Friday, July 29, 2011


At fifteen, after spending two years away from malta, I travelled back to spend two glorious summer months. I ofcourse expected everyone to remain as I had left them. I kept them alive in my memory--in a state of suspended animation--waiting for me. And Lo and Behold everyone changed. I felt so peripheral at that instant when I realized that everyone changed. But from this experience I learned a valuable lesson that life goes on regardless.

It was also a portal that I passed through that helped me growing up. Loosing the egocentric view of the world on the way.

Now, nearly forty years later, although I intellectually always know that the rest of the world is changing while I myself change, it hits me when I experience dissonance in how I preserved events in my memory.

Change. Today while I was running I got thinking about this again. Old girlfriends with new boyfriends. My children struggling with life without me. Friends back in San Diego and New Mexico moving on with their lives. People dying (no births yet).

My running route starts in Princes Park which adjoins the cemetery. Running past solid granite tombstones is exhilarating. I feel and look very much alive. I pump my chest and run a bit faster than my normal pace. The biting wind, deep into my lungs. Existential morphine. Then I settle down and I start thinking what the future holds.

Eventually I know I have to confront my death. But it is the messy bit in between that frightens me. However much I attempt to bring some lucidity to explore this stage of decline, I always react strongly against it. Perhaps there is nothing I can do when that happens--a stroke, a heart attack--all I can do is delay it by staying fit.

I am always intrigued by runners. They come in all shapes and sizes and running gaits. Runners here do not acknowledge each other. In San Diego I have to stop my wheezing to attempt a "Hi". Here there is no salutation. Which is strange because most Australians are cordial. But they must take running seriously. But it allows me to ignore everything around me and concentrate on my thoughts.

Last week at the north side of the park I ran across the main thoroughfare joined the Royal Park circuit. A much larger park, circumventing the zoo. A beautiful park that ends at the Royal Children's Hospital. And then back again at Princess Park. I was getting tired, but the sun was shining. Close to Ormond College, home and a hot shower.

I realize that I have not come to any conclusion on change. The only thing that I can do is to stay healthy. Then I start coming close to the cemetery again. I pump my chest and run a bit faster than my normal pace. The biting wind, deep into my lungs. Existential morphine. I look ahead. Passing Ormond College on my right, and I go round the park again. Halfway round, the thought enters my head that one option I have not entertained is that I might give myself a heart attack running.

Faster and Faster.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Very High Dinner

An intimate and formal dinner for 360 students, and a handful of masters.

All in their gowns, some, like me, borrowed for the evening as my gold edged bright red gown with a beefeater hat was in a storage unit in La Mesa. I have attended a few of these ceremonies before as a graduate in England. The last one, I am happy to tell anyone who would listen, ended up with the young female vicar telling stories of past misdeeds. The port passing slowly as everyone was enjoying sharing their seemingly illicit taste of honesty. Stories that proved common, despite our attempt to preserve their uniqueness in our memory, until that day.

This was to be another kind of an affair. The din of reverberating voices was ear shattering and a harbinger that this will not be a quiet passing of the port event.

Up on the high table were the top GPA students. Normally the high table is the exclusive domain of the masters. But here at Ormond they are more egalitarian and they invited the top students to join the masters. I was flanked by four such students, Mathew and Iliza on my left--my bad ear--and Elisa and Brad on my right. Average age 19, not including me in the algorithm.

By shouting questions across the table we developed a rudimentary method of communicating. I was interesting in the surreal nature of this evening. Everyone in their finery, like how I would visualize an 18th century European court. Bow ties for the men and frilly shiny dresses for the women. Followed (or preceded) by cleavage and strutting.

Do you feel privileged?

That is what I asked and they all said YES. It is important at a school that costs $48,000 a year to feel that you are privileged and unique and special. And such occasions make you appreciate that fact. I kept thinking about what happens back home, in the United States. We even stopped having snacks after graduation to save $500. By stopping such rituals we are explicitly saying to students "You are not worth it." So it is right that these students feel special because we make the effort to make them feel that way. It is something that will carry them throughout their career. The feeling that someone invested more than money to make their academic passage important. Back at SDSU we rarely acknowledge the students while they are with us.

But that is not the question that made me sit at my desk to write this entry. What made me ponder, and discuss with my small goup of colleagues, throughout this week was the response to my second question. And it is one that originated with me when Obama was elected president of the United States three years ago, and one that I have been waiting for answer since then. And that is that I thought (and wrongly predicted) that racial issues will be openly discussed. So I asked this question to my dinner neighbors.

Do you discuss race, are you aware of it?

And the answer I got was not what I expected (again.) Enough so that I asked each of my four neighbors the same question separately with the hope that I will get a more textured answer. But no. The answer was monotonously consistent. Race is not discussed and it is not an issue.

It took me a few days to combine the two questions together. It seems that feeling privileged allows you to view other people as unique and speical as you. To look beyond the obvious. Ofcourse race is not an issue when you feel that you--and your colleagues--are so lucky to be here. Regardless of background, race or gender. The feeling that all of you are beyond common evaluation. So I dwell on this for a few days, and ofcourse the next minute I think about the obverse. What if you feel that you are not unique, that you are unappreciated, degraded. Is that what causes us to derogate others? That is another question. But it might be an answer to the questions I have been asking.

Architecture and Cuisine, Second Week

The smell of caramelized onions, roasted coffee and pastry holds me fast. Where does it take me. Smell is a strange sense in that it transports me directly to a place that I associate with it.

Roasted coffee is always Seattle. The cold and wet weather further enhances the Seattle connection. The drab, dark clothing, sometimes broken by an occasional red tinged hairdo or bright orange shoes. Men in suits. Pointy leather shoes, and drain pipe trousers. Others in bright safety vest and hard hats, milling around the numerous construction sites. Women in dresses/jeans and coats. Sturdy high heels, or boots. Nothing out of the ordinary. Except I know better. Despite the similarities, Australia has developed its own culture. Visitors come and go. They take what they interpret back with them. But the culture is uniquely their own. So the Seattle connection is tenuous. And what brought on this great insight? Caramelized onions take me to a bakery shop buying pastizzi in Malta.

Unconsciously I try and make this place familiar, mine. I bring my experiences to transform what is a unique culture into a familiar one. The caramelized onions was a dead give away. I felt a familiar twinge. A place where I have experienced warmth, simplicity, and a sense of belonging. But it is not here, not yet. The architecture was a clue that I am in a different place. The sheer audacity of angles, the size, and most ostentatious of all, the colors. This was an alien experience that I was unconsciously trying to own, but I cannot. I should not. I need to allow it to overwhelm and for me to refrain from analyzing, interpreting and trying to own it.

But I am fighting against a current. The smell of baked pastries tells me I am home. And home is where pastry is being baked.
The enduring feeling is baffling at first. Why pastry and why home. I stopped writing at the time, I did not know why I should so strongly associate the smell of pastry with home, more so than the smell of pastizzi (or caramelized onions).

During this week, I further savored the city and forgot about the question until today. What happened today is that I saw our pastry chef preparing brunch. Despite the fact that we had cold cereal for breakfast, he was at the kitchen, early, preparing (what I learned afterwards to be) scones. Baking requires planning. Sometimes it requires that the dough is prepared the day before. It is a chemistry test, as well as a test of patience. But more importantly, it signals that you have all the different ingredients, the different baking tools and the time that could only mean that you are home. I never bake when I am traveling. I tried to understand this and from the initial excuses of not having the right pans, all the small ingredients, and not trusting the temperature of the oven, it is infact simpler than that. I just did not feel at home to invest my time into all the details. But that is home. The little things that we surround ourselves with that are so hard to discard when we move. And all of these little things that I have shed myself of in the last few weeks. Pastry is rightfully the smell of home, wherever I smell it.