Wednesday, December 20, 2006

News exclusive

Only on Fox News will you see Mount St Helen having a minor eruption. Or, so the srident screen tickers and excited news anchors proclaim.

This volcano clearly has signed million-dollar rights to the sensationalist news service and will perform for no one else.

Blow me down!
I wonder who is acting as its agent.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Oh, Qantas

It is hard to be happy about the sale of Qantas.
Australia's iconic national airline suddenly is not so national. It is part-American. Not that I am in a position to make judgement about this, being, in a sense, part American. But Qantas?
The worry, of course, is not nationality so much as the fact of privatisation. The shareholders, we hear, are very happy with this sale. The shareholders profit from it. Once they have added up this profit, they will, of course, be looking for more.

Modern corporatations cannot cope with a steady profit margin. To their values, the graph line should continue ever upwards, yielding ever more, slashing into everything that makes the corporation successful to carve out more dividends.

This is the secret behind declining standards all around us.

So, we will see Qantas start to cut corners. First the staff, then the maintenance. Then, oh fear, the reputation for safety.
The world's safest airline is in peril.

Of course they are making all sorts of assurances right now about how the airline will be handled. They lie. Lying has become a norm. We expect it. It eases the passage of deceit. After all, the truth is unpalatable

But so long as the shareholders have their nests feathered, does anyone care?
Until the first crash.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Heide Revisited

It must be 50 years since I visited Heide, the home of John and Sunday Reed, just outside Melbourne. It was a home-away-from-home for my parents in the 1940s and, indeed, I was conceived there.

Through my childhood, we returned for visits with the Reeds and I established a strong friendship with their adopted son, Sweeney. None of them is alive today - not even sweet Sweeney, who committed suicide in 1979 when I was still living overseas. By then our contact had become sporadic - but my affection towards him never had dimmed. In childhood, he just a year older than I, he had been a hero to me - a superhero, even, since he liked to take on that guise, wearing a red cape and assuming the role of my protector. When he locked me in the cat house at Heide, the grownups were very upset. I was not in the least perturbed, however. I was in there for safekeeping. Sweeney had put me in there to make sure no harm came to me and nobody could take me away, since it was his intention that I stay with him.

He would, to my shock, sneak into his parents' bedroom and steal money from Sunday's purse - to take me down to the shops and buy all sorts of forbidden sweets which we would devour with unspeakable relish in the shade of the orchard trees. And we would play fleet-footed, highly-imaginative games through gardens and orchards. We would dress up and role play. He would lead and I would follow. With his mop of unruly blond hair, he was the most beautiful boy in the world - and the most daring and dangerous. A wild child. My friend.

To me, Heide is all these memories. I remember the well-scrubbed and busy kitchen with Sun, who seemed so tall and austere and yet was warm and affectionate. I remember John, who was more remote - and his library, cosy and full of talking. They were interesting grownups and I remember quite a few people always seemed to be around when my father came to visit - the exotic, arty highbrow variety of grownups who had always been part of my environment. Wine-drinking, smoking, lively and loquacious grownups.

I also remember cats and gardens and even sitting around the table eating, my mother fussing around helping Sun.

Yesterday I returned to Heide - and there was nothing left.

Oh yes, the old farmhouse still stands. It is called "Heide 1". But it is empty - a shell with polished floors and odd things on the walls, an ugly gallery. There is a particularly cruel portrait of Sunday and another of John which does not look much like him. And white canvases with signatures and bits of quotes hanging on walls. One room was a mass of positively hideous murals!
The library still is walled with books, but I could see none of the period. Not a single book published by John Reed in his own library! How unlikely! How atypical! Reed & Harris were prolific and adventurous publishers in the 1940s, the heyday of that house's illustrious history. That was when Sid Nolan was burgeoning, after running from the army under an assumed name, and where he created a something akin to a maison a trois with Sun and the hapless John.
It was to Heide that John brought my father so that, together, they could produce "Angry Penguins", the modernist magazine my father had been editing in Adelaide...and the house breathed poetry and prose and art - and a very healthy vegetarian diet, which was Sunday's rule. Nolan and my father used to sneak off to the nearest pub to get meat fixes - very secretly. There in that old farmhouse, my father had his special writing place, allocated by John. Sid had his painting place...and used many places. And everyone read voraciously - and discussed in earnest the world that they were changing.

Sunday's kitchen was a heart to that house. But now? In a supposed shrine? It is gone.
What is called the kitchen is nothing like the kitchen. What is called the cat house is nothing like the cat house. I could not find the orchard, or the pond. I did find a lot of carparks.

A friendly volunteer guide took us to a rather well hidden sculpture which is known as "Sweeney's Keepsake". It looked a bit like a gallows hanging a red heart. Sweeney did not hang himself, as I understood it. He took pills. I did not like the memorial. But at least there was one.

There is little else which revives any memory of the people of the house. The same photo of Sun, John, Sweeney and cats is posted in a couple of places.
I heard a woman guide telling her group how Sunday so loved cats that she kept 40 of them. Rubbish. Maybe six or nine I recall. Sunday was not ga-ga. But what would these people know?

The Reed property has been turned over to the celebration of two Angry Penguins painters, Sid Nolan and Bert Tucker. They are the two primary modernists associated with Heide. And, where once they were Angry Penguins painters, they are now "Heide Movement" painters. For there is absolutely no inclusion of Angry Penguins at all in the modern Heide. It has been excised from the history. There were only painters in this version of Heide. Not all the painters, either.
I hunted high and low to find a Joy Hester or a John Perceval or a Vassilieff. I finally found a Vassilieff and some Boyds in Heide 2, the Lloyd Wrightish modern house the Reeds briefly inhabited on the property. This modernist building they sold to the Victorian government not long before they died. They wished it to become a modernist gallery. And it is. But now there is also Heide 3, a harsh, angular barn of a gallery which is filled with a glory of Nolans and Tuckers - some good, some not so good.

There is also a cafe on the grounds - part marquee, with a public convenience beside it. It serves trendy cafe cusine, its token to the Reeds the use of bone-handled knives and apostle teaspoons. But Sunday would shudder at all the meat on the menu. Oh dear.

For several hours I wandered the grounds and buildings, seeking something, anything that would meet my memory. Despite the carefully-kept gardens and the happy parties picnicking in the parklike grounds, I found a souless place - a grotesque theme park of modernist art. The only moment of ease, undestroyed by the Melbourne art machine, was the meandering bend of the Yarra River down in the wild native groves at the end of the property.

To me, the Heide empire is a travesty. It has lost its spirit, the sense of the human and creative vibrancy. It is now just a place.

And I have to wonder by what misguided agenda was Angry Penguins excluded from its history? It was so important at the time, so vital to the emergent arts and ideas. It was one of the significant ingredients of Heide and the birth of modernism in Australia.
They display Nolan's cover for famous Ern Malley edition of Angry Penguins in the gallery - but they do not mention its provenance. Its role with the most infamous journal in Australian history has been censored out. It is just a picture.
So, I suppose I could also say there is a streak of dishonesty in the place.

I will cherish my memories of Heide - but I shall never return.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

A Fox version of Jon Stewart?

"Fox News is always looking for new cutting-edge programming ideas," said Bill Shine, senior vice president, programming at Fox News.

How cutting-edge can they get? Fox is planning a copycat but right wing version of the Jon Stewart "Daily Show".
My jaw drops, so impressed am I with this wild and ground-breaking Foxian concept, not to mention an executive who is impressed by emulation.
Of course it has taken many years for Fox to come up with this idea. Stewart is now an American institution. But, hey, who's counting? The idea is new and now.
They are going to have anchors on a mock news show, just like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. And they will have on-the-street interviews. Er, like Jay Leno?
How many edges can these guys cut?
Clever little Republican possums that they are.

Of course, right wing satire has had a short and inglorious history.
The reason there are so few right wing humour shows is that the right simply is not funny and cannot be funny. Its idea of satire is attack. The right does not laugh. It hates.

