the outback - the real, red-toned Australian Outback, please, in technicolor and surround sound, with fair to moderate chances of kangaroo. We drove her 3 kilometers out of town and turned off the car engine and sat still, listening to the wind move through the silence.
            On cloudless nights Mr Tabubil and I drive until the lights of town have faded into the black and park the car beside the road and sit, tilted upward to watch the sky for hours.
You could read by the light of the milky way.
            "We must bring a camera" we say. "Next time. A camera and a tripod and we'll do some long exposures ."
            "Mmmm hmmm" we agree, noncommittally, because a camera isn't right for out here, in some fundamental way that we don't want, quite, to analyze.
             Would we want to remember it distilled and diminished? The stars reduced to flat points of white, without the wind and the night sounds and the sound of us breathing next to each other, cold under the desert sky.

The town of Whyalla sits on a plain flat as a dried up lake bottom in Nevada, but without any mountains to break up the scenery.  There is so much horizon that your eyes start to water from the monotony and latch down on scrub and low bushes to appreciate the texture and the altitude. 
            Driving in to town, you pass through an industrial-ish warehouse-y area, that ebbs slowly into a residential neighborhood, with empty lots and scrubbly fields between every building. It is all spread out - like a wild western cattle town where the lots are marked out by a surveyor full of idealism in a city ten years ago and three thousand miles away, and once the surveyors strings are on the ground, the land gets filled up slowly, piecemeal, according to how everyone is wanting a corner block and there being enough corner blocks to accommodate everybody who wants one.
            Our town started in the early years of the century as a fishing port, and down by the water the oldest quarter of the town is made up of solid old houses, all pressed companionably close against each other and hemmed in by tall trees. There are a few low hills with views of the water, and a "botanical garden" that is hearts-ease - the only really deep green and shadowy place in town.
As the town grew up it spilled out onto the empty plain - all the streets are enormous, with double or triple lanes and huge median strips and small subordinate feeder streets separated from the big bad road by more median strips so that homeowners can pull out of their driveways without being smeared by all the theoretical traffic.
            It is all very theoretical. My first week here, my primary emotional response was existential confusion. Walking the streets was eerie - there were no cars. Six lanes of macadam, broad white concrete sidewalks - and me. No pedestrians and no cars - the mind starts thinking things it rationally oughtn't. Where was everybody? Just past my own mailbox, had I stumbled into a twilight zone?
Then in the far distance, I would see a stream of silver reflections and hear the growl of car engines. There was an intersection up ahead, and the cross-street, identical in every particular to mine, was full of moving vehicles.
            The relief would be intense. No temporal shuffling, no post-apocalyptic mad-maxims, just the realization - in any other town, the road I'd been walking would be a one and a half lane suburban back street.
            This town has eleven municipally maintained football fields - and three football teams. I like the optimism.

