In which rituals are made

It’s 7am on Boxing Day in Sydney, Australia. I’m sitting on the floor in the bathroom with my laptop, painting my toenails, because everyone else is still asleep.

If you have to spend Christmas half a planet away from family, I recommend inviting a close friend to visit, and spending the day popping in and out of the kitchen in pursuit of delicious foods, listening to a thunderstorm, and cutting up old cereal boxes and newspapers to construct cardboard costumes. What started out as an effort to create some sort of traditional decoration (crowns) turned into a full-on all-day effort to make our own interpretation of legends’ three kings.

Some of us were more kingly than others.


Japan-Ben (whip boy) brought appropriately japan-presents, in the sense that they are bizarre and, of course, awesome. It turns out The Gift of the year in Japan is a set of electronic kitty ears which plant electrodes on your ear and forehead to “sense your brainwaves” and express whether you are concentrating, relaxed, or In The Zone. We’re not sure how highly correlated any particular brain state is with the motions of the ears, but it turns out that their somewhat erratic punctuation can be appropriate for just about any conversation. Whether the ears happen to snap alert when thunder rolls, or wiggle adorably when one is making a very serious comment, or turn down just in time for a glare inspired by unfair teasing, the results are inevitably hilarious.

We traded the ears all day, but eventually I claimed them and incorporated them into my costume-crown. Ben was the Warrior of Heart and Goodness, and Ben was I’m not sure but he had a lot of bits on, a cardboard cape, and a formidable scepter.

We went on a grand journey to find the one convenience store open on christmas day to procure unfamiliar bubbly beverages, with kitty ears (pre-costumes), which the cashier greatly appreciated.  Whip boy tried his best at mixology, but perhaps he needs a better-situated bar. We made a spectacular mess in the living room (paper bits, tape, glitter), made a spectacular mess in the kitchen (absolutely everything) in the process of creating and consuming delicious soup, steak, and potatoes, and ice cream cake, and toasted sporadically to everything and everyone.  We played board games and conversed, all with pandora trying its best to stream christmas music all day long, intermittently interrupted by lightening, thunder, and whooping cheers in response from the three of us.


We created our own christmas rituals on the warm side of the globe, and I call them a smashing success.


In which I DO NOT almost die! So there!

Ok, so, I told Colin and Alexis and Ben they weren’t allowed to write about this because ohmygosh I WANTED TO (really, I asked, honestly!) and it’s been three weeks and I haven’t yet, so here goes.

One day when Colin and Alexis were visiting we got up early, packed lunches, and took the train to the Blue Mountains. Colin talked about it here. It was great fun to watch the two of them experience the Charles Darwin Walk and then the gorge for themselves for the first time. We went to some of the spots Ben and I had already hiked, and then took a new track down to not-quite-the-base of Wentworth Falls, and had a grand old time, really. There were skinks and spiders and rock formations and biomes and ants and weird angry caterpillars that seeped yellow stuff from their heads, and Alexis particularly enjoyed watching the Sulfur Crested Cockatoos cruising above the tree tops, far below.

It was, altogether, quite a nice day. And then we got to the end of our hike, refilled our Camelbaks,  and decided to take the shortcut back to the train station along some country roads.

We looked at flowers and interesting mosaic bus stops, we admired the fuzzy new leaf growth on the trees and the smell of the earth. And then as we were passing by a clearing adjacent to some woods, we saw some magpies!

Now, magpies are wonderful birds, are brimming with smarts and personality and are very common around Sydney. But they are not native to Michigan or Minnesota, so we had all been quite taken with them over the course of the trip, making up our own rules for  different numbers of magpies. The old rhymes are too boring so we liked to make up our own meanings. Colin started counting, “two magpies, TWO! Two is for laughter… wait, three! Three magpies for trapezoids… FOUR! Four magpies for… ” I interjected, “Five! Five magpies! But one looks like a fledgling, so maybe four and a half?”

And then they started shrieking, and all but one flew off. That one only flew a small distance, a bit deeper into the clearing, and began to dance, calling all the while.

Magpies are new to me, to us, so we were fascinated! I was, at least, and I think the others were at least passingly interested, but I wasn’t watching them to find out.