So this program is doomed from the start.
The only funny thing about it is the idea that Fox thinks it can be funny.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

US cops a bad rap

More than half 20,011 internationals polled have claimed that America is the most inhospitable country when it comes to passing through immigration, says today's Reuter's report.
That's a pretty tough call - and not altogether fair, I think.
Immigration is a strict business all over the world. Try popping in to Indonesia or England. It is not a barrel of laughs anywhere.
The thing that is wrong with US immigrationn is the volume of people passing through - the terrible queues, often policed by officious martinets in uniforms who snap at the hapless, exhausted travellers telling them to get behind this line or this rope or, in some cases, telling them something completely incomprehensible but definitely not friendly - for it is possible to come across airport officials who don't seem to speak the language.
However, while the queues are hell, it has been my experience that the immigration officials themselves are simply professionals doing their job. The other view of those immense queues is from their side of the process - a stream of zombie-like faces and god knows what paperwork plus endless computer checking. What a wild diversity of people front up to them day in and day out. Talk about a stress job.
And, while I recall some ghastly waits in the queues of LA or San Francisco, I cannot cite a single official who has not been courteous in our encounters - most of them always bidding me a welcome to the US when they have finished processing me.
So I think this report is a nothing but a gratuitous bad rap.
What the hell do these complaining travellers expect? A bloody red carpet?

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Poor Albatross

Prince Charles was right.
The albatross is in trouble.
I saw my first one last week. Dead. Dragged in from the ocean by a fisherman and dumped on the boat ramp. Who knows why? To show us that albatross are dying out there?
This poor creature looked to be quite young.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Bush bodyblow

Body language speaks loudly - and for those of us not enamoured of George W. Bush, it was quite a treat to see his state of compromise so beautifully realised in his own body language when he met with new house leader Nancy Pelosi today.
Bush usually sits with his legs splayed - the classic position of animal dominance. Whether it is with his party faithful or with the Pope, it has been the same - Bush seen with legs spread, thus taking up maximum space, displaying masculinity and confidence.
Today? It was a different sight. Sitting beside Pelosi, Bush had retracted those knees. They were just slightly apart. As Pelosi began to speak, Bush's knees came together - and then, most atypically, he crossed his legs, the knee closest to Pelosi crossed away from her, his whole body thus contracting defensively.
An unconscious demonstration of submission.
It was a vision sweet.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Mid-term too close

And the world exhales.
It is a huge collective sigh of relief that George W. Bush has been de-powered.
Not he is out of the way. He has a new Defence Secretary, one of his dad's old team, a former head of the CIA which, of course, is highly salient to US defence and foreign policy. This man will husband the status quo and mentor the president, I daresay.

The mid-term elections have been described as a "landslide" but, as I see it, it is just a small earth movement in the grand scale of things. The polls were too close for my comfort. This shows that only some of that massive American population has clued up to the sinister nature of the neocon agenda. Too many stayed in the redneck comfort zone - still conditioned to the steady diet of propaganda which has been the major artform of the Bush administration.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Poor John Kerry

Poor John Kerry is his own worst enemy - in which capacity, he is not a bonus for the Democrats. That such a generally well-informed man with such seasoned political presence could make yet another ill-thought comment at a politically crucial time really makes him a liability - and, sadly, not presidential material.
I had high hopes for him at the last election when I actually had a chance to speak to him at one of those informal primaries. He had grabbed a plastic garden chair, stood perilously upon it, and given an erudite and inspirational speech which showed that here was a politician with a big picture of world and America's place in it. A global view - so rare among Americans. In a president, such a perspective could lift America from the reputational mire into which it has fallen internationally. As I have said before and often, it is hard to be pro-American in the big wide world these days. Love has been lost through the machinations of the Bush administration.

But the hope that was Kerry fell over in that presidential race - and one did not expect to see him rise again. One has to say these candidates have almost pachydermal thick skins. For here he is - looking younger and fitter than before, enhanced cosmetic adjustments to meet that market in which physical appearance is an obsessive priority. He has worked at being ready for the race. And there he is, up on the hustings...putting his bloody foot in his bloody mouth.

One should never snipe at those who are less educated - let alone that less education implies less intelligence. Some of the most brilliant people I know have had little in the way of formal education. How he came to make this a "send to Iraq" line is beyond me - and how he came to think it was a joke also baffles me.

Bottom line is that John Kerry has some wee short circuit in his mechanisms of diplomacy - and it can be dangerous. A president (discounting the present incumbent) must be about to think before he speaks - and to avoid the embarrassment or catastrophe of public gaffes.

Kerry has had his strikes and I think he is out.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Campaigns old and new

Wonderful news that New York City has come down hard on trans fats. And bravo to Denmark for its ban.
But the battle is immense to alert the world to this sinister ingredient. We have been eating it haplessly for years. Unsuspecting. Well, why should we? And, it is not as if the food and catering world was at fault. After all, it was we who wanted to stop eating animal fats as the cholesterol panics swept the world.
How were we to know that the healthy substitute was worse by far?
And what commercial kitchen would not prefer the partially hydrogenated vegetable oil which lasts so much longer, does not go rancid, enhances food flavours and improves shelf life? A wonder oil!
Ah, but as in so many cases, if only we had known.
Our young have been devouring trans fats in their muffins and cakes and cookies and fries for years now. It omens badly for them.
The cholesterol we were trying to lower by moving to vegetable oil has done the opposite. Our cholesterol would be healthier if we were cooking with lard, it turns out.
What a catastrophe.
But the world is slow to catch on.
I phoned a couple of major catering companies and asked their buyers if they were using trans fats. "What's that?" they said.
Oh dear.

How long will it take?

Meanwhile, as the governments of the big countries push global warming to the headlines, realising at last that the situation is urgent, urgent, urgent, I think it is time for some apologies to the environmentalists of yore - who have been on this bandwagon for decades.
These brave, outspoken and erudite people have been victims of a long-term smear campaign by the corporate interests of the right. They have been dismissed as "greenies" and "hippies" and "lefties"... But they have been right all along.
Even now they gain no credit for their work in trying to spread the word.
Fortunately, gaining credit was never their motive. It was always the planet. So, as one of them, I think I speak for many in saying one can only be glad that the world at last is taking notice, albeit rather late in the global day.
Now we just need to work together!

Monday, October 30, 2006

Chaplain scandal

What a sublime, or perhaps obscene, irony that Prime Minister John Howard has ordained chaplains for state public schools at the same time as the Church of England is selling off properties to pay for the psychological scarring its paedophile priests inflicted on the young. The Roman Catholic church also has been immersed in similar compensation requirements.
And yet ---
Howard has put up $90 million to put God-botherers into schools - $20,000 per school - asking state governments to match the funding.
Of course, Howard has said that the chaplains don't have to be religion-specific. But who ever heard of a Muslim chaplin, a Hindu chaplain, a Buddhist chaplain...? Indeed, a chaplain is:
1. A member of the clergy attached to a chapel.
a. A member of the clergy who conducts religious services for an institution, such as a prison or hospital.
b. A member of the clergy who is connected with a royal court or an aristocratic household.
3. A member of the clergy attached to a branch of the armed forces.

We had better now add to this definition "a member of the clergy embedded among the impressionable young" - and hope that yet more accusations of paedophilia do not follow.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Australia's Islam dilemma

It is impossible to stay silent on Islamic crisis in Australia for it seems that Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali has opened a chasm so vast that we may never find compatible co-habitation between Islam and the West. While Australians shudder in shock at his words about women being deemed responsible for attacks upon them, his likening of them to pieces of meat left out for the cat, the Islamic community seems to have rallied to his side. He was treated like a rock star when he turned up at the mosque yesterday. Cheers of support for his words.
And thus does the knife slice through the prospect of cultural harmony and understanding. And we Australians find ourselves facing the distressing fact that we have invited into our country a community which openly loathes us and feels justified in abusing our women.

Until now, I have supported our Islamic community. I have moderate Muslim friends I adore, I have tried to help the local Islamic school by contributing regularly to its library, and I have always tried to explain and defend Islam among my peers.
I have, however, been increasingly disappointed in moderate Muslims for not speaking out against extremists, in showing that all Islam is not narrow, judgemental and vengeful.

What I would like them to do is to initiate an education campaign. Just as we are expected to understand where Islam is coming from, they should be teaching their young (and their men) that we are not the same. That we have rules, too. And that our rules emphasise human equality and mutual respect. However little our women wear (and I, too, disdain the Paris Hilton tarty vogue) we function by a concept of mutual consent. More importantly, perhaps, our males are creatures of self-control. They can admire and even lust after women without feeling entitled to molest them. Our society punishes men who are lacking this control. We consider it animalistic and low. They are not respected. A man of control is a real man. Strong and powerful. Also attractive to women. That is how it works in the West.
Islam needs to understand this. It must be taught, preached in Mosques - if ever we are to live together.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Vegemite redux

Well, it seems the FDA is smoothing the inky waters of the Vegemite drama.
It says it has not issued an "import alert".
But I have checked its website again - and Vegemite remains there on the undesirables list.
This would seem to mean that customs officials have not been ordered to confiscate Vegemite but it is not an approved import.
So long as the customs officials lay off the happy little Vegemite Aussies, I suppose one does not care about the FDA's unwillingness to sanction our favourite spread since, realistically, there are not enough Aussies to merit stocking supermarkets with it. I'll be checking my specialist import store in Cambridge, Mass, though - since I have always felt comforted that there are such gourmet shops at which to restock (at significant expense) if one should ever run out.

Nonetheless, this national panic has been a good thing in its way, since, with the assorted passionate petitions it spurred, it has prompted a lot of people to write paeons of praise in honour of Vegemite. Love letters to a yeast paste! You can't beat it. Makes one proud to be an Aussie.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Vegemite crisis

Vegemite has been banned by the American Food and Drug Administration. It has become an illegal import into the US.

According to NewsLtd, customs are frisking Aussies for it on entering the country.

I know Americans don't like Vegemite, but this is absurd. Americans don't eat Vegemite. Aussies eat it. Aussies eat it all the time. Aussies travel with it.
But not to America.
America has deemed it an unsafe food.
How bloody unfriendly. How bloody rude. How bloody wrong.
America, that "Supersize me" dietitic model for the world, is telling us that Vegemite, the salty yeast extract spread with all the B vitamins, is not for American toast.
Well, fellow Aussies, the only upside of this appalling piece of news is that Vegemite is not for American toast. It tastes lousy in the US. Why? Because Americans put a lot of sugar in their commercial breads - and Vegemite is not complemented by sugar. Americans eat a lot of sugar in a lot of things. You'd be amazed what carries added sugar. That is why they don't like the salty savoury taste of Vegemite. They are sweet-tooths. They can't even eat peanut butter without adding jelly to it, for heaven's sake.

Not that I am anti-American. I love America and the Americans. But I am very angry with America for making such an offensive rule on something I, and my fellow countrymen, their bloody ally, hold rather dear.

Ironically, Vegemite is now American-owned. Kraft. And the Kraft spokesperson seems disinclined to go into bat for Vegemite since it has an insignificant market in the US. And, if one reads the FDA website, one will discover that Kraft also seems to be disinclined to provide information the FDA seems to want from it in order to give Vegemite the OK.

This is seriously distressing and insulting to Australia and Australians. And baffling.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Wine in line

The wine industry is in revolt at UK suggestion that wine bottles follow the tobacco example and carry health warnings.
They say that if wine carries warnings, so should Coke and crisps.
Ah, yes. We can't trust any consumer to have the intelligence to know what is potentially harmful. Nanny has arrived to warn us all.
Sweets and cakes need labelling, too. Oooh, very nasty when taken in excess. Let her not forget to put labels on carrots. Overindulgence in carrots can be very dangerous.

Of course, raw or undercooked chicken really is very dangerous.
This knowledge has just led me to the most disasterous dinner out.
It was a Korean BBQ restaurant - with flame grillers on each table. The meats come raw and one cooks them oneself to eat with rice and delicious little salads. Very healthy.
I ordered chicken - and immediately realised I would need to be careful, ensuring each piece was thoroughly cooked. I started well with the little skewer intended for the putting and turning of the meat. But once busy eating my well-cooked chicken and supervising the next lot, I found myself turning the raw chicken with my chopsticks. Oops. Bad idea. Now I had raw chicken juice on wooden eating implements. If I tried to sterilise them they would catch fire. I put the chopsticks aside and took a fork for eating and resumed using the skewer for raw meat. Then, engaged in eating and conversation, I realised that I had started using the fork for the raw meat. Damn. But at least a fork could go over the flames and be sterilised. So I seared the fork, wiped it on my nakpkin and then, in a fit of unbelievable stupidity, continued to eat. Result: tong burns on my lip. Dessert was a glass of ice garnished with embarrassment.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Tale of a little sea lion

There it was as the tide receded, sitting in the rocky shallows, doing the what sea lions do - basking. He was just a pup.

But what an odd place to find him.
I've seen seals doing the barrel roll swim past when the tide is high along the shoreline of Encounter Bay. But this was the first Australian sea lion I'd seen. Not that they are rare in the area. They have colonies on three of the local islands. It was a little pup astray, a tired little pup.

I went down onto the reef and, keeping a 4-5 metre distance, I took some photos.
Back at the house, I kept an eye on him through the big telescope, watching him roll in the water was the tide come in, then clamber up on the reedy sand islands to bask some more. It is a fantastic telescope. I could just about count his whiskers.

As the morning wore on, walkers started to spot him. It is school holidays and the beach is quite busy - for the old reef shore that it is. It is a walking beach, not for swimmers, so it does not attract surfers and swimmers with their sun-worshipping coteries. Nonetheless, there are holidaymakers, among them packs of young people. And suddenly a group of bourgeois teen boys had spotted the pup, had rolled up their jeans and were picking their way out for, not just a good look, but a thorough poke and provoke. The young sea lion didn't like it and lunged at them, jaws open for a bite. The boys stepped back, but did not leave. They were on their mobile phones, presumably calling their friends. And friends started arriving, along with various other walkers, attracted by the growing crowd around the pup. I got my phone, too. I rang the Environment Department ranger who, fortunately, was near at hand. His arrival brought the crowd off the reef. He inspected the pup and left.

The pup was in peace, but not for long. More people "discovered" him and picked their way out onto the reef to get a close look. Close is the operative word.
People are astonishingly stupid about wildlife. It is one thing to enjoy the treat of a young sea lion basking in proximity but quite another to harass it, to poke or splash it to see a reaction. Why do people have to make things move?

Then the teen boys were back, sucking on cartons of iced coffee, standing right beside the pup in touching range. This was too much for me. I had to hurtle down to the shoreline and tell them to leave the thing alone. I felt like the mad old harridan that I, clearly, am. Fortunately, a council inspector had arrived and was assessing the situation. He went back to report to the council and the Environment blokes. I went back to the house - to watch the assorted reactions of the beach walkers to the sight of the sea lion.

Poor little chap had moved in closer, making himself yet more accessible. The worst sight I witnessed was a dad, towing his large family out to see the sea lion and then being the big brave dad, prodding it to show the kids how it could move. The pup lunged at him. I wished he had made contact.

Later, another family grouped around the creature to take photos of themselves with it. The small children started ripping up sea beads from the reef to throw at the pup. The parents did not reprove them.

There were a few good souls who inspected the pup from a respectful distance and did not try to disturb him. Not everyone is dead stupid. But too many are.
On one occasion, with about 15 people out on the reef looking at the pup, the ranger returned and I saw him sprint down the beach to tell them to keep their distance.
It was a frustrating day.

By afternoon, the pup was lying flat out and not looking too happy, or so one assumed. He had his flippers crossed over his abdomen, like a corpse, except that he was methodically rubbing his tummy with them. I wondered if he was ill.

When the ranger returned again, I went down to ask his opinion. He said he was worried the pup had been rejected by the colony. "It is that time of year," he said, sadly. "The bull sea lions are brutal with the pups and the other mothers with young are very territorial. This pup is probably recently weaned and not skilled at hunting Or he could be sick. There are a number of illnesses they suffer, including tuberculosis."
The ranger was keeping a close eye. He was worried. He already had one dead pup this season and suspected this may end up being another - to go to the museum for an autopsy.

"Some people want us to take them out and give them antibiotics, get them well and return them to the wild," he said. "The RSPCA is the only place that can do this - and we are worried about introducing antibiotics to the wild food chain. If the treated seal is eated by a shark, for instance..." I got the point. One must let nature take its course. Only the fittest survive in the wild. This could be a runty babe.

Then again, sea lions do a lot of lolling about. This also is natural behaviour in the wild.
The ranger said he would be back at first light either to remove a body or to make a decision about moving the pup to a safer place.
I went to bed worrying about the little creature out there on the reef, fearing that maybe he would die in the night.

