Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Driving from Picton, I came across this sign. I thought Aussies drank a lot, but having been here, I've been listening to the radio and people are all up in arms about how out of control drinking is here. In Wellington, the local rag ran a story on Monday that there were nearly a thousand calls made to the police on Saturday night.

Booze is cheap here, for sure. I didn't go into this pub, but isn't it great that you could drink all you wanted, get in your car, and still not be on the road? But what I loved most about this sign was the idea that the pub can be a great place to bring the kids. Fun for the whole family!
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Carving Bone

I was in Wellington and ran across a flyer for carving bone. ItThe workshop's run by a German immigrant named Stephan who came to NZ in the 90s and couldn't leave.

Introduced to Maori culture, he took it on, learned all he could and retuned his guitar-making skills to carving bone. In five hours, he took me from design to layout and then the whole production process. I sawed, drilled, ground, sanded, sanded some more and in this case, dropped the bone in a cup of tea to darken the inner image.

On the reverse side, as a late addition to the piece, we put in a round section of Paua shell, the local abalone with it's beautifully colored pattern. He helped me do all the hard parts like making sure I layed out the spiral correctly. Then he helped saw the twist accurately. Bone is a great medium to work in. Soft enough to be able to make progress with in just a few hours, but hard enough to let amatuers recover their mistakes.

His workshop is great, too. Vacuums in the tables keep the dust moving away, Dremel tools hanging from the ceiling, plus all the safety equipment, just what you'd expect from a German craftsman. It was a pleasure to work in.

After final polishing Stephan tied a string onto it and imbued it with good fortune before putting it around my neck. In Maori culture, the twist symbolized the inter-connectedness of humans as well as the combination of spiritual and physical worlds, in yoga terms, Shiva and Shakti. The tear shape symbolizes emotion and its importance in living a healthy life. AUM in the center symbolizes the primordial sound of the Universe.

The piece is now hanging from my neck. Find out more about Stephan at Carvingbone.co.nz. If you think this looks good, you should see his stuff.
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Saturday, December 13, 2008

24 Hours of Mental Adventure

Its funny how fast things happen after you push the 'travel' button. I'd just left Sydney Airport and the Air New Zealand people were suggesting that in the event of a crash, we put our heads between our knees. I'm pretty bendy, but the seats were so tightly packed, all I'd get was a rub on my forehead. I looked at the guy next to me, a stout 60ish fellow and asked if he could bend that far.

"Doesn't matter," he said. "If we wreck, your head might stop, but your guts will keep going." He motioned with his hands the spillover effect that I could expect. Thus began a fine two hour talk. Ray "You can find me at Berkers pub in Taranaki" is a Vietnam Vet, a Kiwi, living in a solar-powered community in the hills outside Byron Bay where he grows a few plants to complement the medical marijuana certificate he holds.

That little story took a while to tease out. Meanwhile, I learned he'd spent 16 years running one of Australia's largest sheep shearing operations which he finished with a two-year stint in prison for evading millions of taxes.
"I made a lot of money there," he said.
"In prison?"
"It's not like America.," he said. "I'd never survive in an American prison. It's easy here. They gave me hard plastic carving tools. I worked leather and turned out saddle bags for Harley Davidsons." He supplemented his income playing cards for cigarettes which he didn't smoke.

Ray's not a fan of authority. Though he went to Vietnam and cleared bodies from post-napalmed tunnels, he came back with a good dose of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He medicated with booze and began his recovery in the 70s via electroshock therapy. His vet friends are still killing themselves, two just last year. And he's back drinking, saying that it doesn't bother him to put down a six-pack. "It's that light beer," he said.

Ray though, is surviving and along the way, he raised six kids, all of whom are successful. His daughter is a champion sheep shearer. A son is a physician. Another son is a champion at some non-olympic-obscure-I-forget-what. But they're all doing well.

Having suggested that I look him up at the bar, I may just do so. He promised to take me to places that no tourists go. Or maybe go fishing. Yeah, I'm thinking, booze on a boat with an angry vet. Sounds like a real adventure.

The Thinker

My best conversation of the month came when I met Renata at the youth hostel. Her orange hair contrasted with her oilskin coat and her skin shows the maturity of a wise woman, but she was having poached salmon, wine wrapped in a paper bag and raspberries for dessert. We got chatting and I learned she's written a book about Thinking. About how culture affects thinking and how thinking affects culture. Her thesis is, roughly, that we've reached the point of no return, we in Western Culture that is, and there's really no hope for us. The planet, the species, the whole lot. We've failed to use our brains, most of us mistake mental busyness with thinking and so do precious little of the latter and thus, we're gonna crash and burn. It's only a matter of time. I'd love to tell you more, but was too engaged to use my long term memory. Instead, you'll have to wait for the book, titled simply "Thinking."

