Tuesday, July 29, 2008


I am walking the dogs a bit later in the morning, and the sun is up earlier. I hear kookaburras, not roosters, and I see these flowers in a front yard down the street. It is golden rule of gardening: Thou Shalt Not Plant Bulbs in a Straight Line. And I'm in agreement - usually. But there's something very cheering in this guard of honour, defending the possibility of loveliness in an otherwise neglected space.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Snow day

Further to Angie's comment on the post, below: I can confirm the blossoms in Hobart are backed by snow on the mountain.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Yet another indicator of global disaster

The unnamed peach has flowered early this year, I think. I've missed my chance to spray against the leaf curl, and there will be fewer fruits this summer. I'd blame global warming, of course, but that seems somehow churlish: this pink, that blue are perhaps worth a dozen less peaches for the birds to peck at in December.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Slide night :: funky father

This is my Dad in the early 1980s, when he was starting up a Lutheran secondary school in Hamilton, in rural Victoria. He's looking decidedly understated here - some of his ties and shirts were eye-searing; I particularly remember a short sleeve bodyshirt with maroon paisley, taken from his dead father-in-law's wardrobe and worn until all too recently. Also fond memories of a leather jacket that I appropriated and wore with a very funky edge (or so I like to think).

My Dad kept a bottle of cordial at work. He has a sweet tooth but with two hyperactive kids in the family, there was a strict 'no red anything' rule in the house. Dad would have a sneaky shot at work, the way some men take whiskey on the sly.

So this is one half of where my food culture comes from. This is clear from his post, here, on eating, traveling and in the end, family. What the man doesn't mention is that when he travels he is always good for an ice cream or a beer (although suggested, perhaps, in the number of memories that include sweeties of some description). This makes him a most excellent traveling companion; he's not a man to save five dollars and potentially miss out on a good strawberry ice cream or an iconic sausage. (And what is a trip away without an iconic sausage in the mix?)

Dad, Al and I traveled together in Germany a few years ago and save for his driving, which often left me praying or in tears (he's had his cataracts done since then), it was great. He speaks German fluently and can be awfully charming when he wants to be - thus, we stayed in places, heard from people and had meals Al and I could not have negotiated ourselves. The backbone of my black and white photo collection came from this trip and in particular, a small junk shop in the back streets of a town in Thuringer (which does indeed have its own iconic sausage) where Dad regaled the two slightly shifty looking owners with our own family history that includes a flight from the Red Army at the end of WW2; it seemed to be the kind of place where a flight from the Red Army goes down well. I left with two dozen photos from before WW2, indeed, some well before the turn of the 20th century: soldiers, jolly women in overalls and gas masks at what must have been the beginning of the war (too jolly, surely, for what happened later); many sepia steins being clinked in rustic huts; and chillingly, some blurry dark haired children, not blonde like the rest, and I may be jumping to conclusions, but I cannot bear to think of what might have become of them. That last photo is one I look at only rarely and in solitude.

Here is my Dad with some of his own kids, dark and fair (another quiet shirt; can it be my memory is playing tricks on me?):

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Food culture

I must admit, I have a little bit of a literary crush on Michael Pollan - that wry voice, the honesty, his eyes (well, not totally literary) ... and mainly the ways he pulls everyday life apart and puts it back together again. The Omnivore's Dilemma was a staunch and intelligent book, but I've enjoyed In Defense of Food a little more. It's looser, less confronting - more of a chat than a charming lecture. Pollan's argument is that we have lost sight of food, focusing instead on its discrete elements as they are defined (and misunderstood) by scientists and nutritionists; in uncovering the mysteries of food, science has mystified our eating. Under the sway of nutritionism we rely on labels and experts, unable to trust our nose, our taste or our bellies. It's a broad brushstroke kind of an argument, and I do feel it lacks nuance and in particular doesn't adequately acknowledge key structures like class, gender, and movements like slow food and organics (which are also classed and gendered), but I think nutritionism, with its intended and unintended consequences, is one of the defining characteristics of contemporary, Western food culture. Underpinning Pollan's solutions is the reclamation of our traditional food cultures.

So I'm thinking about my own food cultures, and what Al and I are passing on to our kids. Food-wise, we don't come from sophisticated stock. The German side of my family has given me a real love for sauerkraut, wurst and obst-torte. The Irish has been lost - my grandmother was a 1950s hostess with the mostest, all devils on horseback and cream of mushroom soup. In our own childhoods, neither Al nor I knew asparagus, mushrooms or beetroot could be had fresh (aah, the tinned champignon). I have no memory of ever ingesting a vegetable as a child. And yet we've both emerged relatively bonny and eating widely and well; indeed, we both love food. I don't know how this happened to Al (he was allowed to eat as much ice cream as he wanted, for heaven's sake) but - and this will surprise my long-suffering mother, who for years has put up with our 'jokes' about her cooking - I attribute my own excellent eating habits to my parents.

