Guest Post, George Estreich: Products, Animals, Landscapes

In 2008, I lived in Australia with my family, where my wife, a pharmacologist, was on sabbatical. My daughters, then seven and twelve, attended Australian schools, and I stayed at home, completing the memoir I’d been working on since 2001.

While I was there, I took photos, captioned them for friends, and posted them as a private album on Google Picasa. At the same time, I kept a notebook in my shirt pocket, where I wrote down things I saw and ideas as they occurred to me.  This blog post draws on the journal and the online album.

It seems as tiny as a snow globe now, a hemisphere peopled by the Wiggles, Peter Garrett, and a kangaroo, and paved with brick-red Outback pebbles. Its air viscous and unbreathable, as with any imagined place. Though what I imagined seems as distant to me now, as Australia itself seemed to me then.

In the weeks before we came, I did little to defray my ignorance. We were busy getting ready to leave our house and country for a year. We said goodbye to friends and then said goodbye again, when we ran into them downtown. We threw a big party and I played guitar with my neighbor Dan. Friends came from Portland; Matt brought his dobro, I set it on my lap for a few rounds of Look at Miss Ohio, and though I rarely play lap slide, the notes all fell into place. That is the nostalgic version of home: where everything is easier, and where friends show up at your house with casseroles and salads to send you off.

kangarooWe switched the utilities, acquired e-mail addresses we could use overseas. I emptied bookshelves into boxes and put the boxes in the closet. I gathered every last scrap of paper I might need for the book I was writing. We backed up data and stored the disks with friends. We made copies of passports, social security numbers, immunization records. It was the final stages of the grand engineering project that had begun months before, in which a vast river of data was dammed and diverted south. Australia is, for Americans who think about it and know where it is, a kind of raw frontier: the unwelcoming Outback of Mad Max. But for us, the virtual preceded the actual. Pixels, passwords, passports. Visas and VISA.

I bought a digital bathroom scale and began to weigh our luggage. We were flying on Virgin Blue, a domestic carrier, from Sydney to Melbourne, and their checked luggage allowance was less than fifty pounds per person. When you are moving somewhere for a year, less than fifty pounds a person is not much. People with more foresight send entire containers on boats. I did the next best thing: I weighed each of our bags, using myself as a human tare. Then I measured the bags’ outer dimensions. Then I made a chart, noting the ratio of Weight to Volume. It felt like a productive activity, but in the end, we chose a mix of backpacks, rolling bags, and duffles, because we would be navigating five different airports in two countries with two children, and we wanted to be able to carry everything.

kangaroo 2What did we know about Australia? Not much. It was e-mails from friends of friends, e-mails from school administrators, estate agents, the scientist whose lab my wife would be working in. As for the neighborhood, we had the aerial view of Google Earth. We zoomed in on grainy photographs of the grid. It seemed suburban enough to have pools, but denser, mixed with retail and apartment buildings. I studied the tram map, its thick numbered lines like the nerves of a simple animal. I hoped the apartment would be quiet.

I decided, at the last minute, to leave the waders and boots at home. I didn’t want dried-on Oregon mud to hold us up at Customs: Australia, though vast, is still an island, with an island’s vulnerability to living pests.

kangaroo 3The fact loomed, unreal: we were moving to Australia. I imagined red dirt and kangaroos, though even “kangaroo” was a vague picture in my mind. My mother had warned me that the red kangaroos were dangerous. She had heard this somewhere, and over the years the rumor had crystallized into belief, until “red kangaroo” became synonymous with a creature whose powers of hoppity locomotion were matched only by its taste for human flesh. Presumably the Eastern Grey was friendly.

Having since seen kangaroos in the wild–if campgrounds, golf courses, and the Lassiter Highway count as “wild”–I’ve at least replaced the mind-cartoon I had with a living sketch. On the road to Uluru, in the desert west of Alice Springs, we saw red kangaroos that had been creamed by road trains, and lay by the roadside in varying stages of decay, from Just Napping to Bones Picked Clean. Now and then an eagle or crow rose up from the remains.

*

January. I begin buying things in the supermarket, just to take pictures of them. This goes on all year.

cereal 1I narrate it the way you narrate a dream. I was in my old house, except it wasn’t my house. I ate in a Burger King, but it was called a Hungry Jack’s. They were speaking English, but it wasn’t American. Australia was not a country where everything seemed different. It was a country which was jarringly the same, and yet whose sameness broke apart everywhere you looked.

cereal 2And yet this is wrong. It won’t do to say that Australia is like America, except–to note, for instance, the torqued vowels of ordinary Australian speech, the cleanly un-American fonts giving distances in meters (library, 200m; car park, 300m), or the egg-shaped object of Australian rules football, which looks like a regular football, but hungry jackssquashed at both ends. Comparison is inevitable; comparison distorts. The traveler’s reflexive habit of mind–to posit home as normative, away as variation–does not conform to the facts. Beneath the superficial perception of every surface–the supermarket cereal aisle alone, from Rice Bubbles to Sultana Bran, has undergone a sea change–is something more definite and ungraspable, like a scent: the understanding that all your life until now, you have lived in American airspace and breathed in American air, and the place you’ve moved to–Melbourne, Australia, a city of nearly four million faces, every one unfamiliar–has nothing to do with you.

