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Every morning someone comes along and tosses a shrink-wrapped log of a newspaper onto our front steps. I am often up before it arrives, but I have yet to see our delivery person. On Saturday, we receive two logs. The second includes the weekend magazines. I always weed out the sports, real estate and car sections before I bring the rest into the kitchen.

The plastic wrapping machine is very cunning, often taxing my ability to find the edge. Sometimes I give up, resorting to a sharp knife to fillet the newsprint. If I set aside some of the paper for later, I may find that it has disappeared during the day. My wife seems to mistake my lack of instant attention for a total lack of interest.

I was a freshman in college before I realized that my vocabulary needed improvement. I decided to look up every single word that was unfamiliar to me from the plays and prefaces of George Bernard Shaw. There were literally hundreds of unknown terms that I hadn’t realized I didn’t know. I began to look at the Webster’s unabridged with respect.

I would try to insinuate the new words subtly into everyday conversation. Words like proselytize and ubiquitous. Try it sometime. I had trouble with the pronunciation guide, so older adults would often correct me, sending me into despair with their apparent condescension. But Shaw’s staggering vocabulary did work wonders.

Reading the newspaper ‘down under’ is like being back with Shaw. “Spruik,” for example. It leaps off the page at me. Such a strange word. It means: to promote goods and services by addressing people in a public place. John Howard tried to pick up points spruiking at the recent summit.

“Larrakin.” Some members of “The Chaser” TV program managed to gain entry to the APEC security zone by pretending to be a Canadian delegation. They weren’t discovered until one of their presenters, bearded as Osama Bin Laden, began to complain loudly about not having been invited. Larakin, first popularized around 1870, refers to groups of cocky, irreverent, working-class men.

“Fair dinkum.” Someone or something that is really genuine. An Australian airline passenger made the mistake of saying this to an American air hostess not long ago and found herself in the unfriendly arms of security when the plane touched down. No joke.

“galah, ” –a loud, rude person, or an insult. “gibber, — a large rock in the desert. Uluru is a really big gibber. “daggy,”– something that looks really bad. (apparently in reference to manure that hangs off the rear end of sheep.) This is a popular put down in the fashion industry. Not many nationalities would have a word for what hangs off the rear end of a sheep.

Many baffling words come from abbreviations, “arvo” for afternoon, “ute” for utility vehicle, “sanger” for sandwich, and “esky” for cooler. (That one comes from a brand name popular in the 50’s, the Eskimo cooler.)

Some have been handed down from cockney rhyming slang, such as “noah” for shark. The derivation comes from Noah’s Ark. Other oddities stem from the addition of a “y” or an “ie” on a word to make words such as “barbie,” “cossie” (a swimming costume), “sickie” (sick leave), and “sunnie” (sunglasses).

This is the land of the “fair go,” where anyone who takes advantage of other people’s labor is considered a “bludger” (shortened from bludgeoner, a prostitute’s pimp). I may be a stubby short of a six pack, but I’ll give it a burl. “Good on ya, mate,” — keep up the good work.

Stay tuned.

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When you live three years in one of the ritziest suburbs of Washington D.C., you expect to rub elbows with V.I.Ps every now and again. I know this may be hard for my readers to believe, but I actually worked in our nation’s capitol. I took the subway into the city, to an office building not that far from the White House.

It takes awhile to realize that powerful people are invisible to ordinary residents. They don’t do subways (no matter how clean and shiny they are); they don’t eat in inexpensive restaurants (no matter how good the food) and they don’t walk the dog. Period.

When we moved to Gainesville, Florida I knew that our chances for political celebrity spotting were over. Even with the President’s brother running the state, we were in a university town, heavily Democratic. I was stunned to discover that there were, in fact, closet Republicans. A lot of them. Even though it was public knowledge that George W. had lied about every single reason for invading Iraq, no Republican seemed to care. It was an eye opening experience.

So, imagine my surprise the other night when I picked up the phone and a male caller said my name in a very breathy, belligerently distinctive voice. “Who is this?” I said. “It’s Potus,” he said. “Who?” said I, disbelieving. The voice got louder. “Listen up, it’s me, the President.”

I racked my mind to figure out who could be pulling a fast one. There wasn’t a person on the planet who didn’t know that the Prez was in Australia, and everyone who knew me was well aware that the Shrub wasn’t exactly my favorite person. But it sounded exactly like him.