"It's never a good idea to talk about politics," she warned me. "But what about Obama?" Her point being that while he has energized a huge political force, the centralized money and power people aren't likely to change course and isn't it a bit disingenuous of him to raise our hopes only to have to settle for incremental change.

I suggested she listen to him now. Having promised hope, he is lowering expectations with his "it's gonna get worse before it gets better" message. I explained the difficult compromise of giving people hope enough for someone to get into office but then having to ask them to swallow the bitter pill of economic difficulties and higher taxes.

"I admire Gerhard Schroder," she said. He's the former German Chancellor who opposed the war in Iraq and is now sitting on the sidelines. "He was brave enough to be honest, inspite of the cost."

Renata checked out today. I'd love to a chance to finish our conversation, but perhaps another time.

The Survivors

I left Renata to finish dinner as I booked on a night-time walking tour of the Karori Sanctuary. It's just a few ks from the Wellington CBD, the site of the former water supply for the city. Because of its former role, the bush was more intact and 10 years ago, the area was surrounded with rodent-proof fence. All the possums, mice, rats and other invasive creatures were offed, buried in a large mass grave and are now pushing up green grass. In their stead, the organization has reintroduced nearly extinct specimens of native Kiwi, Hihi, Kaka, Tuatara and Weta which are, in order, a flightless bird with a four inch nose, the technical nest making stitchbird, a supersmart parrot a 200-million year old lizardy species all to itself and a big fat cricket-like bug that was nearly decimated by rats. All these animals were moved out to tiny islands many years ago and lived out there, waiting perhaps, and now for the first time in decades, are back populating their original home. We heard the kiwis but didn't see any. So while Renata figures it is all over, my guides John and Ben, two bird nerds, are hopeful that they can repopulate Wellington with some native animals. So far, it seems to be working. Check them out at www.sanctuary.org.nz.

The Colossus

For those who have travelled in Australia, you'll know it is the land of the Large Object. Along the roads there are perhaps a hundred tourist draws, mostly fiberglass. There's the giant prawn, the pineapples, a banana. You get the picture. Today though, I collected the Colossal Squid and it was for real. Eighteen feet of pure squid, caught in 2007 by a longliner pulling up toothfish in Antarctica. At 450 kilos, it weighs about as much as a cow moose. It was just unveiled at Te Papa, Wellington's top museum draw.

There are only three specimens on display in the world and this is the best. It's a cool beast, with tentacles lined with suckers and rotating hooks that will hold a toothfish. It lives down around 3000 feet under the sea, a kilometer or so, and has eyes the size of soccer balls. Add to that a 20 gram brain and luminescent flesh around its eyes that help it see and you have a feeding machine. Once the fishermen had it on board, they froze it in a cube which took three days to thaw. In April, the BBC said it was the most reported story that week. And I just got to see it in all it's well-preserved state. Much more interesting than Grant's Tomb, that's for sure.

Please, though, don't confuse this guy with the Giant Squid. They only go 250 kilos. Based on the beaks found in the stomachs of Sperm whales which eat these gargantuan calamari, scientists reckon Colossals might weigh in at a full ton. They're hoping to confirm that sometime soon. And maybe find a male, no one has snagged any of those. Until then, Colossal Squid sex remains a matter of pure conjecture. It's taste, however, does not. While free of the ammonia flavor of the Giant, the researchers who tasted it say the Colossal flesh quality is a bit like jello. Anyone for aspic?

The Confusion
Now, last thing, this conversation with the customs woman who had just run my bag through the xray, looking for biosecurity violations. I'd already surrendered my nuts, er, the cashews I had and I'd tossed away the apple.

"Sir, do you have a tint?
"A tint. Do you have a tint in your bag."
"Um, ah, I don't think...Sorry. I don't understand."
"The tint. For camping."
"Oh, the tent. Yes. I have a tent."
"You didn't to declare it. It is a biosecurity hazard."
"Oh, sorry."
"Has it been used?"
"No, it's brand new."
"Please declare it next time."
"Yeah, sorry. Didn't think about it."
"You can go now."

Jeeze. Tint terror. I'll remember that if I go fushing with Ray.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Welcome to Movember! That's the month in which Australian men (and maybe a few women) grow moustaches to support men's health. It is now week three so I thought an update was worthy of publication. That's one of Jenny Orchard's pieces next to me.

Movember seeks to raise awareness of prostate cancer and depression screenin for men. I formed a team called MoHubby to get other Hire-A- Hubbies involved. You can sponsor me if you like at http://au.movember.com.