*

pictureFebruary. Just after I took this photo, we saw Cate Blanchett and her husband walking down the sidewalk, holding hands. They were smiling and chatting, and no one bothered them. They seemed to occupy a perfect, effortless force field of privacy and consideration.

I remember it was a shock to see her existing in a particular place, at a particular time. As if her normal state were an immaterial Star Trek shimmer of transport, and she had condensed into existence from the ubiquity of images.

*

smokesI saw this cigarette packet, with its blunt, Australian warning, lying on the tram tracks. I was in Port Melbourne, delivering Laura’s forgotten lunch to her school. At home, in Corvallis, Oregon, the one-way trip to Laura’s school is either a carbon-neutral fifteen minute walk, or a guilty three-minute drive. A forgotten lunch does not alter the day. In Australia, since we had no car, and since Laura’s school was on the other side of the city, the trip took about thirty or forty minutes, depending on the trains and trams.

I’d been annoyed about having to make the trip. I was annoyed a lot in those days, annoyed to enraged. I woke up angry about nothing, or about something that was clearly irrational, a cover for something else. I write it in the past tense, though it is always a possibility, as if I were addicted to being angry. It puzzled my wife and kids and upset them. Still, I took the lunch, though I was ticking off the lost minutes on some sort of mental calculator: could’ve finished a paragraph, could’ve finished the chapter. As if the time wouldn’t have dissipated into e-mail.

train trackBut by the time I got to Laura’s school, I no longer had anything to be angry about, or the anger, like a time-lapse scab, had dried up and disappeared. I felt okay, I was happy to see Laura thriving in her classroom. Port Melbourne is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, its quiet, empty streets lined with rowhouses, their porches decorated with ornate iron fretwork. The private mental hurricane I woke to had faded, quick as Melbourne weather, and as I crossed the empty reserve with its gums and sycamores I could hear rosellas in the trees, a sound shocking as the flash of crimson and green, the parrot’s silhouette above. It stood out like a sign, the way everything does, and what had seemed a marker of dislocation suddenly seemed to betoken possibility.

In Port Melbourne, on its way to the bay, the tram line separates from the street and becomes a light rail line. You can see the trams coming from a long way away. In one direction is the Bass Strait, in the other is the Central Business District. The tracks were empty, so I stood there for half a minute and looked towards the CBD. It rose but did not loom. Its knot of skyscrapers seemed distant yet close, and above them the Eureka Tower lifted its wedge of gold.

*

buildingOften, on my way to the Melbourne Museum, I walked by the Royal Exhibition Building. Always it was different: one weekend a Bridal Expo, with a stretch Hummer parked outside. Young couples and young women with their mothers, walking towards the front doors. Another weekend it was the Taste of Melbourne festival; another, the Home and Garden Show. I thought of the place as a giant moth, diffusing faint pheromones into the air of Melbourne which only brides-to-be or foodies or devotees of tea roses could possibly detect, and who were filtered from the insectile biomass of the city, its endless crowds.

*

macIn May, I finished the memoir. This picture was taken a few days before I sent it to my then-agent; the Post-It tabs mark edits to be completed.

After a few weeks the rejections started to come in. Many were kind. All seemed part of a free fall, and though the tone of each was different, the uniform message was that the book—a memoir about raising my younger daughter Laura, who has Down syndrome—would not sell.

All along I had been writing a book, but as I realized — crashingly obvious, but no less true for that — a book is also a product. This was, remember, during the global financial crisis: my book was a weird investment in a time when people were already investment-shy, in a business upended not only by a cratering global economy but also by the advent of the digital.

night photo 1Much later, after the book was accepted by a university press, I realized that the book’s flaws were also to blame. The story part and the history part weren’t getting along: “I keep tripping over John Langdon Down,” as my editor told me. Only then did the book begin to find its true shape. But that insight was a continent and a year away.night photo 2

I began taking pictures at night, wandering our neighborhood between laundry cycles or lagging behind the family on nights out in the CBD. I set the camera on garbage cans, retaining walls, any flat surface, slowed the exposure to an eighth or a quarter of a second, set the timer. It was a way of looking around, of registering the surfeit of detail–for that was what living in Melbourne felt like, that I was swamped with details, with crowds and signage and multistory buildings, four million layered and interwoven lives on a city that seemd an island on a country that was an island too, so that the least visual fact, the tiniest Pty Ltd or spotted-neck dove, embodied a vast displacement. The camera caught it all. It saw the things I saw, and it saw the things I didn’t see and only saw later, looking at IMG_5231 on the laptop; and this was truest of all for the photographs taken at night.