When we moved here, we had hoped to find a house in the closer, greener end of town, but the real estate situation here is…idiosyncratic.
            For a long time, the rental market was heaven for a realtor and a headache for renters. The local industries were booming, there was a distinct lack of new building development and it followed that an enterprising agency could put the most appalling dumps onto the market and expect to see two dozen prospective tenants lined up around the block - viciously competing to sign an application for a derelict wreck at rates that would make a stockbroker in downtown Sydney blush.
            There was no incentive to renovate - or even provide basic maintenance, because anything could be shifted - and the occupants would bow in gratitude for the cracked walls and obsolete plumbing.
            Two, three years ago, at the peak of the boom, clouds of buzzing developers descended, buying and razing streets of houses in the newer neighborhoods and building modern suburban palaces - detached townhouses with all mod-cons. Just before the first wave of new houses were completed - the recession hit with a bump. Half the tenants in the area were laid off work and moved on to other places, and the developers and landlords were left quivering in stunned denial.
            We began house hunting before the dust had cleared. We went out on inspections with agents and for the rent they were asking, I would have damn well expected there not to be gross structural damage, doors ripped from their hinges, leaky bathroom pipes flooding the floor - the floor of the living room, and kitchens that hadn't been updated since 1938, when sinks were apparently optional.
All in the same house.
            We found a home in the newer part of town, a house in a new development of ranch houses cut carefully, lot by lot, into an existing neighborhood. It is a friendly state of affairs. Out on the edges of town there are great tracts of nothing - planted spindly-like with light posts and paved with tight bitumen roads with neat concrete verges and, spread oout across hectares of empty red sand, solitary ranch houses, penned tightly by six foot iron fences that pull tight about the eaves.
            No trees, no grass, no scrub, no weeds, no birds, no lizards, no snails - just small iron islands on seas of bulldozed sand. It's crazy out there - paranoid schizophrenic, the houses locked up tight against their neighbors and the vast waving desert that is just on the other side of the wall.
            We have neighbors with front gardens. And a playing field up one road and a park down the other.
            We have air-conditioning. And a modern kitchen with a sink larger than three inches deep and ten inches across. And a fabulously conceived interior color scheme, restful and soothing to the eye, that hides all of the red dust that filters through the window seals and blows under the doors.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

You know you've had a loooong day when...

You go into the bathroom and notice that it's dark in there - because it's night time and the light isn't on. You raise your hand to the light switch, flip the light switch - and jump and shriek in panic because "Auuuuggghhhh!!!!! The light just came on! WHO just turned the light on?!?!!!!"


I'm going back to bed now...

Thursday, March 18, 2010

German Shepards on Pogo Sticks

Garden walls here are made of galvanized corrugated iron - about six feet tall, give or take 3 inches.  This morning I went for a walk in the fresh morning air (two and a half dozen flies attempted to go for an inhale, but we won't go into that here).  After a good solid meander I paused on the edge of an alley beside a playing field to check my bearings.  I became aware that from somewhere behind me i was hearing a low, breathless "Woouufff"-ing noise, and a regular heavy thumping, like this:
I turned one hundred and eighty degrees and found myself nose to nose with a garden fence.  Over the TOP of it, appearing at intervals of roughly five seconds, were the head and shoulders of a very very large German Shepard dog.  There was a very definite forward element to his attempted trajectory, and to all appearances, he was made mostly of teeth.
I could not honestly say if the teeth were intended as a statement or simply a by product of breathless leaping, but the animal was not tiring out in any way or shape or form, and I didn't stick around to investigate.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Mr Tabubil's parents drove up from the big smoke last weekend to spend the weekend with us.
We planned some serious touring of the local desert.  Naturally, the day they arrived our generally sunny skies turned stormy: showers scudded across the sky under bruised purple cloud-heads and we revised dinner menus from salads to chocolate fondue (the human body instinctively turns toward high-calorie food choices in cold weather.  And there were strawberries to dip in the chocolate - very nutritious.)
On Saturday evening, between squalls, we ducked down to the jetty for a sunset ramble and found the gulf surprisingly still - flat as a table, clear as glass.  We hung over the rail and watched fish flashing across the sea-grass meadows.
Next to me a boy supervised a string of crab traps.
            "You American?" He asked me.
            "You sure? Heard you talking.  You've got the accent."
            "Lived there a long time. Married one."
We leaned companionably against the rail and tracked the swallows swooping low across the water - dropping like small feathery bombs from the jetty superstructure and catching evening insects on the wing.

Usually we see teenagers plummeting - the local kids swim from the end of the jetty, climbing onto the rail and letting go - backwards and upside down if they're boys and there are girls around.
Most evenings there's a high wind.  The kids teeter on the rail, gripping it between their dripping toes as roaring billows of wind blow them inward across the jetty, and wait for the perfect moment to back-flip off. We stand and watch, torn between a desire to cover our eyes and run so that we don't see the inevitable catastrophe, and a civic obligation to stand and stay, ready to jump when they're blown into a girder and crack their heads open and fall insensible into the water.
They never do.
But it doesn't mean they won't.

