Friday, July 30, 2010

Fish Stories




There is a pod of dolphins living in our marina. It took us months to see them; we thought (Mr Tabubil interjects: "Ahem - you thought. I had faith!") they were a tall story locals sprung on new arrivals in town. Then one autumn evening, we were on the jetty and there they were - three long gray backs sliding lazily through the water. And eventually we learned that if we wanted to see them we needed to go down to the shore in the evening, when the dolphins follow the boats in and bum fish from the sailors.
            These aren't my fish stories. Simon, the man who owns the tutoring business where I teach maths to highly-charged seventh graders, is a teacher by profession, and by vocation - a waterman. He has found his bliss here on the edge of the gulf, tutoring in the evenings to pay for boat fuel, and spending his days on the water.
            And he knows the dolphins. "The mums and the babies follow the boats in every evening. " Simon told me. "Right now the pod is made up of two mums- and their babies, and one male that comes and keeps his eye on them from time to time. The babies - there's a new little one there now, and an older one - he - or she - is almost a year and a half old. Almost time for Mum to kick him out."
            Simon feeds them from his boat out in the open water. " I don't mess about with them, like the other fishermen do - holding the fish up really high and making them jump for it. That's just not - it's not courteous. And the dolphins like me for that. We have a good relationship- there's respect between us. When Mum has a baby, she leaves the marina and has it out in the gulf, but once the baby's born, she brings it back in with her. All the ladies help to raise the baby - there's always an auntie around looking out for Mum and the new one until it's old enough to keep an eye on itself. This new little one, the one that's there now - when it was born I was out on the water in my boat and I saw them, the mum and the auntie and the new one, coming up to my boat. Auntie took the baby between her nose and her tail and she brought the baby up to me. It was so new it still had creases all down its side from where it was all curled up inside of its mum." Simon looked at me, his face quiet and shining. "What you think of that?
            There are little pods of dolphins all up and down the coast. There's one pod in our marina, and there's another just a few miles east down by the lighthouse and another pod just past that- all the way up the gulf. Every year, the dolphins have a big party for themselves out in the middle of the gulf. In open water - nobody in particular's territory. When they're having a party, they display for each other - they jump and they jump - all day - ten feet out of the water! Not ten feet - thirty feet! You'd never see them jump like this at Sea World. They're not doing it for us.
            Last year in November, they met for two days. I was lucky enough to see that. I missed the year before, but I saw the year before that - and the one four years ago. The one thing I wondered about - how do they all know to get together at the right time? They've got no telephones. Or email. Do they swim laps? Send runners up and down the coast from pod to pod? Do dolphins use sonar?
I had no idea - and then last year I met an engineer from the American navy - he was up here learning about the dolphins and he told me that when they talk, they click. The clicking is very loud and, depending on all of the different currents and thermal layers in the water, the sound can travel for miles.
            So that's how they do it. They wait for just the right conditions, and then they send invitations all the way to the ends of the gulf and back so that everyone knows when to come."
            Simon talks to sharks as well. Specifically, he talks to one particular shark - a white pointer "as long as the boat - seventeen feet - and half as wide. She must weigh three times as much - she could capsize me in a minute if she wanted to. But she doesn't. She'd rather talk to me. She only approaches me when I'm alone. She stands about thirty meters off from the boat and slaps her tail in the water to let me know she's coming. Then she comes up and she rubs against the boat - like a cat, and I lean over the gunwales and I talk to her. And she looks up at me and listens. For three years, I didn't tell anyone about it. I didn't want anyone to come out after her."
            Simon is a snapper fisherman. He sets his lines, and when the fish bite he reels 'em in and "Snap! Gone! The shark's taken it - right off the line. But she's polite. She'll take one, then she'll let me have the next one. She takes one and I take one and she takes one -She never takes more than half, and when she's had about nine fish and I've had about eight- that's it. She's done. And she goes.
            I thought they caught her last year, but the pointer they caught was a meter and a half too small. Now every time I hear about a shark being caught I go and look, but it's never my shark. I only ever told people about her when I heard that they were starting to go after the big white pointers. I hope they never catch her."
            "About a year and a half ago" I said "The South Australian Museum had an exhibition on shark hunting in Melanesia. There was a video about a shark caller. He was an old man; he'd been doing it all his life, and had a relationship with one particular shark. There was a video - he went out with a boatload of marine biologists and reporters, and called the shark, but nothing showed up. They went out a second time and nothing happened and the scientists left. There was one reporter who didn't intend to give up and when the old man went out in the boat with just her alongside him, this time the shark came up to them. Maybe the shark wasn't interested in coming near a boat full of people. Anyway, the old man leaned down to the water and spoke to the shark, very quietly, and the shark turned and swam away. The reporter asked what he had said. The man said "I told him to go away and never come back. If you come back, they'll kill you." The shark never came back.
            Simon nodded solemnly. "I don't know if I could do that." He said. "I talk to her, but I don’t know what she hears when I talk. Maybe it's just my voice she likes. Did you know that dolphins love kids? When adults go swimming in the marina, dolphins will come up to them - but they'll keep themselves at a bit of a distance - at arms length. But, if you have a child in your arms, the dolphins will come right up to you - twelve inches - even less! But you have to be holding a child. If it's a small adult in their arms, and people have tried, the dolphins know the difference. And I have only, in all my years on this water, ever seen on exception.
            When I first started out fishing, I knew how to fish- I mean, whiting and flathead and mullet - but I was lousy with snapper. Just didn't know how to find them, or get them when I found them. So I went and found a man who had been a professional line fisherman all his life andI asked him to take me out and teach me. We fished together for seven years, and now I'm not allowed to enter the annual snapper competition anymore. They say that because I learned how to fish from a professional - it's cheating. I told them that I've never sold a single fish I ever caught, but now there's a rule that says that I can't enter the competition because I run my own charter company. It's all silliness really - the chairman of the competition has his own charter company - half the fishermen out of this marina run charters if they can! He's just jealous. That's all it is. He doesn't know how to get the big fish - and I do. Now I take my grand-kids out, and they're the first names on the list when enrollment opens! I only take them out for small snapper, but I'm teaching them every thing I know and pretty soon they'll be going after the big fish and then that man can watch out!
            The man who taught me how to fish for snapper, Michael is his name - he has a very good relationship wit the dolphins, and he always fed them very low down. That's how I learned not to make them jump - to show good manners. He was the most polite man you ever met. Two years ago he broke his back. He was hosing down his boat one afternoon and the door of the boat fell on him. He's all right - he made a full recovery. He spent three months in rehab, then came home and as soon as he could stand up again I brought him down to the marina with all of my grand-kids. He'd been away from the water for almost six months and he was missing it. He was missing it badly. We went out onto the water and because it was my boat a dolphin came up to the boat. Everyone fed her; first the grand-kids, then their parents, then I gave a fish to Michael, and when he held his fish out over the water, the dolphin ignored it. She came right up to the edge of the boat and she reached out of the water and touched her nose to his. Every other fish we offered her she took. But not this one. She touched his nose instead. She'd missed him - and she wanted to know where he'd been. "

