A Sunday morning in Brisbane

I find myself this morning, due to business necessity, in Brisbane, which is my first time visiting this particular city. St. John’s Cathedral is, conveniently, two blocks from my hotel room; and so thither I hied myself for Sunday morning’s choral Eucharist.

Actually, I didn’t go there first thing in the morning. Brisbane was not originally on my itinerary – I came here straight from three weeks in Singapore, with a bunch of clothing that had been packed for Singapore’s equatorial climate. Here in Brisbane it’s mid-winter, and while Brisbane is not exactly Calgary, there’s still a pleasant little nip in the air – high fifties / low sixties Fahrenheit. I find this very refreshing, but the last time I was in a place with weather like this and enjoyed myself by wandering around in short sleeves, I caught a cold and made my wife feel guilty. (Helen, being Chinese, considers it part of her wifely duty to keep her husband healthy, and therefore when I carelessly get myself sick, SHE feels guilty.) So I checked with her, and, just as I suspected, she wanted me to go buy a jacket. Also an umbrella to replace the one I left on my temporary desk in the Singapore office.

So I actually started my day looking for (a) free WiFi (since my hotel wants to charge BG a sizable chunk of cash for in-room internet) and (b) a “Big W” store, per the suggestion of the concierge in re the acquisition of jackets and umbrellas. I figured Starbucks would handle the free internet, but, alas, it turns out they want to charge BG even more than the hotel does. And Big W turned out to be due to open at 10:00, not 9:00. So I wasn’t able to get the jacket and umbrella until after the 9:30 Eucharist was over.

Good news, bad news. The good news: when I did go back to Big W, not only did they have reasonably priced jackets and umbrellas, but they were also able to tell me where I could get free WiFi. The bad news? Well, here’s how the WiFi conversation went:

ME: Is there any place nearabouts that offers free WiFi?

FRIENDLY AND HELPFUL SALES CLERK: Yes, as a matter of fact, you can get free WiFi at Mackers, right up the street.

ME (trying to remember having seen a sign for “Mackers” in yesterday’s peregrinations up and down Queen Street, and failing): What exactly is Mackers?

FAHSC (realizing that she is speaking to an ignorant American): Oh, I’m sorry, I mean MacDonald’s.

Yes, Gentle Reader, in order to get WiFi in Brisbane, I apparently have to subject myself to the culinary vileness that is Mickey D’s. (See, I can do slang too. So there.) Or her second alternative, which I did remember having seen yesterday: Hungry Jack’s, whose sign had struck me as an interesting mélange of copyright violation, since it was basically a knockoff of a Whataburger logo with the “Whataburger” name replaced with a knockoff of the Jack-in-the-Box name. In short: you want WiFi in Brisbane, then either your wallet or your stomach has to pay a high price.

To be sure, there’s a sign up in one of the nearby city parks that cheerfully informs me that “free Council WiFi is coming.” Which means that, after I have gone home to Texas, the City of Brisbane is going to start providing free WiFi to people who wish to sit in the park and run their laptop batteries down to zero. But this will do me personally no good whatsoever.

— I interrupt myself here to pass on the following conversation with my far-too-intelligent wife, who just called to talk for a bit. We talked briefly, and then she apologized for having to hang up, as it was time to put Kai to bed. Now I know from experience that it often happens that Kai outlasts her and she winds up asleep in his room while he’s still awake; so I wanted to tell her not to feel obliged to call me back tonight.

ME: Oh, and honey, don’t feel like you have to call me back tonight – if you go to sleep before Kai does, don’t feel guilty about not calling me.

HELEN: Well if that happens I won’t feel guilty anyway. I CAN’T feel guilty – I’ll be ASLEEP.

Fair point, that.

While I’m passing on conversations, I should mention the State of Origin. While I was waiting for the Starbucks barista to make my tea, I idly observed what at first glance appeared to be dueling tip jars, with an odd mix of money and paper. But upon closer inspection I found that one of the jars was labeled “QLD” and the other “NSW,” which are the abbreviations for “Queensland” and “New South Wales,” respectively. And there was a sign above the jars reading, “Which will be the State of Origin?” Now I could hardly imagine there being any unsettled historical question about which of the two states was first to be established or anything of that sort, much less that such a question would be amenable to settlement by means of a poll of Starbucks clientele. So I asked the barista what was going on. Turns out “State of Origin” is the title given to the state whose rugby team has most recently taken the lead in a long-running series of rugby matches, the next of which matches is due to be played on Wednesday.

“It’s a big deal,” the barista told me with a smile. “The next one is in Brisbane; so a lot of people will come into town. There’ll be a lot of hitting the pubs and drinking too much.”

I feigned astonishment: “In Australia??”

Without batting an eye, she ran with the joke. “It’s hard to believe, I know. But then, that’s how you know it’s a special occasion.”

At any rate, back to the cathedral. It’s a perfectly serviceable cathedral, with standard neoGothic design (towering stone buttresses, stained glass windows, etc.) despite having been built relatively recently.

From my seat in St John’s Cathedral

As I think tradition is more valuable than imagination when it comes to cathedral architecture, I fully approved of the design choice. One thing that struck me, though, is that this cathedral shows a surprising touch of Eastern Orthodox influence – the Lady Chapel in particular was surely intended to make one feel that one is in a Greek Orthodox church. I liked the effect, myself.

The best thing about St John’s, however, is not the architecture, but the music (at least this Sunday morning). First of all, they have a top-notch organist playing a top-notch organ – a very important asset if one is going to have a pseudo-medieval Gothic cathedral, precisely because that kind of music was crafted specifically to sound good in the unusual, and difficult, acoustic environment of a medieval Gothic cathedral. Modern “praise and worship” music isn’t just culturally incongruous in such a setting – it’s musically at war with its physical surroundings, which conspire both to muddy and to weaken the sound. (One of the reasons a modern-day megachurch building looks nothing at all like a Gothic cathedral, is that such buildings are intentionally designed to have acoustic profiles that enhance modern praise-and-worship music, and thus they look much more like a modern concert arena than like a traditional church. And this is an entirely appropriate architectural design decision once you have made the decision to build your corporate worship experience around a modern musical style.)

That bit was hardly unique, of course, as most Gothic cathedrals have high-dollar pipe organs, and in a city like Brisbane there’s bound to be at least one concert-quality organist who can be hired to play it. The choir, however, was something genuinely new for me: it was a hybrid boys’ choir and mixed adult choir. It was perfect for the environment and left me wondering why this isn’t common practice. There is a difference in quality between a boy’s soprano and an adult woman’s (partly why castrati were so highly valued in the heyday of Mozart), and there is no musical instrument more perfectly designed to ring clear and piercing and haunting in the cathedral environment than the boy soprano voice. Yet the inclusion of adults allowed the choral repertoire to expand to include music written for traditional SATB that wouldn’t work at all well with a pure boys’ choir. The results were startlingly successful.

As for the sermon…well, I won’t discuss the sermon in detail in this post. Partly this is because I’ll devote an entire separate post to it, as I found it fascinating as an example of all of the major ways in which preachers of inadequate training and/or intellectual integrity go about imposing their own preconceptions and obsessions on texts that don’t actually support the points they desperately want to make. And it was fascinating to me theologically and personally as well. For I agreed with a lot of the intermediate points of the sermon – indeed, in one place in particular it caused me to realize something true and useful about the text and I actually felt that he was onto something worth pursuing further – and yet he careened off the path by the end, carried away, as I say, by his own preoccupations. I agreed with so much that he said, and yet I disagreed with everything he really cared about saying. I would love to get to spend a long, comfortable winter’s afternoon in front of a fire talking to him, trying to find my way imaginatively into the intellectual space he inhabits (not trying to change his mind, you understand, as there was nothing in the sermon that would lead me to believe his mind is changeable on what, clearly, are his most fundamental bedrock convictions). For his sincerity and good intentions were apparent.

But that would be a theological discussion, and this is not a theological post – and I try to keep the two sharply separated, as I know that many of you, Gentle Readers, enjoy my silliness and my travel observations but have no interest in God-talk.

One thing, though – I very much wish that I knew more about what the bishop thought of the sermon. And the reason I would like to know, is that he had throughout the air of a man who is suffering in silence. His body language seemed to me very eloquent: he stared straight down at his own lap for twenty solid minutes, hardly moving a muscle. You know how, when a person in an audience is emotionally in tune with the speaker, they are constantly, though subtly, in motion? Actually, if you have not done much public speaking, you may not, in fact, realize this; so let me try to explain. When the audience is “with you,” so to speak, they make plenty of eye contact with you, and they don’t sit still. I don’t mean that they fidget; that’s quite different. They lean forward to concentrate as you use your tone and language to let them know that you’re about to make a crucial point; they lean back in their seats to relax and let what they’ve just heard sink in; they nod; they smile; they narrow their eyes and cock their heads slightly to one side when they aren’t sure they are understanding what you’re trying to say; they frown either in concentration or in disagreement (and it’s easy to tell the two different frowns apart). If they are concentrating very intently indeed, they may stop moving for a few moments; but that intensity of concentration is not something most of us can keep up for very long, and so they will relax when they feel themselves on more familiar ground and will go back to swaying and nodding and smiling and frowning. In other words, they move constantly, but they move with you, in response to the things you’re saying.

If they’re bored, on the other hand, their eyes wander around the building or down into their laps, and they fidget – meaning they don’t sit still, but their movements have nothing to do with you or with anything you’re saying.

But a man who stares fixedly down at his lap and doesn’t move a muscle while I speak, is usually a man who does not at all care for what I am saying and is trying very hard to be polite and not say anything. He shrinks in on himself and locks down his outward expression, in his body language as well as his facial expression. And that’s exactly what the bishop looked like throughout the sermon. So maybe I’m misinterpreting the whole thing, but it sure looked like the bishop found the sermon objectionable but felt that in that situation he was not free to object. I could be wrong, of course; but that’s precisely why I’d be very interested to hear the bishop’s candid opinion of the sermon – I just would like to know whether I read the situation correctly or not.

At any rate, I’ve been working long days and weekends for the past three weeks; and so today I’m giving myself one day where I won’t allow myself to think about work at all. So perhaps you’ll get some Singapore or Malaysia traveloguing out of me before the day’s out. You won’t get it right away, though, because I just discovered that this Starbucks doesn’t have any public restrooms; so, um, I’m outta here. Cheers.

UPDATE: I am delighted to report that The Coffee Club has free WiFi for customers, along with a quite serviceable ribeye, and (even better) cheesecake that is topped with raspberry rather than strawberry.

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