*

June 2008: Melbourne Museum

When I moved from the East Coast of the United States to the West, I moved from a deciduous world to an evergreen one. Western Oregon is defined by the Douglas fir, its scraggy greenness a discontinuous carpet in the Coast Range and the Cascade foothills. Compared to the winter-fired leaves of the northeast–an almost metallurgical glow, a blade about to be quenched–the hills outside town are monochrome. They vary with the sunlight, not the season. When you can see them through the clouds at all, or when you bother to look up.

plantsLike other orienting assumptions I brought with me to Australia–the idea that North = Cold, for instance, or that January = Winter, or the idea that there are four seasons at all–Deciduous Versus Evergreen failed somewhere south of the equator. Australia is not Deciduous or Evergreen. Australia is Neither. Continentally speaking, it hasn’t been on speaking terms with North America since the good old days of Pangea. Australia was part of Gondwanaland, and Gondwanaland broke up, and the pieces drifted. Australia drifted north, towards the equator; it became hotter and drier, and eucalypts evolved and took over. The fern trees and southern beech forests are relics of a wetter time.

So I learned on repeated visits to the Melbourne Museum, in the Forest Gallery–a soaring atrium that distills the idea of an Australian forest into examples and lessons. There are fern trees and eucalypts and beeches, most labeled. There is a burned tree with a video monitor in it, recycling a short video on bushfires. There are lizards, galaxias, turtles; there are birds, kept in by netting fifty feet above. A fairy wren, a satin bowerbird with a heap of blue scraps just beside the roped-off path.

I went to the museum often. I’d enter the Forest Gallery through the sliding glass doors, then walk up the slanted path on the left, then turn right, descending to a subterranean display: a darkened tunnel, the path illuminated by tiny lights like a landing strip or theater aisle. There was an aquarium, a waterfall, a video screen displaying both Aboriginal and Western accounts of the Yarra River’s formation.

museumI would emerge from the tunnel with its endlessly repeated video, its wash of recorded water and its murky fish tank, to etched metal plaques describing the relic forests. They explained how Gondwanaland divided into India, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica. The supercontinent marked with dotted lines, as if for a child’s scissors practice. In successive etchings, the continents separated and drifted, like an idea coming apart. Or a vague thought, an inkling, resolving into its divisions. That motion, that million-year drift, only one of the motions that composes the everyday: unnoticed and necessary, the planet’s rotation, the cloud systems trailed like scarves behind a dancer.

*

In August, I visited Fitzroy Gardens.  It’s a beautiful park, with wide, gently looping walkways and a variety of mostly native trees. But it is also the utility drawer of Melbourne parks, the place where you shove the bits of string and rubber bands and flathead screws, the things you don’t know what to do with, the parts of an unspecified machine:

model tudor village(1) The actual stone cottage of Captain James Cook’s parents, disassembled, shipped across the ocean, and reassembled. It has a gift shop, and historically accurate gardens growing the things Captain Cook’s mom and dad might have grown, and a white surveillance camera mounted on a corner of the building.

(2) A plant conservatory, whose architecture echoes a Spanish mission.

play ground(3) A Model Tudor Village, cast in concrete. The buildings reach to an average adult’s kneecap. The windows are filled in: the structures seem to be solid, all the way through. The look of the buildings (doughy, a little saggy, obviously molded from something soft) reminds one of an elaborate cake, or of a precocious child’s diorama for school.

(4) Miscellaneous fountains invoking river gods in which nobody, so far as I know, actually believes.

(5) A café serving light lunch fare and espresso drinks.

(6) A playground with two structures: a slide shaped like a dragon (climb up the head, slide down the tail), and two swings attached to a sort of beheaded giraffe. Reticulated, black-hooved, long-necked, but where the head should be, it has two lateral projections, like a hammerhead shark. The swings hang from the projections.

(7) A “Fairies Tree” I never could find.

house 1In the Captain Cook house, when you ascend the steps, you hear steps ascending after you. As if the ghosts had heard you come in and wanted to join you.

Then a prerecorded conversation: Capt. Cook’s parents, Grace and James Sr., call their daughter Margaret upstairs to the fire. They talk about marrying Margaret off some day. Then Margaret is sent downstairs to bed with a candle. But before she goes to sleep – James appears! He has been serving 4 months on the Eagle and has joined the Navy!

house 2He goes to sleep, and his father expresses hope that he may make something of himself yet. He has not yet discovered Australia.

A staginess, as if the Past knew it was past, and knew we were looking too.

Across the entrance to a room, a rope with a brass hook at each end, like a leash for a world without masters.

*

silhouetteSometimes I felt like a bowerbird. Or, more prosaically, a squirrel. I hoarded blue memories. I buried stuff in the soft ground of the brain. Now I’m digging it all up to see what it looks like.

turboSome things, as if made of plastic or gold, seem utterly unchanged: a memory of a day in the Australian desert; or walking down a cramped, sunlit laneway spangled with graffiti; or the long escalator ascending from Parliament station; but others, as if organic, seem transformed by their time underground, partly or wholly decomposed, their shapes altered or changed in color or shot through with the tangles of forgetfulness; and yet others change, in an instant, when exposed to the air.

*

boats

*

pigeonSeptember. Since the memoir wasn’t getting published anytime soon, I thought I’d keep writing about Australia. I poured the continent through one topic and the next, like sieves or filters. The election. The climate. The financial crisis. But these were grand topics, and I could do little with them. What stays with me are the colors of urban Australian birds: house sparrows, their muddied browns and grays. As if painted with the water left in the jar, after one of Laura’s watercolor sessions. Pigeons: like black-and-white films poorly colorized, a filthy iridescence.