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Two Girls on the Bus

The bus was running full and I was running late.   I scrambled on board, paid my gold coin and squeezed into an empty seat in the middle of the mini-bus.  Two young women sat on the bench seat in front of me, dressed with day-glo teenage bravura in tanks and microshorts and stripped blonde hair that they tossed back with their hands to punctuate their sentences, tickling my nose.
            "Do you know Will asked me to wag with him today?  I'm like- nah, and then I seen him with Carly at the shopping center this afternoon - he wagged with HER instead!"
            "He never - !"
            "So I told Rob and Rob told me that he and Mick'd help me roll Will if I wanted.  Only I said nah, because all them stupid dumb c**ts in the class were standing there listening.   Bitches.  Whatever.  Change the subject. Your birthday's next week.  What're you buying for your birthday party?"
            "Alcohol."
            "How much?"
            "Dad's giving me money.  Thinks I'm going to buy a stereo."
            "You people's never seen me drink, have you?"  The one on the left giggled. "Give me a bottle and I'll disappear for a minute or two and come back and you'll never know me. I'm fun and -"
            " You can't drink around school, though.  Ms F-ing Friedman caught me yesterday and had a TALK with me about my ATTITUDE - I was so f***ing tempted to punch her.  Just 'cause nobody likes HER-"
            The one on the right shifted in her seat and twisted a strand of her hair between her fingers. "Mum gets paid today" she said. "Which means she'll do a bit of shopping, which means there'll be food in the fridge and - O.M.G!"  She bounced in her seat.  "Did you know, that if you go and say you have no food they'll give you food vouchers for Woolworths?  Yeah, really!  They're gift cards and you can't buy smokes or alcohol with them, and if you choose carefully, you can buy enough food for three days at least!
            And there's the Salvos - they'll give you ACTUAL food, not just vouchers.  There's SO many places that give you stuff, if you play your cards right - you can live on them for, like, a MONTH if you have to.  The Salvos gave me Milo Cereal - whoo hoo! And BREAD - OMG, they give you all the bread you can EAT.   Oh - wait!" She bounced to her feet   "Driver!  Next stop, please!"
            She was fourteen - with plugs in her ears, a stud in her lip, a pinched chin in a tight, tough little face, and her eyes rimmed with liner, black like a raccoon.  Stepping between the seats, she turned to look back at her friend and suddenly, she smiled.  Her eyes were bright, and her small pinched face was warm and wide - and wistful.
            "See you tomorrow, yeah?"
            "Wait - " Her friend jumped up.  "I'll come with you, yeah?"
            Her eyes widened briefly and she smiled again - sweet and tender and guileless and utterly, completely open.

She was only fourteen.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Technicolor Dreaming

I have another sinus infection banging around inside my skull and I'm on heavy antibiotics.
They give me DREAMS.
At night everything is inside out: buildings are buried upside down in the ground and the ground is made of water. Macadam road race busily across mountains on thousands of little booted feet.
Last night I dreamed that Switzerland was created a neutral country in 1951- systematically stripped of its assets and infrastructure after it tried to annihilate most of Europe. I sat in a wooden lecture hall and heard the words "Switzerland's murderous hordes" a particularly vivid, lime-ish shade of the color GREEN. My alarm-clock rang and it's jangling clamor was a field of dried-out flowers - if dried flowers are a thick shower of gold.

(It's called Rulide, if you want a hit.)

In Search of the Perfect Oyster


It's not as easy as you might think. Even if you know where they are.
            Bee, an old friend from Toronto, came to visit us this weekend.  Bee likes seafood, we wanted a road trip - so we told him all about the oysters and tuna up at Port Lincoln and Coffin Bay.
            The tuna is so fresh it leaps out of the water right onto your plate, we told him.
            The oysters glow like pearls and taste like the sea, if the sea is made of velvet and rolls on the tongue like dry white wine.  They are served in blue-glazed bowls of rock salt, still dripping with the water that you can see from the terrace where you will sit, golden in the afternoon light, drinking wine and watching the sea-birds floating on the bay.
            It was a tough sell, all right.

Bee flew in Friday evening and we brought a friend over for dinner to talk up the oysters some more, just in case Bee might imagine changing his mind.  And we talked him into a bang-up dinner at del Giornos, the best seafood restaurant this side of Melbourne, for an apres-oyster-snack.
            Saturday morning dawned thick, gray and heavy.  We breakfasted skimpily on toast and a thin scraping of jam, and strode, noble of purpose and single of mind, out of the house and locked the door behind us.  On the road we drove straight and swift - there was no time to stop and show the scenery to Bee - we were people prepared to drive three hours for lunch, and that requires a certain public commitment of purpose. Happy snaps could be taken from the car.
            We stopped briefly in Cowell to buy water, and I slipped a pack of biscuits into the shopping cart. Back in the car, I tried to slip one into the mouth of Mr Tabubil, who was driving.  Bee batted it out of my hand.  
             "We're saving ourselves for Oysters!"  He told me sternly, and began playing Men At Work songs very loudly over the stereo.  "I've always wanted to do this!"  He chortled. "Man!  Real Australian driving music in real Australia!  I love it!"
            So I put the biscuits away and we head-banged until we were almost in Port Arno.

After Cowell, the land turned from stony brown scrub to green.  Thick velvety green. Television advertisements for Scottish whiskey green.  Mr Tabubil drove draped over the steering wheel, drinking it in with his mouth open, while I fogged up the back windows, and we stared at the wheat fields and thought we could never see enough of it.  Even if we never ever left again.



            "Looks like Saskatchewan."  Bee said.  "No-one at home will believe it!  I'm supposed to be in the outback, man!  Can we get out and take a photo?"
            "Nuts to that!"  Said Mr Tabubil, and stomped down on the accelerator.   "We're still an hour and thirty-two minutes out.  Lunch ends in an hour and fifty-five minutes.  This is No Time to Stop!"
            As we closed in on Port Lincoln, the green grew greener and the gray clouds drew lower and it began to rain. At the edge of town, we met the Flinders Highway and turned inland.  Cutting across the peninsula, we barreled on through the hills, down long swooping roads that ran between white split-rail fences and stands of tall black pines.
            "Oysters!"  Bee chanted, fist-pumping the roof of the car.  "Oysters!  Oysters!  Oysters!  Hey! Is that Coffin Bay down there?  It's gorgeous, guys!  Look at that water!"



We were on the home stretch now. We came swinging down the hill toward the water, and clawed the car back to a sedate forty kilometers an hour and rounded a bend and saw the bay spread out before us, full of fishing boats and oyster-beds and heavy pregnant clouds.  And the Oysterbeds Café - dark and silent and shuttered-looking.

And a sign on the door.  "Closed for Winter. "

Operation Seafood was a total bust.



The only other place to eat in Coffin Bay was a small take-out joint next door to the shuttered Oysterbeds. It sold meat pies and pizza as a favor to the off-season hungry, or possibly as a lure: inside we came face to face with shelves of horrible homemade shell arrangements.  "Five Dollars and Up for Your Happy Holiday Memories!"
            Groovy.
            We shared a small and very nasty pizza, with slabs of mutant anchovy and tiny, lurid-pink supermarket prawns lurking under a layer of cheese.  The boys claimed to enjoy it.  It wasn't quite raining, so we mooched about Coffin Bay and took pictures of slate-gray water under slate-gray sky and took lugubrious photographs to advertise our state of mind.