The website is fun to look at and I'm getting lots of comments. Granted, some of them are along the lines of "Are you doing Movember? So it my husband. His looks awful. I can't wait till it is over." The best part is the fellowship among men. Sometimes, we just nod in that knowing sort of way. It is raising awareness. And growing face hair is such a blokey thing to do.

One of the great things about living near the center of Sydney is it's proximity to all kinds of cool going's on. On Wednesday, I heard about the Spelling Bee finals that were being held at the offices of the ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I caught an early bus and got down there to discover that among nine finalists, the first eight misspelled their word and last contestant scored an upset win. But the competition ended about an hour early. Bummer for the guys upstairs who planned to air the final contest on the radio. Faced with time and no spellers, I wandered around and found a display case of old radio gear. Above is a "tiny" tape recorder that was created by the CIA and used by spies when they "wore a wire."

These are the famous Australian Kookaburras. They're related to kingfishers and I caught these two watching from under a big Jacaranda tree as grubs stirred below the mulch. These birds were swooping down and with their long beaks, stabbing a dinner from the bark bits below. They have a great call which sounds a lot like laughing. Remind me next time you see me, I'll do it for you

Back in Alaska, in a place called North Pole, there's a store called Santa Claus House. It's chock full of Christmas Crap. But here, CHRISTMAS WAREHOUSE they've gone all Walmart on the concept. Inside are the usual overwrought light displays and preflocked plastic Christmas 'trees.' Best part of this place is that you can become a VIP member and get 10 percent off...next year. They keep prices low by renting temporary space for a few months a year. They have a direct link to the Chinese factories near Hangzhou that make this stuff. My favorite part is Yogi Santa out front, doing Jalandhara Bandha. See? It works, tuck in the chin and there's no pressure to the head!
The other day I sent my neice Kayla a box of "lollies" with very Australian names. Among them were Chupa Chups, which you might know as a dumdum. But these are quite nice and the new updated plastic sticks don't rot in your mouth. The were apparently a hit. Last weekend, I was walking down the mall in Bondi Junction and came across this gal, flogging Chupa Chups. "Salvador Dali designed the logo," she told me. It's their 50th birthday. She's standing next to a photo showing how one can use Chupa Chups and pipecleaners as stick figures in all sorts of fun action poses. Now that we're between elections, why not give this form of entertainment a try?

This house is just down the street from mine. Not much of a house really, but I can tell the occupants are okay.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Incorrigible Patriot

Incorrigible Patriot

If there’s one thing at which Australians excel, it is “taking the piss.” Give them any subject that smacks of formality or ceremony and they’ll shred it like Tasty cheese on a Ceasar salad.

One of the things they cringe at most is a patriotic American. For many Aussies, it just isn’t on. But that didn’t stop them from celebrating right along with us yanks when the Obama’s took the stage.

They may not have cried like I did, but we shared similar joy. One of my yoga students, a Malaysian immigrant named Candace, told me she punched the air when she heard the news. Riding my bike home Wednesday evening, I saw a banner outside a nearby home, reading OBAMA in red and blue.

My first tears came when I saw the new first family, the one who is going to live in the White House take the stage in Chicago:


There was Malia and Sasha walking proudly and waving at the crowds. And it brought to mind the image of first-grader Mary Rose Foxworth and second-grader Daphne Perminter became the first African American pupils at the previously all-white Suburban Park School in Norfolk when they enrolled on September 8, 1959.


There is something sublime about the innocence of two young girls walking firmly into their place in history. All four seem so natural and poised. Surrounded by family, they know they are in unfamiliar territory, but they are facing the challenge with their heads held high.

While people here are excited, I don’t think they understand the pride that many of us Americans feel. In conversations with my housemates, I liken it to the differences in how the two countries were formed. America was populated by people seeking freedom and fortune. Australia was founded as a penal colony for convicts. About the time those subjects were carving out their first sandstone buildings, Americans were overthrowing the monarchy that still today influences Australia’s government.

“It doesn’t matter,” my co-worker George said as I asked him to witness signing my ballot. And even though voting is compulsory in Australia, many who do vote are just trying to avoid the fines. George admits he just ticks a box, having studied neither the issues nor their positions.

But voting does matter, especially informed voting. As this election shows, our choices do matter. In talking to my 22-year-old housemate Sarah, I explained that for me this election wasn’t so much about left or right, but it was a choice between fear and hope.