"What're you fishing for?" I asked the kid.
            "Bait fish. The bait we used to use got outlawed two weeks ago.  Not happy about it. Fish don't like eating fish.  Doesn't work as well."
            "What was the old bait?"
            "Roo meat. These days they reckon it attracts sharks, so we can't use it any more."
            "Do you get sharks off of here?"
            "Oh Yeah.  Caught one off this jetty, two days ago."
            "Really?  How big?"
            " A Port Jackson shark. 'Bout a meter long." He looked at me sidelong, to see if I was impressed.
The kid's father was hauling in a trap. The kid's eyes slid past me and he jumped -
            "You've got one, Dad - you've got one!"
A great grandfather blue-fin crab clung to the outside of the trap with one enormous claw.  Dad held the line with one hand, reaching out with a net in the other-
            "Ease it under him, catch him gently - "
Great grandfather lifted clear of the water and let go, sculling down into the green dim of the sea grass.
            "Aaahhhhh." we all sighed, watching him flash out of sight.  Shrugging, the kid turned back to his lines and began hauling them up, hand over hand.
Three small blue-fins squirmed at the bottom of a cage.
            "Reckon those are too small, son!" His dad called.  "Better drop 'em back."
            "Righto." The kid said.   He plucked them off the wire net.
            "Want to hold one?"  He asked me.
I nodded.
            "Here."  He said, and handed me a small crab, blue and purple.  I reached out, grasped just like so, and - OW!
Sixteen hells! The wretched thing had whipped his claw around and was telling me what he thought.  He had me by the index finger, driving the whole length of his pretty blue and purple claw deep into the nail bed.
The kid tugged experimentally.  The crab gave him a filthy look and hung on.
            "It's you or me", it said to me, clear as day, and squeezed harder.  "And you'll perish before I do."
I made a very small and very brave noise, and looked woefully up at my mother-in-law.
She giggled.
The kid hauled and my mother-in-law giggled and I squeaked (restrainedly) and eventually the darned thing was dragged off by main force - scoring a groove in my flesh the whole long way.  Counting coup.
The kid pitched it overboard.  Good riddance.
            "I got bit by a big one last week."  He told me, with another sidelong glace. "Didn't make a sound."
My mother in law definitely sniggered.
            "You're a better man than me."  I said grimly, staring out at the water.
He smiled genially and we stood there, he peacefully contemplating the big blue infinite, me nursing a throbbing finger and glowering internally.  I had acquitted myself with heroic dignity on a field of terrible combat and they had laughed.
My mother in law had vanished.  I ought to have wondered where to.

"You from Boston?" the kid asked me.
            "Sort of."  I said.  "I lived there for a few years."
The kid nods, satisfied.  "Thought you sounded like you were from there.  You'll know the Crowleys, then? Bob and Sue Crowly? They're from Boston."
            "It's a big town." I said cautiously.  "Hard to know everyone.  And I've been back in Australia a few years now."
The kid nodded peaceably.  No hard feelings for my ignorance.
            "Never been outside Australia yet." He said.
            "Big plans, though?"
            "Oh yeah - "he looked at me and grinned.  "I want to go to Minnesota."
            "Minnesota?  Why there?"
            "I like the sound of the name. Hear it's a crap town, though."
He slung the crab trap over the edge.  I said "huh" thoughtfully, and looked up and down the jetty.  My mother in law was back in dry land, speaking to my father in law and Mr Tabubil.  There was a definite sense of a huddle, and highly suspicious hand gestures, and the faintest hint of shaking shoulders.
            "Good fishing" I said hastily, tossing the kid a salute.
He nodded magisterially. "Fair evening."
I ran to save my honor.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Telephone Numbers and Teakettles

