Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Back to school

Today's the first day of the new school year in Victoria - how quickly the summer holidays flew by! As for me, I'm off early tomorrow morning to the great school of religion which is India. Shameful, almost, that I've been in religious studies so long and have never been. Better late than never!

First Lesson: Internet cafés should be easy to find while I'm there so the blog should be updated regularly, but I'm leaving my laptop here so I'll have to do without the aid of pictures. There'll be an education just in learning to make do with only words as I encounter what by all accounts is an overwhelmingly new experience for all the senses!

Shadow boxing

Among of the lesser known features of academic life are the weird overlappings generated by its endemic time lags. We tend to plan things much in advance, and the whole process of research and publishing can take aeons, even when you find what you're looking for and someone likes it. The authors we read in books and journal articles only seem close; in fact they're like stars whose light has taken years to reach us. If they're not already dead, they have almost certainly moved on to new research.

A very wise scholar from Trieste named Nadia once told me that the key virtue of academic life was the ability to revive or at least to feign interest in things you cared about years and years ago; she reckoned it usually took about ten years from the time you finished working on something for someone to invite you to speak on it! It's certainly true that things keep coming back to nag you long after you've moved on to greener pastures - as drafts requiring revision, as proofs requiring checking, and then, if you're lucky, as citations in other works, invites to conferences, or even interested prospective graduate students. That's if your lucky. In my experience, sending things out is more commonly like dropping them down a well - no point waiting to hear the splash from the bottom. And if you are lucky enough to hear a splash, it will be from some other well down which you dropped some other thing you can barely remember, years ago!

I mention all this because I've just sent off the revision of the talk I gave at Academia Sinica. (The photos are of art from their campus.) Remember? I went to Taiwan in November for what turned out to be a surreal experience of non-inclusion, every other paper delivered in Mandarin and my various attempts to secure summaries or translations even of the titles falling on deaf sinocentric ears. This essay of mine (whose English title is "Theodicy, disenchantment, and Confucianism's place in the theory of religion," for what it's worth) may see print relatively quickly, but it will do me no good. Translated into Chinese it will join the others in perpetual inaccessibility!

I feel a bit strange about the whole thing, like I'm just going through the motions. I don't think it's a bad essay, but I confess I didn't work as hard on it as I might have. If they showed so little interest in engaging me while I was in Taipei, what reason is there to think anyone will actually read the darn thing?! On the other hand, thanks to it I might get invited to some conference in China in 2017 and finally find out what that symposium in 2006 was about!

I need hardly mention the near-miss overlap of my putting the finishing touches on an essay about Chinese religion with an arm aching from last-minute vaccinations for India!

Monday, January 29, 2007

Family daze

Not much to report but here's a sunset from Shepparton. I suppose I might have mentioned that Friday was Australia Day, but it's the national holiday nobody pays much attention to so I didn't see any reason why I should.

I'm getting pre-stressed about India - departure in 3 days! - but I think I'm over the initial panic attacks (thank you everyone whose first reaction was "you're going to get sick" - what is it about India?!), and now I'm just tangled up in logistical worries. I've never been on a tour before, let alone an "intrepid" one. (Here's the itinerary, if anyone's curious.) What does one do about laundry? Is one guide book enough? Should one bring sandals? Will one be able to charge one's camera? How does one prepare for life-changing experiences? And most unsettling: how can one live three weeks without one's laptop?

Saturday, January 27, 2007


Back in Shepparton with my sister and her family for a few days. Today we took a day trip to Ruffy, a tiny town in the mountains south of here whose general store serves a mean lunch. It was charmingly countrified - except that all the yummy local products we enjoyed were available in well-designed jars and bottles, neatly arranged for sale just like the gourmet shops in Melbourne which are their main customers. My sister finds that Australians don't "do" rustic.