But when the ranger came in the morning, the pup was gone.
He had returned to the sea. We think his mother came and got him. And, oh, what stories of horrible humans he had to tell her.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Old media versus the new

The delicious switcheroo has come about. I wondered how long it would be before the mainstream media stopped sneering at the contents and activities of the Internet, reporting only the standard campaign negatives of Internet scams and sins.
It has been slow. Media has seen the Internet as a threat to its secure and traditional domination of information and comment - which, indeed, is not wrong.
It has been mystified and frustrated by the difficulty of making quick profits.
It has hired rapacious dotcom coyboys as consultants and tried myriad ventures - which just didn't turn that mighty buck. And it has watched the rising empires of the online population - the free sharing of information, the dazzle of human communications, the rise and rise of individual self expression and the challenge of the new and often expert commentary in the blogsphere.
Rupert Murdoch, used to owning so much of the media, has made assorted unsuccessful forays - most recently in buying the hideous MySpace which seems to have captured a mindless mass of youth. Now we read reports of its rising dollar value as a malleable marketplace. Even the American right and the military are moving in on that territory to push their perspectives into the cracks between the babbling teen titilations. One way or another, there must be a way for the mainstream to dominate the Internet. Or so they and their teams of overpaid consultants all hope.
Meanwhile, they have, at last, started using the Internet as a resource and recognising that it IS news. In fact, they can pad out their services by reporting on what is happening online.
At first it was just columnists plagiarising the email funnies, some of which were terribly old by the time the columnists got to see them. How were these mainstream denizens to know that the Internet had been a happening thing for a decade before they even logged on? They had had their backs firmly turned on the phenomenon.
But now email is ubiquitous - a must-have. Now the world is broadband, cable, wireless...
And it grows exponentially in the sophistication of its content. So the old media now looks to the new media and cannibalises it for its own content.
Which is why we turn on the television and see, several days or weeks after we have been sent it online, the latest brilliant YouTube video or EBay oddity. We now read about bloggers and even quote them.
Ah, yes, if you can't beat it content, make it news.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Get your hands off our water

Beware Australia.
The Business Council has discovered that profits could be made from water. It wants to get its hands on water and make it a commodity - something it can trade. It has appointed a slick, softly-spoken woman to puts its case to the media, with an unctuous superiority which asserts that we, the people, don't really understand the issue the way these business people do. Business could do a lot of good for water supply, they say - if it was allowed to attract investment. It could look at all sorts of "options", it could review "pricing frameworks", it could put summer water restrictions behind us. It is just a matter of people paying the right amount for its water use. If we pay, there is plenty of water and we can use all we like. Well, business people, there is not enough water and you know that damned well. Your long shot here is that very issue. Once you have your corporate hand on water, you can "discover" the shortages and jack up the costs - ever considering the profitable return on investment that your shareholders will demand. But, of course, anything they do will be better than allowing goverments to have control of this important resource, the Business Council purrs. Governments are monopolies, after all. Water management under compeitition, "dis-agregated", would be much better. Or so they claim - so knowingly and so charmingly. This is a massive and dangerous con job by the corporate sector.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Good onya, Steve

Bloody hell. Who would have thought one would be so touched to the Aussie core by Steve Irwin's funeral? Was there ever a more spectacular production, a media event on the grand scale? No wonder the family rejected the pompous old State Funeral on offer. They knew how to do it - on the stellar MGM scale. A la Steve Irwin.
The problem is, of course, that it still cannot sink in that this indomitable character is dead. His effervescence overwhelms. He was a one-off.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Nasty Nanny

The anti-smoking message in Australia has been to deface cigarette packets with the most gruesome and offensive images of diseased lungs, arteries, feet and mouths. They are images so grotesque that smokers cannot bear to look upon them - which is why everyone has returned to the gracious old custom of storing their cigarettes in silver or gold cigarette cases. Suddenly, thanks to the overkill of the health messages, smoking has become rather classy - and someone has become extremely rich on the revival of cigarette cases.
The television advertisments which reiterate the imagery are harder to avoid and it is not only the smokers who are assaulted by them. No one dares eat in front of the television any more in case they have their stomachs turned by this aggressive shock campaign.
I pondered, when they introduced this disgusting health nannying imagery, if there was not cause for the same sort of treatment of alcohol. After all, smokers only harm themselves. Drinkers are responsible for road accidents, domestic violence, general brawling and vandalism and, of course, the damage to their livers potentially caused by overindulgence.
Well, I need wonder no longer. The Salvation Army has begun the push and now the media is leaping about in excitement. Alcohol bottles require anti-cancer warnings, just like cigarettes!
Of course, there is a powerful wine industry here in Australia and it is not going to like this - defacing the bottles with photographs of diseased livers and upstaging the label designs for which they pay top desigers a fortune. Of course drinkers are not going to want to look at filthy, cancerous livers as they sit down to quaff a $30 bottle of lovingly-made fine shiraz. What a turnoff! Photos of sick livers on the dining table in front of them as haut cuisine is served? I don't think so.
Just watch as a new market emerges - providing handsome bottle sheaths, the drinker's equivalent of the gold cigarette case. Come to think of it, I could get in on the ground floor of this one.

There is certainly more cause to deter drinkers from getting sloshed and sleazy than there is to stop smokers puffing, for the aforementioned societal reasons. But this movement of putting offensive graphic material in front of everyone is simply appalling. Distasteful rather than deterrent. It is a grotesque overkill by a self-righteous nanny culture gone mad with power.

Friday, September 15, 2006

The old and English

To take Australian citizenship, foreigners will have to pass a test in English - or, so the Government proposes. The Government wants the people to be able to communicate and fit in - so they have three years from arrival in the country to get the language under their belts. That is, if they want to become citizens.

Skilled migrants are tested on English to get their visa. Refugees are not. Of course. Nor are family reunion or family members of a skilled migrant to speak English. There are a lot of grannies in this lot - not all with the advantage of an education, so the idea of forcing them to learn the language would be unkind. We have a very old Chinese grandma living a couple of doors away. She still speaks not a word of English, but she smiles a lot and chugs about the district with her wheeled shopping trolley, picking out the things she needs and then offering the shopkeepers her purse to take what they are due. Everyone loves her and forgives her lack of language. After all, her job here is to look after the younger generation, fluent English-speaking students who will be keeping the country ticking over in a few years, be they scientists or techies.

The old granny darlings will never cope with language testing - so will never gain the citizenship which would give them certain rights - voting and pensions. However, so long as they are Asian or European, their families will take care of their aged needs - which is more than one can say of most Australians.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Sweet spring

Spring is in the air. Boronia is in the flower stands.
Beautiful boronia. Well, it is, oddly, one of the least beautiful of flowers - little brown cups with yellow interiors, as it is grown hereabouts. But the fragrance, oh the fragrance!
The scent of boronia is in the city, that perfect scent of spring. It wafts from the flower stands and perfumes the streets and malls, drawing one to the buckets of brown and green. I love it with a passion - so much so that it is the perfume oil essence that I wear on my body every single day.
Perchance my attachment to this fragrance comes from the childhood memories of this seasonal scent - to the rapture which wafts through the city and heralds spring. I've never analysed it - just loved it.
I've tried and tried to grow boronia which grows quite happily in the wild. To no long-term succcess. I've done better with gardenias, and that is not saying much. Boronia seems such a hardy little West Australian native, but it seems very fussy about its soil. So I gave up and let the native flower farms do the work, patiently waiting for this time each year when, for a brief time, we have this aromatic bliss.
And there it sits, a big bunch here in my room - and oh, doesn't the air smell sumptuously divine.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Obesity's new epidemic

The obesity issue rises stridently into international headlines. There are now more overfed people than undernourished. So the powers that be want to tell fat people what not to eat. They want to swamp the media with anti fat food advertising on the assumption that obese people are plain stupid.
How are we going to put up with it? Advertising to counteract advertising?
This is all knee jerk stuff. Research on the obesity phenomenon is emerging with all sorts of answers - not all of them pointed at McDonalds and Coca Cola. One theory points to a virus. There may be other theories linked to food additives and chemicals. Research is scant.

Of course the comfort food/fast food indulgence definitely plays a role in weight gain, as does just eating too much. Sugar drinks are major culprits, and they are not just Coke. Orange juice and milk coffee drinks are right in there.
Indolence is a key player in the weight stakes, too. But we all know all of this. Obese people know this.

So what is a new advertising campaign going to achieve?
It is going to alienate us all. It is going insult us and irritate us. It is going to compound the existing overload of intrusive marketing messages delivered by a rapaciously greedy consumer industry. The advertising world will get fatter on the anti-fat message while our brains shrivel under the repetitive barrage of it all.

If anything is an unhealthy epidemic, it is advertising.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Goodbye Steve Irwin

Vale Steve Irwin.
As he lived, so did he die - taking risks with dangerous animals.
A stingray barb in the chest is about as rare and exotic as a dangerouos animal death may be. Stingray barbs in the foot or ankle are not uncommon. But on the chest? We are assuming Irwin was swimming low over the stingray, as they filmed their documentary about dangerous seacreatures, and that the stingray became alarmed and defensive. One imagines the death of Steve Irwin was captured on film, as were the many near-misses of a danger-dotted career.

What is interesting is the effect Irwin's sudden death had in this busy metropolitan newsroom. Nobody had ever bothered to express much of an opinion on Steve Irwin in the daily joust of the work environment. But news of his death sped across the floor producing a current of jaw drops and gasps. When the first report emerged on the television news monitors, people stood at their desks, straining to hear further details. There were none - just the same wire story, embellished with old footage of Irwin among animals. There is no shortage of images of Steve Irwin dicing with danger amid snakes and crocs.
And it seems that we are bonded in sorrow about this 44-year-old enthusiast who, albiet once causing kerfuffle by waving his baby near a croc, had carved a niche as a good-natured, high-spirited Aussie. He was a real life Crocodile Dundee - not an actor. His life was unscripted and his antics ever more dangerous. So there will be no re-take of the stingray scene. It is the final reality - that dangerous animals are really dangerous.

The world's most colourful conservationist is gone - by the world's most extreme and extraordinary freak incident, stabbed in the heart by a stingray. He may be the only person ever to have died that way.

And we are all very sad.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Euthanasia Kanckered

The Euthanasia debate has lurched backwards thanks to the misguided efforts of Democrat politician Sandra Kanck. She's an odd bird, Kanck - a Christian of sorts, I believe, with a musical bent. Over the years, I've had cause to love or loathe her, depending on the issue she is embracing. Her stance on euthanasia leaves me fiercely ambivalent. She has chosen to state under Parliamentary privilege the assorted accessible ways in which a dying person may take his or her own life. By law, that which is spoken in Parliament is transcribed and archived for ever in the pages of Hansard - pages which, nowadays, are available to read online. This means that the methods of suicide which are forbidden to be published in the public arena now are there. And, of course, furore has erupted. Rightly so. Kanck has done this to make a brave protest in the cause of euthanasia - but she has done inordinate damage because she has exacerbated the blur between euthanasia and suicide. Now everyone is talking suicide in various forms of strident indignation and the issue of euthanasia has been obscured.

The important thing has always been to make a clear distinction. "Assissted suicide" in the form of euthanasia of those in a terminal state of intolerable suffering is not the same as the suicide committed by the otherwise healthy depressed, disappointed or spiteful.

And it is not "mercy killing" although, good grief, mercy plays a large role in asssissting the suffering. But "mercy killing" has come to mean knocking granny off if she is too old or dependent or turning off the life support. And euthanasia is nothing to do with others making decisions on granny's behalf. Euthanasia has to be a self-made decision acknowledged in its legitimacy by the medical profession. It is between the dying and the doctor - or it should be. But the doctor is forbidden to take any action. Which is were the whole issue becomes so dreadfully messy, becomes an emotive public debate in which suicide gets mixed up with euthanasia.

And, rather like George Bush telling critics of his administration that they are unpatriotic and on the side of terrorists, the anti-euthanasia arguers are telling the pro-euthanasia lobby that it is pro-suicide.

For once and for all, supporting the compassionate measure of allowing those who are dying in pain and loss of dignity to make a graceful exit of their own choosing is absolutely not comparable to condoning lovelorn teens or bankrupt businessmen in cutting off their lives before their time. These are different issues.

Unfortunately, Sandra Kanck, in revealing the not very secret methods by which people may leave this world by their own hand, has thrown the baby of euthanasia out with the bathwater of suicide. And it is all a bloody mess.
Silly woman.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The patient traveller

Travel merits dread. It is not as bad as one anticipates. It is worse.
As if the dramas of security delays are not bad enough, the economic woes of the airlines would seem to have them all in a state of staff shortage. The result is, of course, longer and longer queues.
Let's face it. The reason people have to go to airports hours and hours early is not for the security scrutiny queues, albeit that they are long. It is to queue for checkin.
I stood for an hour with my luggage at Logan in Boston, inching forward in a condensed snake queue of hapless fellow travellers.
At first it seemed as though there were four people operating the check-in desks, then three, then two, then one... And the queue stood frozen, passing time gazing, chatting, soothing children, waiting... Then there were three check-in desks working again - from a line-up of 12, mind you. Most of the desks were unattended. And, from time to time, the clerks would just vanish from the existing posts leaving us all wondering where they had gone and why, since it was clear that there were a lot of people waiting.
From time to time, someone would patrol the queue calling out for people who were at risk of missing their planes because they were still waiting in the queue. These people would be taken to the front and put in a special priority queue. The rest of us just had to wait a bit longer. After all, we acted upon the advice of the airport system and arrived with the hours to spend waiting in the queue. We could afford to be kept waiting. The people suddenly taken to the front and causing us to have to wait even longer were the people who had not given themselves the time to wait in the queues. They were, in other words, the late-comers. Late-comers are given priority over those who have been early or have responded to the requests of the airport authorities. In other words, if you want the special VIP treatment, be late.
You will be put at the front of the queue. You will be saved the back-aching stand in line.
What is wrong with this picture?

I am a punctual person, daughter of a punctual person, trained to punctuality. I like punctual people. If everyone was punctual, the world would tick along quite efficiently.
I understand that things can go wrong and even the most punctual people can be thrown out of whack by an unexpected - breakdowns, accidents... I am eminently sympathetic towards such crises because I can feel their stress. Punctual people get veery stressed if they cannot be punctual.

But there is another world of people who just don't get the punctual thing. They march to the beat of their own drum - and to hell with the rest of us. They arrive late at theatres and cinemas. Worst of all, they arrive late to dinners - leaving hosts in a spin and food losing its zest. Latecomers insult and inconvenience others. They are just rude.
So there we were, standing in the snake cordon at check-in, silently seething as we watched the latecomers, Latinos on a flight to Miami, being rushed to the front. I am sure I was not the only one thinking that perhaps they should be allowed to miss their planes to teach them a lesson about punctuality.

The airline staff are exquisitely trained. I have never had an unpleasant experience with a single one of them. If they are harried and overworked, they mask it well. They are charm and helpfulness - when, at last, one comes to interact with them. But, one learns later to one's cost and disappointment, they lie. They would seem to have been trained to lie as a customer-soothing strategy. For instance, they may tell one they are giving one a terrific seat allocation. I have even been told, when there has been some sort of cock-up, that I have been upgraded - only to discover, when boarding the plane, that it was not an upgrade at all. Just as the promise of a vacant seat beside on the Qantas flight home mine proved hollow. I asked the man sitting in the supposedly vacant seat how long ago he had booked said seat, thinking that perhaps he had been a last-minute booking or on standby. Oh no, he had booked a month ago, he said. The empty seat had been booked for a month! Why did the check-in woman choose to tell me it was empty? I had not asked. In fact, there were no empty seats at all on that plane. It was a crammed cattle crate of humanity.

Security queues also are long and tense - manned by officers who keep a stern facade. It's a bizarre sort of factory line - the steadily moving people and the loaded conveyers, the scrutineers watching their screens like fierce quality control operators. Officers are calling out instructions - "all shoes must be removed". The queues seem resigned to their ordeal as they shuffle slowly forwards. But when it comes to their turn, people seem to dissolve into a frantic dance of urgency, pushing impatiently to grab trays and squeeze in to make a place at the unpacking bench. And off comes the jacket, the belt, the shoes. Pockets are emptied. One unloads the laptop and sends it rolling along with case and handbag before stepping through the metal detectors under the eagle eye of ranks of uniformed security guards and then stands, waiting, at the other end, braced for quick response to gather one's possessions and be out of the way without holding up the production line..

Once reassembled, the waiting begins again since, inevitably, one is early for the boarding time. It is time for finding the quietest spot one can, for people watching, reading, killing time as engines roar outside and muzzled announcements crackle out of the tannoys. Every ten minutes or so at Boston, the warnings against taking fluids on the planes were reiterated - listings of lip gel, lipstick, hair gel, toothpaste, hairspray, skin lotion, bottled water, coffee... And there were more queues, people lining up at departure gates, all in some pointless hurry to get on their planes before the next person.

Mine was a fairly uneventful flight to LAX, unpleasant in being sardined between a Dylan-like musician who pulled down the window blind and went to sleep and, on the aisle, a stodgy businessman who drank four whiskeys in a row and went to sleep with his elbow intruding into my space. I was in enforced physical contact with that man throughout the six-hour flight, although not a single word was exchanged.

LAX is always hell. Asking directions to the Tom Bradley International terminal, I was directed out of Domestic and into the street. Not where I wanted to be, since there is an internal passage which saves one from further security screening. But, once out of doors, I took the chance for a cigarette before entering the queue hell of that vast. cavernous terminal. I headed straight for security - only to be turned away. My boarding pass was unacceptable, said the officer. Qantas now rejects boarding passes issued by its airline partners. I would have to join a Qantas queue and have my American Airlines Qantas boarding pass replaced by a Qantas Qantas boarding pass. So I join yet another queue and wait and wait - watching the mysterious comings and goings of the desk clerks. Twentyfive minutes later, I have new boarding passes and can join the security queue. It is huge. But I have time. And I am in the existential mindset - there-is-no-other-reality.

