24 December 2010

A Christmas Letter

Dear Friends and Family,

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a Christmas letter. In the shadow of instant and constant updates on the inanities of daily life made possible by electronic social networks, it seems unnecessary and redundant. But, considering what a zinger of a year it has been for us, I felt it would be worthwhile – if only for myself – to take some time and review the changes that have unfolded over the last 12 months. I hope you enjoy this update, but as usual, those of you who are offended by impersonal communications (and you might want to review you own outbox before bristling) can respectfully go fuck yourselves.

I confess, I am sorely lacking in yuletide spirit this year. It may be an inevitable consequence of suffering from near total exhaustion, or it may be due to the fact that the sun is blazing in a clear blue sky, or, more likely, it is because this year can never compare to the joyous time we had last Christmas with our friends and family in California. We spent three wonderful weeks riding bicycles through the cold dark streets of San Jose and drinking cheap beer in dive bars, sprawling on my mother’s couch watching football while eating hot wings, and farting on the dog.

For New Year’s Eve, we packed up the whole family and flew to Reno, the proverbial scene of the crime, to celebrate our wedding anniversary. The decadence of the Peppermill Spa and Resort was in stark contrast to the Western All Star Motor Inn, and our opulent Italian dinner bore no resemblance to the Denny’s Nachos on which we had dined 20 years prior. I have never regretted that our entire wedding cost less than $500 (including the rings), just as I will never regret the lavish sums we spent on our anniversary celebrations...plus, Mom covered the cost of New Year’s Dinner with her winnings from the penny slots.

Our bittersweet return to Australia quickly descended into turmoil. Some career related drama gave Kevin his characteristic reaction of itchy feet and he began to prowl the job boards in other cities. I was less than pleased with this turn of events, having established a remarkable network of friends and colleagues over the last 3 years. With a fair degree of panic, I took stock of my comfortable apartment over looking the city and my comfortable job making graduate students cry at the university. Realizing that each of our life changing moves has been ascendant in terms of quality of life, I agreed to remain open-minded.

By February, Kevin had secured an interview with a small but expanding company nestled in the grape covered Adelaide Hills in South Australia. As usual, I fell under the spell of his romantic visions of leisurely days touring nearby wine regions, of long beachside brunches, and the slower pace of life in a small and tidy city. I confess that I was indeed captivated by the dry summer landscape, so reminiscent of California. When I found a job opportunity to pursue a new career as a sales representative with a top supplier of laboratory reagents – a company I had often dreamed of representing – I began spinning my own fantasies of a fresh start and a new life in Adelaide.

Our departure from Sydney was marked by a series of fond good-byes, well wishes, and promises of visitations. Allegedly, my farewell party at the university was the most attended in the history of our department. There were many tears, many laughs, and many glasses of wine – although not necessarily in that order. Now I regret promising Mille I wouldn’t distribute the pictures!

Ahhh, fuck it – promises are for breaking.

Soon we were consumed by the daunting tasks associated with transporting a life a thousand miles away. Once more, I was forced to reflect on the uncanny ability of ‘stuff’ to cling to a person. We came to Australia with 4 meager suitcases. In spite of my best efforts at not yielding to consumerism, we had managed to accumulate a fair number of possessions with which I was unwilling to part – mostly because they were found items. I could not help but ponder the ridiculousness of paying to move other people’s garbage interstate.

Once we landed in Adelaide, all time for reflection was gone, and our fantasies of a leisurely life all but evaporated under the stresses of our new jobs. We rented a cavernous 3 bedroom home with a gourmet kitchen in an upscale suburb within walking distance of the city. Suddenly, it did not seem that we ad accumulated much stuff at all, and realizing we had made a commitment to remain in Australia for at least a few more years, we decided it was time to ship some of our worldly goods from America.

My new job was immediately demanding of my time, so Kevin elected to supervise the packing and shipping of our furniture – which afforded him to opportunity to catch up with some old friends, eat some good pizza and stock up on affordable salsa.

And the chance to take a final picture of our beloved Cow, who sadly passed away a few months later.

One big change from Sydney living was the fact that we would once again be dependant upon motor vehicles for our livelihoods.

I didn’t realize driving was something you forgot how to do…or perhaps Kevin needs to visit the optometrist…

When I told my most wonderful mother we were moving, again, she said “Oh good! Another place for me to visit!” and true to her word, she came out in September – to what should have been a glorious spring, but was instead a stormy and lingering winter.

I managed to wrangle a few days off work for some local excursions. We took the ferry to Kangaroo Island where we communed with passionate penguins, ferocious fur seals, peckish pelicans, mouth-watering maron, lamentable lambs, and one sleepy koala perched in a tree outside a boutique distillery.


In Melbourne, we strolled through the markets and attended Dracula’s Cabaret, then drove the Great Ocean Road with our hangovers perched in our laps.

