Friday, April 10, 2009

Anonymous Kindness

A stranger ‘tagged’ us today. No, not the squiggly black-pen-on-the-garage-door kind of tag, but with a thoughtful note and a kindness card. It came from a member of, a social change movement promoting anonymous acts of kindness.

The note was penned on a Claude Monet note card and directed at my housemate Jenny Orchard, one of Australia's leading sculptors:

“Hi, I wanted to thank you for sharing your fun sculptures with the community - having them in the front garden is a wonderful gesture of trust and generosity. I was riding my bike past your house the other night and they really cheered me up. Thanks - a fellow community member.”

The card accompanied a fair trade chocolate bar. I checked the website and promptly signed up. This is my kind of movement and if your are in Sydney, I invite you to join it. If you're not here, perhaps you could start your own version. Or just do something nice for someone. Pay the toll for the car behind you next time you stop at a toll booth. Or when paying your restaurant bill, volunteer to take $10 off the person behind you. Buy someone a movie ticket. Or put a vase of flowers on a random neighbor's doorstep. Leave them a note, encouraging them to pass along the favor. Life is hard and the the KFC (Karmic Economic Crisis) is asking us to wake up and share. Our kindness cards are coming in the mail, but before they arrive, I wanted to share this idea with you. Learn more at C’mon, lets play. Tag! Your it!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Communicating Without Words

I've written before about Sydney's multicultural makeup and from time to time at work I run smack across it. On Friday, Neil called and asked me to do a job in a fancy apartment block in the suburb of Eastwood.

"Unit 1, 7 Howe Street, broken window winder in the common area," he said finishing, "Now you know as much about it as I do."

We get these kind of jobs a lot. The real estate companies that manage the property send through work orders that are at times vague, sometimes cryptic. And of course, they want it done yesterday.

I phoned the tenant who requested the work to discover that she was in Canberra. Annette explained that there were three entrances to the building and I should choose the one on Howe St. Not Howe Lane.

"Do you have a key?" she asked.

"Nah, it's a long way to go to the property manager and get a key, we usually just find a way in," I said.

"Well, okay," she said. "Good luck."

I arrived at what I thought was the place to find a modern fortress. Buzzers and card readers.
And the only door with the correct address number was on noisy busy Blaxland Road.

With no key, I was supposed to gain entry to this building and find my way to the broken winder. I started working my way through the buzzer box. Apartment 1, no answer. Apartment 2, same thing. Apartment 3, ditto. All the way to Apartment 14, when someone said "Hello?" For all the noisy truck traffic passing by I had no idea what they said, but I started my pitch.

"Hi, my name is John. I've been sent by the real estate company to repair a broken window. Is it possible that you could let me in?"


Hmm, no English here. I could try Spanish, but I forgot most of that when I learned French. I could try French, but I forgot most of that when I learned Chinese. But in Eastwood, Chinese is a very good language to know.

"Um, ah, wo shir, uh, wo yao, uh, kan kan ni de, uh, apartment."


"Wo yao kan kan...uh...."

"Kan kan?"

"Dui," I say, "kan kan" (Yeah, I am here to look at your apartment.")

Bzzzzzzzzzz. And I'm in.

I press the elevator to floor one to emerge to find...winder-less windows. I'm in, but in the wrong part of the apartments. The door out is one way into the courtyard. I take it. It locks behind me at which point I must again find my way in.

I scan the patios that back onto the garden. Several have laundry out drying on folding racks. People do this everywhere, especially in Asia. It's a simple equation, electric dryers cost money, the sun is free, but don't tell that to the Skippies. It shits the Anglos to no end, enough that they enact property covenants against hanging laundry out on the balcony.

The issue really brings out the racists. My jaw dropped one day while listening to talkback radio. The host asked people to phone in their complaints about life in Sydney. "The way THEY hang their laundry out on the veranda's," one woman derided. "It's awful. They even hang out their underwear. Can you imagine? It looks like Hong Kong."

Her contempt was palpable. And the host went right along with it. But to me, laundry and an open patio door is good news. It means someone is home.

I jump up among the shrubbery in the garden and, seeing a patio door open and laundry on racks, I use my universal "Hello?" A woman pokes her head out. "You come in?" she asks. "Yes, please."

She lets me in and I see the broken winders. But taking them out is just half the battle. I have to get new ones, that means leaving the building and getting back in. To find an ally, I knock on her door, but she's leaving. So I start knocking on random doors. Unit 8, nothing. Same, same. Up to unit 31 when a very old Chinese man answers the door.

