Monday, July 31, 2006

At the Lowell Folk Festival

I love Lowell. It's a once grimy old cotton mill town which has dragged itself up by the bootstraps to become one of Massachusetts' most interesting tourist towns. It has added to museums and cotton industrial revolution tours, a series of festivals - most interestingly, one celebrating its most famous former resident, beat poet Jack Kerouak, and another simply the great American tradition of folk music. It was the 20th Lowell Folk Festival we attended this weekend - albeit in somewhat melting heat. This festival is big and it is free. The town closes its old flower-adorned cobbled streets and sets up stages, avenues of craft exhibitions and art shows, arrays of food vendors, a street of old-fashioned games for children, another for shops to set up bargain stalls and community groups to showcase their activities.

Sounds of music meet one wherever in the town one wanders - music Mexican, Greek, Polish, Indian, Native American, Cajun, Blues, brass - and multicultural Americana at large wanders along with one. People soup at its best.

There were power mums with high-tech uber strollers complete with cup-holders for baby bottles. Lots of them children, adored children. There is nothing wrong with the birthrate. There were rambling, extended families with dads carrying young on their shoulders. There were bare-chested, tattooed young tough guys with their jeans worn low over exposed bands of underwear - a particularly absurd fashion. But they were probably the only folk festival attendees who are worried about fashion. In the American heat, anything goes. The fatter the body, the more inappropriately skimpy the attire. I suppose that after one gets to a certain obesity, one stops checking oneself in the mirror and therefore has no idea of how appalling a tanktop and shorts looks on a 300lb figure.

As Bruce and I sat in chairs that we and a lot of others had moved from the unbearable full sun stage area to the shade of trees to listen to the Paisley brothers and their North Virginia bluegrass, I watched the passing parade with avid fascination. I was awash with the American experience, the nasal Appalachian singing, the sparkling banjo and the dazzle of folk fiddles - accompanied by strolling stream of people seeming to represent almost every possible aspect of American society. Therein, one cannot miss the tragic fatties - for they are as ubiquitous as they are immense. Often they are shamelessly fuelling up as they walk, carrying bowls of french fries or slabs of sugary fried dough. They were too huge to sit down on the frail little concert chairs so they headed for city benchs. Unsurprisingly, one sees more and more of these morbidly obese Americans riding disabled scooters.

Of course, there were myriad other hues of the cultural rainbow among the people. As at most every cultural event held anywhere, there was a strong showing of "women of a certain age" - women over 50. These are the most undervalued power of society, the great civilized and civilizing core of consumers. They exude a certain "niceness" and tend to move in small, congenial groups. We sat among a group for some time, me eavesdropping as, eagerly, they chose which acts they would see in what order and why. These middle class women, perhaps a little on the plump side, also wear shorts and t-shirts, but with belts and crisp pleats. Among them sometimes were yet older women, seniors, also in shorts. One cannot imagine grannies in shorts in Australia, but shorts are de rigueur in the US. Only the teens eschew them. They like skirts - some absurd mini skirts with flimsy halter tops, some in rather long retro frocks. Teens care about looks more than comfort.
Then, in the always moving crowd of festival goers, there were the dregs - sad waifs and strays who also have a place at a free event. Some were decidedly strange-looking. I noticed a cadaverously thin, tall African girl with a rickety, rocking gait. Some gaunt and prematurely-aged urban druggies. An odd, scraggled-haired and towering madman in a loud Hawaiin shirt. A well-dressed but obviously simple-minded man who could not stop dancing to the music, despite the oppressive heat. Then there was a seemingly quadraplegic, one-legged man simply parked in an extended wheelchair all alone under a tree, watching the world go by. How sad. Was he a relic from Iraq, I wondered. Where were his people? Such are the mysteries of other people. Everyone has a story and one yearns to be a fly on the wall of their lives - just for a moment or two.
Naturally, the American societal hues also embraced the full gamut of the diversity of ethnicity - albeit that I did not see any evidence of Islamic women. But there was plenty of evidence of blended families, always a sign of a peaceful and tolerant community.
And common across the boggling spectacle of humanity in extremis drawn together by the joy of music, there was a convivial spirit. Faces smiled and feet tapped, responding to the magic that is music, the universal language. And we, I suppose, slotted in somewhere in the cultural middle ground, just another couple strolling, smiling, looking, listening, sweating in the heat, and basking in the pleasure of the event.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Living larger.