I walked toward the magpie, slowly, to see what it would do. Was it a mating display? Were there other magpies around? Was it a territorial dispute? As I got closer, it flew up into a nearby tree and continued to call. I stopped and watched it for some time, looking around, and couldn’t figure out what the fuss was about.

Then I looked down, and forward.

“Snake! It’s a snake! The magpie was dancing to warn about a snake! Oh man how cool is this come see the snake!” There should be more exclamation points here.

Alexis ventured slightly closer, but Colin and Ben decided to stay a little further back. Their loss! EDIT: By the time I deigned to notice the location of my friends in my haze of SNAKE!! they were further back, but in reality they had been closer. ah, perception.

I didn’t have my good camera, only my phone, but I managed to get a couple of shots.  Alexis took a few from further away. It was dead-still, unmoving.

(Don’t worry, I stayed outside of its striking range, in my opinion. My friends didn’t quite agree, but honestly, most snakes aren’t aggressive, can’t jump, and can only strike as long as their body length while maintaining and anchor on the ground or a tree, sheesh.)

I watched it for a good long while, and when I acknowledge that it probably was time to go… do I really have to?… I wanted to see it move. So I tossed a stick near it. The others did not approve. But I got to see it slither away towards the woods, and walked giddily back to the road to continue our trek.

We had a little discussion about how far away was far enough away to be safe as we continued our walk back. I had to interject periodically with, “we saw a SNAKE!”

On the train, we compared Alexis’ and my pictures and tried to identify the snake on our future devices.  We concluded that it was probably an Eastern or Lowland Copperhead.


The next day we went to the Australian Museum and as I was browsing the Surviving Australia section, Alexis was in Search and Discover researching our snake with a staff member. They agreed, Copperhead, here’s some printed information on behavior, habitat, and dangers of.

Thanks, Australian Museum!

Thanks, magpie! Now we know, five is for SNAKE!


In which I give up the reins to… Colin!

[written by colin {see if you can pick out the various literary references!}, very slightly edited by adrienne, few comments inserted by adrienne, pictures taken by colin and adrienne, pictures slightly edited by adrienne, pictures picked by colin. etcetera.]

I am not Adrienne.
My name is Colin, pronounced nearly the same as “Callin’.”
Names are important, as they tell you a great deal about a person. I’ve had more names than anyone has right to. But I was brought up as Colin. My father once told me it meant “victory.”
I have, of course, been called many other things. Some of them uncouth, although very few were unearned.
I have stolen a baby bear from its mother’s den in the dead of winter. I was knocked over by lightning at the top of Mt. Rainier. I once headbutted a car so hard that its driver ran away in panic. I skied in weather so cold that trees exploded. I’ve looked boldly over the edge at the end of the world and danced at the lip of an active volcanic caldera. I have walked across rubble-strewn fields where gods have died, loved women, and effortlessly done the impossible.
You may have heard of me.

It was late October when I got an email from Adrienne saying that her work would start after American Thanksgiving and she had a whole month free before then, so visit maybe? It was short notice and I had to work and move to California. I wrote it off in my mind.
Then, on the night of November 1st, I realized in my sleep that I could totally make it work!  So I did. 24 hours later I had tickets, a visa, and time off from work. Whee!
And then, even more last minute, Alexis decided to visit AG and BB at the same time! It would be a shindig!
I have looked over Adrienne’s blog posts and we pretty much did everything that has already been posted about, [and several things that weren’t!] except for finding a place to live. Now would be a good time to review what has come before in this blog. It’s quite worth a reread.
We didn’t ever manage to make it to Luna Park, but we saw it many times, lurking across the Sydney Harbor. That giant, vacant face continues to haunt my dreams, its sightless eyes searching, its gasping mouth ever more hungry.
Anyway, I’ll give my impressions of the many things we did, but each one will be shorter than Adrienne’s posts.

I flew MSP->LAX->SYD.  I arrived at the Minneapolis Airport early for the hassle that comes with international flight, and got to my gate to see the last few passengers get on an earlier flight to LA. So I jumped on that flight, last minute, to give me a longer layover in LA.
When I got there, I found out that Alexis also got on an earlier flight, and we were able to share airport dinner together on our extended layover. Fortuitous!
Long flight was long. Delta had lots of movies available for watching, so I watched some movies and tried to sleep and drank lots of water. LOTS of water. I was in an exit row with no seats in front of me and the bathroom right there, so I had so much water. I also consumed a great quantity of donuts that were wholly delicious.
I flew into the night, watching the time get earlier and earlier, until the sun came up and I was in the future in Sydney.

Cockatoo Island picnic and Circular Quay
Adrienne and Alexis met me right after customs (which were painless and had a terrific contraband-sniffing dog) and we took public transit and a walk to the house. Sunlight! Real summer sunlight! Flowers and birds and grass and leaves on the trees! Happiness in seeing Adrienne and Ben again.
After handing over American goods that had been requested (largely oatmeal), and exchanging gifts, we took a ferry to an abandoned shipyard island that is clearly haunted by Deep Ones who perform unspeakable rites to hideous dead gods on moonless nights. Their loathsome gibbering echoed in the cries of the fetid seagulls that flocked, like hordes of malformed rats, around us any time we paused, as if searching for weakness, or food.
From the “man-made” structures on the island, it is clear that modern Australia is built of the blood and suffering of its many prisoners, poor souls sent far from home to suffer torments in a land under permanent martial law where giant spiders literally hide under the bark of trees to ambush unsuspecting prey.
We had a picnic.
The opera house was not as big as I expected, but did loom nicely against the cloud-marbled sky. Its looming was brilliant and clean and the arching sweep of the roof made for a remarkably friendly loom. It loomed, nicely.
I was pretty jet lagged by now, and my memories of the day are hazy at best. There are mental scraps of lying in the grass in the sun, interesting bathrooms with mirrors and wobbling counters, snakelike trees, and jumbles of rocks that were not to be climbed upon, but which Alexis climbed anyway. Because she is Alexis, and awesome like that.

There was an eel! I touched it! Sea slugs! Marine life sticking to the rocks! Tiny things with too many legs or no legs! An octopus!
The eel was a moray, which I recognised but couldn’t remember why they were dangerous. As it turns out, they have hooked teeth, very strong jaw muscles, and a very simple jaw structure. They cannot let go when they bite people, even in death. There was no biting, and there was eel touching. It was smooth and strong and boneless, like a tongue.
The octopus was very tiny and fascinating. I’m always impressed with their combination of alienness and intelligence. It makes them both strange and understandable. You can see their reactions clearly and ascribe understandable motivations to their actions, but the way they carry out those actions is incredibly foreign.
After we poked at it for a bit, it got fed up and squirted ink. We were so fascinated by the ink swirling in the currents between the rocks that we ignored Mr. Octo and he got away. Clearly, it is a good defense mechanism!

I was tired and the darkness and music and many screaming children in the Sydney Aquarium was unpleasant. But I enjoyed seeing the dugong, which are creatures like manatees but in Australia that eat a lot of lettuce. They are apparently closely related to elephants, and they did have a certain Sea Elephant quality to them. The sea turtle was out in the sun and not available for viewing.
Alexis got a hot meat pie and we all sampled this Australian pop-culture delicacy.

Blue Mountains
Adrienne’s post on the Blue Mountains is spot on! It is my favorite place in Australia! There was so much to see. The Darwin trail gave an understanding of the evolution of the landscape as you approached the falls. It was a gradual buildup of many tiny details into a huge gorge full of trees and geological structures and carved sandstone!
We picnicked at the top of the falls, watching young people jump the guard rail to pose right at the edge. The curving stone path across the river was made of giant sandstone stepping stones, its gentle curve and solidness contrasting to the rushing water. My sandwich was peanut butter, nutella, and banana: thick and delicious.
We braved the many stairs and made our way to the base of the huge waterfall. We roamed among the slippery polished rocks of the river and cauldrons in the stone and mists in the air. Every dozen yards was a new biome with an entirely different climate and vegetation. There were tunnels of plants, tunnels of rock, and rainbows in the air.
It was one of my favorite places and there was so much to see and experience that I still want to go back.
On our return to the train there was an event that I promised Adrienne could describe, so she better get on that. [ok ok!]

Australian Museum
It was raining when we went to the Australian Museum. The skeleton room is indeed amazing as was described and the attention to detail in the exhibitions is marvelous. I marveled.
We spent the better part of the day there, and thus were able to see most of the exhibits and get full details on about half of them. There were turtle skeletons!  Turtle shells are made from a ribcage-like structure, which I had known, but what I didn’t realize was that their shoulder blades are inside of their shell! It was obvious when I thought about it. This means that somehow, through iterative changes, turtles evolved their shoulder blades through their ribcages (which is ridiculously unlikely), or that there was an evolutionary branching to having shells that happened before shoulder blades were fully formed. It could be a case of parallel evolution in action! Am I right about this? I don’t know much biology.
There was also a sea sponge skeleton made out of silicon (!!!) and a giant stuffed wombat and amazing insect exhibits. They had spiders weave their webs over black backgrounds so that you could see the structure easily!


Featherdale Zoo
So you know all those crazy Australian creatures with funny names? Yeah, they’re all made up. All of them. What, you think there’s really a creature like a man-sized rat that hops around and boxes? Or a beaver thing with a duck’s bill that lays eggs? Or the so-called “Wombats” or “Wallabies” or “Koalas.” Even their names sound made up!
Anyway, I want a wombat for a pet! They are like giant marmots that have gotten extra cute with their larger size. They have a bony structure in their rump that they use as shield when they burrow into their holes with their butt sticking out! They also crush predator skulls against the tunnel roof with their back legs and bony butts! They can run at 25 mph! Their poop is square! SQUARE POOP!
I also fondled wallaby testicles, because, well, Adrienne did it. And how often do you get that chance?

Sydney Harbor Bridge and the Sydney Tower Eye
Alexis and I crossed the famous and distinctive Sydney Harbor Bridge. There are tours that climb the curving structure, but they are a bit pricey. So we walked along the pedestrian walkway of the bridge, which was free!
The bridge reminds me of a modern version of the Brooklyn Bridge – cables and trusses and stone support towers, but everything is new and has a cleaner design. It is a cathedral of iron and wind.
The air on the bridge, and in fact all along the coast, was both wet and dry at the same time. It was definitely sea air; slightly salty and fresh and full of the ocean, but the wind was dry and parched. It’s like when you run water over a dry sponge. It’s wet, but it’s also going to absorb all that moisture soon. All the air in Australia felt like a giant dry sponge, even when it rained. [This is an amazing description!]
After crossing the bridge we went to an Irish pub with a live house band that sang all the irish folk songs about being imprisoned and sentenced to transportation. I had excellent Bangers and Mash.
Then we went to the Sydney Tower Eye to meet Adrienne and Ben. They had been off at SCUBA all day. The Sydney Tower is a Space Needle like building, tallest in Sydney and second tallest in all of Australia, with a 360 degree panoramic viewing deck at the top. There was a storm threatening to hit the city as we walked, and I rushed to see it come rolling in from the top of the tower, but I was disappointed! The storm faded into the thirsty air.

Cronulla Beach
This was one of those rocky beaches with crashing waves and jumbles of rocks to scramble over and interesting geological features, like Avoca beach. It was probably my second favorite place after the Blue Mountains. Waves splashing up into the air, water rushing over rocks, through crevices and tunnels, in and out with each surge. Sadly, I cannot do its beauty justice.


Blue Mountains 2
We went back! There was more to see! There’s still more after multiple visits!
The easily notable thing about this trip was our breakfast. We went to the little cafe that Adrienne bled all over when she hurt her hand. I had a cappuccino and an order of scones with cream and jam.
They sprinkle cocoa on top of the cappuccinos there! Why is this not done everywhere? [agreed.]
The scones were not like American scones. They were not lemon ginger scones or raspberry maple scones or cranberry whole grain scones; they were scones. Just scones. And, partaking in the very essence of a scone, they were divinely fluffy biscuity breadstuffs with a perfect texture. AND CREAM! Oh, we loves it! With biscuits and jams and butters, my precious. I was euphoric with every morsel, my head spinning and unable to stop grinning or sighing with delight.
If I was to ever have breakfast with David Bowie, I want it to be scones with cream and jam.
There was also a wild kookaburra, which was nothing less than a little fluffy gentleman. They are my favorite birds.


The Maritime Museum and Thanksgiving dinner
Alexis left before I did, to make it home for Thanksgiving. After she left, Adrienne, Ben, and I went to the Sydney Maritime Museum and had a jolly time together. I’m really grateful that I was able to spend so much time with Ben this trip. The more we interact the more I like him.