Exercise brings on endorphins, whether you want it to or not. As we walked, the clouds parted, mirroring our rising moods.  
            "It's like a waterfall" Bee said, awed.  Above us, the sky was splitting open; the low overcast peeling apart along a seam that ran across the sky from horizon to horizon.



The gash in the clouds stood half a mile high - straight and vertical as if it had been planed with a protractor and a ruler and a t-square.  The cloud was a floating layer of white meringue, a bed of marshmallow cut with a sharp knife, a towering cliff of splendid majestical softness- and over its lip a cataract of white foam thundered silently - like a Niagara so vast that the sound ceased to matter or be heard.  Softened, we drove back through the hills, rumbling quietly between split-rail fences and diary herds and into Port Lincoln at last.

 

In the late afternoon we drove into the national park and stood walked into opalescent sunsets and listened to kangaroos stepping out of the scrub into the gathering dark.  In the car, we rumbled at walking pace along the dirt roads and watched the kangaroos, who have no road sense - or any other sort of sense - poke their noses out of the shrubbery and bounce nonchalantly onto the verges.  They all missed us.  Or we missed them.  However you want to look at it.

            And then - at last, with choirs and golden trumpets, Del Giornos!  The best seafood - the best food- between Adelaide and Perth!  We had actually called ahead about this one, so we knew that dinner, at least, was still happening.  Long before our reservation we were banging on the door - one third of a small and nasty pizza half a day ago doesn't take you very far.  We were ravenous!
            Seated and napkined and watered, we emphatically ordered the Mega-Blowout Seafood Platter - for three, thank you, and lots of it.  While the chefs rattled and banged and collided frantically in the kitchen, we kept a waitress hopping and took out most of the restaurant's weekly profits in plates of fresh bread and butter and ginger-beer.
            A flushed and steaming sous-chef emerged from the kitchens and dropped a dream - a poem of seafood onto our table.  We drew in our breaths - this was it!
            And it was wonderful - the prawns served thusly, the squid done thisly, the crumbed whiting a poem, the bowl of mussels a dream of garlic and tomato and wine, and the oysters - the boys didn't say.  Couldn't say.  They sat quietly, oyster shells in their hands, soft smiles on their faces, staring out across far horizons.
            And then we sighed, and dipped our spoons again, and ate.
            And ate.
            And when we were done, we paid a kind soul to roll us away down the street.

In the morning, quiet and green, it was back to del Giornos for a brunch of eggs Benedict and sausage, and then we went home. The sun was shining and we weren't in any particular hurry, so we stopped to take photographs of the green fields to remember them by.



Amazingly, the boys actually wanted lunch.  So we stopped in Cowell for fresh fish and chips. 
            Cowell is a small coastal oyster-farming town with two pubs, one IGA, a CWA hall and the nicest public lavatories I have ever seen. Public lavatories in small towns are generally very very nice - whether it arises from a large public pride or just a smaller number of ugly lummoxes stomping through, the toilets and the counters always sparkle, the taps never drip, the soap dispenser is always full, the mirrors, always unscratched, are polished to a shine and I can say without hyperbole or fear of contradiction that I would happily eat my lunch off of some of those sink-surrounds.  But I have never met a public lavatory like the one in Cowell.  Tucked inside an old mews behind the Council Hall, the Ladies Lavatory has table runners and a bowl of interesting shells to look at while you wash your hands, and original artwork all over the walls.  The Auxiliary Art Guild has claimed the space as an exhibition hall - and hung still lifes in the toilet stalls.



The Gents, being a Gents, wasn't quite so genteelly fitted out.  We took ourselves on a grand tour of inspection of the ladies, and drove home on a pink cloud of glittering delight.  A weekend that ends with painting of flowers in a bathroom by the sea is a good one, all right.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Hollywood Accounting

My Hilarious Warner Brother Statement

A friend sent me link about accounting practices in the entertainment industry - how their accounting departments appear to deal with the writers and musicians who provide their source material.

Naturally, I went to Wikipedia (the first stop for a quick fix)

Color me far more naïve than I'd ever realised - how trite, how boring, how SMALL are the minds who come up with this stuff.

It's like owning a factory that produces all of the world's chocolate bars, and throwing a hair-pulling, heel-drumming rage when you're asked to pay the man who supplies your cocoa.
And once you've stopped pouting and screaming "You bad BAD mans for wanting MY cookies!" looking astonished when he chooses not to send you any more shipments.
"Mine Mine MINE!"

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The cat is lost in the negative space...




"That's not my cat!" 
"I know, but this one was cute."

My sister is co-directing her graduation ball, and has asked me to design the invitations. While the dialogue in this link above might verge toward the purple, the passive-aggressive deployment of design decisions is absolutely dead on -if amended for the three-way tug of war between the two female organizers of my sister's shindig and their lone male co-director - who reckons that the invitation as it CURRENTLY stands is insufficiently gender neutral because it has a picture of a girl on it.
            "Would it be more gender-neutral if it had a MAN on it?" (My sister, coldly.)
            "Well YEAH, of course- Hey! OW!! What did you do that for?!"