The tour boat that capsized drowning 20 elderly tourists in upstate New York last year turned out to be licensed to carry 50 people and had only 48 on board. And yet one of the reasons that it capsized was that it was grotesquely overloaded. It seems that things have changed since the 1960s when they measured average weights of people and applied them to estimates of passenger limits. Today's bodies are much, much heavier - the young are taller and most everyone is fatter, often to the degree of obesity. The capacity estimates now are outdated and dangerously wrong - by an average 25 lbs per person. Something we need to bear in mind when we step into an elevator!

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Boston's Big Dig debacle

Poor Boston. What a grotesque tale of modern values has beset the city. The Big Dig, the epic work of urban engineering which was to lead the world and liberate the city in streamlining high-density traffic management has turned out to be a humiliating nightmare of rorts and shortcuts. It was such an exciting venture, the biggest of its kind in the world, which would transform the city, removing the "Green Monster" of ugly elevated roads which slashed through the city, turning tenements into prime real estate and liberating waste land to parks for the people. I remember going to the Big Dig's display seven years ago when the venture was the pride of the city, marvelling at the sophisticated way in which the harbour mud would be removed to make new traffic tunnels... In ensuing years we have ventured into the city always wary of the delays which have blighted Bostonians as they waited for the venture to be completed. Closed roads, construction sites, detours, jams of crawling cars... But it would all be worth it in the end. Now the end has come and it is closed roads, construction sites, detours and jams of crawling cars. Why? Because contractors took shortcuts, because everyone has to cut a corner and save money. So now, bolts suspending tunnel roofs have not been properly secured and not tested at all. Because a hapless woman was killed when a chunk of concrete ceiling fell on her car. Because even the great jet fans which keep the air clean on the tunnel ramps may not be safely suspended. Big Dig tunnels are closed indefinitely. Cheap bolt and epoxy fasteners are blamed - and a lack of safety checking. A lack of safety checking! Apparently it would have been expensive to check. So checks were not made. It would have required taking down ceiling panels to check the safety of their bolts. The contractors did not want to do that. Everyone was trying to cut costs as the price of the Big Dig blew out.
So much so that one enterprising worker actually tried to secure one of the bolts with duct tape! Perchance it was the safest bolt. Let's face it, a lot of the world is held together with duct tape.

This is the era of cost-cutting. This also is the era of people growing absurdly rich. It is the economic rationalists' path to success - success being wealth and a personal goal which abnegates altruism or public interest.
Boston is now in the middle of a desperate blame game in which lawyers will be the only winners.

Monday, July 17, 2006

American perils

Australians grow used to it - the constant association of our country with dangerous creatures. Whenever we travel we are asked, with varying degrees of incredulity, how on earth we manage to live with our lethal wildlife. Well, it does not worry us too much. It is really not so bad. Its reputation is worse than its reality.
Unlike the USA.
Nobody ever goes on about how dangerous things are in the US in terms of wildlife. Well, we hear the odd story of bears or rattlesnakes. But America has established itself as a highly urbanised nation in which the main perils are fellow man.
I won't argue the fellow man thing - but I think it is time we stopped letting the Americans cringe and carry on about our dangerous creatures by reminding them of the beasties which lurk all around them all the time.
Now, we've seen hornets in the cartoons and movies. They are wasps. But not the only wasps to be found here. Since I have been here in north Georgia, I've heard assorted tales of people being stung by wasps and hornets. One of my in-law family arrived zonked on antihistamines after disturbing a hornet nest under his toolbox. He had suffered at least 12 stings - having to run from a chase of the swarming furies. Then there was the gardener. We wondered why a can of WD40 and the garden shears were just lying in a garden bed. The explanation came that he had disturbed some red wasps and, suffering multiple stings, had run off without a backward glance.
Then there are the ticks which inhabit these parts. There are different sorts of ticks which carry different diseases, clever little things. They hang around in some sort of tick torpor until some hapless man or beast stumbles by and then they drop onto them and crawl to a good spot where they can suck the blood until they are fat and full. Beware walking in the woods or in the long grass.
Then there are the chiggers or red bugs. They lurk in the grass, too. Do not kneel or lie on the lawn. Do not walk in the wild grass. These tiny things embed themselves in your skin where they feed and live until they die - leaving you with huge, red, itching welts.
Nasty, nasty, nasty.
Give me a redback spider any day.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Bucolic in Georgia