During the week, Mom occupied herself with local tours, huddled against the relentless rain and in the evening we took gentle repose on our dreadfully uncomfortable furniture. Our comfortable furniture arrived from America two weeks after her sorrowful departure.

With the arrival of our beloved couches, our house began to feel like a home and we were finally able to relax into our new jobs and begin exploring the local surrounds. As envisioned, we have taken several day trips to local wine regions, caught some of our favourite bands in nearby venues, and put our lovely kitchen to good use from the bounty on offer through the many local fresh produce markets…an activity that pleases Bad, Bad Kitty to no end.

Perhaps the most marvellous aspect of Christmas in Australia is the fact tat it shuts down so completely for the holidays. With Christmas day falling on a Saturday, and Boxing Day on a Sunday, the shops are closed for four whole days. This morning, we decided to wag work and went to the Central Markets to stock up on supplies. With a forecast of 91 degrees for Christmas Day tomorrow, I could not comprehend roasting a turkey, so we opted for a traditional seafood feast.

With the refrigerator comfortably stocked with scallops, yellow fin tuna, king prawns, and giant crab legs, with a bowlful of cherries and mangoes, with a stash of sparkling shiraz and chilled rose, I am finally able to relax, decompress, and take the time to reach out to my friends around the globe with all the best wishes for a joyous holiday season and a happy and healthy new year.

Love and Kisses,

Audra and Kevin.

20 December 2010


Sorry Richard, what can I say?  My head is just in the toilet lately...

18 December 2010

By Request...

Thanks to my fabulous Mom - I had some delicious Hungarian Mushroom Soup for dinner...with no toilet related repercussions worthy of discussion.

11 December 2010


Because I have the occasion to visit a great many such facilities, it seems to me that there is a disturbing trend developing among female scientists in both industry and academia.  I am not referring to the dearth of women in senior leadership roles, but to their increasing inability to shit with some degree of civility.  I cannot help but wonder if there is a correlation.

I am simultaneously amused and disgusted by the observation that nearly every restroom at my customer accounts is adorned with some sort of  instruction in the proper use of a toilet.  These range from simple pictorial images to lengthy manifestos on the importance of hygiene in shared facilities.  I am particularly fond of this highly motivational poster:

I have witnessed (and as a small mercy to my readers, not photographed) the provocations to such signage, and it is indeed hideous.  At one account in particular, I found myself on the edge of enthrallment as I contemplated the physics and trajectories necessary to allow the deposition of fecal matter in such a location.  Could it really be simple neglect or was something more sinister unfolding in this place or digestive repose? 

Several days later, I found the answer to my ponderings affixed to a university stall:

Well, that explains how it got THERE.  However, it is now clear to me that it is not a matter of malice, but a cultural issue - and a difficult one to reconcile at that.  Considering the reluctance of most women to make physical contact with the seats of public toilets, it is unlikely that appealing to a sense of safety is going to convince women who have been trained to squat that sitting is a superior alternative.  You'd have just as little luck trying to persuade Westerners -  particularly those with bad knees or prohibitive fat depositions - of the benefits of the squat position (although a nurse friend of mine is a huge advocate, claiming that in countries where squatting is the norm, there is no such thing as constipation. I maintain that it has more to do with the unavailability of clean drinking water in such countries.  Diarrhea and constipation are mutually exclusive - despite being co-listed as side effects on nearly every medication known to man.)

The simplest solution is no simple solution:

I feel this issue underpins the one of fundamental difficulties of blending diverse cultures.  It is one thing to accept peculiar cultural differences as charming eccentricities, but when it comes to replacing common yet costly infrastructure, the conversation may easily turn to questions of whether compromise should rest with the immigrant or the indigenous.  On the one hand, when you move to a new country, you might expect that you will need to adapt to the unfamiliar habits of your host nation (such as 12 ounce pint glasses...WTF?!).  Similarly, one might feel perfectly entitled to carry forward the customs and learnings of the motherland. 

Both views are valid. 

Both lead to stalemate.

Both lead to shitty toilets.

21 November 2010

Camping in (on? at?) The Coorong

The Coorong is a giant spit of pristine sand dunes formed by the mouth of the Murray River that serves as an important stop over for myriad species of migratory birds...but that is irrelevant to this story.  What's important is that it is a short 2.5 hour drive from my house and it was the first time I have been camping in about 7 years - 7 years?  How did that happen?  How is it that I have neglected to do something that I so love for so long??  It can be quite annoying, how life gets in the way of itself sometimes!

Special thanks to Joan and Gordon for instigating the event and supplying the top end gear we were lacking.  Kevin imported our basic necessities from the US - tent, sleeping bags, and camp mattresses - which looked mighty puny next to their palatial canvas accommodations, but we were cozy enough.  Well, I was anyway...for some silly reason, Kevin thought he would be more comfortable sleeping in the car...or maybe thought didn't really play a part in that decision.