I have since been 'requested' to shade the invitation's purple background toward a very Barbie pink.
I suspect it's my designerly duty to decline.

Cosi

On Friday night, Mr Tabubil and I went to the theater.
            We have a very good theater here in our little town - it mostly does cinema, but one of its two theaters was built for live performance, rigged with a roll-away screen to accommodate the afternoon showings of Transformers and The A-Team.  On Wednesday afternoon I stopped by to pick up tickets for the ballet Don Quixote, which is coming to us in August (ours is the live-theater for the region, and when touring companies come through the state - we get them!)             Theater productions don’t exactly advertise in this town - we don't watch much TV, and the Australian Ballet would have come and gone without us being any the wise if we hadn't gone to the theater to watch Toy Story. There've been no fliers, no posters, nothing on the community boards outside the bakery and sports shop - not one single solitary squib.  The ballet was advertised all over the theater lobby, but that sort of advertising presence doesn't go very far in a venue that runs on Shrek sequels and Twilight Marathons.             While we waited for our popcorn I saw that an equally-unheralded production of the play Cosi is was coming to town - on that Friday night, and on spec I asked if there were any tickets still available.
            Yes, yes there were.  There were not only only lots of tickets available, as of the day before the performance they were being offered up in a "buy one, get one free" deal.  I asked, semi-optimistically, if they had two seats together about half way up and near the middle - I got two seats exactly half way to the top - and two seats over from the very center.  Can't complain, I guess.

On Friday I went to a pub lunch with the other staff members of the high school and floated the news that there was a rather good play coming to town - and that nobody seemed to be going.
            "That's awful!" Someone said.  "If nobody goes, the companies will stop coming- and that would be a tragedy!"
            "So why don't you all come?"  I suggested.  "Two tickets for the price of one - you can't beat that for a Friday night's entertainment!"
There was much vague sound of agreement - oh, yes, absolutely, my word what a very good deal -             
            "But," said the same woman who was so worried about scaring off the touring companies  "I will be at home on the sofa watching the football."
            "Oh."  I said.  "Is there a big game on?"
            She gave me a look of I-can't-believe-this-woman-but-I-shall-be sweet.  "No-o, but that's what we do on Friday nights here."
            "I've got a ticket" said the lady next to me, very firmly, and she raised her chin and gave me a nod.   "I'll see you there!"
            And we would.  So there.  And we would have fun.  More acting to go round.             The lovely thing about a small town is that you can leave for the theater ten minutes before the curtain goes up and still have time for a promenade around the lobby before the show.  We were expecting a pretty thin show, but the turnout was, for this pair of city-people, painful.  It's a nice theater - a small, but well-proportioned stage and good seats for 500, and that great big auditorium was almost empty.  Less than eighty people in the audience.  Worse, with the exception of two UniSA students in the front row and an eight-year-old girl brought along by her grandma, we were the youngest in the audience by at least thirty years.  Call it culture shock, but we were stunned.  In the places we come from, an audience for a show is mostly, well - us.  Young people all over the place.             It was a good show, too.  The cast was very young, and mostly very good, and we all laughed extra hard, to make up for all the echoing empty seats.  It must be tough playing to a house like that.  There was one line in particular, delivered to the audience - something on the theme of the futility of offering art to the masses.
            "Something we try and bring to you people!" (or something like that.)
            The actor seemed to enjoy delivering that one. A pugnacity of chin, a pinch to the nose, his arms flung out that little bit extra wide, and his eyes raking across every single one of us.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The blustery night and day

It was a very weathery weekend - gustery and blustery and full of gales.
Mr and Mrs Tabubil-in-law drove up from the city Friday night to spend the weekend with us, and as has happened every time they have come to visit us since we moved into the country last October, the weather immediately went pear-shaped. 

Walking home at four o'clock on Friday afternoon, I found the weather balmy and contemplative.  By six o'clock, the local TV news was issuing weather warnings for winds up to 100km/hour all across the region. By half-past six, as we drove to the supermarket to buy groceries, a wind was kicking trees into a sideways lather, and when Mr and Mrs-Tabubil in-law arrived at our front door, the sky was thick and dark and swirling with a blustery storm. 
The weather Mr and Mrs Tabubil-in-law bring with them is wonderful for our garden, and one day soon, we hope, our water tank (Which is still unplumbed and catching none of these winter rains. Nor do we yet possess a side gate, or fence on which to mount it.  Our landlords need to read the lease again.  These things are all in there. Itemized.)  But for a weekend with loved ones - it's not quite as wonderful.