We exchange a few words including 'putong hua' which means Mandarin. He smiles and nods. I recognize about every tenth word, but that's often enough. I show him the broken winder and start up all my body language about I have to go out "huai lai", but need to come back in. Can I 'da dian hua' him to bzzzzzzzz me in?" Then he takes me down the hall to show me two more broken winders, so I tell him I will 'gaosu tamen' the property managers that they need fixing too. But mingtian, not jingtian. Just these two are getting replaced jingtian.

On the way out, I prop the door open with a rock kept near the door, just to expedite. It usually works and I was gone only a half hour, but during my time at the locksmith, I realize once again that my time in China taught me a lot about communication. That is, most communication is contextual. Show up in a uniform, with a screwdriver and a window winder and do some pointing back and forth and most people will figure it out. Especially people who spend most of their retirement years hanging laundry on balconies and living where almost no one speaks their language.

Arriving back, I got back in via the propped door and replace the winders. I stop by to thank my old Chinese friend and then ring Annette to find out where she'd like me to leave the keys.

"So how did you get in?" she asks.

I pause to consider giving her the old "We have our ways" and keep the mystery shrouded. Instead I tell her, as nonchalantly as I can, my ancient secret for communicating across cultures.

"Oh, I speak a little Chinese."

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Chili Chocolate Pavlova

Kiwi's are proud of their Pavlova, their baked meringue dessert. They claim to have invented it but for my money, they should let Australia take credit, because they are invariably oversweetened to the point of making my teeth hurt. The things are in stores everywhere and even our kayak guide brought one along, 'lovingly' accented with canned fruit cocktail. It was a perfect compliment to my chicken sandwich, the one labeled 'vegetarian.' Okay, maybe the chickens were vegetarian.

I made eight of these little desserts in Queenstown after I found my yoga friend Peggy. QT is where people do all the adrenaline sports, or at least where they were pioneered. Peggy's trying to balance all the hyperactivity by teaching yoga at her new project, Studio Sangha.

When I arrived, she was living in the master bedroom of a luxury executive home on a hill with a view of the mountains and lake, one she was renting from Liz, the owner. Peggy and Liz were gathering some friends for dinner and since this was my first time in months to play in a fully decked kitchen, I agreed to make dessert.

I planned to make my famous-in-yoga-school chili chocolate cake, but an egg failure meant I had to modify the recipe. In this case, I cut way back on the chocolate and, sans springform pan, made what became fluffy little cakes using a muffin tin. Then I decorated them with just-picked cherries, mint from Liz's garden, a dollop of whipped cream and a chocolate drizzle.

The labor paid off. The treats were delicious and not too sweet. Liz and her friends were suitably impressed, one of whom offering me 'any kind of woman you want'. Apparently middle-aged men who are skilled beyond the barbecue are in high demand. Alas, I thanked her for the generous offer, then did the dishes. I've long said that if there is one room a man must be confident in, it is the kitchen.


ANCHORAGE, NEW ZEALAND - This is just a little joke for my Alaskan friends. While they were enjoying sub zero temperatures, this was a scene from the kayak meeting point. There may well have been 50 boats lined up on this beach, waiting for a water taxi. Other visitors hiked in (tramped, in kiwi-speak) along a track into the Abel Tasman Park.
This park gets a lot of use, easily several hundred kayakers a day. It was the busy season and the water taxis were maxed out. The captain of my vessel said his record was 13 boats. "Never again," he said.


One of my favorite outdoor activities is one I stole from an artist named Andy Goldsworthy. This amazing fellow spends hours and hours building stuff, creating, using just the stuff he finds around wherever he is.
I started creating this when I was kayaking in the Abel Tasman Park. I went out for a two day, one night experience and had a few hours before I had to board my houseboat at Anchorage.
To be honest, this is only half mine. I found it on a walk to Cleopatra's Pools, a series of pleasant drop pools in a small river. After walking about an hour, I passed two German hikers who decided that since they'd hiked the requisite 60 minutes, the water they were looking at must have been Cleopatra's Pools. They shrugged as it didn't look much like a pool to any of us, but I decided to keep on going. With a week of New Zealand parks under my belt, I figured (correctly) that there would be a sign. Sure enough, ten minutes later, I found the sign and made the detour up the side trail. Soon after, I came upon this rock decorated with round stones along its top rim. I decided to play along and run the spine up the middle. It was tricky because I couldn't place round stones on a sloping rock, so I had to find flat stones. I began at the top with larger stones and after placing a few, the slope of the host rock increased and it took quite a while to find stones sharp, flat and balanced enough to stand on their own and not slide off. I had several failures, but since I was working from the top down, I avoided any domino effect that would have taken out the whole run. As I worked, the stones became fewer and fewer until all I had were small ones. That's why I tapered their size along the route. I quite liked the vertebral effect that contrasted with the round stones above. For more of Andy's work, check out: