Wednesday, September 28, 2011

SIck Day

If you have to spend the day in bed with a rotten cough and croaky lungs, it's not entirely unpleasant to have two furry companions and a teenager on holidays who can make you scrambled eggs for lunch.


Pink Floyd are floating up the stairs, and the rain has started, so the day is taking on a rather dreamy flavour.

I do feel the unanswered emails and undone tasks mounting up, though. I'm trying to get through a few today, but I seem to be making rather slow progress.

Oh, the kitties have just brought their toy mouse upstairs to play with. Wulf just needs to fortify himself with a soupcon of left-over scrambled egg.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Writing Companions

My adorable writing companions, helping me finish up my rather late essay, "Blogging, Time, and Displacement" for Literature Compass. Even the way they sleep is typical of their personalities: precise Orlando and sprawling Wulf.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

My Dinner with Carol, Julie, Lyn and Hannah - or How a highly-paid attorney hijacked a pleasant evening

Four of the five of us have birthdays round about the same time, and over the last few years we have developed a lovely tradition of having dinner together some time in March, and also a couple of other times a year. We sometimes exchange tiny presents or drink a glass of champagne to celebrate a promotion, send someone on their travels or welcome someone home.

Last time we met we decided to plan a special event. Julie and I had both read a wonderful account of a vegetarian degustation menu at Jacques Reymond, a much-awarded restaurant, so we booked months in advance, and had this treat to look forward to.

We turned up on Thursday — the restaurant is in a beautiful and huge Victorian house, with high ceilings and perfect-sized rooms — and began our feast. Three of us went with the vegetarian menu; the other two went with the meat version. We began auspiciously with a light-as-air profiterole made with gruy√®re, and then began eight courses of perfectly balanced, delicate food. I am not a fan of over-fussy food, and at times this came close. There was rather a lot of foam, too, which doesn't thrill me at the best of times, though one serve of it, on one of the dishes, was absolutely divine. But I did really enjoy this meal. The service was excellent; the wine was good; and the vegetarian and meat courses somehow complemented each other perfectly, often just variations of each other. Here are a couple of photos: check out the truffle shavings over the egg-white omelette, and the gazpacho served in vegetable jelly rolls with buckwheat on top.



Conversation was going swimmingly: we laughed and chatted, and compared notes about our children, our work, our travels, our lives. Really, the food was amazing. We ate delicious things but didn't feel over-full, as the food was so light, with an emphasis on flavour and texture, rather than richness.

And then something happened that slowly began to unravel our happiness.

As we were waiting for the first of our two desserts, the waiter brought five small wine glasses to the table and starting to pour a late-picked riesling. Sometimes desserts do come with their own wine, but we asked, to make sure there had been no mistake. And we were told that two gentlemen sitting in the corner of the room had sent it over for us.

Well, what to do? None of us were really familiar with strangers buying us drinks in bars or restaurants before, so we were a little non-plussed. It was familiar to us only through the movies. In such a scene, what happens? You look around to the table and catch their eye and thank them. It was so clearly not a scene of seduction, so that didn't seem to be the issue. The waiter reported they had said it was a gentlemanly thing to do...

After what seemed a very long and uncomfortable time, but which was probably only a few minutes, I got up and went over to them. I certainly wasn't going to drink the wine without thanking them, and kind of wanted to close it all down. So I just said thank you very much, that they were very kind, and that we would enjoy the wine very much. I shook hands with them both, but didn't introduce myself, or ask why they had done it: I just wanted to close off the exchange.

But of course, that wasn't enough. One of the two men came over to our table later on and started to talk with us. There are a number of things I remember him saying: that he thought it was great that we were having dinner together; that he was gay; that he didn't eat sweets himself, and that he blamed his mother for that, because she had never let him eat sweets; that we should be doing something, as women, to support Julia Gillard; and that he was a highly-paid attorney. I guess he would be in his early forties.