At ten that night we went outside to drag everything not yet tied down into the garage.  We walked straight into the teeth of a gale.  It howled!  Our eyes were full of blown sand.  We tucked away the  rubbish bins and the BBQ, we lowered the clothes line and blew back inside the house in a swirl of wind and grit.
We curled into the sofa to watch the Tour de France sail through green French fields and listened to the wind outside - it grew rougher and rowdier and we jimmied the windows and doors and went to  bed.

Sometime during the night we were woken by a hellish SLAM!  Something hit the fence, just outside our window.  We lay there, sleepy and befuddled, and there was another almighty bang - something huge was coming past.
Mr Tabubil dressed and went outside. In front of the house, he met our neighbor from across the street, clinging to the edge of a strip of fence.
"Is this yours?"  He shouted cordially, over the wind.  They couldn't tell, in the blowing dark.  Mr Tabubil dragged the fence into our garage with the rest of the stuff and came back to bed.  I promptly fell asleep again, and left Mr Tabubil to lie awake for hours, imagining fences and patio roofs peeling apart and cartwheeling through the air and into houses. 

By morning, the gale had blown itself halfway out, leaving only stiff breezes behind. In the daylight, our fence was intact.  The flying night-time debris could have come from streets away.
We climbed into the Tabubil-in-law's van and drove away across the peninsula to the head of the gulf to visit the Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden.  It was faintly eerie driving through the streets of our town.  A tree limb had sheared the top off of a mailbox - both were lying in the road in a mess of leaves and branches and debris, fifteen feet away from the rest of the box, while the next-door yard was unmarked, flowers still fresh on the bushes in the garden.  Three houses down, the roller door to a carport was ripped out of its track and off its hinges, but a frail weather-vane with an iron cockerel at the top was standing proudly.  The Seventh Day Adventist Church had had the siding ripped off one side of the building and a tree come down across the parking lot - but a yard next door full of plaster rabbits and deer and gnomes with fishing rods had barely a stray leaf in the concrete pond. 

At Port Augusta we drove up the narrowing gulf, then hiked up to the red bluff where Matthew Flinders, on his great circumnavigation of Australia, had come to a stop.  In the face of the regrettable realization that the narrowing gulf was NOT a continental passage (that holy grail of all early -and not-so-early European explorers) as had seemed so plausible, Flinders sniffed with bitter scorn and sailed off to other places and other mysteries.

We were amused, as we were meant to be - by the extract from his journal printed on an informational signboard:
            "No person shall have occasion to come after me to make further discoveries."
The words seemed to express an absence of imagination - something unexpected in Flinders, when one considers the level of imagination needed to do what men did in those days - sailing across the edges of the earth in small, creaky wooden ships into terror incognita for the hope of Roc eggs.
The bitter taste of a dry and empty, palpably egg-less plain stretching beyond the northern horizon must have been hard for him to swallow.

The Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden is THE place to spend a fine winter afternoon, when the desert is green and blooming and the breeze is stiff and the air is clear.  The Flinders Ranges were sharp and rose-colored on the other side of the gulf  - pink rock with green winter haze creeping up the lower slopes.  We walked along paths between restored sand dunes and through patches of tall scrub - sugarwood and saltbush and western myall trees- some of which, we were told, were a thousand years old.  We stopped to look at a spray of mistletoe on a sandalwood tree and an eagle strafed us, low in the sky, dangling a bush mouse from its claws.



We spent part of an hour sitting in a blind waiting for birds to come and drink at a fountain dug into a rock.  A winter's day after rain isn’t the best time to hope for birds - when there is standing water in puddles over the desert - but we heard trills in the bush, not too far distant, and we leaned forward, in unison, to peer through the blind's narrow slit window, scanning the brush for feathers.  We were graced with a pair of parrots - visitors migrating up from Tasmania for the winter.  The bright male sat in a flowering yellow bush just out of camera range, but his more sober, pastel-tinted mate had a good wash and brush-up in our fountain and did her best, with trills and chirrups, to coax him into joining her.  He considered it.  He was almost convinced, but a pair of hawks swooped low above the fountain and that was that - the parrots vanished in a puff of feathers and a shriek of alarm and the eagles arced away to find less combative dinners.  No more birds came after that.


"Wouldn't it be funny" Mrs Tabubil-in-law said "if the birds were all sitting behind us watching us make fools of ourselves?"
We thought it would, all right.

At last we sighed, and turned to leave - and were met with a squawk of alarm from the bright-colored parrot that HAD been sitting in the doorway to the blind, spending HIS afternoon watching the drab animals sitting there in the dark, peering at the bright desert through a narrow window.
A parrot will ALWAYS know how to make a fool out of you

We sulked and went to find coffee.  The gardens have a lovely cafe made of rammed-earth and glass- heavy on new age wind chime soundtracks, but a heavenly view from the warm across to the Flinders Ranges. The winds had blown every shred of haze out of the sky. We sat and had several cups of coffee and tea and watched the mountains.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Written on the inside of the door to the ladies room in the beach café:

“From now on, anyone who locks the key in the bathroom will be made to sing the Very Sorry Song for the benefit of us all.”