In the Georgia night, the katydids chorus the measures of the train tracks - chacka-Cha-chacka-Cha - beating staccato rhythms from colony to colony, the sounds meeting and retreating, sometimes in one uniform pulse, sometimes in stereophonic exchanges. They have become my meditation of the night, after the darting lights of the fireflies have died away. Sometimes the crickets join the orchestra to sing the alto thread. But it is the katydids who own the humid nights out there in the great oaks and hemlocks. They are all around us, raucous and busy, calling to one another, with one another - a complex and mysterious other world going about its business.

It has been hot. It has been iced tea on the porch hot. One can envisage generations of overdressed Southern belles sighing "Oh, my, Blanche, the heat, oh, the heat". It's lolling weather, too heavy with humidity to achieve anything other than a languid pace. We move from room to room like restless cats seeking a cool piece of the floor. The heat has been building up with the ground dry and red. For days we have waited for the clouds to build, to bring relief. Today it did. As we lay about with books, too enervated to talk. The sky darkened over the northern mountains and we went outside to watch and hope. Sure enough, a drop of rain. Another. Just a few. Oh,no, don't let it pass us by. But just as we began to think our little vigil had been in vain, the thunder began to rumble and the rain began to fall. Then we were in a spectacle of torrential electrical storm - lightning strokes striking Lynch Mountain right in front of us, over and over. Great crashing explosions of thunder, trees twisting in the bursts of wind and rain cascading down and down and down. We sat in the screened porch damp with the misty spray and rode the sensations of this wild bounty - cooling down with the earth. Ah, sweet relief.

And now the harmonies of lush greens are greener yet - and the Blue Ridge Mountains are adorned with plumes of steamy mist.

Ho hum for Heide

So, Heide art museum has been given the big bucks to perpetuate its heyday of the Australian modernists. And Bert Tucker, his personal collection now contributed (thanks to Janine Burke says the self-serving Ms Burke in The Age today) and Tucker is celebrated in all his glory as an Angry Penguin. Nolan, too. Joy Hester also. I am not sure how much John Perceval has been incorporated into this display. I have not seen the show and I am on the other side of the world. But I wonder when this Melbourne push of the Heide legend may find room to include writers in their representation of the era. The intellectual catalysts. Ah, so cynically manipulated has been the history. As the Melbourne push has played it, Heide was exclusively an artists' "commune" and their exposure in print and their exposure to the public eye was pure Reed chemistry. Angry Penguins was a Melbourne creation, they seem to think. This little angry penguin knows otherwise and awaits the country's real historians to put the record straight. As it stands, poor, silly, vain old Melbourne can only admire the pictorial aspects - for, perchance, dealing with the intellectual grist which set the movement in motion would be in their cerebral too-hard basket. Nah, they can make it up as they go along.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

On patriotism and July 4

One may view American patriotism several ways. To much of the world, it seems to be a blinding insularity - and it is true, America is, in general, more interested in itself than in the rest of the world. That said, American patriotism is deeply touching and, in some ways, enviable. It goes hand-in-hand with a fierce sense of identity - the same sense of identity that irks the outside world when it struts and brags. But, it also encompasses a love for home and country which is really very sweet. And this is what strikes one most profoundly when July 4 comes along and Americans celebrate their country's birthday, the birth of Independence, the rejection of British imperialism.

American patriotism is the fiercest and most unified in the world - as so very far from the casual love of country of the Australian. Australia, after all, has experienced nothing much more than the Eureka Stockade by way of rebellion in its history and, still, lives under the token rule of the Queen of England. Even its flag is more a cause of debate than delight. It is burdened by the Union Jack - the apron string to the "Mother Country". It is not a flag which stands on its own like the Stars and Stripes, or the maple leaf of Canada or the cedar tree of Lebanon. So we don't flourish our flag as the Americans do. It is just not as handsome a flag.

My first impression of the ubiquity of flags in the USA was one of cultural cringe - very Australian. I thought it was way over the top. How come all these people bedecked their homes, clothing and cars in their national flag? Did they have to be reminded of their nationality? I made jokes about buying shares in American flag-making companies.