I started my job as an SSO (classroom aide) at the Miles Patterson Primary School a week later than scheduled.
            The day before my start date, I came down with an impressively toxic sinus infection.  Not the most auspicious start to working with small children.  I felt - and sounded, contagious as all hell.  The next morning, at 8:45 promptly, I blew my nose three times, practiced my "t"s and "n"s until I was very nearly coherent, and called the school from the card they'd given me at the end of my tour:
            "I'b Mizziz Tabubil."  I said.  "I'b subbozd to stard as a voludeer today.  Yezderday I started wid a sidus infegtion.  I'b going straid to the doctor this mordig, and I dode thig I should cub in -"
            "My word."  The secretary said.  "I don’t think you should come in either.   Not around the children.  You're a volunteer- how about you give us a call next week, when you're feeling better?"
            "Thag you."  I said humbly, and tottered back to bed.

That was Wednesday.  By Saturday, by the grace of antibiotics and hot lemon tea, I was practically human again, but on Sunday night I was floored by a horrible monster virus that knocked me flat on my back and put me right back into bed.
            Monday morning, groaning, I called the school again.
            "Hi."  I said, comprehensibly this time.  "This is Mrs. Tabubil.  I called in sick last week with a sinus bug?  I'm embarrassed to say this, but I'm still sick - "
            "I'm so glad you called."  The secretary cut in.  "When you called last week, I didn't recognize your name.  I looked through the SSO roster - you're not on it. I didn't have your number to call you back, so I went and talked to Marilyn, the principal, about you, and she's never even heard of you-"
            "Marilyn?"  I said.  "Your principal is named Cathy, isn’t it?"
            "Cathy?!"  The secretary said, bewildered.  "Just what school did you mean to be calling, dear?"
My heart sank down to a level somewhere below my bedroom slippers.
            "This isn't the Miles Patterson Primary School, is it."  I whispered. "They gave me this number - "

When the secretary of the Stanley Street Junior Primary School stopped laughing she offered to act as a corroborating authority and character reference and gave me the correct phone number. And when the secretary of the Miles Patterson Primary school stopped laughing, she told me to call again when I was feeling better and rang off, giggling.  I went back to bed and buried my head under the pillows and listened to my ears burn.
            And that's how it has gone ever since. Three days later, I arrived, in person, on the campus of Miles Patterson Primary School.  Approaching the classroom building, I saw Cathy in the distance, walking in my direction.  I know that she saw me because her shoulders had begun to shake.
            She put a kindly hand on my shoulder. "Never you mind, dear, "she said.  "These things happen when you're sick" - and then she was off again, fizzing like a teakettle.
            I was assigned to shadow an SSO whose eyes glittered suspiciously as she asked after my health, and the assistant principal burst into a full-fledged fit of the giggles when she passed me in the corridor.
            I can live with it. Better to be thought a flu-fuzzed ditz than a flake who bails on her commitments - but why on earth was I given that number by the front office in the first place?!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Belated Introductions

Belatedly, I have joined the ranks of the great unread and have started keeping a blog. Like playing my scales on the piano, I will write on a regular schedule and keep myself in disciplined trim for the larger projects that will eventually loft me into the realm of the great unpublished.
This blog will, in time, have a slightly more interesting layout (I am NOT a minimalist.  I have learned to live with that. It's not a particularly fashionable vogue for an architect at the present moment, but in my blog I can go as rococo as I please!) but I'm still working out this whole html thing and I'm setting no schedule.  Mr. Tabubil is taking the tough-love route and refusing to help me unless I'm completely in over my head, so I'm going to have to learn it all myself.  (Which is his goal and he smiles smugly.  Intellectually I appreciate his approach, but from a selfish point of view it's inordinately frustrating to have someone perfectly handy sit on the sofa whistling and writing technical support answers to internet forums while you growl in frustration and have the *wah wah META* notice flash at you - again - when you hit post.  I HATE balancing on my own two feet when there's someone next to me who knows how to use a pogo stick.)

