I've kept this blog, on and off, since 2006. In 2015 I used it to chart daily encounters, images, thoughts and feelings about volcanic basalt/bluestone in Melbourne and Victoria, especially in the first part of the year. I plan to write a book provisionally titled Bluestone: An Emotional History, about human uses of and feelings for bluestone. But I am also working on quite a few other projects and a big grant application, especially now I am on research leave. I'm working mostly from home, then, for six months, and will need online sociability for company!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Big chickens, little fish, long walk

There's some furious work going on at my desk at the moment. Writing a new little section into Chapter One [check], some more polishing of Introduction and Acknowledgements [check]; and now having another look at the final chapter before the last round of revisions, removing excessive punctuation and starting to get footnotes in final order.

So not much blogging or facebooking at the moment. In lieu, some photos.

The chickens are enormous: time for them to go up to Ceres pretty soon, I think.

And the baby fish are growing, too: big enough to start nibbling directly on the fish food: 

Their parents are looking good, too.

And it hardly deserves a mention, because it is so unutterably depressing, but the cricket is on, and the Ashes are gone. Boxing Day at the MCG was awful. The crowd was enormous (89,000?), and most of it very quiet, as we watched one after another Australian batsmen go out. It was freezing cold, with a nasty wind blowing up into the pavilion. There was a rain interruption, and by the time I took this photo the lights were on. It was a very long quiet walk back to the pavilion in the afternoon.

A chirpy Englishman climbed back into his seat near us at one point and said cheerfully, "It's awfully quiet up here!" And we were all so depressed no one had anything to say in reply. And it's just gone from bad to worse since then. 

OK, back to work.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

I Am The Woman. And so is Bernadette.

I Am The Woman. The woman who looked at Paul's reservation online and saw that his week-long delayed flight from Heathrow just looked a bit fishy. I am also the woman who phoned Qantas to find out it was a "fictitious" booking, a kind of place-holder that bore no necessary relation to any real flight. Because their system was saying he had already flown home.

The lovely Bernadette is also The Woman. She is the Qantas rep who scrounged around and now has booked him on a flight leaving London Wednesday night in time for him to walk in the door just before Christmas Eve lunch.

I am also the woman who couldn't contain her excitement and phoned the man at 2.00 in the morning to tell him the good news. But I feel, all the same, as if I am bringing him home myself.  I have an awful feeling that if he had turned up to Heathrow on Christmas Day, he might not have had a booking at all.

Happy Christmas everyone!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Extremely rare guest post

I am very sorry my love, but I have just come down to do a final check on my flight for today and it has been changed to Christmas day.
I am stuck here!!!
Attached is the latest version of my diary notes. Please distribute it to family and friends as you see fit and apologize to everybody for my absence.
Love and everything,

On Not Getting Home for Christmas, or, Doubting the Joys of Global Travel

Saturday afternoon, 18 December, Heathrow

The designated boarding time of 11.45 am for BA30 leaving London for Melbourne has come and gone, and Qantas is not telling us anything. I keep checking the board and some Iberian flights have been listed as cancelled. People around me are repeating conversations over and over on their mobile phones, and various delegates from our section go forward to the desk only to be told that Qantas plans to fly soon.

A beautiful flurry of snow begins to obscure the view and I take photos of an Air Emirates plane taxing into Terminal 3. A snow plough leads the plane in, and the curving dark line in the snow and the faint colour of the Emirates’ fuselage make a subtle pastel-on-white composition.

Finally, a public address suggests that BA30 has been delayed until a late-afternoon departure. It all seems hopeful and I settle comfortably into reading an airport thriller on the history of typography and working on an essay on Be’er Sheva and a mosque that has been closed since the 1948 Naqbah when hundreds of thousands of Arabs were displaced from Palestine.

A few hours later we hear that Qantas no longer knows what is happening, but we should wait. I am good at waiting. A week earlier I had waited patiently for a few days (in vain as it turns out) for a visa from the Israeli authorities to get into Gaza, a visa that I had applied for six weeks earlier on a notified five-day turnaround. My four colleagues were allowed entry, but despite a further day of phone calls to embassies and relevant NGOs I received no word. I was never formally rejected, but still do not know if I am to be approved. The backdrop to that occasion was a wind storm that swept in across Syria and made the air gritty and the streets ugly. Here the snow is exquisite.

The snow stops falling outside. This is much more pleasant than Be’er Sheva buffeted by the dust of the Negev desert. The wine in the Lounge is unusually complex, the coffee is drinkable, and the food is sort-of appetizing even though the beef curry is mostly spiced sauce thickened with flour. By late afternoon I am feeling tired and sleep a little.

A few hours pass with a long Qantas silence on what is happening. Eventually, we do receive some news, but not from official sources: it is the BBC news on a wall-mounted television which announces that the airport is now closed for the evening. At the same time ITV news suggests that a few planes are still leaving Heathrow. A number of clearly-influential passengers had been on their mobile phones and seem to know more than the news reporters and Qantas staff. They pack their bags to leave.

A crowd has gathered to find out what is happening. Some are good natured; some less so. One elderly lady reproaches a tall burly Qantas staff member for not telling us anything. Her voice is not loud, but she is stridently insistent, asking the same question three times, and he turns and walks out saying that he feels threatened. His official-looking hat and jacket look unconvincing from behind as he walks away self-consciously. His legs move with mincing care as if he is new to the skill of walking away.

At around ten o’clock an announcement comes over the public address system that our plane is not leaving tonight, but is now rescheduled to depart at 9.30 in the morning. We need to leave the lounge and be back at 7.30 am. Parents with children are distressed; one parent urges solidarity. ‘We should all stick together. We cannot let them divide us.’

It is announced that Qantas has made no arrangements for hotels or buses. ‘All passengers need to find your own way’, they say. More distress. Five police officers arrive—they are carrying guns—and we are told again that we need to leave by 10.30. ‘You are of course welcome to stay until then and eat what is left of the food, but it is impossible to stay beyond the closing time.’ I return to see if there is any curry sludge left, but all the food has been cleared away by the kitchen staff who are rushing to finish their shift.

I decide to leave. My sense of solidarity has wained. Most of the shops have closed in the terminal and people are rushing in different directions not knowing where we pick up our luggage. When we find the collection area all the signs are dead and there is no way of knowing which is the relevant carousel. I walk up and down the carousels with hundreds of other people, everybody relatively careful not to run others down as they successful find their bags.

Then the final ignominy: we all have to go through border control in order to get out of the airport. It takes an hour. I stand with a Canadian couple who joke about four inches of snow causing such chaos. ‘Call that snow!’

We exchange ironies, and just before midnight I stand on the inside of the state border-line thinking about whether it is worth an hour of travelling on the London Underground in order to get a few hours sleep in an expensive hotel before returning to the airport. It hardly seems worth it. I hate waking up at 5.30 groggy after deep sleep. I choose the romance of finding a quiet space in Heathrow, some forgotten corner to sleep quietly till the morning. I am good at sleeping.

3.00 am, Sunday 19 December

Heathrow Terminal 3 has been taken over by people, thousands of people: some standing, some sitting uncomfortably with silver-foil emergency sheets wrapped around their shoulders, and others sleeping on the hard, cold terrazzo tiles. Copies of newspapers have been spread on the ground to slow the emanation of the cold, and a few people over to the other side have yellow thin-foam camping mattresses that were handed out during the night. They are the lucky ones.

The light is cold and bright except for the ‘Departure’ signs glowing warm yellow with back writing. What is that simple san serif typeface? Is it ‘Transport’, clean and clear, developed for the British road system, or ‘London Underground’, developed by Edward Johnston in the midst of the First World War? I’ll check later in the book on typography that I had been reading in the Qantas lounge yesterday. [Note to self: the book does not say; look it up on the web.]

There are people who appear to be sleeping soundly and comfortably, lying on their sides with the legs pulled up to their bodies and their arms wrapped around their chest. I now know from experience that they are neither comfortable nor sleeping soundly. Over time, and despite the cold, your body and mind enters a nether zone in which moving a limb or twisting a torso is barely possible even though you are conscious that it might help. It takes an act of will to shift your body weight so that the accumulating pain is transferred from one part of your body to another. But it is not sleeping as such. Strange how a crumpled soft body on a hard floor can appear to be comfortable when you are not inside that frame to feel how a hip bone grinds against the marble.

I was in one of those nether states when they—whoever they were—came around with the silver-foil sheets and I missed out on the distribution. Despite being clear now that the floor is hard however you lie on it, my second thought was that the people who appeared to be sleeping soundly were at least snugly warm underneath the foil. I had lain against the counter for organizing hotels—now closed—until the terrazzo had sucked all the warmth out of me and I had then walked, shaking with bone-chilling cold, up and down the arrival halls looking for either a warmer place to sleep or one of the magic transporting silver wraps. After about half-an-hour of walking I found a silver wrap left on a plastic seat. I tried the seat for a while, but it was as a hard as the floor and the breeze from the nearby walkway exit was icy. I find a spot on the terrazzo floor away from the exit, and realize that the thin foil made little difference. I am still cold.

6.00 am Sunday

As the morning opens, people mill in small groups and couples, talking in German, Italian, Spanish and English, repeating conversations with each other, and asking parallel questions of any official-looking persons who happen to be coming by. Nobody knows anything for sure, and all the public address does is repeat messages about staying with your luggage and refraining from smoking as a courtesy to other passengers. A young woman stands above me as I type these notes, oblivious to my presence, shifting backwards and beginning to press with her leg against the laptop screen. I put my hand on her calf to signal my presence and she looks surprised, says something in a language that I do not understand, and moves on in a semi-attractive, slow, zombie-like way.