This is where it really became difficult. We had drunk his wine, so couldn't be too rude, but Carol immediately picked him up on daring to give us his approval of eating without men at the table; and I said I thought it was really men who had the greater problem with Gillard, and who might have to work a bit harder.

On it went. And then off he went back to his table. But then he came over again, and said we had to give him six minutes before we paid our bill.

Now it was really getting awkward. Was it possible he was going to try and pay our bill? That would have been intolerable. So we didn't wait his six minutes, but finished our dessert, moved on to our tea and petits fours ...


... and then paid our bill, collected our coats, and left. As we were leaving, one of the waiters told Lyn the man was wanting to order another dessert for us, but that they had dissuaded him.

As we drove home (I'd driven straight from the airport, so had one glass of red, and just a taste of the reisling, so I drove us all back to the other side of the river, where such a thing would *never* happen!), we became angrier and angrier. It was a classic case of delayed reaction to sexual harassment, or in this case, the insidious attempt to patronise and disempower. Clearly the sight of five articulate women having dinner together is still an affront to some men. Blaming his mother, to a group of mothers in their fifties, was problematic enough, but it was so clearly a case of not knowing what to do with us, and not being able to leave us alone, either. So we could see what it was all about, and how foolish he was, but also how irritating it was that this "gentlemanly" behaviour was such a power play.

It's a tricky one, this one. Even the waiters struggled a little with how to manage us, and address us. I suppose the idea of the "ladies who lunch" sits behind this. We are supposed to giggle and flirt with the waiters, are we? and with the other guests? We weren't wearing suits and didn't look corporate enough to be forbidding? As we were leaving, the waiters presented us with tiny little white cardboard boxes which we weren't supposed to open till breakfast. So wicked, we didn't wait and in the car discovered there was one tiny rum ball in the box. Was this a token of restaurant apology for the unpleasantness? Was it the sense that a little more sugar would sweeten the evening?

I was exhausted by the time I got home. I'd been up early, gone to the hotel gym in Canberra and spent all day at a meeting, then flown back, and driven across the city before the dinner started. I was in bed by midnight, and in spite of my big meal, didn't feel I had over-eaten. And yet I barely slept, as the evening had kind of unravelled for me. The funniest thing, really, was his making sure we knew he was a "highly paid attorney" as it's a word that really isn't used in Australia. For us, it absolutely betrayed his own sense that he was acting out a scene from a movie.

Ridiculous. Irritating. Angry-making.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

The Bike that Lee Built

I booked my old Malvern Star Wisp in for a service down at the bike shop, the fabulous VeloCycles in Nicholson St. My bike was fifteen years old, and had served me well, but it had needed very regular servicing for the last couple of years. It was scratched, rusty and creaky. They put it up on the stand and gave it a quick assessment. Most of the gear teeth were damaged, the wheels were getting out of alignment, etc. etc., and perhaps it was time to donate it to the Ceres bike exchange and start with something new. I wasn't surprised: they had given me plenty of warning over the last few services.

We had a quick look at similar styled bikes on the floor (hybrid bikes, where you sit up to ride, and the wheels are neither thin like racing bikes nor thick like mountain bikes), and then I remembered how much I'd enjoyed riding with dropped handlebars on our New Zealand trip, so we started looking at other bikes. I am absolutely no expert on bikes at all, but I described the kind of riding I do — a daily commute from North Fitzroy to Parkville, an occasional longer ride around city bike paths, and then once a year or so a longer trip on rural rail trails — and they narrowed it down to two bikes they had in stock. One was called Surly. OK, so coming from a bike called Wisp I wasn't on very strong grounds to object to a name, but all the same there was no way I was going to hitch myself for the next fifteen years to Surly. There was another, a Salsa Vaya that was dark brown. Then as is always the way, there *was* a bike they thought would be perfect for me, a Salsa Casseroll, but they had sold their last one last week. They phoned around and found there were none in the country, and no news about any new shipments. However, there was one frame left, and it was exactly my size, so Paul said they could build one for me.