I figure to write about my corner of Australia - the big skies, the red horizons, the rain that falls on our tin roof like thunderstones, and the spaces that are so vast, maps fall out of scale and a planned morning drive along three sides of a triangle turns into three corners on five hundred kilometers of straight road.

Things will drift off topic. I obsess over art and architecture and I adore the mannerists of the sixteenth century because they thought on the slant and taught space how to breathe.
I love fashion - particularly the unwieldy sculptural fashions of the rococo and the mid-nineteenth century and twentieth centuries - it's all architecture, just different scales for clothing our bodies.
I adore high tack - I lust for doorways dribbling beaded curtains painted with Hawaiian luau maidens  and I dream of one day living in an apartment with a balcony carpeted in astroturf, with tiki torches, pink flamingoes on sticks and paper lanterns hanging from the roof.
(There is a plaster flamingo on a stick at Cheap as Chips - our local Walmart equivalent - but Mr. Tabubil is exercising his marital veto. In a town where lawn ornaments are a competitive sport, I think he's being somewhat narrow-minded, but I can't sell him on the concrete meerkat either.)

Big Sky:

End of the road:

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Navigating the Olympics on Television

On the other hand, from the perspective of the rural Australian television viewer, there doesn't seem much point getting excited about the Olympic Games.  Channel 9 has the broadcast rights, but no broadcast tower out where we live - which is no podunk two-bit one-horse burg but a respectable rural center.

We manage. Because we have friends with VCRs who care.  We curl up on the sofa, turn on the TV and... become extremely confused, actually.  We saw the opening ceremony and there seemed to be an awful lot of countries represented out there, but when we sat down to watch the actual sporting events - did the athletes all come down with shin splints and go home?
The American and Australian teams must have fabulous sports physios with them - THEY'RE holding good. Same for the Canadians - I guess they're buoyed up on the strength of their national goodwill. During the women's mogul event, I believe two Japanese women managed to avoid the epidemic, but the rest of the skiers all seemed to have wandered off the hill.

The same thing happened during the last the Summer Olympics of '08.  I remember an American broadcast of the Platform Diving: we saw the Americans, the Chinese, a token Aussie, a token Spaniard- and when it came time for the medal ceremony - there were divers being given medals that we'd never actually seen compete.

The Olympics market themselves as an international goodwill festival - yes, yes, I know, cynical folks remind me that when you get down to base economics they're nothing of the sort, but the brand has stayed afloat, because, above all the petty machinations we still had the Athletes.
They were the real deal, mostly.
And the doping commissions are working on that as well.
So we hoot and holler and weep and cheer for those glorious men and women out there on the snow and the ice - or we would, but we can't find 'em.

One night we watched a European broadcast of the Men's Alpine skiing.   They showed the whole thing. Every single run. The commentators knew the course - every bend, every sweet spot.  They knew every skier - his strengths, weaknesses and historic times. I f they could've, they'd've been out there on the course to embrace every one of them at the end of each run in their sheer exuberant passion for the sport. *

Contrast that to the American footage of the moguls - a showdown: Canada vs USA!   Non-American competitors were pitched off the mountain in favor of long shots of American skiers huddled under umbrellas waiting for the weather to clear while the commentators nattered about … I genuinely can't remember a word they said.  What egg-head at the studio decided that the domestic American audience preferred empty hang time in their brief evening of Olympic highlights over a few extra runs?  Even if the athletes weren't on the home team?
All this soulful clatter about sacrifice and the depth of spirit that moveth man - We know the skiers have heart and soul and spirit beyond the bounds of normal ken. That's why they're up there at the head of the course! Move on, move along; show us that heart and soul in action on the mountain.**