The comet McNaught is lighting up the sky right now, the brightest comet seen in Australia in 40 years. (The picture is not mine, but could be.) It is definitely the longest tail I've ever seen. While I've no recollection of Hale-Bopp (which may or may not have taken along some folks from our California neighbor Rancho Santa Fe - remember Heaven's Gate?), I do recall being amazed at Halley's Comet (which we saw from the vineyards above Vienna). My sister remembers the same occasion without the amazement, so my memory may be embroidering. Or perhaps I was already embroidering the paisley-shape I'm remembering at the time!

Thursday, January 25, 2007

No place like home

Ah, home sweet home! Melbourne of a mild summer day is delightful, and three days of significant rain while I was away have brought green back where I had thought never to see it again.
Or maybe I'm just relishing the great pleasure of doing laundry after returning from a trip! Why is that so satisfying?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

I've been to cities that never close down

The trip which wouldn't end is over! Now I have a week to chill, as Indian butterflies gather in my stomach.

I have to say that Qantas is a very nice airline, its seats comfortable, its food tasty, its snacks healthy, its entertainment system (offering 60 movies, lots of CDs, games, etc.) the best I've ever seen. This is clearly an airline which knows how exhausting long haul flights can be - almost any flight out of Australasia is a long haul, except for the very long hauls! - and does a great job of helping the medicine go down. I can imagine the pleasure and pride Australian passengers must take in how well it does this.

My only complaint: I could have done without the 3-song pop music loop during takeoff, descent and landing, but mainly because it was a loop, and the song "The wonder of it all" went from being something I quite liked to something I don't ever want to hear again. But then, as we taxied to the terminal in Melbourne, they put on a children's choir singing "I still call Australia home" and I felt all gooey. (Songs about home, from no matter what country, get me going, even when they're not sung by children.) The song, I learn from the internet, is by Peter Allen (The Boy from Oz):

I've been to cities that never close down
from New York to Rio (Rome) and old London town,
but no matter how far or how wide I roam
I still call Australia home.

I'm always traveling, I love being free,
and so I keep leaving the sun and the sea,
but my heart lies waiting over the foam.
I still call Australia home.

All the sons and daughters spinning 'round the world,
away from their family and friends,
but as the world gets older and colder,
it's good to know where your journey ends.

But someday we'll all be together once more
when all of the ships come back to the shore.
Then I realise something I've always known.
I still call Australia home.

I recognized the song because Qantas has been in the news recently. Australia's de facto national airline is about to be sold to an international consortium of investors. Will the Qantas of the future work as hard to make the world pleasantly accessible to Australians, and Australia pleasantly accessible to its far-flung diaspora?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Traveling sucks

Have I ever said I like traveling? If so, I take it back. Instead of sleeping happily in my comfy Qantas seat (or watching first-run movies on the state-of-the-art seatback entertainment system) I'm in a crappy hotel at Narita Airport. Our flight, scheduled to depart at 8:10 this evening, was delayed - until tomorrow morning! (Narita has an early "curfew"; no flights leaving after 10pm.) So I won't arrive in Melbourne until tomorrow night, losing a day I'd hoped to spend on errands and wending my way to Shepparton. Argh! On top of that, the computer somehow decided to claim I was not traveling on an e-ticket (although I've flown the other 5/6 of this itinerary with it as an e-ticket); this took such a long time to sort out - long enough for the poor counter lady's obsequious Japanese apologies to curdle - that I arrived at the hotel restaurant 2 minutes too late for the dinner buffet, and had to settle for an inflexible "set menu" so paltry as to make one pine for airline food! Arrgghh! Let's just hope we do in fact depart tomorrow morning at 8:30, my luggage doesn't get lost, the computer at Melbourne doesn't decide to claim I don't have an e-visa (which of course I do have, but there's nothing in the passport to prove it), and the taxi gets me speedily home in time for a nice dinner on Lygon Street! And maybe I'll be refreshed by seeing the Red Center out my window - something I wouldn't have been able to do had the flight gone on time.