Funnily enough, there are few franchises after one has passed security - limited choices for refreshments. I bought a bad fruit salad, found a deserted departure lounge and sat down with my book as hyped-up kids shrieked and hurtled around the place. The time will pass, I told myself - and, of course, it did. Slowly. But the loaded plane departed late - and lost more time on the Pacific crossing. Packed in like sardines, it was an uncomfortable flight and I envied the sleepers. Despite a valium and a glass of red wine, I managed a scant 45 minutes. I was devastated. Cabin service was cheerful but slow. They handed out dinner menus but had run out of menu choices before they were a third the way down the economy section. The meal was just food - not tasty at all. And it featured a butter bean salad and further black beans in a hot vegetable medley. All those beans for all those people packed hip-to-hip in a metal tube? What sadist designed this fart city menu? My stomach was soon popping and seething with wind - which added very effectively to the general discomfort.

As did the lateness of the plane. Departing late and flying into headwinds, the 15 hours was going to be 16 - and it was clear that connections would not be made. I called the "cabin manager" and asked if he could radio through to re-jig the Adelaide connection for me. He made an inordinate fuss of me thereafter, popping back and forth to give me updates on "company response" - which was, of course, that I would be put on the first available flight. In fact, after hauling my luggage through the massive customs queue, then through the airport and joining yet another snake of a queue, I was put on the last available flight. Perversely, the 30 other Adelaide-bound passengers were given the two earlier flights. I guess I was being put in my place for asking. A Qantas gift of more time-killing at an airport - zombie-like exhausted and demoralised time-killing.

But at least the trip eventually ended, 30 hours after it had begun.
It is now a matter of recovering the strength and the spirit, overcoming the jetlag (I write this at 4am) and wondering why I have this feeling that Qantas hates me.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

LaPaglia - a celebrity riff

Anthony LaPaglia calls his hometown, Adelaide, "like a little Bronx, but with Australian accents".
I don't think anyone has ever described the city thus - or even thought of it. Certainly Adelaide has a strong and well-entrenched Italian community which, from the migration heyday of the 50s, has added substantially to the city's soul, as well as to its cuisine.
And isn't that laudable actor, LaPaglia, an export of whom we can be proud! Unlike Mel Gibson who we now prefer to see as "American-born" and not Australian, despite his Aussie upbringing and NIDA training. As a regligious extremist, Gibson is now an embarrassment. He and that moronic Tom Cruise are the disgraces of Hollywood - ill-informed loudmouths who gain a global platform for their dangerous and warped views because of their wealth and stardom.

I have always been of the opinion that actors are actors. They act because they have more substance as other people than as themselves. Their skill is in expressing what other people have thought and written. When interviewing actors, it is often necessary to "feed" them worthwhile things to say, since most actors are not profoundly well-informed outside of their metier. Yet the the media insists on trying to pump newsworthy things from their mouths - because their popularity attracts reader interest. Making them inherently interesting is another matter.

This is where gossip has become an industry.
It breaks my heart to see the massive output and the lucrative turnover which assuages the apppetite of this market. The vapid for the vacuous.
Are the starlets too fat or too thin? Do we like their taste in clothes? Do we like the company they keep? We care. We care!

This obsession with the minutiae of celebrity has spawned a new population of paparazzi - desperate freelance photographers everyone loves to hate. Theirs is a perilous existence in a shallow and fickle world. I know the adrenalin which drives their chase. Poor bastards.

Paparazzi are not a new phenomenon. Back in 1970 I chummed up with a Rome-based gossip-chaser whose primary purpose was to come up with the goods on Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. Those were still the days when movie stars were stars.

Now the star system has been replaced by the celebrity circuit. Talent is not in the formula. One only has to look at the absurd phenomenon of Paris Hilton or hear the grotesque vocal contortions of Jessica Simpson to have this rammed home. And who among us does not know who those dreary glamour girls are? We can't name Grigori Perelman, the Russian mathematician who has just contributed the most important piece of abstract thought since Einstein, but we can quote the trite comments of Paris Hilton who has just told us that she can't believe how good she is.

One wonders if people will tire of the celebrity saturation. Will they wise up? Will they get interested in people or issues of more substance? Or will the cynical media moguls just go on manufacturing new celebrities to sustain the vast profits generated by tinymind turnover?

We know the answer.
Oh, well, I am still proud of Anthony LaPaglia. A fine actor, a great Australian and a proper, old-fashioned movie star.

Travel blues

The melancholy of last days. With such inexorable swiftness they melt one into another until one is there at the Valium gates of departure. Another finality in this finite mass of finites.
But another beginning awaits - or, at least, a resumption. I do not dread returning to my desk at the paper. Indeed, I look forward to seeing my colleagues and to the surprise of the next assignment.
It is just that, from this vantage point, it has no reality. It is so impossibly far away - and the path is tortuous and torturous. It is to be adrift in that somewhere nowhere which will never end - the pergatory of security queues, waiting bays, transit lounges, departure boards, vast walkways, harried air crews, tiny seats in those big metal cylinders which roar and lurch and surround one with vile, viremic air. My fear of flying has not abated with experience. I think fear of flying is just plain commonsense. I have loads of commonsense. Thus, I am ever terrified of flying. And once on the vast journey, there is no other reality. There is no existence outside the airports and planes. It is an enclosed, eternal world. It is hell.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Toothache terrorist

Pity those of us scheduled to take long-haul flights in this new era of carry-on carry-on. When faced with 28 hours of travel between the east coast of the US and South Australia, one tends to like to be prepared for problems, not to mention being able to freshen-up along the way. The prohibition on deodorants and toothpaste in cabin baggage has been glorious fuel for the comedians - the birth of stinky passenger syndrome. But it has prospective passengers very apprehensive. Hell, one doesn't want to be one of the stinky passengers! Tourist class in jumbo jets gets fetid enough with fragrant passengers. How ugh is it going to get?
Oh, boy, is this restriction a win for terrorists! It is another erosion, a quiet humiliation of the Western capitalist travellers.

I don't go down to the corner deli without my tiny bottle of perfumed oil. It is always tucked in pocket of my handbag. I'll have to do without it in the impending trip to Oz. Oh, well. I always have my pack of moist towelettes.

The other thing I like always to keep on my person is a tube of dental antiseptic gel. I am a poor old thing with a long history of gum disease and, hence, a tendency towards sudden flareups when under stress. Toothache and abcesses. I hold this in check this with fastidious dental hygiene and the use of peroxide mouth washes. At the first sign of trouble, I apply Colgate Peroxyl - the best of all effective treatments. And I always carry a tube of said peroxide gel, just in case. Insurance, if you like.

Now what was it the terrorists were planning to use in their thwarted scheme to blow up planes? Peroxide!
Suddenly I am a person carrying terrorist weaponry!
A toothache terrorist?
It's almost funny.

What is funny is that, according to the Homeland Security list of can and cannot carry items, while I will have to live without my Peroxyl gel, it seems that I am still allowed to carry long, sharp knitting needles!

Friday, August 11, 2006

Terrorism lessons from NBC

American news services are not particularly good. They are constant - but they are not comprehensive. Rather, they are delivered with a rapid-fire, breathless urgency by which they assume a gravitas, a sense of importance, is imparted. This delivery is meant to obscure the fact that the stories are short on detail or explanation. They are essentially grabs. Everything is grabs. Teasers followed by grabs.

Tonight, however, NBC actually decided to expand its coverage of the foiling of the London terrorists by delivering a blueprint of what they intended to do. Yes, the newscasters who give habitually truncated reportage of world news, suddenly have gone thorough. Too thorough. From the sublime to the ridiculous. They have gone to the trouble of preparing detailed graphics and computer renderings so they can show exactly how the terrorists would have exploded planes over major cities. They showed the ingredients. The common household ingredients! They showed the tools. They showed how mixes would be made and of what and where. And where the terrorists would sit and connect with each other. It was a copybook "how to".

Well, aren't they smartypants exploitationist showoffs "in the public interest"?
And aren't they complete morons!

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Oh, no.

Fear of flying rises to new heights.
I am a cot case before the most routine air travel and more important than packing when getting to and from the USA is taking Valium to dull the anxiety. I need Valium to pack, since packing means departure and that means takeoff and landing.
Now, thanks to the brutal-mindedness of terrorists, I crave Valium at the very thought of my impending travel.
I had been warned by an on-the-ball blogger that rumour was out and about that there would be some appalling terrorist action coming up towards the fifth anniversary of 9/11. My source was right on the money.

This morning I woke to the barrage of reportage, views of Heathrow jammed with displaced passengers, terror alerts on the highest, airports in bedlam across the world as air schedules descended into chaos and new restrictions were asserted - all fluids banned and in the UK, all handluggage including computers and handbags. Passengers only permitted to carry boarding passes! The idea of my computer being thrown around as freight simply terrifies me. I can't bear for it to be out of my sight at the best of times.

One can only hope that Britain's crackdown has disabled this large, sophisticated terrorist cell. But Britain is unsure. So we all quake.
And we wish it was otherwise, we people of love and trust and peace. We wish there was not all this hatred and spite. We wish there were no extremists. We wish the political world were more agreeable. We wish that America was not so hated. We note that America was not so hated before George Bush took power. Had there been a Democrat government in the USA right now, would this world situation be so grotesque? One thinks not.
But what is, is.
And we must live in fear.

A Connecticut travelogue

Mystic is one of New England's charming coastal towns - which gained international attention when it became the site of the film "Mystic Pizza", the film which rocketed Julia Roberts into stardom. And, yes, the pizza parlour is still there at the top of the quaint little main street.
We had loved visiting Mystic and the utterly charming nearby fishing port of Stonington some seven years ago and felt in the mood to pay them a return visit - particularly to eat at a certain waterside restaurant where we had been served one of the most memorable meals of our lives.
So, on Friday afternoon, we headed south across Massachusetts to Connecticut and the coast. It was a particularly aesthetic drive, once we left the main highways. We meandered through the undulating rural landscape along leafy, winding roads. Signposts occasionally announced towns but nothing much materialised except a few clapboard houses on large lots and yet more farms with lovely old barns. Immense vistas of corn, tall, ripe, healthy corn, corn "as high as an elephant's eye", stretched back from the roadsides. Lush and verdant country, indeed.

Things were decidedly weird when we arrived in Mystic. There were traffic jams all over the place and, at the town bridge, which opens on the half hour to allow seacraft up the estuary, there was a serious and static backup. We swung out of it, looped around some rather pleasant residential backstreets and stopped at a donut place from which we could observe the traffic while indulging in coffee and a donut. This was when I got the first clue as to what was wrong. A chubby woman in a sunfrock came in to buy a box of donut holes and commented that it was good to see the power back on, although it was still off where she lived.
It must have been the severe summer storms which had savaged New England, we surmised. Correctly. Lightning and falling trees had caused havoc and local businesses had been brought to a halt, some of them for 24 hours.
We repaired to our accommodation, Mystic's Best Western, to find it oddly deserted. In the dark foyer, a frazzled receptionist was busily sending all the guests elsewhere. "We've had no power since yesterday and don't know when it will be back on," she explained. "They have rooms up the road at Day's Inn." Not for long. We got one of the last - but it was quite acceptable since it was a smoking room with two double beds. And, delight of delights, complimentary wireless Internet access.

After an hour or so resting, reading and catching up online, we headed for Mystic town again - for a pleasant walk before dinner. Very pleasant indeed. The little town was massed with weekend tourists. They seemed to be affluent New Englander types - sporty, tanned, well-groomed people in pristine shorts and snappy sandals. Crocs, the colourful, light, plastic sandal of the moment, were much in evidence.
Mystic is not a shopping town. It has just one, narrow main street with quaint little giftie stores and, seemingly, lots of icecream parlours. We melded into the ambling throng, pausing to gaze at people being wined and dined on a moored launch at the dock and to watch the bridge raise and lower for yachts and excursion boats.

I had called the restaurant from Nashua, asking to be put on the priority seating list. Table reservations are not common in the States. People tend to arrive and be queued in order waiting for tables to become free. Priority seating requests lifts one's status in the queue and one is seated before the "walk-ins" - of which there were masses at the lovely S&P Oyster Company restaurant. We were allocated a patio table at 7.30, our chosen time. Surrounded by pots of vivid flowers, we could still watch the bridge and the passing vessels. As the sky softened into delicate sunset hues, I sipped on a frozen mango vodka, Bruce a Bourbon, and we purred at the pleasure of the moment, the divine decadence in a divine place. For starters we had ordered fried calamari and onions with an aioli sauce.

It was baby squid, unspeakably delicate and delicious. We also shared a tangy salad loaded with fresh orange portions. As the lights came on over the water, our mains arrived - hearty bouillabaisse garnished with lobster claws for Bruce and a spread of Alaskan crab legs with dipping butter for me. Oh, my. Ambrosial is the only word for that crab, which came with an odd tool I had never seen before, designed to pierce and then saw neatly through the long length of shell to get at the sweet flesh within.

We were too sated for S&R's rich desserts, but followed our waitress's suggestion to seek an icecream on the main street. I was glad since, amid the zillion options at our chosen icecream parlour, was black cherry sorbet. It was outrageously exquisite - and I ate it sitting on a waterside bench on the quay walk.

Best Western had told us we could book into our room at 11 am the next morning. After a breakfast of fresh waffle and coffee at Day's Inn, we drove around the bays looking at marinas and boats and the smallest beach in the world, nothing more than a reclaimed boat ramp. I had a wander at the Mystic Village shops, lovely, eclectic tourist shops in a pleasant pseudo village arrangement while Bruce read the NY Times on a shady bench beforer we headed for Best Western, only to be told that there was only one room ready - which was not the king smoker I had reserved. We were then told that internet reservations don't guarantee you will get what you reserved online. I had reserved by phone, ringing the Best Western 1800 number, the number Best Western Mystic has on its website, I said. "It's the same. You can only be sure of getting the room you want by ringing the hotel direct," she replied. This blows sideways the whole concept of reserving hotel rooms online or even via toll-free numbers. You must pay a long-distance call if you don't want your hotel reservation to be pot luck.

Best Western told us to come back in a few hours. There was a slim chance a smoking king room may become available. No, if we left our luggage there, it would not be secure and they could take no responsibility for it.
This, therefore, left us carting my computer around with us, nervous of leaving the car for long in case it became too hot - for it was steamy, hot weather in Connecticut. Thus constrained, we juggled our plans for the day, cancelling the two-hour tour of the historic seaport since there was no covered parking for cars (and one could not drag a computer through the exhibits).
Instead, we headed for New London and the River Thames - which had been our Sunday plan. A walk on the beach seemed like a nice idea, and an exploratory to find the old house in which our friend Grant had lived when he worked on the famous submarine corporation. Eugene O'Neill also had once occupied that house, he had told us. So it had double significance as a travel diversion.

New London is an oddly down-at-heel town. It has a gracious old main street, leafy and narrow, with historic buildings and imposing church towers. But it was almost deserted. A few desultry convenience stores were open, but there was a bleak, abandoned feeling to it. And the surrounding back streets seemed decayed and threatening. In a tiny town square, a sad quasi Rasta band was playing melancholy music as a feature of the oddest and smallest craft market I have ever seen. We wandered through - about five stalls with no customers. There was some Asian tat, some woven cushion covers, some beading, a local club promotional and a large and depressed-looking African American woman selling home-made "gourmet bean pies". I did not fancy the idea of any food which was sitting around under clingfilm in the steamy heat of the day. Nor did anyone else, by the look of the stand. She would be taking her labours home with her.

In unspoken agreement, we headed back to the car. This town was no place to hang around. A beach walk, water views, we followed the map to the headland where the beach park was located. Once in the coastal burbs, New London was far more salubrious. Very salubrious indeed. Large houses and crowded marinas. As we neared the beach park, we found ourselves suddenly in a traffic jam. No. A queue of cars waiting to get into a vast carpark. How odd. Finally we reached the entrance gate to discover that there was a $11 fee to park the car before getting to the beach. The whole area was enclosed in high cyclone fence and there was a water funpark for which one was, presumably, also paying admission. We explained that we were lost , hooked around the admission booth and drove off in search of a plain old beach.
A sea wall obscured the beach we found down the road. Parking was problematic. There were "resident only" signs everywhere. But Bruce had spotted The Lighthouse Inn up the hill and had earmarked it for lunch. It was an imposing old place looking down one of the roads to the sea.
We found a lovely, shady spot in the circular driveway around the Inn and headed down the road for our beach walk before lunch. On reaching the gate to the walled beach, we were blocked by tanned young gate attendants. Apparently we needed to have a guest pass to walk on the beach. It was a private beach.

