Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The not-so-great outdoors

Memorial Day marks the "unofficial" beginning of summer in the US. It is, indeed, warming up - from time to time - in New Hampshire. With it come the warnings - West Nile fever, encaphalitis, Lyme disease, rabies... Yep, you have to be wary when you go outside here.
I say this every year: Australia has an unfair rap as the dangerous creatures country.
I can't believe the way Americans cringe and squeal with horror at our snakes and spiders when they have a ubiquity of their own nasties.
Mosquitos are are a serious worry. So here we go again with the summer warnings and instructions. "Wear DEET and keep covered". DEET is the only chemical which really does it for mosquitos and ticks. A lot of so-called repellents are sold, but horrible old DEET is the effective one which does not so much repel the insects are confuse their sense of where we are. Yes, it is unpleasant to put this stuff on your skin - but it is a small price compared to the alternative of West Nile fever or Eastern Equine Encephalitis. Bird-borne West Nile has been growng more common leaving a lot of dead crows and sick people in its wake.
As for the bloody ticks. As if it is not bad enough that those repugnant little blood-suckers can give one Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted ningnong, this summer comes with the announcement that a new, really, really wicked disease is being spread through New England by the tiny wee deer tick. It is called Babesiosis - and it is a malaria-like disease which makes your spleen swell until you can barely breathe, among other things.
Any idea I had of lying on my belly to get a macro shot of insects like the one above - is just a no-no-no-goer!! I won't be lying in any long grass until I am somewhere where the wildlife is safe - like Australia.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The evolution of creationism

Tara-Tara! Drumroll! Applause, applause.

A $27 million Creation Museum is opening in Kentucky - triumphantly demonising Darwinism with the "science of Genesis".
Recently we saw three Republican presidential candidates raise their hands to admit that they did not believe in evolution. Three out of ten. But, according to the Boston Sunday Globe, that is not representative of the country. The Globe asserts that fifty per cent of Americans believe that God created Adam and Eve just 6000 years ago - and the entire study of paleontology, geology, physics, biology and astronomy is meaningless to them.
This statistic chills my blood.
And, my mind reels at the leaps of logic that the creationist concept encompasses.
It's all about "faith". I recall my first husband urging me to join his religion by making "the leap in the dark" - which was faith. Blind belief.
I have never managed to make that "leap in the dark". I like the light. I am happy being illuminated by education.
This is not to say that I don't have a spiritual streak - for I have a deep sense of my place as a grain of sand in the vast organism which is our universe. I have profound love for life, nature and humanity - and believe passionately in the Dalai Lama's ethos of "compassion" as the core value for this life. Wonderment is no stranger to me. And yet, I cannot countenance the existence of a supreme being. If I were to do so, it would be with immense sorrow that any supreme being, intelligent designer, if you will, would, in fact, create so much cruelty and suffering. Why would an intelligent designer create disease and starvation, children in pain..?
Why would he/she give us an appendix or make the ageing process so degrading? Why would he/she make many religions and then make them divisive? And why would he/she create a complex paleontological record - just to test us?

It defies logic. To believe in all of this is not just a leap in the dark, it is a leap into a morass of denial. Which, of course, is the rub of religion - a prop humanity has required to cope with the concept of our transient existence in the chain of life.
Until the rise and rise of the combative creationists, I've been happy to respect the religions of others, seeing religion and ritual as an innate need.
But when we find a belief which seeks to crush science and human understanding, I recoil.
If they were to have their way, no more diseases would be cured and the earth would warm to environmental implosion. They would call it "God's Will".
They seem to have a pretty strong handle on God's Will. God wills whatever they choose. For some reason, enlightenment is not what they choose.

They have made the leap in the dark - and they are staying in the dark.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Spats and simpers: celebrities are news

Ann Curry's simpering interview with Angelina Jolie has been aired over and over - as if it has some major news significance. Oh, lordy, where will I have to see it next? Curry whispers at her subject with coy adulation, leaning forward in her chair, nodding like a bobble-head and daring to inject her own opinions and moist-eyed life stories into her interview - as if she and Jolie are just such special peers. I think I will dub it the American "simperview" since the talent-challenged Curry is not the only interviewer who uses this cringe-inducing technique. It seems intended to inject some emotional gravitas into what is basically pretty airhead material. Let's face it, Angelina Jolie is doing interviews to promote a new movie. The whole vast "scoop" interview is just a plug. This is not to say that Jolie is not one of the more interesting actresses around. She has always been "different" and she has a powerful and admirable political conscience which, one hopes, is of some influence to the masses in this gob-smacking culture of celebrity. But, bottom line, when she goes out there doing a dollar-driven movie promo, the media dissolves into a pathetic goo of star-worship.

How very differently does the media treat Jolie, the political animal, from the way it treats Rosie O'Donnell, the political animal!

The big bad right wing men in suits can't spew enough bile about Rosie. Rosie, a self-described "fat lesbian", is a popular hate target for expressing views not dissimilar to those of the beautiful Angelina Jolie. Rosie is intelligent and highly articulate, but Rosie is portrayed as a wicked loudmouthed left-wing extremist. The big bad right wing men in suits devour her with relish as an outlet for their deep anger at the very existence of a thinking left. She's an easy target, a soft target - and there's nothing they like better.

After yesterday's The View, they are having a field day - since Rosie was in very heated dispute with the very pretty and pregnant poster girl of the right, Elisabeth Hasslebeck. Hasselbeck is The View's balance of opinion - since most prominent and politically aware females in showbiz are, in fact, of Democrat sympathy. Hasselback is the NeoCon plant. She is a creationist.

While Rosie rose through the ranks of showbiz with brains, wit, originality and talent as a comedian, Hasselbeck's vast achievement was being a pretty thing on Survivor: The Australian Outback. I watched that show and I can barely remember her, but apparently American viewers so adored the cute shoe designer that, while she did not win Survivor, she won the bigger prize of national celebrity. She's a pretty little blonde, after all. The stereotypical American mould.

Watching the political spat on The View, I saw Hasselbeck on the attack and Rosie on the defensive. Hasselbeck struck out stridently, a ferocious viper already enraged by Joy Behar's praise for Al Gore and criticisms of the Bush regime. "Poor little" nothing! As she, indeed, said. Hasselbeck is a confident, self-righteous Republican and, doubtless, she is subject to constant briefing and revving up by the party cronies who would see her as a media prize. If you watch footage of that now historic spat, you will see Hasselbeck doing most of the talking and shouting - not Rosie. In sad fact, the two of them drowned out the real speaker, comedian Joy Behar, who had outlined a carefully-considered list of the political crimes of George W. Bush and his administration.

Rosie was naughty because she had a personal agenda with Elizabeth and, in giving vent to it, she enabled Elizabeth's shrieking outburst - all of which effectively took the audience's eye off the significant political ball that Behar had put into play. And it gave the men in suits yet another opening for yet another onslaught against Rosie.

Rosie will be gone from The View in three weeks - rather controversially insofar as all the denials in the world will never convince us that her departure was not pressured by the men in suits.
Meanwhile, pretty little Mrs Hasselbeck will stay on, radiantly pregnant with the next generation of Christian Republican creationists.
And, here's the bet, it won't be long before Fox is making a lucrative offer to draw her into their fold of "fair and balanced" rabid righties.

Geoffrey Rush sweet in stardom

Flicked on the telly this morning and what should I see but Geoffrey Rush cooking pavlova with Martha Stewart.
Good heavens. Geoff the chef.
Well, of course, it is uphill with Martha Stewart. She has an annoying habit of having to one-up her guests - so of course she was making a rival pav and decorating it with fruit in the American colours. How rude, when she is supposed to be demonstrating an Australian tradition. Geoffrey looked a bit nonplussed. Geoffrey put bananas and lashings of passionfruit on his - to which Martha raised her authoritarian eyebrows.
"I've never heard of anyone putting bananas on a pavlova," she snapped.
Well, she, of all people, would have heard!
Geoffrey looked nonplussed again - and politely explained that it was sort of, er, well, popular where the pav came from.

Rush has been doing the talk circuit this week, promoting the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
I get a rush of Rush pride whenever I see him - elegant and urbane Australian actor that he is.
And I get a little thrill in knowing that way back there in the beginning, I had a little hand in his success.
Not that he was not always an exceptional actor. He was based in Adelaide back in the 80s where I reviewed him in State Theatre Company productions, interviewed him on occasion and even, finding him alone at the bar in the legendary La Cantina restaurant , sat down and had a drink with him one late, late night.
I'd admired him from the first time I saw him in the theatre. He is an outstanding stage actor - somehow defying the extraordinary gaunt angularity of his build to embody a veritable panoply of diverse characters. 'Twas ever a pleasure to watch him work.

How did I have a hand in his success?
Well - I wrote the article that inspired the film that won him the Oscar!

May 28, 1986. Page 3, Adelaide Advertiser
Out of the gloom, a genius reborn

Meeting pianist David Helfgott is like tumbling out of everyday life into a softly eccentric wonderland of sounds.

But David, 38, is a world unto himself -- and his tale is one of genius, tragedy and triumph.

The extraordinary WA musician has recently returned to the concert platform after a decade of psychiatric treatment and musical obscurity, shepherded by a woman's love. He is in Adelaide to give a recital at Edmund Wright House tonight.

Peering myopically through milk-bottle-bottom lenses, he proffered a warm, long-fingered hand and his murmurous voice began a strange rhythmic exploration of the sound of new names: "Sssam-sam-samela-sam..."

Then, as if magnetically drawn to the piano, he sat at the sleek Steinway, caressed its keys and filled the ornate old room with the intricate sounds of Liszt's La Campella while transforming his name-refrain into friendly serenade.

Rocking on the piano stool, sometimes bowing his head to the keys, singing, sighing and occasionally asking for a cigarette -- yet never interrupting the fluidity of his music -- he resembled no other concert pianist.

As the musical prodigy son of impoverished Polish migrants, David Helfgott was, at 12, the youngest to enter the ABC's annual WA State concerto and vocal competitions, which he went on to win six times.

At 14, he was the youngest to reach the Commonwealth finals and he pursued a brilliant career to be assessed at 19 in London as a "near-genius" talent. His performance of the Liszt Concerto at the Royal Albert Hall received a standing ovation from an audience of 8000.

Soon afterwards Helfgott suffered a serious nervous breakdown. On his return to Perth in 1973, he was admitted to hospital and his psychiatric and drug treatments lasted 10 gloomy years.

He continued privately to play the piano, sometimes for 10 hours a day, in his cramped lodge where he lived with 60 other psychiatric patients.

His musical career was surprisingly revived in 1983 when a Perth restaurateur, Dr. Chris Reynolds, asked him to fill in for a sick pianist.

Nervously chain-smoking, he produced a few discordant two-fingered sounds on the restaurant's piano, and as the diners began to jeer, he launched into Rimsky Korsakov's Flight of the Bumble Bee.

It was an historic night at Riccardo's restaurant. Diners, drinkers and staff were stopped in their tracks. They gave a thunderous ovation -- and Helfgott played on for four hours of non-stop classics.

Helfgott was "adopted" by the restaurateur and it was while living in his home that he met visiting divorcee Gillian Murray. At their second meeting he proposed to her and within months they were married.

But he was subsisting unhealthily on 130 cigarettes and 25 cups of coffee a day and prescribed medication, while playing piano three times a week at the restaurant.

Since their meeting in 1984, Gillian has gradually limited his smoking to less than one packet a day, reduced his coffee intake to a maximum of five cups, eliminated his need for medication and strengthened his bowed and lean body with a shared regimen of swimming, jogging and yoga.

Mrs. Helfgott described her husband as "an absolutely unforgettable, irresistibly endearing, hopelessly impractical genius who does not know meanness or dishonesty."

She nurtures him like a rare flower, believing that "fine performers need special care and support so they can blossom to full potential."

Of his wife, Helfgott said she had restored his confidence and blessed him with the sweet fortune to resume the career he loved.

After his "return" tour of Australia, the Helfgotts will leave for a study tour of Britain and Europe and then, according to Mrs. Helfgott, Australia can look forward to hearing much more from "one of the few truly romantic pianists in the world."

On reading this story in the paper, film director Scott Hicks telephoned me and asked "is this man for real?" I assured him enthusiastically that David Helfgott was very much for real, had been quite the most extraordinary extraordinary to meet - and confirmed where Helfgott was playing that night. Scott subsequently excused himself from his wife's birthday party to leap off to hear Helfgott - and Shine was born - wherein, a decade later, Geoffrey Rush's name soared from the world of Australian theatre and into the shimmering lights of international movie stardom.

So, I like to think I was a little acorn...

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

More to fear from China

"Under Agriculture Department rules, countries cannot export meat and poultry products to the United States unless the USDA certifies that the slaughterhouses and processing plants have food-safety systems equivalent to those here. Much to its frustration, China is not certified to sell any meat to the United States because it has not met that requirement.

But that has not stopped Chinese meat exporters. In the past year, USDA teams have seized hundreds of thousands of pounds of prohibited poultry products from China and other Asian countries, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced in March. Some were shipped in crates labeled "dried lily flower," "prune slices" and "vegetables," according to news reports. It is unclear how much of the illegal meat slipped in undetected.

Despite those violations, the Chinese government is on track to get permission to legally export its chickens to the United States -- a prospect that has raised concern not only because of fears of bacteria such as salmonella but also because Chinese chickens, if not properly processed, could be a source of avian flu, which public-health authorities fear may be poised to trigger a human pandemic."

Does this make your blood run cold? It does mine.

These words have been lifted from the very trusted source of the Washington Post, a Sunday, May 21 article by Rick Weiss, headed "Tainted Chinese imports common".
This is a deeply alarming piece which describes some of the 289 shipments the FDA has refused entry into the US because of contamination, toxic ingredients and pure fakery. As Weiss points out, the Chinese don't give up when refused entry for their goods. They try again and then again.

This is an epidemic.

Bravo to the Washington Post for running this deeply alarming piece. But the story needs more, more and more exposure than this. We face a dangerous scandal and it is going to take a massive public outrage to make governments confront the issue. They have to see it as an insidious form of terrorism. An attack on what we eat.

I am sure the Chinese people would be devastated to know what some of their manufacturers are doing. I am sure they don't know.
I am sure the Chinese Government will be embarrassed to realise how these exporters are shaming their country.

But the word needs to be spread. Chinese foods must be avoided and, as I have said before, countries affected by this sinister mode of attack should boycott the Olympics.

Theatre rage and I'm all for it

Theatre rage.
It had to happen.
It could so easily have been me and not members of the audience of the Boston Pops who earned the first headlines for theatre rage. They are now all over YouTube, the people brawling in the dress circle on the glamorous opening night performance.
It was all about someone who would not stop talking and someone who really wished they would.
Talking during performance is the worst of bad manners. It goes against all the rules of theatre etiquette.
But no one knows etiquette any more. And, unforgiveably, the rules are not enforced.

Once upon a time, there was a rule that no food or drink was allowed in the auditorium. There used to be signs, reminding people of this.
The idea is that live performance is something special. It is an intimate interaction between performers and audiences. It also is work on behalf of the performers - risky work for which they need concentration. We of olde worlde theatre background have been brought up to respect this. Hence, the disappointment and annoyance we suffer when we find ourselves in audiences who seem to think that going to the theatre is not much different to watching the telly at home. They arrive late. They get up and go to the lavatory. They snack. I've seen people bring hot pizza into the theatre. They crackle crisp packets and crunch on crisps, suck loudly on candy and they glug, glug, glug on those bottles of water which they seem to think have to be attached to them at all times.

This behaviour has been driving me mad for years. My adrenalin levels rise and I want to call out "stop the show - and let's evict these noisy boors". I know the actors are distracted by these noises and movements just as other audience members are.

Theatre administrators are no help. They have let the rules lapse because they want the refreshment sales.

So, it is up to other audience members to ask for consideration.
It is an unpleasant burden to put on people - especially when they may have paid over $100 for a ticket.

As for the communications devices, the mobile phones and Blackberries...
Now we have to listen to pre-show reminders to turn them off and not use them for recording or photographing the show. This is irritating in itself. And those who think they are special, which is many people, take no notice at all. One will find them texting or holding up their phones to share their experience with someone at home...or to sneak onto YouTube or, damned if I know. But no rules apply any more.

Truly, the time has come for theatres to assert the rules of etiquette. To save the tradition that is the purity of live performance - the beauty and integrity of the experience.
The rules should be posted in the foyer, in the toilets and, maybe, even projected over the curtain before the show. They should be printed on tickets. Ushers should remind people at the door.

If the ignorant new generation of theatre-goers is allowed to continue in this trend of thinking that an auditorium is just another living room, the quality of live theatre is doomed.

I dunno, if I have to sit in theatres among slurping, sucking, crunching, texting, glugging, chatting cultural retards - then I will feel equally entitled to light up a cigarette.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Salem: Bonjour Tristesse

Salem, Massachusetts, has the Witch Trials of 1692 as its strident claim to fame and it has created a witchcraft wonderland of kitsch to capitalise on this and lure in tourists by the busload. It's lots of fun - pure unadulterated corn and guileless exploitation.
But, behind the witch museums, tarot readings, crystal shops and Wiccan souvenirs, there is Salem, Mass, of the distinguished mercantile history. There is nothing phoney in this.

Salem's era of affluence from sea trade left a legacy of peerless architecture in the form of Chestnut Street - one of the most beautiful streets in the USA. It is now a National Historic Landmark street because, thanks to luck and perhaps foresight, the antique houses which line the cobbled street have never suffered at the whim of renovators or developers. The grand old homes retain their historic and architectural integrity.
Chestnut Street is simply a joy to behold, let alone to meander.

Bruce and I, with my birthday-sharing weekend guest, Aunt Libby, took a Saturday drive down to Salem, lunching luxuriously at the grand old Hawthorne Hotel - named after Salem's famous literary son, Nathaniel Hawthorne - and then taking a sightseeing trolly ride, a very comfortable and easy way to glean a full picture of the town and its history. Chestnut Street was the highlight of the drive - so much so that we decided to return on foot to soak in the beauty and antiquity of the architecture at closer quarters.
It was a briskly cool spring day. Forsythia, pansies and tulips were in full bloom all over the place and the trees were beginning to leaf out in brightest newborn green.

Strolling Chestnut Street's brick footpaths, which, underscored by ancient tree roots, undulate quite perilously, we were able to scrutinise the details of the grand old captains' and merchants's houses, marvelling at the famous "coffin doors". It seems bizarre that people should design front doors with their death in mind. Many of the Chestnut Street homes have these extra panels in the gracious, great front doors just so that coffins would fit easily in and out. They were handy for women in hooped skirts, too, we had learned earlier from our tourist guide. We thought they might be handy again for the new era of morbidly obese Americans.

Some of the homes are brick, but most are clapboard, painted in handsome period colours of greys and blues and browns, with their neat shutters, doors and windowframes contrasting in black or white. Most of the houses are huge - mansions of opulent proportions, usually with a top floor which would have accommodated servants in the streets heyday.