Woah: I thought. This is going to cost way too much, and I have no idea how to do this. I can barely change my own tyres, let alone choose different fittings. The whole project seemed so uncertain to me, partly because I didn't think I was that serious a rider. Was it really worth it? But the more they talked about it, the cleverer an idea it seemed; and the more desirable the Casseroll frame. We looked at pictures of the Casseroll on the web, and I must admit it did look rather elegant. And yes, Casseroll is an odd name for a bike, too. It's either something to eat or vaguely French: "break roll"? Someone needs to do some serious work on naming bikes.

I went back a couple of days later and met with Lee, the senior mechanic, who would be in charge of the build. And there began a very happy relationship indeed. He would ring me and run various options past me, and I'd come in and look at the various quotes. He gave me a couple of options at one point, and said don't worry about the most expensive total, because it was "downspecable". And I could have saved a couple of hundred dollars at this point, except that it was so clear Lee was putting together a fabulous bike. One of the great selling points was the wheels. The wheels they put on most bikes are factory built and don't often last more than a couple of years, but handbuilt ones are far stronger and more finely tuned.

At one point I asked Lee how often he built a bike from the ground up. "Twice a day in my head" was the quick reply, at which point I realised exactly what this kind of "build" represented. I go into a bike shop and am quickly overwhelmed by the choice and variety of what's on offer. Someone like Lee sees thousands of possibilities and variations, and most importantly, can explain them clearly to a novice. One day the frame arrived:


When choosing the fittings we decided to go for a brushed chrome look that would complement the bike's silvery grey coloring, and the styling was "semi-retro", complete with leather saddle and handlebar grip.

The whole shop seemed excited about this project. I have to say it is always a pleasure going in. Some bike shops have a way of making you feel very ditsy if you don't understand the finer details of Olympic racing, but I've never had that kind of grief here. They were also really careful about the money, giving me careful advice about what I would be up for.

Finally on Friday it was ready. Well, nearly ready. Lee put it up on a little training rack, so I could try it for height, etc. in the shop.


This was much better than the moment I was dreading, when I would ride it out on the bike path and fall off because I wasn't secure enough to see if it was too high, or when I would mess up a gear change and bring the chain off. So I hopped on and off a few times until the height and position of the saddle were just right, and off I went for a trial spin. The gear shift levers on this bike are cunningly positioned to emerge from the end of the handlebars and they take a little while to get used to. Also, the brakes were very tight, indeed: luckily Lee warned me to go gently with them at first. But it felt pretty good, I must say.


We decided it needed a slightly shorter ... I don't know the name of the part: the horizontal bit that connects the handlebars to the vertical stem. So off I went home, and turned up again a couple of hours later. A fancy new wooden pannier rack had just come into the store, and they had fitted that, plus the lights, bell, and silvery mudguards etc. we had chosen. As the leather saddle ages, it will darken to match the leather grips, which are amazingly comfortable. I also bought a new lock!

My bike is a thing of beauty, now: sleek and silvery, but with lovely old-school touches of leather and wood. I've learned enough over the last two weeks to realise how streamlined and tight is its construction and fittings. Its pedals are small: flat on one side for riding in regular shoes; and with the little cleats on the other for when I get the special shoes (you are thus propelling the bike when your leg moves up as well as when it presses down) for touring. The brake cables are neatly positioned, without those huge loops you sometimes see.

If this sounds like an ad for VeloCycles, and Lee, and for the idea of getting someone to build you a bike from the frame up, so be it: this was such a fun thing to do, and I couldn't be happier with the result. I'll be taking it in to my office for the next little while, so do feel free to come and admire it if you are on campus. It was not cheap, but given that I plan to ride it for the next fifteen years, that's absolutely fine. I was going to use my tax return to buy an ipad: I'm much happier having a fabulous bike!

Old bike:


New bike: