Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Two in one day - the update

For those of you silently following mad cousin has made contact. They were flooded but not as badly as some places. They are all there. I should be thankful. I am not. I am angry. They should be heading home. They will just get in the way of the clean up effort and the risk to their health has just increased dramatically.

There is something to be said for dirt.

Not so long ago I came across one of those wonderful, useless pieces of general knowledge with which to irritate other people. In mediaeval England it was not uncommon for some people to wash their hands just once a week.
Even given their lack of understanding of germ warfare I am not sure how they managed this. I assume the author of the book was referring to deliberate handwashing. Soap, as we know it, did not exist. Shampoo did not exist. Cleaning fluids, as we know them, did not exist. There must have been dirt everywhere.
In "The Woolpack" Cynthia Harnett has the young hero, Nicholas, taking a weekly bath and grumbling about it. A 'dip in the river' is different. Taking a weekly bath meant the water had to be heated by the servants. His father went into the tub first. Nicholas followed. The servants followed Nicholas. The scullion boy came last. The water must have been filthy by then - and cold as well. When the sullion boy was finished the water would have been tipped outside. It was all a lot of work.
Dirt is work. It creates work. There is the plumbing, the people who manufacture the pipes, the people who design the pipes. There is the water supply and the people who work for that. There is the washing machine. There are people to design those, make those, sell those, install them, and write the instruction manuals. There is the washing powder which has to be manufactured and put in a box. The box has to be designed and manufactured and marketed. It has to be packed and transported and put on the supermarket shelves. The list seems endless.
I like to think there is dirt and clean dirt. I like to think there is a difference between dirt and 'filth'. The latter is the real health hazard. It is what is caused by the failure to remove dirt and potential decay within a reasonable time. There is also 'pollution'. We will not head in that direction. Back to dirt.
I started thinking about dirt this morning because of the shirts. There were brown smudges of dirt around the collars and cuffs. That means my father has been in the garden. This weekend we begin daylight saving. It is time to plant summer things. There will be more smudges of dirt. Dirt is good.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

I thought I knew something about

disaster and emergency situations. I still do. And I don't.
There has been a disaster in the Philippines. Manila was flooded. We sorted out some of the communication issues for the Philippines years ago. It is a disaster prone country. It is politically unstable. The geography, poverty and religious mix make it almost ungovernable. I know all those things. I know that there is a whole 'suburb' of people living, quite illegally, in one of the biggest cemeteries - and that they consider themselves fortunate to be living there. The authorities come along and send them away occasionally - but never for long. They have nowhere else to go.
I did communication assistance work for aid workers there thirty-four years ago. Nothing much has changed. What has changed is something quite different.
My mad cousin took her six children off to live in the slums of Manila for three months. They left on the 25th August. I wrote about it then.
Contact has been limited. I expected that. I expected it for two reasons. One is the difficulty of maintaining internet services from where they are. The other is that I know the situation would not be what they expected. Whatever they were told nothing could prepare them for the reality. I would not be prepared for the reality and I know more than they do, even now I know more than they do - and I know less. They would not be willing or able to admit the reality.
My father is worried, very worried. Every time the 'phone rings - will it be news of them? Have you had an e-mail? Are the children all right? He loves those children like his own grandchildren.

Chris, an aid worker in Manila, has contacted me. His parents were missionaries - after Chris and his sister grew up and were able to care for themselves. Chris knows the ropes. He knows the dangers. He is single. It is up to him whether he takes risks or not. He does not take unnecessary risks. I (virtually) know his team. None of them have children. Chris had been to the relevant embassies and checked his team in so that people would know they were still safe. There was no sign of my cousin or her brood. He says he will try again tomorrow if he has the time. He should not have to do this but he will do it.

Another friend is also teaching there. She lives in the centre of Manila. She is safe. Her students are safe. She is housing eight of them in her single room until the school dries out and they can go back. Like Chris, she is single. She knew what she was going to. She lived in the Philippines as a child.

I am always concerned for them. I am concerned for any number of other singles and couples I know who are doing the aid work most people never hear about. They take risks, calculated risks every day. They live in remote places, in harsh and dangerous conditions. They all have qualifications they are using to help local people help themselves. For them, being there is a good thing. They believe they are doing something positive, that it will make a difference. Often it does make a difference. It may be a small difference in overall terms but it can be a big difference to a small community. They understand that. They do not believe they can change the world, just help a community.

I think I understand that - and they do not have dependent children.

Monday, 28 September 2009

There is a Gaelic proverb,

“Cuimhnichibh aír na daoine bho’n d’thainig sibh” (remember the people whom you come from)
Where do you come from? Where do you live? What are you doing here? Who are you? Who do you think you are? I know, the last sentence is also the title of a television programme. It is apparently very popular. I have never seen it, just the itty bitty advertising teasers. I am wondering though, should there be a distinction between who you are and who you think you are?
My cousin, the eldest son of the eldest son of the eldest son of the ship's pilot and marine cartographer, wrote the history of our branch of the clan with a little help from yours truly and the other cousins. We are fiercely proud of our Scots heritage.
My great-grandfather made the choice to migrate - or was the choice made for him? My great-grandmother made the choice to marry him - or was the choice made for her? Other choices were made by my other great-grandparents - or were made for them. My parents made the choice to marry. I am a result of that choice. So are my siblings.
We have come from one place. We live in others. The reasons for doing so are many and varied. We have made choices or had the choices thrust upon us. We are the result of those choices and something more besides. Our choices have not always been wise. I know all that.
One of my more distant cousins has taken her six children off to live in the slums of Manila for three months. It is a choice I would not have made at any time - more than justified I believe by the present floods. Our clan is too close knit for this not to be the cause of concern for everyone who knows them. We have had no news. Another friend who is working there will get news to me if he can but I know he is unlikely to find them in the chaos.
I am part of all that. I am a part of the choices made by others. I am a part of the past as well as the present and the future. I have to remember the people I come from. They are also my future.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Everyone needs a support network.

To have a support network you have to be able to communicate. The people with the best support networks are the people best able to communicate. The people most in need of support networks are the people least able to communicate. Does that make sense? Is it logical? Are there people who would disagree with me? Probably.

My father and I have discussed this need for a support network often. We both believe it does not particularly matter where the network comes from. My father still goes to church. It is a support network. The people who go - and they are mostly his age - are part of his support network. He has a smaller, stronger support network within that and another small network of close friends. The networks have grown smaller as he has grown older. I think that happens to everyone. My father no longer drives a car. He does not go to night meetings at the Wood Group, the International Brotherhood of Magicians, the Soil Association, the Phonograph Society or the Electronic Organ Club. None of these things would interest me but he enjoyed the companionship here. Does he need less companionship now? Probably not. Is it too much effort to find it? Yes. He disliked Probus. It was a group for old men. My father still likes being with children. He has never quite grown up. It is what made him, and still makes him, a good teacher.

Communication is a two way process. It is always a two way process. You can talk as much as you like but, unless someone is listening, you have not communicated. Listening means understanding. You can hear words but to listen is to communicate as much as it is to speak.

I was fourteen when I met the profoundly deaf girl on the bus, a girl my own age who had immense difficulties in communicating. We travelled together, each Friday and Sunday afternoon, to and from our respective boarding schools in the city. She taught me the manual alphabet and my first basic signs. We could 'talk' just a little but she also taught me much more than that. I already wanted to write, was trying to write. She taught me there were other ways of saying things. It was a big lesson for a fourteen year old. It is not just the profoundly deaf who have severe communication impairments.

Nicola Morgan has been talking about networking, networking for writers. It is part of the writing process. Both things are part of the communication process. Communication is about making connections. It is our capacity to make complex connections that make us human.
I wish I could always make those complex connections.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

I wonder if I am number?

I feel honoured. A number of people dropped by from Nicola's Blogoffee morning, including Nicola. I am not sure how she found time to read all she did. Her reading rate must be close on a thousand words a minute. I can read bad fiction at that rate. I prefer to read good fiction a little more slowly. I still cannot read law at a thousand words a minute. It would help if I could.
In the middle of the pats and purrs of words from other people there was a number...and the number turned out to be Emma Darwin. Emma sounds the sort of person I would like to get to know so I will prowl after her for a bit.
But, it was the number that got me thinking. Am I number? I must be! I must be a whole string of numbers on the computer network. That's all right. Unless things go wrong, as they did for Emma, I do not come out as a number. Am I number in other places? I suppose I am. I do not like being a number in other places. I like to be me as me or my alter-ego - the cat. Numbers are not people.
I have numbers on my birth certificate, on my passport, on my social security card, on my ID-proof-of-age card (I need that? My cat hair is already grey!), on my library cards, on my bank debit card, on my bank account, on my university records and on files and forms and fur everywhere. I am multiple numbers. Am I also multiple purrsonalities? No. Numbers are not people or cats.
Parents get naming rights. They are not always kind about this. They do not always think. There is the sad case of Sean I knew - his surname is Lamb. He turned into a John on his 21st birthday. His parents insisted on Sean in the hope of an inheritance for themselves. It did not eventuate. He always said he would rather have been a number at school. Who can blame him? He is happier being John - his Great-Uncle Sean (now 101) approved the name change and called his parents fools. "Better to be a number!" he told me once.
Like Emma I am descended from someone many other people know about. Their notoriety is much more local but I still have people say, "Are you related...?" or "You are ....grandaughter aren't you?" and sometimes, in other places, it is "Are you .....daughter?"
That's all right. I am proud of my paternal-grandfather and my father. They achieved a lot. It was not of Darwinian proportions but it was still a lot - and it was good and useful. The people who ask that are just as likely, "And are you....who writes to the papers?" (Guilty as charged. I like to stir the pot occasionally. I do not do it to offend. I do want people to think.)
Numbers are not names. They are not identity. Numbers are not people.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Welcome to my scratching post.

If you are wandering in prior to Nicola Morgan’s Blogoffee then the virtual tuna sandwiches have been made. Nicola chose tuna not salmon – with thinly sliced brown bread and the crusts cut off. You are welcome to help yourselves. The water is boiling in the kettle. Please help yourselves to virtual tea or virtual coffee as you wish.

I have also endeavoured to dust all the cat hair off my scratching post aka as ‘the blog’. It is a simple blog. I do not have a fancy layout. I do not have pictures. As a cat I have not managed to learn these things. As a human I am not interested. I did manage to get the "little bloggy picture thingy" up. The cat is, of course, myself and the book stack says a great deal more about the read and unread books, written and unwritten books in my life. That will have to do.

You will note I follow very few blogs. It is Vanessa's fault that I am following any blogs at all. Her blog is the Fidra blog. Vanessa is a publisher and a bookseller. She introduced me to Jane at "How Publishing Really Works" and Nicola at "Help I need a publisher. If any of you want to write I recommend them all for different reasons.

I prowl through some blogs as a cat. I am not sure why I do this but I feel comfortable with it. It is fun trying to maintain the character. Most of my life is so intensely earnest and serious I need a little light relief. This is due to my (largely unpaid) day job. I write communication boards for micro-aid workers to use in complex humanitarian emergencies. In simple English that means that I try to help independent aid workers communicate with the locals in disaster situations.

I like words. I have always liked words. I talk too much. Almost certainly I also write too much. There are several novels sitting in the ‘bottom drawer’ of my computer and two more in the actual desk drawer. I lack the courage to do anything with them – and they would need things done to them before I could let anyone else read them.

I have sent just one novel to a publisher. She keeps telling me she is going to read it; indeed that she wants to read it. The reality is that she is unlikely to read it – and if you are reading this my friend I am reminding you that you promised me a copy of another mss too!

My blog is a training exercise in a different sort of writing. There is something I would still like to achieve in my life. I would like to ride my tricycle around the coastline of Britain and keep a blog about it. Why? I do not know. It is just something that I think I want to do. If I actually set out on that journey I may feel quite differently about it. I am a coward. I have always been a coward. I can be brave inside my writing but not about my writing – or about anything else.

The idea of setting out into the unknown where people do not know me and I do not know them is frightening. No, be honest, it is terrifying. Realistically I know that, even if I do begin, I will not get all the way around Britain. The tricycle only has three gears and will not get me up a mountain. Britain has a lot of mountains. Also, I cannot mend a puncture or repair any other part of my mode of transport. I am not sure how far I can travel in one day. I cannot walk across a road fast enough not to get run over. If I could I might leave the tricycle behind and go on foot instead. I wonder what would happen if I was caught in a thunderstorm or it snowed? I wonder if I will need a tent in case I get stranded between two villages or between two remote and perhaps deserted crofts in the north-west of Scotland? I have to go to Scotland. My ancestors come from there. I would like to move there permanently. I do not like hot weather. There is a lot of hot weather in Adelaide.

There is also the small matter of finance and the accommodation that comes because you have finance and the fact that it would take much longer than three months - the British government would kick me out if I stayed longer than three months. Someone might give me a Press card of course. Can you imagine a cat with a Press card? I could stay (stray?) longer then. But, is there any point in writing such a blog if nobody reads it? I think about these things and I do not have answers for them. I need nine lives to do all this.

If you have reached this far, please leave your calling card in the comments tray. I promise not to scratch. It is early in the day, still just yesterday in the UK. I am planning to drop in to the Blogoffee morning at Nicola's later. I may see you there.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Every year I buy daffodils.

They are nothing fancy, just the common yellow daffodils you see everywhere. It is the only time I buy flowers. Even in London, as a student with even less money than I have now, I would buy one bunch.
Here I buy them on Daffodil Day. The proceeds go to the Cancer Council of Australia. I have done this for a long time.
My mother died of stomach cancer nine years ago. It was, mercifully, only four months between her diagnosis and her death. She had major emergency surgery in that time but then refused all other treatment. That was her choice. She never really believed in doctors or medicine of any type.
Stress almost certainly contributed to my mother’s condition. She would never show worry. The rest of us would be castigated for worrying. She prided herself in not being ‘a worrier’.Why worry? Her belief in a supernatural being was strong, everything would be taken care of. My youngest sibling, the cause of much of the stress, would be just fine if the rest of us would just provide support and forgiveness and no she was not an alcoholic whatever the evidence to the contrary. We just did not understand.
We still do not understand but we have tried to provide support and forgiveness, love and caring. My mother simply did not understand that, for us, our concern meant standing back and trying to make our sibling come to terms with herself. For my mother it meant giving her errant, wayward child more and more support. It was her way of 'not worrying'.
My mother never saw her ever increasing support for her child or her anger with us as fear or worry. Cancer made her angry rather than afraid. It was not the state of mind she had been led to believe in as a Christian Scientist. She may have ceased to attend the church years before but the belief remained. Cancer was a state of mind. It was not a physical condition. It could be overcome if you simply recognised the error. There was nothing wrong.
I do not buy daffodils for my mother. You cannot buy daffodils for that sort of reasoning..
I buy daffodils for Dad’s godson and his godson’s brother. They are both in remission - two brothers in one family. It has been immensely stressful for their parents and their siblings. All we have been able to do is listen when their parents want to talk about how their grown sons are or not are.
I buy daffodils for other people I know who have fought, won, lost or are enduring. I buy them for their relatives. I buy them in memory of my cousin and in memory of father’s cousin and now the daughter of my father's cousin.
In a different way I buy daffodils for my father and my siblings. I remember my mother but I do not buy them in her memory. She would not want that.
As I write this the mother of my two Chinese godchildren will have urgent surgery on Saturday morning. We do not know yet whether the growith is malignant or not. We hope for the best and, being merely human, fear the worst. My Chinese friend is like a younger sister to me.
I buy the daffodils out of fear, fear for myself, for my family, for people I know and for all the people I do not know. I hope.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

A blogoffee morning? Exterbadant!

Blogoffee. This is Nicola Morgan's word for a 'virtual' coffee morning in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support on Friday 25th September. It is a worthy cause so I will dust the cat hair off my virtual scratching post and hope that someone will call in here for the virtual salmon sandwiches before the cake and coffee. Even if you wish to bypass me on that day, please call in and see her.
But "blogoffee" you ask? Ah, a combination of blog and coffee? Yes.
It reminded me of a word we used as children. I have no idea where it came from. I think my brother and I coined it between us. "Exterbadant". I know we used it quite a lot. We thought it was a very useful word. It had a variety of meanings, depending on the context. If it was in relation to something we really liked then it was an adjective that meant something like 'very good'. If we did not like something then we might ask one another, "Can we exterbadant that?" It might mean remove or alter or avoid something. Avoidance was a large part of our lives in relation to activities our mother expected of us - especially acitivities that involved being clean, tidy and well behaved in front of adults we disliked.
Our mother saw the word as completely meaningless. It irritated her to the point of real anger. Our love of words came from our father not our mother. Our mother used words in a practical way. They were there to communicate everday needs and commands. In her world you did not need made-up anything.
My brother and I used other made-up words and codes and signs. They were an essential part of our world, our private world. Even as we entered our teens we would leave messages for one another that our mother could not understand. "What does this mean?" she would demand when she found a scrap of paper in our bedrooms. We would hastily lie or, more often, refuse to tell her. "I don't like you having secrets," she would say. We knew that. Our rooms were searched regularly. It is likely that, with a little imagination, our mother could have worked out the meaning of the messages. It is probably just as well she never did.
I let my sibling know via e-mail of something that had happened. I had a one word reply. I wonder what a hacker would make of that word? Exterbadant!

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

We had a storm

yesterday. A cold front tore through the state like an angry teenager intent on doing as much damage as possible as fast as possible. Trees were uprooted. Houses were unroofed. Hailstones the size of golf-balls and larger dented cars and smashed windscreens. It was too dark to see properly. Power was lost to more than 30,000 homes and businesses.
Our house actually trembled with the force of the thunder overhead. I could feel the concrete slab on which it sits vibrate beneath my feet. The windows shivered violently. It rained. The roof guttering had indigestion and overflowed from an excess of water.
At one point my father tried to say something to me and had to shout to try and make himself heard. "Turn the computer off!" I already had. I do not take risks with that. I read by flicker instead.
Then, quite suddenly, the sun came out. It was still raining quite steadily but the sun had come out. I looked out again.There were pools of water everywhere with small white opals of hailstone glistening in them.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Do not read this

unless you want to be seriously - irritated. I read Nicola Morgan ranting on about why she writes. It was timely. Someone, a good friend, asked me the other day what I would choose if I had to choose between writing and knitting. I said writing. I did not hesitate.
Now, do not get the wrong idea please. I find both things a huge challenge. Knitting is difficult for me. I am not a coordinated individual. It took my patient paternal grandmother years before I could knit to her satisfaction and mine. If I had been given a penny for every stitch I dropped (yes it was way pre-decimal currency in Australia) I would have been so wealthy I would never have needed to contemplate the possibility of anything but a life of luxury. Knitting creates things. It clothes people. It is useful and it can, in the right hands, be beautiful. People get addicted to knitting, seriously addicted. They have a problem called SABLE - 'stash advancement beyond life expectancy' or more yarn than they can hope to use in their lifetime and the lifetime of the other knitters they know.
But, knitting is not writing. Many knitters never actually create anything. They follow patterns. They re-create other people's work. I do create my own but there is always the feeling that there is an element of plagiarism there. Knitting has to have features that are features in the work of other knitters too. Knitting is thousands upon thousands of stitches all connected with one another in ways that have been connected before and will be connected again. In between there will be only tiny detours.
Writing is different. It is mine. I can start from the very beginning. I can create an entire world. I can have as many characters or as few as I like. They can do whatever I want them to do. It is only if I want to communicate them to other people that I have to acknowledge restraints of any sort. It is no good writing something unbelievable. There have to be points of contact. I might make you see something upside down, back to front, or inside out, or as an extension but it has still to be something you can recognise from your experience and your point of view or I have failed to communicate. Writing is about making connections, not just one connection but thousands upon thousands of connections. Writing is about major detours and new journeys. It is exploration. I have to make my own map. I have to knit words in new ways.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

"Do you want

a hold?"
My young friend Helena brought her six week old twin girls to our knitting group yesterday. She had promised she would although I wondered if she would actually make it. We are all delighted for Helena and her husband. It took eight years for this to happen. Twins were not on the original agenda of course but, as is sometimes the way with such things, a desperate measure ended up with two instead of one.
So, Helena holds out a baby to me. I hastily sit down and take the tiny, warm bundle from her. Oh. It is a very strange feeling. I have not had children of my own. Merely holding one feels like an enormous responsibility. She has just been fed. Her sister is being fed. So, we cuddle. I hold her upright against me so she can burp if necessary. She tries very hard to hold her head up. We look at each other. At six weeks she is still learning to focus but we make eye contact of a sort. Her eyes are dark purple-plum-brown. She 'smiles'. It is probably just a burp-smile but she appears content. Her mouth is so small that my thumb looks big next to it. I can barely see her eyelashes. Her fingernails are like tiny flecks of mother-of-pearl shell. Her arms wave aimlessly.
We 'talk' to one another. I do not believe in baby talk so it is complete sentences on my part. She just gurgles and offers small vocal responses.
Eventually she gives a tiny wriggle and puts her head against my top. I wonder if she can hear or feel my heartbeat? She is quiet and still.
Helena takes her from me. I give her up reluctantly but gratefully.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