There was a working, full scale replica of Captain Cook’s ship, the Endeavour! It had tours and apocryphal facts from the guides! Cook’s trips were honestly pretty amazing. Apparently he was criticised after his first major journey for not exploring far enough, so on his next two he basically explored the entire Pacific. His maps of the New Zealand coast are so accurate that they were widely used until the 1970s.
There was also a destroyer and a submarine and a super lifeboat with its own life support system and ability to keep functioning in an oil inferno. It could drop 30 feet without damage and propel itself even if completely upside down.
Then we went home and cooked American Thanksgiving! Chaos was in the tiny kitchen with us as everyone cooked their own dish at once! Yet somehow, it worked. No collisions, no one really in anyone’s way; we twirled and danced and chopped and stirred and sang. It was exhilarating and delightful and triumphant. We each made tasty tasty food for a tremendous dinner: stuffed bell peppers, mashed potatoes, and pie.
I really like pumpkin pie, but there are no pumpkins in Australia. None. They have a orange watery thing in boxes called “Pumpkin” Soup, but that looked dubious at best.
I thought about the dilemma  and decided: beets are a lot like pumpkins! So I made a beet and butternut pie with pumpkin spices, roasting the beets and then pureeing them, and it was DELICIOUS. The roasted beets added the right amount of sweetness and texture, with just a hint of beety goodness. Plus, it was a very fetching purple color! I recommend this substitution to everyone in the future.

The Final Day
On my last day in Australia I got stuck in an automatic bathroom. The Let Me Out button did not work and there was no handle on the door on the inside! Seriously! What happens if there is a power failure? After trying all the obvious things and deciding that it was just broken, Adrienne went off to make phone calls to find someone to help. I was left to fight off claustrophobia. I pondered my situation.
Windows – too small to climb through. Toilet – already used. Sink – source of fresh water in emergencies. Floor – public bathroom tile, pretty gross. Button that was supposed to open the door – broken. Other button – plays annoying music. Door – no hand-holds to force it open against the machinery. Machinery – where was the machinery?
Summoning up all my video gaming experience, I found a maintenance duct and crawled through.  I pushed against a heavy darkness made of spiders, twisted my lithe form around the corners that riddled the labyrinthine ducting, and clambered through the tangled, greasy clockwork of the mechanisms. At one point, I had to leap from platform to moving platform above a floor of deadly spikes. There was one level that was covered in ice. Finally, I faced the Doom Rattler, a giant poisonous snake with spider legs. With quick footwork and flexible timing, I tricked it into biting its own tail three times and thus defeated it. The exit was before me! I opened the maintenance door from within. Glorious, spider-free sunlight was mine once again!
Adrienne returned and I was all cool and mysterious about how I escaped. [he would not tell me!!]

The two of us walked far and wide across her neighborhood. There was a mall and trains and a blue tongued skink and, eventually, the outskirts of the Olympic Park. Our talk wandered along with us. Excitement was considered, friendship was remarked upon, good times and bad were visited once again. The sadness of life is easier with friends, even if they are far away, across mountains and oceans and time itself. I confessed that I’d always wanted to be thrown out of Woolsworths and she… Well. She can speak for herself. [no. no thank you.]

There is more, of course. There is always more to tell. But for now we can leave the two of them sitting there, in a patch of velvety English grass on the outskirts of the Olympic Park, as the sun begins to set. They talk, and share themselves, and be with each other.

In which Australia begins to feel like home

Yesterday Ben gave me an early christmas present!

And by early christmas present I clearly mean pointed out a dead flying fox!

We were walking home from the train station after a pretty underwhelming trip to the zoo when I walked right by it. Fortunately for me, Ben saw it and knows me well.  We kept on to home where I turned straight around, grabbed a broken tupperware and some strong shears, and walked right back to it where lay. I cut off the head, stuffed it in the tupperware, returned home, buried the head under the tomato plant, and recycled the tupperware. In a month I’ll be the proud owner of a sparkly clean flying fox skull! Best accidental christmas present ever, or what?

In which I lose all of my arachnophile credibility

Ben and I were sitting on the couch, enjoying some wine, and watching Deep Space Nine, a rather engaging episode, the one where Sisko, Dax, Wharf, O’Brien, and Kira get trapped in a James Bond-inspired holodeck program due to a transporter accident, and Julian and Garak have to keep them from being deleted while their patterns are recovered. You know that one? It’s good! But right around the time that Sisko was enjoying being the bad guy and running Julian for a loop, and Garak was making a cutting yet witty comment, Ben said, “Oh god! A huntsman!”