Old material and new

I've seen the future! While my stay in Japan has been an almost insulting 3 days, a vast new modern art museum, the National Art Center Tokyo, opened during my stay (the 21st to be precise). So I went to have a look. (Notice the wrapped tree!) An exhibition on material objects in 20th and 21st century art was the main exhibit, 500 works by Japanese and international artists from museums and collections here and abroad, taking up all three of the huge exhibition spaces on the ground floor. (There are two more floors besides.) A very rich and ultimately ovewhelming show. What a pleasure, deep within it, to find two unfamiliar and yet entirely familiar Morandis.

The kicker, and the reason "Living in the Material World - 'Things' in Art of the 20th Century and Beyond" is the kickoff for this new museum, is that the museum has and will build no collection of its own. Things - possessions - a standing collection - are (as some people supposedly say) so twentieth century! The museum of the future will be just a space. Makes me feel very with-it, spaced out and generally luggage-free as I am!

Or am I one of the things floating around, from space to space? It certainly feels that way this month... I'm off to the airport, arriving Melbourne tomorrow morning. Interesting to be "going home" from the place I grew up (California) and a place I've been connected to long enough to become adult there (Japan) to a place where I've spent barely four months...

Monday, January 22, 2007


Had a lovely reunion yesterday with some old Tokyo friends, both of them moral philosophers. One I have seen pretty much every year, either here or in the US (I've invited him to speak twice). The other I haven't seen since 2000 because of scheduling conflicts - and because two years ago he caught a virus while traveling and spent over two weeks in a coma, and several more unable to speak. Nobody expected him to recover, but as I was delighted to confirm, recover he has!

A scholar of comparative ethics (including religion) he described the ways the world now seems to him very movingly in terms from various traditions. Early in his recovery words seemed only arbitrarily connected to objects, and, he said, medieval nominalism finally made sense to him. Tastes only came back slowly, too, and he understands in a new way ancient Japanese people's sense of gratitude to foods for their tastiness and nourishment. The weeks he spent in a convalescent home made him appreciate the importance of care, and conclude that women are both more attentive and more self-sufficient than men. He worries that young Japanese have lost a sense of themselves as a part of something larger (自分) and not just a disconnected object (自己). (I'm mangling his subtlety here, apologies.) And he's been reading Augustine and finds the idea of creation ex nihilo (無からの創造) suddenly makes sense to him. What a joy to see him again, and see him so well. Was it American of me to suggest to him that his rebirth is worth writing down and publishing?

The other friend went through a kind of rebirth last year, too: he turned sixty, which he reminded us is the length of the cycle of Chinese astrology and the five elements (12 x 5). And I'm approaching an even more notional turning point: it was (unbelievably!) twenty years ago that I first came to Japan. Twenty is when one comes of age here; there's even a holiday for it, 成人の日, for which one dresses up in traditional Japanese garb and visits a shrine. I'm not sure whether I ought to go this year or next.

But twenty years...! Much has changed, including the geography of Tokyo - hence the two subway maps above, which describe the same city, but also different cities. The first organizes everything as inside or outside the loop of the Yamanote 山の手 line train, and so Tokyo space was organized until very recently. Then one of the subway companies opened a new loop line, which runs deep deep beneath the surface, and dared to represent it as the true loop. Forgotten neighborhoods suddenly made it onto the map, resonating with the new line's name, Oedo 大江戸, great Edo (the old name for Tokyo). The Oedo circle map exposed for all time the graceless shape of the Yamanote's actual trajectory. (It's the black and white one; the two maps are both in English, should anyone care to try to read them together.) Several of the Yamanote stations, excluded from the new circle, now seem hopelessly peripheral.

Of course when it comes down to it neither the Yamanote nor the Oedo line is anything like a circle, but a fresh-faced 21-year-old turning up for the first time in Tokyo in 2007 would think the Oedo Line the most important boundary.

Saturday, January 20, 2007


And now I'm back in Japan for a few minutes - well, three days. But it is decidedly mad to do Melbourne-Tokyo-San Diego-Tokyo-Melbourne in just two weeks! (Wish I were going to have more than a week to recuperate and gird my loins for India, which starts February 1st!)