My father's brother

made contact yesterday. It is the first time we have heard from him for some months. Long before that he was becoming increasingly difficult. Whenever my father made contact his brother would be ungracious to the point of rudeness. He refused to speak to me at all.
His personality has changed with failing eyesight and other health problems, including several small 'strokes'. Inside the family he has never been communicative. My father can never remember him visiting us. He rarely visited his parents. When he did it was only ever on specific invitation. That was not necessary. He would have been welcomed at any time. More than once I heard my grandfather say, "Come more often. You mother loves to see you here." It never happened. It meant his children did not see their grandparents as often as they would have wished.
We were much more fortunate. Although we lived in "the bush" during term time we would head back to the city from whichever remote area we were living in at least once a year. There would be six glorious weeks of summer holiday. The only difficulty was that we had to share between maternal and paternal grandparents. We children unreservedly preferred staying with our paternal grandparents.
We were not spoilt there. If anything, the reverse was true. Our maternal grandparents would offer sweets, visits to the pictures and the zoo, rides on the train and all manner of other things. There was even television at their place.
Our paternal grandparents offered something quite different. My paternal grandfather was mid-Victorian in many of his attitudes. My paternal grandmother expected assistance with household activities before we went off to play. When we did go it was usually to the beach. The beach was at the end of the street. We would go with a bucket, a spade and permission to go in the water as far as our ankles until we were six and our knees until we were eight and our waists thereafter.
My grandmother could not swim. My grandfather swam every morning of the year until he was 88 and in the summer thereafter. He was living in a nursing home for the last two years of his life and his eyesight was failing too but the nurses would see him across the road to the beach. He would take his morning dip in the ocean and then wait at the side of the road until a nurse or passer by saw him across the road again.
My grandfather taught me to swim with what can only be described as "abrupt patience". I was never very good but he was determined that all his grandchildren should, as the descendants of seafaring Scots, be able to swim. All his siblings could swim and did so regularly.
My uncle can swim. He used to spend hours on the beach. His skin would turn mahogany in summer and he was told he spent too much time in the sun. Now he rarely ventures out. He refuses assistance to go to the beach or to do anything else.
He wants my father to meet him for lunch at a small beachside eating place. As Dad no longer drives the car it means his younger mate will go with him. Dad is not looking forward to it, something which makes him feel guilty. He dislikes having to ask his mate to help out. If I drove I would take him and return for him. (My uncle does not want any female company.)
His mate was here yesterday. He had a question for my father,
"What if we take our swim gear and head for the beach afterwards? It should be warm enough."
My father has been searching in his wardrobe for his bathers.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Our Chinese neighbour

came in with bread yesterday. Robert gets large quantities of leftover bread given to him. They come from the owner of the bakery. The bread is almost always square, white, squashy and tasteless. We accept it politely and I pass it on to the local retired vet. She uses it to feed hungry animals. I suspect our neighbour knows this but we maintain the fiction because what he really wants to do is chat with my father.
So, I accepted the bread, told Robert that my father was in the back garden planting the rhubarb and left them to it. Later my father came in and said, "He didn't know what rhubarb was. He wanted to know if you could eat it, whether you ate the leaves. I have told him if this lot grows then you will cook some for him to try."
I will do it but I doubt our neighbour will like it. His diet is very different from ours. They eat rice every day next door. His wife shops in the Chinese supermarket in our Central Market. Helen, as she calls herself in English, can talk to the staff there. Coming to Australia late in life and trying to learn English is not merely difficult, it is almost impossible. She is not happy here. I try to communicate but she prefers to use Chinese. I can only say "How are you?" and read a few characters. We smile and gesture and, sadly, leave it at that. I wonder if she would be happier being called by her Chinese name but her husband insists on Helen.
Helen taught Classical Chinese Literature in Taiwan. I think her interests are more academic than practical, although she does occasionally do a bit of gardening - usually after a trip back to Taiwan. The weeds will have grown again because Robert does not garden. Gardening is foreign to him. He grew up in a flat. There was no garden.
Helen cooks Chinese style. I do not think she is a particularly good cook. Robert complains. They eat a great deal of rice, pork and chicken. If they have a second course it seems to be a very sweet, sticky 'cake' wrapped in cellophane which comes from the Chinese supermarket. We were offered some the day we were invited in for afternoon tea. There were tinned lychees in syrup to go with it. The tea was made with hot water from a thermos.
My own Chinese friends prefer plain, not too sweet shortbread. I know. When I gave one of them the recipe it was passed around her group and on to others.
When Helen goes back to Taiwan, as she does each year, the recycling bin fills with empty pizza containers, with cartons from Kentucky Fried and Hungry Jack's. I wonder what Robert will make of rhubarb.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

I do not like

housework. You clean something and it gets used and you clean it again. Even if you do not use the object it seems to attract dirt and needs cleaning all over again. If you put something away then you need it and have to get it out again. Sometimes you can put it away "in a safe place" and then forget where you put it - or even that you have it at all.
Housework is frustration. I do a minimal amount. The house is clean. It is not tidy. There are books and newspapers, woodworking magazines and knitting littering the "family" area where we eat and, occasionally, watch a minimal amount of television. The walls are decorated with bookshelves and, on top, the polystyrene sheets I use as blocking boards.
A former neighbour made a hobby of housework. You took your shoes off at the door before you entered. Her children, when young, were put in clean clothes several times a day. The vacuum cleaner was used every day. The paintwork was wiped down every day. Windows were washed until they gleamed like small rainbows in the sunlight. Her kitchen work surfaces were bare, even the toaster had a place in the cupboard. Her lounge room had a three seater and two matching chairs. There was a coffee table, bare apart from a single photograph of the family, and a glass cabinet with her best crockery displayed in it. The television set was at an exact angle opposite the two chairs.
Our neighbour had very little time to watch television. She was too busy doing housework. There was never a leaf out of place in her garden. No weed dared to spring up between the paving stones. The hedge was kept strictly in line as it crept quietly down their driveway.
I went in one Saturday afternoon when she was not at home. Her husband was watching a football match on the small television set he kept in the shed. He had a bar radiator on. His feet, still in shoes, were up on a box. There was a can of beer at his side but no glass.
"Hi Cat, she won't be back until after six. I'm supposed to be cleaning the car. Don't tell her but I have booked it in at the car wash instead."
I gave him the letter that had accidentally been left in our letter box and went home. Despite the cold weather his shed looked comfortable and homely. It was tidy. His wife would not have allowed it to be otherwise but there was something different about it.
As I went into our house I understood. There was a bookshelf in the shed. There was not a single book in their house. We have books everywhere.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The last cup of tea

or not? Not. Our neighbour came over for a last cup of tea yesterday morning. Her last cup of tea as a neighbour.
We arranged it last week. She would be giving the house a last, thorough clean before the new neighbours move in and there were things she needed to return - a biscuit cutter shaped like a fish and the trolley that her husband had borrowed to move some of their possessions.
As they are not moving too far we will see them again. The two children want to come back for craft sessions with my father. He is going to teach them some basic woodwork skills. The six year old is anxious to make an aeroplane, the ten year old wants a box for her toy theatre.
But, they will not be just across the road. We will not collect their mail or water their garden when they are away. I will not hear the distinctive sound of their car.
So, I had it all ready. I had picked it out the night before. I had tied a piece of blue curling ribbon around it. Would my neighbour remember what she had asked me to do?
She arrived at the door with a box of things that we had forgotten about. There was a song book, the music box that plays a Christmas carol, the other toy theatre that the ten year old borrowed for school last term and a puppet like a cow. All of these things are evidence of our involvement with the two children.
And there, on top, was what I was waiting for. Our neighbour is actually looking a bit teary-eyed. It was her idea, not mine. I like it. We will each be giving away part of ourselves to be used by the other. She has done the same thing with her grandmother and her mother. We silently exchange used wooden spoons.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

I own a handwritten, illustrated copy of

TS Eliot's "Four Quartets". It was made for me way, way back when I turned 21 - and was by far the best present I received on an occasion which went otherwise almost entirely unnoticed. It was made for me by a lecturer in art at the teacher training college I attended.
The book is small and slim. It has a plain, dark green cover. There are four illustrations and the poems. The poems are written in Bob's normal handwriting. It is not a fancy book, rather it is restrained - a bit like our relationship. He was married and old enough to be my father.
We were friends. We enjoyed one another's company. When Bob's wife went off to another country for almost eight weeks to help her daughter-in-law cope with a new, sickly baby she rang me and said, "Cat, while I am away I give you permission, indeed I am begging you, to keep Bob company occasionally."
It is not the sort of request you usually get from a wife. I was still living at home so we invited Bob over for a couple of meals. He wanted to see a film about Isadora Duncan. We went together. It was all done very properly. Bob was an 'open doors and walk on the outside of the footpath' sort of gentleman. I wrote to his wife and sent a small present for the baby now that he seemed certain to survive. She returned home and hugged me.
I went off half way around the world to study and we wrote letters. Bob came to visit once and we went out to lunch. I knew London better than he, an Englishman, knew it.
Not long after I reluctantly returned to Australia Bob had a heart attack and took early retirement. I knitted him a brown pullover as a retirement present and his wife took him off to the seaside in another state. He fished and painted and built a simple house. His wife gave up smoking. Eventually they returned because their daughter was here and she needed help. We saw one another at regular intervals.
Then there was the inevitable 'phone call from his wife. "Cat, he's in hospital...another heart attack. They don't think he will make it."
He did not make it.
Some days later I went to see his wife. She was sorting through some things. There was a brown pullover on the chair in the kitchen. It was darned and patched and fit only for the rag bag. I barely recognised it. His wife smiled and said, "He loved it."
I love the book.

Monday, 14 September 2009

When Midnite asks Khat

"What is a typewriter?" Khat replies, "It is a machine for writing books. One hundred years from now people will be preposterously lazy." (For the rest of the conversation read "Midnite" by Randolph Stow. Khat is a Siamese cat and Midnite is a not-very-bright bushranger.)
The exchange is supposed to be funny. It is funny. It is also serious. I now wonder what Khat would have replied if Midnite had asked, "What is a computer?"
Moving from writing with pencil and paper to writing with a typewriter to writing with a word processor and. finally, to writing with a computer have the potential to make for increasingly lazy writers. It is too easy to fling words on to the page. You think to yourself, "I'll leave that for the moment. I'll come back to it. I want to get the next bit done. It's just an idea. I have another idea. I must get the new idea down." The words whirl faster and faster - until you are caught up and carried along and you have lost control.
I need to go out on my tricycle this morning. It will take me about forty minutes to get where I am going and about the same to return. (The return is slightly uphill. Add five minutes.) While I am riding I need to plan. I need to think. I need to write in my head. I need to say the conversation to myself. Riding is a solitary occupation. If I use the time well then I do not need to be quite so lazy when I return to the computer. I will use my time more wisely. I might even succeed in writing something without being preposterously lazy about it.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Less is more

My father and I do constant battle with words. He uses too many of them. I might too. I like words.
My father would, however, be the first to admit that he suffers from "wordiness". He will use half a dozen words when one would do. Part of the problem is that he did a university degree in English. He followed it up by teaching English and then writing 'patter' for his own conjuring shows. He also helped other magicians write their patter. Patter is wordy. It is designed to distract as well as amuse.
Now, if he needs to write something, he will often ask me to review what he has written. It is often passed over with the words, "I suppose you will say I could say this in less." Yes.
Other people sometimes ask me to write things too. I have been known to dictate letters in the aisles of the local supermarket. I should not do this. It causes a trolley jam.
"I don't know how you do it," the recipient will tell me as they fold the shopping list - on which they have written - away.
I think I do know. It took me a long time to learn to write. The physical act of putting something on paper was frustratingly slow. The results were often barely legible. I had to work out the shortest way of saying something. My first attempts at typing were not much better. Even now I am tempted by the thought of one of those friendly, tireless dragons that will take dictation without complaint. I imagine myself writing entire books in a week - or less.
I will not succumb. My writing is better if my words cannot just tumble on to the page in reckless disorder. I am lazy. I need discipline.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Failure to answer e-mails

is an irritant I must learn to live with. I must learn to live with people who do not reply to e-mails.
I keep telling myself this. I can sometimes make a telephone call, "Yes, sorry Cat I have not got around to it" and "I have not looked at my in-box" and "I have been out of the office at a meeting all morning" (and all yesterday as well?) and "I don't know what to do so I didn't bother to answer" and "my computer is not working" (how did you respond to this then?) ... the list goes on.
I know e-mail capacity is both a blessing and the bane of many people's lives. If I want the attention of a politician or a person of importance (politicians do not rate as VIPs but they want to be treated as such) I will write a letter. I will keep that letter short. It will state the issue. If I have not contacted them before it will state my credentials. That is about it. Nothing more is needed in the letter. There may be a short amount of accompanying information. If they want to know more they will ask. Do not overloard them with information.
E-mails however are a different story. I try to keep my work e-mails short. I try to make contact because it is essential to do so. I need an answer. It is why I am contacting you. I do not want to be fobbed off with excuses. Get around to responding. You expect me to respond when you e-mail me. I down load my e-mail on a regular basis. If I do not know the answer I will say so-and try to suggest an alternative solution or source of information. I will head for the local library and use one of their computers if needs be.
My job is about communicating. It is about responding. The people I supposedly work with are in related fields. They should know about the importance of communicating. Some of them are aware that lives depend on communication lines being in place. They still fail to respond. It is as if, one step removed, it is no longer real to them. It is like television news footage rather than real life.
We all need to talk a little less and listen a little more.

Friday, 11 September 2009

We went back to the Show yesterday

because my father wanted to see things. He likes the Show. He missed last year because of a shoulder replacement so it was doubly important to get there this year. When you are 86 there is always the possibility that you will not be able to go alone the following year. He likes to go alone but he likes me to meet him somewhere at around lunch time so that he can enthuse about what he has seen.
I take our lunch as neither of us care for the 'chips with everything' type food that makes up the bulk of what is available. It is also unduly expensive and why waste time standing in a queue when you could be looking at something more interesting.
I was not quite sure how my father would react but I had suggested he watched the Jenny Gillies flower parade. He grumbled that he did not want to see a fashion parade of any sort so I said, "Well, watch a small part. You can go away if you do not want to see the rest of it." He stayed for the lot and declared it "absolutely marvelllous" apart from the one piece of rock music.
I left him talking to the gardening people - and agreeing with Sophie Thomson of the ABC about the general awfulness and dreadfulness of artificial lawns - and headed off to the shed where they have the alpacas. I am rather fond of alpacas. They are intelligent animals and, provided you do not pat them on the head, they will normally respond in an interested sort of way. The owners of a far distant from Adelaide alpaca farm are people I have become slightly acquainted with over the years. They do not knit but they produce yarn. It normally goes straight to a spinner and on to elsewhere but, this year, they had some yarn for sale. It is nice yarn but there are no patterns. The question they had for me was what they could do about it for next year. We chatted for a while and came to some tentative conclusions that will need working on. As things got busy again I left them and took a very slow tour of the animals of particular interest to me. Naturally they all, apart from the short hair cats, produce yarn!

Thursday, 10 September 2009

It was noisy and crowded and quite good fun.

Yesterday I did my turn of duty at "the Show" as the annual agricultural and horticultural event of the year is known. There is a lot more to this event than farms and flowers of course. I was there as a representative of the knitting fraternity.
I went with another member of the guild who does amazing, weird and wonderful knitting and crochet with items she finds in the for a pair of sandals made from iris leaves anyone? She spent yesterday demonstrating hair-pin crochet with a homemade pin . The end result will be a bowl. It is different and different made more than one person take notice. Only two people had any idea what she was doing.
As we were aiming to show people something different I took along the latest shawl with the hedgehog forest of markers to help me keep my place. I did not get much done but that did not matter. There were talking points - the circular needle, the type of yarn, why I had "all those little bits of wool" in there, what shape it would be and so on.
I think we succeeded in most showing people something they had not seen before.
We had trouble finding our spot - the Convenor had failed to tell me it was inside the area where the quilts were displayed. When I looked in there to see if she was around there was a note on the table. "Gone to brunch. Please be quilt police. Back soon." Right.
I do not mind sitting surrounded by quilts...although knitting might be better. The quilts here are not the quilts that will appear at the Quilt and Craft Fair in November but they are still pleasant to look at. I will never understand the passion for cutting fabric merely to sew it together again, however beautiful the end result. It is not me. I do however appreciate the time and the talent involved in the best of the quilts.
The pavilion also housed, at various times in the day, the South Australian Police Band (world class reputation and invited to the Edinburgh Tattoo) and the Jenny Gillies Flowers parade - amazing handsewn costumes of colourful flowers and fruits. The latter are the over the top exaggerated art of the theatre. Their creator is a theatrical designer. The music was louder than I like and varied from Handel to Stevie Wonder. I prefer the former. It will be interesting to hear what my father makes of it today.
There were people of all shapes, sizes and ages. They were short. They were tall. They were casually dressed and not so casually dressed. Babies slept. Children consumed junk food. Some people stopped to observe items in the display cabinets, others moved past with barely a glance.
A group of young Muslim women spent a long time looking at the basketry. A woman with a notebook sketched something displayed in the embroidery section. A man went down on his hands and knees to look at the underside of a small table in the woodwork area.
I did not see the animals or the sideshows or the hall where they sell the "showbags" or the farm machinery. I really did not see anything apart from one small area but I also saw everything. Yes, people watching is fun.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

"This government is committed

to doing something...." Perhaps.
Yet another report on disability services in Australia landed on my desk yesterday. I read it last night. It was shorter than most and said even less. The present government is committed to doing even less than previous governments.
I believe the real rot started in the 60's when there were the first moves to "mainstream" and "deinstitutionalise". (What a word!) The social theory of assimilation and rights and dignity quickly became a reason to spend less taxpayer money on those who needed extra assistance. Of course, according to each successive government, they are spending more than the previous government on disability services - and doing so in "difficult economic services".
There has also been a persistent myth that left leaning governments do more in the area of social welfare than right leaning governments. The statistics show that this is not the case but the myth continues to the increasing disillusionment of old activists who grumble that the young ones do not know how bad things were "back then".
Many of the old activists do more harm than good although they do it with the best of intentions. They still believe passionately in mainstreaming, integration and assimilation. They believe that, if you throw enough money at a problem then that will solve the problem. It cannot and it will not. There is never going to be enough money.
There are also other issues that they often refuse to recognise. These are the activists who grumble when the profoundly deaf do not join in the chorus of demands for mainstream education and who seem happy with their own language and social group. These are the activists who believe that permanent wheelchair access should be provided for all buildings, no matter what the cost or whether anyone will use it. Asked to choose between the access and a wheelchair for a child they simply say that there is no need to make a choice. Society should provide both.
Society is not going to provide everything.
I am however puzzled by the failure of activists and providers to provide more assistance with communication skills. The research we did showed real benefits for both the individual and the provider when communication skills were enhanced. For those with profound communication disabilities who were also getting considerable assistance with the activities of daily living there was a decrease in the amount of time required each day and an increase in satisfaction with the service provided.
The puzzle however solves itself when I remember the words of the senior public servant, "If you cannot communicate you cannot complain."
I suspect it would have been better for many people if I had never been taught to read and write.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

It took a little while

but our friendly electrician 'phoned at midday yesterday and said, "Oh good, you are home. I'm sending Ben around to put that new switch in." This is the switch for the air conditioning unit, the one on which the 'temporary' repair was done in mid-July. He was supposed to be here the following week.
Given the time lapse and the shock to my system I just say, "Yes, thankyou. We are here." As I put the 'phone down I realise that Ben is going to have to turn the power off. Lunch is not a problem. The computer is. I hastily save some work and send an e-mail to someone telling them to expect a delay. I can go to the Post Office while Ben is busy. Dad can go on clearing out the corner of the shed.
When I get back from the Post Office Ben is busy doing the complicated things that electricians do with wires and screws and switches. After saying hello I head inside. I am greeted by the faint smell, the too faint smell, of partially baked bread. I had not remembered the bread.
I open the lid of the bread machine and look in. It had started to bake. It had about forty minutes to go. It is now barely warm. Cautiously I take the baking bucket out of the machine.
Can it be rescued?
The dough is just cooked enough to slide out easily - and then it sinks like a deflated balloon. I need to make more bread today.

Monday, 7 September 2009

"But I might need it!"

My father has been clearing out a corner of his shed. This is not to be confused with clearing out the shed. That would be too much to expect. This is a corner, very much a corner. He wants a space for his new dust extractor to perch when it is not in use.
He has found some 'treasures'. There is the inevitable jar of rusty screws, nails, nuts and bolts. They have all been tossed in there over the years on the grounds, "They might be useful one day." There is the old electric typewriter rescued from the dump, kept because "the springs might be useful". There are two old inner tubes from my tricycle. "Well they could be useful!"
There are the old drink coasters, kept because they are made from cork and you never know when you might need some thin cork.
The magic apparatus, carefully shrouded in old sheets and a bedspread, is something I know he will never use again. He says so himself but he cannot quite bring himself to part with it. We will leave that there.
My sister comes in. She has picked up a new type of tomato for him to plant. She barters the plant for the jar of rusty screws.
Now, what is he going to do with the fishing rod? He was given the fishing rod by Mum years back. The idea was that he would go fishing when they went on holidays in the caravan. He hates fishing. He would go fishing with an unbaited line and a book. There were very few caravan holidays anyway because of Mum's other commitments, grandchildren, Probus, Guild, Lunch Group and so on. He decides he is giving the fishing line to a mate who also enjoys fishing wih an unbaited line.
The Mother Earth magazines he has saved for years are going and so are the old Linking Ring magazines. The Readers' Digest condensed books that he used to make solanders are going. The old rake - he was going to replace the handle - is going.
All of this is carefully packed in the proper, separate containers and put out for the rubbish collection. It is lined up neatly along the curb according to council regulations. It will not be wasted. Almost all of it can be recycled.
As I am going indoors from taking out the last load for the day I hear someone calling out,
"Hey, look what someone's throwing out. It might be useful one day."

Sunday, 6 September 2009

I do not care for birthday parties.

My birthday is on a date that is, fortunately, generally drowned out completely by other celebrations. This is a good thing. I do not like the fuss. I am not responsible for my birth.
A friend turned 80 on Friday. Her daughter had a party for her on Saturday. Her sparse family was invited. A few neighbours were invited. I was invited. That was it.
I knew the occasion would be one of those affairs where people actually have to find things to say - or sit in uncomfortable silence. The invitations were late in coming and I already had two other events to attend. I said I would call in for a short while early on.
"Come on in Cat," her daughter says when she sees me at the door. She is busy trying to get food ready in the kitchen. I let myself in.
My friend, who is getting a little vague and forgetful, is sitting there in the semi-darkness of the overheated lounge room. A neighbour has arrived. The neighbour is older but more alert. She is trying to make conversation but it is stilted. They have never had much in common and my friend is now in a nursing home. They have even less in common now.
I stand there and the neighbour nudges my friend. "Cat's here." She looks up.
"Oh, hello dear." I say hello and Happy Birthday and all the other things that should be said. She smiles but I am not sure she is really taking it in. She seems overwhelmed. I give her the little parcel. She likes the dogs on the little bag. It is not an old lady bag at all. It is intended for children but she loves dogs and misses not having one of her own. There is a dog on the card too. All the cards which said 80 were mushy and the print would have been too small for her to read.
It takes her a while to read the card and investigate the bag.
"You can open the parcel too," I tell her gently. She looks at it. I have wrapped her parcel in tissue paper and put a piece of curling ribbon loosely around it. She has difficulty with small things, with tape and bows and fiddly things. Slowly, very slowly she pulls the ribbon off and puts it to one side. She looks at the tissue paper and then realises that it is coming apart. There is a hint of relief on her face and she unwraps it more quickly. Socks. I have made her blue woollen socks with lace tops. There is not much else I can do for her now but she is always saying here feet are cold under her slacks.
"Oh." She smiles, "They're lovely." Suddenly she turns to the neighbour and says, "Do you remember how we used to have to darn the socks..."
She starts to reminisce. The neighbour and I exchange a glance. We let her talk. More neighbours arrive and it seems like a good time for me to slip out.
When you are old the past is fine. The present is difficult. The future is almost impossible.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

The crabbit old bat...

otherwise known as Nicola Morgan, wrote a blog post on Help I need a Publisher on 2nd September stating, "You do not have a right to be heard." (When I work out how to do those fancy links you just click on I will do that and make your life easy. In the meantime head over to her blog and hunt for 2nd September.)
Her post generated some debate - including some cat hairs from yours truly. I decided to add some cat hairs here.
Nicola was, of course, talking about getting published. In that sense she was absolutely correct, nobody has a right to have others read what you have written or listen to what you say. Just because you have written something it does not mean that other people will read it - although I hope that someone is reading this.
We need to start earlier than this, much earlier. I think there are some cat hairs or ideas out there that need to be dealt with.
First, the most important thing anyone learns to do is communicate. If you cannot communicate you cannot connect with the world around you. Communication is a two way process. Communication occurs in an infinite variety of ways.
When I set out to persuade the United Nations to designate the year that became International Literacy Year I was hoping they would take a very wide view of 'literacy' because literacy comes in many forms, not just the ability to read and write. Literacy is only one part of communication. Learning to understand those funny little squiggles on the page or screen is only part of learning to read the world around us.
In order to be able to communicate we need to be able to read the world around us. We have to be able to place our own attempts to communicate in a context that others can understand. My experience of a chair is different from your experience of a chair. If I want to talk to you about chairs then we have to agree on what a chair is. We do this through a complex set of experiences which are presumed to be common (and sometimes called the same) but are actually different. I cannot sit in a chair for you. I cannot see it or feel it for you. We can however to agree to call an object a chair. We have communicated because, although different, our experiences are sufficiently close for communication to take place. It is pretty elementary sort of communication.
Now, having explained that rather badly, let's go a little further.
My second cat hair for the day is that everyone has the right to a means of communication. Now that is not a right to be heard but a means to make oneself heard and to hear others. It is the right to the means by which we can connect with the world. There are infinite ways of doing this. Language is infinite and takes an infinite number of forms.
My third and final cat hair for the day is that it is our capacity to use a means of communication which will allow us to be heard or not heard. We have to be able to make connections. The more connections the more successful we will be in allowing another individual to share an experience or imagine a new one. Connections need context. Context is observation. Observation is receiving as well as giving.
Writing is about making connections.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Knowledge, they say,

is power. Power is the root of corruption. Yes, there is money involved but power is the root of corruption.
Anyone foolish enough to read my ramblings will have realised by now that I am no supporter of the union movement. Do not misunderstand me. Unions had their place. They may still have a place - but they do not have a place in the employer's office among the confidential files.
At the last election in Australia there was a highly successful and forcibly funded scare campaign run by the union movement and the Labor party over the previous government's "Work Choices" legislation. That legislation recognised the complexities of doing business on a global basis. It recognised the need to be able hire and fire with fewer restrictions than had often been the case in the past. It recognised the need for employers to be able to negotiate directly with employees rather than through a union movement that, after the abolition of compulsory unionism, represented less than 20% of the work force.
All that has changed. There are reports in this morning's paper of the union movement starting to make demands. They are claiming the right to enter premises. They are claiming the right to a place at negotiations even if there is only one union member in the workplace. They are claiming the right to previously confidential information about employees. They are claiming the right to other information about the manner in which the business is run and is proposed to be run in the future. They state that employers have obligations to provide all this information. They want to know if there are any proposals for change of ownership in the next five years. They want to know what information the business has on the financial position of its competitors. They want to see the budget and they want to know if there are any proposals for the way in which the business will operate. They want to know about restructuring plans, redundancies, outsourcing and insourcing. In short, they want to know exactly how the business is run and will be run. They say they have a right to all this information.
Business of course cannot operate this way. Industrial espionage is a fact of business life. So is employee poaching. The more people who know about the most intimate details of a business the less intimate those details will be. Knowledge is power. Power corrupts. The union movement is already corrupt. The only real outcome of the Royal Commission into the building union was a change of name and, despite another Royal Commission, the waterside workers still wield power far in excess of their contribution to the community.
The Australian Labor Party is dependent on the union movement. It is the union movement which provides, directly and indirectly, the funds for election campaigns. It is money which does not need to be sought. It just appears. Much of it is contributed in ways that does not need to be declared. Unlike contributions from other sources questions are not asked about what is expected in return. The ALP cannot afford to question what the expectations might be. It is the price for diminished democracy but greater power.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