Cue screeching record sounds. Ben pointed to the curtain hanging beside me and I glanced at it long enough to see a dark shape before I levitated across the room and it went out of view.

And get this, Ben goes to his computer immediately and tweets:

This is BEFORE locating said spider. He’s a modern boy. In his defense, he was at his computer to pause Deep Space Nine, because one must concentrate when searching for giant spider.

I’m not going to blame the wine for my reaction because, as Ben followed up with:

So, now, cue shrieking and headlamps and gingerly examining the large heavy curtains to determine that the spider has moved on, to places unknown.

Ben kept repeating, “but how did it get in??” and I kept repeating, “oh god oh god oh god.”

Both are valid statements, I think. We eventually located it behind the TV stand on the baseboard. The new challenge was capturing it. I resourcefully used the TV antenna to herd it and that only backfired a little bit when I herded it underneath the television and out of sight.

I ran to get a glass tumbler to capture it with, to which Ben’s response was, “what are you doing?! That’s not nearly big enough!” After a few attempts at gingerly trying to place the glass over the spider, and a few more shrieks and jumps because that thing is fast and kept teleporting to the other side of the room, I concluded Ben was right, rejected the ceramic bowl he was offering, and found the perfect spider-catching container: the clear plastic cheese dish.

I dumped our freshly grated parmesan into the proffered bowl, and used the handy cheese-dish-feature, the foot, to grip it steadily, and managed to capture the spider on the fourth or fifth try.

Transparency is key. How do you know you’ve really caught it? Are you going to lift it up and *check*?

Only at this point did I ask myself why I was freaking out so much. It was a huntsman, a spider that might give you a few puncture marks out of self-defense, but nothing more severe than that. It’s a lovely house-guest, really! They hunt cockroaches!

I’m sure part of it was the surprise, and even the somewhat pleasant feeling of an adrenaline rush in a safe situation, sort of like a rollarcoaster ride. But they’re the wrong shape to be loved by me, the wrong size, and they’re blazingly fast. And they come out of nowhere.

In the end, it wasn’t even that big. The one I found in a funnel web on a tree was bigger. But this is our home, our couch, and most definitely our curtain, and I think you’ll understand if we were wary and twitchy for the rest of the night.


In which my heart grew three sizes

Ben and I have spent three months, almost exactly, in Australia so far. It’s been odd being so removed from most everyone we care about. I’ve never been five hours’ flight away from most of them for more than a few weeks in my life. Odd is a good word for it. It’s an odd feeling knowing that if a friends’ relationship should dissolve, if a relative should have a health crisis, if a relative should die, that it would take $3,000 and several days to reach them. It changes what it means to be supportive.

Our internet is tres flaky right now, and that won’t change till I start working (whole ‘nother story) because strange regulations here require you to have employment in order to give a company your money to get a reliable connection. The absurdity of this aside, it means video-chat has been impossible, so we’re left with emails, chat, and skype-calls.

There have already been several times where I’ve wished I could hop a quick flight to spend the weekend with someone having a hard time, and I know there will be many more. So I write emails, try to stay on top of correspondence, write this blog to give people a sense of what our life is composed of now, and try to chat real-time as frequently as reasonable.

And then five weeks ago Colin decided to visit Oz for two weeks! One week later Alexis decided to visit for two weeks!

It is, again, odd, to go from complete separation to hosting two of the more important people in your life. Shocking, wonderful, exhilarating, exhausting, and odd.

Alexis left a week and a half ago, Colin a week ago, and now I’m letting you know where I’ve been – having a blast vacationing with them, and then recovering. I’m so so happy they were able to visit, and especially that they were able to do so before I (finally) start work. We spent days rooting around tide pools. We walked endless rocky beaches. We took two trips to the Blue Mountains. We encountered fascinating wildlife. We visited the Australian Museum, the Maritime Museum (Colin), the aquarium, Sydney’s tallest building on a beautiful day, took ferries, picnicked, walked islands, explored historical ruins, played in parks, ate interesting food, and generally used every moment.

Colin, Alexis, thank you for visiting Oz! PS you might disagree but I love how utterly disorganized we are in this picture.