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!

Monday, December 08, 2014

Talismanic rock: next year's writing project

Every project on stone needs a talismanic rock object. This is a piece of volcanic bluestone I picked up yesterday from the path along the Merri Creek that runs past my house. It's going to sit on my desk to remind me to finish my two other essays before I can get started on my new project, my affective cultural history of Victorian bluestone. Most of the bluestone we use for building is smooth, and has presumably cooled down slowly. The bubbles here were presumably formed when this clump of lava fell into water. I have a lot to learn about geology. But I do like this little lump. My first impulse was to wash it, but I'm going to keep it as it is, with the detritus of suburban/urban passing.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The reef tank: building a world

Because we have too much to do, and because Paul is now commuting between Sydney and Melbourne, we have a new hobby. Yes it takes a lot of time and money. It is both a present to me and a desire fulfilled for both of us.

After several months (ordering, waiting, then installing the saltwater tank, and some live rock and letting that settle) we started observing several little creatures who'd stowed away on the rock (a sea cucumber, a sluggy trilobite-looking thing we saw once and never again), and a few little centipedy/wormy things. Then we moved in the clean-up crew (snails, hermit crabs, shrimp, trochus shells), whose job it is to keep the glass and sand clean.

By sheer chance, I was videoing one of the snails when it decided to procreate on its second day in the tank (0.18, 0.26, 0.37)

More on this later.

Finally, a few weeks ago, we put in our first two corals and an anemone.

The anemone is my favourite. It has a pink/red base and a crown of wavy "bubble tip" tentacles. Sometimes you cannot see the red base; other times this pink fleshy stem creeps up and encloses nearly all the tentacles.  This creature also moves around the tank, though it seems settled for now. There is now another pinkish one, though it sometimes appears green at night. Also, our first two clownfish went in. Little black and white ones, with orange chins.

We have been doing elaborate water testing to make sure everything is ok. Paul set up a small generator so water filtering could still go on when we had a 6 hour power blackout a few weeks ago. Various folk have come and given advice and fitted up more filters and processes, and yesterday Paul also bought a machine that will convert ordinary tap water to RO (reverse osmosis) water for top-ups, and thence to sea water with the addition of (sorry!) salt. So not so many trips to buy water from the aquarium. But yesterday he also came home with another pale pink anemone, a donut coral (glows slightly green in the dark and also pulsates), and this fabulous little red coral tree, which is surrounded by sunburst coral.

During the day these are just little pink tubes: at night they blossom into miniature sunflowers.

Most of these creatures and plants are softly, fleshily seductive as they wave their tentacles back and forward, or pulsate in and out around little slits for the movement of air and water, or as they sheath and unsheath themselves. It is all incredibly sexual. No one really knows whether the corals are plants or animals.

The whole world here is utterly absorbing. We pull up chairs and watch as the snails and shells move around cleaning up the sand. I sit on the little step down from the kitchen and peer in. I wheel my bike down the side of the house and see the green anemone draped beguilingly down the side of a rock, waving and glistening in the dark. The back of the tank is developing a lovely mossy patina that traps silver bright bubbles. Things move and float around in the currents. The two little clownfish (French and Saunders) hover around each other and flirt with settling in the anemones, but not yet.

And today, la pièce de résistance: a tiny white snail, stuck to the front of the tank, a thousandth the size of its huffing parent, starting to make its way across the reef. We have a made a world where snails are happy to breed!

Friday, April 04, 2014

On stuff, infrastructure, and beauty

I’m just back from a whirlwind trip to Sydney. We hired a van and drove up on Tuesday, taking up some furniture from the house, as well as a pile of stuff Paul had bought to set up the flat he is renting until the flat we are buying is finished. He is planning to be in Sydney only every second week, but there is still a lot of stuff you need to start out a residence from scratch. And because he will not have a car in Sydney and is also travelling a lot overseas at the moment, he had chairs and bed delivered here, while he also stocked up on kitchen stuff, an ironing board, and a pantry full of food to get him started. He also packed up about 24 boxes of books. Some of the kitchen things he bought are really beautiful, and it was a bit seductive to be unpacking them all and seeing his new crisp bedsheets, and shiny kitchen saucepans and the sharp knives and the green enamel bakeware and the green toaster and the pretty blue cups and teapot.