We followed the wall down the length of the beach, walking on a narrow, weedy verge towards the lovely old lighthouse on the promontory. There were more gates to the beach, each one firmly closed with assorted "Private" signs - one seemingly a business, another for different residents....
It was clear that we were unwelcome. Tourists were unwelcome. Outsiders of any hue were unwelcome. And, indeed, when one paused and perused the sun-worshippers spread out along the bay, it was a WASP world, an affluent, suntanned, youthful, privileged WASP world. An exclusive enclave with ownership of a large stretch of beach. I snarled with disapproval, for I am of the Australian understanding that beaches are for everyone and that no one should so much as attempt to restrict public access to them.

Thus grumbling, I settled for a look at the lighthouse. Oops. Another sign. Not just a "private" sign, but a "no photographs". Huh? How unwelcoming and just bloody bossy is this community? Out of sheer perversity, I photographed the sign.

We retraced our footsteps and headed for the Inn which turned out to be one of America's historic hotels - with an imposingly handsome interior, grand dining rooms with gold chairs, wood panelled walls and ceilings, chandeliers and formal wait staff. We were giving a lovely window table in the almost empty dining room. Some upmarket young women were gathered in another dining room, bubbling away with social noises. It seemed to be a bridal shower. In another gracious old dining room, a singer and pianist were rehearsing. Otherwise, the place seemed oddly quiet. Our waiter was called James and he was comically snooty and not pleased that we wished to drink water. Thereafter his service was not swift. But the meal was pleasant enough - crab quesadilla shared as a starter and seafood salads for each of us. Mine was a seared tuna salad so fired up with wasabi that lesser mortals may not have coped with it. One had the feeling that the chef was not very worldly and was trying just a bit too hard. Sometimes the Americans miss the mark with their efforts at being olde worlde gracious and end up just being a bit pretentious. This was such a case. Nonetheless, the environment soothed us and we departed happy, heading for the darling town of Stonington for coffee and cake.

Stonington is a "Kodak moment" village. There are no fast food places - just a charming main street lined with hanging flower pots and characterful shops and cafes. We scored a perfect carpark in the shade right beside the Yellow Cafe and went in for coffees and sour cream cinnamon cake, chatting with the proprietor about the drama of the recent power outages. Then we took a stroll, along the main street and through backstreets to the fishing wharf where the lobster pots were piled up, where grimy working fishing boats rested on their moorings and where fierce fish stench emerged from the canvas-covered gutting tables which, now abandoned for the day, were still wet, with knives and scaling tools trustingly abandoned.

Walking back through more side streets in which the old clapboard houses bore historic plaques revealing who had first lived there - captains and pioneers - we came upon the village green, and very busy it was, too. The town fair was in full swing and, unlike the sad little New London market, it was packed with avenues of stalls and swarming with people. We meandered through, reflecting that a weekend market was a weekend market was a weekend market, and emerged at the other side of town, to walk more charming old streets admiring lovely and quaint historic houses, until we reached the car - well and truly walked.

At which moment, it occurred to me that we had done all we really wanted to do and had no pressing reason to spend the night in a hotel which may or may not have the room that we had reserved. So we returned to the Best Western to cancel our booking (they had found an appropriate room) and drive back to New Hampshire - slowly, along different backroads. They were just as lushly rural and beautiful as the road down but, amid the cornfields, there seemed to be quite a lot of decidedly upmarket horse studs. They are not poor in Connecticut.

And back onto the efficiency of the American motorway system to "schuss" across Massachusetts, skirting Boston, and slipping across the border back home to NH with the realisation that we still had a whole Sunday to spend at our ease with newspapers and nature walks.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

In praise of American drivers

Australian drivers could take a leaf out of the book of the Americans. This is a great car nation where multi-lane highways channel intensive clamours of cars and trucks eternally changing lanes as they speed to wherever they are going. The traffic is daunting. And yet the drivers seem not only to be skilled but also to be courteous towards each other. They do not attempt to "own" their lanes, as Australian drivers do with manic territorial imperative. While Australians do their utmost to prevent anyone from changing lanes in front of them, the Americans are polite and accommodating. But more than this, away from the seething, swarming highways, they are incredibly polite and accommodating towards pedestrians. In Australia, one takes one's life in one's hand when crossing a road let alone trying to move around the terrifying deathtrap of supermarket parking lots. In America, if one so much as sets foot off the kerb, cars slow to a halt. If one wishes to take one's supermarket trolley back to the car in the parking lot, the arriving and departing cars will stop to allow you priority. Even terrifying-looking big, beefy, shaven-headed, tattooed trailer trash men in their aggressive, high-chassis utes will cheerfully stop as one crosses the thoroughfare to enter or leave the supermarket. Even tough teen boys with their doof-doof stereos will stop for pedestrians. It is the law - and it is observed.
It is also the law in Australia, too. But you'd never know it.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Middle East lament

The piquance of being on holiday, the pleasure of doing interesting and indulgent things, is undermined by a gnawing sense of guilt. One cannot watch the news or read the email missives about the Middle East without feeling a hole in one's soul for the misery that is Lebanon and Israel. Oh, Lebanon. Of the myriad places I have been, Lebanon was, by very far, the most civilized and hospitable. The kindness of the people was such that I was rarely able to pay for anything. And I met poets, architects and intellectuals as well as the people of the street. Even at our cheap hotel, workers acted more as friends than employees. I dined in elegant restaurants tiered down the courses of waterfalls - long, languid meals of many delectable morsels followed by sweetmeats and arak and coffee, the latter stretched full-bellied in lounge chairs and puffing on hookahs. Lebanon already had been scarred by violence. How many times has it been rebuilt? And now I look upon the pulverised buildings and mutilated dead and feel so, so, so sad. Yes, for Israel, too. Albeit that it was not kind to me when I visited. It is a land of perpetual tension, which, in itself, is as unhappy as it is unpleasant. One wonders if it will ever achieve its promise. Not this way, methinks. One can only see this grisly conflict going on and on, wishing that Hezbollah and Hamas could pull in their horns and that compromises could be made. So I suppose I am a bit cross with all the aggressors - for they make so many of us so very sad. Even when we have that precious time, as I do now, for lightness of life and earned respite from labours, I feel burdened by grief and a sense of hopelessness for them all.

I wonder if that super-fit, cake-eating President, George Bush, is sharing such dark contemplations. Like me, in this world-troubled time, he is on holiday. Yet again!

Friday, August 04, 2006

On being Mel-icius

The appalling Mel Gibson has done a good thing in his drunken outburst of racism. He has demonstrated exquisitely that fame and money do not bring wisdom. He has demonstrated that religion can be an illness - certainly the ill of the world. And he has given the common world a wake-up call about the insidious ever-presence of warped and ugly bigotry - something we often allow ourselves to forget.

The nasty star, who retaliated with a bilious outburst of anti-Semitism towards police who had made him stop his criminal drunken driving, gives us all cause to pause and wonder what may lurk beneath our sober selves. Do we harbour hatred, too?
We all have prejudices, whether we admit it to ourselves or not. They are things we see as likes and dislikes - preferences. I am not fond of neo-Cons, for example. "Hate" may be too strong a word, but I could certainly let loose a rant about their retrogressive double values and their greed. I have had a series of very unpleasant experiences with two ethnicities, so I generalise a dislike while, ambivalently, feeling open-hearted towards individuals. This is ethically entirely wrong and it worries me. But it is how it is. Similarly, I once was raped by a man with a crewcut. Ever since, I have loathed men with crewcuts - but have made exceptions as the years rolled on.

So, how would I behave as a drunk if a right-wing cop with a crewcut pulled me over for DUI? I would shut the fuck up, that's how I'd behave. A cop is a cop is a cop. And I'd be well aware that I was in the wrong if I was driving with a belly full of booze, not to mention sucking on Tequila as I went
All of which makes me join the rest of the thinking world in thinking that Mel Gibson is a bloody disgrace and should be well and truly blackballed by the vapid Hollywood world which has lavished him in approbation for making violent blockbusters such as "Braveheart" and "The Passion of Christ". Will this happen? Probably not. Hollywood is all-forgiving because its craven values are based on fame and success and not on principles.

At least they have canned his Holocaust special. Obviously, the son of a Holocaust denier, a man who has demonstrated an overt loathing of the Jewish people and, 2000 years later, is accusing them of being Christ-killers, is just not the man for that job. Indeed, it is an impertinence that he ever considered depicting the subject. It is another impertinence that he now calls on Jews to counsel him.
But he has done us all a favour in his outburst. He has shown us who he really is.
And he has made us look at who we are, too. Hopefully, not a bit like Mel Gibson.