I awoke to a symphony of birdsong.  Following a delicious artery-clogging breakfast (washed down with ice cold beer), we went on a lovely morning hike around some purple salty lakes.  My inadequate photographic skills failed to capture the breadth of joyous emotions I felt as we trekked through subtly distinct micro-environs.  But here is the best of the worst:

At 42 Mile Crossing (I was assured the name was for the distance of the locale from town, and not from the length of the walk), we traversed the dunes to have lunch on a desolate stretch of beach bordering a gorgeous aquamarine sea.  My lovely hosts then indulged me with a scenic drive in search of exotic roadkill, whereupon I added my first emu picture to my collection, but was too tired to get out to snap the golden wombat. 

After a brief stop at the local store for ice-cold Coke and Cookies, we retired to the campsite for refreshing bevvies and a scrumptious dinner of fried garlic sprinkled with prawns.  The evening was punctuated with praline cheesecake, and I soon drifted away into a blissful drunken slumber which prevented me from worrying about large hairy spiders and highly venomous snakes.

A pleasant consequence of life in South Australia is that wherever we travel, there is generally a wine region between us and home.  We took a ferry across the river into Wellington and tasted our way through the Langhorne Creek region across rolling hills under big fluffy clouds, stopping in the German Village/Tourist Trap of Hahndorf for lunch and home made ice cream. 

Despite my delight with wilderness living, it felt mighty good to come home to a blissful nap on a proper bed and a proper shower!  Perhaps that is what I love most about 'roughing it' - sometimes it is necessary to adjust the contrast levels of ones life manually, in order to bring out the highlights and lessen the shadows...and sometimes a change of scenery helps add frivolity, or at least an element of quirkiness:

Just think what I could do if I actually collected my roadkill...

12 November 2010


I love it when real life comes with a good soundtrack.

The incessant grinding of a tile saw across the street earlier this week provided me with a poignant reminder that my job is portable. With frayed nerves and a cranky disposition, I packed up my laptop and sought refuge in a cozy café near the beach. A steamy Chai Latte and a plate of chicken and asparagus crepes restored my calm and I soon settled into organizing my appointment calendar.

My industriousness was short lived as a large group of retired beach walkers descended on the café, breaking my serenity with the shrill chatter and loud squawking one might expect from a flock of cockatoos. I was suddenly seized by an urgent call from nature of the variety that required complete solitude and security. I cast a nervous eye towards the line of old ladies jogging nervously in place at the rear of the restaurant. I quickly packed up my bag and hit the street in search of more suitable facilities.

I walked uncomfortably down to the esplanade. My desire for privacy was rapidly dissipated by imperative need. I scanned the shoreline for the blessed facilities that without fail exist in public spaces. Australian society deems adequate waste disposal as a civil right essential to the preservation of human dignity, and for that I hold this nation in the highest esteem.

I spied the location of my ambition a block away beneath the steps of the surf club. I waddled nervously past the playground filled with friendly and confident children calling out greetings to me, fully expecting my polite reply, towards which I had neither the inclination nor the ability. I was delighted beyond description when I at last reached my destination to discover that these were not your ordinary block of cold concrete stalls, but were high-tech, self cleaning private suites. I had found a safe haven!

I pushed the green button outside a vacant room. The door opened with a whoosh. I hung my satchel on the hook and pressed the red button which closed the door, activating the nauseating music meant to deter junkies and urban campers. I then relaxed into a moment of satisfaction unlike any I had ever experienced outside of a bed (except once in a dressing room at JC Penney). It was evident this was not going to be a rush job, so I settled back and had a good look around at my temporary accommodations.

The room was clean and surprisingly free of graffiti and vandalism. Instructions above the large sink made post-evacuatory hand washing mandatory, as that was the mechanism that activated the flush. How sanitary. Located at random intervals throughout the tile walls were spray nozzles of varying sizes and angles that maintained the impeccable cleanliness. Above the sink was a sign that read:

“If this red light begins flashing you have occupied the facility for too long. Leave immediately. The door is about to open.
If you hear an alarm, the cleaning cycle is about to begin. Leave immediately.”

As I pondered the precise definition of “too long”, it suddenly seemed as if I had been in residence for an eternity, and there seemed to be no end to my fit of productivity. Time stretched dreamlike as I imagined myself grasping for my computer, clutching my pants clumsily around my waist and lurching from a multi-directional shower spray into a sea of pink-clad little girls shouting “Hullo!” I tried to explain my concerns to my internal organs, but my autonomic nervous system was not taking calls from my cerebral cortex.