And the ice skating - oh dear, the ice skating.   In a period of ninety minutes, the networks showed perhaps eight competitors - twenty four minutes of skating.  We saw the Americans, the Canadians, the Chinese, a token Aussie and the Russians.  The American channel was still fighting the good fight of the cold war; in their broadcast we saw the Russians perform but we have no idea what they were worth - the scores were cut in favor of lingering corridor shots of free world skaters limbering up in tracksuits.  When you've graciously granted the godless communists three and a half whole minutes of air-time, denying them an extra 10 seconds for a swift cut to their scores is infuriating- both to the athletes and the audience.
On an editing level, the whole thing was a mess.  They were clearly willing to cut and paste - why not cut a little further - cut those gratuitous corridor shots, the warm up periods between skating groups (in which we caught brief frustrating glimpses of the strange glittery costumes that never made it to the TV screen), the endless minutes between the routines and results of the pairs that the networks DID show in full - they could have shoehorned several more routines into their aimless production.***

Watching the sports live was something of an improvement.
Mum went up to Cyprus for the Men's moguls to watch the unedited version -
The event had all the disorganization one could expect at an event at which nine thousand people had spontaneously shown up without any warning whatsoever.  Once she had made it up the hill in the bus, she found impossible queues - and learned that no food or drink was permitted onto the mountain. (I'd have smuggled trail mix -in my bra if necessary, thank you.)  Registered refreshment vendors offered a queue 50 minutes long.  Up since dawn for her trip up the mountain, Mum waited it out - and on reaching the head of the line, she discovered that they'd Run Out.  Of everything except potato chips.  After waiting another half hour for a new shipment of snacks, she was the grateful purchaser of a soggy and overpriced hot dog.  To get back home, she faced a 90 minute wait in pouring rain to board her bus.
This show goes up every four years.  None of the organizational issues are unique.  I'd have sacked someone.

Mum said resignedly that "Well, the real money is in the TV - I understand that we don't mean as much to them." But "they" took her money, didn't they?   Don’t they owe something?  Competent recognition of basic health and comfort and pleasure in the occasion?

Frustratingly, it seems that "they" don't care about the TV viewers either.   By some lights, it would appear that both America's NBC and Australia's Channel 9 have paid heavily for the right NOT to show the Olympics.
Color me incredulous that this could be desired by the American or the Australian people - in fact I'm quite aware that it's not.  I understand that if you took an opinion poll, the Americans would have preferred ESPN - who offered Four whole channels in their bid.
Australians don’t have that option, but Channel 9 blew it just as large.  You really have to wonder what sort of calculations go through the minds of the IOC boffins when the bids come in - is a whanging great fee for a short term contract worth such a large amount of brand dilution?

2000 Sydney: I was in Boston, in university.  My roommate and I borrowed a TV and skipped classes for two weeks and watched the Olympics on public broadcast television all day long.
Fast forward to '10 - or even '08: a couple of hours of heavily redacted, time-delayed "highlights" broadcast after 8 pm.  It took a vast deal of personal effort to notice that they were happening.
I suspect that the IOC is squandering goodwill fast. When it comes down to basic economics, the Olympics don't mean nothing - no dollars and no cents, if no-one cares.  And how are we meant to care if we're not allowed to see them happen?

*On the other hand, the American commentator for the men's snowboard half-pipe was a joy all his own:
"...Here we have the first member of the Finland Mafia.  They're a bunch of guys from Finland who like to skate together - and speak Finnish, if you'll believe it."
Um, yes... yes we would.  Wonder how many half-pipes that commentator had smoked before he came out onto the mountain?
We liked him.  Yes we did.

**Burton logos forward - I can't parse the complex theological distinctions between prohibiting the Australian Kangaroo being flown in the Olympic village and the snowboarders pointedly holding the Burton logos on the bottom of their snowboards up to the TV cameras at the end of every run.

