Monthly Archives: May 2018

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Thursday, 5 April

We are going to MONA today – the Museum of Old and New Art. A ferry will deliver us hence. The first boat leaves at 9:30 and the next at 11. Let’s take it slow; after breakfast I want (need) to get a haircut. The two of us will then meet at the ferry terminal for the eleven o’clock. I walk to a barbershop on Liverpool Street and am given the works. I had been shaggy and ill-kempt, but now I am crisp and dignified, the very personification of Old and New Art.

Ali comes strolling down the esplanade. I have tickets in hand, and we board the ferry, sparing no minutes. The 25-minute trip up the wide Derwent River offers breezes and mountainsides and a gargantuan zinc refinery. It’s a brilliant day, sun and clouds and dazzle on the river. We disembark at what seems to be an island and ascend a very long staircase, at the top of which are many terraces dotted with strange artifacts and potentially irreconcilable choices.

Lovely vistas of the river and the hills open everywhere, but, hey look, over there’s a trampoline that will ring a pair of huge bells if bounced on hard enough. And over THERE is 70% life-size cement mixer made of a delicate filigree of ¼” corten steel. It’s transparent and ephemeral and silly. An incomprehensible site map only confuses matters more. We are on an un-urgent mission to find Cloaca, a mechanical digestive tract that the two of us had seen on its visit to the New Museum in the early 90s. We wander through tunnels and vast underground spaces. The conceptual art feels lame and sexual art is limp. Whoa. Smell that? Yeah, gross. This is the reek of every human digestive process in combination. The young woman guard sitting just outside the exhibit appears keenly aware of her pitiable occupation. “Dad, the old Cloaca didn’t smell so bad.” “Yeah, I guess they finally got it right.”

Despite the beauty of the day and splendors of the building, I’m beginning to feel like I’m at the mercy of an asshole – a man with infinite resources, but no critical sense and no sense of humor. The work on display is art simply because somebody has bought it and said so, not because it’s beautiful or resonates with meaning. Pfeh. Ali takes great pleasure in how pissy I’ve become. Or says she does. Give me the Justins any day.

The Henry Jones Art Hotel, though right on Hobart’s sparkling waterfront, is precious in much the same way. Henry Jones had been a self-made marmalade magnate in the 19th century and in this building they made his IXL-brand jams. Our rooms are in the restored office section of the building, richly paneled rooms with pyramidal ceilings. My bathroom was designed by someone with no knowledge of or experience with the elemental nature of water. The shower and sink just spew everywhere. No matter. We score a terrific Indian meal and retire.

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Wednesday, 4 April

Submitted for your approval: a grueling travel day – Gladstone to Brisbane to Melbourne to Hobart. Tasmania’s the terminus of nine hours of up-and-down. Lots of airport bickering. Both of us are out of sorts. This has been an arduous trip and our final week is beginning. Five nights in Tasmania. We manage to scribble a dozen final postcards while being amused, irritated, and bored by our fellow travelers.

We land in Hobart at 8:30 at night, so we must drive into the city in the dark. It has rained, so there’s reflective confetti everywhere. Ali navigates gracefully. I stop cursing. The Henry Jones Art Hotel is our destination. It’s on the wharf, I believe.



Today, Ryan’s booked us a daytrip to Lady Musgrave Island, one of the southernmost atolls of the Great Barrier Reef. Seven of us are supposed to go on this nautical adventure that will depart from the town named 1770, after the year Captain Cook sighted it. However… There’s been a storm, a cyclone perhaps, down the east coast, resulting in swells consequential enough to cancel the trip. No more snorkeling for us two, I guess. Bullet Dodged or Grievous Disappointment – You be the judge. Instead, we will take two cars and head north to Rockhampton and the Koorona Crocodile Farm. We drive separately thanks to the magic of GPS and by the time we reached Rockhampton, we’ve caught up with them. Hey! It’s their red Kia ahead of us; that’s Kalarney waving through the sun-roof.