Food as fuel is important, of course, but culture comes from the meanings and practices attached to what we eat and in this, my parents excelled. It's the fodder for dinner party humour now (fodder - food; geddit?) but the food rules and practices I remember gave us a sense that food was something to be shared. It wasn't mysterious and it wasn't external to our family; it was part of the common everyday. We didn't pick this up as kids, and my parents might not have deliberately created that message (Mum, Dad, comments?) but that is what I've taken from my own family's food culture, and it's what I'm now giving the girls.

I still worry about the lack of cosmopolitan fare (although not as much as I did a year ago) but here's the thing: my kids like to cook, they know that food is eaten at the table, together (albeit often sullenly, reluctantly, whiningly), and they know where food comes from and how to make it. Food's not mysterious, it's not good or bad, and it's defined by taste and colour, not lists on a packet. When I grit my teeth as the girls break the shell in with the egg when they help me make a cake, when I pull on the gumboots and step through the dusk and drizzle to grab some greens, when we sit down together at the table, when I take a moment to be truly thankful for what I have received, we are showing the girls that some of our most precious knowledge lies in the mundane.

This is what I tell myself to steel my nerves as the girls yet again sniff the smells in the kitchen and declare them to be delicious, look at the food and declare it to be delicious, and then eat two grains of rice and a pea.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Big plans

There are some parenting moments that have been a long time coming and absolutely worth the wait: the first time my girls wandered into my bedroom together to say 'good morning'; Lucy and Nell playing quietly together with their toy animals; Lucy spontaneously kissing Nell as they hung over the sofa watching Charlie and Lola. The other day I had another big one: planning a garden with my girls.

Figuring out the backyard is getting to be a priority. The privacy went when we cut down the huge trees that destabilised our foundations. The lawn went with the coming of the dogs. The plantings are pretty shabby after drought. And there's more blackberry than you might at first think. When I look out the window my heart sinks at the ugliness of it all. The girls have dubbed a section of the yard 'the tar pit' and it's well named. It's to act.

I've been avoiding the issue. I stick things into the ground so that I can eat or pick them later on but I can't visual things in 3D, or 2D for that matter, and I've got no real sense of how plants will look together, or what will thrive where. So pulling together a space the size of an average suburban yard is daunting. But Lucy is keen. She has the colours chosen: pink, yellow and blue. She's figured out the plantings: sunflowers, geraniums, and daisies. And she's designed the new beds around the cubby house. Nell agrees with it all ('What do you think, Nellie?'; 'Desth'). The absolute confidence and arrogance of a three year, so often the source of my internal screams and gritted teeth ('No Mummy, that's not a P it's a D and it says ssssss'), comes into its own in this scenario. I'm really quite excited.

And if it all looks hellish and nothing works, I'll just blame the kid.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Slide night :: self + flower

For no reason, just to relive those overalls. I'm surprised I've turned out as presentable as I have. And I'm still often to be found with a bunch of flowers in my hand.

Someone I once thought was my friend said to me, "I really like the way you always have flowers in your house. They don't always look nice but you really make the effort". She was mean; we lost touch by mutual consent. But I still have flowers - today, on my desk a bunch of creamy jonquils sits in a vase I bought for 20c. I make an effort to have flowers not because they prettify a room but because they are a moment of stillness and loveliness in sometimes very disappointing days, e.g., today, in which I am sick in bed instead of speaking at a conference in Melbourne and going somewhere interesting for dinner afterwards.

But if I'm lucky maybe Al will have managed to slip some lollies by the kids (who have superpower hearing when it comes to the rustle of a junk food packet). ... Here he is and nope, no joy.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Westbury cemetery begins where the town straggles to an end, the last of the blocks - part backyard and part paddock - trailing away to meet a rough road that leads over a hill. There is a cattle grid at the gate and a blue parrot in a thicket. We walk to the old section where things are shrouded with rust and lichen, and stones are often leaning or broken.

The girls love it here. For Nell, the pleasures are simple: space, birds, things to touch, and her family close by. For Lucy, the draw is darker. She is figuring out death, re-writing each ending so that they become a misunderstanding, a long nap or a trip to the shops to buy chicken. She wants to know about the people who sleep here: names, lives, the babies in their cots; mostly, she wants to know about the reunions where people discover that no-one died, and all are with their families again.

That's okay, because it's a nice story, a story I want for myself when I sit at night and miss my Grammy so much the weight of the sadness brings her to me. And the marking of death with its ritual and belief is only the theme that binds together the short stories told in this place. Each headstone suggests a life in two dozen words. And these lives caught together in the family plots tell us about extended families and a time when people stayed close to home. We can read about a history of peace and a history of war. We note, through the growing difference between 'born' and 'deceased' and the declining numbers of children listed the success of public health initiatives. If we were the type who knew about such things we could make a comment on the aesthetics of death, chemistry and ... stuff about plants (clearly we are not). And we are acknowledging an easily forgotten link between ourselves and the place and people we live among. When we go to a cemetery - and we quite often do, as a pleasant outing - we are sharing a lot more than an Addams family vibe.

Al has always joked that if we home school, he'll set the girls up with the 1984 edition of the New Knowledge Encyclopedias (which we do in fact own) and tell them to update alphabetically. But I'd take them to a cemetery and say "Take a look around, have a think, and let me know what you come up with". I'd hope they would have some very interesting things to say.