***Speaking of productions - Skating costumes are just a whole separate universe: one is forced to imagine a whole set of alternate dimensions to come up with a circumstance in which a whole committee of people thought that some of those spangles were the best of all possible options.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Homeground Advantage

I've been a bit behind on the Olympic games, so it was only in the last few days before the games that I began to read about Canada's determination to protect its home ground advantage, which, baldly put, consisted of spiting international athletes by denying them training time at the Olympic venues while jealously spoiling their own athletes.
Canada's sporting authorities appear to have missed the distinction between an international sporting event, which it is their privilege to host, and a private invitational in which a group of international athletes are invited to compete on the home field.

Even in the latter situation, Canada's behavior would be seamy, but in an Olympic context, this is exactly the sort of behavior we all once took pains to point out in our Cold War adversaries. We smugly noted their inability to comprehend the Olympic Spirit, their evidence absence of moral center - these were evidence of failure of regime, remember?
Canada - you're much MUCH better than this.

Monday, March 1, 2010

To Speak of Living in an Olympic City During the Fever -

Mum has had a splendid Olympics.  She's been covertly staring at the athletes in the streets (the breadth of their shoulders and thighs speaking of feats of strength and daring that merely mortal men ken not) and knew that Olympic madness had reached a feverish pitch when the cashier at her local supermarket admired the Olympic pin on the lapel of her coat. She promptly took it off and handed it to him - he burst into tears and kissed her hands and handed her a free chocolate bar.  And told her that he had one more pin in his Olympic Pin collection than his best friend did.

The day of the Opening Ceremony, Mum went downtown to watch the torch relay.  The streets were mobbed and she was running late and all she saw was the flame of the torch above the heads of a massive police escort.  As she bobbed about on the sidewalk, straining hopelessly for a better view, an impressive policemen on his imposing police motorcycle saw her lifting her camera up over police shoulders, and dismounted to approach her with measured tread and intimidating visage.
            "Ma'am" he said.
            "Aw HECK."  Mum thought.  "This is the Olympics- I'm not standing in front of  some photo-proscribed public building.  And this is CANADA - for crying out loud.  Not the US. This isn’t city hall.  If he tries to - why, I'll - I'll..."
            "Would you like to sit on my motor cycle, Ma'am?"
And she did.  And the magnificent man took photos of her pretending to ride it and wishing that she owned a pair of leather trousers and some studded motorcycle boots.

A little later, wandering happily down the sidewalk, she bumped into a torch bearer who had just finished her leg, who asked if Mum would like to hold her torch for a bit while the nice man next to her took photos.
She allowed as how maybe she would, and stood there in a haze of glee holding the Olympic Torch while camera flashes went off all around her.

Wandering home on an Olympic-sized cloud, she passed the Vancouver Convention Center and saw that a stretch of netting had been put up across the front entrance.  Behind it was a big sculpture that hadn't been there a day earlier.  An Olympic volunteer standing guard had no more idea what it was than she did, so she shrugged and blissed off home.
That evening, Mum and Dad watched the opening ceremony on television.  When the ceremony reached the moment of the lighting of the flame, they were a bit puzzled to see Mr Gretzky dip the flame to the Olympic basin and THEN hear the announcer say that "now Mr Gretzky will go and light the flame that will burn over Vancouver for the duration of the games" (I paraphrase.)
Mum's brain went "click" and she shouted "I KNOW WHAT THAT SCULPTURE IS!"
She ran for the door, grabbing her coat and keys as she ran.  Dad was right behind her - he tangled in his coat and scarf at the door - he couldn't keep up - he shouted "Go!  Go!" and she - just - RAN.  The streets were like a flooding tide - all the local residents who'd made the same connection were coming down out of the buildings and running with her, and she made it to the convention center at the head of the flood and had a view from right against the crowd-barrier as Wayne Gretzky arrived on the back of a truck and lit the flame there.  And then the fireworks went up from a barge just offshore and lit up the sky right over he head.

And Mum called yesterday to tell me that she'd gone out for coffee- and on the way, walked past one of the venues.  Outside the security cordon, two separate sets of scalpers were having two separate fist-fights over territory.
It's a GOOD olympics.