“My sources tell me you got this thing down,” he said. I sighed, exasperated. He seemed to expect me to know what he was talking about. It was the sort of thing I do, and it drives my wife crazy.

“What thing, George? What are you talking about?” “Now, see,” said he, “we’re gettin’ along here. I like that you call me by my first name. Not many of my people do that anymore…. The thing is, I’m getting ready to kick back a bit and Texas is starting to seem a little small. Too many people know where I live, if you follow my drift.”

“My people tell me you got this ‘down under’ retirement thing all figured out. How about we grab some brews, hop on our bikes and go look at some real estate. Go ranch huntin’. This is big country out here. I could get away from everybody. Whadaya say?”

“On bikes? The outback? You want to go into the outback?”

“Yeah, the back of beyond,” said the Pres. “I hear you clock a few miles on that funny bent bike you got.”

“No guns–” said I, thinking back on on accidental shootings. “Not too many,” said Bush, “just one for crocs and one for everything else. The SS will take care of security. We’ll make a good goddamn team. You an’ me, pardner. I’ll see ya in the morning. Adios.”

He hung up the phone. Was it real or had I just imagined it? Pardner?


This was the week the clouds broke. Following what seemed like weeks of gray, the sun emerged, gracing Melbourne with blue skies and light. September 1st was the first day of Spring. North American readers will have a hard time with that. It is a bizarre notion for me and I’ve had some time to get used to the idea.

The writers came to town for the Writer’s Festival. There were luminaries like J.M. Coetzee and Dave Eggers as well as charmers like Alexander McCall Smith and John Lanchester.  I got a handful of tickets and enjoyed a feast of wordsmiths talking about subjects from family secrets to the impact of a materialistic culture on spiritual life.

I came home with books, of course. More for the stack on the bookshelf, the pile by the bed, the coffee tables. I learned that I am a rare bird, a male reader. Apparently, anyone who plows through anything thicker than magazines is a woman, almost by definition.

I am the odd man out, currently reading “Fiasco” by Thomas Ricks, the “True History of the Kelly Gang” by Peter Carey, “Pegasus Descending” by James Lee Burke and “A Commonwealth of Thieves: the Improbable Birth of Australia” by Thomas Keneally.

And now, of course, I can listen to books, a wonderful way to fill up hours at the gym, on the tram or bike path. I just shook off the magical spell of “The Emporer’s Children,” by Claire Messud, followed by the powerful and depressing “The World Without Us,” by Alan Weisman. As an antidote, I am deep into the charming tale of “Balzac and the Little Seamstress” by Dai Sijie.

The one time I attempted to ask a question at the Writer’s Festival, my tongue simply refused to get itself around my thoughts and the two eloquent writers at the front of the room found themselves completely baffled. I am often incoherent in the public forum and I don’t know why I expected to be able to express myself well this time.

With a blog you get a second chance. The panelists were Marcella Polain, an Australian writer who has a novel out based on her Armenian family history, and Nancy Huston, a well-known, Canadian-born writer who lives in Paris and usually writes in French. The discussion subject was triggered by Tolstoy’s famous line about families.

My question was intended to be: since family forms the template for all later relationships in life, from the worker in a company to the citizen in a country, are differences in social structures around the world reflecting differing family dynamics? When JFK said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can you do for your country,” was he really just saying, “Grow up.”  You are welcome to fill in the gap with comments.

There was a big hole in my schedule on Friday so I walked across the river to see the Immigration Museum. It was fascinating. I loved the televised mock interview, where I was able to assess various candidates. The interviews were supposed to take place when this country took in great numbers of immigrants, Brits, of course, Chinese, Greeks, Italians, Somalians, Sudanese.

I loved the Greek sponge fisherman’s wife, who didn’t speak a word of English and kept up a constant stream of chatter while her husband did his best to listen to the questions and squeeze out appropriate answers.  With our fluency in English and my wife’s job offer, we would be considered  “champagne immigrants,” but I can still identify with that fisherman.

One of the wonders of imagination. One of the benefits of growing up in a world of books.  Everybody I saw in the interview booth got thumbs up.  Welcome to Australia, I said, in my head.  May the blessings of this land make you grow strong and be happy.

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