And also to sleep in a brand new bed when ours at home is so old it … well, you don’t want to know. The temptation of new stuff. But of course all the glasses and plastic boxes had sticky labels and paper wrapping and other boxes, and all the kitchen utensils were wired into cardboard, and had stupid little silver chains that attached their instructions.

I’ve been thinking about the big piles of rubbish in the oceans, lately; and we certainly made our sad contribution this week.

We shared the Hume with big trucks, all hauling stuff up and down between the cities, too. We arrived about 8 and went out for pizza, but then had to unload the truck so we could carry the bed and all the bedding upstairs, propping open the security door and waiting for the single, slow lift. And even with the lift, there was still a lot of lifting and carrying. The building’s a bit run down, but the bathroom in the flat has been recently renovated and the whole place is quite big and light.

On Wednesday we hauled boxes of books to Paul’s office on the UWS campus. By the end of the day my arms were a bit trembly with the weight of carrying big boxes of books upstairs. But we changed and headed off to our luxurious night out. We will have to pull in our horns financially to pay for this Sydney accommodation, but we treated ourselves anyway to the outdoor performance of Madam Butterfly. Should be easy, we thought. A pleasant ferry ride to Circular Quay, and there you are.

But.  The ferries don’t go all the way to Parramatta past about 5. So we ended up sharing a taxi with a woman we met at the dock. We drove ten minutes to Rydalmere dock, trying to persuade the taxi driver we didn’t want to go all the way in by taxi. So we paid $20 for a ten minute ride, but then only $6 each for a 55 minute ride on the Supercat. It was just beautiful.  

It went slowly at first, steering between the mangroves, I guess, but gradually speeding up past blocks and blocks of houses and apartments: so many people in Sydney must have a water view. It was dusk, and the sun was glinting off the water and the city as we approached.

As the harbour bridge came into view, the catamaran sped up, like a horse heading for its home, and docked at Circular Quay on perfect time. We then had to walk across to Mrs Macquarie’s point, through the Botanical Gardens. But the gardens were closed, and we found ourselves wandering around in the dark, wondering if we should get another cab. Surely there’d be signs pointing the way, we thought. But there was nothing. Maybe Sydney folk just drive everywhere or go by taxis. Maybe Sydney institutions don’t care about visitors. We were not the only ones getting lost and anxious. We ended up walking down a tunnel towards Woolloomoolloo (I’d learn to spell it if I lived there, I promise), where the narrow footpath actually gave out at one point. Honestly, Sydney: just a few signs for visitors would help. It can’t be that hard. Afterwards, we were directed to a water taxi, and did a quick trip around the point and back to Circular Quay for $10 in 5 minutes. We'll know next time. 

However, once we got there, we had time enough to buy edamame beans, almonds in soy, gyoza, and champagne to see us through the first act, which was astonishing. We were five rows from the front in the middle section. The seats looked west across to the opera house and the bridge, so the performance took place with the water and the sunset behind it, and then on the left, the tower blocks of the city, but with the darkness of the gardens intervening. There were a few flying foxes still in flight; and the crescent moon turned more and more orange as it sank into the water. You can just see it, pale and white, between the trees here:
The set is an exercise in engineering excellence. The first act is lit for dappled sunlight through the trees on a steep green hill. We were exhausted and so stayed in our seats at interval and watched as two cranes built Butterfly’s house and the unfinished block of units behind her (Pinkerton’s abandoned strata title), not a little like our own not yet finished Sydney apartment. The stage hands were more like builders, and indeed throughout the second act, these other folk (builders? Stage hands? Chorus?) hovered around and lit their little fires and walked on and off: the chaotic everyday world sitting behind this intense drama. As Pinkerton says, the Japanese house design is very simple, and you can change it as you go – like Japanese marriage.  The opera set was not simple, but its mutability was powerfully underlined through this “performance” of house-building at interval.

Hiromi Omura was simply extraordinary as Cio Cio San. A strong and lyrical voice, and a commanding actorly presence. I’d seen this opera before and the singer seemed abject and desperate all the way through. But this woman was playful, and defiant. The chronology of the opera’s setting was a bit confusing, but the symbolic force of this young Japanese woman loving her little rhinestone encrusted denim shorts and her American flag singlet, and draping them in her diaphanous white wedding gown in the final scene was heartbreaking.