Other people step over my legs and few acknowledge my presence. I move my bags forward to protect my space. People are moving without purpose, perhaps with the notion that soon they will be in the right place, at the right time, as something happens.

A woman tries to step through the narrow space between me and my bags and begins to lifts her leg over my computer. I put my hand up and tell her that I am here and she might consider walking around me. She retreats and finds a different way through the massing crowd, all without looking at me or saying anything.

Then a passing Qantas official says that the only Qantas plane leaving before 6.00 today in the QF32. Four inches of snow yesterday and London’s Heathrow has closed down for another day. Nobody knows anything official—all the important looking people with Business Class purple tags on their luggage have long gone— and the website still has the plane leaving at 3.00 pm yesterday. It is time to retreat from the madding crowd.

This time I leave to go back to the city to find a warm hotel room. Back in the room I turn up the heat thinking that the vagaries of climate change may have contributed to the early snow storm, but I need to use some thick carbon-producing electricity to make me feel better. I hope that I get home for Christmas. However, at least I am more comfortable that the people of Gaza as they struggle with few resources locked inside a five metre concrete wall. I have all the resources of gold-level frequent flier membership and the ‘Priority Club’ at the Holiday Inn.

Sunday evening

There is no notification from Qantas, no email, no phone call — this seems strange given that they had only a few planes flying out of Heathrow on Saturday and I am one of their most important customers. A thoughtful staff member with a web connection could have set up a group email list and kept us informed. I am beginning to doubt that being a gold-level frequent flier counts for very much. Certainly it is excellent for getting those small advantages and status reinforcements such as getting a forward window seat on the plane so that one can disembark three minutes earlier than others. But it made no difference to the bag collection process at midnight after a few inches of snow.

When I go to the website I find that my booking has changed to Monday midday. No fanfare, no accompanying explanation, but very efficient. I register a wake-up call, and excitedly anticipate the next day. I am going home.

Monday morning 20 December

I check the website again. The booking has been changed to 25 December. It seems that I will not get home for Christmas. The last time I missed Christmas with my family was three decades ago when I was eighteen-years-old and on a Qantas flight from Cairns to Port Moresby. But that is another story.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Kindly corrections

In the kindest possible way, Hypatia and another friend have reminded me that the saint customarily associated with breasts is not so much Agnes as Agatha. No wonder I couldn't find the reference in The Leopard to the St Agnes cakes. Thanks to my friend (who may not relish being named here) for finding the description:

Scorning the table of drinks, glittering with crystal and silver on the right, he moved left towards that of the sweetmeats. Huge sorrel babas, Mont Blancs snowy with whipped cream, cakes speckled with white almonds and green pistachio nuts, hillocks of chocolate-covered pastry, brown and rich as the top soil of the Catanian plain from which, in fact, through many a twist and turn they had come, pink ices, champagne ices, coffee ices, all parfaits and falling apart with the squelch of a knife cleft; a melody in major of crystallised cherries, acid notes of yellow pineapple, and green pistachio paste of those cakes called 'Triumphs of Gluttony', shameless 'Virgins' cakes' shaped like breasts. Don Fabrizio asked for some of these, and as he held them on his plate looked like a profane caricature of Saint Agatha claiming her own sliced-off breasts. 'Why didn't ever the Holy Office forbid these puddings when it had the chance? 'Triumphs of Gluttony' indeed! (Gluttony, mortal sin!) Saint Agatha's sliced-off teats sold by convents, devoured at dances! Well! Well!'


And for the pics?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Christmas, St Agnes and Hypatia

About four years ago, I blogged about making Christmas puddings with my father, because I was too sick to stand and cut and grate and chop and mix and beat and stir. Two years ago, I blogged about feeling much better, and being able to do it on my own. This year, I'm a little late in making them, but am hoping a liberal extra dose of St Agnes's finest will make up for this in flavour.

Each year we stir and make a wish. And while a wish is supposed to be secret, I'm writing to invite my readers to make a virtual pudding wish. The puddings are currently boiling and simmering away. It's too late to stir them, so it won't hurt if you add your wish in the comments box.  I'm hoping you might think about adding a word for my friend Hypatia, who is having breast surgery on Tuesday, rather sooner, and more radically, than either she or her oncologist had hoped for. She is such a fierce thinker, is Hypatia, and so keen to get back to work and be with her students and colleagues, but she has a few trials to undergo first. So I hope you might, in even just one word, wish her courage or health or strength or concentration or peace or calm: whatever you would wish for yourself should this ever come to you. And even if you don't want to log on or write anything, please spare her a thought or a wish or a prayer or a blessing.