The Crocodile Farm lies at the end of an unsealed road. We’re each given a colorful wristband that identifies us as food. After a short instructional video we are led outside to a series of fenced-in ponds, each home to a croc clan – one croc dude and maybe ten females. Our guide, whose accent is nearly impenetrable, rouses the formidable creatures by whacking on the water with a stick and yelling, “Whoa.” Ripples, eyes, and snouts. Primordial crashing and splashing occurs when he tosses a feathery, leg-inclusive, bloodless chicken quadrant in the general direction of the reptiles that either snap their jaws or diss the meal with lizard-y scorn. The beasts all have names and attributes that don’t humanize them one fucking bit. At the end of the tour, we’re offered an opportunity to hold a youthful specimen in our hands. This is met with trepidation and joy. The yard-long creature’s jaws have been taped shut, but still. Photographic evidence exists of this site-specific foolhardiness. Ali and I buy swag, because we are fearsome this way. As we’re leaving the six of us photobomb a crocodile named Stumpy.

This experience ended at noontime, yet we chose not to dine here with its unappealing farm-to-table menu. Instead, Ryan and his girls have a mission at the big mall in Rockhampton. It’s a big honkin’ mall all right with food court opportunities galore. Kalarney’s unsuccessful in finding whatever righteous accessory she required, and we depart for the Rockhampton Zoo and Garden.

This is a lovely place with shady trees and flowerbeds and military monuments and a delightful zoo full of native critters. The wombats live in an oubliette. One of the girls knows how, with a smart phone, to gaze through the inky darkness and render the furry lumpkin visible. This is a mysterious technological procedure known only to tweens. We bear witness to nature in captivity – a koala in a tree that slowly turns to face us and then shits, emus that emit a bizarre drum-like resonance at the instigation of one of Ryan’s youngsters, and truly hideous cassowaries we can throw grapes at. We bear witness to a toddler dropping his bottle into the cassowary enclosure, which is the cause of apocalyptic wailing.

Back at the motel, Ali and I contemplate the wonders of repose, then rejoin the Elys for a spectacular food truck fish & chips meal. Here’s where I tell Ryan how much our reunion has meant to me. A lot. He kinda gets it. God Bless him.


We claim morning chores (laundry, haircut, bullshit), but it being Easter Monday a lot of establishments are closed, like coffeehouses and barbers. We do manage to get some serious wash done in a nearby laundromat, which possesses a scary huge library of softer-than-Harlequin romance fiction, e.g, A Wish Fulfilled and/or Good Doctor, Good Lover, Good Dad. I remain uncaffeinated and unshorn, yet my day begins.

We rendezvous at the house on Pier Street and Ryan shepherds us to a café high overlooking Gladstone harbor. Gladstone is the spigot through which all the natural resources of Queensland and the Northern Territory pass – coal, bauxite, timber, calcite, grain, electricity, LNG, crocodiles. Ships load and unload piles and stacks and containers and tanks and silos. After lunch, he gives us a tour of Gladstone’s industrial infrastructure. Ryan works at a plant on the outskirts that makes ammonium nitrate. It has a blast radius. If it goes up, it’ll take the whole of Gladstone with it. Most impressive is QAL – Queensland Alumina, Ltd., perhaps the largest plant of its kind in the world, dedicated to the refining of bauxite ore into alumina, the first step in the making of aluminum. It is a monstrous thing; a rust-colored Emerald City twice the size of the entire Magic Kingdom. From a hilltop, we ask lots of questions, all the while snapping photos that do not accurately portray its mass or menace. Ryan explains other such sights and we are guest-curious.

He drops us back at the motel so we can pull ourselves together before our dinner engagement with his mom, step-dad, and kids at the Hog’s Breath Café. The Hog’s Breath is a chain of nouveau saloons with American signage and state license plates serving as décor. Ryan’s parents are engaging; she wears an eye-patch that goes unremarked upon. Belinda is crook, apparently, so she won’t be joining us. The waitstaff woman who takes our group photo bears the nametag – Strawberry.