Birds

At the end of my street there is a bottlebrush bush.  Right now it is fat with flowers like big red powder-puffs.  It is laced with small birds, striped in black and white and electric yellow, hopping and dipping and fluttering from brush to brush - swift jabs and sideways darts - lightning quick -
Twittering, wittering, indignant chatter- this blossom best this one better this one mine this one sweet this one in the sun this one red this one redder this one all drunk up- 
I take a step towards them. The bush blurs and the air is filled with swift whirring sound -
Empty.

A big magpie is outside the window next to the front door of our house, clinging to the frame, and trying to batter through the glass into the study with his beak.  I pull the curtain back - his strong claws clamped around the bricks, he stares at me beadily and vents a loud, indignant CAW.  And drops to the stoop and hobbles away, with much backward reproachful glances.  The glass my fault.  He shakes his wings and cries.  Caw!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Flying Crooked

Flying Crooked

The butterfly, a cabbage-white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
He has -who knows so well as I?-
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the aerobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.
-- Robert Graves

When I was small, Dad would read this poem to me at night before I went to bed. (I had low tastes.) The words hit me in the funny bone like a reflex hammer hits that little bone in your knee - the one that contains electricity so that when the doctor taps it with the hammer a spark flies up and closes a circuit and your leg leaps up of its own accord and hits the doctor in the chin.
I just couldn't help myself.  The kicker was that line "he lurches here and here by guess and god and hope and HOPELESSNESS-  Dad would read it and I woud be off, my mind full of bits of color that didn't know the faintest thing about direction, rolling across my bed and shrieking with laughter at the cleverness of Mr Grave's understanding of butterflies.

Yesterday I saw an out of season bit of orange fluttering myopically along our back fence.
It reminded me.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Bah Humbug

I spent this afternoon in the doctor's surgery, waiting for a drop-in spot to open up.
            I picked up a nice case of pink-eye at school this week.  I woke up this morning convinced I was suffering from the breakaway allergy attack of the season, but by noon, I had to face up to it: full blown Conjunctivitis. Stepping out of a shower to "wash away the mystery pollen" I saw myself in the mirror and stopped in faint shock: my eyes glowed in the mirror like welcome signs for an extremely undiscriminating red light district.
            It's ironic. I'm very careful about not touching my face. I wash my hands like I'm a fiend for dish soap and I keep my hair pinned up in a tight school marm-ish bun, for fear of the hopping, chirruping heads of hair the little darlings bring to school.  I spent yesterday afternoon sitting next to a girl with a gurgling cough that sounded green - and  spent yesterday evening worried about the flu!              Goes to show - when Murphy has it in for you, there's no point in trying to duck.  (You'd probably trip over a toy truck and break your ankle.)  Yes, I am a mean old cross patch who oughtn't be let near children for fear she'll shriek and lay about her with a walking frame, bellowing that they were less germ-ridden in her day.
            My poor eyes - I look like a lesser demon from one of the more unpleasant minor hells, and I feel like I've spent an afternoon with my eyes pinned open at the bottom of a swimming pool.  One where bricks of chlorine bob about on the surface like cakes of soap in a tub.
            Bah, humbug and prescription eye-drops, indeed.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Recipe: Boeuf Borgiognongeonge

This morning I sat on the sofa and watched a Murray magpie figure out our window in our living room. This long glass window starts about 16 inches above the floor and runs up almost to the ceiling.  
            Senor Magpie perched outside on the long sill and swung his beak, experimentally, sideways into the glass.  It went "clack."  He looked puzzled, cocked his head, and tried it again - same result, so he walked a few paces further down the sill and tried there.  Still some impenetrable force field stopping him swinging through.  
            He walked a little farther, and tried again, then walked back the way he'd come in case the mysterious invisible wall had gone away back there, the whole time getting more and more ruffled and crosser, until he was just a big ball of cranky feathers.  Then he just Gave Up, threw his wings in the air and flew off in an indignant storm of black and white feathers.  
            A few minutes later he came back and tried it all over again.  He tried it yesterday, and then he tried it today, all morning, and he came back this afternoon to give it another go.