Yesterday, 11 years after those first impressions, I popped a little American flag in one of the potplants on our porch. It was July 4, after all. I had been given the flag at an Independence Day march in the New England town of Chelmsford - just a few miles down the leafy, riverside road from Nashua.

Independence Day dawned threatening storms - heavy with heat and drenched in humidity. It is a public holiday for everyone but the retail world, which celebrates with sales. Nonetheless, the roads were less jammed with cars than usual - until we entered Chelmsford where they were queuing to park anywhere/everywhere. Serendipitously (Bruce would say with scintillating brilliance) we parked by a school sportsfield whence a short walk took us to the town parade's rallying point - and we passed through the costumed locals and their assorted floats to take a place at the roadside, just as the march began. Perfect parking AND perfect timing.

Big surprise of the march was the presence of the regional politicians. They all had floats and banner-waving teams along with people throwing candy to the children. It was the big wave and gladhand parade - for the first 15 minutes or so. Republicans and Democrats, candidates for local office and elected leaders.

The crowd was huge, stretching down the road into the tree-lined distance. People had brought chairs, their pets and one woman even had a portable playpen set up with her two toddlers in it. Most had dressed in honour of the day - Stars and Stripes on everything. Children were in red, white and blue ensembles. Many wore Statue of Liberty crowns. Everyone had flags.

The floats represented local businesses and community organisations - some more spectacular than others. Interspersed among them were trucks loaded with jubilant little boys equipped with very large water pistols. It was their job to squirt the crowd - something they did with absolutely delight. And it was wonderful. We had been standing, sweating in the cloying heat for some time. Sprays of cool water were delicious. We spread our arms and welcomed the wet. So we didn't flinch when confronted by the biggest truck, done up as a pirate ship with huge water cannons down the sides.

The pipers piped, the drummers drummed, the bands played, the girls danced and waved pennants, the vintage cars and theme floats went by along with war veterans and dance students, people stepped out in period costumes, Minute Men bore antique arms and shot blanks into the air... and the people waved their flags, clapped and cheered while the children scooped up the thrown candy until they had more than they know what to do with.

At march's end, we hummed back to Nashua and indulged in some retail therapy and lunch in the mall. Surely there could not be a more American activity on July 4.

Well, there was - for there was also the Nashua fireworks in the evening.
We parked in the main street and walked a distance to the Holman Stadium, again avoiding the parking melee. The closer we got, the more people joined our route until we were in a river of walkers. Well, they were strolling. It was an annoyingly slow pace for those of us used to stepping it out. We were astonished by the number of Hispanics around us and realised it was they who were setting the excessively languid pace. The demographic in Nashua seems to have changed. I do not remember such a large Latino representation in the past. None was speaking English - and I suddenly realised why so much Spanish signage had popped up in the retail areas and restaurants. It strikes me as odd and excessively considerate of the Americans to translate their world into Spanish and not to require their Hispanic immigrants to speak the national language. Instead, America is teaching Spanish at school. I wonder at the social wisdom of this. It strikes me that the great cultural melting pot is melting away from its traditional identity. Perchance, in a few decades time, the USA will be a Spanish-speaking nation.

An interesting phenomenon to ponder as we assembled in the stands amid the families eating hot dogs and fried dough. It was all very convivial - and very warm.
Nashua's pride, the Spartans marching band, performed very sophisticated and complex music as a prelude - and then the fireworks lit up the sky and lit up the sky and lit up the sky.
Nashua is the second-largest town in New Hampshire and it turns on a real spectacle for its people - for free. Well, the price is a bit of a sore neck, since the sky show goes on for so long. Loud and lovely.

And then it was all over - apart from the townsfolk who set off their own small skyrocket shows from their back yards, to entertain the crowds as they streamed away from the stadium. And, again, we were enclosed in a colourful river of people, together bathed in the moist warmth of the summer night.
And we were all home in time to watch the Boston July 4 fireworks on the TV. Just in case we had not had enough.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Big Brother blues

Big Brother in Australia is in all sorts of hot water. Two young men have been removed from the house for performing an obscene "joke" on a female housemate - something called a "turkey slap" which, according to the myriad reports around the place, is a slap in the face with a penis. After 70-odd days locked in the house with just each other for entertainment and not an awful lot of grey matter to go around, this is the depth to which immature males would seem to descend. Schoolboy willy-wagging.

There have been calls for BB to be stopped. Not just the prudes and the religious, but politicians and media pundits. Already BB's "Adults' Only" weekly show has been canned because of its lewd and tawdry content. It consisted of whatever "sexy" clips the editors could glean from the housemates' activities. The housemates, of course, play up to the expectation of the programming. "Exposure" is a primary reason these people seek to be in the house. They sell themselves in a quest for fame.

But, as the years of BB have rolled on, the calibre of people the BB producers have chosen has been steadily sinking. This year it was quite clear to me that they had gone for the lowest common denominator - a group of exeptionally vain and vapid young people whose primary achievement in life has been the body beautiful. There's the 18-year-old who has attempted to escape her profound ordinariness with breast implants, and a series of narcissistic young males with workout-sculptured bodies...with "careers" as "personal trainers".
There is a devastatingly handsome former male model who has asserted his image as a gay farmer. He seems rather more educated than the rest of them. And there is Camilla, the former nightclub "door bitch". She is the BB House irritant - and, ironically, perhaps the most interesting character. Which says little.
These, in my opinion, are not interesting people. Their massive egos insulate them from the reality that they are really not very bright at all. I doubt that any of them would dream of reading a book for pleasure.
The one thing they are proud of, apart from their bodies, is the fact that they are young. One of the dullest of this dull group has complained about everyone older than he because, he thinks, young people=fun people. He strikes one as a crashing self-obsessed bore who thinks his age makes him "fun". He showed his idea of "fun" with a lot of canoodling in bed. Fun for him, perhaps. But, oh, how boring for the audience.

This is the stereotype BB has chosen to project - and the consequences of trapping a group of such shallow self-worshippers in a house together with nothing but each other (read self) for entertainment is indeed dooming the show to tits and teeth. And a lot of appallingly bad grammar! Poor little pedestrian souls, they are not masters of the language.

The pity of it all is the Australia's BB has been an infinitely more interesting creature than its overseas counterparts. Unlike the American version, it has a real Big Brother controlling everything that happens and he ensures that there can be so such thing as alliances and power plays. This suits the Australian character since Aussies are not cut-throat competitors. They tend to like each other and bond like a family in the house. The public, which gets to phone vote people out of the house, becomes riven as the game draws to a close - because it, also, becomes fond of the surviving housemates.

BB Australia has the potential to be a brilliant reality show. But the cynical "casting" that has been imposed has lowered the cultural common denominator to that of the universal non-achiever. The assumption has been that audiences are only interested in looking at sunbronzed bodies, that audiences are as vacuous as the housemates.

I wonder what it would be like if they tried a house with some educated grownup people? Some role models - people with a future rather than the dead-enders they have inflicted on the public this year...

And pigs may fly.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The patent monster

Economic rationalism and greed are much the same thing. And they are the downfall of the civilized world - no better exemplified than by the fate of the Broad Institute's RNAi Consortium as reported in today's Boston Globe.
The Consortium, a scientific alliance between Harvard and MIT, has been funded by drug company donations in an altruistic attempt to create specific gene-blocking molecules which may be able "to turn genetic research into real treatment for diseases".
It's a marriage of pharma dollars and science for the human good.

Laboratory scientists, in all their erudition and brilliance, may discover, evolve and invent - but they do not manufacture. More's the pity.

For when it comes to a volume production of the molecules for dispersal to the research and experiment spheres of the rest of the world, commercial interests must be involved - licenced to produce and stockpile the supplies.

Now, as the Globe reveals, there is a legal spat between a global lab supply company in St Louis and a private supply firm in Alabama - a claim on two scientific patents. The idea is that one company can shut down the other and monopolise the supply.

Says the Globe:
The suit illustrates an emerging challenge for supporters of publicly accessible medical research: Patents and intellectual property in the life sciences have grown so valuable that they are jealously guarded as potential keys to millions of dollars in revenue.

Surely, it is time for the Justice system to step in and curtail the potential for such rapacious exploitation of the future of science. This is one of those stories which fills one full of the "where-will-it-all-end" dread.