Today, we’re flying up the east coast to Gladstone, a small city north of Brisbane, to pay a visit to Ryan Ely, the Aussie stray who stayed with me those several days after September 11, 2001. I am startled and pleased when he’s there at the airport to meet us. God, we’re all older now. In 2001, Ali was 12, Ryan was 24, and I was 51. We lasso our rent-a-car and follow Ryan to the Amber Lodge Motel, not far from his house on Pier Street. Here, I have to thank Ali for insisting that we rent a car. I had made the decision to forego an auto based on a wildly inaccurate assessment of the logistics of this visit. My only misstep. Ever.

We part ways with Ryan in order to adjust to the Queensland version of Celsius and our new digs, but after a short rest we rejoin Ryan and the Ely family, his wife Belinda and their girls, Chelsea and Kalarney at their home. It has a dog, some pescacidal fish, and a trampoline. Chelsea’s fourteen with a visiting boyfriend, Kai. Kalarney is twelve with many questions. When she finds out that Ali lives in Texas, she wants to know if she knows Beyoncé.

The sun sets and we all go to the last night of the Gladstone Harbour Festival to listen to a BonJovi cover band. It’s the last night of the festival and the crowd’s a little sparse. The glowstick / ball cap booths are closing up, but there’s still a line for burgers and chips. We sprawl on the grass. The band tries very hard, but in spite of the full moon the crowd cannot be moved. Perhaps they are sated by Saturday night’s Alice Cooper impersonator. Ali and I are weary from our travels and excuse ourselves.

Oh, today was Easter. Jesus came back to life. Imagine that.

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Saturday, 31 March

This morning, Damian, the wizard of the breakfast room, suggests we pay a visit to the Paddington Market, open only on Saturdays in the hip Paddington neighborhood. It’s pretty far, walkable according to the map, but in the interest of efficiency we take a cab. Stalls fill a churchyard with stuff several (many) notches above the craftique bullshit customarily found in the States. Not a tube sock or neck massage to be found. We fall into a banter-y conversation with a pillowcase maker. Ali makes many observations about music and Texas and the US. We gab for maybe twenty minutes, then I purchase a Tasmanian-themed throw pillow.

Our next destination is Berkelouw Books, a store of renown, just a little bit further down Oxford Street. Ali can’t find anything that strikes her fancy and once I’ve located the loo, we’re outta here. A midday meal would be a good idea, but the distractions of Oxford Street are many. A quirky window display pulls us into a shop. The merchandise has ‘Alice’ written all over it. She buys a pair of tortoise shell shoes that she absolutely loves and a pullover with a blooming cactus pattern. Pub burgers for lunch.

We hail a cab to the Hyde Park Barracks, the building through which tens of thousands of transported ‘criminals’ were ‘processed’ between 1820 and 1848. It has had a multitude of uses since then, but a thoughtful restoration has peeled away these incarnations, revealing its unhappy bones. The lives of the convicts have been imaginatively dramatized to illuminate their humanity. Almost 200,000 people were transported to Australia before the practice was outlawed. This was an early experiment in mass incarceration. By contrast, 50,000 were transported to North America, an aspect of our history no one knows. Perhaps, this practice is papered over by talk of ‘indentured servitude.’

From the Barracks, we wander through the Botanical Garden with the goal of finding the Wollemi Pine, a recently discovered prehistoric tree. In an inaccessible valley in New South Wales, some horticulturally savvy guys stumbled upon this weird-looking tree, scrawny but tufted with emerald green frond-like ‘needles’. It’s been given pride of place in the very middle of a grid of flower beds, sited where a 110 year-old Norfolk Pine, called ‘The Wishing Tree’, stood until the 30s. Though the wish-granting potential of Wollemi Pine goes untried, its unprepossessing appearance has a Seussian charm.

We’re footsore and cranky by now, so we hail yet another cab to take us up the hill. This has been our busiest day in a while.


I have planned a nautical excursion for today – the ferry to Manly, a beach resort thirty minutes away by boat. We hoof it through the Botanical Garden once more, our destination this time the Circular Quay (formerly the Semicircular Quay). The Opera House looms, or rather billows. Tourists out here on Bennelong Point are photo-crazed, taking all manner of douchy snapshots. They’re at the goddamn Sydney Opera House and now they have proof that both they and Australia exist concurrently. Go home, assholes. By the time we locate the correct ferry terminal (there are five), we’re a bit out of sorts. I am, at least. There’s a ‘fast’ ferry and a ‘slow’ ferry. After several moments of brittle confusion, we settle on the fast ferry. Ali feels a little woozy. I step out on foredeck to snap some photos of my own of the Harbour in its glory. From this vantage, its reputation as ‘World’s Most Beautiful Harbor’ is a sorry understatement. The breeze is bellowing, lifting my shirt to reveal my abdomen. Woe betide those within sight thereof.

Once in Manly, we reconnoiter like squirrels for food. This entails a long stroll along the Manly’s esplanade, laboring under the misapprehension that a restaurant lay in that general direction. Kids are diving off the docks. Sunbathers and families are enjoying the calm, clear water. We pass this woman, this young American woman, who is Face-timing or Skyping with someone to whom she complains about her defective tonsil and her ineffectual karma. We giggle and keep walking. She’s still at it on our return trip having found no restaurant. Karma’s a bitch.

At noon, the cafés open their doors and we walk right in. Ordering a meal in the Land of No Worries always involves guesswork and inquiry. Following lunch-induced mood stabilization, we amble off to the ocean side. Only half a kilometer of terra firmaseparates the ocean from Manly harborside. Manly beach is a grand plagewith a promenade of stately Norfolk pines and bounteous surf. Not Ali’s cup of sand. We start our oceanside hike to Shelly Beach by sucking on Golden Gaytime popsicles. I’ve been waiting for this opportunity since Monkey Mia. At the halfway point, we turn back, tired and hot, just holding the sticks. Back at Simpson’s, cooled off, and rested, we go for dinner at the blandest Italian restaurant in the Southern Hemisphere.


THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Thursday, 29 March

Our morning routine has been semi-invariable – a text at 8:30 and a breakfast rendezvous at nine. Today’s no different. The breakfast room at Simpsons is light-filled, with white tablecloths and bentwood chairs. A framed speedo hangs on the wall. It belonged to Ian Thorpe, Australia’s last great Olympic swimmer. I dare not inquire. Why?

The cold buffet is modest, but perfect. I usually construct a ham & cheese sandwich on toast and eat a bunch of fruit. The coffee is ample and stimulating. After the meal, we embark on a semi-aimless stroll of neighborhood discovery. Behind a metal fence of the townhouse, a cocker spaniel barks at me. I address the creature with all solemnity – “Bar-bar-a.” “What?” “Bar-bar-a. That’s the dog’s name, Ali,” I say, “Bar-bar-a.” “Oh, Dad”

We miss the McElhone Stairs, a l-o-n-g set of steps that would have connected us with the wharves below. Instead, we turn right and get stuck in a beautiful maze-like park built, it seems, atop a parking garage. Flowering shrubs and great blue sky and no exit. It overlooks the Navy Yard or the Australian equivalent. The vessel docked directly below appears to be undergoing some kind of ceremony. Sailors in dress whites line the decks and walkways, while a band plays on the shore. Ali is able to glean, by overhearing a gnomish-looking man’s conversation, that the ship is being decommissioned. Also, that the HMAS Success was the last ship built by and for the Australian Navy. It will eventually be sunk for an artificial reef.

Beyond the ship, far off, we can see the arc of the Harbour Bridge and the glint of the Opera House, while below, Finger Wharf, a splendid pile of condos. The Domain and the Botanical Gardens lie across the cove looking elegant and lush. We stroll back to the hotel in order to primp for lunch with Judy Rowley at Coogee Beach. Judy’s a Bennington Writing Seminars grad who I got to know through the Cornelia Street Café reading series. We call a cab, exulting in our wisdom and self-preservation by abandoning the auto yesterday. Judy’s driving instructions are clear and, sure enough, she appears, graciousness personified. She and her husband, Peter, live in a high-rise apartment with a spectacular view of Coogee Beach and the Pacific Ocean. The apartment has a grand terrace where we share a bland, guest-centric meal. Afterwards, they take us for a drive to Bondi (Bond-eye) Beach, Sydney’s most famous. We amble along the Art Deco promenade. Peter suffers from a neurological problem that inhibits his gait, which means his boogie boarding days may be largely over. It is our great good fortune that Judy and Peter return us to our hotel, via the hip neighborhood of Paddington. Their warm hospitality and conversation are just what we needed.

Ali and I have an hour or two to prepare for our evening at the Opera. Napping is the most effective prep possible. Tonight’s performance will be al fresco. The Handa Opera Company is presenting La Bohemeon a stage at the edge of Farm Cove. Food will be available starting at five o’clock, which is when we begin walking over. Our tix have been held at the box office for months. This rather stupendous venue has been created on the shore in order to exploit views to the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge beyond. Sydney harbor may be the most beautiful in the world. It is vast and convoluted, an endless hem of coves around a skirt of hilly peninsulas.Three different dining opportunities exist – sandwiches, sit-down, and chandelier. We are sandwich people, and our superpower involves the snagging of a pair of salads and a table for two with a breeze and a clear view of the Sydney’s endlessly entrancing waterfront as the westering sun sets the city ablaze. This is pretty goddamn wonderful. Ali is wearing her Godzilla dress and I my short-sleeve shirt with the tropical, 3-D pattern. We are by far the hippest operagoers.

The stage set is an enormous box fronted by an enormous raked stage and flanked by two construction cranes (uh-oh), as well as six spindly ‘street lights’. Paris, n’est-ce pas? Fake snow or fake-fake snow festoons all surfaces. Paris en hiver, n’est-ce pas? The opera is a complete clusterfuck / trainwreck. Overlit – Over-micced – Over-acted – Baffling directorial choices – Bad wigs –Anachronistic bullshit – and on and on and on.

Here’s a prime example. In La Boheme, as Puccini wrote it, during Musetta’s big end-of-Act-One number in Café Momus, the tremulously minor character of ‘The Toyseller’ enters, has a bit of business, departs. In this deranged version, the Toyseller is flown in via crane dangling in a garbage can held aloft by ersatz balloons. The action stops or rather becomes utterly insignificant in the face of such theatrics. Does the Toyseller sing? Who the fuck cares. Quicker than you can say “Giacomo Puccini” the fool hops back in his can and is laboriously whisked away. But wait! A pesky ‘street urchin’ has grabbed on to a rope that hangs from the toyseller’s bucket and, levitating, vanishes into the dark of the harbor. We are both appalled and somehow complicit.

The night has been magical, ridiculous, and unforgettable. We walk home muttering and amazed. It’s gonna be hard to top this.

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Wednesday, 28 March

Q.  What do I have to do to get a cup of coffee in this lame-ass restaurant? A#1 – No worries, mate. A#2 – Blow me. After stuffing the car with our ever-expanding collection of baggage, we make our way through Canberra’s leafy boulevards to the National Gallery of Art. Ali marvels at my cavalier disregard of signage when I drive directly up onto the curb, instead of the obvious entrance ramp to the parking garage. “Dad!”

The National Gallery is an airy, inviting, rather discombobulated building. Its Aboriginal collection is extraordinary. We are quiet and focused, except to whisper, “Is that a snake?” The mystery of dreamlines, the incredibly ancient oral traditions, confront us. Each piece shimmers with antiquity. We know nothing.

Also astonishing are the watercolors of Albert Namatjira, an indigenous artist working during the first half of the 20th century. The mastery and luster of his painting is wholly within the Western tradition, yet somehow, the medium of watercolor perfectly captures the tension between the outback’s saturated palette and the light that transmutes it before your eyes.