Tokyo's a lot colder than it was, er, last week; I was shivering as I walked from the subway station to my friend's house, and it took a soak in her Japanese-style bath to warm me up again. First wintry temps all season, I'm told. In this strangely mild northern hemisphere winter there doesn't seem to be snow in any of the usual places. (The only snow I heard about this last week was a dusting in the mountains above Malibu, which just reinforces the point!) The picture above is indeed one I took in Japan, but it was last January in Nagano. I still can't understand how that snow got into that tree, or stayed there...

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Commonplace miracles

Today I rediscovered a poet whose work really stirs me, and may have found an epigraph for part of my book (the second part, or perhaps the conclusion) in its first lines.

Miracle Fair

Commonplace miracle:
that so many commonplace miracles happen.

An ordinary miracle:
in the dead of night
the barking of invisible dogs.

One miracle out of many:
a small, airy cloud
yet it can block a large and heavy moon.

Several miracles in one:
an alder tree reflected in the water,
and that it’s backwards left to right
and that it grows there, crown down
and never reaches the bottom,
even though the water is shallow.

An everyday miracle:
winds weak to moderate
turning gusty in storms.

First among miracles:
cows are cows.

Second to none:
just this orchard
from just that seed.

A miracle without a cape and top hat:
scattering white doves.

A miracle, for what else could you call it:
today the sun rose at three-fourteen
and will set at eight-o-one.

A miracle, less surprising than it should be:
even though the hand has fewer than six fingers,
it still has more than four.

A miracle, just take a look around:
the world is everywhere.

An additional miracle, as everything is additional:
the unthinkable is thinkable.

Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wislawa Szymborska,
trans. Joanna Trzeciak (NY & London: W. W. Norton, 2001), 119-20

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A good sunset

For some reason sunsets are one of the things people name when they try to think of things that are beautiful, or make them happy, or even... are good. Perhaps this is because each sunset is different. This evening's - pictured above a few seconds before the sun disappeared into a bank of cloud - was a three-ring circus! (Give it a click, it's full of lovely details.)

Perhaps it's also because sunsets let us consciously participate in the passage of time. And in a world larger than our own, of which ours is a natural part.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Tempest in a teacup?

A day and a half after the denouement of our India game, I'm still not sure what I learned. Or rather, that as a student I'd be able to separate out what happened in our game from what actually happened, was eigentlich geschah - or even be much interested in it. At the moment my feelings are more like the guilty relief which I used to feel after long Chinese movies: thank goodness I'm not Chinese. Not a desirable teaching objective!

Instead, here's a mysterious picture of a mountainscape within a seascape, er, last night's sunset through an empty hummingbird feeder. I can't stop myself from thinking there actually is a lake somewhere, with foothills and mountains beyond, and a little steep-roofed cottage with a fruit tree next to it, which look just like this... (Not to worry, the feeder's been replenished.)

Sunday, January 14, 2007


Well, the India game is over and everyone lost. Riots have engulfed the land, the navy has mutinied, and the Simla conference collapsed into irrelevance. We've left, too; no knighthoods likely, though we tried every trick in the book including honesty.

Each player in the "Reacting to the Past" games is given a character and an aim, the failure to achieve which means you lose. Usually someone loses, but this time everyone did. Everyone was crestfallen - except for the Gamemaster, who seemed to be having the time of his life scuttling our every effort (and the American Indians' every effort) to stave off disaster. In the post-mortem he told us that this game was designed to produce this result, and the Instructor's Manual is full of ways in which the Gamemaster can ensure it. If we felt we'd been had with the promise, however counterfactual, that we might have achieved something different, so much the better. Sometimes good outcomes are not possible, a good thing for students - especially Americans - to learn.