Mr Tabubil and I had another cooking class with Saul last night.  And he taught us how to make Boeuf Borgiognonge (however you say it. I get lost after four tries).
            I've had an existential sorting problem with the dish since I was 15 and my family visited Paris.  Dad reckoned that his long-ago high school French was flooding back, just flooding back, and marched us out of our pensione our first evening to find a traditional French bistro meal - brioche and Beef Buogeongong all over the place. He found us a nice little restaurant; we couldn't read the menu but Dad reckoned he knew what was what - and then the boeuf came as meatballs and the brioche as rice pilaf.  It was one of the nicest Lebanese meals I've ever eaten.
            Our second night in Paris the boeuf bollongong came as elegantly presented lamb brains and after that we gave up -we were caught up in the great European Heat Wave of 1996 and spent our evenings in our un-airconditioned pensione lying on our beds in our underwear under wet towels and nibbling exhaustedly on crackers.
I never did figure it out.
         The other revelation last night was the mashed potato - le Cordon Bleu style.  Which is technically a puree. Even less than a fan of beef stoo am I a fan of pureed potatoes (years of late night dormitory feastings on the pre-packaged soap-flake stuff still bring me out in cold sweats) but this was a completely different species of dish.
            We pushed the boiled potatoes thru a sieve to make a flour. We stirred in butter until the saucepan moo'd and then we stirred in milk until what we had was practically a cream. Whipped. 
And when we sat down to eat (dip a spoon into the puree, then dip it gently into the steaming stew and lap, delicately, with a folded tongue) the woman to my right sat up in her seat and said "My. This is a very - SENSUAL - potato."
            I took some on the tip of a spoon and tasted it and she was right.  It was... voluptuous is the only word for what it was, soft folds of white cream that swelled gently and melted in your mouth - light as clouds.


This is how you do it:



Boef Bourguignon with Pureed Potatoes



Potatoes

6 large desiree potatoes peeled (or other WAXY potatoes, ie. Ruby Lou)

100 g butter - finely cubed

200ml milk
White pepper and salt to taste

Slice potatoes into uniform pieces.  (To ensure that potatoes cook evenly, maintain a uniform size when slicing, and bring to a boil in cold water.)
Season a saucepan of cold water with salt.  Add potatoes and bring to boil.  Once boiling, turn the heat to low (so that the potatoes don’t break down into mash) and boil till potatoes offer no resistance to a knife.
Drain potatoes thoroughly - the enemy of mashed potatoes is moisture!  Once drained, put them back in the saucepan over low heat to dry out a little more. 
While very hot, press the potato through a sieve.  (Potatoes must be HOT when they are mashed – if you don’t mash and add butter while the potatoes are hot, you may as well throw’em out.)  Toss the mashed potato back into the saucepan to dry even further over low heat, stirring with a spoon.  Toss in cubed butter and stir like CRAZY until you have a paste.  Add the milk and stir further, gently at first, until you have a cream.
Add white pepper - generously.  Be equally lavish with salt.
Note: to avoid mashed potato sticking to the saucepan, use an aluminium pan. Aluminium may not receive the medical seal of approval, but the potato will never stick!


The Boef Bourguignon

1kg beef 
Rump, shank, osso bucco or brisket (if you're using rump, choose redder, darker meat)
300g speck or cured bacon, cubed (leave skin on)
1/2 cup neutral flavored oil
5 juicing carrots - diced
2 celery sticks - halved and sliced
1 leek - halved and sliced
1 onion - peeled and sliced
7 bay leaves
1 bunch parsley
1/2 liter red wine
salt and pepper to taste
300g white mushrooms
5 juicing carrots, peeled, chopped and boiled
1 bunch thyme
7- 8 bay leaves
1 generous tablespoon tomato paste
3 ladles beef stock

Slice beef into large chunks - 2 to 3 inches in thickness.  You may leave on the fat and sinew - it will break down during the braising process and add flavor.
Heat oil in skillet over high heat.  When the oil is sizzling, add the meat in batches and sear on all possible sides and edges to seal in the moisture.  Sprinkle generously with salt.
(Do NOT overload the pan; you should not be stewing.  If the meat is oozing moisture, either the heat is too low or the pan is overloaded.)
When the meat is nicely caramelized, remove it to a bowl and set aside.
Place the beef, onion, celery, carrots and speck into the pan.  Stir regularly until the vegetables begin to caramalize, then remove vegetables from pan and put 'em all into a heavy-based pan (a dutch oven is ideal.). and set aside
Over a high heat, add the red wine to the skillet and deglaze.  
Turn on the heat below the dutch oven.  Add the meat and thyme to the pan.  Stir.  Add the bay leaves, salt, pepper and tomato paste.  Stir.  As the tomato paste boils it will deposit a  sediment at the bottom of the dutch oven.  Scrape this up with a wooden spoon and redistribute through the veggies - it's yummy!  Too good to waste!
Add the warmed beef stock and the wine.  Stir.  Pop into a moderate oven and leave for 2 1/2 hours - until the acridity is gone from the sauce and the meat falls apart when prodded with a knife.
Press the carrots through a sieve to create a puree and set aside.
Quarter the fresh mushrooms.  Finely chop the parsley.
Just before serving,  reheat the stew.  Stir in the puree'd carrots (to thicken the sauce) and add the mushrooms.
To serve, spoon generous servings of cassoulet into bowls or plates and sprinkle with parsley.  Put a voluptuous dollop of creamed potato into a side bowl.  Eat by taking a spoon of potato and dipping it into the meat dish.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.