I am an expert authority on the subject of cows

- or so it would seem. This has come to pass because, for the second time in my life, I have been able to recognise that something with four legs is not a Jersey cow but a Friesan cow. I now know "all about" cows. (There are other living things with four legs and I can also recognise that they are not always cows.)
Now this matters. Once you are an expert in one area you can make pronouncements on other issues as well. People will listen. After all, you are an expert. Experts are important people. They matter. We should listen to experts. They tell us what to do.
Experts are becoming increasingly important in society. There are more and more of them. Their areas of expertise are not, contrary to original belief, getting smaller. There will soon be experts in everything. There may even be experts in everything now. I may just have missed out on them while I was busy being an expert in my own area of recognising cows.
All these other experts allow me to be lazy. I no longer need to work at understanding anything. An expert does it for me.
An expert will educate me in the proper way to do something as well. Their role is to intrude on my personal life as well as on public policy. They will not tell me too much. They will tell me only as much as I need to know. After all, that is what experts are for. If they tell us too much we will not need them. We might start to think. That would be dangerous.
Experts have taken over from the law and from other forms of authority. Experts advise the law. They advise government. "Science" is everything. We have statistics to back up this theory or that theory or some other theory.
When I was in secondary school I had to read CP Snow's essay on "The two cultures". It is a long time ago now but, if I remember correctly, he was lamenting the fact that the arts and science no longer spoke to one another. Part of the problem was the explosion of knowledge and the need to know more and more.
Now you are a member of the arts community or you are a member of the science community. You cannot be both. There is too much to know. Even in your own community there is so much to know that you can only belong to a sub-group. This means you may not even be able to communicate with members of other sub-groups in your community. That does not matter because there are other experts out there to do it for you.
Experts are presumed to solve problems. In reality they create new problems. They fail to communicate. They use languages all of their own. It is the task of the expert to create and maintain a sub-group. Their role is to isolate and, in doing so, maintain control or help others maintain control over us. It is the experts' way of maintaining an orderly society. It should be the end of all our problems.
However, I have a problem. I do not know how to milk a cow.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

The advertising now says " 2 days to go"

but I had a preview of a small part yesterday. It is that time of the year again. September is marked in Adelaide by the Royal Agricultural and Horticultural Society Show. It is the big communal event of the rural calendar. The country descends on the city and shows them that milk really does not come from plastic bottles and that farm machinery is often huge and incredibly expensive.
There is livestock, grain and market garden produce. There are the all the ring events, including wood chopping and a grand parade and fireworks in the evenings. On the edges there are 'show bags' (high priced advertising that you can buy) and side shows.
There is also an area where there art, craft and cookery are on display. That is where I had my sneak preview yesterday. There is now a fine new pavilion for all of this. It is lovely. The lighting is excellent. There are lovely new showcases for the items on display. It is the content of some of those showcases which was my concern.
I knit. It is the one and only craft I have ever taken any interest in. If truth be told I would still rather read or write but knitting has certain challenges and a history which fascinates me. I am therefore involved in the hand knitting section of this show. This year I rewrote the judging guidelines after extensive consultation with others. I was now judging the judging.
There have been problems in recent years. The two judges are undoubtedly worthy women. They are elderly (one is in her mid 80's and the other in her late 70's) and they have been judging for many years. They have not changed but knitting has. They can recognise and acknowledge the familiar. They do not recognise new yarns or techniques or colour combinations which were unacceptable in their youth. It has been a problem and it is still a problem.
Many knitters never enter anything into the show. Some will know their work is simply not good enough. Some cannot be bothered to take the time involved. But some, too many, have simply given up because the worth of their work has never been recognised. It has never quite reached the point where it has been deemed worthy of a prize or it is not something the judges can recognise.
The rules, rightly or wrongly, allow the use of a commercial pattern. I am familiar enough with the 'style' of certain publishers of knitting patterns to recognise which garments come from commercial patterns. The judges are too. This is what they look for. This is the familiar. It is not threatening. They do not have to consider style. It has been done for them. I look at a magnificent intarsia style shawl with the hundreds of yarn ends equisitely neatly finished off. The knitter, someone I know, designed it herself. It takes second place to a commercial pattern in one colour which, although nicely knitted, does not require nearly as much as skill. I look at a lace scarf. It has edges which wobble slightly but it has won a first over a scarf embellished with leaves and flowers. A green woollen hat in an unusual shape with hand knitted nasturtiums loses out to a beanie with cables and a bobble on top. The latter is nicely knitted but the former (which does not even win a prize) is as equally well knitted and better finished. It also shows imagination.
The Convenor and I pull things out of the display cabinets. We turn garments inside out. We make notes and then return the garments to their places. We hunt for the pair of mittens that have gone missing and do not find them. Thankfully they are not my responsibility but I feel concerned for the knitter who made them.
I come away from the whole exercise feeling that this is all a little bit like life. If you are a different colour or shape or size, if your cables go in a different direction or your yarn is a new variety others are going to have problems recognising you. You get recognised for fitting inside the mould.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

I was flower girl

for my godmother. I was told to smile with my mouth closed because I had just lost a baby tooth and had one of those interesting gaps in front. My dress - long - was lemon yellow and I had a wreath of frangipani in my hair.
So what, you say? What's so special about being flower girl? Isn't it the sort of thing all little girls dream about? No. I was not sure I wanted to be. There was plenty of other opposition to the idea as well. It meant the bride had to go down the aisle holding on to the flower girl to make sure the flower girl did not fall over. How many brides would be prepared to do that? I loved my godmother then. I love and admire her now. It was her special day and she made it special for me.
I explained all of this to a young friend (11) who has been asked to be an attendant at her godmother's wedding. Young friend came to talk to me. It is not something she has ever dreamed about doing. She is afraid she will do something wrong and spoil the big day. She is not a 'dressing up' sort of child - any more than I was.
"Look," I tell her, "You have all your front teeth. You do not have braces on your teeth. You do not have spots on your face."
None of that seems to help her very much. I think I know what the real problem is. Her mother is not going to be there. Her mother died some years ago. Her godmother has done her best but she will now be living further away. I am only and can only ever be a partial substitute. She wants someone who will hold on to her too.
I tell her I will be there.