It really was a highlight of my opera-watching career, on a par with Parsifal at the Met in March. It was both emotional and beautiful, and also intellectually smart, somehow. The simple beauty of two lovers against a bit white artificial moon? But it had also been a day crowded with stuff. Moving things here and there; setting up our own real house; seeing a fictional "marriage"disintegrate. Such beauty and stillness, but made out of such an expense of energy. Can it really be sustainable, what we do? What we give ourselves?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

In Which I Begin a Long-Distance Relationship

Amidst all the trials and tribulations of a university in change, one of the most stable features of my life for the last twenty-one years has been having a partner with a good job in the same city. When I met Paul he was driving from Fitzroy to Monash most days, not enjoying the commute, but loving the job with great colleagues. He then moved to RMIT university in the city, and so for the last twelve years, or thereabouts, we have relished both being able to ride our bikes to work. It's true we hardly ever meet for lunch, as we often talk about, but we do sometimes set out on the bike path together of a morning.

But while I soldier on at Melbourne (I'm not complaining about my job; it's just that I have been here such a long time), he has just accepted a new job in Sydney, and will start tomorrow. It's another research-only position, but with minimal administration, unlike his job at RMIT, and once his routine settles down he'll be up there probably for four days at a time, twice a month. It's just that the first few months will be busy with international trips already planned and booked, so UWS won't see much of him, and there are some pretty nasty turn arounds on the calendar, when he flies home to Melbourne and then a day later flies up to Sydney.

It feels very odd at our advanced ages to be taking on a long-distance relationship. I know lots of people who do it, or have done it, usually at a younger age, and usually in hopes of eventually getting to the point that we have just abandoned. Paul's reasons for moving are complex - it's his story to tell, not mine - but I think we are going to be ok.

His first move has been to get an old bike reconditioned and shipped to Sydney to help with the flat-hunting, while his new bike is being built. If you are flying to work, it's important not to be driving another car.

Discussions about all this took place mostly over the month I was undergoing all my tests and probes and surgery for the possible recurrence of breast cancer (all good now). So we had lots of opportunity to talk about the life-work and the life-death balance. Financially it'll be tough for us in the short term, but probably ok in the long term. If I had been starting chemotherapy now, it would be feeling very different, I'm sure. Of course, the success of this venture depends on neither of us getting really ill. We are collecting stories from people who've done this kind of commute, and illness is one of the things that makes it much harder. It's also true that the Sydney-Melbourne air route is the most travelled in the country: planes fly every 30 minutes, so the logistics are relatively straightforward.

We're planning to build a different kind of routine. I'm going to try to work less at weekends and make a greater differential between work time and non-work time. I'll have a place to stay in Sydney, but how often will I really go up there? Isn't it more likely that my home-loving man will want to come here to be with his cats and fish and chickens and garden and son? How much easier it is to contemplate this with an almost-adult son, too.

The main theme in our discussions has really been about the quality of life. How to balance the wonders of a cycling commute and the beauty of quotidian, local, and domestic rhythms against the pleasures of a working and research community that gives you intellectual stimulation and fabulous professional support? In an era when a university career is such a complex, overladen and demanding business, it still seems crucial to have that research community around you. Mind you, we medievalists in Australia and in most other contexts are accustomed to making communities of scholars in adjacent and sympathetic fields. It's all relative, I know.

The expectation that you can have intellectual and communal and social satisfaction in a university career will be knocked down as unrealistic by the cynics, I'm sure, and of course I acknowledge I'm speaking from the privileged position of two tenured professorial incomes, etc. etc. I know the situation is completely different for the untenured, the sessional, the adjunct, and those who cannot easily move, or commute.

However, I want to own and celebrate this change as a mutual household decision because it's a sign that we are not giving up: that we can make the argument that our work is meaningful; and that we can still insist that our academic and intellectual work matters enough to organise our lives around it, instead of subordinating everything to financial expediency, for example.

Would love to hear stories from folks who've managed long-distance relationships and commutes, though. What works? What are the pitfalls? What's it going to be like?