Once, on the platform of the South Yarra station, I saw a seagull without feet. It hopped along on its stumps, or knuckles. Its eyes impassive, or not expressive in any way I could understand.

birdIn the Melbourne Central Food Court–a slow brown shrapnel of birds exploded above me. My wife was at work, my daughters in school. I sat with my Kurry Feast on its compartmentalized metal plate.

In Flinders Street Station once, as we sat together eating churros, I heard furious cheeping from a couple of tables over. When I looked closer, a mob of house sparrows was tearing one of their own apart.

*

night viewEvery sense is an isotope of memory. A fragrance has a momentary half-life: each morning, when I walked out the apartment door, it was as if I’d forgotten the scent of eucalyptus while I was asleep. It was new again, or new and familiar, the way a poetic image is supposed to be. Its scent distilled the place we’d chosen, and our distance from the place we’d left behind. Now, like any decaying element, eucalyptus has become eucalyptus. I can call to mind the tootling of magpies, or the way the first-floor apartment shook as the #5 tram rumbled past, or the blue-and-yellow uniforms of the boys from the Catholic school nearby–though these memories, too, are decaying, the tootling blurred/distilled to a reedy ghostliness, the tram’s vibrations recalled but silenced, the boys’ faces erased. They are like rumors I heard from myself: uncertain, but mine. But the odors might as well be something I read about: they are utterly transformed, inert, stabilized in a word.

treesOne morning in the Australian spring, walking out of the apartment as always to wait for Laura’s bus to whip out and angle across commuter traffic, I noticed the scent of eucalyptus, and realized I had lived in Australia long enough to have that scent numbed by cold and reawakened. I inhaled the spring, the way I did as a suburban child, except it was September, and I was forty-three, and the spring smelled newly strange.

If could I conjure that sense, unscrew the sealed jar of Australian air I carry in my brain, measure its parts per million, I would find the pure astringent strains of eucalyptus admixed with car exhaust, loam, artificial grass, cigarette smoke, dry cleaning chemicals, a musty box of clothes and toys dumped on the doorstep of the Op Shop, and a few molecules drifting over from the bakeries and butchers on Glenferrie Road.

In this model, I am the constant, the observer, the Geiger counter, and my memories of Australia are what fade. In truth, it is Australia that endures, and I am decaying; and long after the last atom of what I am has broken down, been reabsorbed, raised like ash or as ash into the weather patterns I have done my part to change, Australia will renew itself, and will smell pretty much the same, in its September spring.

*

angular buildingWandering through the Immigration Museum, I saw a late 19th century lithograph of a crowded Melbourne wharf. It was like a child’s drawing, the perfect triangles of rigging bisected by masts. I imagine them as the triangles that wrap Federation Square now, a tessellation of the past.

The wharves were crowded because gold had been discovered. In time the river of gold dwindled, and the speculative real estate bubble eventually popped. As a friend told me, that’s why, when you walk up Glenferrie Road, the dates on streetthe second story of each building–formed in concrete like foundation stones in the air–stop at 1890. For over a decade the depression brought new building to a halt.

A bubble. I imagine the gold beaten to a thin tissue and inflated. Then bursting, leaving a residue of houses and railroads and buildings.

*

November.

obama 2

 

*

Things temporary residents do that tourists don’t: Pay utility bills. Chaperone on school field trips. Visit tiny, local parks multiple times. Begin to recognize faces on the street. Begin to be recognized. Buy furniture. Rent an apartment.

Longer term than us: Acquire accents. Acquire citizenship. Stay.

*

public artFragments from the shirt pocket journal, November:

Living here, I think of the convenience of the Bionic Woman’s adventures, which always featured a distant conversation she could use her Bionic Ear to listen to, just as the Six Million Dollar Man was called upon to spy on faraway objects with his Bionic Eye.

If only life furnished events so precisely calibrated to our talents. This is what we are doing with our jobs, our careers, our lives, to increase the probability of this convergence.

Moving to Australia was the opposite of this. We moved here because we could. It was more difficult–we knew how to be ourselves in Oregon–but it has been worth it, if only to prove to ourselves that at this late date, we can alter our talents to fit the surroundings.

*

Sadistically bad tram driver. His lurching would produce motion sickness in a rock.

Two seats ahead of me, a woman with her mirrored compact hinged open, as if taking a bearing on a distant mountain.

Touch screen display in the National Gallery of Victoria, in The Cricket & the Dragon: Animals in Asian Art:

You are energetic, excitable, and stubborn.

The dragon rules the hours

7 a.m.

to

9 a.m.

because this is when dragons begin to produce rain.

mall 1December. I sat–I was going to say, in the shadow of the Shot Tower, but the tower is enclosed by a shopping mall, and malls, for the most part, are free of shadow. Their light is atrial, diffuse. It is not meant to be noticed. But if you were to look up, you’d find, mingled with neon and incandescence and fluorescence, an actual daylight filtering down from the Antipodean sky; and looking up, one would see the Shot Tower, a brick tower like a smokestack without a factory, enclosed beneath a cone of gridded glass.

Buckets of molten lead were hauled up to the top of the tower, then poured through a sort of colander. As the streams of lead fell through the air, they separated into teardrops, which solidified into spheres. A huge basin of water waited at the bottom, to cool the shot. It seemed like writing to me, the transformations involved:  memory mined, refined, melted down, and winched up–molten, poisonous, heavy, formless–to be turned into something useful. A weapon, something to sell.

I like the idea of something taking form as it falls, and its form becoming permanent from the way it lands.

mall 2In the runup to Christmas, a gigantic implied Christmas tree, made from golden spheres—a Ferrero Rocher promotion—was hung beside the shot tower, as if some alchemy had transmuted lead shot into gold.

The Shot Tower is a museum now. You enter through the R.M. Williams store, past sales displays which–even to my American eyes, and even adjusting for the exchange rate, the cachet of the brand, and the general priciness of Melbourne–did not compute as bargains: a pair of shorts and T-shirt for only $100! Like everything else, R.M. Williams seemed underwater-familiar, mixing things I understood fluently (casual sportswear, shopping with credit cards, the idea of the frontier) with things unfamiliar (horse-related objects, the mystique of R.M. Williams, the Australian frontier). Tim Flannery, the Australian scientist, writes in his memoir that getting outfitted at R.M. Williams was a rite of passage for young Australian men.

*

Undated journal entry:

We are shrinking America. It is all we knew until we got here, it was our oxygen and our ground, and its shores were our shores. But the gift of distance is to know that this mindset is an island.

Sometimes I feel as if I am reclining in a soft planetarium seat, looking up at a field of white dots, and a helpful baritone voice is explaining the strange constellations, the ones I have never seen, and highlighting them with lines of force. These three dots are The Playground. These are The Lamington. These are The Wallaby, The Platypus, The Tram.

They are the lights, the pattern, but they appear against the dark: thick, velvety with the buzzing the eye makes to fill an absence. A depression, an artificial dark, the unlit interior of a hemisphere. I’m that dark, and the mysterious projector too, all brushed metal and pierced with light and pivoting to alter the display; and I’m the voice in the room that sounds like mine, and the one half-dozing in the chair, who startles when the lights come up.

Guest Blog Post, George Estreich: Americano

George Estreich, poet and author of "The Shape of the Eye"

George Estreich, poet and author of “The Shape of the Eye”

In July of 2008, the year I lived in Melbourne with my family, Starbucks responded to the economic crisis by shuttering hundreds of stores worldwide. In the letters section of The Age, Melbourne’s newspaper of record, the event registered as a triumph over an uncouth invader:

 

Good riddance, Starbucks, take your awful coffee and go back to the rat hole you came from.

            Matt Smith, Beaumaris.

 

And (huffily), under the headline “A win for good taste”:

 

Finally, the Australian public has resisted the temptation to mimic and Americanise our lives, by rejecting the Starbucks coffee model. When you consider that the average good (Italian) coffee outlet in Melbourne will charge roughly $3 for a great coffee that will be brought to your table in a china cup, why on earth would people want to pay roughly double for an average coffee, often with a fancy name, in a cardboard cup, that you have to line up for, with no service?

We are to be congratulated.

            Steven Rose, Caulfield

*

            Seven months earlier, as we prepared to leave Oregon for my wife’s sabbatical year, I’d sworn never to visit an Australian Starbucks. Why travel to a new shore, then turn your back on the continent? Why open new vistas, then shut your eyes? At the same time, I hadn’t sworn off coffee, which I need in order to avoid headaches, write clearly, and stabilize my moods. But after we arrived in Melbourne, I could not find coffee anywhere. It was only one of a long list of absences, including familiar faces, Mexican food, and rain. (To move from the Pacific Northwest in winter to a Victorian summer, from a dank, rainy perma-twilight to a surfeit of sun, is as dramatic a shift as you can make in the First World.)

I ventured into non-corporate coffee shops on Chapel Street and Swanston Street and Glenferrie Road, ready with my colorful Australian money, and asked for a cup of coffee.

What kind of coffee?

            Well…coffee.

            (Delicately.) Espresso, macchiato, cappuccino…?

Drip coffee, at least outside Starbucks, does not exist in Melbourne. The closest thing to it is what Starbucks calls “Americano,” and what Australians call a “long black.” Sometimes you can get coffee made with a French press. Once, in a Gloria Jean’s, I ordered the French Press Coffee of the Day. From the hasty conference behind the counter, I gathered that the Coffee of the Day flavor would have to be identified, and the French press would have to be located and dusted off. Eventually something smelling of burned hazelnuts appeared in a paper cup.

The brief, confused conversations I had with baristas, in early January, seemed part of a seamless web of disorientation and confusion. It included the black light that evidently flashed on above my head whenever I opened my mouth, or the awkward tack-left-tack-right stutter-step that happened every ten steps on crowded city sidewalks, where we had to remember to walk on the left side. It is, I suppose, that disorientation that we went there to find, in order to recover from it.

The absence of coffee felt like the absence of a personal history. I had grown up with the smell of burned coffee in a two-stage aluminum pot (you poured boiling water in the top, and it sank through a perforated basket full of Maxwell House grounds, producing a dark ichor, whose liquid remainder thickened and burned above a low flame all Saturday morning); I had drunk gallons of watery diner refills as a teenager, while out late avoiding the house; for years after I was married, I made double-strength Folger’s in the Braun coffeemaker given as a wedding gift; and then I learned, after moving to the Pacific Northwest, that coffee was not only too precious for free refills, but that it had its own vocabulary of aroma and taste and provenance, like wine for the productive. As a newcomer to Cascadia, I came to have preferences. When at home, I drank fair-trade organic French Roast Sumatra delivered to the local food co-op by bicycle, though none of these qualities were as important to me as its raw strength. I like coffee, I like the taste of it, and I prefer it to be fairly traded, but the truth is that it’s always been about the milligrams. Which is how I came to spend hundreds of dollars a year at Starbucks for something I once thought too bitter to consume.

Writers need rituals, a way to make the world recede. Over the years in the Northwest, writing in Starbucks had become my ritual, the habit that enclosed the habit. I’d park myself by an outlet, plug in the laptop, and write for most of the morning. It was comfortable—that carefully crafted “third space,” neither home nor work, was a good fit for a writer without a job—and over the years, as the price of a grande house ticked upward, the comfort began to feel necessary. That third space is designed to be ignored, to be pleasant, unobtrusive, a dependable nowhere. Glancing around, I saw that most other customers were living in third spaces of their own, texting, surfing the net, looking at Windows or out through windows. I was no different; an unfinished manuscript is a third space too. You spend hours there, or years, but you don’t live there, and you hope to leave as soon as you can.

In Melbourne, ignoring our surroundings was not an option. The least detail demanded attention. Which tram do we take? Where can I find coffee? Why does that big cemetery have a banner announcing a website? What does “Bob’s your uncle” mean? In response, we kept our eyes and ears open, asked questions, and reconstituted a version of home. In our beige rented apartment, we slept on mattresses on the floor and covered cardboard boxes with fabric to make nightstands. Our desk was a card table in a corner of the living/dining area. We didn’t own a car; we got around on trams and commuter trains, which not only made us feel virtuous, but also made the rare car ride seem futuristic in its velocity. I joked about selling carbon credits to friends with SUVs, but our plane flights to, from, and within the continent ensured that our carbon footprint was probably less dainty than thunderous. From the atmosphere’s perspective, we were stomping around in clown shoes.

We had translated our life into Australian, and like Australian English, it was both comprehensible and different in every syllable. We had debit cards (called “EFTPOS”), cell phones (“mobiles”), my daughters attended school (in uniforms), my wife worked in a lab (but did not teach), and I cooked, hung out with the kids after school, and revised my manuscript (but not in Starbucks).

*

            Whenever I told anyone we were moving to Australia, I was quick to note that we were lucky. We were lucky. I was determined to make the best of that luck, so I began to drink coffee that was good (Italian). I developed a taste for cappuccino.

The presence of cappuccino, macchiato, espresso et al in Melbourne is not the result of a corporate marketing plan. Nor is it a recent trend. Coffee that is good (Italian) exists in Melbourne because Melbourne has Italians, who migrated to Australia and brought their coffee with them. Melbourne is often described as a “cosmopolitan” or “European” city, and in coffee is the bitter essence of that Europeanness. This, perhaps, is the source of the Melbournian reaction to Starbucks: with its ridiculous names, its grandes and ventis and Frappuccinos, the stores were one more visible reminder of Americans taking over and ruining everything authentic and good.

Leaving friends and family for a year is hard; adjusting to a new culture is hard; uncertainty, in general, is hard. Learning to drink cappuccino is easy. It is possibly the easiest expatriate adjustment on record. In Mr. Tulk (the cafe at the State Library, named for its first librarian); in Brown’s, the bakery/cafe I’d go to with my daughters every Thursday after school; at a shivery outdoor picnic table at the Collingwood Children’s Farm; in a dozen other places I walked into because I’d read about them, or just because I was curious, I learned, somehow, to cope. The cappuccino was good.

            It was always gone too soon. The bladder-straining Grande Paper Vat was now a memory, and the quality of Australian coffee (excellent) and the quantity (less than ginormous) were instructive. I was reading a lot of Michael Pollan in those days, and the cappuccino seemed part of a sensibly Australian approach to food. The portions were reasonable, not huge. Even at McDonald’s—I hadn’t sworn off McDonald’s, a practical parent never surrenders a useful bribe–a large soda was maybe sixteen ounces, not thirty-two. Also, the refills weren’t free. The middle of Australia is spinifex-filled desert, not corn, so you also paid for packets of ketchup, and for soda refills. From across the equator, I was coming to see America as the Land of Free-Flowing Corn Syrup, where you could have as much as you wanted of whatever was profoundly bad for you.

Now and then, walking up Swanston Street to the State Library, I’d pass the open door of Starbucks. It smelled exactly like home. But then, so did the Lush, which smelled exactly like its counterpart in Portland; and, for that matter, so did the McDonald’s (“Macca’s”), or the Burger King (“Hungry Jack’s”). All seemed to have drilled a pipeline of memory from Australia to America, and whenever the fragrance of Chicken McNuggets or Pike Place Roast wafted out on refrigerated air, I experienced a swell of false nostalgia. Of course, it was not place I remembered, but displacement, a familiar nowhere, precise, predictable, franchised. I walked on.

The cappuccino did come in a china cup. You sat and drank it, and when it was gone, you left. In an American Starbucks, customers tend to either rush off with to-go cups or loiter for hours over laptops. In Australia, these extremes were harder to find. To-go cups were unusual, and we never saw anyone with coffee on a tram. In these practices were an echo of teatime, which in Theresa’s lab was mandatory. No conversation about work allowed. No drinking tea at your desk. You stop what you’re doing and have tea. It was one of the many reminders that though Australia and the United States had their origins in a single empire, they were traveling on very different vectors.

The cappuccino was very, very good. It was good (Italian); it was good (Australian); it was good (Melbournian). But it was, emphatically, not American.

*

            Reading the letters to The Age—“good riddance, Starbucks”–I experienced an odd flicker of patriotism. Since arriving from the Superpower Rat Hole I was born to, I had been bumping up against my foreignness. I was the one with the accent. I was, for better or worse, the representative of a clueless superpower. And while I found, as many have, that Australians are extraordinarily generous and kind and open, there was also a sort of unexpected ironic reserve, a skepticism, not accurately represented in the commercials for Outback Steakhouse. No one ever told us to go back to the rat hole we came from, but Theresa, at work, was asked in all seriousness if she carried a handgun back home, and I was asked more than once (in a tone of hopeful absolution) if I might perhaps be from Canada.

Because we made friends over the year, because we attended school plays and soccer games and visited places like Merimbula, where American tourists rarely go, we came to see that this attitude was far from rigid. Australians always seemed happy to be proved wrong about Americans. We were not necessarily assumed to be gun-toting, Palin-supporting, Frappuccino-swilling rats, but there was a tone of relief when we turned out not to be. This relief became general in Australia at about 2:30 p.m. on November 4th, when it became clear that America would have a President who was black and Democratic–and a Vice-President who was not Alaskan–and from that day on until we left in late December, the mood was palpably different. There was hope for us, after all. On the day Obama was elected, Laura’s bus driver was in tears, she was so happy, and Theresa’s lab stopped work for the afternoon. Instead of teatime, they had champagne.

*

            Five years later, I feel less inspired than disappointed. The hopes attending Obama’s arrival don’t change the facts of climate. We live in the Anthropocene now, and one peculiar fact of our manmade era is that it is all too comprehensible. Ice melts, the temperature goes up, the species go extinct, the birds’ ranges alter, and the CO2 continues to accumulate. We know what we need to know, and we know that we know it. To have this kind of awareness is to feel less certain about ordinary life. Its solidity shimmers, as if seen through the fumes rising from a gas can. We are compromised Zen masters, enlightened but culpable: the world is impermanent, and it’s all our fault.

To live in Victoria in 2008 was to feel large-scale climate change, in a way western Oregon does not usually allow. Though the blazing heat wave that welcomed us to Melbourne was weather, the eleven-year drought in Victoria was something else again. By the time we arrived, that drought was simply the new normal. The climate had changed. The signs were everywhere, in water restrictions, in the black pipes sticking up from the bases of trees, in patchy cricket grounds, in news reports about irrigation conflicts and the Murray River turning to acid. On February 7, 2009, about a month after we got back home, days of record temperatures and wind prepared the way for the Black Saturday bushfires. Marysville, northeast of Melbourne, was completely incinerated. Thirty-four people died in Marysville alone, one hundred and seventy-three altogether. The smoke cloud was visible from space.

We’d driven through Marysville on our way to Healesville Animal Sanctuary, where my younger daughter, who’d once been terrified by a wallaby hopping through a campsite in New South Wales, successfully petted a kangaroo. I remembered Marysville as one of dozens of tidy, friendly Australian towns, with an Australia Post, an op shop (thrift store: “op” is short for “opportunity”), a few restaurants, a few stores for tourists. Online, you can find photos before and after the fire. The photos before the event correspond to memory, the photos after do not. The aerial photos show an apocalyptic plat map. At ground level, it seems as if color itself has been burned away. Our connection to the tragedy is so slight, it is almost obscene to mention it, except that disasters of that scale are becoming more likely as the world warms, and our chances of escaping them, or avoiding them by travel, are decreasing.

We live in the shadow of unimaginable numbers, the sum of our routines. We drive to Starbucks, because it is raining; we fly to Australia, because we want a change; we take the tram to the State Library and sit in the Australiana Room, the light filtering from a high window, because we want to write about a life. These acts consume energy, and while individually trivial, they are significant in the aggregate. Tim Flannery, the Australian scientist and author of The Weather Makers, explains the “telekinetic” nature of the atmosphere: wherever the carbon comes from, it quickly distributes throughout the system. Whether it’s the black Land Rover wedging itself into a Chadstone Shopping Centre parking space, the hunter green Outback pulling up to a Trader Joe’s, or the Prius in the Starbucks drive-through, each of us contributes our parts per million. Our routines produce the crisis, but the crisis also threatens our routines.

*

            When we came back to America, I decided to buy a new coffeemaker. Even after two weeks back in the States, it seemed as if the year abroad was already dissolving. We blinked and returned to the same house, in the same Northwest winter, except our children’s friends were suddenly taller. We stepped outside the bubble for a year, and the bubble welcomed us back. It was eerie: I felt too settled in, as if the trip had not happened. As if some part of me, altered by the trip abroad, refused to root and flourish. Perhaps that dislocation was my way of honoring the fact of the year away.

So I drove to the Fred Meyer store and bought a new Black and Decker coffeemaker, which, when I plugged it in and filled the filter basket with fresh-ground bicycle-delivered organic beans, produced four cups of watery swill. I drove back and returned it, then drove to the ARC on 10th and Beca and found a used Mr. Coffee brand coffeemaker/cappuccino maker for eight dollars. It was so old, its instruction manual did not even list a website. The manual was precisely written, by someone who clearly cared about espresso (the proper grind was “like salt, or sand”); but strikingly, it was written, in English, and not composed of generic, globalization-friendly icons. (These are handy, if you want to sell an appliance in eighty different countries; but they are limited. You can show someone a generic hand filling a carafe with water; you can demonstrate the concept of “plugging in”; you can show not doing something, or rudimentary concepts like “hot” or “shocky” or “ouch”; but you cannot, without words, demonstrate the proper fineness of an espresso grind.)

It took awhile to get the cappuccino maker part to work, but it works. The coffeemaker part works too, but most mornings I make cappuccino; it reminds me of another home. As for Starbucks, I don’t go there as much as I used to. The book I was writing is done, and it’s quieter at my desk.

George Estreich’s The Shape of the Eye Wins 2012 Oregon Book Award

George Estreich, poet and author of “Shape of the Eye”

Congratulations to Issue 7 Contributor George Estreich, whose book The Shape of the Eye: Down Syndrome, Family, and the Stories We Inherit won the 2012 Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction. You can read more about the award here and read the judge’s comments here.

The Shape of the Eye, Memoir by George Estreich

George Estreich, poet and author of “Shape of the Eye”

Issue 7 contributor George Estreich recently published a new memoir, The Shape of the Eye, in which he describes the blessings and challenges of raising his daughter Laura, who was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Estreich is known for his book of poems, Textbook Illustration of the Human Body, which won the Rhea and Seymour Gorsline Prize from Cloudbank Books.

While writing Shape of the Eye Estreich was faced with new challenges, both technically and personally. Having a strong background in poetry, Estreich found writing a memoir to be both a foreign and familiar experience: “When I wrote poems, I was mainly concerned with language, line by line and word by word […] In a way, I was still writing poetry, trying to get each sentence right, to find the right word and metaphor and form. At the same time, those formal choices became part of a larger goal.”

Creative nonfiction can have its own challenges, especially when the topic is so personal. Estreich commented on that intimate quality of Shape: “It’s odd to have written so much autobiographical work, in poetry and prose, because I think of myself as a private person. So there was a tension between necessary truth-telling and privacy. Also, if one is writing about people one cares about, and one acknowledges that true stories can do harm to relationships, then writing and family are in tension too. Storytelling is an ethical act. I don’t have a formula for resolving these tensions, and I don’t think there is one, but these issues were never far from mind.”

Despite the challenges creative nonfiction presents, Estriech found that, “in writing nonfiction prose about Laura, [he] wanted to be, in a small way, an agent of change.” Estreich goes on to say, “I wanted to raise questions about what “normal” meant, and to raise the question of who counts in our society. More specifically, I wanted to oppose a complex and singular portrait of Down Syndrome to the generic, medically ratified portrait that most people know.”

Estreich’s memoir has received attention from both the medical and literary fields. He has spoken and presented excerpts of the novel at the Willamette Valley Down Syndrome Association, the Spring Creek Conference on Nature and the Sacred, and the World Down Syndrome Conference in Vancouver. Estreich remarked: “I don’t know what effect Shape has had, but I hope it’s been positive. I do know that the responses to the book so far have been very gratifying, from other parents and from medical professionals. I’ve spoken to a number of medical audiences, and am always glad to have the chance to answer questions and have the necessary conversations. In general, I’ve found an extraordinary amount of goodwill, which reflects the goodwill Laura seems to inspire in person. This isn’t to say that attitudes don’t have a long way to go, about Down Syndrome or disability in general. But as a writer and a father, I’ve been very happy with the response to my book so far.”

The Shape of the Eye is a finalist in the 2012 Oregon Book Award for creative nonfiction and has been nominated for a Reader’s Choice Award (you can vote online for the memoir here). You can read an excerpt from Shape of the Eye and find out more information on George Estreich’s webpage.