His is a tragic story. Born in 1902, Namatjira spent his youth living with his family in an Aboriginal mission near Alice Springs. As a young man, he showed startling promise as painter and in 1938, his first exhibition sold out. Fame and money followed, but as an Aboriginal, Namatjira could neither lease property nor buy a house, among countless other prohibitions. Public outrage led to his being granted full citizenship in 1957. It took another ten years for basic rights to be granted to all Aboriginal people.

As a citizen, he could now buy alcohol. Aboriginal custom dictates that a person must share bounty with other native people. In 1958, he was charged with supplying alcohol to his friends. The court did not believe his denial, sentencing him to two months in prison. Namatjira emerged a broken man and died in 1959. The National Gallery devotes a room solely to his extraordinary work.

Another of the glories of the National Gallery is Jackson Pollock’s ‘Blue Poles’ bought in 1973 for $1.3 million AUD, at the time the highest price paid for a contemporary American painting. Much controversy surrounded the transaction, however, today ‘Blue Poles’ is acknowledged to be Pollock’s supreme masterpiece. The electricity of the painting, its vibrancy and presence, is markedly different from the murky turbulence of a lot of his work.

Sydney will be today’s destination. Finally, we will surrender the car we rented with so much hassle in Adelaide; trusty, old shitmobile that it has become. Ali’s at the wheel and dealing with the GPS, as well. This is not a problem until we enter Sydney city limits and everything goes to shit. The highways in Sydney vanish into tunnels at a moment’s notice. GPS goes kablooey. Recalculate Nightmare! At a stoplight, we manage the scurrying ‘driver switch’ stunt. Though our search is cross-eyed convoluted, we eventually do arrive at the Hertz office. But there’s no street parking. We accomplish that, but when we enter the office, the counter staff disappears as if on cue. The miracle will be if I can keep my wits about me. “Drop-offs around the back,” is the take-away from this encounter. Done. Now can we flag a taxi? It’s only rush hour. After a series of silly, fruitless moves from one side of the street to the other and one corner to the other, a fucking cab does stop.

Moments later, we’re deposited at Simpson’s Hotel in the Potts Point neighborhood, a beautiful and serene Arts & Crafts-style house converted into a hotel after considerable renovation. Again, with the three-flight schlep of the monster suitcase. Ali has been assigned to Barbara’s Room. I get Number Nine. I’ve reserved a table at Yellow, a notable vegetarian restaurant around the corner. The food is pretty wonderful; only the weird wilted radicchio disappoints.

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Tuesday, 27 March

Following a mellow breakfast and animated chat with Jo, the substitute innkeeper, we hit the road. It’s all freeway to Canberra. Phew. In the car, Alice and I engage in a small discussion whether or not to stop at Gundagai to see The Dog on the Tuckerbox. Who wouldn’t want to see a dog on a goddamn tuckerbox, I say. “What’s a tuckerbox, Dad?’ replies Ali. The response “Let’s find out!” doesn’t meet with much enthusiasm, but we’re both peckish, so we make the turn at Gundagai anyway. Okay, this tuckerbox + dog equation has its origins in a typical Australian ballad called ‘Nine Miles from Gundagai’, a sort of lament for the passing of the drover’s way of life and a paean to the canine companionship and loyalty. A tuckerbox, by the way, is a food box, not unlike the present-day cooler.

This is a small, very local café. We order two burgers with ‘the lot’, which means garnished on top with salad. In addition to a profusion of tattered celebrity mags everywhere, two wheelbarrows full of squash ($5 each) sit by the front door. The young women serving pepper us with many questions about the US.

Canberra is very low-key, a most suburban city. What bustle there is appears exclusively automotive. We are relying on the GPS solely; no street numbers are visible. We get turned around a couple times, but without too much difficulty locate our hotel. For the price of two rooms, we’re given a roomy suite, which comes with the always welcome, always problematic, washer/dryer combo. We keep it simple by ordering a room service dinner.