Well I don't know. In one sense, yes, obviously it is a fantasy that the past can be changed. But other games - about the trials of Socrates, Galileo and Anne Hutchison, the French Revolution, the Wanli Emperor, etc. - are designed to be genuinely open-ended. (Only in the post-mortem are students reminded that history has already happened.) Why is the India game the exception? As my Kiwi teammate noted, for all its tragedies modern Indian history is actually in many respects a success story, something the materials we received and the content of the "post-mortem" debriefing made inconceivable. If Americans are generally too sanguine about historical opportunities, this experience suggests that the only other option - the flip side - is a grim and sadistic fatalism. It shouldn't, I suppose, be a surprise that the fatalism should show its face here: Orientalism is alive and well. And 'India' is the place in the western imaginary where time dissolves, where complexity overwhelms, where the inconceivable and the intolerable are inevitable.

Oh well, it's just a game, right? When I arrive in India - the real India, the real me - in two and a half weeks, it'll be a truer test. Wish me luck.

(By the way, the picture above was today's sunset. Below in a brief separate post are two other pictures you absolutely have to see.)

Water's hidden artistry

Although I took them this afternoon, I don't feel I can claim credit for these pictures (especially the second). My camera just happened to be snapping as they occurred. Remarkable, no? The world dances just beyond the threshold of our comprehension.


Greetings from India! Our efforts at negotiating a responsible and graceful exit continue another day but I'm afraid I am not optimistic for their outcome. Pious poetic prattle about the superiority of "the Indian understanding of time" notwithstanding, our interlocutors seem content to allow the question whether we depart this afternoon or tomorrow morning to consume time which may well represent the last chance to prevent India from entering years of violent chaos and division. As occurred already in the real Simla Conference, I fear ours too will pave the way for partition.

What am I talking about? I mentioned last month, I believe, that I'm participating in a conference on a new pedagogy known as "Reacting to the Past," which gets students energized about learning (we're told) by letting them enter history through a cleverly recreated historical turning point. The games are so designed (we're told) as to let students experience the importance of persuasion, of ideas in context, of personalities; actual historical events are slightly altered in order to allow some contingency as the game is played - until a final "post-mortem," when students learn what really happened.

One of the two games on offer here (in greatly compressed versions) is about Indian independence, and imagines that the unsuccessful conference to which the British Governor General called leaders of India's political parties in Simla in June 1945 might have achieved something. To prise us loose from the historical record it postulates that the actual Governor General was killed in a bombing on his way to SImla, and two replacements are sent from London. This allows them to quiz the assembled Indian representatives about things Lord Wavell would have known, and also creates a space for new ideas.

By some twist of fate, I find myself one of these two interim Governors General. (The other, by another karmic twist, is from New Zealand - and spent 1997-2006 at Melbourne Uni, before moving to a teaching job at Cleveland State University. We tut-tut together at romantic American notions about coherent and teleological history, and whispered the holy name of Inga Clendinnen.) I am saddened if not entirely surprised to have to report that these Indians seem unwilling to consider the possibility that, just this once, we may truly have their best interests at stake. Or at least that their best interests may, just this once, coincide with ours. It is an unprecedented historical opportunity which might even seem to confirm their loopy views on time (!), but they are passing it up.

I'm not yet a convert to this approach; it is certainly very engaging - if emotionally nearly overwhelming. After the denouement and the post-mortem tomorrow morning, partition may have become inevitable again, but I may find answers to satisfy my worry that the buzz of such a game disrupts students' broader commitment to learning and respect for historical consciousness more than it deepens them. If there were a way to harness its excitement without making the rest of the curriculum seem onerous and unworldly, it would be as much fun to teach as to play.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Small world...

...or maybe not so small. Although the trip here was virtually effortless I was out cold for eleven hours once it came to sleeping! This somehow memorably hideous objet is a Lladro thingie I saw in a magazine in Barcelona a few years ago (When did Atlas have kids?) - I've been waiting for an occasion to get it out of my system! Whatever its other merits, it does show that getting from Australia to California via Japan is not, perhaps, the most direct way after all.