And even though I couldn’t be there for the celebrations, a circumstance I sadly regret, I did my small part from all the way over here. Once again I chose hope. And I’ll long remember these beautiful moments, especially in the long days ahead as the Obama administration works from within our imperfect democracy to further change the course of history. May we succeed beyond our wildest dreams.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Sculpture By The Sea

Tamarama Beach - Just saying Tamarama makes me smile. And I smiled all day when I went to the Scupture By The Sea art show. This year was distinctly dog oriented. Or maybe it was movement. The piece above was perfectly integrated into the landscape, the one below used the changing nature of the sea foam to color the dog's mask.

One of the most technical was a piece featuring Andy Warhol, made from bent chicken wire. The artist took such care and the lines were perfect. Sculpture really appeals to the craftsman in me and I'm often awed by the skillfulness of each piece. Using fencing was a great way illustrate Warhol, a man who kept his walls high and people at arm's length.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A New Program

I’m getting hopeful about America again. Nah, not about the economy or the market, I’m excited about politics. Because after nearly 30 years of voting, I finally have a candidate I can identify with in Barack Obama. Maybe that is one of the benefits of middle age.

No matter what his critics are saying, the man knows what he’s talking about on stuff that matters to me. I finally listened to the speech he delivered about race back in March and for me, it was a brilliant piece of work.

I’ve long wrestled with my own racist and bigoted views. As a white American male, I grew up with all the baggage of black and white. I remember the fight in the 70s over forced school desegregation . That’s when black kids from inner Wilmington were put on buses and driven out to my white suburban school and ‘integrated.’ I remember white parents pulling my friends out of public school and sending them to catholic and private schools, just to avoid having their children exposed to “those” kids.

I remember the busloads of black kids who were attended my high school. I didn’t see many of them in my classes; they were tracked into “general education” and I was sent into “college prep.” I mixed with a few in my art and drama courses, but by then, it was an “us and them” issue. I didn’t speak their language or understand their culture. And because they were a small group, they stuck close together. One need only look at the tables in the cafeteria to see the division. They had their tables; we had ours. And being in the majority, I was more comfortable than them.

But that racism shit followed me around. It still does. It’s like a nasty virus that has remained in my bones despite numerous attempts to exorcise it. I’m hoping my infection won’t replicate any farther but it still colors my thoughts and that affects my actions every day.

If you are an American, you pretty well know what I am talking about. And so does Barack. He knows because his white grandmother had it and she was bold enough to admit her fear of black men. Amen to that. He knows because he sees the cost to the white community of its own racism. He understands that many of us fear and resent attempts to even the playing field because we’ve been conditioned to think in “us and them” instead of broadening our vision to embrace a ‘win win’.

Let’s face it, racism and the poverty and disaffection and crime and broken families and fear and ignorance that goes along with our racist past and present is sapping our nation. With the country financially and morally over-extended , we can’t afford to have people fail. All that fear is just too damn expensive. And Barack is talking about that. Finally.

When he is elected, as I am sure he will be unless the power brokers have again jury-rigged the election machinery, he’ll have his work cut out. It’s a bit like being asked to turn a maggoty rotting horse into a five star meal for 300 million diners. All the while, as some of the kitchen staff do the dishes, others try to piss in the broth. And out back, someone else substitutes 10w40 for the olive oil and the wait staff are supplied with gasoline to cook the bananas foster. Let’s just hope there are enough principled workers and diners to stand up to the shenanigans and others who will take back the kitchen.

There are a million good ideas out there and in spite of the forces arrayed against meaningful change, some of them will get through. And that’s why I remain proud to be an American. I’m not expecting miracles but I love being part of this huge experiment of a nation. (And even if I am on the other side of the earth, I’m a bit of a cultural ambassador, proving again that not all Americans are ignorant, gun-toting whack jobs.) I love that we keep changing, steering more closely to the mark as the years go by. Sure we’ve taken some wrong turns and it has taken some of us longer than others to realize it, but it seems as if finally, we’re getting with the program. I think Winston Churchill said it well: “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else.”

It seems like we’ve tried everything else. It’s time to get on with doing the right thing.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Daily Bread

I have a thing about bread and I'll just call it snobbery. I can't say when it started, but it has followed me ever since I set my little size 3 foot in a kitchen. Maybe it was those muffins my mom reheated in the oven. I loved the oil stained bag she baked them in. Way before anyone ever considered transfats, these came from an oven which transformed them from hardened shells to soft, cinnamon-scented wonders.

Maybe it was the second-grade school trip to Huber's bakery, where they made Sun Beam bread, a loaf that no doubt began its life being made by hands, but by 1968 or so, was rolling off an assembly line by the thousands. It was the kind of bread that you'd go fishing with, not really to eat, but mostly to mold round a fish hook, small enough to lure the bluegills that swam in Hannum's pond.