One old house which brags a grand ballroom was having an event - a wedding reception we surmised, noting the flower-decked horse and carriage with its attendants in top hat and tails. We watched the smartly dressed locals parking their cars and hurrying down the road. We were amused to spot a husband and wife arriving in brand new his and hers BMWs and parking side by side. It was a rich event in this rich old street.
We were quietly fantasising about the people who lived in the street, how simply gorgeous it must be to live in such salubrious and historic quarters and what a responsibility it must be. How annoying, perhaps, to live in a tourist attraction - to have to put up with people like us taking photos and lingering longingly outside one's home.

We were doing just that outside the house we had agreed to be our absolute favourite on the street. We were paused, gazing at details and imagining the elegant , affluent and perfect life that must be going on within its walls when the front door opened and an elderly woman appeared.
"Hello," I said.
She did a quick double-take and then, returned my greeting with warmth.
"You have a lovely house," said Aunt Libby.
"Oh thankyou," replied the woman, descending the stone steps from the front door to stand beside us in the street. She was wearing a hat and carrying a handbag, clearly on her way somewhere.
"My tooth just fell out," she announced. "I'm very upset."
This was the last thing we expected to hear.

We expressed immense sympathy. She, rightly, was very agitated. She reiterated her horror at this sudden happening. No pain. No blood. She wasn't even eating. The tooth had simply fallen out.
Of course this was a little puzzling. But her distress was very real.
"I'm waiting for my daughter, is that Merridy?" she asked, pointing at a small clutch of tourists ambling slowly on the other side of the road. "The one in red, is that Merridy," she asked. "I'd better go and see." Of course, we did not know her daughter - but it was clear that the woman in red did not know our old woman. Libby offered to go with her, to take her hand across the road. The woman said she was glad of the company. But, as the tourists walked away, she realised her daughter was not one of them and returned to the front of the house, toying with the option of waiting for her daughter to come home or going to her dentist in another town - despite the fact that it was Saturday afternoon and she had not phoned him.
"Oh look, here comes the dentist," she said as a spunky young postman approached down the street. We corrected her and she called out and told him he was the postman. "But not doing your round," he replied, striding on past.
At this point, she decided to show us the tooth.
She opened and shut her hand quickly, exposing what was obviously a set of three teeth from a dental plate.

Of course, we had already silently ascertained that this poor woman had dementia, perhaps Alzheimers, so we were decidedly alarmed when she asked if her car was in the driveway. It was. She tried the doors. It was locked. Phew. She did not seem to have the key but returned to the front of the house where we assured her that her teeth would be OK until Monday when she could get an appointment with the dentist and we tried to coax her into returning indoors , to put her feet up, have a drink, try to relax, wait for her daughter... She was accepting this advice and was just mounting the stairs when her next-door-neighbour drove up and she announced that she would just go and talk to him first.

We bade her good luck and farewell and slowly resumed our path. Looking back, I saw the neighbour solicitously stroking her shoulder and knew she was in good hands. Poor, distressed and befuddled old girl.

And thus it was we realised that even the most perfect house does not a perfect world contain.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

China out of control

We were eyeing off the price difference between farmed and wild scallops in the supermarket tonight. It has always been an ethical preference to buy farmed fish since they are a renewable resource, so to speak. The wild fish are twice the price - and rightly so. But we noticed that the farmed scallops came from China and immediately we recoiled in horror. Such is the impact spurred by the Chinese pollution of the food chain.

Their toxins now are in fish food - and young farmed fish fed with their cheating ingredients are suspected to have been liberated into the streams of America. Heaven alone knows what the Chinese are using as feed in their own fish farms. One can only imagine that yet more corners have been cut. One simply has no trust in the Chinese any more.

Now there are poor people with kidney failure from the antifreeze ingredient, diethylene glycol, the Chinese substituted for glycerine. People drank it in cough syrups - took it as medicine to make them well. What a grotesque irony.

Sick and dead people, sick and dead pets, polluted fish...
Where will it end?

I'm now boycotting all foods from China. Every thinking person should do so.
In fact, they should boycott the Olympics, too.