Eventually, I perceived a light at the end of the strictly metaphorical tunnel and began to anticipate my ablutions. I pressed the button on the paper dispenser. With a painful grinding sound, the machine reluctantly delivered 6 inches of thin tissue. I pressed the button again. Another scant offering materialized. I pressed the button a third time. Nothing happened. I applied my 12 inches of salvation with a delicate conservation that would impress a hardcore Greenpeace activist, only to immediately realize the complete inadequacy of the resource. A new wave of panic reinvigorated my digestive tract, undoing all I had just achieved.

After an interval, the paper dispenser once more graced me with a meagre 12 inches of insufficiency. I eyed the sign above the sink nervously as I waited for the stingy contraption to reset. Grrr-rrr-rrr-errr. Wait. Worry. Grr-rrr-rrr-err. Wait. Worry.

At last I reached a state of repair that would allow me to face the world outside with confidence and grace. In fact, I felt damn good! Like I could conquer nations. I approached the sink and thoughtlessly began whistling along to the perverted muzak that filled the cubicle.

And now, forever onwards, will magnificent feelings of salvation and empowerment be conjured in my memory by the gentle strains of Nat King Cole.

05 November 2010

RIP...the sound of breaking hearts...

“We’ll take that one. The orange tabby.”
From the dark recesses of the back wall under a sign labelled ‘kittens’, we heard an incessant “Mraaoow. Mraaoow. Mraaoow. Mraaoow. Mraaoow. Mraaoow.” As if to say – "Hey! Don't Go Yet!  Come see about me!"

“Wait a sec…may I hold that one? The stubby legged little Kitler?”

She was so affectionate. All full of purrs and promises

“We’ll take this one.”

We brought her home, let her loose in our penthouse Goose Hollow apartment…and she…never…ever….shut…up! Ever!

Except for the time we decided to take her to the library, when she took a silent shit in Kevin’s lap. Then *I* couldn’t shut up…in fact, I am still laughing about it now...be grateful I didn't have a camera with me.

On the Big Trip 2003, at a riverside campsite in Riggins Idaho, we thought we had lost her for good. After a family sized pizza and several rounds of beer served in mason jars (one of my favourite drinking vessels), we returned to find the screen door of our 5th wheel trailer a jar and The Cow nowhere to be seen. As dusk fell, we combed the shoulders of the highway and the banks of the rushing river by torchlight, frantically calling her name.

At last we gave up and collapsed into a pile of mutual sobs, when from the shadows beneath the trailer we heard a soft ‘mraaoow?” and The Cow Emerged, soggy with cat piss and quite full of her self. She immediately received hugs, beatings, and a violent bath:

Because we had a cat in Baja, it seemed an obvious pre-conclusion that we would certainly want another. And so when a skinny little blue-eyed Siamexican kitten was rescued from a feral litter, it was assumed that we would naturally adopt him. The Cow issued a vocal sharp clawed veto and exhibited her typical smug stubbornness, and he soon took up residence elsewhere:

“What about The Cow?” was the most difficult question in our decision to move to Australia. She was well into her 14th cranky year, and immigration regulations would require a 2 month stint in quarantine – seemed a cruel penance for a grand old lady who was so recently enjoying her rest on the oak covered mountainside of our home in Shingletown. The decision to leave her to her retirement abode was made easy by the generosity of Robert and Holly, who loved her like their own, gave her daily beatings, and indulged her incessant meowing with patience and adoration.

And it was them, not us, who cared for her in her final hours…and for that I am eternally grateful, and perhaps, as eternity stretches out, I will be able to forgive myself for not being there with her....



29 October 2010


Over the last few years, I have actively buffered myself against becoming too nostalgic about Halloween.  I have not allowed myself to indulge in the wistful desire for the familiar pleasures of the season.  I have not put up decorations nor made costumes nor purchased kilogram quantities of disgusting candy.  By ignoring my favorite holiday, I have shielded my heart from homesickness.

But this year, despite the fact that I am enormously distracted with my new career, I have been unable to avoid it.  Halloween displays have sprouted up in store fronts.  The local pub is spruiking their costume party.   There are piles of fat orange pumpkins in the produce section of every grocery store.  i even saw some zombies and a witch smoking cigarettes on North Terrace, but that might have more to do wit it being Saturday morning than being Halloween...

It seems that in spite of this country's disdain for commercialized American holidays, the infinite appeal of Halloween is catching hold of the Australian imagination.  More and more I hear of Halloween parties and costume parades.  There have been rumors that some neighborhoods even promote trick-or-treating! 

Does this mean that Australian culture is crumbling under the pressure of American boorishness, or or can they simply learn to take the best and leave the rest?  (I'd like to believe the latter, but the popularity of Two and a Half Men seems to undermine my hopes.)

Because I am just too busy to be homesick this ear, I have allowed myself a bit of Halloween fun.  I bought a candle shaped like a blood shot eyeball (although in my case, this is appropriate for all times of year).  I also made a jack-o-lantern...albeit with a bit of Aussie flair: