Tuesday, December 15, 2009

unexpected guest...(Hughes family: remind you of anyone?)

In the apartment complex we lived in before we moved into our new house, we had a regular and welcome visitor whom we called "Cica" (which means "Cat" in Hungarian). Cica would drop by to hang-out, seek lots of attention and be well fed. Cica felt very comfortable in our apartment, as if she may have spent time there before. We think Cica may be a promiscuous kitty who makes regular visits to many apartments in the complex as she looks pretty well fed and cared for.

It was wonderful to have such an affectionate creature come and visit, yet not have ultimate responsibility for her welfare. We did think of adopting Cica to our new home as we enjoyed her company so much, but didn't want to deprive her actual owners of her company.

Cica reminded me very much of Mandy, the family cat we had for about 20 years. 

Monday, December 14, 2009

around the bend: Sunday prohibition

Flashback to August... after an exhausting few days of unpacking a U-Haul truck and driving all around southern Michigan looking for a car to buy, Jessica, Matthew (Jess' bro) and I wanted to relax on the Lord's day. So into the local Supermarket we went, to pick up some cheese and bikkies and something to wash-it-down with. The Martin's supermarket has an impressive array of beer and wine and when its on sale, the prices are great. We had chosen one of the local ales to sample when we were confronted with the following sign:

What? A moment of culture-shock set-in to my Australian sense of what is good and right in the world...

Indiana is one of 15 American states which is still suffering from a legislative-hangover from the temperance movement of 1919-1933, which saw the prohibition of the production, transportation and sale of alcohol. Specific historical reasons why Sunday prohibition remains in Indiana are hard to pinpoint, but the general vibe I get is that "alcohol is generally bad" & "Sunday are reserved for the worship of the Lord," therefore the two should not be mixed.

If Indiana wants to take temperance on the Lord's day seriously, I could easily argue for and support a complete ban on Sunday trading, legislating a moderation on consumerism and 24/7 consumer convenience. But, from a Christian perspective it makes no sense whatsoever to have a HUGE supermarket open from 6am to Midnight selling everything, except beer and wine, since the first sign that the Kingdom of God had arrived was an abundant supply of choice wine (John 2).

We were comforted by the under-age check-out girl who assured us that we could simply drive 5 miles north to the Michigan border where a bunch of stores cater to the needs of deprived Indiana residents, on the Lord's day...

By the way, if you are looking for Beer at our local Martins from Monday to Saturday, you will fittingly find it in aisle 10, alongside the school supplies.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

our (mostly) D.I.Y. re-modelled house

In case you haven't heard, we are visiting Sydney over Christmas/New Year... so in preparation for the visit, we thought we'd show you some of the D.I.Y. work we have done in the last two months on the house we bought in South Bend, which is now our home. Our D.I.Y. philosophy is that you need to know your limits, and thats when you call in the experts...

Bathroom before

Bathroom after... 
We painted and installed a new vanity, mirror, light, shower curtain rod and towel hardware.
Rick installed new taps and spouts in the shower.

Kitchen before

Kitchen after...
A completely new kitchen was on the cards if we bought this house. We helped design a new kitchen. We removed the old cabinets and sold them. Broke tile of the right-hand wall and smoothed the wall out. We did LOTS of drywall repair! We ripped-out old laminate flooring, installed a floating Pergo floor. We painted.
Julie designed the kitchen, Craig & Greg installed it, Willie & team built and installed the solid-surface counter-top.

Master Bedroom before

Master Bedroom after...
We had to paint, which opened up the whole room... Linda's great work!
We ripped-up the carpeting.
Willie & Parker refinished the hardwood floors.

Stairs before

Stairs after...
We ripped-up carpeting. We sanded and painted white. We installed the stair runner.

Basement/Laundry before

Basement/Laundry after...
We did LOTS of cleaning - the basement was disgusting!
We removed the yellow plastic siding, concrete patched and painted the walls and have begun to paint the floor.
We re-finished the bathroom cabinet and hung-it. We installed a laundry sink and built a foundation for it. We salvaged a decaying shelf, cut-out the damp and hung-it. We hung a retractable clothes line and clothes hanger bar to dry clothes.

Desk before

Desk after...
This desk came with the house - it is a solid piece of furniture and fits perfectly in the study/library, but it was beat-up!
We sanded the desk down, stained and sealed and returned it to its former glory.

More after shots...
We installed a new dining room chandelier

We cleaned & organised the garage installing bike racks and tool hangers...

We made a functional storage room in the basement...

We edged and mowed the lawns (and now they are covered in snow)...

A BIG THANK YOU to Jess' Mom, Linda, who flew out from California to help us paint and re-model for two weeks in October. I don't think we would have been ready to move-in on time without all of Linda's excellent work.

Thanks also to the skilled tradesmen who helped us, and Julie from American Kitchen & Bath for her fabulous kitchen design. Thanks to Brandon at Sears who sold me many Craftsman tools and who gave me a brand new drill after I destroyed my first one. Thanks to Clyde for the electric advise over the telephone.

Thank you Sharon at Re/Max 100 for helping us buy our first house.

A few more after shots...

Friday, December 11, 2009

An Aussie's perspective on American College Football

Jess and I were 2009 season-ticket-holding-fans of Notre Dame's "Fighting Irish" college football team. In a previous post I described how South Bend comes alive for seven Saturdays in the fall as it hosts visiting college football teams at home. As it turned out, our season tickets weren't with the other graduate students, but with the "Freshmen" - the first-year college students - so we were thrown into fighting-irish-fandom with plenty of other newbies. But, the Freshmen had a huge advantage over us... they all live in the campus dorms and they had all been coached on the 20-plus cheers, songs, dances & traditions that students go through each game to cheer the Fighting Irish on to victory. Plus, we didn't look the part either... the freshmen all wore the matching "rise and strike" season t-shirts, while Jess' parents spotted us from the other side of the stadium because of the shirt and wide-brimmed Driza-Bone hat I had on. One surprise: the seats (really narrow benches called "bleachers") aren't used for their intended purpose - the ND students stand on the bleachers for the entire game, usually 3-4 hours, only taking a break at half-time.

A football ticket doesn't just buy you a football game at Notre Dame - also included are military fly-overs, marching bands, the Leprechaun mascot and yes, the cheerleaders! Throw in the football game and it really is a great experience!

The Irish started the season strongly with a string of wins and close games, two of which went into nail-biting over-time periods. But, the Irish couldn't maintain the momentum for all four quarters and often found themselves too far behind for a final quarter catch-up. While the games were close, the Irish lost the last four to end up with a 6-6 record for the season, which got the head coach fired... In the years to come, watch out for Jimmy Clausen and  Golden Tate in the NFL - these guys can play!

As an Aussie who grew up amongst four football codes I have mixed feelings about American football. On the whole there are lots of things I like about the game: there are a large variety of great tactical plays which keep defensive-sides and the fans guessing, some incredible throws and receptions, big hits and it takes a big team effort to win a game - all good!

I however do not like the "media time outs" which leave the players standing aimlessly on the field waiting for  commercials to run on viewers TV's -- it kills the momentum and is a downer for the fans at the game. In contrast, in Soccer, Rugby and AFL the game dictates the broadcast.

There is a scenario that kills the end of a close game and I really despise it. If the team leading the score board have possession of the football in the closing minutes, they can literally waste the final two minutes by running down the play-clock, removing any opportunity for the defensive team to turn-over the football and score to win or tie-up the game.

While American football is a big team effort, which I like, I find it odd that many of the players would never touch the ball during the game; I bet many wouldn't touch the ball all season. The other football codes are ball-centric where everyone gets their hands and feet on the ball (the possible exception may be Rugby Union forwards). An effect of this is the stars of American games are always the players that touch the ball - the quarterback, receivers and running backs.

Only in American sports would you come up with a game that would involve flying or busing a squad of 60 players, 10 coaches, support staff, cheerleaders, a marching band and a Leprechaun across the country to play - the travel costs must be enormous! Which brings up the critique of why you need so many players to play this game? The positions seem so specialised, where you need 3rd string back-up players who may never get to run onto the field all season. The other football codes seem to produce much more versatile players. Which is why Aussie Darren Bennett, an AFL turned NFL punter, is considered to be arguably one of the NFL's greatest punters, partly due to his versatility.  I like the stories of the small-town high school football teams who only have enough players to have a few reserves, so that most players are on the field for offense, defense, field-goal attempts and kick-off receptions - these guys really get to play the game!

I don't want to fall into Deborah Hutton's trap this week of "biting the hand that feeds me" - ND football brings in the $'s which allows the University to give Jess a free financial ride during her Ph.D and even pay her to study at ND. So I am committed to learn more about American football and be a fan of Notre Dame while we live in South Bend.
Go Irish!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

what is she doing? she is going to be in school forever...

As Andrew explained in his post, we are here in South Bend so that I can study at Notre Dame (for more on ND, see the film Rudy). Besides being home to one of the world’s most famous college football teams (since only America really competes in this category, it is an easy claim for South Bend to a world title), Notre Dame is famous for being the alma mater of President Bartlett on The West Wing. But those two descriptors still don’t really communicate what the university is in the minds of Americans.

First, let’s start with pronunciation. Even though many students here speak French, the school name is pronounced No-ter (or Notra by the slightly more sophisticated) Dame (as in, “Gee that dame sure has swell legs). When pronounced with a French accent, Notre Dame signifies the cathedral in Paris.

For Americans, Notre Dame is a top university: not quite Ivy League but considered to be one of the country’s most prestigious schools (remember, Americans use “school for everything from pre-school to grad-school). This perception is partly due to the stunning campus with expansive quads, tree-lined walks, stately brown-brick buildings, the basilica and the golden-domed “main building.” Part of this perception is also due to the famous (although not always high-performing) sports teams. Part of this perception ― and the bit that is most relevant to my study ― comes from the fact ND has really strong academic programs and a really good rate of placing its Ph.D’s in tenure-track positions at other universities.

Now, I guess I need to explain exactly what it is that I’m doing here…

American English Ph.D’s are a bit different from Australian and British Ph.D’s. Most of the students beginning the program already have a masters degree in English or a related field. But, an additional 2-3 years of coursework is still required before students can take their “qualifying exams.”  Once a student successfully completes the exams, they can propose a dissertation topic and (with approval) begin writing their dissertation. Most English dissertations are running about 400-500 pages on average and take anywhere from 2-5, or 6, or 7 or 8 years to finish. Some schools (like the University of Chicago and Harvard) are infamous for taking a really long time, with average program running 8 years from start to finish. Notre Dame takes away funding after 5 years, which helps people finish more quickly!   (Funding involves a full scholarship for tuition, health coverage, and a salary that is sufficient for 2 people to live on, so it is good to finish before one’s funding runs out.)

Right now, I’m in the “coursework” section of the degree, which means I’m taking classes just like we were at Regent. The difference is, rather than taking one “seminar” and a couple of other less-demanding courses, I take 4 seminar courses and, since everyone is already way too educated, the level of knowledge and thought isn’t like a master’s degree where everyone is just starting out. At the beginning of the term, I was reading about 800 pages a week on average and I’ve written just over 140 pages this semester. Most people (myself included) study for about 60 hours a week (of actual study time, not including meal breaks, chats with other students, etc) but we study more during November and April, since this is when papers are written!  What does this mean for day-to-day life? Well, it means I’m really tired most of the time and have little mental energy left for other things (emails, phone calls, taking baths, cooking).  It feels like some sort of academic boot-camp where we are being broken down and taught to scramble and just produce more and more writing and read more and more texts until our capacity for such things is expanded beyond any normal human capacity, which seems to be working.

So, am I enjoying all this work?

Yes ― at least most of the time!  It is amazing to get to talk about poetry with really brilliant people for hours at a time, especially poets like John Donne or George Herbert or John Keats. I also really enjoy the research involved in writing papers ― sometimes it is really fun just to read what other people think about something and then come up with my own ideas. Other times, I get to try and figure out a historical mystery around a work or writer and that can be really intriguing, as I get to try and place together who knew whom, who read what, and use that to understand the literature better. Sometimes, it is not so fun … especially when taking classes that aren’t in my “field” (which is Victorian and early 20th century novels … but early modern religious poetry is very seductive and could win me over!) but next term I’ll be finished with some of the requirements that are less interesting, so hopefully the study will be more and more enjoyable. Sometimes, it is downright hard ― especially when I have yet another paper to write and I have absolutely nothing to say …

My time at Regent was immensely helpful in preparing me for study here. The work I did on American writer Wendell Berry (his thinking about the concept of “place” and the intersections of his thinking with biblical theologies of creation and land use) not only taught me to manage a large writing project (150 pages) but also gives me a solid background in American agrarian literature (which should be really helpful for one of my courses next term).  But, I love stories and especially the ethical implications of narrative and so here I’m planning to work on 19th century novels and perhaps 20th century Catholic revival novels. I won’t go into the details but I’d love to share with you some of my work (if you are interested), so just ask me about it!

Why am I doing this?

Well, that is a good question. The easy answer is that I really love books, love teaching and love research and so I hope to be a college professor or uni lecturer. But the real answer has much more to do with vocation and trying to follow the path that God has opened up … that isn’t to say that God wants me to be a college professor ― or even that he wants me to get a Ph.D, but this is the second time that he’s opened up the opportunity so, it seems like something that I need to do even if the ends are beyond the ends I figure and are altered in the fulfillment…

Monday, December 07, 2009

Where in the world are we? Why are we here? What have we been doing? When are we coming "home"?

In 6 days time, we will catch a taxi, an interstate train, the "L" train, a domestic flight, connect to an international flight and arrive in Sydney for the first time in 18 months. Some our our friends still think we live in Canada, so its time to offer you the basics to put you on a similar page to us (or at least orientate you to the right country) before we arrive down-under.

After graduating from Regent College in April, we SOLD our apartment in Vancouver and in August drove a U-Haul truck 3881 km across the North America and ended up in South Bend Indiana. Why? Because Jessica was brilliant (and lucky) enough to be awarded a 5 year fully-funded PhD scholarship at the prestigious University of Notre Dame. For the next 5-6 years we plan to be in South Bend as Jess completes her Ph.D in English Literature (more details to come from her in a follow-up post (post #2)).

We followed the Lewis & Clark Expedition trail in reverse across the country. 
A chain-establishment we passed in Iowa with a rather misleading name...

Where in the world is South Bend Indiana? Good question... Lets start with the Indiana part. I was surprised that most Americans I quizzed prior to coming here knew very little about the state of Indiana, about as much as a sports-loving Aussie did actually: Indiana is the home of the Indianapolis 500 Indy Car race and a place where basketball is popular. That's it? No, Indianian's also have a well-known nickname "Hoosiers". That's it.

I made a critical mistake early-on with my family by primarily associating South Bend with being 90 minutes drive east of Chicago. This error has led to: my parents thinking that we were on central time, nope we are on east-coast time; my two Grandmas thinking that we live in Chicago, nope we don't even live in the state of Illinois; and my Dad assuming that we would return the U-Haul truck back to a Chicago depot since South Bend was so small, nope South Bend has four U-Haul depots of its own.

To avoid any such confusion, I will describe South Bend on its own terms. South Bend is in Northern Indiana, only a few miles from the Michigan state border, and a half-hour drive to the Indiana shores of Lake Michigan. You could accurately describe South Bend as a "college town" as it is the home to Notre Dame, an Indiana University campus, a Purdue University campus and Bethel College. South Bend qualifies as a university town, because it has many students in relation to the size of the total population. But, South Bend isn't just a university town - the St. Joseph River  proved to be a spring of economic activity in the city's glory years when the Studebaker family built cars here. But, since Studebaker's demise in 1963, the era following brought the nickname the "rust-belt" and unfortunate economic decline to this area of the country. South Bend experiences 4 genuine seasons - a humid Summer, a spectacular Fall, "lake-effect" snow and ice-storms in the Winter, and a brief Spring.

There is no doubt what the biggest event(s) of the year is in South Bend... Notre Dame College Football home games. For seven Saturdays in the Fall, South Bend is pumping! Beginning Thursday of game-weekend you will see people sitting by the roadside in lawn chairs buying and selling game tickets, parking passes, parking stalls in their yards and beds in their houses. On Saturday morning, five hours before kick-off, traffic starts to swell to the point where many locals simply don't drive their cars on game-day. Before the game, police change the street traffic patterns so all roads leading to the university are converted to one-way channels to get fans to the game. Game-day is so predominate here, that year round traffic signs point to parking lots that only get filled seven days a year. To put game-day in perspective, the population of South Bend and its sister city Mishawaka is a combined 150,000 people, while Notre Dame's stadium seats 80,795 fans and has been sold out for every game (except one) since 1966. It is also estimated that an extra 20,000 fans who don't have tickets show-up to campus to take in the elaborate festivities that the University puts on and to soak in the atmosphere as they "tailgate "party all day and night long and watch the game on portable TV's from the car park. I'll follow-up with another post (post #3) from our experience as season ticket holders this year.

I kid you not, football fans buy these tailgate "accessories"

So as Jess has been studying hard getting settled into her Ph.D program, I have been... in limbo: waiting for my working permit and permanent residency to be approved by the US government... house-husband: trying to take-on more of the domestic duties to free Jess up to read and write... organiser: buying a house... DIY tradie guy: getting the house ready to move-into, which finally came to fruition in the last week of November. Another post (post #4) will follow with some pics and details about our DIY efforts in our new home.
Our place: a 1946, 3 bedroom, 2 story plus a basement, Cape-Cod style house 

As a side-note for the Sydney-siders, you don't want to know how cheap you can buy a nice house for in the rust-belt... to give you an idea, a not-so-nice house could be paid for by many people's credit card spending limit.