That trip instilled in me a wonder at industrial processes, but mostly overloaded my reptilian brain with the smell of fresh-baked bread, a smell that still attracts me, no matter how mechanized it might be.

That love of bread has led me to seek out the best bakeries where ever I go. In Fairbanks, that included joining a co-op which flew in bread from the Alpine bakery in Whitehorse, Yukon, 600 miles away. Trips to Anchorage often included a stop at bagel shop for enough supply to fill a second checked bag. Of course, Paris was full of bread, but like all cities, quality varies. The bakery below my apartment in the 13th arrondissement sold a nice looking crusty but ultimately insubstantial loaf for about 65 centimes, though for €1.10 I could usually get a ‘baguette traditionelle’ which always satisfied. I often bought two, to support the authentic cheeses I indulged in.

China was a nightmare for bread and I adjusted my expectations accordingly. Like so much in that country, all that seems to matter is what something looks like on the outside. Forget what it’s built from. Rebar in concrete? Nah, that just drives up the cost. This is the same kind of thinking that allows people to put coal derivatives like melamine in baby formula. Not surprisingly, Western-oriented products were all show but left the consumer empty. I mean, come on, get real. China’s built on rice and its wheat goes to noodles. It’s not a bread nation.

Bread bliss returned in Denver where trendy urban sophisticates have a growing appreciation of authentic bread and I found all sorts to choose from, but Sydney is a few years behind. It took weeks to locate the good breads and wouldn’t you know, my favorite is made by bakers who trained in San Francisco and who came back and created Sonoma Baking Company. I prefer to get my bread from Sonoma and each Saturday, they retail at the Orange Grove outdoor market near my house. I love riding my bike over, seeing the beautiful loaves and trading a bit of Spanish with the lovely Peruvian who runs the stall. I often follow that with a trip to the Gympie Farm vendors who are now retailing a terrific line of Tasmanian artesian cheeses.

It’s taken a while for Australia to join the epicures of the world, but the decades of immigration have paid off. Food is good here and I think outrivals any I’ve sampled in the US. Though I know one guy who every day still swallows Vegemite on TipTop, (the Australian equivalent of Skippy on Wonder) and the Asian-owned Hot Bread shops still sell heaps of doughy white, the days of monoculture bread are gone. Of course, cheap kilojoules still rule the market and good food costs substantially more here, but I’m thankful that I can get it, now that I too am an urban sophisticate.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The World In Sydney

One of the highlights of living in Sydney is its multicultural nature. Sometimes it feels like everyone's here, and I don't mean just during peak hour traffic.

Another highlight is listening to Adam Spencer on 702am ABC local radio. This guy is everything a radio presenter should be. Smart, funny, quick, witty and worldly. Last year he hosted "The World In Sydney" on his breakfast radio program and found people from more than 100 countries to join him. The show aired not long after I arrived and since then I've explored the neighborhoods and ethnic enclaves. Not a day goes by when I don't hear a second language, smell an Italian espresso or Thai lemongrass or Lebanese oregano. (I eat very well over here.)

Today, a year later, Adam did a second show. You can hear some of it here: http://www.abc.net.au/local/photos/2008/10/24/2399829.htm?site=sydney

Last weekend, I went down to Darling Harbour, the main tourist district and visited the Chinese Garden. The experience stirred memories of the Middle Kingdom. Limestone formations set in lotus ponds, living curtains of bamboo, umbrellas of weeping willows and best of all, classical flute music, piped through hidden speakers, that emerged when the jackhammers paused. An oasis surrounded by skyscrapers, it lacked only two things: grey-suited guards and old men playing chess. But the toilets more than made up for it!

Friday, October 24, 2008

What I'm Doin' Over Here

With my hands, I build objects,
With my heart, I forge connections,
All while my mind conjures infinite landscapes.

My words have brought smiles and then destroyed dreams,
I've confused and confounded and contained my own screams, I've chided and cursed, connived and corrected,
I've even cajoled; confessed then connected.

My philosophy is broad and my heart has been wounded,
Crushed in the vise of fear, ignorance and hatred.
Yet my spirit is ever present, guiding me toward goodness,
Define it any way you like.

May these words add to the world; may they express love and soothe and assist us both in our journey toward wholeness. That's all I've ever wanted.

Let me be a conduit. Let my words broaden your world. But let your compassion forgive me when shortcomings trump.

We humans are great creators, whether we express it fully is our own choice. May the Great Creator facilitate our own great creations. And in His own words, I'm sure He said this somewhere, "Let's have some fun here."

Gettin' With It

I owe this one to my friend T. You inspire me.