I realised a moment ago the tremendous irony, serendipity or unconscious convergence in my mention of the not-particularly-special brandy, St Agnes's, that I used in the puddings, since many of the legends of St Agnes describe how this third-century Roman martyr had her breasts torn off with pincers before her eventual beheading. She is now the patron saint, among other things, of breast cancer patients.

I can't find a text on line, and don't have a copy at home, either, but I do recall the thrill of reading Lampedusa's account of the little St Agnes cakes —  white icing and red cherries? —  in The Leopard, too.

Well, it's just getting weird, now, so to bring you back up into my world, here and now, here's a clip of the fabulous Ben Winkelman trio. Ben here is playing keyboards, but we had the CD of him on piano and this track filling the house as we breakfasted and as I tied up my puddings. Ben gave Joel half a dozen lessons before he headed off to New York to make his fortune, so we think of him as ours, of course.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Life, death, book

How weird is this? Two lovely bloggers on my not-very-long blog feed (Northern Lights and Sorrow at Sills Bend) are having or have been having pregnancy dreams about kittens. Not wanting to bring them down, at all, but these dreams remind me I am so much in a different stage of the life cycle. My boy is growing up; has been offered two days full work next week at the funky grocery store in Brunswick where he did work experience in July; has just finished year 10; and patiently sat through the first half of the third Twilight movie with me last night in a mother-son ironic indulgence. (We'll watch the other half today: it's not too bad, but what I really loved were the long atmospheric scene-setting scenes and the soundtrack of the first.)

And I am still thinking about my poor beloved Mima. Especially when I come home, I still catch myself looking forward to seeing her, and am still liable to a little sob now and then. We talk about building an inside/outside enclosure for the next cat, to protect the birds, frogs and lizards in the garden, but in a rather abstract way. Truly, I'm far from ready. And my own body? Just feeling and looking a little older, at various points, and the various medical staff I've seen over the last few weeks have only confirmed this, with various philosophical and comforting remarks. So that's ok, really.

But the maternal impulse is still there somewhere. My hatchlings are growing up so fast (will take photos today and update later). And now that's it warm, it's possible to sit outside and watch the fish in the sunlight. The other day I saw a couple of inchlings, one dark, one a splotchy shubunkin. And then I saw some more that were half that size. And then I saw some more that were even smaller, no bigger than mosquito wrigglers, but very clearly fish. I've never seen any that small. Does that mean they have just come out into the open earlier than normal? If they all survive, we'll have an overcrowding problem. I love to think, in an earth-motherish way, about the chickens and the fish and the frogs and the birds in the garden, to say nothing of the bats we seeing fly overhead now it's summer.

But I have almost run out of social energy, and to preserve some for next week, which is very busy, I skipped the Vice-Chancellor's lunch and the Academic Board lunch and final meeting, and the Arts Faculty end-of-year party last week. But that's also partly because I am now working like a demon on my book, pulling it together tighter and tighter. It feels like the difference between an elastic going three times loosely around a ponytail, so it drops down; and going four times around, so that it stays firmly in place. This revision process doesn't feel at all like maternal labour; it's more like the physical work of toning muscles, or the core stability of a Pilates class. Finally, it's feeling good.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Quick update

In Australia, we finish teaching around the end of October. And that's when it really starts to get busy.

The marking (though I'm not complaining here as I've had a very light teaching load this semester). The meetings. The planning. The exchange approvals (this program has exploded in popularity since I was last in charge of granting subject approvals, and I'm seeing or emailing about three students a day about this). The honours applications: my two weeks on fairy tales in Romancing the Medieval is generating lots of interest for honours thesis topics.

The meetings. Did I say that already?

I'm on two job selection committees: we did video interviews for one, this week, finishing 9.30 pm on Tuesday night. Another big one coming up, for which I want to read some of the candidates' work.

The emails.

Booking various tickets (Marriage of Figaro with Teddy Tahu Rhodes; Rigoletto with Emma Matthews; Ashes cricket with ... well, who knows, by then?).

Planning a little holiday in NZ around the ANZAMEMS conference.

Helping organise our School's Christmas party (with the Blue Manoeuvres).

Reading a re-submitted volume of essays for the Late Medieval and Early Modern Series.

Preparing project pro-formas for the first phases of my work in the Centre of Excellence (I'm already late with this: not a good way to begin, though we don't start till next year).

And finishing my book. I'm feeling more confident about being to wrap it all up as an intellectual project; now it's just a question of finding the time. Sadly, that's what my annual leave will be for, starting Wednesday week...

[Update: and while I wasn't watching, my counter counted its 100,000th visitor since July 2006. Go, little blog!]