And no, while it may be Friday in Nippon and Oz, here it's still Thursday.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Hop skip and jump

Greetings from California! The (first, quick, lovely) Japan stopover was effortless - no significant timezone change so you hardly notice it. And the change at LAX to a little plane for the last stretch to San Diego afforded me views I've never had before of my childhood stomping ground. Here - from the window of our plane! - is the view. Going north (up) past the Torrey Pines golf course (not part of the stomping ground) you reach Torrey Pines State Reserve (stomp), the beach (stomp, stomp) and above the lagoon, the little town Del Mar (stomp, stomp, stomp), home! I didn't like being from sunny California as a self-conscious nerdy boy - I bodysurfed rather than surfed in part because you can hide in the wave - but now I'm delighted to come home to it, or at least to this little stretch of it. (Del Mar is the home of this blog, too, which began here four months ago.)

Considering I left Tokyo this evening at ten past five, it was especially sweet to have arrived in Del Mar in time for a walk with my parents on said beach before the sun set at 5:04. Looking west from just above where the lagoon meets the Pacific we saw the sunset above. The clouds give a wintry feel to it all, the red along the horizon - brighter than my photo conveys - warm like a distant fire. But I'm Australianized enough already to have been reminded by the gappy clouds in this picture of light shining through gum (eucalpyptus) trees. Now I'm really seeing things!

Monday, January 08, 2007

In the air

This is my last post from the glorious State Library of Victoria (have I mentioned that this is my new home?). By this time tomorrow I'll be most of the way to Tokyo! In case you missed it (easy enough, I only mentioned it once), I'm going to California - and flying the long way. I'm participating in a conference on an exciting new way of teaching about history (I get to go because I'll be chair of the first year program when I return to school next year). Very happily the conference is in San Diego, where my parents live! And that the ticket I ended up finding (in highest of high seasons down here) goes over Japan with compulsory stopovers adds very pleasing wrapping. But it will be a lot of time in the air. Have you ever noticed that Australia is really very far away from, why, from most anywhere?

I'll try to update the blog regularly, but just so you know where I'll be flying when. (If anyone wants to catch up by phone while I'm in California, I'll give you the number!)
Tuesday 9/1: Melbourne-Tokyo
Wednesday 10/1: Tokyo-San Diego
Friday-Sunday 12-14/1 conference
Friday 19/1: San Diego-Tokyo (arriving. Saturday)
Tuesday 23/1: Tokyo-Melbourne (arriving Wednesday)

But before I leave Melbourne, let me tell you about something strange that's been happening to me; I'd be interested in your thoughts on it. Just in the last few days I have started finding myself recognizing lots of people from New York around here - in the library, the café, the tram. It's not them, of course. But the resemblances are, for a time, striking. What's strangest of all is that this didn't happen at all before a few days ago, and now it seems I can't take a ride in a tram without seeing some ex-student or colleague.

What to make of this? Is it homesickness - or the opposite? (It's not anticipation of being back in New York, since I'm only going to California.) Perhaps my mind has let go of the boundary between there and here, letting me look at strangers' faces here with the expectations of home, expectations which were bracketed out before by constant awareness that this is not home? Or is it that I've now been here long enough that I'm recognizing faces (regular passengers in the tram, waiters, etc.), and so the gates have been opened to a more general expectation of familiar faces? Or maybe I'm just going soft in the head from thinking too much (or too mushily) about the good. Any thoughts?

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Through Australian eyes

An artist whose work I have been following has entered a new phase. His earlier paintings, in the colors of the Australian countryside, are bold and profound. This one, which hangs on my wall at 450 Lygon Street, manages at once to evoke Noah's flood and the power of the Australian land (whose shape is gestured at). I haven't been keeping you posted on the bush fires, which seem to be under control if not out. I've also not mentioned that some regions had rain, and it led to floods - floods and drought seem like kin here. This is a climate of broad strokes, and here the artist has caught its raw power. Quite different but still full of movement this one, which reminds me of the windy tug-of-war between gum groves and canola fields I saw along the way to Shepparton before the drought dried everything up. (Remember my photo from the train?) The subtlety of the scenery here is nicely captured in the interpenetration of the colors: the animating heart of the green-blue is yellow, and vice versa. This third work shows the primary colors which, beneath the camouflage of dusty greys and greens, are the true colors of the Australian land. Sometimes the sky will call to the red of the earth and turn the whole world reds, peaches and corals (which at dusk may generate an underwater world of blues and purples), but much of the time the primary colors are concentrated in the flight of Australia's birds.

The artist's newest work has gone in an almost disturbingly different direction. Gone are colors and the dynamic, almost terrifying momentum of their interactions. In their place, as in this evocation - or memory? - of billabongs (I suppose), we find barest outlines, mere scratches on the surface of an earth which has turned away from us into a flat parody of green. No more mutual informing of surface and depth, just spaces you can never enter, since every side is outside.

This is what drought feels like.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Japanese miniature

I saw this world map board game from 1951 today a year ago, in the historic Kaichi school in Matsumoto. (Click on it to see more detail.) It shows clearly that going from Australia to California via Japan makes perfect sense! Since that's what I'm about to do - departure is Tuesday morning - this is reassuring. It's also, I dare say, a worthy addition to the assembling of unusual maps with which this blog began.

This rather pinched used book store, which I saw the same day with my friend O (that's him in the picture), also seems an appropriate emblem for my embarrassingly super-quick Japan stopovers. My stays in Japan - I have to stop over in both directions - are one and three days, respectively, adding up to a hardly respectable four in all!

For the time being, though, I'm still in Melbourne, frantically trying to crank out a draft, no matter how shaggy, of "the book" before departing. I'm a bit behind but should just squeak through, if very shaggily. Wish me luck!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

We know them

Had coffee this morning with K, my first host and inspired guide to the true, i.e., hidden Melbourne. She’s back for a few weeks from Germany, where she works, and I was reporting on my assignment in her absence, which was to find a fabulous café or bar she didn’t know. The one I wanted to show her — the tiny Café au Soleil in a glassed-over alleyway reminiscent of the less frequented Parisian passages — is closed for the holidays, so we went instead to a little café in Degraves Street. Degraves is one of the cosy, atmospheric and half-hidden “arcades, alleys and laneways” where Melbourne downtown comes to life. (I can’t believe I never got around to posting this map of the self-guided walk of that name; Degraves is bottom left.)

Compared to K the people I see nowadays are recent arrivals in Melbourne, so it was fun once again to experience (however vicariously) the city’s whole cultural life as not more than three degrees of separation away. Well, just the parts of the city worth knowing, needless to say! Several bright and popular places I found back in September were dismissed with “we would never go there” or even (my favorite) “nobody goes there.” This morning I asked her advice on books, since I have yet to find the great Melburnian novel (if there is one). The State Library of Victoria had put together a list of books about Melbourne and she went through it, as often as not saying of authors or their subjects “we know them.”

But I was the one who knew someone in the café. After racking my brain a little I recognized our squinty and slightly shady-looking waiter as having been the male lead in the production of Brecht and Weil’s “Happy End,” the misbegotten sequel to the “Dreigroschenoper” I saw at the Victoria College of the Arts two months ago. Not that he looked remotely shady-looking in light blue shorts and short-sleeve shirt on a sunny morning, even in the shadow of Degraves Street, but I remembered him as a gangster with what passed for a heart of gold in Weimar, swaggering and drawling, spitting and snarling his way through songs like “Bilbao.” I recall thinking he had the perfect mug for the part (he appears to be missing one of his front teeth), so perfect I couldn’t imagine him in anything else. Are you acting in anything right now, I asked? We only just graduated, he said, and now it’s all about going to auditions… He has an agent. But most of the time he’s right here, in the Degraves Espresso.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Since I started keeping a daily diary in 2001, it's become something of a tradition to read through each year as it ends. So much one forgets! This picture is actually from January 4th three years ago, on the beach in California near the close of day. The angle of the sun makes the curve of this piece of sea-grass seem more dramatic than it was... but it could be that the exaggerated contours of retrospection show the shape of things better. Or not! (Remember that every picture can be enlarged by clicking on it.)

Anyway, here are three of the things I rediscovered in looking back over 2006. One, something I'd quite forgotten, is a quotation from a book I taught for the first time last (northern-hemisphere) Spring in a class on religion and democracy. The book is John Dewey's A Common Faith, and this sentence neatly encapsulates one of the main points of my own book-in-progress: goods actually experienced in the concrete relations of family, neighborhood, citizenship, pursuit of art and science, are what men actually depend upon for guidance and support, and … their reference to a supernatural and other-worldly locus has obscured their real nature and has weakened their force. Re-encountering it I am confronted again by a nagging question: "how on earth is my argument going to connect up to religion?" which reveals another: "isn't my argument really about how much we can do without religion, and when will I admit it?"

The other things are not rediscoveries in that I haven't and couldn't forget them. 2006 was the year I returned to the stage! Sure, I had only small parts (but there were six of them) (that's how small they were!). And there were only two performances (three including the invited dress rehearsal). And none of the other actors had even been born the last time I acted. But no matter, acting in Cecilia Rubino's documentary theater piece "The Odets Project" was unquestionably among the highlights of the year! It was an amazing experience of collective effervescence, of creating a world together and sharing it.

And the third thing: can there be anything more wonderful than watching children grow up, discovering the world? Unclehood rocks!

I was going to do a "best films of 2006" list but can't be bothered. Just this: "Jindabyne" and "Ten canoes" are terrific Australian films - go see them if you can! The comedy "Kenny" is wonderful too (worth a hundred "Borats," a film to avoid like horsepoop in the road), but I doubt it'll make its way overseas. See "Children of men" rather than "Babel." I really enjoyed "C. S. A.: Confederate States of America" and "A Scanner Darkly," and loved "Volver."

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


After all the grumbling, I have to say that the sudden featureless sea of time which opens up after the hoopla of the holidays is rather nice warm and in full color rather than a chilly grey. The jacarandas are leafier than when I took this picture a month ago, but it's too pretty to resist posting. And besides, in its lack of green it's still somehow cognate with winter...

Monday, January 01, 2007

Point counterpoint new year!

Well, it almost seems ancient history now (we're already two days into the new year over here), but I had a new year's eve worth writing about this time.

You've heard me winge (whinge?) about the weightlessness of Advent in the middle of summer, and Christmas looked to be even worse, lost in the din of school holidays starting, beaches opening, the summer solstice (!), and the buying bacchanal of Christmas sales. It was starting to seem that the magic of Christmas I was pining for was in fact just the magic of the turn of winter: the pagan festivities on which early Christianity piggybacked in Europe. The great wheel of nature, nothing more. This was rather discouraging, as it made it seem that the hope one feels might really be in response to the solstice, and nothing to do with a babe in manger, the light of the world. (It might also be that there's a different kind of visceral turning brought on by the summer solstice. I do think our bodies are more attuned to these things than we quite realize.)

Lucky for me I'm attending a liturgically fastidious church, one of whose traditions is to celebrate Lessons and Carols not before Christmas as everyone else does, but the Sunday after Christmas, as is apparently proper and as most of the carols demand. This year that Sunday fell on new year's eve, so Christmas had a chance to fight back! And fight back it did, planting a flag on that most pagan of holidays, with a lovely service of carols and music, culminating in "Dieu parmi nous," the ending of Messiaen's La Nativité du Seigneur, whose glorious melding of birdsong and wondrously strange deep descending organ chords (representing "the living God descending to His people") fit right into summer, and hushed it into silent adoration.

And then, after a party, I found my way with a friend to Federation Square (which I've come to love, especially at night, when it looks like a computer-generated landscape, nearly transparent and mysterious) for the fireworks, which were all around us! I've never been surrounded by fireworks before, nor, in the aftermath, by half a million peaceful people flowing like great rivers through the streets of a becalmed nocturnal city. Impossible not to catch the energy of that moment, to dare to hope that that joyous peaceful energy will flow more freely this year, and bring joy and peace to the world.